DR FRANK JACKSON 59A, PRINCES ROAD, BRIGHTON, EAST SUSSEX BN2 3RH
After the victory at sea in the Bay of Pulan, Morag and her faery husband, Demos, accompany her new brother, Simon, and his wife, Ragimund, to view the aftermath of the great battle. They return, shocked and chastened by the carnage wreaked upon their Circlassian enemy, determined to get away and take a short break in their own world. Ragimund has been badly wounded in the battle and needs some recuperation, while Morag is keen to participate in an archaeological dig that her husband is involved in, on the old hill-fort in their home city of Brighton. But even such an apparently innocuous activity has unforeseen implications, as Morag and Demos find out.
Morag woke up the next morning, to the sound of a camp already astir. She stretched and yawned, then looked around for Demos. He was not there, but his warm imprint was still visible on the groundsheet beside her. His blankets, cast away, lay alongside. ‘Demos!’ She called. ‘Demos!’ Where was he? She heard the tent flap being opened, and there he was, bearing large pottery mugs, in each hand, full of steaming hot liquid that smelled delicious. ‘Marvellous!’ She exclaimed. ‘A nice cup of tea in the morning! Just what I need!’
‘It is herbal tea, I am afraid. My people do not know how to make proper English breakfast tea’. Morag tasted it and pulled a face. ‘No, they don’t. Never mind. It’s the thought that counts. Thank you, Demos’. She smiled at him, and pulled his head down to kiss him. ‘What happens today?’ she asked after they had pulled away from each other.
‘I met Ragimund and Simon when I was at the cantina. Ragimund is eager to ride out and see the aftermath of the battle for herself. They have invited us to join them’.
The prospect of a horse-ride filled her with delight, but there was something in Demos’s tone that gave her doubts. She laid her hand on his arm. ‘What is it, love? What aren’t you telling me?’
He looked back at her with an expression of infinite sadness. ‘Do you really want to see the aftermath of yesterday’s battle?’ He asked. ‘Why? Is it so dreadful?’ she replied, puzzled. ‘I can do aftermaths, you know’.
‘Not this one. If all I have heard this morning is true, Morag, my love, then it will break your heart, and mine’.
‘Demos, what do you mean? It can’t surely be as bad as all that!’
‘You must judge for yourself. I hear horses outside! It must be Simon and Ragimund!’
‘If she’s riding, I’ll kill her!’ Morag muttered under her breath.
They both crawled out of the tent to be confronted with what seemed to be a forest of horse legs. Rising to their feet, they saw both Simon and Ragimund mounted on two of the horses, with two saddled, but riderless, others, tethered behind.
‘Good morning, happy campers!’ Simon cried, grinning as he did so.
‘Less of your cheek!’ Morag said, loftily. ‘Ragimund, I thought I told you to be careful of your wound, and rest, not gallivant around on the back of a horse!’
‘ I know, Morag. But I could not resist the temptation of an early morning ride, and besides, I am still wearing the sling’.
‘But what if you fall off your horse, onto your damaged arm?’ Morag cried in exasperation.
‘I am not in the habit of falling off my horse!’ Ragimund retorted. ‘I am a skilled rider!’
‘With one arm?’ Morag said, caustically.
‘Yes, with one arm! I can control the reins! Please do not fuss so much, faery-sister!’
‘Try stopping her’. Simon said, with another grin. ‘I can’t’.
Morag stepped forward, and put her hand on Ragimund’s knee. ‘I don’t want you to get hurt again’. She said gently. Ragimund’s face softened. She smiled down at her. ‘I know, my faery-sister. I promise you, I will take care. Nor will my horse throw me, not if he knows what’s good for him!’ She said this loudly, for the horse’s benefit. The horse gulped. ‘Just take care of her’. Morag said mildly, to reassure the horse, which snorted, looking at Morag gratefully.
‘Are you two coming or what?’ said Simon, impatiently. Morag made up her mind. ‘Yes, we are’ She and Demos untied the two spare horses and mounted them, then the four horsemen cantered off across the camp-site and down the path through the trees towards the long stretch of the sandy beach to their left. As they emerged from the path onto the beach proper, they sharply reined in their horses in shock at what they saw.
The whole beach, as far as they could see, was littered with corpses. More were being washed in, between the lazy small waves lapping on the beach, bobbing and floating in on the tide. There were literally hundreds of bodies on the beach itself, many of them embedded with arrows and broken spears, others marooned in the wet sand between the beach and the sea, still disgorging its harvest of death. They moved slowly along the beach, each of them absorbed in his or her own thoughts. Simon’s face was wracked by misery, as he thought of his responsibility for this terrible slaughter, Morag equally wracked with grief for all these slaughtered men, Demos’s set with sorrow, and Ragimund, all too aware now of her own vulnerability, not to feel compassion for these poor men. As they trotted slowly along, hordes of birds, mainly seagulls, rose in a cloud of alarm, emitting hoarse squawks. They had been feasting on the bodies, reluctant to leave their banquet. They circled in dense flocks above the intruders, looking down at them with baleful, suspicious eyes.
At the far end of the beach they could hear the trundling and creaking of one of the “death-wagons” as it paused and stopped time and again to pick up its quota of bodies. They were thrown unceremoniously into the back to be taken to a large cremation pit and burnt, to avoid the risk of disease. It was a vile but necessary task after every battle, and its squeals and groans provided an appropriate accompaniment to the ghastly scene on the beach.
Further along, they came across a small group of faery soldiers standing in the middle of the beach, in the bright sun, surrounded by the corpses. One of them was Melchior, who raised his hand to greet them. ‘A fine harvest, don’t you think!’
‘Wait a moment’. Ragimund replied, icily. ‘Are you telling me that you deliberately butchered the wounded and those poor survivors from the battle, as well as those you engaged in battle?’
‘Of course! I would not leave any survivors standing. Mind you, they were easy to dispatch! Even if they did grovel and beg for mercy! I was having none of that!’ He replied with a gloating laugh. Morag, who had listened to all this, finally found her voice.
‘You bloody murdering bastard!’ She spat. ‘Tell that to their grieving wives and children!’
The smile left Melchior’s face. He turned to Demos. ‘Have you no control over your woman?’ He demanded. ‘She is hysterical’. Demos’s face froze in sheer fury. He rode his horse deliberately up to the plump figure of Melchior and stared down at him coldly. ‘You insult my wife, who is a faery marshal of this land, and dare to threaten her! I shall take your head for this!’ His hand reached out for his sword slung across his back.
‘No! Demos, don’t!’ Morag cried out in fright to her husband.
‘Enough!’ shouted Ragimund, riding up alongside Demos. ‘There has been enough bloodshed already! Melchior, you are no longer a general of mine! You have broken the codes of war in slaughtering defenceless and wounded men! You have broken the way of the warrior in doing so. You have contravened our faery code of honour, in slaughtering your defenceless victims! I shall bring you before the faery council to answer these charges!’
Melchior’s face now wore a petulant frown. ‘Do as you wish, lady. I shall merely tell the council that I was doing my duty, and only obeying orders. Your orders, lady’.
