DR FRANK JACKSON, 59A, PRINCES ROAD, BRIGHTON, EAST SUSSEX BN2 3RH
It will soon be Morag’s wedding day. She is marrying her faery lover, Demos. in a double marriage with her new brother, Simon, who is to be wed to Ragimund, his beloved faery warrior princess. But events take a turn for the worse, as Morag has to try to save some of the disreputable denizens of the Old Town in the port of Druard, part of her beat, against an invading force of hostile Circlassians. She survives, with help from her long-standing friends, Indira and Pei-Ying, and eventually weds, but not before some further disasters. She is further demoralised by the news that Annie her sister, is planning a further journey on her odyssey to finally reach the end of her path.
Annie walked down the streets of Brighton towards the sea front, wondering whether she would ever see her city again. She had decided on her course of action. The Brotherhood and Sisterhood of the Hand was over, finished. She could no longer live in this land, now she knew she was cursed with longevity. Her only recourse now was exile to Hyperborea, leaving behind her friends and family, who would age, grow old and die without her. She had decided she could not bear that sadness, or indeed the centuries that lay before her, not without at least doing something useful with the long life that stretched out into an unforeseen future. She was on her way to the last meeting of the Brotherhood that she would attend. But first, there was something she had promised herself to do. The dull ache of sadness and self-imposed exile filled her as she walked through the busy, teeming streets, from which she felt already isolated.
First she had weddings to attend. After that she would begin her exile. She recalled the vivid moment of pleasure that the news of the marriages of her brother and sister had given her, but also the realisation that her life was now changed forever. Her brother’s path and hers had now parted asunder, though she had no doubts that the bond between them still existed. Marriage to Ragimund, however, would entail responsibilities which would curtail any further adventures together. But the important thing was that he and Ragimund should be happy, together with Morag and Demos. That was her main concern now. And she would have to decide about Helios, her own love. What was she to do about that?
She thought about the future as she walked through the narrow South Laine, with its small streets crowded with people, window-shopping or just dawdling. As she jostled past them, she realised that all these people would be dead and gone, while she would still be living. The realisation brought on a stab of misery, forcing her to stop for a moment to recover. Now she knew the desperate loneliness that turned the alchemist and her friend, Nichol Flamel and his wife, Peronelle, into vagabonds of the earth, unable to settle permanently in any one place, because of the curse of immortality. Without her brother, she had never felt so lonely before. She took a deep breath and moved on towards the sea.
Morag stared out of her window towards the distant white-flecked mountains. It was still early in the morning but her regular morning patrol with her fellow marshal, Ezekiel, was due to start soon. Every morning they set out on a regular patrol through the streets of the great port of Druard, in Hyperborea, to find out what misdemeanours had gone on during the night and to converse with the inhabitants of what was called the Old Town. In reality, it was nothing of the sort. It only resembled a town in that it was a great cluster of ramshackle buildings mainly built of wattle and daub, in no discernible pattern, that clung onto each other for support. It was situated in a large curve around the north and north-western sides of the great harbour, an area of dilapidated drunken shanties bisected by narrow, foul smelling alleys, where pickpockets lurked and where the whores plied their trade, often very young and filthy. Some of the larger hovels carried awry signs crudely painted, to signify what they were: such as “Venus Bowdoir”, “Young Girls very Cheep” and “Hussies Galore,” to name but a few. The alehouses or taverns, as they liked to call themselves, bore similar crude signs often depicting hand –drawn images of vine trees or tankards brimming with froth. Others were simply cheap dosshouses for the large number of foreign sailors that flowed into and out of the port regularly. They often brought diseases with them, which was one of the reasons why the faerys only just tolerated the area. They could contain disease within the Old Town, and prevent it contaminating the rest of the port. But the old town remained as a cesspit within which crime could flourish, a haven of sorts for the foreign flotsam and jetsam of life that populated it.
It was an area in which crime of all sorts existed, but it was a place that the marshals knew, where the known criminals congregated. They patrolled the Old Town regularly, in pairs, and the inhabitants treated them with a grudging respect, since, without them, there was no law and order at all.
There was a gentle knock at the door. She turned to see Persephone. ‘Morag, the lady Ragimund is here, with two of the marshals under training. She wishes to see you immediately’.
Morag was surprised. Ragimund would not normally visit her at this time, just before a patrol, especially with two new marshals.
‘I’ll be out in a moment’. she replied. She buckled on her belt and sword, and followed Persephone into her office, a large room outside her apartment. It was where Persephone had her desk, with a large cupboard and shelves housing their ever-growing depository of fingerprint files. In the window alcove stood a large microscope, which they used to examine those finger prints. It wasn’t much of a resource, but it was better than nothing. At least, it had saved her and her fellow marshals a lot of unnecessary work, and the techniques of finger printing had been widely adopted throughout Hyperborea, accepted wholeheartedly by the courts as proper evidence. She felt proud of that achievement at least.
Ragimund stood by the large desk, where Persephone, the young Barbarossi girl whom Morag had rescued from a sinking slave-ship, had seated herself behind to cope with the ever-accumulating fingerprint files that came to her from the marshals, that covered its surface.
‘I am sorry, Morag, but I wish you to do me a favour’. Ragimund said.
‘Of course’. Morag said, helpfully. ‘Anything I can do’.
‘Morning, guv’. said Indira, and grinned. ‘Where’s your better half, today?’
‘Demos? He’s gone back to Rhuan for a day or two to pick up the rest of his worldly possessions. Not that there’s many of them. He’ll be back soon’. Demos was her faery betrothed, an archaeologist who had been working on the ancient scrolls from the civilisation that had existed in Hyperborea even before the faerys. Little was known about them, and Demos and others were still attempting to decipher their unknown language to find out more. She and Demos were betrothed to be married in a week’s time in a double wedding with Simon and Ragimund. Though she and Demos loved each other dearly, she still felt nervous about such a commitment.
Ragimund was continuing, ‘I want you to mentor these two trainee marshals. They need to know the society in which they will operate. It will only be for a week. But since you already know these two, I thought it would be better if I placed them with you’.
Morag sighed. ‘All right, I’ll look after them. So long as they behave themselves’. She looked at them in surprise. Indira had plaited her wonderful mane of dark hair which normally rolled in cascades down her back, and pinned it up in a decorous bun on the nape of her neck. She looked altogether different.
‘Right, let’s get going’. Morag said, briskly. ‘We’ll meet my partner, Ezekiel, outside’. Leaving Ragimund to discuss some affairs with Persephone, they walked down the corridor into the main hall and out into the now bright sunlight. Ezekiel was there, talking to the two guards outside the main door.
‘Ezekiel, meet Indira and Pei-Ying. They’re new marshals, but old friends of mine, from my previous land. They’ve fought battles for the Brotherhood’. Ezekiel looked them up and down, disparagingly. ‘Rookies! Pah!’ was all he said.
Indira bridled, but before she could say anything, Morag hastily spoke. ‘Let’s get on. I’m going to take you on my beat in the Old Town. I’ll tell you about it on the way’.
As they walked along the quayside to the Old Town, Morag told them what she knew of the infamous district. ‘So, it’s a ghetto!’ Indira exclaimed indignantly.
‘Yes, it is’.
Morag decided to let them see for themselves. They walked along the long, bustling main quay-side, past the large wooden cranes used for lifting the heavy wooden crates, bales and barrels out of the ships’ cargo holds and onto the quay, ready for transportation elsewhere. Around the piles of cargo surged a noisy throng of sailors, stevedores, dock labourers and wine vendors shouting instructions and good-natured threats to each other, as they manhandled the ever growing piles of cargo into the vast, creaking carts, waiting to carry their loads away. The din filled the air with a deafening hubbub of voices in a variety of languages. Spreading out from the main quay, were more long narrow quays, stretching out into the harbour, around which the ships lay moored, broad-beamed carracks jostling alongside brightly-painted, tall galleons, from which passengers were disembarking, adding to the noisy tumult of the busy harbour. A forest of masts, spars and rigging hung above them, sailors clambering like monkeys up and down. Indira and Pei-Ying, unused to the noise of a large busy port, clapped their hands over their ears.
Morag, undeterred by the din around her, led her little party on, along the main quay towards the Old Town, threading her way through the throngs on the crowded thoroughfare, avoiding the vendors’ stalls that had miraculously sprung from nowhere since early morning. One or two of the stallholders called out greetings to Morag and Ezekiel, whom they recognised. Morag acknowledged them with a cheerful wave.
‘How can do you do this beat?’ Indira asked angrily, her hands still covering her ears.
