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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Epic

We Three Queens

 

We Three Queens

 

Jon Jacks

 

 

Other New Adult and Children’s books by Jon Jacks

 

The Caught – The Rules – Chapter One – The Changes – Sleeping Ugly

The Barking Detective Agency – The Healing – The Lost Fairy Tale

A Horse for a Kingdom – Charity – The Most Beautiful Things (Now includes The Last Train)

The Dream Swallowers – Nyx; Granddaughter of the Night – Jonah and the Alligator

Glastonbury Sirens – Dr Jekyll’s Maid – The 500-Year Circus – The Desire: Class of 666

P – The Endless Game – DoriaN A – Wyrd Girl – The Wicker Slippers

Heartache High (Vol I) – Heartache High: The Primer (Vol II) – Heartache High: The Wakening (Vol III)

Miss Terry Charm, Merry Kris Mouse & The Silver Egg – The Last Angel – Eve of the Serpent

Seecrets – The Cull Dragonsapien – The Boy in White Linen – Porcelain Princess – Freaking Freak

Died Blondes – Queen of all the Knowing World The Truth About Fairies – Lowlife

Elm of False Dreams God of the 4^th^ Sun A Guide for Young Wytches – Lady of the Wasteland

The Wendygo House – Americarnie Trash – An Incomparable Pearl – Gorgesque

 

 

Text copyright^©^ 2016 Jon Jacks

All rights reserved

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. It remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be reproduced, copied and distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes.

Thank you for your support.

 

Chapter 1

 

The empress was no longer used to the snow.

She had been raised here and, as a child, had played happily in similar snowfalls.

Now, however, she was old, and felt the cold seeping deep into her bones. She had lived too long away from her home, she realised with a pang of regret; too long in warmer climates that had softened her.

She anxiously glanced back inside the tent, towards her great-grandson, wrapped up warm in his crib.

Unlike us, she thought, the Holy Parents had fled with the infant Jesus to the heat of Egypt, not the cold of Essylwg. But Egypt wasn’t safe for the young Magnus, whereas this was the very edges of the empire, not really fully under its control anymore.

Besides, it was here she had to come, she believed, to complete her task.

She stepped outside of the tent’s awning, this time looking over towards the carriage that had been safely parked up for the night. It was guarded by just a handful of legionaries, but so few had been prepared to risk remaining loyal to her.

She smiled, wondering if they ever sensed the presence of the other guardians that remained invisible to them, yet she could plainly see: the angels, sent here to help her achieve her goal.

 

 

*

Chapter 2

 

When Helen awoke, she immediately noticed that the old empress’s bed was empty.

The empress seemed to sleep so little on a night, as if she either had unimaginable reserves of energy, or she remained too anxious to have a peaceful night.

Of course, no such concerns worried the child, who was still fast asleep.

Helen slipped out from beneath her warm bedsheets, grateful for the lushly carpeted floor as her bare feet sank into its thick woollen pile. She silently made her way across to the lantern light by the tent’s doorway, coming behind the old empress as she stared out into the night.

The snow was now falling in much heavier, more ferocious swirls than it had earlier. It would slow down their journey all the more.

‘You should be asleep,’ the empress declared sternly without bothering to make even the most fleeting of glances over her shoulder.

‘How did you hear me?’ Helen asked curiously as, standing beside the empress, she took a wrinkled old hand in hers. ‘I was being perfectly quiet!’

‘Yes, you were,’ the empress agreed, smiling down at the perplexedly frowning Helen. ‘But as well as learning to move silently, you also need to develop your other senses: such as how to feel – on the back of your neck, down your spine – that someone is approaching you from behind.’

Within the swirls of snow, the ferocious swarming of angry white flakes against the darkness of the sky, it was possible to see other images, other creatures, much as our imaginations allow us to see ships and dragons in the clouds, or bears and lions in the stars. Around the guarding soldiers, draped in thick robes to keep out the cold, the white whirls became vast, fluttering wings, as if they were a host of guarding angels rather than men.

No one but the empress was allowed to know what she had brought with her in the elaborate, sturdily constructed carriage. It was long, slim, low: useless for comfortably carrying people. But the legionnaires had been told that it had to be protected at all times, no matter the weather.

‘Is that what you think they are?’ the empress asked, now also staring out towards the carriage as if she had read Helen’s mind, or at least the expressions upon her face. ‘Mere imaginings?’

There was so much, Helen realised, to learn from this old empress.

She had survived to be over eighty years old when most would be lucky to reach thirty. Her highly elevated position made an early death almost as likely as that of the poor, those vying for positions within court resorting to poisons, slander, or treachery to make their way up the ladder of leadership.

Helen thought carefully about the empress’s question.

‘I used to think…when I was younger…that the things I saw within the snow might be real.’

The old empress chuckled.

‘When you were younger?’ she said with great amusement, smiling down once more upon the young Helen.

‘They say I’m wise beyond my years,’ Helen replied with the beginnings of a scowl, well aware that people who said this rarely meant it purely as a complement.

‘That will hold you in good stead, my dear,’ the empress kindly replied. ‘But…as for presuming everything we see within the squalls is all down to our imaginings: well, there you might be well advised to recall that a child still bears the connections with the realm she has just sprung from – just as an old crone like me prepares to embrace that everlasting realm once more. It grants us insights denied others; but only if we are prepared to recognise them as such.’

‘So…you’re saying there really are angels out there?’

The old empress nodded, yet not without accompanying her agreement with an anxious narrowing of her eyes.

‘Yes, they’re out there, thankfully: but even they aren’t prepared to fight every battle for us.’

 

 

*

 

 

‘We’re running, aren’t we?’

Helen said it as a matter of fact, without any hint of fear. This is what she had sensed since she and her father’s men had greeted the old empress and her small band of legionnaires on the shore over a month ago.

The empress glanced down at her, grinning with loving admiration.

‘You’ve noticed that we’re running? Good, good! But we won’t be running forever, trust me.’

‘But why are we running while traveling over my father’s lands? Your son has no power here; my father defeated the last three legions he sent to bring us back into the empire.’

‘Within any kingdom, there are powerful men prepared to betray their king if it increases their own power. Besides, there are other, far more dangerous powers–’

Helen saw the old empress’s eyes fleetingly flicker over towards the solid patch of darkness lying between their tent and the one occupied by Serverus the scribe (a man tasked with accurately recording the empress’s entire journey from its beginnings on the other side of the empire).

Within that coal-black darkness, there was the merest glint; the sparkle of beady eyes briefly caught in the extremes of the lantern’s already dim light.

It was a hawk, Helen was sure.

Admittedly, it was more likely that it was a fox: there were always foxes skulking around an encampment, looking for easy food amongst the waste, amongst the spills of badly handled cases. Even so, Helen sensed that it was a hawk, even though it made little sense that it would out on a night – and, moreover, so close to the ground too.

Perhaps she’d simply become overly aware of the presence of hawks: after all, the old empress always seemed particularly wary of them, as if granting them a degree of intelligence higher than most men.

It was the same with crows and wolves. On seeing one drawing close, the old empress would carefully observe them intently while – with a deft wave of a hand – ordering everyone else to continue with whatever they were doing, as if she hadn’t been distracted.

Crows could be harbingers of inauspicious news, hawks could cause mayhem amongst the livestock (yes, even amongst animals bigger that fowls, if they had any young), while wolves always had to be treated with caution: and yet the empress’s interest in these creatures went far beyond what any normal person might grant them, for she seemed to Helen to regard them with the deep suspicion usually reserved for those capable of the most malicious intent.

Coming under the empress’s probing stare, the hawk appeared to back away a little: then, abruptly, whirled around and began to rise into the air, to head deeper into the darkness lying beyond the tent.

‘Guards! Stop that hawk!’ the empress commanded, pointing after the swiftly fleeing animal.

It was, of course, impossible for any of the soldiers to spot the rapidly retreating hawk, the darkness swallowing it up completely. Nevertheless, a few of them obediently sprinted off in the direction indicated by the empress, or loosed arrows while making scrupulously sure to avoid the tents. Most naturally remained at their posts, protecting the carriage’s secret load.

Despite her great age, the empress rushed into the all-absorbing darkness with the pursuing soldiers, cursing their lack of numbers and their inability to mount a more substantial guard. She must have known the soldiers had a hopeless task, Helen reasoned, expecting her to almost immediately call off the chase, perhaps informing them that she held no one responsible for the hawk’s escape.

Instead, the empress flung up a hand, a sharp action unseen by anyone but Helen: and a slither of silver, of what could have been nothing more than a streak of moonlight, seemed to fly up from that hand.

High in the darkness, there was a flurry of feathers, a frightened squawk, an agonised squeal – and then the hawk abruptly dropped with a softened thud onto the snow covered ground, where it was suddenly easily visible.

There was a hiss, that flash of silver once more: and Helen could have sworn she caught a glimpse of a serpent rapidly writhing away, disappearing from view before the first of the men arrived at the motionless hawk.

‘One of your arrows must have struck it!’ the empress announced joyfully, congratulating the men on their supposed achievement, even though she must have known it was a lie.

As the legionnaires happily returned to their stations, Helen noticed that at least one of them appeared disgruntled by the effort wasted on chasing an innocent hawk: perhaps, like her, he wondered if the empress’s brain wasn’t becoming just a little addled in her old age.

If that were the case, it wouldn’t be long before he began doubting the wisdom of maintaining his allegiance to her.

 

 

*

 

 

Helen and the empress returned to the warmer interior of the tent, letting the large flap of the entrance fall back into place.

The empress had brought the lantern, its light briefly falling across the still soundly sleeping baby. He had obviously remained undisturbed by the commotion engendered by the soldiers’ chasing of the hawk.

The empress ignored the crib and its innocently dozing occupant, however, hurry across instead towards the specially constructed chess board that had so intrigued Helen from her very first sight of it.

It was a board that, opening up from its centre like three incredibly thick spokes of a wooden wheel – or the curved edges of a three stemmed cross taken out beyond the edges of a shield – allowed the use of three sets of pieces.

Despite this, a third player had never joined in with the games that Helen regularly played with the empress, the latter coolly explaining this away with a comment that the ‘third queen’ would come into play far sooner than was good for them: and therefore they should both make use of the opportunity they had to learn as much as they could about how the ‘real game’ would be played.

‘Unlike chess, this is a game of alliances, of the treachery of allies, of the necessity of patiently waiting while others wear themselves out fighting each other.’

The empress stared down at the game as if expecting Helen to have made a move while she had been away from the board.

‘I haven’t fully considered my move just yet…’ Helen began to explain, only for the empress to place a consoling arm around her shoulders.

The empress’s attempt at a smile looked more like a fearful grimace in the yellow light of the lamp held aloft in her other hand.

‘I know you haven’t moved, child,’ the empress interrupted gently. ‘I checked the board earlier.’

Helen had noticed that the empress continually checked the board for any changes to the positioning of the numerous pieces.

‘We must reset our pieces,’ the empress declared, setting the lantern down by the side of the board and beginning to quickly reposition her own set.

Moving round to her side of the board, Helen began to do the same with her pieces, placing them on their starting squares.

As the empress repositioned one of her war elephants, with its towering castle upon its great back, she briefly paused, as if momentarily weighing it in her hand before finally setting it down.

‘That reminds me,’ she said almost distractedly, before continuing with her deft moving of the pieces, ‘of a story I must tell you.’

‘Now what?’ Helen asked when every piece was back in its place on the edges of the board.

‘Now, we wait,’ the empress replied uneasily, pulling up a chair and seating herself down by her side of the game.

 

 

*

Chapter 3

 

The War Elephant and The Humbled Man

 

Just as the sea eventually washes away all that stands before it, the vast army from the steppes had laid waste to every city, every kingdom, every empire that had lain within its inexorable path.

Proud, previously unbeatable armies had been slaughtered on the battlefield, their banners now used as rags for tending animals, their skulls as ornately bejewelled goblets.

Ancient, towering walls of great cities had proved useless: apart from preventing their garrisons and citizens from fleeing when the barbarous hordes had inevitably rushed in. The ensuing ferocious whirl of swords ensured the ground would be stained with blood for centuries to come.

No matter the growing, fearful reputation of this unstoppable army, a great many of the cities they originally came across would laugh at the impudence of these uncultured horsemen. As a dire warning of the outcome of any battle, they cited their own histories of successful expansion of empire, of immense learning, of innovations, riches, and far-reaching trade.

What had they to fear from barbarians?

They had a great deal to fear, of course; but by the time they had finally recognised this, their city would be burning, its citizens either slaughtered or rounded up to be sold as slaves.

Soon the cities the Rouran army came across began to send out not their armies but ambassadors naively offering terms forging an alliance between them.

When this failed, as it always did, the terms would be those of peace.

When this failed, as it always did, the offer would be the payment of unimaginable riches.

When this failed, as it always did, it would be an unconditional capitulation, the hope being that most of the city’s people would be spared death if not slavery.

Eventually, the invincible Rouran army found itself standing before the soaring walls of one of the very greatest and most resplendent cities of antiquity, one that many said might even have been the world’s very first city. If the truth of such a claim could be verified or not, then the proof would undoubtedly be found only in its own impressively stocked library.

The Rouran leader halted his army a short distance before the city’s towering main gate, ordering that his tent should be set up while they waited to see what self-humiliating terms the city would be prepared to offer them.

Around the Great Khan, bets were already being placed on how many would be within the negotiating party, it being well known by now that ambassadors were frequently sent back as nothing but heads in boxes.

No one was prepared to put money on it being an army that would be sent riding out to meet them. Unfortunately, it had been years since they had faced any serious challenge that tested their skills.

The city gates unhurriedly swung open.

And a war elephant of a size the Great Khan would have previously thought impossible confidently strode out towards the waiting army.

 

 

*

 

 

For the very first time ever, the Great Khan sensed a shiver of fear running through his army.

The horses whinnied in terror. They had to be brutally brought back under control.

The Khan’s men might have turned and run had it not being for a glare of his eyes that told his commanders that they would surely die if they fled.

The ground itself quaked as the towering beast advanced towards the Rourans. The castle set upon its back was indeed a fortress, one of many levels, and each heavily armoured.

Indeed, the whole beast was clad in glittering iron. It sparkled, too, with every precious stone imaginable, their worth at least that of everything he had conquered so far.

From small openings within the elephant’s soaring castle, their came the boom of thunder, not once but twice.

As if by the most terrible, god-like magic, two of the Great Khan’s siege towers exploded, disintegrating and catching fire. The men inside tumbled fearfully to the ground, if they were lucky enough to still be alive.

This one war elephant alone would be a challenge to defeat. And if the city had more of them? Well, the Great Khan’s army would have no choice but to retreat.

The jewels alone spoke of a city of immense power. Even if his army beat this elephant on the field, how long could such a fabulously wealthy city hold out, how prolonged would the siege have to be?

As the terrifying beast drew closer, it became evermore obvious that it was not of flesh and blood after all, but one of the most ingenious construction. And this only added to even the Great Khan’s already considerable fear: flesh and blood could be brought down, but a mechanical monster wouldn’t be so easy to wound. Worse still, a people possessing such ingenuity would have other weapons, weapons that might wipe out a whole legion of men in the blink of an eye.

He would sue for peace, for maybe even an alliance; he swung around, his eyes seeking out his standard bearer, preparing to give the order to raise the banner of negotiation – only to be distracted from his purpose by a shocked cry that rose up from his men.

The war elephant had halted its advance.

The standard of negotiation was fluttering from one of its innumerable portholes.

Fools, he thought, with a malicious, satisfied grin.

You’ve just lost your precious city!

 

 

*

 

 

The underbelly of the great war elephant opened up, a door swinging open, a metallic ladder ingenuously descending.

An ornately dressed man clambered down the ladder, his expression, when he turned, one of a man flustered by the inconvenience and humiliation of having to make his entrance in such an undignified way.

The Great Khan smiled all the more.

Not a military man, then, but an ambassador.

A man impressed by his own intelligence.

A buffoon, in other words.

Things were getting better by the minute.

 

 

*

 

 

Naturally, the ambassador refused to bow before the Great Khan.

‘You should tremble, barbarian,’ he sneered, ‘before the wealth of a city that can bedeck an instrument of war with such unimaginable riches!’

‘Far from it,’ the Great Khan nonchalantly declared, ‘it simply exhibits the immense wealth that shall be mine once I take over your kingdom!’

‘Then you should take note, my lord,’ the ambassador pointed out, ‘of the inventiveness of our people; creating weapons of war beyond most other people’s wildest imaginings!’

‘Indeed I have!’ the Great Khan declared. ‘Such remarkable ingenuity will be a great attribute to my own war aims, when I capture your city!’

‘Then may I make a plea, Great Khan,’ the ambassador humbly requested, ‘that you accept our offer of this war elephant, as a demonstration of the friendship that naturally exists between us?’

‘But I already own such an elephant!’ the Great Khan replied, indicating with a casual wave of an arm that his men had already sallied in through the war elephant’s open doorway and killed its crew. ‘Naturally, we couldn’t risk suffering the treachery inherent within the offer of a Trojan Horse!’

‘I can reassure your eminence that we are not a people who would ever resort to treachery,’ the slighted ambassador assured him. ‘We see no need to lower ourselves to utilising such measures.’

‘Good for you; you must be ever so proud of reaching such great heights of morality!’ the Great Khan warmly chuckled. ‘I hope your remarkable innocence holds you all in good stead when I sell you all into slavery.’

The ambassador fell to his knees and bowed low before the Great Khan in submission.

And the Great Kahn severed his head with the great sword infamously called Whispering Death.

 

 

*

 

 

There was an abrupt cry from the men who were still searching and studying the great war elephant.

They had found another yet much smaller door within the elephant’s vast sides, one possibly used as a means of observation or entry point into its clockwork interior. From this small opening they were pitilessly dragging out a raggedly dressed man.

With no lessening of their brutality towards him, they pushed, shoved and pulled the emaciated man until he was bowing before the Great Khan.

‘I was assured that your city is incapable of treachery!’ the affronted Great Khan stormed.

‘I was a stowaway: no one knew I was there,’ the man insisted, shivering with perhaps fear, even though his skin was covered in a sticky sheen of sweat. It was also laced with innumerable scars. ‘But yes, my people are indeed capable of treachery: for I have little doubt, oh Great Kahn, that they will hold me responsible for the deaths I’ve caused if I don’t escape that cursed place!’

‘Escape? Cursed?’ the great Khan repeated curiously.

‘I’m a humbled man, oh Great Khan of the World,’ the man admitted, scratching irritably at a painful looking rash on his shoulders. ‘I just wish to be on my way, to be free at last of that plagued city.’

Taking his great sword, the Khan brought Whispering Death’s blade up under the man’s chin, forcing the man to bring his head up until his face was more plainly in view. It was a gaunt face of yellow, taut skin, of scabs and leeching boils, and red, watery eyes.

With a gasp of fear, the Great Khan hurriedly tried to wipe his blade clean in the dirt, only to suddenly cast it aside in revulsion; it would never be cleared of the contagion it had undoubtedly already picked up from this diseased man.

 

 

*

 

 

The man was killed with an arrow as, indeed, were all the men who had touched or even been near the war elephant.

Their dead bodies were left, completely untouched, around the war elephant.

Naturally, when the Great Khan and his terrifying hordes began to hurriedly withdraw, lifting their siege of the city, the relieved citizens let out a great cheer.

Their amazing war elephant had succeeded in scaring off an army that had seemed destined to bring the entire world to waste!

Of course, as part of their celebrations, they brought their wonderful war elephant back within the city’s great walls.

And everyone flocked to jeer the infamous Whispering Death, laughing at a blade they had feared would kill them all yet hadn’t yet claimed a single life.

 

 

*

Chapter 4

 

‘Our strengths and our weaknesses are not as clear cut as we suppose them to be,’ the empress explained to Helen as she brought her tale to an end. ‘How our enemies regard them can have a far greater effect than our own presumptions.’

‘A weakness can be a strength: a strength a great weakness,’ Helen stated assuredly to demonstrate that she had understood the meaning behind the tale, that it was yet another lesson for her to dwell upon.

The empress nodded.

‘My great grandson is nothing but the weakest of babes,’ she said, nodding again, but this time towards the still silent cot, ‘and yet he remains the greatest weakness in the machinations of my son’s second wife to ensure the succession of her own children.’

‘So he must be killed.’ Helen said it with no hint of horror.

‘As his father has already been killed, executed on the emperor’s orders; even though he was my son’s eldest child, from his first marriage.’

‘This second wife; she falsely accused him of something?’

‘Good, good child,’ the empress agreed with an admiring smile. ‘You are swiftly learning the brutal ways of this world!’

‘My father told me that you were similarly displace– I’m sorry, my lady: please forgive me for my impudence.’

Helen gave a sharp nervous bow of her head.

The old empress chuckled.

‘Displaced? That was the word you were about to use, yes?’

‘As I say my lady, I apol–’

‘Apologies from you aren’t necessary, my dear. I freely return the respect I know your father has for me, and he only speaks the truth: my husband had to make a more politically convenient marriage, one to the stepdaughter of the then emperor of the eastern empire. Our son was being held as a virtual prisoner, tying our hands.’

‘We are pieces to be played within the great game,’ Helen pronounced sagely, studying once again the carved pieces on the board.

The empress nodded once more, her eyes narrowing with an obvious sense of grave acceptance; she had taken great pains to make Helen aware of this undeniable, unchangeable fact of life.

Her eyes abruptly widened, glittering with unease. She drew Helen’s attention to the empty place on the third side of the board.

A piece had moved forward.

‘She’s here,’ the empress stated flatly yet firmly. ‘She’s found us.’

 

 

*

Chapter 5

 

Urgently rising from her seat, the empress picked up the lantern and headed for the tent’s opening once more. She warned Helen to stay close, assuring her that she shouldn’t worry about getting dressed just yet.

Outside in the whirling snow, Helen was surprised to find that she didn’t feel either the cold or the biting wind as she had expected. Even her bare feet, treading through the crisp layer of fresh snow, could have been warmly shod, going by the lack of the presence of any cold she felt.

The empress spoke to the legionaries, telling them to beware of anything they thought unusual, even if it seemed in many other ways perfectly innocent; she would rather, she assured them, be woken up for some foolhardy overreaction than to end up dying in her bed.

As she and Helen made their way back inside the tent, the empress scowled miserably.

‘It’s not usually wise to panic your men, as I just had to do,’ she admitted miserably, ‘but these are no longer usual times.’

When they approached the game board once more, the pieces on the new queen’s side had all completely changed, for they had not only grown in size, but also grown in number. They had become, too, leaping wolves, sly hawks, evil-eyed owls, along with even trees and waterfalls. There were men too, some armed, some on horseback, but even these were often stunted, as if goblins or dwarves.

The queen was magnificent, beautiful, rising up on a pillar of swirling snow, her arms spread out as if in the action of casting far-reaching spells.

‘Hah; so she has the arrogance and confidence to already make her play known to us!’ the empress snorted bitterly. ‘So be it; let things be more out in the open then!’

The pieces on her own side of the board began to transform, also taking on the form of creatures, of elements of nature, of armoured knights. Yet each one of these was far smaller than those of her rival’s, and there were far fewer of them, some of the original pieces even disappearing completely. Her queen was also more gracious, sage-like, seated on a throne as if contemplating wise advice as opposed to spurring herself into urgent action.

‘Fausta now knows that we’re aware of her presence.’

The empress didn’t say this with any hint of triumph; rather, it was said with a resigned sigh, a hint of regret.

Previously when the old empress had talked of Fausta, she had mentioned to Helen that the younger empress had increased her power by aligning herself with Satan rather than Christ: and of course, the young girl had merely assumed the older woman was exaggerating. Now that she saw the changing of the game’s pieces, however, she recognised that there might have been a great deal more truth than she had supposed behind the old empress’s comment.

Seeing the creatures lining up on the side of the young empress, she now also understood the old empress’s supposedly crazy attitude to hawks and wolves; no wonder she had regarded their every action as being worthy of suspicion.

Helen’s father had told her to grant the old empress respect. ‘You can learn more from her,’ he had added, as he had sent her off with a small band of his men to greet the empress’s arrival on the coast, ‘than you could learn from a whole host of so called teachers.’

‘She’s already here: this Fausta?’ Helen asked worriedly, resisting the instinctive temptation to anxiously glance everywhere about her.

‘An essence of her power is already here,’ the old empress replied, ‘and that presence will gradually increase now that she knows we are here; until, one day, yes – she may decide to grace us with her actual, physical presence.’

She chuckled harshly, her eyes alighting on Helen’s unchanged pieces.

‘She knows that you’re not ready yet; she will strike as soon as possible.’

‘She has a similar board?’ Helen quickly cast her own eyes over the game, having quickly worked out the real meaning behind the empress’s words. ‘She sees the pieces as we do?’

‘As you, too, must have your own board one day,’ the empress said with a slight nod of her head. ‘Though the game doesn’t control things, as you might suppose; it simply replicates the usage of the darker forces that surround us.’

Darker forces?’

That sounded worryingly dangerous to Helen.

‘There’s another form of matter, a darker matter that remains invisible to us: and yet it flows through and links everything, connecting even the planets themselves. It’s these strands that we must learn to control: and you, my dear, must learn particularly quickly if we are to survive Fausta’s imminent attacks!’

 

 

*

Chapter 6

 

Helen reached out to move one of her pieces across the board: only for the old empress to stop her with a touch of her own fingers on the back of her hand.

‘No, not like that anymore.’

‘Then how, how do I use the game?’ Helen asked with a snap of frustration. ‘This is what you’ve been teaching me.’

‘Teaching you how to think strategically: I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to introduce you to all this; hoped that we could arrive safely without Fausta discovering us. Besides, if I had begun to teach you, it would have registered on her board, led her to us; while now that she has engaged us, it’s only added to the overall malleability of the forces – meaning they’re more accessible to you.’

‘How can I move a piece without touching it?’

‘If I shouted out “Help”, what would happen?’ the empress curiously asked Helen.

‘The guards would come running: they might even kill me, if they believed it was me endangering you.’ She glanced over towards the cot, where Magnus was still asleep. ‘You’d also wake your grandson,’ Helen added with a playful smile.

‘And yet I wouldn’t be the one who had actually moved either Magnus, or the guards, would I?’

Helen wasn’t quite sure whether she should nod or shake her head to show that she agreed with the empress’s statement. Ignoring Helen’s lack of response, the empress continued.

‘And yet they moved for me, when I used the power of speech.’

This time Helen nodded in agreement.

‘Now think of the power of the written word: for this can work over centuries, a certain powerful phrase motivating men to aspire to greater things, or to go to war. Yet, of course, it is not the scrawl of ink that inspires these men, just as it not the spoken word itself that persuades a guard to kill: it is the chosen words.’

As she said this, the empress touched her temple, an indication that she was speaking of thoughts, of the mind.

‘Those words possess their intention because they have ultimately come from here; for it is our consciousness that ultimately controls everything. Speech is simply a means of bringing our thoughts forth into the real world: as, indeed, is writing. And yet how can you use speech to teach it to someone who has never spoken, or put down a scrawl and hope those incapable of reading can understand its power?’

Helen moved to touch one of the pieces again, this time intending only to twist it free of the matching, interlocking notches that held it in place on the board.

‘No,’ the empress insisted once more. ‘You don’t need to free it.’

‘Then I really don’t understand: how can speaking to it, or even writing instructions down, have any hope of moving a piece?’

‘I didn’t ask you to try and move a piece; as for speaking, writing, I mentioned those only to explain how, on the most basic of levels, they help us see that we have brought our thoughts into being – and the game merely does that too, ensuring the novice doesn’t become frustrated because she can’t otherwise detect any effect she’s having.’

Turning, the empress strode over to her bed. It was surrounded by hanging sheets of fine lace that had originally served as mosquito nets, but here spared her from being surrounded by annoying clouds of midges.

Helen followed, watching in renewed admiration for the empress as a mere tracing of her finger down a strand of the lace’s weave caused it to ripple into life. It threw out swiftly burgeoning shoots that created other sheets of lace, until they formed what could be a chequered board possessing height as well as length and width.

‘This is life, the connecting strands of the dark matter of life,’ she said. ‘Which pass through us daily without anyone realising they’re there.’

Within all of this a large fish appeared, alive and casually swimming, as if within a milky-white pool. It effortlessly passed through the strands of lace, as if they hardly existed; yet the fish’s movements caused the lace to undulate gently, much as water would ripple after a fish’s passing.

‘The game detects these waves,’ the empress added, ‘but it’s up to us to use the wrinkles to alter things to our advantage.’

She pushed on the lace, the shivering she caused within the other sheets causing the startled fish to swim in a new direction: then she sharply pulled on the lace, dragging the caught fish towards her much as fishermen haul in nets.

‘And when you use the finer links of your own consciousness,’ she added, the network of lacing becoming even more minutely delicate, streaming through what could be the mind of the fish, ‘then you can dictate how a creature thinks!’

The fish and the network of interlocking, chequered lace sheets vanished as the empress glanced once more towards the board.

‘If it helps, think of how you would move the board, not the pieces: but ultimately you need to think outside of the game entirely, for it is the world you wish to manipulate.’

She pulled aside the netting on one side of the bed, without explaining the meaning behind her actions.

‘A veil?’ Helen asked unsurely. ‘Is it a veil in my mind I must draw aside to access these powers?’

The empress looked at her curiously.

‘To access it, my dear, you must practice all night: while an old woman like me, well, I think it’s time I retired to bed, don’t you?’

 

 

*

 

 

The pieces, of course, wouldn’t move.

No matter how much Helen stared at them, willing them to move, they remained perfectly motionless.

Naturally, as the old empress had advised, she attempted to move them through strenuous efforts to bend and manipulate the board: but that struck her as being even more impossible to achieve.

The only sounds in the tent were those of the empress lazily shifting beneath her bedsheets, or Magnus whimpering or snorting as he suffered what was possibly a bad dream.

He always seemed so remarkably quiet for a baby, it suddenly dawned on Helen: she had never seen him require his wet nurse through the night either, allowing her to sleep – indeed, to spend most of her time – within one of the other tents.

Was this down to the empress’s magical abilities? Or was Magnus simply drugged with some of the potions she knew could be concocted from certain flowers?

As Helen looked towards the crib, the air around it became a little hazy, as if affected by smoke or maybe even heat from the candles in the lanterns. Yet the shivering of the air became even more pronounced, even apparently flaking, as ice begins to first form then fall from a cold shield.

Was she doing this?

Was she making the air ripple, as the lace sheets had rippled under the empress’s touch?

She was excited, thrilled: then, almost instantly, petrified.

She didn’t want to be creating any magical effect around Magnus!

He might come to harm!

The rippling of the air flowed, twirled in and out of itself, as if forming knots: and then abruptly solidified into a woman crouching by the crib and staring tenderly down at the child.

Helen would have cried out to the empress for help – but no, she recognised this woman.

Recognised her from the illuminations in the great books she had seen, from the icons brought here from other countries.

It was Mary: Mother of God.

 

 

*

Chapter 7

 

Had…had she called her up?

Had she brought the sweet Mary, Mother of God, down to Earth from her place in Heaven?

Surely no, surely she wasn’t capable of such a truly miraculous thing!

Mary looked up from her adoration of the child, looked Helen’s way: and smiled.

‘My child, you really shouldn’t be delving into the spiritual darkness.’

Helen fell to her knees, bowed her head, crossed her chest a number of times – and apologised, tearfully and fearfully, for daring to summon the Queen of Heaven.

Mary laughed kindly.

‘You didn’t summon me: I came to help you, to warn you. For yes, of course, I sensed your attempts to utilise forces best left alone by man.’

She stood up, her cloak of a silken blue glittering like a starry night. She flowed across the floor, as if angelically hovering rather than simply walking.

She drew closer towards the trembling Helen.

‘You know who I am?’ Mary asked.

