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. They have now joined forces with both the faeries, led by Gloriana, the dragon leader, Dabar, his dragon-mate, Leila, Sister Teresa a dedicated nun with strange powers, and Pat, an Irish academic. A new member is Morag, half-policewoman, half-faery.They have travelled to Hyoerborea, the faery country, and are about to explore the newly discovered site of the Ancient Ones, the faerys’ ancestors
They walked together towards the old hill-fort, beyond the golf-course. The green icicles of grass crunched and cracked beneath their boots. It was a cold, frosty November morning, and the sky was still dark. Their breath hung in the air as they made their way onwards. Each figure wore hoods as protection, and carried either bags or knapsacks on their shoulders. They were silent as they mounted the short incline up onto the flat plain of the hill-fort, now empty of the fires that had been lit there thousands of years ago. They moved through the gorse bushes and stunted trees, black against the icy sheen of the ground beneath, and stopped at a clearing in the centre.
‘I’m bloody cold!’ muttered one of the figures.
‘Oh, stop complaining. You wanted to come’.
‘Not at bloody dawn, I didn’t!’
‘Be quiet. He will be here soon’. said another figure softly.
They waited, occasionally stamping their feet, and rubbing their gloved hands together.
There was a distant thumping, that grew louder. Suddenly a cloaked and hooded horseman appeared, Behind him, he led another string of horses. They paused, their hoofs stamping and pawing on the frosted grass. The rider dismounted and walked towards them. He threw back his hood.
They spoke in English, the faerys’ second language.
‘Helios?’ One of the other figures ran forwards , throwing back its hood.
Helios and Annie embraced each other in delight, and then Annie pulled his face down to hers, and kissed him hard. They held each other tightly.
‘Look, can we get on!’ Indira said irritably. ‘It’s so cold that we’ll have to prise you apart with a hammer and chisel!’
Both Annie and Helios laughed.
‘Here are your horses.We will mount up and you will not be so cold soon’.
They mounted, apart from one figure, who stood there hesitantly.
‘Get a move on, Morag! We’re freezing to death here!’
‘Get on, lass. Remember me?’ the horse said. ‘Bucephalus’.
‘Oh. Of course! From last time’.
‘Get on your horse, Morag!’ Annie said sharply.’We’ve got things to do!’
Morag gulped and them put her foot in the stirrup and awkwardly mounted the horse. She was not happy at all. They trotted off in the direction from which Helios had come. The atmosphere shivered around them as they entered Hyperborea.
They reined in their horses and stopped at the top of the ridge, from where they had entered. They looked down at Elsace, the capital city of Hyperborea. They had been here before, but never at sunrise. As the sun rose, the multi-facetted cubes, towers and roofs of the palace shone and glittered, each plane, angle and surface coming to light in different warm colours. It was as if a giant multi-facetted diamond was sparkling, gleaming, as the warmth of the newly risen sun brought it into life. They gazed in wonder, as each part of it, every element, became alive with colour and warmth. The palace shimmered with a wonderful glow.
‘Now I know why the faerys built it in that way’. Simon whispered to Annie. She nodded, still fascinated by the sight. Even Morag had forgotten her fears, and sat in her saddle, gazing at the brilliant palace in the sunrise of dawn. After a few more minutes, they rode down to the palace itself through the trees and past the gallery of art on the right. They reined in outside the main entrance to the palace. Gloriana and her sisters were standing on the front steps. They put up their hands in in the familiar gesture of peace.
Ragimund rode straight past them without even acknowledging their greeting. Instead she headed straight towards the stable on the other side of the long courtyard. Simon looked after her sadly.
‘What was that about?’ Morag whispered softly to Annie.
‘Ragimund has renounced her sisters’ Annie said quietly. ‘Don’t ask me now’.
‘Poor Simon’. Morag said.
Gloriana came down the steps to them. ‘It is good to see you all again’. She smiled. ‘All of you this time. Please come inside and join us for some refreshment’.
Their horses were led away by the faery guards. Then they followed Gloriana and her sisters, Mercilla, Lucifera amd Britomart into the palace itself, into the great entrance hall with its domed and painted roof above, and the tall, motionless statues on each wall, standing in stiff stylised poses, the left foot advanced, the arms stiff at their sides. It was familiar to them, but it was still a strong and austere place. This time it was different. They all experienced the same feeling: that of coming home, something they had never felt before. They followed the faery sisters up the broad flight of steps up to the gallery that ran around the great hall, just below where the ceiling began to curve into its domed shape. Gloriana threw open a pair of doors, and beckoned them in.
‘You have been here already’, she announced. It was the same room as when they had met them before, with it’s latticed windows, through which the bright sunlight now poured in a dancing array of colour and warmth on the cushions that were scattered around. Gloriana and her sisters settled down on these like brightly coloured butterflies. Small tables with cakes, bread and cups stood amongst them. The faery sisters wore long flowing gowns, as they had seen them on their last visit.
‘Please take off those strange outer garments you are wearing. It is warm here. Have some refreshment with us. We will take you to your rooms later’, Gloriana smiled. ‘ This time, you will be housed in the palace. But, tell us of all your news as we eat. I can see that you have much to say of what has happened since you were last here. And greetings to you, Morag, daughter of Moran. At least this time, you have managed to come!’
Morag smiled shyly. ‘I was unfortunately rather delayed last time, due to circumstances beyond my control’.
‘Definitely. She got herself kidnapped!’ Indira said cheerfully.
‘Abducted? You must tell us about this!’
They settled down for the rest of the morning, recounting everything that had happened previously. The faerys listened, and gasped as they heard of Morag’s abduction and her rescue. The time passed quickly as before, in a welter of colour and talk, flurries of conversation and laughter. But Morag felt troubled and unhappy. As soon as she could, she moved closer to Helios, who was sitting listening to Annie beside him.
‘Helios, where is Haga? I was hoping I might see him again’.
Helios looked at her , and then away again. ‘I truly do not know, my lady. I wish I could tell you’.
Morag felt even more worried. She could tell from the gentle but formal way in which Helios had spoken to her that something was wrong.
‘He’s not hurt, is he? Wounded or injured, I mean?’
Helios looked at her again. ‘No, I do not know why he is not here to greet you. I am sorry. That is truly all I can say to you. Morag’. This time his tone was even more gentle. Morag felt more worried than ever. Britomart got up.
She was the warmest of the faery sisters, her soft face framed with brown curls cut to neck-length, unlike the others, whose hair flowed like water to their waists. ‘I will take you to your rooms here. We could not use the House of Poseidon, since it does not have enough rooms for you all’.
They said their farewells, and followed her along the balcony to another pair of doors. They found themselves in another large panelled central room with doors opening off along the two sides. At the far end, three tall windows faced out over the courtyard and over Elsace itself. Far beyond the city, mountains gleamed, still white with snow on their upper slopes and peaks.
Britomart smiled. ‘It is good to have you back. If you need anything, just ask any of the guards. I shall see you again this evening’.
‘I’d forgotten how beautiful this land is’. Morag said, quietly, looking out at the view. ‘It seems so long since I’ve been here’. She turned away and walked into her room. It was small and square and spotlessly clean. The furniture was simple, a bed, a small table, racks for hanging clothes, and a small circular mirror. She pulled open the shutters on the window, looked out at the mountains and then down at the courtyard below. She stiffened. She had seen a familiar figure entering the palace. She ran out of the door and along the balcony and was half-way down the main stairs, when she saw the same figure coming out of a door and walking towards the main entrance to the palace.