‘Oh, you get used to it’. Morag replied, blithely. They made their way further to the Merchants’ Quarter. This was an enclave of square, stone fortified mansions where the merchants who regularly traded with the faerys, dwelt, each one solid and forbidding, with a single large doorway, locked and barred, for wagons carrying goods and stock, to enter. What few windows there were, were also locked and barred against thieves. Morag knew that their ground floors were mainly used for storage, whilst the merchant and his household lived on the floors above. She glared at them balefully as she walked towards the Old Town on the other side of the enclave. She hated some of them, for their practice of slavery, that they brought from their own lands. She knew that some of the merchants brought with them an entire household, including young slave-boys and girls. Once they had tired of them, they turned them out onto the streets, destitute as they were, to fend for themselves. Inevitably, they fell into the hands of the madams and pimps of the Old Town, and became young prostitutes, surviving by selling themselves, to keep a roof over their heads and enough to eat. Morag had always felt compassion for them. It was not their fault, but she had resolved to save as many of them as she could.
As they walked through the gateway into the Old Town, she heard Indira sniff in disgust. ‘This place stinks!’ she proclaimed loudly. ‘It’s filthy! Have they never heard of street cleaning?’
It was true. The Old Town had a rank odour of its own, comprised of human excrement and urine, combined with rotting vegetables and animal waste, mainly from the middens that ran down the centre of each street, no more than dank alleyways now, through the encroachment of the dilapidated buildings on each side. A trickle of greasy, dirty water ran down the middens, no more than open sewers, through the piles of rotten food and animal bones that had been thrown in them. Overflowing cesspits behind the ramshackle dwellings contributed to the overpowering smell, which clung to their clothes as they passed through. Morag looked around uneasily. There was something wrong. All the usual denizens had disappeared. Normally, she would have recognised the pimps and other criminal riff-raff that haunted these alleys, leaning against walls or loitering at street-corners, but they had all disappeared. Instead, there were large groups of dark, bearded men that congregated on the streets and alleyways, regarding them with open hostility. Morag didn’t recognise any of them. A small huddle of young prostitutes stood or sat outside the grimy threshold of a brothel across the alley, jeering and catcalling, raising their skirts provocatively to reveal their skinny brown legs, desperately trying to find customers. Morag ignored them at first, but then decided to speak to them.
She skirted her way delicately across the midden and approached the group of young girls, who jeered at her, rudely.
‘What’s up, marshal? Come to sample the wares, have we?’ said the obvious leader of the group. She was called Doreen, though Morag doubted that was her real name. She was a large, red-haired woman, still attractive in a blowsy way, but not helped by her over-painted face and eyebrows. The other girls around her giggled.
‘How’s tricks, Doreen? You must be busy with all these men around’. she asked.
Doreen spat on the ground. ‘Bloody eunuchs, the lot of them! Don’t even look at us. What’s wrong with us, then? A bevy of beautiful maidens! They don’t even notice us! Pah!’
Morag looked at them. A bevy of beautiful maidens? She saw only a group of bedraggled, grubby young girls, standing barefoot in the road, the hems of their long skirts dragging in the mud. The youngest of them was no more than eleven or twelve years old. As always, she felt a strong surge of compassion towards them, particularly the young ones, scarcely older than children. They had been deprived of their childhood to satisfy the lust and cruelty of men. Some of them had admitted to her, that they still kept their childish stuffed toys with them, that they cuddled to them, to comfort them after their night’s work was over. Morag felt angry about the wretchedness of their lives, but she was still preoccupied with the presence of these large numbers of these mysterious men.
Something caught her eye. One of the men hitched his long dirty robe up to make himself comfortable. In a surreptitious glance, she caught the metallic chink of chain-mail, and saw the unmistakeable glimpse of the hem of his mailed surcoat. She decided to walk back to her little group of marshals, as quickly as possible. Crossing over the noisome midden, she rejoined them.
‘Don’t say anything, but just get back to the gate as soon as possible! Walk, don’t run! Come on!’
Indira and Pei-Ying were surprised at the vehemence in her voice, but they obeyed immediately, Ezekiel said nothing, but just nodded. They set off towards the gate, without any further conversation, though Morag could see they were alive with curiosity. They continued to walk slowly towards the gate, which separated the Old Town from the rest of the port. She was conscious of holding her breath in trepidation, aware of the grey-robed figures congregating behind them and on both sides. She could almost feel the waves of malevolence emanating from them in the silent atmosphere that had fallen. Almost at the gate now, she noticed without thinking. Just a few more steps.
‘My lady! My lady!’ A sharp, shrill cry broke the leaden silence. She half-turned, looking back. A small, slender figure was running towards her, its arms outspread. She recognised it as one of the urchins who played in the gutters. But now his mouth was wide open in fear and determination. ‘My lady! These are Circlassian soldiers! Do not let them into the port, please! They intend to capture it! Please, lady!’
A large figure loomed behind him, its face contorted with rage. It was one of the Circlassians, a broadsword raised above his head. The boy turned, suddenly aware of his attacker. He turned and screamed ‘Noooo-oo!’ throwing up his arms in a vain attempt to block the blow. His scream was cut short, as the sword descended, shattering the boy’s fragile skull into pieces. For a moment, time stopped. The gout of blood seemed to be suspended in a fine red drizzle around his head, with fragments of bone, poised in the air. The boy’s slender body slipped gently to the ground, settling noiselessly in the dust. He lay there inert, his sightless eyes vacantly staring upwards. Then the still moment passed, Morag, at first transfixed by the dreadful image, sprang to the gate and hammered upon it with her sword pommel. Indira and Pei-Ying were at her side, their swords also drawn. ‘Open the gates! Now!’ she shouted, desperately. One of the gates opened by a few inches, She could see the faery guard’s anxious face. She pushed the gate further open and bundled both Indira and Pei-Ying through, unceremoniously. Only then, did she look back. ‘Ezekiel!’ she cried, frantically. He was fighting a rearguard action against the Circlassians, sweeping his battle-axe in great arcs around him to keep them at bay. They were all hanging back out of reach of that terrible axe, but it was only a matter of time before he would be overwhelmed by the sheer weight of their numbers. He retreated backwards until he reached Morag in the gateway, then followed her out, squeezing his huge bulk through the narrow gap. The two faery guards slammed the door shut in the faces of the oncoming Circlassians, and, between them, lifted a heavy iron bar into the wooden sockets, mounted on the gates. Even so, the gates creaked and bulged as the angry Circlassians threw themselves against them from the other side.
Morag stood back and looked at the gates. They would not last long against the desperate enemy inside, she was sure of that. All that stood between them and the undefended port was herself and her little band of marshals. She turned quickly to the two faery guards. ‘One of you must run and get reinforcements. Tell the lady Ragimund to bring troops as quickly as possible. Tell her that there is a Circlassian invasion force in the Old Town threatening the port, and tell her to hurry!’
‘You go, Dicas. You are fleeter of foot than I am. And shout the alarum as you go!’ The older faery said quietly to his younger comrade. The younger faery nodded, set down his shield and spear against the wall, and darted off towards the port behind them. They watched him go in silence.
‘No, we’re not! No chance! We’re not running away, and leaving you to face that scum alone! You can order as much as you like, but we’re not leaving you! So stuff your orders!’ Indira retorted, hotly.
Morag tried again. ‘If you stay here, it’s certain death. Those lot will cut us to pieces!’
‘They can try. Either way, we’re not going!’
Morag turned away so that they could not see the tears that had suddenly sprung to her eyes.
‘All right then. Thank you’. she said gruffly. It was all she could say to them for standing with her.
They turned their attention to the gates. They bulged at every charge struck at them by the Circlassian forces inside. There was the sharp sound of splintering wood, the metal hinges creaking ominously. Under such a furious assault, the wooden gates would soon break. Her little band braced themselves for the attack that would soon follow. They felt the bloodlust descending upon them, blotting out any other thoughts. Their only desire now was to kill, or be killed!
Ezekiel held up his left hand. ‘Wait! I can hear the sound of horses! Many of them!’ They stopped and listened, not taking their eyes from the tottering gates. They could a dull Thrum, thrum, from the direction of the port. It grew in strength, until they could feel the ground quivering under their feet.
Annie saw the remaining Brotherhood as she crossed the beach below the Brighton seafront. They were all there, the huge bulk of Sister Teresa the nun, in her billowing grey robes, the more debonair figure of Pat, the Irish scholar, wearing a jaunty white Panama hat, lounging next to her, the austere grey figures of the four elderly Brothers, founders of this mysterious detective society, sitting across from Sister Teresa and Pat, and the squawking unruly seagull, Adrian, hovering over the table in search of scraps. Lying supine, under the table, would be the abominably filthy outline of Sniffer the tracking dog, whose personal hygiene was at the very least, deplorable.
