DR FRANK JACKSON, 59A, PRINCES ROAD, BRIGHTON, EAST SUSSEX BN2 3RH
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. Having returned to Hyperborea, to aid their faery allies, they have witnessed a terrible battle. Now they are on a mission, to try to negotiate a peace between the Barbarossi and the faerys themselves. They do not know whether they will succeed.
The young Barbarossi’s horse snorted. and skittered in the warm sunshine. Its rider was clad in a loose tunic of chain-mail under a long cotton robe. A long, straight sword and dagger hung from his wide leather belt, on each side. He was bare-headed, his long dark hair tied back in a large bunch. Apart from those weapons, he was unarmed. He looked nervously at the four horsemen who were riding towards him from the west wall. He knew that two of them were humans, sent by the faerys to negotiate a truce. He did not know who the other two were. He thought sadly of the battle the day before last, and of his close friend, who had died, cut down in the central phalanx. He looked up again apprehensively, at the approaching riders. Their horses were trotting gently towards him, the figures dark in the light of the morning sun, already warm on his back.
He truly did not know what to expect. His commander had told him to meet the two human envoys, because he spoke their language, that he had studied so avidly at his school. He had always been fascinated by the complexity of the human languages, and his commanders had made use of his skills before, when dealing with traders. But he was genuinely uneasy. ‘Remember’, His commander had warned. ‘Do not trust these humans. They are warriors. They have fought monsters and many other things. They are ruthless and vicious, like the faerys. Be wary. They are dangerous. They are brother and sister. They have done many things that we cannot imagine. They are hard and ruthless, who will kill without mercy. Do not be tricked by them’.
The small plump little senator he knew as Socrato, had also taken him aside as well, holding him firmly by the arm.
‘You will report to me as soon as you arrive.’, he said in his high-pitched little voice. ‘I want you to give me your impressions of these humans. Do you understand?’ He knew the power of this little man. He bowed and left hurriedly. Now he was watching these two humans coming towards him, his horse beneath him, worried and uneasy, shifting and pattering at the ground. As they rode up to him, he was suddenly surprised. The human girl was slim and tall, riding easily in the saddle, her dark neck-length hair slightly untidy, but her face was beautiful. Not in a conventional way perhaps. Her mouth was perhaps too wide, and her eyes too large, above her high cheekbones. But there was a gentleness and warmth in her features, which made her truly lovely. The boy too, was tall, with untidy fair hair, that tended to flop over his forehead, but with a handsome and good-natured face, that broke into a grin as he saw the nervous young Barbarossi.
‘Don’t worry’, he said. ‘We won’t bite you’. The Barbarossi was taken aback. ‘What’s your name?’ said the girl as she wheeled her horse around to face him. ‘I’m Annie, by the way, and this is my brother, Simon’. The Barbarossi was completely taken aback by their impudent but friendly attitude. This was not at all what he had been led to expect. ‘My name is Hasada. I am requested to take you into the presence of his high majesty……’
‘Oh, never mind the formalities, Hasada. We know all about that’. interrupted the boy. ‘This is Thursday, a quack, I mean physician, and Regina’. He indicated the other two riders who had closed up and now stood, looking at him intently. ‘They’re our, sort of, travelling companions.
‘That’s a really nice name, Hasada’. the girl said cheerfully. ‘Sort of Arabic, isn’t it?’ She smiled at him. Hasada was now completely thrown, confused, and to some extent slightly bewitched by the girl’s charming smile. ‘It is also my father’s name’. he stammered slightly, trying to recover himself. ‘It obviously runs in the family then’. Said the boy, cheerfully. ‘Carrying the same name over generations. Makes sense’.
Hasada began to recover himself. These two he liked immediately. He had instinctively warmed to them, but the other two? He felt wary of them. The physician’s face, long and bony, with a hawk-like nose, stared at him without expression, as did the other faery woman, whose face, framed by her red hair, was bland and unemotional. For a moment. he felt as if he had been duped. Were those two the real human negociators, and the others decoys? Then he looked down. No, he decided. Those unemotional two were clearly faerys, and these two, who sounded and looked like two mischievous children, were undoubtedly human, and behaved like brother and sister. But they were certainly not the cold-eyed ruthless warriors he had been led to expect, nor could he not help warming to them. He smiled. ‘Follow me’.
‘That’s better’. Said the girl, smiling back. ‘I do believe you might have a sense of humour, after all’.
‘Lead us on, Hasada, to the stately pleasure dome of Xanadu’. Said the boy, grinning.
‘Never mind him, Hasada, he’s only showing off’. Replied the girl good-naturedly.
Hasada laughed. He could not help it.
‘That’s even better, the girl giggled. ‘He can even laugh at you, Simon!’
‘Don’t be so cheeky!’ The boy grinned at his sister.
Instead of following him as he expected, they rode alongside him, the other two behind. He wasn’t sure what to make of this at all.
‘Did you lose anyone in the battle, Hasada?’ the girl asked quietly.
He looked down at the coarse brown mane of the horse’s neck.
‘Yes’. He replied quietly. I lost one of my closest friends. He was in the central phalanx. He was cut down. His body was cremated yesterday’.
‘I’m truly sorry, Hasada’. The girl said sincerely.
The boy was silent. Then he said, ‘How do you know our language so well, Hasada?’
‘I have always studied your human language’. he responded eagerly. ‘From when I was a boy. It has always fascinated me! The complexities! The rhythm….’ He stopped suddenly, thinking he was giving away too much. His commander had warned him that these two would be devious and cunning. He could sense the empathy between them.
‘He thinks we’re devious and cunning, Annie’. Said the boy, in a tone of mock sadness.
‘We’re not, Hasada’. the girl replied, looking at him directly. He was disconcerted. ‘Quite the opposite, in fact. We don’t know what we’re doing half the time’.
‘Well, you don’t’, the boy said cheerfully.
The girl stuck her tongue out at him. Hasada was astounded.
‘Don’t worry, Hasada’, she said, with that easy familiarity that confused him even further. ‘We’ve never met your people, before. We want to get to know you. Have you any brothers and sisters, Hasada?’
They rode on, the young Barbarossi, the two humans, and the two faerys following closely behind.
The day before had been a time of trouble. The faery who had watched over them after the battle, had led them to the general cantina, a large dining tent, where all the faerys ate, because they had insisted firmly on that. They sat amongst the faerys, on one of the benches at a large table, expecting chatter and excitement, but it was not like that at all. The conversation was low and subdued. Some of the male faerys had eyed Indira with discreet adoration, though none dared approach her, which in turn made her rather gloomy. The faerys at their table, both male and female, treated them with courtesy, though Annie noticed that they ate little and their food remained often untouched. Presently, the last faery got up and excused himself, politely, and departed to his tent.
