Sunday, 24 April 2016

This story, my first venture into the world of fantasy, was intended to run to three parts. "Run" was a good choice of word because it has grown legs. There will be at least two more parts needed to wrap it up.

Parting the Veils – 4

Aestrid felt she had hardly slept, turning one way then the other, the whole night through.
     The shriek that woke her seemed to come right through the wall from the next bedroom. It was followed by other cries of shock and sounds of weeping.
     ‘What’s going on out there?’ shouted Marelja, then, ‘Help me. I can’t see!’
     Aestrid sat up. She found it difficult to open her eyes. When she put her fingers to her eyelids, they were puffed up as she had never felt before, even in childhood illnesses. She couldn’t feel her cheekbones or the line of her jaw because her face was so swollen. Her whole head felt hot.
     The third girl in their room cried out, ‘What’s wrong with you two? Your faces are like the full moon.’ Aestrid could open her eyes just enough to see Marelja stumbling towards the door. As she opened it, the noise increased and she could see other girls with the same strange affliction running about, wailing and crying.
     Into this chaos strode the three senior wives, shouting to calm the girls down. Quickly they separated the swollen-faced ones from those who didn’t seem to be affected and shepherded them into the largest of the bedrooms.
     ‘Stay there! Do not come out. We will bring cold water and towels. Bathe your faces; see if that will take down the swelling. We will send for doctors. Do not open that door!’
     Aestrid counted seven other girls, as well as Marelja and herself, all with swollen faces and weeping eyes. Now she could appreciate the cleverness of Virren’s plan. They were cut off not only from others in the harem, but from the rest of the palace, the king, guards, servants – no one would come near them. But when, when would Virren put his plan into action?
     The weeping had eased now as some of the women seemed to accept their condition. Hours later, they were ordered to move away from the door. An old man, standing as far back as he could, peered in and quickly looked round at the swollen faces and puffy eyes before the door closed again. Another man did the same a few minutes later. Voices outside, men’s voices, were raised in argument.
     Marelja and others were at the door, listening. She came back to Aestrid and said, ‘They don’t know what it is. One says it is the blindness fever; others say it is from bad food; the Imam says it is a curse from Allah. I will pray it is not the blindness. My mother went blind.’ She began to sob.
     Aestrid could not bear to see her grief. She whispered, ‘Don’t be frightened, Marelja. It will not last. You will be well again in a few days.’
     Marelja pressed her palms to her streaming eyes. ‘How can you know this?’ she said.
     ‘I cannot say, but it will happen. And one more thing, Marelja. I will soon be taken away from here.’
     Marelja sat up. ‘But the guards will not dare to . . ‘
    ‘Not the guards. Someone will come for me. When he does, stay away from me. I cannot be sure, but it may be dangerous for you to be too close.’
     She could sense that Marelja was full of questions but she asked no more.
     The afternoon passed slowly. The girls had calmed down. Aestrid found she could now open her eyes a little. Lamps were lit as the shadows of evening came. Surely Virren would be here soon. Most of the girls were asleep by the time she heard him.
     ‘Aestrid, listen. We are ready. Get up now and go slowly to the wall, where the two black girls are sleeping. Turn so that your back is to the wall. I will take your right hand and slowly lead you sideways towards the corner. We will be moving between the veils. It will feel strange to you. You must trust me and never let go of my hand. You will come to no harm. You may see me; you may not, but I will be there guiding your steps.’
     Aestrid’s heart was thumping in her chest as she moved across the room and stood with her back to the wall. Marelja got up and came towards her.
     ‘No, stay away!’ Aestrid hissed. ‘Go back!’
     She felt a firm grip on her wrist and heard Virren say, ‘Keep close and follow me.’
     Marelja shrieked, ‘Don’t go, Aestrid! It is a djinn. I can see him. He is in the wall.’ Her eyes were wide and staring. She grabbed at Aestrid’s hand.  Virren’s fist came crashing down on Marelja’s elbow. She howled in pain and sank to her knees.
     In seconds, everything in the room faded, moving sideways out of Aestrid’s sight. The women’s frightened cries died away. She was moving her feet but it did not feel like walking. It was more like sliding on ice. She could see shapes of walls and corridors but faintly, as if in a mist.
     ‘Turn now,’ Virren ordered . She found herself moving in the opposite direction, still holding the Lightstepper’s hand. Her mouth was dry and her head ached.
     ‘Are we . . is this between the veils?’
     ‘Yes. One more turn, then there will be friends to help us. Hurry!’
     Aestrid peered through the haze as they turned . Two figures came towards her, helmeted, carrying shields and swords.
     ‘That’s Ulf Sveinsson! And his brother Ragnar.’ The boys she used to wrestle and race and fish with were like elder brothers to her. They took her hands and kissed them. Neither smiled.
     ‘Go safe home, Aestrid.’
     ‘Why do you say . . ‘
     Virren broke in. ‘Time is short. We must go now. There is one more veil to part and that will be the time of greatest danger.’
     The haze dispersed as they appeared out of the final veil. Aestrid gasped. They were in the dimly lit courtyard of the palace.  She remembered being carried through it after that exhausting ride through the desert.
     At the arched entrance, two guards stood chatting. They looked up in alarm as the Sveinsson brothers rushed in and cut them down before they could draw their swords. Blood spattered the white silk of Aestrid’s robe as Virren hurried her through the arch. She turned her head and saw the heavy wooden gates close behind them.
     ‘Ragnar and Ulf are still in there.’ she cried. ‘We cannot leave them.’
     ‘We must,’ said Virren. ‘They know their fate. They are ready to do this for you.’
     ‘But they are just boys,’ she wailed.
     ‘They are men today,’ said Virren Lightstepper.
(1,128 words)

