DR FRANK JACKSON, 59A, PRINCES ROAD, BRIGHTON, EAST SUSSEX BN2 3RH
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The Brotherhood of the Hand, a small society, dedicated to mystery, consists of four elderly men, in equally elderly grey suits, who correspond to the fingers of the human hand. Simon and Annie, brother and sister, have become members of the Brotherhood, as have their friends, Indira, Pei-Ying and Mariko. There is also Adrian the seagull and Sniffer the dog, the eyes and nose of the Brotherhood, Sister Teresa a Catholic nun, born in Jamaica, endowed with formidable powers, and Pat, an Irish academic. It is set in the seaside city of Brighton.
It was April, the first day of the month. Brighton was silent in the dark light of early morning. Over the placid, tiled roofs of the Five-ways neighbourhood, the sky was black and overcast. No moon or stars could be seen. Across the small playing field, bordered by a belt of woods, that in turn, overlooked the allotments lying in a shallow valley beyond, a low mist hung over the early dew. No traffic hissed and groaned along the shining surface of the Ditchling road, that separated the large red-roofed houses from the open ground. Only the small, rather pathetic shape of an old-fashioned bus-shelter, it’s windows broken and grimy, broke the otherwise continuous stretch of the landscape, standing forlornly on the north-facing side of the road.
A slight drumming echoed across the cold grass. It grew louder. It was the sound of a horse, galloping across the field from the direction of the old hill fort. Its’ hooves rang against the stillness. Then the sound changed into something sharper and more brittle. The horse, and its rider, could now be seen, clattering along the road southwards, bells chinking and jingling on it’s harness.
Some hours earlier – March the thirty-first.
Annie sat in front of the head-teacher’s desk. Facing her was the head-teacher, a thin, but gentle woman in her mid-forties. Next to her was the assistant head-teacher, a black woman of the same age, but much plumper. They both looked at Annie with sympathy and encouragement. Annie sat still on her chair, her hands clasped in front of her, her face remote and dispassionate.
‘Annie, I’m sorry to ask you to come in after school. We and Mrs Akaba just wanted to have a chat with you. About how you are. She paused. ‘Mrs Akaba?’
Mrs Akaba smiled quietly at Annie. Her voice was deep and musical.
‘Annie, it’s not about your schoolwork. We know it has been….’ She hesitated, ‘exemplary’. There is no question about that. But what we are concerned about, is you’. She hesitated. ‘Annie, you don’t seem to be yourself any more. You’re now fourteen, and you should be looking forwards, not inwards. You used to be such a feisty and humorous young child. Now you are withdrawn and remote, and don’t seem to take any interest in anything any more, except your schoolwork, and your very little group of friends. We’ve spoken to them as well, with the same reaction. Please believe us, Annie. We do care about you, and we have to ask you some things’.
‘Such as?’ answered Annie, her face still remote.
Mrs Akaba leant forward, her arms folded on the table.
‘Annie, is there any trouble at home?’
‘No’. replied Annie. ‘We had a nice Christmas. We had our birthdays. Nothing’s wrong’.
‘Is it….girl problems?’
Is it……sex problems? A boyfriend, perhaps?’
‘Of course not!’
‘Then why are you so withdrawn, so distant?’
‘I just am, that’s all’.
The teachers looked helplessly at each other. They had had exactly the same experience with Simon, her brother, and their friends, Indira and Pei-Ying. But without any cause, they could not take the matter further.
‘Very well, Annie’. said Mrs Longthrow, the head teacher, finally. ‘We won’t keep you any longer’.
As Annie got up and went to the door, Mrs Akaba attempted one last time.
‘Annie’, she said. ‘Remember you are still a child, and that you have all your childhood and adolescence before you. Try and enjoy it’.
Annie froze, her hand on the handle of the door. ‘You remember this’, she said in a cold, hard voice. ‘I am no longer a child. I have lost my childhood now. It has long gone. I have had to grow up very quickly. It is not something that you would ever understand’. She turned the handle, and went out quietly, leaving both teachers staring behind her.
Outside, she found Simon, Indira and Pei-Ying waiting for her.
‘Did you get the third degree as well? Simon asked sharply.
‘Oh yes. I more or less told them to get lost’.
‘So did we’. said Indira simply. They walked home together. Later that evening they were sitting in the kitchen, eating supper, too busy with their food to talk to each other. Annie finished, and leant on the table, her hands each side of her empty plate. The talisman on her finger was lifeless.
‘Simon’, she said quietly, ‘Do you think that Mum and Dad really care about us?’
Simon put down his knife and fork. ‘I don’t know’. he said simply.
‘I’ve had such terrible nightmares since the….’ Annie hesitated.
‘Battle?’ Simon prompted.
‘Yes. They keep coming back to me. That young faerie’s face,when she was dead. All that life, all that friendliness, all that. Just gone. I will always remember her face. Always. For the rest of my life. And Mr Cuttle. the way he died. It was just like his life spirit, I don’t know what to call it, just slipping out of a room quietly, and closing the door behind it’.
Simon remembered too. ‘I know’. He murmured. ‘But he also wanted to tell us something about the talisman….but he never had a chance to. What do you think he was trying to tell you? Was it something about the talisman, about its powers?
‘I don’t know’. said Annie, helplessly. She began to sob, tears trickling down her cheeks. ‘I wish I did!’
Simon was silent again. He came and sat beside Annie and put his arm around her shoulders. She was bigger now, he realised, and her face, which he had take very little notice of before, was forming into a sharp-featured but pretty girl. He felt a sudden rush of affection for her.
‘We had better get off to bed. Otherwise mum will be after us’.
‘Oh, her!’ Cried Annie bitterly.
That night, Annie could not sleep at all. She lay awake, thinking of all the things that had happened to them. She kept seeing that young faery’s face, Mr Cuttle as he gently slipped away, the torn and bedraggled corpses of the dead faeries, barely covered by the thin cotton sheets that covered their bodies, and the carcasses of dead dragons, washed up by the sea, that had fallen to earth in that final battle. Finally, she could bear it no longer. She began to dress in warm woollen clothes, and pulling on her shoes, and her baseball cap, she opened the door and slipped out onto the landing.
There was no sound in the house, but she noticed a narrow gleam of light from under Simon’s door. She went up to it and tapped gently. ‘Enter’. She heard Simon’s imperious tone, the one he always had when anyone wanted to come into his bedroom. She had to push the door hard to clear all the books and other debris that normally covered every inch of Simon’s bedroom floor. It was as usual – a mess. Simon was sitting up in bed, still in his T-shirt and shorts, with a book on his knees.
‘Where are you going?’ he asked, impatiently.
‘Out. I can’t sleep’.
‘I’d better come with you, for protection, then’.
Annie snorted. But he was now two inches taller than her, and didn’t wear his glasses, except for reading. She had never forgiven him for being bigger than she was.