‘What is it with us?’ complained Indira bitterly. ‘Don’t they even want to talk to us? They didn’t even try to chat me up!’
‘Can you blame them?’ Pei-Ying said, maliciously. Indira glared at her, and then grinned.
‘Skinny punk’, she said good-naturedly. Pei-Ying smiled back.
Mariko looked up. She had sat sadly next to them during their meal, saying nothing, and barely eating. She looked up. ‘It is because of that terrible battle today. They are not proud of it. They cannot celebrate because of that. It was something that they cannot take any pride in’.
‘I think we all know that, Mariko’. said Annie softly. She looked at Mariko, her shoulders hunched over the table. She looked utterly miserable. She wondered what the decision was that Mariko had made, on the wall earlier.
‘Don’t cry, Mariko’ her brother said gently, his hands on Mariko’s shoulders. Annie started. She had not even heard him come into the cantina. Mariko pulled herself up gratefully, and touched his hand.
‘Where’s Ragimund, Simon?’ Annie demanded.
‘Back in her tent. She wanted to be on her own for a while. That faery outside is waiting to take us to ours. Come on’,
‘Whoopee! Camping! I like that!’ cried Indira gleefully.
Pei-Ying looked at her, mournfully. ‘Take no notice of her. I think she should sleep in the stables with her precious horses myself’.
‘Better than sleeping in a tent with you!’ Indira retorted, grinning as she did.
‘Just come. Now’. said Simon flatly. He was in no mood for merry banter.
The faery had led them to a large tent. Inside were palliases, small mattresses stuffed with a mixture of hair and straw, though they looked comfortable enough. Mariko said nothing, but simply ducked through the opening inside. Indira and Pei-Ying followed. Annie stayed outside with her brother. They looked at each other.
‘Is everything all right with you and Ragimund, Simon?’ she asked anxiously.
‘Yes, it is. Oh Annie, I never realised how happy I could make someone be!’ he burst out.
‘Don’t go all soppy on me, Simon’. Annie said, sternly.
‘All right. We don’t do soppiness, do we?’
‘No we don’t’. But her voice softened. ‘She loves you very much, Simon, and she needs you. Especially after the way she’s been treated by her own sisters’.
‘I know’. He replied, savagely. ‘We must have words with that bitch, Gloriana, tomorrow!’
‘Don’t lose your temper, Simon!’ Annie said, urgently. ‘We’ve got a job to do, remember?’
Simon subsided, his anger ebbing away. ‘What’s the matter with Mariko?’ he asked quietly.
‘I genuinely don’t know. She’ll tell us in her own time’. She paused. ‘I’m happy for you, my brother’.
Simon looked at her, then pulled her to him and hugged her tightly. ‘Thank you, Annie!’ he whispered in her ear.
‘Think nothing of it’. Annie whispered back. ‘And let go of me! We don’t do soppiness!’
‘Of course. I forgot’. He let go. They grinned at each other.
‘Oi! You two!’ It was Indira’s voice from inside the tent. ‘Can we get some sleep!’
Simon grinned at her again. ‘The oracle speaks!’ Annie laughed.
‘See you tomorrow, Simon’.
They rode together towards the huge Barbarossi encampment on the low hills in front of them. As they drew nearer, they could see its full scale. It was an enormous encamped city, hundreds of white tents that encircled an array of far larger, higher, crimson, tasselled canvas palaces, brocaded and magnificent, within a wooden palisade. This, Annie assumed, was where the Barbarossi emperor had his abode. Another palisade ran around the whole camp, and she could see armed guards patrolling it, and at its main entrance. There were even small blockhouses that had obviously been recently erected, built of mud-brick. But beyond it, on the higher ground behind, she could see another huge encampment, this time a ragged patchwork of makeshift tents, that straggled out around the main camp, a mosaic of small shelters of all shapes and colours, fashioned out of every kind of material.
She reined in sharply. Her horse muttered under its breath. The others stopped too, and stared at her.
‘What is that encampment, Hasada?’ she demanded, pointing at the bedraggled range of tents that hung around the main camp, as a child might cling to its mother’s’ knees.
‘Those are the followers, lady! They are the families of our soldiers, who have followed them to this war!’ Hasada moaned, seriously worried now. ‘Please, his highness is waiting!’
‘Then he’ll just have to wait, won’t he?’ snapped Annie. ‘I want to see it!’ Without waiting for his reply, she gently kicked her horse, and galloped away around the main camp, towards its forlorn outskirts.
‘Never mind, Hasada!’ the boy grinned. ‘Just a little detour. You can blame it all on us’. He galloped off after his sister. Hasada moaned again, and then followed them, the watchful pair behind following. He did not like them behind his back, but he had no choice.
Annie reined in again, at the beginnings of the followers’ camp. It was a miserable collection of small tents, sewn and tied together out of whatever could be found. Robed women were cooking what looked like flatbreads over open fires. On her approach, the women looked up at her, wide-eyed and apprehensive, seeing her armour, and her sword slung across her back. The children who had been playing, suddenly ran to their mothers, staring at her, fearfully. One small girl began to cry. Annie raised her hand, palm outwards, the sign of peace and friendship. The women began to look reassured, though they seemed frightened again, as the others rode up.
Annie looked around. Outside one patched little tent, there was a helmet, the ones the Barbarossi wore, cone-like in shape. It was battered and dented, but was planted in a small area of earth which had been dug up carefully, and surrounded by small, now wilted flowers. A little flat piece of wood, with words that she could not understand, had been leant carefully against the helmet. She turned to Hasada.
‘What does that say?’ she demanded.
Hasada was now dismayed and distressed. ‘My lady, we are already late! We must go!’
‘What does it say!’
Her voice was cold. Hasada looked at her. He was shocked. Her eyes had turned to grey. He was uncomfortably aware of those two other riders behind him.
‘You heard my sister! What does it say?’ This was the boy, his eyes also grey and hard. He was suddenly afraid of these two.
‘It says “For our dearly beloved father, Satra and Tetra’.”
They were both silent for a moment or two. Then they turned their horses, and began to trot away towards the main camp.
Annie had lain awake for a while, listening to Mariko crying softly in her sleep. But there was nothing she could do. They had got up early and joined the others for a brief breakfast in the same cantina that they had eaten in the previous evening. Then a faery came to escort them to Gloriana’s own tent, the headquarters of the faerys’ own encampment, behind the walls. By now, they were both in a filthy mood. The faery who led them, looked at them apprehensively. He was not sure what these humans might do. They entered the large tent. Gloriana was sitting behind a large table, still littered with plans of battle. She looked up. ‘Come in’, she said ‘I have instructions for you’.