‘You know perfectly well that I ordered no such thing! You, and you alone, are responsible for your actions!’
‘Nontheless, that is what I shall tell the council, and that I acted on the basis that my commander was too spineless to totally destroy the enemy!’
For a brief moment, Morag thought that Ragimund was going to strike the insolent little general down. Her face was convulsed in fury. Instead, she wheeled her horse around, and spoke over her shoulder ‘I care nothing for your threats, Melchior. We shall see whom the council believes, when I report your actions to them. Now get out of my sight!’ She rode off a little distance, and stopped her horse, her back to them.
Against her better judgement, Morag rode after her. She drew up along her right side, mindful of her wound of the left arm. To her astonishment, Ragimund was crying. Tears streaked her cheeks down each side of her face. ‘Ragimund, What’s the matter?’ she cried. Instinctively, she pulled Ragimund’s head onto her shoulder to comfort her. To her further surprise, Ragimund did not resist. In fact, she seemed to welcome the relief that Morag’s shoulder offered. Morag sensed that Ragimund needed comforting. ‘Is this because you’ve been badly wounded?’ she asked, softly.
Ragimund sniffed. ‘Yes’. She replied. ‘It is because I have realised that I, too, am vulnerable to these new weapons. Things have changed. But I will not allow Melchior and his minions to destroy my code of honour! I am a warrior and a true one! I will kill my enemies in battle, but I will not slaughter them while they are wounded and defenceless! That is my warrior code, Morag. I hope you understand’.
‘Yes, I do’. Morag said, quietly. ‘It does you credit. But you must seek justice for these dead ones. They did not deserve to die in that way. I am a policewoman, Ragimund, and I seek justice for those who can’t find it. That’s my job’.
‘I know, Morag, and as a faery, I appreciate it. I will not let Melchior run free from his deeds, I promise you’.
‘Good’. Morag said, feelingly.
‘I thank you, Morag, for this talk between us. I have realised that I badly need a close woman friend to confide in. Will you be that friend, Morag?’
‘Gladly’. Morag said. She smiled warmly at the young faery warrior. ‘I would be honoured to’.
‘And I too. I would be honoured to have you as my special friend, and a faery-sister as well’. Ragimund smiled back.
‘Just promise me that you’ll look after yourself, and let your wound heal’.
‘I do promise, Morag’. They smiled at each other in their new-found friendship.
‘Oi, you two!’ came a raucous shout from behind.
‘What?’ Morag demanded. ‘What do you want, Simon?’
‘Nothing. Just thought we could finish our ride, that’s all’.
Morag and Ragimund smiled a secret smile at each other. ‘Sounds like the boys want us to hold their hands in case they fall off into that nasty rough sea’. Morag remarked. Ragimund burst out laughing.
‘Oh, very funny’. Simon said, irritated. ‘Are you coming, or not?’
‘Yes, we are’. Morag replied. reluctantly. They turned their horses around and set off after the others, along the beach, their horses fastidiously picking their way through the bodies. As she gazed down at the dead faces, Morag became aware of having lost her initial repugnance, viewing them instead with a kind of morbid fascination. Some of them were only half clad and had clearly drowned. They lay in the shallows, only moving with the small wavelets that rippled around them, blanched and white in the sun, their eyeless sockets staring up at the bright blue sky, like waxworks. They looked strangely peaceful in their death, with only their limbs, locked in rigor mortis, betraying their agitation, One man’s arms were raised towards the sky, his fingers, claw-like, reaching for the sky above him. Severed limbs floated around the bodies, arms and legs twisted and deformed by the explosions that had killed their owners.
Morag gazed down at them with sorrow and anger. Some of them had died in an instant: others had slowly drowned. Each body seemed to offer clues about their manner of death. Up the beach, the corpses were still fully armoured, with weapons - swords, spears, shields, littered around them. She guessed that these were the warriors who had charged up the beach from the few landing barges that had got to the shore, only to be cut down with sword and spear, by Melchior’s troops. The bodies, rent and stabbed, showed they had died a violent death.
Further on, she came across a more bizarre sight. Near a pile of severed limbs. that had washed up on the beach, she saw a young man’s severed head. It lay on its right cheek in the soft wet sand near the water’s edge, still wearing the iron conical helmet that the Circlassians favoured. He was a handsome young man, with a finely trimmed moustache and beard. His lips and eyes were closed, as if in sleep, and his face was serene, with no hint of what had caused his untimely death. But this head, of a young man, rudely deprived of his life, bore a dignity and repose that deeply moved Morag. Close by, lay another severed head, also of a young man. This time, his head was splayed open like a flower, showing an empty cranium. It had been picked clean, probably by the gulls. Yet his face showed no sign of pain. Rather, it was serene, like the other head, its lips slightly parted in a slight smile, its eyes closed as if in sleep. Morag was amazed at how such a landscape of death could yield such images of tranquil beauty. Some of the corpses reminded her of plucked flowers, torn from the rank green depths of the sea, and strewn across the beach. But as she looked around, she felt a horror that one battle had created so many dead.
They trotted along the beach, unaccountably depressed, and subdued, by the surrounding corpses. Behind them they could hear the creaking of the death-wagons as they made their slow progress through the soft yellow sand, pausing every few yards to load more bodies, crawling like black beetles along the beach.
She passed the spyglass on to Ragimund, who looked at the bay carefully, being only able to focus it with one hand. Simon took it from her, and focussed it for her. Ragimund smiled her thanks, and gazed down at the bay. ‘It has been a complete victory!’ She cried in delight. ‘There are no enemy ships remaining! We have defeated this invasion!’
‘But at what cost?’ Morag asked dismally. She assumed that few, if any of the fleet would survive the storm. Hardly any of the Circlassians would reach their own country. She felt the overbearing sadness of war. ‘Look! Our wounded trireme did reach the shore!’ Ragimund cried out again and pointed downwards. They all looked down and saw the crippled trireme of the previous day, sunk in the shallows near the beach below.
‘Yes, and their dead and wounded’. Morag replied sadly. She was suddenly nauseated by this war, and by the amount of death it had caused. She turned to her husband. ‘Demos, will you take me back to the camp, please?’ Demos looked at his wife. She looked distressed and miserable. ‘Of course, my love’. He said softly. ‘Morag, are you unwell?’ Ragimund called out anxiously. ‘Yes’. She replied, quietly. ‘I’m sick of death and slaughter’. To her own surprise, and that of the others, she suddenly burst into tears. ‘Morag!’ Ragimund cried out, in alarm and anxiety. Simon just stared down at the ground, miserably, blaming himself for her outburst of tears. Only Demos remained calm, gathering his wife to him tenderly, soothing her. ‘We will go back, Morag’, he said tenderly, and looked at the other two. ‘You can go on if you like. But I must take my wife back to the camp now’.
They left the others still staring anxiously after them, trotting gently back to the camp along the hill that ran the full length of the peninsula, Demos riding protectively alongside her. She blew her nose noisily into her handkerchief, and glanced at him tearfully. ‘I’m really sorry, Demos. It was a moment of weakness, breaking down like that! I feel I’ve let you all down’. She gulped, trying to swallow her tears.
