DR FRANK JACKSON, 59A, PRINCES ROAD, BRIGHTON, EAST SUSSEX BN2 3RH
Simon and Annie have finally caught up with their arch enemies, the Wrist family. But an explosive shock awaits them, together with other explosive truths, in the water-city of Rhuan.
She could hear the sobbing in the dimly lit cave. She sat up in her sleeping bag, and looked around. She could see the others curled up still asleep, dim mounds in the semi-darkness. The candle by her bed was still alight, but flickering and fluttering in the slight breeze from the cave’s entrance. She tried to see by its light where the sobbing was coming from. These were not slight sobs, but deep gulping ones of distress. With a shock she realised they were coming from the girl on the other side of the candle. She hauled herself out of the sleeping bag and knelt by her, shivering slightly in the cool pre-dawn air.
‘Annie!’ she whispered. “What’s the matter?’ Then she realised that Annie was still asleep, but still sobbing. She lay on her side, curled up like a small child, her face pressed into the crook of her arm. Morag looked at her tenderly. She and Annie had become sisters now, but she was still alarmed and distressed by Annie’s sobs. She shook her bare shoulder gently. Annie suddenly sat up and rubbed her eyes. She felt the wetness of her face. ‘Oh, no!’ she moaned. ‘I’ve been crying in my sleep again, haven’t I?’
‘Yes. I often cry in my sleep’.
‘But why, Annie?’
‘Because I’ve created so much misery and distress for you all, because of my own little wars. Helios and Demos are lying in hospital at this moment, because of me! I’ve brought all this on you all! I’m deeply sorry, Morag. I’ve caused you all so much misery! That’s why I was crying. Because I feel so ashamed of myself! None of you deserved this! Least of all, you, Morag! Please forgive me!’
Annie started crying again. Morag put her arm around her shoulders to comfort her. ‘Annie, listen to me. We’re all here because we care for you. You don’t really think we’re going to run away when things get difficult, do you?’
She pulled Annie towards her and cradled her head against her shoulder. She had never felt so close to Annie before. She felt Annie clutch her shoulder. ‘Morag, I don’t want to sleep again. Why don’t we both go out and watch the dawn rise?’
‘I would like that’. She didn’t want to break the empathy between them. They both pulled on warmer clothes and wrapped their hooded cloaks around themselves. They crept quietly towards the entrance, taking care not to wake the others. They moved as quietly as they could through the fissure leading to the cave entrance and stood outside looking up at the sky. It was not what they expected.
Dark grey cumulus clouds towered over them, their bottom edges highlighted in bright red and orange from the watery sun still below the level of the dark forest that lay between them and the distant city of Rhuan. The air felt damp and ominous. “It’s going to rain soon’. Annie said, somewhat unnecessarily.
‘Yes, it is’. said a voice behind them.
They both whirled around, unsheathing their swords with a hiss of metal. Another figure came towards them, its sword already unsheathed.
‘Ragimund! What are you doing here?’
‘You were not as quiet as you thought, and I have sharp ears and eyes. What are you doing out here?’
‘We’ve come to watch the sun rise, expect though, it won’t, not this morning’.
‘Why, don’t you trust us?’ Morag butted in, angrily.
‘It is not that. I was concerned about you. I heard you crying in the night, Annie’.
‘Oh, that. I must really do something about my sleep patterns’. Annie said, lightly.
‘What is distressing you, Annie?’
‘Just all the trouble and grief I’ve brought upon everybody, because of my own personal war’.
‘We are friends and allies, Annie. Your war is our war, and your enemies are our enemies also. Beside that, those…things… have trespassed on my land. I will not tolerate that!’
‘And can you tolerate this hostility towards your sisters? Please, Ragimund, make peace with them. You can’t be at war with your own family forever’.
‘No!’ Ragimund turned on her heel and walked back into the cave. Annie looked after her sadly.
‘Oh, well, it was worth a try’.
‘What is the real matter here? I’ve never understood it. Surely it’s not just about the conduct of a battle?’
‘No, it’s not. Ragimund has renounced her sisters, because they behaved unethically and immorally in massacring the Barbarrossi in what was a fixed battle. I was there. I saw it! But it goes far deeper than that. You see, Ragimund was badly treated by her sisters because their mother died giving birth to Ragimund. They blamed her for causing their mother’s death’.
‘But that’s stupid!’
‘We both know that. But that’s what faerys think. They’re unpredictable. And because Simon and Ragimund are deeply in love with each other, they’re very unhappy. Ragimund because, well, you know why now, and my brother is unhappy because he knows that Ragimund is unhappy. So that’s the situation’.
‘So it needs one side or the other to give in, and end it’.
‘Yes, but neither will. You know how stubborn faerys can be. And I’ve got Helios to worry about. He’s in hospital because of me!’
‘And Demos too’.
‘Yes, and Demos. Oh, I’m so sorry, Morag! It’s all my fault!’
Annie’s good mood disappeared. She burst into tears again. Morag decided it was time for some strong action.
‘Annie, stop exercising those new-found tear-ducts of yours. It’s about to pour with rain so we can do with less water! I’ll see Ragimund and see whether we can go straight to the hospital when we get to Rhuan. All right?’
Annie nodded. ‘That’d be wonderful’.
Morag went back into the cave and found Ragimund busy arousing the others, who were grumbling and complaining about being woken so early.
‘Ragimund, can I have a word?
Morag realised that she had never really spoken to Ragimund before. In her own world, she always had the words, But here, she had very little.
‘I’m sorry, I really don’t how to say this, but could Annie and I….’
‘I know, Morag. You and Annie wish to see your wounded warriors in our hospital’.
‘Something like that. How did you guess?’
‘A little bird told me’. Ragimund’s smile dropped. ‘I have already made the necessary arrangements. You and Annie can go to the hospital while I and the others will go to the museum to ensure that the things that we sent have arrived safely and are being examined. Is that clear?’
‘Yes, perfectly’. Replied Morag. She felt like a naughty schoolgirl being told off by her teacher. Somewhat deflated, she returned and told Annie.
