Chapter 5: The Hidden People
A fantasy novel
Author’s note: This is Chapter 5 of my second novel, The Hidden People, a fantasy story with a romance element. The previous chapters can be found here:
I know I’ve mixed together Goidelic Celtic, Brythonic Celtic and Norse languages and names in what follows, but that’s all part of the fun. Thanks to David Gregg for his invaluable assistance with Gaelic. Any errors are mine.
In other news, this Substack will remain free, but if you ever feel like giving a tip, here’s a link by which you can do so (but only if you want, absolutely no obligation!)
The sky was still dark purple and dusky, but the men who had captured her suddenly reined in their horses and halted. The leader lifted her down from the horse into the waiting custody of the other men. His hands still smelled faintly of the herbal liquid he’d wiped on Jo’s shoulder. Even though her shoulder hurt, she tried to kick and bite the men. She was left with the feeling that the men found her attempts pathetic.
She wondered what had happened to Simon and whether he’d come after her. One part of her hoped he had, and that she was about to be rescued; another part hoped he had run for help, rather than get caught by snake-panthers, bee goblins or strange feather-haired lunatics—and someone—anyone—back home knew what had happened. She was also desperately worried about Henny. He might go up to a snake-panther and pat it and be eaten up in a single hungry bite. But there was nothing she could do about it. She wished she hadn’t gone to follow him, or that she’d found him immediately and taken him home. She wondered how she was going to get home, and what these men wanted with her.
The horses were tied to trees on the other side of the glade, then she was tied to a tree opposite them, like an animal too. She scowled at the men in the gloom and shouted at them to untie her. They continued to ignore her and laid a small fire in a hollow, then began to set up a campsite. They removed their hoods and facial coverings, and shook out long hair. The other men had also woven beads and other things into their hair, but unlike the leader, their hair was dark brown or black. It was difficult to tell the other four men apart. They did not seem to speak English.
If they were bandits, they were in for a shock—the only things of value she had on her were the two slender gold-plated rings in her ears, the necklace Mama had given her, and the gold “wedding” ring. Miss Pickles’ slippers would never be the same again, Jo reflected, looking at the fluffy muddy mangle, and if this was reality, she was in tremendous trouble.
The men began to cook something over the open fire and Jo’s stomach growled. She had no idea what time of day it was, or what the time was back home. She wondered if it was breakfast time at home and yawned.
When the men ladled food into bowls, Jo’s stomach grumbled even more desperately. It wanted some of that stew they were cooking, even though nothing the men had put into it looked familiar, and even though Jo wanted to spit at the men. It smelled good. Mama had told them never to eat anything in the Hidden Place—but if this was real—Jo would have to eat eventually.
The leader came over, bearing a wooden bowl with a spoon in it in one hand, and a wooden cup in the other. He stopped some distance away from her, crouched, and set the bowl on the grass. Jo was beset by the strange feeling that he regarded her as a wild animal. In her opinion, he was the wild one—he looked feral, with his long, dangling silver earrings, and the feathers, teeth and beads woven into little plaits in his hair. His face was stern, with angular planes, but as he cocked his head at her, there was something reminiscent of the alien beauty of Jo’s brother Simon. His eyebrows and eyelashes were dark, but his hair was very pale, almost white. It looked like he’d bleached it for dramatic contrast. Jo felt a little scornful of the man’s vanity.
He spoke. “If I untie thy hands to eat, wilt thou undertake not to escape? No more biting and kicking?”
“I wilt,” said Jo wearily. “By the way—is there a reason why you talk like Shakespeare all the time?”
The effect of this was unexpected. The man’s eyes widened—in the firelight, she could see they were very dark violet, not black as she’d thought, and he smiled in a friendly way. “Will! Thou knowest Will? Why didst thou not say? How goes he?”
Jo blinked at him, unsure if this was an elaborate joke. “I don’t know him personally. I know of him. He’s been dead for four hundred years?”
The man cast his eyes down and said something in his own language. Then he looked up. “But—thou knowest his name?”