‘You do realise that it is exactly….He paused to consult his huge underwater wristwatch, that he always wore. ‘Three o’clock in the morning?’
‘Nothing. I just thought you might like to know’.
‘Well, get some clothes on. Anything but that horrible T-shirt with “Panzer Divisions rule Ok”’
‘I thought it was rather “machismo” myself’.
Annie snorted again.
They crept quietly out of the back door, without awakening their parents, and then set off towards the distant hill-fort, from where the faerys came. There was nobody around, not even traffic. They walked in silence, only the heavy plop of the dew from the trees along the road making any noise. They walked along the wet pavement, glistening in the twilight. It was cold and eerie, the absence of noise making every sound more loud, louder than it should be. As they came closer to the old bus-stop, Simon suddenly came to a halt.
‘What is it?’ cried Annie, impatiently.
‘I heard a noise! From in there!’ Simon pointed at the old bus-stop. It was built probably in the early days of buses, and was a rather filthy cream colour, with a frame of fake tree-trunks. It stood there, miserable and dilapidated.
‘It looks like the stable in Bethlehem, doesn’t it?’ Simon whispered.
Then Annie heard it. A quiet sobbing. They moved towards the empty shelter.
‘Gettorf!’ shouted a rusty voice. There were three black shapes in the shelter, at one side. Another of them grunted and turned over. Simon was shining his torch around the inside, then he stopped. ‘There. In the corner’.
They saw a small bundle there, that began to rise as they approached. Simon shone his torch on it. What they saw was a small, painfully thin girl, clad only in a small thin frock, with a piece of sacking as her only cover. She was frightened. Her large dark eyes reflected Simon’s torchlight. She whimpered and tried to crawl back into her corner, under the bench seat.
‘It’s all right. We’re here to help you’. Simon whispered. He was kneeling beside the little girl. He began to take his quilted anorak off, and was wrapping it around her. One of the other three bodies in the shelter stirred. ‘Shuurp, stop making that row!’
‘Shut your mouth!’ said Annie viciously, ‘Or I’ll thump you!’
The figure grunted and turned over.
‘So much for the three wise men’ Simon remarked. Then he looked more closely at the little girl. ‘Annie!’ Look! Look at her right hand!’
Annie looked, and caught her breath. The small girl was wearing a talisman, exactly like the one that she wore! The girl saw Annie’s ring at the same time. ‘Talisman!’ she cried, and then collapsed, whimpering.
‘Annie! Help me get her up! I ‘m going to give her a piggy-back’.
Annie helped the girl onto Simon’s back, the girl clinging on, with her arms around his neck. Before Annie left, she dropped three pound coins next to the three sleeping bodies. ‘Much good will it do you’. She muttered.
‘So much again for the three wise men. Not much that they did for her, was it?’ Annie stayed silent. They walked quietly home, the child clinging tightly onto Simon, still giving an occasional gasp.
Annie caught up with him. The girl seemed to be half asleep, clinging onto Simon’s back. ‘I think she’s a faery’. She said quietly.
They crept in again by the back door. Simon gently put the little girl on a chair by the kitchen table, while Annie crept upstairs to get more blankets to wrap around her. Simon put the table-light on. By it’s light, they could see her more clearly. She was small, painfully thin, and dirty. Her bare feet were sore and bloodied. She wore only a small blue frock. Her teeth were chattering with cold, and her dark hair was matted and hung down each side of her small pinched face. But her eyes were huge in that small face: dark brown and alive with curiosity, as she gazed around the kitchen.
Simon made her what he called his breakfast special: warm water, with several large spoonfuls of honey, a dash of lemon-juice, and a small spoonful of brown sugar. The faery looked at it, then picked it up with both hands. She began to gulp it down hungrily. ‘Porridge next, I think, Simon’. said Annie. A few minutes later, Simon placed a large bowl of warm porridge, again laced with brown sugar and honey, in front of her. The girl sniffed at it, then hesitantly tasted a small spoonful. Her face broke into a smile, and then began to eat rapidly. ‘Eotheran!’ she suddenly said. ‘Eotheran!’.
Annie leant across to her and pointed to herself. ‘Annie’. she said quietly. ‘Annie’. She repeated. ‘Simon’. She went on, pointing to her brother. ‘Simon’. The faery at first did not seem to understand. Then she smiled. ‘Annie?’ she said, pointing at her. Annie nodded. ‘Simon?’ the faery said, pointing at her brother. Simon nodded.
It meant nothing to either Simon or Annie. But they were grateful for that, at least. They could give her a name. The girl looked disappointed and despairing.
‘Right!’ cried Annie. ‘Let’s get…..Jezuban…. off to bed. She needs it’.
Indeed Jezuban did need it. She was almost sagging with tiredness, and there were dark black rings below her eyes. ‘You tidy up here, Simon, and I’ll see to her and get her into bed’. ‘Simon looked at his sister carefully. There was a briskness about her, rather than the sadness and dullness of the last few months. Oho, thought Simon, she’s back into “I’m on a mission” mode. But he felt glad about that. A few minutes later, Annie poked her head around the door. ‘She’s in bed now’. she announced.
‘Where?’ asked Simon, as if he didn’t know already.
‘Your’s. The sofa will be fine for you. Goodnight, sweet brother. I knew you wouldn’t mind’.
She left very quickly, leaving Simon spluttering in indignation.
Next morning, Simon, despite his interrupted night’s sleep, and having to sleep on the sofa, was in good spirits. He made scrambled eggs on toast for them all, and finally, his mother, who came down yawning, into the kitchen. It was a sunny Saturday morning.
‘This is Jezuban’. Annie announced ’She stayed over last night, after she missed her bus’.
Did Annie notice a sudden gasp from her mother, and a short intake of breath? She looked at Simon. He nodded. He had noticed it, too. ‘Well. I’ll leave you to it. Make sure that….Jezuban… gets home… safely’. her mother said, brightly. It was the emphasis on the last words that attracted both Simon and Annie’s attention. They looked at each other.
‘I wonder what she meant?’ asked Simon. ‘Nothing’. Said Annie, but secretly, she was storing that up for the future. Now, they had other things to think of.
Simon!’ Annie said decisively. ‘I’m going to have to stay with Jezuban here, while you go off to our morning meeting with the Four Fingers’.
‘Why?’ asked Simon, innocently.
Annie looked at him with withering scorn. ‘Because she’s a girl, you moron! You need to tell them about her, and see if they know what we can do with her, where she can stay, what they might want to ask her, and all that. Also, you’d better tell them that we don’t know her language. And, most importantly, tell them that she has a talisman, and that we think she’s a faery. They’re bound to be excited about that’.