Monday, 18 April 2016





Parting the Veils - Part 3

 Aestrid walked back to her room, careful to show no sign of the hope she now felt. She had obeyed the Lightstepper’s instructions and faced that fierce Guard Commander without a tremor in her speech or a tremble in her body. She wanted to shout aloud.

      Instead she forced herself to walk with her head down and her shoulders slumped. She hoped the two women escorting her could not sense her exultation. She was sure now that Virren Lightstepper somehow had the power to arrange her escape and bring her back to the arms of her father.
     As she was shown into her room and the door closed behind her, she heard the two women whispering. She stayed close to the door and held her breath to hear better.
   ‘Perhaps she will be ready sooner than we thought.’
    ‘I’m not sure,’ said the other. ‘She may be more clever than we think. She has a strong mind. I’ve seen others burst into tears if they had to face the Guard Commander. We must consult Eneida. She will know what to do.’
     Aestrid did not understand every word but one thing was clear: she should not have been so bold when she faced the officer’s questions. They would watch her more closely now. She needed Virren’s advice.
     As if in answer to her unspoken wish, the Lightstepper’s voice came into her head.
      Instead she forced herself to walk with her head down and her shoulders slumped. She hoped the two women escorting her could not sense her exultation. She was sure now that Virren Lightstepper somehow had the power to arrange her escape and bring her back to the arms of her father.     As she was shown into her room and the door closed behind her, she heard the two women whispering. She stayed close to the door and held her breath to hear better.   ‘Perhaps she will be ready sooner than we thought.’    ‘I’m not sure,’ said the other. ‘She may be more clever than we think. She has a strong mind. I’ve seen others burst into tears if they had to face the Guard Commander. We must consult Eneida. She will know what to do.’     Aestrid did not understand every word but one thing was clear: she should not have been so bold when she faced the officer’s questions. They would watch her more closely now. She needed Virren’s advice.     As if in answer to her unspoken wish, the Lightstepper’s voice came into her head.     ‘Aestrid. I have listened to their talk with the First Wife. They believe you are almost ready to accept your situation. You must keep them thinking that. They will soon take you to be with the other women. There I have found a place where I can part the veils. It will be easier to take you from there. But I need more help. I must go back and bring . . .’
     ‘Virren, I don’t understand. What do you mean, “Part the veils”?’
     ‘I cannot explain now.’ His voice was sharper. ‘Just listen. I can bring only two of your father’s warriors to help.’
     ‘But how …?’
     ‘Hush, child. Listen. There is something else I must tell you. The king has demanded that you be prepared and brought to his bed tomorrow.’
     Aestrid cried out in alarm, ‘No, never! I will dig out his eyes before . . .’
     ‘Will you be quiet!’ That was a shout inside her head that made her wince.
     Virren went on, ‘You will be eating with the other women tonight. Make sure you eat from every dish. I will find a way to add something to one dish. I promise you it will not harm you, but you will not be acceptable to the king for a few days. That gives me the time I need. I will return within two days. Do you understand?’
     'No,’ she answered, ‘I don’t understand how you can . . .’
     Virren Lightstepper was losing patience. ‘You will find out in time. Do you understand what I want you to do?’
     ‘Yes, Virren. I’m sorry.’
     ‘Then do it!’
      Virren was gone. She felt him slip away, just as a dream would disappear as soon as she awoke from sleep. But unlike a dream, she could remember every word of his instructions. As she recited them over to herself, she felt more and more certain that this strange and unpredictable man would be able to help her. But still she puzzled herself with questions.
    The help he had promised to bring was at least three days away, yet he had said confidently that he would be back within two days. And what were the veils he spoke of?