“He’s famous. We all have to read his stuff—he’s one of the most famous people ever—even Mama made me read his plays—” A chill ran over Jo, as she realised Mama had insisted they read A Midsummer Night’s Dream repeatedly. She wondered if their surname was really Sidebottom, or whether Mama had been making a joke of her own by giving them a name based on the donkey-headed artisan in the play.
The leader turned to the others and called out something. They bowed their heads and said something which sounded like a prayer or benediction of some sort.
Then the leader put down the tea, untied Jo’s hands and picked up the bowl. “If thou dost value Will, I am inclined to trust thee. He was a friend. Here.”
Jo looked at him suspiciously. “Where is your bowl? How do I know you haven’t poisoned this?”
“I gave thee my bowl.” The man took a spoonful of the stew, pointedly, and swallowed it, then sipped the tea. “See. I eat and drink this myself.”
Jo sniffed the stew. She tried to resist it, but she was too hungry. It was as good as it smelled, although spiced with odd herbs she didn’t recognise. Eventually she said, “Thank you,” and placed the bowl down on the ground, and pushed it back towards him, then rubbed her wrists, and sipped the tea.
The man regarded her. “Thy shoulder?” He’d obviously caught her slight wince of pain.
Jo did not want him to touch her again and shrank away. “It aches—but I can deal, strange wild guy—just let me go—”
“My name.” The man paused, then seemed to come to a decision. “I shall give thee my name. I am Annurin Chlann Hearne Mac Cnámh Rig na Sidhe.” He inclined his head, as if he had given her a tremendous gift.
Jo sensed that this announcement had a meaning than she couldn’t comprehend. She’d only caught the first part of the name. Eventually she said, “Hi, Annurin? Is that right? I’m Jo. Joanna Sidebottom. Can you let me go, please?”
“Just—Jo.” Jo couldn’t help smiling, just a little, at Annurin’s mistake, and passed the empty cup back.
Annurin stared at her for a moment. Then he picked up the cup, put it into the bowl, and moved to stand.
Jo drew a deep breath. “Before you go—I’m looking for my brother. I think he’s here too. We came down a well, him just before me—and that’s how I ended up here. Have you guys seen him? Much taller than me? Doesn’t speak much? His name’s Henry but he calls himself Henny? I have to find him—he’s not great on his own—please let me go, so I can find him—?”
Annurin sighed. “Alas, I must restrain thee once again. I am bidden to take thee before the King. ‘Tis our law. And we have not seen any stranger other than thee.”
Jo blinked tears away, and wondered if she could try to run—but Annurin was watching her closely. He had rolled forward to the balls of his feet and put the bowl and cup down, as if he was preparing to grab her. She would have to find another opportunity. She held up her arms. “Can you tie my hands in front of me, if you must tie me up again? It’s hurting my shoulder to have them behind me.”
“Aye, I can.” Annurin hesitated. “Now ‘tis my turn to ask of thee a question. The gormbeaga. Why didst the wild gormbeaga accompany thee?”
“I don’t understand?”
“The gormbeaga—” Annurin linked his thumbs and flapped his hands like wings “— the flying creatures?
“Oh!” Jo understood now. “The bee gremlins? I don’t know. They just arrived. I really don’t know.”
“Most odd.” Annurin rose and tied her hands in front of her, more gently this time, and tied the other end of the rope to the tree.
Jo tried the ropes; but while they were looser than before, there was still no opportunity for escape.
Meanwhile, Annurin rejoined the others, rinsed the bowl and ladled some stew for himself. Someone said something, laughing. Annurin snapped at the man. The men went quiet and looked at Jo. Jo stuck her tongue out at them and blew raspberries. She was aware that this was childish, but she couldn’t bring herself to care, given it was only a dream anyway.
Suddenly, she was tired, despite the pain in her shoulder. She lay down on the strange silvery grass—it smelled slightly minty—and watched the men in the orange light of the fire, wondering if the tea had been drugged. Her vision was blurring. And then—most unexpectedly—she fell asleep.
When she woke, she hoped that she’d find herself in her bed at the Pickles’ house, but as she had feared, either this was a very elaborate dream, or it was reality. Someone had put a blanket over her while she slept. Her shoulder was stiff and sore. The light hadn’t changed: the strange purple twilight persisted. The feathery trees whispered overhead in a soft breeze. Jo thought she heard a quiet chitter, but she saw nothing, and no creature approached her.