So it was that Simon found himself walking across the shingle towards the figures seated at their usual long table – the Four Fingers of the Brotherhood, the secret detective agency, to which they all belonged, Indira and Pei-Ying, Adrian the seagull, and the inert mop of fur that was Sniffer, the tracker dog, and, if it was to be believed, a former French foreign legionnaire The Four Fingers stood up as he arrived.
‘You have a visitor!’ exclaimed Little Finger.
‘How did you know that?’ asked Simon in puzzlement.
‘My mate Cassidy saw you last night, picking up a passenger from that dump’. Volunteered Adrian. ‘He doesn’t miss a trick, does Cassidy’.
‘Right then’. Simon took a deep breath. ‘This is what you might like to know’. He then told them everything Annie had suggested. The Four Fingers were clearly excited, jumping up occasionally, and drumming their long slender fingers on the table-top. The others were equally impressed, even Sniffer raising his head from his bowl of Guiness to listen.
‘But this is wonderful!’ shouted Index Finger, waving his arms in the air, that attracted a few sniggers from the tourists sitting not far away.
‘Wait, wait’. Admonished Middle Finger. ‘We cannot do anything unless we can understand her language. You say she is a faery?’ turning to Simon. Simon nodded. ‘And her name is….Jezuban?’
He continued, excitedly. ‘Then we know the very person who might be able to translate for us, and he is here, in Brighton, at this very minute! We can go to fetch him straight away, or at least get him to visit her and try to communicate. It would be worth it’.
‘Who is he?’ asked Indira, curiously.
‘He is a great Irish and Celtic scholar. He knows many ancient languages, particularly the Celtic ones, and we know the faeries are distantly related to Celtic people. He may be able to recognise her language’.
Little Finger began to key in numbers on his cell-phone. He began to speak into it, walking some distance away from the others. Then he came back.
‘It’s done’, he said importantly. ‘Professor O’Donovan will call on you this afternoon, about four o’clock, and meet your faery. Will that be convenient?’
‘I suppose so’, muttered Simon, ‘but I’d better warn Annie first’.
‘Until then, we can do very little more. I suggest that we meet at your house, at that time’. Simon nodded.
When Simon arrived home, he found Annie and Jezuban sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by sheets of paper and pencils, on which were written strange, decorative rune-like figures, with Annie’s bold capitals beneath.
‘I’m trying to understand her language, by translating our names from one to the other’. Explained Annie. ‘But’, she sighed. ‘It’s much too difficult. I just can’t work it out. Anyway’, she brightened, ‘I think she understands the word “friend” now’. Jezuban smiled timidly at Simon, and awkwardly patted Annie’s shoulder.
‘Just as well’. said Simon, as he heard the doorbell. ‘That’ll be the Four Fingers and our interpreter’. Annie heard him open the front door, and some muttered conversation. Then their visitors entered the kitchen. Jezuban gave a sudden gasp of fear. Annie reached out and grasped her hand. ‘Friends’ she said reassuringly. ‘Friends’ she repeated, pointing at the Four Fingers, who stood apprehensively in the doorway. She looked hard at the newcomer, who walked into the kitchen, and sat down, firmly in Annie’s empty chair.
What she saw was not what she had expected. Their visitor was a tall, lean middle-aged man in a crumpled white suit, with a dark blue shirt and a splendid bright red cravat at his throat. He wore a straw-coloured, broad-brimmed hat, with a dark red band around its crown, that he immediately took off, revealing luxurious grey hair combed backwards, sharp blue eyes, and a large white moustache, that spread across his face. He smiled, revealing well-kept, but slightly yellowing, teeth.
‘Good afternoon to you. I am Professor Patrick O’Donovan. Pat, for short’. He glanced briefly at Annie.
For some reason, Annie warmed to him. When she described her impressions to Simon later, she used the following kinds of words – intelligence, shrewdness, knowledge, kindness and humour, in that order, but with a small dash of arrogance, for good measure. He looked carefully at the faery, then quietly said something in a strange language. Jerzuban, who had been looking frightened and suspicious, suddenly stiffened in surprise. She said something back, and the professor nodded. Then he turned to Annie. ‘How would you like me to continue?’ he asked.
Annie hesitated, feeling rather pleased at having been asked.
‘I think there are too many people here. Simon, could you take the Four Fingers into the living-room, and give them some tea? You could leave the doors open, so that you can all hear us’. Simon and the others looked as if they were about to object, and then nodded obediently.
‘Thank you, Simon, and gentlemen’. Added the professor. When they had left, he turned to Annie again. ‘This is going to be quite difficult, and long. Her language is very old and complex. But if you would like to listen, you are very welcome’. Annie was about to say that it was her house, but decided not to.
What happened next was, for Annie, fascinating. The professor, or Pat, began to talk in many different languages to Jezuban. She answered, very hesitatingly at first, and then with more confidence, and with longer and longer sentences and answers. The conversation rose and fell in measured waves between them, the ancient beauty of the phrases and words hanging in the air above the table, as if reluctant to disappear. On and on they talked, becoming more animated, and even excited, as they continued. Annie sat and let the strange wash of words flow over her. It was only when Pat placed his hands, palm down, on the wooden kitchen table, that she came to, with a start.
She looked at Jezuban. The girl’s face, framed by her long, straight dark hair, was glowing with delight and excitement. She gave Annie a wide smile, showing her small perfect white teeth. Pat leaned back in his chair, and mopped his forehead with a large, bright red hanker-chief. ‘Annie, would you be so kind as to bring the others in? I think they would like to hear what we have been able to talk about’. Annie suddenly realised that his voice was pleasant and clear, without being loud, and that there was a slight Irish accent to it.
Pat waited until they had all seated themselves around the table.
‘What I have to tell you needs an introduction. It is based both on history, our own knowledge, and perhaps, legend. I am a scholar of the Celtic people, with all their traditions, languages and culture, or cultures, I should say. We have been talking in many different Celtic languages. We know the Celtic peoples have been described in history from the fifth century, before the Birth of Christ. They were a people who fought, traded and lived across most of our known European world. They were allies of the ancient Greeks, and they may have originated around the River Danube, originally. They conquered Gaul, and the rest of France, Italy, Spain, and, of course, many parts of England and Ireland. They were indeed a mighty people, who produced a great many things and customs that have passed into our lives’. He paused for a moment.
‘I am saying this to you for a reason. The original Celts were described as tall, fair, masterful and warlike. But they intermingled with other races, so now it would be difficult to tell them from other nations and cultures. Some will be dark, as in the case of this young lady’, he smiled at the faery, ‘and some might even be red-haired’. Annie gave a sudden gasp, though no-one heard her. ‘Now this is where I pass into the realm of fantasy and imagination’.
