DR FRANK JACKSON, 59A, PRINCES ROAD, BRIGHTON, EAST SUSSEX BN2 3RH
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The Fog of War
The Brotherhood of the Hand, a small society, dedicated to mystery, consists of four elderly men, in equally elderly grey suits, who correspond to the fingers of the human hand. Simon and Annie, brother and sister, have become members of the Brotherhood, as have their friends, Indira, Pei-Ying and Mariko. There is also Adrian the seagull and Sniffer the dog, the eyes and nose of the Brotherhood, Sister Teresa a dedicated nun with strange powers, and Pat, an Irish academic. A new member is Morag, half-policewoman, half-faery. Together, they fight a war against their arch-enemy, Doctor Wrist, and his associates. During a journey to Hyperborea, the land of the faeries, they have succeeded in destroying one of the hated and murderous Wrist family. Now they return to Hyperborea, to aid their faery allies, in a war that has broken out against their, as yet, unknown western enemies.
It was a dismal, cold, grey day. Outside, the rain sheeted down in thin harsh lines, through which occasional passer-bys scampered, under wet-streaked umbrellas, clutching at hats and coats plastered damply to their bodies. They splashed through the shivering puddles, and stepped gingerly across the trickling gutters. Down-pipes from front garden walls added their lugubrious sputtering to the incessant sound of water, pittering and bouncing on the slick pavement and street. The rain rose and fell sighing, in the brittle north-western wind.
Annie turned her gaze away from the tear-dropped kitchen window. Everybody was crammed into their kitchen, overheated with the fug of soggy clothes. It was two days after the assault on their headquarters by the Wrist family’s minions, and the building was going to need some serious repairs. So they were all there, The Four Fingers, crammed around one end of the large kitchen table, Pei-Ying, Indira and Mariko, along one side, with Morag perched precariously at the end. The huge bulk of Sister Teresa, in her grey robes, and the more angular form of Pat, took up most of the other side, together with their mother and father, Mr and Mrs Wheeler, looking rather disconcerted by the motley crowd of the Brotherhood. Simon and Annie, sat or rather stood, at the far end, in front of the kitchen window. Sniffer was down on the floor somewhere, beside the warm Aga, judging by the steam slowly rising like an acrid spout from somewhere in that vicinity. Adrian the seagull, was paddling up and down the table, strutting imperiously like a Napoleonic bird, darting his beak every now and again into the plates of food still on the table.
‘Order! Order!’ shouted Index Finger, slapping his palm on the table for emphasis. ‘We are here to listen to the Watchers! They have news for us!’
‘Get back to the end of the table, bird. I shall not tell you again’. rumbled Sister Teresa, fixing an ominous glare on Adrian. He waddled quickly back to the end nearest Simon and Annie. This was next to Morag. Neither of them were very fond of each other, and silently glared at being so close together.
Mr Wheeler got up hurriedly, and adjusted his glasses, that always tended to slide off his nose. ‘Thank you, Mr Chairman. As you know, we are Simon and Annie’s parents….’
‘Get on with it, John’. his wife muttered impatiently. ‘You’ve been in too many Faculty Board meetings’.
‘True. Anyway we are, or were Watchers. But as from two days ago, we are now Watchers again’. The meeting erupted in loud cheers of delight.
‘But this is all strictly unofficial, for the moment. It still has to be endorsed. What we did, was to present the case for your actions, and ours, to the Council of Watchers. They debated for a long time…’
‘Too long’. Their mother interrupted again.
‘Hold on. Why do we have to present a case for our actions?’ Simon said, sharply.
‘ Because the Brotherhood, and Sisterhood,’ with a glance at his daughter, ‘ has up until now, been seen as a somewhat maverick and unofficial force. Now, the Council have recognised that the Hand is important, and even crucial, in the battle against elements detrimental to the cause of good. Gentlemen’, he addressed the Four Fingers, ‘your society has been recognised, and given appropriate status by the Council of the Watchers’.
There was another great chorus of cheers. The Four Fingers, uncharacteristically, slapped each other on the back, and shook hands.
‘Pardon me , sir, but I need to ask a question. Who exactly are the Watchers, and who do they answer to?’ It was Pat, frowning.
‘A good question, though there are two. The Council of Watchers was appointed to observe and report on things and events in the world that might cause damage or even irreparable harm. The answer to your second question is that no-one actually knows, or seems to know’.
‘It was the same in Purgatory!’ Simon interrupted. ‘No-one seemed to know who was in charge!’
‘Is there anyone in this whole sad sorry mess that is in charge?’ Pat groaned.
Sister Teresa smiled, modestly. ‘Personally, I feel I know. But that is only my own faith’.
There was a long silence.
Morag broke it. ‘Just what does it mean, that we are now recognised?’
‘It means, Morag’, put in Mrs Wheeler, ‘ that you have, individually or collectively, the Watchers’ seal of approval for whatever actions you might think necessary to avert possible or potential conflict. To that end’: she opened up the small briefcase on her lap, and began to pass out small leather boxes, rather like spectacle cases, to each of them. ‘There is one for all of you’. she added, proudly.
Annie held hers up to the light. Each case contained a small silver pendant, hung from a delicate silver chain. It was a disc, which as it spun in the greyness from outside, revealed, on one side, the engraved image of an open human eye.
‘The all-seeing eye!’ whispered Sister Teresa in reverence.
‘Blimey, Sniffer, we got dog-tags now! squawked Adrian, excitedly.
‘Not that it matters much. The lot we fight probably never ‘eard of the Geneva Conventions’. muttered Sniffer. ‘Still, a nice thought’.
They began to chorus their thanks, and slipped them around their necks.
‘But there is yet more, which you should all know’. resumed Mr Wheeler. They looked expectantly at him. ‘The Wrist Family have finally gone too far. The Council has now declared them outlaws. They have been stripped of their position and privileges. They are, in effect, on the run’.
This time the cheering was ecstatic. They hugged each other in joy and delight. Adrian flapped around the room in pleasure. Sister Teresa permitted herself a great beam that lit up her large round face.
‘Please wait!’ Index Finger held up his hand, palm outwards. The cheering subsided, and they looked across at him, still excited.
‘Whether the Wrist Family will take any notice is another matter. But at least it will send them into hiding for a while until they consider what to do next. That means they will re-emerge, even more brutal and evil than before. We must be prepared for that.
Simon, Annie and Morag looked at each other. then at their mother and father. ‘That’s us, isn’t it? Annie said quietly. ‘Mum and Dad, what do you think?’
Her mother looked up at her father, squeezing her shoulder. ‘We have discussed this between us, for some time. We think you should go’.
Annie jumped up, ran across, and hugged them both tightly.