‘Haga!’ she shouted joyfully. She began to run down the main stairs towards him.
He turned and stared at her. ‘Yes?’ he said coldly.
She stopped. ‘Aren’t you glad to see me? After the last time we met…?’
‘I do not think so, Why should I? I don’t believe I know you’.
‘Haga, last time…!’
‘Oh yes. I remember now. Did you think that was serious?’ He laughed. ‘Just a mere flirtation. You humans! You take everything so seriously! Anyway, I have things to attend to. I have no time for you’.
He turned and walked out through the main door. Morag stood on the stairway, her hopes and dreams shattered. She, too, turned and began to walk back up the stairs. As she mounted, she began to cry. Another hurt, another sorrow, had just been flung at her.
Annie looked up as she came in. ‘That was quick, Morag, I was beginning to think……’Her voice tailed off as she saw the tears and the misery in Morag’s face. ‘What’s the matter!’ she cried.
‘Haga. He didn’t even want to know me! Now leave me alone!’
Morag pushed open her bedroom door and went in, slamming it behind her. Annie waited a few moments and the put her head to the door and listened. She could hear Morag sobbing quietly.
‘What’s going on?’ Indira demanded as she came into the central room. ‘What are you doing, Annie? Listening to see if she’s having some nooky? I never expected that of you’.
‘Shut up, Indira! She’s upset. Haga has just told her to get lost, if you must know!’
‘The bloody sod! Wait till I get hold of him!’ Indira cried furiously.’That is an affront to womanhood!’ she added righteously.
‘What’s an affront?’ said Simon, as he came out of his own room. ‘What are we talking about?’
‘That bastard Haga just dumped Morag!’
‘It’s true, Simon. He said he didn’t even want to know her. She shouldn’t be treated like that!’ Annie said hotly.
‘Right. That’s it’. Simon’s face had turned to stone. He walked back into his bedroom, and reappeared a few moments later with his sword slung across his back.
‘Simon, what are you doing?’ Annie cried in dismay.
‘What do you think?’ He walked out and down the stairs. Annie stared after him, totally indecisive as what to do. Then she decided.
‘Stay here, all of you’. She noticed that Mariko and Pei-Ying had come into the room, looking bewildered. ‘Keep Morag here!’
‘Annie, what are you going to do?’ Mariko asked anxiously’.
‘I’m going to try to keep my brother from doing anything really stupid! Just stay here with Morag!’ She shouted as she ran down the stairs.
Simon walked down the steps outside the main door of the palace and looked around. He saw two dark figures at the far end of the sandy courtyard. He recognised the taller but not the smaller.
‘Haga!’ he shouted, his voice echoing around the bright ochre-coloured courtyard at the front of the palace. ‘Come back here! Now!’
The two figures began to walk slowly back towards him, the smaller a few paces behind. The faery guards, lounging in the shade of the building, suddenly stiffened and became alert. They had heard the note of menace in his voice. Simon took no notice. He began to walk towards the two figures that were approaching him. The sun was hot, and high above his head His boots kicked up little eddies of dust as he neared the taller figure. They stopped, no more than a yard apart.
‘What is it that you want of me?’ Haga said coldly.
‘You have offended and insulted my sister, Haga!’
‘Your sister? I do not believe that. But if I have, so?’ He laughed. ‘It does not matter. She is only a human, like you’.
Simon’s right arm and fist swung hard and viciously, so swiftly that the faery guards watching hardly saw it. He hit Haga’s left jaw with all his weight and his fury behind it. Haga spun round and collapsed, face down on the sand, gasping. Simon stood over him and pulled him around onto his back and then hauled him to his feet, his hands grasping the front of his tunic. Haga’s eyes were glassy and his jaw was slack. He was dazed and concussed with the force of the blow, lips bleeding.
‘You ever hurt my sister again or any other woman for that matter, I’ll kill you, Haga. I mean it!’ He raised his fist again.
‘Please do not hit him again! I will fight you if I have to!’
Simon threw Haga back onto the ground, contemptuously.. Haga groaned and lay there. He looked at the small figure standing before him, her hand raised on the hilt of her sword.
‘Who are you?’ he demanded sharply.
‘My name is Danea. I will fight you! I know you are a great warrior, but I will still fight you!’ she said defiantly, but with a tremor in her voice. Simon looked at her more closely. She was small for a faery, six inches below his height. She stood there, and he could see that she was desperately afraid. Her hair was dark and fell only to her shoulders. Her eyes were wide and moist with fear, lips trembling.
‘Are you his mistress, Danea?’ Simon asked, bluntly.
‘I am his companion, yes! I promise, I will fight you, if I have to!’
He decided to be gentle and formal. But he felt real compassion for this small faery girl, who still stood frightened, but defiant, her hand on the hilt of her sword.
‘It’s all right, Danea. I have no quarrel with you. I will not harm you. Go in peace. But as for that’, he glared at Haga, who was propped on one elbow, still dazed, ‘you’re welcome to him!’
He turned around and walked away, back to the palace entrance. He did not know that Morag had seen everything from her bedroom window, and neither had Annie, who stood on the entrance steps, who had also seen what had happened, though she had been too late to prevent it. She tried to catch his arm as he walked past her. ‘Simon!’ she cried. He took no notice and walked across the entrance hall and up the main staircase. ‘Simon!’ He continued to walk up the stairs.
‘Annie!’ Helios came up behind her. ‘Are you hurt?’ he asked anxiously.
‘I’m fine. But your brother isn’t’. She looked back at Haga and the other figure kneeling beside him. Haga was now sitting upright.
‘I’m sorry. Helios!’ Annie cried miserably. ‘My brother just thumped your brother!’
‘I know. Good’.
‘Good! What do you mean. good?’
I mean he deserves it! This is not the first time he has wronged people, Annie! He has disgraced me, our family, and our people! He will not do that again! I will make sure of that!’
‘I take it, Helios, that you aren’t upset about my brother whacking yours?’
‘Not at all. He has saved me the trouble of doing it myself! Speaking of which…’ He turned to the faery beside him and spoke to him in their own language. The faery went out somewhat reluctantly.
‘I have asked him to help take Haga to the infirmary. He is not happy. He does not like Haga either, like the others’.
Annie remembered that none of the faery guards had gone to his help.
‘Why didn’t you warn me, or Morag?’ she said indignantly.
‘Because I truly thought that he had become a better person. But I was wrong. I am sorry Annie, for your sake, and for your sister’s. Please ask her to forgive me’.
Annie laughed. ‘Well. I’ll forgive you for her’.
Helios smiled somewhat wickedly. ‘Come inside, Annie’.
He pulled her into a corner of the hall
For the next two minutes they were engaged in a passionate embrace and kisses. At last Annie broke off, and pushed him away gently.
‘Enough of the frivolities’. She giggled. ‘I need to see Morag and my brother’.
‘Annie’. Helios said seriously. ‘You must tell your sister, Morag, and your brother, that I owe them both a debt of gratitude’.
She looked at him, puzzled. ‘How?’ she asked.
‘Because your sister has second sight. She was able to tell me how my brother died. I am grateful to her for that. Your brother slew the man who murdered him. Please tell them both. It has given me comfort’.
‘A sense of closure, you mean. I will, Helios, I promise. But I must go’.
‘So must I. I have things to prepare for this evening’s meeting. Ragimund wishes to have supper with you in your rooms, so that she can tell you about the expedition. She will not have her sisters involved in any way, sadly’.
‘I know. Helios, it has upset my brother. He worries about her’.