‘Mary…you’re Mary, Mother of God!’ Helen answered nervously.

‘I’m Mary the Elder: the Sorrowful Myrrhbearer, who wept at the base of the cross as my son died.’

Mary gently placed a hand on top of the crown of the still kneeling Helen.

‘Did he sacrifice himself like this, Helen, so that you can profit from accessing the darkness he refused to accept?’

Helen shook her head. Even so, she attempted to absolve herself of any blame.

‘But…but the empress…’

‘The empress may act like she has your wellbeing at heart, but I assure you this is sadly not the case.’

‘My father–’

‘Yes, your father thinks a great deal of her: he named you after her.’

Helen had not been aware of this, although she had suspected it.

‘He falsely believes her to be the daughter of Coel Hen Guotepauc: that, like him, she has the blood of both Brutus and Aeneas – and thereby, also of the heroes of Troy – running through her. Yet if you’re ever fortunate enough to visit the glory that is Byzantium, you’ll hear it said she’s really nothing but an innkeeper’s daughter from Dalmatia!’

‘Then if the old empress is lying to my father, does that mean Fausta–’

‘Fausta, too, delves into things she should leave well alone. It’s too late for her, however, just as it is now too late for your old empress: she has not warned you, has she, that the darkness gradually envelops you? That you start off believing it’s yours to control, when all the time – as insidiously as a serpent – it’s weaving its way into your very being: until it dominates you!’

‘I…don’t wish to be dominated by the darkness!’

‘Good; for that is how it should be. But tell me, child: I realise that you are close to the old empress, that she has cunningly wormed her way into your goodly, innocent heart – do you believe me when I tell you to beware her?’

Helen nodded her head beneath Mary’s consoling touch.

‘Nevertheless, I fear the old empress’s scheming could be the undoing of you: and so I must unveil to you the secret of the contents of her carriage.’

Helen fleeting glanced up towards the face of the blessed Mary.

Yes, she wanted to know this secret: she had wanted to know it since she had first seen the heavily guarded carriage, first witnessed the care that the old empress insisted must be taken with it, especially whenever they travelled over rocky, uneven ground.

‘Having stolen it from its true home in Jerusalem, the old empress has now brought it all the way to the other end of the empire: it is the cross of my son that she holds in her carriage.’

 

 

*

 

 

Helen realised that Mary had vanished when she felt the already light pressure of the hand upon her head disappear.

She stood up, glanced the way of the old empress in her bed, fearing that she might have heard, might be awake. But thankfully, she still seemed to be soundly asleep.

Magnus was also still asleep, but she was less surprised by that.

She wanted to rush outside, to order the legionnaires guarding the carriage to open it up: but she knew all this wasn’t possible.

They wouldn’t obey her, not over something as important as opening up the empress’s special carriage. Besides, it was freezing cold out there: previously she’d gone outside with the empress who, somehow, had managed to use her magical powers to keep them both warm, despite their flimsily garments, her bared feet.

She could get dressed, of course; but the more movement she made, the higher the likelihood that she would wake the empress. Even then, there was the not inconsiderable matter of the guards to deal with, the opening of the locked carriage…

No, it wasn’t possible.

If only she could somehow–

And, suddenly, she was standing outside, looking over towards the heavily guarded carriage.

 

 

*

Chapter 8

 

Snow swirled around her, yet she didn’t feel the bite of its cold.

She could have still been safely confined within the warmth of the tent, with its carefully tended braziers.

As before, the snow also whirled frantically around the armoured men, whipping a cloak half up into the air every now and again as it tore it away from the securing hands of a soldier.

And standing within that falling snow, there were also angels: gloriously glowing angels, with wings as white and soft and vast as the purest snowdrift.

She gasped with elation.

Then: she sighed with disappointment.

What chance would she have of seeing inside the carriage when it was guarded not only by the Roman soldiers but also by angels?

The locked carriage, unnoticed by everyone but her, unnoticed even by the watchful angels, opened up for her.

She found herself walking through the snow towards the waiting carriage, unseen it seemed by the men, by the angels.

She climbed up the short flight of steps leading towards the open door, making no sound, no creaking of wood.

The carriage was long, slim, low: useless for carrying people.

And yet for carrying two long and ancient beams, carefully packed into a cushioning of wool and silk, it was perfect.

 

 

*

 

 

She couldn’t feel the heat, naturally, but she could definitely sense it.

Everywhere she looked, the scorching sun seemed to have bleached everything of its colour.

The buildings – a great many of them, more than she had ever seen clustered together before – were mainly a blinding white. What few trees there were were small, stunted, with hardly any leaves.

Apart from the procession of legionnaires, the people were dressed in an unrecognisable style, with long, draping gowns. There were no horses that she could see, but quite a number of donkeys, all of which toiled exhaustedly under the pounding heat.

The long, thin procession of soldiers was winding its way through narrow streets, gradually heading upwards towards a magnificent temple gracing the very top of a hill. It wasn’t just a column of legionnaires, however, for they were escorting an elaborately draped litter being carried by around a dozen yoked men.

Through the thin lace that fell down the litter’s sides, she could see its imperiously seated occupant: the empress, as old here as she was in real life.

The closer the regal procession drew towards the looming temple, the more she could see of the imposing statues surrounding it, images of pagan gods she failed to recognise. In the haze of heat rising up from the ground, they shimmered, appeared to move, to be alive: then one actually swayed, rocked and toppled to the ground, where it splintered into hundreds of indefinable pieces.

A nearby column supporting part of the extended roof was next to crumble, to come crashing to the ground, bringing with it a section of the portico it had held in place. A slice of wall gave way, also shattering into nothing but irregular blocks.

The temple was being demolished, men sweating in the sun as they carefully undermined the building’s foundations. A large area that the temple had obviously once occupied had either been almost completely cleared or was still untidily strewn with the rubble it had been reduced to.

Surprisingly, it was the cleared section of the ground where most activity was now taking place, for here the excavations hadn’t stopped but, rather, seemed to have progressed far beyond the original aims, such that they were digging ever deeper into the earth. It was here that the procession at last came to a halt, the empress’s litter drawing up directly alongside this huge trench.

Even as the empress stepped out of her carefully lowered litter, a well-attired man who must have been in charge of the excavations excitedly rushed over to her, bearing a silken bundle he’d hurriedly picked up off a nearby table. He unfurled the bundle before her, revealing a mangled piece of iron, perhaps a hand’s length long, and as slender as a finger.

‘Another nail!’ the empress breathed elatedly.

‘Now there’s more, far more!’ the man gushed between submissive bows.

The empress rushed towards the edges of the deep pit as if she had been suddenly granted the return of her youth.

Staring down into the excavated earth, she smiled blissfully.

They had found it!

It was the True Cross.

 

 

*

 

 

Helen snorted in disbelief.

It caused her to wake up with a start, much as someone does when they dream they are toppling over the edge of even the smallest drop.

Of course, she wasn’t in Jerusalem.

But neither was she in the long carriage containing the True Cross.

She was back at the edge of the game, having fallen asleep in her chair.

She felt dazed, confused: had everything been nothing more than dream?

And if not everything, then which parts had been real, which nothing more than her wild imaginings?

She glanced over the board.

One of her pieces had moved, having changed into a wraith-like being.

 

 

*

Chapter 9

 

Seeing that the piece had both moved and changed, yet possessing no memory of how it had happened, Helen wasn’t sure whether she should be overjoyed or horrified.

Reaching out for the piece, she tried to lift it up from the board: but it refused to move, even when she attempted to twist it with the aim of freeing the interlocking notches.

She took a closer look at the new figure it had been transformed into. It did indeed possess all the fluid, anguished qualities of a wraith, yet she gained the impression from closely studying it that it seemed to be a spectral manifestation of a moonbeam, if such a thing were truly possible: for a bright silver orb, glittering as if with its own inherent glow, hovered above the figure, suspended there by nothing more than the slim sliver of a shaft of light.

None of her other pieces had changed or moved in any way. They remained where she had originally placed them, their forms those of a regular chess set.

Wait!

If she had really been visited by Mary, Mother of God, then these pieces represented the manipulation of the darkness!

In fact, even the empress had spoken of dark matter.

She was delving into the spiritual darkness!

She had used it for her own ends!

She wasn’t overjoyed.

She was horrified!

And then she heard the board whisper:

I shall help you access powers beyond your wildest imaginings!

 

 

*

 

 

Helen stared, wide-eyed, at the board.

She had used the darkness.

She had moved the piece.

She had transformed it: transformed it into a spectral being!

Yet she hadn’t done it intentionally.

Did that excuse what she had done?

Did it mean she didn’t have to succumb any further to its power?

For isn’t that what would happen if she continued to use it? It would suck her in. Take her over.

Make her its slave!

Isn’t that what Mary had said, had warned her about?

‘Well done…well done indeed, my dear!’

She had been so terrified by what she had done that she hadn’t heard the empress rise from her bed and walk over towards the board.

The empress was smiling blissfully.

She was staring down at the board, at the transformed piece.

‘The power of the moon!’ she declared, her expression one of deepest pleasure, of the greatest admiration.

‘Truly,’ she added, ‘you will make a wonderful empress!’

Helen shrugged, grateful for an excuse to briefly forget the board and its pieces.

‘I won’t even be queen: not if my father has a son.’

‘He won’t,’ the empress declared with suspicious confidence.

‘Then…without an heir…’

She didn’t wish to even contemplate the horrors of the future that such a situation would bring about. Her father already had problems enough with rebellious lords who flattered themselves they had more right to the throne than he did.

‘His heir is there: sound asleep, and completely innocent of his destiny!’

The empress indicated the sleeping Magnus with a casual wave of an arm.

‘Heir to the empire, perhaps,’ Helen declared arrogantly, ‘but we have been a separate kingdom for a long time now!’

The empress raised an eyebrow in amused surprise.

‘Helen, I take it your father hasn’t yet informed you of our agreement?’

‘Agreement?’

‘Why, that you’re already betrothed to Magnus, of course!’

 

 

*

Chapter 10

 

She had opened the box of darkness, and it was already reaching out everywhere with its slithering, unavoidable tentacles!

‘I…I love Magnus: but not in a way that means I could marry him!’

‘Helen! Don’t be such a child! How many times have we discussed the foolishness of love? Marriage is for forging empires, for begetting the child that will rule it! Only in this way is security assure–’

The empress abruptly paused, her eyes curiously wide as she once again took in the pieces on the board.

‘How long has that been there?’ she demanded anxiously, pointing towards the edge of the board where the young empress would be seated if she were present.

Helen looked towards the set of bestial, naturalistic pieces.

Another piece had advanced into another section of the board.

Before Helen could make any reply to the empress’s question, or study the board and its pieces further, the flap of the tent’s opening was thrown back as Serverus entered.

‘The column is almost prepared to make way, my lady,’ he announced grandly, gently caressing the large and unusual cross he wore suspended around his neck. ‘Although everyone wishes to know if you world prefer to break your fast before we strike camp, or as we journey?’

The cross Serverus wore lacked an upper part, its place taken by a circularly formed piece of the bone it was made from, as if it were the head of the Saviour: yet Helen recognised its shape, having seen it in the severed vertebrae of the fallen on the battlefield. Another, even stranger cross was engraved upon it, one with four cross beams and topped by a glowing orb nestling between equally white horns – a shape that once again couldn’t fail to remind Helen of the ghoulishly revealed spines of badly mauled men.

They were symbols of a far older god, Serverus had explained, one who had at one time been thought of and represented pictorially as being nothing but a spine; for it was believed a man’s seed actually rose up the spine, serpent like, to spout from the mouth as a new life.

Helen thought it all sounded horrific, yet she knew of many living within her father’s lands who still adhered to ancient practices. People, for instance, who regarded crows not as evil carrion, but as serving to help revive the dead in their new form; their liver, their very innards, devoured and transformed.

Serverus was always allowed to enter unannounced throughout the day, the empress trusting him completely. Today, however, the empress appeared briefly annoyed by his unexpected entrance.

‘Serverus,’ she snapped, her eyes still fixed warily upon the moved piece, yet adding with supposed appeasement, ‘you’ve arrived at a moment I couldn’t have imagined being more ideal: could you tell Helen a story while I check the contents of the…or our various carriages?’

‘I’d be delighted, of course,’ Serverus replied, the scribe’s face immediately brightening at the opportunity to retell one of the many stories he had collected together on his own journeys. ‘There’s one in particular, one I heard while living in Hispania, that–’

‘That isn’t quite the one Helen wishes to hear.’

The empress passed by Serverus on her way out of the tent.

The Snow Wedding!’ the empress announced assuredly. ‘Yes: I think she’d enjoy listening to that tale!’

 

 

*

Chapter 11

 

The Snow Wedding

 

If there had ever been an old woman more gnarled, withered, and ungainly contorted, then no one in the village could remember ever seeing her.

She lived on the very edges of the village, her house situated more within the forest than amongst the other houses of the small hamlet.

Perhaps that was why, the villagers mused, when they could be bothered to think of her, the old woman had wiry muscles more knotted than the roots of a tree, or had bones that crackled like a fire whenever she moved.

She was so old, no one could recall what she had looked like when she had been younger.

Perhaps, they reflected, when they could be bothered to think of her, she had always looked this way.

At the very least, she couldn’t possibly have been anything more than a younger version of the hideous crone she was now.

Fools!

Why must we flatter ourselves that the old have always looked old?

That the young will always be young?

It placates us, doesn’t it, as we try so hard to ignore the way of the world?

For I can tell you now, truthfully, that this old woman once possessed a beauty any princess, any queen, would have envied!

Any prince, any king, would have given away any piece of his kingdom to possess her for just one night.

Yes: that’s how truly captivating this woman had been when she had been young.

Her eyes more precious than the most glittering of diamonds!

Her hair as glorious as the flowing of a stream of blossom!

Her voice more entrancing than the laughter of a sparkling spring!

Her nature as fluidly gregarious as an elegant swooping of swallows!

Oh, how anyone would have loved her!

(I speak from experience, as you may already have reasoned!)

But – enough of my views, of my exclamations.

For her love, unfortunately, was never for me.

It was rather, for a handsome, dashing captain.

(And isn’t this always the case?)

She lived, even then, on the dark edges of the forest.

An area otherwise set aside for goblins, fairies, and other ne’er-do-wells.

From her window, she would stare out into the endlessly swirling snow.

(For hadn’t I already explained that this was a land of snow and ice? I hadn’t? Then please forgive me, for I should surely be excused for presuming that such a tale as this could only ever take place within an environment that most people would wisely avoid.)

Within that magical mix of darkness and its lacework of snow, many things could be seen, could be conjured up, within the minds of those capable of the wildest imaginings.

Yet she retained her reason, for she only ever imagined, only ever hoped, that he must return from the apparently ceaseless wars he was forever being ordered to set out upon.

He was her love.

Her other side.

Her dearest, her spirit, her very being.

And without him, she could not live!

He would appear from out of that swirling snow, at first his form surprisingly arising from the shapes existing within the darkness; and then – more surprisingly still, as if the world had been turned about upon its very head! – he would seem to be a part of the snow itself, it’s whirls taking form, solidifying, the exhausted soldier upon his weary horse.

She would rush out, out into that whirling snow, those streaming flakes of frozen seas, of icy lakes, of crystallised rivers; and they would dance about her as if weaving the most perfect of wedding gowns.

‘Marry me,’ he at last groaned with longing, with love. ‘Will you marry me?’

And the darkness that sat about him garbed him in the most perfect suit for a groom

‘Yes,’ she answered at last, with love, with longing, ‘I will!’

So naturally he made his promise; that he would wrap his loving embrace about her, and clothe her in his longing.

 

 

*

 

 

But even as they were married, he was once again called away to war.

And so, wrapped in her wedding gown of swirling snow, she morosely watched as he rode away, the funeral black garb of the night swiftly enveloping him; until it seemed he had been nothing more than an imaginary flight of fancy brought into being by swarming flakes.

Forever after, since that day, she would endlessly glance out of that very same window, waiting for his return.

She would stare out into that unceasingly swirling snow, out into an area otherwise set aside for goblins, fairies, and other ne’er-do-wells.

She lived, then, on the dark edges of the forest, perhaps even of reason; for she only ever imagined, only ever hoped, that he must return from the apparently everlasting wars he was eternally being ordered to set out upon.

He was her love.

Her other side.

Her dearest, her spirit, her very being.

And without him, she could not live!

When he finally returned, she reassured herself, she would rush out, out into that whirling snow, those streaming flakes of frozen seas, of icy lakes, of crystallised rivers; and they would dance as if weaving between them the most perfect of wedding gowns.

One night, the swirling of the snow, the wailing of the winds, they enticed her, they called her.

He’s here, the voices said.

He’s here, the swirling flakes promised her, granting her glimpses of his return.

They weaved between each other, those flakes, those strands of frozen streams, of icy lakes, of crystallised seas; they made the man divest himself of the funeral garb of darkness, made him accept instead the angelic glow of wraith-like moonbeams, of sparkling stars, of purest, spiritualised matter.

She ran, ran from her house, her house of logs, of wood and earth.

She was naked, of course, for he would envelope her in his warmth, his love.

He would wrap his loving embrace about her, and clothe her in his longing.

 

 

*

 

 

Eventually even the villagers, when they could be bothered to think of her, realised that the old woman hadn’t been seen for a long time in the shop, in the tavern, on the green.

A group of men set out, heading towards the edge of the forest, already telling themselves what they would find, what they had found so many times on similar expeditions: a frail, withered body, partially mummified by the freezing cold, still sitting in her favourite chair, or lying beneath stiffened bedsheets.

But the old woman wasn’t seated in her chair.

She wasn’t lying in her bed.

She wasn’t even lying out in the snow, which was another favourite spot chosen by those reaching the end of their time on Earth.

The men searched deeper in the forest, shuddering at the thought of wolves, of bears, of the malicious dark spirits of the forest.

‘Mercy me,’ they groaned, longing to be by their own hearths once more, ‘she’s gone, it’s God’s will.’

And so they set off home, set off back to their cabins made reassuringly of logs, of wood and earth.

But as they morosely made their way back to the village, the swirling of the snow, the wailing of the winds, enticed them, called to them.

‘I’m here,’ the voice said, tinkling with all the laughter and joy of a young, vibrant girl.

‘I’m here,’ the swirling flakes teased, granting glimpses of her as they weaved between each other.

It was the angelic glow of wraith-like moonbeams, of sparkling stars, of purest, spiritualised matter.

She ran, ran from them, from their strange world of logs, of wood and earth.

The men couldn’t follow, of course, their muscles being more knotted than the roots of a tree, their bones crackling like fire whenever they moved.

While she was naked, of course.

For he would envelope her in his warmth, his love.

For that had always been his promise; that he would wrap his loving embrace about her, and clothe her in his longing.

 

 

*

Chapter 12

 

As they were avoiding the road and keeping instead to the ancient, well-beaten track running alongside the river, the carriage Helen and the empress were travelling in rocked uncomfortably back and forth and swayed disconcertingly from side to side.

Even so, the game pieces remained firmly locked into their positions upon the board, which had itself been placed within the centre of the carriage.

Every now and again, Helen eyed the game suspiciously, as if it were drawing life out of her, stealing her very soul.

The view outside the carriage was even worse, even more foreboding.

Through the small, curtained windows, Helen would observe the mass of crows that had set themselves to following the meandering column. They would rest every so often amongst the trees, abruptly darkening the previously snow-white branches as if there had been an abrupt burgeoning of the very darkest of leaves.

‘Yes, she’s keeping track of us,’ the empress casually declared, noting Helen’s interest in the massed crows.

With a flick of her eyes, she drew Helen’s attention back to the board. One of the pieces, one of a black cloud of crows, had moved to a new position upon the board, one just lying a few squares outside of the empress’s own line up of pieces.

Helen couldn’t remember seeing this piece before. Perhaps, then, she reasoned, the pieces not only changed positions but also their forms.

‘It’s unnerving the men: the way the crows are so obviously observing us,’ Helen said.

The empress nodded, her face free of any expression of either concern or nonchalance.

‘It’s only natural that they would feel this way,’ she agreed, warily glancing towards another, more forebodingly formed piece upon the board as she added, ‘It will be even worse when the wolves start gathering.’

 

 

*

Chapter 13

 

‘I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to ask any more favours of your father; but it may be that we will require more of his men to ensure our safe passage.’

‘Does he know who – what – we’re up against: the use of magic? Of the darkness?’

‘I think…he suspects that this would be the case.’

‘What chance have men against such forces? We’d be requesting their help only to be sending them to their doom!’

‘You forget that we also have control of those forces.’

‘Then why would you need more of my father’s men?’ Helen snapped more aggressively than she had intended.

She had been fooled by the empress into accessing the forces of darkness!

Her father had already been fooled into providing the empress with the men that had accompanied Helen.

And all so the empress could steal the True Cross!

The empress observed Helen thoughtfully.

‘So, did you enjoy the tale of the old woman?’ she asked innocently.

‘Yes; though I saw it as a tale of an endlessly young woman,’ Helen replied discourteously.

Despite Helen’s impoliteness, which bordered on a triumphant sneer, the empress smiled as if pleased by her answer.

‘Good, good: that’s the way it should be seen. Like those things both veiled and revealed within the swirling of the snow, we can never take for granted what we believe we merely see.’

She looked towards Helen now with a probing stare, one that implied she was expecting a certain response from the young girl: as Helen saw it, the empress was somehow aware that something was being hidden from her.

This was her way of granting Helen an opportunity to admit that there was a secret to be revealed, a burden to be shared.

Helen hoped that she was simply imagining all this, that she was reading far too much into the empress’s stilled glare.

She said nothing, despite fearing that she might have appeared more tight-lipped than was good for her.

The sparkle in the eyes of the empress changed a little, a dulling of their glow: Helen’s silence had surprised the empress, maybe even hurt her a little.

With a pang of regret, Helen realised she should have said something.

The empress had sensed that she was holding something back.

 

 

*

 

 

There was a knock on the side of the carriage, even though they were still making their way along the rough track.

The empress pulled aside one of the wooden shutters that covered one of the larger windows, revealing the commander of the legionaries riding alongside. He bent low in his saddle so that he could talk to her through the opening.

Before he spoke, Helen guessed what his message would be: that they were being gradually surrounded by wolves.

On the board, a piece had drawn closer to the empress’s side, a piece made up of wolves slinking through undergrowth.

The commander also added, however, that the men were becoming increasingly edgy, as it was obvious to them that this wasn’t natural behaviour, either for the wolves or the darkly flocking crows.

‘The crows are nothing to worry about, Optio,’ the empress replied dismissively. ‘Neither are the wolves for the moment; though you can order our archers to take care of any they feel able to bring down.’

With a salute, the Optio swung his mount aside. The empress pulled the shutter closed once more, blocking out the cold swirls of snow.

‘I wonder why she’s holding off from attacking?’

The empress said it as if she were merely speaking out aloud while asking herself this question. Even so, she once again gave Helen that quizzical stare that seemed to be demanding something of the young girl: such as an admission, perhaps, that she knew the answer.

Not wishing to make the mistake she had before, when she’d said nothing in reply, Helen pointed out that Fausta might be simply waiting to gather her forces.

The empress pouted doubtfully, yet gave the slightest nod of her head, as if accepting this as a reasonable answer.

‘You know, Helen,’ she said, ‘I can no longer guarantee your safety. It would have been best to let you return to your father; but now that your powers have been awakened, Fausta would undoubtedly chase you down. It is only if we stay and work together that we have any chance of overcoming her.’

The empress’s eyes locked directly with Helen’s, her gaze challenging, perhaps demanding honesty of her.

Helen recognised that she was probably reading far too much into these stares of the empress, no doubt her own guilt playing a part: and yet she couldn’t help but think the empress was somehow well aware that the trust between them had gone.

Hadn’t there been a hint of accusation in the empress’s tone when she had mentioned the need to stick together?

‘Where is your father at the moment?’ the empress asked. ‘Where are most of his warriors presently based?’

‘He’s far north of here, on the coast: putting down the uprising of a rebellious lord.’

The empress briefly pondered this before saying, ‘So, even if we managed to get a message to him in time, and he was prepared to leave putting down this rebellion until later, the countryside they’d have to travel over is so wild it would only cause further dela–’

Her comment was interrupted as the carriage came to an urgent halt.

Rather than taking a look outside, the empress instinctively glanced towards the board.

A towering, dark presence occupied the board’s centre.

The empress sighed miserably.

‘The Angel of Death; now that is a surprise!’

 

 

*

Chapter 14

 

Grabbing her cloak, wrapping it tightly about her, the empress hurriedly opened the carriage’s door and stepped outside. She indicated that Helen should do the same, and follow on behind.

Outside, the cold was biting, despite their cloaks. For some reason, the empress wasn’t utilising her magical powers to keep them warm as she had the previous night.

Perhaps she didn’t want to waste any magical energies, if that was how it worked, thought Helen. Or maybe she didn’t want it to be so obvious to everyone within the column that she was capable of using the darkness.

The whole column had come to a standstill. The foot soldiers stamped their feet to keep warm, their padded garments already soaked with melted snow. Horses whinnied anxiously, no doubt as aware of the presence of the wolves as the men were, if not more so.

Beyond the edges of the stilled procession, everything was perfectly silent, every sound muted completely by the all-absorbing covering of snow. There was a twang of a bow, the dulled yelp of a shadow out in the fields briefly flipping over as an arrow struck it: the empress watched, unimpressed.

Having seen the forces gathering against them on the game board, Helen understood the empress’s disdain for the archer’s vain attempt at evening the odds – yet it at least helped reassure the men that they retained some control over their situation.

The swirling snow parted urgently as the Optio charged towards them, riding back through the stationary column from his usual place at its head, his red cloak flowing out behind him like spilled blood.

The horse’s eyes, however, where as white and globular as snowballs, her rider struggling to bring her to a halt. She would quite obviously have preferred to continue her frenzied dash away from the column’s head. She breathed heavily, clouds of hot moisture emanating from flaring nostrils.

‘My lady, there’s…’

The Optio grimaced, unable to come up with the right words to describe why he had brought the column to a halt.

‘Yes, yes,’ the empress said helpfully, fully realising his reticence to describe what he’d seen, ‘I’ll come along.’

‘My lady, I’m not sure that’s wise, for it–’

The empress raised a hand to silence his protestations.

‘I’ll be fine, Optio, I assure you! I presume you haven’t ordered anyone to attack…this blockage?’

Like the Optio, the empress didn’t want to panic those standing around them by accurately describing what lay in their way.

‘I thought it best not to…aggravate it.’

‘Good,’ the empress replied, pleased that no one had been foolish enough to try and take on this otherworld creature. ‘I’d like to observe it for myself, however.’

She strode out past the halted carriages and their curious occupants, indicating once again that Helen should walk with her. Helen had to skip and make a little jump to catch up with the empress who, despite her impressive age, was even more impressively and unnaturally sprightly.

Was it, Helen wondered distrustfully, due to her ability to access the powers of the darkness?

If Helen had ever had any doubts about just how powerful that darkness could be, they vanished as they neared the head of the column. Her misgivings, however, were abruptly magnified.

The darkness was total here, as if what little light of the sun that penetrated the snow had been completely quenched.

Yet even more astonishingly, the snow itself was no longer white, but entirely black.

 

 

*

 

 

The edginess of the men and horses increased the farther the empress and Helen made their way up the column.

The men muttered fearfully amongst each other, failing to mute their complaints even as the empress made her way through them.

They shivered, but not from the freezing cold alone.

They grasped nervously at spears, at shields; at their hearts.

Out in the darkness, the wolves could now be heard howling. Yet their wails were full of lament, as if they, too, feared the complete lack of light.

There was not even any moon to direct their wailing grievances at.

The armour of the men glinted a little here and there, yet only from the light that lay far behind them. Some of the men, Helen saw, had attempted to light lanterns; but even these appeared to have had all their brightness sucked from them, the flames little more than rose petals flicking in a light breeze.

‘Wait here,’ the empress ordered her men, some of them hesitantly stepping out of line to protectively accompany her as she headed deeper into the darkness.

The order was not directed at Helen, however.

Once again, the empress indicated that the young girl must follow her into the darkness.

Everything within Helen screamed at her that she should refuse: her heart beat wildly, her lungs abruptly seemed devoid of air; her throat constricted, painfully, tightly; her blood rushed around her body, her brain near exploding with the sudden increase in pressure behind her eyes; her muscles tensed, her bones ached, stiffened, as if refusing to move.

This darkness wasn’t a normal darkness in any sense.

She felt it rippling over her skin, oil-like in its touch. It beat with a steady rhythm, as if alive, possessing its own deeply drumming heart. It swelled and ebbed, as if breathing.

The farther they stepped into the darkness, the darker it seemed to become, such that when Helen fearfully glanced over her shoulder, looking back the way they had come, there was now very little light even there. The column of men, horses and carriages stretching out from the edges of the cloud of oily darkness appeared from here to be entirely enveloped in an evening’s swiftly darkening sky.

The surrounding darkness now pummelled her, drawing her attention back to the thickening blackness they were heading into, the blows like those of an increasingly fierce wind. The darkness swirled, much as snow whirls in gusts, but here the flakes were of a deep, pure black.

Somewhere from within that blindness there came the regular thrumming of vast wings, of feasibly innumerable wings. The textures of uncountable feathers were just visible if one looked extremely closely, ridiculously intently: and having formed this image in your mind, following the idea of these wings back to a central point, it was at last possible to define the darkness as a colossal creature seated astride what must have once been the pathway.

‘You? Was it you that called me?’ the Angel of Death demanded angrily.

 

 

*

Chapter 15

 

‘No, not me,’ the empress calmly replied, craning her neck right back, looking up as if trying to distinguish the point where the very top of a looming tower faded into the night.

Helen could just make the empress out in this darkness, a dim sheen now bathing her, the merest shadow of light coming from high above; emanating from two glowering eyes, a snarling mouth.

‘Who then? Who would call me?’

‘One who seems to have acquired more powers than I believed possible.’

‘What does she request from me? She gave me no commands, other than that I should wait awhile.’

‘A while?’

‘A while for me, as you know, is a great time in your realm.’

‘Then; I assure you, we will make no attempt to pass.’

‘That is wise. Then you can wait?’

The empress shook her head.

‘Not for as long as “a while” takes in your realm.’

The angel shrugged.

‘I did wonder.’

‘We can go around you: I take it, if you have received no commands, that you won’t make any other attempt to block our passage?’

‘I think I’ve already done far more than I should, don’t you?’

‘I agree; far, far more than anyone should realistically expect of you.’

The angel nodded sagely in response to the empress’s comment.

‘I’m glad someone understands our relative positions!’

He bent forward a little, stretching out to look over a column that still seemed to be lying in darkness, frowning in the manner of someone trying to work something out.

‘What…what do you carry there?’

Without glancing back over her shoulder, the empress replied confidently, suggesting she knew what the angel must have detected hidden amongst the carriages.

‘It’s the cross: the True Cross.’

Helen almost jumped with a start at this admission: she knew, of course, that Mary had told the truth when she had claimed that the empress had stolen the cross, yet she was still surprised that the thief had openly proclaimed her guilt while she was standing alongside her.

No doubt the empress realised it wouldn’t be wise to lie to the Angel of Death.

‘Hmn, interesting,’ the angel mused. ‘No wonder someone called me up to try and stop your passage.’

‘Then…you will let us pass?’ the empress asked hopefully.

The angel shook his head sadly.

‘No…I have to wait here…a while.’

‘I understand,’ the empress said with a slight nod of her head. ‘Then we will leave you to ponder your dilemma.’

The angel replied with a gentle nod of his own head, along with an amused grin.

‘I’m glad someone understands that it is indeed a dilemma I face!’

 

 

*

 

 

A wolf drew closer, his eyes warily focused upon the angel, his steps hesitant.

