DR FRANK JACKSON, 59A, PRINCES ROAD, BRIGHTON, EAST SUSSEX BN2 3RH
The Brotherhood of the Hand, a small society, dedicated to mystery, consists of four elderly men, in equally elderly grey suits, who correspond to the fingers of the human hand. Simon and Annie, brother and sister, have become members of the Brotherhood, as have their friends, Indira, Pei-Ying and Mariko. There is also Adrian the seagull and Sniffer the dog, the eyes and nose of the Brotherhood. Sister Teresa a dedicated nun with strange powers, and Pat, an Irish academic. A new member is Morag, half-policewoman, half-faery., and more recently, Cosmo, a young boy who has died, but has agreed to help them. Together they fight a war against their arch-enemy, Doctor Wrist, and his associates. Unable to prevent a terrible battle in the faery land of Hyperborea, between faery and their neighbours, the Barbarossi, they have succeeded in stopping a subsequent war.
Sunlight flooded in through the open entrance of the tent, highlighting two of the sleeping forms that lay, arms outstretched on their straw palliases, causing one of them to blink and open her eyes. Annie sat up, stretched and yawned. She looked across at the other sleeping figure, who was now beginning to stir. She could see the day was bright outside, though the heavy canvas of the tent walls shielded them from the warmth of the sun. She could still smell the musky odour of bodies who had slept together in a confined space. She looked across at the other two palliases in the tent. Both were empty. One was Pei-Ying’s, and still bore the imprint of her body. But the other was Mariko’s and it had not been slept in. Annie suddenly felt worried. Where had Mariko gone last night?
‘Indira! Come on, wake up! Its daytime!’
Indira lay there, her face partly covered by her long luxuriant black hair. She finally stretched, yawned and sat up. She looked around. ‘Where is everybody?’ she demanded petulantly.
‘I don’t know. It must be late. Mariko’s not slept in her bed. I don’t know where she is’. Annie replied worriedly.
Indira looked across at Mariko’s mattress. ‘I can see’. She stretched again. ‘What’s the matter with her, Annie? She seems to have something on her mind, that’s almost frightening her’.
‘I wish I knew’. Annie said sadly. ‘She’s made a decision of some kind, but she won’t tell me. Do you know?’
Indira shook her head. ‘I don’t. But I do know she is very unhappy. I can see it in her. She’s afraid of telling us something’.
Annie sighed and peered through the tent-flap and up at the sky.
‘The sun’s overhead! That means it’s nearly midday! The negociations must have already begun!’
‘What negociations” asked Indira, yawning again. Annie looked hard at her. ‘The negotiations that we came here to try to achieve. The negotiations that can probably decide the future of hundreds of thousands of people, Barbarossi and faerys. The negotiations that my brother and I have risked our lives for, and nearly got killed for. Those negotiations, Indira’.
‘Bloody hell, Annie, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry’. Indira looked desperately shocked and contrite. ‘I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking. Sorry. Please forgive me’.
‘Of course. It doesn’t matter’. She looked at Indira affectionately. She knew that Indira was as warm and generous-hearted as any one of them. ‘Come on, let’s go and wash, and find out what’s happening’.
They emerged from the tent and went towards the latrines. The sky was a bright blue above them, and the sun was already hot upon their heads. Around there was the usual hubbub of voices and talk of an army, and the faint smells of cooking and spices hung in the air. Small groups of faerys stood or sat around, amidst the tents, but the atmosphere was tense and anxious. They could see the faery’s heads constantly turning towards the large tent, Gloriana’s tent, where the talks were taking place.
Pei-Ying suddenly appeared before them, her small washing bag slung over her shoulder.
‘So you have finally got up’. She said, smiling at them.
‘Finally. Have you any idea what is happening, Pei-Ying?’ Annie asked anxiously.
‘Not at all. I’ve only just got up myself’.
Have you seen Mariko?’ Indira interrupted.
Pei-Ying shook her head. ‘No. But her bed was not slept in last night. I noticed that this morning’.
‘She must be here somewhere. She can’t have gone far’. Annie looked around. But as far as she could see, there was no sign of Mariko. She looked at them. ‘I’m worried about her’. She said quietly.
‘Mariko knows how to look after herself. She’s safe here. You know that’. Pei-Ying looked carefully at Annie. ‘It was good that we were able to talk so freely earlier this morning to Jezuban, and to Ragimund. I think that you and Simon were able to say things that you have been unable to do for a long time. I think that that was good for you both. It helped you’.
Annie remembered. They had sat up until the day had broken outside the tent, recounting their experiences, their fears, their terror, their desperation, all the emotions they had felt. It had been the first time that they had honestly poured out their feelings to anybody. Jezuban had sat, her hands clasped around her knees, her mouth open, her deep brown eyes that always looked so large in her small face, wide, as she listened. Annie suddenly realised that no-one had interrupted their recounting of what had happened to them in the past. They had sat there silently, listening, even Indira. She knew what they had actually done. They had encouraged them both to talk for the first time about the things they had locked inside themselves, for so long. She understood.
She looked at them both, and thought how much she loved and cared for them, her friends, who had deliberately set out to help her, without her even knowing.
‘Thank you. Thank you both’. She said, sincerely.
‘That’s what friends are for’ Indira replied cheerfully. ‘What’s it called, you know, that word, Pei-Ying?
‘That’s right. What’s the other one? Oh, I know. Closure. There. I remembered! But I was a bit shocked when you were telling us about that horrible old house, and you nearly got swallowed by the wardrobe, and Simon nearly got smothered by a filthy old mattress! That was strange!’ She giggled.
Annie stared at her coldly. ‘It wasn’t funny at the time, Indira. It was real, not a story!’
‘Sorry, Annie. I do know. But the important thing is, that you’re still here. Isn’t survival more important than anything else?’
Annie sighed. ‘Yes, it is. But understand this, Indira. My brother and I now know how narrow that gap is between life and death’.
There was a silence. ‘I know, Annie’, Indira said at last. ‘This is going to be a bad morning. I’m putting my foot into every piece of crap I can find’.
‘No, you’re not’. Annie reached out and turned Indira’s left hand over, and looked at her ugly white scar. ‘I’m to blame for that, Indira’.
‘No you’re not! I’m the one stupid enough to stick a knife through it in the first place!’
‘But I was the one who made the plan that led you to do that’. Annie replied quietly.
‘We’ll make a deal. I take half the blame, and you take the other. How about that?’
They smiled at each other. ‘Done’ Annie said.
Pei-Ying had left them for a few moments, but now she stood before them again. ‘I’ve just asked one of the faerys. There is a large group of Barbarossi sitting outside the wall. I don’t know why. And Mariko is also somewhere on the battlements. She’s been there since dawn’.
‘What!’ Annie gasped. ‘Is she all right?’
Pei-Ying nodded. ‘Yes. One of the faery guards has been watching over her. Annie, I don’t know what’s happening, but she is deeply troubled’.
