DR FRANK JACKSON, 59A, PRINCES ROAD, BRIGHTON, EAST SUSSEX BN2 3RH
Annie, Simon and their friends are in the Barbarossi capital, Bajoz, on a mission to rid their friend, the new emperor, Paravar, of his enemies, the rich merchants, who are bleeding his country of its wealth. But first they have to find and defeat a huge bloodthirsty Djinn which is terrorising the city. But a body turns up after a sandstorm. Was he murdered, or did he die a natural death?
Morag walked along the dark street, her eyes and ears alert. She was desperately frightened of whatever nightmare was stalking her from behind, but she daren’t look around to confront it, whatever it was. Her footsteps sounded loudly in the cold night air, but behind the same steps sounded large footsteps, that moved with a slithery rumble. But she walked on, forcing herself to keep calm. Her mouth was dry with fear, and it was all she could do to keep walking ahead down the narrow black alley, without turning back towards the nightmare that was stalking her. The alley was completely deserted. People with good sense stayed indoors on a night like this, she thought.
A shadow emerged from the darkness and joined her. Morag felt, rather than heard, her presence beside her. She was grateful, but for that ominous dark presence behind her, a few paces away. ‘Annie?’ she whispered. ‘I’m here, Morag’. She felt comforted, knowing that Annie was with her. But she still felt frightened of the unknown thing behind them. She wished she had Annie’s courage. They walked on, trying not to hurry. The thing behind continued to follow, its footsteps loud and sucking now.
They entered a small square, its fountain, a young robed nymph busily splashing water from the urn balanced on her head, into the basin below. Streams of water ran down her sculptured robes. It was one of the few working fountains in Bajoz and, for some reason, the sound of running water reassured them both. Annie glanced up at an overhanging balcony above their heads. ‘Now! she said, quietly. ‘Turn around, Morag!’ She gulped and turned slowly around, as did Annie. They both gasped with fear, as they looked into the face of the Djinn!
It had begun the day before over their breakfast meal. Annie innocently asked whether the Djinn had been active just recently. Paravar had told her about it some time previously, and she had been curious. Parvar scowled, but said nothing else ,but ‘Last night’.
’What?’ Annie persisted. ‘There has been another victim in the old city. A fresh one, a young girl collecting water for her mother. That damned thing!’
‘Where?’ she asked, determinedly.
Paravar gave her directions, sadly. He was clearly upset. He had a djinn on his hands and his people expected him to do something about it. The deaths of young women at it’s hands was clearly something of urgency. Annie said nothing but set out to look at the victim. She felt she owed the poor girl that. She gathered her bag and her weapons and set out into the poor city. She heard footsteps running behind her, and turned around.
Morag and Simon came up. ‘Where are you going, Annie?’ panted Morag.
‘To see for myself what this bloody creature did!
‘We’re coming with you!’
‘No, you’re not. This is not something you’d like to see!’
‘We’re still coming with you, whether you like it or not!’ added Simon.
‘All right, then, but you won’t like it’.
Annie led the way down the road into the old city. She turned into one of the alleyways that led into a small square. In it was a small fountain, now dry. It was fringed with palm trees, beneath which people had gathered, dressed in black robes and all weeping, bitterly. One woman, still young, crouched by a stiff, cold bundle covered by a large blanket that lay beside the edge of the dry fountain. Her hair was loose and uncovered, shot with grey. She was moaning in incoherent grief, rocking back and forth on her heels. Annie knelt down beside her, muttering some words of sympathy that she knew the woman wouldn’t understand, and then pulled back the cloth that covered the girl. Nothing had prepared her for what she saw. She heard a collective gasp around her. The girl’s head was still intact, though her features were convulsed by terrible fear. Her eyes were wide open, as if still gazing upon her appalling assailant. But the rest of her…….the flesh had been eaten away from her body, revealing the fine white bones. Her ribcage had been split apart, and all her internal organs had been devoured. Judging by the unnatural position of the head, Annie surmised that her neck had been broken. She was thankful that the girl’s death had been swift. Controlling her nausea, she leant forward and closed the girl’s eyes, as she had done before. Now the victim looked more peaceful. Annie replaced the cloth over her, and pressed the grieving mother’s shoulder. ‘I’ll kill whatever did this, I promise you’. She whispered, and then got to her feet and walked out of the square, with its acrid tang of fear and blood. Morag and Simon followed her. Behind them they could hear the sound of fresh lament for the death of the young girl.
On the way back to the citadel, Annie hastily pulled them aside. ‘ I’m going to destroy that creature. I’ m not having it!’
‘But how, Annie?’ Morag asked, worriedly.
‘I have a plan’. Simon said grandly. ‘But it involves a certain amount of risk’.
‘Who for?’ Morag asked, her heart sinking.
Simon outlined his plan as they walked on to the citadel.
‘No!’ said Morag, firmly.
‘So you want to see other mothers’s grief at seeing their young ones murdered by this thing!’
‘Of course not!’
‘Oh, all right. It’s just such a risk!’
‘ Since when have we done anything that hasn’t involved risk?’
‘Not ever. All right. Just this once’.
‘Thanks, Morag. You won’t regret it!’
