A Journey to the West


Annie and Simon, with their friends, Morag, Mariko, Ragimund, and their paramours, Demos and Helios, set out on a journey to the land of the Barbarossi to help Paravar, the new emperor to rid his land of the greedy merchants, who are taxing his people unmercifully. Annie has a plan, which she knows might not work, to perform this task. It will take ingenuity and good timing to do this. They make new friends, and meet old ones on their journey, and make some important discoveries about themselves in this journey.


The journey to the west seemed long and slow. As well as a long retinue of faery horsemen behind them, progress was slowed by the two large supply carts, hauled by mules, bringing spare weapons, provisions for the journey, spare horse-shoes for the horses, and other essentials, such as medical supplies, and spare cloaks, for when they reached the land of the Barbarossi. One wagon also carried money and valuables. Ragimund believed in leaving nothing to chance. But they could only travel at the pace of the lumbering carts

Annie was disgruntled. Not only was it turning into some kind of state visit, it had not got off to a good start. She thought back to that morning when they had received Paravar, the emperor, in Ragimund’s office. Morag had begun the onslaught, demanding to know why Paravar hadn’t stopped the slave trade. Paravar tried to explain. ‘ I did not know this was happening! I am at war with my own merchants, whose only aim is to make money! This is why I am here to ask for your help as allies against them! I have reason to believe they are organising a coup against me, and have me deposed! If that happens, my people will suffer. Many of them are dependent on the merchants for their employment. If that is withdrawn they will become destitute and starve! I cannot let that happen! I would be failing in my responsibilities as an Emperor, if I could not! The merchants do as they please! And my people suffer for it!’

They were all silent at his outburst. Paramar sat down abruptly and put his head in his hands. For all he was an Oxford man, having attended university in their land, he was now clearly distressed. Annie felt sorry for him. He was doing his best after all. She suddenly felt very angry  at the rich Barbarossi merchants who were bleeding their own people dry, for their own gain. It had to stop.

‘We’ve got to help Paravar’. She said firmly. ‘And his people as well. My brother and I  didn’t set up a truce for nothing’.

‘Very well. I agree’. Ragimond said. Now she was the warrior faery. ‘I will bring a contingent of troops with me, in case of any trouble. You will ride with me, Paravar. I want to show strength’.

‘Gladly, my lady’.

That was how they came to be on the road today. Annie glanced behind at the faery soldiers riding behind them. They looked magnificent, riding behind in twos, their upraised lances glittering with plumes from their lance heads and helmets. These were picked men and women, chosen for their prowess in war. She hoped it would not come to that. They rode on, hot under the sun. At last, Ragimund turned off to a caravanserai. They all groaned  gratefully.

‘We will rest here tonight’. Ragimund said, unnecessarily. That night, after a good meal, Annie and Simon tumbled gratefully into their respective beds, worn out by the stress and length of the journey. The faerys too had beds, though some of them chose the stables, next to their beloved horses.

Next day, they rode on, towards Mila. This had always been one of Annie’s favourite cities, despite her unfortunate vision of a death’s head on her previous visit, which had led her to doubt her very sanity. Now she took pleasure in the bright city, looking up at the mountainside above her on the left as they rode alongside the broad flat river that bisected the city. The whole mountainside had been sculpted into terraces and walks, overhung with foliage, bright with flowers. Cascades  of water ran down the mountain alongside the terraces, foaming into large sculpted stone pools at the base of the slopes. The great winged and gilded statue of  a griffin stood resplendent on he summit Across the river stood the ornate facades of the theatres and bathhouse, separated from the river by small domed kiosks set in carefully tended  gardens. They could smell the heady scent of the flowers from across the river. In the evening, Annie, Morag, Mariko and Ragimund decided to visit the public baths. As they draped themselves in the large warm central pool beneath the huge dome, after plunging into smaller pools, cold, hot and tepid, they fell into a soporific state. It was dark in the baths, the only light coming from the daylight gleaming through the glass bricks inset in the dome above.

‘ I do not know what to expect in Barbarossia’. Ragimund said, as she slipped into the water. ‘I do not want a civil war there’.

‘Is that what it may come to?’ Annie asked. The thought of further bloodshed filled her with foreboding.

‘It may be so. Paravar has many enemies among the rich merchant classes, who fear he might harm their ill-gotten profits’.

‘They should be stopped! Why should they make profit from the poor?’

‘I agree. I have no love for these merchants! But we must wait until we find out what the situation is before we can act’.

They all nodded in reluctant agreement. ‘Who’s for a massage? Morag cried, trying to lighten the mood. They all rushed off to the masseuses’ room. They emerged from the baths, sweet, clean and delicately perfumed, their hair still damp. ‘Let’s make a night of it’ Morag  said. They all agreed, even though they had a hard ride tomorrow to Cestmos. But the occasion demanded it, and so they sat in a restaurant on the riverside eating a delicious fish meal, women together, laughing and gossiping, happy to forget their journey and its intention for one night. But, inevitably, the talk turned back to their destination.

‘What is the land of the Barbarossi like?’ asked Annie.‘I can tell you’ Ragimund replied. ‘I visited that land several times when my sisters and I were elected governors here. It is a dry and dusty land in the main part. The central part is desert and mountains, so therefore the Barbarossi have settled in the coastal regions where the climate is much cooler.That is where their capital city, Bajoz itself, is situated. That is where we are going tomorrow’.

‘What do they grow for food, and how do they feed their population?’ Morag asked now. She was curious. ‘They grow maize and rice in the more fertile areas. And they raise some chickens and goats. But that is all they have. Unfortunately they have to buy what else they can, at the prices the merchants decide, who also set taxes on whatever they sell. The merchants have a stranglehold on trade routes and the trade itself. They control everything’.

‘That’s not right! Annie said almost tearfully. She thought of all those poor people who lived almost at the edge of poverty, despite all their labour, for their rich masters. ‘I’m going to do something about it!’

‘What, Annie?’ Ragimund said, puzzled.

‘This’. She explained her idea. Ragimund grinned. ‘I am with you, Annie’.

‘And me!’ cried Morag. They all looked at Mariko. ‘ And me, too’. She said, bravely.

They said nothing more of Annie’s idea. Annie was glad they approved of her plan, though it was full of risk. But it would benefit Paravar, and all the poor Barbarossi people. She said no more.  

Presently, they moved off across the bridge together, their arms round each other. They weaved unsteadily along, until they reached their lodgings in the government buildings at the foot of the mountain.

‘Well, well, look what’s the cat brought in!’ Simon said, grinning. They all ignored his facetious remarks and went up the stairs to bed. Annie pulled her boots off and lay on the bed fully clothed. She was too tired to undress. She lay awake for some time, thinking about her plan. Was it too audacious? She would soon have to find out. She fell at last into a fitful slumber.


She was woken next morning by the clatter and jingle of harness outside. Frantically getting out of bed, or rather off it, she dragged a chair to the high window and looked out, standing on it. She saw the faerys below her, already packing their saddlebags and saddling their horses. ‘Oh, Hell’s bells’ she muttered to herself. She quickly sluiced her face with cold water, gathered up her belongings, stuffed them in her saddle-bags, slung them over her shoulder, and ran downstairs. Fortunately, she was not too late, and found her horse already saddled. They set off in procession to ride to the fortified city of Cestmos, the next stage of their journey.