‘Let’s find her!’ Annie cried. They ran to the wooden steps that led up to the battlements, and clattered up, their boots ringing loudly on the steps. They looked along the battlements, both left and right. Then Annie saw a familiar figure standing, looking over the wall.
‘Pereas!’ she cried.
He turned and saw her, then walked along the wall towards them.
‘My lady’. he said, formally
Annie groaned. ‘How many times do I have to say this to everybody? I’m not lady, I’m Annie!’
Indira sniggered. ‘Lady Annie! I like that’.
Annie glared at her, and turned back to Pereas. ‘Have you seen our friend, Mariko?’
‘Yes, la….Annie. She is further along the battlements, to the south. She has been there since dawn. I think she is still asleep. She has come to no harm, la….Annie. We have been watching over her. But,’ he hesitated. ‘She seems to be unhappy. I hope it is nothing that we have done’.
‘I’m sure it isn’t. Can you show us?’
They followed him along the battlements for another fifty yards, then he stopped. Mariko lay asleep, propped against the battlement wall. The faerys had laid a blanket over her, which she had clutched tightly around herself. Annie knelt down and gently touched her shoulder. She awoke with a start.
‘It’s all right, Mariko. It’s only me’. Annie said softly. ‘Why didn’t you sleep in your own bed, with us, instead of here?’
Mariko rubbed her eyes. ‘I wanted to be on my own’.
‘Mariko, can’t you tell us what’s troubling you? We’re your friends. We can help you’. Annie said, even more softly.
Mariko got up. ‘I must go and wash’.
She began to walk back along the battlements towards the staircase. Pereas took up the blanket and began to fold it. ‘Mariko!’ Annie called after her. ‘We have to go back home this evening. Simon told me last night. We can’t stay much longer’.
Mariko looked back at them.
I know’, she said. Then she walked on along the battlements.
‘I wish I could help her’. Annie said sadly.
‘She will tell us in her own time’. Pei-Ying replied. ’You know that’.
Indira was looking out over the wall. ‘Annie! Come and look at this!’
They stood beside her, and stared out across what had been a battlefield less than two days ago. Annie saw a large huddle of Barbarossi people, sitting quietly about a hundred yards from the gatehouse. It was composed of men, women and children, one or two of them scampering about around the group, but mostly sitting quietly, against their mothers. She guessed there were about a hundred of them, in total. The men were bareheaded, and as far as she could see, they were unarmed. The women wore shawls draped over their heads, and long robes, some of which were patterned, in bright colours of blue, yellow and red. The children wore short robes, above their slender brown legs, and sandals. Some of them also wore a small round cap on their dark hair. The whole group sat, subdued and quiet, waiting patiently.
‘Why do they have to sit out there? It’s really hot! They must be hungry and thirsty!’ cried Indira indignantly. ‘Bloody faerys!’
Pereas flinched. ‘It is not our fault, lady. We sent out food and drink to them when they arrived’.
‘How are they supposed to go to the loo, then?’ snapped Indira, still angry.
Annie looked hard at Pereas, one of her cold, hard stares that she practiced. ‘Well, Pereas? You’d better explain’.
Pereas winced under her stare, and then he became angry in his turn. ‘Because the lady Gloriana refused entry to them, and would only allow entry to those directly involved in the negotiations! That is what I know!’ He looked out again at the silent group of Barbarossi. ‘But I do not understand this. We should let them in! They have women and children with them. They should not have to sit outside like that. It is not right! It is against our rules of hospitality!’
‘But why are they here?’ Annie asked. ‘Have they come here as part of this…peace mission?’
‘I believe so. Their new emperor brought them with him as a token of good faith. Believe me, I would let them in if I could. They all apparently speak your language too. But I have my orders. Until a truce is declared, we are still at war. I am sorry.’
‘Oh, go on! All you have to do is to let that drawbridge down. You’d do that for me, wouldn’t you?’ Indira flashed her most winsome and radiant smile at him, and leant back enticingly against the wall. ‘Go on. Just for me’.
Pereas hesitated, blushing. Then he said, ‘I am sorry, my lady. I have my orders. I cannot do it, even for you. He paused and took a deep breath. ‘Even for one as beautiful as you, my lady’.
Indira sighed, but looked pleased. ‘Oh, well it was worth a try’.
‘My lady’, Pereas continued awkwardly, ‘It would be a pleasure to see you again: perhaps when you return to our land?’
‘I think that can be arranged’. Indira replied, giving Pereas the benefit of another of her radiant smiles. ‘I’m sure you’ll know where to find me’.
Pereas bowed his head. ‘Thank you. I have to attend to my duties’. He walked back along the battlements. Indira looked out again at the people still huddled outside. ‘I did my best, Annie’. She smiled. ‘And I did get a compliment and a date out of it’.
Annie grinned at her. ‘Yes, you did. Thank you, Indira, for trying’. She suddenly frowned. ‘I want to see if these negotiations have succeeded before we go home’.
‘Home, Annie!’ Indira snapped. She glared at her. ‘Where is home, Annie? What is home? Tell me that!’ She turned around and stalked off towards the staircase. ‘I’m going to get something to eat!’ she called back over her shoulder.
Annie looked after her, bewildered, and suddenly miserable. She turned to Pei-Ying, standing beside her.
‘What have I done wrong? Have I offended her?’
‘No, Annie, you haven’t’. Pei-Ying leant on the wall looking out at the group of Barbarossi. ‘She is angry with herself’.
‘Why?’ asked Annie, bewildered.
Pei-Ying looked out again at the Barbarossi. ‘Indira and I grew up together. We have known each other since we were very small children. I have known her for longer than you and Simon’. She sighed. ‘She can be vain, conceited and arrogant, and does have a bad temper. But all that is a façade, Annie . It conceals what is really inside her’.
‘What?’ asked Annie curiously.
‘Anger and frustration. You see, Annie, we both come from a culture where tradition and family are very important. But Indira does not want to be bound by that. She wants to be independent, her own self. But she knows that her family will expect her to have an arranged marriage, and settle down with her own family. That is why she feels such frustration’.
‘Have you always known that?’ asked Annie.
‘Yes, But not the full extent of it’. Pei-Ying looked at her sadly. ‘Not until she impaled her own hand to the table, that night’.
‘That was my fault!’ Annie cried, sadly.
‘Only partly. That was Indira herself’. Pei-Ying looked directly at her. ‘We meant what we said to you after the battle, Annie. Both of us’.
Annie looked down. ‘I know. And you watched over me’.
‘She is my friend. She is one of the kindest and most loyal friends I have ever had. We have been on a long journey, Annie. We are finding out about each other along the way’.
‘I still don’t know where I’m going’. Annie said, sadly.
‘ It doesn’t matter. Where you go, we go. Remember that’.
Annie looked at her. ‘I will. You really are wise, Pei-Ying’.