They all rose up and greeted her with delight. ‘Sit down with us, bonny lass’. declared Pat. Annie sat down and smiled at them. ‘I’ve got some news for you. Firstly, the good news’.
‘What is that, darling?’ Pat asked.
‘Well, my brother is getting married in a week’s time’.
There was an outburst of congratulations and best wishes on all sides, apart from Adrian. ‘Blimey! Who’d ‘ave ‘im!’ He squawked. Annie looked at him, levelly. ‘Ragimund would. That’s who’s he’s marrying’.
‘What!’ Adrian muttered, furiously. ‘That psychopathic faery bint!’
‘No, she’s not!’ Annie protested.
‘Oh, yeah? She only threatened to skewer him with ‘er sword, and stick his ‘ead on a pole!’
‘That was a long time ago, and anyway, she didn’t!’
‘Well, Ok, she didn’t. Doesn’t mean she still won’t! Anyway, what ‘appened to your dear plod mate?’
‘You mean Morag, my sister? She’s getting married as well, to a very lovely faery, Demos’.
‘Oo’s he then, when he’s at ‘ome?’
‘He’s an archaeologist, and a very good one!’ Annie replied, hotly.
‘Blimey, a truckle-digger wiv’ his nose in the ground! Sounds worse than Sniffer!’
Annie was, by now, exasperated with Adrian. ‘Why are you such a bastard, Adrian? Does it come naturally or do you have to work on it?’
‘Dream on, sister. I am what I am’.
Annie took a deep breath.
‘You know, Adrian, sometimes I live in the vain hope that even you are not beyond redemption’.
‘Like ‘wot I said, dream on!’
‘Bird, shut your mouth! Or I go and rip your beak off! Yo’ don’t speak to Annie like ‘dat! Understand?’ Sister Teresa exclaimed angrily. She rose up menacingly.
Adrian quailed before Sister Teresa’s bulk. ‘I’ll be off’. he said, hastily. He soared off into the blue sky, trailed with tendrils of clouds.
‘Never mind his big mouth, Annie. He just likes winding people up’. Sister Teresa said, still furious.
‘All I wanted to know was whether the Brotherhood would like to attend the weddings. That’s not too much to ask, is it?’
The four elderly senior brothers, each named after the fingers of the hand, shifted awkwardly in their seats, looking embarrassed. One of them, First Finger, spoke.
‘Ahem, we regret that we have some pressing matters that we must attend to, that prevents us from attending the occasion’.
Annie felt disconsolate. She tried again.
‘Look, I know that it’s not a top priority now, but this is my brother and my sister! Won’t anybody come?’
Sister Teresa said loudly. ‘They be lily-livered but we not! Pat’n I shall come, gel, won’t we, Patrick?’ She gave Pat a hard poke in the ribs.
Pat took a few seconds to catch his breath, from the poke that Sister Teresa had just given him. ‘Course we will, darling. I’d like to see a genuine Celtic world. Just one thing. How do we get there?’
‘Do you ride? A horse, I mean’.
‘Lord, chile! I should like to see the poor beast that can carry my weight!’ Sister Teresa chuckled.
‘I’ll organise a wagon then to pick you up. I’m sure you will be accommodated in the palace at Elsace’.
‘Hear that, Pat? A palace! We are going up in the world!’
Annie grinned, which faded when she remembered her last task of the day. She turned back to the four Fingers.
‘I regret that I’m resigning from the Brotherhood and Sisterhood of the Hand’. She said, quietly. ‘I’m going to go travelling for a year, so I’ll be out of touch for a while’.
There was immediate consternation in the group.
‘You cant, Annie! You mustn’t resign!’ wailed Little Finger, wringing his hands. The other Fingers shook their heads with dissent. ‘It would be the end of the Brotherhood if you and Simon left!’ said Index Finger, heatedly.
Annie was bewildered. ‘Why? she asked. ‘The Wrist family are all dead! There’s nothing left for me to do! Not in this world, anyway!’
Sister Teresa looked at her, shrewdly. ‘What really ails you, chile?’
‘I don’t know’. Annie said, miserably. ‘It’s just that the world is changing around me. There’s nothing left that I can rely on. Simon and Morag have moved on, and so have Indira and Pei-Ying. I need your help. I’ve lost my path. I’m going to live for a thousand years, Sister, and I don’t know how to cope with it! Imagine living for such a long time in this world! Seeing my friends and relations wither and die around me!! And I’ll still be here, watching them grow old and die!’
Sister Teresa could see that Annie was in a state of crisis. She lowered her deep voice even further.
‘You fear that you will become an immortal monster to other people if you stay in this world. Is that true?’
‘Yes’. Annie whispered.
‘Do you have a paramour, Annie?’ She nodded. ‘His name is Helios. He’s faery. We love each other very much’.
‘Have you told him of your intentions?’
‘No, not yet. I don’t whether he’ll wait for me or not. A year’s a long time’. Annie replied, miserably. ‘But I’m not giving up on this world, not yet. I want to see more of it before I abandon it. That’s why I feel I want to spend some time travelling’.
‘He will wait for you, Annie, If he truly loves you, he will be there for you when you return’.
‘I hope so’ replied Annie, sadly. ‘Why do you believe that?’
‘Because I have faith. As you should do, Annie’.
‘I know you’re right, Sister Teresa. But I just can’t make any commitments at this time. My mother and father are very upset. They’re about to lose their son and new daughter, and now me as well! My mother cried! But I have to do this out of conscience!’
‘It is your happiness that you should consider as well, Annie’.
‘I know. But I can’t just abandon my world, without knowing it a bit better!’
‘I understand, Annie, but don’t leave the Brotherhood. We may still have need of your services, and your brother too!’
‘No, I won’t. And thank you for listening to my woes, Sister’. Annie said with a smile. At least, her path was clearer now.
‘You are very welcome, Annie. But you must tell your faery paramour that you will return after a year. He will be waiting for you, because you are worth it’.
Annie smiled. ‘Thank you for your advice, Sister. That’s what I’ll do’.
She got up to leave. ‘I’ll be seeing you’. she said to the anxious Four Fingers. They looked relieved. She realised she had forgotten Sniffer, who lay stretched out beneath the table, in his customary position. ‘Sniffer!’ she called. ‘Do you want to come to my brother’s wedding?’ Sniffer cocked his matted head, and opened one bright black eye. ‘No, ta, love. I don’t do weddings. Not my style’.
‘I didn’t think so’ Annie muttered. She made her goodbyes and left hurriedly, after giving instructions to Pat and Sister Teresa about their meeting-place on the old hill-fort above the golf-course. She hated farewells. As she trod homewards across the beach, the pebbles snapping and crackling under her feet, she thought of Morag. She hoped she was happy and looking forward to her wedding.
At that moment in time, Morag was anything but happy. She stood facing the gates with her fellow marshals and friends. It was trembling and about to break. The hinges were already cracking, and they could still hear the vibration and thudding behind them. She gripped her sword tightly, her palms sweaty around the hilt, her knuckles white with tension. The hinges of the gates suddenly gave way with a series of sharp cracks, and the gates began to topple towards them slowly, until they crashed to the ground with a resounding slap and cloud of dust that billowed up. For a few moments she could hardly make out the grey mailed figures beyond, but as the dust cleared, she could see them, rank upon rank of grey soldiers, massed in the open square behind the fallen gates.
‘Morag! Look!’ Indira was pointing behind them. She quickly glanced behind, and felt an irrepressible surge of relief and joy.
A line of faery horsemen, armed and armoured, filling the square, was riding towards them. She could see white faces in the upper windows of the merchants’ houses looking down at the faery host. She could see another line after that, and another, and another. Galloping ahead of the armoured host as it came, was a single warrior on a fiery black horse.
‘It’s Ragimund! With the Seventh Cavalry! Blimey, she’s brought the whole bloody army!’ Indira exclaimed, excitedly.
Morag was puzzled. How had Ragimund amassed such a large force in such a short time? Ragimund reined in her horse by them, snorting and skittering, and surveyed the broken gateway. Then she looked at Morag. Her dark eyes glittered behind her helmet’s visor. ‘What has happened here?’ she asked, her voice sounding faintly sonorous within her helmet. Morag briefly explained the circumstances. ‘You were prepared to stand against a complete invasion force, with but three marshals? You are either very foolhardy or very brave, my faery sister’. Ragimund exclaimed, her voice softer now.
‘It was my duty’. Morag explained.
‘It does you great credit’. Ragimund replied, approvingly. ‘But now I have a battle to fight, against those Circlassian scum!’
