DR FRANK JACKSON, 59A, PRINCES ROAD, BRIGHTON, EAST SUSSEX BN2 3RH
When Morag rescues a group of young girls from a sinking ship, she little realises the implications of her action. As events unfold, and she and her companions foil another kidnapping, they are brought to the brink of a possible civil war in the land of the Barbarossi. They must journey to that land to try to prevent it.
They stood on the harbour side looking at the ship in question. It was a large broad-beamed vessel with two masts that towered above the jetty they were standing on in the port of Druard. ‘Why are you so suspicious of the ship? Morag asked her fellow marshal, Ezekiel. She had returned to Hyerborea only the day before, to find a message on her desk from Ezekiel, which said simply: ‘There is a strange ship in harbour. She is Barbarossi. She is hiding something’. So she had gone down with Ezekiel to find out what was going on. Amidst the hubbub of a busy port, they examined the ship. Sailors were wheeling crates and barrels around them, with a flow of gossip that added to the surrounding noise. Morag was used to this by now, but she still found it remarkable how a port could generate such sound. Sailors and porters alike beseeched her to be their lady love, but she ignored them. Her attention was fastened on the ship.
She trod the small gangplank up to the ship’s deck where she was instantly surrounded by some of the ship’s crew, who looked distinctly hostile. Some of them were armed with chains which they swung in a very meaningful way. ‘Get out of my way’. Morag said sharply.
‘No!’ said a small dark turbaned man. ‘You are a woman. You are not allowed on this ship’.
‘What do you mean? I am a faery marshal! I demand to inspect your cargo!’
‘You are still a woman! Women are not allowed on a Barbarossi ship!’
Morag felt furious. She knew these people had something to hide, but she did not want to start a fight with them. But to her surprise, they suddenly dropped their chains, which they had been swinging so menacingly before, and darted for the gangway. At the same time, the rest of the crew poured out of the forecastle, and did the same, casting a few shocked glances at Morag as they did so. The crew were abandoning ship, and Morag wanted to know why. She was more determined than ever to see what was in the cargo hold below. She plunged down the stairs to the hold. It was dark down below, but Ezekiel had found a lantern from somewhere, which gave a dim light. Morag pressed her head against a flimsy wooden partition that ran across the hold. On the other side, she could hear a child crying.
‘Ezekiel, do you think you can break this partition down?’
‘Easily, Morag. Stand back’.
He hacked at the flimsy partition with his two-bladed axe, cutting through it as though it were matchwood. With a few strokes he had made a large hole, through which Morag clambered. As her eyes became accustomed to the darkness within, she saw what she had feared. There was a large iron cage beyond, in which were imprisoned a group of young girls, all crying and screaming in fear, as the water, gushing in from the forward side of the sinking ship, swirled around their ankles. Morag knew she had to get them out quickly. The ship was sinking rapidly now, and the water was rising rapidly round their legs. She found that there was a padlock on the door of the cage.
‘Ezekiel! Can you deal with this lock? I must get these girls out of here!’
‘Stand aside, Morag’.
Ezekiel swung his axe again, shearing the lock from the door.
Morag pulled the door of the cage open, and called to the little huddle of young girls at the far end. ‘Do any of you speak human?’
‘Yes, I do, lady’. One of the taller girls put up her hand.
Morag sighed in relief. ‘The ship is sinking. We must get off at once. Please, clasp your hands together, and hold onto each other tightly. Then follow me’. The girl spoke to the others in their own language. They all nodded. Morag was appalled at how young they all were. The eldest, the girl who had spoken to her, looked no older than twelve or thirteen. The others looked much younger. They were bedraggled and thin, clad only in dirty smocks. Morag felt a furious rage inside her at the treatment these children had received.
‘Come on, I’ve got you, love’. she whispered. The young girl wrapped her arms around Morag’s neck, and clung to her. Morag waded through the water to the stairs. Then she made it up to the deck, still with the young girl in her arms. To her dismay, the deck was awash with water, and the ship had sunk so far that the jetty was above them. But she knew she had to do something, anything, to get these girls to safety.
‘What are we going to do? How are we going to get them up there?’ Morag cried, desperately.
Ezekiel grinned. ‘Like this, Morag!’ He shouted something to the faery soldiers now lining the jetty. Without warning, he picked up the nearest girl and threw her up like a rag doll to the jetty. The faery soldiers caught her expertly and set her down on her feet. Ezekiel picked up the next girl and flung her, shrieking, through the air. She, too, landed safely on the jetty, caught by the faerys. One by one, Ezekiel picked up the girls and threw them, shrieking with fear, upwards to the jetty.
‘You’ve done this before, haven’t you, Ezekiel’. Morag said in admiration for his strength, but still filled with horror for the poor girls.
‘Yes, with barrels, but these girls are light and flimsy. They were no trouble to me. But what choice did we have, to get them off this sinking ship?’
Morag had to admit that. ‘But how are we going to get up there and off this bloody ship?’ Then she saw it. The ladder, rust-red, ran up the side of the jetty. But it looked old and dilapidated. She pointed to it. ‘We could use that’. But Ezekiel shook his head. ‘It will not take our weight. It is old and rusty’.
‘We’ll see about that!’ Morag climbed up onto the bulwark of the sinking ship and measured the distance she would have to leap to reach it. Below it, was dirty harbour water between the sinking ship and the jetty wall. She leapt and caught a rusty iron rung. To her dismay, she saw that the ladder was only held in place by two iron bolts, both of which were badly corroded. The ladder squeaked ominously as she clambered up. She had just reached the edge of the jetty, when the ladder finally broke and tumbled down into the water below. Morag was left hanging to the edge of the jetty by her arms and elbows, her booted feet scrabbling against its wall, to get a toehold! Fortunately, two of the faery soldiers had seen her plight, ran across to help her, and hoisted her upright onto the jetty. She thanked them both. ‘Do you not remember me, lady?’ One of them said, grinning. Morag looked at him then realised. ‘Your’re the faery captain that helped with the Circlassian girls!’
‘I am indeed, lady. My name is Alaris’.