The djinn howled loudly as it felt the unnatural weight on its back and raised its arms to try to pluck it off. But its arms were too long and heavy to raise behind its back. Instead it shook its head and shoulders wildly in an attempt to dislodge the small figure perched on its shoulders. But Simon had the fingers of one hand firmly knotted in the thick black hair that covered the creature’supper back, and clung on tenaciously, stabbing furiously at the creature’s neck with his short sword. The djinn howled again in despair. Annie and Morag, their fear forgotten in the heat of battle, slashed and cut at the beast’s legs, frantically avoiding the beast’s flailing arms, with their razor-sharp talons. Simon, maintaining his precarious hold, drove his sword hilt-deep into the beast’s unprotected neck at the side. causing a great gout of blood to erupt suddenly, drenching him. But it was the mortal blow. The Djinn reared up to its full height with a howl of pain, and dropped to its knees, its movements becoming gradually weaker. Simon struck again, spattering his face with blood, The beast howled again, and then crashed face first onto the ground. Its small yellow eyes dimmed and finally went out altogether. It lay inert in a pool of its own blood, next to the fountain. Simon stood up on the beast’s back and wiped his sword on his bloodsoaked tunic. ‘I think we killed the beast’. He panted. Annie and Morag leant on their swords and gasped for breath. The whole combat had lasted only a few seconds, but to them, it had seemed like an eternity.
Doors swung open around them, and the Barbarossi people swarmed out of their houses, uttering wild cries of joy and thanks. As Simon stepped off the beast, he was surrounded by young women and children, who hugged and kissed him in gratitude. ‘Help, Annie! I’m being smothered here!’
‘Serves you right for being a hero!’ Annie rejoined, but relented. Fighting off their own throng of admirers, she and Morag seized his hands and dragged him out of the joyous crowd that now filled the square. They made their way back to the main road that led to the gatehouse above. They were silent as they walked along the long grey road, thinking about the combat they had just gone through. On each side of them, the streets were lit up with thousands of oil lamps, and they heard the sweet sound of singing, as the people of Barbarossia celebrated
Morag felt suddenly happy. She had fought alongside her brother and sister in a successful action and she felt she had now achieved equality. It meant a lot to her. She linked arms with them both, in a spirit of comradeship. They both smiled at her, and together, they walked into the gatehouse. The gates were open wide, and they marched in. The guards sprung to attention and saluted them as they walked past. Inside they found Paravar, still in his nightrobe, which flapped around his ankles. ‘Well done, the three of you! The news has only just reached me’. He stopped as he looked at their bloodstained tunics. ‘Are you hurt?’ he asked anxiously.
Simon shook his head. ‘No, we’re not hurt. It’s the beast’s blood’. He struck a melodramatic pose. ‘The beast is dead!’
‘Oh, stop it, Simon!’ Annie said, angrily. “There’s no need to gloat about it!’
‘Try telling that to the mothers of the young girls who it killed!’
‘I’m not disputing that! All I’m saying is that it shouldn’t be gloated over! We’re not heroes, Simon. We just did a job that was necessary, that’s all!’
‘Thanks a lot, Annie!’ and Simon stalked off, in high indignation.
On the way he ran into Ragimund. She stopped and stared at him, then burst into tears. ‘Are you injured’. She asked. ‘No’. ‘Then change your tunic at once! You cannot eat with the Emperor, looking like that!’
‘Yes, Ragimund’. he said, sheepishly.
Ragimund walked over to them. ‘What has happened?’ she asked directly.
Annie and Morag grinned at each other, and then told her about the Djinn.
‘What! You have rid this kingdom of that plague? Alas, I wish I had not scolded him!’
‘It doesn’t do him any harm’. Annie said, diplomatically. ‘I’m his sister, so I should know. Anyway’, she added, he was boasting, and I can’t stand that’.
‘No, you are a good sister to him’. Ragimund said politely. ‘I know that. And what was your part in this matter, may I ask?’
So they told her. Ragimund was full of admiration for them. ‘So you offered yourselves as bait for this creature. That is wonderfully brave of you!’
She paused, as Simon came back, clad in a clean tunic.
‘Simon, I am sorry for having scolded you. Annie and Morag have told me what happened’.
Simon seemed subdued. He looked hesitantly at Annie, then at Ragimund. ‘ I’m sorry, Annie. You’re my sister. I’d go to the end of the world for you. Ragimund, I’m sorry too. I would never let you down’.
‘ I know that, Simon. Come here’. She hugged and kissed him, putting Simon in a very good mood. He turned to Annie. ‘Look, I’m sorry about boasting, but I meant it when I said when I said I’d go to the end of the world for you’.
‘I know you would, Simon. I’ll forgive you this time’.
She hugged and kissed her brother. She remembered how many times he had always been there for her in the past.
Annie looked out of the window behind her. Numerous workmen were carrying out furniture from the former Ben Aziz palace. Such furniture it was! Annie counted no less than eight chairs that stood outside. They were inlaid with gold and ivory, with wooden sculpted arms, richly upholstered in red and green damask Out there in the morning sunlight, they looked gaudy and ridiculously over-decorated. ‘ I see Paravar is not wasting any time’. she remarked to Ragimund, who sat next to Simon at the breakfast table in the alcove. Ragimund scowled. ‘We do not have any time for those gewgaws! We will furnish our new embassy ourselves, in a manner more appropriate! I am proud of you, Simon’. she added, putting her arms round his neck. He gave a non-committal grunt, mainly because his mouth was full of breakfast. He swallowed and said still indistinctly, but gallantly, ‘It’s Annie and Morag you should be praising. They’re the ones that drew the beast out. I merely killed it’.
Annie looked at him, open-mouthed. ‘I do believe that’s a compliment!’ she said to Morag. ‘I believe it is. Thank you, Simon’. replied Morag, gratefully. ‘Think nothing of it. You won’t get many more of them’. Simon said, sulkily.
‘Well, we’ll take what can get’. Annie said sweetly. ‘I’d rather like to see more of the city. Are you coming, Morag?’ She hastily gulped up the coffee remaining in her small cup, and said, ‘Yes, of course, Annie’. They went up to their rooms to wash. ‘Simon is a bit grudging, isn’t he?’ Morag said, meekly. ‘Oh, he’s all right. Likes to make a big thing of everything’. Annie replied, laughingly. ‘But he is a dear old thing, and he’s our brother. I just tease him when he gets too uppity for his own good’.