Annie was not looking forward to seeing Cestmos again. She remembered it as a fortified city, aggressive and hard, unlike the other faery cities. As Cestmos came into sight, with its great grey, facetted stone walls enclosing it, her worst fears were realised. This was not a city, but a fortress. On the battlements high above, she could see faery sentries. She remembered her last visit, when every gap in the battlements was filled with bowmen on guard against possible attack. She hope that the city had softened somewhat, now that the war was over.

They rode in through the Mila gate, adorned with worn reliefs of past warriors, below the castle, which hung over them threateningly. She saw Morag’s head turning the way and that, as she took in the sight of the forbidding city, realising that she had never seen it before. On impulse, she rode up alongside her.
‘What do you think of Cestmos, Morag?’

‘Sharp and forbidding. I can hardly believe that it was built by the faerys’, glancing up with a shudder, at the towering grey walls.

‘Wait until you see the castle’. Annie grinned. ‘That’s where we’ll stay tonight’. Morag gazed up apprehensively at the castle, with its tall storeys, each with curved overhanging roofs, studded with narrow arrow-slits. ‘It’s built for war, all right”.

They passed through the gateways in the enclosing walls around the keep, and dismounted in the large courtyard, where their horses were led away to the stables, and entered the keep itself. The faery soldiers departed to their dormitories, while they were led up to their guest accommodation on the first floor. Morag peered out of one of the narrow windows, looking out over roofed buildings and the severe gridiron plan of the city. She noticed the sharp geometry of the lay out, and the overwhelming redness of everything. They were in a common room with bedrooms opening off  it, But the narrowness of the embrasured windows reminded them uneasily that they were in a fortified castle. Paravar, who was sharing their table, was frowning as he looked though a pile of documents that had been waiting for him on the central table for him. He looked up, still frowning, as they all joined him.

‘It is bad news’ he said. ‘This “Council of Merchants”, as they call themselves, has imposed a huge new tax in my absence. The people are rioting even as we speak. There are angry mobs on the streets. My land is in distress. What can I do? I have failed my people!’

‘Not  necessarily. Annie said, quietly. ‘Paravar, listen to my plan’.  Paravar listened, still frowning. But by the time Annie had finished, he was smiling with delight. ‘It is an audacious plan, Annie, but if it works, it shall release my people from their misery. I am with you, and will do whatever you need’. ‘Let’s hope the people are still rioting when we get there. It’ll help the plan no end’. Annie replied, hopefully.

I think it’s a great plan, Annie! Simon said excitedly. He had been listening to their conversation. ‘All the ingredients of daring deeds and swashbuckling! Count me in!’

‘If it works’. Annie said gloomily. Not expecting such enthusiasm from any one else, she was now plagued by doubts. What if something went wrong? What if she had overlooked something, that might spell disaster? She would be held responsible, she and no-one else. She went to bed in a state of worry. Why was everyone so confident, when she wasn’t? At last she fell into a fitful sleep, where she dreamt of accusing eyes and fingers wagging at her for her failed plan.

She awoke late next morning, and was only just in time to mount her horse and ride out with the others towards the land of the Barbarossi. She was still worried about her plan, despite all Simon’s and Helias’s reassurances.

They rode on to the West wall, and the gatehouse where they had gathered in the last battle. Annie blinked. The area behind the gatehouse, where the faerys had gathered for battle, was now a large thriving market place. Stalls filled the space, crowded up against each other, each covered with a white or brightly striped canvas awning, suspended from upright poles, against the hot sun. Below them, collapsible wooden tables groaned under pyramids of  red-gold apples, and pears, mounds of spices, turmeric, cloves and even  yellow-gold heaps of saffron, and mint, sage and marjoram piled high in large wooden boxes. The Barbarossi stalls boasted large piles of fresh green coconuts, fresh yellow cascades of ripe bananas, pomegranates and melons. Annie wondered how many poor Barbarossi saw such riches.

They trotted through the gatehouse in single file. On the other side, faery soldiers were checking the merchants’ carts, as they queued to get into the market. It all seemed well-tempered and orderly. On the Barbarossi side of the gatehouse, now a customs post, Annie got another shock. Another great market place stretched out across the plain outside the west wall, on the site of the battlefield where so many young Barbarossi soldiers had met their deaths  a short time ago. Now it was filled with stalls of all shapes, sizes and colours each filled with rugs and embroidered silks of ornate patterns. As they fluttered in the slight breeze they became a changing kaleidoscope of rich patterns, red, yellow, green and blue, all richly worked in dazzling geometric motifs. Some hangings lay on the stalls themselves, or in rolls that the stall-keepers occasionally threw open for customers with a flourish. The air was heady with the smell of cooking meats and the opulent aromas of spices, turmeric, peppers, nutmeg and cloves, and filled with  a loud throb of shouts, cries and argument, the noise of commerce and bartering. Throngs of people, Barbarossi and faery alike, jostled around both the stalls and the mounted faery column as they threaded their way through. Small Barbarossi children, clutching more small rugs and hangings, ran alongside the riders, imploring them, in their high, shrill voices, to buy their goods.

‘Lady!’ she looked down. A small Barbarossi boy was trotting alongside her horse. To her surprise, he spoke her language.

She bent down towards him from her horse. ‘What is your name?’

‘Hyrillis, my lady’.

‘Well, Hyrillis, what have you got to show me?’

The boy’s dark eyes gleamed with pleasure, He unrolled one of his packages and held it up for Annie to see. She gasped in delight. The embroidery glowed with colour, even in the brilliant sunshine. It was a landscape, backed with heavy trees. In the foreground the sinuous shapes of  antelopes wove a complex arabesque of red-brown and grey forms, as they drank from a running brook at their feet. But, in the background, the snarling face of a lion, malevolent and hungry, could be seen in the branches of a tree. One of the antelopes had scented him and raised her delicate nostrils upwards before warning the others. It was a simple scene, but one that was worked with delicacy and grace, and with a sense of pattern in the animals’ bodies, about to break and take quivering flight before the lion’s incipient rush.

Annie loved it. It was the perfect gift for her mother’s birthday.

‘How much, Hyrillis? She asked.

For answer, the boy grinned and held up five fingers. Annie shook her head, and held up two. The boy, in turn, shook his head, and this time held up four fingers. Annie hesitated. She wanted to pay a fair price, but not too much. She held up three fingers, and this time the boy nodded, and grinned again. He rolled up the embroidery and tied it with string, while Annie counted out three gold coins, that she pressed into his small brown palm. The boy seemed happy that he had been given a fair price. ‘Who do you work for, Hyrillis?’ Annie asked , curiously.

‘For my family. We run our own business now. There is our stall’. He pointed to a stall some yards away, sheltered by a white awning, and creaking with yet more hangings, fluttering in the slight but welcome breeze. A tall, bearded man wearing a white turban, busy behind the stall, saw him and waved. Hyrillis waved back. ‘That is my father’. He said proudly. ‘We have our own looms and metal-working tools now, thanks to the Emperor’.