He took one step too many: and instantly flopped to the ground, all life immediately sucked out of him.

The angel shook his head, amazed at such foolishness.

‘Obviously,’ the empress said, having seen what had happen to the wolf, ‘she isn’t yet fully aware of your nature.’

‘Indeed,’ the angel agreed, ‘what other explanation could there be for her arrogance in seeking my help?’

‘Even so,’ the empress said, chuckling bitterly, ‘she seems far from ready to earn her place in the Box of Fools!’

The angel briefly laughed along with her.

‘She sees your time is waning,’ he said wisely. ‘She’s simply beginning to claim – earlier than she should be, admittedly – what she sees as rightfully hers.’

‘She learns quickly.’

With a scowl of agreement, the angel let his cold gaze suddenly fall upon Helen.

‘And what of your own apprentice?’ he asked.

Apprentice? Helen was scandalised that the angel had used such a dreadful term.

Is that what she was regarded as being?

An apprentice in accessing the powers of darkness?

‘She too learns quickly–’

‘I mean…do you trust her?’

The empress hesitated, before replying honestly.

‘I did.’

The angel laughed mischievously as the empress apologetically glanced Helen’s way.

‘You know, I think she really was surprised by…your honesty, if not your answer.’

Helen did indeed appear shocked by the empress’s admission, her expression perhaps even one of anguished injury.

‘It isn’t wise to tell a lie when standing before the Angel of Death,’ the empress said coolly.

‘So…do you wish to ask anything of your apprentice, while she stands before me?’

Helen realised that the angel was giving the empress the opportunity to discover exactly how the trust between them had been destroyed.

The empress continued to look Helen’s way, her own eyes now also full of an anguished sadness.

‘No,’ she said firmly. ‘No, I don’t.’

 

 

*

Chapter 16

 

They had no choice but to turn away from the river they had been following, heading out across what was undoubtedly more arduous going.

They had left behind every carriage but one, along with those people who weren’t necessary for the safety of the column. The empress had assured them they had nothing to fear from the angel unless they made the mistake of drawing closer, while the wolves would also leave them alone, as their appointed task was to follow the column.

As the empress had promised, the wolves did indeed stay with the column, dark shapes amongst the snow, running silently along its flanks. They ensured that the column had no choice but to continue heading for higher ground, the wolves preventing them from swinging to one side and re-joining their original course at a point where the angel could have no effect upon them.

The baby Magnus, along with his nursemaid, had been moved to the carriage containing the True Cross. Even the empress’s coach had been left behind, such that both she and Helen had been given horses to ride.

As they rode together through the fiercely swirling snow, their heads down despite the shawls they had wrapped around their faces, the leader of the men Helen had brought with her trotted alongside, lamenting their change of course as he warily eyed the shadowing wolves.

‘They’re keeping us from the very place where we could easily see them off: we’d prepared defences earlier at Constantinople–’

‘Constantinople?’ Naturally, the empress recognised the inclusion of her son’s name within the hamlet’s name.

‘Father re-named it in honour of your visit,’ Helen explained, ‘just as he intends to rename the river we had been following: Afon Bannon – River of the Empress.’

‘That is indeed an honour, and when I see you father I must thank him personally,’ the empress replied, adding, ‘The preparation of defences there also explains why our journey towards them has been deliberately blocked; the wolves mean to attack soon.’

‘I could send messages to the king that we require more warriors,’ the men’s leader offered.

Helen sensed a bitter resentment flooding through her as her father’s man made this proposal. Why should her father’s men be sacrificed simply to help this woman steal such a priceless treasure? Yet she also realised she was being unfair: her father had ordered the man to ensure the safety not only of her but also of the empress and her charges.

She had, of course, considered ordering her father’s men to wrest control of the column from the empress’s legionaries: but even under normal circumstances, such a mutiny wouldn’t be assured of success, while the empress’s ability to call up the dark arts meant it could only end in the unnecessary deaths of these men. Besides, how would she persuade her men to desert the empress anyway, when they had sworn to protect her?

‘Your king is busy, I’ve heard,’ the empress said in response to the soldier’s offer. ‘No matter: we have more than enough men and arms to deal with any attack. But you should warn your men to stay alert and make sure they don’t let the wolves slip amongst us as we struggle against the snow!’

With a nod of obedience, the leader peeled his mount aside, placing his horse into a slight gallop as he rode off into the thickly veiling snow.

‘Why did you turn down the offer of more men?’ Helen asked the empress curiously, remembering their earlier discussion about the possible need for reinforcements. ‘Do you think the angels will be enough to protect us?’

The empress shock her head miserably in reply.

‘As I’ve said before, the angels will expect us to show a willingness to fight our own battles. And as for the question of the use of extra men, well…’

She paused, as if reflecting on the wisdom of saying too much.

‘Well,’ she said determinedly, ‘as it seems Fausta has more power than I’d allowed for, the more men we gather here can now only make our situation worse.’

 

 

*

Chapter 17

 

It was such an odd thing to say: ‘the more men we gather here can now only make our situation worse.’

How could that possibly be true?

The empress hadn’t made any attempt to explain further: rather, she’d peeled away from riding alongside Helen, much as the solider had done only moments before.

Ostensibly, she wanted to check up on the admittedly laborious progress of the carriage, yet Helen couldn’t help but think it had been nothing more than an excuse to ensure the empress couldn’t be persuaded to divulge any more information: as if the empress felt she’d already said too much, or more than she’d originally intended at least.

Helen was tired of having to constantly try and work these things out for herself. The cold, when out on a horse as opposed to being inside a relatively warmer carriage, was far more bitter than she had realised, something she felt deeply ashamed of as she would normally have ridden with her men. The thick woollen cloak only kept out so much of the freezing wind, while it was already soaked with melted snow, such that it lay heavily across her shoulders.

The thick shawl around her face naturally failed to protect her eyes, her vision blurring as they watered, as the tears froze in pearl-like droplets across her eyelashes.

She just wanted the steady rocking of her mount to send her to sleep for a while.

 

 

*

 

 

Mary was riding alongside her on a donkey.

And cradled within her arms, tightly wrapped in swaddling clothes, was the Christ Child.

Mary glanced Helen’s way, smiled lovingly.

‘I’m Mary the Mother, the Loving and Nurturing Myrrhbearer: for like this, he appears innocent enough,’ she said, indicating the child in her arms as she began to pull back his covering, ‘and yet how will he be if raised badly, especially as the blood runs so deep?’

It wasn’t the Christ Child in her arms after all, but the empress’s grandson Magnus: Helen recognised the richness of his garments.

She was about to express fear for the child being left uncovered in this weather, but they were abruptly reasonably warm and out of the wind, suddenly appearing within the interior of the carriage.

The nursemaid was dozing, despite the violent rocking of the carriage as it cumbersomely snagged again and again on the stones it was travelling over. Magnus too was fast asleep, as usual (causing Helen to wonder what sort of spell the empress might have placed him under), as well as being back in his crib.

The game board had also been placed within this carriage, its pieces all firmly locked into place. The positions and forms of the pieces, however, had changed considerably since Helen had last seen the game. And, most worryingly of all, the pieces of her own set had moved and changed, a sign that she had been unintentionally accessing the powers even as she tried to resist it.

The game, the darkness, was sucking her into its orbit.

‘Take a closer look at the game,’ Mary said calmly, ‘and you will learn something.’

Helen was at first surprised by Mary’s invite to learn something from the game, this game of the dark arts: but then Mary pointed to the crows represented hovering alongside the empress’s set, declaring adamantly, ‘This is not a piece of Fausta’s, as you might suppose, but one of the old empress’s.’

Helen grimaced in confusion.

‘Why would the empress terrify her own men? It makes no sense!’

‘And this?’ Ignoring the questions, Mary indicated a piece in the form of whirling snow storms curling over a number of squares. ‘Again, under the empress’s control!’

‘She’s delaying her own theft of the cross?’

‘In storms as bad as this, who can prevent that theft?’

‘My father: he will be appalled when he hears what the empress attempts!’

‘Then you would sacrifice your father and his men to no purpose. We’re both aware that the empress wouldn’t refrain from utilising her powers!’

Helen took in the positioning, the elaborate forms, of the game pieces once more, swallowing hard as she contemplated what she must do.

‘I could learn quickly: use my own powers!’

Mary smiled kindly, but shook her head.

‘No: that would be truly foolish. No one can resist the hold it takes on you.’

‘The empress says there is someone far worse than her: I might have to…help the empress defeat her.’

‘Someone worse than her? Someone who also dabbles in this game?’

The insinuation was clear: the more you became involved in the game, the worse you would become.

‘Yet surely with your help, Mary, Mother of God,’ Helen said hopefully, ‘I could be spared its worst effects?’

Mary smiled once more, this time perhaps amused by Helen’s naivety.

‘My child, don’t you realise that everyone who accesses the darkness holds out the hope that they will ultimately be saved if everything slips out of their control?’

‘But surely you can forgive–’

‘Yes, just as I now forgive your own accessing of the dark arts.’

With a fleetingly brief sidelong glance, Mary indicated Helen’s pieces upon the board.

‘You can still be saved, but not if you continue with your foolishness. The darkness will have absorbed so much of your light that there will be nothing left to save: your life and soul wiped out at the stroke of the Devil’s Quill!’

 

 

*

Chapter 18

 

The Devil’s Quill

What does a young man do when the girl of his dreams has her own eyes on someone else?

What chance does a poor, young bookkeeper have in attracting the attention of a young lady who’s used to living a life of wealth?

He meets her regularly, every day.

But only in passing, only as she passes through his room of work, perhaps briefly delighting him by asking if he’s seen her father head this way.

If he has seen her father, he knows for sure that his rich and busy employer hasn’t responded in kind by noticing him. For the young man works virtually ignored by his employer, who regards the bookkeeper as being of little more importance to him than other items of his business; such as the desk required for writing on, the chair for seating, the floor for walking upon.

But there was one advantage, the young man found, of being taken for granted: for he received very little attention, and almost no overseeing of his work. And so, a little by little, with a little something replacing something else, he began to tilt the books he was writing up just a little in his favour.

Of course, he bided his time. The young mistress was hardly one to be impressed by a small windfall.

No, it would have to be evidence of a great inheritance: only something of that magnitude would impress someone like the delightful love of his dreams.

 

 

*

 

 

Naturally, when you’re replacing something for something, something has to give.

The manipulation of the books caused mayhem within the real world: the world of loan repayments that had to be made, of houses that had to be paid for, of goods that would only be delivered on the regular honouring of bills.

Families were cast out from their homes, thrown off farms, or out of businesses that had been successfully run for generations. Not a few ended up in prison.

But the upside of all this was that the young bookkeeper soon had enough money set aside to at last begin to give the impression that he had received a huge legacy. He dressed elegantly, hired carriages to transport him in comfort about town, rented a fine house, ate well, including at the best restaurants.

He announced his good fortune to his employer, stating that he still wished, of course, to remain as an employee of such a wise, such a talented, such a gracious man: for hadn’t he learned so much about running a successful business while being lucky enough to be in the great man’s employment?

Indeed, he stated highhandedly, he had been so impressed by the success of the business that he wished to invest his own new and not inconsiderable fortune within the company.

Naturally, he expected something for something.

A partnership, perhaps?

Cemented by a betrothal to the great man’s delightful daughter?

 

 

*

 

 

The contracts were drawn up. For both the partnership and the marriage.

The daughter was not at all amiss to marrying a young man of such surprisingly good fortune. As she told her friends, as she told herself, hadn’t she always secretly admired the handsome young bookkeeper’s quite obvious business acumen, his profound ability with figures? She had always recognised him as a man who would one day go far!

And of course, the young man was ever so briefly ecstatically happy with his new, vastly improved situation.

But the books, the books…it was becoming ever more difficult for him to balance a little something for something else.

He became frustratingly caught up in a complicated web of his own making, having to spend longer and longer tracking down accounts that held real as opposed to imaginary amounts of money. And naturally, the richer he was supposed to be, the more he had to spend, with the grand house, the emblazoned carriages, and the host of servants.

He had become the partner of a great firm that was built only on paper. There was nothing for him to steal from it anymore.

The day of reckoning was drawing closer. His fall seemed inevitable.

Instead, he was offered the opportunity of an entirely new partnership.

 

 

*

 

 

Now, it was only ‘new’ in the sense that it was ‘new’ to the young man,

In fact, it was one of the most ancient forms of partnership.

‘I see you have a most pressing problem,’ the exotically dressed man said, approaching the young man as he fearfully made his way to his office and his doctored books, ‘but we can rid you of that problem at the stroke of a pen.’

‘How would you know of any problems I might have?’ the young man snorted disrespectfully.

‘I know many things: many things that many men could only wish they knew,’ the apparently eminent man calmly replied. ‘I know, for instance, of your – shall we say predilection? – for switching something else for a little something.’

‘Who are you?’ the young man demand, his brow lowered in suspicion.

Had his father-in-law discovered his skulduggery? he wondered fearfully. Had this man been sent to challenge him, to accuse him and carry him off to court and, eventually, prison?

‘I’m the man who can help you, who can help you in your precarious balancing of what for what within your books. Naturally, it involves a little quid pro quo; or, if you prefer, something for something. But surely no one these days expects something for nothing?’

‘So what is this something that I pay? And what is this something I receive?’ the intrigued young man asked.

‘The something you receive? Why, that’s as much as you want it to be: whatever riches you wish to grant yourself. As for something that must be paid? Well, as you have already witnessed, someone must pay when their money becomes yours; a householder put out on the streets, the children improvised and starving. But of what concern is that to you?’

‘Then…there is no payment regarding souls?’

The young man was not a fool: he had realised who he was dealing with. And, of course, he had heard the stories that warned us to beware making a deal with such an apparently charming man.

The man chuckled warmly; and in the flash of a set of the most perfect teeth, they were suddenly in the young bookkeeper’s office.

‘I assure you, these are only silly myths you’ve heard, promulgated by bleeding hearts!’

With a flourish, he produced a contract, handing it to the young man with a slight nod of the head indicating that he was quite welcome to read its details.

‘Oh, yes, yes: to be honest, I should admit that such an important contract naturally requires signing with blood,’ he added, handing the young man a quill with blood rather than ink on its nib. ‘But naturally, if you find the effort too strenuous, then you won’t be signing it, will you? It’s such a small price to pay, after all, in view of the immense wealth you’ll receive!’

The young man began to sign the contract, grimaced a little in pain as the quill drew on his blood for its ink. As the man had promised, however, it wasn’t a pain that made him question the wisdom of signing a contract that, in its details, mentioned nothing of souls.

He grimaced all the more as he signed his own copy of the contract, but reassured himself that the pain would soon be over, whereas a whole lifetime of immense pleasure awaited him.

As the man rolled up his own copy of the contract, the young bookkeeper offered his quill back to him.

‘Oh keep it, keep it,’ the Devil said happily, ‘it’s yours now; the Quid Pro Quo Quill.’

‘That’s it?’ the young man exclaimed, aghast. ‘That’s all I receive?’

‘Try it,’ the Devil replied casually, looking down at the pen still held in the man’s hand. ‘Write any figure you desire in the correct column in your books!’

The young man frowned doubtfully: but did as he was commanded, beginning to write down a substantial amount in the ‘received’ column.

It wasn’t as much as he had hoped to write: the agony of putting down each number was intense, the quill drawing on his blood for its sustenance. The sweat was pouring from him as he finished; but then, it was a great sum indeed that he had awarded himself.

The young man smiled with satisfaction – then scowled in disappointment approaching fury when it dawned on him that there was no proof that the sum actually existed anywhere but within his ledger.

‘How do I know–’

–‘That it really exists?’ The devil grinned. ‘I should be affronted that you would think I would resort to such deceit! I assure you, your coffers are now as full as your column!’

In the flash of his mischievous eyes, they were transported to the well-fortified cellars of the partnership’s offices: and the gold glittered there, as real as the glittering scrawl of blood in the ledger.

 

 

*

 

 

The Devil vanished, but the young bookkeeper didn’t mind.

He elatedly ran back to his ledgers. Despite the agony of writing out each number, he laughed as he excitedly wrote out another substantial figure in the columns.

The only thing controlling his avarice was the torment of the quill’s thirst for his blood. If he were ever particularly greedy on a particular day – he found he had to begin limiting himself to one sum of money a day – it left him shaking and weak, sometimes even a little gaunt and aged.

Even so, over the next few months the riches he acquired easily made him the wealthiest man for miles around.

As the Devil had promised, with such riches there came misery for others; the business that failed, the farms that had to be sold. But what was this suffering to him, when he lived far away from where he could see its results?

His father-in-law, however, had noticed the connection between his son-in-law’s vast sudden accumulation of wealth and the unexpected impoverishment of people he’d once regarded as friends. For the first time in years, he checked the ledgers for any ‘indiscretions’, as he himself was want to call them: and was truly aghast when he came across figures that appeared to have been conjured up out of nothing more than the wildest imaginings of his partner.

Confronting his son-in-law with the threat of informing the relevant authorities, the man produced their original contract of partnership, insisting that the bookkeeper nullify it by striking his own name out from it. The bookkeeper (perhaps we should no longer call him the young bookkeeper, as he had considerably aged beyond his years) was incensed: and instead of striking out his own name, he viciously scrawled through his father-in-law’s name.

I’ve made this company what it is!’ he stormed. ‘You can be the one who–’

He never finished his declaration. For as he finished striking out his father-in-law’s name, using the quill he’d been naturally holding in his hand, the old man dropped down dead in front of him.

 

 

*

 

 

The bookkeeper consoled his heartbroken wife with the reassurance that her father had had a good and reasonably long life. His later years had been particularly enjoyable, thanks to the extra wealth garnered from the success of their partnership,

He tempered her sorrow with the promise of a funeral the likes of which had never been seen in their land.

It was agreed by everyone that the old man had died of a failing of the heart.

After all, what else could it possibly be?

The aged bookkeeper, of course, knew exactly what it could be.

It had been the quill, and the striking of his father-in-law’s name from the contract.

To check that his assumption was correct, the aged bookkeeper took out another contract, one drawn up long ago between his own company and that of a now worthless man. Taking the quill, gritting his teeth as he tried to ignore the agony of using it, he struck out the worthless man’s name.

The man died, the aged bookkeeper later heard, while happily drinking with friends. His death was naturally put down to his problems with drink.

What else could it be?

The aged bookkeeper was astounded by these new powers he’s discovered lying within his quill.

He could take a life, at the stroke of a pen!

First, he took care of those businessmen who had somehow managed to best him in earlier deals.

Then came those who, over the years, had slighted him.

Next came people he was affronted by during his daily life: the man who wouldn’t give way to him on the street, the woman who resisted his advances, even the child who let a ball fly into and damage his garden.

His wife, too, when she decided to leave him, having become weary of his incessant anger and his increasingly haggard appearance.

He no longer cared for her anyway.

He was richer and more powerful than he could have ever believed possible.

And the quill had another, greater ability beyond even his wildest imaginings.

For the ancient bookkeeper discovered that when he signed his own name to a contract, no matter its supposed insignificance, and despite the incredible agonies it caused him, it helped him live yet another day – to the amazement of those who believed he looked and sounded like he had just stepped from the grave.

Even the Devil, when he reappeared in the offices of the ancient bookkeeper, was disgusted by the deteriorated state of his onetime young protégé.

‘This is not what the quill was granted to you for!’ the Devil complained.

‘Hah, you underestimated my abilities at discovering its true power,’ the ancient bookkeeper proudly sneered. ‘I’ve been relishing the thought of your return!’

He flourished his copy of the contract they had made between them: and using the quill, struck the Devil’s name from its base!

 

 

*

 

 

The Devil pouted in happy bemusement as he peered down at his scrawled-out name.

‘What have you done?’ he asked, perhaps with a light-heartedness that should have worried the ancient bookkeeper.

The ancient bookkeeper struck out the Devil’s name once again, screaming in a mix of triumph and agony as he did so.

‘Tut-tut,’ the Devil said in amused admonishment, ‘my life stretches far deeper than most!’

With shrieks of self-inflicted torture, the ancient bookkeeper struck out the Devil’s name again and again.

The Devil nonchalantly sat on the edge of the ancient bookkeeper’s desk, staring down with counterfeit sadness at the ruined contract

‘Ah, I see what you’re attempting: but I’m afraid that as my name appears in countless places, it’s not an easy one to completely strike out.’

The Devil brought the frenzied scratching of the quill to an end by tenderly placing a frighteningly hot finger on the back of the ancient bookkeeper’s hand.

‘But I tell you what,’ he said with a surprising tone of consideration, ‘I’m a good man at heart, and not at all drawn to vengeance as many people suppose. And so although I should be furious that you’re deleting my name from so many texts, I’ll forgive you as long as you rewrite all those histories for me: maybe, who knows, even giving me a better name? One less feared? One with kinder qualities? A more considerate, more tender man? Yes, yes; the better the qualities you grant me, the more I’ll ensure your suffering is alleviated!’

He smiled kindly as he lifted his burning finger from the back of the petrified bookkeeper’s hand.

The ancient bookkeeper found himself writing with the quill yet again, each letter being agonisingly strained from his blood. And the parchment he was writing upon was endless, for it was being painfully drawn from his own stretched and increasingly shredded skin.

His work was lit by a lantern, one burning the oils from his own body, thereby ensuring it would never dim.

The Devil chuckled graciously as he vanished once more.

‘Oh dear: my history does go back a very long way, doesn’t it?’

 

 

*

Chapter 19

 

The swirling snow was so cold it scratched painfully at the bared flesh of her face, the blood retreating, leaving everything stretched and taut. The surface of her eyes felt glazed, as if like slightly iced-over pools.

Close by her, the darker shapes moving through the thick veils of whirling flakes had changed. They were lower to the ground, their moves stealthier.

Wolves.

While experiencing her vision of Mary, she had unintentionally wandered away from the safety of the column. Her disappearance had obviously gone unnoticed by the others, the squall no doubt hiding her movements almost completely from their view.

And yet…the wolves appeared similarly unaware of her presence. She ambled close by them, and yet they displayed no signs that they had sensed her passing.

As on the night when she had freely wandered through the soldiers guarding the carriage, she seemed to possess no more substance than a moonbeam flitting by the wolves.

It seemed, she abruptly realised, for the best that she had left the empress and her column behind. She felt a pang of regret that she hadn’t persuaded her father’s men to leave with her, but it would have been impossible to dissuade them from completing their appointed task.

Besides, the wolves wouldn’t have let her men pass through so freely. She hoped the men wouldn’t come searching for her when they realised she had vanished from the column: she’d hate to be responsible for the deaths of any of them.

With luck, they would proclaim that she was her father’s daughter – and therefore she would be capable of taking care of herself.

The wolves were gathering thickly around the dark shadow of the column as it retreated into the ever thickening flurries of snow.

She prayed her father’s men would come out of all this safely.

 

 

*

 

 

Slinking silently through the crisp snow, their yellow eyes focused purely on the column, the wolves left Helen behind,

Her horse crunched placidly through the snow. Helen briefly wondered why her mount hadn’t bolted or at least been terrified by the presence of the wolves.

It was only a brief moment of reflection because she realised she knew the answer: she had used the powers of the darkness.

Once again, without meaning to, she had accessed the dark arts.

When she heard the laughing, she seriously considered that it had to be that darkness itself which was mocking her. It took her a while to recognise that the guffawing was far more like the sounds of a raucous celebration, and that it was emanating from beneath a nearby bush.

Just lying beyond the bush, there stood a small copse of larger trees, of more ivy-entangled bushes. And yet the sounds of revelry definitely seemed to be coming from the small bush, not the copse.

How could a party be taking place in such a confined area?

She rode a little closer towards the bush, bending low in her saddle as she partly moved some of the barren and blackened branches aside.

A small yet stoutly built man was crouching there, with his back towards Helen; and his bottom bared, because he had his trousers around his ankles.

‘Do you mind!’ the startled man snapped furiously, peering over his shoulder and frantically pulling the branches back into place around him.

Helen was possibly even more startled than the poor man.

Not because of the admittedly embarrassing situation she had caught him in.

But because she could have sworn he was actually a goblin: and goblins weren’t supposed to exist.

 

 

*

Chapter 20

 

Of course, Helen had heard of goblins.

She’d even listened to the addled, older women giving detailed descriptions of them; overly large nose and chin, beady black eyes, skin as ancient as parchment.

But goblins existed purely within the minds of these crazed, ancient women, or within the stories told to frighten children into less rowdy behaviour.

Even those who still maintained that goblins had once existed talked in terms of them vanishing centuries ago: the exceptions, again, being the befuddled women who had apparently lost their minds.

Helen slipped down off the back of her horse, slowly, cautiously drawing closer to the bush, wondering if she hadn’t simply imagined everything after all.

The goblin stepped out from underneath the bush, wiping his hands on a large ball of hastily gathered snow.

‘What’s the world coming to when you can’t go about your business withou–’

‘You don’t exist!’ Helen declared hopefully, wide-eyed in her exasperation.

The goblin bemusedly and fleetingly glanced down at himself.

‘I’m sure I do!’ he stated challengingly.

‘Why are you…laughing so much?’ Helen asked tentatively.

Although the noisy laughter had continued, and although it still appeared to be somehow coming from the goblin, it was also quite obvious that he was far more despondent and annoyed than amused.

‘I’m not,’ the goblin quite accurately pointed out, adding with surprising honesty, ‘In fact, most people accuse me of being a pretty damn miserable looking creature.’

Helen frowned, wondering how best to reply: she thought those who had told the goblin he looked depressed were both rude but truthful, while she had politely refrained from saying this.

Thankfully, she caught sight of the box hanging from the goblin’s shoulder; it was from here that all the laughter, the sounds of a wildly exuberant evening, were coming from.

She recalled something the empress had said to the Angel of Death, regarding a Box of Fools.

‘Is that…a Box of Fools?’ she enquired, pointing at the small wooden container.

The goblin glowered.

‘You know of the Box of Fools?’

‘I just heard about it in a story,’ Helen lied, unsure how else she should explain how she had heard of the box.

‘Does it contain people who have made a fool of themselves?’

‘You can’t go believing everything you hear in stories, you know!’ the goblin snorted huffily, nervously fingering a money pouch strung around his neck.

‘I don’t believe everything I hear!’ Helen insisted irately.

Then again, she thought, she hadn’t believed in goblins, and yet here she was talking to one.

Talking to a goblin who, now she came to notice it, was fidgeting nervously. His eyes flitted suspiciously from side to side, as if he couldn’t wait for her to leave.

Was he trying to hide something?

Was he hoping to draw her attention away from the rest of the copse lying behind him?

She peered over his shoulder, over towards the closely packed trees, what seemed to be their evergreen leaves actually being a thick web of parasitic ivy. The ivy’s wickerwork maze of chaotically intertwining stems was also just about completely covered in a thick blanket of snow, while the still densely swirling flakes cut vision down to little more than yards.

And yet there was something about that looming dark shape, something distinctly odd and yet indistinctly familiar.

She stepped closer, almost accidentally pushing the goblin aside as he tried to step in front of her and block her way.

‘Isn’t that…’ she asked uncertainly, narrowing her eyes in the hope of getting a clearer view of what she thought she was seeing, ‘isn’t that a…war elephant?’

 

 

*

Chapter 21

 

At first, Helen had thought the copse of trees had simply grown in an unusual way with, perhaps, the mass of overgrowing ivy warping and stunting their natural development.

But amongst it all, what she’d taken as the glitter of bright fruits of red, green, even blue, was now revealed to be the glow of muddied jewels. The glow of sliver, of shimmering greys and blues, wasn’t just the sheen of snow, but the shine of great metal sheets.

Here was a ridiculously wide leg, there another…and another.

There was the vast head, the elongated trunk, a huge ear.

And on its back, there rose the many levels of a towering castle.

As a whole, the elephant was truly gigantic, bigger even than she had imagined it to be when she had listened to the tale describing it.

Monstrous might be a better word than gigantic.

At some point it had either toppled slightly against the trees, or become tangled up in their innumerable branches.

‘I thought we’d agreed not to believe everything we heard in stories!’ the goblin wailed miserably, attempting to block her path once again, even standing unnervingly close, as if threatening to push or pull her back.

‘I made no such agreement!’ an exasperated Helen pointed out.

‘But this isn’t fair!’ the goblin complained, stamping his foot hard on the snowy ground. ‘You just showing up like this, stealing the glory for discovering–’

‘I’m not expecting any reward for seeing it!’ Helen protested. ‘I’m just amazed that it’s here! I thought it was just a story!’

‘Well of course some of the things you hear about in stories are true!’

The goblin said it as if it were a statement of the obvious. Helen gave him a wry look, wondering if he realised how much this went against so much else he’d been saying.

The goblin appeared to blush, or at least look a little abashed.

‘Well, not everything!’ he said, flustered. He brightened as he turned towards and indicated the entangled elephant with a sweeping gesture. ‘But this, I knew this had to be true! I’ve been searching for this elephant almost since I first heard about it in the famous story!’

‘But I thought the story was talking about a city far from here wher–’

‘Not in the story I heard!’ the goblin interrupted irritably. ‘In the one I heard – the famous one! – it was brought over by the Romans to take on the massed chariots they faced here.’

‘Have you…have you been inside it?’

Helen looked towards the towering elephant once more, wondering what it could be like walking around inside it. She found herself becoming increasingly excited by the find. It was a mechanical creature from an ancient myth that not only turned out to be real, but had also turned up here, in her father’s kingdom.

‘It’s…it’s not a pretty sight,’ the goblin stammered fearfully, wringing his hands anxiously.

‘Really?’ Helen was surprised by this admission. ‘I would have thought it would be like something out of a dream exploring something so unbelievable; so magical!’

‘Yes, yes; the rooms are incredible!’ the goblin gushed enthusiastically, no longer worried about stolen glory but caught up instead in the excitement of revealing his discovery to an appreciative audience.

Abruptly, however, his face fell as his voice became instantly more anguished.

‘But…but you’ve got to understand…it had a crew…’

‘They were still in there?’ Helen gasped, horrified. ‘Dead?’

The goblin nodded miserably in reply.

The disease!

Helen was suddenly more terrified than ever.

Had the crew brought their disease with them?

 

 

*

Chapter 22

 

‘Wait.’

Helen reached out, grabbing the goblin by his shoulder to stop him drawing closer towards the war elephant.

‘It’s diseased, remember? The story?’

The goblin responded to her dire warning with nothing more than a puzzled pout.

Diseased?’

He chuckled.

‘In the story,’ Helen persisted. ‘The humbled man!’

The goblin narrowed his eyes thoughtfully.

‘Yes, yes: I’ve heard of the humbled man, of course. But he wasn’t diseased!’

‘Yes he was! The rags! The sweating!’

‘He was in a poor state, admittedly!’ The goblin continued to sound highly amused by Helen’s fears. ‘He might even had a disease of the mind: he was certainly a little crazed!’

‘A little crazed! Why would the Great Khan refuse to take the city simply because he’d met a crazed man?’

‘There was no “Great Khan” in the story I heard.’

‘Yet you’ve heard of the humbled man!’

‘Of course: he’d accumulated the wealth that made it possible to create the war ele– you’re not after the jewels, are you?’

His glares of suspicion and distrust had returned.

Helen shuck her head, grinned sickly in exasperation.

‘No, of course I’m not after the jewels! I’m after the truth: is this elephant diseased or not?’

‘Well, I’ve been in it–’

A terrified Helen immediately withdrew her hand from where it had still been casually resting on the goblin’s shoulder.

‘I’m not diseased!’ the goblin protested, highly affronted by her suggestion.

‘All right, all right: so what did you hear about this humbled man?’

‘Well, for a start, there was nothing really humble about him–’

‘Dressed in rags, heavily scarred skin…despite him having accumulated all this wealth you’ve mentioned.’