Demos suddenly squeezed her hand. ‘You have not let anybody down, my love. I love and respect you more, for showing your compassion and distress at this ghastly war, and the waste of young lives! I share your distress. I was deeply moved and shaken by seeing all those young men, dead. What a waste of life! And for what? To satisfy some emperor’s greed and ambition? I truly admire you, Morag. You have expressed what we all feel! I love you all the more for it! We can only hope there is an end to this bloodshed and grief!’
‘Amen to that’. Morag replied, quietly. ‘Thank you for understanding, my husband’. She squeezed his hand, lovingly. ‘I know now why I married you’.
‘And I know why I married you’. He replied, with an affectionate smile. They turned down the path that led back through the trees to the camp. They trotted across the clearing, now miraculously dry again, after the rain of the night before. Some of the tents had been struck, but the cantina was still there, as was, thankfully, the latrine and washing tent. They dismounted, Demos giving the reins to a faery stableman, who had hurried up at their arrival. Morag crawled gratefully into their tent. She felt dreadfully tired. As she drew the blankets over herself, she felt miserable again. She buried her face in the pillow and cried into it. She felt Demos’s hand stroking her hair and turned over. ‘Demos’. she said urgently, clutching his arm. ‘Don’t leave me! Please, stay with me! I don’t want you to go! Please! Lie beside me and keep me company! I don’t want to be left on my own!’
‘How can I refuse my beautiful wife?’ He grinned, and lay down beside her, both of them still fully clothed under their blankets. She gratefully hugged him to her, and fell asleep, as did he, moments later. They lay together. as they had done the night before, enjoying in their sleep, the precious moments of being with each other, free from the anxieties of the world.
There were voices outside. Demos raised himself, freed himself from Morag’s encircling arms, and crawled out of the pitched-roof tent, to find, to his surprise, Ragimund and Simon standing outside. ‘Please excuse us, Demos’. Simon said, meekly. ‘How is my faery-sister?’ Ragimund asked abruptly. ‘She is well and sleeping’. Demos replied, shortly. He did not care for these unwelcome visitors. He wanted to protect his wife from whatever they wanted from her. ‘I wish to talk to her’ Ragimund persisted.
‘What is it, Demos?’ Morag’s voice sounded within the tent.
‘Your faery-sister. She wishes to speak with you’. Demos replied with a note of anger.
‘Oh. Send her in’. A few moments later, Ragimund ducked under the entrance flap to the tent and entered. ‘Morag, I have come to see how you are’.
‘So I gather. And from what I’ve overheard, you’ve been offending my husband as well!’
‘I am sorry, Morag. I will apologise to him. But I am worried at the news that I have just received’.
‘What news is that?’ Morag was intrigued now, rather than irritated at her faery-sister’s high-handed and arrogant behaviour.
‘That my sister, Gloriana, has arrived here, with news of what has befallen the enemy fleet!’
‘So, why should that concern me?’ Morag replied, testily, still irritated by her faery-sister’s behaviour.
‘Because it means that when the survivors have brought back the news of their defeat, the Circlassians will have little choice but to sue for peace. It could mean the end of the war, Morag!’
‘I thought that’s why we fought the battle’
‘Yes, it was, But, Morag, you do not understand the implications!’
‘No, I don’t. What I do understand is that you’re still in shock from being very seriously wounded, and you still can’t let go of your duties and responsibilities. Stop being an arrogant faery, Ragimund, and behave like my faery-sister! Take a holiday, Ragimund, and spend some more time with your new husband! He needs a holiday, too’.
Ragimund bent her head. ‘You are angry with me, Morag’.
‘Yes, I am! You can’t let go, can you? Forget your responsibilities for once and enjoy yourself! You’ve been badly wounded and you need to recuperate. Give the talisman a chance to heal you!’
‘Yes, I have been very impatient. But worst of all, I have offended you, Morag’. Ragimund said, sadly.
‘No, you haven’t. But stop being so faery. I know you’re vulnerable and insecure, especially since you’ve been wounded, so don’t try to hide it’
‘Alas, I have no secrets from you, my faery-sister’. Ragimund said mournfully.
‘No, you haven’t’. Morag looked at Ragimund’s bent head, and felt sudden compassion. Ragimund, despite her faery arrogance, had been struck down by a weapon from a world she hardly knew, and was still feeling the shock of it. ‘Come here, you’. She said, and gave her a tight hug, not quite knowing whether her faery-sister would respond. But she did. She clasped Morag back, and then stood up, as best she could in the cramped tent.
‘I will see you tomorrow’. She said, formally. She climbed out of the tent, and found herself face to face with Demos, who glared at her.
‘I am sorry if I have caused you offence, I was disturbed. Please forgive me’. She said, softly, then turned on her heel and joined Simon who was standing a little way off. Demos stared after her in amazement, and then ducked into the tent.
‘What have you done to your faery-sister?’ He asked. ‘She actually apologised to me!’
‘Nothing. I just tore her off a strip and told her she needed a holiday. As we all do’.
‘Ah, I meant to speak to you about that. I received a letter a few weeks ago asking me to join an archaeological dig in your world’.
‘And you didn’t tell me!’
‘No, because I wasn’t going to go, with the news of this invasion. But if you say we need a holiday I could change my mind’.
‘You must! It’s perfect! Where is this dig?’
‘Close to home. Your home, Morag. It is in Brighton. At the Hollingbury fort, to be precise’.
‘What! But that’s where the portal is, between our worlds!’
‘ Yes, and that is why I would consider the dig. I do not want them to discover the portal there’.
‘No, that’s true. But, Demos, I want to come with you on this dig!’
‘But why, Morag? You do not want to spend your time on your knees in muddy trenches, searching with a trowel for shards of pottery!’
‘Yes, I do! I want to do something useful for a change! Remember you told me about the joys of discovering how people, ordinary people, lived! How they lived, how they ate, and looked after their children! All the utensils they used thousands of years ago! I want to be able to do that! Please, Demos, take me with you on this dig. I want to get away from all this death and slaughter, and do something creative, something positive!’
‘Very well, then. We shall go, if that is what you want. But I warn you, we might not find anything there. The last geophysical survey there could find nothing conclusive’.
‘I don’t care! I just want to get away and not think about death and war for a while! I’d rather go grubbing in the ground for evidence of how people lived long ago! If we don’t find anything, it doesn’t matter! Anyway, it means I can spend more time with you’. She smiled beguilingly at him.
Demos laughed. ‘ How can I resist your blandishments? Of course, we will go. It will be pleasant to see some of my old colleagues again’.
‘We can ask Simon and Ragimund to come as well. They need a holiday too!’ Morag said, carried away by her enthusiasm.
Demos frowned. ‘Is that a good idea? She is not used to your world, and besides, she is still recovering from her wound’.
‘Well, she’s got Simon, and what could possibly go wrong? He could take her on a tour of Brighton, to see the sights. She would enjoy that’.
‘Perhaps’. Demos said pessimistically.