‘I will do what I can, Annie. I promise you.’. He kissed her softly and went down the corridor beside the stairs, and into the doorway that Annie knew was his study or office. She stood, looking after him, fondly. Then she heard footsteps coming down the stairs. She looked up and saw Morag, whose face was pale and remote. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked at Annie. She carried the bag she had brought with her in her right hand.
‘I’m leaving, Annie’.
She stared at her in dismay. ‘Morag, you can’t! You mustn’t!’
‘I’m not having Simon fighting my battles for me! I’m capable of doing that myself! And of messing everything else up as well!’ She looked back at Annie, miserably. ‘I saw and heard everything out there, Annie. I’m a waste of space. I’m nothing but a liability and a nuisance to you ever since I joined you. I’m going. Sorry, Annie’. She hesitated. ‘I’ll get one of the faerys to take me back to the portal. See you around’. Morag turned and walked towards the main doorway.
‘Morag, You just can’t do this! We need you!’ But Morag had reached the doorway.
‘You stop right there!’ Annie heard a voice shout behind her, that rang around the hall. Then she saw a figure running down the stairs. It was Indira, wearing no more than a short bathrobe. Her legs and feet were bare, still wet from her bath. Another towel was wrapped around her still-damp hair. She stopped at the bottom of the stairway, her eyes blazing with fury.
‘You take one more step, Morag, and I swear to you, I’ll come after you and give you such a bloody good slapping, that you won’t even remember what world you’re in!’
Morag had stopped in the doorway, her dark slim figure outlined against the bright sunlight outside. Indira stood on the bottom step, her fists clenched at her sides.
‘You’re bloody lucky to have a brother who’ll stand up and fight for you! Don’t you realise that! He bloody well cares for you, you stupid bitch!’
‘Indira!’ Annie reached out a restraining hand but Indira just pushed it away.
‘Put that bloody bag down now! On the floor! This minute! Drop it!’
Morag let the bag slide from her fingers. It dropped with a dull thump onto the mosaic floor of the palace beside her. She had not even turned around but she suddenly slumped against the doorpost.
‘Is it a crime to stand up and protect someone you really care for! Is it! You think about that, Morag! I wish I had brothers who would do that for me, instead of the money-grabbing morons I’ve got!’
Annie suddenly realised that Indira was close to tears.
‘Just because you got taken in by some worthless faery prat, doesn’t entitle you to run away feeling sorry for yourself! As far as I’m concerned, you dumped him! Have some respect for yourself, and for us!
‘Stop it, Indira’, Annie cried angrily. She grabbed Indira’s arm, but she shook it off. She glared at Annie. ‘You touch me again, Annie, and I’ll give you a bloody good slap as well! Keep out of this!’
Annie blinked and took a step backwards. She had never known Indira so angry and emotional before.
‘Listen, you! Indira was focussed on Morag’s dark figure. ‘Shall I tell you something? Your mother brought you up, looked after you, taught you everything! She’s dead, Morag, but at least you can remember her as she was! You’ll always have your good memories of her! At least, you’ll always have that!
Annie was quiet. She had suddenly realised that this was not just about Morag. Indira was on the verge of tears. She was speaking more quietly now.
‘Just listen, Morag. My mother’s had ten of us, and five miscarriages. Five! She’s a broken-down old woman, worn out before her time! That’s how I’ll have to remember her! All I’ve got, to know what she was like, when she was young and beautiful, is one little passport photograph! Just one! That’s all I’ve got! Nothing else!’
Indira was crying openly now. Her voice was breaking. She was speaking tearfully. Annie remained silent.
‘We’re family, Morag! All of us! You’re a copper, Morag. I know you take a lot of sexist shit from your lot, but I bet that if you were in trouble, they’d come running, because you’re one of their own! It’s the same with us! You’re not going to run out on us! We’re not going to let you!’ She was crying desperately. ‘If you can’t value what others will do for you, Morag, then how can you value yourself! Ask yourself that!’
She shouted the last sentence at Morag’s motionless figure, and then sat down heavily on the bottom step, holding her wet face in her hands. ‘I’m finished. End of tirade. That’s it’.
There was utter silence for several seconds, apart from the sound of Indira crying. A small fly buzzed as it flew around the ceiling above.
Morag bent down and picked up her bag. She turned and walked back into the hall, and stopped in front of Indira. She looked down at her, still weeping.
‘Will you help me unpack, Indira?’
Indira looked up. She wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her robe.
‘Course, I will. Come on, you’
She stood up and put her arm around Morag, who put her arm around her. They walked up the stairs together, Morag still carrying her bag. The kouroi figures, static and motionless, silent despite the human drama they had witnessed, remained mute. Annie leant her head against the post of the stair balustrade, in utter relief, feeling its cool carved shape against her forehead. Then she remembered she still had to go and see her brother. She ran upstairs and entered the main room. For a moment, she listened outside Morag’s door. She heard talk and laughter inside. She nodded, satisfied. Then she banged on Simon’s door and walked in.
‘What the bloody hell did you think you were doing!’ she demanded, angrily. ‘Thumping a faery on his own patch! Her brother was sitting on his bed looking out at the snow-covered mountains in the distance, his hands in his lap. His sword, in its scabbard, lay beside him.
‘Not to mention that you broke our own warrior code! Gratuitous violence! Revenge, not justice! What would Ragimund think of that!’
‘Shut up, Annie! It wasn’t revenge! I was protecting Morag! She couldn’t defend herself against that bastard! I think that falls within our remit of defending others who can’t defend themselves, don’t you think!’
‘Just about’. Annie muttered, darkly.
‘Look, Annie. I’ve just about done everything wrong I could today. I’ve screwed up your relationship with Helios, I’ve pissed off the faerys, I’ve pissed off Morag, and I’m feeling ashamed of myself! Is that enough for you?’
Annie looked down at her brother, realising he was deeply distressed. She sat down beside him. ‘The situation is under control. I am here to tell you of the damage limitation that has taken place’. She giggled and lay back on the bed, her hands behind her head.
‘Firstly, you haven’t screwed up my relationship. In fact, Helios told me that you saved him the trouble of thumping him himself’.
‘You heard. Secondly, you haven’t pissed off the faerys. They’re rather pleased that you sorted him out’.
‘Oh, yes. They hate his guts as well. Thirdly. I think you’ll find that Morag doesn’t hate you either. At worst, you’ll get a good clip round the ear. At best, you might get a big kiss!’ She laughed mischievously.
‘I hope you’re right’.
‘I’m always right’. Annie sat up suddenly, propped on her elbows. ‘There’s something else, Simon, isn’t there? Something you felt ashamed of. What is it? Tell me!’
He looked at her, miserably. ‘It’s about that girl, Danea’.
‘Don’t forget, I saw and heard everything, Simon. Every single word. Just tell me’.
‘She was terrified of me, Annie! She was shaking like a leaf in a storm! But she still stood there, as brave as anything! She really did!’
‘That’s what faerys are like, Simon. But she wouldn’t have stood a chance against you’.
‘But you don’t understand, Annie! I don’t want to go through the rest of my life knowing that people are frightened of me, or you! It’s not what we’re here for! We never set out on this journey to do that! If even faerys are frightened of us, then what? You answer that, Annie! That’s why I feel ashamed!’
Annie looked out at the snow-white peaks through the open window for several seconds, while she thought.
‘I think I know what she will remember, Simon’.
‘What? That I clobbered her boyfriend?’
Annie didn’t answer. She stared out at the mountains.