Simon glanced across at Indira, Pei-Ying and Mariko, sitting in a row, now sullen and miserable. He looked across at the Four Fingers with an unspoken question, and caught Little Finger’s eye. The plump little man got to his feet. ‘I think that it is our wish that we send a bigger delegation this time, to show how serious we are. We propose that Mariko, Pei-Ying and Indira should accompany the others to Hyperborea…’
He was rudely interrupted with shrieks of delight, as all three leapt up and began punching the air with their fists. ‘Yessss!’ yelled Indora. ‘I could kiss you, Little Finger!’
‘Please, madame, restrain yourself!’ puffed Little Finger, his round face a little pink.
‘Wait!’ cried Mrs Wheeler sharply. ‘What about your parents! What will they say? How long are we talking about?’
‘Hold on, Mum!’ called Simon triumphantly. ‘You’re forgetting about the dimensional time-lag!’
‘Look, time passes there more quickly than it does here, or seems to. We were there for weeks last time, and it was only a few hours gone when we got back here! I reckon we could do it in a weekend!’
‘I think we are going to London for the weekend, my dear, and taking our children and their friends with us. Perhaps we can ask their parents. Except they won’t be in London, of course’. Mr Wheeler smiled down at his wife.
‘My parents want to go away themselves this weekend, for a break, so they’ll be really pleased to get rid of me for a couple of days’. Indira said proudly. ‘Especially if they know, or think they know, that I’ll be with you’.
‘Mine are off to a wedding. They’re not that keen to take me’. added Pei-Ying. ‘So they’ll be OK’.
Mariko shrugged. ‘Mine are in Tokyo’. She giggled. ‘So they won’t know at all’.
‘I don’t like it’. said Mrs Wheeler, determinedly. ‘I don’t like taking risks with other people’s children, and I don’t like lying to them, either. They might be placed in great danger!’
‘Since, when haven’t we been in great danger, Mum?’ Annie asked quietly, staring hard at her. ‘All of us’.
Mrs Wheeler sighed. ‘That is true. All right, on two conditions: that you must all be back by Sunday evening at the latest, unharmed, and that you keep your father and I, regularly, up to date, as frequently as possible, from Hyperborea’.
‘I’ll phone your parents and make arrangements for this weekend then…’ Mr Wheeler suddenly looked concerned. ‘What’s the matter, Morag?’
‘What do you mean, you can’t go?’
‘I’m on duty! I can’t leave that!’
‘Can’t you go off sick, or something?’ Annie asked gently.
Morag shook her head. ‘No. I’ve got to give evidence in court on Saturday. It might affect peoples’ futures. I can’t do that’. She sniffed loudly, and dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.
Adrian, perched on the table, was eying her contemptuously. ‘Don’t know why you want to take her anyway! Useless weepy plod…’
Morag’s right hand came round in a vicious swipe, hurling Adrian to the floor, where he lay in a tangled heap of feathers, shocked and amazed.
‘You all saw that!’ he squawked. ‘Police brutality! Assaulting an innocent member of the public! I’m making a complaint….’
‘Shut up, Adrian!’ Simon snapped. ‘You had that coming!’
He turned to Morag, half-risen from her seat, face crimson in fury.
‘Sit down, Morag! Both of you, cut it out!’
Everybody else had frozen in amazement.
‘Look’, Simon continued in an even voice. ‘There are other more important things to worry about. The last thing we need is to start squabbling with each other. Let your quarrel rest in peace. That all right with you, Adrian?’
‘Yeah’. Adrian got to his webbed feet, and flapped his wings. ‘Blimey, a policeman’s lot is definitely not an ‘appy one’.
Morag had sat down again, still miserable. ‘Yes. I’m sorry, Adrian’.
Adrian shuffled uncomfortably. ‘Yeah. OK. Suppose I was winding you up a bit. Sorry, plod…..I mean, Morag’.
Annie was gaping at her brother in something like admiration. Simon the diplomat? That was a new one. She decided to remember it for later. It might be useful.
‘Simon, can I make a suggestion?’ Mariko asked, shyly.
‘Of course. All contributions gratefully received’.
‘Perhaps Morag might be able to go later, perhaps on the Sunday? You could send word that she will follow’.
Morag’s face brightened. ‘That’s possible, if there aren’t too many drunk and disorderlys after Saturday night, I could come later’.
‘We can arrange that very easily’. called out Little Finger.
‘We might even be able to arrange for Haga to fetch you’. added Annie, mischievously. Morag’s face now lit up. ‘Thank you’. she replied, sincerely.
‘I think’, Index Finger announced, ‘that we can now close this meeting. All those in favour?’ All hands, or those that could, rose. ‘We will meet again, well’, he hesitated, ‘as best we can’. Everybody rose up to depart, Mariko, Indira and Pei-Ying chattering excitedly to themselves. Everybody began to disappear, but as Simon and Morag walked towards the kitchen door, Annie appeared, blocking their path. Behind her, Mariko quietly hung back.
‘I want a word with you two’. Annie’s face was expressionless. ‘I want to know what it is that you two are keeping secret from me. It was something that happened that night, wasn’t it?’
Morag and Simon looked desperately at each other. This was the question they both dreaded.
‘There’s a particular time that I can’t remember. It’s a complete blank. What did you do to me?’
Simon took a deep breath. ‘You saw something you were never meant to. We are not going to tell you what it was, ever. You can hate us for it, if you like, but it won’t make any difference’.
‘The same for me’, Mariko said softly, slipping into the room.
‘You too, Mariko?’ cried Annie in surprise. She frowned and looked hard at each of their faces. All she saw there was a grim wall of determination, meeting her eyes with no trace of furtiveness or deceit. She decided to give up. She frowned. ‘I still don’t understand. But never mind’. She smiled at them with deep affection. ‘I won’t ask again’. As they stood at the front door, where Indira and Pei-Ying were waiting for Mariko, they knew, as a certainty, that they would never tell Annie that she had looked into the very face of Hell itself.
It was late evening on Friday night. They stood, on the old hill-fort, above the bright lights of Brighton, all five of them, shivering, and stamping their feet for warmth. They were wearing windcheaters or anoraks against the cold, large holdalls slung over their shoulders, containing a change of clothes, their toilet equipment, and their sheathed swords. Annie had told them that they only needed to bring essentials, but each bag contained a small toy, precious to them, that they wanted to bring along for comfort, and as a reminder of their own world. None of them would admit that, of course.
‘I hope they come soon’. Indira rubbed her gloved hands together, her breath wisping in the cold night air. ‘Shouldn’t they be here now?’
‘Look!’ Simon cried and pointed.
A rider had appeared out of nowhere. It was leading a long string of saddled horses behind it, cantering steadily towards them.
‘Oh, no!’ Annie gasped in dismay. ‘I totally forgot to ask! Can you all ride?’
‘A bit’, replied Indira. ‘Pei-Ying and I had lessons once’.