Morag moved closer and laid her hand on Ragimund’s knee, the nearest she could get to her, mounted on her huge horse. Ragimund, tilting back her helmet, leant down to hear her better.
‘Please, Ragimund, please spare the women and children. Don’t kill them, please’.
‘Why? They are just whores!’
‘Not all of them! Most of them are no more than children!’
Ragimund sighed. ‘I am a warrior, not a butcher, Morag! I do not make war on women and children! But I cannot be held responsible if they get in the way! I will do my best, but my troops will kill any suspicious figure they see on the streets!’
Morag sighed in her turn. ‘I understand that. But please do your best. Please, please, Ragimund, look after yourself’. She added. Ragimund smiled at her. She stood back, as Ragimund whirled her horse around, and shouted out her orders. The faery horsemen shouted out the commands to the rest of the company behind them. Ragimund raised her sword aloft, and pointed to the empty gateway. ‘Eboras!’ She kicked her horse into a gallop, her sword pointing straight ahead. The faery horsemen followed her. They stood back further, as the torrent of horses and riders poured into the gateway, their harness jangling and the clatter of horses’ hooves drowning out all other sounds, as they thundered over the fallen gates, to charge the enemy phalanx inside.
Cries and screams and the clash of steel from inside the gateway signalled the start of the battle, after the initial impact of the charge, scattering the Circlassian defensive phalanx. Morag peered through the gateway. She saw a furious melee of riders and horses, flailing hooves and the clash of sword and spear, milling and whirling in deadly combat, partly hidden by the dust clouds around the combatants. Already, they could see the huddled shapes of the dead and wounded on the ground, trampled over by the horses.
‘What a scrap!’ Indira said, excitedly. ‘Let’s get stuck in!’
‘No!’ Morag said, sharply.
Ezekiel’s axe came down hard on the fallen gate, embedding itself in the wood, barring their way. ‘The marshal is right. On foot and without armour, you will be cut to pieces. Wait until the battle is over, and then we can venture in’.
‘What!’ said Indira, indignantly. ‘We sit around here, polishing our nails, while there’s a fight going on?’
‘Yes, we do. And that’s an order, Indira!’
Indira sat down, sulkily, on the edge of the fallen gate. Gradually, the tumult of battle on the other side lessened, and then disappeared altogether. Morag got up. ‘Let’s go and see’. She said, quietly. The four marshals walked into the old square, and stood, appalled. The whole place had an unreal atmosphere as if a great whirlwind had passed through, leaving only human debris behind. It was unnaturally silent, apart from the distant noise of screams and clashing steel. The small plaza was tinged red from the bloody vapour that hung in the air, stinking of sweat and gore, combined with the rank odours of the Old Town. Its broken cobbled surface was littered with dead bodies and dismembered limbs and heads, piled into heaps, where they had fallen in the battle, their dusty chain mail rent and torn in many places, their weapons scattered around them.
There was a sudden horrified cry from Indira behind them.
‘Its raining blood! Oh, hell, its raining blood! Look!’
She held out the back of her hands. They were speckled with red drops. They all looked at their own hands. They were the same.
‘It must be from these clouds of dust caused by the battle’. Said Pei-Ying, practically. ‘The blood from the battle must have been caught up in the dust, and because it is heavier, is now falling to earth’.
‘Whatever it is, I don’t like it. Morag, can we please get out of here?’
‘Yes, into the Old Town, or what’s left of it’. She led the way towards the far side of the deathly plaza towards the entrance to the Old Town, her boots slipping and sticking on the cobbles, greasy and crimson in the fading light. At the beginning of the main road into it, she paused in horror.
The thoroughfare was crooked and twisted, due to the encroachment of houses and various dwelling places, but they could see far enough. Smoke hung over the Old Town like a sickly black pallor, blotting out the late afternoon sun, giving the whole scene a twilight atmosphere. The road was littered with corpses, most of which were Circlassian. But among them were others. Morag stood sadly over one of them. It was one of the young prostitutes, no more than a girl. She lay face down, where she had fallen. Her back was a bloody mess, from which blood trickled slowly across the broken cobbled surface on which she lay. Her long skirt had been rucked up when she was killed, and her bare white legs lay exposed, glistening palely in the twilight.
‘Oh, Christ, she’s only young!’ Indira whispered. Even she was shocked by the sight. Morag’s eyes pricked with tears. It was a bitter end to a wretched existence, to be cut down in the open in a filthy street, like some grubby animal. She noticed something, clasped in the crook of the girl’s left arm, curled beneath her body. Bending down, she tugged at it, until it came away in her hand. ‘It’s a doll!’ Indira cried in astonishment. ‘What on earth was she doing with a doll?’
They looked at the doll, clutched in Morag’s right hand. It was a soft stuffed doll packed with lint, dressed in a long dress made of fragments of old material in red, blue and green sewn together. It’s face was embroidered on it’s head with black thread: eyes, nose and a smiling mouth. Its hair was made up of strands of yellow wool, sewn onto its skull. But the doll was worn and grubby with long use. Morag looked at it sadly. She could picture the young girl, after a night of arduous toil, going to sleep with it cuddled in her arms, to comfort herself.
She tucked the doll into the satchel that she carried. Indira saw it. ‘Why do you want to keep that thing? It’s just a tatty old doll!’
‘Because it’s the only remnant of her childhood. It’s the one remaining fragment of her existence! Don’t you understand!’
They ventured further into what was left of the Old Town, finding yet more bodies scattered in the filthy road. Some of them were women, more prostitutes. One or two were the corpses of children, struck down by large broad swords, judging by their wounds, killed like mangy dogs in the street. They were aware of the sounds of whimpers and crying from a dark huddle of figures outside one of the ill-kept taverns that bordered the road. As they approached, Morag recognised some of them as young prostitutes, part of Doreen’s band. Doreen herself rose up as they approached, but she was no longer the truculent figure she was before. She was crying, like the others, and the tears had created rivulets down her painted and plastered face. Her black kohl or eyeliner had run, too so her face was striped in black, She looked like a very lugubrious clown. But Morag suppressed her grin, because the woman was so clearly distressed.
‘Oh, Marshal…’ She wailed. ‘They have killed my girls! Slaughtered them!’
The tall figure of Ezekiel loomed behind them . Doreen saw him and shrieked, shrinking back against the wall behind her. ‘Oh, is he our executioner!’ Her eyes were rolling in terror.
‘No, he isn’t! Morag said firmly. ‘He’s a marshal, my partner. You ought to know. You’ve seen him often before’.
‘Oh, I don’t know! What will happen to us now? Oh, oh. oh!’
Doreen subsided against the wall behind her in hysterical sobs.
‘Can you tell me what’s happening?’ Morag asked. The faery leant down from his horse so that only she could hear. To her surprise, she realised that the officer was a faery woman, with a swathe of dark hair, as black as her own, cascading down her back, from under her enclosed helmet. Though she could not see her face under the steel visage, her voice was soft.
‘We have torched the upper part of the Old Town, but the fires are spreading down here. Can you not hear the flames? You and your people must leave immediately! Morag looked up. Beneath the pall of black smoke, she could see a bright orange glow and the flicker of flames in the upper part of the Old Town. She could even smell burning.
‘What about the people who live here? What do we do with them?’
‘The men of this place have been slaughtered by those damned Circlassians! They spared nobody! We found their bodies. It was not a pretty sight, marshal! They took no prisoners’.
‘I see’. Morag said. She felt a pang of sadness for the characters and denizens of the squalid quarter, who had often been her informers, or “snouts” as she called them. Now they were all dead, vanished from history as if they had never existed.
‘What about these girls? She asked again.
‘These whores! The lady Ragimund has ordered that all non-combatants be treated as prisoners of war, to be confined as such, even whores like these!’
Morag was silent. Even the faerys were prejudiced against these young prostitutes. To the faerys, anyone who debased themselves, by selling their bodies for a few coins, was beneath contempt. Prostitutes were amongst the lowest of the low, universally despised, despite their dire reasons for doing so. Morag knew that either these girls entered a life of prostitution, or starve. They had no choice. That was their bleak future. She had compassion for them.
The faery officer took her silence to show that she was dismissed. ‘Fare you well, marshal’. She called, then wheeled her horse around and set off after her comrades.
‘Wait!’ Morag cried. ‘Where do we take them?’
The faery turned in her saddle and pointed. ‘Go down that road there’, she pointed to the narrow alley she and her comrades had just come up, ‘and turn right along the quay. You will see the cattle stockade at the end, where we are keeping the prisoners’. Morag waved her thanks and walked back to the others.
‘Right, another little job to do before we go home. We’ve got to escort these prisoners to their place of captivity’.