‘You know, Simon, I have to confess to a little sense of unholy glee, at seeing you give Haga a good smack in the chops! He bloody well deserved it!’
Her brother lay back on the bed and burst out laughing. Then he stopped. ‘You haven’t answered my question’.
Annie was still looking out at the mountains. ‘She’ll remember, most of all, that you, this mighty human warrior, this slayer of monsters, spoke to her gently and kindly, and wished her to go in peace. That’s what she’ll remember, Simon. That’s what I’ll remember. too’.
He was silent for a while.
‘I couldn’t bear to see Morag hurt again, Annie. She’s had too many blows already’.
‘I know. But I think she’ll understand, especially after Indira finished with her’.
Simon stared at his sister in horror. ‘What did she do? Tell me, Annie for goodness sake!’
‘Morag was going to leave, Simon. She was going to walk away. Indira came down and stopped her, by telling her a few plain truths’.
‘She can’t do that! he shouted, furiously. He stood up suddenly ‘I’ll tell her a few plain truths, as well!’
‘Sit down, Simon, and let me finish! Morag got one of Indira’s famous blitzkrieg tirades, but it did have the desired effect. You see, Morag felt she was useless and a liability, but we both know she isn’t. We all love her dearly, and I think she understands that now’ Annie suddenly giggled. ‘She threatened Morag with a good slapping, and me as well!’ She became serious again.
‘But it wasn’t just about Morag, Simon. It was about herself. I’ve only just realised that Indira is very unhappy. She cried, Simon! Really cried! I’ve never seen her cry before, not like that!’
Simon looked at his sister. ‘Do you know why?’
‘Not really. But don’t get angry, Simon. I think you’ve caused enough grief today’.
‘All right. Point taken. I still don’t regret it though’. He got up. ‘I’m going to find Ragimund. I’d like to spend some time with her’.
‘Well, I’m going to have a sleep, after all this emotional excitement’.
They walked out into the main room. They could still hear giggles and laughter behind Morag’s door. Simon suddenly paused, his hand on the handle of the door that led out into the main hallway.
‘Annie, I want to tell you something. That girl, Danea’.
‘What about her?’ she asked, puzzled.
‘She….she reminded me of Annabelle. I’d like to find her again, to make sure that she’s all right’.
His sister looked at him carefully. ‘I understand’. she said at last. ‘But we haven’t got time now. Leave it, perhaps, until we get back from this expedition’.
Simon nodded. ‘See you later’.
The loud thumping on her door suddenly roused Annie from her sleep. She sat up in her bed, running her hands through her tousled mop of hair.
‘What!’ she shouted angrily at the door.
‘We’re just about to eat, you idiot!’ It was her brother’s voice. ‘Are you coming or not?’
She looked at her watch. ‘Oh, hell’s bells! She shouted frantically. ‘I’ll be there in a moment!’She hurriedly dressed, splashed water over her face, and ran her hands desperately through her hair in a vain attempt to put some order into it. The others were sitting around the circular table in the centre of the room, already spread with jugs and plates of cakes, bread and fruit. The others were already eating.
‘Glad you could make it at last, Annie.’ her brother said cheerfully.
‘Well. I do have to have my beauty sleep like anyone else!’ Annie retorted, irritably.
‘In your case, you definitely do’.
‘And in your case, it’s definitely wasted’.
‘You can see what I’ve had to put up with, Helios, over the last sixteen years’.
Both Ragimund and Helios were laughing.
‘Don’t mind us’. Simon grinned. ‘Just good-natured banter between brother and sister. Many a jest and merry quip’.
‘Can we get on? Mariko said indignantly. ‘We have work to do!’
Simon looked at his sister. ‘The voice of conscience speaks’.
‘You must begin, Mariko’. Ragimund said quickly. ‘You have been involved in our investigations since we found the site’.
‘All of us here will go to the cave where we will investigate what its contents are. Now we have torches, we can also examine the wall paintings. Our aim is to find out exactly what the cave contains, and to remove any small items that can be taken back to Rhuan, so that they might be looked at in more detail’.
‘There is a museum of archaeology in Rhuan, which will identify whatever we bring back. I hope they will find that they are the things of the ancient people’. Ragimund added.
‘We also want to find out whether there are more chambers, and more artefacts, behind the one we could only glimpse. It will be so exciting to find out!’ Mariko said. Her face was alive with pleasure. ‘But there is more. Morag, it is important that you come on this expedition’.
‘Why? Why me?’
‘Because you have second sight, Morag’. Ragimund replied quietly.
‘That is right! We want you to try to communicate with, or at least try to see the ancient people, to find out who they really are, or as they were! Will you try to do that, Morag?’
Morag felt panic-stricken. ‘I don’t know whether I can!’ she cried. ‘When I last used it, it was recent! How can I contact people thousands of years ago?’
‘You must try, Morag. Even if you fail’. Ragimund said gently. ‘But it would be marvellous for our people if you could even glimpse them. We need to know them if we can, to find out whether they are our true ancestors. Promise me you will try’.
‘All right. I’ll do my best. I might send out a sprite first. After that, I don’t know’.
‘Thank you, Morag. There is one other thing that you should know. When we reach Rhuan, we will be joined by another companion. A faery. His name is Demos. He is the best archaeologist in our country. He has just returned from four years in your world, where he was working on various archaeological excavations. He was my teacher when I was a student. He is very wonderful, but he can be rather….what is the word in your language, Simon? ‘
Simon hazarded a guess. ‘Scatterbrained?’
‘Yes, that is it! Scatterbrained! I must remember that! But he is a very good man. He is about your human age, Morag’. Ragimund added, somewhat slyly.
‘Is he? Morag said acidly, thinking of the image of a plump, balding eccentric teacher, with leather patches on the elbows of his jacket.
Ragimund looked around at them. ‘This has been a difficult day, but an important one. I will explain why. I am going to take you to the Garden of Delight. We can find some comfort and repose there, which I feel you all need’.
‘That sounds really promising’. Simon said cheerfully. They began to get up. Morag walked around the table and spoke quietly in Ragimund’s ear. She looked surprised and then laughed and nodded. Morag walked over to Simon.
‘I want a word with you, sonny’.
He sighed. ‘Go on then. Hit me. Get it over with’.
‘I wasn’t actually’ Instead she took his head between her hands and kissed him gently on the lips. ‘That’s for looking after me. I asked Ragimund’s permission. Apart from this’. She cuffed him smartly across the back of the head. ‘That’s for trying to fight my battles for me’. she said, severely.
‘I knew there was a catch, somewhere’. Simon said, rubbing his head.
The others laughed, and began to follow Ragimund down the main stairs towards the entrance to the palace. They turned right outside and followed Ragimund to a small stone wall attached to the west side, which they had never noticed before. Ragimund unlocked a small wooden door in the wall, and beckoned them in.
‘This is the Garden of Delight’. She announced, in a soft voice.
They looked around in wonder. It was only a small garden, walled on three sides with the fourth against the lower wall of the palace itself. But what struck them at first was the delicious waft and aroma of jasmine, pomegranate and roses, from the rectangular flowerbeds planted, around a small tinkling fountain in a circular bowl, exactly in the centre. Each bed was grassed, with many different scented flowers, and bordered by small box hedges. The garden contained a layer of silver-stemmed young plane trees on the left, and yellow forsythia on the right. They walked forwards underneath a wooden pergola, overhung and festooned with light purple and violet wisteria. Beyond the fountain was a small circular pavilion with a curved roof. It’s front was open to the garden, and there were large cushions scattered within. Small brass lanterns, placed around the garden, gave it a soft glow of light. The sweetness of the scents around them, and sheer simplicity of the garden itself, combined to form a delicious, timeless vision of delight, soothing and relaxing to the weary senses. It was, Annie thought a true garden of paradise.