‘But he’s a good brother, though, isn’t he?’ Morag persisted.
‘Why are you asking all this, Morag?’
‘Because I’ve got no relatives. Now I’ve got you and Simon, I want to know more about you. Annie, I’ve got no-one apart from you and Simon! That’s why I’m asking! I’ve hardly been on any holidays! My mother was good and kind, I know, but before I met you, I’d hardly been out of the country! Apart from that trip to Malta, I mean. And now this!’ she waved her arm around to signify Barbarossia. ‘You don’t know how much this means to me. I just want to know what the people I’m with are like!’
‘Oh, Morag, why are you so insecure?’ Annie asked, sadly. ‘There’s no need to be. Simon loves you, we both do, and there’s no reason for you be upset. You’re our sister, and that’s what matters’. Cheer up. You know you’re wanted very much, by all of us. Come on, let’s go and see the sights, such as they are’.
They walked through the gatehouse and down the road. The Barbarossi guards each side, stiffened and gave a smart salute.
They continued on down the road and turned into the city on their right, into the souk, the market-place, largely underground, marked by a series of small domes, each with a large triangular scoop on top, to channel any errant breezes into the souk itself. As they descended, they could hear a tumult of voices from a host of shopkeepers and buyers, haggling as they bought and sold their goods. They came down into a warren of small shops and stalls, ranged against the walls or in the middle of the underground streets. It was dark and dim, lit only by openings in the domes above, with slanting shafts of light piercing the dimness and hubbub below. The souk was already crowded with people, shouting, and gesticulating, as they argued and bargained with the shopkeepers.
The atmosphere was good-willed, however, despite the noise. Everywhere they went, they were greeted with smiles and handshakes. The news of the Djinn had obviously spread. Despite her dislike of crowds, and confined spaces, Morag soon found herself arguing and pushing with the rest, particularly towards a lovely coffee set she had spotted. It was a samovar in brass, with ornate designs around its body and small brass cups, also beautifully decorated, hanging on small hooks around the lower body. Morag fell in love with it and was determined to have it, as a present for Persephone, who was manning the desk back in Hyperborea. She successfully haggled with the shopkeeper, and managed a price that she thought was fair. The shopkeeper cradled the set in a straw-filled wooden box, and handed it to Morag with a smile.
She went away, feeling very pleased with herself. Annie rejoined her, carrying a string bag, woven from hemp, full of her own purchases. ‘What have you got there?’ she asked. Morag lifted the lid and showed her. ‘That’s beautiful,Morag. I hope you didn’t pay too much for it’.
‘No, I didn’t. I haggled for it’.
‘Well done! Its certainly worth it’.
But Morag was staring into the distance, her eyes wide.
‘We must take shelter!’ Annie yelled above the noise of the wind, and the loud rumble of the approaching sandstorm.
‘I don’t know!’
‘My lady!’ The shout came from behind. A small figure darted up to them. Please my lady, you must come and have shelter with us. Come now, please!’ He seized Annie’s hand, and dragged her with him into the maze of houses behind.
‘Just shut up and do as you’re told!’ Annie snapped. Morag realised that Annie was just as frightened as she was. She decided to hurry on. The rumbling was louder now, as the wave of sand came towards them. The boy led them towards a wooden door in a two-storied white building, much like all the rest. ‘In here’. he said, abruptly, and bundled them inside. They found themselves in what looked like a kitchen, though it was so dimly lit, they could not perceive it at first. It was only alleviated by a pretty young woman, her head clothed in a shawl, who began to light oil lamps around the room. She was interrupted by the sudden shriek of the wind outside. A violent shock shook the house. Morag looked up fearfully. The shutters rattled and a thin stream of sand seeped in through a corner. A few flakes of plaster drifted down from the ceiling. The girl paused in her task, then continued lighting the lamps, bringing a glow to the interior.
In the new light, Annie looked around at her surroundings. The room was large, occupying the entire ground floor. The bare walls were whitewashed, and the floor was paved with large grey flagstones. In the centre was a large scrubbed wooden table, very low, with cushions arranged around it for seating. Apart from this, and two folding chairs in opposite corners of the room, there was no other furniture, not even rugs or occasional carpets. Through a doorway in the corner of the far wall, she could see stone stairs winding up to the bedrooms above and to the roof. It was a frugal interior, designed for close-knit family life. In the far wall was a shallow alcove, which housed an oven with a metal surface above, on which a large pot was simmering. An old woman was busy, stirring it, occasionally adding pinches of herbs from small dishes on the side of the oven. She had turned round briefly at their arrival, but had gone back to her cooking.
‘That is my grandmother, Azamarina. She lives with us’. Hyrillis explained. At the sound of her name, the old woman turned around and gave them a brief nod. Her face was brown and wrinkled but her eyes were sharp and twinkling. She turned back again to her cooking. ‘She is a very good cook. I am sorry, lady, but I do not know your name’.
‘I’m Annie, just plain Annie, and this is my sister, Morag’.
Welcome, both of you. Please sit down and share our midday meal with us, until the storm has passed’. Hryllis said politely. He indicated the cushions around the table. ‘My father and my brothers will be joining us shortly. They are bringing down the looms from the roof’.
‘The roof?’ Morag said, puzzled.
‘Yes. the light is much better up there, and we are sheltered by an awning. My father makes his best patterns on the roof’.
Are you sure we’re not causing you any trouble?’ Annie asked as she settled down at the table.
No. We are Barbarossi. It is our duty to offer help and food to needy travellers, whoever they may be, especially so, Djinnslayers’. He grinned.
‘I see our reputation has gone before us’. Annie said, grinning back.