‘I can ride’. Mariko said quietly. ‘I used to ride my father’s ponies all the time. But these look very big. Like war-horses’.
‘By the way’. Simon waved at the rider, who acknowledged him with an answering wave. ‘They talk. You can have a good conversation with them. They’re real gossips. They know everything that’s going on’.
‘Oh, yes. They know some very rude jokes as well. Morag found that out’.
As the rider came closer, they saw it was wearing a helmet that totally enclosed the head and face. Above the gleaming dome was a bright tuft of blue ribbon that streamed behind it in the night breeze. The rider reined up next to them. Steam rose from the horses’ flanks, behind. The rider reached up and tilted the helmet back.
‘Annie! Simon! It is good to see you again!’
The faery’s face was soft, round and pretty, as she looked down upon them. They knew and liked Britomart very much.
‘These are your companions?’ Britomart looked hard at each of them, huddled in their warm clothes against the icy wind.
‘They are, indeed. Some extra support’.
Britomart smiled. ‘We welcome them. But we must mount up and ride to Elsace. Now’.
Annie was relieved to see how confidently they got up on their horses, and began to trot away. She felt sad for Morag, who was so frightened, at first of the horses. She wished that she could be here. They went through the dimensional barrier, where everything shimmered and shook around them, feeling an even worse iciness, as the horses walked carefully through. Then a sudden warm, almost balmy breeze welcomed them, and they stood on soft grass, at the top of a ridge, gazing down on the marvellous sight below.
The great castle of Elsace stood below them, its multi-facetted white and cream surfaces shining gently in the early evening sun. Around it, lay a myriad of white rectangles, seemingly tumbled like toy bricks, then resolving themselves into straight geometric lines along main roads and broad avenues. Colonnades ran along the facades where they faced the wide streets in a regular pattern of light and shadow. Beyond the palace, lay a great shimmering expanse of translucent lake, its deep cobalt blue darkening into ultramarine at the edges. They could see more cubic buildings along its western coast, but the lake itself stretched far away into the distance. To the east, great grey-brown foothills stretched upwards, mottled with emerald green patches, and, beyond them, soared a high mountain range, a succession of white-capped, jagged peaks that continued further and further until they were lost in the dim horizon. Unseen birds whistled and swooped in the air above them.
Annie stole a glance at her companions, who were gazing, open-mouthed.
Britomart’s horse skittered, impatient to be home. ‘That is Lake Tabitha. It is one of our three great inland lakes. There is a harbour behind the palace, though you cannot see it from here’. she said, proudly.
Their three friends’ eyes were still gazing at the palace.
‘So big! I never expected it to be so enormous!’
‘It’s like, like some of those paintings by Cezanne!’
‘It looks like it has been added to, over and over again, something like an….’ Mariko struggled for the right word, ‘an accretion, something which has grown!’
‘That is true’. Britomart laughed. ‘We have a saying: when the palace is finished, we can all sit around and be bored for the rest of our days!’
‘Excuse me, Britomart, but can we get going now? We could all do with some grub before tomorrow’.
Indira jumped, startled. It was her horse that was speaking, its head turned towards Britomart.
‘You’re right, Bacchus. Let’s go’.
They began to canter down the slope towards the road that led to the palace. Indira was white-faced. Annie rode along beside her.
‘Did this horse really speak? English, as well?’
‘Course I did, darling. Our second language. By the way, go easy on the reins. You’re not a bad rider, but you need some practice’. The hose turned his head back to the road that they were following down to the palace gates. Indira’s mouth stayed open. Annie rode up next to her.
‘ I did warn you that they talked, didn’t I?’
‘Yes’. muttered Indira weakly. ‘Sorry, what’s your name, Bacchus?’
‘That’s right’. replied the horse cheerfully. ‘You’ve got a nice bum in the saddle though’.
Indira was speechless. Annie, somewhat mischievously, decided to have a bit more fun.
‘Is she a good rider?’ she called to the other horses behind her.
‘Yeah. I like the way her boobs bounce up and down’. One of the other horses called back. They all snickered, rudely.
Poor Indira’s face had turned crimson. Annie leant over to her own horses’s ear. ‘What about me?’
‘You’ve definitely got all the bumps in the right places’. whispered the horse back. ‘No wonder that Helios fancies you something rotten!’
Annie giggled. ‘Thank you…..?’
‘Andante’. The horse supplied.
‘Cos I’m so musical’. He began whistling tunelessly.
Britomart reined in and looked back, suspiciously. ‘What is going on?’
They all innocently shook their heads. Britomart turned and rode on, the rest following.
They pulled in at the foot of the castle. As they looked up, they saw great white rectangles, poised above them, cantilevered out without supports, but still giving the impression of strength and solidity. One of the faery guards handed Indira a small canvas bag. ‘For the horses’. he grinned. Immediately, the horses surrounded Indira, who was helplessly swamped by their large hairy bodies and probing lips. ‘Help!’ she cried before she was swallowed up by her new friends, eager for the Turkish Delight she was holding.
Annie touched Britomart on the arm lightly.
‘Is Gloriana here? And our…friends?’
Britomart gave a wide grin. ‘Ragimund is here, and Helios, and Haga. I thought you would be pleased. But Gloriana, and her sisters, Lucifera and Mercilla, are at our western wall’. Her face changed, her mouth tight-lipped. ‘Annie, there have been small skirmishes already. Our people, and theirs, have already been killed and wounded. I want you, Simon, and your friends, to try to stop this war! There has been too much bloodshed already!’
Annie stood, not quite knowing what to say. Simon suddenly stood next to her. ‘We’ll do our best, Britomart’. He looked around. Indira was still lost amongst the horses, the others vainly trying to prise them apart to rescue her.
‘Perhaps you should know’. Britomart said, still gravely. ‘They are war-horses. They have known battle. If a rider falls, his or her horse will turn and gallop back into the fight, trampling the enemy, and will stay by the rider until they can mount, and bring them back. They have been killed doing so, but they are loyal and fearless. They are comrades. They will never let you down, despite their coarse behaviour’.
‘I can well believe it’. Annie said quietly. ‘I’ll tell that to Indira’. She watched as Indira finally extricated herself from the horses, indignantly wiping herself with a tissue that she had brought with her.
‘Yuk! She cried. ‘I’m covered with slaver and slobber! Sexist equine sods!’
‘I will take you to the bathhouse to wash. Then we will go to your quarters to eat and sleep. No! I have forgotten! I was asked to place you in the House of Poseidon! I am deeply sorry, Simon! That is where you were nearly….killed!. I am so sorry. Please! I can give you chambers in the palace instead!’
Britomart looked anguished, at having not remembered how Simon had nearly met his death in that house.