‘I very much regret that I have not met a faery, until now. I know that you have, and you have forged an alliance with them, even fought with them against a common foe. I honour you for that. But this is my conjecture. Jezuban’s language is made up of many kinds of Celtic languages, which are truly ancient, and which I must confess, I found difficult to translate. But I think I have succeeded. I think that her faery race are related to the Celtic people, but their blood is purer and more undiluted. It explains their living in another dimension, separate from others, but still having many things in common. Jezuban is one of these Celtic faerys. It might also mean’, he paused, ‘that the talisman, or talismans, are in some way, devices, created to allow access between worlds, objects of communication between separated peoples. I don’t know this. It is only a suggestion. But they are very ancient, and have passed themselves through many different worlds, according to who wears them’.
‘This might bear out what we thought about their possible origin’. Said Little Finger, slowly.
‘But there is more’, continued Pat, ‘which involves all of you now, at this very moment’. They sat forward, intently. Pat looked across at Jezuban, who sat anxiously. His face softened. ‘This little girl is a faery princess, who has been cruelly deposed, and left for dead in a different world. Until now, when you have all come to her aid’. They all sat, silently, trying to understand. ‘Who deposed her, and why, I don’t know, and neither does she. But both of us know this’. He spoke more slowly. ‘She is in mortal danger. Those who deposed her might well know now that she is not dead, but with friends. They will send people to kill her. She knows this, and she is frightened, not just for herself, but for you as well’. He leant back again, breathing heavily.
‘What then must we do?’ asked Annie, very quietly.
‘I know’. It was Simon. ‘Well, I think I do. We need to protect her, and keep her somewhere safe, at least until we find out who was responsible for pushing her off her throne. Perhaps we should ask the faerys….’
‘No!’ shouted Index Finger, sharply. ‘I agree that we should keep her safe. But how do we know it was not the same faerys that we have an alliance with, that were responsible for deposing her? And, if so, why? Are we going to risk turning them into our enemies?’
Annie shivered. She looked across at Jezuban, who sat with her arms clasped in her lap, tears trickling soundlessly down her face, that had glowed so brightly before. Annie got up and put her arms around her gently. ‘Well! Anyone got any bright ideas?’ she snapped. There was silence. Even Pat looked at a loss. There was a sudden cry.
They all stared at Third Finger. He stared at his fellow Fingers, and then at Pat. ‘Who else?’ He demanded. ‘Who else but ST?’ They all looked bewildered. Pat gazed into space, and suddenly slapped his knee.
‘Of course!’ he shouted. ‘Speaking myself, as a good Irish boy, she’ll provide sanctuary! Nobody better! A brilliant idea!’
‘Excuse me’, said Simon acidly, ‘But who is ST when he’s at home?’
‘Not he, she! If anybody tries to harm our faery here, she’ll annihilate them!’
‘What is she? Some kind of one-woman panzer division?’ asked Annie sharply.
‘Oh, that and more’. Giggled Little Finger. ‘You’ll find out when you meet her. But we must go now. We’ll surprise her, so she won’t refuse!’
So the plan was made. Annie rushed upstairs to pack clothes and shoes for Jezuban, while Pat explained to her that she was going to stay with somebody she could trust, and Simon, through Pat, promised her that he and Annie would be coming to see her every day. They all decided to cram into the Four Fingers’ old, but huge, antiquated car, and set off. In fact it was not far at all. They pulled up with a gasp and wheeze (from the car, that is), outside what looked like an ordinary red-brick bungalow, set high above the road, with a long front garden and steep steps rising up to a large green-painted front door. Dusk was beginning to fall, and they toiled up the steps, which seemed rather steep. Simon counted twenty-four steps in total. The bungalow was dark inside. No lights could be seen.
Pat went boldly up and pressed the doorbell. For a moment they thought they were hearing things. A loud tune sounded. It was the noise of the Liverpool Football Club Kop supporters, singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. ‘Oh no’, groaned Simon. ‘She’s a Liverpool fan!. I hope Jezuban will be safe’. They waited for some moments, Annie wishing she had never come. Then a bright interior light was suddenly switched on in the hallway, gleaming through the small windows on each side of that forbidding door. It swung open.
The figure before them filled the doorway, not just upwards, but sideways as well. It wore huge flowing grey robes, that rose up and almost covered the face, from which a pair of bright sharp eyes gazed at them. They all instinctively took a step back. Then Pat raised his hat, and looked around at them. ‘Please allow me to introduce you. This is Sister Teresa’.
The figure let out a roar, that seemed to come from deep inside it.
‘Pat, boy! You come inside now, before you catch your death! And your mates!’
The giant figure turned and strode down a tiny hallway, made even smaller by the brightly coloured giant wallpaper flowers, that covered each wall. Sister Teresa turned and led the way through a doorway on the left, that seemed far too small for her. They followed her meekly into a big living-room, where an imitation log-fire blazed cheerfully in an ornate stone fireplace, that dominated the room. The living-room was made smaller by three enormous padded sofas, arranged left, right and centre, around the fireplace. At the further end of the room was a large square wooden table, with equally large chairs, its surface covered in books and papers. The walls were festooned with giant flowers, bougainvilleas, chrysanthemums and roses, which it took Annie some moments to realise were printed on the wallpaper again. Even the sofas were covered with huge flower patterns of all kinds.
‘Sit, all of you!’ boomed sister Teresa, and pointed to the sofas.
They sat, or rather were enveloped, in the enormously overstuffed sofas. Annie very much doubted that she would ever be able to get up again, as she sank into the recesses of the soft, flowery fabric. It was as if they had been plunged into an enormous tropical greenhouse. In the soft light from the plastic chandelier above, Sister Teresa looked even larger, looming over them like a giant, robed statue. She wore a grey cowl that enveloped her head from forehead to chin. Her long grey robes and wide sleeves hid what was clearly a very big and strong figure. Only her face and hands showed. Her hands were large and spade-shaped and her face, at first, resembled a large brown potato, that formed into a nose, mouth and bright, deep-brown eyes. She spoke, revealing strong white teeth.
‘What you boys want, man? Disturbing a poor old sister like me? Pat?’
‘We have a refugee, that we need you to look after. This is Jezuban. Just for a while’.
Sister Teresa looked down at Jezuban, half-submerged in the folds of the sofa, who stared back at Sister Teresa with huge, frightened eyes.
‘For the Lord’s sake, boy! She’s as thin as a rake! What you been feeding her on, rabbit-food? Why you no bring her before, instead of half-starving the young mite!’
‘We have only just met her..’ began Pat, feebly. He was cut off by a roar of indignation. ‘Dat’s no excuse, boy! Don’t worry, my little pet! I’ll feed you up! Wait ‘til you get some of my special broth down you! Don’t you worry about these boys, who don’t look after you properly!’
Annie opened her mouth to protest, but Sister Teresa had already leant towards Jezuban, and gently held her left hand in hers, almost enclosing it entirely. ‘Don’t you worry, child. The good Lord and his lowly servant here will look after you’. Annie was taken aback suddenly. She had felt the waves of …goodness… coming from Sister Teresa, that seemed to swirl and eddy around her flapping grey robes as she spoke. But Sister Teresa’s eyes were sharp and intelligent, as if she could see through you.