But Morag was not to be deterred. She was determined to have a working holiday and to make sure that Ragimund had a holiday too. She was concerned that Ragimund should be able to convalesce, free from the tribulations of her office, and that she should be able to relax, in different surroundings. She had recognised the symptoms of delayed shock that had come with her wound, and knew, despite Ragimund’s denials, that she needed time to recover. So she brushed aside Demos’s reservations. It was a mistake which she would later regret.
Over the next few days, they were all busy. The death-wagons trundled backwards and forwards from the beach, gradually clearing it of the corpses, which were beginning to decompose. Even despite their efforts, the rank odour of rotting flesh hung over the beach for several days. Faery sailors swarmed over the triremes, repairing the splintered woodwork from the enemy musket-fire, and remounting the masts and spars, which had been removed before the battle. Gloriana, as commander-in-chief, duly arrived with a retinue to see the site of action for herself. She gasped with horror when she saw her sister, Ragimund, with a heavily bandaged shoulder, arm still in a sling. She had received them in her own tent, a large structure of white canvas supported by sturdy poles, which was completely undecorated, apart from a large wooden table in the centre, around which they all sat on folding chairs. Gloriana was not one for excessive decoration, and preferred the plain austerity of a simple tent, rather than a sumptuous pavilion. She made her way around the table and embraced her younger sister affectionately. Morag was glad to see that there was no trace of enmity between them. Both Annie and Simon had told her about the deep rift that had occurred between Ragimund and her sisters after the battle of the West Wall, and the reasons for it. She was pleased that the rift had evidently healed.
‘What now then?’ asked Simon, impatiently.
‘We wait. At least until any survivors have returned and brought the news with them. Then we shall hear what their future intentions are’.
What then?’ Pressed Simon.
‘I don’t know. How will I, until I hear from them?’ Gloriana said, testily. ‘We are also to deal with the matter of Melchior.
‘We should have his head for that!’ Muttered Ragimund, savagely.
‘No. Such an act would lay us open to accusations of wilful barbarity towards our enemies. Instead, I will remove him from his current command and send him to a remote bureaucratic post, where he cannot perpetrate such actions again’.
Ragimund subsided, still fuming. Morag wisely kept silent, as did her husband. They both knew that this was a diplomatic decision, made for political reasons. After all, Gloriana and her sisters had been accused of needless slaughter in the past, by Ragimund, no less. This had resulted in the bitter rift between the sisters, which had only recently been resolved. But Morag’s sympathies lay with her faery-sister. She knew, from Annie, that Ragimund, despite her prowess and bravery as a faery warrior, was a deeply insecure and vulnerable young woman, scarred by the hostility and humiliations she had endured as a child, from her sisters who had blamed her, as the last-born, for the death of their mother in giving birth to Ragimund.
‘That’s true’. Admitted Simon. ‘But the real danger was from the muskets. They had so many of them, and they caused the real damage’.
‘But you countered that’. Gloriana replied. ‘By ensuring your decks were kept clear, to afford the enemy no opportunity to seek targets for their accursed fire-eaters. They caused their own downfall by having to take on board such large quantities of this, this gunpowder, as you call it, which was volatile enough to explode and destroy their own ships’.
‘That’s certainly true’. agreed Simon. ‘In the end, their own weapons proved more of a threat to their users than they did to us’.
‘Nevertheless, I am ordering that one example each of their fire-eaters should be placed under lock and key in our armoury at Elsace, so that we may study them and learn more about their capabilities’.
‘That’s an excellent idea, my lady’. Simon said, diplomatically.
‘However’, continued Gloriana, ‘I have learnt from my spies in Circlassia that their emperor has virtually bankrupted the country with the cost of this invasion. The people are rising up against him. I certainly do not think he would ever mount such an attempt again’.
And bankrupted his country of its young men, Morag thought, thinking of the slaughter. But she kept her thoughts to herself.
The next days were full of frenetic activity. The camps were struck, the rowers given leave, and groups of horsemen galloped unceasingly from the promontories and Pulan, back in the direction of the capital, Elsace. Wagons rolled back along the roads, as the faerys abandoned their encampments and returned home. The only remnants of the battle were the grounded enemy hulks in the bay, which had been ransacked and stripped. Morag and Demos, deprived now of their tent, decided to join Simon and Ragimund in Gloriana’s retinue, for the journey back to Elsace. They trotted along in the long procession of horses, behind Simon and Ragimund, with a long line of faery spearmen behind them.
Morag was looking forward to the dig. It promised to be a creative activity, one that was outside the scope of her experience, and all the more exciting for that. So she rode back to Elsace with a feeling of buoyant anticipation. The retinue stopped for the night at a caravanserai, before the last leg of their journey. They travelled on through the next day and finally reached the palace in Elsace at nightfall. As they were dismounting outside the main doors, a faery messenger hurried up to Gloriana, in a state of some excitement. ‘Lady’ he gabbled, ‘Two envoys from the Circlassian embassy have arrived, seeking an urgent audience with you. They have been waiting all afternoon!’
‘Let them wait a little longer’. Gloriana replied coolly, unsaddling her horse. “But provide them with some refreshment. Tell them I will come presently’.
Morag’s heart sank. She did not want to be delayed by protracted negociations with the defeated enemy. She desperately wanted to leave all aspects of war behind, and immerse herself in archaeology with her husband. But it was not to be. She resigned herself to attending these discussions. She only hoped that some good would come from them.
Gloriana received their visitors in one of the reception rooms on the ground floor of the palace. It was not ostentatious, being merely a large vaulted and whitewashed chamber, furnished only with a large wooden rectangular table in the centre and chairs around three sides of it. Two chairs were placed in front, on the empty side, for the envoys, in such a way as to imply that it was they who were being examined by the main occupants of the table. The two envoys were escorted in, by armed faery guards. They both seemed nervous. Gloriana glared at them, ominously. ‘Speak in human, so we can all understand!’
The two sat down on the chairs provided. They blinked at the faerys gathered round the table, aware they were at a disadvantage.
‘What do you want?’ said Gloriana, in a high, harsh voice.
‘My lady’. Said the smaller of the two Circlassians. ‘We wish to parley on behalf of our people’. His voice was hesitant, as if he was unused to speaking human. He was short, and rather portly, his long dark hair tied back in a pony-tail, exposing a balding pate, shiny with sweat. Clad in a long black robe of mourning, his chubby fingers played nervously with the silver medallion of office around his neck. His companion, by contrast, was tall, bony and angular, with short-cropped dark hair. He had, Morag decided, the look of a devout French revolutionary in the days of Robespierre and Marat, with the almost fanatical attitude of those politicians. His small dark eyes glittered in his clean-shaven face, each side of a long, bony nose. He reminded her of Thursday, the physician or assassin.
‘What are your names? Gloriana asked sharply.
‘My name is Glycos’. The smaller one replied, eagerly. ‘I am, or was, an ambassador for the Circlassian empire’.
‘Was?’ queried Gloriana.
The other Circlassian intervened. ‘My name is Mekadil. I am the representative of the people’s government of Circlassia, who are now in control’. He spoke proudly and vehemently.