‘Thank you, Alaris. But I need to see what has happened to my colleague. Will you please excuse me?’ She pushed her way through the throng of faery soldiers lining the jetty. She looked down. The Barbarossi ship was on the point of sinking altogether, but there was Ezekiel, crouched on the bulwark, like a giant cat. Suddenly he leapt up, in a great bound, onto the jetty. The faery soldiers scattered as he landed, sure-footed, on the jetty. They all cheered and clapped at his marvellous feat. Morag clapped also, and called out to him. ‘Ezekiel! Ezekiel!’
He turned and came, but instead of greeting her formally, as she expected, he clasped her in a giant embrace. She found herself pressed against his chest. She could hear his heart beating steadily, like a huge piston. ‘Ah, Morag, my faery daughter’. He muttered. She didn’t recognise the importance of this immediately. She broke away, ‘I’ve got to look after those girls!’ She looked around desperately. Alaris was at her shoulder. ‘Their transport is on it’s way, my lady. It should be here in a moment’. She saw the girls, wet, bedraggled and very frightened, with faery cloaks wrapped around them, standing in a huddled group. Some of them were crying. She felt deep compassion for them. She noticed, for the first time, that they were brown-skinned, with long jet-black hair. She spoke to the taller of the girls, the one that spoke her language.
‘ Can you explain to the others that a wagon is coming to pick you all up, and that it will take you all to have a good bath and a meal?
‘I will, lady. Thank you for saving all our lives’.
‘Think nothing of it. It was only my job’.
The girl smiled at her. Morag smiled back, liking the girl for her quickness and intelligence. A sudden hush of the crowd on the jetty drew her attention suddenly. She guessed that the ship had finally sunk. It was no easy thing to witness the death of a ship, even such a one as this. The silence was broken by the rattle and clatter of a large wagon that scattered some of the crowd, and drew to a halt alongside the little group of bedraggled girls. The driver, a young faery youth, got down, and made an impudent mock bow. ‘Thank you’ Morag said, suppressing a grin. ‘Keep the girls together.’ Pushing her way through, she finally looked down at the lost ship. It’s yellowed deck could still be seen under the water, but only the tops of it’s masts could be seen otherwise. Morag turned away. She dreaded to think what would have happened to those girls.
‘Ezekiel!’ she called. ‘I am here, Morag’. he said. He was just behind her. ‘We need to get these girls into the wagon’. She said, hopefully. ‘Leave it to me’. Ezekiel replied. He gently, even tenderly, lifted up each girl into the back of the wagon, which was filled with sweet-smelling hay for their comfort. They settled down amidst the hay and seemed more cheerful at the prospect of a hot bath, and at last, some food.
‘Now you, Morag’. He hoisted her into the back of the wagon. She realised she didn’t mind, though normally she would have struck out at anybody who tried that. But she was happy to see the girls beginning to chatter to each other and begin to turn their heads around to see the sights of this large port. She imagined none of them had travelled more than a few miles from their homes, and so, the busyness and the noise of the port enthralled them, as they rattled through.
She sat beside the small girl who she had turned back to rescue, who was already fast asleep on the hay. The girl who she had spoken to earlier, sat opposite her. ‘My lady, I do not wish to return to Barbarossia’. She said at last.
‘Why not? Don’t you want to see your family and friends again?’
‘I do not have any family any more, nor friends. My mother died some years ago, and my father was killed in the battle in front of the West Wall. I have no-one left to go home to, lady’.
Morag suddenly understood the despair that each war, each battle, left behind, in their aftermath. ( Nobody coming back from the dead ).
‘I’ll see what I can do’. She said, bluntly. ‘But I can’t make any promises. Can you read and write our language, and keep records of things?’
‘Yes, I can do all of that, my lady. I used to keep my father’s accounts before he, he… died’.
A tear ran down the girl’s cheek at the memory of her father.
‘What’s your name?’ Morag said quickly.
‘Persephone. My name is Persephone’.
‘Mine’s Morag. It’s easy to remember’.
They fell into an easy silence.
Morag liked the girl, for her apparent trustworthiness. She seemed to be kind and caring. She knew that appearances could be deceptive. But she did want to give this girl a chance, at least, to prove herself. Besides, she had an idea. But she would have to discuss it with Mariko and Ragimund first.
She looked around at the other girls. They were all very young, but cheerful now, as they looked around at the large and busy port and all its sights and sounds. They chattered incessantly amongst themselves. Morag smiled at them, and they all, without exception, smiled back. They were glad to be safe now.
They rattled up to the entrance to the Customs House, where Morag had her office. As before, Morag took them to the bathhouse at the back of the building. All the girls squealed with delight at the sight of the huge sunken circular bath filled to the brim with hot foamy water. They all tore off their grubby smocks and jumped into the water, naked, and began to wash themselves assiduously, taking turns to wash and comb each other’s long, dark hair. Morag watched for a few moments, glad to see that they seemed so happy. She was tempted to get in the bath herself, but she decided to run her errands first. She ran down the grand hall steps to Ragimund’s office, and knocked on the door. She remembered that she was still damp from the sinking ship No help for it now. ‘Enter’ a voice called from within. Ragimund rose up from behind her desk, ‘Morag, my faery-sister!’ She embraced her. ‘You have rescued more young girls!’
‘Yes, but I have a favour to ask of you, Ragimund’.
‘Ask me, then’.
Morag paused for a moment, then said, ‘One of the girls does not want to return to Barbarossia. She wants to find employment here in Hyperborea. I think that she is telling the truth. She is skilled in clerical work, and I think that she could be of great use to Mariko, who is overwhelmed with work at the moment. With your agreement, I would like to employ her as a clerical assistant to help Mariko’.
‘I see’. Ragimund said, frowning. ‘How do you know that she is not a spy?’
‘Ragimund, she is barely fourteen years old! How could she be a spy!’
‘You should perhaps tell me’.
‘My police instincts tell me! She’s not a spy!’
‘Very well, I believe you’.