‘I have one for you, you murderous bitch!’ Simon shouted. Before Annie could stop him, he walked round the table and struck Gloriana viciously across the face with the back of his hand.
‘You struck our sister! snarled a voice behind them. There was the sudden slash of swords from scabbards. Simon and Annie whirled around, their swords, too, unleashed. The red fog of war descended. Annie felt an unbelievable gush of fury, her sword pointed straight at Mercilla’s throat, whose sword was at her’s. Simon’s was at Lucifera’s, her sword already raised to strike. For a moment or two, all four were poised, fired with bloodlust and anger, ready to attack.
‘Stop this! Stop this now! We are allies! Friends!’ shouted Gloriana.‘Sisters! Put down your weapons! Now!’
For a second, the deadly tableau did not move. Then Mercilla slowly lowered her sword. She stared at Annie ‘Your eyes are grey! How can this be? You are human!’
‘So are your eyes!’ Lucifera said, staring at Simon. ‘I do not understand this! You have become faery!’ She lowered her sword. There was a sudden swish as they were returned to their scabbards. Silence descended
Simon looked at Lucifera. ‘I am sorry’, he said. Annie looked at Mercilla. ‘I’m sorry too. I…I don’t know what came over us’.
‘It was the faery bloodlust, Annie’. Mercilla replied quietly. ‘Now you know how we faerys are’.
‘Then don’t you feel shame? Simon retorted. ‘About what you did yesterday?’
‘Yes!’ said Gloriana sharply. She looked down at the table, Annie and Simon suddenly realised that the papers in front of her were damp. ‘I have been crying all night here’.
But Simon was not finished . ‘And don’t you feel shame about your sister, whom I love very much, who you turned your backs on yesterday! Ragimund, your own sister, that you’ve verbally abused all her life for something she didn’t do! Those soldiers who died yesterday didn’t deserve that, and neither does she!’ He stood, glaring at Gloriana, his hands flat on the table. ‘Answer me that!’
‘She killed our mother!’ snapped Lucifera.
Annie stood by her brother, her hands also flat on the table. ‘Then answer me this! How can a new-born child be guilty of killing its own mother? Are you faerys so stupid as not to realise that! To turn your back on your own sister, is not only shameful, it’s a disgrace! You should be ashamed of yourselves! I feel ashamed for you!’
That struck home. The three faery sisters looked stunned. They looked at the two humans who stood together, defiantly.
‘Perhaps we have wronged our sister’. Mercilla said, at length.
‘Wronged! That’s not the word for it! You made her life a misery! She told me! You…’
‘Stop it now, Simon! We can sort it out later. We’ve got a war to finish, remember?’
Simon glared, and fell silent.
‘There is something you must know’ Gloriana spoke softly. She rubbed her cheek where Simon had struck her. ‘You have a hard hand, Simon’.
‘No more than you deserve!’ he muttered. His fury, the madness, was still simmering.
‘That defeat was deliberate. The Barbarossi leadership planned it. Their attack yesterday was suicidal’.
‘What!’ They both stared at Gloriana in horror.
‘I only learned of this late last night. Now do you understand why I have been weeping?’
‘We were the executioners!’ Mercilla cried bitterly. ‘They went into battle with a deliberately flawed plan, and were slaughtered for it!’
‘You still slaughtered them!’ Simon shouted furiously.
‘We are faerys!’ shouted Lucifera, equally furiously. ‘Do you expect us not to inflict such a defeat on them that they will not dare to attack us again? Do you?’ She stared at Simon, her eyes grey. ‘They attacked us. We fight back. And we will do so with such power that they will not come again. Do you understand?’
Simon stared back. ‘They were ordinary soldiers, with wives and children. Is it them you are really fighting?’
‘No, it is not’. It was Gloriana. ‘ It is their so-called leaders and military generals, who deliberately sacrificed their own people for their own purposes, that are to blame. Those are the real enemy’. She hesitated. ‘And yours’, she said, finally.
Annie’s mind was churning. Where was the truth in all this? She looked across at Gloriana, whose face, she saw, was lined with tiredness, her eyes red-rimmed with crying.
‘I want your word on this. I want your word that you are telling the truth. I want a promise from you, Gloriana. Otherwise, my brother and I will turn around and go home, and leave you to fight this war to the death, if you have to. Do you understand me?’
Gloriana looked at each of her sisters. Then she nodded. ‘I am telling you the truth as I know it. That is a promise to you, Annie, a faery promise’. Annie knew that faerys would not lie, or ever break a promise. She nodded too. ‘That is more than good enough for me’. The tension broke in the tent. Everybody began to relax, their bodies unstiffening from their poised fury. Gloriana spoke again.
‘I am asking you both, if you can, to make the Barbarossi agree to a formal truce, so that we can open negociations. You can tell them that we are willing to make trade agreements, in return for the withdrawal of their troops. You may also tell them that we are willing to draw up a peace agreement between us’. She looked at both of them. ‘I do not want to bring war into this land. Nor do I want to slaughter any more of their people. Do you understand me?’
They looked at each other. ‘We understand’. said Annie. ‘We’ll do what we can’.
Gloriana smiled, tiredly. ‘Then that is good enough for me, too’
‘Wait!’ Simon said sharply. ‘Don’t you think that you should at least try to make peace with your sister, Ragimund? You owe that to her! You’ve hurt her very badly! She deserves better! I thought sisters were supposed to love each other and be supportive, not make war on each other! Do you seriously propose to look after this land when you can’t even look after your own family?’
The deadly barb, carefully unleashed, struck home. All three faery sisters flinched. Simon was relentless.
‘Is there a difference between this war and your own?’ he snapped. ‘Your own family, divided!’ He paused for breath. ‘Promise me that you will do everything you can to heal the damage between yourselves and Ragimund. I love her dearly. I want you to promise me, for her sake, and yours! Promise me!’
Annie gazed at her brother in amazement. She had never felt so proud of him, as she did then. The three faery sisters looked astonished. Then miraculously, Mercilla giggled. ‘’How can we refuse?’ she laughed ‘I give you my promise, Simon’.
‘And mine’ added Gloriana.
After a moment’s hesitation, Lucifera added ‘And mine’.
Simon gasped in relief, and stood back. ‘Then that is good enough for me’.