‘That’s all right, then’. said Annie, cheerfully. ‘Why the glum face, Morag?’
‘I feel like I’m being told off most of the time! I do my best, Annie! Perhaps I’m just out of place here’.
‘No you’re not, Morag. We all love you dearly. Ragimund is just out of sorts because two of her own are wounded, and her little bird got killed.’.
‘What little bird?’
Annie explained. ‘That’s awful’. Morag spoke angrily. ‘What sort of animals would do that?’
‘The animals we’re fighting. Imagine it, Morag, a young girl, starved of affection, raising a young chick into a bird. I know it doesn’t sound much, but it was a little drop of life. That’s all. A little drop of life. That means a lot to me and my brother’.
‘It means a lot to me as well. I understand, Annie, but don’t get yourself killed! I couldn’t bear that!’
‘I don’t intend to. But look, Morag, I’m sorry for all the grief and misery I’ve put you through. I really am. You didn’t deserve that!’
‘Oh, shut up, Annie. I brought a lot of it on myself. And do stop blaming yourself. It’s not your fault!’
‘Yes, it is. Don’t argue, Morag, we brought you into this and it’s our responsibility!’
‘Stop arguing, you two! I’m going to fetch the horses!’
They both looked at Indira, who stood hooded and cloaked.
‘Where are you going to, Indira?’
‘To fetch those bloody plods, as I already said!’
‘It’s pouring with rain, Indira’.
‘So what! Someone has to get them. It might as well be me.
‘Never you mind!’
Annie gazed after her helplessly, as she plodded off down the plateau towards the path which led up to it.
‘What have I done?’
‘Nothing. But, Annie, are you sure you’re all right?’
‘What does that mean? Oh, for God’s sake, Morag!’ She turned and walked back into the cave. Morag stared after her, miserably. She knew something was wrong.
Indira walked down the steep path that led up to the plateau and turned right down to the stable or “forage-place” as the faerys called it. It was maintained by an old faery who lived nearby who provided all the fodder and water that the horses needed. It was one of many that was provided for travellers on the long roads of Hyperborea.
‘Oi, you lot! Move your arses! Come on!’
‘Ay up, lads! It’s the princess! Good to hear your dulcet tones again, lass!’
‘Well, you won’t hear them again, unless you get your arses into gear! Nice place you’ve got here’. Indira looked around admiringly at the stable, which was clean and well looked after, with fresh straw on the floor, with a trough full of clean water, and plenty of fodder. ‘You lot have been looked after a treat, haven’t you?
‘Yeah, we have. Where are we off to, princess?’
‘Back to Rhuan. On the double! Wake up, you lot!’
‘You ‘eard the princess. Come on, you dozy plods!’
Indira smiled. She was genuinely fond of these horses, despite their banter. She led them back up the path, the horses still grumbling.
‘Look at her! She’s like the Pied Piper!’ Simon said, admiringly, as he saw the horses trotting obediently behind Indira.
‘Yes, I know. Simon, what’s the matter with Annie?’
‘Annie? Why do you ask?’
‘Because she bit my head off, just now. Can’t I do anything right?’
Look, Morag, it’s not you. She just wants an end to this whole bloody war. So do I’.
‘When will it end?’
‘When we put an end to it!’
‘All right, you don’t have to snap my head off as well!’
‘I’m not! Look, Morag, We’re not getting at you. It’s just, that we’re a bit on edge, you know’.
‘No, I don’t know’. Morag said flatly. She felt exasperated by the whole situation.
She turned away to saddle her horse. Strangely, she found she knew how to do it. One of the skills that that the talisman had given her, she supposed.
She mounted Bucephalus and rode out after the others. She caught up with Annie and rode alongside. The rain was now coming down in a steady drizzle, the sort that dampens the spirits and turns the whole world into grey. Even the horses seemed dejected, their heads bent down against the pouring rain. ‘Annie,’, she began, ‘Annie, I can’t really stay. I feel like the spare piece in a jigsaw puzzle. You don’t really need me. It’s better if I go, and leave you to it’.
‘You can’t leave, Morag!’ Annie burst out. ‘You can’t leave me now! What about Demos? He cares about you, Morag! Can’t you see! We all do! You are really precious to us, Morag. It doesn’t matter that you’re older than us or whether you’re a policewoman or not! We all need you now more than ever! Don’t go away from us, Morag, please. Your’re my sister!’
Morag suddenly realised that Annie’s large dark eyes were welling with tears. She also realised that they had reined in their horses, so that Indira and Pei-Ying had caught up with them. ‘Don’t cry, Annie! I’m just not any use to you. It’s better that I leave you now!’
‘What will you do? Go back to your previous life, if you can? No? Nor can we. You have a sister now. You cannot turn your back on her. Your path is now clear. Your mother would say that’. Pei-Ying cried out. Morag turned desperately. Both of them were right next to her, on the narrow path that led into the forest, and both had heard what she had just said to Annie and had heard Annie’s reaction.
‘Look! It’s not what it seems! She heard herself crying out.
‘It seems like it. Going off when the going gets tough! You’re a coward, Morag! Deserting us when you don’t like it! Face it, you’re a coward, Morag!
Morag felt furious and she lost her temper. She hit Indira with a vicious back-handed sweep that caused Indira to sway in her saddle. She swayed forward again and struck Morag across the face with a stinging slap, in retaliation.
‘You bloody plod bitch!’
‘Don’t you dare call me a coward!’
‘Stop it! Stop it, the pair of you!’ Annie cried out despairingly.
‘Enough!’ The sword swished down, poised between them. Ragimund, her face thunderous, glared at them both. They both stared at her sword separating them. They looked at the blade, shining in the wet light of the sky, its sharp edge hung with raindrops about to slide off and drop to the ground.
‘I will not have this bickering! It must stop, or shall I put you both to mortal combat with your weapons?’
‘Then settle your differences!’
Ragimund rode off, her face still angry. This time they looked at each other.
‘Indira, I am truly sorry to have hit you. I never intended to do that!’