‘What! Herd all these dirty prozzies into prison?’ Indira said, indignantly.
‘Yes. That’s an order you will obey, Indira!’
Indira grumbled some more, but she approached the group of frightened girls. ‘On your feet, you lot! You’re off to prison!’
Morag groaned. Indira was not renowned for her subtlety. But the women all rose resignedly, and began to move towards the downward-sloping alley that Morag indicated, averting their eyes from the bodies through which they cautiously picked their way. Pei-Ying led the way with a lantern that she had found somewhere. It was already growing dark with early evening. Morag and Indira walked at the rear of the dismal little procession to round up any stragglers. Morag felt a stab of shame that she was marching these miserable young women to captivity. It was not what she had become a policewoman for.
One of the women fell back so that she was walking alongside Morag. She looked sideways at the woman in surprise. It was one of the older girls, whom she disliked intensely. This girl had never been polite to her in the past. On the contrary, she had been insolent and downright “lippy” to Morag before, yet now she was subdued and frightened. She could sense the girl trembling as she walked along with her, keeping her eyes on the slippery cobbles beneath her bare feet.
‘Marshal, what will happen to us now? Are we going to be executed? Are you marching us to our deaths?’ She asked suddenly. Morag looked sideways at her again, She had a sharp, hard face, under her lank dark hair, which reminded Morag of a ferret. But the girl appeared to be civil now, so she answered her.
‘No, I’m not taking you to be executed. That won’t happen! I’m taking you to a place of safety, where you’ll be fed and be warm! After that, I don’t know’.
The girl nodded as if she was satisfied, and trotted forward to rejoin the rest of the group.
Morag hoped that she had told the girl the truth. Just then they reached the end of the narrow alley and turned right along the quayside. She noticed the bulk of three large merchant ships moored to the left, their hulls bumping and clattering against the quay stones in the evening swell. At the far end of the quay, they saw the gleam of a large circular wooden wall, like an amphitheatre. The girls stopped dead for a moment as they saw it. One or two whimpered again.
‘Get a move on, you lot!’ She heard Indira shout behind her. They began to move again, wearily, towards the large wooden gate of the cattle stockade. As they came closer, Morag’s spirits rose. She could see the outlines of two large wagons, drawn up outside, and faery soldiers unloading bales and stores from them. They finally halted outside the gateway. Morag addressed one of the guards busy around the wagons. ‘Good evening. I’ve got some more prisoners for you’.
The faery straightened up after depositing a pile of straw palliases on the ground. ‘Good evening….marshal’, he replied, catching sight of her badge. ‘Please escort them inside. The lady Ragimund has arranged for fires to be made, and food and bedding to be provided for the prisoners of war. I am afraid they will be sleeping in the open tonight. It is the best we could do after the battle. Just for tonight. They can get eating utensils from the canteen inside. I’m afraid it is a little rough and ready, but they will be comfortable. There is a camp-fire ready, for warmth and cooking. I see they have not been able to bring anything with them’.
‘Hardly surprising. They’ve only just arrived from the Old Town’. Morag replied, somewhat caustically. ‘What’s happening there, do you know?’
‘It will be burnt to the ground, then rebuilt, without its former associations. That is what the lady Ragimund ordered’.
‘But what about these girls?’
‘I do not know, Marshal. They will be questioned tomorrow, and their fate will be decided then’.
With that, she had to be content. ‘What about latrines and washing facilities?’ she asked quickly.
‘They can use the public latrines inside’.
Morag nodded. At least the girls could perform their ablutions with some dignity and privacy. She knew how important that was to people held against their will. She led the way into the cattle yard with the women trailing forlornly after her.
They came into a large, sand-covered circular space, enclosed by tiers of wooden benches for the buyers, who normally used the cattle market for buying and selling, to view the cattle driven into the arena. Now it was empty, patrolled only by the silhouettes of faery guards above them. Part of the arena was already occupied. They could see the glow of fires around, with huddles of black figures grouped around them. Morag led them to a fire newly lit, to the right of the gateway, The women settled themselves wearily on the straw palliases around the fire, and gratefully stretched out their hands and bare feet to the warmth, after wrapping themselves in the heavy woollen blankets piled on their temporary beds. Two faery cooks came over from the temporary mess tent at one side of the gate, grunting with the weight of a large iron cauldron, which they hung on the central hook of the triangular iron frame, already in position over the fire. As it heated up, delicious smells wafted around the fire. The thin, half-starved girls all sat up, their noses literally twitching, salivating at the taste of the food to come.
‘They look half-starved, poor things’. Morag heard Indira say behind her. ‘Don’t they feed them in those brothels?’ She smiled to herself. She knew Indira was kind-hearted, despite her harsh words earlier. ‘Right then’. she said briskly. ‘There’s nothing more to do here, so we might as well go’. She led the way back to the gate, waving farewell to the women around the fire, but only a few acknowledged her. They were more intent on the food. Morag could hardly blame them. Ezekiel had already disappeared. He had stayed to aid the faerys in the demolition of the Old Town. They noticed that there was nothing left of it now, apart from heaps of charred wood and smouldering ash, still glowing in the evening twilight. As they walked back through what remained of the doomed Old Town, they passed several wagons, each entirely covered with black tarpaulins. Around them, moved black-robed figures, busy loading bodies into the grim vehicles. Each wagon was already stacked with corpses, piled in on top of each other. Morag shuddered and passed on quickly. These were what the faerys called the ‘death wagons’ whose job it was to clear the battlefields of the dead after the conflict was over. They were driven by volunteer physicians, who could administer what aid they could to any left who were wounded or dying, It was a gruesome task, and Morag was glad to pass them by.
‘Ye gods, I wouldn’t like to do that job!’ Indira whispered. Even she was subdued by the sight. ‘What happens to the bodies?’
‘They’re taken to large cremation pits, stripped and burnt’. Morag said briefly. She didn’t want to be reminded of the sordid finality of death. Indira wisely kept quiet, until they reached the square and the broken gate where the opening battle had taken place. The empty square was eerily silent, the bodies now removed. But its entire cobbled surface glowed a dark crimson in the intermittent moonlight that appeared though the dark smoke clouds above, the cobbles gleaming red in the reflected light, and still greasy underfoot.
‘Deyas?, said Morag, incredulously.
‘Don’t ask’. replied Pei-Ying, ‘She is incorrigible’.
They settled back into the straw in the back of the wagon, leaving Indira sitting next to the driver, talking animatedly to him. A flick of the reins, and the wagon rattled on towards the port of Druard, still bustling and well-lit, even at this late hour.
Persephone was still at work at her desk, putting the last files in order. A single candle flickered on the desk, highlighting her small, earnest face as she pored over the documents. Every so often, she looked up and cast anxious glances at the door, then at her visitor, who sat silently in a padded chair across the room, in the shadows. It was already dark outside. Suddenly her candle fluttered as the door opened and Morag walked in, followed by Indira and Pei-Ying. She looked up.
‘Morag!’ she cried. ‘Oh, you are safe!’ She jumped up from behind her desk, to embrace her. Morag put up her hand hastily. ‘No, don’t, Persephone. I’m filthy! I don’t want to spoil your lovely blue dress’.
‘But Morag, you have a visitor!’
‘Behind you’. Morag whirled round. ‘Annie!’
Annie got up from her chair in the shadows. ‘Hello, Morag. I hope I haven’t missed your wedding’.
‘Annie, you’re back! And no, you haven’t missed it! It’s next week!’
They hugged each other tightly, Morag having forgotten her earlier instruction to Persephone, she was so happy to see Annie. But it was Persephone who spoke again. ‘Morag, Demos is here, too’.
‘What! Where is he?’
‘In your apartment, waiting for you’.
Morag did not say a word, but dashed to the door of her apartment and threw it open. Stepping inside, she looked around in amazement. The whole room was brightly lit, by dozens of hanging lamps, and the furniture covered with fresh flowers in gleaming glass vases, filling the apartment with a suffusion of delicate perfumes, and the fresh odour of the countryside. She stood still, transfixed with pleasure. Demos emerged from the kitchen, carrying with him even more delicious scents of cooking. He, too, stopped dead at the sight of Morag.
Morag was unable to move. Her emotions welled up inside her and burst into a bright flame, consuming her. Inexplicably, she burst into tears. Demos reached her in two or three strides and clasped her tightly in his arms. She pressed her face into his shoulder, her tears running down her face. Her voice came in a gabble of words. ‘Youshouldn’tembracemeDemosI’mall filthyandit’llruinyourtunicPleaseDemosLetmegoOhnodont!