‘How is that?’ Annie asked again. ‘

‘Because the Emperor, may blessings be upon him, gave us a grant of money to buy such tools as we need, to be used for ourselves. We can now work for ourselves, lady, and make our own profits. My father wishes to keep us in food, and save enough to provide dowries for my sisters, so that they can marry. This new merchants’ tax will cripple us, lady. It will drive others into poverty and subservience. Those fat pigs do not care, lady! They will grind us into the dirt!’ The boy spoke vehemently, with real anger in his eyes. ‘We will fight for our livelihood! It is our right!’

‘It might not come to that, Hyrillis. We are going to see now what we can do’.

“I hope you succeed, lady. My people are angry’. 

Annie thought it best not to say any more. She said goodbye to the young Barbarossi boy and rode on to catch the others. She noticed that their faery retinue had shed their helmets which now hung down from their saddles. Instead they were wearing bound cloths around their heads, which Annie realised were what Paravar called burnous. He had distributed them last night. She remembered hers and dug feverishly into her saddle-bag until she finally found it, and put it on, tying the cord with it, around her forehead. A long strip of cloth behind sheltered her neck from the burning heat. It felt comfortable and sheltered her bare head from the sun, which was now uncomfortably hot. The air was sandy, and already her teeth felt gritty. She wrapped the long cloth over her mouth and nose.

Helios rode up alongside her. ‘I see you have become Barbarossi, now, Annie’.‘Yes, I have’. Annie said in a somewhat muffled voice. ‘And don’t you dare laugh!’ Helios chuckled, admiring her dark liquid eyes, which is all he could see. They rode on together, companionably. The road, such as it was, lay uphill, to a large barren plateau, rocky with little vegetation apart from bunches of scrub. It was not the kind of desert that Annie had imagined. Instead of golden sheets of sand, she saw only this dreary rocky landscape stretching out on all sides to the far horizon. The only sound and movement was the faint scrabble of small lizards or geckos as they disappeared into their dark holes under the rocks, at their approach. Annie looked around, for the caravanserai that they were aiming for.  All she could see was a wavy shimmer of heat on the horizon.

‘ Don’t worry, Annie, we’ll be at the caravanserai soon’ She heard Helios say. She nodded. She felt exhausted by the heat. As they plodded on, she realised that she could at last see a dark shape on the horizon that grew even larger, as they trotted on across the desert. As they drew closer, she could make out huge red-brick walls and an ornate arched gateway carved with lions above it. The upper walls were castellated. The whole building was like a desert fortress. They rode in under the decorated arch, with its massive wooden gates now pulled back. The outer sides of the gates had been weathered by the sand to a silvery- grey colour, Annie noticed. They rode into a large enclosed central courtyard, in the middle of which was a huge rectangular pool of water, it’s stone sides carved in reliefs of long-forgotten battle scenes. Dismounting at last, they led their horses to the central pool, where they lapped greedily at the clear sweet water.

As she looked around, Annie saw that the walls were built up on the inside to provide accommodation. The ground floor was made up of stables for the horses, and, on the other side, larger ones for camels. Above the stables, on each side, ran  arcaded walkways, enclosing individual sleeping rooms for travellers. At the far end of the caravanserai. also built against the protective wall, was a large rectangular building, surmounted by a small octagonal tower, topped by a platform supporting a large iron brazier, already filled with faggots of wood.  A beacon to guide travellers, Annie supposed, as she looked around. The ground floor of the large building was open on one side: she could see large tables and chairs spread out there – clearly the cantina.


Paravar, standing in the middle of the open courtyard, pointed up to the arcades on each side. ‘Those are your sleeping quarters for tonight. We shall set off for Bajoz at dawn tomorrow. When you have stabled your horses, go to your chosen sleeping-quarters. You can leave your baggage there – it will be safe. Then come and eat’. he pointed to the cantina.

 Both Annie and Morag, next to her, were convulsed in giggles.      Simon, standing nearby, looked at them, disapprovingly. ‘What’s so funny?’ he demanded. ‘Paravar’. Annie said, still giggling. ‘Simon, don’t you remember? All those school outings with the teacher in charge telling us where to go and what to do! He reminds me of that!’ Simon grinned, and then his face fell. ‘Just remember that Paravar’s nervous. He doesn’t know whether he’s walking into a civil war, or not, at present’. Annie nodded soberly. ‘I know’. she said. She walked her horse to one of the stables, and left him to the charge of a stable-hand, a turbaned boy no older than herself. Looking  around the stable, she was satisfied. The hay-rick was full, there was clean drinking water in a stone trough, with plenty of straw for her horse to bed down, and the stable itself was tidy and whitewashed. Hoisting her saddlebags onto her shoulder, she went outside in search of a room.

Though it was late afternoon, the sun was still beating down on the hard-packed earth of the courtyard as she climbed up the stone stairs to the arcade above, which was at least shaded and cool. She picked an empty room, and walked in through the open wooden door. Inside, it was dark, despite the whitewashed walls, the only natural light coming from a narrow slitted window opening out onto the desert through which they had just travelled. A hinged wooden shutter provided a means of closing it. A narrow wooden bed lay alongside one wall with a sheeted mattress stuffed with camel hair and straw. It looked hard, but Annie didn’t mind that. The only other furniture was a small table with two jugs of water and a bowl on it. A towel hung over a rail on one side. She picked up one of the jugs and gulped the water down, spilling it down her chin. The water tasted delicious, as it poured down her throat. She had not realised how thirsty she was. Pouring water from the other jug into the bowl, she sluiced her face and washed her hands, then opened her saddlebags and changed into a fresh tunic. She immediately felt better.

There was a sudden knock on her door, which she had left ajar. Morag’s face peered round it. ‘A bit spartan, isn’t it’. She said, happily. Annie grinned back. ‘It’s only for one night’. she said. ‘Oh, I don’t mind really’. Morag replied. ‘I’ve given Demos the night off. Where’s Helios?’

‘The same. I want to be on my own tonight. I’ve got to think about my plan’.

‘I understand, Annie. Isn’t it wonderful? I always dreamt as a child of travelling through the desert. It’s like a fairy-tale come true! Bit hot, though!’

Annie grinned again. For all her reputation as a tough policewoman, Morag still retained her sense of wonder and delight at new experiences. It was one of the things that Annie loved about her. ‘Let’s go down and eat’, she replied, affectionately.

They locked their doors and went down the stone stairs and across to the cantina together. Their faery retinue already occupied most of the tables, but Annie heard her brother’s shout, ‘Hey, Annie! Morag! Over here!’ They made their way through the crowded cantina to a large round table at the back. Simon, Demos, Helios, Mariko and Paravar were already seated, but they had saved two chairs for them. They sat down next to Demos and Helios. The table was set with plates, but not with cutlery. Annie looked around. The faerys were already eating with their own cutlery that they had brought with them, but the few Barbarossi traders that remained were, to her horror, eating just with their fingers, scooping out great handfuls of rice and meat with their bare hands, dipping them between mouthfuls into small round finger bowls of scented water. Annie shuddered and dug out her personal cutlery set of utensils from her pouch. Morag did the same. A small brown-skinned Barbarossi girl, clad in a spotless white robe, brought two huge platters of rice and meat to their table, balancing them delicately on each hand. She set them down in the middle of the table, and then left, not without a curious glance or two at them.