‘Oh, It’s all right. Me and my big mouth as usual. Only don’t threaten to run out on us again. Annie needs you. You gave me a good slap! I never saw that one coming!’
‘I’m sorry, Indira’.
‘I’m sorry, too’ She reined her horse around.
‘She means it. She’s one of the most kindest and generous- hearted friends that I’ve got’. Annie said when Indira had turned her horse and ridden back to Pei-Ying.
‘What is really the matter, Annie?’
‘I’m really frightened, Morag’.
‘But of what! I’ve never known to you be frightened of anything!’
‘Well, I am now. I’m afraid of what’s going to happen next! I don’t know, Morag. but I’m truly afraid of what might happen! I’m truly frightened! Please be with me’.
‘I will be. I’ll always be there for you, Annie. I’ve changed my mind. I’m not going away. I’ll be here for you. Always’.
‘Thank you, Morag. You’ve no idea how much that means to me. You see, it’s not knowing what’s going to happen that troubles me. If I’m going to die, then knowing that, I can cope with. It’s simply not knowing that, whatever happens to me’.
‘Don’t talk like that, Annie. You’re not going to die’.
‘You don’t understand, Morag. We’re in a life and death situation! I really thought we were going to die in the Barbarossi camp, but we didn’t, mainly due to luck!’
‘I told you, don’t talk like that! I won’t have it!’
Morag reined in. She felt uncomfortable with this conversation. She held back until Indira and Pei-Ying had reached her.
‘What’s wrong with Annie?’ she asked bluntly.
‘How should I know? You’re the plod. Work it out for yourself’.
‘Please, Indira, I don’t mean to quarrel with you again. I really am asking you. You’re her friends’.
Indira considered this. Then she said finally, ‘Be her friend and companion. She needs you, now. She’s on edge, has been for months. She wants to put an end to this war with the Wrist gang, once and for all’.
‘That is true. She needs her friends, and her new sister’, Pei-Ying smiled at her. ‘More than ever’. Then her face became serious. ‘You must stop grieving for your lost mother, Morag. You cannot bring her back’.
‘There speaks the oracle of wisdom. But she’s right, Morag. You can’t bring her back. Just move on, Morag. Nobody comes back from the dead’.
‘No, you’re right. I’ve been dwelling on it for too long’.
‘Hooray, she’s got it, at last!’
‘All right, all right! I get the message. But what do I do?’
‘She’s a plod, and she asks us what to do! Honestly!’
‘Be quiet, Indira! I am trying to think! Honestly, Morag, I feel that you must give her support and understanding. That is what she needs’.
‘I understand. That’s what I’ll do’.
She rode back to Annie. Neither spoke for some minutes. Morag decided to speak first. ‘Annie’, she began awkwardly. She looked sideways at Annie’s face. Her eyes seemed large and dark, almost luminous in her small features.’Annie, I’m with you. All the way. But I don’t want to lose you. You’re my sister, now, Annie. I love you’.
Annie smiled at her. Her face lit up with a radiance that was almost angelic. ‘I love you, too, Morag. But I’ve got to put an end to this, one way or another. Please forgive me, Morag. Don’t blame me. It’s for all our sakes’.
‘I know, Annie. But please be careful’.
They rode on together, secure in those few moments of time when they were sisters together. They passed the tree of books as they rode through the forest towards Rhuan. Annie looked up. The pages were limp with rain, and dripping, from where they hung on the branches.
‘ Books shouldn’t be treated like that!’ she said indignantly. ‘They should have more respect!’
Simon ahead, heard her and half-turned in his saddle. ‘They’re only the books that no-one wants to read, Annie!’
‘All the same’, Annie muttered rebelliously.
The forest closed around them again as they rode on towards Rhuan. They could hear the whispers and sounds of the forest creatures on each side in the darkness. Morag was always amazed at how dark the forest could be. She had lived in a town all her life and she was surprised at how dark and mysterious nature was. The path was little more than a tunnel through the forest, with the light of the open countryside at the far end. Their horses trotted towards it. They emerged into the bright light, the open green plain leading up to the gates of Rhuan.
‘Come on! Let’s gallop’ Annie cried. The horses let out a collective groan. ‘It’s uphill!’ One of them complained.
‘So what! It’s only a gentle uphill slope! Come on, you lot!’
She reined her horse forward. The others followed. Together they galloped up the gentle green incline, across the road, and up to the gates of Rhuan. There, they dismounted and led their horses into the stables on each side on the wide courtyard outside the city gates, which were now thrown open to receive visitors. Inside they could see large expanses of glimmering water and islands, in the sunshine which had now broken out. The clouds had now disappeared, together with the rain, and the sun shone brightly on the water-city of Rhuan.
They passed through the giant wooden gates, under the baleful eyes of the golden griffins mounted on the top of the gateposts, and onto the small stone jetty that lay just inside. A boat lay alongside it, long and broad-beamed. It was curved at both the prow and the stern into swan’s heads, gilded in gold. The aft deck was raised as a platform with its decks raised on both sides for protection. It was laid with soft cushions. The six faery rowers sat amidships, their oars ready, but drawn in, ready to push off. The boat was protected from the sun by a white cotton awning suspended along its whole length.
‘Whoopee! I’ll look like the Queen of Sheba in that’. said Indira, gleefully.
‘In your dreams’. Simon said, sourly
‘Ah, but you haven’t seen me on my good days’.
She stepped onto the boat. One of the faerys stood up and offered her his hand to assist her. Indira smiled appreciatively and accepted it. ‘Don’t mind if I do’. The others followed, apart from Pei-Ying, who hung back apprehensively. Annie noticed, took her hand and pulled her on board forcibly. Pei-Ying sat down on the deck near the back, her hands clasped around her drawn-up knees. She was close to tears.
Annie knelt down beside her. ‘Pei-Ying, what’s the matter? Is it sea-sickness again?’ Pei-Ying shook her head, miserably. ‘Annie, I have never told you this. I hate boats. I was in a terrible accident once, when I was very young. The boat was hit by a large wave, and I and my two schoolfriends were thrown overboard. I was picked up by the fishermen, but my two friends drowned. Their bodies were washed up on the coast a few hours later. Oh, Annie, I can still remember their faces as they disappeared under the water! They were my best friends! I have never told anyone about this until now, Annie, but that is why I hate boats!’