‘Ah’, Pei-Ying replied, rather complacently. ‘That is because I am Chinese. I have the wisdom of past ages behind me’.
They smiled fondly at each other. ‘I must go and see how those negociations are going, and find Simon’. Annie said after a few seconds.
‘I’ll find Indira. We can join you later’.
They clattered down the wooden steps together, and then parted. Annie could see Gloriana’s large tent, several hundred yards away. A faery stood in front of her.
‘My lady, I am to escort you to the talks’.
‘I can find my own way, thank you!’ Annie snapped. She was still thinking about Indira. The faery looked at her, confused and uncertain, and Annie softened. The faery was only a girl, hardly older than herself. She was tall, and her blonde hair fell in ringlets over the armour on her shoulders.
‘I’m sorry’. Annie smiled at her. ‘Come on then. Take me to your leader’.
She followed the young faery through the lines of tents. ‘Your brother is there already, my lady’.
‘Good’, Annie replied. She knew her brother was better than her in understanding this kind of situation. The tall blonde faery stood aside and she entered the large tent. Wooden tables had been set out in a square in the centre, around the poles supporting the canopy above. Directly facing her was Gloriana, with Paravar, seated a few feet away. Along the tables at each side, to their left and right, were the twelve representatives of the Barbarossi, all clad in red robes, their bald heads shiny with oil. Twelve faerys sat opposite them, in armour, six men and six women. Though faerys did not apparently age, Annie could tell that they were older. In contrast to the Barbarossi, they still wore battle armour. There was a low buzz of conversation in the room as both sides talked to their companions in whispers. Socrato sat in the middle of his people, his hands clasped on the table, as one of his fellows spoke in his ear. Socrato’s face remained inscrutable. Gloriana and Paravar were talking too, but their voices were too low for Annie to hear. Lucifera and Mercilla sat behind their sister. Their faces, too, wore no expression.
‘Annie!’ She turned and saw her brother standing at the back, on her right, together with two faery guards. ‘What’s going on?’ she whispered, as she joined him. With a start, she saw Thursday, on the other side, standing in the corner of the tent. He smiled at her, and nodded.
‘Well, I’ll try to explain it to you in simple terms ‘ Simon replied in a whisper.
‘Don’t patronise me, Simon!’ she muttered furiously. ‘I’m not stupid!’
‘I’m not, Annie, genuinely. I’ve only just understood it myself. All the main talk is over, and they now have to make a vote. The only ones that have a vote on this, are the ones sitting around the tables. Thirteen on each side, including Gloriana and Paravar. Apparently, Gloriana’s sisters don’t have a vote, for fairness’s sake. Don’t ask me why. Or perhaps they just decided not to be a part of it’.
‘Where is Ragimund?’ Annie asked, looking around. ‘I thought she’d be here. How would she vote?’
‘For a peace settlement. She told me. Quite emphatically, in fact. But it doesn’t matter, because she doesn’t have a vote, anyway. She’s not here because she won’t go anywhere near her sisters’.
‘Oh, Simon!’ Annie replied sadly. ‘You must try to persuade her!’
Don’t you think I’ve tried? But she won’t listen, even to me!’ Simon said miserably. ‘But I know she won’t be happy, unless she does’.
Annie felt sorry for her brother, and for Ragimund. But she decided to change the subject.
‘I thought faerys were democratic! Why is it only them voting?’
‘Annie, this isn’t an election, it’s a war council. In a state of war, it’s the generals that have to decide, not the people’.
‘That still seems wrong to me. I can’t see that lot as generals!’ Annie muttered, looking across at the fat, red-robed Barbarossi.
‘I know, But they are, at least in title. But the reality is, Annie, they’re scheming, fat, greedy bastards, who are out to make as much profit as they can out of this war!’ She could hear the savagery in his voice. ‘But the real trouble is, that some of them want a peace so that they can make big profits from the trade with the faerys, and the others want the war to continue, so that they can make money from supplying their army with weapons! That’s the reality of it, Annie!. And it was that pig, Socrato, who engineered that deliberate defeat we saw in the battle, to put pressure on the old emperor to hold these talks. It didn’t work, because the old toad didn’t care! All those people were slaughtered, Annie, so that those filthy bastards could make lots of money!’
Annie was shocked at the intensity of bitterness in her brother’s voice. She held his hand suddenly. ‘Calm down, Simon. I agree with you. But let’s see what happens. How do you know all this?’
He nodded his head towards the far corner. ‘Thursday told me. We had a long conversation outside, when I came earlier’.
‘I see’. Annie said. She looked across at Thursday, who stood quietly, his head cowled, and his arms folded. ‘I still wonder who or what he really is’.
‘So do I. But he seemed to be rather well informed. There’s a further complication. Some of them, on both sides, are undecided. Some of the faerys know that they will destroy the Barbarossi eventually, so why a truce now? Some of the Barbarossi are not sure whether they want to line their pockets by war or trade. Sounds just like our world, doesn’t it Annie?’
Annie squeezed his hand. ‘Don’t be bitter, Simon. Its not like you’.
‘Well, tell me something to cheer me up, then’.
Annie tried to think. ‘Indira finally got a date today. With a nice faery called Pereas’.
‘Well, that makes a change. I thought she was stuck with the horses’.
There was a sudden silence in the tent. Gloriana had stood up.
‘We must now cast votes’. She hesitated. ‘This will decide whether we have a peace treaty, which will be binding on both our sides, or whether we continue in a state of war. The stakes are high. Please consider that carefully. We have had discussion on this matter, now we must decide’. She looked around the room. ‘Are there any of you who feel that they cannot choose and who must therefore abstain?’
Four of the Barbarossi and three of the faerys raised their hands.
‘Then the vote will depend on those who are willing to vote for or against’.
Annie’s hand tightened on her brother’s. She felt tense and fearful. Everything they had just been through depended on this.
‘Those of you who oppose the peace treaty, raise your hands’.
Four of the Barbarossi and five of the faerys lifted their hands.
‘Nine!’ whispered Simon, frantically, in Annie’s ear. ‘But they can still abstain if they want to!’
Gloriana took a deep breath. ‘Those of us who want a peace treaty, you must raise your hands’. She raised her own hand. Paravar raised his. The others raised theirs.
‘Nine’ Simon gasped. ‘No! It’s tied! That means it won’t happen!’
Annie was now clinging tightly to her brother’s hand, clenching her fingers tightly around his.
Gloriana looked across at Socrato. ‘Lord Socrato, do you, at this stage, wish to vote, or do you wish to abstain?’
There was complete silence in the tent. Outside, there were faint sounds of voices, and the occasional clatter of weapons. Socrato sat for a few moments, and then, with a faint smile, he slowly raised his hand.
‘This war council has decided. There will be a peace treaty, with full trade negociations to follow. From now on, we and the Barbarossi are at peace with one another. Our armies can disband and go home. We will make further arrangements at a later date’.