‘Really?’ asked Gloriana, in a silky voice. ‘And what has happened to the emperor?’
‘He has been deposed’. said Mekadil, stiffly.
‘He was dragged from his palace by an angry mob, and clubbed to death on his own stairs!’ cried Glycos, heedless of the angry look that Mekadil gave him.
‘So’. Gloriana said, a note of menace in her voice. ‘The emperor is gone. I ask you again, what is it that you want of me?’
Mekadil stood up. ‘We want our legal trading rights back, lady. The ones we had before this, ah, unfortunate incident’.
‘Unfortunate incident! You declared war on us and tried to invade us! Why should I not gather my troops and invade you? You come here and expect me to trade with you again after that! Get out of here, you pigs! I owe you nothing after what has happened ! Get out! Get out!’ Gloriana was furious. Her face was red, and her fists were clenched. But the two Circlassians held their ground, though they both flinched at her wrath.
‘Please, my lady! My land is full of grief and turmoil! Glycos cried, almost tearfully. ‘It is almost bankrupt! In a few days we shall have no means of feeding our people! They are angry and distressed! There is scarcely a family that has not been touched by the loss of their young men in this war! Please, I beseech you, my lady, let us trade with you again. My country’s future depends on it!’
Gloriana breathed hard, recovering her temper. She sat down abruptly, and glared at both envoys. ‘This is my answer. You will agree to the following conditions. Firstly, you will give an assurance that your people will never again attempt to wage war upon mine, and you will sign a legal document to that effect. As part of your agreement, you will also promise to ban the use of those damned fire-eaters, be they cannon or musket, whatever you call them, in warfare, against us or anybody else, for that matter. You will destroy any such weapons that you still hold, or surrender them to us for destruction’.
‘Impossible!’ shouted Mekadil, springing to his feet. ‘You are ordering us to disarm!’
‘Yes’. Gloriana smiled sweetly, having recovered her composure. ‘I am. But if you want an end to this war, and recover your trade with us, that is the price you will have to pay. I have not finished. There is also a third condition. You will also’, She glanced sidelong at Morag, ‘abolish your filthy practice of slavery. I will not have that cursed practice brought into my land! I will not have any wretched young slave girls brought here, to satisfy the lusts of your merchants! Is that clear?’
‘Perfectly, my lady’. replied Mekadil, who had also regained his composure. ‘It may please you to hear that our newly elected people’s government has already banned the practice of slavery, as abhorrent to our way of life. As for your other demands, I shall put them to my government for consideration’.
‘See that you do. I will have my clerks draw up a detailed legal document, outlining my conditions, which you will present to your new government, provided it is lawfully elected. Only when I receive it back, with their signatures agreeing to those conditions, will I lift the state of war that exists between our two lands, and consider resuming normal existing trade agreements between us. That is all, gentlemen. This audience is now over’.
The two envoys bowed stiffly, summarily dismissed. They turned and left the chamber. Gloriana watched them leave, and only when they were safely outside, did her face break into a smile. ‘I do love a bit of bullying and intimidation before supper!’ she said mischievously.
They all dutifully laughed. ‘Do you think they really will sign that agreement?’ Morag asked, a little nervously.
‘They have no choice. Their country is in no fit state to maintain a war against us. They are demoralised and broken, after this massive defeat and the losses that they have sustained’.
Morag was silent for a few moments in acknowledgement of that loss. Then she spoke again. ‘I’m glad that something good is going to come out of all this death and suffering. Thank you for including slavery in your conditions’.
‘Of course. Your efforts to defeat the abomination of slavery have not gone unnoticed, Morag. We will do our best to support you in your endeavours. What better way to do it than through a peace treaty?’
Morag subsided, but was secretly overjoyed, that at last the horror of slavery was about to be stamped out at its source, remembering the silent misery of the young girls she had helped to rescue. She confided all this to Demos as they made their way up the main staircase from the entrance hall of the palace, towards their guest room on the first floor. But Demos was worried about something else. ‘You must look after your faery-sister’. He announced suddenly. ‘Why?’ asked Morag. Demos looked at her sadly, ‘Because she is afraid’.
‘Afraid? Afraid of what?’
‘Afraid of everything. She has lost her courage, Morag, ever since her injury. She will be terrified if Simon insists on taking her into our city’.
‘Ragimund terrified? You must be joking! She’s as brave as a lion! What could terrify her?’
‘She is still in shock. She has been struck down by a missile which she could not even see! Even the bravest warrior’s courage will seep away after that’.
‘I hope you’re wrong. I can’t bear to see her so frightened’.
‘Yes, she will recover physically, but she will never forget the pain and humiliation that it caused her. It is small wonder that she remains fearful of the unknown’.
‘We’ll try to do something about that. I hate it that she’s lost her courage. She doesn’t deserve that!’
‘So do I. We must help her, Morag’.
‘We will. And now to bed, my faery husband!’ Morag proclaimed, gaily.
The next day they set off for their own land, Morag particularly excited at seeing her own country again and hearing all the familiar accents and sounds, but also that she was going to experience an archaeological dig for the first time. She just hoped that Ragimund would have a similar pleasurable experience. She knew instinctively that the young faery woman had had a traumatic experience and that she needed to recover. She felt the responsibility that most carers had towards their patients, and she certainly felt responsible towards her faery-sister. Ragimund was particularly vulnerable at this time, and she hoped she would recover her courage as a faery. Ragimund and Simon walked with them towards the portal on the grassy slopes above the palace. Morag glanced at her. Ragimund looked tired and strained, not at all like the bold warrior she had been. Morag felt an intense pang of sympathy for her.
They had planned to stay with Christine and John, Annie’s parents, but at the last moment, had changed their mind, and had decided to camp at the archaeological site instead. Morag was especially pleased. She enjoyed camping, and it meant she was closer in spirit to the people whose livelihood they were excavating. She wanted to experience the full excitement of an archaeological dig, and participate as much as possible. So she and Demos were loaded down with a tent, blankets, cooking utensils and enough food for their first night, much to the amusement of Simon, who privately thought they were both mad.
They passed through the portal, carrying their luggage, Ragimund insisting on carrying her own, despite her injured left shoulder. They emerged on the hill fort, Morag suddenly seeing a cluster of people in T-shirts and jeans in the distance, around what looked like open trenches. ‘There’s the dig!’ She cried out in excitement.
A man in the group looked up at her cry. He was a small, rotund man in his mid-forties, she guessed, wearing khaki shorts and a rather dirty grey T-shirt, and a battered wide-rimmed grey hat on his head, that he took off and waved frantically in their direction. ‘Demos!’ he shouted.
‘Diclos, my friend!’ Demos called back, and grinned at Morag. ‘Come and meet my old friend, Professor Diclos Robinson, Morag. He is in charge of this dig’.