Paravar plunged his spoon and fork into the nearest dish and scooped out a generous helping of meat and rice. ‘Come on, tuck in’ he invited with a touch of his public school background. But his face soon fell again into a frown as he contemplated the pile of script messages beside him. Annie ladled a helping of rice and meat onto her plate and cautiously tasted it. It was delicious. The strips of chicken, as she guessed, were succulent and well-cooked in spices and herbs, and the rice was both creamy and fluffy, dotted with sultanas, raisins and chopped almonds. She suddenly felt ravenously hungry, and helped herself to more rice and meat. She finished her mouthful, and looked across at Paravar, who was still frowning.

‘Is it bad news?’ she asked quietly.

Paravar looked up, his face still sombre. ‘Yes and no’. he replied to her question. ‘The bad news is that my people are in a state of revolt. Apparently, there is a large and angry mob around the citadel gates, which is increasing by the hour. They are demanding the abolition of the new taxes imposed by the merchants, and the heads of the merchants themselves. There have already been some instances of violence’.

‘The good news’, he went on, ‘is that the council of merchants, as they call themselves, are very frightened. In fact, they are panicking, possibly to the point of using soldiers against my people. That would cause widespread bloodshed, Annie, which we must avoid at all costs!’ Paravar calmed himself down.  ‘They have planned a full meeting tomorrow at the palace of Ben Aziz, in order to decide what to do. In secrecy, of course, but I have my spies everywhere’.

 Annie was silent, thinking about how this would affect her plan, It was certainly a stroke of luck that all the merchant leaders would be in one place at a particular time. ‘We must take advantage of that meeting, to carry out what we plan. We must act tomorrow night!’

Paravar nodded and looked around. Apart for their own friends and comrades, there was no-one else to overhear. Annie decided to drop the subject until they reached Paravar’s palace. Just then, their dishes were cleared away and a bowl of chopped fresh fruit, and other bowls of yoghurt, brought to their table, occupied everyone for some time.

Back in her room, Annie lay on her bed, and racked her brains, going over and over her plan, searching for loopholes in it, of which there were many. But there was no going back. She and Paravar were committed to it. She fell at last into a fitful sleep. Next morning, after a hasty breakfast, they set off into the desert again, this time taking a more northerly road which would bring them finally to the capital city of Bajoz. Annie was looking forward to seeing the city. Her imagination had pictured it as a golden city of eastern legend, a place of gardens and tinkling fountains, with turbaned sages sitting in small plazas sipping coffee and discussing the merits of philosophy. Her dream was shattered as they rode nearer. Bajoz seemed to consist of a great jumble of small, sand-coloured houses in an untidy sprawl, as if a great basket of building bricks had been upturned in the barren desert. There was no grand geometry or pattern: the houses, rectangular, with square, black windows giving no hint of what lay inside, lay tumbled in heaps, one, two and three stories high, in no discernible order They were separated only by narrow, dark alleys, often no more than four feet across. Each dwelling was entered by a single central doorway, with a white-painted lintel, some of the doorways were hung with strips of brightly coloured cotton to keep flies and other insects out. Above, Annie saw lines of washing strung out across the flat roofs, which were obviously used as extra bedrooms in the heat: small wooden truckle beds stood here and there on the roofs. Small internal stairs, and even ladders propped against the walls gave access.

Here and there a house bore signs of some prosperity, with whitewashed walls and mended wooden shutters, but over the rest lay the unmistakeable smell of poverty, Small children in dirty, ragged robes played listlessly in the dust around the doorways. Older girls, decorously clad in trousers and short robes, clustered around the occasional well or pump taking turns to pump water into each other’s large jugs, which they then perched on their heads or cradled in their arms, to take back to their households. Down some of he narrow alleys, Annie could see the troughs of fountains in small squares, off the alleys, but they all seemed cracked and broken. Both the girls and the children stared curiously at their procession with their large dark eyes, and whispered quietly to each other. Annie suddenly realised that there were no men around, and save for the occasional slap of a cloth, and cry of an unseen child, it was all unnaturally still. Even the girls around the pumps had stopped gossiping. The only other sound was the clatter of the horses’ hoofs, as they trotted up the broader rutted road between the tumbled houses and their silent inhabitants towards the centre of the city. But in the surrounding silence, they could all hear a hum, without words,  in the distance ahead, as if from a large crowd. As they rode on, the sound of the hum increased. They could hear individual shouts and yells now. Their column passed through a junction where four roads met, continuing ever northwards towards a red line of high fortifications that lay directly ahead. On each side the dense mass of small houses, sand-coloured and whitewashed stretched outwards. They reached a junction with another road leading south-west, and carried on towards a large gatehouse, part of the walls, with a huge horseshoe-shaped entrance arch, with giant closed wooden doors. 

But this is not what halted the column. Nor was it Paravar’s upraised hand. It was the sight of a huge crowd of Barbarossi people around the gatehouse, both men and women, shouting and waving their fists. More were coming every moment. The women carried their iron flatbread dishes which they banged furiously with their metal scoops. Each dish was nearly two feet in diameter, and they made an enormous din. Several men broke off and ran to Paravar. He leant down from his horse, to speak to one of them, who seemed to be a leader of some sort. With his hand on Paravar’s saddle, he spoke low and urgently in Paravar’s ear. Paravar listened, nodded, and spoke back to the man in the Barbarossi language. The man was tall, with a short well-cut beard, wearing a long white robe down to his sandaled feet. He seemed to be a figure of some authority, because, at his gesture, the crowd parted to let the faery retinue through to the great doors of the gatehouse.

Annie noticed two things as they rode into the gatehouse, both filling her with joy and optimism. The first was that the mood of the crowd had changed. She recognised the change in the shouting. It had become more disciplined, giving way to repeated cries of ‘Paravar, Paravar! He comes, Paravar!’ Some of the women even prostrated themselves as he passed. The clangour of the cooking utensils redoubled in volume, beaten enthusiastically by the remaining women, as they celebrated his return. The second was her recognition of the symbol carved above the horseshoe-shaped entrance arch. It was an image of a hand, the fingers outstretched in peace, similar to that of the talisman on her right finger. It seemed to be blessing her and her endeavours. All her self-doubts began to fall away, in a tide of optimism, as she rode under it into the gatehouse. The gates slowly opened, cranked inwards by unseen gatekeepers, so they could ride into the gatehouse itself, under its great dome, green and iridescent in the sun. The joyous crowd stayed outside, is if by some unspoken agreement. The doors closed behind them.