     Wearied by these problems and worried about what Virren was planning to add to the meal that would make her “unacceptable”, she finally dozed off into a troubled sleep.
     She didn’t hear the key in the lock or the tapping on the door. She had to be shaken awake by the women who came to fetch her. These two were different, younger. One of them had light brown hair and spoke in a language very like her own.
     Aestrid was beginning to realise the value of accepting or appearing to accept her fate. It should be easy to make a friend of this woman whose speech she could understand. But it was also clear that it was the older women, the senior wives, she needed to convince. Once again she was led to a bathroom and this time she was helped, much more gently, to bathe herself. There were oils and     perfumes softer and richer than she had ever experienced.
      As Aestrid and the two women began to talk, hesitantly at first and then with increasing confidence, a more pleasant atmosphere began to develop. A smile , a playful splash, a laugh at a misunderstanding. Despite her fears , Aestrid relaxed a little and that helped her to keep up this essential façade of acceptance.
      When they led her into the main hall of the harem, dressed in colourful robes like the ones that had tempted her in the market-place, the younger women gathered round, eager to meet this new and exotic newcomer. Aestrid guessed that they would not have seen many with her colouring. She noticed that the older women and even some of the younger ones, held back, as if they had a status that set them apart.
     They were in time for the evening meal. A tempting and colourful array of dishes were set forth and everyone helped themselves. There seemed to be a very clear order of precedence here and Aestrid was not motioned forward to eat till the others had helped themselves.
     As Virren Lightstepper had ordered, Aestrid made sure to eat a little from each dish, though she was unsure of the taste or the ingredients. She was surprised that there was hardly any meat, certainly not the great joints of sheep and cattle she had been used to in her father’s feasting-hall. No knives were needed, only fingers.
     There was no way of knowing which dish Virren had added to. She tried to judge by the taste but each one was different from what she was used to. It was impossible to guess.
     Her two new friends, as she had reluctantly begun to think of them, took her now to a larger, well-lit room, luxuriously furnished with colourful hangings and carpets, and beds for the three of them. There was no lock on the door.
     As the girls chatted and prepared for sleep, Aestrid brought up the subject she had hardly dared think about. She spoke to Marelja, the one
who understood her language.
     ‘Have you?’ she began. Her voice sounded like it belonged to someone else. The girls looked at her, waiting for the question. ‘Have you sometimes been with the king, you know, in his bed?’
     ‘Oh, yes,’ said Marelja, then spoke to the other girl. ‘Don’t worry, Aestrid. It’s not that bad. Will it be your first time?’
     She nodded, not able to speak.
     Marelja came over and put an arm round her. ‘You have to tell yourself it’s just something you have to do. If you can relax, it won’t hurt much. The worst thing is, he’s so fat and sweaty – and sometimes he takes so long about it, I nearly fall asleep.’
      The two girls laughed.
      Aestrid turned over in her bed and shut her eyes tight to stop the tears. Had Virren managed to do something to the food she’d eaten? Had she tried every dish? She didn’t feel different in any way.
     ‘Virren, I don’t understand. What do you mean, “Part the veils”?’     ‘I cannot explain now.’ His voice was sharper. ‘Just listen. I can bring only two of your father’s warriors to help.’     ‘But how …?’     ‘Hush, child. Listen. There is something else I must tell you. The king has demanded that you be prepared and brought to his bed tomorrow.’     Aestrid cried out in alarm, ‘No, never! I will dig out his eyes before . . .’     ‘Will you be quiet!’ That was a shout inside her head that made her wince.     Virren went on, ‘You will be eating with the other women tonight. Make sure you eat from every dish. I will find a way to add something to one dish. I promise you it will not harm you, but you will not be acceptable to the king for a few days. That gives me the time I need. I will return within two days. Do you understand?’     