She dutifully walked with him to meet the professor, after giving both Ragimund and Simon a hasty farewell embrace. ‘Look after yourself, faery-sister’. She whispered in Ragimund’s ear. ‘I will, and thank you, my faery-sister’. She replied, and hurried off after Simon who had craftily picked up her baggage when she wasn’t looking. Morag heard them remonstrating with each other as they made their way across the adjoining golf course, and smiled to herself. Demos was waiting for her in the centre of the hill fort, where they were joined by the professor who had just trotted over. ‘Welcome, Demos! It has been a long time!’
‘Yes, it has’. agreed Demos, ‘Professor, let me introduce you to my wife, Morag. She has volunteered to help with your dig’.
‘Splendid! Welcome, Morag! Tell me, have you any experience of archaeological digs before?’
‘No, I haven’t’. Morag answered honestly. ‘ But I’m willing to learn’.
‘Splendid!’ The professor repeated. ‘Would you like to start immediately?’
‘Yes, I would’. Morag said, looking defiantly at her husband.
‘Splendid! In that case I will put you with Sophie. She is working in the round house over there’. He pointed to an excavation nearby where a young blond woman was kneeling, scraping away busily with a trowel.
‘A round house?’
‘Yes, we have found evidence of habitation! I thought it was simply a large cattle pen at first, no more than that, but we have found a substantial round house, which proves that Iron Age people were actually living on the site! For how long we don’t know, but at least they were here. If we can find evidence of other round houses, we could establish that there was perhaps a village in the hill fort itself’.
‘While Morag is making herself useful, I will go and erect our tent’.
‘I’ll go with you. I can brief you on the dig’. The professor added. ‘Why don’t you introduce yourself to Sophie, my dear?’
‘Yes, thank you. I will’. Morag replied. She realised she had been summarily dismissed, but did not mind. She watched the two walk off in the direction of the camp, the professor still talking volubly, then turned and walked over towards where Sophie had resumed scraping at the ground with her trowel.
‘Hallo, are you Sophie?’ she called, as she came near the kneeling figure.
‘I’m Morag. Can I come into your territory?’
‘Of course you can. Entrance is right in front of you’.
Morag entered through a gap between two white markers behind Sophie, then stopped and knelt down beside her. She looked around in bewilderment. There was apparently nothing to be seen, just a circle of white markers around them. ‘Are we really in a round house?’ She asked.
‘Yes, right in the centre. Look, do you see what I’ve been excavating?’ Sophie pointed down. Morag looked down also. She saw what looked like a round hearth of stones pushed together. ‘What’s that?’
‘That’s the central hearth of the round house. See how most of the stones are blackened? That’s because they kept the fire going all the time, to provide light and heat in the interior’.
‘The interior! The interior of what?’
‘The round house, of course! Honestly, Morag, use your imagination! You’re in a dark, smoky interior. There’s no windows, so the only light comes from the fire. Above you is a great thatched roof reaching right down to the ground, to keep you dry and warm. All the daily activities – cooking, weaving, baking, and so on, are done inside the large space inside the round house, where the family all sleep and eat. Now can you see it?’
‘I can see it now! Cried Morag, looking up and around. ‘But how can you see it, Sophie, when I couldn’t!’
‘Ah, because I’m a trained archaeologist’. Sophie grinned at her. ‘What’s your job, Morag?’
‘I’m a policewoman, normally’.
‘A cop! Well, I’ve worked with all sorts before, but never a cop’.
‘Well, I don’t bite, and I’m interested in archaeology’.
‘I can appreciate that, but why?’
‘Because I’m ignorant of things outside police work, like history, and art, literature and science. I never seemed to have time to get to know about things. I don’t want to go through life as pig-ignorant. I want to know about all kinds of things, that I never had the chance to study!’
‘I can understand that’. said Sophie, after a pause. ‘I did History and Archaeology at Nottingham, but it didn’t get me a job. I got a lot of digs, but they don’t pay much. Speaking of which, why don’t you pick up the spare trowel on the ground behind you, and have a sift in the spoil heap there? It’s from where I dug the hearth. There might be some pottery fragments in it’.
Morag picked up the trowel and began to search through the heap of earth, looking for anything interesting. Her trowel hit a number of pieces of broken pottery. ‘I’ve found a lot of shards of pottery!’ She cried across to Sophie. ‘What do I do with them?’
‘Put them in the plastic tray over there. We can sort them out later’.
Morag put the small fragments in the box. They didn’t look like much, but as she looked down at the tiny fragments, she realised that they represented a small link with the lives of people that had lived long ago. Women in the past had used the utensils from which they came, to cook for their families, in the same way as women of the present. These fragments represented a whole history, which linked humanity together from both the past, until her own time. She laid the small pieces of rough pottery in the plastic tray almost reverentially, as if they were holy relics. They had survived the centuries, outliving their owners, as tiny fragments of what had been, so long ago.
‘Oi, Morag! Stop daydreaming and get on!’
‘Sorry! I’ll get on’.
She went back to the spoil-heap. As she dug her trowel into it, there was a sharp metallic clump. She had struck upon a metal object mixed in with the pottery. She carefully dug around it with her trowel, working it loose, so that she could extricate it with her fingers. Then she looked down at the object in her hands. It was heavy, compared with the other pieces she had been handling, and it had been crushed nearly flat, but it was still recognisable.
‘Sophie!’ She called. ‘Come and look at this!’
Sophie got to her feet with a groan and came across, to peer down at Morag’s find. She stiffened in surprise and gave a small gasp.
‘Where did you find this?’ She asked, sharply.
‘Mixed in with the pottery pieces I’ve been finding’.
‘The professor needs to look at this’. Sophie said briefly. She put her fingers to her lips and gave a piercing whistle. The other diggers straightened up and stared at her curiously. ‘Over here, professor!’ The small, portly little man immediately trotted over, followed by Demos, who smiled warmly at Morag as he reached them. The professor took the object from Morag’s hands, and carefully turned it over and over. ‘Magnificent’ he remarked. ‘What do you think, Demos?’ Demos scraped away some of the adhering dirt with his fingernail. ‘It’s decoration appears to be Celtic in inspiration, carved in low-relief. It is made of silver, see, and was probably made overseas’.
‘Yes, I think so too’. The professor muttered. ‘You say you found it mixed within the shards of pottery that you dug?’ addressing Morag. ‘I didn’t say. But I did’. She replied.
‘So it’s contemporary with the pottery. But how did it come to be here, and in their possession?’
‘It was probably the result of trading’. Demos said quickly.
‘Yes, but with who? It’s surely too early for trade links with Europe to be established’.
‘Nevertheless, it exists. Surely the occasion for you to write a paper, professor’.
‘Yes, “ New evidence of trade with Celtic Europe” I can see it now! But we must get this item over to the lab, for dating and further examination’. He turned again to Morag. ‘You have indeed brought us luck, my dear, finding that artefact on your first dig!’
‘It wasn’t just me. It was Sophie’s dig. She’s just as responsible as me for finding it’.
‘Then I shall give you both credit! Thank you both. At least I shall have something to report to our sponsors. Perhaps they will extend our dig, otherwise I will have to close it tomorrow’.
He walked away, taking out his mobile phone. Morag noticed his face was downcast, despite their find. She took Demos’s arm. ‘What’s going on’ she asked.