They all settled onto the cushions inside the pavilion, illuminated by panes of plain coloured glass on each side, to provide extra light. They listened to the soft swish and gleening of the water in the runnel that ran beneath their feet, under the pavilion itself, and into the basin of the fountain.
‘This is where I sometimes come to find tranquillity and repose. It is a comforting place. A place where one can find one’s childhood again’. Ragimund said very softly. Simon saw the look of pain in his sister’s face.
‘This has been what we faerys call a day of cleansing. A day where all our griefs and sorrows might be mended and resolved. A day on which wrongs can be set right and be healed. That is how you see the ways ahead, and your paths clear. Take comfort from this garden, for that reason. This is why I brought you here’.
Simon still saw the look of sadness in his sister’s face. He spoke quietly. ‘Annie, why did you pack all your childhood things away, a year ago and put them away in the loft? You didn’t leave a single thing, just your little figurines by your bed. Why did you do that, Annie?’
They all saw the misery in her face. After a few moments she spoke. ‘There was no point in keeping them. We’ve both lost our childhoods, and we’ll never get them back again. That’s it’ She stared at the fountain, trickling merrily.
‘But you gave Isabelle back her childhood, didn’t you? You knew how much that meant to her!’
‘Perhaps that was different. All I know is that I lost something very precious to me a long time ago, and I’ll never recover it. Ever!’
She got up. ‘I’m going to get some sleep’. She walked out of the garden, shutting the door gently behind her.
‘Poor Annie’. Morag said quietly.
Simon looked down at the red-tiled floor of the pavilion beneath his feet. ‘I know. You see, I know my sister far better than she realises. All she has left are those little figurines of the Commedia del’Arte that she’s collected over the years. That’s all she has. She feels the loss of her childhood far more than I do. I wish I could help her in some way, but I don’t know how’.
‘Perhaps there are ways’. Mariko said quietly. They stayed in the garden for some time longer, and then they, too, retired to bed.
Annie got up. She was restless and somehow still saddened. She put on a robe and walked out into the dark central room. She saw a small figure sitting on a cushion, gazing out at the crescent of this world’s bright moon.
‘Annie? Please come and sit by me’.
She walked over and sat down next to Mariko. They put their arms around each other.
‘I have lost my childhood too, Annie. But, for a little while, let us be children again, together’.
They held each other tightly in the darkness, as they looked out at the moon, wrapped in the soft comfort of new-found childhood.
It was a long, hard ride to Rhuan. But, on the way, Morag found out how to ride properly.
‘Just move with me. Keep in rhythm’. Her horse, Bucephalus said sternly.
She tried desperately, and then, after a few minutes, suddenly found that it was easy. She gasped in delight.
‘That’s much better! Takes the weight off me as well’. The horse said approvingly. They trotted along for another mile or two, the others following.
‘Next stage. We’ll try a fast canter now. Remember, grip with your legs, move with me and keep your weight forward. And don’t pull the reins. Keep ‘em loose’
‘What!’ Morag cried in alarm. Bucephalus broke into a canter without replying. Morag hung on desperately for a moment and then remembered. She moved up and down with the rhythm of the horse, and suddenly began to realise the joys of riding.
‘That’s really good! You’ve got the hang of it now, lass! Final stage now. Remember, grip tight, crouch forward and keep the reins loose. I’ll do the rest’. Before she knew it, he had broken into a fast gallop. Morag cried out in alarm, but now she was determined. They galloped on, the others behind.
‘I told you she had a lovely bum’. Simon cried as they galloped after her. ‘Especially from this angle’.
‘She’s doing really bloody well!’ Indira cried back ‘She looks good in that saddle!’
Bucephalus suddenly slowed his pace and served off to the right.
‘What are you doing? Morag shouted, frantically
‘One last test. How are you on jumps?’
‘Oh, no! Please!’
Bucephalus paid no attention. ‘See that gorse bush up ahead? We’re going to jump it! Remember what I told you, lass? Use your stirrups as well’.
Morag gulped and before she knew it she was flying through the air. She landed with a jolt but she had held firmly on. She felt utterly exhilarated and excited.
‘Well done, lass! You are now a member of the Grand Order of the Equine club!’
The others reined in around her.
‘Brilliant, Morag! Simon cried.
‘Bloody excellent! Indira said.
‘Well done, Morag!’ Annie added, sincerely.
Morag was flushed and radiant with success. She rode on with the others, feeling her confidence grow with every mile. The countryside around them was different from the more mountainous and hilly terrain they had ridden through before. On their right was a great forest that stretched for miles, grey, green and mysterious, filled with dark depths beneath the great canopy of trees. Beyond that. far away in the distance, the huge snow-capped heights of the Griffin mountains rose into the bright blue sky, their tips glistening with reflected light. On their left, fields of crops, a sparkling emerald green, lay, interwoven with wider golden plains of wheat, barley and corn. Here and there they saw villa-farms, white, with courtyards and outhouses, but here in this part of Hyperborea, clad with shallow-sloped red or green pantiled roofs, unlike the flat roofs of Elsace. Occasionally they saw figures working in the fields, weeding and hoeing, who stopped work to wave a greeting. Even further beyond, they could just make out the great mountain range that separated them from the northern sea and the port of Arward, on the north-east coast, opposite the port of Druard, that they had visited. Riders came past them on the road, greeting them with the familiar sign of an open upright hand, and occasionally Ragimund stopped to exchange pleasantries and news. The air was thick with the smell of warm vegetation, and butterflies, blue, white and yellow, flitted by. The buzz of insects and crickets sounded around their ears, and they could hear the cries and song of birds in the sky above.
Morag felt desperately happy. She had now learnt to ride, and she felt at peace in this countryside. She realised how much her mother had loved this land, and she knew that she was beginning to love it too.
Annie pulled back to ride alongside her. ‘Your mother must have ridden through here, once’.
‘I know. I feel rather pleased that I’m following her path’.
Annie smiled, and they rode on. They stayed that night at a faery hostel, and rode through the next day, Morag delighting in her newfound skills. By dusk they were entering the outskirts of Rhuan. Below them, they could see thousands of lanterns coloured red, yellow, blue, green and white festooned and hung like jewels above the sheen and glimmer of water below.
‘It is a great pity that you will not be able to see Rhuan in daylight for a while yet. Annie suddenly felt a sickening jolt in her stomach. She had just remembered a promise she had made. She reined in her horse abruptly. Helios, who rode beside her, stopped also and looked at her anxiously. The others reined in around her. ‘What’s the matter, Annie?’ asked her brother.
‘Vela! I made her a promise to go and see her! Her family live around here! I can’t go on! I must find her!’
‘You mean that young faery that you befriended? Who fought in the battle?
‘Yes! Her family lives here somewhere!’
‘Do you remember anymore about her, Annie?’ asked Helios. ‘I know these parts’.
‘She’s tall and slim. She’s got a younger brother and sister, and she fought in the First Phalanx, Second Row, in the battle’.
Helios frowned, trying to remember.
‘I know who she is’. Her horse, Bacchus, said unexpectedly’. ‘Tall lass, pretty, with short brown hair. Her family’s place is only about a mile from here’. Go back a few hundred yards along this road, and turn off down that little track on the right. Takes you straight there. I can take you if you like’.