She began to weep. Annie put her arm round her shoulders to comfort her. ‘Tell your friend she has nothing to fear while I am in charge of this boat’. Annie looked up. Ragimund was standing next to them, pulling and twisting the large steering oar mounted on the right- hand side of the stern, as she guided them across the lagoon towards the narrow passage beneath the north-west corner of the artisan island. The great grey cliff towered above them, and, looking up, they could see the narrow flights of steps up which they had toiled a few days before.
‘Blimey, I hope we don’t have to go up that again! said Indira, looking up apprehensively.
‘Not this time, Indira’.
Indira breathed a sigh of relief.’Thank goodness for that! I was scared witless on those stairs! By the way, have you noticed that Pei-Ying’s got her eyes tight shut?’
Annie hauled Pei-Ying up to her feet and pushed her up to the stern. ‘Look down at the water! Open your eyes! Do it!’ Pei-Ying gulped and looked down. She saw through the clear water right down to the bottom, where clumps of sea-rushes swayed in the currents, and small silver fish darted and scuttered above them.
‘Annie, the water is so transparent! I can see right down to the bottom. It is wonderful!’
‘ Now do you see? This water is not a threat to you, Pei-Ying. It’s nothing like what happened to you and your friends. Honestly, you have nothing to fear!’
Pei-Ying dropped to her knees, and covered her face with her hands. Then she dropped them. ‘Forgive me, Annie. I have been stupid. I should have realised this long ago’.
‘No, it was a terrible experience, Pei-Ying. But try to put your fears behind you, now. We need you’. Annie looked around. They were now entering the narrow canal-like passage that led to the next stretch of water. To her right she could see the long, low buildings of the civic heart of the city. To the left, a wood covered the land , the trees almost extending to the water’s edge. Ragimund was steering towards another narrow passage opposite them which, Annie knew would bring them out onto the lake and the broad steps leading up to the main buildings. They negociated the passage, and found themselves in another broad lake. On their right, they could see the elegant low-roofed buildings of the civic centre. Ragimund steered towards the jetty in front of them at the water’s edge.
As they moored, Ragimund pointed to a broad path to the left of the stairs leading up to the main buildings. ‘Follow that path, Annie. It will take you to the hospital. The rest of us will go to the museum’. Annie jumped out, eagerly, followed by Morag.
‘Typical. They have the easy route, while the rest of us have to plod up these bloody steps!’
‘Oh, shut up, Indira. When you die and go to whatever heaven you believe in, waited on hand and foot by beautiful young maidens, you’d be complaining about the room service!’
‘No, I wouldn’t, Simon! I’d be complaining about not be waited on by beautiful young men!’
Annie and Morag walked up the broad path to the entrance of a two-storied wood-framed building. The wooden columns that supported the verandah roof that ran around it were carved and decorated with gilded flowers, and the whole structure was richly painted in red and gold. Its low roof extended out at both ends to provide shelter for enclosed balconies.
‘It doesn’t look much like a hospital, does it?’ Morag said, nervously.
‘Well, I like it’.
They walked into the reception room. It was painted white, both walls and ceiling, with a varnished wooden floor, in total contrast to the outside. A young faery clad in a loose cotton smock, rose from her desk at one side of the main door, and said something to them in faery language.
‘Excuse me, do you speak our language?’ Annie asked
The faery laughed. ‘Of course I do. Please forgive me. I did not realise who you were. Please come with me. I shall take you to their rooms’.
‘Rooms! I thought this was a hospital! Don’t you have wards or anything?’
‘What are wards?’
Morag gave up at this stage. Annie asked hastily, ‘What is your name?’
‘That’s a truly lovely name’.
She led them down a corridor from the main room, and indicated two doors on the left. ‘I gather you have come to see Demos and Helios’.
‘How did you know that?’
‘Ragimund told me. I am a friend of hers’.
‘I see. How are they?’
‘They are recovering well. Thursday, our physician, has been treating them’.
She led them down a corridor and paused in front of two of the wooden doors down its length. ‘This is Demos’s room, and that’, indicating the next door, ‘is Helios’.
They both thanked her and stood in front of their respective doors, hesitant. Annie looked at Morag sideways with a mischievous grin. ‘You’ve fallen in love, Morag. I can tell’.
‘So what if I have!’
Annie grinned again, then tapped on the door and went in. Morag stood outside, still hesitant. Then she took a deep breath, rapped on the door loudly, and entered.
Annie saw Helios lying on the bed swathed in bandages. He sat upright as she entered. ‘Annie!’. A great torrent of love and affection engulfed her. She burst into tears. ‘Don’t cry, Annie! Come here!’ She ran forwards into his arms. After hugs and kisses, Helios finally asked ‘What has happened to my fine young brave warrior? You are not normally like this!’
‘Well, she’s taken a day off. I hope Morag’s all right next door’.
‘She will be. Demos is a kind, honourable man. He will not mistreat her, especially since he has fallen in love with her’.
‘Do you really mean that?’
‘Yes. He spoke of her to me yesterday. He is definitely smitten’.
‘In the right way, I hope. She’s my sister’.
‘Oh, yes. He spoke of her with respect and admiration’.
‘Good. She deserves some happiness, at least’.
‘Demos is a good man. He will look after her’.
‘I hope so’.
Morag walked into Demos’s room.
‘Morag! I am so happy to see you! Take your boots off and come and lie with me’.
‘Please, Morag, I mean no harm. It’s just.. just that I want to be close to you.’
‘Right. Only, no funny business. No wandering hands and definitely no undressing. Understand?’
‘I understand, Morag. Please be close to me!’
‘All right. But I meant what I said’.
She unlaced her wet, muddy boots and lay down on the bed next to Demos. He clasped her in his arms and kissed her passionately. Eventually, she broke free. ‘Who gave permission for you to do that?’ she demanded.