‘Come back with me to our tent. I shall explain to you there’. Demos said, quietly. They walked quickly back to their tent, which Morag saw with delight, was a bell-shaped affair, with a central pole holding up the roof, and tall enough to stand up in. It reminded her of Sophie’s description of a round house.
Demos smiled at her enthusiasm. ‘Make the most of it, my love, because, tomorrow, we might have to take it down again’.
‘Why?’ asked Morag. ‘Because the professor’s sponsors are threatening to withdraw their finance, unless he finds something more than just a single round house. It is simply not important enough’.
‘That doesn’t seem right!’ Morag said indignantly. ‘Payment by results! And what happens to Sophie and the others?’
‘They will be laid off. They will have to find other work’.
‘So Sophie will be out of a job!’
‘Yes, I am afraid so. The problem is, we do not know where the other round houses, if they ever existed, are. Geophysics have no trace of them. The professor thinks that there is a settlement here, but has no way of proving it’.
‘Wait, I have an idea’. She sat down on their bed. Demos sat down beside her. ‘What if I sent my sprite back to the sixth century BC, to locate these round houses, if they existed at that time? Then we would know where they are, and excavate them. I’m sure proving the existence of a previously unknown Iron Age village would placate the sponsors, and keep Sophie and the others in a job’.
‘Are you sure your sprite can undertake such a long journey? It might be too far for it’.
‘I’ll ask it’. She decided.
She closed her eyes and recited the ancient faery words that her mother had taught her to disengage her sprite, She jerked violently and cried out, but saw her sprite standing in front of her, no higher than three feet, her outline shimmering, a small naked figure, resembling Morag herself as a child. She spoke aloud to it, for Demos’s sake, since her sprite was invisible to him.
‘Little one, will you undertake a long journey for me? It’s a long way. Can you do it?’ she asked softly.
The sprite nodded her head enthusiastically. Morag gave her directions, and the sprite disappeared, eager to be off. Demos only saw the tent-flap rustle with the speed of her exit.
‘Has it gone?’ he asked, quietly. ‘Only I could not see it’.
‘It’s a she to me. You see, when she manifests herself, she looks like me when I was a child. And because she’s part of me, I’ve become very fond of her, and feel responsible for her’.
‘I could not see her. I was aware of her passing, but that is all. She is on her journey now?’
‘Yes, she is. Oh, God, Demos, I hope she’s going to be all right! It’s such a long journey!’
‘She would not have embarked on such a journey, if she was not confident’.
She smiled. ‘Yes, I suppose so. But I still can’t help worrying’.
‘What do we do now?’
‘We just wait’.
That evening was the longest she could remember. She waited anxiously for the voice in her head, from her sprite. But there was only silence. She began to fret, despite Demos’s assurances.
‘We can try. Oh, Demos, I can’t leave her there to perish! She’s part of me!’ He pulled her wet hands away from her tearful face, and kissed her fingers lovingly. ‘Of course not, my love. Two talismans will be better than one. I shall help you to bring her back’.
He sat down beside her on their bed. She decided to send out a last message to her sprite, to tell her what they were attempting to do. She spoke in her mind, but said it aloud as usual, so Demos could hear it. ‘Little one, are you still there?’ she said softly. ‘Yes, Morag’. she heard the sprite whimper, its voice sounding faint and very far away. ‘Listen carefully. we’re going to send a lifeline to you. It will appear as a golden beam. When it comes to you, let it attach itself to you. We’ll do the rest. We’re going to haul you back through time, back home. Do you understand, little one?’
‘Yes. Please bring me back home! I am so lonely here’. The sprite’s voice sounded faint and far away. ‘I am so weak, Mother! Please bring me back!’ Morag choked back a sob, as she realised the sprite had called her mother, for the first time. She turned to Demos. ‘We must do it now. She’s getting weaker!’
They clasped their right hands together as they sat on the bed, so that their talismans made contact. Then they focussed their minds on projecting the talismans’ power back in time. They saw it in their minds, a vivid yellow beam streaking through the centuries behind, back to the Iron Age and her sprite. She heard a cry of distress in her mind. She immediately turned her attention to it, trusting Demos to maintain the talismans’ beam.
‘It’s all right, little one. The golden beam is from me, and it’s going to bring you back home. Don’t be frightened. It will not harm you’.
‘Oh, mother, I was so terrified when it came!’
Morag smiled tenderly to herself. Her sprite seemed so like a frightened child, as she had once been herself. But she was determined to bring this child back safely. Her sprite was clearly terrified, and she was troubled by this. She turned again to her husband. ‘We must get her back now!’ She declared firmly.
It was far more exhausting than Morag had imagined. Not only did they have the mental effort of maintaining the talismanic beam of light across so many centuries, but also had to slowly draw it in, with the helpless sprite at the end of it, as fishermen slowly reeling in a long line, across a dark abyss of time past. Their muscles became taut, and their faces were sweat-streaked as they struggled to pull the beam into their own time. Morag could feel a trickle of sweat running down her back. Their knuckles were white, as they clasped their right hands tightly together. Their breathing became laboured. But pity, for the trapped sprite, made them refuse to give up the struggle, not even for a moment. It was long past midnight, when suddenly the golden beam went slack, and then disappeared altogether, and they fell back on the bed in relief.
‘I don’t know’ Morag said. ‘She must be nearby. I’ll go and look’. She rose and stretched her tired muscles. She went out of the tent and looked around, feeling anxious. Where was her sprite? Then she saw it, lying just inside the outside tent-flap. ‘Little one!’ she cried in joy. She bent down and touched the small quivering outline of her sprite, and picked her up in her arms. ‘Oh, little one, are you hurt?’ The sprite shook her head, slowly. Morag carried her back into the tent with a sigh of relief.
‘I’ve found her!’ she said triumphantly. Demos stared at her blankly. ‘But where is she?’ he exclaimed. Morag looked at him in consternation. ‘In my arms, of course! Can’t you see I’m holding her?’ ‘No, I cannot see her. Morag are you sure this sprite really exists?’
Morag stared at him in horror. ‘You don’t believe me, do you? You think I’ve been lying to you! How could you do that to me, Demos?
‘How can I believe you? I have never seen your so-called sprite! How do I know it really exists?’ Demos said in exasperation.
‘ My own husband thinks I’m a liar! Thanks a lot!’
‘I did not say that! You may be merely suffering from some form of hallucination!’
‘Oh, I’m not just a liar, but I’m mad as well!’
As their argument rose in volume, the sprite became more afraid. She sensed that the row had erupted about her own existence, so she did the only thing she could. She manifested herself.
Demos was in the middle of anther retort, when he saw the sprite, still cradled in Morag’s arms. His jaw dropped, as he stared at the young child, who looked shyly back at him. But her eyes were brimming with tears.
‘Morag’, He said softly, ‘Your sprite is about to cry’.
‘What!’ Morag clasped her sprite to her tightly. ‘You can see her?’
‘I can now. Comfort her, my love. Our argument is over’.