‘Now, I want this to happen. You all go away now, and leave this girl to me’. She still spoke in a deep Jamaican voice, but Annie had a feeling that it was only spoken when she wanted to exert her authority. ‘You two’, pointing at Annie and Simon, ‘You come and see her every day, no matter what time. You grey old digits’, wagging her finger at them, ‘Stay away, unless you hear otherwise. As for you, Pat, you can go back to the pub, unless I need you for something. Is that all clear? Good. She’s got everything she needs. I’ll give her my nice, cosy spare room. Out you go then!’
Before they knew it, they were standing outside the front door, which closed firmly behind them. They stood for a moment, feeling slightly amazed. Pat tapped Annie on the arm, a grin on his face.
‘If you’re worrying about your little faery, then don’t. Sister Teresa will look after her as if she was a daughter. Nothing, or no-one, will harm her while she’s in the good Sister’s care. You’ll see when you come tomorrow’.
The Four Fingers were muttering crossly to themselves, as they got into the car, to drive Annie, Simon and Pat home. When they got out, Pat gave them a big wink.
As they opened the front door, Simon said, ‘ Is that what our dad meant, when he talked about “muscular Christianity”?
Annie giggled. ‘You weren’t frightened of her, were you? I trust her’.
‘I’m not so much frightened of her’, muttered Simon. ‘I’m more worried about getting eaten by her interior decoration’.
They stood before the large green door the next evening. Annie had brought some more bits of clothing, mainly underwear and socks. They had come to see Jezuban, as they promised, or were, as Simon put it, ordered to. The door swung open again, and there was Sister Teresa, formidably huge, in the doorway.
‘Come in, come in, children! Come and see your faery!’.
They followed her down the hallway, Simon still shuddering visibly at the wallpaper. They came into a large, cheery kitchen, with a big wooden table in the middle. There was Jezuban, sitting on cushions on a chair, so that she could reach across it. She was busy chopping parsnips. As she looked up and saw them, she gave a squeal of delight, got down and ran to meet them, throwing her arms around them both.
‘She is so good!’ rumbled Sister Teresa with pride. ‘She knows even more herbs than I do! We have had a good afternoon in the garden’.
Jezuban smiled at Sister Teresa. She looked happy and healthy, her large dark eyes glimmering in delight. ‘Now we are going to eat some of my broth. I was raised on it, as you can tell’. She chuckled, deeply. They noticed a huge pot gently simmering on the Aga cooker, that positively reeked of wonderful earthy smells. Sister Teresa, with an apron tied around her robes, ladled out a delicious herby, vegetable stew, which after the first mouthful tasted of the countryside, of things gathered from plots and hedgerows. Annie had never tasted such a delicious stew in her life. They sat back, full and contented. Annie noticed how much Jezuban ate, together with the thick white slices of bread. She looked comfortable, and happy.
‘Now then’, said Sister Teresa, You two tell me all about yourselves, and what y’all have been doing’.
They were so comfortable, that they began to tell her about the adventures of the Hand, the confrontations, the battles, of the last year. Both Simon and Annie realised that they had never been able to tell somebody else before, in such detail, about their adventures. Sister Teresa was a good listener. She listened in silence, her dark intelligent eyes darting from one to the other. Even Jezuban, who could not understand what they were saying, listened with rapt attention, gasping at times when they mentioned the faerys’ names. Finally, they stopped to take breath.
Sister Teresa was quiet for a time. Then she spoke. ‘You both have…. great gifts that have made a difference to this and other worlds. You have had to do things which nobody should ever have had to be called upon to do, but,’ she wagged her finger, ‘you have done it for the best possible reason. You care’. She smiled, and stroked the faery’s hair. ‘I serve my good Lord, but you have only faith in yourselves. You have done the right thing. Always, always, ask yourself this question. Is this the right thing to do? I think you already know that’.
She grinned mischievously. ‘Did Pat tell you about what I can do? They shook their heads. ‘A good boy, Pat. He will let you find out for yourselves’. She was silent again, then said, in her deep, rich voice, ‘Let me show you one of the gifts that the good Lord has seen fit to give me. Come out into the garden’. They looked at each other, surprised. ‘Come with us, faery child’, she called.
They walked out through the French windows into the garden. In front of them was a delicious herb garden, neatly patterned in lush rows of plants that gave a strongly perfumed scent. Beyond that there was a small lawn, with flowerbeds each side, and further on, rows and rows of vegetables, already sprouting. Large trees grew each side from neighbours’ gardens.
Sister Teresa, stood in the middle of the small lawn, her arms outstretched, her sleeves flapping in the slight breeze. They stood still, Annie’s hand holding Jezuban’s. Then slowly, she rose. One metre, two metres, three metres, into the chilly evening air. She hovered, momentarily, and then rose even higher, and even higher, until even she was only a small dark shape in the blue evening sky. Then she swooped and glided. She came rushing down on them in a dive and then pulled away, above their heads, her robes flapping frantically like a giant bat! She turned over and over, rising vertically, twisting in a loop, rose up again, and then plummeted like a stone. They gasped in horror! Suddenly she zoomed up in a vertical climb, levelled out, and turned into a spin, rolling around and around, then shot up again, circling the trees each side and then came down into a perfect, smooth landing, gradually sinking downwards until her feet touched the earth. ‘Phew!’ she gasped. ‘That was fun!’.
‘I can’t believe it!’ whispered Simon. ‘A vertical take-off nun!’
All three of them stood speechless. Then Jezuban suddenly started clapping her hands in delight. Simon and Annie joined in. Sister Teresa beamed at them from her landing-place on the lawn.
‘Don’t try this at home, folks, especially not on a full stomach!’ She walked up to them, slightly breathless. ‘I do a little bit of that, when I go to see my friends at the senior citizens’ home. But I only go up about three inches, so they think it’s a magic trick. Oh, boy, do I enjoy flying!’ She saw their expressions. ‘Don’t worry, It’s all in another dimension. Nobody sees me, except you. You’ve got the talismans’.
They sat around the kitchen table, talking excitedly, clutching mugs of herbal tea, from Sister Teresa’s garden. Jezuban still listened to them, but her eyelids were drooping. ‘Off to bed with you, girl!’ ordered Sister Teresa, good-naturedly. Jezuban didn’t argue. She hugged both Annie and Simon and then Sister Teresa, almost losing herself in her ample robes, and went to her bedroom. Sister Teresa looked at the windows. ‘It’s dark outside’, she said, ‘Do you want a taxi?’