Morag heaved a sigh of relief. At least, Ragimund had believed her. ‘But you must keep a strict eye on her, both of you. I want to know who she is meeting and where. I do not trust her fully yet. But I will arrange living quarters and a salary for her. She shall not be a servant in my land’.
Morag thanked her and rushed downstairs to her office, pleased with her success. Pushing open the door, she looked around for Mariko. ‘Mariko, where are you?’ she called. A hand waved at her from behind the great piles of fingerprint sheets on Mariko’s desk. She was nearly invisible behind all the papers. The other faery marshals had been so enthusiastic about the new finger printing process that they had poured a flood of sheets of paper in to Mariko, who was inundated with them.
‘Look at me! I am drowning under all this paper!’ she cried as soon as Morag had located her behind her desk. Mariko was close to tears. Morag slid behind the desk, and put her arm around Mariko’s shoulders. ‘It’s all right, Mariko’. She said, quietly. ‘I’ve found a new assistant who will help you. Her name is Persephone. She is one of the young Barbarossi girls that Ezekiel and I rescued from the slave traders earlier today. She has told me that she is skilled in clerical work. She wants to stay in Hyperborea, because her family are all dead’.
‘You rescued some more girls today? Oh, Morag, I’m so proud of you!’
‘Anyway, I’ve got you some more help’. Morag said, feeling embarrassed.
‘That is wonderful! Thank you so much, Morag. You know I do not like to leave tasks unfinished!’
‘They won’t be. I’ve got to go, Mariko’.
They hugged and kissed goodbye. Then Morag pounded up the stairs again to fetch the girls from their bath to have something to eat in the cantina downstairs.
Later that evening, she fell asleep in her mother’s chair in front of the window, watching the sunset. She was awoken by someone shaking her shoulder. It was Mariko. ‘Morag, it is eight o’clock in the morning!’
Mariko smiled. ‘You were curled up in your mother’s chair like that little girl in Alice in Wonderland’.
‘Was I?’ She remembered the events of the day, of how she had taken the girls down to the cantina for food, and afterwards she had taken Persephone down to her new quarters. The girl had been joyous and had hugged her. ‘ Oh this is wonderful! I have never had a room of my own like this! Thank you, Morag!’ Ragimund had been true to her word. Then Persephone broke into tears.
‘What’s the matter, Persephone?’
‘Nothing. I was just thinking of how proud my father would be’.
‘I’m sure he would. You can sleep here tonight. Tomorrow, you start work at nine o’clock’.
‘Yes, Morag’. The girl replied dutifully.
‘Mariko, this is Persephone. This is Mariko, Persephone. You will be working with her as a colleague’. Persephone made her a courteous little bow.
‘I only ask one thing, Persephone. Do not address me as My lady, but simply as Mariko, because that is my name’.
‘I shall do so, Mariko’. the girl said, obediently. She sat down at Mariko’s desk and began sifting through the pile of papers that covered it. Mariko watched her, approvingly. ‘She will do’. She said at last.
‘Good. Persephone, have you had breakfast?’
‘Yes, Morag. I ate with the others this morning’. She smiled radiantly. ‘Thank you for all that you have done for me’.
‘Mariko, come and have breakfast with me’.
They both stole quietly out of the door, leaving the young Barbarossi girl to her tasks.
‘Simon, do you ever stop eating!’
‘Only when I’m not hungry’.
‘But you’re always hungry!’
‘That’s why I don’t stop eating’.
Annie gave up. Instead she glared at her brother over the breakfast table in the kitchen.
‘ I have an idea. Why don’t both of you go back to Hyperborea and see Morag for a few days? I’m sure she’ll be pleased to see you. I can’t stand the pair of you bickering like this’. Their mother, Christine, said as she came into the kitchen.
‘That’s a really good idea, Mum’. Annie said, pleased with the suggestion. ‘Isn’t it, Simon?’
He swallowed his last bit of toast. ‘I think it’s a great idea. We can go and help Morag round up some dastardly criminals’.
‘Well, don’t get into any mischief’. Christine said sharply.
‘We won’t.’. Annie said virtuously. ‘Come on, Simon, let’s go and pack’.
Now they had a goal, they forgot about quarrelling. They loaded their backpacks in ten minutes, said goodbye to their mother, and set off for the hillfort. It was a warm and sunny day. They could hear birdsong in the trees as they walked through the strip of woodland above the allotments in the valley below, both in good spirits. They crossed the golf course carefully, to avoid the wrath of any early-morning golfers, and climbed up onto the hillfort. They crossed the portal into Hyperborea, feeling the shimmer of air as they passed, and the sudden cold. Then they were back in Hyperborea, feeling the sun, warm on their backs, as they looked down upon the palace of Elsace, as they walked down the grassy slope towards it. It’s cubiform structure gleamed in the early morning sunshine, giving it a strange beauty, like a many-facetted jewel.
They made a detour towards the museum and art gallery. Annie particularly wanted to see the dancing girls again, that the late sculptor, Meridias had created. There they were, dancing in a circle outside the main entrance. Annie looked around at them in delight. Though they were marble figures, they were so lifelike, full of joy and excitement, their lip parted in unheard song. Annie remembered the first time she had seen them, in the courtyard of Meridias’s house, and the thrill of delight she had felt. She could almost hear the clash of tambourines and the shrill sound of their pipes from so many years ago.
They moved on down to the front entrance of the palace, where they found two faery guards, who recognised them immediately. ‘Is the lady Britomart here?’ Annie asked.
‘She is, lady, and she will be delighted to see you. I will tell her that you are here’. The younger of the two guards darted into the palace, while the other waited outside with them. The young faery returned with Britomart behind him. ‘Simon! Annie! Well met!’ She exclaimed with pleasure. She embraced them both. They both liked Britomart, with her cheerful face and her short brown hair that framed it.
‘Why did you not send me a message? I would have come with horses for you!’
‘I’m sorry, Britomart. It’s just that it was a spur of the moment decision. We want to see our sister Morag’.