Annie looked around her in delight and amazement. Apart from the grey stone-flagged floor beneath their horses’ feet, the whole interior was sumptuously decorated in bands and layers of brightly coloured interlocking patterns of rosettes, stars and circles, red, yellow, green and blue in repeating structures all round the walls. Above them a brilliantly blue dado rail ran around the large chamber. Above it were elaborately shaped arabesques carved in stucco in low relief, repeated across the walls, and coloured in blue, green and yellow, right up the ceiling, But above was a sight that made Annie gasp.  The curving surface of the dome overhead was vaulted in a sixteen-pointed star, leading up to the small sun-lit cupola at the centre. Every surface of the dome between the blue vaults was covered in  patterns of  roundels and stars in tile and mosaic, in red, green, blue and yellow, leading up to the cupola, surrounded by miniature suns in blue and yellow.
But the effect was not overwhelming. Each irregular shape and motif was tightly controlled by the structure of the vaulting. The whole of the interior of the dome shimmered, jewel-like and iridescent. Daylight came from narrow arched windows, high up in the walls, covered in intricate carved screens, casting a diffuse light on the interior below. Annie gazed around in delight at what the Barbarossi craftsmen had created. Looking up at the dome again, she could imagine them, standing precariously on flimsy wooden scaffolding, high up under the dome, laboriously embedding pieces of  tile and cubes of mosaic into the wet plaster, to create this glorious effect.

Paravar caught her eye as she looked up again at the dome above, and walked over to her. ‘I hope you like my land, Annie’. He had lowered his voice for her benefit.

‘It’s wonderful’. Annie replied sincerely. ‘But why are your people living in such poverty, compared to you up here? They haven’t even got any water of their own!’

‘Ah, one of the disadvantages of being an enlightened despot! This was all built before my time, I’m afraid. But to answer your question, I plan to restore water to them. I am having the aqueduct repaired to the city below. If your plan works, Annie, I shall have more than enough in my coffers to finance plans of my own. Their fountains will sing again, Annie! I promise you that!’

Annie decided to change the subject. ‘Where is this so-called Council of Merchants meeting?’

‘Walk with me to the palace, and you’ll see’.

But first he clapped his hands and made an order in the Barbarossi language. A horde of white-robed servants appeared through an arch in the corner of the great room, and scampered to fill the low tables with a variety of laden dishes, in the tiled alcoves around each wall. Their faery retinue dispersed into the alcoves where they sat, cross-legged around the tables, sampling with delight the Barbarossi dishes prepared for them. The sight made Annie feel hungry again. Paravar noticed, and smiled at her. ‘Please accompany me to the palace. I promise you will be fed there!’ He led the way through an ornate trellised arch towards the garden that they could see beyond, at the back of the gatehouse. But there was an interruption. ‘Annie’ came a voice behind her. Annie turned. A tall young female faery, one of the retinue, was hurrying towards her, and stopped a few feet from Annie. ‘Do you not recognise me, Annie?’

‘Vela!’ As she came nearer, Annie recognised her tall, slim figure, with her hair cut short, so that it curled round the nape of her neck. She had made friends with the young faery at the battle of the West Wall, in which Vela, as a young frightened faery soldier, had fought. She suddenly felt guilty and ashamed at seeing Vela again. She had visited Vela at her home, but, feeling stifled and uncomfortable in the almost smothering quality of Vela’s house, had fled without even saying goodbye. Even now, she could not explain why. She knew that Vela had been shocked by her experience of war, but she still inwardly blamed herself for not giving the girl more support. But Vela, now looking tanned, healthy and taller than ever, seemed not to blame her. ‘What are you doing here, Vela?’ she asked. 

‘I volunteered for this expedition. When I knew you were leading it, I could not do anything else. I am a soldier now, Annie. I thought it my duty to follow you’.

‘I’m glad you did’. Annie smiled at the young woman. ‘Are you happy now, Vela?’

‘Yes, I am happy. I am where I want to be, Annie. A soldier! In a strange land, away from my stifling home! I do not blame you, Annie, for leaving us. I did not feel I could have borne it for much longer there! I had to escape, Annie, just as you did!’

‘But what about your parents, your family?’

‘They understand, now. They knew that I couldn’t stay at home, so they gave me their blessings and let me go’.

‘Vela!’ A tall, dark-haired young faery soldier came running to them from the gatehouse. As he reached them, he bowed low to Annie in courtesy, but then turned to Vela. Annie noticed that, despite his youth, he was several inches taller than her, and very handsome. His features were regular and clear-shaped, and as he smiled at Vela, his face lit up. Annie immediately liked him. He was still in his faery armour, like Vela. ‘You must come and eat, Vela’. He said. ‘Yes, I will. Annie, this is Jamos. He is my comrade’

Annie privately thought that Jamos was rather more than that, but she said nothing, and equally courteously, bowed her head towards him. ‘I must go, Annie’. Vela said, sadly. ‘So must I’. Annie replied, looking round and seeing the others far ahead of her. ‘I’m so happy to see you again, Vela’. She said, sincerely. ‘So am I’. Vela said. ‘ I shall always be with you, Annie’. She turned and walked back to the gatehouse hand in hand with Jamos.

As they entered the gatehouse, Vela looked back at her. She saw the flash of happiness across Vela’s face, even at a distance.

‘Bless you, Vela. Bless you always’. She muttered under her breath. Then she ran after the others, who were halfway to the palace, down a gravelled path flanked by neatly cut box hedges and ordered symmetrical groves of orange trees, bowed down with luscious yellow oranges.

She at last joined the little group of Simon, Morag, Demos, Helios and Mariko, headed by Paravar, as they came to the tall colonnade  that fronted the palace and entered through a wide scalloped double arch into the cool, shaded loggia behind. The Barbarossi guards, wearing long jerkins of grey chain-mail and polished conical helmets, sprang to their feet from the stone benches, on which they had been lazing, and jumped to attention each side of the grand gated arch that formed the entrance to the palace itself. Above the building was a huge dome, entirely clothed in iridescent green tiles that glistened in the hot sun. But the great chamber which they entered was cool and refreshing. 

Like the gatehouse, its walls were tiled in repeating patterns of rosettes and stars, but in the palace were decorated right up the ceiling, or rather where the domed ceiling began above them Numerous large alcoves, also tiled, were built into the thick walls, each with a trellised window looking outwards, and ornamented shutters to close against inclement weather. They were furnished with brightly coloured large cushions. Paravar led them across the floor of black and white diagonal tiles, to one of these, facing east, with a long low table in the centre, round which they seated themselves. As they accompanied him Annie craned her head back to look up at the dome. What she saw amazed her.
The tall, central, glazed lantern poured natural light into the space below, like the sun it represented. Yellow tongues of tiled fire surrounded its base. Around it, seeming to weave and glide, were bright golden stars, discs surrounded by red and yellow flames, seeming to move in great constellations across the painted azure-blue concave surface of the dome. She lagged behind the others, her face still turned upwards. She had never seen such a majestic sight. It was as if she was looking up at the heavens. She recognised Astroban, the planet where the Old Ones had come from, as a larger gold star, high up nearer the sun.

Paravar again noticed Annie’s upward gaze, and joined her in looking up at the dome. ‘Is it not wonderful, Annie? It represents the heavens as our astronomers saw them, with all the stars known to us. I was delighted when I first saw it’

‘It’s a wonderful idea’. Annie agreed happily.

Paravar lowered his voice. ‘We must discuss your plan with the others, Annie’. She nodded. It was time to seek an agreement. They walked over to the alcove and sat down with the rest of the group. Everybody sensed that this was an important meeting and bent forward to listen to their strategy,

Annie began to outline her plan. ‘Firstly’, she said quietly,’We’ve got to get into Ben Azir’s palace and capture all the merchants together. Then we can talk to them’.