‘You must tell me about how you slew the Djinn!’ said Hyrillis, eagerly.
‘Perhaps later’. Annie said, diplomatically, hearing footsteps coming down the stairs.
Hyrillis’s father came down first, followed by his two elder sons. He stopped short when he saw their two visitors.
‘Who are these?’ he asked, in Barbarossi.
Annie and Morag rose to their feet in courtesy. ‘This is Annie and Morag, father, they slew the Djinn. They are sheltering here from the sandstorm’. Hyrllis explained importantly. ‘Annie, Morag, this is my father, Jihari, and these are my two brothers, Detar and Shamaz. And these are my two sisters, Melissa and Jara’. Another girl had come in from a door beside the cooking range. Annie guessed it led to an outbuilding at the back. Judging from the clucking and bleats that followed the girl, she had been bringing in the livestock into shelter. She, too, was small and pretty like her sister. She nodded and smiled warmly at them. They all sat down round the table, while the grandmother, Azamarina, brought the soup and a large plate of flatbreads. Small bowls of honey and olives also appeared, and finally, the grandmother herself settled down with a grunt as she lowered herself onto the cushions.
The soup was delicious, Lentils laced with aromatic herbs, eaten with the olives and flatbreads smeared with honey, washed down with cups of fresh water. The conversation was desultory, even with Hyrllis acting as translator. The Barbarossi talked mainly among themselves, though they all listened avidly, as Annie told Hyrllis about the Djinn.
At last the meal came to an end. The two young women gathered up the dishes, and put them into the stone sink alongside the stove in the alcove. One of them said something to the other, who shrugged and resignedly picked up the two water-jugs, that stood beneath the sink.
She tied to open the door, with difficulty, because of the water-jugs. Morag rushed to help her. The girl lowered her eyes, and said something in her own language. Then she turned and went up the street. ‘What did she say, Hyrllis?’ The boy looked down at his feet before he answered. ‘She said thank you, beautiful lady’.
‘Look, Annie, It’s clear! It’s as if the sandstorm never happened!’ She joined Morag outside the door, and looked up the sky. It was blue and cloudless, as before, the hot sun beating down on their heads and shoulders. Their feet sank into a layer of powdery sand which lay piled high in drifts against the walls of the buildings. Annie realised that their friends would be worried about them. ‘We’d better get back to the citadel, before they start sending out search parties for us’. she said to Morag.
‘Yes, We’d better. Let’s make our goodbyes and thanks, and go’. Morag said fervently. She had felt uncomfortable in the house, despite the host’s kindliness, mainly because she disliked a situation where she could not speak the same language. She felt it put her at a disadvantage.They went inside to say goodbye. ‘Jihari’, Annie said formally, ‘My sister and I would like to thank you for sheltering us from the storm, and for your hospitality in looking after us’. She knew it was considered bad manners to offer any money. Jihari beamed and shook their hands. He said something in Barbarossi. ‘My father says that you are most welcome, and must see our stall again, when you are next in our country’. Hyrllis translated. ‘We will, I promise’. Annie said in reply. The entire family came to the door to see them off, with the exception of the girl who had gone to fetch fresh water. They saw her in the distance, toiling back with her jugs, and waved to her, but she did not respond.
‘I like that! We wave to her and she doesn’t even reply!’ snapped Morag, angrily.
‘Oh, stop it, Morag!’ Annie snapped back. ‘Can’t you see she’s carrying two heavy jugs of water! Try waving when you’re carrying those!’
Morag subsided into an angry silence. Annie, equally angry at Morag’s intolerance, walked along beside her. They stopped. A group of workmen, their tunics bound up above the knees, were standing around something they had found in a deep drift of sand against one of the houses. They hurried up and looked down at what the workmen had uncovered.
It was a hand, bejewelled with golden rings. It protruded upright out of the mound of sand. Annie stared in horror at it. ‘Morag, it’s a body! They found a body!’ She looked around. Morag was retching pitifully against the wall of a nearby house. “Morag, what’s wrong?’
‘Nothing. Just that It reminded me of what could have happened to myself, in those rooms of time. when you and Demos rescued me. I nearly suffocated myself!’
‘That’s all over now’. Annie comforted her. ‘Morag, we need your help. Is this murder, or is it just a plain accident?’ Morag roused herself, and came across.
‘I need to see more of the body’. she complained.
Annie nodded to the workman, who, with a snort, started digging again around the body. He gradually uncovered the head and the upper torso. It was the body of a young man, richly dressed in a velvet robe, with plenty of rich jewellery including a rich ruby pendant around his neck. The young man had certainly died in agony, judging by the convulsed posture of his body, legs drawn up, both hands locked claw-like, in frantic attempts to shelter his face. But it had been of no avail, against the onslaught of the sand storm, which had suffocated and killed him. His open mouth was filled with sand, as were his nose and ears. His eyes, wide open, were covered in sand and grit. Rivulets of sand trickled down from the creases in his robe. Morag bent down to examine the corpse, tilting the head to have a look at the back of the head. ‘No sign of blunt force trauma’. She announced. ‘He was alive when the sandstorm caught him’. ‘Uggh! What a terrible way to die’. Annie shuddered. ‘Don’t tell me! I know what it’s like!’ Morag replied, sharply.
The workman seemed strangely unmoved. He merely leant on his shovel, muttered ‘Tax-collector! Pah!’ and spat on the ground next to the body.
‘We’d better go and tell Paravar. At least he can arrange for a decent burial’. Annie suggested. They picked up their belongings, and, subdued, set off for the citadel. Morag suddenly stopped and shaded her eyes, looking at the distant gatehouse. ‘There are two horsemen galloping towards us, Annie. I do believe its Demos and Helios, coming to look for us!’