Demos said nothing, but gathered her to him as tightly as possible, so that they seemed to melt into a single body. They kissed passionately.
‘OOOOh! How romantic!’ The voice of Indira came from behind them. The moment flashed away, leaving them gasping in each other’s arms. “I think I just felt the burning arrow of love’. Morag whispered.
They both turned and welcomed the others into their apartment. Indira gazed around her in delight. ‘It’s a real boudoir of flowers in here! Where did you get them from, Demos?’
‘I picked them on the way here. I had to bring a wagon. I looked like a flower-seller!’ Demos explained briefly.
‘Why did you bring a wagon? Morag asked curiously.
‘Because I brought another present for you. It is in the office. You can see it after you ladies have all had a bath’. He wrinkled his nose pointedly. A timid knock sounded at the door. Persephone came into the room. ‘Morag, the lady Ragimund is here, with her betrothed, Simon’.
Morag finally let go of Demos, and turned to greet them. ‘Well, Morag, this is another fine mess you’ve got yourself into. You’re filthy!’ Simon grinned.
‘I know, and shut up, Simon! Ragimund, we are just about to bathe. Will you join us?’
‘Gladly’. Ragimund said, happily.
Demos smiled. ‘While you ladies are bathing, perhaps Simon can help me taste the food’.
‘Nothing I do better!’ said Simon, ‘ you ladies go off and put on your painted faces, while we blokes do all the work’.
‘I do not paint my face!’ Ragimund retorted indignantly.
Simon grinned at her. Ragimund suddenly understood. ‘You are teasing me!’ But there was a smile on her face.
‘No sense of humour! Oh, well. Come on, let’s have a girlie’s bath night!’ Indira led the way into the bathhouse. Simon and Demos, left outside, listened to the splashing and screaming within.
‘It is good to be children again’. observed Demos.
‘Yes, it is, when one’s had to grow up so quickly’. Simon said quietly. They both disappeared into the kitchen.
Supper was a convivial affair, with everyone praising Demos’s cooking skills, which were, in fact, considerable. ‘At least you won’t starve as a married woman!’ Indira commented. ‘No, I certainly won’t’. Morag replied, smiling proudly at Demos, sitting beside her. He just blushed and looked down at his plate. Compliments always embarrassed him, but Indira’s comment reminded Morag of some important questions she had to ask of Ragimund, who was sitting on her left with Simon. ‘Ragimund’, she said quietly, so that only she would hear, ‘I’m really happy that you returned from that battle safely’.
Ragimund’s warm smile seemed to light up the whole table. ‘I thank you, my faery-sister, for your concern. But I am a faery warrior. I fear no battle, if it is just. Do not worry about me. I can take care of myself’.
‘I know, but…well, you didn’t explain to me how you turned up with all those troops so quickly’.
‘Because I had organised a mock battle for training, on the slopes above Druard. Your messenger arrived just as we were mounting up. So I was able to set out immediately, this time for a real battle, not a mock one. That was why we arrived so quickly’.
‘It’s just as well you did. We would have been overwhelmed’. Morag said, feelingly.
‘Yes, you would, despite your bravery’. Ragimund suddenly frowned, and glared at Indira and Pei-Ying. ‘I gather you two disobeyed a direct order today!’
‘Well, sort of’. Indira said, turning beseeching eyes upon her.
‘Yes, we did’. Pei-Ying replied, obstinately. ‘We deliberately disobeyed an order because we were not prepared to let Morag and her partner stand alone against the Circlassians. She is our friend and we would not abandon her. Besides, it was our duty to support our commanding officer’.
Indira groaned. ‘Now you’ve torn it! But it’s true’.
A warm smile replaced Ragimund’s frown. ‘I thought so. Is this true, Morag?’
‘Yes, but I’m glad they did. I would have felt bloody lonely without them’.
‘I agree. In that light, I am promoting you both as full marshals from today’.
They both stared at her incredulously. ‘Are you serious?’ asked Indira.
‘Of course. In recognition for your bravery, foolhardy though it was, and for your loyalty’.
‘Hear that, Pei-Ying?’ Indira cried joyfully, ‘No more square-bashing!’
‘So all’s well that ends well’. Annie said, grinning, delighted at the outcome.
‘Not exactly’. Morag interrupted. ‘Ragimund, what are you going to do with your captives, I mean the prisoners-of-war?’
‘You mean, deport them! Morag cried, aghast.
‘No, I will repatriate them, to restore them to their families and loved ones’.
‘But what if they don’t have families any more, or, if they do, they won’t have them back, because they’re too ashamed of them?’
‘Morag, I can do no more. I am bound by the law, which says that they are, in effect, illegal immigrants, and therefore should not be here. All I can do is to send them home safely. What they choose to do in their own land is their concern and not ours!’
Morag looked down at her plate. She felt miserable at not being able to do more for these wretched women, who had already endured so much abuse and brutality. Her eyes began to well with tears.
Ragimund saw her distress and softened her voice. ‘I respect the sympathy and compassion that you hold for these wretched whores, my faery-sister, but I can do no more. But I promise you. that they will be unharmed while they are in my custody, and I will undertake to take them home safely. Our laws will not allow me to do more’
Morag sniffed and wiped her nose. Demos reached out and squeezed her hand. ‘I understand, Ragimund’, She said, ‘and I appreciate it. But it seems so unfair, that they should have been so ill-treated, and end up just simply being shipped back to their own land, out of sight of everybody!’
‘They will not go unavenged, Morag. I have seized the property and belongings of all the Circlassian merchants whom I believe orchestrated this invasion of our port, arrested them for treason, and for procuring young girls for their own evil ends. If our courts find them guilty, they will be sentenced to death!’
‘Did you say you brought Morag another present, Demos?’ asked Simon, his voice unnaturally loud in the silence that had fallen after Ragimund’s pronouncement.
Demos clapped his hand to his brow, ‘Thank you, Simon, I had forgotten, as usual! Please, Morag, I have a present for you. It is in the office next door’. He got up and led the way into the outside office. A large wooden case stood next to the apartment door. Morag had been so fatigued on her return that she had not even noticed it in the shadows. Demos levered the top of it off, and motioned to Morag to look inside. The rest of them also crowded around in curiosity.
‘Oh, no! Not another bloody microscope!’ exclaimed Indira, in disgust. Demos looked pained. ‘It is a special microscope’, he explained, ‘For one thing, it is capable of much higher magnification so that you can see, for example, the very composition of blood, and it allows much greater scrutiny of small objects and evidence in great detail. Also, you will notice that it has not one, but three lens, so that up to three people can scrutinise evidence at the same time and be able to compare their findings simultaneously’.
‘So what?’ Indira retorted. ‘It’s still only a microscope! What kind of wedding present is that?’
But Morag’s face was radiant. ‘It’s wonderful, Demos! We can really develop our work now, and train other marshals in the use of evidence. It’s what I’ve always wanted!’
‘I give up!’ Indira snorted, and pointedly walked across the room and sat down in Persephone’s chair.
‘Take no notice of her. She just likes getting into a strop’. Pei-Ying said.
‘We can unpack it and set it up tomorrow. I’m sure everybody’s too tired to do it now.’ Morag said, diplomatically.
It was a signal for all of them to leave, apart from Annie, who wanted to talk a little longer. She told them of her decision to travel and explore her own world more, and that she would be back in a year, if all went well. She would decide then about her future. Morag listened with dismay. Annie had been there for her for so long, she could barely imagine life without her. But it was Annie’s decision, and she knew better than to try to change her mind. ‘I really do understand, Annie’, she finally said, ‘But what are you going to tell Helios? He’s really going to miss you, terribly. Have you told him yet?’
Annie shook her head miserably. ‘No. He’s away until tomorrow in another province. But I will tell him as soon as he’s back’.
‘Is there anything I can do, Annie?’ Morag asked, desperately. She was now anxious about her.
There was nothing more to say. They embraced each other affectionately, and parted to go to bed, Annie in one of Morag’s guest rooms. Morag lay for a little while, despite her fatigue, worrying about her new sister, but eventually sleep took over, as she was soon enveloped in a deep slumber.
The wedding dress lay across the bed like a pale ghost. Morag stared at it, wondering whether she had the courage to try it on. She felt like a sacrificial victim, about to be martyred. She was due to be married in a few hours time. She sighed and picked it up. The white silk dress felt smooth and cool to her touch.
‘Go on, put it on’. a voice said behind her. Morag turned, startled. Annie was standing in the doorway, in a long lemon-yellow dress, which was a perfect foil for her mop of dark curly hair and her large expressive dark eyes.
‘Annie, you look wonderful’. Morag said, appreciatively.
