Tuesday, 5 April 2016

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

Parting the Veils - Part 2

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

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

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

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