Gloriana sat down heavily on her chair. ‘This council is now ended’.
The red-robed Barbarossi got up, bowed to Gloriana and to Paravar, and filed out, some of them not bothering to hide the smug looks on their faces. Socrato stopped by the entrance, and looked at Simon and Annie. ‘Ah, the famous humans. It is a pity that we did not get to know each other better’. His voice was high-pitched. They both stared back at him. He shrugged. Annie saw Thursday, still at the other end of the tent. His eyes, even at that distance, were a hard grey. She remembered what Thursday had said to her, when Duessa had died.
‘I know. Make the most of it. Your days are numbered’. She replied, coldly. The small smile faded from his face, and he walked out, without replying.
‘Justice, not revenge, Annie. Haven’t you told me that?’ Simon quietly said in her ear.
‘Its not me you have to tell, Simon. Its him’. She looked back at the tall grey figure of Thursday.
‘Let’s go outside. I need some fresh air’.
They walked outside and stood in the warm sunshine. The atmosphere in the camp had changed. They could hear excited voices, shouts and calls. The whole camp now knew of the peace treaty, and it had become much noisier, as faerys poured out of their tents and talked excitedly to each other.
Simon looked at his sister, as they stood outside. ‘You realise what we’ve done, Annie? We’ve just helped stop a war! Mind you, it was a close-run thing, to quote the Duke of Wellington! Just one little bastard who raised his hand! But we did it. Annie! We succeeded! You beautiful sister, you!’ He picked her off her feet and whirled her around. Annie screamed and laughed. The faerys around looked at them, amazed. He set her down on her feet again. She was still laughing and breathless. ‘You squeezed the life out of me!’ she gasped. ‘And you paid me a compliment! What’s come over you?’
‘Just relief! To stop a war! Isn’t that worth it, Annie?’
‘Yes it is’. she smiled. She had never seen her brother so happy for a long time. ‘Come here’, she said. She gave him a long, hard hug.
‘We don’t do soppiness, Annie’. He said sternly, as she released him.
‘There are certain exceptions to the rule, especially on these occasions’. Annie smiled at him again. ‘You’ve always been there for me. I do appreciate that’.
‘Well, someone has to look after you’. Simon smiled back. He suddenly knew how much he loved his sister, and what they had achieved together.
‘Molesting your own sister! How disgraceful!’
Indira and Pei-Ying came up towards them, excitedly. ’Is it true that you’ve just stopped this war?’ demanded Indira. Her eyes were bright.
Simon looked at his sister. ‘No. Oddly enough, it was Socrato. He had the casting vote’.
‘That’s not what the faerys we have spoken to said’. Pei-Ying replied, gently. ‘They think that if you had not gone to the Barbarossi camp, and arranged a truce, this would not have happened’.
‘You pair, believe it or not, are heroes’ said Indira. ‘And you are! Pei-Ying and I both know what you went through in that camp. We saw you when you came back’. For once, Indira’s face was serious.
They stood silently for a moment, deeply moved at their friends’ concern. ‘Thank you’. Annie said, very softly.
‘Perhaps we ought to go and see Gloriana and Paravar’. Simon said abruptly.
They turned and walked back in. The two faerys on guard looked at them, nervously. Annie looked back at them. ‘You’re not afraid of us, are you?’
‘No, lady. We are faery. But we know of your prowess. Is it true that you have fought monsters?’
She was another young faery who had asked. She was dark-haired, that hung down in tresses under her helmet, pushed back on her head. Her face was soft and pretty, her mouth slightly open as she looked at Annie.
‘I don’t know. Have we, Simon?’
He shrugged. ‘A few, I think’.
They walked on back into the tent, the faery looking after them admiringly. Gloriana was already walking towards them. ‘Thank you for your help. We appreciate it, and your support’.
‘Is that it, Gloriana? Does it not occur to you that we risked our lives in order to get this peace?’ shouted Simon, furiously.
‘What about those people out there? The ones you have just made peace with! Why don’t you let them in and show them some hospitality?’ Annie shouted, equally furiously.
I will have no Barbarossi within my walls until the armies have disbanded! Do you understand!’ Gloriana shouted back, now suddenly angry herself.
Annie looked at Paravar. He looked miserable. ‘I have tried to reason with Lady Gloriana. She will not let my people in’.
Annie looked at Simon, They both understood. They looked at Indira and Pei-Ying, who had followed them in. They both understood too. They moved together in a line to block the entrance to the tent. Lucifera and Mercilla who still sat behind the main table, suddenly became tense. Their hands moved instinctively towards their swords.
‘We are not letting you out of here unless you promise to let those people in’. Annie said, calmly. ‘My brother and I have risked our lives not just for you, but for them as well. You will let them in. Now’.
‘You heard my sister. You are not leaving here until you promise to let those people in. We mean it’ Simon said, menacingly.
‘Bloody faerys! Those people have been sitting outside in the sun for hours! You let them in, you bloody bitch!’ Indira snarled. She stood there with them, her hands clenched in fury.
‘She is right. It is unjust and cruel’. Pei-Ying said, more calmly.
Another figure pushed past them, and stood next to Simon. ‘This is not the way of a faery! This is not the way of a warrior! We have defeated them once, and we have made peace! We should treat them with honour! LET! THEM! IN!. She shouted the last words with total clarity and venom. It was Ragimund, who stood beside them, glaring at her sister in fury.
Gloriana stared back at them, her eyes grey. She was not afraid. She was a faery. But she was stunned by their total solidarity. They stood like an implacable wall, these four humans, and her own younger sister. She knew they would not give way. She could not prevail against them. She realised that she had lost this particular battle, and decided to surrender.
‘Very well. You are right. I will let them in’. She said quietly.
‘About time too!’ muttered Indira.
Gloriana turned back to look at Paravar. He was standing, uncertain and bewildered at this situation. ‘My lord Paravar, you have my permission to bring your people in. Please come with me, as a sign of my good intentions’. She turned back to face the humans. ‘Does that satisfy you?’ she asked. Her eyes had returned to their normal colour, and for once, she looked relieved. Annie was suddenly reminded of how Gloriana had looked at the picnic they had held, back in their own world. Gloriana had become a young girl, laughing and smiling. Now she seemed like that again.
She looked at Annie. ‘I know what you are thinking. That was one of the happiest days of my life, Annie’. Gloriana suddenly smiled. ‘Now, can I go, please? I have to issue the orders’.
‘I think we can let you off this time, can’t we, Annie?’ Simon grinned at his sister.
‘Just this once’. she replied, smiling back at him. She knew they had won yet another battle. They parted to let Gloriana and Paravar through. Paravar paused. ‘I think we might have that game of chess sooner than we thought, Simon’. He laughed. ‘I must bring my people in’. He followed Gloriana out of the tent.