Demos looked distressed. ‘I am so sorry, Morag!’
‘Its all right. You’re forgiven, but in future you only kiss me when I want you to, and don’t take liberties!
Demos looked so woebegone that she relented. ‘ All right, You can kiss me whenever I think it’s right. But, in the meantime, you keep an eye on your time! You’re a useless time keeper, and I don’t like to be kept waiting!’
This time Demos really looked forlorn. Morag took pity on him.
‘Look, Demos, I don’t want to nag you. I really don’t. But you must be on time. If not for my sake, then your own. Will you promise me?’
‘Yes. I promise you, Morag’.
‘Then that’s all I’ll ask. Got it?’
He nodded. She snuggled down against him, and fell asleep.
Annie grinned as she heard the hard plod of Morag’s boots on the ground from next door. She genuinely wanted her new sister to be happy. She snuggled next to Helios and promptly fell asleep herself.
An hour later, the door opened and Simon peered in. ‘Annie!’ he called. She sat up. ‘What do you want? She said irritably. ‘Don’t you knock before you come in?’
‘The others are waiting for you down at the jetty. Don’t you want to come?’
‘Yes, I’m coming! Now, get out!’
Annie leant over, picked up one of her boots and hurled it at him. Simon prudently closed the door, which the boot hit with a hard thunk. Morag, next door, sat up with a start. A few seconds later, there was a sharp knock at her door. ‘Come in’. she called. ‘It’s all right’. Simon poked his head around the door. ’Oh, I’m sorry, Morag’, seeing her sitting up on the bed.
‘No, It’s okay, we’re just having a few moments to ourselves. What was that noise next door?’
‘Just Annie throwing her boots at me. You haven’t seen her on a bad day. Just to say that we’re all waiting in the boat for you, if you want to come along’.
She glanced at Demos, still lying asleep next to her.
‘Yes, I would. Just give me a few seconds’.
She waited until Simon had gone, then leant over and kissed Demos tenderly. ‘Sweet dreams, dear prince’. She whispered, then bent over and began to lace up her boots. She found Simon outside in the corridor waiting for her. She looked around. “Where’s Annie?’ she asked.
‘Here. Come on, you two! What are you waiting for?’ She set off down the corridor. Simon and Morag looked at each other, then followed. They walked in silence down to the boat where the others were waiting. Morag looked sideways, anxiously, at Annie’s face, tense and strained. ‘What’s the matter, Annie?’ she finally asked.
‘Nothing! I just don’t like being woken up suddenly, that’s all! Annie relented. ‘If you must know, I’ve got this premonition that something terrible is going to happen today!’
‘If I knew that, it wouldn’t be a premonition, would it?’
They walked in silence to the boat, where the others greeted them. The oarsmen cast off, and the boat headed out, westwards, towards the other side of the lake. There was another channel there, between the two islands that lay opposite, towards which Ragimund was steering.
They rowed steadily up the narrow canal. The banks were high on each side but Annie could see that each island was heavily wooded, with silver birches on the left and with a mixture of cypress and pine on the right. Heavily beamed balconies loomed above their heads from the homes just above.
‘Wow!’ said Indira in awe as they passed into the next lake. ‘What’s that?’ she said, pointing at the island that rose out of the middle of the large lake that they were now entering. It hung over them like a giant fist, rising sheer out of the water. But it was just an illusion. On the southern side as they steered past it, it sloped steeply down to a small jetty. Small square-cut steps led up from it to the small plateau on the top of the island, where they could see two or three small buildings, Next to them, was a large open brazier, filled with wood.
‘And’s what that? ‘ Indira pointed at the brazier.
‘That is our warning beacon. It is only lit when there is danger or a threat to the city arises’.
They rowed steadily on, to the northern side of the large lake, which was now full of boats of all shapes and sizes. Annie particularly liked the way in which each boat curved up at both bow and stern into decorative figureheads of animals and birds, coloured and gilded. She also liked the way in which the fishing boats with their triangular lateen sails mounted at a rakish angle across their masts, flitted to and fro across the water, the fishermen aboard casting their lines with a gentle flick. There were even small coracles, little round boats, that scuttered around the larger vessels. From here they could see the harbour, full of moored vessels and boats that creaked and clattered against each other, so tightly were they packed. They could even hear the distant hubbub of voices from the jetty, and the clatter of cart wheels as the ships’ cargoes were loaded and unloaded.
Now they had turned southwards again into a narrow channel between two islands, on their way back. Annie looked up at the island on the left. It curved round into a small bay, which sheltered small beaches upon which small boats were drawn up, underneath the large balconies which extended out from the large low-roofed houses along the shore. They all had verandahs supported by carved and painted pillars painted in white, blue, yellow and green, the same colours that she had seen before, and which she had so liked.The architecture of Rhuan she enjoyed, but her heart sank when she looked across at the smaller island on the left. It was bare, except for low rock outcrops. Set back in the middle of the island, was a tall grey fortress-like building with small slits for windows set on each side.
‘Ragimund, what is that building?
‘It used to be the old fort that protected the harbour, Annie, but now we use it as a hostelry for traders and their families who come here to do business’.
Annie looked across at the throng of visitors that lined the coloured trellis railings that lined the shoreline of the island. She suddenly stiffened and got up, staring intently at the people there, thronged along the brightly coloured railing along the shore of the island. She clutched at her brother’s arm. ‘They’re there, Simon!’ she cried.
‘The Wrist family! They’re all there!’
‘What! Hold on, I’ll make sure! Simon pulled out his small field glasses from his bag and focussed them on the group of people who were now making their way back to the grey citadel. ‘You’re right, Annie! I can see him, with his red beard, and the old crone! There’s that fat sod with the weaselled face, and that’s Venoma! I could recognise her anywhere! The bitch!’
‘Here! Let me see!’ Annie snatched the field-glasses from him and looked for herself. ‘You’re right, it is them! Right, Simon, you know what we have to do?
‘Go and investigate’.
‘More than that. We have to put an end to this’.
‘You mean stop whatever they’re doing, and stop them in their tracks’.