‘No thank you, Sister, we’ll walk. It’s not far’. said Annie. feeling rather tired herself after all the excitement and Sister Teresa’s “broth”. But Sister Teresa wasn’t listening. Her head was moving from side to side, as if trying to pick up secret signals from somewhere. ‘Did you hear that?’ she said suddenly. They listened. All was quiet in the kitchen. The candles that Sister Teresa had lit in saucers on the table were guttering low, and it was beginning to get dark in the room. There was only the occasional hiss and splutter of the “broth” on the stove.
Then they heard something. A little whisper, and a few seconds later, a slight tap, perhaps from a window. A faint scurrying sound.
‘Is there anybody there?’ Simon whispered in Annie’s ear.
Annie rewarded him with a glare. She looked at Sister Teresa. She sat solid and immobile as stone, but Annie knew that she was waiting for a sound, any sound. Annie didn’t speak, but looked at her expectantly. Sister Teresa didn’t say anything, but gently pulled a kitchen recipe over to her and quietly scribbled something in the margin. She very silently slid it over the table to Annie.
It said, “Go to the faery’s room, quietly. Now!”
Simon and Annie gently slipped off their chairs. Sister Teresa sat immobile in hers. She simply flickered her eyes to indicate that they should go as quickly and as soundlessly as possible. They tip-toed out of the kitchen. They moved as gently as they could into the hallway, and then towards the door of Jezuban’s bedroom. Simon turned the knob of the door, and moved it open. They moved very carefully through the open doorway.
Jezuban was sitting up in bed in an over-sized night-dress, in the dark, her eyes wide with fear. Simon was doing his commando bit, searching around the dark room. All three of them knew that there was something wrong, seriously wrong. Annie took hold of Jezuban’s arm and pulled her gradually to the side of the bed, and then gradually eased her out, until she was kneeling on the floor. She pointed to the space under the bed. Jezuban put her fingers to her lips in understanding, and then slid under the bed itself, though Annie could still hear her breathing. Simon was crouched on the other side of the bed, so she remained where she was. Then they waited.
After a few seconds, the door that they had come through slowly began to open. There was no light outside. All was darkness. Annie could feel herself breathing, but she could hear no other sound. Three dark shapes slid in through the door opening. They moved closer to the bed. There was a sudden swish and a series of ‘Schuutcks!’ as some things hit the bed, where Jezuban had lay earlier. Then a sudden flash of light, as Simon switched on his torch that he always carried in winter. Annie screamed in horror.
‘Simon! They haven’t got any faces!’
The things, whatever they were, moved and slid like rats. They were covered in fine black hair, and were the size of leopards. Their heads were shaped like human heads, but where their faces should be, there was nothing. Just a blank, white ovoid. No mouth, nose or eyes, as if they wore the blank shape of a human head on their rodent-like bodies. They made no sound apart from a skittering as they ran upright to and fro across the floor. One turned viciously and fired what seemed like a sharp and shiny blade from its paw. Annie ducked. The thing embedded itself in the wall two inches beyond her right ear!
There was a roar of fury from the kitchen. The creatures froze for a moment, then scampered out of the door and disappeared. Simon and Annie stood still for a few seconds, then, without thinking, ran after them, down the hallway, and into the kitchen, and out through the French windows, and stopped. They could hear the creatures moving around out there in the darkness, and then fear again struck them. The creatures were going to ambush them!
Annie suddenly felt her right hand rise up, without her being able to control it. She heard a gasp from Jezuban next to her. Their hands and arms began to move around, describing a great circle of bright yellow bands! They found themselves drawing smaller and smaller circles. By the brillant yellow light, they saw that the talismans had drawn a spiral of lines around the creatures, who were skittering and scampering furiously to break out. They were trapped in a giant cone of shimmering golden bands.
Annie looked around just in time for a glimpse of Sister Teresa, swooping down, her cheeks fully extended in a deep breath. She released it as if it was the very force of the north wind, that swept the scuttling creatures soundlessly away down the long coiling tunnel that the talismans had created. The glowing tunnel vanished, together with the creatures. Sister Teresa landed with a thud, next to them, panting. No-one spoke for a moment.
‘Yo, children! Now that’s what I call blowing them away! Haven’t done that trick in ages! That’s what I call teamwork!’ She raised her hands in a five. Both Annie and Simon smacked her palms heartily.
‘Sister Teresa. I think you are the most wonderful flying nun I have ever met. In fact, you’re the only flying nun that I’ve ever met’. Simon said, in awe.
‘Leave it out, boy! Who do you think I am, Whoopi Goldberg? Let’s get inside and see what the damage is.’
After half an hour, sitting in the kitchen again and drinking yet more tea, they went into Jezuban’s bedroom. Her pillow was cut to shreds by some very sharp objects, that had ripped right through it. Simon prised out the one in the wall that had nearly hit Annie, and whistled. ‘Look at this!’ They looked at the thing that he held in his palm. It was a bright, thin, razor-sharp blade, about three inches long. Sister Teresa suddenly became very agitated, and ran out into the hall. She returned a few seconds later.
‘I’ve ordered you a taxi. As soon as it comes, you go home! Don’t worry’, she added, seeing Annie’s face, ‘I’ll look after our little lady. She won’t come to any harm now’.
She seemed deeply troubled, but it was clear that she was not going to say any more, at least not that night. So they said their goodbyes and left, but still deeply uneasy.
The next afternoon, they set off to meet the Four Fingers. The message they had received had come through the front door, as a little purple-edged postcard, signed “The Brotherhood”. It said, “Come at once, or at least as soon as you can”. It did not indicate why. Annie was filled with dread. Had something happened to Jezuban, and Sister Teresa? Neither Simon or Annie spoke to each other as they hurried down to the seafront.
It was clearly an urgent meeting. Little Finger hurried up to them as soon as he saw them coming down the pebbled beach, sliding awkwardly on the wet stones. It was a damp, grey day, with the sea whispering sullenly below them, and the threat of drizzle hanging in the air. ‘We have an urgent message from the faeries!’ he whispered dramatically. They followed him back to the usual wooden table, where the other Fingers sat, shifting uneasily in their seats.
It was Index Finger who began. ‘We had an urgent message from Queen Gloriana, who told us to relay it to you as soon as possible’. He paused significantly, the others waiting for him to continue. ‘Let me give you a background first. The land of the faerys is made up of several different queendoms. Princess Jezuban….’
‘Wait a moment!’ cried Simon. ‘Did you say, Princess Jezuban?’
‘Let me finish’. retorted Index Finger. ‘As I was saying, Princess Jezuban is the rightful heir to one of those queendoms. In fact, she is to become the ruler. Her parents disappeared under mysterious circumstances, of which we are not aware. It is a faery matter, which is not our business. But the princess is. She was abducted, and left in our world, perhaps to die, and another princess, whom we know nothing about, took her place, with the connivance of….certain faerys. Queen Gloriana discovered this plot, and has taken steps to prevent it. Her interest is that she has always enjoyed good relations with her bordering queendom, and supports Princess Jezuban as its leader. I believe that they are related in some way. That is the brief background as to how the Princess came into our world, and how we were able to rescue her’.