‘Shall we go and guarantee the Barbarossi safe entry?’ Indira said, happily. She was now back to her usual self. ‘What about you two?’ She looked at Mercilla and Lucifera. ‘We will come and greet them’. Mercilla stood up, as did her sister. They walked up to them. ‘You humans are truly astonishing!’ Mercilla said to Annie. ‘I have never seen anyone stand against my sister before’.
Lucifera stared at Ragimund , who glared back at her coldly. ‘We have promised to make peace with you. Will you make your peace with us?’
‘Never!’ snapped Ragimund. She whirled around and strode out of the tent leaving her anger trailing behind her, like a comet’s wake. Lucifera looked at her sister, shrugged, then she and Mercilla walked back through the entrance after her. Simon looked utterly miserable. Annie patted his shoulder. ‘Give it time, Simon. You’ll eventually work your magic on her’. She was making her words light, but her heart ached for her brother. She knew how he was feeling.
‘Let’s see the Barbarossi in’. He muttered and went out. They followed him, silently. They heard Gloriana’s voice giving orders and then the clatter of the chains as the drawbridge went down, and the soft thump, as it settled on the far side of the defensive ditch outside the wall. They went up the stairs, their boots cludding on its wooden steps, and stood at the battlements, looking out across the battlefield.
The Barbarossi had all risen to their feet, and stood in a huddled group, looking at the lowered drawbridge, confused and uncertain, not knowing what it meant. Paravar walked slowly along it, and stopped at the end. He called out to his people in his own language, then beckoned them forwards, with his hands. The Barbarossi began to move hesitantly forwards, the women holding the smaller children, or leading them by the hand, their husbands walking beside them protectively, some with arms around their wives’ shoulders. Paravar stood aside, as they slowly trooped across the drawbridge, nervous and fearful. He spoke to each of them as they passed. Annie knew he was trying to reassure them. Finally they were all through.
They gathered in the open space behind the wall. They were in faery territory for the first time in centuries. They gazed fearfully at the faerys, who stood in large groups, facing them. Neither faery or Barbarossi moved. They stood, looking at each other curiously. There was an uneasy silence. Without warning, a small Barbarossi boy, about six years old, bored with the situation, ran out into the open space between the two groups and began to perform a number of clumsy cartwheels.
‘Hala!’ his mother shouted, desperately. She held another child in her arms. Her son suddenly missed his footing, and fell down on his bottom. ‘Ow’ he wailed.
Both Barbarossi and faerys began to laugh. Then a faery stepped forward, picked the child up, and set him gently on his feet. The child looked up at the faery in wonder. But that small gesture broke the hostility. Both groups, Barbarossi and faery, surged towards each other, not in war this time, but in friendship. They mingled with each other, the faerys greeting the Barbarossi men with a warrior’s handshake, and bowing to the Barbarossi women and children, as they were introduced. Tables and benches were brought, and large flasks of wine, and dishes of food, began to appear. Some of the faery women led the Barbarossi wives and their children towards the latrines.
‘There! I told you! Now they can go to the loo!’ cried Indira, gleefully. Annie burst out laughing. ‘Trust you to think of that! But you’re right! This is wonderful!’ She looked down at the whole scene below. What had once been an empty space where faery warriors had gathered, ready for battle, was now filled with tables where Barbarossi and faery now sat, laughing and talking with each other. The Barbarossi children ran happily around the tables, no longer fearful. One small child sat on a faery’s lap. He was tickling the child, who was giggling and squealing, while his Barbarossi mother sat opposite, laughing with her child, happy that he was sitting with a faery, who had once been an enemy. They stood on the battlement walls, looking down at this scene.
‘You realise we’ve just helped to make history, Annie?’ Simon said quietly.
‘After all we’ve been through, Simon’. She looked down again, ‘It makes everything worthwhile. This is what we’ve really been fighting for, over the last two years. We’ve been through a war, Simon, in every way’.
‘Stop talking and come down and mingle! That’s what I’m going to do!’ Indira ran down the steps, followed by Pei-Ying.
‘Let’s go down there. I believe I can see Paravar down below! He’s waving to us!’ Come on, Annie! Stop dawdling!’ He suddenly stopped, as they were halfway down the steps. ‘Annie. I’m really sorry. You miss Helios, don’t you?’
‘Yes’. Annie said, miserably. ‘I won’t have a chance to see him now’.
‘We’ll be back, Annie. Then you’ll see him again. He’ll wait for you, Annie. I know he will’.
‘I suppose so’. Annie said.
Simon looked back up at his sister. ‘He will, Annie. Because you’re worth it’.
She smiled down at her brother in affection. ‘No soppiness. Come on, let’s mingle’. They entered the crowd, who were all now chattering and laughing together. At one table, a group of Barbarossi and faerys, men and women, were reciting poems to each other, and laughing, as each one of them, in turn, spoke a short piece. It was the poetry game that they had seen on board the trireme. A Barbarossi man was demonstrating a game to the throng around him. He whirled and threw a wooden instrument, rounded, but with a narrow neck in the middle, on a length of string attached to two wooden handles. He threw the object in the air. It sang as it came down, the air whistling through the perforations in its sides. As he hurled it again and again into the air, it seemed to create a shrill song, as he threw it and caught it again. His audience laughed and applauded.
Annie suddenly realised that they were all speaking in her own language, a common language between these two different peoples. She could catch odd phrases and fragments as they talked to each other. Simon had already vanished into the crowd. She looked around, and caught sight of a familiar figure sitting at a table near her.
‘Hasada!’ she cried. She went across to where he was sitting. He got up as he saw her. ‘My lady’. he said formally. Though he was smiling. Annie decided to give up the unequal struggle. ‘It’s good to see you again. Hasada’, She glanced around. ‘Especially on an occasion like this’.
‘This is wonderful’, He looked around, happily. ‘I never thought that I would live to see a day like this. My lady, I would like to introduce you to my wife, Alyeh’. He motioned to the woman with whom he had been sitting. She began to rise, uncertainly.
‘No, don’t stand up’, Annie said hastily. ‘I don’t do formalities. And I’m not lady, I’m Annie, as I keep trying to tell everyone. I’m happy to meet you, Alyeh’. She held out her hand. The woman took it, shyly. Annie looked down at her. She was small, a lot shorter than Hasada, and her long black hair was woven in a long plait, that reached down to her waist. But she had the gentlest, most sweetest face that Annie had ever seen. Her face was oval, soft and rounded, and she wore a small, embroidered shawl over her head, that was tied loosely under her chin. She held a small boy, barely two years old, against her. Another boy, older, about six, sat on the other side. They both stared at her curiously, with the inquisitive expressions that small children always had.
‘These are our children. This is Asa’, he indicated the older child, ‘And this is Ara’, looking lovingly at the younger one.
Annie felt a sudden surge of sadness. How could anyone go to war against these people? ‘I am proud to meet you and your family. Hasada’, she said. The woman looked up at her with a gentle smile. ‘Thank you’. She said, awkwardly.