‘Yes. Whatever it takes. Are you with me, Simon?
‘You already know the answer to that, Annie’.
She smiled at him. ‘Yes, I do. Ragimund, how many doors does that place have?’
‘The main entrance at the front and another at the back’.
‘Perfect. Simon, we go in tonight after dark and catch them by surprise’.
‘Sounds good to me’.
Morag listened to this with a growing sense of dismay. ‘I’m coming with you!’
‘And I too’. said Ragimund.
‘And the rest of us, too’, added Indira.’
Annie rounded on them furiously ‘No, you’re not! As I’ve said before, this is our fight! I’m not endangering other people’s lives. Got it! Shut up, the lot of you! That’s it!’
She got up and sat at the front of the deck, with her back turned towards them.
The rest of the journey was conducted in a morose silence. The weight of what might lie ahead that evening lay heavy upon them. They ate their midday meal in silence. ‘God, what is this? The Last Supper, or something?’ exclaimed Indira, crossly. Annie and Simon had already disappeared into their rooms. Morag decided she had had enough of the bickering and crossed over to Ragimund who was sitting in the window alcove, staring out. To her dismay, she was crying soundlessly.
‘What’s the matter, Ragimund?’
‘I am worried, Morag. They are going into something which they know nothing about’.
‘I know. But don’t cry, Ragimund. We can’t do anything about it except support them, in whatever way we can’.
‘That is true. Morag, you remind me so much of your mother’.
‘What! My mother!’
‘Yes. You see, Morag, I met her once, when I was a small child, just after my father was killed. She was kind and gentle to me. That is why I remember her’.
Morag was silent. She always felt emotional whenever she thought about her mother. ‘She was always kind and gentle with me’. She said at last. ‘She taught me everything I know. I really miss her’.
‘But she lives on in you, Morag. I am faery. I can see it in your eyes. She is not gone from you. She is part of you’.
‘I hope that’s true. Thank you, Ragimund. Oi! you lot, stop arguing., and put out your kit together for this evening. Do something useful for a change!’
‘Ooh, the Fuhrer speaks! All right, Morag, we’re just going’.
Indira, Pei-Ying and Mariko departed to their rooms.
‘Thank goodness for that! Ragimund, I wish I knew who my father was. I only remember him as this shadowy presence when I was very small’.
‘Perhaps you will find him one day’.
They were both silent for a moment. Morag realised she had established a bond with Ragimund that she did not wish to break.
‘Let’s go and see Annie and Simon’. she said. ‘To find out what they’re planning’.
Ragimund agreed. They both went together, and knocked on Annie’s door. ‘Come in’. said Annie’s voice. They walked in.
Annie and Simon were sitting side by side on the bed, sharpening their swords with blocks of hard stone. Their half open bags lay beside them. Annie looked up as they entered. Her face was grim.
‘I hope you haven’t come to pull the elder sister routine, Morag! Because I won’t listen! Do you understand?’
‘Stop telling me off! Anyway, what’s your plan?’
‘We haven’t got one! How can we, since we don’t know yet what we’re walking into1’
‘Well then, have you thought about what if they have firearms with them? What will you do then?’
‘Disarm them, what else do we do?’
‘Is that it? So what else?’
‘Find out what they’re planning and stop them! By whatever means we can!’
‘By killing them! Is that what you mean?’
‘We’ll do what’s necessary! Stop nagging me, Morag!’
‘Why not? I’m just worried about you!
‘Well, don’t be! We know what we’re doing!’
‘Annie, did you notice Venoma? That bitch looked like a prisoner’.
‘Yes, she did, Simon. Perhaps they’re turning on each other’. Annie considered this. ‘We can use that to our advantage. We’ve already got the element of surprise’.
‘Fine. I’ll just let you get on with it’. Morag got up and slammed the door behind her. She sat down on a chair and put her head into her hands. Seconds later, the door opened and Ragimund came out. She pulled up another chair and sat beside Morag.For a while they said nothing. Morag was still angry and hurt at her summary treatment.
‘You must forgive them, Morag. They are warriors and they are in that awful space before a battle, when they are full of self- doubt and worry. I have been through it myself. They are doing their best to protect you, because they do not want you to be hurt any more. Please believe me, because I am faery, and I know this’.
‘I understand that, Ragimund, but I can help them! I can send my sprite in before, to see what’s happening!’
‘You have a sprite!’ exclaimed Ragimund in astonishment. ‘I did not know!’
‘Yes, and I can put to it to use! I can send it in before them, so it can report back about what it sees’.
‘But, that is a wonderful idea! I shall tell them!’
‘Right, you do that. I’ll just sit here on my backside, waiting for orders!’
Ragimund disappeared inside, wishing she could understand humans better. A few minutes later, Annie came out. She sat down beside Morag.
‘Too right I’m angry! I feel angry because you exclude me from all your little plans! Those people had my mother murdered, nearly murdered me, and kidnapped me as well! What do you think! I owe them one!’
‘Please don’t let’s quarrel, Morag! Especially not now!’
Morag softened. She could see that Annie was close to tears.
‘Look, Morag, I know you’ve got good cause to be angry, but I don’t want you to be hurt again!’
‘Annie, I’m a grown woman and I am also a trained police officer. Do you think I need protecting? Stop treating me like a younger sister!’
Annie burst into tears. Morag looked at her and relented. ‘Annie, what really is the matter?’
‘I’m frightened of the unknown. I don’t know what will happen tonight. All I know is that I don’t want anybody else involved. It’s our responsibility and our fight. I really appreciate your help, Morag, but that’s far as it goes. I’m not trying to exclude you but I really don’t want you there. You’ve had enough’.
‘Don’t you think I should be the judge of that, Annie.?’
She got up and went back into her room. Morag decided to go back into her room, where she lay on the bed and promptly fell asleep. She was awoken by a furious hammering on the door. ‘Oi, Sleeping Beauty! Are you coming , or what?’ It was Indira’s voice.
‘Just a moment!’ she called back. She hastily sluiced cold water over her face from the jug on the small table near the window, combed her hair and slung her new sword over her back. Snatching up her bag, she ran out of the door, to find all the others waiting for her in the common room outside. ‘Sorry’ she said, ‘I fell asleep’.
