Virren Lightstepper pulled Aestrid away from the gate and ran towards the nearest dune. Aestrid’s feet slipped on the shifting sand as she stumbled after him, sobbing.By the time they reached the top of the slope, she was gasping for breath. There was no sign of pursuit but from behind the heavy gates she could hear the clash of weapons and cries of anger and pain. Above them all, she heard the war-song of the Northland.
Virren dragged her over the crest and they rolled down the far slope. Aestrid lay panting, turning her face away from him, tears drying in streaks across her face.
‘Come!’ he shouted. There is no time to rest.’ He raised her head and spoke more gently. ‘Just a little further and we will be safe.’
At the bottom of the slope, she saw the remains of a circular stone-built wall.
‘Keep to the right of the old well. We can move between the veils there.’
The Lightstepper slowed to a walk and looked about him. He moved on a few paces more, then grasped Aestrid’s hand.
‘Remember how we moved through the veils? This time it will be a little easier for you.’
As Aestrid felt her feet start to slide sideways, she heard a great shout in the distance and the clatter of iron bolts as the great gates were opened. She closed her eyes to blot out the bloody vision of the Sveinsson boys lying dead.
When she opened her eyes, she could see the movement of the veils shimmering in the sunlight and through them, dim figures rushing down the slope towards them. More veils seemed to crowd in, thicker and faster, and she heard the pursuers’ triumphant shouts change to fear-stricken cries as their quarry vanished from sight.
Aestrid’s body slumped with exhaustion and grief. Virren’s grip on her hand tightened.
‘We must stay within the veils a little longer, to get further away from the well. You will see why.’
The ground beneath her feet was changing, becoming softer and cooler than the desert sand. She looked down but could see nothing in the misty half-dark. Virren was quiet. He seemed to be listening.
Soon he said, ‘We can come out from the veils now, and take rest. But make no sound nor any sudden movement. As long as you hold my hand and stay still, we cannot be seen.’
Gradually the veils slipped aside. Despite Virren’s warning, Aestrid barely managed to stifle a gasp of astonishment.
They were sitting on grass as green and lush as the meadows of her homeland. About fifty paces away, gathered beside the well in the shade of tall trees a dozen men sat round a campfire, eating and talking. A few women sat apart, some with children close by. There were horses tethered under the trees.
Aestrid, wide-eyed, whispered,’Where is this place.? How did we get here?’
‘I do not know, but it must be connected to our world in some way. You see the well there? When we saw it in our world it had been dry for many years. Here in the otherworld, it is new-built or possibly re-built, filled with fresh water, enough to grow these trees.’
‘But how . . ?’
‘I cannot pretend to understand it,’ said Virren, ‘but I know how to get into it through the veils and I know how to make use of it. I can do things here that neither I nor any other man can do in our world. Here is an example before your eyes. We are here but we are not part of this world. We can see them but they cannot see us.’
Aestrid turned to look at the people by the well. The youngest of the children, a little girl, was looking in their direction.
‘Be still,’ whispered Virren urgently.
The little girl was smiling. She took two hesitant steps towards them and called out, pointing towards where they were sitting. Two of the women turned to look, then laughed and went back to their chatting.
Aestrid and Virren sat silent, unmoving. The little girl ran back to the group and settled into her mother’s arms. But her eyes were still on the spot where Virren and Aestrid sat, not daring to move.
(720 words) (This is a six-part story, to be concluded next week)