‘I am teaching Alyeh your language. But you are not yet good at it, are you, Alyeh?’
She looked up at her husband and smiled, shaking her head.
‘It doesn’t matter’. Annie laughed. ‘Your wife is lovely, Hasada. You’re a lucky man’.
Hasada beamed at her. ‘I thank you, my lady’. Alyeh had heard this too, and she too, smiled up at Annie. This time she offered her hand to Annie, who took it, and pressed it firmly.
‘Tell me, Hasada’, she asked, looking at him directly. ‘What did you think of my brother and I, when we first met you?’
Hasada hesitated. ‘I do not want to offend you, lady’.
‘You won’t’. Annie replied, quietly. ‘I just want to know the truth’.
‘If you want the truth, lady, I was afraid of you. I did not know what to make of you at all. But you were friendly to me. I was told that you were fierce and ruthless, that even the faerys feared you. I saw your eyes turn grey and hard, when you saw our followers’ camp. But you were good to me. I liked you’.
He said that with sincerity in his voice. Annie thought hard about what to say next to these people she had only just met, but whom she too, liked very much.
‘I’m sorry that you had to go to war, and about your good friend that you lost. But I want you to know that we’re human, not faery. I really don’t know what’s happening to us, Hasada. We have to find out’.
Hasada looked at her, gravely. ‘You are on a long journey, lady. You, and your brother. I can see it in your eyes. I hope it ends well’.
‘So do I, Hasada’. She saw her brother beckoning from another table where he was sitting with Paravar.
‘I have to go now’. She looked at them. ‘I would like to meet you again, sometime. Perhaps, in your own country’.
‘That…..good’. It was Alyeh that had spoken. She smiled up at Annie. ‘Language….not right…yet’.
Annie was deeply touched. She smiled back at this Barbarossi woman, with her sweet face, who had tried to speak to her in her own language, in a world far removed from her own. She tried to think of how to say goodbye.
She looked at them both and at their two small children. ‘Go in peace, Hasada. And you and your family, Alyeh. Sorry. Best I could do’.
‘We wish you the same’. Hasada said, quietly. ‘Until we meet again, perhaps’. He placed his hand gently on his wife’s shoulder.
‘I must go. My brother is calling me’. She turned and left them, the Barbarossi man still holding his wife’s shoulder, their two children sitting quietly by them. Her eyes were prickling.
She reached Simon, who was sitting, opposite Paravar, at the other table, about twenty yards away.
‘I hope you gave Hasada my best wishes’, Simon said as she sat down beside him, opposite Paravar. The three of them were alone at this particular table, but around them, the other benches and tables were occupied by both faerys and Barbarossi. She noticed that the faerys were showing their Barbarossi guests very small, apparently hand-painted or drawn pictures, of their families and loved ones. The noise of conversation and laughter was loud around them. She could see Indira holding one of her “courts’ as she liked to describe them, telling rude jokes to a mixed group of Barbarossi and faerys, who were laughing and giggling. At another table she could see Pei-Ying talking and laughing with two of the Barbarossi. True ambassadors, she thought to herself.
‘What are you going to do about those bastards that were negociating? The ones that engineered your defeat, and led to the slaughter of your people, Paravar?’ Simon asked, bitterly.
‘Oh, them’, Paravar said softly. ‘I will deal with them. I have my ways and means’.
Annie looked at him in dread. ‘I hope you don’t mean….’
‘Oh, goodness me, no! I am an Oxford man! There are much subtler methods. I will simply erode their power and make things very uncomfortable for them. They will simply decide to leave the country and never return. They will not bleed my people dry again’.
‘Oh, it was nothing’ Simon said rather airily, Annie thought. ‘Yes it was!’ She said, indignantly.
‘No matter’. Paravar smiled at them. I have a gift for each of you, as a….sort of, token of respect for you both’. He reached down under the table to a small bag he had with him.
‘Oh Paravar! You shouldn’t have!’ cried Simon in a pretended falsetto voice.
Annie burst out laughing. Her brother’s sense of humour was so ridiculous at times.
‘You’ll have to forgive him, Paravar. You can see what I’ve had to put up with, all these years’. She smiled at Simon mischievously.
Paravar laughed. ‘Ladies first’. He handed Annie a small parcel. It was wrapped in a kind of paper that seemed to have been made from dried palm-leaves, that had been dried and overlapped together. It was bound with a twine that had been made from the stems of plants.
‘A token of goodwill from the Barbarossi people’. he said.
Annie untied the twine and opened the package. Inside was a small metal box, inlaid with swirling, curling patterns of gold. She undid its small metal clasps. She gasped. Inside, nestling on a small bed of white cotton lint, was an exquisite golden bracelet. It was made of finely interwoven strands, and from it hung three little emerald stones, each one held within a tiny frame, also of gold. She pulled it out and put it on her wrist, fastening the small shiny clasp. She held it up and looked at it. The sun seemed to shine through the delicate emeralds, so that they glowed with a deep, green warmth. She thought of the little faery emerald that she had given to Morag, for good luck.
‘Thank you, Paravar. I will always treasure this’.
‘A rather fine example of our Barbarossi craftsmanship, if I may say so. And for you, Simon you might appreciate this.’
He gave Simon a larger parcel, wrapped in the same way. ‘Rather like birthday presents in your world’. He laughed. ‘That was definitely something new to me! But we Barbarossi enjoy giving gifts’.
Simon carefully unwrapped the parcel. It was about fifteen inches square and five inches deep. He knew instinctively what it was. As he opened it, it revealed itself as a chessboard, covered on both sides with black and white squares, the black ones of an ebony veneer, the white of what looked like mother-of-pearl. He opened it, undoing the small hooks along its edge. Inside, nestled in white linen, lay all the chess pieces, carved in tiny detail, in what seemed to be marble, of Barbarossi castles, pawns and knights, together with the kings and queens on their thrones. He had never seen such fine workmanship before.
‘ This is a wonderful gift, Paravar’. He said quietly. ‘Thank you’.
‘You are welcome’, replied Paravar cheerfully. ‘But I fear that we may not be able to play until the next time. Your lady, Ragimund, is approaching’. He looked at Simon knowingly. Simon looked at him and knew that Paravar understood. ‘What happened to your wife, Paravar?’ he asked hesitantly. ‘If you don’t mind me asking’.
‘No. I do not mind. She died in childbirth, when my son, Deneto was born’. Paravar replied, briefly.
Annie looked down. How many times did things repeat themselves, she thought. ‘I’m truly sorry, Paravar. I really am’.
‘So am I’. Simon said, very softly.
Ragimund came and sat down on the bench next to Simon. She pressed his shoulder gently. ‘I have a message for you, from your mother and father. It came from the Watchers only an hour ago. I have written it out for you’. She passed the small scroll to Simon, who began to unroll it. Annie moved closer to her brother so that they could read it together.