‘Yes, yes, yes: but it was no longer his, by the time the elephant was being built. Something, I don’t know what, brought him low: so he started seeing himself as being this holy man, dressing in rags on purpose, scarring his skin–’

‘Some holy men do that, don’t they?’

‘But if it’s all for show, all external, rather than from the heart; well, they’re not really lowering themselves, are they? They’re just saying “look at me: look how wonderful I am”!’

‘How can you be so sure it’s not all from the heart?’

‘Trust me on this, please: I know of these things!’

Helen nodded, smiled: he said it with such assurance, she recognised that some past experience must be informing his judgement.

Satisfied with her response, the goblin eagerly rubbed his hands.

‘Right,’ he said, ‘so just how humble do you see yourself as being, my young girl?’

Although taken about by the directness of his question, Helen felt she answered truthfully when she declared, ‘Why, I don’t see myself as being overly proud if tha–’

‘Good, good,’ the goblin grinned, rubbing his hands even more enthusiastically, ‘then you can help me bury the dead crew; come on!’

 

 

*

 

 

Burying the crew wasn’t as onerous as Helen had feared. They had been trapped inside the war elephant for so long that their bodies were now little more than uniformed skeletons.

They were seated in various positions around the many rooms and corridors of the majestic machine.

‘The elephant seems to have suddenly stopped working, making it collapse against these trees,’ the goblin explained.

He pointed out how the trapdoor had originally become firmly lodged against a huge branch he’d had to saw away, meaning it couldn’t be opened from inside.

‘The various portholes were too small to climb through, too well and strongly made to prise into bigger shapes.’

‘It had been built to keep people out: and ended up keeping them inside,’ Helen sighed, looking in awe at the glorious rooms that had become the crew’s prison.

The room the goblin showed her up to once they had finished interring the crew was relatively spartan, with nothing but a simple table and few chairs: but it was also surprisingly and uncharacteristically a chaotic mess of used but unwashed plates and goblets, along with a pile of wasted food.

‘Why would all this food– wait, it’s all recent food: fresh food.’

‘Ah, I eat here; all my leftovers.’

Leftovers?’

Helen was astonished. Even though the small room was a complete mess, it was obvious that the discarded food could once have graced a king’s table.

‘A man’s got to eat, hasn’t he?’ the goblin scowled, perplexed that she saw a problem with this.

Glancing at the food, Helen realised she was hungry; she’d planned, of course, on ensuring she ate through a mix of hunting and purchasing the odd bit of bread, but she’d had no chance to do either since leaving the column. Most of the food here was still surprisingly edible, with little of it past the point where it had begun rotting or otherwise spoiling.

She instinctively reached out for a grape.

‘What are you doing?’ the goblin asked, more confused than ever.

‘Eating, of course,’ Helen replied, putting the sweetly tasting grape in her mouth. ‘Oh, sorry,’ she abruptly added, embarrassed by her rudeness, ‘I thought you’d brought me here to share out some of you–’

‘Of course I want to share my food!’ The goblin appeared shocked that she might think of him as being so mean he’d deny her any food. ‘But not that!’

He waved dismissively at the pile of food, scowling with disgust. With his other hand, he was lifting the necklace and its pouch over his head.

‘We’ve got all the fresh food we want in here!’

He grinned as he shook the pouch. It didn’t jangle, as if full of coins, but rather made a quiet shuffling sound, as if full of something more like gold dust.

‘But where are we going to buy–’

Helen halted half way through her protestation as she saw the goblin carefully open his pouch and even more carefully withdraw nothing more than the smallest grain of the brightly glittering dust.

‘Now, what do you fancy? Roast swan, maybe?’ the goblin grinned mischievously.

‘Is this magic?’

Helen glared dubiously at the small speck of dust the goblin was proudly holding between his fingers.

‘Well, yes,’ the goblin replied, staring back at her if she might just be a little crazy, ‘unless you fancy eating nothing but a grain of fairy dust!’

 

 

*

Chapter 23

 

‘But…it’s magic!’

Helen stared worriedly at the grain of dust. Then she scowled: then her eyes blazed.

‘Wait! You’ve just had us digging all those graves!’

With a furious wave of an arm, she indicated the area where they’d been digging outside.

‘Yet you could have used magic to save us all that effort!’

The goblin shied away a little, taken aback by her fury.

‘What?’ he said, eyes wide with shock. ‘And risk being overtaken by the darker realms!’

‘You’re going to use it now! Just to conjure up some food!’

‘Well, as I said; a man’s got to eat, hasn’t he? Don’t you want to eat?’

He waved the small speck before her as if it were the most delicious meal ever made.

‘Of course I want to eat!’ she snapped. ‘But we could have bought or hunted food: whereas using magic would have meant we didn’t get ourselves all filthy and exhausted!’

The goblin looked her up and down, his mouth crinkling a little in disgust at her truly filthy state.

I didn’t get filthy!’ he pointed out, drawing her attention to his immaculately clean clothes.

She looked him up and down, her mouth pouting in suspicion.

‘Yes, how is it tha– the fairy dust!’ She pointed accusingly at the pouch the goblin was holding. ‘You used it just to keep clean?’

‘It saves me having a bath! I don’t like baths!’

‘Arrghh! This is crazy!’

Helen clenched her fists in frustration.

‘They’re only relatively minor spells,’ the goblin said defensively. ‘The way I see it, I can hardly be accused of tempting the darker realms when I’m limiting myself to just providing the necessities of life!’

‘But I’d heard that a speck of fairy dust – not that I ever believed it, naturally! – could conjure up a whole palace–’

‘A whole kingdom more like!’ the goblin corrected her proudly.

Helen glared all the more at him.

The goblin made a placating waving of his hands.

‘Look, look,’ he protested, ‘that’s what I mean when I say I’m not putting myself at risk of being overrun by the darkness: how can I be accused of being greedy for power, when I’m turning down the chance to rule a kingdom–’

‘And choosing a ham sandwich instead? I think anyone could accuse you of being stupid! If you’re so scared of using it, why not just sell it? You could easily make enough money to live comfortably for the rest of your life!’

‘A single speck is literally worth a kingdom!’ the goblin said. ‘Who could afford to buy that, let alone a whole pouch? I’ve–’

He stopped, his brow furrowing in puzzlement.

With narrowed eyes, he stared suspiciously at Helen.

Why am I having to tell you all this? Didn’t you say you’d heard the story of the Box of Fools?’

‘Well, heard of it…’ Helen said, a little flustered by the goblin catching her out in her lie.

Fortunately for her, before the goblin could question her further they were both distracted by a dulled metallic clank coming from the machinery lying beyond the wall.

‘What’s that?’ the goblin asked curiously, straining his ears to hear more, silently moving closer towards the wall, waving a hand to quieten Helen.

‘It sounds like there’s something moving around in another room…’

Like the goblin, Helen was keeping her breathing to a minimum as she tried to listen out for any more sounds of clanking.

They didn’t hear any more sounds of knocking.

But they did hear what could have been a mumbling wail.

The goblin glanced Helen’s way, returning her own stare of amazement.

‘It sounds like there’s someone still alive in there!’

 

 

*

Chapter 24

 

‘But…I searched everywhere! There can’t be anyone in there!’

The goblin was completely bemused.

‘It sounded like they were in the machinery,’ Helen pointed out.

‘Sure, and – of course – I’ve explored amongst all the cogs and gears I could get to: I wanted to try and work out why this great beast had just suddenly come to a halt!’

‘All the ones you could get to? What about the ones you couldn’t get to?’

‘Well, somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, I didn’t search amongst the cogs I couldn’t get to!’

‘What about the inspection hatch? Did you try that?’

‘I would have done, if I’d found one!’

‘In the story: the Rourans find one on the outside.’

‘On the outside? What sort of war machine has a hatch on the outside?’

‘It was just a story: perhaps the–’

‘No: you might be right!’

The goblin’s eye lit up.

‘I mean, all the cogs connecting the neck to the body: they’re so complicated, you can’t get to them from inside! But yes, they might have had no choice but to put the hatch on the outside; hiding it under the neck!’

The minute speck of dust between his fingers forgotten, he carelessly threw it aside has he rushed for the ladder that would take them back outside.

‘Let’s find it,’ he yelled excitedly. ‘I might even find out why this great lump of a thing isn’t working anymore!’

 

 

*

 

 

Scrabbling along the thick branches the elephant had fallen against, the goblin soon found the inspection hatch.

As he’d guessed, it wasn’t really that easy to find, the elephant’s head and vast ears veiling it from view.

He didn’t even need to hack away at any branches this time to open the hatch.

He clambered inside, closely followed by an equally intrigued Helen.

‘It’s bigger in here than I’d expected,’ the goblin wheezed elatedly, making his way along a gangway suspended between the elaborate arrays of huge cogs.

‘Who’s there? Who is it?’ a voice cried out, coming from the darkness lying deeper amongst the maze of complicated gearing.

Amongst that darkness, there was a light, the yellowed glow of an oil lantern.

And in the light of that lantern, Helen caught a glimpse of the man who was shouting out to them.

It was a man dressed in rags.

A man with yellow, heavily scarred skin.

It was the humbled man.

 

 

*

Chapter 25

 

‘It’s impossible! You’re dead: you died long ago!’

Helen was bewildered. The humbled man stared back at her with almost equally uncomprehending eyes.

‘And yet here I am,’ he replied with what could have been a triumphant sneer, ‘so I must be alive!’

‘You were killed! And even if the story’s wrong, it was all so long ago…’

‘Then whatever story you’ve heard must be wrong,’ the man replied, pointing out as he spoke that what little remained of his ragged garb had been caught in the gears of the elephant’s mechanism. ‘I wonder,’ he added, speaking more politely, ‘could you help me free myself?’

This is why the elephant’s not working!’ the goblin declared jubilant, eagerly rushing forward to try and pull the man’s clothes free of the stilled workings.

‘Wait, no! Stop!’

Urgently reaching out towards him, Helen managed to grab the goblin’s shoulder and pull him back.

‘He’s diseased, remember? The story?’

The man’s eyes were abruptly more globular and hateful than she had first noticed, drawing her attention to the gauntness of his face, the yellowed, parchment-like flesh. His whole skin, especially that of his bared arms and chest, his spindly legs, was horrendously scarred, as if the worms of the earth had already decided to devour him, squirming everywhere all over him.

Many of the scars had healed long ago, while those writhing over the more ancient ones were in some cases still quite fresh wounds: indeed, there was a scrawl across the inside of his leg that was still bleeding.

He was little more than a badly reanimated corpse, and the mere sight of him made Helen feel intensely wary of him. If he had been locked within this elephant for as long as its crew – and surely that was the case, for it was surely his own garment that had brought the unfortunate beast to a complete and sudden halt – then he should have starved, or died of thirst, for there didn’t appear to be any way he could have accessed either food or water.

It wasn’t natural, this form of life.

It could only be maintained by use of the very darkest of the arts.

No wonder the Great Khan had been shocked, even horrified, by the man’s appearance!

Diseased?’ The man was quite obviously affronted by Helen’s warning to the goblin, his face trembling with what could have been rage as well as any illness. ‘I’m not diseased! I’m a man who places reaching out to God above all other mundane, Earthly considerations!’

It was enough for the goblin, whose urge to get the elephant working once more overrode all other considerations.

‘In the story I heard,’ he declared, shrugging himself free of Helen’s grip and rushing forward once more, ‘he was fine!’

He pulled hard on the ragged cloth, expecting it to shred away easily in his hands. But he was surprised to find that the thread refused to tear or, when it did, at last, appear to split, it seemed to rapidly repair itself as if alive.

‘I can’t…’

‘I have tried that,’ the man pointed out wearily. ‘I wouldn’t have remained trapped here if it had all been so easy!’

Helen was horrified to find herself briefly wondering if they should leave him trapped here: there was something odious about him, something that made her own flesh crawl, the way it does when you’re naturally repulsed by things your instincts are telling you to stay clear of.

‘I need something sharp,’ the goblin announced, silently cursing himself as he patted his empty scabbard.

He’d left his dagger behind on the table when they’d prepared to eat. Noticing that Helen had also left hers behind in their rush to discover the source of the noises, he began to frenziedly look around amongst the many arrays of gears for any tools that he could use to free the man and the cogs.

‘If you aren’t diseased,’ Helen asked the man suspiciously, her eyes little more than slits, ‘then why would the Great Khan fear you?’

‘Ah, so some of the story you’ve heard is true then!’ he replied with a satisfied smile and a slight, congratulatory bow of his head towards Helen. ‘Naturally, he feared me because he had heard of me, recognising me from the tales that he had heard.

‘Tales of you?’

Helen scowled in disbelief.

‘Well, you’ve obviously heard of one, haven’t you?’ he observed with triumphant smirk.

‘A tale of the war elephant,’ Helen said, smartly correcting him before adding more suspiciously, ‘Why would there be any tales of you?’

‘Because, as you can see for yourself,’ he said, theatrically holding out his arms, ‘I have discovered the secret of eternal life!’

 

 

*

Chapter 26

 

The goblin returned, excitedly wielding a variety of rusty tools, including what could have been a smaller form of a saw. This was the tool he chose to hack once again at the man’s ragged garment as he tried to free it from being entangled amongst the cogs.

Strangely, the saw seemed to Helen to be making little more progress than the goblin’s earlier attempts. He cursed and spat in frustration, the saw rapidly blunting, such that he had to toss it aside and use in its place what could have been a huge set of shears.

‘What sort of thread is this? As soon as I cut through a few threads, they grow again, like it’s hair!’ he exclaimed, bewildered. ‘I’ve got to cut through a whole clump of the strands all at once, almost as if…’

He paused, as if fearful of continuing, of admitting what he was thinking.

‘…as if I have to cut off a complete limb, rather than just cutting into it, and giving it chance to recover.’

Helen hardly heard him. Her attention had been drawn to the cross hanging around the man’s neck: a cross exactly like the one Serverus wore.

Hadn’t Serverus once said that the cross was a symbol of life, maybe even eternal life?

Was that this man’s secret?

‘That cross…’ she began uncertainly, her eyes locked upon its strangely curved form.

‘You know of it?’

The man seemed surprised but also impressed.

‘The cross of an older god…’ she murmured doubtfully, wondering if it was wise to talk of such things.

‘An old god indeed,’ the man chuckled slimily, gratified by Helen’s obvious interest. ‘And yet he himself was based upon the even older Asari – I have seen many ancient tracts; indeed, have made certain judicial, more pertinent corrections to them – from whom he took the symbol of an eye lying within his resting place.’

As the man held out the bone cross towards Helen, she saw that the engraving upon it differed to the one upon Serverus’s version of it. This engraving was one of an eye within a triangle.

They both ignored the goblin as, with another curse, he reached for and took up another tool.

Swinging around a little, the man drew Helen’s attention to a number of steeply angled air shafts that allowed small yet precise views of the still dark, snowy sky.

‘My incarceration had its benefits, for it gave me time to study what many falsely believe to be his constellation.’

He now drew her attention to a representation of the star cluster Helen recognised as being the Hunter, one which he’d drawn within the dust upon the floor close by him.

She knew of the Hunter, had seen it rise above an ancient earthwork figure of a giant carved into the side of large hill not far from here; his right arm raised and holding a club, his left extended, bearing a shield.

The giant was also rudely naked, and in readiness – as the local women would ribaldry jest – ‘to go off spreading his seed, unlike the poor man in the stars!’ For the Hunter, of course, had what many referred to as his sword hanging between his legs; but even Helen knew no man would be so foolish as to wear a sword in such a way!

Besides, around its very tip, you could see the seed being spread, an area where the stars themselves were constantly erupting into being.

Yet Helen couldn’t see the connection between this grouping of stars and the god of the cross the man wore.

‘Why falsely?’ she asked curiously, referring to the way he had claimed that ‘many falsely believe’ it to be the god’s constellation.

‘Well so many assume it portrays the god rising to life once more after his murder and dismemberment by his enemy,’ the man answered elatedly, talking to her as if to a fellow illuminati, one who would appreciate the genius of his insights, ‘but of course the histories tell us that he is reborn as his son after his wife takes his seed!’

As he spoke, he retrieved a thin staff leaning against the cogs and pointed towards his drawing on the floor, towards the tip where new stars were continually being seeded.

‘So that, of course, is the god himself! The “Toe-star”, as the ancients called it, for it’s where their king would first place his foot before ascending into the heavens: the very start of the ladder of the spine, up which the seed will be drawn!’

Helen saw that the star did indeed appear to be an eye in the middle of a triangle, if a triangle with its top sheared off.

‘The sons of Horus, the four pillars of the heavens,’ the man continued, ignoring the goblin still wearily struggling to free him and pointing out not only the four corner stars enclosing the eye but also a four-beamed cross similar to the one engraved on Serverus’s necklace, ‘the four lower levels of the seven pillars leading us to the heavens.’

He deftly and swiftly drew a few arrows, indicating how the lower trapezium forming the Hunter’s lower torso could spin around the central star where the vertebrae crossed the waist: and its stars would directly overlay the stars of the identically shaped upper trapezium, including the two higher stars representing the shoulders that, Helen recalled, glowed especially brightly – one like a flickering red flame, the other as if it were sparkling water. The descending ‘sword’ had similarly now swung upright, as it appeared within the ancient earthwork giant, its new position represented here by the pillar-like, four beamed cross.

‘The magnificent Magdala, the Tower of Osiris; containing a soul about to rise up and be freed,’ the man said, pointing once again towards the pillar-like cross with a mischievous grin as he noted Helen’s embarrassment.

Next, he deftly drew an oval around the two shoulder stars, including within it three higher stars that – Helen also recalled – glowed faintly within the sky.

‘The King’s Constellation,’ the man said, before quickly indicating the two shoulder stars once more, ‘the “armpits” of Jachin and Boaz being your new jumping off point upwards into the next three levels commonly known as the Moon Mansion–’

He halted his excited discourse abruptly, as if suddenly aware that he was divulging too much.

‘Done it!’ the goblin yelled out jubilantly, having at last cut through the cloth’s remarkably resilient threads.

 

 

*

 

 

As soon as the man was cut free, the threads caught up in the cogs instantly dried up and withered, as fallen leaves will eventually do. No longer remaining connected to the man, and no longer serving any purpose, they either fell aside or crumbled away to nothing, unclogging the gears.

The man stumbled a little, prompting Helen to instinctively lurch forward to support him, recognising that he might no longer be sure how to walk after remaining here for so long. She immediately regretted clasping hold of him, his skin as cold and slippery as she imagined a serpent’s might be.

She wanted to leave this man as soon as she could.

Her mind screamed at her that he wasn’t to be trusted.

Everything about him was repulsive.

The way he limply hung in her arms, such that the goblin had to rush forward and help her support his heavily slumping body, only added to her impression that his every action had to be observed and treated with suspicion.

But why would he pretend that he was unable to support himself?

Perhaps she was being unfair on him.

He seemed to lack all strength. His body was just a lumpen mass, which appeared incapable of following any orders from his brain. A rag doll would have been easier to carry between them.

Helping him manoeuvre along the narrow walk way was difficult, helping him clamber through the narrow hatch more difficult still.

Helen was the first to slither through, turning around and standing precariously on the nearest branch to aid the goblin as he laboriously attempted to lower the man down towards her. She reached out for first his legs and then, as more of his body came through the hatch, his waist, gradually guiding his own feet towards the branch she was standing upon.

Suddenly, he at last moved, his arms clasping around the inner edges of the hatch.

But it wasn’t a helpful movement. It was an abrupt jerk, an abrupt swing forwards. One that caught her off balance.

One that jolted her from her own tentative foothold upon the branch.

As she fell forwards, she tried to cling on to the man’s swinging body for support; but his body sharply jerked again, perhaps in fear, perhaps to deliberately shrug her off.

With a useless flailing of her arms, she tumbled forwards off the branch.

And she plummeted ungainly and uncontrollably towards the ground lying far beneath her.

 

 

*

Chapter 27

 

The stars whirled around in the darkness lying before her. They sparkled, they shone.

They fell softly against her face.

But no: they weren’t stars.

They were flakes, snowflakes.

Uncountable numbers of them all swirling towards her. All rushing down towards her face as she stared dazedly up into the darkening sky.

Her face was mainly very cold, yet parts of it were intensely warm. And wet, very wet.

It was the huge, pink, slobbering tongue of her horse. He was tenderly licking her, his seemingly immense head bent down low towards her.

‘Little girl, little girl! Are you all right?’

She thought at first, of course, that it was the horse concernedly asking after her wellbeing.

But then it dawned on her that the voice came from somewhere deeper within the snow; somewhere far higher above her.

She saw the tree rising apparently endlessly up through the veiling snow. Saw the stunted form of the goblin hurriedly, dangerously, scrambling down through its branches and descending its trunk. He was approaching as quickly as he could without actually directly leaping to the ground.

All this time they’d been together, she thought, and they still hadn’t revealed their names to each other.

She remembered falling: couldn’t remember how she’d got here, lying on the floor amongst the snow.

Obvious really, she thought.

Higher up the tree, there was another man; the humbled man.

‘That’s right, you can see to me later,’ he was crying out, presumably to the rapidly descending goblin. ‘I’m not going anywhere farther for the moment at least!’

As the goblin rushed alongside the prone Helen, he pulled and pushed the horse aside, shooing it on its way.

‘Can you move?’ he asked, leaning over her, studying her face concernedly. ‘Is anything broken?’

‘I don’t think so,’ Helen replied, even as she said it realising that she actually meant she hoped not.

She was in agony, a pain in her head, along her back, in her legs. When she tried to move even a little, the pain was abruptly even worse, shooting around her body like many miniature arrows.

But she could lift her head – a little.

And she could move her arms, and slightly raise her back – although the torment was instantly multiplied, the shudders surging down the tops of her legs and into her upper torso.

‘I…I can’t move my legs,’ she said, recognising the awful truth. ‘My legs…my legs are broken, I think!’

 

 

*

Chapter 28

 

‘Yes, your legs are broken!’

The goblin had made a few, apparently expert checks of Helen’s body, carefully helping her flex her limbs, being careful not to raise her too high off the ground until he could thankfully declare ‘you’re back doesn’t seem to have suffered more than a few bruises.’

Helen’s legs, however, were particularly painful. And they weren’t responding accurately to her wishes to move them.

‘I’ll get some branches I can use as splints…’ the goblin said, glancing about him, his eyes searching the copse for anything that might serve as a support.

Of course, Helen didn’t relish the idea of hobbling round on wooden splints and crutches.

‘Your grains,’ she whispered hopefully, ‘just one grain…’

The goblin’s eyes opened wide in surprise.

‘Magic? Use magic?’ He said it as if Helen was asking him to perform the most disgusting action he could imagine. ‘But…the darkness…’

‘It’s only to help me walk!’ Helen persisted, frustrated by the goblin’s unhelpful intransigence. ‘How’s that going to–’

Her protestations came to an abrupt halt as she realised she was being hypocritical.

Hadn’t she avoided using her own skills at magic for fear of being drawn deeper into its darker clutches?

‘I’m sorry,’ she apologised, ‘it’s just that – what’s happened to your legs?’

The goblin had risen to his feet as she’d scolded him. He towered over Helen, and not just because he was standing while she was out flat on her back on the floor.

His legs were suddenly so much longer, and quite slender too.

Realising that her own legs suddenly felt free of pain, she glanced down at them.

They were odd: stumpy, far broader than she remembered them being.

And, stretching out from beneath the even shorter trousers, they were excessively hairy and lumpy too.

‘What have you done?’ she wailed. ‘You’ve swapped your legs for mine!’

 

 

*

Chapter 29

 

‘Me? I didn’t do this!’

The goblin glowered down at his new pair of legs with as much surprise and dismay as Helen had observed hers.

‘Wait!’ Helen wailed all the more, realising that he was standing on her legs, meaning they were no longer broken. ‘Surely these legs aren’t still–’

She sighed with relief as she found she could move her new, horrendously ugly legs. She thankfully rose at last to her feet, brushing of as much of the cold and wet snow she could, cringing as she caught sight once again of her bestial-like legs.

Magic! We can use it to change us back and–’

‘I managed to get down at last,’ the humbled man breathed with a guttural sneer as he virtually slithered down the tree towards them, his emaciated body still limp and apparently lacking a human’s regular muscles.

No, not magic, no more magic, Helen warned herself, seeing once again what it had done to this man: transforming him into an animal she would have no compunction in destroying if she felt it best to do so.

Besides, what had magic done for her but give her these legs of a goblin in the first place?

She had no idea how to use it accurately. She might even make things worse.

Presuming, of course, that it had been her and not the goblin who had created this unwanted transformation.

After all, the goblin no longer seemed interested in her plight. Rather, he was hungrily staring up towards the towering elephant.

‘I couldn’t reach both the hand and foot controls before, but…’

‘Don’t you even think about it!’ Helen sternly warned him. ‘Don’t go rushing off with my legs until–’

The goblin dismissed her worries with a wave of a hand.

‘Oh, it might all just return to normal at any moment,’ he said, with very little conviction in his voice. ‘And we might as well try and make the best of–’

‘You don’t think the goblin did this on purpose, do you?’

The humbled man was studying the goblin’s long legs suspiciously.

‘What? Why would I do tha–’

‘As you’ve just said: to use the controls!’ Helen blurted out, interrupting the goblin’s protestations of innocence.

‘It isn’t as if you’ve been entirely honest about your past now, have you?’ the man stated with a calm yet knowing nonchalance.

‘Yes, yes I have!’ the goblin insisted, his expression one of hurt now that even Helen was studying him distrustfully.

‘Then, of course,’ the man said, sitting down upon the ground as if the cold snow meant nothing to him, ‘you won’t mind me relating the tale of the Box of Fools?’

The goblin grimaced sourly: but nodded his assent.

 

 

*

Chapter 30

 

A Box of Fools and The Cunning Innkeeper

 

One night, at a well to do inn that lies high up on the fells, an ugly and thoroughly miserable goblin came in from the cold seeking a room for the night.

Everyone in the bar noticed that he was carrying a box, hanging from a shoulder strap and slung about his waist. Still, no one stilled their chatter, or cut short their laughter.

There was nothing unusual about a goblin carrying a box, of course. Goblins are well known for their attraction to the more minor magical artefacts. Indeed, it would only be thought suspicious if a goblin didn’t have some such device about his person.

Now, for such an unimportant – perhaps even secretly unwelcome – guest, the innkeeper would normally have asked one of his maids to show such a lowly creature up to his room: but he had noticed something about the goblin that intrigued him.

He couldn’t quite be sure, of course, but he was almost sure that he had caught a glimpse of a pouch suspended about the goblin’s neck, nestling neatly just beneath the little creature’s shirt.

A pouch of gold dust maybe?

The innkeeper’s mind raced excitedly.

Goblins, like fairies and elves, had access to secret supplies of gold, whether sourced from deep mines or panned from streams high in the hills.

And if not gold: then what about something far more precious by far?

What if it were a pouch of fairy dust?

If so, each speck would be worth a thousand pouches – no, a whole treasure fleet’s worth of gold.

Wasn’t it said that a single grain contained all the power and wealth a single man could accomplish in his lifetime? Now some, of course, can accomplish relatively little during their brief span of time: but many have the potential to achieve great riches. And so it was with specks of fairy dust: you could never be quite sure of its quality until you tried it.

The innkeeper showed the goblin up to his room, chatting to him amiably as they ascended the stairs, asking him politely when he’d like to arise for breakfast; and yet his eyes hardly ever left the bulge beneath the goblin’s shirt where the pouch lay hidden.

Did he, every now and again, catch a sparkling glow of blue, of red, of yellow, working its way between the threads of the shirt?

Surely this poorly educated goblin could be persuaded to relinquish at least one grain of fairy dust? Would he even be aware of its true value?

Naturally, the innkeeper hadn’t built up his thriving business through foolish or impetus actions; he bided his time, waiting for a more opportune moment to raise the matter of the pouch. And so he continued talking of terms of payment, of extras available. He wanted to put the goblin at ease, to even, perhaps, befriend him a little. He didn’t want the goblin to be at all wary of his true intentions.

The goblin seemed bored, even irritated by the man’s insistent chatter.

If he didn’t strike soon, the innkeeper realised, this miserable old goblin would dismiss him, and his chance of obtaining a grain of fairy dust would have vanished.

The goblin’s despondent face was completely at odds with the laughter seeping up through the floorboards from the bar below. In fact, the innkeeper realised, the laughter was far more raucous than he had thought while sitting amongst it.

It was the sound of the wildest, most drunken evening he had ever heard.

And even more remarkably, the laughter wasn’t coming from downstairs after all.

It was coming from the box hanging from the goblin’s shoulder.

 

 

*

 

 

The goblin noted the innkeeper’s frown of bewilderment.

Just as he’d noted that the innkeeper had never let his gaze wander for long from the glittering pouch of fairy dust.

He noted, too, that he was now staring curiously at the box rather than the pouch.

‘Thank you innkeeper,’ the goblin pronounced dismissively. ‘Now if you’ll just kindly leave me so I might–’

‘That laughter?’ The innkeeper stared at the goblin curiously, even a little warily. ‘Is…is it coming from the box?’

His eyes fell upon the box once more, his eyes wide with awe, with anxiety.

‘It’s just my Box of Fools,’ the goblin replied coolly. ‘Now if you’ll just let me–’

‘A Box of Fools?’

The innkeeper’s eyes were wider than ever.

What was the goblin implying?

That there were actually people trapped in there?

Fools who had somehow been fooled by the goblin into accepting their imprisonment in little more than a wooden box?

And yet if that were the case, why were they obviously having such an amazingly good time in there?

And for there to be so many people trapped in there: why, it must obviously be a far larger interior than one would guess going by the size of the box!

It had to be a magical box, of course!

It might contain countless rooms! Vast ballrooms, even. Perhaps even a whole town; a whole city!

‘Are you saying,’ the innkeeper continued hesitantly, ‘that there are actually people in there?’

The goblin nodded happily, smiling for the very first time, his whole demeanour that of someone who sees nothing wrong with this.

‘Now if you’ll kindly leave me so–’

But the innkeeper wasn’t going to be dismissed so easily. He was more intrigued than ever by this strange goblin and his otherworldly possessions.

‘But why have you entrapped those poor people in there?’ he asked.

The scowl returned to the miserable goblin’s face. He appeared affronted by the innkeeper’s accusation.

‘It was their wish to spend their life in there!’ he insisted vehemently.

Hearing the sounds of merriment coming from the box, the innkeeper wondered if this might indeed be true.

But maybe he had to be careful of this goblin: maybe this was all part of the goblin’s spiel, the way he’d entrapped all these other fools.

Maybe, if he wasn’t careful, he’d end up in there too!

‘To be trapped in there… they chose that?’ he said doubtfully.

‘Well, no, no: I didn’t say they chose it, did I? You said they chose it!’ the goblin pointed out, wagging a finger. ‘You see,’ he continued, reaching for the purse lying beneath his shirt and drawing it out, ‘they made a wager they would make a better owner of this than I would: and they lost!’

He jangled the purse, such that it shuffled softly, yet nevertheless glittered as entrancingly as if it contained a thousand stars.

‘It seems a strange wager to make,’ the innkeeper said cautiously, forcing himself to look away from the tantalising sparkling of the pouch, ‘for a bag of what – it seems to me – to be relatively little gold dust: if, indeed, that is the object of great worth it contains, which I assume it must.’

He congratulated himself on his canny reply, his feigned indifference.

He might yet trick this ignorant old goblin out of his prize!

‘Ah, but this is not any old money purse!’ the goblin pronounced gleefully. ‘It’s a purse of fairy dust!’

‘Oh, I had heard of such a thing,’ the innkeeper replied, maintaining a look of complete innocence upon his otherwise grizzled face, ‘but I’d also heard you would need a whole room of it to perform even the simplest of charms!’

‘Pah!’ the goblin spat dismissively. ‘More like the simplest grain could grant you a whole room full of gold: even a whole kingdom, should you wish for it!’