‘Of course. Come with me to the stables. I shall find you two mounts that shall take you there’. She led them around the corners of the palace to the stable block, where she picked out two horses for them both. Simon’s was a tall grey stallion named Bucus, while Annie’s was a slightly smaller roan mare called Lizzie, who proved to be extremely garrulous and a perfect gossip. The stable manager saddled both horses, and they left, waving goodbye to Britomart, who stood on the palace steps, with her hand stretched out, palm outwards, in farewell.
They rode on, the sun hot on their backs. At one point, a flurry of butterflies swirled around Annie’s head. She smiled in delight. The brown foothills rose up on their left, with the white mountains, cut like glass, beyond. On the other side of the road, the countryside stretched away in greenery, criss-crossed with darker squares of aubergine trees and vineyards, around the small white farmhouses that dotted the landscape. They heard the low hum of insects around them, as well as the flutter of wings and soft birdsong up above. The air was full of the scent of honeysuckle and jasmine. Annie realised just how much she loved this land- it’s sights, sounds and scents. She drank them in as they rode along, cherishing everything she saw and heard. The countryside was moving around them as they cantered past, but the horses were beginning to be hot and tired. Simon pointed ahead. ‘There’s the caravanserai’.
There was a small grey path running off the main road to the right. They turned off down it, between coppiced trees, and entered the caravanserai. Like others they had seen, this was a walled enclosure, with a large circular drinking trough in the centre. On the left-hand side, against the wall were the stables for the horses. On the opposite wall, were the small rooms for their riders, and at the far end, the roofed cantina with tables and chairs set out in the open space beneath the roof.
Faithful to faery custom, they attended to their horses’s welfare first, before their own. They unsaddled and unbridled the horses and led them to the central drinking trough, where both horses slurped greedily.They led them both to the stables when they had finished drinking, where a young faery boy met them. He made them a mock-bow. ‘Welcome, Daemon-Slayers. I am the stable-keeper, Tobias. I will stable your horses for you. We have been expecting you’.
‘How did you know we were coming?’ Annie asked , curiously.
‘Ah, because the lady Britomart sent a message to us, lady. You are both well known in this land. That is why I was expecting you’.
Annie smiled at him. ‘Thank you, Tobias. We are very grateful’.
The youth grinned back, shouldered their saddles and bridles, and gave a piercing whistle. Their two horses both pricked their ears, raised their heads, and trotted obediently to Tobias, who led them into two bays of the stables. They thanked him again, then Simon pointed to the cantina. ‘Let’s go and have a meal’, he said. ‘I’m hungry’.
‘You’re always hungry!’
‘No, just most of the time’.
Annie just laughed. But she didn’t want to quarrel with her brother this evening. It felt like a well-earned holiday for both of them. Instead, she linked her arm into her brother’s, and they walked up the steps into the cantina together. They found an empty table and sat down together. A young woman faery bustled over. ‘What would you like to eat, Simon and Annie?’
‘How do you know our names?’ Annie said in surprise.
‘Everyone in this land knows your names, lady. The fish dishes are very good today. All our fish come directly from the port of Druard’.
Annie peered at the blackboard showing the various dishes available. Meanwhile, the faerys were lighting the hanging lanterns in the gathering dusk, casting a soft glow of light around the diners in the cantina. They both made their orders for a fish supper, and the faery girl slipped away to the kitchen. They sat back in their chairs. Simon leant forward again.
‘Annie, you’re my sister, I love you’.
Annie felt both surprised and deeply touched. He had said it very awkwardly but she knew he meant it, the first time in many months that her brother had expressed his affection for her.
‘I love you too, my brother’. She replied, quietly. It was the first time in years when they had no tasks to undertake, and to enjoy each other’s company, It was a welcome change, especially when they were going to visit the people that they loved. Annie reached out and squeezed Simon’s hand. A tall figure walked across and stood by their table. ‘Annie! Simon!’ the figure cried. They both looked up and instantly recognised him. ‘Demos!’ Annie exclaimed. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘The same as you, I believe. I am on my way to Druard’
‘You’re going to see Morag, the same as us!’ Annie smiled. ‘Please sit down and join us, Demos’.
‘Thank you’. He looked down at their entwined fingers. ‘I hope I am not intruding’.
Annie smiled at him. ‘My brother and I are on holiday. So we thought we’d come and see Morag’.
Demos smiled back. ‘I understand. For once, you have no enemies to fight. But we have been working on some more of the scrolls from Morag’s Cave, and I have found out a little more about the Ancient Ones. You were right, Annie, about Astraban. That was their home. That is where they came from’. He pointed upwards to the bright golden star high in the night sky above.
Annie was silent for a moment. She thought of the image of Oolita, the young girl whose image she had seen on the wall of Morag’s Cave, when they had explored it. She hoped that that bright young girl had survived the plague that had ravaged Astroban. But it was over three thousand years ago.
Demos read her thoughts. ‘Perhaps the plague that they suffered from had abated, and perhaps that is why they returned, Annie’.
‘But how did they get from there to here?’ Simon asked. He pointed with his fork to Astraban. ‘Did they have some form of teleportation?’
‘No, But I believe that they set up a portal, by which they could travel down to our land. At least, that is my belief’. But I want to report it to your beloved Ragimund’. He smiled at Simon. ‘And then I shall see my beloved Morag’.
‘Over a month. Annie, I miss her! I have neglected her!’
‘No, you haven’t, Demos! She’ll understand. You’ve been busy! I know that she’ll be delighted to see you again!’
They both liked Demos, not just because he was incredibly handsome, with his blonde curly locks of hair, or for the fact that he and Morag were deeply in love. They liked him for not having the slightest trace of affectation or arrogance, for his courtesy and intelligence, and for his tact and diplomacy to those around him, and finally for his courage. Annie remembered how he and Helios, her faery paramour, had fought off an attack by invisible daemons outside Morag’s Cave, both of them badly wounded in the course of the fight. So she was pleased to see him again. ‘Why don’t you ride with us tomorrow, Demos?’ she asked. ‘Only we’re going to make an early start at dawn’.
‘I shall be there, Annie. I have mended my tardy ways. Morag has scolded me often enough!’