‘Honestly, Britomart, I’m happy with that. Besides, there is a watery gentleman there who I would like to thank again!’
Annie looked at Simon anxiously. Simon had recovered well, but too well, for her liking, from being so close to death at the hands of Grandfather Wrist. She was worried at whether he had really recovered so quickly from that experience.
Simon caught her look. ‘I’m all right. Let’s go there. I mean it’.
‘Do you get the feeling that we are superfluous to requirements?’ muttered Pei-Ying to Indira.
Mariko, behind them, giggled appreciatively.
The evening passed in a mist of euphoria and pleasure. Simon and Annie were happily ensconced in the arms of their lovers, surfacing occasionally. Pei-Ying and Indira were surrounded by faeries, both men and women, listening to their stories, often rude, about other humans they knew. Mariko sat talking, but more often listening to the two male faeries who sat each side of her. Haga was inconsolable at first, but cheered up when he knew Morag would come later. Food and drink lay on a table, often untouched and untested, before them. But Annie had noticed that Mariko had slipped away from her admirers, and walked out through the front doors. She gently moved away from Helios, despite his low cries of protest, and followed her.
Mariko was sitting outside the front door on the steps. She was crying. Annie could hear her sobs. She sat down gently beside her.
‘What is it, Mariko?’
She was not prepared for the look of pure anger that Mariko directed at her.
‘Are we just here to have a party? Some kind of holiday? Am I the only one who seems to think that we have a job to do! Peoples’ lives depend on this, Annie! You seem to have forgotten that!’
‘No…we haven’t forgotten, Mariko..’ Annie said uncertainly, shocked by Mariko’s outburst.
‘Be quiet! You don’t even know who the enemy are!’ Mariko got up and stormed back into the villa. Annie heard her footsteps cross the atrium, and then the slam of a door. She drew up her legs, and put her face into her hands. Annie had never, ever seen Mariko cry before, or be so angry. She felt desperately miserable, and began to cry herself. Then, pulling herself together, she got up and marched back through the atrium and into the colonnaded room where the water-god stood, water trickling through his fingers. Simon was explaining about his encounter with Grandfather Wrist to the enthralled group.
‘And then that god moved his head, so I could get a clear shot, and…’
Annie’s voice echoed through the room. They all looked around, surprised.
‘Simon, I need to talk to you. Please. Now’.
Simon nodded and walked back to the atrium with his sister, leaving the others buzzing with mystification, and sat down with Annie on the edge of the central pool. They could hear the small fish swish and glide in the water behind them. Annie told Simon about Mariko’s outburst. He listened quietly.
‘ She’s right. We’re not taking this seriously enough. We don’t know anything at all at the moment. We’re behaving like silly adolescents on a lark’.
‘Is it any wonder, after everything we’ve been through? demanded Annie in a furious whisper.
‘No. But we need to be together, and better informed. Is Mariko in there?’ He nodded at the door.
‘yes, but she’s very upset, and I’m not sure why…’
‘Let’s find out’. Simon tapped gently on the door. There was no answer. He tapped again. Still no answer.
‘Simon, perhaps we shouldn’t’.
‘She’s our friend, Annie’.
He slid up the latch and went in. Annie followed him. Mariko was sitting on her sleeping couch, hands clasped in her lap, her eyes red with crying. They slid gently down, one on each side of her. She was gazing at two objects on the little bedside table that she had placed across the room, flickering in the gentle lantern light. One was a small porcelain luck kitty, that the Japanese liked so much, its paw, set in motion, moving up and down. The other was a photograph, in an ornate silver frame, of a younger Mariko standing in front of her mother and father, her two brothers and older sister next to her. Annie realised with a sharp jolt what was troubling her.
‘You’re terribly homesick, aren’t you, Mariko?’
Mariko gulped, and sniffed. ‘I miss them so much! I have not seen them for over two years! My brothers and sisters are growing up without me! When we came into this land, I saw the mountains and the lake, and the trees, and it broke my heart! It reminded me so much of Japan, the countryside, where father used to take us! It was wonderful! Trying to catch fish, wading in the streams, with our skirts pulled up! I was so happy!’
Annie gently cradled Mariko’s head against her shoulder. ‘Promise me, Mariko, when this is all over, you must go home, back to Japan, to see your family again. You need to. I’m so sorry, so truly sorry, that we never realised how sad you were. Tomorrow, we’ll find out more about this war. Then later, we can all go home’. She kissed Mariko gently on the cheek. Simon leant over and did the same. They both got up, and left Mariko to her sadness.
After gently closing the door, they stood, indecisively, in the atrium, and looked glumly at each other.
‘I think we’re all still shocked by that last battle, and all the others before’. muttered Simon, staring at the fish circling in the rectangular pool.
‘I think it’s more than that. Its because we’re realising that all we really are is a bunch of adolescents kids, trying to do the impossible. All our tensions and fears are spilling out now, Simon. Mariko’s sad and lonely. We should have known before. Indira’s furious with the horses. I don’t know about Pei-Ying – yet. And both of us are really apprehensive, and clueless, about what to do. All our fears, all the past grief, is just, just weeping out of us. What can we do? We’re supposed to leave for the front line tomorrow!’
‘Perhaps we shouldn’t. Perhaps we ought to stay another day and gather as much information about this enemy that we can, before we set off. Should have thought of it long ago’.
‘What if Gloriana, or perhaps Britomart, insists?’
Simon grinned craftily. ‘What’s wrong with a bit of old-fashioned human stubbornness?’
Annie grinned back. ‘You’re right. Give everybody a chance to settle down and exorcise their demons’.
‘Seems to be plenty of those’. Simon said, as they walked back to tell the others.
It was the following morning. Britomart was not pleased.
‘I have orders from Gloriana to send you on your journey today!’
‘Perhaps you should tell her Queenship that we’re staying here to gather information about the war. Then we’ll go!’
‘Diplomatic immunity’. Annie added, self-righteously.
Britomart looked at Simon and Annie who stood, arms folded, and the others, gathered around the table in a palace anteroom, their faces set and determined. She sighed, and admitted defeat. ‘Very well. I shall arrange for the scribes to bring you all the writings we have. But, I warn you, Gloriana will not be happy!’
‘Ooooh, we’re so scared!’ someone sniggered.
Britomart glared at them and stalked out.
Annie relaxed. All the tension seemed to have dissipated. Even Mariko, still so sad at breakfast, was now looking cheerful.
‘Where’s Indira?’ she asked, looking around.
‘I think she said something about going to sort out those horses, good and proper’. Pei-Ying said, innocently.
‘Oh, NO! The last thing we want! I’ll go after her!’ Annie turned and ran out of the room and through the main gates. One of the faery guards, his shoulder armour glinting in the bright sun, pointed in the direction of the stables.
‘She went that way’. He grinned.