The meeting ended on that note. As they walked out of the tent, Annie grasped her brother by the arm. ‘That was a wonderful thing you did, Simon’. she said, softly.
‘Well, since everyone seems to be into promises, you promise me. Don’t tell Ragimund, right?’
Annie looked innocent, ‘Of course, Simon. I promise’.
He looked at her suspiciously, and then walked away, to get ready for their journey. Annie looked after him and smiled, unlocking the crossed fingers from behind her back.
They rode into the Barbarossi camp through the entrance in the palisade, Hasada showing his pass as they went. The sentries looked after them with curiosity. As with Hasada, these humans were not what they expected. They rode on between the long lines of white, quilted tents. There were huge numbers of soldiers. They were tall, and handsome men, most of them with small beards and moustaches, just like Hasada. They stared up at them as they trotted by, from where they sat or lounged outside the tents, their weapons propped in heaps. There was the smell of cooking from the many campfires, a warm smell of herbs and spices. Lemongrass was one ingredient that Annie could identify, though not the others. She looked back at them with as pleasant a smile as she could. She felt pity and sadness that such people as these had been so cruelly slaughtered not long ago. She held up her palm in greeting to a group of men as she passed by. To her surprise, they responded with smiles. holding up their own hands in the same gesture.
She turned to her brother, who rode beside her, as they followed Hasada. She realised that he had moved up closer to protect her.
‘Simon, I don’t believe that these people want war any more then we do! Look at them! All they want to do is to go home to their families!’
‘I can see that’. he muttered . ‘Don’t you realise they’re hoping we’ll bring this whole hideous thing to a stop? Let’s do it, Annie!’
They came to a halt outside the most magnificent tent, nearly fifty feet in diameter and standing over thirty feet high. The edges of the canopy were brocaded, and flags fluttered from the tall poles that held it upright. The sides were panelled in crimson, and the entrance was hung with pale grey silk, gathered on each side. This was the emperor’s temporary court. The guards, clad in chain-mail, and wearing the conical helmets of the Barbarossi, stared at them, holding tall spears in their right hands.
‘Quite impressive’ Simon said, as they dismounted outside. Another guard came to take their horses away. ‘Better than that camp we saw, isn’t it, Annie?’
‘May I introduce you?’ Hasada said politely, almost deferentially. ‘This is the Lord Regent Paravar, who has come to escort you’.
‘Pleased to meet you!’ He reached forward suddenly and shook them both warmly by the hands. ‘I’m Paravar. And you are Simon and Annie. I’ve heard lots about you. Jolly good to meet you’. He grinned at them both. ‘Don’t look so surprised. I’m not really what I’m supposed to be’.
They both stared at him, dumbfounded, lost for words. He wore a small, almost military moustache, and his chin was clean-shaven. His black hair was tied back in a bun behind his head, like so many of the Barbarossi. He wore a long blue robe secured by a large leather belt, and his large feet were sandalled. But what had amazed them was not just his easy use of their language, but his accent, which was pure, unashamedly, upper middle class, educated public school.
He laughed at their astounded faces. ‘I can see what you’re thinking! Believe it or not, I was educated in your world. Oxford, in fact. Magdalen College. Did rather well. Got a first in Classics. I do know rather a lot about your world. And your sister is a stunner, if I may say so’. he said, grinning again, looking at Simon.
Simon found his voice. ‘You are not what we expected’. he said faintly. ‘An Oxford man! Here!’ he turned to his sister. ‘Are we in a fairy story, or something? The old kind, I mean’.
‘What are you talking about?’ asked Paravar, slightly bewildered.
‘Nothing. He’s talking rubbish, as usual’. Replied Annie, recovering from her surprise.
‘Well I do that most of the time. But’, he lowered his voice. ‘I do not know what kind of reception you will get inside’. He lowered his voice even more. ‘I do not want this war. The faerys slaughtered us yesterday. I do not want any more of that. I don’t honestly know what little machinations are going on in this court. But be on your guard. I must take you in now’. He looked up. ‘Who are your companions?’ looking at Thursday and Regina, who stared back impassively.
‘Travelling companions’. Simon said promptly.
‘I see’. Paravar stared back at them. ‘They are not what they seem’.
He hesitated, and then turned. ‘Follow me. You must leave your weapons at this entrance. The guards will look after them for you’.
They followed, reluctantly unslinging their swords and passing them to the Barbarossi guards, who placed them carefully behind their posts, just inside the entrance. They passed through a corridor, swathed in more grey and blue silks. Annie was amazed at this splendour, after the abject poverty of the followers’ camp they had seen. Then they entered the main centre of this great pavilion.
The Barbarossi emperor, if that is what he could be called, was sitting on a large ornate throne in the middle of the circular space divided by long golden poles that held the canopied roof above. He was surrounded by plush velvet cushions, and a variety of small, decorated tables with dishes of sweetmeats, that his short, pudgy fingers reached out for, as he greedily ate. He was fat, and bald, though he wore a silk cap to hide it. His small eyes were cowled in his fleshy face. Beside him, sat a small boy, no more than three years old, who, Annie realised, must be the supposed heir. He looked miserable. The fat emperor reached across and patted the boy on the cheek, who flinched. Then he stared coldly with his little pig-like eyes at them.
Annie was uncannily reminded of that king that Dabar the dragon had deposed, so long ago. She did not like this situation at all. She noted the armed guards around the perimeters of this tented hall. They all looked tense and nervous. Across on the other side she saw a number of red-robed figures, all equally small and rather plump. There was one that stood just in front of them. His face was bland and expressionless, his arms folded. Annie disliked him intensely from the very moment she saw him. She realised that it must be Socrato.
She gasped. Standing next to him was Regina, her arms also folded, her face equally expressionless. She began to feel panic, and looked around, wildly. There was no sign of Thursday, and she had noticed that two very large bearded men had slipped quietly out of the room as they arrived.
The place was expectant, watchful. The fat emperor looked disdainfully at them. Simon looked at Paravar. ‘Shall I begin my speech now?’ Paravar nodded. ‘I shall translate for you’.
Simon looked at the emperor, with distaste, but he began. ‘On behalf of the Queen Gloriana, and of the faery land of Hyperborea, we hereby propose a truce with a view to open negociations on matters of trade between……’
The fat little emperor laughed contemptuously. Simon stopped, bewildered.
‘I rehearsed that speech! For ages! What’s going on?’
The emperor sneered again and pointed to Regina. He said something in his Barbarossi language. They stared across the room at her. Slowly, she pulled off the red wig that she wore, that had been so characteristic of Rosamund. Then she began to peel off her face, rather painfully. She dropped both visage and the wig to the floor, crossed her arms again, and smiled, that same sly smile that they both knew. They looked at her in horror and amazement.