‘Thank you, Bacchus!’ Annie cried joyfully. ‘I must go now, Ragimund, otherwise I might not get the chance again! We don’t know how long the expedition will last!’
Ragimund hesitated, but then she saw that Annie was determined to go.
‘Very well. But I can only give you three hours. We must be on our way tomorrow’.
‘I will come with you’. Helios said firmly.
‘I will, too’. Her brother said, cheerfully. ‘You can’t be allowed out on your own yet, you know’.
‘No! I want to go on my own! Vela doesn’t know you, and I don’t want to break us up’.
‘One problem, lass. It’s going to be pitch black down that track, and it’s rough and rutted. I’ll have to feel my way, and it’ll slow us up’.
‘I’ve got the answer to that!’ Simon said suddenly
He reached down and began to rummage in one of his saddle-bags. He pulled out one of their long torches. ‘Take this with you, Annie, so Bacchus can see his way’.
Annie switched it on, Instantly a long bright beam of light shot out. The horses suddenly skittered sideways in fright. Ragimund and Helios were equally startled. Annie hastily twisted the head of the torch so that it emitted a softer, more diffuse light. ‘They are perfect for our exploration!’ Ragimund cried happily.
‘I must set off. Are you sure that it is the right place, Bacchus?’
‘Course it is! Well, I’m pretty sure it is’.
‘Annie, when you come back, follow this road down. It will bring you to the main stables. I will have someone there waiting for you. The hostel is a little further down, near to the waterway. The faery who will be on duty, will direct you’.
‘Thank you. Let’s go, Bacchus’. They trotted off in the opposite direction. The others watched her for a moment, then turned their horses and rode down the hill towards Rhuan.
Bacchus made his way steadily along the rutted earth track, just wide enough for a cart to pass through. Thickets of trees on either side, enclosed them, but Annie held the torch steady on the ground in front of Bacchus. They could hear the whir and chitter of crickets, and occasionally a small rabbit, surprised by the light, darted across the path. Here and there, they heard the rustle and slither of small animals moving through the night. Then they emerged at last into the open through a small coppice. Annie blinked. Bacchus was trotting steadily along a wide set of planted squares of vegetables, before turning to his left up a level path towards the farmhouse in front of them. On each side were yet more squares of growing things, - cabbages, potatoes, leeks, cauliflowers, with occasional peas and runner beans supported on interlocked wooden trellises.
The moon was now out, and it was bright enough to see. ‘That lighty thing of yours is good’. Bacchus said. ‘Could see every step’.
Annie looked at the farmhouse in front of them. It was a long, low whitewashed building, with a high-pitched red pantile roof. Another wing was attached to it on the left, and another on the right. She guessed that there was a courtyard behind. The windows were already shuttered, a dark green in colour. The path led straight up to a large wooden door in the centre of the farmhouse. They stopped outside it and Annie dismounted. She looked rather nervously at the heavy wooden door. There was a heavy iron ring set in the middle.
‘Go on, lass’, said Bacchus, encouragingly. ‘They won’t bite you’.
She banged the iron ring loudly on the door. After a few moments, the door opened, to reveal a tall dark faery woman, clad in a long stole, claspd at the waist by a a wide leather belt. Her hair, obviously long, had been plaited up into a bun behind her head, which accentuated the fine, sharp contours of her face. Her eyes were a deep brown.
She spoke in faery, then realising that Annie didn’t understand, she spoke again in her language. ‘Do you need hospitality, stranger? If so, you are welcome’,
‘I hope so’. she replied. My name is Annie I’ve come to see your daughter, Vela’.
The womans jaw dropped, firstly is surprise, then in delight. She stared at Annie incredulously. ‘You are Annie! You have come!! Laemon!’ she called. A tall dark faery appeared behind her, who also looked incredulous with excitement.
‘Look, Laemon! Annie has finally come! At last!’
‘I can’t stay too long. I have to be back in Rhuan later this evening!’ she said hastily. ‘Can I stable my horse?’’
‘Of course. I will do that now’. Laemon stood up and went outside. ‘My name is Delias’. The faery woman said, excitedly. ‘Please sit down, Annie. I will go and tell my daughter you are here’. She turned and scurried off through an open doorway to the right, at the back of the room. Annie sat back and looked around at her first view of a faery farmhouse. It was not what she had expected.
It was very big, about fifty feet long, and at least thirty feet wide. The roof soared up into a pitch above her. She sat at a large wooden table with benches each side on the left. The floor was timbered in soft dark timber, with a large curving wooden beam, supported by a single wooden column, that rose across the part that separated the main kitchen on the right. Below her was a slightly lower large room where cooking and other activities operated.
From what she saw of the range of activitys, baking was one of their main pursuits, Annie hoped she might able to sample some. The smell was so fragrant, she accepted, but despite that, she thought of leaving, fairly quickly, straight away, as she had intendeded to. She been suspicious of what Vela wanted from this meeting earlier; she was even more wary now. The reason was simple- Annie did not like being used by other people for their own uses. She had her suspicions of Vela’s motives, and she saw no reason to change them now. There was a sudden scamper of feet, and there was Vela, breathing hard. Annie was genuinely shocked. She remenbered Vela as being slim, but not the gaunt creature she saw now, with hollow cheeks and eyes that were too large for her face, As they embraced she even felt the sharp outlines of her ribs against her chest
All her annoyance at having to find her way to seek a lonely young girl dissipated in a moment, now she realised Vela was really ill, and had been for some time. She sat Vela down at the table at in the upper part of the farmhouse, and looked at her steadily.’How long have you been like this, Vela?‘ she asked gently.
‘Ever since she returned from the battle!’ her mother snapped, sittind at the ofher end of the table. Vela leant across to Annie. ‘It was all the blood , you see. I couldn’t wipe it all away. I could taste it in my food. That’s why I can’t eat.’
‘Don’t be stupid!’ Annie decided to be cruel, since her parents were incapabable of being so. ‘From now on, you start eating properly! I’m not bringing my brother and our friends here to meet a dilapated scarecrow!’
‘Why are you being so cruel to me , Annie?’
‘Because you can’t be cruel to yourself when you need to be!’
Annie breathed in the cold night air, gratefully, so refreshing after the hothouse bakery atmosphere inside.She had got up and insisted in going outside. A few minutes later.Vela’s father led Bacchus round the corner of the farmhouse to the front door where Annie stood. He said nothing, merely handing over Bacchus’ reins to Annie. Annie sighed deeply, ‘Come on, Bacchus. let’s go. We’re finished here for now’.
‘If you say so, lass’.
A few minutes later, they were galloping down the main road towards the swaying little lights of Rhuan, ‘That was a quick depature!’ gasoed Bacchus, ‘Never even said goodbye!’
I know!’ gasped Annie back, ‘but I didn’t want to play nursemaid to a young faery. There’s too much else to do. Vela’s got to learn to stand on her own two feet, not rely on others’, She did feel guilty, however, and resolved to make it up on her return. .Bacchus suddenly turned to his left; towards the dark outline of an arnoured faery silhouetted in the bright outline of a doorway. The faery took charge of Bacchus, after receiving a bag of Turkish Delight from Annie as a reward for Bacchus, and directed Annie towards what he called ‘the main city entrance” further on. Here she came up against a tall solid wooden surface, that felt utterly immoveable. She began to panic, as one does when confronted with the unknown. She began to hammer frantically on the massive wooden walls, stopping only when a small postern gate in the solid wall opened and a voice cried out, asking her to identify herself. ‘Annie, Lady Annie ! she stammered. There was a flash of a lantern, and to her relief, the same voice confirmed her identity.