‘I have an idea’. Paravar said. ‘We must capture them, and take them over to my palace. I’m sure they will be more amenable here’. Annie agreed. It was more sensible, but it increased the risk.

‘But how do we get into his palace?’ Morag asked.

‘There is a small postern door at the back. One of my little spies will let us in’.

‘Can he be trusted?’ Annie asked, nervously’.

‘Yes. He will also know where the merchants are meeting and can direct us there’.

‘Will there be guards?’ Annie asked.

‘Very likely’. Paravar answered. ‘We must avoid them at all costs. I do not want any unnecessary noise or’, he added, ‘bloodshed’.

‘In that case’, Ragimund interrupted, ‘I propose that we be accompanied by ten of my faerys, in case we need to fight our way out. They will be all volunteers, but they will move silently and stealthily’. She looked across at Annie, who nodded. It was a wise precaution, and one she had to accept. But it doubled the size of their expedition, with an increased risk of discovery.

She awoke from her thoughts to hear Paravar still speaking. ‘We must not let anyone know of our plan, not even the faerys who will accompany us. We will tell them at the last minute, before we start. Every one here is sworn to secrecy, until we have succeeded’. They all nodded agreement. 

Annie felt strangely reassured. At last her plan was becoming more detailed now, with everyone committed to it. It was more than she had hoped. If everything goes right, she thought to herself. Then an idea struck her. ‘Paravar, is there a window in the palace where I can look at where we’re going?’

‘Certainly, on the floor above. I shall send a servant to guide you’.

Annie saw Ragimund’s lips curl at the sound of the word “ servant”.
She hastily said ‘Come with me, Ragimund. I will need your help’.

Ragimund got up, sniffed arrogantly at Paravar, and stalked out after Annie. After a moment’s hesitation, Simon and Morag followed them. The young girl that Paravar had summoned, led them up the curving stairs from the back of the reception hall under the dome, to a first floor, and an arched window, overlooking the side of the palace. She could see a little postern door on the far side of  Ben Aziz’s palace, which stood by itself, on the southern side of the plaza. The north side was bounded by the kitchens of Paravar’s palace, with their tall conical chimneys, and the building where the livestock was kept, judging by the sound of animals bleating. The eastern side was bounded by a large building, surmounted by a huge blue-tiled dome, as was Ben Aziz’s palace. But the plaza was empty, with no cover or shadow to hide in.

‘How many entrances are there into this square?’ Annie asked, dispiritedly. ‘I make it three’. Her brother said. ‘One each side of Ben Aziz’s palace, and a narrower one that comes between that animal enclosure and the big building opposite’. Annie groaned. They would have to cross the plaza without the benefit of any cover or shadow. At that moment, they heard a clump, clump of heavy boots, and looked down and saw a large patrol of Barbarossi soldiers turn into the square from the other side of the Aziz palace. They were tall and heavily armed with spears and shields, a long sword and curved dagger swinging from their broad warbelts. Beneath their conical helmets they wore chain mail, under their grey robes, which entirely covered their faces, so they looked both sinister and threatening. Annie’s heart sank again. Not only would they have to cross the empty square, they would now have patrols to contend with, all undoubtedly the merchants’ soldiers.

Simon was fiddling with something in his hand. Annie noticed at last. ‘What are you doing, Simon?’ He opened his hand to show her. She recognised it. It was their father’s old hob stopwatch, ticking away in Simon’s hand. ‘I brought it because I thought it might be useful. With this, I can time the arrival of the patrols to see what time we have to get across that square below. Annie said nothing, but looked at Ragimund to see if she approved. But Ragimund’s attention was on the patrol just about to disappear into the narrow passage to the east. Simon clicked the watch just as the patrol vanished. They waited. They heard the clump, clump of boots again, the time from the near side of the Aziz palace. Another patrol appeared. Simon clicked his watch.

‘Two minutes’. He said.
‘What?’ Annie looked at him, puzzled.

‘We’ve got two minutes between patrols. That’s how long we’ve got to cross the square and get into the palace’.

Annie’s spirits fell. Her plan now seemed to be all but impossible. It all now depended on how quickly they could gain entry into the palace. Getting back with the captives was going to be even slower. It crossed her mind to abandon the plan altogether. Instead she turned to Ragimund, a veteran of military campaigns. ‘Ragimund, do you believe that we have any chance of success?’ she asked bluntly. Ragimund looked surprised. ‘Of course! Do not lose faith in yourself, Annie. There is always an element of risk in any operation like this. Think of success, not failure!’

‘I hope you’re right’ Annie said, mournfully. She turned and walked away. She thought of seeking out Helios, but decided she wanted solitude, rather than support. She needed to be on her own. Her steps took her down to the reception room again and through into the arcaded loggia at the back of the palace. It looked out over a long garden, the path framed by neatly clipped low box hedges, and behind them short palm trees grew in rows. Behind them against the garden walls, grew trailing tendrils of pink clematis and blue wisteria, filling the air with their scent, hanging heavy in the hot, sultry sunshine.  A narrow blue pool, too wide to jump over, ran the entire length of the gravelled path, hung with hissing arcs of water, from small jets set in the path, that splashed quietly into the pool, rippling its surface. Annie sat down on one of the stone benches that lined the path. The hum of insects filled the air. Behind her, another arcade ran along the length of the kitchen building, with its tall conical chimneys above the ovens inside. She felt more at peace with herself, watching the arcing fountains.  

She got up at last and walked down to the bottom of the garden and through the elaborate arch in the garden wall at the end. Before her, a broad gravelled path led to the broad, decorated entrance arch of another gatehouse surmounted by a large green-tiled dome, glistening in the hot sun. She walked through into the gatehouse. The sleepy guards, each side of the gateway, did not challenge her, knowing that she was a guest of the emperor. She continued her journey through the hall, noticing as she did, the decorated inner walls in brown, black, blue and white, arranged in a pattern of large and small rosettes, with an ornamental sculpted frieze above. The decoration was mirrored in the still water of a large rectangular central pool inset into the stone floor of the building. But Annie was intent on ascending to the roof, where she would be able to see beyond the great defensive wall of the citadel.

Having climbed the spiral staircase in the corner of the building, she emerged at last through a rectangular hole in the floor of the flat roof and looked around. Up here, with only the great dome for shade, the heat was stifling. On her left, she looked across the pantiled red roofs of the soldiers’ quarters. To the right, she saw a complex of large buildings, each crowned with a large blue dome. She assumed it was the administrative part of the citadel, and where the merchants all lived. To the east, at the far end, was another gatehouse with a small blue dome. The defensive citadel wall stood to left and right, angled and jutted on each side against attack. Annie sighed in the intense heat, in her worry about whether her plan was still feasible. She leant her head against the giant green dome next to her. It felt warm and smooth against her cheek. Then she reminded herself to look what was beyond the citadel. Walking over to the far side of the gatehouse roof, she peered over the low castellated parapet. The ground fell away from the fortifications in a steep rocky slope, down to levelled terraces planted with olive bushes and fig trees, and then to grassy pasture, yellowed by the sun. A broad clay-baked road ran in a straight line down from the back of the gatehouse she was standing on, through the terraces and onwards towards a jetty on a wide harbour basin, in the distance.