‘’Duessa!’ they both cried out in the same moment.
They could hardly believe it. But Rosamund, Regina and Duessa, the banished faery sister, were one and the same person. Socrato crossed the room and stood beside her. The emperor shouted something to the guards behind. They heard swords being drawn, and then the close presence of the Barbarossi soldiers as they moved in behind them and on each side. Annie looked around again desperately, staring hard at their faces below their helmets, with their long nose-guards. They seemed apprehensive, but their long straight swords, heavier than the curved faery swords, surrounded them. One young guard, gripping his weapon on both hands, stared back at them, particularly at the girl. He knew these humans were deadly, even unarmed, and he was worried.
Duessa glanced at them with that same sly smile. Socrato smiled too. Annie hated them both.
‘It’s a trap, Annie!’ hissed Simon in her ear. He glared around. The soldiers shifted nervously, waiting. ‘That traitorous bitch has set us up!’
Paravar stood, bewildered and shocked. He said something rapidly to the emperor, who sniffed and waved contemptuously at him. Paravar looked at them. ‘He says you are to be taken outside and executed!’ He looked utterly stunned. He spoke rapidly again. The emperor shouted furiously back at him. Annie could sense the soldiers moving closer. She felt utterly calm. She could see every detail in the canopied room. Now that the moment of death had come, she felt completely detached from life, a total sense of tranquillity. She wondered whether she would feel pain as the swords cut through her.
She could feel her brother’s sense of calmness too.
‘We’re warriors, Simon’. She whispered. ‘Let’s die fighting!’.
‘You take the ones on your left, sister, and I’ll take the ones on my right’. She nodded, the bloodlust beginning to descend on her.
‘Goodbye, brother’, she added.
The young Barbarossi saw the eyes of the two humans turn a cold, hard grey. He felt afraid, and gripped his sword. The emperor laughed, reached out for his silver goblet from the small table next to him, and drank it back in one greedy gulp, then heaved himself painfully to his feet. He shouted something at the soldiers. Then he began to choke and cough. The goblet fell to the ground and rolled across to rest against another small table. He staggered, his short legs barely able to prop up his fat body. He reeled backwards and fell, crashing against the throne, and slid down it, his eyes bulging with amazement. His head lolled to one side, white froth on his mouth and lips. His body slumped, and became inert. There was absolute silence, except for the small boy, who, frightened, had begun to cry.
Paravar walked forwards, and felt the emperor’s neck for a pulse. He straightened up, and looked around, then shrugged. For a moment, he stared at Socrato, then tenderly picked up the boy and cradled him gently against his chest. He looked around again, and shouted furiously. The soldiers stood back, and quickly sheathed their swords, all of them looking relieved. Paravar, still holding the boy, kicked the emperor’s body viciously, so that it rolled to one side. He looked across at Simon and Annie.
‘It seems I am emperor, by default. You are safe. You are now under my protection’
Both brother and sister, stood together, breathing heavily, coming back from that tiny narrow space that marked the difference between life and death. Another figure had appeared, silently, behind them. They turned and saw Thursday, who nodded quietly.
‘Where have you been?’ demanded Simon. His eyes were still grey, but his fury was now receding.
‘Dealing with your so-called executioners’. Thursday replied quietly.
What did you do?’ asked Annie. She felt slightly dizzy and weary. They had just come back from a moment of death.
‘I slit their throats’. Thursday said softly. ‘They are no great loss to this world’.
Annie began to feel slightly sick. ‘What happened here?’ she groaned.
‘I wish I knew. None of this was my doing at all.’. Paravar replied. He looked hard at both of them. ‘Do you know?’ he demanded. Annie looked around. Both Thursday and Duessa had disappeared yet again.
‘We don’t know any more than you do!’ she said, sharply. ‘What about our truce?’
‘Of course’. said Paravar. ‘Please excuse my manners. It has been a strange day. This is my son, Deneto’. He cuddled the boy gently, who looked at them both with the wide, curious eyes of a child.
‘You will have your truce. We can start negociations tomorrow. I will draft a letter for you to take back with you. Is that all right?’
They both nodded, dazed by this sudden turn of events. Paravar called out various orders to soldiers, then said something sharply to Socrato and his companions, who still stood quietly at the back of the great canopied room. Socrato smiled, and then they slowly departed in a file, back through the entrance.
‘Please, I have completely forgotten! Would you like tea?’ He called out more orders. Still bewildered, they followed Paravar over to a small low table and sat down cross-legged around it. A small robed figure appeared with a tall silver pot, and, unbelievably, small china cups painted with flowers in exquisite detail, on a silver tray. Another appeared, also with a tray and set down several small ceramic ink-pots, an array of reed pens, and a sheet of what looked like parchment, on Paravar’s right.
‘Shall I pour?’ he asked politely. He picked up the silver pot and poured a dark liquid into each of the cups, His son, sat by him, still staring at them both, curiously. Annie tasted hers. It was delicious, sweetened mint tea, and its smell was fragrant. Paravar was writing quickly on the sheet of parchment. He finished, and passed it to Annie.
‘Ladies first’. He grinned at her brother. ‘Do you play chess, Simon?’
‘I do, actually’, admitted Simon, surprised. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘Because I would like to play it with you some day’. He paused. ‘If all goes well’.
Annie read the letter.
“As Regent and Acting Emperor of the Barbarossi, I hereby request that a formal truce be made and signed between ourselves and the land of Hyperborea. I further request that a meeting be held between our representatives, as a gesture of goodwill, on your territory, to further negociations on trade and future security between our countries. We will await your response.
Regent and Emperor, Paravar.”
‘Not very good, I’m afraid’. Paravar said apologetically. ‘I was never much good at writing formal letters’.
Annie smiled at him. ‘It looks good enough to me’. She passed it over to Simon.
Paravar looked at her. ‘We are not barbarians, Annie. My people are cultured and civilised, with a long history that stretches back thousands of years. We have many skilled craftsmen and artists. We have a lot to offer’.
Annie gave him a level stare. ‘We never said you were barbarians’.
‘No. I apologise. But perhaps, if we make an agreement, you and your brother would come and visit our country and see for yourself. You would be welcome. It is not often that I see people from your world. I miss them’. Paravar said sadly.
‘We will. We will be back’. Annie said gently.
Simon handed the parchment back to Paravar. ‘Does that mean you’re having to take Socrato and his lot with you?’
‘Unfortunately, yes. They are representatives, with votes’.