A hand grasped hers and tugged her through the postern where she fonnd herself standing on a kind of harbour wall, looking out a large expanse of water. She could barely see it but she could hear it - the glooping and snarling of water against stone below her feet, the soft liquid slither further out in the bay, It was a sound that was totally unexpected in a city.Holding the faery’s hand, she got down into the small boat that was moored below the wharf. One of the crewmen cast off, and the four of them in front of her, dug their oars in in unison, sending them skimming out across the bay. Annie could see very little of the city. She was aware of the rhythmic movement of their craft, the swishing of water against the bow, and the long curving white phosphorescent trail that they left in their wake, and of the great dark land masses around them, but that would be all she could remember of her first time in the city of Rhuan. It seemed like only a few moments before the faery crew were shipping their dripping oars, and tying up at the bottom of a huge flight of stone steps.
‘Go up the steps, lady, to the palace above, You are expected. You will be met there.’ her faery quide whispered. Annie nodded her thanks, shouldered her saddle- bags, that the faery passed her, and set off up endless stairs. As she trudged upwards to the unseen palace, she hought how much like a dream the evening had been from the time when she had come into Vela’s farmhouse,and had left so hurriedly, in the frantic gallop to the city gates,
‘What is the matter, Annie? ‘ asked a dark voice from beside her in the gloom of the ante –room. ‘’I is I, Ragimund.’ Annie felt relieved to hear a familiar voice. ‘It us nearly two o’clock in the morning! We have been worried about you’.
‘Raginund, the last few hours have been like a strange dream! I don’t really know what has been happening!’
‘ Annie, over the last few weeks you have passed between different worlds, and met so many different people! It is because you are a child again, trying to make sense of what you experience. Do not be alarmed. It is natural. The best thing to do is for you to get some sleep, before we start in the morning, I am here to guide you to your bedchamber. Cone with me’. She pulled Annie by the hand, her other holding a small lit brass lantern that gave out just enough light to reveal the dark spaces of doorways and the gleam of the stairway up which she was being tugged. They entered one of the doorways, that led in to a dark broad room. Ragimund led her to another door and pushed it open, Inside there was a small bedroom like the ones she had slept in earlier. It was lit by as mall brass lamp on the bedside table. ‘The others are already asleep’. Ragimund whispered. ‘You will see them in the morning’. She left Annie to prepare for bed.
The next morning she heard voices in the room outside. Familiar voices! She pulled in a white gown and hurried out, There they all were, clustered around the large outer window. Indira saw her first, and beckoned her. ‘Come and see Rhuan, Annie!’ She joined the others at the widow and peered out. Her first impression was of water,,great sheets of it, glistening in the warm sun. Then the islands, not flat at all but hilly, rising up, some covered with silver and red trees, the largest with deep, dank gorges that seemed to grow out of the water which spashed and gurgled wildly around their bases, She could see large dark emerald-green ferns sprouting from the crevices and ledges of their vertiginous sides. Further down where the ground was flatter and smoother, stood buildings which were unlike any she had seen before. These were low and flat, with great hipped tiled roofs, coloured either red, green or blue. As she looked at the buildings on the adjacent island, she noticed almost with a stab of joy, the exuberance and skill of art that lay in their making. Even the slender columns that supported the overhanging roof eaves were brilliantly decorated and coloured; one main column carried an endless row of elephants, their tusks painted silver, marched upwards in a marching spiral towards the top of the column. On another, fearsome bright dragons festooned themselves around the column, leaning out to breathe painted yellow fire at the onlookers beneath. On yet another, yellow monkeys and baboons capered and chattered above, hanging by tail and claw from the eaves themselves, pretending to throw fruit at the passersby. More than anything, Annie loved the sheer joy of craftsmanship that made the material speak in other languages, and gave such pleasure.
‘Now you know why Rhuan is known as the city of craftsman!’ Ragimund whispered in her ear. ‘Is there something wrong with Morag?’Anie looked across at Morag, whose lips were parted, all her attention focussed on a figure carrying heavy saddlebags over each shoulder, making his way up the stairs towards the palace. ‘Who’s that? she said, pointing at the figure.
Ragimund gave a cry of delight. ‘It is Demos at last!
‘If he‘s such a brilliant scholar, why can’t he find his way like everybody else? asked Indira practically.
‘Because his mind is too engaged with other things, like archeology’.
‘Well, I think he ought to get a life, then. Perhaps Morag could help him with that’, Indira said loudly enough so that everyone could hear, including Morag, whose face turned crimson.
‘Indira!’ hissed Annie furiously, in her ear.
But Indira was unperturbed. ‘What’s the matter?’ she whispered back. ‘Morag likes challenges’. Morag’s face was still red. She knew the others had noticed her interest in Demos earlier.She was spared any further embarrassment by the general hubbub ensuing fron boarding the giant rowing ship that would ferry them to the Isle of Artisans, the large imposing bulk to the south of the palace citadel. Simon looked around the boat with interest. They stood or sat on an upper open deck, with a great canopy above their heads to protect them from the sun, already hot upon their backs.Cushions and benches lined the sides. Below them was an enclosed rowing deck, from which a row of oars protruded on either side. At a shouted order from the faery captain, a tall, fair-haired woman, standing on a raised portion of the rear deck, oars dipped in unison, and the great boat moved off across the shimmering now-blue water towards the steep walls of the artisan citadel at a surprising speed, it’s swan- necked prow cleaving through the water, leaving a foamy white wake behind. Still rowing south, they entered a much narrower channel, almost like a river, bordered on both sides by low- eaved polychromatic buildings with verandahs open to the lakeside. Broad terraces ran along the front of each building, framed by wooden trellis fences painted in blue, yellow and green. Each building stood on a broad white masonry base rising out of the water. Still rowing south, the entered a wider stretch of water, turning westwards around the massive north-west bastion of the Isle of Artisans, and moored at last to a long, broad. stone jetty underneath the vast overhanging walls of the Isle. On the other, westward side of the boat was a small island covered with what appeared to be small ornate refreshment kiosks. But they had no interest in those. Instead they were looking apprehensively up at the small staircase that zigzagged up the massive sheer stone wall above their heads, that led from the back of the jetty upwards to the walls of the Ile, hundreds of feet above.
‘Do we have to go up that? gulped Morag. ‘Oh, yes’. replied Ragimund, ‘The artisans like to see their visitors make some effort’.
‘Fine’. said Morag. ‘Let’s get on then’.She squared herself for the climb ahead. Annie smliled at Indira, who grinned back. They both knew that Morag’s new-found zeal was less to do with her desire to conquer the steep climb and nore about her desire to impress Demos She could’nt be blamed for that .Despite his absent- mindedness, Demos was truly a beautiful male faery, with his blonde curly locks, his cornflower-blue eyes, and his wonderful physique. It was small wonder that Morag was so smitten by him. He was indeed, unlike, physically, the other faerys, Unlike them, he was blonde, with fair ringlets of curly hair that framed his finely-chiselled Grecian face, He looked like a young classical god. Despite this drawback, Annie liked him, He had proved to be an amusing companion the previous night, with no trace of arrogance, and with the grace of being able to laugh at himself without malice. He also had the rare gift of being a good listener. Morag had told him about her career as a police officer, in which he seemed very interested (though no-one else was). Annie secretly vetted Morag’s admirers without telling her, not out of spite, but because she really wanted Morag to be happy, to come through al the trials and tribulations that life had already thrown at her. If anyone deserved some happiness, it was Morag, her new sister, in Annie’s view
It was terrifying clambering up those narrow steps literally hewn out of the very rock of the wall itself. Defensively, it could be held by a single soldier on each landing where the stairs changed direction on their inexorable path upwards. That was little consolation to the small group of travellers toiling upwards, pressing themselves against the warm rock of the wall away from the frail wooden parapet that was the only thing to prevent a human body from plummeting downwards to land with a sickening thud on the jetty far below, or plunge with a deep hollow splash into the dark waters of the lake
‘Art least it’d be a quick death’. Simon remarked. ‘No, it wouldn’t’. Annie retorted. ‘Just think what you’d be feeling as you turned over and over on your way down, You’d die a thousand deaths’
‘Will. You. Two. Shut. Up!’ snarled Indira furiously. She was directly below them, back pressed tightly against the rock, inching her way upwards, sideways, away from the parapet and the sheer drop below. They could both see she was very frightened. The fearless Indira, who was frightened of nobody, was like a scared mouse on these stairs. But it was somehow reassuring that even Indira had her weaknesses. It reminded Annie that they were all human, with their own individual failings.