‘Thank you’, Annie said, smiling. ‘And so will you, when you eventually put that dress on’.
‘Yes, I suppose you’re right’. Morag sighed. She took off her dressing- gown and slid the dress on. It felt cool and fragrant against her bare skin.
‘Here, I’ll button the back up for you’. Annie offered. While she was doing that, Morag tied the thin white silk cord around her waist, to act as a belt. Then she sat on the bed to tie on her shoes, flat-soled and white, held on her feet by cords that wrapped around her ankles. She had had them made especially, at Mariko’s insistence, and they were proving to be exceedingly comfortable.
They were staying in the palace in Elsace. They had decided on an open-air wedding amongst the statues begun by Meridias, and completed by his students after his death, as an appropriate place to be married, outside the art gallery and museum, a decision that Annie wholeheartedly approved of. It was she who had persuaded the late Meridian to allow his students to complete the sculptures as part of their studies, and felt a strong affection for the completed works, now a permanent open-air exhibition outside the art gallery. But now it was almost time to leave for the ceremony.
Morag turned and rushed into the bathhouse to do her face. She carefully applied some mascara to her eyes, and dabbed on some lipstick to redden her lips. She returned to the main chamber to find Annie waiting. ‘Come on’, she said, ‘I want to pin your hair up’. Morag sat down quietly while Annie, standing behind her, gathered up her sleek black hair and coiled it around her head, pinning it into place with a number of small emerald brooches. Finally, she stood back. ‘What do you think?’ she asked. Morag got up and looked in the tall console mirror that stood beside them. ‘Wow! I look so different!’
‘And beautiful too. Don’t forget that’. Annie reminded her, smiling at her pleasure. ‘Oh, I mustn’t forget Demos’s ring!’ Morag exclaimed. She picked up a small box, and pulled it out, slipping it into a small pocket on the left waist of her dress. There was a small knock at the door, which opened to reveal Persephone, very pretty in a long blue dress, carrying a cushion with what looked like flowers upon it. ‘Oh, Morag, Annie! You both look so beautiful!’ She said in delight. Morag smiled at her. She was very fond of the young Barbarossi girl. ‘What have you got there, Persephone?’ She asked, looking at the cushion.
‘I have made daisy garlands for you. It is a tradition in my country that the brides and their friends wear images of health and fecundity to their wedding so I got up early this morning and picked these to make garlands for your head. I thought fresh daisies might be suitable…’ She tailed off in embarrassment. ‘Thank you, Persephone. That’s a lovely idea’. Morag said gratefully. ‘Would you like to put it on?’ She knelt down while Persephone carefully placed it around her head. The daisies, whose stalks Persephone had carefully split and spliced to form a daisy chain, smelt moist and fresh, not withered or dry. She stood up and thanked Persephone again, for her small but tender gift. There was another knock on the door, this time loud and thunderous. ‘That’ll be my brother’. Annie muttered resignedly. ‘That’s his knock’. The door swung open. There stood Simon, resplendent in a bright white tunic and breeches, complete with polished black leather boots. Over his tunic he wore a scarlet jerkin, embroidered with pearls and precious stones in an array of swirling tenuous patterns intertwined together, highlighted with gold thread.
‘Gosh, Simon, you look like a walking mediaeval manuscript!’ giggled Annie. He ignored her, ‘And you two look a pair of real stunners!’
Annie turned to Morag, a smile upon her face. ‘You know, I do believe that our brother just paid us one of his rare compliments!’
‘Thank you, Simon’. replied Morag. gratified. ‘All compliments gratefully received. Where’s Ragimund?’
‘Here I am’. Ragimund walked through the door behind Simon. Then she stopped suddenly, in the doorway. ‘Morag, Annie, you both look so beautiful! I hope that is the right word to use in your language!’
‘It is’. Annie said, grinning. ‘And you look wonderful, too, Ragimund’.
‘Thank you. We must go. My sisters and the others are awaiting us in the Great Hall downstairs’.
Morag felt her stomach churn. She was terribly nervous of what lay ahead of her on this day.
‘Come on, let’s go’. She said with a brightness she did not feel.
‘Wait a moment!’ Simon said, grinning. ‘Aren’t you forgetting one minor detail?’
‘What? I’ve got the ring!’
‘I was thinking more of the little matter of your intended bridegroom’.
Morag’s hand flew to her mouth in dismay. ‘Oh, shit! Hell’s bells!’ She ran to the bedroom, remembering to gather up her skirts on the way, then banged furiously on the door.
‘Demos!’ she shouted. ‘Come out! It’s time to go!’ The door slowly opened. There stood Demos, looking bewildered. He wore exactly the same clothes that Simon wore, except that the pattern of his jerkin was slightly different. Morag caught her breath. He looked impossibly handsome.
‘What is the matter?’ he said, mystified. ‘You asked me to stay here until you were ready’.
‘I know, But I forgot! Oh, Demos, please forgive me! I’m truly sorry, but Annie came, and then the others, and I just forgot about you. Oh, please forgive me!’ I love you so much! How could I do that? Oh, Demos!’
Annie could see that Morag was virtually in tears of mortification, and was blaming herself bitterly for her stupidity.
‘For goodness sake, don’t cry, Morag! You’ll ruin your face! There’s no harm done! For pity’s sake, Demos. comfort her! She just made a silly mistake, that’s all. Pull yourself together, Morag. Demos doesn’t mind, do you, Demos?’
‘Of course not! How could I? Come to me, my love’. He enfolded her in his arms, and comforted her. But Morag was still chastising herself angrily for having forgotten her bridegroom and for the insulting behaviour that it implied. They descended the wide stairs down into the Great Hall, Morag clinging onto Demos’s arm, determined not to mislay him again. Ragimund’s sisters rose up to greet them from the chairs grouped near the main doorway into the palace. They all looked dazzlingly beautiful, resplendent in gowns in a myriad of blues, greens and yellows – Gloriana, with her long blonde curls cascading down each side of her face and down her back in a deep yellow torrent, her sisters, Mercilla and Lucifera, in green and blue robes respectively, and Britomart, in light blue, with her short curly brown hair, and good-natured face. With them, stood a smaller figure that Annie recognised as Jezuban, Gloriana’s daughter, whom she and her brother had rescued from a dilapidated bus shelter in their own world some years earlier. Now Jezuban had grown into a pretty and healthy young woman, who smiled with delight at seeing Annie and Simon. With them also were Indira and Pei-Ying, the former wearing a Paisley-patterned dress, low-cut, which showed off her magnificent bosom. Her dark lustrous hair cascaded down her back in sultry waves. Indira could not resist using the occasion to show off her voluptuous figure. Pei-Ying, on the other hand, was more demurely clad in a dark blue dress. Altogether, they comprised a wonderfully colourful gathering.
‘Cor, blimey, you lot look great!’ shouted an ever-exuberant Indira, as soon as she saw them. They continued descending the stairs, and joined the others. ‘Hello, Indira’. Remarked Annie. ‘You do look rather …fetching’.
‘Oh, well. Put it all on show, so to speak. What are weddings for?’
‘If the wedding couples do not mind, I suggest that we walk to the ceremony. It is not far, and it will be difficult to ride in these robes’. interrupted Gloriana, quickly. The two couples nodded. So the brightly coloured little procession set out from the grand entrance door of the palace down to the main gatehouse, where the two faery guards, on duty, saluted them smartly. Next came the task of crossing the broad thoroughfare, known as the Path of Mars by the faerys. Tall porticos and broad colonnades flanked each side of the broad paved road, upon which an endless stream of wagons and horsemen moved constantly. But Gloriana immediately solved this problem by simply walking into the road, oblivious of the traffic, holding both her arms up and crying ‘ Hold! Hold for the wedding procession!’ The traffic in both directions immediately slowed to a standstill, leaving a narrow gap for the party to walk across. Appreciative whistles and good-natured cries of congratulation followed them as they crossed the busy road.
‘Now that’s what I call authority!’ said Indira, loudly. Gloriana just smiled and led the party down a narrow street between the buildings onto the path that led down to the wedding place. Halfway along, they left the path and walked across the soft grass slope towards the colonnaded bulk of the art gallery on the left. Morag stared in consternation and, in part, anxiety, at the enormous crowd of faerys that milled around the statues outside.
‘Of course there is!’ yelled Indira, still excited. ‘Everybody likes a good wedding, even faerys! Whoops! Sorry, folks’.