The air was clear on this side of the citadel, and she could see all the way to the horizon. A broad blue band stretched out from the harbour basin in which she saw the masts and spars of several moored ships, onwards to the coast to another harbour, busy with ships. Beyond this harbour, there was a wide ribbon of dark blue, that she recognised as the sea. The sight brought on a sharp stab of homesickness. It reminded her of her home city of Brighton and the sight of the sea from the hillfort. She turned and went down the hole in the roof and down the spiral staircase into the gatehouse, which was soothingly cool after the baking roof above. She felt despondent, still worried about her plan.  What if it would result in death or injury to her comrades and friends? She would never be able to live with herself, if that happened. With these dark thoughts in mind, she hurried past the off-duty Barbarossi soldiers sitting or lounging in tiled alcoves along the walls. They normally ignored her, but this time, one of them got up and ran across to her. ‘Lady, do you not recognise me?’

Annie stared at him, then recognition came. ‘Hasada!’ she cried in delight. ‘What are you doing here?’

She remembered Hasada as their Barbarossi emissary when they had finally achieved a truce between the Barbarossi and the faerys. He was a tall, dark-haired young man with a neatly trimmed small beard and moustache. Like other Barbarossi he wore a small white turban to cover his long black hair.

‘How are your wife and two small boys?’ Annie asked politely. She had met them after the truce was declared. Hasada beamed, pleased that she had remembered. ‘They are well, my lady. I have been promoted to captain of the Emperor’s guard now, with an apartment in the citadel. My wife is proud of me, lady!’

‘So she should be. I am pleased for you, Hasada’. Annie genuinely liked the handsome young Barbarossi, who had always been honest and considerate in his dealings with them. But she knew she had to return to the palace, and so she made her farewells to him and hurried on down the garden past the long ornamental pond. A figure rose up from one of the stone benches alongside. ‘Annie!’

They hugged each other hard. ‘The guards told me that you had gone up to the roof of the gatehouse. I didn’t follow because I thought you needed to be on your own. So I waited here for you, to take you into supper’.

‘Oh, Helios, that’s so good of you! Thank you for being so understanding!’

‘Of course, Annie. Shall we go in?

‘Yes, let’s’.

Clasped together, they walked back into the palace.


She looked back in the semi-darkness at the huddle of  figures behind her. No-one made a sound in those few moments before action. They were crowded into a dark corridor, the small postern door in front. They were waiting for the faint clump, clump of the Barbarossi patrol to finally pass, before crossing the open plaza outside to the Ben Aziz palace. Annie’s brother, Simon, looked down again at the fob-watch he held in his hand. ‘Now!’ he said in a sharp whisper. They poured out of the small door and began to run across the deserted square. After a few interminable seconds they gathered around another postern door at the far end of the building. Paravar gave a distinctive knock on the closed wooden door. The door remained firmly closed. Annie, beside herself with anxiety, hopped from one foot to the other in her desperation. She looked around at the others. They were all there: Simon, Paravar, Morag, Mariko, Demos and Helios, and Ragimund, with her troop of faery soldiers, who had discarded their armour, and wore only their swords and daggers. But they were all terribly exposed in the open square. Annie thought she could already hear the sound of Barbarossi boots approaching in the distance. They stood little chance against heavily armed and armoured troops.

‘Paravar!’ she whispered frantically. The seconds passed. Already they could now hear the distant clump, clump of the next patrol. Paravar listened at the door. ‘I can hear sounds inside!’ he whispered, excitedly. They could hear the dreaded clump of heavy boots loudly now from the other side of the palace. The faery soldiers had their hands on their sword-hilts. Annie leant her head against the door. To her relief, she could hear the rasping of a heavy beam being moved and a dull thud. The door swung open at last.

Framed inside the doorway was a small Barbarossi boy, very frightened. As they saw him, he burst into tears. He stood aside as they poured in through the doorway, wiping his nose with the sleeve of his dirty robe. Annie was so shocked and angry, that she knelt down and impulsively hugged the boy, who was no older than eight or nine years old, his fingers scraped and bleeding from desperately trying to lift the heavy beam that had secured the door. Without a word, the last faery soldier took it from him and secured it in place to lock the door behind them. They heard the clump, clump outside. Then it stopped. The door-handle was rattled and a grunt of satisfaction soundeder from outside. They all froze, holding their breath. But it was just the patrol leader checking to make sure the door was secure. The clump, clump began again, growing fainter as the patrol went on its way.

Annie turned on Paravar. ‘How could you expect him to risk himself! He’s only a child! That beam is bigger than he is!’ she whispered furiously.

‘We had no choice, Annie. A child would not be missed in this household!’ Paravar whispered back.

‘Well, he’s coming back with us! I’m not leaving him here!’

‘Very well’. Paravar whispered to the boy in Barbarossi. The boy nodded eagerly, and then pointed down the dark corridor they had found themselves in. It seemed to run the whole width of the palace, but, apart from a solitary sputtering lamp on the wall halfway down, it was as black as the night outside. They set off down the corridor feeling their way along the walls. Paravar stopped at a door at the end on the inner wall, and listened. ‘They are here’. He whispered.

He braced himself against the wall behind him. The faerys silently drew their swords. Then Paravar gave the  door a mighty kick, splintering the door-frame. They all poured in after him. The room was lit by a cluster of oil lamps in the centre of a large square wooden table, Around it sat the robed merchants, all of them fat or at least corpulent. Several of them attempted to rise from their chairs, wheezing and gasping.

‘Sit down!’ thundered Paravar, angry for the first time.

They sat. ‘What is the meaning of this? Have you come to murder us, Emperor?’ snarled Ben Aziz, making it sound as much of an insult  as possible. ‘We are but harmless merchants!’

‘I’m sure’. replied Paravar, stonily. ‘Get them out of here! They will be my guests for a while’.

Faced with an array of sharp, gleaming swords, the merchants did not argue. They rose to their feet, picking up satchels and bags as they did so, with a suspicious clink of coins, and rattle of jewels, hanging them around their necks and shoulders. Prodded by the faerys’ sword points, they were escorted out of the room and down the dark passageway  to the postern door at the end. Simon peered cautiously out, and consulted his timepiece. ‘Right! Now!’ he called.

They hurried out across the plaza in a procession, but it was painfully slow. The merchants, weighed down with their treasure, and not used to walking even short distances, waddled across the square to the open door in the emperor’s palace, even when prodded at swordpoint. One of them fell over, weighed down with his burden, and was unceremoniously hauled to his feet again by the faery soldiers. Hasada and several Barbarossi soldiers were waiting tor them. The merchants were roughly bundled inside, followed by the others, who could already hear the dread thump, thump of boots coming. Hasada pulled the door shut and bolted it, when they were all inside, just as the next patrol came round the corner and entered the square.

Hasada led then down a brightly lit corridor and opened a door. ‘In here’. he said brusquely. ‘Sit down’. The merchants sat down on chairs around a large round table. The room was well lit by more oil lamps. The rest of them stood along the walls, their swords still drawn. Annie put her arm around the small boy they had brought with them. His large dark eyes were still frightened, huddled, as he was, against the kind faery lady.