‘So…this wager: what was it?’

‘As I have already explained,’ the goblin said wearily, ‘they merely had to prove that the purse believed they would make a more suitable owner.’

‘And they would do this…how exactly?’

‘Why, by nothing more than being able to hold it for at least five minutes!’

The goblin pursed his lips as he spoke, as if irritated that he’d had to waste his time stating the obvious. He shook the sparkling purse in his own hand, demonstrating how easy it was to hold.

But the innkeeper wasn’t such a fool that he would be so easily persuaded by the goblin’s easy handling of the pouch.

Maybe the purse was heavier than it looked.

Maybe it would glow red hot as soon as he touched it.

He had had many dealings with lawyers, with land surveyors, with other equally canny businessmen: you always had to be wary of the details of any deal you were making. The smallest word could commit you to something you hadn’t noticed in your initial elation at agreeing to the deal.

How much more wary had he to be when dealing with a goblin?

Especially when his ‘payment’ of his side of the deal might end up with him being entrapped within this Box of Fools forever.

‘What do you get out of it?’ he asked suspiciously. ‘I mean, I know that if I lose I end up in your box: but why? What purpose does it serve you?’

The goblin shrugged.

‘Well, I’m reassured that the purse wishes to stay with me, of course!’

The goblin’s reasoning seemed ridiculous circular to the wise innkeeper.

Maybe this goblin wasn’t as clever as he thought he was after all.

Maybe he was the fool, and he should be the one incarcerated in his Box of Fools.

‘Does the purse glow hot?’ he demanded of the goblin. ‘Does it get too heavy to hold?’

The goblin shook his head, chuckling merrily.

‘Of course not! That would be so unfair!’ he proclaimed.

‘Does it get too light to hold? Or too cold?’

‘Does it sting?’

‘Does it smell? ’

The innkeeper wracked his brains as he tried to think of all the many ways that the purse might make itself unwieldy.

‘Does it grow?’

‘Does it shrink away to nothing?’

‘Does it change into an insect?’

(Or some other small creature that can squirm or fly away.)

‘Does it change into an elephant? A scorpion?’

(Or some other dangerous creature.)

In each case, the goblin shook his head, smiling as if at the innkeeper’s foolishness for suspecting such a thing.

And then, at last, the innkeeper thought he had arrived at a way that would turn the deal completely in his favour.

‘Then if, by some magical means, the purse becomes something that cannot be held, then the wager is null and void, yes?’

To his surprise, the goblin not only nodded in agreement, but added a stipulation that played completely into the innkeeper’s hands.

‘You have to give up the purse through your own free will!’

The ecstatic innkeeper almost cried out in triumph.

Well, there you have it!

What tricks could be hidden in such a clear-cut deal?

 

*

 

 

No matter how hard the innkeeper thought about it, he couldn’t think how he could fail to hold the purse for just five minutes.

Even so…

There was no harm in ensuring he swung the deal around even further to his advantage.

No harm in utilising his own brand of cunning and trickery.

‘Naturally, I would need to check the quality of this dust first,’ he said, thinking: If the goblin’s fool enough to accept, he’ll be placing such a ridiculous amount of power in my hands that I’ll be able to thwart any magic he might have in mind.

‘Of course,’ the goblin agreed foolishly, lifting the necklace strap over his head and offering the pouch to the innkeeper.

Then, as if abruptly aware of the foolhardiness of such an action, he snatched it back, his narrowed eyes observing the innkeeper suspiciously.

‘Wait!’ he said. ‘I should warn you: if I’m handing the pouch to you, then this means our wager has begun!’

Admittedly, the innkeeper hadn’t foreseen that this would be the case; and yet he recognised that it was only fair, after all.

Besides, it didn’t in anyway detract from his plan, for he would still be left wielding more power than even the great King of Cronus could have imagined.

‘And if I deem the quality as poor, the deal’s off?’ he said, refusing to throw away the opportunity to include yet another precautionary stipulation.

‘Of course,’ the goblin agreed, wide-eyed with surprise yet again that the innkeeper could ever think it might be otherwise.

The innkeeper nodded in acceptance, holding out his hand for the proffered pouch.

With a satisfied smile, the goblin dropped the pouch into his hand.

And as soon as the sparkling pouch of fairy dust was in his hand; it remained as a sparkling pouch of fairy dust.

It didn’t suddenly become too heavy or too large to hold.

It didn’t suddenly become too light or too small to hold.

It didn’t transform into a dangerous creature.

It didn’t transform into something that stung, or smelt, or squirmed away.

It didn’t become too hot or too cold.

With his other hand, the innkeeper began to excitedly open this pouch that was still a pouch. He began to pour out the glittering dust into a cupped hand, enthralled by its beauty, this universe of multi-coloured stars streaming into his palm.

It was the finest dust he had ever seen.

It was hard to believe that each grain was in fact a whole kingdom, a whole new world!

It ran more like water than dust.

‘Careful, careful!’ the goblin warned him fearfully, anxiously reaching out to stop the flowing dust from spilling onto the floor. ‘If you drop even a grain, its magic can cause mayhem to anyone who even accidentally picks it up on their shoe!’

It was difficult to control, like trying to cup spring water in your palm.

‘You have more than enough there to create the greatest kingdoms on earth!’ the goblin declared proudly.

Yes, yes, he had!

He had an uncountable number of vast kingdoms literally within his grasp.

He couldn’t let one single grain fall – for it wasn’t a grain, but yet another one of his kingdoms!

‘Yes, yes: I would have those kingdoms now!’ he commanded.

In the blink of an eye, he was no longer standing within the tight confines of the inn’s bedroom.

He was seated within the enormous expanse of a great palace, thronging with lords, ladies and knights.

And he was seated upon a towering throne.

And he was crowned as emperor; as the ruler of an uncountable number of vast kingdoms.

 

 

*

 

 

There was no sign, of course, of that foolish goblin and his ridiculous Box of Fools.

He had been left far behind, standing with a dumbfounded look on his face like the ignoramus he was, suddenly left all alone in the bedroom, clutching nothing but his box.

The emperor looked for the pouch he had held in his hand when he had still been that lowly innkeeper.

He no longer held it,

Not to worry: he had more than enough power and riches,

He literally couldn’t wish for anything more.

Ah yes: he remembered now how he had come to relinquish the purse.

The flowing dust, flowing more smoothly than water, even more chaotically than mercury, had been remarkably difficult to contain within his cupped palm.

The goblin had offered to help, reaching out for and taking the purse from his other hand.

Hah! So that devious goblin had got his purse back after all!

But so what?

What could the goblin do now, when he was probably hundreds of miles away?

Even if the goblin managed to find him, what could he do against someone as powerful as an emperor of innumerable kingdoms?

Wouldn’t he have his own magicians? His own subservient goblins and elves and fairies?

He glanced eagerly around his court, seeking out the most likely magician amongst his many courtiers.

His courtiers were enjoying themselves: dancing, chatting, laughing.

Laughing?

A cold shiver suddenly ran through him.

No! Surely he couldn’t…he couldn’t be entrapped within the box, could he?

He sprang up from his throne, much to the consternation of his court. He dashed towards one of the looming arches that opened up onto an expansive balcony.

The palace was obviously situated high up on a hill, the lands lying beyond the balcony stretching away in one direction as far as the eye could see. In the other direction, the land only reached so far, but only because it was a bay encompassing a sparkling sea dotted with fabulously beautiful ships.

‘My lord, is there anything troubling you that I might be of help with?’ a man who had followed him out onto the balcony asked him concernedly.

‘Oh, no, no…I mean yes, yes,’ the emperor said edgily, but trying to quickly regain his composure, ‘I was wondering…wondering how far my lands…’

‘Ah, I see my lord,’ the man replied with a satisfied smile, ‘you were wondering if the latest military endeavours to extend your lands have been successful yet again? And indeed they have, my lord; your empire grows with every passing day!’

The emperor sighed with relief, silently admonishing himself for his foolishness.

‘Thank you,’ he said gratefully to the elegant man, who withdrew with a gracious smile.

‘If something ails my lord, perhaps I could make him laugh?’

The court fool stepped out from the thronging crowd of concerned courtiers who had flowed the emperor out onto the balcony. He was dressed in his foolishly comical hat, his overly bright costume, his small, stumpy stature alone causing much amusement amongst the court.

He even had a box slung about his waist, from which much laughter emanated.

And around his neck, he had strung a purse, which he jangled tantalisingly in his hand.

‘It’s a shame, my lord, that your five minutes have passed.’

In the blink of an eye, the kingdom returned to dust.

And as the emperor himself also became nothing more than one more speck of fairy dust, the box laughed raucously at the arrival of one more fool.

 

 

*

Chapter 31

 

‘Hah!’ the goblin sneered irritably at the humbled man, his eyes lowered in loathing. ‘That’s just your version of the story!’

As the story had unfolded, the goblin had cringed, apparently on the point of angrily interrupting the humbled man on numerous occasions.

Helen had felt sorry for him, particularly in the story’s descriptions of him as being miserable and ugly.

Does anyone like to hear themselves described in such terms?

And yet; was it true that the Box of Fools served as a hideous prison for so many unfortunate people?

‘I’m extremely well read on these matters, I assure you,’ the man coolly insisted in reply to the goblin’s assertion that he’d told an untrue version of the story.

‘So: what’s not true?’ Helen asked, her eyes fixed not upon the humbled man but upon the goblin.

‘Well, quite obviously,’ the goblin huffed, holding out his arms placatingly, ‘I’m not hideous, for a start! In fact, there’s many a young maid who–’

That’s it?’ Helen snapped, dissatisfied with his answer, his attempt to change the subject. ‘The one untruthful part of the story is that you’re not really hideous?’

‘It’s hardly a minor point, is it? Getting the main character wrong?’ the goblin retorted. ‘How can you trust anything else he’s saying if he can’t get that right?’

Helen wasn’t to be dissuaded by his arguments. She regarded him sorrowfully.

‘How could you do that to all those poor people?’

‘It wasn’t really me!’ the goblin protested. ‘I had to do it.’

He pointed accusingly at the mischievously grinning man.

‘He left out of the story the little matter of the evil witch who–’

‘Who made you do it?’ the man scoffed, finishing the goblin’s sentence for him. ‘Isn’t that always so reassuring for us all, don’t you think? “I’m not the evil one: that was someone else!” Pah! A likely story!’

‘It’s true, it’s true in my case!’ the goblin pleaded. ‘You’ve no idea what she’d have turned me into if I hadn’t agreed to help her collect fairy dust! Something truly horrible–’

‘Oh, whereas someone who imprisons men in a little box isn’t truly horrible?’ the man scoffed once more, this time with a hint of triumph, a touch of satisfaction that the argument has been won.

‘Why have you still got the box?’ Helen asked, looking over towards the area where they had stored their belongings. ‘I mean, if you thought it was all so wrong: why do you still have the box? Why did you keep the pouch of fairy dust?’

The goblin hung his head ashamedly.

‘I could hardly just discard it, could I?’

‘The box or the fairy dust?’

‘Both! The dust is too powerful to just let anyone take possession of it. Whereas, as for the box; yes, I feel responsible for entrapping all those poor people in there!’

‘Can’t they ever be released? Using the fairy dust, for instance?’

The goblin shook his head miserably.

‘If it is possible, I don’t know how,’ he admitted.

‘Surely, you just wish over each grain that it returns to being a person once more?’

A person, sure: that’s easy enough. A whole nation of people; again quite simple! But the person it had once being?’ He shook his head again. ‘Once you’ve cooked a deer, and you eat it, it becomes a part of you: but can you somehow bring that deer back to life, raise him from the dead?’

Behind the goblin, even through the swirling snow, Helen could see the sparkling stars of the Hunter begin to rise above the horizon.

The Hunter was still on his back, asleep, the string of three pearls that formed his belt pointing directly down towards the stars still lying below the horizon.

In particular, it was pointing towards the Star in the East that had announced the birth of the Saviour. That’s why these three stars, she recalled once being told, had been named The Three Kings.

As that brightly shining star rose, it would seem to be pushing the Hunter up onto his feet.

Awaking him.

Or raising him from the dead.

And that’s why those three stars were also called The Three Marys.

 

 

*

 

The three of them were asleep.

The goblin had industriously strung up a number of materials he had found aboard the elephant between its massive, pillar-like legs, creating the equivalent of a large, comfortable tent. It was bathed in the yellow glow of the humbled man’s lantern, for he had insisted that the goblin retrieve it for him from the elephant’s vast belly.

It was a lantern that, it seemed to Helen, never went out, never spluttered as the flames fought for precedence whenever air bubbles caused the flow of oil to be briefly choked.

It was while they slept that the third Mary appeared to Helen.

Helen was grateful that she had appeared to her once more.

Having seen the uplifting of the sleeping Hunter, the rising of The Three Marys, she had prayed for Mary’s help.

Mary could restore her legs to how they should be.

There was no need to resort to magic.

This Mary appeared to her as the youngest Mary of all.

The Untouched Myrrhbearer.

‘It is not right for me to do as you wish,’ Mary said, obviously aware of why Helen had called on her for help.

Mary observed Helen’s bizarre form curiously.

‘This is what happens,’ she stated flatly, ‘when you delve into the darkness.’

‘Then…I have to stay like this?’

She was crestfallen, but recognised the truth in what Mary had told her.

‘There is so much in the world that we regard as being important when it is in reality nothing but an affliction,’ Mary said, ‘while those things we deem unimportant and redundant are of far more significance than we could ever realise.’

Helen tried to see how this insight applied to her own situation.

Surely having goblin legs was an undoubted affliction?

She cursed herself for regarding her own plight as being of such importance that she had dared to ask Mary to cure her. And this for an affliction that she had foolishly brought upon herself.

‘No matter what problem you face, it is your attitude to it that ultimately determines the effect it will have on you. Do you accept it, or do you rage against it? Do you seek revenge, or do you grant forgiveness? And so if we can deal with problems in such a way, then how much easier must it be to realise that we determine everything within the world?’

‘It is tempting, I must admit,’ Mary continued, ‘to use the more brutal and ultimately destructive means to attain what we crave, rather than the slower and originally more frustrating route of careful consideration: even though this is the only route leading to a true and lasting solution to our ordeals. Think of Alexander, and his crude response to the Gordian Knot.’

Naturally, Helen was well aware of the tale of how Alexander the Great had approached the problem of unravelling the intricately complicated Gordian Knot: to the horror of his learned advisors, he had simply hacked at it with his sword until it had fallen apart. Yes, he had gone on to conquer the known world by similar means – of hacking his way through countless other kingdoms, of putting uncountable numbers of people to the sword – yet he had also died young, making it all a false victory for him.

‘There’s a reason for me being like this?’ Helen asked. ‘A warning of the dangers of magic?’

Mary nodded, yet smiled pityingly.

‘It is no use being told to do something we do not accept as being true: we can never hope to learn anything in this way, as we dismiss all well-meaning advise, refusing to believe what is so patently true to others.’

‘And yet this way…I have learnt too late that I must avoid the use of magic!’

 

 

*

Chapter 32

 

When Helen woke up the next morning, she hoped – despite the lessons of her vision – that she had somehow been forgiven her indiscretions.

She glanced down hopefully at her legs: her stunted, hairy, goblin legs.

It had been too much to hope after all.

Looking about her, she saw that the goblin’s bed was empty.

He had obviously risen early, perhaps to get a wash, perhaps to prepare food.

From where the humbled man had made his own bed, however, she heard a painful, bestial whimpering. He was still partially wrapped within the thick drape he had used as his bed, but he was sitting up, bending over at the waist as a cleric leans over his desk.

He had a quill in his hands, one he was using to scrawl something on the inside of his leg. Each slight swirl of the quill caused him agony: indeed, it wasn’t a quill at all, Helen finally realised, but a finger nail sharpened into a nib that merely scratched and gouged at his flesh, while the feathering was the shredded skin of his hand, gently fluttering in the breeze.

A hawk was nearby, staring at her with its curious eyes.

The sight of the hawk jerked her fully awake: was it one of Fausta’s spies?

It was perched on a low hanging branch, observing her calmly enough. It seemed to have no inclination to fly off.

She didn’t feel that this hawk was anything to do with Fausta.

She felt, rather, that it was – somewhat strangely – something to do with her.

Certainly, the eyes of this hawk were different to those that had deviously watched her and the empress that night within the encampment.

More bizarrely still, each eye was different.

One glowed far more than the other one: the way that the sun glows so differently from the glowing moon.

There was a metallic clunk, and then a repeated, rhythmic clanking.

The tree rising everywhere around her groaned. Branches snapped, crashed to the earth, bringing with them an avalanche of packed snow.

The sheets of the makeshift tent twanged as they were pulled taut – and then, in many places began to rip apart.

One of the huge pillars formed from the elephant’s legs shuddered, another vibrated, a third twanged as if struck.

The fourth lifted slightly off the ground, and began to languidly swing forward.

 

 

*

Chapter 33

 

The elongated, tangled stems of torn vines plummeted to the ground.

Weirdly contorted branches followed on behind, striking the ground with enough force to send the covering of snow briefly soaring into the air.

The very last of the tent shredded, the cloth fluttering and snapping harshly in the gusts that continued to whirl the snow into a frenzy.

The humbled man was out of his bed and up on his feet before the startled Helen was. He suddenly seemed full of energy, bursting with strength.

He dashed towards the trunk that would lead him up to the hatch in the elephant’s underbelly: a hatch that was now closed, impenetrable. There was no way, Helen realised, that he was going to stop the resurgent elephant from carrying on its way.

It effortlessly tore through the vines that had apparently bound it to the tree. It shrugged off its thick covering of snow as if it were nothing more than a smattering of dust.

It was working again, its cogs unclogged.

What could stop it now?

It was, once again, an irresistible war machine.

 

 

*

 

 

Arrows clanged uselessly against the elephant’s vast, metallic sides.

They flew through the swirling of snow, coming from somewhere deeper within the copse.

They bounced off the thick armour, dropping silently like dead birds into the soft covering of snow.

One did find its target, did make a kill, however.

It tore into the humbled man’s back, just as he fruitlessly reached out for the hind leg of the elephant inexorably striding away from him.

He coughed up a spurt of blood, a fountain of red droplets that fell like berries upon the sheet of snow.

He jerked, shocked, his body as abruptly rigid as a staff: and then he went completely limp.

He tumbled heavily to the ground, the snow barely cushioning his fall.

Helen should have felt sorry for the man but – she wasn’t quite sure of the reason why – she didn’t. If there was any sense of remorse within her, it was merely of the kind one would feel for the passing of a dying beast.

Despite the constant rain of arrows aimed at its great bulk, the elephant inexorably continued on its way, crushing any bushes in its path, knocking aside even the larger trees if it had to. It was slowly vanishing into the thickly veiling snow.

The goblin must be controlling it, Helen thought miserably.

Using her legs to enable him to reach the controls.

And that meant she had no chance now of ever getting her real legs back.

 

 

*

Chapter 34

 

The archers responsible for the hail of arrows directed at the elephant at last broke cover, kneeling as they let fly with a last, pummelling rain of projectiles.

Some of them glanced Helen’s way, their eyes lighting up in recognition, narrowing in confusion as they caught sight of her stubby legs.

‘My lady,’ one of them said, a man whom she had seen often at her father’s side, ‘you’ve had an accident?’

‘Forgive us my lady,’ another pleaded. ‘We thought you were the crew of another of those infernal machines!’

She shrugged away their apologies with a nonchalantly imperial wave of a hand.

‘My father; is he close?’ she demanded.

The man who had spoken first, Gremir, shook his head.

‘We’re scouts only my lady: sent down this way after we’d heard reports that the Romans have landed again on the south coast, intending to capture the old empress!’

‘We saw them ourselves,’ the other man added, ‘after they’d landed just to the west of here. Their own scouts saw us, chased us over this way far farther than we would have wished; but we never thought they might already be this deeply inland, bringing with them yet another of their cursed war elephants!’

‘What did you say?’ Helen spoke more sternly than intended, fearing that her strange, stunted appearance negated any sense of authority she might once have naturally possessed. ‘The Romans are going to attack the empress?’

‘Under the command, it’s said, of the younger empress herself. Three, maybe four legions at the least.’

‘You’ll never get word to my father in time: is that what you were hoping to do?’

‘The rebellion has been successfully put down, we’d heard. But yes, its many days travel even for a light party like us over such hard ground th–’

His voice stilled, his mouth frozen in mid word.

His whole body was rigid, unmoving.

Helen cast her gaze quickly about her.

All the men were similarly frozen in mid action.

Two of them were preparing to move the dead body of the humbled man.

Another had returned with the horses, leading them all by their straps.

Others were carefully unstringing their bows, cleaning them. Some were collecting the spent arrows, trying to work out what could be salvaged.

Amongst the whirling of the snow, there was a brighter flash, a serpentine flow of the brightest mercury, rushing a foot or so above the ground like a magical, swiftly meandering stream. It coursed through the air, a bolt of lightning slowed to a point where its every action was visible.

It writhed, shuddered, dissolved – and became in an instant a pure white deer that could have been formed from the swirling snow itself.

The deer, unlike the silvery streak, was unhurried.

It silently, leisurely, ambled its way through the snow towards Helen.

By a fallen log that lay amongst an unsullied drift, it shivered once more, dissolving back into the spinning snow as quickly as it had been formed from it.

In its place there was Mary, sitting on the log.

 

 

*

Chapter 35

 

‘Mary?’

Helen was bewildered, unsure what to think, to say.

‘A fourth one?’

‘No: the first,’ Mary replied with an amused smile that almost instantly became an anxious frown. ‘If you believe you have seen other Marys, then it worries me that you may have been visited by those who don’t have your interests at heart.’

‘And…you do?’ Helen asked doubtfully, nervously glancing once again at the petrified men surrounding her.

Mary nodded, smiled: yet Helen caught the smirking around the corners of her mouth.

‘Then why are you trying so hard not to laugh!’ Helen snapped accusingly. ‘Wouldn’t the Devil make a similar claim as you: that he was only here to help?’

‘Yes, he would,’ Mary surprisingly agreed. ‘And no doubt whoever visited you first made a similar claim. As for your dismay that I’m stifling my laughter; well yes, I apologise for that! But I just wasn’t expecting you to – look like this!’

She indicated Helen’s overly short legs.

‘How can someone who means me well laugh at this?’

Helen was furious.

‘This is terrible!’ she continued irately. ‘Just what were you expecting?’

‘Well, I knew you’d be in some hybrid form: but it’s more usually a centaur – half girl, half horse. Quite shocking, of course, when it happens to you: but also strangely exhilarating, and enlightening.’

She studied Helen’s ugly legs thoughtfully.

‘Though I suppose you find this humiliating enough–’

‘Humiliating? Of course it’s humiliating!’

‘Good, good: then you recognise the beast within you. It serves its purpose well enough, for you recognise that you could be something better than this.’

Helen glanced down at her shortened legs.

‘If the goblin were here, I don’t think he’d be too happy about you referring to him as a beast!’

‘But that recognition is also wise, Helen: for despite the way it is formed, it is not truly a beast if it comes under your control. It’s only by denying its existence that it gradually exerts its control over us.’

With a slight movement of her eyes she drew Helen’s attention to the humbled man lying dead upon the ground.

‘You wanted to kill him, didn’t you? And yet, recognising that, being horrified by it, you stayed your own hand.’

‘Which Mary are you?’

Helen probed Mary’s eyes with her own, demanding a truthful answer.

‘I’m Mary of the Seven Daemons.’

 

 

*

Chapter 36

 

‘Mary Magdalene,’ Helen breathed fearfully. ‘As Christ cast out the seven devils from her: but you’ve as good as admitted that you’re the Mary before Christ’s saving grace!’

Daemons, Helen,’ Mary patiently corrected her. ‘Not demons, let alone devils! The meaning has been falsely and deliberately changed, for a daemon is simply another aspect of ourselves. But yes, Christ – rather than expelling our six lower states – can help us swiftly rise up to recognising our higher, angelic self.’

‘Then this–’ Helen opened her arms wide, a means of indicating her stunted form – ‘is just another aspect of me? Another lower state?’

She spoke as if she remained incredulous, as if she regarded all this as some cruel joke.

Mary had to stifle a chuckle once again.

‘It may not seem it, I grant you,’ she admitted. ‘It lacks the grace of a centaur – what happened? Didn’t your horse draw near as it was supposed to whe–’

‘Yes, yes, it did!’ Helen declared angrily, it dawning on her that it was that damned goblin who had shooed her horse away. ‘Is this why I’m like this rather than having the powers of a horse? Because I was near a goblin rather than my horse?’

‘You have the means to change yourself once again…’

‘By “means”, you mean magic?’

‘Magic is merely a name granted to it by those who don’t understand it. It is simply a control of the connections that lie between everything–’

‘Dark matter? The darkest of webs, that can suck you in, and leech you dry!’

‘It’s obvious that someone has been deliberately misinforming you,’ Mary sadly sighed. ‘It’s called dark matter only because it remains unseen to most people: and who, anyway, has decided that darkness is evil? Only those, Helen, who deliberately lied that the daemons within us are devils!’

 

 

*

 

 

There were cries of shock from the men as Mary abruptly vanished.

Yet they weren’t cries because they had seen her disappear. The men closest to her didn’t even seem aware that they had been briefly frozen.

‘–that mostly remains impassable at this time of year,’ the man who had been speaking obliviously continued.

The yells of surprise came from the men who had been tending to the corpse of the humbled man.

‘He’s gone!’ they shrieked in a mix of surprise and horror. ‘He was dead: I checked myself – yet he’s vanished!’

 

 

*

Chapter 37

 

The footprints the humbled man had made as he’d walked off were still visible in the snow.

Peering through the squalls of whirling snow, Helen thought she caught the brief flicker of an oily, yellowish glow: but it blinked out almost as soon as it had appeared, and Helen had to admit that she couldn’t really be sure that she had even seen it in the first place.

They footprints were being swiftly covered by the constantly falling snow, and there seemed little point in chasing after him.

He was neither one of them nor their prisoner, after all.

‘He must have just been wounded: decided he didn’t want to stay with us,’ Gremir said with a noncommittal shrug.

Wounded?’ one of the men who’d checked the man’s body scoffed. ‘If having an arrow all way through your body is “wounding” then we really don’t have much to fear in our next battle, do we?’

‘He’s gone, it doesn’t matter either way,’ Helen pointed out authoritatively.

She had more important things on her mind. They didn’t have any time to waste.

‘I’m going to ride out towards where the empress’s column was last heading: to warn her of the oncoming Legions,’ she decided. ‘You need to carry on the way you were going, to bring father and all his men back here as soon as you can.’

‘We only need one man to get back and bring your father here,’ Gremir pointed out. ‘We should go with you, my lady–’

‘No!’

Helen remembered the empress’s strange warning that more men might only make things worse.

‘I insist, my lady,’ Gremir pronounced more firmly, ‘that at least half of us escort you: for if anything were to befall you, then your father would…well, I’d rather not think about what he would do to us.’

Helen nodded. Gremir was right.

‘Half one way, half the other,’ she agreed.

‘My lady,’ Gremir said more tentatively this time, ‘your father won’t get here in time: you should go with the party heading back to him!’

Helen shook her head.

‘I’m my father’s daughter: if I have to die, so be it.’

As she waved a hand airily about her, dismissing Gremir’s fears for her, she caught a bright sparkle of rainbow colours at her fingertips.

She brought her hand down, studying the fingertips curiously.

There was a grain of sparkling fairy dust caught beneath her fingernail.

The speck that the goblin had carelessly cast aside when they’d heard the knocking of the humbled man and rushed to investigate?

How else could it have got there?

She must have brushed her hand across the table, accidentally picking up the grain of dust.

‘If you had a road, Gremir,’ she asked, ‘one better than even the Roman’s had ever constructed, one wide enough to support the advance of a whole army; then how long would it take your men to alert father and bring him down here to stop the legions advancing on the empress?’

‘Such a road could only exist in the wildest of imaginations, my lady!’ Gremir guffawed richly.

Helen raised her arm, concentrated on what she was wishing for: a road rushing out northwest to the coast, which it would then tightly hug as it raced northwards.

Her eyes glazed over, flickered like flames of red fire, like swirling blue waters.

The land lying directly ahead of her trembled. It rumbled irately, demonstrating its fury that it had been so rudely disturbed.

The land doesn’t bow down easily, not even to magic.

It roared its disapproval.

It groaned agonisingly, as if being tortured.

The earth shrieked. The trees screamed.

The air hissed furiously.

But then all resistance collapsed.

‘For a road – for a road only will I do this!’ the land cursed.

In a perfectly straight line stretching out before Helen, the trees cracked and tumbled, like the Devil cuts down his kindling.

The earth moved, like soil being rapidly turned aside by gigantic yet invisible ploughs.

The rivers and streams spun and whirled, like waters chaotically distressed by the churning of countless oars.

As if caught up in the frantically swirling snow, the broken earth, the shattered trees, the distressed waters, all rose up into the air: where everything danced, like the cavorting of immense flames.

The hills dropped, flattening. The valleys swelled, filling up. The streams and rivers briefly parted, allowing bridges to spring out across them.

And the great road laid itself out before Helen, the King’s Daughter.

 

 

*

Chapter 38

 

The men surrounding her were all on their knees, fearfully crossing their chests again and again.

They looked only at the road stretching out before them, their gaze locked on it, as if too frightened to even glance Helen’s way.

They saw it, Helen realised, as the work of the Devil, not God.

She sensed she was standing taller, straighter, once more. Glancing down, she was relieved and overjoyed to see that they were her own legs rather than the stumpy ones of the goblin.

That was strange.

It hadn’t been a part of her wish.

She had believed she was already asking too much of the powers of magic. For, despite Mary’s reassurances, she still feared that an overuse of its powers, that demanding too much of it, could only ever result in the destruction of her soul.

She had considered bringing her father and his men here directly. But that would have been fraught with danger, not least because of her own inexperience of utilising these powers: isn’t that how she’d ended up with the goblin’s legs, after all?

She dreaded to think what her father and his men might have ended up looking like if she had attempted to drag them here magically.

At last, Gremir mustered the courage to at least glance her way. He rose unsteadily to his feet, clutched at his sword as if for reassurance: then loudly and gruffly proclaimed, ‘It’s like the parting of the red sea!’

He turned to his men, attempting to rally them.

‘Don’t you see, men? The parting of the Red Sea! That’s what this is like!’

He waved a hand towards the road, drawing their attention to the way it had magically cleaved its way through the earth, parting fields and forests as if they were no more substantial than the butter their maids churned into being.

He strode towards the near edge of the road, stepping onto its paved surface, a demonstration that no one would come to harm.

‘See: it is a road, and nothing else!’

Another man rose to his feet and stepped forward, striding confidently onto the paved area and standing alongside Gremir.

‘If the daughter of our king has created this road,’ he declared resolutely, twisting on his heels to face his still cowering companions, ‘then how can it be in anyway anything to do with the darkness?’

A few of the kneeling men swamped shameful stares.

A third man rose to his feet and stepped towards the road, then a fourth.

By the rising of the seventh man, everyone began to shamefacedly amble towards the edge of the road and step onto its paved stones.

The men left in charge of the horses drew all their gathered mounts closer, handing out the reins, reuniting each beast with its master. Helen noted that some of the men sighed with relief, no doubt reassured that the instincts of their horses didn’t cause them to shy away from this magically formed road.

Momentarily catching Gremir’s eye, Helen thanked him with a brief nod of the head.

She didn’t want him to know that she was probably more frightened than any of them.

Unlike her, they didn’t face the fate of being sucked into the darkness of the magical powers that had created this road for them.

And what power it was too!

It had slashed its way through the land as effortlessly as the finest blade hewing through the softest flesh.