‘I think I should mix with our hosts’ Paravar said, tactfully, and got up to move amongst the various small groups around the tables. They read the message. It said:
“Come back urgently. Now Sunday evening. No news of Morag at all. We are worried. Hope you are fine. But come back immediately. Faerys will show you a portal back here. Bless you. M +D xx.”
‘Simon! We’ve got to get back, as soon as possible!’ Annie cried. ‘I’m really worried about Morag!’
‘So am I! Yes, so am I’. Annie looked at her brother. She knew he had become deeply fond of Morag.
‘She’s like, well rather like our older sister, isn’t she? We must find out if anything’s happened to her’.
‘There is another thing that I must tell you. Your friend, Mariko has gone to see my…..the others’. Ragimund could no longer bring herself to say “sisters”.
‘Why?’ Annie asked.
‘I do not know. That is why they are not here. She is talking with them now. Please, I really do not know’.
Brother and sister looked at each other, bewildered. ‘Why should she do that?’ Annie said.
‘I have absolutely no idea’. Simon answered, equally confused.
‘Your horses are ready to take you to the portal to your world. They have your bags loaded already. They are waiting for you beyond the camp. The portal is only two miles away, just west of Cestmos. Simon! I shall miss you so much!’ Ragimund suddenly burst out. There were tears in her eyes.
‘I’ll miss you as well’. He reached out and gently stroked Ragimund’s cheek. ‘We’ll be back soon, won’t we Annie?’
‘Of course we will. We’d better go. I’ll collect the others while you two can be soppy, out of my eyesight.’ She thought of Helios, but turned, and went towards Indira’s group of admirers before they could reply. She was, for some reason, happy. She enjoyed seeing Simon and Ragimund together, now that she knew his faery lover so much better.
‘Hey, Indira!’ She shouted, cupping her hands together. She decided to be mischievous. ‘Get off that shapely rump of yours and come! We’ve got to get back! Now!’
‘Damn! Let me finish off this joke first, otherwise everybody will be extremely disappointed!’ Annie didn’t hear the end of it, but she knew it was one of Indira’s coarser ones, as she heard her audience roaring with laughter. She smiled. Trust Indira.
Indira and Pei-Ying joined her after a minute or two. The tall faery, Pereas, came forward towards them. ‘Ladies, I am to escort you to the portal. Your horses are waiting’.
Indira smiled at him, another smile that she kept in her arsenal. ‘That would be lovely. On condition, I ride next to you. Agreed?’
‘Lady, that would be a pleasure indeed’.
Annie and Pei-Ying looked at each other, and shook their heads. Indira’s charm could destroy anything in its path. They followed him back through the tents, Faerys were sitting, talking excitedly in groups everywhere, but there was an atmosphere of delight and relief. Annie could almost feel it. A faery called out to her. ‘Lady! Is it true that we are at peace now?’
‘Yes, it is true’, Annie called back. She smiled at them. ‘You’ll be able to go home soon’.
‘We thank you, lady. Is it true that you have fought monsters?’
‘Well, one or two’. Annie answered modestly. She smiled again and walked on beside the others.
‘There, you see’, Indira said smugly. ‘You’re a hero. Good thing I didn’t tell them about your vile temper, though’.
‘I have not got a vile temper!’ Annie shouted furiously. ‘I just get bloody angry when….’ Her voice trailed away as she saw Indira and Pei-Ying sniggering. She laughed. ‘I hate you two!’
‘We hate you as well’. Indira said good-naturedly, then giggled.
They passed through the faery camp to the open space beyond, The city of Cestmos was only a few miles away. Gloriana and her sisters were standing together. Their horses, their bags tied securely behind the saddles, were shuffling restlessly. Pereas went forward and mounted his horse, and waited for them. They stopped in front of the little group of faerys, Gloriana, Mercilla and Lucifera. Mariko was standing with them. Gloriana smiled.
‘I am sorry that we have quarrelled. But I do want to give you our thanks. You have achieved so much for us. I truly thank you’. She looked at them almost wistfully. ‘We are faery. When we go to war, we fight without mercy. That is our nature. But I am glad that we now have peace. The faerys will always remember the part that you played in that. I truly thank you again. Perhaps’, she hesitated, ‘we may have another….picnic…again? It meant a very great deal to me. It made me human’.
They looked at each other. Both remembered that they too, had felt the faery bloodlust. ‘I don’t think that we can ever forgive you for that slaughter’. Annie said finally. ‘But’. She thought about it. She looked at her brother again. He nodded. ‘We know that faerys have their dark side. Cruel, vicious and ruthless, on one hand, but loving and kind on the other. We realise that’.
‘Are we so different from you humans, then?’ Lucifera said sharply.
‘We will have that picnic, Gloriana’. Annie said quietly. ‘But in peace this time’.
Gloriana nodded, and smiled. She seemed to be a young girl again. They turned and began to mount their horses, who were waiting impatiently. Annie looked back. ‘Mariko!’ she shouted. ‘Come on! We’ve got to go!’
Mariko stood there next to the faerys. She didn’t move. Annie stared around at the horses. She suddenly realised. There were four horses. Only four horses. She dismounted quickly, and ran back. The others also dismounted and followed her, slowly.
‘Mariko! What’s going on?’ she demanded.
‘I am not going back with you. I am staying here, in Hyperborea’. Mariko stared down at the ground. Her hands were clasped together, in front of her. ‘That was my decision, that I was too afraid to tell you about’.
Annie stood, totally shocked. She could hear the others gasp behind her. ‘You can’t, Mariko! You can’t!’
‘You’re abducting her!’ Simon shouted at the faerys behind. ‘You’re kidnapping her, just like you faerys did in mediaeval times!’
‘She wishes to stay of her own free will! She is welcome here!’ Gloriana said quietly.
‘That is right. I asked Gloriana and the others if they would allow me to stay here. They told me I would be welcome. I will be an adviser to them and help them to develop their relations with the Barbarossi. It is my choice, and mine alone. Please understand that’. Mariko replied, simply. She held out some letters, in white envelopes, the addresses on which were neatly written in Mariko’s handwriting. One was in Japanese.
‘I want to give you these to send for me.’, she said. ‘One is to our school, explaining that I am returning to Japan indefinitely. Another is to my uncle, who has been financing me while I have been in England, explaining that I will be staying in England, and that I no longer require his financial assistance. I will disappear. The other’, she paused. ‘is for you and the other members of the Brotherhood, and Sisterhood of the Hand. Please, I would not like you to open it until you get back’.
‘You’ve thought of everything, haven’t you, Mariko?’ Simon said, sadly.
‘No, not everything’. Mariko replied, equally sadly. ‘Not everything’.
Mariko stared at her. ‘I know that But what future, Annie? What future is that? Is it a future where I finish my education, get married to a husband who I never see, because he is always away working for his company, trying to bring up a child in a tiny cramped apartment in Tokyo, that we can barely afford, and where my child and I have to wear masks every time we go out because the air is so polluted? Just another housewife, who is treated as a second-class citizen, who is not even listened to? Is that my future, Annie? Tell me! Is that what I can look forward to in our world?’