As they came nearer, Annie saw that it was true. The two horsemen reined in as they came up to them, and leapt from their saddles. ‘Morag!’ ‘Annie!’ They found themselves caught up in affectionate embraces. ‘Mind my box!’ Morag said sternly.
‘Here give to me, Morag, while you climb up behind me. She swung up onto the horse behind him. Helios reached down and pulled Annie up behind. They cantered off happily back to the citadel, Demos still clutching Morag’s precious samovar. They pulled up again at the entrance to the palace, where they all dismounted. Two grooms ran up to take their horses to the stables. They walked into the palace together.
‘Obviously, since we’re here’.
Paravar’s smile dropped, but only for a moment.
‘ Good, it’s about time’. Annie said indifferently. ‘I hope it provides a shower. I could do with one. Oh, by the way, You’ve got a dead body down there. Caught in the sandstorm, I think. You’d better send a burial party down there’. She turned on her heel and walked off up her room. Morag, with an apologetic smile to Paravar, followed her.
‘For goodness sake, Annie, what’s the matter with you?’
Annie rounded on her furiously. ‘Does it not occur to you that there’s a dead man lying down the road? Why? Why couldn’t anybody give him shelter? He must have gone around banging on doors and shutters but nobody would let him in! Why is that, Morag? They just let him die in that sandstorm! If we hadn’t met Hyrllis, it could have been us! He may have been a wicked man, but it doesn’t mean that they just simply leave him out there, to die like some unwanted animal! I just can’t stomach that, I just can’t!’
‘All right, Annie, but we just don’t know. For all we do, he might have committed a terrible crime! Like having raped someone’s daughter, for instance, or killing someone’s young son! We don’t know. We don’t know even, whether he was being punished or not, for some terrible crime. He might have been out there by mistake, and couldn’t make anyone hear him over the noise of the storm! I appreciate your feelings, Annie, but we simply don’t know, and I doubt if we ever will. Just leave it, Annie, there’s no proof!’
Annie sat down on her bed and was quiet for some moments. ‘All right, there’s no proof. But I still can’t see how a man can be left out there to the mercy of the sandstorm without somebody knowing’.
‘You may be right, Annie, but I don’t think we’ll ever find out’.
‘Perhaps you’re right, Morag. Anyway, I still don’t think its right, that a man can just be left out in a storm like that for no reason. But we can’t do anything about it. I’m going to take a shower’.
‘I never said that!’ Annie protested. ‘I was just concerned about that man who was left out in the sandstorm yesterday. Something’s not right about his death’.
‘You are right to be concerned. I have sent Hasada and his men to bury the corpse and to make some discreet enquires about the nature of his death, but so far they have come up against a wall of silence’.
‘That’s suspicious in itself. Why are they keeping quiet?’
‘I agree, but unless we find evidence that this man was cast out deliberately into the storm, we can do nothing. But we have found his name. He is, or was, called Diogenes. He was one of the merchants’ chief tax collectors. He was reputed to use unscrupulous means to do so. He was not a very popular man’. Paravar sighed. ‘I trust that answers some of your questions’.
Yes, it does. It explains motive, if not necessarily opportunity’. Annie was thoughtful. ‘But it does explain why he was shut out to the mercy of the storm’.
‘Yes, it probably does’. Paravar suddenly burst out. ‘Annie, I am not an emperor! I am an Oxford man. I was not cut out to be this!’
‘Well you are!’ Annie’s tone suddenly softened. ‘You can do it, for the sake of your son, and, beside that, you can keep your promises’.
Paravar sat down heavily on the bench behind him. ‘What promises?’
‘The ones you made. Like making the fountains sing again. Today. And giving the merchants’s ill-gotten wealth back to the people’.
‘I shall do. I will keep my word, Annie. I will promise you that’.
‘I’m sure you will’.
With that, Annie sat down to breakfast. But she was troubled by what she remembered. Who had angered someone so much that they had cast this man out of their house into the storm? It was still a puzzle. Morag sat down beside her. ’It’s collective guilt’.
‘What?’ Annie said, amazed. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘That dead man we found yesterday. They were all guilty, by shutting him out and leaving him to nature’s wrath. That’s what I think happened’.
‘I suppose so’. Annie thought of the kindly, hospitable people she and Morag had dined with yesterday, sharing their meal with them. Would such people be guilty of a man’s premeditated murder, however distanced it may have been? She shook her head, No, it was too far-fetched.
‘You’ve been thinking about this, haven’t you, Morag?’
‘Yes, I couldn’t let it go’. She hesitated a moment, and then went on. ‘It’s always the ones that look kind, who you always instinctively trust, who turn out to be cold-blooded murderers. At least, that’s my professional experience’.
‘If anything, it’s deliberate manslaughter! But I can’t believe that anyone we’ve met could do such a thing!’
‘You’d be surprised, Annie’.
Annie decided not to talk about it any more. But it still gnawed away at her.
‘At last we’re going home!’ Morag said happily, as they mounted their horses for the long ride back. Behind them, Paravar and all his court stood at the doorway to the palace, to wish them farewell. Behind them, stretched the long lines of their faery contingent, still wearing their burnous. They set off, in their long procession. Annie rode alongside Morag, with Helios and Demos behind. Ragimund and Simon rode in front.
All of a sudden, Annie kicked her horse out of the procession. Morag followed, now worried. ‘Annie, where are you going?’ ‘To see if Paravar keeps his promise’. She called back. Cursing in horse-language, Morag’s mount kept its feet on the greasy pebbles of the alleyway up which Annie had darted . ‘What bright idea is this?’ it muttered. ‘Just keep your eye on that rider, and keep going!’ The horse muttered under its breath. They dismounted at the entrance to a small palm-fringed square in the middle of the old city.