‘Thank you!’ She ran as quickly as she could across the courtyard, around a corner of the great white palace, and into the open gates of the long stable-house. She was nearly too late. In the gloom of the stables, she sniffed at the pleasant aroma of fresh hay, and saw the dim figure of Indira, hands on hips, her back towards her.
‘You lot! Come here! Now! Right now!’
Annie could just see the large dim brown flanks of the horses as they jostled and gathered together by the fence in front of their mangers.
‘I will not be humiliated by a bunch of equine morons! Sexism on four legs! How dare you insult me like that, and in front of my friends too! If you had an inch of brain between your ears, rather than grey cotton wool, you’d……!’
Indira whirled on her fiercely. ‘I don’t need you to fight my battles!’
The horses milled around, confused and bewildered. A small foal, no more than two months old, huddled up to a large horse that Annie recognised as Bacchus
‘Da, why is that pretty human lady shouting at us?’
‘I think she’s a bit annoyed, son’. said Bacchus affectionately. He looked across the top bar of the gate at Indira. ‘Don’t take offence, lass. We didn’t mean any malice. Just our rough horse humour. Sorry for any trouble’. The other horses nodded in agreement. Indira stared at the innocent brown eyes of the foal. It looked anxiously back and then shyly turned its head towards his father.
‘Sounded just like you and Ma’.
‘That’s enough, son! Bacchus said hastily.
Indira was breathing hard, but her temper had dropped.
‘Apology accepted’. she muttered, turned, and began to stride out of the stable.
‘Got a picture, love? One of the other horses neighed. ‘Only we could do with a pinup in the stables here!’
Indira stopped dead, and turned around. Annie winced, waiting for the explosion. It didn’t come. Indira smiled sweetly. ‘No chance. You’ll just have to think of my radiant loveliness in your dreams’. She turned again, and disappeared into the bright sunlight.
‘I’m sorry about that, Bacchus. It’s just that we’ve all been through a bad time recently’.
‘We all know. And about you being here to try and stop this war. Do your best, lass, otherwise there’ll be a lot of horses killed as well’.
Bacchus looked out of the doorway at the departing figure. ‘She’s a fiery one, isn’t she? We like that sort the best’.
‘Don’t mention it. Good luck to you. Ay, any chance of some sweeties, to keep our strength up?’
‘I’ll get someone to bring them’.
Annie ran after the angry figure and caught her up. Indira kept walking, her face still hard.
‘What’s the matter, Indira?’ Annie asked desperately, trying to keep up with her. Indira just kept going.
‘I know I’m selfish, conceited, arrogant, rude and downright nasty…’
‘Oh, yes, and spiteful. Don’t forget the spiteful’.
‘Indira!’ Annie shouted after her retreating figure, small and dark in the bright sunlight. ‘You’re one of the best friends I’ll ever have!’
Indira stopped, turned and walked slowly back. She didn’t say anything, but looked down at the sandy ground, her hands in her pockets.
‘OK. Tantrum over. Let’s leave it at that’.
‘What really is the matter, Indira?’ asked Annie sincerely.
‘If you were the youngest of ten children, like me, you wouldn’t have to ask that. I can tell you all about the bullying and piss-taking the whole way through, plus parents who turned the blind eye! Come on, we’ve got homework to do’.
As she passed the faery guard, Indira flashed him her most radiant smile.
‘Would you mind awfully taking some sweeties to the horses? When you have time of course’.
‘Of course, lady’. The faery hardly noticed Annie, as he gazed adoringly after Indira, her long sleek hair wafting behind her. Annie just smiled.
The ante-room was in turmoil. Various folders and books had just arrived, and Simon was desperately trying to keep order. ‘Just read and look! Try and keep a sense of the enemy, and who they are!’
The mutterings fell to a whisper, as all of them settled down to read the texts they had been given, fortunately rewritten by the unseen scribes in English. Annie settled down next to Simon at the table, and began to look through the documents before them. Ragimund, at the doorway, perched uneasily on a stool. For the next two hours there was silence, punctuated only by small gasps and grunts of irritation.
At midday, Simon decided to call a halt.
‘All right, we’ve had enough time! What do you think?’
No-one wanted to answer. Simon looked around despairingly, and glanced at Annie. She looked down at the table in front of her.
‘I think you had better sum up what we’ve all learnt, Simon’.
‘Thanks a bunch. Why am I always the spokesman? Oh well’. he sighed deeply and began. ‘Our enemy are known as the Barbarrossi. They control an empire in name, called Barbaros, because they have annexed other territories around them…’
‘Beaten and enslaved!’ snapped Ragimund vicously, from the doorway. Her face was a mask of fury.
Simon stared at her, coldly. Annie knew he was thinking of the poor girl he felt he knew from many years ago.
‘That may well be true. Have the courtesy to let me finish, Ragimund!’
They all looked at each other. They had never heard Simon speak like that to his lover before. Ragimund subsided, her eyes still cold and grey.
He continued. ‘They are ruled, if you can call it that, by an emperor named Divalas, who, from these accounts, is a fat rotten scrote, whose word is law. Reminds me of when Dabar the dragon deposed their rancid old king, Annie’.
‘I remember’. Annie said quietly. ‘It reminds me of something else, but I’ll wait until you’ve finished’, looking pointedly at Ragimund, who glared back.
‘There is a small son and heir, Deneto, but he’s only three years old, so he doesn’t count. Then there is a sort of regent, called Paravar, though we don’t know if he has much power. He is one of their military commanders, though. There’s a kind of senate, who supposedly advise their emperor, though there’s very little information about any of them. The only name I’ve really come across is a character called Socrato, a bit like the Greek philosopher, Socrates, only nastier, by all accounts’.
‘Socrato!’ Ragimund spat venomously.
Simon ignored her.
‘Their country is fertile along the coastline, but dry and arid in the centre, with rocky outcrops and hills. Their population is mainly based in those coastal regions, where their main industries are located. Usual domestic stuff, together with horses, cattle, sheep and goats, plus a few camels from the desert region. But their main industries, that they’re known for, are paper and textiles, fine linen, cotton and silks, that they export, and woven carpets and rugs, in all kinds of intricate patterns’.
‘Made by slave labour, who go blind in their work!’ snarled Ragimund again.
Simon regained his self-control with an effort. ‘Never mind that!
As Simon was talking, Annie was glancing apprehensively around the room. She could smell, almost touch the waves of fury emanating from Ragimund, who was shifting furiously around on her stool, her normally large brown eyes narrowed into small grey slits of fury. What on earth had aroused Ragimund into such anger?
Simon hesitated, and continued. ‘They are concentrating on the wall near the fortified city of Cestmos, which I assume will be our destination. If they take Cestmos, they can drive down on the northern side of Hyperborea, towards Mila, the city by the lake of Sethos, and from there to the main port of Druard, that Annie and I have been to. That will destroy all trade into this land. From there, who knows?’ he shrugged.