Human or not, Indira, like the others was pleased to haul herself through the small gap in the upper wall where the stairs ended, and into the busy, bustling covered market that extended both right and left, filled to overflowing with small stalls that sold every kind of artefact known to man and faery – small wooden boxes inlaid with intricate gold and silver patterns, delicate filigreed necklaces, brooches, earrings and bracelets curiously worked lamps, delicate wrought iron small tables and brackets, and wonderfully crafted books in tooled leather and golden designs The air was filled with the raucous sound of craftsmen selling their wares, interspersed with the sweeter, more dulcet voices of younger women faerys also selling their products.
Annie, not really interested in buying anything more,. decided to wander over to the rows of workshops on the other side of the citadel, where she could hear the rattle of beating hammers and the curiously soft purr and rhythmic thump of heated forges and bellows. Here, she could peer into hot, dark interiors, and watch the faery craftsmen, semi-clad and sweating in the heat, pound and hammer the unpromising bars of glowing iron into strange and convoluted serpents, animals and birds that embellished the functional forms of the actual products themselves. She loved to see the act of creation as it happened, born of the workman’s imagination and labour, and the skill which each workman applied to his or her task. It reminded her that Rhuan was really a working city, fulfilling essential and much-needed tasks. She was jerked out of her reverie by a shout from her brother behind her.
‘Oi, dreamer. Stop enjoying watching other people work, and stir your stumps! Ragimund says we’ve got to go!’
Annie pulled herself reluctantly away from the dark scenes of creative toil, and joined the others who were already following Ragimund to a shady lane, overhung with trees, on the southern side of the market. It wound steeply down and down between white stone walls, until it emerged onto a narrow bank of land below the citadel, Diagonally west across the stretch of water that separated them, was the immense city gate. Its walls, each side of the great wooden gates were covered with gilded sculpture, carved in low relief, describing great battles Griiffins were everywhere in these scenes, swooping and diving to attack their enemies They were evidently fierce warriors. Ragimund paused bside Annie and pointed at the sculptures. ‘They show the battles we have fought in the past alongside the griffins . They have always been loyal allies of the faerys’. Annie nodded. Despite Ragimund’s own acknowledged doubts and fears about her people’s past history, she realised now why the archaeogical find was so precious to her, and why she had been so insistent about the humans seeing for themselves. In spite of the faerys’ dubious mercenary past, Ragimund wanted to find proof that they had noble ancestors that had acknowledged them as worthy inheritors of their long-gone civilsation. She was taking it on herself tto legitimise herself and her people. Annie couldn’t blame her for that. Ragimund was, through the past, seeking to find honour for herself and her kindred.
‘Of course’. Annie cried aloud, without realising it. ‘You want us here as witnesses! To your possible new heritage!’
Ragimund’s head was bent low as she walked beside Annie, who suddenly realised she was crying.
‘Please forgive me’. Ragimund said in a low voice that only Annie could hear. ‘I did not wish to exploit you. But you understand now why it is so important to my people and myself to find our true ancestors To be proud of, and for us to be proud of ourseves, We were not paid killers, Annie! It is not we were born from! I know it!! How can we tell our children that they are descended from murderers!
Annie, in truth, was not sure whether to believe her or not. She remembered the slaughter at the West Wall But she also remembered Ragimund’s own shock and horror at that carnage, and how she had renounced her own sisters in her anger. ‘Does Mariko know this’. she asked.
‘Yes. I have told her everything, Mariko and I have become true sisters’.
They mounted their horses and set off. Ragimund did not lead them onto the main road, as they expected, but straight across it, causing cart-drivers to pull up, and curse then volubly. The then set a joyous gallop headlong down the gently sloping grassy slope towards the distant dark mass of the forest directly in front of them. It was a rider’s true delight to gallop like this, across open country. Annie was conscious of the rattle and jingle of riding harness around her, the bump of the saddle bags behind her, Bacchus’s long mane blowing into her face, and the reassuring weight of the saddle beneath her. All these sensations were caught in the little web of empathy, that little bubble of harmony between horse and rider on a good run.
They trotted on through the forest. Gone was the light patching of trees earlier, where the sun had shone intermittently between trunks , high lighting the forest motes that hung, quivering, in bright sunshine. Instead was a mesh of tree trunks, that receded into a green darkness The density of the foliage above their heads, turned the atmosphere into a green cavern around them as they followed the muddy track between the walls of trees, until suddenly the trees fell back suddenly to form a sunny circle or glade, in the centre of which stood a large bushy tree in isolation. As they rode around it, they noticed its smell at first, not the fresh tang of most trees, but a dusty withered odour, reminding then of old books and musty libraries. They looked up as they rode beneath the outstretched branches, and realised that, instead of leaves, each branch bore great clusters of books. Hung by their spines from the branches, each book’s pages fell open, flapping and rustling in the breeze that fluttered through the glade, like a hidden army of unseen ancient scholars.
Ragimund burst out laughing when she saw the tree. ‘I fear our students are having a joke at the expense of their teachers. This is their concept of the tree of knowledge, such as it is’. They rode on, the ground now beginning to rise upwards, becoming stonier and more barren, to the foothills of the Griffin mountains, rising white-clad, high above in the distance. Grey weathered outcrops of rock began to surface from the stony ground. They mounted one last steep slope to arrive, at last, on a small stony plateau facing a giant solid wall. Its near vertical grey-blue weathered face betrayed no sign of any opening at all.
‘Are you sure this is the right place, Ragimund?’ Simon called. ‘There’s no sign of an entrance’.
‘Follow me’. she replied and directed her horse around in a wide arc parallel to the stone face. They followed her, mystified. Demos let out a great cry. ‘There! There it is ! The entrance to the shrine of our ancestors! A touch melodramtic, thought Annie, somewhat sourly.
But there it was. a dark fissure in the solid stone face, hidden to all apart from the setting sun, which revealed tt. In truth, it was a hidden stone fissure, revealed only under certain light conditions, such as the setting sun. They dismounted, and crowded ito the narrow stone passage that it revealed After several turns, the passageway opened into a wider space, at the end of which stood a wide arch, blocked with stones. Simon, Helios and Demos began to dismantle these while the others scuttered with impatience behind. At last the stones were stacked each side of the arch, and they all crowded round the doorway, eager to see the treasure of the ancient peoples. Simon and Annie shone their torches in. They all gasped. This was not what they had expected.
Frank Jackson ( 16\02 \1912) word count - 12586