‘Why are we here, Annie?’
‘I told you. To see if Paravar keeps his promise’.
The small square was thronged with people from the neighbourhood – from the old women in long black robes and neckerchiefs tied over their sparse hair, sitting in groups on their chairs in the shade of the palm trees, to the younger adults, men, still clad in their work tunics, with their wives, their dark eyes darting to and fro, to the children, who sat on the ground next to their parents, under their watchful eye. Their gaze was directed at the fountain in the middle of the square, where a young nymph was emptying her water jug into the oval basin in which she stood. But there was no water. The basin stayed empty, and the jug did not pour water. The nymph and her jug stood desolate in the barren basin. Annie shaded her eyes, and looked up at the sky. It was an empty blue, apart from the blazing eye of the pitiless sun. She judged it was nearly midday.
Suddenly, the water-jug exploded with a great spout of water! It drenched the children who stood expectantly round the base of the fountain, who scattered with cries of glee. The baker threw open his shutters with a cry of triumph, as did the potter next door. A ripple of joyful applause ran though the assembled crowd as the sudden gush of water became a steady outpouring from the fountain nymph’s jug. The whole fountain quivered and creaked with the steady flow. The children shrieked with joy. Even the nymph seemed to smile in triumph, as she poured a steady gush of water into the rapidly filling the basin in which she stood. Annie could hear the cheers from other parts of the city, as, one by one, the fountains began to sing again with a steady throb and gush of the precious water.
She looked around. With the sudden appearance of fresh water, it had invigorated not only the fountain, but the whole community, turning the small square into a literal oasis, a retreat in the expanse of overcrowded and dusty buildings that made up the majority of what Bajoz was. Here, as in so many other parts of the city, people could congregate and relax from their everyday burdens. The old would sit, and gossip and talk about old memories, the young women could safely draw their water from the fountain, without having to make the daily trek to the water pump half a mile away, especially so since the Djinn was gone, and the young children could play peacefully and safely, while their parents did their shopping. It would be a true centre of the community, or so Annie hoped.
‘Annie!’ she heard a yell behind her. ‘Annie, please! I must talk to you!’ She turned round. It was Hryllis, and he was crying. ‘What’s the matter?’ she asked. She knelt down on one knee, the better to see him. The young boy was clearly distressed. Morag, seeing this, also went down on her knee, beside Annie. Annie hugged the boy to her to comfort him. He had a confession to make. ‘It was me, lady. I did it’.
‘Do what, Hryllis?’ Annie asked gently. The boy was only nine years old, after all. ‘I killed that man, that tax-collector! I locked the door on him, and let him die!’
‘Wait a moment, Hryllis, and start from the beginning. What happened, exactly?’
It was shortly before you came, lady’. The boy stopped and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. ‘The tax-collector came round to our house, and demanded money. He said we owed him’. Annie could imagine with what dread poor families could feel at hearing that knock on the door.
‘What happened then?’ Annie asked. ‘It’s all right, Hyrllis. We just want to know the truth’.
The boy sniffed and wiped his eyes again. ‘By then, me father knew that you had got rid of the merchants. So he told the tax collector to get out of his house. But then the tax collector said that he would have his daughter instead, Jara, to do with what he wanted. He has always lusted after her, lady, and my father and I knew what he intended. My father got very angry, and picked him up and threw him out of the house. Lady, I was so proud of my father!’
‘And then what happened?’ Morag said softly. She was deeply moved by the child’s story.
‘I shut the door and bolted it, not realising the sandstorm was coming. I would not let him in, even though he continued to bang on the door. It was only later that I realised that there was a sandstorm coming. So I opened the door and went to look for him. But I could not find him! That is when I met you, lady, and brought you back to our house. I am deeply sorry, lady. I did not know that he would die out there! I was only trying to protect my sister and my family!’ The boy started sobbing again. Both Annie and Morag remained silent.
‘The djinn was a monster but he was another monster!’ The boy said at last.
At last, Annie said ‘I don’t believe you were to blame, Hyrllis. What do you think, Morag?’
‘No, I don’t think he was to blame either. I think it’s a case of poetic justice. I can’t blame Hyrllis for trying to protect his sister and his family from this bastard. The world’s well rid of him’. Morag said heatedly. ‘I wouldn’t bet on any jury in the world prosecuting this child’.
‘I hoped you’d say that. Thank you, Morag’.
‘Don’t mention it. Glad to be of help. Off you go, sonny, and join your friends at the fountain’.
Hryllis looked at them, from one to the other, astounded. ‘You mean I am free to go?’
‘Yes, you are. I can’t think of anything to charge you with’.
Hryllis scampered off to join his friends round the fountain.
‘Poor kid. I was feeling sorry for him. It’s not his fault’.
‘Thank you, Morag. I really do mean it’. Annie said sincerely.
‘I mean it. It’s not his fault. I’m not in the habit of prosecuting children. He didn’t do anything wrong’.
‘Watch out, here comes his sister’. Annie said, warningly.
‘Nothing! you have questioned my brother for over half an hour!. What are you looking for?’
Her command of their tongue was quite good. Annie was pleasantly surprised. ‘I told you, nothing. We were merely asking him some questions about this Diogenes, that’s all’.
‘Him! That beast!’ The girl cried indignantly. ‘I would rather cut my own right hand off, than go with him! He was a pig! My brother and my father protected me from him’.
‘I see’, Morag said, calmly. ‘Thank you for your time, Jara’.
‘My brother will not be punished, will he?’ Annie shook her head. ‘No. He has done nothing wrong, Jara’.
‘I am glad about that. He is a good brother to me. He has taught me your language’.
‘So I see. He has taught you well. May good fortune go with you, Jara’.
‘And with you. I know we have good friends in you. Fare you well on your journey home’. And she was gone, with a smile like a ripple of silver as she went.