Morag cradled the sprite’s head against hers. ‘Come back home, little one’. She whispered. In front of Demos’s astonished eyes,
‘Are you injured, my love?’ Demos asked anxiously. Morag shook her head, and laughed, her previous anger forgotten.
‘I am truly sorry, my love’, Said Demos, contritely. ‘I did not realise the true nature of your sprite. Please forgive me’.
Morag leant over towards him, tousling his blonde curls affectionately. ‘I’m sorry too. I should have told you before. You do realise we’ve just had our first marital row?’
‘Yes, I do, and over your sprite!
‘And what a stupid thing to quarrel over! My secret love-child, indeed!’
‘I did not know what to think, Morag’.
‘You were jealous, weren’t you?’ Morag crowed, delightedly. ‘You were’.
‘I was not!
‘Yes, you were! Admit it!’
Demos restrained himself. ‘I admit I was confused, But in the end, I love you, Morag, I could not bear the thought of you having a child by another man’.
Morag burst into uncontrollable laughter. ‘All this, over my sprite!’ Then she sobered, seeing his expression. “I’m sorry, my love. I should have told you about my sprite before’.
She put her arms around his neck. ‘Come on, it was only a misunderstanding. Let’s go to bed. I’m exhausted after rescuing my love-child’.
‘I hope that you are not too exhausted’. Demos said, hopefully.
‘That’s because she trusts you now. Especially since she knows I’m married to you’. She raised her voice. ‘Little one, show us what you saw’. They closed their eyes. Morag gasped. She saw a string of round houses, exactly as Sophie had described, They were clustered along a well-trodden earth path, dry and baked in places, that meandered between the enclosing thatched roofs of the round houses. Wisps of blue smoke curled up from the apex of each roof. Morag could hardly believe that she was witnessing Iron Age life over two and a half thousand years ago. It was real and vivid, as if she could step into it at any moment. As a child, she had always imagined events in the past in shades of black and white, jerky figures moving in a monochrome world. She had never thought of the past in such a vivid and colourful way. She had seen history in a uniformly drab and inexorable manner, totally detached from her own bright world. This was real, comparable to her own world, but ancient. She suddenly realised why her husband took such pleasure in discovering the domestic life and behaviour of the past, in seeing, through their artefacts, the common humanity that linked them.
The woman watched him for a few moments. Her face was lined and careworn, her long dark hair, already shot with grey, though she could not have been older than her late twenties. A child’s cry came from inside, and the woman turned and ducked through the doorway, pulling aside the large strip of leather that served as a door. The man put down his empty dish and spoon and walked off to the right, presumably to answer the call of nature. It was an opportunity for the sprite to look inside the house. She stole slowly across to the entrance and peered inside. Morag was now excited. Now she could see how the Iron Age people really lived. At first, she was disappointed. After the bright sunlight outside, the interior seemed too dark to see, and she wrinkled her nose, as the sprite did, at the overwhelmingly warm smell, that emanated from it, composed of wood smoke, earth, human sweat and dried meat and fish. As her vision became clearer, she could make out more of the detail inside. She saw the great thatched roof above, blackened and dark with smoke, and the flickering yellow fire on the central hearth, providing the only light in the dim interior. Around it were clustered several small figures, that she recognised as children – three of them, ranging in age, she guessed, from the eldest, a boy of about ten, to the smallest, a girl, of about five. All were dressed in the same shabby checked tunics as their mother, and, like her, were barefoot. They chewed on pieces of rather gritty brown bread, broken off the small loaf that the mother had obviously pulled out from the little domed clay oven near to the central fire. Despite the meagre surroundings, they seemed healthy and cheerful, the young girl being teased by her older brothers, giggling and shrieking with laughter, provoking some sharp comments from their mother. As her sprite’s vision became sharper, Morag noticed other details – the sleeping arrangements at one side of the round house, straw palliasses mounted on wooden frames, to keep them off the packed earth floor, separated from each other by woven blankets suspended from poles driven into the ground, to give at least a modicum of privacy, the haunches of meat, and bundles of fish, already brown and smoked, hanging on hooks on the far side in the interior, and the small, upright loom, near the doorway, with bundles of dyed coloured yarn beside it.
The sprite’s head turned suddenly, and she turned and retreated from the doorway back to her original resting place outside. She had heard or seen something that had alarmed her. But she continued to watch, so Demos and Morag could see what happened next. The original man returned, this time leading a saddled horse behind him. Judging by the respectful way he led it, it was not his own mount. As he came up to the doorway, another man emerged, having to stoop low. The reason was obvious as he straightened up. He was very tall, in comparison to the first man. Morag caught her breath. She could recognise a fellow faery, and the horse belonged to him. It was a sleek, well-groomed beast, the first man clearly in awe of it. The faery took its reins, and spoke in a friendly way to the man, though neither spoke a language that she understood. She wondered what a faery was doing there. This was partly answered by the faery’s next action. He knelt down, and opened his leather satchel, carried by his side, and drew out an object wrapped in cloth which he presented to the other man, who received it almost reverentially. The man unwrapped it carefully, and held the object up in the sun, his eyes wide in delight. Morag caught her breath again, as she saw the sunlight glitter on the silver goblet that the man held aloft. She recognised the incised decoration immediately.
Just then, the image began to fade. She realised that her sprite was falling asleep, exhausted by her long journey. She decided to end the replay. ‘Thank you, little one. Come back to me’. She said softly, and held out her arms to the sprite. Demos opened his eyes, just in time to see the large dark eyes of the sprite, before she melted back in to Morag. She turned to him. ‘Did you see all that?’ She asked quietly.
‘Yes, I did. At least, we now know where that chalice you discovered yesterday came from’.
‘But what was the faery doing there, at that time, and in this particular place?’
‘If you will allow me to conjecture, I would say that he was there to set up the portal, the one which we used to get here. He was offered hospitality by the residents here, which accounts for his presence in the round house. What we witnessed was his departure and his presentation of a gift in return for their hospitality’.
‘Yes, that makes sense’. Morag admitted. ‘But that means there’s been a portal here for two and a half thousand years! There must have been a lot of interaction between your world and ours in that time!’
‘Hence the multiple influences on our world from yours. Don’t forget, there are many other portals too, in other of your countries’.
‘Like Italy, or China! I’m beginning to see where all your architecture comes from!’
‘Yes, we have had access to your world for many centuries’.
‘That explains such a lot’. Faerys must have been present in human history for many years, though largely unseen and unrecognised. Morag was at last beginning to understand how faery and human culture had penetrated each other over a very long period of time.
There was a long silence between them. ‘What do we tell the members of the dig?’ Morag asked, finally.
Demos laughed joyously. ‘We will tell them the truth! That you sent your sprite back in time to discover the other round houses, and she was successful!’
‘But we can’t!’ cried Morag, aghast.
‘Why not? They will not believe us!’
It dawned on Morag finally. ‘Of course!’ She cried. ‘They won’t! So we have to admit it, and say we guessed where they were!’ Demos grinned. ‘Absolutely! So everyone will be happy!’
‘If nothing else goes wrong’.
‘What else could go wrong?’ he laughed.
Frank Jackson - 19/08/2015 – Word Count - 12810