She might be of the new religion; yet she still retained that residue of respect for the land that told her it wasn’t wise to treat it in so offhand a manner.

 

 

*

Chapter 39

 

Half and half.

Half of the men to take the road, and bring back her father’s massed forces.

Half to accompany her, and give warning to the empress that as well as the surrounding wolves, she now faced at least three legions.

Helen’s horse stumbled slowly and ungainly through the thickening snow.

Maybe, she thought, she should have created a road leading this way too!

The mounts of the men fared even worse, being of a heavier build than hers, reared for battle as much as speed and grace. They whinnied in fear, their nostrils flaring every time they caught the stench of any of the shadowing wolves that drew too near to them.

Any wolf risking coming too close was invariably quickly dispatched with an arrow from a deftly produced bow, briefly raising cheers of jubilation and laughter amongst the men. Yet no matter how many of the dark shapes jerked and writhed as a shaft slewed through them, the numbers of the following wolves never seemed to actually diminish, while the men themselves gradually sickened and ailed, as if suffering some unseen blight.

Why were the wolves keeping them all so closely under watch when they had ignored Helen while she had travelled on her own, making her more vulnerable than ever?

Although the land had temporarily bowed to Helen’s will, its resentment now showed in the way it seemed to be throwing every obstacle it could against her and the men.

Slippery rocks hidden beneath the snow threatened to bring them crashing down to earth, crippling their mounts. The streams they crossed were either in flooded, full flow, or covered with treacherous ice of an inconsistent thickness.

The trees were the worst of all, the branches coming to life as bony hands and arms in the whirling gusts, ripping at helmets, even striking men to the ground, until they were forcibly hacked clear by the increasingly unnerved men.

They frequently glanced Helen’s way with miserable, veiled snarls, either wondering why she didn’t use her magic to spare them this agony, or fearing that they suffered it because she had used it against the land.

The only creatures who appeared to be on their side were the crows, dark puffs in the sky who watched their progress every bit as attentively as the wolves but, every now and again, swooped down to daringly peck at the eyes of any animal drawing too close. Ominously, this only added to the men’s edginess, for it only served as yet more proof that they were now fighting on the side of darkness rather than light.

It wasn’t until they approached a hill from across a relatively sparsely vegetated section of land that Helen noticed the deep and wide track in the snow that, running almost parallel to their own course, could only have been formed by a large column, and one that had passed this way recently too.

She, Gremir and another man forced their mounts through the snow separating the tracks, hoping that a quick inspection of the trodden and impacted snow might give them an idea of the number of men they might end up having to deal with. But the prints were strangely uniform in the way they were so regularly flattened, as if by the most enormous boots. Moreover, immense drifts of pulverised snow lay in between them, the signs that the giant responsible had slovenly dragged his feet through the icy covering rather than bothering to raise them higher.

It was like nothing any of them had even seen before today; and yet they had all seen something exactly like it this very morning.

It was the track that the war elephant had made as it had strode away from the camp.

 

 

*

Chapter 40

 

‘Would the war elephant help us?’ Gremir asked Helen. ‘I mean, could we take it from the goblin, and use it to rescue the empress?’

‘We don’t know how easy it would be to take it from him,’ Helen pointed out. ‘He might not be able to use any of its weapons while controlling it, but we would still need to find a way into it.’

If she could have conjured up an easy way of capturing the elephant, Helen might have considered it a good idea to have it fighting on their side.

There was the access hatch below its neck, of course, but how many men might be lost to a vast beast like the elephant before anyone managed to clamber inside? And even then they would have to work out some way of getting into whichever room the goblin was in.

‘We’ll continue on our way,’ Helen decided. ‘The only problem we should have with the war elephant is if the goblin – for some strange reason – uses it to attack us.’

Needing to reassure herself that the goblin wasn’t continuing on his track leading towards the empress, Helen intently peered out across the land as soon as they neared the top of the hill. This high up, the snow whipped with particular vengeance at her face, while the land itself was covered with equally violently battling squalls of icy flakes.

There was no sign of the elephant, no matter how hard she tried to penetrate the multiple veils of flurrying snow. She couldn’t make out anything that could be its track either, which would at least have given her some indication of the goblin’s course.

When they surmounted the hill, the reason for all this was made perfectly clear; for the elephant had collapsed into a chaotic heap at the bottom of the steep incline.

 

 

*

 

 

As they drew closer to the crumpled elephant, Helen recognised that it wasn’t in any way the tangled wreck she had at first supposed.

It was more like an ox that, after a particularly hard day tilling the fields, had slumped exhaustedly to the ground. This being a machine rather than a living creature, however, the elephant had four knees, all of which had bent beneath it as it had slid to the earth.

Is that what had happened? Had the elephant reached the peak of the hill, only to uncontrollably slide down the other side?

There was a dull yet frantic knocking coming from the crumpled machine, the sounds of solid iron on sheet metal. It didn’t sound so much like the regular clank of a machine preparing to move, however, but the more persistent forcing of the ironsmith.

Closer still, Helen spotted the goblin, hammering frustratingly at the rocks caught within the interlocking pieces of a knee joint.

He was so intent on repairing the elephant that he hadn’t heard or seen the approach of Helen and her men. It wasn’t until they were almost on top of him that some kind of sixth sense caused him to glance up and, seeing Helen, cry out in horror.

Throwing his tools aside, he leapt up off his knees, skittering in the snow as he unsuccessfully attempted to both leap and climb over the elephant’s serpentine trunk.

Spurring his horse forward, Gremir had no trouble in grabbing the goblin by the back of his jacket. He tossed him aside into the snow as carelessly as the goblin had rid himself of his cumbersome tools.

‘Don’t hurt me, please don’t hurt me!’ the goblin wailed, looking up from the disturbed snow with all the fear of a cornered animal, but none of its determination to fight back. ‘I didn’t intend to leave you, not until I saw you with that–’

‘Did you lose control of it?’

Ignoring his hurriedly garbled pleading, Helen gazed at the disabled elephant.

The goblin nodded.

‘My legs: they suddenly grew shorter.’

As he looked up at Helen’s legs, she glanced down at his. She smiled with satisfaction when she saw that he had his own short legs back.

‘Serves you right,’ she said with an amused smirk. ‘But why did you betray me like that?’ she added more sternly. ‘I thought we were friends?’

‘I saw the other friends you keep,’ the goblin half sneered back, a sneer that was more one of fright than superiority.

‘The humbled man?’

‘That woman – the one I saw you talking with when you thought we were asleep.’

‘Mar–’ She was about to say Mary, but that wouldn’t mean anything to the goblin. ‘You saw her?’

‘See her?’ the goblin scoffed bravely. ‘I could smell her! Sense her evil!’

So, Helen thought, Mary of the Seven Daemons had been right: this had been no Mary, Mother of God who had visited her in the night, but a false one.

The young empress, telling lies about the old empress, trying to turn Helen against her. Trying, too, to prevent her from accessing the powers the old empress had been gradually teaching her to use.

‘What did she look like, this woman?’ Helen asked curiously.

Perhaps realising that he wasn’t in any danger after all, the goblin uneasily rose to his feet, dusting off a smattering of snow.

‘You couldn’t see?’ The goblin frowned perplexedly. ‘No, wait – you could; but what did she look like you?’

‘Kind, considerate.’

The goblin shook his head, chuckled in disbelief.

‘She must have had you charmed; I saw an imperious, arrogant woman, snarling at you with loathing and hate. She was like the witch who used to own me; using words as an imprisonment, while putting on this façade of being all sweetness and light, someone who’d only ever use magic for the best of reasons.’

‘I was being controlled by her, in a way,’ Helen admitted. ‘But not anymore.’

The goblin nodded, his way of thanking her for her honesty.

‘Then I apologise too,’ he said ashamedly, indicating her legs with a casual wave of a hand, ‘for the…mix up between us, I mean.’

‘Then you did do it?’

Helen scowled down at him. The goblin stepped back a little in fright, waved his hands before him consolingly.

‘No, no! I wouldn’t do that!’ he protested urgently. ‘I mean, I sensed what was about to happen between you and your horse–’

‘You did?’

Helen was more surprised by this admission than if he’d admitted to being responsible for the spell.

‘Well, it’s in the story, isn’t it? I didn’t think you’d be wanting that to happen, you being scared by magic and all that! But I didn’t think you’d end up with my legs!’

Story? There’s a story that could have warned me all about this?’

‘Well, it’s not directly about you, of course: but there are things to learn in it if you listen carefully.’

‘We haven’t got any time for stories–’

‘You have if you let me mount up behind you,’ the goblin insisted with a cheery smile, stepping forward and raising a hand in expectation of being pulled up to sit behind her. ‘I’m going to need help to get my elephant going anyway!’

 

 

*

Chapter 41

 

The Girl who Spared a Crow’s Egg

 

There was once a girl called Uraeus who, despite her lowly position, had a good soul, one that would be the envy of any richer man or woman; for she herself would never envy anyone for their good fortune.

Being nothing but a lowly peasant girl, a maidservant in the employ of those far wealthier than her, she would fall fast asleep in front of the fire after a hard day’s work, this being the only way she could keep warm in the large, draughty kitchen she was forced to slave away in.

It was while she was falling asleep in this way, snuggling as close to the dying fire as she dared, that she heard something drop down the chimney into the still warm and flickering ashes. She woke up with a start, her eyes wide with horror when she saw that it was an egg that had fallen in amongst the black soot and hot coals.

Without a care for herself, she reached out for the egg, fearing that the poor creature inside would be burned to a cinder before it had even been properly born. The coals and ashes burnt her fingers badly, yet she managed to rescue the egg, drawing it from the earthy darkness of the coal, the hot glow of the spluttering yet still potent flames.

Fortunately, the egg seemed undamaged by its adventure, suffering neither a crack, nor warming so much that it might have endangered the fledgling nestled inside.

‘Thank you for rescuing my child.’

Wondering who had thanked her, Uraeus spun around: and found herself staring into the black, beady eyes of a crow perched on the kitchen table.

Naturally, Uraeus was surprised to hear a crow speaking so politely to her: but being polite herself, she didn’t wish to startle the poor crow by pointing this out.

Instead she said, ‘I’d noticed that you’d built your nest on the very edge of the chimney top, and realised the egg – your child – must have fallen from there.’

The crow nodded in agreement.

‘From my nest, I’ve heard you mumbling in your sleep, and realise that you wish for nothing more than to attend the prince’s great ball taking place tomorrow night. For saving the life of my son, Alnilam, I offer my own life to you as forfeit: for I am Alnitak Imsety, and you can make a magic girdle of my feathers that will make any dress you wear look like it’s decorated with strings of the most beautiful black pearls!’

Uraeus shook her head and smiled pleasantly.

‘Why thank you, kind Alnitak: and to think, I’d heard that crows cackle happily as they devour our dead! But I can’t take your life simply for the sake of something as trivial as a dress!’

‘Then I insist you take these two worms,’ the crow said, hopping forward even as he regurgitated a worm and split it in two with his beak. ‘Just like me, they take the earthly matter man leaves behind as being redundant, then weave it into something wholly new.’

He let the split worm lightly fall before Uraeus: but before she could even decide what she was supposed to do with such a disgusting yet obviously well-meant gift, the split worm became two – and both of them immediately leapt into the fire place, where they swiftly darted in and out amongst the burning coals and ashes.

The dark coals shredded into the finest threads, the ashes into sparkling, golden grains that decorated them, the now energised worms having transformed into fiery serpents dragging the black, star-studded strands behind them.

The serpents continued to weave in and out between each other, like the weft and warp of a loom making funeral garb from the very darkest of materials, from the very night-sky itself, yet forgetting to dust off the firmament’s endless sprinkling of stars.

The thread itself seemed without end. As it became material, it was also no longer purely dark, but sparkled here and there with gold, blue, yellow, or even a blazing red, the colour and even the nature of vibrantly dancing flames.

It was at once a dress made from the darkly glittering cosmos that, far from merely portraying the firmament, did so remarkably accurately, even to the extent of displaying the swirling moves of the planets, the constellations, the stars, as if viewed from any chosen spot on Earth.

Indeed, the two fiery serpents had ensured they had left their own mark too, as seen within the snaking descent of Venus, along with its subsequent feathery serpentine rise after seven full days in the underworld.

And when the dress was finished, Alnitak had not only already left, but had also managed to take his son Alnilam with him too.

 

 

*

 

 

Uraeus had the most beautiful dress but no way – of course – of getting to the prince’s ball.

Ah well, Alnitak wasn’t to know that, Uraeus told herself: it was the most wondrous of gifts he had granted her, and she had no right to complain or moan.

She hung the dress in an old cupboard nobody used save her, and the next morning went about her daily chores as if nothing unusual had happened. She went out across the dew covered heath, collecting coals from an open pit there, and placing them in the huge wicker basket strapped to her back.

While she worked, she heard a pained squawking in the air above her. Briefly glancing skywards, she was just in time to see an eagle strike and bring down a hawk.

The hawk fell from the sky so quickly even the eagle was unable to keep up with it. It would have undoubtedly died if Uraeus hadn’t carefully positioned herself beneath the falling bird, holding out her dress to catch it in.

The poor hawk was stunned, but fortunately not dead, Uraeus realised happily.

‘Thank you for rescuing my bridegroom.’

Wondering who had thanked her, Uraeus spun around: and found herself staring into the strangely entrancing eyes of another hawk, this one perched upon a nearby branch.

Its eyes sparkled, but each one differently, such that one shone as silvery as a full moon on the darkest, clearest night, whereas the other glowed as if it were the scorching sun.

But of course, it is a mistake to think of them as such; for one is the Evening Star, which burns so brightly in the night sky before vanishing into the Underworld, while the other is the Morning Star, which can be seen rising even in the brightening of dawn.

Naturally, Uraeus was surprised to hear a hawk speaking so politely to her: but being polite herself, she didn’t wish to startle the poor hawk by pointing this out.

Instead she said kindly, ‘I’ve enjoyed watching your courting and would like to congratulate you on your forthcoming marriage, dear hawk.’

‘We too have watched you,’ the hawk replied, ‘and have both remarked that one so pretty as you has not yet met a suitable match for her own heart: and because of this, despite your outer happiness, you seem quite dead inside. For saving the life of my bridegroom, Saif, I offer my own life to you as forfeit: for I am Mintaka Qebehsenuef, and you can make a magic brooch of my eyes. When affixed to your breast above your heart, it will shine brightly and bring your heart’s desire to you.’

Uraeus shook her head and smiled pleasantly.

‘Why thank you, kind Mintaka: and to think, I’d had heard that hawks seem to enjoy nothing more than eating a poor animals intestines and spleen! But I can’t take your life simply for the sake of something as trifling as a brooch!’

‘Then I insist you share in the glow of my eyes,’ the hawk said, hopping closer towards Uraeus so that she could let their light shine fully into her, ‘to aid you in your two most important journeys. One will be as a lamp to you that can safely lead you anywhere, even when the light is so bright it blinds you. The other is for the journey you must take now – it will be as a mirror, one allowing you to both see your reflected light and also recognise your veiled darkness.’

Now Uraeus couldn’t really see how such remarkable gifts could really aid her on any journey she might wish to take: but Mintaka wasn’t to know that, of course, Uraeus told herself, and so she had no right to complain or moan.

But Mintaka was no longer there.

Neither was poor Saif, who must have recovered and flown off without Uraeus realising.

More amazingly, though, the dress she was wearing wasn’t her coal dust splattered smock but the dress of night and fire. She was holding its front up slightly in her hands, as she had with her smock when she had let Saif safely fall into its hammock-like embrace.

But within the whirling firmament of the magic dress she saw herself there, as an angel might rise through the stars and past the brightly glowing planets.

She also saw there another Uraeus, one who was of the darkness, not the light: and yet she still suddenly and briefly shone brightly, as the Evening Star burns before plummeting into the darkness of the netherworld.

 

 

*

 

 

It was a darkness illuminated everywhere around the palace by the most immense braziers Uraeus had even seen, the flames reaching skyward, creating an orb of blazing red around the looming buildings.

Carriages arrived endlessly, languidly trundling along the wide roadway, no matter the sense of urgency of their young and eager occupants to finally arrive at the ball. They knew that an aura of decorum had to be maintained.

Uraeus, of course, had neither carriage nor even a single horse to carry her to the steps rising up towards the palace’s great doors. She merely appeared from the darkness lying outside of the sphere of flame-red light, ascending the steps as regally as if the blackest carriage of all had dropped her off and now still lay hidden there, waiting patiently for her return.

At least, this is what anyone lucky enough to witness her arrival presumed: for how could a princess so gorgeously dressed have arrived by any other means?

Her dress was of the dark cosmos itself, illuminated by the whirling constellations of stars!

Dressed in this manner, and carrying herself with an enviable élan gifted her by the elegantly revolving stars themselves, Uraeus couldn’t fail to make an impression on anyone who saw her: or indeed, on anyone who heard of her, for the excited gossip spread around the halls and corridors as swiftly as fire rushes through dried undergrowth.

The prince of this dark ball was intrigued when he heard of her.

Enchanted when he saw her.

Charmed when he spoke to her.

Entranced when they touched.

Bewitched when they danced.

Who can truly say what his feelings might have been if they had kissed?

‘I must visit your lands,’ the prince breathed hungrily. ‘I must meet with your king, your queen, and ask permission–’

‘You have my permission to visit,’ Uraeus breathed almost as excitedly, her own urgency enhanced by her need to interrupt him before he made any embarrassing declaration of marriage.

For, of course, there was no king or queen, nor were there any lands that either they or she owned.

And naturally, she didn’t want him to know this.

‘Though my lands lie far beyond the ancient forest,’ she added, hoping to dissuade him from ever searching for her non-existent lands.

‘Really?’ he said, frowning in puzzlement. ‘I know of no palace lying in that direction; and yet my ambassadors regularly travel far beyond my already extensive lands.’

‘It is a land constantly veiled by both mists and ignorance of its existence,’ Uraeus replied, maintaining the pretence that she was indeed the wealthy princess she appeared to be (for to admit otherwise would be far too embarrassing and shaming for even her to bear!). ‘It would not surprise me that they might have missed it on their travels.’

‘Then I must inform my advisers that they have to first check then change their maps and charts!’ the prince declared, raising a hand high above the whirling dancers and, with a click of his fingers, demanding the approach of his most trusted confidantes.

‘Then I, too, will fetch my carriage driver,’ Uraeus stated pleasantly, sadly letting her fingers slip from the hand of the handsome prince, miserably parting and drawing back from him. ‘Only he can really help them chart the positions of my lands.’

She regretfully stepped away from the dance floor.

She imperiously strode through the ballroom’s vast doors.

She rushed down the elegant stairway leading outside.

She fled the palace.

 

 

*

 

 

She was in the darkness once more.

But now the blaze of light surrounding the palace was behind her, not ahead of her.

She couldn’t see where she was heading.

She wasn’t sure where to go. She wasn’t sure how she had even come here in the first place.

If only the moon were out, she thought, I might have some idea where I’m running to.

Her feet told her the land she was sprinting across was becoming more uneven, less cultivated, wilder.

As she flailed out with her hands before her, trying to ensure she didn’t run into anything in the darkness, she realised she was rushing headlong into a heavily wooded area, perhaps even a forest.

That wasn’t wise.

Not at any time. But particularly on a night.

Night was when the creatures of the forest took firm control of it. When their heightened senses and instincts gave them a distinct advantage over man, whose intelligence counted for nothing when it was panicked into incoherence by fear of the darkness.

This was the time of bears, of wolves.

Realising she should turn around, Uraeus spun upon her heels and glanced back towards the palace.

But there was no brightly illuminated palace, as she’d expected to see through the maze of trees.

She must have got confused, she thought: she must be looking in the wrong direction.

She glanced everywhere about her.

Yet no matter where she looked, she could no longer see the blazing red glow enveloping the palace.

Surely she hadn’t run so far from the palace in so short a time!

Worst of all, now that she had spun around, she was completely disorientated. She had no idea of the way she had been running, let alone the way leading back to the palace!

She cautiously strode on through the forest, a mass of nothing but slightly varying shades of darkness, hoping to find something – anything – that might help her re-establish the way to take to reach safety once more.

From out of the surrounding darkness, there came a growling. A snarl.

Just ahead of her, there was a bright, flickering glow: the sharp yellow light of hungry, almond-shaped eyes, watching her every move.

 

 

*

 

 

The eyes of a wolf.

She couldn’t outrun a wolf!

It was a creature of the night, of the forest. It could see clearly where she would only be befuddled and useless! It could move as swiftly through otherwise obstructive undergrowth as smoothly as fish flow through water!

The fearful beast moaned threateningly.

The dreadful creature groaned.

The pitiful animal whimpered.

It wasn’t moving towards her, as she had feared it might.

It remained where it was.

It slumped to the floor, crumpling onto one side, its yellow eyes closing exhaustedly.

Uraeus tentatively drew a little closer towards the supine wolf.

A thick, white stem appeared to be growing from its underside.

A spear: or a lance. Deeply embedded in the poor beast’s stomach, right thorough his navel.

Uraeus carefully and silently knelt down beside the sickening creature, reaching out to tenderly caress its blood matted fur, its painfully heaving chest.

‘What can I do? What can I do to help you?’ she asked concernedly.

She looked at the spear, wondering if it would be wise to attempt to withdraw it.

It might make things worse, opening up the wound.

It might even result in her own death, if it caused the wolf such pain it at last attacked her.

She gripped the lance, the wolf’s blood running between her fingers.

She had to help this injured animal, no matter what danger it put her in.

Slowly, she pulled on the lance, withdrawing it as gently and smoothly as she were able. As part of the metallic point was revealed, she took even more care, ensuring the sharp edges didn’t cause further agony to the painfully whimpering wolf.

She breathed with relief when the blade finally came free. She cast it aside with a further, thankful sigh.

‘Thank you for rescuing my father.’

Wondering who had thanked her, Uraeus spun around: and found herself staring into the yellow, reptilian eyes of another and obviously younger, stronger wolf.

Naturally, Uraeus was surprised to hear a wolf speaking so politely to her: but naturally, she didn’t wish to startle the wolf by pointing this out.

Instead she said kindly, ‘Your father needs help that I’m afraid I’m unable to give him.’

‘If you are only afraid of what little aid you can give him,’ the wolf replied, ‘rather than being afraid of us, then I can assure you that he will recover. And so for saving the life of my father, Ensis, I offer my own life to you as forfeit: for I am Rigel Duamutef, and you can make an enchanted stole of my pelt that, when cast about you, will render you invisible to any assailant.’

Now of course, Uraeus was well aware that such a magical shawl was exactly what she required to hide from the prince and his men, should they decide to come seeking after her: yet she shook her head and smiled pleasantly.

‘Why thank you, kind Rigel: and to think, I’d had heard that wolves seem to enjoy nothing more than filling their stomachs with people who get lost in the woods! But I can’t take your life simply for the sake of something as trifling as a stole!’

‘Then I suggest you share in the blood of both me and my father,’ the wolf said, striding closer towards Uraeus so that she could see that, like his father, he had suffered a wound to his own chest.

Concerned, she reached out to touch the still freshly bleeding gash: and as the blood trickled through her fingers in bright drops as red as Mars, as succulent as berries, they rained across the soft and welcoming earth and seeded there.

They sprouted, black stalks bearing white leaves, burgeoning into red blooms.

The black of polished boots and smartly pressed pantaloons, the white of crisp, crossed belts, the red of tunics and tricornes.

For every drop spilt – and there were hundreds, scattering everywhere about the ground, despite the wolf suffering no noticeable harm – a proud solider came to life in its place.

And despite it still being dark, the soldiers set immediately to work, reclaiming the land, creating farms, establishing towns; and building Uraeus a towering palace.

 

 

*

 

 

As her palace and cities swiftly rose about her, an awestruck and distracted Uraeus didn’t notice when or how the wolves vanished. She hoped, however, that they were still safe, perhaps having created their own new home within whatever was left of the forests her new kingdom had displaced, for thick woods still surrounded its very farthest boundaries.

This didn’t sound quite as amazing and unlikely as it might have seemed only a few moments ago, for her own lands were abruptly populated, the soldiers bringing with them sons, spouses, fathers, siblings, daughters, brides, and, naturally, mothers. With them came all manner of beast, creature, and animal, the farms instantly industrious and prosperous.

Almost as immediately, an ambassador arrived in the courtroom announcing the arrival of a rich prince seeking urgent audience with the princess.

Of course, it was the darkly handsome prince of the ball, who had set off searching for the mysterious princess the moment she had fled his embrace on the dance floor.

He arrived in the courtroom beautifully attired, his own attendant troops even more numerous and spectacularly uniformed than the princess’s soldiers.

The prince and princess instantly recognised each other.

They rushed into each other’s arms.

‘We must be married,’ the prince insisted hungrily. ‘Tonight! At the very latest, tomorrow, and long before the sun has chance to rise!’

Naturally, the princess was thrilled by this declaration of enduring love.

And yet…she noticed the disquiet that had settled over the people attending her court.

Yes, they smiled: politely, courteously.

But they were forced smiles, the smiles of those who were following orders, not their own inclinations.

They obviously didn’t agree that marriage to this prince would be a good thing for either them or the kingdom.

They wouldn’t protest against the marriage, their strained, sickened expressions revealed: but they would prefer that no such marriage took place.

And so Uraeus politely, courteously, stepped away from the prince.

And politely, courteously, she declined his offer of marriage.

The prince’s eyebrows rose in astonishment.

In bewilderment.

In fury.

For this was lust, not love.

‘Then I shall take what is rightfully mine,’ he declared imperiously, turning around and striding purposely out of the vast hall, ‘even if our union can only be forged through war!’

 

 

*

 

 

Despite the size and capabilities of her new army, the princess realised that neither they nor her kingdom would have a hope of repulsing the might of the dark prince.

Even as the prince stormed out of her palace and boarded his waiting carriage, he mustered his generals about him, giving orders for the gathering of his armies, making plans for the surrounding and eventual capturing of the princess and her lands.

The princess briefly considered calling him back, relenting to his demands.

But she held back, wanting time to think this dilemma through.

Of course, it was all no more than a waste of time.

No matter how much she considered the matter, she always came around to the very same conclusion: she couldn’t let either her people or her kingdom face depravation and devastation simply for her own sake.

She had to make peace with the prince. Even if that meant capitulating to his demands for marriage and the unification of the two nations.

She informed her courtiers and her own generals that she would ride out into the darkness on her own, to meet and greet the prince even as he advanced towards them at the head of his vast armies.

He was already passing through the surrounding forests.

He would be here soon.

There was nothing else she could do.

 

 

*

 

 

As Uraeus rode through the woods towards the swiftly encroaching prince and his troops, the creatures of the forest disturbed by the army’s approach rushed everywhere about her.

The animals were terrified, panicked, and dashed past her as if she were invisible. Suddenly, a young lion leapt out of the darkness just in front of her, his mane briefly blazing as it caught and reflected the light of the lantern held by the princess.

Uraeus was startled. Her horse was startled. The lion was startled.

They all reacted with horror, all rearing up in fright.

The horse instinctively flailed out with its forelegs, its incredibly hard hooves striking a harsh blow across the young lion’s heart. The lion’s already ferociously beating heart couldn’t take anymore: the poor creature’s legs collapsed beneath it.

‘No, no! That’s enough!’ Uraeus shouted at her panicked horse, pulling hard on its reins to stop it from continuing its pummelling of the now helpless lion.

Seeing that the lion had now completely crumpled to the floor, slumping into a heap amongst the undergrowth, Uraeus’s mount calmed down enough for her to be able to restrain and prevent it from uncontrollably darting off. She slipped down off its back, winding its reins around the branch of a nearby bush.

Kneeling down by the young lion, Uraeus wondered what she should do to help it recover. She caressed its heart, sighing with relief when she realised it was still beating, if unsteadily.

‘Thank you for saving my brother.’

Wondering who had thanked her, Uraeus spun around: and found herself staring into the burning eyes of another and obviously older, stronger lion.

Naturally, Uraeus was surprised to hear a lion speaking so politely to her: but naturally, she didn’t wish to startle the lion by pointing this out.

Instead she said kindly, ‘Your brother needs help: I fear that his heart is racing too much!’

‘And yet your heart is obviously in the right place,’ the lion replied, admiring her gentle massaging of the young lion’s chest, ‘and so I am sure that he will recover. For saving the life of my brother, Hatsya, I offer my own life to you as forfeit: for I am Saiph Hapy, and you can construct a soaring balloon of air from my lungs, together with a magical, blazing mane that will lift you up to safety as surely as Saturn rises as the Midnight Sun into the sky.’

Now of course, Uraeus was well aware that any device that could magically lift her up and away in safety was exactly what she required to avoid the prince and his men: yet she shook her head and smiled pleasantly.

‘Why thank you, kind Saiph: and to think, I’d had heard that lions seem to enjoy nothing more than running down their prey! But I can’t take your life simply for the sake of saving my own!’

‘Then take a lock of my hair,’ the lion said, striding closer towards Uraeus so that she could reach out and pluck from his great mane a pair of long strands, ‘and braid the threads together as if they were intertwining serpents.’

As Uraeus did as she was told, winding the strands together, the lion gave her further instructions.

‘This will be your laurel wreath of victory, for it will give you a great body of troops to head: and to do this, all you have to do is place your twinned serpents between your feet as you stand amongst the prince’s oncoming men.’

 

 

*

 

 

A puzzled Uraeus looked up from her work to see if she had heard the lion correctly.

But he was no longer there. Neither was his brother, who had obviously recovered, and managed to rise and slink off as silently as his older sibling.

Her horse was still there, thankfully, and her lantern.

Unfortunately, the oncoming army of the prince was still there too, encroaching upon her from the oily darkness lying just ahead of her.

She could hear them now, it being a tremendous noise, like the roaring of an oncoming, angry sea. Lights flickered through the maze of almost interlocking branches, the yellow glow of lanterns and candles.

Untying the horse, Uraeus took its reins in her hand and began to calmly walk towards the oncoming men.

 

 

*

 

 

As Uraeus walked out from between the dark trees towards the prince’s troops, her own lamp held high to enable her to see the way more clearly, the oncoming men slowed, eventually halting.

Those lying in Uraeus’s way stood aside as she continued to draw closer towards them, their ranks parting.

They knew that she was totally incapable of causing them harm.

They were amused by her presence. Admiring of her courage.

Amazed by her foolishness.

She walked between the parted troops, a strange silence descending over the whole scene.

At last, she herself came to a halt.

Without a word, or even a glance to either side, she placed the braided strands of hair upon the floor, as the lion had instructed her to do.

Then she rose to her feet once more, wondering what would happen next.

 

 

*

 

 

There was a surprised grasp amongst the nearest men.

Their eyes were wide, and locked upon the dark, fiery brand lying upon the floor.

Uraeus peered down at the strands.

They were moving fluidly, as if alive.

Writhing, as if blazing serpents, struggling to free themselves from their own intertwining. Slithering, as if darkly red saplings, rising up from the floor, striving to grow at phenomenal speed.

They rapidly multiplied, swiftly coursed in and out of each other.

And a crow stood upon the ground, its feathers as black as the deepest earth.

The dark threads continued to sprout from the crow, burgeoning into yet more, hurriedly weaving branches.

Now it was a hawk: and then, abruptly even larger, a wolf that Uraeus suddenly found herself sitting upon.

The dark matter continued to shoot from the sides of the wolf, however, until Uraeus found herself sitting upon the back of a huge lion.

The eyes of the men surrounding her were now full of horror. Some clutched at their lances, their swords and shields, their spears and bows, perhaps wondering if they should rush forward in an attempt to kill her.

And yet they all held back, too fearful to challenge her when she was quite obviously in possession and control of some unknown magical power.

Uraeus presumed that the lion would be the final stage of the growth process of the dark matter. Yet she was wrong.