‘It doesn’t have to be like that!’
‘I think you know the answer to that, Annie’.
‘But… ‘Annie was searching desperately for the right words. ‘You might be so lonely here!’ She tried to think of something else.
‘Not as lonely as I was in our world, Annie’.
‘What!’ Annie stared at her. ‘What about your family, Mariko? That photograph we saw in your room? Your mother and father! Your brothers and your sister! What will they say?’
‘I have no family, Annie’.
Annie just looked at her. She couldn’t find anything else to say.
‘You see, my father died years ago of cancer. My mother died soon after. Those other people were just friends who were staying with us. I have no brothers and sisters, and my parents are gone. My uncle pays for my education because of family duty. But he has no interest in me. I have no family, Annie. I just pretended they existed. I made them up!’ Mariko’s lips began to tremble. Her hands were twisting against each other.
‘I have lied to you. I have lied to you all this time! I am so ashamed! I am so ashamed!’
Then Mariko completely and utterly broke down. She fell on her knees, on the trodden earth, and began to cry, her hands pressed to her face, sobbing loudly. Annie looked down at her, then dropped to her knees and instinctively pulled Mariko to her, and held her tightly, her hand clasping Mariko’s head against her own, her cheek pressed against hers, her other hand around Mariko’s back, holding her against her own body. She felt Mariko convulsing against her, in great gulps and sobs. She felt all Mariko’s grief, loneliness, shame, sorrow and misery pour out and cascade around her. She said nothing, but held onto Mariko tightly. She could feel Mariko’s hands clenching the folds of her shirt into small bundles on her back. Her shoulder was already damp from Mariko’s tears, and she felt her own beginning to trickle down her face. She could remember her own grief and sadness from before, when she had renounced her own family.
Indira turned around and went to her horse, pressing her face into its soft neck. The horse muttered under its breath, and stood hesitantly. Pei-Ying sank down and put her face in her hands. Simon stood, shocked and saddened, looking at his sister who was rocking Mariko gently back and forth, as a mother to a terrified child. He could hear Mariko’s loud sobs and gulps, as Annie held her tightly against her. The faerys had retreated a step or two back, out of respect for the human emotion they saw before them. Pereas, still mounted, bowed his head.
Simon just stood there, looking at Mariko, crying and crying, the calm, logical, rational Mariko that they had all come to rely on, being comforted in his sister’s arms.
‘We didn’t know! We just didn’t know!’ He cried miserably to Ragimund who stood beside him. ‘All this time! We didn’t realise how lonely she was! All this time!’
He felt Ragimund’s fingers interlocked with his.
‘I will look after her’. She said softly to him. ‘I promise you. A faery promise. I will look after her as….as my own sister. I have no others’.
‘I was afraid you’d say that’. He replied, miserably. But he squeezed her hand.
Annie held Mariko tightly against her, until she felt her tears begin to subside. She clung on to her for another minute, then slowly released her. She got up, slowly. ‘Stand up, Mariko’. She reached down, took Mariko’s hands and pulled her up. Annie let go and pushed Mariko’s damp strands of hair back. She was still gulping and sobbing.
‘Please! Please….forgive me! I am so sorry! Please forgive me! I am so…..so ashamed!’
Annie cupped her wet face between her hands. ‘Look at me, Mariko’.
‘There is nothing to forgive, Mariko. And there is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s you that should forgive us, for not knowing how lonely and sad you’ve been all this time. I’m so sorry. Mariko’.
Mariko nodded, still gulping and sniffling.
‘Mariko. you do have a family. You’ve got us. We’ll always be your family. We always will be. Remember that. And you won’t get rid of us that easily!’ Annie smiled at her. Mariko smiled back, despite the tears that were still flowing down her face.
Annie took her hands away. She could not bear any more. ‘We won’t forget you, Mariko. Never. We’ve got to go’. She turned and walked back to her horse, and mounted. ‘Come on, you lot! We’ve got to get back!’.
Indira took her hands from around her horse’s neck. ‘You’ve made my neck all wet!’ it said, indignantly.
‘Oh, shut up, you plod!’
‘Well, thank you very much!’ muttered the horse. Indira ignored it. She stood in front of Mariko, hands on hips.
‘Well? Have you got anything to say for yourself?’
Mariko shook her head, miserably.
‘Well, I have. You stupid little sod!’
Mariko looked down at the ground, still sniffling. Then Indira’s face crumpled with emotion. ‘I’m really going to miss you’. She said. ‘So much! Oh, come here, you!’ She pulled Mariko towards her and hugged her tightly.
‘Don’t you dare weep into my hair!’ she added, fiercely.
She let go, after holding her for a few moments. ‘You behave yourself’. she said severely. Then she turned and mounted her own horse. ‘Get on, you! What are you hanging about for?’ she demanded. The horse groaned, and began to trot after Annie and Pereas , who had already departed. Mariko saw Indira ride up alongside Pereas.
‘Go in peace, Mariko. Be happy, because that is what we want for you. All of us’. Pei-Ying smiled at her, turned away, mounted her own horse, and set off after the others.
Simon turned to Ragimund. They kissed each other softly on the lips. ‘We’ll be back’. He said quietly.
‘I know you will’. Ragimund replied, gently. ‘I will keep my promise’. She glanced across at Mariko. ‘Go and say your farewell to her’.
He walked across, stood in front of Mariko and put his hands on her shoulders. She looked up at him, and he leant his mouth close to her ear, so that no-one else could hear.
‘Will you do something for me?’ he asked. She nodded. She could hardly bring herself to speak. ‘Please use all your irreducible powers of logic, all your immense rational knowledge, all your irrefutable common sense, and whatever else you can think of, to make Ragimund make peace with her sisters. They’re the only family she has, as well’.
Mariko gulped and sniffled. ‘I’ll try’. She whispered.
‘Then that’s good enough for me’. He whispered back. ‘Be seeing you’.
He mounted his horse, and looked back at her. ‘Mariko!’ he called back to her. ‘Your nose is running, You look a mess. Try and tidy yourself up a bit. You’re giving us humans a bad name’. He grinned at her and then rode off to catch up with the others. Mariko stared after him, open-mouthed. Then she smiled, despite her tears. She knew it was Simon’s way of expressing his deep affection for her.
She watched as the five riders galloped away, up towards the top of the slight ridge that led down again towards Cestmos and the portal they needed to find. At the top, they all paused, and looked back at her. They did not wave. They simply looked back at her, then they rode on. She watched as they disappeared from view, the only real family she had left.
‘Come with me, Mariko’. Ragimund said gently to her. ‘You will need to wash your face’. She took her hand and led her back towards the camp behind the walls. The others parted, silently, to let them through, and Mariko walked back into her new world.
Frank Jackson (9/07/2011) Word count – 10874.