Annie already knew that there was going to be a catastrophic outburst. She could sense it in the room. It came like an explosion from Ragimund, who sprang up suddenly.
‘They will be cut down like chaff in the wind! None of those scum will ever set foot on our soil! Our swords, our blades will rip the flesh from them! We will slaughter them like the pigs they are! We will leave their filthy corpses lying like dead leaves behind us! No-one will invade my land! Nobody! We will trample them under our feet until they join the earth, where they belong! I swear it on my own dead!’
Everybody’s eyes were fixed on the vicious figure of Ragimund, who seemed to fill the room. No-one recognised her as the slim gentle girl that they thought they knew. She was like a devil, writ large, face convulsed in rage, her long black hair curled in tendrils of fury. She picked up the stool on which she had been sitting, and hurled it violently, with one hand, against the far wall, where it shattered in a flurry of broken wooden splinters.
‘You pathetic humans! The only thing they understand is the sword!’
She slammed the door behind her so hard, that one of the hinges, cracking in protest, was partly pulled out, leaving the door itself askew, leaning reproachfully. She left only silence in the room.
‘Well, that’s great. Gratitude for you! We come here to sort things out, and she goes berserk!’ Indira snapped, furiously.
‘Oh, shut up, Indira! She’s upset!’ shouted Simon.
‘Oh she’s upset is she? Well, if you want to go out with a psychopathic bitch like that, then stuff you!’
‘What’s that make you then, hot-lips! This was Pei-Ying, suffused with rage.
‘Shut your mouth, you moron! Who asked you for your comments!’
You shut it, you domineering bitch!’
‘Sod you, you rotten cow!’
‘Stop it! This is stupid!’ Mariko shouted.
‘Piss off, you inscrutable little goody two-shoes!’
Mariko glared in fury, threw down the papers she had been holding and stormed out, throwing the already broken door aside. The remaining hinge snapped, and it toppled and crashed to the floor with a resounding bang. Simon still stood, his face pale, his hands unconsciously twisting his documents into crumpled shreds. Annie sat, her head bowed as the torrent of insults and abuse raged around her. I can’t stand this any longer, she thought, and got up. Simon had already disappeared. She walked dumbly out into the corridor for a few yards, sank down against the painted wall, and buried her face in her hands in misery. It’s all over, she thought. That’s it. We’ve just destroyed ourselves.
‘Is there anything I can do?’
She looked up. A young faery guard, a girl, crouched next to her, face puckered with concern. They both winced at the sound of some heavy object hitting the wall in the room behind them, amidst the shrill cacophony of insults.
‘Not unless you want to see a real human cat-fight in action’.
‘Not really’, muttered the faery, staring at the doorway. ‘Some of those names I have never heard’.
‘Nor me. Which way did my brother go?’
‘I believe he went down the stairs and outside. I will stay on guard…in case anything else happens’.
‘Thank you. Oh’, she called over her shoulder, ‘if you get a chance, don’t hesitate to bang their heads together. Hard’. She left the faery looking after her, surprised.
She found Simon sitting on the parapet wall, overlooking the blue shimmering lake, slumped in dejection. Further below she could hear distant voices, and the whistle of birdsong. She put her hands on his shoulders and leant her face, in mute sympathy, against his back,
‘You did your best, Simon’.
‘Does it matter anymore? It’s all finished now. We might as well go home’. Simon’s voice was filled with utter despair. ‘Our so-called friends are at each other’s throats, Ragimund is totally out of control, the faeries are hostile to negociation, and we aren’t even capable of organising something like a nut roast in a hazel wood, to put it mildly. Ragimund was right. We’re just pathetic little human children, no more than that!’
‘Don’t say that, Simon. Ragimund is a faery! We know about their duality. Kind and gentle one moment, vicious and angry the next. As for the others, don’t forget, they’re traumatised as much as you and I byprevious experience. Perhaps they were just catharting themselves, letting everything go in an outburst’.
‘It doesn’t alter anything. SNAFU’. His voice broke in anguish. ‘Annie, it’s breaking my heart!’
‘Mine too’. she whispered, then paused. Words had come into her mind, that she couldn’t quite remember. ‘There was something you mentioned earlier, Simon. that I was going to talk to you about. What was it?’
‘Well. I said something about dragons, and Dabar deposing the evil emperor….’
‘That’s it!’ She stood up. ‘Power struggles! Cunning! Just let me think for five minutes, Simon’.
He shrugged. ‘Thinking! That’s a bad sign. But I’m not going anywhere: well, not yet’.
Annie sank down onto the ground, and sat cross-legged, her chin in her hands. Her brain pattered furiously over possibilities, her thoughts flittering through ideas, picking up and discarding, gradually rearranging them into a coherent assemblage, something, anything, that might be a workable scheme. She got up and perched on the parapet next to her brother.
‘I’ve got a plan. Want to hear it?’
Annie began to outline her plan. Simon’s back began to straighten as he listened intently. Then she stopped.
‘What do you think?’
Simon moaned deeply. ‘I think its the most evil, nasty, devious, ruthless thing I’ve ever heard. It’s an enormous gamble, with the odds stacked against us. It’s a huge risk’.
‘I know’. said Annie, miserably.
‘It involves cheating, lying, downright deceit and unscrupulous acting’.
‘Its downright irresponsible, not to say, despicable’.
‘If we do this, then we might hate ourselves for the rest of our lives’.
‘Sounds like a good plan to me. Its got all the right, or rather the wrong, characteristics. I’m with you, Annie. We’ve got no other choice, but it will hurt us, everybody, like hell!’
‘Thank you, Simon’. Annie said sincerely. ‘We’ve got to do this together. It won’t work otherwise’.
‘We’ll do it. Sibling solidarity’. he smiled sadly at her. ‘When?’
‘Right away. I want to catch them when they’re at their most vulnerable. Dear God, Simon, this is the worst thing I’ve ever asked you to do! But what else can we lose?’
‘Annie, we’ve got nothing left to lose!’
It was now early evening. The white walls of the House of Poseidon glowed gently beneath the darkening blue sky of Hyperborea. A few faint stars began to glimmer as the sun, now striped with deep shards of bright orange, subsided into the horizon, it’s glowing orb partially obscured by the white-capped mountains, lower flanks pearly grey with dusk. Inside the villa, there were two groups of people. Two figures together, were in a bedroom, pretending to pack bags, or so they hoped. Several others were grouped on chairs in the columned peristyle, set apart, and not speaking to each other. The largest figure was tapping her foot impatiently. The scene had been set.
The two figures in the bedroom straightened up and looked at each other.
‘Ready?’ asked one.
‘As much as I can be’. replied the other.