Annie grinned. She knew that Morag could not stand a lack of punctuality. Just then, the faery woman bustled back, carrying a loaded tray with their fish supper, in covered dishes, together with small bowls of cooked vegetables. She also brought Demos’s meal, too, having noted that he had joined their table. The fish was indeed delicious, still tasting of the sharp tang of the sea. For a time there was an amicable silence between them as they ate. They finished with a large bowl of fresh fruit that the faery woman brought to them, and drank the rest of the fruit wine that had come with their meal, and sat back in their chairs.
‘What do you intend to do on your ‘holiday’? Demos asked.
‘I don’t know. Explore Druard, I suppose’. Simon answered.
‘I want to see the land of the Barbarossi’, Annie said, unexpectedly.
They both looked at her, curiously.
‘Why?’ asked Simon.
‘Because I’ve never been there, and I want to see what another country is like’.
‘Then you must be careful’. Demos said. His face was serious.
‘Why is that?’
‘Because they are haunted by a Djinn. Their capital city, Bajoz, is full of frightened people, who dare not venture out at night, when it goes hunting’.
‘What’s a Djinn, and who does it attack? Annie asked. She thought of the poor families who had lost their loved ones to this thing.
‘A Djinn is a superior daemon who has some magical powers. To make itself invisible by day, for example, so it can hunt at night.
‘What about the victims?’
Demos hung his head. ‘Two young women, and three small children, so far’.
‘So far! Simon, we’ve got to put a stop to this!’
‘I agree. But we need a plan’.
‘There is one more detail’. Demos said, quietly. ‘It eats its victims afterwards’.
‘What!’ Annie was horrified and infuriated at the same time. She thought again of the suffering of the victims and the horror and despair of their families. ‘Simon, we’ve got to do something!’
‘I know. But, Annie, we’re supposed to be on holiday!’
‘Sod that! This is much more important! Think of all those young children and their families!’
Simon sighed. He knew better than to argue with his sister. ‘What more can you tell us, Demos?’
‘It is very big. According to the accounts that I have read, it is over twenty foot tall, with long clawed arms and a wolf’s head. Large enough to devour a child or a young girl’.
They were both silent for a moment.
‘Hardly a house guest’. Simon remarked.
‘No, it is not’. Demos said, dryly.
Annie decided to change the subject. It was too depressing to think of the dangers ahead. ‘Let’s give Morag a breakfast surprise! We’ll just turn up and give her a pleasant treat!’
‘I’m sure she will be delighted’. Demos smiled. They decided to have an early night for their dawn start in the morning. They made their farewells, and retired to their guest rooms for the evening. As Annie prepared for bed, she thought about the Djinn. As if we want more trouble, she answered in her mind. But she also felt strongly about the victims and their families, and what they must be thinking. She mellowed and felt how strongly she and her brother felt about their new elder sister. They had come to love Morag dearly, and she was not going to let her down. She fell at last into a troubled sleep.
She awoke to a furious pounding on the door. ‘Come on, Annie, it’s time to go!’
‘All right! All right! I’m coming!’ She hastily dressed and sluiced cold water over her face from the jug on the washstand, then picked up her backpack, and opened the door. To her surprise, she saw Simon and Demos, already mounted, waiting for her outside. Her own horse, Lizzie, already saddled, was waiting with them.
‘About time too, Annie!’
‘Oh, shut up, Simon!’
They wheeled around and started for the main gate of the caravanserai. Annie mounted her horse and followed them, catching them up at the gate. They did not speak, for several miles along the main road to Druard. The sky lightened in the east, on the right, casting its luminescence over the landscape, gradually waking up from its slumber. As the sun rose, the countryside gradually took on its natural colourings and sounds. A chorus of birdsong rose up around them at the dawn of a new day. They became aware of more awakening sounds – the click of insects in the hedges each side of the road, the soft movement and scrabbling of small creatures as they emerged from their holes and burrows.
Annie rode up alongside her brother. ‘I’m sorry, Simon’ She said softly. ‘I’m sorry for all my bad temper. I don’t want to quarrel with you, not today. Please forgive me’.
Simon leant over and hugged Annie’s head against his in a gesture of affection. Annie hugged him back, remembering all that they had been through together. They had always been there for each other. Demos looked back and smiled. He was glad to see both brother and sister were reconciled and clearly loved each other. ‘Come! We must hasten!’ he cried. They urged their horses on and joined him. They rode on for a few more miles until they reached the outskirts of Druard. Villas and farms were more plentiful now, each surrounded by plantations of vines and fig trees, with squares of vegetable gardens. Demos reined in at the top of the hill, and turned off onto the long grassy slope that led down towards the port. They drew up each side of him, and looked down at Druard.
Even from up where they sat on their horses, they could hear the clamour of a busy port – the rattle of rigging as the ships jostled each other alongside the quays, the creaking of carts as they plied back and forth from the ships, and the incessant low mutter, punctuated by shouts of sailors and porters at work.
‘Come on, let’s go!’ Annie cried, joyously. She urged her horse on, galloping down the green hill. Demos and Simon exchanged a grin before they set off after her. Annie was clearly impatient to see her new elder sister again. Reaching the bottom of the hill, they turned left along the road that ran along the back of Druard, that would bring them to the main customs building. They reined in at last outside its colonnaded façade and dismounted. Three faery guards ran out from the entrance, saluted, and took their horses round the corner of the building to the stable block.
‘Right then, let’s go and see Morag’. Annie said, decisively.
‘Wait! I must go and report to Ragimund firstly, about our new findings in the scrolls. It is my duty. But can you tell Morag I will be there as soon as I can, and’, He smiled at them both. ‘I will bring Ragimund, and Helios too, as soon as I have finished’.
They were both delighted. ‘Thank you, Demos’. They both said.
He smiled again, and ran up the main staircase towards Ragimund’s office on the floor above. They walked down the corridor at the left of the main staircase towards Morag’s office and apartment. ‘Look at that!’ Simon said, pointing at the door.
‘She’s even got her own doorplate,now!’
‘So she has, bless her!’ Annie said, happily. ‘Let’s go and see her’.