The merchants were sweating and pale with fear, even Ben Aziz.

‘Now, I have a proposition for you’, Paravar said mildly, ‘One which I think you would hardly dare to refuse’. He took out a sheaf of parchments from his bag, and placed a sheet on the table in front of each merchant. ‘You will read these and then sign them. They are legal documents’.  

There was silence for a few  moments while the merchants read the  documents. Then Ben Aziz heaved himself to his feet, his face mottled with rage. ‘Outrageous! This is blackmail! He cried furiously, in his strange high-pitched voice. The rest of the merchants nodded and pushed the parchments away.

‘Very well’. Paravar said. His voice was suddenly very cold. ‘You soldiers, will you open the door to let these gentlemen go on their way. Take them out through the gate house’.

The two faery soldiers guarding the door looked surprised, but they unlocked the door to the reception hall under the dome beyond. As they unbolted the door and swung it open,  the loud cacophony   of an angry mob filled the room. Even from beyond the gatehouse, the din of clanging pots and dishes, and angry shouts and insults, filled the atmosphere of the room inside. The merchants had fallen silent. As Annie looked at their faces, she saw they had all distinctly paled. Despite this they were sweating profusely, rivulets of perspiration pouring down their plump faces.

‘Shall we go, gentlemen?’ asked Paravar politely. ‘I regret I cannot offer you assistance outside the citadel, but I’m sure you will find your own way back’.

‘Wait!’ It was Ben Aziz who cried out. ‘We should reconsider your offer. If you will grant us safe passage out of this land. Do I have your word, emperor?’

‘You have my word as Emperor’. Paravar said with dignity. ‘If you sign those papers bequeathing your remaining property and all your possessions to the Barbarossi people, as payment for your safe conduct out of our land. I advise you not to return, unless you wish to jeopardise your own safety. But I shall keep my word. There is a ship waiting for you in our harbour. The master has orders to take you to destinations of your own choice. Do not return, masters. I could not guarantee your own safety’.

Ben Aziz scowled furiously at the paper in front of him, then pulled out a pen and scribbled his signature at the bottom of the document. Seeing this, the other merchants followed suit. Ben Aziz glared at Paravar. ‘Beware, emperor, my arm is long’.

‘Good’. Paravar said with satisfaction. ‘I am pleased that you gentlemen have done the right thing. Now that the paperwork is done, could I ask you, Lady Ragimund, if you and your soldiers could safely escort these gentlemen off the premises and ensure that they board their ship? There is a cart waiting for them outside the rear gate house’.

‘Gladly, Paravar. On your feet, you!’

‘A cart!’ spluttered one of the merchants. ‘Yes. I am sure that you would like to travel incognito, so to speak’. Replied Paravar, evenly.

Ragimund and the other faerys prodded the merchants out. Paravar collapsed into a chair, laughing at last. ‘Oh my! I enjoyed that no end!’

‘What will you do with all the spare palaces?’ asked Simon, practically.

‘I shall turn them into embassies for our trading partners, including the faerys, of course. In fact, I shall offer Ben Aziz’s palace to the lady Ragimund for that purpose. What an irony!’ he chuckled again. ‘And now I have enough money in my coffers  to set up work co-operatives for my people, and local schools for their children!’

‘Speaking of which, what about that mob out there?’ asked  Annie, still euphoric about the success of her plan. She had never allowed herself to dream that, thanks to her friends, it would work. But there were still important matters to solve.

Paravar’s face clouded. ‘Oh yes. I had better go and address them and ask them to disperse’. He got up and swept through the door into the great reception hall, and through to the front gatehouse. They looked at each other and followed him. They found themselves on a small open balcony above the main gateway, looking down on the mob outside. The noise was deafening. Despite the darkness and the cold, the crowd had swelled to several thousand, their faces all looking up. As they saw Paravar, they shouted his name – “Paravar, Paravar!’ and then suddenly fell silent. The silence seemed almost as deafening as the noise. Paravar spoke to them in Barbarossi, his voice loud and strident in the silence, raising both his arms aloft. His speech was interrupted by a shrill shriek of agony. On the outside of the fortified wall around the citadel, a building was on fire. As Annie craned her neck to look down the wall, there was a dull roar, as its wooden roof collapsed into the ruins below. A man was running from the charred structure, flames still flickering upwards. His robes were on fire, turning him into a human torch. He was still alive and in agony, his arms outspread. Annie clutched Paramar’s sleeve in horror. ‘Do something, Paravar!’ she screamed in despair. Paravar motioned to the Barbarossi archers along the battlements. Several of them notched arrows to their bows and fired at the man. The arrows thudded into his back. He stumbled and fell on his face, arms still outstretched. A rain of charred parchments settled on the ground around his body, still burning where they fell. The crowd remained silent. Annie sank her head onto the cold stone battlemented wall. She felt sickened. She had tried to avoid bloodshed, but to no avail.

‘It was all I could do, Annie’. She heard Paravar saying. ‘I had to put that poor creature out of his misery. He must have been caught in the fire when they set the tax collectors’ building ablaze’.

Annie could not speak. She had just seen a man die horribly. She heard Paravar speak again to the crowd, then a long, low mutter, as the people began to disperse towards their homes. Simon put his arm round Annie’s shoulders. ‘It wasn’t your fault, Annie. It was just  an accident’. She just nodded her head.

Inside, they sat around one  of the low tables in an tiled alcove, and drank hot, sweet mint tea. Morag leant over and put her hand on Annie’s arm. ‘Are you all right, Annie?’ Annie smiled back at her, face still pale with shock. ‘Yes, I’m fine’. She leant forward to speak to Paravar. ‘Why is there an image of a hand on the front of the citadel?’ she asked. ‘It’s exactly like the one on my talisman. Why is it there? What does it mean?’

‘Ah, it is the symbol for the “protecting hand” to avert the evil eye. It also stands for the offering of hospitality. It has been part of my family tradition for centuries. Are you saying it is also your symbol?’

‘Yes, it is. The Brotherhood and Sisterhood of the Hand’.

‘Well, it seems that you and my country have more in common than we thought’.

Despite this comforting reminder, Annie knew that she would be haunted by the image of the burning man for the rest of her life. They were interrupted by the clatter of Ragimund and the faerys from escorting the merchants into their exile. ‘They have safely departed’. Ragimund said, gleefully. ‘We stayed until their ship disappeared over the horizon. They are truly gone from this land’.

‘I thank you all so much for your aid’. Paravar said sincerely. ‘Thanks to you, my people will now have a future to look forward to. I give you a toast – to the future!’ They raised their glasses of mint tea, and drank. ‘Even though it cost a life’. Annie said sadly, remembering the burning man. She realised she was looking forward to returning to Hyperborea and her own world.

‘Our obligation and our task is done here. We leave Barbarossia in your hands, Paravar’. Ragimund said quietly. We must prepare to leave as soon as possible. We will ride out the day after tomorrow’.

‘You will be missed. I hope you will see a great improvement when you return again. I have much to do in the next few weeks’.

Annie remembered the sign of the hand on the gate house outside. It comforted her. They sat together, Barbarossi, faery and human together, in peace and companionship, at last united in a common purpose.

Frank Jackson 12/08/14. Word count – 11872.