She looked out at the window. It was already dark outside. She looked anxiously at Annie’s face. It was pale and tense, as was Simon’s.
‘Come on! Let’s be off!’ Annie said,impatiently.
They all trooped down the stairs, and through the front doors, down to the waiting boat, moored at the jetty. The six faery oarsmen were sitting, talking and laughing with each other. But they all stood up when they saw Ragimund and the rest of their party. They rowed out through the lakes, towards the citadel , as they now called it, and moored up below the jetty on the south of the island.
All was quiet. The citadel stood blank-faced on the island. No light shone from its narrow windows, nor was there any sign of life.
‘Let’s go, Simon’. Annie said quietly.
‘No, wait! Let me send my sprite in first!’
Morag prepared herself. She knelt on one of the cushions and began to speak the ancient faery words that summoned her sprite. The others looked on, fascinated. They had never seen this before. As she finished, she cried out and jerked violently as her sprite parted from her. It stood before her, a smaller naked version of her self, its outline quivering in the night breeze. It was invisible to the others, but clear to Morag. She gave it instructions in her mind, her lips moving soundlessly. The sprite leapt from the boat and darted up towards the citadel. She watched as it leapt and bounded towards the front doorway. ‘It’s in!’ she cried.
‘ How do you know? I can’t see anything’. Indira said, crossly.
Morag ignored her. ‘Right’, she said, listening to her sprite with her eyes closed, ‘There’s a large hall with stairs going up on the right. The sprite’s going up now’. She paused for a few moments. ‘Its on the third floor. There’s a large wooden door on the right. It’s unlocked’. She paused again. ‘It’s a large room with no beds in it. The bedrooms are through a door on the right. There’s another door at the back of the room. A long narrow table is set across the room opposite the main door. There are four people in the room. At the left, in a high-backed chair, facing down the table, in which sits a young woman in a green dress. She’s got red hair and green eyes, the same colour as her dress’.
‘Venoma!’ whispered Simon. He hated her.
‘Nearest to her, behind the table, is an older fat man with an ugly face’.
‘In the centre, behind the table again, is an old witch with a hooked nose. She has a metal device in front of her, on the table, as does the ugly man’.
‘Guns! I don’t like the sound of that, Annie’.
“What are they there for? There’s no reason’.
‘ Unless they’re carrying out an execution’.
‘I don’t know, do I?’
‘The other person at the far end is a large person who has a red beard’.
‘There is a large wooden case on the right’. Annie looked at her brother. ‘What’s that’. she asked. He shook his head. ‘ We’ll have to find out’.
Morag cried out and jerked violently as her sprite rejoined her. She put her hands around her as if welcoming back a lost child.
‘Right, they’re all there! Are you ready, Simon?
‘As ready as you are!’
They slipped off the boat and began to scurry from one rocky outcrop to another, keeping low to avoid detection, moving ever closer to the front door of the citadel.
‘Look at that! Real commando stuff!’ Indira exclaimed, delightedly.
Morag didn’t answer. She was too worried about what might happen inside when Annie and Simon came face to face with their enemies.
‘What do we do now?’ asked Indira.
‘We wait’. Ragimund said, quietly.
‘Wait till when?’
‘When they are ready! Be quiet, Indira!’
They waited in an uneasy silence. Even Indira subsided. Inevitably, she spoke at last. ‘Why don’t we go in after them? They might be in trouble!’
‘I said we wait!’
They did not have to wait long. They did not hear the explosion until a second later. The building flamed incandescent, then they felt the great roar of the explosion. The building simply seemed to fall apart, its four wall spreading. The boat rocked wildly in the swell of the explosion. Masonry tumbled and rolled towards them.The whole building exploded with a roar, the walls falling outwards, crumbling as they fell. Burning debris flew through the air and set the awning above their heads alight. Ragimund looked up and saw the danger. ‘Quickly! Cut it away!’ She called. The faery oarsmen hacked at the ropes securing it to the boat and threw it overboard, a limp, ashen-grey bundle. They watched it float away, still smouldering
‘Where’s Ragimund?’ Morag demanded, looking around.
‘Up there, lady’. Said one of the faerys, pointing with his hand, up the slope.
She looked up and saw Ragimund running up the slope to what was left of the citadel, which was now no more than piles of rubble. She was clearly distraught, rent with dismay and despair. Morag caught Mariko’s sleeve.
She looked around at the others, clearly shocked and horrified at what had happened. She decided to take command.
‘Quickly, catch up with her, and stay with her! Try to calm her down! Please, Mariko!’ Mariko looked at her, then at the distant figure of Ragimund, and nodded. She set off after Ragimund. Morag jumped off the boat and ran on, sick with despair. The others followed her.They all ran up the slope. She looked around desperately. ‘Spread out in a line and look for survivors!’ She shouted, in that deadly silence that always follows an explosion.
It was Morag who found them first. ‘Over here! Over here!’ She waved both her arms frantically. She knelt down by the two hands clasped together, one of which wore a talisman ring that she knew was Annie’s. The others gathered around her. She knelt down and felt each wrist for a pulse. It was there, a strong regular pulse in both. She felt a sudden stab of joy. ‘They’re alive! They’re alive! Quick. Get the rubble off them!’
Faery and human alike, all began to clear the pile of rubble and masonry that covered the two bodies, with their bare hands, The stone was still warm to the touch from the explosion. Annie and Simon lay face down, their heads turned towards each other. Their hands were still clasped together. They all felt utterly moved by the sight. Morag knelt down by Annie and pressed her neck for a pulse. Her neck felt warm and soft and she felt her pulse, which was strong and regular. ‘She’s all right!’ she shouted joyously. She stood up, and noticed Indira, who was weeping.
“What’s the matter with you?’
‘I’m just relieved,,that’s all. I really thought that they were goners this time’.
‘Well, they’re not, and don’t start going all weepy on me! Help me turn her on her back. Gently! She might have internal injuries’.