She tapped on the door and walked in, followed by Simon. A brown-skinned pretty young girl rose up from behind Mariko’s desk, covered with sheets of fingerprints. She wore a blue dress, which she hastily smoothed down. ‘Good morning. May I help you?’
‘Yes, you may’. Annie replied, ‘Is Morag here?’
‘Yes, my lady. She is in her apartment with Mariko’.
‘Good. What’s your name?’ Annie asked directly
‘Persephone, my lady’.
‘No need for the “lady”. I’m Annie and this is my brother, Simon’.
‘You are Annie and Simon! Morag has told me so much about you!’ Persephone gasped. Her mouth had fallen open. ‘Shall I announce you?’
‘No, that won’t be necessary, Persephone. We want it to be a surprise’. Simon said, and smiled at her. Persephone dropped her eyes and blushed.
‘Stop flirting, Simon!’ Annie said severely, ‘Otherwise I’ll tell Ragimund’.
He followed her sheepishly into Morag’s apartment. Mariko saw them first. She was sitting cross-legged on a large cushion near to the window on the far left of the big room, next to the massive, rather shabby balloon-back chair that had belonged to Morag’s dead mother. She sprang up as soon as she saw them.
‘Annie! Simon! Oh, see, Morag, look who is here’ she cried.
‘What!’ Morag leapt out of her mother’s chair. ‘Simon! Annie! Oh, come here, both of you!’ She clasped them both to her in joy and delight, happy to see them again. ‘I was beginning to think that you’d forgotten all about me!’
‘We’d never forget you, Morag’. Annie smiled at her. ‘By the way, we travelled here with someone I know you’d like see again very much. He should come through that door at any moment now’.
‘You mean Demos! Demos is here! Oh, Annie you bring such joy with you!’ Cried Morag in delight.
Just then the door opened. Demos stood there. Behind him, there were two more figures
‘ Demos!’ Morag ran towards him with a cry of delight, and embraced him, together with a passionate kiss.
‘Ragimund! Simon called. He ran towards her, excited. Ragimund held out her arms to him. ‘Simon!’ she said breathlessly. They held each other in their arms. Annie smiled. She had known Ragimund as a fierce warrior but she knew her now as a gentle and kind young woman, especially where her brother was concerned. But the other figure caught her eye.
‘Helios!’ She called out joyfully.
‘Annie!’ They clasped each other tightly.
Persephone stood in the doorway, eyes welling with tears. She did not begrudge their happiness, but the scenes around her made her grieve again for her dear father, so needlessly killed in a battle which he had never wanted to fight. Feeling suddenly ashamed of her sorrow, she turned back in to the office, to the comparative security of Mariko’s desk, and hid behind the piles of paper.
A few minutes later, Morag walked in to the office. ‘Persephone!’ she called ‘Persephone! Come and join us for breakfast!’ She heard a stifled sob from behind Mariko’s desk. Walking around, she saw the girl, head buried in arms. Leaning on the desktop. Her shoulders were shaking from her sobbing. Morag knelt down beside her, and put her arm around the girl’s shoulders.
‘What’s the matter, Persephone?’ she asked, gently.
Persephone sniffed and gulped. ‘I am still mourning my dear father, Morag. He fought and died in a battle he never wanted or believed in, leaving me an orphan. Oh, Morag, I miss him so much!’ The tears started rolling down her cheeks again. Morag stayed with the girl, cursing herself inwardly for not recognising how miserable Persephone was. ‘Come and have breakfast with us, Persephone’. She said at last.
‘I cannot. I am Barbarossi. I do not belong here!’ Persephone cried tearfully.
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake! Snapped Morag. But she looked at the girl’s tear-stained face, and relented immediately. Persephone was insecure in her new life, and Morag was responsible for that. She tried again to comfort the girl. ‘Listen, Persephone, you’re among friends here, and I want you to come and meet them. I’m not leaving you out here, to sit on your own! Come with me, and have something to eat with us. Will you come with me?’
She extended her hand out to Persephone, who, after a moment’s hesitation, clasped it firmly. Still holding Persephone’s hand tightly, she opened the door to her apartment. The others were all still sitting around the breakfast table, talking about the battles they had been through, greeting Morag and Persephone with cries of welcome. Annie looked up and saw Persephone’s red-rimmed eyes, noticing that she had been crying. ‘Come and sit down next to me, Persephone’. She called. Persephone walked timidly around the table and sat down in the place next to Annie, who looked at her kindly. ‘You’ve been crying, Persephone. Tell me your story’.
So Persephone began. She told of how a rich Barbarossi merchant, Ben Aziz, knowing she was alone in the world, after the death of her father, had her abducted and imprisoned in his palace, where she was stripped of her clothes and valuables. ‘He told me I was his property now, to do with as he saw fit. If my father had still been alive, he would have killed him!’ Her voice was growing stronger with shame and indignation. The others were now silent, listening to her story, but with an undercurrent of anger. She went on. ‘At nightfall, they herded us all out onto the street, with armed guards all about us. They took us down to the ship, and made us go below deck. Then they pushed us all into that dreadful cage. There was nowhere to sleep and no food’.
She paused, gulped and continued. ‘ Then we put to sea. It was very rough, and we were thrown around. Most of the small girls were seasick, but we had no toilet apart from a bucket in the corner. We were all filthy and we had no food until the second day when they threw in some hunks of bread and some scraps of cheese, which we tried to share out. We were all half-starved, cold and dirty. We despaired, and some of the youngest girls were crying. Then the water started pouring in. We were so frightened! But Morag came and released us, while the ship was sinking!’
‘You mean they scuttled their own ship to avoid being caught! Leaving you all trapped below! That’s downright murder!’ Cried Simon, furiously.
‘They were desperate. They knew they would be executed if they had been caught’. Ragimund said, coldly.
‘But Morag got you out safely. I’m so proud of you, Morag! It really was a daring rescue!’
‘Just doing my job, as usual’. Morag said, modestly.
Mariko decided to change the subject. ‘Annie, you wanted to go to the land of the Barbarossi. Paravar has invited you to come back with him for a visit there. He is here now, paying his respects to the faerys, but he returns the day after tomorrow, and wishes you all to accompany him, to see for yourselves what reforms he has put into place’.