‘What do you mean “we”? It was Annie and myself that rescued her’. Simon muttered darkly.
Index Finger ignored him. ‘The outcome of this, is that Queen Gloriana wishes to meet us immediately, to return Princess Jezuban to her own land, from where she was taken, so that she can be restored to her rightful place’.
They were all silent for a few seconds.
‘This all rather suits Queen Gloriana quite well, doesn’t it?’ suggested Simon. ‘She keeps her security, and won’t have to worry about any trouble on her frontiers. And who ordered those assassins? Does Jezuban want to go back?’
‘Yes, she does. She told Sister Teresa, who also knows all about this, as well. And no, those assassins were not faery. They were ordered by someone else’.
But something was seriously troubling Annie. ‘ What about the false princess? What is going to happen to her? Is she just simply going to….disappear?’
‘Certainly sounds like a hostage-swap situation to me’. Simon agreed.
Little Finger spread his hands helplessly. ‘We don’t know. All we can do is to meet Queen Gloriana, and find out more precisely what is going to happen. Here’s Professor O’Donovan, who has brought our car here. We will all have to go! Now!’
‘To the old hill-fort, the faery’s entrance to our world’.
There was Pat, his cream-coloured suit covered by a long grey mackintosh, hat perched at a rakish angle, and carrying a rolled-up umbrella, which he now brandished. ‘Let’s go, boys and girls! To take the princess to her destiny!’ Annie was not happy about his choice of words. In fact, she was increasingly disturbed by the situation. She could tell, by the tension in him, that Simon was deeply unhappy, too. The Fingers also were extremely subdued, as was Pat, despite his apparent cheerfulness.
They climbed into what Simon now mischievously called the “Fingermobile”. Annie had suddenly come to like it very much, It was very long, with a huge upright radiator in front that seemed to grin at you, and huge headlights each side, mounted on the mudguards. It was also very high, so high that Annie couldn’t see over the top, and painted a rather dull grey, with patches of rust-red here and there. It snorted and grunted, as if it should be tethered, rather than parked. The interior was huge, with great roomy, red-leather seats, that smelt of a mixture of oil, petrol and leather, in equal combinations. It was a formidable, but friendly car.
Pat drove it along the Ditchling Road, then turned off to Sister Teresa’s bungalow. Waiting at the door was the immense shape of Sister Teresa, and the small figure of Jezuban. Just for a moment, Annie saw a wonderful similarity between the car and the grey nun – the humour, the bulk, and the gentle, protective personalities of both. Jezuban stepped forward, and then turned and hugged Sister Teresa. She barely came up to her waist. Sister Teresa hugged her back. The she turned and went into her house, closing the front door gently behind her. Jezuban scrambled into the seat next to Annie, who noticed that she was crying. Annie put her arms around her, instinctively. The Fingermobile cruised quietly away, towards the golf-course, and the hill-fort.
Still in silence, they disembarked, and began to make their way up to the hill-fort. It had begun to drizzle with a dismal rain, descending invisibly from the dank grey cloud above. Annie felt miserable and desperately worried about what was going to happen. Why this strange meeting? Was there another purpose? The people around her did not seem to know. The dark green grass under their feet was wet, and squelched, as they trod across it. Annie found herself looking at the individual stems of grass beneath her, noticing, as they walked, how they bent and glistened with the rain now steadily falling around them. Pat was holding his umbrella high above Jezuban and herself, and she noticed she was holding Jezuban’s cold, pale hand. Jezuban walked with her head bowed, looking at the ground beneath her feet. They stopped.
As Annie looked around, she could no longer see the sea in the distance, only a grey mist that hung over the city. Over the hill-fort itself, hung another swathe of mist. She was suddenly conscious of the splash and patter of rain around her, and the clink of keys and coins in Pat’s pocket, as he absently jingled them. Then there was another sound of jingling, from further away. Pat stopped, and drew his hand from his pocket. The other jingling became louder. As Annie peered ahead, in the middle of the hill-fort, she saw a horse and rider appear from the mist. It trotted gently towards them, the horse’s harness ringing sharply, as it came. The rider brought the horse to a halt in front of them. Though the rider was wearing a helmet that covered the upper half of the face. Annie could not mistake the long, flowing yellow hair, that lay damp on the scarlet tunic.
Queen Gloriana dismounted lightly, and then gently eased down a wrapped bundle from its place before her on the horse’s saddle. She carried it over to a small hummock, and arranged the sheepskin rug she carried over her shoulder on the ground. She then placed the bundle gently on it, drew its cloak aside, and stood up. ‘Behold your changeling’. she said softly.
Everybody drew in a sharp breath. They looked at a child, but no ordinary child. The girl was about the same age and size as Jezuban. She did not seem able to get up. Her blank face stared aimlessly at the sky. Her nose was running, and saliva drooled from the corner of her half-open mouth. Her arms were drawn inwards, but her hands did not meet. They remained, claw-like, a few inches from each other. She whimpered and moaned very quietly.
‘Her name is Seruban. She was meant to replace Princess Jezuban, by others hostile to me. As you can see, she would then be very easy to manipulate for their purposes’. There was a venom and anger in Gloriana’s quiet voice. ‘The one who tried to do this will be here shortly, and…’
‘And what?’ asked Simon in a low voice.
‘There will be a reckoning. There is unfinished business now, that I am going to attend to’. Her words were light but her meaning was clear.
Annie understood now. Gloriana was about to take her revenge, with her human allies as witnesses, as the dragon Dabar, had done before. Annie knelt down beside Seruban, and tried to take her hand, but it refused to unclasp. Jezuban had moved next to her on the other side, but met with no success either. Annie felt sympathy, not compassion. Here was a child, an individual, locked inside her body, with no control. A child without sin, she remembered her grandmother saying, who has no chance of doing any evil. A helpless innocent, but with so many things shut inside her.
She looked up. The Four Fingers had moved away, and were standing on some slightly higher ground, opposite, arranged as if they indeed were the fingers of the hand, with Index Finger, the tallest, in the middle. Simon, Jezuban and herself were crouched around Seruban, with Pat standing behind, still holding his gaily-striped umbrella above them. Gloriana walked slowly to the middle ground between the two groups, and stood with her arms folded, awaiting the arrival of the lone rider, that was cantering towards them. It stopped twenty paces away. The rider dismounted, and took five steps towards Gloriana, and halted. A hand came up to slowly remove the helmet from the head. Annie gasped.
Glaring at Gloriana, with eyes that glittered with fury, was Duessa.
Annie looked at Simon. He caught her look and nodded. He, too, had sensed the rage and fury that radiated in waves from the two faery queens. He shook his head.
‘You traitor’. They could hardly hear Gloriana’s words, said as they were so quietly.
‘False queen!’ this was said more loudly, by Duessa, this time.