‘Remember, we’ve rehearsed this. What’s that book you’re carrying?’
‘Clausewitz. “On War”. I need something to hold onto when we speak to them’.
They walked out steadily, without hurrying, through the atrium and the anteroom and stopped at the entrance to the colonnaded room, its roof open to the evening sky above. The only sound was the gentle splashing of water from the marble god’s hands, his bearded face looking down inquisitively at the drama that was about to begin.
‘Simon and I are leaving tomorrow, in the early morning. We have already packed. Whatever the rest of you choose to do, is up to you. We’ve had enough. We’re going home. There’s no point in being here any longer’.
The seated figures sat speechless with horror and dismay. Ragimund gave a muffled cry. Britomart grunted as if someone had kicked her hard in the stomach.
Simon took over. ‘The reason is quite simple. We do not trust the faeries, or any of our friends any more. You have given us no support or encouragement in trying to avert this war. You have simply indulged in hostility and petty quarrels without thinking of the consequences. If the faeries want total war and bloodshed, then so be it. They can bring it on themselves. We want no part of it’.
‘We would be grateful. Britomart, if you could arrange an escort for us tomorrow morning to the portal back into our own place. There is no further need to have any communication. As far as you are concerned, we no longer exist. Your affairs are your own from now on. We wish you well’.
Annie could hardly believe what her mouth was saying. But she turned on her heel and walked off, Simon in step with her.
‘Wait!’ shouted Britomart’s voice behind them. ‘You are not allowed to leave!’
They slowly turned around, to confront Britomart’s face, red with fury. ‘Gloriana will have something to say about this!’
‘Then you tell her precious Queenship that she does not order us about!’ Simon snapped. ‘Unless of course, she decides to execute us for treason! If so, then she can do her worst!’ He turned and stalked off. Annie did the same. They reached the door of Simon’s bedroom, opened it, and walked in, closing it behind. They slumped on the bed together, guilt-ridden, close to tears.
‘Did you see my poor Ragimund’s face?’ Simon whispered. His tears were beginning to trickle through his fingers over his face. ‘It was as if I’d hit her!’
‘I know’. muttered Annie miserably, staring at the floor between her knees. ‘We’ve just kicked everyone we know and love in the teeth!’
‘We’ve got to see this through, Simon’. she said quietly in his ear. ‘I know it’s tearing us apart inside, but we must make them make their choice! If they don’t then we’ve failed, and it will be my fault. This is more than you and I, Simon! Stay with me, and keep it up! If we lose, we lose utterly! That mustn’t happen! Let’s trust each other, and hopefully trust them! Just for a while longer!’
Simon sat up, and brushed his eyes with his sleeve. ‘I know you’re right. I just never realised how much it would hurt!’ He looked at Annie steadily now. ‘You realise we’re forcing them to make a decision, don’t you?’
‘It’s the forcing I don’t like. We need them! We can’t succeed in anything here otherwise. I can’t stand it either, but they’ve got to do that! We’re not telling lies. If this doesn’t work, then we will go home! We’ve burnt our boats! All we can do now is wait’.
‘Just wait’. He got up and leant on the window, gazing out over the dark lake. There were sparkling lights now lit in the gathering blue twilight down below, around the harbour. A soft crackle of crickets filled the air, soft and sweet with the scent of water. A sharp tap sounded at the bedroom door. Their faces immediately became expressionless, as they had planned.
It was Helios. He stood there awkwardly, not sure what to say.
‘Is it.. is it true that you are going away, and never returning?’ he stammered, his eyes wide with shock.
‘Yes. Is there something you want, Helios?’ Annie replied, coolly.
Helios looked at her and shook his head. ‘No’. he quietly withdrew, and shut the door. Annie buried her face in her hands.
There was another quiet tap on the door, which opened again. This time it was the slender figure of Mariko, her face deeply troubled.
‘Is there anything I can do to change your minds?’
They looked at her, her oval face, with its high cheekbones, pale, troubled and anxious.
‘I don’t think so, Mariko’. said Annie trying to keep any emotion from her voice.
‘I am sorry that you think you cannot trust us any more. Please understand that, despite everything that has happened, we still wish to go with you. That is the truth’. She turned and walked out quietly, shutting the door gently behind her.
They heard voices outside. The door burst open, and Pei-Ying and Indira rushed in. There were no chairs so they knelt on the floor, wild-eyed and trembling.
‘You can’t do this!’ shouted Pei-Ying frantically. ‘After everything we’ve all been through!’
‘We’re sorry! Really sorry! I know we had a fight, but we just had to let it out! We want to stop this war!’ yelled Indira desperately.
‘You should have thought of that earlier!’ snapped Annie.
Indira stared at her, her eyes wide. ‘If you want proof of how committed we are, then how about this!’
‘No, Indira!’ Pei-Ying screamed.
But it was too late.
Indira thrust her outstretched hand flat on the small wooden table between them, and viciously plunged the sharp kitchen knife she had been concealing behind her back, straight through her left hand into the wood beneath. The blood began to well around the blade and over her wrist, her fingers pinned to the wooden surface.
For a moment they all stared at her crucified hand in fascinated horror. Then pandemonium broke out. Simon leapt across and pulled the knife out, the blood gushing even more. Annie grabbed the nearest thing she could, a discarded light faery tunic, and wrapped it around Indira’s hand, her heart pounding wildly. The blood began to seep through the thin material. Mariko and Ragimund stood at the door, and then ran back into the atrium, shouting desperately for help. Pei-Ying still knelt, holding Indira tightly around her shoulders, comforting her gently.
Indira’s eyes were glazed with shock and pain, her olive complexion now deathly white. Heavy footsteps sounded outside, and a tall grey-robed figure pushed past them. They recognised him as a faery physician. He unwrapped the makeshift bandage and looked, carefully, at Indira’s wound, pulled out what looked like green poultices, and applied them gently to both sides of her hand, talking gently to her in a strange language, while wrapping a white bandage around it. Then he stood up, his long, bony face hard.
‘Who has done this?’ he snapped.
‘She did it herself’. Pei-Ying whispered.
The faery stared at her disbelievingly, then shook his head. ‘She has done no permanent damage, but her wound will be painful for the next few days. I will leave you with more treatments, that must be changed twice each day, and a sedative to help her rest’.
‘I’ll do that’. said Pei-Ying, holding out her hand for the pouch that the physician gave her. Then he turned and strode out, though they heard him mutter ‘Humans!’ on the way. They all helped Indira to her bedroom that she shared with Pei-Ying, and laid her on the bed. Indira now seemed quiet and at peace. As they softly shut the door, leaving their friends inside, Simon and Annie looked at each other in dumb misery, and walked into the colonnaded room, where Britomart and Ragimund, sat on the edge of the pool, the bearded god, his face now inquisitive, trickling water from his outstretched hands.