Paravar took the parchment, rolled it up and pushed it into a small silver tube. He held it out to them.
‘I’ll take that’. Annie said firmly. She didn’t trust Simon not to throw it in Gloriana’s face, after what had happened before. He glared at her, then smiled. They looked at each other affectionately. She remembered how he had stood by her only a few minutes ago.
‘We must go’. She said quietly.
‘I will give you safe conduct to the gate and beyond, and escort you a bit further. Under the present circumstances, I’d rather not get within arrowshot of your walls’. Paravar smiled at them both. ‘It has been a pleasure to meet you both. Remember the chess, Simon’.
‘Don’t worry, I’ll give you a good game’. He grinned. He genuinely liked Paravar.
They walked back through the entrance. The guards carefully handed them back their swords, still wary of these humans. Annie smiled at them both. They smiled back. She could see they wanted a peace, too. They walked out towards their horses. The two guards looked at each other. ‘She is lovely’. one guard said, in Barbarossi, as he looked out after them. ‘Dangerous, too, as I heard!’
‘You know what humans are like’. Said the other guard. ‘I just want to go home’.
‘As I do’. replied the other. He stared after them. ‘I hope they are successful. We need peace’.
They rode out through the gate, Duessa in front, followed by Simon and Annie, then Thursday, following silently. Annie looked back. She could see Paravar gathering his escort around him at the main gate. But she could also see the small group of red-robed figures standing just outside the palisade, gathered silently together like crows on a branch. The small impassive figure of Socrato was there, his arms folded, looking back at them. Then they rode up next to Duessa, who smiled that same sly smile that she always had.
‘What do you want with me?’ she said softly.
‘Some answers!’ Annie shouted furiously. ‘Was it you who killed that old emperor?’
‘Of course’. Duessa replied calmly. ‘Thursday supplied the poison, and I put it into his goblet’. She laughed. ‘He is no loss to anyone’.
‘How did you manage to…?’ Annie remembered. ‘You were the guard I spoke to in Elsace! How did you manage to get here?’
‘That was difficult’. Duessa admitted. ‘But Thursday managed to find me a new identity, and then he insisted that I should accompany you here as his assistant. Thursday and I have known each other for a very long time’. She smiled slyly again. ‘We have our secrets’.
‘Who is Thursday?’ asked Annie, very quietly.
‘You will have to ask him yourself’. Duessa’s smile suddenly disappeared. ‘How is my daughter, Seruban? Please tell me’. Her sharp face was now anxious.
‘She is well, and improving, though we haven’t seen her ourselves’. Annie said, this time more softly. ‘She is being looked after by Gloriana’s daughter, Jezuban’.
‘The same daughter that you had tossed into our world like a bundle of rags! Dumped like an old sack in the road!’ Simon glared at her furiously.
‘She is faery! She would have survived!’ Duessa snapped, glaring back at him.
‘No she wouldn’t! She would have died of cold and starvation if Annie and I hadn’t found her! You filthy bitch, Duessa! I’lll never forgive you for that!’
Annie glanced at her brother. She knew he was thinking also of Annabelle, the poor girl now buried in the past. She was suddenly afraid that he might turn on Duessa. She could feel his rage mounting.
‘Don’t, Simon! she said sharply. ‘We’ve got a task to finish!’ She looked at Duessa. Her face was taut with emotion. She looked at them. With a great effort, she spoke.
‘I have done great wrong. I am sorry.’
They both knew what it cost a faery to make an apology. They became silent. Duessa spoke in a low voice, hard and bitter.
‘Do you have any idea what it means to a faery, to be banished from her own land, and her own daughter? Do you?’ It is a death sentence! I have had to live by my wits, by my sword! As we did in the old days! That is what it means!’
She wheeled her horse around to face them. ‘I want to see my daughter! She means more to me than anything else in this world! I….’
The arrows thudded into her chest from nowhere. She cried out and fell sideways from her saddle with the impact. The horse reared and screamed. Panicked, it galloped away in a circle, dragging Duessa’s body with it, bouncing and thumping along the ground.
‘Simon!’ Annie shrieked. ‘Stop it!’ Her own horse was too shocked to move. Simon galloped his horse after it, and reached out frantically for the bridle. He missed and tried again. This time he caught the reins, and savagely pulled the horse’s head back. It stopped, panting and quivering. Annie dismounted and ran towards Duessa, whose left arm was outspread on the ground. She could hear Thursday’s footsteps behind her.
Duessa’s foot was entangled in one of the stirrups, so that she still hung downwards from the horse, that Simon was gradually quietening. ‘Help me, Annie!’ Thursday said, urgently. Between them, they freed Duessa from the stirrup and laid her gently on the ground. Annie was surprised at how light she was. Duessa stared up at them, the two arrows still upright, embedded in her chest. Her eyes focussed on both of them as they knelt beside her. There was pink froth on her lips.
‘My daughter. I…’ she whispered, faintly.
Then she died. Her life slipped gently away, just as Mr Cuttle’s had done, a long time ago. Her head shifted slightly to one side, her eyes still open, but unseeing. Annie felt an inexpressible sadness fall upon her as she looked down at Duessa’s face. She glanced at Thursday. His features were contorted in anguish and misery. Suddenly, she knew. Annie reached across and touched his robed arm.
‘I’m sorry, Thursday’. She said gently. ‘I’m truly, truly sorry’.
Simon was standing behind them, still holding firmly onto the bridle of Duessa’s gasping horse. He looked at his sister’s face.
‘I’m sorry, too, Thursday’. He looked down at Duessa. ‘She didn’t deserve this’.
Thursday leant over and with surprising strength, broke off the arrow shafts. He held them clenched in his hand.
‘Assassin’s arrows’. He muttered. ‘Fired from a specially made bow over a distance’.
‘Thursday, may I?’ asked Annie, softly. ‘I’ve done this before’. He nodded, imperceptibly.
She leant across and very gently closed Duessa’s eyes, just as she had done with Rosamund, long before, on the beach in Brighton. Duessa now looked more peaceful, her mouth slightly open, her face softened by death. She would never see her daughter again.
There was the sound of hooves. Paravar leapt down from his horse, and ran towards them. He stopped short when he saw her body.
‘You bastard!’ Simon snarled, in fury.
‘This was not my doing!’ Paravar cried, frantically. ‘I swear to you, this was none of my doing! I swear to you, on my own life, and my son’s life! I did not do this!’ He spread out his hands desperately, and shouted behind him to the Barbarossi horsemen who had followed him, their horses skittering and pawing the ground. They dropped their reins and held up their arms, as Paravar had done. Annie could see that they had no bows or quivers of arrows with them.