When they turned her over, Morag saw, with amazement, that Annie did not appear to have any serious injuries, despite being buried under the rubble of the vanished citadel. Her face was bruised and grazed but looked peaceful. Morag stroked her cheek affectionately. ‘Oh, what trouble have you got yourself into now, Annie?’ she whispered quietly.
She stood up, and looked down at Annie. ‘Is she all right?’ asked Indira, plaintively from behind her. ‘ I think so. There’s no broken bones or evidence of being crushed. She’s just unconscious, that’s all’.
‘I know why.’. said Pei-Ying, unexpectedly. ‘Look at Annie’s talisman. It’s glowing! She must have used it to protect themselves’.
‘That’s why they clasped their hands! Oh , Annie, you protected your brother as well! Speaking of which, I’d better have a look at him!’
She knelt down by Simon and looked across at Ragimund. To her dismay, Ragimund was crying again. Her face was bent over and her tears were splashing on the ground. Morag had never seen a faery cry so much before.
‘Ragimund, you must help me turn him over, so that we can examine
‘Ragimund, we must get these two to the hospital as soon as possible! Are there any stretchers on the boat?’
Ragimund nodded and shouted an order to one of the faery oarsmen , who ran off down to the boat.
‘Oh, no! That’s all we need!’ Morag cried, as she heard the tumult form the other side of the island. All sorts of people were running from their boats from the port towards the scene. Suddenly, another figure appeared beside her. ‘Who are you!’ she demanded sharply.
‘My name is Miranda, lady. Lady Ragimund, I wish to report that all the guests in the hostel are safe and well. They are gathered under the headland on the other side of the island’.
Morag breathed a sigh of relief. At least there had been no loss of life. Miranda looked down and gave a start of surprise. ‘That is the human who instructed me to take the people out! Is he injured? She paused. ‘My lady, they are cold and tired, and the children are beginning to cry. What should I do?’
‘Commandeer some of those boats, and have them ferried across to the other island, where they can be housed. Go quickly!’
‘Excuse me, Miranda, but could you do something else before that?’
Morag pointed towards the horde of people from the port that were gradually converging on the ruins of the site.
‘Gather some of your people and keep that mob out! This is a crime scene now, and it needs to be investigated. And organise some search parties to look for any more survivors!’
Bewildered, the young faery looked at Ragimund, who was still kneeling by Simon. She nodded. ‘Do as she says. She has more experience in these matters than I do’. Miranda bowed her head, and darted off in the direction from which she had come.
‘Are you sure she’s up to it. I mean, she looks very young’.
‘Of course, she is faery’. Ragimund said, reprovingly.
‘I meant no offence, Ragimund’.
‘I took no offence, Morag’.
Just then, the faery arrived with the stretchers tucked under one arm and a roll of blankets under the other.
‘Wonderful! Thank you!’
‘Indira, stop weeping, and help me get Annie on this stretcher! Now!’
Together, they lifted Annie on to the light stretcher and wrapped her in one of the blankets. Then they did the same with Simon. Neither stirred or woke. Morag straightened up and looked back over the ruins. To her relief, she saw that the faery Miranda had done her work well. The ruins had been roped off, and were being patrolled by armed faerys. She could see the flickering light of torches as the faerys looked for other survivors amongst the rubble and fallen masonry.
‘Right, we’re done here’. Morag said at last. ‘I think everything’s being taken care of. Let’s get these two to the hospital. There’s nothing else we can do here’. The sad little procession walked down to their boat. She looked down at Annie’s peaceful face, now bruised and battered, and felt a sudden surge of affection. ‘Annie, it’s all right! I’ll look after you’. she said to herself quietly. The faerys gently laid the two stretchers on the aft deck and set off to row them to the hospital.
They finally got to the hospital where the tall figure of Thursday was waiting for them, surrounded by faery nurses. ‘Bring them in here’. he said curtly. He threw open a door at the end of the corridor in which were two beds. ‘Put them on those’ he ordered, ‘And then leave. I need to examine them’.
‘Cheerful soul, isn’t he?’ said Indira as they settled down on the wooden benches outside in the corridor. ‘I think he’s just worried’. Replied Morag. She, too was worried. Thursday might find some serious injuries that she had overlooked.
A few minutes later the door opened. Thursday reappeared with a smile on his face. ‘There is good news’. He announced. ‘They are seriously concussed, but apart from that and their superficial injuries, there is nothing wrong with them. However they must be watched over, in case there is any change in their condition’.
‘I will do that! cried Ragimund.
‘So will I’ said Morag. She looked across. ‘With your permission, Ragimund?’
‘Of course. I will be glad of your company, Morag’.
They settled down on chairs opposite each other by the beds.
The others had gone back to get some sleep, under Morag’s direction. She saw no reason why everybody should have to stay up. So they had gone, not without some grumbling, particularly from Indira. Now she and Ragimund were alone, looking after their charges.
Morag looked across at Ragimund. She saw not a fierce young faery warrior, as she knew she could be, but a rather beautiful but forlorn young woman. Ragimund caught her eye and looked up. She smiled at her. ‘I wish to thank you, Morag, for taking command this evening, when I could not…..’ Her voice tailed away.
‘I understand, Ragimund. Just doing my job, that’s all’.
Ragimund was silent for a few minutes.
Morag saw that Ragimund was trying to reach out to her, and knew she was lonely. She waited.
Presently, Ragimund spoke again. ‘Do you have any family, Morag?’
Morag shook her head. ‘No, not since my mother was killed. The only family I have now are these two’. She looked down at Annie and Simon, suddenly saddened.
‘I understand, Morag. I am sorry for your loss’.
Morag began to drowse. ‘Morag!’ She spluttered and woke up. Ragimund was looking at her earnestly. ‘Morag, will you be my faery-sister?’It came as a rush. Morag gathered her wits about her. She smiled across at Ragimund. ‘I would be happy to’.
The two young women sat up and maintained their vigil through the long night, looking after their loved ones. They had reached out to each other. They did not need to speak further.
Frank Jackson (9/12/2012) 9633 word count.