Gloriana pointed to Seruban. Duessa’s eyes followed her, and then she gave a sudden start, as she saw the small figure. Her eyes became a deep grey in anger. Without warning she drew her sword with a hiss, almost faster than the eye could see. She held it loosely and easily before her, waiting to attack. Gloriana unleashed her sword in no more than a swift rush of light, and held it before her, two-handed, like Duessa. They stood motionless, as if turned to stone, for several seconds. The rain gently dripped off the tips of their gleaming swords.
Without warning, they ran towards each other, and met with a clash of metal upon metal. They whirled and slashed at each other, their slightly curved swords hacking and cutting, in a silvery whirlpool of blows. Both faerys moved so rapidly, that it was impossible to follow them, one sword striking low, then high, blocked by the other. Both faerys struck and counterstruck, whirling away fast, before attacking again with whirlwind speed and utter ferocity. They fought without quarter or mercy, each parrying, and seeking the final blow. All the time, the drizzle came down, and still they fought, feet now slipping on the wet grass, but with blades still whistling and hissing through the air.
Then Gloriana’s left foot slid backwards through the wet ground. Duessa’s sword flicked into a blindingly fast arc, but Gloriana shifted sideways, and she drove not her blade, but the handle of her weapon viciously into Duessa’s neck! Duessa was thrown backwards by it’s force, rolled on the ground, and was pinned down by Gloriana’s sword at her throat, while Gloriana stamped hard on her sword-arm and held it there. Duessa was helpless. Annie leaped to her feet in horror and alarm.
The two faery queens were frozen in a savage tableaux. One standing above the other, her sword pressing against the throat. Then Gloriana relaxed her grip, and drew back her sword.
‘Daughter?’ whispered Gloriana slowly.
She raised her sword gradually, then stepped back, one pace, two paces. Duessa rolled over to her feet, and began to stagger painfully towards the little group around Seruban. Her mouth and nose were bleeding from Gloriana’s blow. The rain had soaked her hair and her tunic, and ran down her light armour in rivulets. Gloriana still stood, sword in hand, staring ahead of her, her yellow hair plastered to her face, and her long tunic clinging to her with damp and wet. Still, the rain came down.
Duessa fell to her knees beside Seruban, and gathered her in, whispering strange words that Annie could not understand. The child continued to whimper, clasped in her mother’s arms. Still the rain fell, dripping down and across their faces, now close together. Gloriana walked across and stood, looking down at them. Annie stared at her face. It was pale and wet, but her eyes were flint-grey.
‘This was not known to me. It matters not. Duessa, you are no longer our sister! You will gather your belongings and leave our faery land forever. Do not think of turning back! As for your daughter, she can fend for herself!’ She almost spat the last words out.
Annie was boiling with fury. She suddenly felt a restraining hand on her arm. It was Pat. ‘Wait’. he whispered. “It is not over yet’. Annie looked around. Jezuban had crawled next to Seruban, with her hand on her shoulder, and was speaking urgently to Gloriana, though she could not understand what she was saying. But Pat was listening, and was nodding. Annie looked back at Gloriana. Her face registered surprise, and then acceptance of something. She said something back to Jezuban, that she imagined she understood, and so did Duessa, with a look of astonishment and then relief.
‘What is going on!’ hissed Annie in Pat’s ear. He looked at her, and nodded.
Duessa climbed painfully to her feet. She pointed. ‘My sword. I will need it!’
Gloriana bowed her head in agreement. Duessa limped over to her sword, lying on the wet grass, the rain still drizzling steadily. She picked it up, dried the blade on her tunic, climbed into the saddle, and spurred her horse towards the hill-fort. She did not look back. She disappeared into the mist.
‘MAMA!’ cried Seruban again. They could hardly bear to hear her.
Gloriana stared after her, Annie could not tell whether it was rain or tears that ran down her face. When she turned towards them, her eyes were brown again. She dried her sword, and slid it into its sheath with an air of finality. Then she stopped and looked around them. The Four Fingers had now joined the group.
‘I thank you. You were witness to this today’. She cast her hand around. ‘This was a faery matter. I have lost a sister, but Jezuban has gained one. It was the only outcome. I will return them to their land. I will keep my promise, before you all. Farewell, until the next time’. Without warning, she laid a gentle palm on Annie’s cheek. Did Annie see a slight tremble of her lips? Perhaps not.
Gloriana gently picked up Seruban, as she had before, and placed her on the saddle of her horse that was snorting, and impatient to be gone. She vaulted up into the saddle behind Seruban, and extended a hand towards Jezuban, who took it, and was pulled up behind Gloriana. The three rode back towards the hill-fort, though Annie caught a glimpse of a pale face and a wave from Jezuban, before they disappeared into the mist. ‘They’re not the sort for good-byes’. Muttered Pat to Annie. There was nothing left now, but to go home.
They all sat in the kitchen of Simon and Annie’s house, clothes still steaming from the soaking outside, and drinking hot tea. There was Simon and Annie, and their friends, Indira and Pei-Ying, who had dropped in on their way back to town, where they had got as wet as everybody else. The Four Fingers sat at the other side of the table, and Pat sat at the head, though he was unusually quiet. Annie had just explained to Indira and Pei-Ying what had happened.
‘The result is that Gloriana’s land is safe, and that next to it. Princess Jezuban is now heir, and is a friend. That is our priority! So it has ended well’, proclaimed Little Finger’.
There was a thunderous knock at the kitchen door, that set the cups rattling. ‘I know of only one person who knocks like that’. said Pat quietly. He got up and went to the door. In came Sister Teresa, like a one-woman hurricane, threatening to knock over every piece of crockery in sight. She sat down, breathing heavily, almost seeming to gulp the very air out of the room. ‘Tell me what has happened’, she said abruptly, in her deep, subterranean voice.
She listened quietly, ignoring the mug of tea in front of her. She remained silent for a while. ‘This is a sad tale, in which both good and bad have emerged. It is also a tale which has surprised you, because it has tested you all. This time, Queen Gloriana has tasted her daemons. So have you all. I can only say that there will be worse to come’. She was silent again. ‘You will all have to find your own faith and confidence to meet that. I am not a soothsayer, but I feel that something even more wicked this way comes. And it will come to you. Be prepared. And be strong’.
She got up abruptly, walked to the door, and disappeared. They heard her heavy footsteps towards the front door. Then they stopped, hesitated, and then retraced themselves. Her large beaming, cowled head appeared again on one side of the door. ‘By the way, I forgot. Remember the talismans. You have one already, and another has a second. There will be more. Trust them’. She disappeared again. The front door slammed, and Sister Teresa went out into the night.
Frank Jackson Word count- 11181
1. The bus, or the original tramway shelter, where Jezeban found shelter, and where Simon and Annie rescued her.
Frank Jackson (28/12/09) Word count - 11037