Thursday stood up. ‘He is not responsible’. He said quietly. ‘But I know who is’. Annie followed his gaze back to that small red huddle of figures, a hundred yards away, standing just outside the Barbarossi palisade. She could still make out the small rotund figure of Socrato, his arms folded. ‘His days are numbered. I will finish him’.
Thursday had spoken so softly that only she could hear. But she could also hear the utter venom in his voice, and she shivered. She knew what that meant. She looked up at him.
‘Who are you really, Thursday?’ She asked.
He looked back down at her, his face impassive. ‘I am a physician’.
Paravar had already shouted orders to two of his men, who galloped back towards the Barbarossi camp. ‘I have ordered them to bring a litter and a cloth to cover her! Will this break our truce, Annie?’ he looked anxiously at her.
‘No it won’t. We’ll see to that. Won’t we, Simon?’ He was still holding the frightened horse, but he nodded.
The two Barbarossi came galloping back, one holding a light stretcher under one arm. Together, the humans, the faery and the Barbarossi fastened it between their four horses, tying each end securely to the saddles. Then they lifted Duessa’s body onto the litter. She still felt so light, as they laid her on it gently. Thursday covered her with the warm woollen cloth they had brought.
Paravar looked at each of them anxiously. ‘Will you explain to your people? Believe me, I knew nothing of this!’
‘We will’. Simon replied. ‘We might still get to play chess together, Paravar, if all goes well’. He added, sadly.
‘I will look forward to it’. Paravar replied. He looked at the litter. ‘But you must bring home your dead, first, as we did ours’.
They made their farewells, and began their journey back to the west wall, back over the broken and trampled battlefield. Simon and Annie each held the bridles of the leading horses. Thursday walked behind, lost in his own, dark, thoughts. Occasionally, he turned and looked back at the small group of Barbarossi, who stood and watched them as they went on their way.
They walked on, over the gently undulating flat plain. Broken shafts of spears were still scattered around. There were faint imprints of bodies, where the Barbarossi dead had lain. Strangely, in tiny clumps, were small pink flowers, already growing again after the slaughter. A single round red-painted shield stood upright, embedded in the ground. A memorial, perhaps, Annie guessed, to the fallen Barbarossi, who had met their deaths here.
She heard a strange sound from behind her. ‘Please stop for a moment’. she called, and turned back to the horse that she was leading. It was Duessa’s horse, the one that had panicked. Its head was bent down, so that she could lean next to its ear. She patted the horse’s neck.
‘What’s the matter?’ she asked gently. The horse was crying. She had never seen a horse cry before. Tears were rolling down from its eyes, and a dribble of slaver hung from its nostrils.
‘I killed her, Miss! I killed her! Dragging her around like that! I didn’t know what I was doing! I killed her!’ the horse whimpered.
Annie leant her head against the horse’s soft neck. She could feel its grief vibrating through its trembling body.
‘What’s your name?’ she asked softly.
‘Delphos, Miss’. The horse answered, miserably.
‘Listen to me, Delphos’. She whispered in the horse’s ear. ‘You didn’t kill her. Do you understand me? She was already gone. The arrows killed her, not you. Don’t blame yourself. I give you my word as a human. You didn’t kill her!’
Delphos nodded, still miserable. ‘I understand, Miss’.
‘I’m not Miss. I’m Annie. But it doesn’t matter. Let’s take her back, shall we?’
The horse nodded. Annie patted its neck again, and took up the bridle. The small, subdued procession moved on, back to the faery walls. As they came nearer, they could see a small group of horses and riders grouped around the main gatehouse. One of them broke away and came galloping towards them. It was Ragimund. She stopped just in front of them and dismounted and ran towards Simon, and grasped him by the arms.
‘You are safe!’ she gasped. ‘I saw the litter and I thought… and you too, Annie! I am so happy you are both safe! Did they harm you?’
‘Ragimund, I think you should come and see for yourself’. Simon said, gently. She looked at him and then walked between the two horses, and lifted the sheet.
‘Duessa!’ she cried, ‘Oh, Duessa!’ My poor sister!’ She stood, looking at Duessa’s now peaceful face. She began to sob, a tear trickling down her cheek.
‘What about your other sisters?’ Annie asked quietly.
Ragimund looked at her, her eyes wet. ‘You do not understand. She was the only one that ever showed me love and affection! She does not deserve this!’ She gently pulled the sheet back over the dead face.
‘Come and walk with me, Ragimund’. Simon said gently. ‘Walk with me’.
They continued on towards the wall, Ragimund leading her horse, clasping Simon’s hand, still weeping. They came to the drawbridge that led to the gatehouse. Three of the riders clustered around it dismounted and made their way towards them, Gloriana, Mercilla and Lucifera. They stopped, and stared at the litter and the sheeted body.
‘What has happened?’ demanded Gloriana. ‘Have they harmed you?’
‘Why don’t you have a look for yourself!’ said Simon, bitterly.
Gloriana pulled back the sheet, and gave a start. ‘Duessa!’
‘Yes, and she helped save our lives!’ Annie cried, sharply. ‘And by the way, here’s your truce!’ She thrust the rolled parchment, in its silver tube at Gloriana, who took it, still looking at the face of her dead sister. ‘Bring her in’. She said softly.
‘She is banished!’ snapped Lucifera.
Gloriana whirled on them furiously. ‘Did you not hear me! I said, bring her in!’ She paused and took breath, and then said more softly, ‘Bring her in. Bring her back home’.
Lucifera shrugged. Mercilla nodded. Then their sad little cortege moved onwards slowly through the gateway and into the space beyond. Annie felt weary beyond words. All she wanted to do was to sleep and rest. But three familiar figures had already rushed towards her.
‘Bloody hell, Annie! We thought you might have been killed! Are you all right?’ It was Indira, not her usual self, but genuinely distressed. ‘When we saw that stretcher, with a body on it, we…’ her voice tailed off.
‘We thought it might have been you or Simon’. Pei-Ying said quietly. ‘We have been worried about you’.
‘The queen it was that died’. Simon replied sadly. ‘Not us’.
He turned to Ragimund, ‘Will you come and stay with me for a while? Please. I think I need it. I need you’.
She took his hand. ‘You know I will. Come with me. We will walk for a while’.
Simon looked at his sister. ‘Go and get some rest, Annie. I think you need it too’. He and Ragimund walked away towards the battlements of the wall.
Annie looked after them, affectionately. ‘How is it that Simon seems to be able to recover so quickly?’ she asked the other three. She felt desperately tired. Her legs were trembling. Mariko took her arm.