‘Talking of journeys home, we’d better be on our way. We going to have a hard ride to catch up with the others’.
‘Yes, you’re right’ agreed Annie, They mounted their horses and set off. Annie glanced back as they rode out of the little square. Hyrllis was busy playing with walnut shell boats in the fountain with the other boys, and was so engrossed that he didn’t even notice their departure. It took over ten minutes hard ride to catch up with their retinue, by which time their horse were lathered in sweat, and very glad to settle down to a more sedate pace. Simon half-turned in his saddle as they took their places behind Ragimund and himself. ‘Where’ve you been?’ he demanded, ‘I thought we’d have to stop and wait for you’.
‘Just tying up a few loose ends’. Annie replied, innocently.
Simon just grunted, and turned back to his conversation with Ragimund. But they did receive an encouraging smile from Mariko behind. After a few minutes, Demos and Helios turned their horses around to join them. Morag found herself very pleased to see Demos: she had truly missed him in the last few days, and genuinely wanted to spend more time with him, despite his atrocious timekeeping, which she was fully prepared to overlook just as a bad habit. Annie, too, was very pleased to see Helios: she had missed his kindness and his genuine affection. So they rode on together in high spirits.
Once more they trudged through the harsh rocky desert but their sprits were lifted by the knowledge that they were homeward bound and would soon be back in the milder climate of Hyperborea. They would not be sorry to shake the dust off of this arid land and feel the soft grass under their feet again. ‘I feel lie I should be making one of those school reports on this visit. You know, “what I did on my holidays”’. Morag confided to Annie. ‘We went to this hot land, where we stayed with the Emperor, went out and slew a giant Djinn, got rid of some wicked merchants, and solved a murder. Nothing out of the ordinary, really’. Annie laughed. ‘You’re forgetting two things. Oh, and we established a few embassies, and solved the Emperor’s tax problems for him’. ‘Oh, yes, I was forgetting about those’, Morag laughed. ‘As I said, nothing unusual’.
‘No, but it was a worthwhile trip’.
‘Yes, it was. But I’m really looking forward to getting home’.
‘Where is home, Morag?’ Annie asked seriously.
‘I’m happy to hear that. I was worried that you might homesick’.
‘No, I’m genuinely not. I miss all the computers and forensics and so on, but I’m really learning to use my brains and my instincts, and that’s what really matters, Annie. I’m doing something I like, and I like to think I’m good at it, if that makes sense’.
‘It does, and I’m really happy for you, Morag’. They smiled at each other, and fell into a companionable silence. Annie was pleased that Morag was not lonely, as she had feared she might be. But Morag was tough and resilient, and didn’t lack friends. It was a weight off her mind.
They travelled on across the desert, until one of the faery scouts sent ahead, came galloping back. He reined beside Ragimund. ‘Lady, the west wall is in sight’. He pointed to the horizon. Morag shaded her eyes with her left hand. She could see a thin brown line in the distance. Now the wall was in sight, the whole column broke into a canter, the horses as eager to get back as the riders. After half an hour, they were cantering across the broad plain in font of the wall itself. ‘Hail them!’ cried Ragimund to the original scout. He raised his voice and shouted to the gatehouse. There was an answering call, and a light flickered from the battlemented gatehouse. It’s gates swung open and the retinue passed through into their own land.
Once inside, the faerys dismounted, pleased to be back in their own territory, There was a mounting swirl of conversation as the riders congratulated each other on their successful mission. Annie looked around for Vela. Eventually, she found her talking to her special friend, Jamos. ‘Vela!’ she cried. ‘Annie!’ Vela came across to her, leading Jamos by the hand. She was carrying her helmet. ‘Look, Annie, I have carried your talisman always!’ Annie looked down at the helmet. It still bore the crudely drawn symbol of the pentagram enclosed within a circle, that she had drawn in haste so long ago. ‘I must go’. said Vela, hastily. ‘The lady Ragimund is calling us to saddle, and ride for Cestmos’. ‘Look after yourself, Vela’. Annie said sadly. She realised that she might never see Vela again. She grasped the girl’s wrist in a warrior’s handshake firmly. ‘And you, Annie’. Vela grasped her wrist back, and then was gone, lost in the melee of mounting faerys, along with Jamos.
They mounted again on the ride to Cestmos. ‘Oh, I hate this place!’ Morag said at last. ‘It’s fortified and ugly. It looks as if it’s an animal about to spring. It’s…it’s so forbidding!’
‘Just what I thought too’. replied Annie, laughing. They rode along its tall stone walls, mildewed and lichened with moss. Above, they could see the glitter of faery helmets lining the walls above, as they trotted round to the Mila gate. ‘Oh, I know it’s got to be fortified, but it’s so forbidding. To make sure you know who’s in charge’. Morag continued.
‘It’s not that bad’.
‘Even the windows are only slits for arrows. It’s not human!’
‘Well, we’re staying here tonight, whether you like it or not’.
Morag gave up protesting, and resigned herself to the dubious pleasures of Cestmos. The next day, however, seemed brighter, for they were on their way to Mila, one of her favourite cities. It was one of the most exciting places she had been to in Hyperborea, with it’s mountainside covered in terraces, walks and hanging gardens, and, across the river that bisected it, the theatres, the public baths, the riverside walks dotted with small ornamental kiosks, where you could sit and sip drinks of fresh oranges and lemons, brought in from the nearby lake on which Mila stood. Above all, she loved the street life and the exuberance of the street theatre and music that abounded in Mila. It was truly a joyous city, so different from the harshness of Cestmos, and from the austerity of Elsace.
