Parting the Veils – 4
Aestrid felt she had hardly slept, turning one way then the other, the whole night through.The shriek that woke her seemed to come right through the wall from the next bedroom. It was followed by other cries of shock and sounds of weeping.
‘What’s going on out there?’ shouted Marelja, then, ‘Help me. I can’t see!’
Aestrid sat up. She found it difficult to open her eyes. When she put her fingers to her eyelids, they were puffed up as she had never felt before, even in childhood illnesses. She couldn’t feel her cheekbones or the line of her jaw because her face was so swollen. Her whole head felt hot.
The third girl in their room cried out, ‘What’s wrong with you two? Your faces are like the full moon.’ Aestrid could open her eyes just enough to see Marelja stumbling towards the door. As she opened it, the noise increased and she could see other girls with the same strange affliction running about, wailing and crying.
Into this chaos strode the three senior wives, shouting to calm the girls down. Quickly they separated the swollen-faced ones from those who didn’t seem to be affected and shepherded them into the largest of the bedrooms.
‘Stay there! Do not come out. We will bring cold water and towels. Bathe your faces; see if that will take down the swelling. We will send for doctors. Do not open that door!’
Aestrid counted seven other girls, as well as Marelja and herself, all with swollen faces and weeping eyes. Now she could appreciate the cleverness of Virren’s plan. They were cut off not only from others in the harem, but from the rest of the palace, the king, guards, servants – no one would come near them. But when, when would Virren put his plan into action?
The weeping had eased now as some of the women seemed to accept their condition. Hours later, they were ordered to move away from the door. An old man, standing as far back as he could, peered in and quickly looked round at the swollen faces and puffy eyes before the door closed again. Another man did the same a few minutes later. Voices outside, men’s voices, were raised in argument.
Marelja and others were at the door, listening. She came back to Aestrid and said, ‘They don’t know what it is. One says it is the blindness fever; others say it is from bad food; the Imam says it is a curse from Allah. I will pray it is not the blindness. My mother went blind.’ She began to sob.
Aestrid could not bear to see her grief. She whispered, ‘Don’t be frightened, Marelja. It will not last. You will be well again in a few days.’
Marelja pressed her palms to her streaming eyes. ‘How can you know this?’ she said.
‘I cannot say, but it will happen. And one more thing, Marelja. I will soon be taken away from here.’
Marelja sat up. ‘But the guards will not dare to . . ‘
‘Not the guards. Someone will come for me. When he does, stay away from me. I cannot be sure, but it may be dangerous for you to be too close.’
She could sense that Marelja was full of questions but she asked no more.
The afternoon passed slowly. The girls had calmed down. Aestrid found she could now open her eyes a little. Lamps were lit as the shadows of evening came. Surely Virren would be here soon. Most of the girls were asleep by the time she heard him.
‘Aestrid, listen. We are ready. Get up now and go slowly to the wall, where the two black girls are sleeping. Turn so that your back is to the wall. I will take your right hand and slowly lead you sideways towards the corner. We will be moving between the veils. It will feel strange to you. You must trust me and never let go of my hand. You will come to no harm. You may see me; you may not, but I will be there guiding your steps.’
Aestrid’s heart was thumping in her chest as she moved across the room and stood with her back to the wall. Marelja got up and came towards her.
‘No, stay away!’ Aestrid hissed. ‘Go back!’
She felt a firm grip on her wrist and heard Virren say, ‘Keep close and follow me.’
Marelja shrieked, ‘Don’t go, Aestrid! It is a djinn. I can see him. He is in the wall.’ Her eyes were wide and staring. She grabbed at Aestrid’s hand. Virren’s fist came crashing down on Marelja’s elbow. She howled in pain and sank to her knees.
In seconds, everything in the room faded, moving sideways out of Aestrid’s sight. The women’s frightened cries died away. She was moving her feet but it did not feel like walking. It was more like sliding on ice. She could see shapes of walls and corridors but faintly, as if in a mist.
‘Turn now,’ Virren ordered . She found herself moving in the opposite direction, still holding the Lightstepper’s hand. Her mouth was dry and her head ached.
‘Are we . . is this between the veils?’
‘Yes. One more turn, then there will be friends to help us. Hurry!’
Aestrid peered through the haze as they turned . Two figures came towards her, helmeted, carrying shields and swords.
‘That’s Ulf Sveinsson! And his brother Ragnar.’ The boys she used to wrestle and race and fish with were like elder brothers to her. They took her hands and kissed them. Neither smiled.
‘Go safe home, Aestrid.’
‘Why do you say . . ‘
Virren broke in. ‘Time is short. We must go now. There is one more veil to part and that will be the time of greatest danger.’
The haze dispersed as they appeared out of the final veil. Aestrid gasped. They were in the dimly lit courtyard of the palace. She remembered being carried through it after that exhausting ride through the desert.
At the arched entrance, two guards stood chatting. They looked up in alarm as the Sveinsson brothers rushed in and cut them down before they could draw their swords. Blood spattered the white silk of Aestrid’s robe as Virren hurried her through the arch. She turned her head and saw the heavy wooden gates close behind them.
‘Ragnar and Ulf are still in there.’ she cried. ‘We cannot leave them.’
‘We must,’ said Virren. ‘They know their fate. They are ready to do this for you.’
‘But they are just boys,’ she wailed.
‘They are men today,’ said Virren Lightstepper.