‘A bit of window-dressing, that’s all’. Morag muttered, ominously. ‘I want a word with that gentleman’.
Paravar had become Emperor of the Barbarossi recently after the death of the old, and had pledged himself to reforming his traditional land. But Morag was still angry about the apparent continuation of the slave trade, and was resolved to take the matter up with Paravar, despite the fact that her friend, Mariko, had formed a relationship with him.
‘This will be a ceremonial visit’. Commented Ragimund. ‘I shall organise a retinue of troops to accompany us’.
Annie, who had something more informal in mind, was rather disappointed. ’I just hope we don’t antagonise the Barbarossi’. She commented. ‘Still, you’ll be able to see your country again, Persephone, and in safety this time’.
‘No!’ retorted Persephone, vehemently. ‘I have no wish to return to that cruel land that killed my father and put me into slavery!’ She shook her head for emphasis. ‘I will remain here to look after the office while you are gone. It is what I wish’.
‘Very well’. said Ragimund. ‘If that is what you desire’.
‘It is, my lady’.
Morag felt disappointed. She didn’t want Persephone to feel she was in exile. But it was her decision. But, like Annie, she was eager to see the land of the Barbarossi, and settle some scores with Paravar and the gang of rich Barbarossi merchants that were responsible for the slave trafficking.
‘We will meet Paramar at Elsace the day after tomorrow, and ride to the land of the Barbarossi with him. We will set off tomorrow’. Said Ragimund, finally.
With that, they dispersed. Annie and Simon remained behind with Morag.
‘ I wish she were all right’.Morag lamented. ‘Persephone, I mean’.
‘She will be. You’ve given her a new life, Morag. That’s a wonderful gift’.
‘I wish. But she keeps going off and meeting someone after work’.
‘Let’s follow her. See who’se she meeting, if it’s so mysterious’. Simon retorted.
‘All right. But I don’t like spying on her’.
‘You don’t need to. We’ll just follow her’. Simon grinned.
They followed her at the end of the afternoon, after she had finished her work. Persephone was hurrying, and they tried to keep pace with the girl. Simon and Annie were with Morag as the walked quickly after her. She disappeared into a grove of trees at the back of the customs house. They crept quietly after her. ‘Persephone!’ Morag called loudly. They heard a sharp intake of breath, then the crackle of branches. Persephone appeared, looking frightened. ‘Morag!’ she cried. ‘I can explain!’
‘I think you’d better’. Morag said, evenly. ‘Who is this?’ she added, looking at the shadowy figure behind Persephone. The figure stepped out and placed itself protectively in front of her. To Morag’s astonishment, the figure turned out to be a handsome young faery youth, dark-haired, and only a few inches taller than Persephone.
‘Who are you?’ asked Morag.
‘My name is Jevo, my lady. I am faery. Persephone and I are in love, but we have to meet in secret. My father does not approve of the Barbarossi’. He added sadly.
Simon leant on his unsheathed sword and burst out laughing. ‘So it’s a lovers’ tryst after all! She’s not paying visits to her spymaster!’
‘Was that what you thought of me? Morag, I am not a spy!’ Persephone cried tearfully.
‘I know. I believe you, Persephone. But I wish you could have told me what was going on’.
Persephone hung her head. ‘ I’m sorry, Morag. I felt so ashamed’.
‘Ashamed! Ashamed of what?’
‘Ashamed of what I am. Jevo’s father called me a dirty Barbarossi slave-girl!’
‘What! Has he even met you?’
‘No. He will not even let Jevo bring me to the house’.
‘That’s appalling!’ Morag exclaimed. She had not rescued this girl only for her to meet prejudice like this. She turned to Jevo, who held his arm around Persephone’s shoulders. ‘Tell your father that I am a faery marshal, and that she works with me. I can vouch for her and provide her with references. If he has any questions, he can refer to me at the Customs hall’.
‘I will, lady’. He hesitated. ‘My lady, my father is not a bad man, but he is stubborn. He is full of grief for his son, my eldest brother, who was killed at the battle of the West Wall by the Barbarossi. That is why he harbours such anger for them!’
Behind them, Annie was silent. If only we had prevented that battle, she thought to herself dismally, with all its attendant misery and loss. But perhaps Morag could retrieve some good from it. They left the two young lovers to their secret tryst, and walked away to the open glade that led to the grove of trees that sheltered Persephone and Jevo.
Suddenly Simon whirled around. ‘Listen!’ he cried. Behind them, they heard a scream, and a dull thud. There was another scream, this time of anguish, then a heavy slap, and a cry of pain.
‘I don’t like the sound of that’. Simon remarked, as he plunged back towards the trees. Before he could reach them, several figures emerged from the grove. Two of them were enormous, wearing long knee-length garments that buttoned up right to the neck. They all had dark beards that covered the lower half of their faces. They paused uncertainly. The nearest man had his hand wrapped around Persephone’s long plait of hair. He was dragging her along behind him, while she tried to resist. Morag drew her sword, in anger. She felt the faery bloodlust descending on her like a crimson curtain. She heard Annie draw her sword behind her, a second after.
The first man laughed. He let go of Persephone, who fell to her knees, crying in pain and misery. ‘Leave her alone!’ Morag shouted. The first man laughed again, and said something to his companion, who also laughed. This infuriated Morag even further, but she knew she had to keep her head. The man charged her, slashing with the broad-bladed, curved scimitar that he had unhooked from his broad leather belt. She ducked under it and waited for an opening. The scimitar was heavy and unwieldy, and Morag waited for her chance. The bearded man swung at her again. This time she got inside his guard, and thrust. The man swayed, looking down with bulging eyes at the blood bubbling between his fingers. Then he fell forward onto his face like a felled tree.
The other man swung around, as Simon charged him from the trees behind. His scimitar flashed, as he slashed at Simon. But Simon sidestepped him and brought his own sword around in a glittering arc, cutting deep into the man’s neck. A thick gout of blood spurted out, drenching him. The man gurgled twice, then toppled forwards to the ground, dead.