'No,’ she answered, ‘I don’t understand how you can . . .’     Virren Lightstepper was losing patience. ‘You will find out in time. Do you understand what I want you to do?’     ‘Yes, Virren. I’m sorry.’     ‘Then do it!’      Virren was gone. She felt him slip away, just as a dream would disappear as soon as she awoke from sleep. But unlike a dream, she could remember every word of his instructions. As she recited them over to herself, she felt more and more certain that this strange and unpredictable man would be able to help her. But still she puzzled herself with questions.    The help he had promised to bring was at least three days away, yet he had said confidently that he would be back within two days. And what were the veils he spoke of?     Wearied by these problems and worried about what Virren was planning to add to the meal that would make her “unacceptable”, she finally dozed off into a troubled sleep.     She didn’t hear the key in the lock or the tapping on the door. She had to be shaken awake by the women who came to fetch her. These two were different, younger. One of them had light brown hair and spoke in a language very like her own.     Aestrid was beginning to realise the value of accepting or appearing to accept her fate. It should be easy to make a friend of this woman whose speech she could understand. But it was also clear that it was the older women, the senior wives, she needed to convince. Once again she was led to a bathroom and this time she was helped, much more gently, to bathe herself. There were oils and     perfumes softer and richer than she had ever experienced.      As Aestrid and the two women began to talk, hesitantly at first and then with increasing confidence, a more pleasant atmosphere began to develop. A smile , a playful splash, a laugh at a misunderstanding. Despite her fears , Aestrid relaxed a little and that helped her to keep up this essential façade of acceptance.
      When they led her into the main hall of the harem, dressed in colourful robes like the ones that had tempted her in the market-place, the younger women gathered round, eager to meet this new and exotic newcomer. Aestrid guessed that they would not have seen many with her colouring. She noticed that the older women and even some of the younger ones, held back, as if they had a status that set them apart.     They were in time for the evening meal. A tempting and colourful array of dishes were set forth and everyone helped themselves. There seemed to be a very clear order of precedence here and Aestrid was not motioned forward to eat till the others had helped themselves.     As Virren Lightstepper had ordered, Aestrid made sure to eat a little from each dish, though she was unsure of the taste or the ingredients. She was surprised that there was hardly any meat, certainly not the great joints of sheep and cattle she had been used to in her father’s feasting-hall. No knives were needed, only fingers.     There was no way of knowing which dish Virren had added to. She tried to judge by the taste but each one was different from what she was used to. It was impossible to guess.     Her two new friends, as she had reluctantly begun to think of them, took her now to a larger, well-lit room, luxuriously furnished with colourful hangings and carpets, and beds for the three of them. There was no lock on the door.     As the girls chatted and prepared for sleep, Aestrid brought up the subject she had hardly dared think about. She spoke to Marelja, the one who understood her language.     ‘Have you?’ she began. Her voice sounded like it belonged to someone else. The girls looked at her, waiting for the question. ‘Have you sometimes been with the king, you know, in his bed?’     ‘Oh, yes,’ said Marelja, then spoke to the other girl. ‘Don’t worry, Aestrid. It’s not that bad. Will it be your first time?’     She nodded, not able to speak.     Marelja came over and put an arm round her. ‘You have to tell yourself it’s just something you have to do. If you can relax, it won’t hurt much. The worst thing is, he’s so fat and sweaty – and sometimes he takes so long about it, I nearly fall asleep.’      The two girls laughed.      Aestrid turned over in her bed and shut her eyes tight to stop the tears. Had Virren managed to do something to the food she’d eaten? Had she tried every dish? She didn’t feel different in any way.