The darkly fiery threads continued to snake out from the lion, now even worming their way rapidly yet painlessly into her own body.

In an instant, she recognised that she and the creature she had been sitting astride were now one.

Her upper half was still that of a girl, but her lower half was that of a towering mare, one whose limbs surged with energy and even restlessness; for she was eager to leap forward, to accelerate into the most ferocious gallop.

 

 

*

 

 

The men who should have blocked Uraeus’s charge parted before her in astonishment.

She was a blur of the purest white in the surrounding darkness.

No one dared stop her.

No one wanted to stop her.

For, as amazing as the sight of Uraeus and her parting of the troops was, it was nothing compared to the parting of the darkness taking place above them all in the sky.

A moon was rising there: not a full moon, but one almost still wholly veiled, as if sharply illuminated but only from below. A crescent moon, yet one soaring into the darkness as if it were a pair of immense, gleaming horns.

The men had never seen anything like it before. They had never seen anything so imperiously bright, shattering the continual darkness they had become so used to and had accepted as being the normal state of affairs.

Behind her, as soon as she had passed through them, the men closed their ranks once more. They also turned around, following her with a roar of jubilation, a triumphant raising of their arms and weapons.

Not one of them supported the dark prince anymore.

They would have easily overthrown him, of course. Yet there was no need, for – to the bewilderment of those who had been nearest to him – he simply seemed to vanish in nothing more than the blinking of an eye, as if he had never really existed, as if he had only ever been some awful and terrorising figment of their imagination.

The only thing left behind to demonstrate that he might have once actually existed was a sheared crown, the remains of which were reverently placed upon Uraeus’s head as she was proclaimed ruler in his stead.

As she received her crown, Uraeus sighed deeply: and as if they were ultimately nothing more than a portion of that exhalation of breath, she also slipped free of her animal qualities as easily as if rising up from only mildly clinging waters.

 

 

*

 

 

At least, that’s how it all appeared to happen to the innumerable men surrounding Uraeus.

In the silvery light cast by the fragmentary moon, the four legs and body of the horse she had become a part of appeared to dissolve, as our reflection in a pool vanishes as soon as we step away from it.

Uraeus, however, saw it all completely differently.

The white mare separated from her just as our spirit might abandon us, when our body is no longer of any use. Similarly wraith-like, it moved unheeded or unhindered through the massed ranks of troops; not, thankfully, headless, as she might have imagined or feared, but now possessing the neck, head and crown of the most beautiful hind.

How could she see all this while her men saw something else, something that was almost so entirely different?

Because now the Morning Star was also rising, bringing its own strange light to everything it looked over. And within that brightness, the glow that the hawk had shared with her illuminated things hidden to everyone else.

As if sensing her probing gaze, the creature turned to directly face her.

It was of the purest white.

As pure as a cleansed soul.

‘Thank you, my daughter,’ the deer said kindly. ‘As you wisely spared me when I was at my lowliest – as the son and a bridegroom, the father and a brother – the Holy Spirit is now yours. For I am Chammah, the wisdom through whom you will eventually recognise your angelic self – and then your life will no longer be forfeit.’

With that, it might have appeared to anyone but Uraeus that the deer simply disappeared.

But naturally, Uraeus was now fully aware that Chammah would always be there for her.

And so she was no longer surprised whenever she heard Chammah whispering the most enlightening advice to her.

And not surprisingly, she reigned as the very wisest of queens.

In fact, she lived happily ever after.

Indeed, she lived forever.

 

 

*

Chapter 42

 

As the goblin came to the end of the telling of his tale, whispered into Helen’s ear as he rode behind her on her horse, he grimaced in frustration when it dawned on him that she had briefly become distracted, and might even have missed his final flourish.

Their column had come to a halt, the still whirling snow biting hard at his face as he looked past Helen to see why they had stopped.

Directly ahead of them there was a long, dark band snaking across the white-sheened fields. It was the edges of a forest, one stretching out endlessly away from them no matter whether you looked left or right.

The goblin couldn’t understand the reticence of the men to enter the forest. Yes, it was now late evening, a time when most sensible people avoided the woodlands: but these were warriors, and warriors with an urgent mission to fulfil too – they weren’t the kind, surely, to let fear of a dark forest hold them back?

The riders let their horses impatiently paw the ground, swapping anguished, nervous glances.

‘What’s wrong?’ the goblin asked Helen in a hushed voice. ‘Why are they so petrified of the woods?’

The goblin hadn’t been with them, of course, when the trees had whipped and snatched at the men if they’d been foolish enough to draw too close.

‘Isn’t there anything you can do?’

Due to the muffling effects of the snow, Gremir’s approach had almost been silent. He looked at her now with pleading eyes, preferring her magic to whatever enchantments they would find themselves facing in the forest.

Helen slumped miserably within her saddle.

If only she knew how to use her magic!

Yes, she had simply wished the road into being – but then she’d had the speck of fairy dust: she could have simply wished for anything and obtained it!

But as for her own powers: she was still unsure how to manipulate them.

In the corner of her eye, she caught the movement of darkness out in the white sheet of snow.

It was the wolves, as dark as patches of night against the snow, despite their ice-sparkled pelts. They were completely silent in their movements, but were drawing closer to the halted column, taking advantage of its indecision.

The wolves.

Did they bear any similarity to the wolves in the goblin’s story? Were they just some other facet, or manifestation, of the men around her?

That could explain why their numbers never depleted, no matter how many the men took out with their spears or arrows. Why, too, the men themselves would sicken just after any such killing.

But…surely that wasn’t possible, was it?

And even it were true, how did that help them in their present situation? Didn’t it, in fact, make it worse? For if the wolves attacked, then killing them would never lessen their numbers, but would only ever weaken the men.

She couldn’t wait to see how such an unequal battle might pan out.

Slipping her sword from its scabbard, she raised it high: and spurring her horse on, she galloped through the swirling snow, recklessly charging into the dark forest.

 

 

*

 

 

The men exchanged nervous glances.

She was their king’s daughter: they had to follow her.

Besides, how more embarrassing could it be: were they going to allow a young girl to appear braver than any of them?

Unsheathing and raising their own swords, and hollering out a courage-bolstering war cry, they surged into the woods behind her.

Immediately on entering the densely packed wood, the light changed from one of glaring snow-strewn fields to the darkness of massed and labyrinthine branches.

Worse still, the thick swirling of snow had been replaced with the frenzied whirling of dark stems, the innumerable branches whipping and snatching at the men as they rode through them. The lashing branches smashed shields, or tore them from hands. They snapped the holstered lances, ripped at and pulled away the armour plates from padded jerkins.

It could have been worse: the men had expected it to be far worse.

But their hacking at the attacking branches was far more potent than they might have ever dared hope, for their blades shone a blazing gold, the iron passing effortlessly through the wood, the effect more like fire than that of a regular sword. The branches whipped back as if stung, as if in agony, while even the merest touching of the smallest twig by the blazing light caused the stems to rapidly shrivel, as if poisoned.

The light emanated from Helen’s raised sword, its streaks of fire rushing back from blade to raised blade, even the connecting flames forming a defensive barrier against the attempted slashing of the branches.

‘Why did you come in here?’ the goblin screamed in terror into Helen’s ear as he clung on tightly to her waist, keeping his head low to avoid the snatching branches.

Helen couldn’t answer his question.

She hadn’t expected the woods response to their presence to be so violent, so effective. For, of course, if it hadn’t been for the blazing of her sword, then she and the men would now be dead, caught at and torn apart by the riving branches.

And yet she had no idea how she – if, indeed, she was the one responsible – had brought the magical flames into being.

It briefly seemed to her that they might safely get through the forest after all. But then, just behind her, Gremir was abruptly brought crashing down to the ground as a tangled clump of tree roots tore themselves free of the earth. The roots whipped up from the ground, entwining themselves around the legs of his mount.

Other roots were now similarly ripping out of the dried ground, sending up clouds of choking dust, the stems lashing out like angered serpents at the horses and their riders.

Another horse had its feet whipped from under it, bringing both it and its rider crumpling to earth. A rider was grabbed by the ankle, and wrenched out of his saddle.

Everyone, including Helen, whirled their horses around, bringing their ferocious galloping to a halt as they cleaved at the roots and branches reaching out for the dismounted men. Stems wrapped around throats, around arms, knocking swords from hands.

At this level, the fiery blades were less effective than they had been while raised. The flickering, connecting flames struggled to maintain contact, while the horses suffered from and were terrified by the blazing fire.

They couldn’t rescue the horses that had fallen, the roots dragging off the poor, horrifically whining creatures, overwhelming them in black, snaking coils. But the fallen men were helped up onto the backs of other horses, or at least defended from receiving any major injuries as they all retreated to a nearby clearing of hard, dried earth, where neither the branches nor roots of the trees could reach them.

The men sagged with relief and exhaustion as they slipped from their mounts. They all breathed heavily, their exhalations grey clouds in the cold atmosphere.

‘Now what?’ Gremir asked huskily, rubbing the red welts around his throat where the roots had almost strangled him.

Helen glanced forlornly about her, taking in their hopeless position.

The whipping, snapping branches and roots encircled them. Now and again, a root would try and stretch out towards them, until it was made to retreat with a swift strike of a blade.

Worse still were those stems burrowing into the earth, as if intending to re-root there. So far, none had been successful, as they were quickly unearthed by a few, fierce blows of a spear – but the snaking stems could so easily achieve their aims if they chose instead to root nearer to the edges of the circle, where it would be dangerous for the men to draw too close.

The thrashing of the branches was so chaotic, so confusing, that it sometimes appeared to Helen as if many of the trees were actually warring against each other, with stems, even trunks, being abruptly ripped asunder, or torn away and immediately cast aside.

Through the odd, revealing gap in the writhing, encircling branches, Helen caught glimpses of the wolves calmly gathering, forming their own enveloping circle. The wolves weren’t been hindered or molested in any way by the furiously snapping trees.

The blades of the men’s swords, like hers, still flickered with a crackling, surging flame, but it was all now more subdued, as if tempered by the lack of action. If she and her men charged in amongst the frenziedly flailing branches, their swords whirling, they would probably manage to get little farther than half a mile before the trees entirely buried them beneath the dark, entwining stems.

She didn’t know what to do, she realised.

Where was her Chammah when she needed her?

 

 

*

Chapter 43

 

There was a flash and a movement of purest quicksilver amongst the living wickerwork of writhing branches.

It flowed through the smallest gaps, rushing towards her, like moon-spattered water.

But before it had reached the beleaguered circle of exhausted men, the mercurial stream shivered, came to a stop, expanded.

The sparkles of white amongst the silvery grey merged, like stars abruptly conquering an evening sky: and a perfectly pure white deer stood unaffected amongst the furiously lashing branches, as if they didn’t really exist.

But maybe, Helen thought, it was the deer that didn’t exist: for none of the men appeared to have seen it, their own eyes still locked fearfully on the encircling, whipping stems.

The deer silently, leisurely, ambled its way through the darkly snapping branches, heading towards Helen.

As the deer finally cleared the last of the whirling stems, Helen expected it to shiver, to dissolve: to become Mary Magdalene once more.

Disappointingly, however, the deer made no further moves.

It remained by the edges of the clearing, standing there with its head raised imperiously.

It didn’t speak.

It didn’t whisper advice.

It simply stood there, as if expecting Helen to make the next move.

 

 

*

 

 

Through the pure white glow of the deer, Helen could still see the violently flailing branches lying beyond it.

And yet…these branches were moving differently to all the other, surrounding stems.

Quicker.

Even more frantically than the rest of the encircling branches.

That frenetic movement was increasingly more hurried too.

It was a whirl. A blur.

The dark stands were moving so quickly it was now all so much more like fluid, dark waters.

Helen instinctively reached out towards these dark waters; even though the deer herself stood far away from her, while the branches lay even farther out of her grasp.

She groped within the dark fluid.

The darkness hardened within her hand.

Became something graspable.

She curled her fingers around this something.

She withdrew her hand.

She opened up her hand.

And in her now opened palm, she was looking at a game piece: a tree, surmounted by a sickle moon, shining out from between its many branches.

 

 

*

Chapter 44

 

When Helen looked up from the piece she was holding, she was no longer standing within the clearing.

Or, rather, she was: but it was a far more abstract version of it all.

Everything had been stilled: everything was motionless.

The thrashing of the branches had come to a complete halt. The men standing about her were caught in mid-action, frozen in a stance of trying to calm a rearing horse, or spearing another branch’s attempt at re-rooting within the clearing.

The goblin was in a similarly petrified pose, his eyes wide with terror and bewilderment.

From both him and the men, multiple and incredibly fine black strands strung out into the air, as if they themselves, like the trees, had sprouted innumerable branches.

They connected each man with everything lying about him, even coursing off through the surrounding trees and extending off to areas lying unseen beyond the forest. And yet the largest number of the threads from each man snaked through the trees as if the trees didn’t exist, the ends of the strands vanishing into the dark pelts of the besieging wolves.

The men were connected to the presence of the wolves, Helen realised.

Each wolf was a facet of each man: an animal level of each man, she reasoned.

And so where was her wolf?

Like her men, Helen had a mass of serpentine threads streaming through her body.

And yet the majority of these weren’t connected to a wolf.

They sprang out towards and linked her to the deer.

 

 

*

 

 

Like her, the deer was the only thing surrounding Helen that wasn’t motionless.

The deer, somehow, was her: or at least, some constituent of her.

A daemon.

One of her Seven Daemons.

And the wolves, and the men?

These were their daemons too, but ones at a different level, a different stage,

In the goblin’s story – if it were true, if it revealed the different levels – the wolves were a third level.

And the deer?

The sixth, if the hybrid creature she had been – like Uraeus had been the centaur in the story – counted as a fifth stage.

So what was the seventh stage?

 

 

*

 

 

What stage could be higher than this ethereal deer, this personification of wisdom, perhaps even the soul itself?

Helen attempted to use her links to her Chammah to find an answer to this question: and yet no new information came coursing back to her, no new insights flowed between them.

How was she supposed to access this new level, this new stage in her development?

The old empress had told her of the way the dark strands connected everything: passing through us daily, without anyone ever realising.

These were the threads of life she had to learn to control. Using the finer links of her own consciousness.

Then you can dictate how a creature thinks!’

A lacework of links, connecting each and every one of us, linking us even to the planets themselves.

The game detects these waves.’

The board and its many, varied pieces appeared before her.

And yet this wasn’t just a recollection of the game she had seen earlier: for she immediately recognised that it had changed in many ways.

The pieces were different: they had moved, shifted considerable distances.

She saw the pieces of the old empress, the crows, the serpents.

And yet there was something about them that she hadn’t noticed before. For a fragmentary moon hung above them, just as it shone through the branches of the tree game piece she held within her hand.

No, she realised; she no longer held it in her hand.

It was now a piece standing upon the board.

And the moon: it was different to the one shining above the pieces controlled by the old empress.

Whereas the piece she had held showed a crescent moon, it was a horned moon, one lit purely from below.

But the moon sparkling above the old empress’s pieces was a waning moon.

The old empress, too, had a piece like a tree, the waning moon glowing from amidst its branches.

And Fausta: she, of course, as before, could control the trees.

It was the full moon shining above her pieces.

Was she the one attacking them now in these woods?

Helen had simply assumed it was the Land, or even Nature, taking revenge after being commanded to allow a road to pass through her very being.

The full moon glittered above pieces representing hawks, portraying wolves.

These were under Fausta’s control.

But no: there was something else that Helen sensed when she stared at these pieces.

It wasn’t just hawks and wolves that Fausta could manipulate to her advantage: these were also the lower aspects of men that she had influence over!

And as for Helen’s own forces?

Even her earlier glances at her own side had been more than enough to help her recognise that nothing on the board had changed more substantially than the layout and nature of her own pieces.

That was partly why she had feared taking a closer look up until now.

She took a closer look at her own side – and gasped.

Lions.

She controlled the lion aspect of men!

 

 

*

Chapter 45

 

Centaurs: these, too, were graced with Helen’s glistening horned-moon device.

And the deer!

A deer leaping over an elevated, magnificent tower. No: not leaping over it – leaping from it, as if freed, perhaps from imprisonment.

As well as the sickle moon, there was also an irregular triangle of three glittering stars nestled within the embrace of its antlers, one of the lower two glowing more brightly than the others.

Glancing back towards the centaurs – the piece consisted of two centaurs, whereas the deer game piece had just the one creature – she saw the same cluster of stars hovering over them, albeit here it was the lowest one of all that glittered brightest.

The number of animals on each piece differed slightly, as if they all represented some form of hierarchy.

Three lions.

Four wolves.

Five hawks.

Six crows.

It was a reversal of the stages represented within the goblin’s story, where it was the deer that was the sixth level, the crow the first.

Was that it? Was it something to do with fewer people being able to attain the higher levels?

As well as the moons, there were also stars glittering above these pieces too.

But it wasn’t the cluster of three stars.

It was the double trapezoid form of the constellation of Orion. And a particular star shone more brightly than the others, differing with each piece.

For the crow, the brightest star was the hot, blue glow on the east side of the hunter’s belt.

For the hawk, it was the pale violet of the west side of the belt.

It was the lower west star that glimmered brightly for the wolf: yet this suddenly dimmed, and it was the blazing red of the upper east star – the hunter’s shoulder – that now shone brightest of all.

Similarly, two stars above the lions intermittently blinked on and off: the sharp white of the lower east becoming, in the blink of an eye, the watery blue, upper west star.

Of course! As the humbled man had explained with his diagram, it was as if the lower trapezoid of stars had swung about the axis of the belt’s centre – the hunter’s midpoint, the crossing of his spine and waist!

Helen glanced over the pieces, wondering if she might catch anything else that she had missed when taking her first glance at the board.

The serpents: they had their own cluster of stars, a rainbow glow of red, blue and green.

The stars of the eye of the lower trapezoid.

Nearby, regally seated upon her throne, was the old empress herself.

Snow flowed about her, snow from her own pieces, and from pieces lying farther across the board too.

One of those pieces was the young empress, Fausta.

And she was now only a few squares away from the old empress.

 

 

*

Chapter 46

 

Helen glanced over the entire board, wondering if there was a piece representing her.

If it was the piece she thought it might be, it wasn’t a very impressive one.

There was little, if anything, regal about it.

It was quite small compared to most of the pieces, particularly the two representing the empresses.

She still had much to learn, obviously.

Near to her was another piece, one of a clutch of warriors, no doubt symbolising the men she’d led into this trap.

A small goblin was also included amongst the men.

All about them were tree pieces that had stretched out their branches, branches that moved, as if alive.

And one of those pieces was one that was supposed to be her own: the one with a horned moon shining from between its quivering branches.

Now why would her own piece be helping constrain them within the woods?

Because she wasn’t controlling it: and so Fausta had somehow drawn that unused piece into the attack.

Amongst the tree pieces there was another one, one entangled with those of the full moon. This piece shone with the glow of the old empress’s waning moon.

Yes, that made sense: hadn’t Helen thought that, amongst all the chaos of the thrashing branches, she’d seen some of the trees apparently warring with each other?

And that, of course, was what her own piece should be doing.

But…how?

She had hoped that just realising that it should be attacking the other tress would be enough to set it upon the others. Yet it now simply appeared motionless (although, at least, that probably meant it was no longer taking part in the attack upon the poor, beleaguered men): why was that?

Because, because, because… because she was still thinking in terms of pieces!

‘If it helps, think of how you would move the board, not the pieces.’

Isn’t that what the old empress had said?

And yes, yes: she understood all that now.

Everything is connected.

Everything is one.

We are all one!

She reached out for the dark strands emanating from her, the fine threads connecting her to everything else. She tried to grasp and pull at the strands, as she had seen the old empress do when she had demonstrated how everything was linked; how you could ‘use the wrinkles to alter things to our advantage’.

Her hands simply passed through the black threads as if they weren’t really there.

Of course, the old empress’s demonstration had been nothing more than that: it hadn’t been intended as a means of accurately showing how the connections could be manipulated.

‘It’s the world you wish to manipulate.’

‘The game detects these waves.’

Helen could recall the empress saying all this: and yet she still didn’t understand how it all worked!

 

 

*

Chapter 47

 

She was back in the woodland, standing alongside her surrounded men.

The white deer still watched her curiously, hardly moving, and offering no sorely needed advice.

The besieging trees were still moving, however, and more violently than ever too. Now their trunks, as well as their branches, were vibrating, frenziedly quivering.

The trees were gradually ripping whole clumps of their roots free of the earth. They were intending to move in upon the beleaguered men: to attack them.

Helen sensed the growing nervousness amongst her men. They clutched anxiously at their swords. The man left in charge of the horses was struggling all the more to calm them down.

Some of the trees were now motionless: or, rather, rustling in the breeze as trees are supposed to do.

These must be her trees, she reasoned.

No longer lying under the control of Fausta. No longer attacking them.

Yet still lying motionless and useless, because she had no idea how to utilise her powers.

A little beyond the encircling trees, some of them were engaged in their own battles with other trees, their branches locked, being torn asunder.

The old empress’s trees, taking the battle to those under the control of Fausta.

Helen glanced towards the deer, glaring at her in frustration.

Why aren’t you helping me?

She screamed in silence at the unresponsive deer.

The deer was little more than motionless, as if waiting to be called.

As if she was waiting to be told what to do!

Above and behind the unruffled deer, the tree branches writhed and thrashed, like so many interweaving threads.

Like so many un-unravelable knots.

So many Gordian Knots.

And yes, Helen wanted to slash at those knots!

To solve her problems quickly.

To break out of here using might and strength.

But there was no way to do that, of course.

Even so, directly above the deer now there was indeed a Gordian Knot, some kind of vision of it being hacked at and breaking into pieces.

Was it a sign that this was what she was supposed to do with the connecting threads of dark matter?

Had the false Mary deliberately given her false advice, intending to hold her back from recognising something important?

And yet: to hack at – to destroy – all these links?

That made no sense at all, did it?

 

 

*

 

 

No; breaking all these links made no sense.

She would be destroying all her connections to and with the outside world.

It would be like cutting off her arms.

Like destroying a part of herself.

Because, of course, it wasn’t the ‘outside’ world at all, was it?

The threads, the things in the world: they’re not just links, it’s not all just connected.

It’s all one and the same thing.

It’s all me.

I’m it. It’s me.

Helen looked towards the patiently waiting hind with more understanding.

Of course she’s not doing anything!

I have to use her.

If I want to use a part of my body, even a finger, the finger doesn’t move just because I want it to.

There are a whole range of muscles and actions that have to take part along my arm, throughout my body, for that one little finger to move.

Move the board, not the piece.

And the board itself? It doesn’t represent the landscape, as she’d foolishly assumed.

Because if we move one part of the ‘board’, it affects the rest of the ‘board’, it alters it.

And that, of course, doesn’t happen with the land (unless that is the very thing you’re wanting to happen!)

It does happen, however, with presence, with thought.

With a field – or a sea! – of consciousness.

(Consciousness? Where had such a word come from?)

She had to be aware of the distance lying between her and the trees she wished to control, not dismiss it.

She had to recognise the multiple linking connections, bring them all into play: like the struggles she’d witnessed when men who’d suffered deeply hacked limbs had to learn once again how to move a hand or a foot.

A breath becomes a breeze, becomes a gust, becomes a storm; a hurricane that wrenches a tree’s branches into writhing action!

 

 

*

 

 

At first the awestruck men stared in astonishment as the surrounding trees began to ferociously tangle with each other: then they cheered when they realised they weren’t, as they’d originally feared, imagining it after all.

Gremir glanced Helen’s way, nodded his appreciation with a grateful smile, his thoughts easy to read in his impressed and yet fearful expression: who else could have done this but her? The goblin too looked her way, frowning in a mix of relieved curiosity and puzzlement, as if he realised she must have had something to do with this abrupt change in the nature of the trees’ attack.

The attack wasn’t completely over, of course. The trees themselves were still brutally thrashing at each other, huge clumps of severed and torn branches flying through the air and frequently landing in the clearing with an horrendous thump that had the men leaping out of the way.

Helen grimaced with dissatisfaction.

Yes, the situation had undoubtedly improved considerably – it no longer seemed wholly hopeless. And yet…the vision of Alexander’s hacking of the Gordian Knot still remained hovering in the air before her.

She’d missed something: but what?

Before she could attempt to work out whatever it was she still needed to deal with, an abrupt series of ferocious howls and snarls immediately reminded her.

The wolves!

The wolves were pouring through the gaps opening up between the warring trees.

 

 

*

Chapter 48

 

The man left in control of the horses was used to responding to such urgent conditions. He had already brought the horses forward, rapidly handing out the reins to each man.

Without need of any words of command, the men leapt up into their saddles, sharply spinning their mounts around.

No longer quite sure of the general direction they had originally been travelling in, the riders spurred their horses on to follow after Helen and Gremir, both of whom were heading for one of the larger gaps that had been formed between the encircling trees.

Gremir himself had headed this way because it was the route lying directly opposite to the main bulk of the swiftly approaching wolves. Helen had chosen it, however, because she had seen the white hind head that way.

Despite the well-practised dexterity and speed of the men’s mounting up and retreat, the wolves towards the front of the hurriedly encroaching pack managed to draw upon and leap up at the very last riders to leave the clearing.

The wolves snapped, snarled threateningly: but fortunately that was all they managed. The path chosen by the galloping hind was the clearest of all through the still thrashing maze of branches, the wolves unexpectedly finding their most immediate routes abruptly blocked by a curving stem, or a rising root.

For of course, the trees were still fighting amongst themselves: still lashing out with the multiple strikes of a great many branches, still grappling at the stems of other trees, wrenching at them violently. And so, too, the riders had to utilise their skills to the utmost as they weaved through gaps that opened up as instantly as they closed.

They had to suddenly leap over roots that rose up like rolling, serpentine beasts. They had to duck as the higher branches abruptly swooped low, as if caught in the fierce, unpredictable gusts of a storm.

For the wolves, it was even worse.

Yes, they required smaller gaps to worm their way through; and yet it was as if the trees were being more particularly unforgiving of their presence in the woods, the stems thicker and more urgent in the more unexpected moves wherever the pursuing wolves wished to progress.

The wolves had to swerve violently time and time again as they tried to keep up with the fleeing riders, their course sometimes so immediately blocked they crashed into the suddenly appearing obstacle, while many were whipped up into the air by a ferociously curling branch.

Naturally, most of the men put all this ‘good fortune’ down to Helen’s skills with magic. She also detected the effects of magic, yet didn’t flatter herself that she was responsible.

It must be the hind, she thought.

She’s the one leading us safely through all this chaotic warring of branches and trees.

And although it seems I’m in some way connected with her, I’m not the one conscious of how any magic is being used here.

Indeed, Helen was still quite sure that there was a great deal she still had to learn.

There were still some important facts eluding her.

The hind rushing before her glowed more brightly than ever, having sprouted the horned branches of golden antlers.

And within the embrace of those antlers, the hind had taken and carried with it the glistening sphere of the Gordian Knot.

 

 

*

 

 

Why couldn’t she control the wolves?

If everything was her, then the wolves, too, were her.

But of course: like some of the trees, they didn’t come under her control.

Everything is me, she thought: but there are other ‘mes’, other levels of consciousness wresting their own control.

And wolves are creatures of the full moon.

Just as crows and serpents come under the waning moon of death.

And her creatures?

She looked towards the white hind once more.

She recalled the deer, breaking free of the tower.

And the centaur?

How was the deer linked to the centaur?

Or to the lions?

‘We’re nearly clear!’

The goblin screamed in her ear as, anxiously peering over her shoulder, he noticed that they were at last reaching the very edges of the forest.

He had leapt up behind Helen on her horse as soon as she had mounted it, clinging fearfully to her waist as they ducked and weaved through the stormy sea of writhing branches and lumbering trees.

The branches, like the trees, were no longer as closely packed, so apparently inextricably entwined. As they lashed out at each other, clung at each other, they threw up clouds of snow that, in this more sparsely covered area, had managed to tumble down from the higher levels of the trees.

Through increasingly larger gaps between the dark, innumerable stems of the trees, Helen saw the white blanket of snow-covered hills and the hurried squalls. Although blindingly white itself, the hind briefly appeared to vanish as it swept out into the swiftly scurrying snowflakes, the golden glow of its horns left behind like a small, hovering sun.

Despite it being night-time, the brightness of the snow, together with the abrupt cold of a suddenly unhindered wind, took Helen’s breath away as she and her horse charged through the last of the trees out into the open.

As her eyes slowly adjusted to the glare, Helen followed the shimmering progress of the glittering, golden ball, recognising that to slew to a halt would only allow the pursing wolves to catch up with them.

The pounding hooves of the horses threw up the previously undisturbed snow, adding to the chaos of the flakes swirling about them, as if they had simply escaped one dark maze to emerge into another one of glittering light.

Even so, Helen began to bring the many, varied and rough shapes lying before her eyes into focus and detail. They were high enough up a rising hill for her to see a great deal of the landscape stretching out before them.

A higher, steeper mound lay almost directly in front of her and her still fiercely galloping men. It rose up from the snowy fields like a soaring white pyramid, a hill that Helen would normally have instantly recognised as the one bearing the earthworks formed into the shape of a proud, club-bearing giant.

Today, however, that giant wasn’t just covered by the blinding sheet of snow, but also by the darker forms of many men struggling to hurriedly climb it. Their task was made all the harder by the long, horse-drawn carriage they were dragging up the mount’s side with them. Its great and cumbersome weight, along with the slippery snow and mud, caused them to precariously slide back every now and again.

Around them all there still hung the dark, shadowy forms of the wolves, keeping their distance, yet apparently ready and eager to strike at any moment.

Why weren’t they attacking? Helen wondered. After all, Fausta had set her wolves onto Helen and her men.

She looked now over towards the west of the mount and its covering of desperately struggling men.

And she had her answer.

Fausta and her legions were rapidly drawing closer across the rolling, snow-draped hills. These men were similarly surrounded by massing wolves, but here the wolves were fanning out on either side of the oncoming formations, there as support rather than as disturbing shadows.

They were close to crashing headlong into the old empress and her own limited forces. Even if Helen and her men reached the mount before Fausta did, their combined numbers would still be effortlessly overwhelmed by such a huge force of Romans.

Fausta, of course, wasn’t even going to give Helen the chance of linking up with the old empress.

The wolves harassing the men struggling to drag the carriage up the mount’s steep incline suddenly halted their own steady progress up the hill’s sides.

They raised their heads as if hearing a cry somewhere far off: as if sensing the presence of the full moon.

They howled as one.

They turned in the snow.

They looked up towards Helen and her men galloping down the hill towards them.

Leaping up, they streamed across the snow, swarming up the rise towards the oncoming men, rapidly darkening the previously pure white sheet.

They came on at remarkable speed – and ravenously launched themselves upon Helen and her men.

 

 

*

Chapter 49

 

Helen could control her sword far better than she could before: naturally, it now seemed merely to be an extension of her arm. Weightless, easily manoeuvrable.

Deadly.

It curved and carved through the flesh of the wolves even as they leapt towards her.

Legs dropped to the floor. Heads fell to one side. Bellies were split, the insides spilling out.

Her men were similarly wreaking havoc on the attacking wolves. They were brave men, not one for running away. They held their ground, their swords flashing almost as expertly as Helen’s.

Still, the wolves were drawing their own share of flesh and blood. As soon as one died, another rushed out from the swirling snow as if it had been simply conjured into life there.

The men about her were lurching forward and down from their mounts, thrusting out to split open the stomach of a leaping wolf, or bringing a blade down hard on the back of one loping past.

And every cut they made was causing fresh wounds upon their own flesh.

She had never seen anything like this before, this inextricable connection between man and wolf.

Why was all this happening now?

The presence of the queens, the three queens manipulating the sea of consciousness.

It had awakened it all.

Made it all so much more fluid: so open once more to change, to manipulation.

Eradicating its stability: its solidification.