‘Annie, you are in shock. You must come and rest. Now’.
‘You heard her’. Indira said firmly. ‘Come on’. She took Annie’s arm. Together they marched her off back to the tent they shared. They could feel her shaking and trembling. They pulled her inside.
‘Get that armour off, Annie. You can’t sleep in that’ Annie fumbled to undo the straps. To her amazement, she realised her hands were shaking. Indira looked around at the others, and without a word, they began to pull the armour off. Then they laid her down on her palliase. She lay on her side, already drifting into sleep. She could hear the others settling down quietly around her. She slipped softly into a deep slumber.
She awoke slowly, aware of someone pulling her shoulder gently. She opened her eyes, and saw Indira’s face. ‘Have some water, Annie. Sit up’.
She did, and drank the cold fresh water from the cup that Indira held from to her lips. Then she pushed it away. ‘I’m not an invalid, you know!’ she said indignantly.
‘You were last night. You were shuddering and crying in your sleep, We were dead worried’. Indira said, placidly.
Annie stared at her. ‘You watched over me! All night?’
‘Well, we took it in turns. That’s what friends are for, Annie’.
Annie felt a rush of gratitude. ‘Thank you’. She said softly. ‘What’s happening?’
‘They’re having a warrior’s funeral for Duessa. Gloriana sent a faery around to ask if you want to be there, since you and Simon were the last ones to see her alive. At least, I think that was the message. Better put some more clothes on, Annie, it’s a bit chilly out there. Your bag’s just by you’.
‘Where are the others?’ she asked as she put on a shirt, then a small sweater from the clothes she had brought from home.
‘Outside. Waiting for you’.
They emerged from the tent to find Pei-Ying and Mariko standing talking to a tall faery. They turned as they came out.
‘Are you all right, Annie?’ asked Mariko anxiously.
‘Yes, I am’. She did feel better. She looked up at the sky. It was still dark, though the faint shade of dawn was beginning to appear.
‘My lady’, said the faery formally. I will lead you to the ceremony. It was hoped that you might wish to attend’.
‘Oh, yes, please’. giggled Indira, flashing him her most radiant smile. Annie grinned. Indira was irrepressible.
They followed him through the camp and through the palisade to the open ground beyond. A great pyre of wooden branches had been laid, criss-crossed over each other. It stood over twelve feet high. Duessa’s body, still covered in a sheet, had been carefully positioned on the top, on a small platform of wooden planks. There were literally hundreds of faerys gathered around, watching silently. They had come to pay their respects to a fallen warrior.
‘They’re not going to burn her, are they?’ cried Indira in astonishment.
‘The faery looked at her in surprise. ‘Of course, lady. This is a warrior’s funeral. It is our way’.
Annie suddenly saw Simon and Ragimund. ‘Simon!’ she called out. He turned and saw her and immediately came over.
‘Annie! Are you all right?’ She could see he was worried.
‘So did I’. Simon replied, very gently. ‘But we stood together, didn’t we?’
‘Yes, we did’. Annie replied, equally gently.
The others around had heard this. They became very quiet.
‘Annie! Simon!’ A small figure pushed her way through the throng of faerys who immediately parted to give her passage. It was Jezuban.
‘I am so happy to see you! They thought you had been killed!’
‘No, not us, Jezuban’. Simon grinned at her. She smiled too. She knew that her brother was fond of this young girl that they had rescued. ‘My sister and I are indestructible.’
‘Come and stand with us, Jezuban’. Annie said. The low murmur of voices around them had dropped. She saw Gloriana and her sisters step forward. Gloriana spoke a few words loudly in faery language. They stood next to the funeral pyre. Then she cried out a single word, one which Annie couldn’t understand. Several faerys came forward and plunged their flaming torches into the base of the pyre. It caught alight instantly.
They stood and watched, as the flames licked up higher and higher. It became a solid sheet of yellow and orange, leaping up into the dark sky. Duessa’s body was lost in the blazing fire. The faerys stood quietly, their faces bright in the light, their armour glittering as the heat and strength of the conflagration intensified. Instinctively, they all stepped back, as the hotness of the flames surged out. The fire raged, consuming Duessa to ashes. No-one spoke, or said a word.
Gradually, the flames subsided. Smoke began to billow upwards into the lightening sky, as the pyre began to collapse upon itself. Now there was only the crackling and gentle roar of the dry wood burning.
Annie looked around. She saw Ragimund, standing by herself. She was weeping. Jezuban stood by her. She could feel her shaking with emotion. Simon was still staring at the fire as it gradually fell, standing on the other side of Jezuban. The others were watching behind her. ‘Simon!’ she called, as softly as she could. He looked around at her. ‘
‘Go to her! Go and comfort her! She needs you’. She jerked her head in Ragimund’s direction. He looked around and saw Ragimund. He nodded and went over to her, putting his arm around her shoulders. Ragimund leant against him, still crying. Annie put her own arm around Jezuban’s slender shoulders. She looked up at Annie gratefully.
‘Mother sent me away to Cestmos, before the battle’. She whispered. But I came back when I knew of this’. She looked back at the funeral pyre, now subsiding and hissing. Only small flames still licked and spurted around it. Her large dark eyes were bright in the light.
‘Oh! I forgot! She told me to tell you that negociations will start tomorrow. If you wish, you can attend. But, perhaps, you might not want to’.
‘Perhaps not’ Annie replied, sadly. ‘I don’t know’. She looked down at Jezuban, smaller than her. ‘What will you say to her daughter?’
‘The truth!’ Jezuban said firmly. ‘That her mother is dead, and that she died like a warrior, and she was given a warrior’s funeral’.
Annie sighed deeply. ‘Yes, that is the truth. How is Seruban?’
‘She is better, and she is learning to walk now. But, Annie!’. she burst out. ‘She is locked up inside herself! She is trying to get out, but she can’t. I can hear her calling out!’
‘I know. I understand’. Annie replied sadly. She thought of Duessa, and her desperate need for her daughter.
‘Will you tell what happened? cried Jezuban, eagerly. ‘I have not seen you and Simon for so long!’
‘Yes, I will. Come back to our tent, Jezuban, with the others. I have a lot to tell you. Such a lot’.
She looked back at the fire. It was now no more than glowing embers. The faerys were beginning to drift away, talking quietly to each other. She felt deeply saddened.
‘Come on, Jezuban. Let’s go back’. she said quietly. They turned and left the fire to burn itself out before the new day.
Frank Jackson (18/06/2011) Word count – 10377.