Annie was left facing the smaller man, who proved a formidable opponent. She knew he was a trained assassin by his choice of weapon. It was a long narrow knife about twenty inches long, designed for a quick thrust. Annie kept well away from it. They circled and feinted, each one waiting for an opening. Then the man thrust quickly, so quickly that she barely had time to twist sideways. The knife tore through her tunic, but she hardly noticed. Instead, she hammered the pommel of her sword onto his knuckles, causing him to yelp with pain, then seized his wrist. Having no room for manoeuvre, she pulled him onto her sword, striking inward and upwards. The man’s eyes rolled upwards, and bloody spittle ran from his mouth. Annie pulled her sword from his body and contemptuously pushed him away. He fell onto his back, his sightless eyes looking up at the sun, in the late afternoon sky.
They leant on their swords, panting. It had been a swift and brutal battle, lasting only a few seconds, but they all felt drained. Persephone knelt on the ground, still sobbing. ‘Jevo! They have killed him! He was trying to protect me!’
‘I’ll go and find him’ Simon replied. He ran back into the grove. He almost tripped over a body lying in the small clearing where they had surprised Jevo and Persephone earlier. It was Jevo, who groaned and stirred. The back of his head was a sticky mess of blood and hair, but he was alive. ‘Persephone!’ he moaned. ‘They have taken Persephone!’
‘She’s safe and sound. She’s with us’. Simon reassured him. ‘Can you walk?’ Jevo nodded. ‘Up you get then’. He walked shakily out of the grove, with Simon supporting him. Persephone sprang up and ran to Jevo in joy. He sank down onto the grass with Persephone beside him. She looked around at the dead bodies lying in their own blood, congealing in the late afternoon sunshine. She looked at their blood-spattered tunics, and burst into tears again.
‘Oh, I have brought this upon you!’ she wailed. ‘I should go away, and you will never have this trouble again!’
‘Don’t be silly, Persephone. Where would you go? You’re under faery protection here. It’s safe now’. Morag snapped. She felt a sharp pang of guilt as she looked across at the bodies of the erstwhile kidnappers, even though she had fought in self-defence.
‘Here comes the cavalry!’ Simon cried, shading his eyes. They turned and saw a line of horses and riders galloping up the slope towards them. Ragimund swung down from her saddle as soon as she reached them. ‘What is happening here? She cried. ‘My guards heard the clash of swords!’
‘Do you know who the kidnappers were?’ she asked Persephone.
‘Yes, they were Ben Aziz’s men. I recognised them!’
‘Right! When I get to your land, I’m going to have words with that gentleman!’ Morag muttered.
‘And I shall take up this account with Paravar when we meet him!’ said Ragimund, She had joined them and Morag could tell she was furious. ‘No armed kidnappers will come into my land! Nor will slavers!’
She turned to the accompanying faery guards. ‘Take these two to the hospice so that they may receive medical attention. The rest of you, search the bodies, and get rid of them! I will not have these carcases defiling my land!’
She turned on her heel and marched off, not before giving her beloved Simon a hug and a kiss. He watched her return to the Customs house.
‘Bloody hell, She’s angry! She just told me that she intends to arrest this Ben Aziz, and bring him back with us, to stand trial for his crimes. How that’s going to go down with the Barbarossi, I don’t know’.
Annie groaned. Already their visit to that land was already besought with difficulties. With a coming confrontation with Paramar, their visit seemed doomed.
‘Let’s go back’. She said, gloomily. She linked her arm into her brother’s, and they slowly made their way back to the port.
Once back in the Customs building, Morag hastened to the hospice. ‘How are they?’ she called to her friend Atalanta, who was the physician on duty. She looked up as Morag came in. Her long mane of red hair was tied back today, and flowed down her back. She had been one of Morag’s first friends among the faerys. They were not close, but they liked each other. ‘I have cleaned the boy’s wound, but I want to keep him here tonight. He is badly concussed. The girl’, she smiled at Persephone, ‘has a badly bruised face, but I have treated it with a salve which should prevent swelling. Do you want to take her back to her quarters?’
‘Yes, I will. Come on, Persephone. Time for bed. Thank you, Atalanta’. Atalanta just waved a dismissive hand.
They walked back to Persephone’s room. She unlocked the door. ‘Please come in, Morag’. She bustled about lighting the small oil lamps. As each lamp flickered into life, the flame was reflected in the polished brass filigree of the little ornaments grouped on the big wooden sideboard, and on the taller glassware on a small table in the corner, containing small bunches of sweet-smelling flowers. In the other corner, on the left, hung a portrait, drawn in chalk. Seeing Morag’s interest, Persephone lit the candle of the tall candelbrum that stood on the floor in front of it. Morag looked at the portrait in silence. ‘Is that your father?’ she asked.
‘Yes. I drew it from memory. I often used to do drawings of him’. Morag studied the portrait. Despite Persephone’s untutored hand, it captured the personality of her father. He sat formally in a high-backed chair in a three-quarter pose. Despite this, he exuded a dignity and warmth. His eyes twinkled. Morag looked around the room again. Persephone had softened the angular nature of the room with her collection of vases and bowls, giving it a more feminine aspect. Morag guessed that she was a young girl who had been starved of beautiful things, admired for their own sake, rather than for advantages of food, or gain.
She smiled at her. ‘You’ve really made this room your own, Persephone’.
Persephone blushed with pleasure. ‘I owe it to you, Morag, and my life too. Thank you so much’.
‘That’s all right. It’s my job’. Morag said mechanically. She felt desperately tired, and she had a long ride tomorrow. ‘Goodnight”. She kissed Persephone on her unbruised cheek. ‘Get some sleep’.
She went down the stairs in a daze, she was so tired. She unlocked the door and went into her apartment. She smiled at the fountain, still trickling away, and got undressed. She wrapped herself in her eiderdown, still thinking of poor Persephone, locked in her despair about the death of her beloved father. Then she fell into a deep slumber until the morning.
Frank Jackson – 25/05/ 2014 - Word count 10039