It seems I was optimistic about finishing this story in three episodes. There will have to be at least one more to bring it to a satisfactory ending.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016


Usual warning to those seeking my memories of late friend and former colleague Kyril Bonfiglioli, novelist, wit, raconteur and knife-thrower: only the first nine posts of this blog are concerned wholly or in part with his exploits (posts from 31st March to 23rd July 2013) plus a "Mentioned in Despatches" on 9th January 2014. 


Parting the Veils - Part 2


'Aestrid! Listen to me.' The voice was quiet but she could sense an urgency now. 'The guards will be back to search for me. If anyone questions you, say you have heard no one but the guard.'
     'But who are you? You speak in our tongue.'
     'I am Virren Lightstepper. Your father calls me "the Wise". I will be able to take you away from here, but it will take time. Remember, Aestrid, you have heard only the guard. He has heard me but did not see me. They will think him drunk or mad.'
     'I will do as you say, Virren Lightstepper. You have given me hope.' In the distance she could hear other voices and feet approaching cautiously. 
     The footsteps paused. Then someone stepped out stronger, louder, as if he had turned a corner. 
     'You ------ fool!' Aestrid didn't recognise the word but she knew a curse when she heard one.
     'There's nothing here but your broken sword. You'll be flogged for this. What were you doing? Trying to cut through a ------- stone wall?'
     'But there was someone here, sir. I heard him, right beside me.'
     'But you didn't see him. Are you ------- mad?'
     'Sir, perhaps, perhaps it was a djinn, sir.'
     There was silence for a moment. The officer's voice was quiet but menacing. 'There are no djinns here, do you understand? If you say a word to anyone about this, I will ram this broken blade down your ------- throat. I'll put Achmed on guard here. He's too stupid to hear voices when no one's there.
     'Now turn about and get your ------- body out of here!'
     Aestrid heard the stamp of their boots. The sound faded as they marched away. The commander's curses still echoed down the corridor.
     She lay back on the soft cushions of the bed.
     Lightstepper. She remembered the name and some of the stories told about him. They said he could run faster than a deer and no one ever heard him coming or saw him leave.
     Stories, she'd thought - then.
     Someone had pointed him out to her as he entered her father's council chamber. Only his most senior warriors were allowed in there. She called to mind a tall, spare figure with gentle eyes and clean-shaven cheeks, unlike her father's moustached and muscled warrior-carls. She could never imagine Lightstepper swinging a war-axe or handling a heavy spear higher than the tallest man.
     How could such a man get her out of this prison in the middle of these never ending sands, where the sun burned you and drained the life from your body, where you didn't see a tree in a whole day's journey? How could he get her back to her father's ships, three days' camel-ride away? What powers did he possess? What if the stories she had heard were true?
     Light flooded her room as the heavy door was flung open. Her eyes closed against the sudden glare and she cried out in alarm. Not fear. No child of the Northlands was allowed to show fear.
     The same three women who had bathed her so thoroughly came and took her, again without a word, along a passage and through three rooms (she counted them; if there was to be a chance of escape she needed to know where she had started from, where she would need to go).
     Virren's whisper startled her. Now it seemed to be inside her head, not coming through a grille in the wall.
     'Aestrid. someone is waiting to question you. Remember what I said. No word of anything, except the guard cursing and swinging his sword. Do not be afraid.'
     She straightened herself and held her head up. The women who were holding her glanced at her, then at each other. Their grip on her arms loosened.
     The fourth room they entered was a small hallway or ante-room. One of the women picked up a hood of white silk, placed it carefully over Aestrid's head and arranged it till it covered her face except for her eyes. They took her forward to what appeared to be a small opening covered by silk curtains. They stood, one at each side, with one hand on the curtain, the other at Aestrid's elbow.
     One said, 'The Commander of the Guard is here. You must answer his questions.'
     They drew the curtains apart. A man stood there, a sword-length away. He was short, thickset with piercing black eyes, which narrowed as he looked into hers. His black robe was like those of the guards who had dragged her into the harem, but lined with gold.
     The commander stared at Aestrid, unblinking.
     Finally he spoke. 'What did you hear a little time before, when you were in your room?' It was the officer she had heard in the corridor.
     Aestrid tried to assemble the few words she knew.
     'I hear man walk outside, then he run, then he shout and bang, like sword, then he run, run fast.'
     'Did you hear anyone else, anything else?'
     Aestrid said clearly, 'Yes, sir.'
     'What?' Sharp and urgent.
     'I hear you. You come back with guard .You shout at guard. Then all go away. Then quiet.'
     'Did you hear anything else?'
     No, sir.'
     He stood, saying nothing. His eyes had never left hers.
     He spoke to the two senior wives, though they were standing out of his sight. 'Enough. I have finished,' then turned on his heel and walked away.

My apologies to both my readers for not posting this on Sunday, as I promised. Blame my weekend thousand-mile  four-leg journey to see my brother in Slough, attend a stimulating philosophy weekend in Oxford, visit an old friend in Birmingham and fly home late on Sunday night.

Part 3 WILL be posted on the 10th, unless I am abducted by aliens. (I feel another story coming on.)