They had stirred it all up into its originally chaotic beginnings.

Rekindled connections long forgotten, long ignored.

It was the men’s own fears that were ravaging them.

 

 

*

 

 

The Gordian Knot.

The hind was clearly visible again: it waited patiently nearby once more, the knot revolving slowly amidst its clutching antlers.

The knot shredded, them came together.

Shredded, then came together.

What was it trying to say to her?

That brutality isn’t the answer?

That’s how the false Mary had interpreted it.

And the real Mary? Mary Magdalene, wisdom herself?

You wanted to kill him, didn’t you? And yet, recognising that, being horrified by it, you stayed your own hand.’

Yes, she too had warned against resorting to brutality.

And yet…

There was still something else she hadn’t quite grasped yet, she recognised.

Even so, it seemed to her to be good advice at this particular moment.

‘Gremir, stop killing the wolves,’ she yelled out, all the motions of the ferocious battle taking place about her all suddenly rushing back into life once more, ‘we have to stop fighting the wolves!’

 

 

*

 

 

‘Are you crazy?’ Gremir snarled back at Helen. ‘They’ll kill us!’

‘No, they won’t! Trust me!’

She urged her horse towards him, grabbing his sword arm and forcing him to hold back from striking down hard on a leaping wolf.

The wolf took advantage of this, snapping hard at the arm of Gremir’s jerkin. Pulling off huge portions of padding in its snarling maw, it left an iron plate dangling by its loosened threads.

Other wolves similarly leapt up at them, causing Helen to briefly fear she must have worked all this out wrong, that the wolves would continue attacking them even if her men made no effort to fight back.

Strangely, however, Gremir wasn’t nervously struggling to wrest back control of his sword arm.

‘You’re right,’ he said, amazed. ‘Something odd’s happening!’

He’d noticed what Helen hadn’t: that the leaping, snarling wolves weren’t causing them any serious damage, the snapping teeth always falling just short of making any contact that would result in severed flesh.

One of the wolves had even stayed off from his leaping, his demeanour now one of an exhausted, perhaps even ashamed dog.

Helen stared gratefully if a little perplexedly at this wolf, recognising that this was something more akin to what she had hoped for.

So why where the other wolves continuing to attack Gremir?

Of course!

Not every wolf here was solely linked in some way to her men: many had just arrived after pursuing the old empress’s column.

‘Stay your swords!’ Gremir hollered out at the men as Helen at last let him free his arm from her grip. ‘Do as your lady says!’

Of course, the rest of the men were still ferociously hacking at the frenziedly leaping wolves. Their mounts were rearing in terror, the horse’s snouts flaring wildly in fear.

They weren’t ready to simply lay down their arms in such a situation, even on the direct command of their superiors. When they curiously glanced Gremir’s way, however, they were startled to see that neither he nor Helen were slashing away at the surrounding wolves anymore: and yet the wolves, far from making any headway against the defenceless couple, appeared to be simply going through the motions of a sham attack, rather than undertaking a truly merciless onslaught.

The snapping jaws never stuck home. The fangs never drew blood.

Even the horses seemed to have realised this and had calmed down to a point where they were merely allowing the wolves to jump harmlessly around them.

Indeed, one of the wolves was now lazily lying down upon the ground, as if preparing for sleep.

‘Don’t be nervous,’ Helen explained helpfully. ‘The wolves are just your own fears!’

One of the men uneasily raised his sword above the chaotic fray, his expression one of someone ready at any moment to start using his blade again if needs be.

Yet as with Gremir, the wolves failed to take advantage of the withdrawal of his defence. Their leaping was aimless, more for show than for any real purpose.

One of the wolves, again as with Gremir, also stepped back a little, hanging his head ashamedly.

Seeing this, other men pulled back from striking down at the baying wolves. The effect was the same: everything about them, including the nature of their own mounts, almost instantly calmed.

The more the men steadied their attacks, the more the wolves cooled in their own assault. The horses were soon the calmest of all, their attitude curiously one of complete ease even as the wolves continued to leap so threateningly if so uselessly around them.

Then, suddenly, Gremir’s mount both shivered and whinnied with wide-eyed fear.

The wolf that had lain down to go to sleep upon the ground had not only woken up but had now also risen back to its feet once more

And it was no longer a sleek, snide wolf.

It was a towering, growling lion.

 

 

*

Chapter 50

 

A hesitant quiver ran through Gremir’s sword arm.

He had lowered his sword yet, obviously, he was wondering if it were time to raise it again.

Helen apprehensively watched his growing unease, unsure herself what to do or to advise.

She glanced towards the hind, hoping for at least some element of guidance.

The deer was still there, still nonchalantly standing by as if nothing were capable of disturbing its calmness and certainty. Between its glittering antlers, the knot continued to unravel and reform, almost as if mocking her lack of understanding.

Looking farther around, Helen saw that Fausta and her massed legions were rapidly approaching the mount. Far behind them, there was a disturbance in the snowclad fields, the snow being thrown up into the air, the effect you’d expect from a flurry of strong winds.

Helen had seen that effect before, however. It signalled the hurried approach of hundreds of mounted men: her father’s men.

It should have been a reason to rejoice. Yet Helen also saw that Fausta wasn’t in anyway unnerved by the swiftly approaching riders, for her own troops – the majority of whom were well-trained, superbly organised foot soldiers – continued on their inexorable march towards the mount.

The flanking wolves had already turned to face the oncoming riders. They were dark shapes slinking through the snow, their numbers so great that they were like the darkest oil rapidly spreading across and staining a bedsheet.

Worse still, her father and his men had also unwittingly brought hundreds of reinforcements for the young empress.

For along their own flanks, there were other dark stains of yet more wolves

And these were already turning inwards, preparing to join in with the massed attack on Helen’s father and his men.

 

 

*

 

 

Helen’s heart sank further.

Fausta was so confident that her wolves would easily take care of the king’s relatively small force that she had sent her own mounted troops racing ahead towards the mount. This force alone could be numbered in the hundreds, a force far greater than her father’s.

The Roman cavalry would soon reach the mount too, probably not long after the old empress and her men had at last managed to surmount the hill. The long, slim carriage containing the cross was on the very edge of the final rise, the white gleam of angels surrounding it now perfectly clear to Helen through an unexpected break in the ferociously swirling snow.

The angels would undoubtedly perform their best to save the carriage and its precious contents from damage: but that would be their prime and perhaps only concern. Helen couldn’t envisage them making any efforts to save the empress or her men.

The odd break in the snow squalls also gave Helen glimpses of the dark night sky lying beyond the mound, the glittering stars rising, the most prominent figure being the Hunter regaining his feet. He dominated the sections of the sky Helen could see directly above the mount’s summit, as if he were rising up from out of its own pyramidic depths.

The growling of the nearby lion made Helen whirl around.

But now there wasn’t just the one lion: by each man, there was either a lion rising to its feet, or a wolf undergoing a transformation.

She could sense the nervousness of the men, yet they still restrained from striking out at either the wolves or the lions. Even so, they were exchanging edgy glances, each one drawing closer with every passing second to striking out once more at the surrounding creatures.

If any of the lions began to advance towards the men, Helen realised – or, indeed, if a rider began to draw nearer towards one of the lions – the scene would immediately dissolve into chaos once more.

She looked over yet again towards the calm, almost motionless hind. The knot whirled within its antlers, a tormenting reminder that she still had much to learn.

Yet like the hind, weren’t the lions hers to control?

‘The lions are our friends!’ she blurted out, hiding the lack of certainty she naturally felt, hoping to pre-empt any assault unwittingly taking place between them.

There were many relieved sighs from the surrounding men, even a few gnarled chuckles. Despite this, some were visibly startled when the lions at last began to edge forwards. Fortunately, no matter how tempted they were to raise a sword, they held back from doing so.

The lions leapt – but not towards the men.

They leapt in amongst the scavenging wolves, ferociously snarling at them, snapping with their great jaws, lashing out with powerful limbs and sharp claws.

The wolves made only a brief show of fighting back, with their own snarls and snapping of maws; only for them to beginning backing off one by one with whimpers and pained howls.

They turned and ran, the first to flee soon being joined by all the others. They rushed back towards the mount, from where they had first come from, their dark shapes slinking over the white sheen of snow like elusive shadows,

The men roared their appreciation, even scornfully guffawing at the rapidly retreating wolves.

Helen spun around in her saddle.

There wasn’t really anything to laugh at.

As she had feared earlier, the much greater mass of wolves sent to attack her father and his men were not to be defeated so easily.

Their superior numbers had effortlessly overwhelmed the riders. Her father’s men were rapidly disappearing under the fluidly black mass, as if being overrun by the inexorable spreading of hurriedly growing, dark ivy.

 

 

*

Chapter 51

 

Who should she help?

Who could she help?

Helen was well aware that her own force, even with the support of the lions, was miniscule. Irrelevant even, when pitted against such vast numbers.

If she rushed to aid her father, then the old empress would undoubtedly be swiftly overwhelmed by the rapidly approaching Roman cavalry.

What’s more, a large section of lighter clad and therefore swifter Roman riders had already slipped away from the main attack and were now heading up the more gentle rise leading up towards Helen and her men. Fausta was undoubtedly ensuring that no one would relieve the attack on the beleaguered king’s men, perhaps falsely assuming that Helen had worked out how to transform all the wolves into lions.

Helen, however, recognised that it would be nigh impossible to command hundreds of men to lay down their swords in the midst of such a fearsome battle.

‘It’s death for us either way,’ the goblin seated behind her grimly stated, recognising Helen’s dilemma.

‘You can dismount if you want,’ Helen replied sternly over her shoulder.

‘Life’s short,’ the goblin replied frankly, withdrawing from a hidden scabbard a short bladed sword Helen had never realised was there. ‘But it’s always got to end at some point, I suppose.’

‘Towards the mount!’ Helen decided, spurring her horse into a hurried dash down the slope, the disturbed snow rising up around her in great white clouds.

The men followed, forcing their own horses to match her speed. The lions took up their positions alongside, their fiery manes glowing, such that they rushed through the falling snow like gracefully flowing suns.

The white hind was ahead of Helen once more, charging down the slope.

And still, within its clasping, golden antlers, it held the whirling Gordian Knot.

 

 

*

 

 

The hind.

The lions.

The centaurs.

What connected them all?

Why were these the creatures lying under Helen’s control?

As they all rushed down the snow covered hill, Helen was almost blinded by the chaotic mass of whiling flakes constantly striking her eyes. She struggled to keep control of her horse, for it, too, was having to struggle to keep on its feet, its pounding hooves striking loose snow and hidden, rocky ground.

Helen’s gaze was fixed, however, upon the mount’s summit.

The old empress had managed to bring her carriage and her men to the very top, dark shapes against the white of the still heavily falling snow. Some of the men were forming into a shield wall, but even from this distance Helen couldn’t fail to recognise that it would be far too thin and weak to resist the massed charge of the swiftly approaching Romans.

Behind the men on the hill, the Hunter continued his effortless, unstoppable rising as he gradually rose to his feet.

His head, Helen realised, was formed from a cluster of three stars; the same sparkling formation she had seen hovering above the hind, above the centaurs, when they had appeared to her as pieces upon a board.

It was a pyramid shape, albeit one with an angled base. A sloping base that exactly matched the angled top of the trapezium formed from the four ‘pillar’ stars lying directly below it.

It looked for all the world as if the very top of a great pyramid had been sheered off. And now that peak of the pyramid was soaring heavenwards, its shape of a glowing eye nestling between two horns reminiscent of an ethereally glowing bird.

About her, the rapidly falling, iridescently sparkling flakes also abruptly swirled, also suddenly took shape.

It was a mounted Roman, his lance lowered, and close to riding her down.

 

 

*

Chapter 52

 

The Roman came hurtling out of the swirling snow as if conjured up from it.

He was accompanied by other equally well-equipped riders, their otherwise thunderous approach completely muffled by the snow.

With their lances already lowered, and their abrupt appearance only a few yards away taking every one of Helen’s men by surprise, they should have effortlessly carved their way through the small column.

And yet there was no panic amongst Helen’s men.

Although the swirling of the snow (and perhaps a little helpful magic of Fausta’s) had resulted in them being taken off-guard, they all smoothly swung into action.

She herself merely swung her horse off to one side as the Roman’s lance tried to bite home, leaving it to cleave nothing but air. She didn’t have to think about what she was doing, her moves entirely fluid and instinctive, as if she could guess the moves the Roman was about to make.

Her horse, too, moved with her as if a part of her, rather than something she was riding. Presented with the perfect opportunity, the goblin seated behind her brought his sword down hard upon the rider’s arm, the lance spinning uselessly up into the air as it was painfully released.

About her, the men were also moving with an effortless grace, the relatively slow and cumbersome strikes of the Romans suddenly appearing to be taking place within a totally different time frame. The lions leapt easily from ground to rider, bringing them down, ending lives with a swift, deft slash of either teeth or claws.

And as Helen herself brought down an attacking Roman with a harsh blow she would have at one time thought beyond her capabilities, she recognised, too, that she had no choice but to violently, even mercilessly fight back.

Sometimes, it seemed, brutality was the answer.

Her hind was calm and motionless once more.

But the knot held between her antlers had fully unravelled.

 

 

*

 

 

When it came to numbers, the Romans were by far the superior force.

Their equipment and relentless training, too, should have easily set them apart from Helen’s relatively more amateurish warriors.

And yet when it came to martial skills, the Romans were here completely lacking compared to the less substantially clad and armed warriors.

Helen’s men were displaying abilities she would never have deemed them capable of attaining. Just as she, too, was fighting with a previously undreamt of precision.

She was moving with a profoundly natural and thereby effortless grace.

She could predict what moves her opponents would make.

She could foresee how her own moves would progress from one to the other, as if already aware of and determining actions that would take place in the near future.

She and her men were her on a whole other level to the Romans.

A fourth level.

The level of lions!

 

 

*

 

 

Despite their fierceness, wolves would never be any match for lions.

Lions had a strength and regality completely lacking in mere wolves.

They possessed a mastery and confidence of self.

Helen’s men had somehow attained this fourth state of being.

Naturally, when Helen had persuaded her men to lay down their arms when confronted by the wolves, she had never contemplated that it would result in the men rising to a higher state.

It had just been the natural consequence of those actions.

They had acted differently to what was expected of them.

And that, of course, is exactly what Alexander had also done when he’d solved the supposed problem of the Gordian Knot.

He hadn’t fallen into the trap of utilising the accepted way of approaching and dealing with the problem.

He’d seen the ‘accepted way’ for what it was: the real problem.

Strip away the accepted way, the conventional way, and you have no problem at all.

It is an entirely false problem, one constructed from nothing but its own ridiculous constraints.

Just as the next stage for her men will be – like the centaurs – an acceptance rather than a denial that they are still part animal: thereby gaining control of those qualities, maybe even turning them into an advantage.

Next comes the hind, breaking free of and leaping forth from the protective but ultimately constricting tower of the world.

Helen’s hind was watching her thoughtfully. The Gordian Knot had vanished, replaced by a glowing orb clasped between what had become silvery horns.

The Romans lay dead around them.

Unfortunately, it had been necessary.

Helen looked up towards the mount, it being so close to them now that it loomed directly over them.

The wolves who had previously attacked Helen and her men had joined in with the cavalry’s massed assault on the peak.

The heavily armoured troops violently launched itself against the thin defensive line of shields: and already that narrow line of men was buckling, ready to give way at any moment.

 

 

*

Chapter 53

 

Behind that creaking shield wall, other men were working quickly under the directions of the old empress: opening up the carriage, putting supports in place.

Partially veiled and partly darkly silhouetted against the whirling snow, the men worked frenziedly on top of the carriage.

Helen wondered what they could be hoping to achieve as she led her men up the steep incline, hoping to aid the beleaguered defensive line.

She and her men crashed into the extended flank of the attacking wolves and Romans, their blades singing, the lions roaring.

Her hind ran on ahead, storming up the sides of the mount, heading for the summit. As Helen watched the glowing white hind leave her behind, she glimpsed through its rising horns, through the now diaphanous glittering orb, the True Cross being raised.

The rising cross sparkled in the frenzied squalls.

It rose gradually, even a little ponderously, such was its great weight. Yet the men pulled hard on the tackles and the ropes, hoisting it higher, straightening it, letting it find and rest upon its single foot.

Behind the rising cross, the Hunter, too, had fully regained his feet.

From the low angle of Helen’s viewpoint, the Hunter appeared to be directly behind the cross.

The triple star cluster of the Hunter’s head was hidden by the upright of the cross where the Saviour’s head would be, if he’d still been pinioned there.

Similarly, the stars of the shoulders were the pinioning points of the nails driven home into hands and wrists. The angled belt was the Saviour’s contorted waist, his curved spine rising up through what would be the spine of the Hunter.

To either side of the cross, the outer stars of the belt were the heads of those other two crucified with him, one looking up towards heaven, the other down, back towards earth.

As the snow furiously whirled about the crossed beams, the shapes forming within them writhed all the more, merging, solidifying.

The Saviour was once again upon his cross.

 

 

*

 

 

Around Helen, the clash of iron on iron, the yells of triumphant or dying men, was all gradually muting, ceasing.

It wasn’t that she was imagining this. For everywhere now, men were looking up towards the summit in awe.

Their swords fell by their sides.

Their shields fell to the ground.

Everyone, it seemed, was seeing what Helen was seeing.

Even the wolves had ceased their attack, their howling. The lions too.

All across the battlefield, everything was slowly grinding to a halt.

The Hunter’s rise hadn’t stopped.

It had accelerated, that most sparkling of eyes shining brightly yet veiled behind the upright. It was rising, as if being relentlessly drawn up through that tortured, curving spine.

The pinioning stars cleared the cross beam, unpinioning the Saviour, and glowing like torches: one with flames of red, one with a cool, celestial blue. And as they did so, the first of the brightest stars – The Shinning One, as Helen abruptly realised it was named – appeared above the upright; as if that all-knowing eye had erupted into new life there, as if spat from the mouth of the Hunter.

As the full set of triple stars of the head appeared above the upright, they briefly glowed like a full moon enclosed with the horns of a new moon; then they rose even higher, stretching out towards the heavens like a dove in flight, like an angel with spreading wings.

Reaching for the very highest positions.

Reaching up towards God himself.

With a strange mix of sadness and elation, Helen saw that her white hind had vanished; no, it had transformed.

It was now an angel.

 

 

*

Chapter 54

 

Glancing about her, Helen realised it was not the only transformation that had taken place.

Every wolf, it seemed, had vanished.

In their places there were lions, even a few centaurs. Here and there, although very rare, there were even white harts.

No one retained any inclination to fight.

Everyone there, no matter which side they had originally been fighting on, stood fixedly in place, awestruck, dumbfounded. They looked about themselves blankly at first, blissfully smiling.

Gradually, however, they became more aware of their surroundings, of the phenomenal changes they had been gifted.

They looked towards their new guardians – the lions, the centaurs, the harts – some of them at last and quite naturally sensing the connections flowing between them: some even sensing their renewed responsibilities, some the dawning of a new if not yet completely full understanding of life.

Now only a short distance from the mount, the legionnaires had halted their advance, the effects of the raising of the cross felt even here. Despite being farther away than even these men, the king’s riders had similarly undergone a transformation, the onslaught of wolves vanishing in an instant to be replaced by the languidly confident prowling of lions; none of whom, of course, felt they had anything to prove, or indeed anything to gain from foolish aggravation.

All these men, too, had all risen to a new life.

Yet amongst all this sense of surprise and joy, Helen sensed that something was still amiss.

A sleek, dark grey form, slinking through and past the heaving ranks of either celebrating or profoundly dazed men.

A wolf?

Then why hadn’t it transformed?

Helen’s own guardian angel had seen it too.

She spoke to Helen, and yet did so without speaking. For, of course, they were one and the same.

‘The child is still in danger.’

 

 

*

Chapter 55

 

The child!

Helen had forgotten all about Magnus, the old empress’s grandchild!

But why, after all this, would someone be seeking the death of a child, of a boy little more than a new born babe?

Fausta!

Fausta wanted him removed, of course. To ensure the inheritance of her own children.

Isn’t that what all this had always been about?

They were all so busy celebrating their supposed victory over the Romans, everyone had forgotten the real aim had been to protect the fledging emperor.

But Fausta hadn’t forgotten her primary purpose for instigating all these attacks; for attempting to ensure Helen either never realised her own powers, or remained estranged from the old empress.

Helen urgently urged her horse up the steep incline, hoping she would at least catch a glimpse of that sleek grey shape once again. The goblin had already leapt from the horse at some point, making the horse’s load lighter, the going easier: but they still weren’t moving fast enough for Helen’s liking.

‘Can’t you do anything, Meissa?’ Helen anxiously demanded of her angel, instinctively aware of her name and, yes, some of her capabilities too: and so even as she asked the question, she knew she was being unfair expecting help of this kind from her guardian.

‘No, not against someone as powerful as this,’ Meissa admitted, once again without using any normal means of communication.

Definitely Fasuta then! Helen thought grimly.

She must have arrived at the summit as part of the attack, perhaps at one point even leading her men. But now she had transformed into one of her own guardians: a wolf, a creature who can sneak silently through the chaos of all these unexpected and startling transformations.

As Meissa flowed through the crowds swifter than she herself could manage, Helen wondered if, like Fausta, she too could literally become as one with her guardian: she still knew too little about all the powers now at her disposal.

‘Here, she’s here!’

Through Meissa’s eyes, Helen saw the wolf once more, a creature keeping its head low, keeping itself almost invisible as it slipped virtually unseen through the thronging men.

Fausta had a purpose to her actions: she knew where she was heading – towards the carriage, which now lay partially broken open.

‘Magnus? Where’s Magnus?’ Helen asked Meissa, wishing she knew a way to make her horse move faster, more deftly, up the frustratingly slippery incline. ‘He was in the carriage, with his nursemaid–’

The nursemaid was clutching the baby to her chest, having swaddled him in numerous shawls to keep him warm. Helen could see the maid and the babe, once again through Meissa’s eyes.

The nursemaid’s eyes suddenly widened in fright. She clutched the baby Magnus tighter to her chest, began to turn around.

But it was all too late.

There was a rush of darkness, leaping up from the snowy ground, rising into the air – a dark, lupine rush, swiftly curling through the swirling snow, looping towards the retreating nursemaid and her innocent charge.

 

 

*

Chapter 56

 

Even as she sailed through the air, Fausta underwent a partial transformation.

Legs became arms and hands.

They snatched at the child: they wrenched it from the much weaker arms of the nursemaid.

The nursemaid was sent tumbling to the ground, bowling through the snow.

Fausta lithely curved in the air.

She landed expertly upon her feet, perfectly upright, as if she had just simply appeared there. In her arms, she held Magus.

She looked about her, smiled as she saw Meissa silently approaching her.

‘So, you learned of some of your capabilities,’ she said brightly. ‘But not enough; and too late!’

 

 

*

 

 

This was the first time Helen had ever seen the Empress Fausta.

She was more beautiful than Helen had expected her to be.

More caring, too, going by the way she was protectively holding the baby Magnus to her breast.

Helen slewed her mount to an abrupt halt right before Fausta, slipping down from her saddle in the same easy, flowing manner.

Fausta smirked as she looked from the angel to Helen.

‘Ah, there you are!’ she pouted, frowning in mock disappointment. ‘And I’d thought you’d mastered how to become your own guardian!’

As she spoke, Gremir and half a dozen of the other men slewed their own horses to a halt around Fausta, leaping down with swords and bows and arrows already in their hands. Their lions, even a centaur, arrived with them too, all together forming a tight cordon around the young empress.

Fausta smiled again, this time with an amused twist to her lips. She clung on tighter to the baby, as if she were the one determined to save its life.

‘You’re surrounded,’ Helen pointed out unnecessarily, exchanging a fleeting yet thankful glance with Gremir: he must have realised she needed help when he’d seen her urgently spurring her horse up the hill.

‘Where’s the old empress?’ Fausta asked, craning her neck as she looked everywhere about her, her grimace theatrically scornful. ‘I’d prefer her to be here to witness my moment of glory.’

‘Didn’t you hear, my lady?’ Gremir growled, drawing Fausta’s attention to the arrow he was aiming directly at her head. ‘You’re surrounded.’

Fausta dismissed his impertinence with an airily waved hand, her dress rippling about her as if formed from silken waters.

‘Oh, fortunately there’s a humbled scribe who lives only to ensure that certain truths prevail in the recalling of our histories.’

Sensing that he had an opportunity to kill the young empress without endangering the baby, Gremir grimly released his arrow, let it fly urgently towards its target.

The arrow rushed through Fausta’s head as if there was nothing really there. With a dulled thud, it embedded itself harmlessly in the wood of the carriage.

Fausta chuckled richly.

‘Fool!’ she sneeringly laughed at Gremir. ‘Do you really think I’d be out here on a freezing hillside?’

Helen sensed that even Meissa was at a loss to know how to handle Fausta.

‘Empress Fausta,’ Helen began placatingly, unsure what she would have to say, inwardly sighing with relief when Fausta responded with a delighted grin, ‘I’m sure that–’

Helen stopped, uncertain as to what was suddenly happening.

Fausta’s eyes were wide, even bulging fearfully.

She tossed her head back, raising a hand up close towards her neck as if desperately attempting to wrench aside an invisible shawl.

Her mouth hung wide; she was gasping for air, choking.

As Fausta’s knees buckled and she began to collapse towards the floor, Helen swept forward, intending to wrench the baby Magnus from her arms.

But what had falsely appeared to be Fausta rippled in the swirling of the snow – and vanished.

And the baby Magnus vanished with her.

 

 

*

Chapter 57

 

Fausta had been luxuriating in her heated bath, a bath that any less fortunate person would call a small, marbled pool.

As the steam swirled about her, she hadn’t noticed, of course, that the streaming air was taking shape, transforming, solidifying.

The serpent curled about her neck, drawing itself around that soft, pliable flesh tighter and tighter, refusing to let go until Fausta’s very last breath trickled from her gawping mouth.

‘Fool!’ the old empress harshly chuckled. ‘Do you really think I’d only be out on a freezing hillside?’

As Fausta’s lifeless form slipped beneath the hot, silken waters, the serpent briefly became the old empress once more.

She was standing in the waters, weeping.

She reached down for Magnus.

She picked him up, cradled him miserably in her arms.

She had been too late.

Fausta had already drowned him beneath her bath waters.

 

 

*

Chapter 58

 

Exactly where Fausta had fallen, had vanished, the old empress appeared.

Her dark clothes were steaming, drenched with hot water.

Cold tears fell from her eyes, ran down her cheeks.

For in her arms she held a babe who also dripped water, who slumped lifelessly in her warm embrace.

Helen was close by, having been so close to snatching the babe away before he had vanished.

She took the lifeless Magnus in her arms. Like the old empress, she wept, her salty tears falling amongst the hot soapy bubbles adorning his flesh.

‘Too late,’ the empress explained sadly. ‘I was too late.’

Helen held the lifeless child close to her chest.

She glanced towards the nearby Meissa: yes, yes – this is what we must do!

Without a second thought, Helen bent her head down towards the lifeless babe, kissed him, her mouth locking over her betrothed.

‘No, no Helen!’ the old empress protested, recognising what Helen was about to do, fruitlessly reaching out to wrest the child back: for Helen spun around, taking the baby Magnus farther away from her.

‘You don’t understand,’ the old empress insisted tearfully, seeing that she was once again too late; too late this time to stop Helen whispering the breath of life back into the babe.

‘There’s always a payment, Helen: and I should have been one who paid!’

When Helen drew back her lips from those of Magus, he was breathing gain: wailing, like a new-born babe.

Helen handed Magnus back to the old empress, smiling wanly, knowingly.

‘I do understand,’ she said, her smile weakening: her whole body weakening.

She reached out, took the hand of Meissa.

There wasn’t long.

She had given up her own breath of life for Magnus.

Magnus who now lay crying in the embrace of a tearful old empress.

As Helen slipped gently to the floor, Meissa slipped inside her, a swirl of matter, of energy, of life, as they were finally becoming one.

Still warmly clutching the pitifully wailing Magnus, the old empress crouched down beside the lifeless Helen.

Tenderly, slowly, she closed Helen’s eyes.

‘Yes, yes, my child,’ the old empress said with a satisfied smile, ‘I think you do understand.’

 

 

*

Chapter 59

 

She would stare out into that unceasingly swirling snow, out into an area otherwise set aside for goblins, fairies, and other ne’er-do-wells.

She lived, then, in the village of Constantinople, but on the dark edges of the forest.

The king had renamed a number of areas after the raising of the True Cross in his kingdom.

The mount where it had first been raised, of course, was now the Mountain of Angels.

It had been raised a second time in what was now called Nanhyfer: Sanctuary.

And the nearby river was now the Afon Nyfer, or Holy River.

Naturally the old empress’s grandchild, Magnus, had been raised in the king’s court. It had been agreed between the families that he would be betrothed as soon as a new royal daughter was born, a daughter who would also be called Helen.

And now, at last, as she stared out into the swirling snow, the old empress saw what she had been waiting all this time to see: the queen was with child.

A daughter, too!

It might be a daughter, some might say.

But no, not the old empress: she knew – she saw – that it was a daughter.

Her tasks here were at an end. The empire had its future emperor, and now, also, its future empress.

The empress opened the door to her small cottage, walking out into the ferocious squalls of snow.

She stepped out into those enveloping white sheets, naked: letting the flakes clothe her, letting the snow embrace her.

The swirling of the snow, the wailing of the winds; they all enticed her.

They called her.

He’s here, the voices said.

He’s here, the swirling flakes promised her, granting her glimpses of his return.

They weaved between each other, those flakes, those strands of frozen streams, of icy lakes, of crystallised seas; they made the man divest himself of the funeral garb of darkness – made him accept instead the angelic glow of wraith-like moonbeams, of sparkling stars, of purest, spiritualised matter.

She ran, ran from her house, her house of logs, of wood and earth.

For he would envelope her in his warmth, his love.

He would wrap his loving embrace about her, and clothe her in his longing.

 

 

*

 

 

When the queen’s daughter came into the world, her eyes were immediately alert to everything going on around her.

‘Oh, just look at those eyes,’ the nursemaid proclaimed elatedly. ‘She’s been in this world before!’

Helen smiled.

Everything is connected, she thought.

Everything is me.

 

 

End

 

 

 

 

If you enjoyed reading this book, you might also enjoy (or you may know someone else who might enjoy) these other books by Jon Jacks.

 

The Caught – The Rules – Chapter One – The Changes – Sleeping Ugly

The Barking Detective Agency – The Healing – The Lost Fairy Tale

A Horse for a Kingdom – Charity – The Most Beautiful Things (Now includes The Last Train)

The Dream Swallowers – Nyx; Granddaughter of the Night – Jonah and the Alligator

Glastonbury Sirens – Dr Jekyll’s Maid – The 500-Year Circus – The Desire: Class of 666

P – The Endless Game – DoriaN A – Wyrd Girl – The Wicker Slippers

Heartache High (Vol I) – Heartache High: The Primer (Vol II) – Heartache High: The Wakening (Vol III)

Miss Terry Charm, Merry Kris Mouse & The Silver Egg – The Last Angel – Eve of the Serpent

Seecrets – The Cull Dragonsapien – The Boy in White Linen – Porcelain Princess – Freaking Freak

Died Blondes – Queen of all the Knowing World The Truth About Fairies – Lowlife

Elm of False Dreams God of the 4^th^ Sun A Guide for Young Wytches – Lady of the Wasteland

The Wendygo House – Americarnie Trash – An Incomparable Pearl – Gorgesque

 

 

 


We Three Queens

  • ISBN: 9781311523181
  • Author: Jon Jacks
  • Published: 2016-01-25 11:20:18
  • Words: 53532
We Three Queens We Three Queens