Ragimund stood up as they entered, and sat down on the stools before them. Simon gave a small cry. She looked utterly dejected and forlorn, her eyes red-rimmed with weeping. She ran forward and knelt before them both, a hand on each of their knees. She looked up at their faces, imploringly.
‘Simon. Annie. Please do not go! We need you, more than ever! Please, I beg you!’
Simon looked helplessly across at Annie. She nodded, and silently mouthed the words ‘it’s over’. He looked at Britomart. ‘We’ll stay and do our best to stop this war. We’ll ride out tomorrow’.
Ragimund looked up at him, her face alight with joy. Britomart gave a gasp of relief.
‘Simon, go with my sister and comfort her. I need to speak with Annie’.
They watched silently as Simon and Ragimund left, their arms around each other. Britomart got up and sat down next to Annie, perching her legs up beneath her chin, and crossing her arms over them.
‘That was a cruel trick that you played, Annie’.
‘It may have been cruel, but it wasn’t a trick!’ Annie replied, angrily.
‘Would you have really left us?’
Annie thought hard about it. ‘Yes’. she replied. ‘Yes, we would’.
‘And have you changed your mind?’
‘Yes’. Annie replied simply. ‘We have to stay and find some way to avert this war. We owe it to you and our friends, after what’s happened. We must try’.
‘I am very happy to hear you say that’.
They both stared silently at the grinning god, listening to the tinkle and splash of water. Annie could never understand his expression. As the light and shadow shifted, he seemed to be amused, quizzical or surprised. At that moment she didn’t know which. It was Britomart who broke the silence.
‘Your task is now even more difficult. There is already bloodshed on both sides, and feeling is running high. But you must at least, bring them to a point where negociations can begin. How you do that is up to you. But you have my complete support, Annie, and Ragimund’s. I think she would go with your brother to the end of the world, if necessary!’
‘Thank you, Britomart. But what about Gloriana and your other sisters?’
‘Perhaps you do not realise just how highly they think of you. They will listen. Didn’t one of your famous historical generals, Sun Tzu, once say that “To win without fighting is best”?’
‘You know our history?’
‘Of course. We have studied it. Merchants and traders bring books from your world. Is that an emblem of the Watchers that you wear around your neck?’ she said abruptly.
Annie held it out for Britomart to see. ‘We all have them. Our parents are Watchers. They gave these to us before we left’.
‘You must make use of them! They give you a high authority!’ She sounded delighted. They sat together in companionable silence, staring up once more at the water-god, whose only response was an enigmatic smile.
‘You know, Simon believes that the god saved his life’.
‘Perhaps he did’.
‘What happened to Grandfather Wrist’s camera, afterwards?’
‘We burnt it. We want none of those things’.
‘Did…did anything happen when you destroyed the glass plates?’
‘Nothing at all. We smashed them into fragments’.
Annie breathed a sigh of relief. At least he had not caught any more souls.
‘There is something you should know. About Ragimund. She had news yesterday that one of her closest friends, a boy, was killed on our western walls. An arrow took him in the neck. Nobody could save him’.
Annie looked down, saddened. ‘That’s why she was so angry’. She murmured. She jumped up. ‘I must go and see how my friend Indira is. And tell them that we’ve changed our mind’.
‘Do that. It was a stupid and tragic thing she did, but a very noble one. It will make her happy’.
Britomart listened to Annie’s footsteps echoing down the walls behind her, and turned to look at the marble god again.
‘What do you think, water-god? Will they succeed?’
The god closed his marble eye-lid in a knowing wink. Britomart smiled.
Annie paused for a moment in the atrium, to orientate herself. Then she remembered. Pei-Ying and Indira’s room was first on the right, next to the conference room. She tapped gently on the heavy beamed door and walked in. Pei-Ying and Mariko were sitting on one of the beds, whispering quietly to each other. Indira lay asleep on her side, her bandaged left hand over the coverlet. She looked gentle and beautiful, her long, dark luxuriant hair spread out over the pillow. Annie felt a sudden surge of affection for her, as she stroked her face softly. Indira stirred slightly but did not wake.
‘The faery doctor gave her a sedative. She’ll be all right’. whispered Pei-Ying, standing next to her. ‘Annie, could we talk to you, outside? I don’t want to disturb her’.
All three stood in the atrium, outside the half-open door. It was silent, apart from the soft hoot of an owl outside. It was semi-dark, with only small oil lanterns, flickering against the walls, giving out a soft glow.
‘Please forgive us, Annie. It was so stupid of us! But….’
‘We were both so tense and angry, after all the things we went through! It was just as if we were burning up inside, as if one spark would set us off! And it did. We just had to explode and let out all the grief and misery we had! Perhaps its post-traumatic stress disorder, call it what you like. But we’re so sorry, Annie! We let you down! We humiliated you in front of the faeries! I don’t know why Indira did what she did. I don’t think she knew herself, she was so distressed and distraught! But she meant well, Annie! I know she’ll never do that again! She never has before!’
‘Come here, you two’. said Annie and pressed them both against her in a fierce hug, taking comfort herself from their warm arms and wet faces. ‘We changed our minds. We’re going off tomorrow to try to stop a war. Like to come?’
They stood back and stared at her, their faces now alight with joy.
‘You mean it?’ gasped Pei-Ying.
‘Yes. But what about Indira? Will she be able to ride tomorrow?’
‘Even those rude horses wouldn’t keep her away! I’ll tell her in the morning, when she wakes up’. Pei-Ying looked affectionately through the door at Indira’s sleeping figure. ‘She’s my friend’. she said softly. ‘I know’. said Annie. She began to walk across the atrium to her bedroom, next to Simon’s. when she felt Mariko’s hand on her arm.
‘I feel really happy, Annie. I am so looking forward to tomorrow now. Tell me, did we pass the test?’
Annie stared at her in confusion, then sighed. ‘Oh, dear, were we really that transparent? Yes, you did. With flying colours’.
‘I am glad about that, Annie. It may not seem so, but it has brought us all closer together. Until tomorrow, Annie’.
They gave each other a brief hug, then entered their rooms. Annie undressed and got into bed, but lay there awake, in the dark, her mind churning and twisting with guilt, remorse and self-doubt. I feel as if I’ve just got to know them again for the first time, she thought. It nearly went so terribly wrong. Who am I to pass judgement? Perhaps I’m more faery than I expected. She heard Simon’s footsteps in the atrium and then his door shutting. She could see the talisman gently glowing in the dark, on the bedside table. Perhaps Britomart was right. If we can’t trust our own people, then we can’t trust ourselves. Gradually her eyes closed, and she fell into a deep, exhausted sleep, in readiness for what the day might bring.
Frank Jackson (07/03/11) Word Count - 10717