Later that, evening, after supper, Morag and Annie, together with Mariko and Ragimund walked over the river bridge to the far bank. Even at this hour, it was noisy. Bright lanterns lit the riverside walk. They had intended to see the street singers, magicians and actors still performing in the arenas outside the theatres. Ragimund, freed from her responsibilities, visibly relaxed. Her eyes sparkled, her lips curved in a smile, her long black curls that framed her face, bobbing in time to the music around her. Annie had never thought her so beautiful as at that moment. Suddenly she heard someone singing. She pushed her way through the throngs of musicians and performers that surrounded them, and saw a young faery chanteuse that sang so beautifully. She wore a white robe that fell to her ankles, and sang in the human tongue Annie pushed without any accompaniment. Her long blonde hair fell over her shoulders, and her hands were clenched as she sang.
As she sang the beautiful hymn that Annie remembered so well from her younger childhood, Annie felt desperately sad and homesick for her own history and her own world, through the song, born out of grief and suffering, and sank down on the stone step behind her, overcome with emotion. Her eyes moistened as she listened to the words, and thought how much she had been through in the last four years of her life.
‘Amazing grace how sweet the sound……..
The singer finished the song to a tumult of rapturous applause. Annie pushed her way through the dispersing crowd, and asked the chanteuse, ‘How do you know that song?’
The chanteuse looked at her. ‘My mother, who spoke human, taught it to me. I confess I do not really understand all the words, but I liked the melody’.
‘So did I. Thank you. It was very beautiful’
‘You are welcome, my lady’ . She stooped and picked up her bag. Annie realised that her performance was finished and that she was going home. She thanked her again, and left to rejoin her friends who were waiting for her anxiously. ‘You didn’t see any deaths’ heads this time, did you, Annie? Mariko asked, worriedly.
No, but I heard an angel sing’.
Next morning they were up early, ready for the next stage of their journey, back to the great port of Druard. Morag was particularly anxious to return, to see how Persephone, the young Barbarossi girl, had coped in her absence. For the first few miles Morag rode beside Annie. She was curious about something.
‘Annie, why were you so moved by that song last night. The tears were pouring down your face!’
‘Because it seemed to make everything we’ve done worthwhile. And it made me homesick for my world. That’s why!’
Annie did not seem to be disposed to talk any longer, so Morag kicked her horse forward to join Demos, who was delighted to see her. ‘I‘m worried about Annie’. she said without preamble. ‘She’s dejected and feels homesick. ‘ Then you had better do something about it’. Demos said practically. ‘But what?’ ‘Tell her about a song that you once knew and that you loved’. Morag rode back and joined Annie again. ‘Did I ever tell you the story that my mother told me. Her face fell. ‘I don’t remember all the words, but I remember the melody’. She began to hum the tune. ‘Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home…….’
‘Yes!. I know it!’ Annie looked excited.
‘You see, you’re not the only one that can remember the songs that will stay with us all our lives. They still mean something precious to us! I was only five years old, but I sill had these wonderful dreams about how my mother would swoop down out of the sky in this golden chariot, and scoop me up and take off to a better place! That was my dream, Annie!’.
‘It was a wonderful dream, Morag’. Annie said sincerely. ‘And you’re right, it has cheered me up. At least, I’m not the only who has dreams of a better world’.
So, Annie, you’re not the only one to be inspired by a song. We all have, in our own way’.
Annie just smiled, but she felt happy again. It was late afternoon when they finally came to the outskirts of Druard, and dusk was falling when they drew up outside the official building where Morag lived and worked. She dismounted quickly and ran indoors and up the stairs, followed by Annie, Mariko and Ragimund. She pushed open the door and looked around. The room was brightly lit by small oil lamps. Persephone’s desk was covered with neat orderly piles of documents. ‘Persephone!’ she called.
‘Here’. Persephone crawled out from under her desk.She smoothed down her red dress. ‘I am sorry but I dropped my quill just before you came in. T had to find it’. Then she suddenly realised. ’Oh,Morag, you are back!’
‘Yes, I am, Home from the wars, so to speak’. She hugged Persephone to her. Persephone looked embarrassed in front of Ragimund. But she burst out.
‘Oh, Morag, so much has happened! The faery marshals came in and wanted to check a lot of thieves they had just arrested. They wanted proof of where they were on the night they stole a lot of property from a warehouse on the port. They gave me their names and I looked in the files. I brought them and the fingerprints fitted exactly! So the faery marshals were very pleased and they said I had to go to the faery court tomorrow to say that that the records were true, and the thieves all confessed, when they were shown the fingerprints. And the court sentenced them! They banished the two ringleaders and gave the rest a service a month’s service in the community!’
‘It does not matter, Persephone. What matters is that I, as a member of the council of this country, will offer you a permanent post to Morag, if you wish to accept it’. Ragimund said, quietly. ‘You have done very well’.
Persephone gasped. All her dreams had come true. But Morag stepped forward. ‘Here’s a present for you, to congratulate you’. She gave her the box which she had so carefully carried from Barbarrosia. ‘Go on, open it’.
Persephone carefully lifted out the samovar. ‘It’s beautiful! A real Barbarossi gift! Oh, thank you, Morag!’ Impulsively, she ran to Morag and hugged her.
‘I have another idea. Why don’t we all go out and celebrate this occasion by having a fish supper in Druard? We can prevail on Persephone to come with us, I am sure’. Ragimund added.
‘That’s a great idea’. Simon said gleefully, to whom food was always a great idea. So they set out, a happy band once again, now that Morag’s fingerprinting scheme had been vindicated and given official approval, and their mission to Bajoz had been successful. Above all, they were glad to be home again, as Annie thought. As she followed the others down the stairs, she remembered another line from her favourite song: I once was lost, but now am found…..’ She smiled to herself.
Frank Jackson- 04/09/2014 Word count - 9894