As they came closer, a smaller group of the crowd detached itself and moved swiftly towards them as they approached. Morag recognised most of them immediately, most noticeably the enormous grey bulk of Sister Teresa, resplendent in her flapping robes, together with the thin figure of Pat at her side, in a white suit and panama hat. Beside them were Christine and John Wheeler, Simon’s parents. His mother wore an enormous brimmed hat, that threatened to decapitate everyone around her, and she was sniffing noisily into a white lace hankerchief. Simon groaned when he saw her. ‘I told her not to wear that hat!’ he complained loudly. ‘She’ll have someone’s eye out!’
Morag heard Annie gasp, and saw her dart forward to one of the accompanying figures and throw her arms around him. ‘Helios!’ she cried in joy. ‘You came!’
‘Of course. I cannot bear to be away from you in the short time that is left before you go away’. Helios replied sadly.
‘Will you walk with me, Helios?’ Annie asked, somewhat shyly.
‘With pleasure, Annie’.
Morag walked, as if in a dream, past the cheering, joyous faces, past her own faery marshals that lined the route, oblivious to the shouts and loud conversation around her. The crowd seemed a theatrical backdrop, unreal and yet loud about her ears. The knot of fear in her stomach had intensified until it had become a physical pain. Nothing seemed real any more. She could not even understand what people were saying to her or to each other. She felt as if she were moving through a theatre in which people were rehearsing a play that she neither could understand or comprehend, in which she had no place, an outsider in a strange land of faerys, in which she didn’t belong.
Gradually, Morag became aware that a hush had fallen over the crowd. People around her were gasping and pointing upwards. She looked up too. At first she could see nothing. Then she could discern two dark winged shapes circling slowly in the sky. The two shapes slowly descended until they alighted with a dull thump on the ground beside them. She vaguely heard Annie shouting in her ear. ‘It’s Dabar and Leila! The dragons have come!’ The pain in her stomach became almost unbearable.
By now they had reached the threshold of the small canvas pavilion. She noticed the front was entirely open. Inside was a large wooden table, at which an elderly faery was writing busily. Another elderly faery stood in front of the table, her hands outstretched in welcome. Her face was round and kind, her grey hair bound in a bun behind her head.
‘Welcome’. she said. Her voice was mature but kindly. The four of them stood in front of her, while the rest of the guests gathered around and behind them. ‘You are gathered here today to exchange vows of marriage and to seek consent and approval for your decisions to commit yourselves in life long relationship with your loved one. After you have completed the ceremony, you will be registered as married couples within this land. Your marriage will last only as long as both partners wish. However, it is a symbol of your love and affection for each other, and the recognition by the state of that bond in law. Please say now whether this is acceptable to you all. Your marriage will be a symbol of your love of, and commitment to, your partner. Your status as free citizens of this land remains inviolate. Do you understand the nature of this commitment?’
It was brief and to the point. Morag was glad of that. She did not want flowery speeches, overflowing with gushes of eternal love. It was better this way. She was suddenly aware that the faery woman in charge of the ceremony was speaking again. ‘Please extend your hands to me’. She was saying. Morag and Demos extended their clasped hands together, as did Simon and Ragimund. The faery woman bound their wrists together loosely with a white cord, then stood back. ‘This part of the ceremony is called “ hand-fastening”. It shows that you have both made a commitment to each other’, she explained to both couples, ‘In reality, it prevents me from marrying the wrong couples!’ They laughed dutifully. ‘But it is evidence of your good faith and intention of coming here to be married to each other’. She explained.
She moved over to Simon and Ragimund. Morag heard her ask some questions, but she couldn’t tell what they were, or the replies. Finally she returned to Morag and Demos. The faery official turned her attention to Demos first. ‘Do you, Demos, promise this woman, Morag, to be your lawful wedded wife, to love and support her through all the time that you have together, and honour her as your wife and companion?’
‘Truly, I do’. Demos replied, firmly. The faery turned her gaze to Morag. ‘Do you, Morag, promise this man, Demos, to be your lawful wedded husband, to love and support him through all the time that you have together, and honour him as your husband and companion?’
At that moment, disaster struck. Morag froze. She could feel her lips move, but no sound came out. It was as if she had been struck dumb. No matter how she tried, she could not utter a single sound. Time passed and she was aware of the impatience around her. She closed her eyes tightly to prevent the tears of despair and frustration from spilling out, her head bowed.
As she gritted her eyes shut, a strange thing happened. It was dark, as if night had fallen. She was standing on a rocky slope halfway down a mountainside.. On one side, there was a precipice, across from which was a grassy level. She knew that, more than anything else in the world, she wanted to walk in that soft grass. She looked at the ravine again, which was no more than a crevasse, about two metres wide, and decided to jump across it. Taking two or three steps back, she gathered up her skirts and leapt unhesitatingly over the brink…
‘Morag!’ She started, and opened her eyes. The faery woman was staring at her with a look of concern. ‘I, I’m sorry! I’m just very nervous! Please, could you repeat the question?’ She heard herself utter, realising, with a thrill of joy, that she could speak again! ‘Of course, my dear’ the faery replied, with a smile that replaced her earlier concern, ‘It is a momentous day for you. Do you, Morag, promise this man, Demos, to be your lawful wedded husband, to love and support him through all the time that you have together, and honour him as your husband and companion?’
She looked at Demos. ‘I do’. She said, in a clear loud voice. There was a gasp of relief around her, as if everyone had been holding their breath until that moment. The faery came forward, and untied the cords from their wrists. ‘You do not need these any more’. She beamed. She then stood back and looked at both couples before her. ‘Under Hyperborean law, I pronounce you both as husband and wife! You may embrace and kiss, if you wish. May I convey the best wishes and blessings of this land upon you both!’
They clasped each other in a long embrace and kiss. Morag felt euphorically happy, enclosed in a warm glow of contentment. She clung affectionately to her new husband as they left the marriage tent, flanked by their friends and guests, only to be greeted with a storm. It was, however, a storm of cheers and pink rose petals, instead of confetti, which rained down upon them, thrown by the enthusiastic crowd of faerys. They battled manfully through it, over a carpet of pink petals that covered the processional way to the wedding feast. Cheers and shouts of congratulation rang in their ears all the way to the banqueting tables set out at the far end of the array of sculpture, so arranged that they formed a large circle, at the head of which the two newly married couples sat. Family and friends, that comprised the wedding party, lined the tables on each side. Indira leant across her table a little further down.
‘Crikey, Morag, you had us all going back there! Right up to the wire, so to speak! Playing hard to get, were you?’
With a start, Morag realised that she was referring to the sudden loss of her voice at the crucial moment. ‘I couldn’t speak’. she replied, honestly. ‘My voice just disappeared. Just nerves, I suppose’.
‘Yeah, I suppose that must have been it’. Indira said, compliantly.
Morag turned to Demos anxiously, ‘Demos, I wasn’t hesitating! My voice really did disappear! But then, then something happened, and it came back again! I wasn’t play-acting!’
‘Do not worry, my love. I could see that you were in difficulties, so I decided to be patient. I would wait for you for ever!’ Demos smiled tenderly at her. She squeezed his hand in gratitude. Just then she felt a tugging on her sleeve. She looked around. It was Annie, who sat closest to her. Her face was alive with excitement. ‘Can’t you hear her?’
‘Who?’ Morag asked, puzzled.
‘The angel! Remember when we were in Mila, and I said I heard an angel sing? Well, she’s singing now at your wedding!’
Morag stopped and listened. She had to admit it was a beautiful voice, effortlessly rising and falling between high and low notes. She was so moved that tears pricked her eyes, but she was still shocked when she saw tears trickling down Annie’s face.
‘Annie, must you continue your journey? Stay here with us! You’re so well loved here!’
Annie just shook her head. ‘I must finish my journey. It’s not over yet’.
Morag persisted. ‘Please. you’ll be happy here’.
‘I know. But I must go on. Tell me, Morag, are you happy here?’
Morag looked around the tables, first at her beloved Demos, then at all her friends and companions eating and drinking around her. The grey-robed bulk of Sister Teresa, next to the wide-eyed Pat, overcome with the company of what he regarded as proper Celtic folk. was a complement to the large mass of the dragon, Dabar, next to his wife and mate, Leila, both eating daintily with knife and fork. Around the rest of the table sat her new faery friends and past companions, chattering excitedly to each other. She felt a mellow glow of love and affection sweep over her.
‘I believe I am’. she said quietly.
‘What’s it like? Being happy, I mean’. Annie asked, wistfully.
‘Wonderful. Annie, does that mean that you’re not happy?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know what happiness is’.
Morag groaned. ‘Please, whatever happens, promise me you’ll come back safely, Annie!’
‘All right, I promise. I’ll be back, you’ll see’. They clasped hands. The talismans that they both wore, were glowing brightly.
Frank Jackson – 13/04/2015 – Word Count – 14425.