She began to hum the lullaby her mother had sung her and her brothers when they were small, the one that had drawn here here. It eased her increasing panic. One of the sleeping group rose and approached her.
“Hush! Hush, immediately! How—? How dost thou know this song?”
“Mama?” Jo said drowsily, still struggling to wake properly. “Mama sang it.”
Then she recognised the approaching person as the man who’d shot her, Annurin. He crouched down, wrapped in a silver-grey blanket, his face stern. “Never sing that song again! Not in this realm.”
Jo was now more awake and somewhat alarmed. “Why not?”
Annurin’s face was full of anger and something else—Jo thought it might be fear. He put his hand to the knife on his belt. “Dost thou knowest the Queen of Blood?”
“The who and what now?” Jo was confused. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s just a lullaby my mother sang when I was small, back home.”
Annurin relaxed and took his hand from the knife. “It must be mere chance, then, that thou dost know this tune; mayhap there hath been slippage between the realms and it fell from my world into thine. But do not sing it again in this realm. Another man might have killed thee, just for knowing the song.”
“You make the rules for now,” she said drowsily. “Whatever you say. By the way, I think you drugged that tea.”
Annurin ignored the accusation. Instead, he reached down, and to Jo’s surprise, gently touched the earring in her left ear, closest to him. “Whence didst thou get these?”
Jo sat up, and then winced as she remembered the wound in her shoulder too late. “Don’t touch me again. I’ll bite you. And it’s none of your business.”
Annurin sat back swiftly on his heels. “Thou’rt savage!”
“Says the guy with feathers in his hair. You ain’t seen nothing yet,” Jo quipped.
Annurin pulled the coppery knife from his belt. “‘Tis no jest. Swear an oath that thou wilt not sing that song again, if thou pleaseth.”
Jo scowled at him and tried drag herself out of his reach. “If you threaten me, or kill me and cut me up into tiny bits, you’re the savage one, just so you know.”
Scorn covered Annurin’s face. “Dost thou not know’st how to swear an oath?”
“I solemnly swear, Scout’s Honour, that I won’t sing that song again,” Jo said, raising her middle three fingers, and folding her thumb and little finger in on her left hand: as her hands were tied together she couldn’t do it properly. “There. Happy now?”
Annurin sighed and sheathed the knife. “This will have to do. The proper swearing of oaths will be explained later.”
“Whatever.” Jo didn’t think she should point out that she had never been a Boy Scout. It was a gesture she’d seen Sean make mockingly to Tanya. “If you’re not going to help me find Henny—I hope he’s not been eaten—can you let me go? Or help me find the way home? Please?”
Annurin shifted on his heels, as if ants had crawled into his pants. “No. I am sorry. Not yet. My life—and more importantly, the lives of my men—will be forfeit unless I bring thee before the King.”
To Jo’s shame, tears rolled down her cheeks. Annurin was impassive for a moment, then he held up his hands, folding his thumb and little finger in on the left hand, just as Jo had. “If, after I bring thee before the King, I am permitted to help thee in thy quest, then I shall.”
Jo sniffed and wiped her cheeks against her sleeve, as best she could with bound hands. “Thank you. What’s with the thee and thou? You sound like Mr Pickles and his prayers.”
Annurin frowned. “But—thou said thou spakest English?”
“No one has talked like that for a million years,” Jo informed him. “If you speak to anyone in my world when you drop me home, don’t do that. It makes you sound like a pompous old git.”
Unexpectedly a feline smile flitted across Annurin’s face and Jo had to stop herself from staring—for a moment he was rakishly attractive. “Mayhap I am a pompous old git?” He dropped his gaze and fiddled with one of the small beaded plaits in his hair. “What’s thy age, then?”
Jo hated having to explain this part. “I know I’m short—it doesn’t mean I’m a kid!—but I’m not sure of my age. As far as they know, I’m about twenty-one, my middle brother Simon’s about twenty-two and Henny’s about twenty-four. That’s the best guess, putting everything together. Our Mama didn’t keep records: she didn’t trust the government. She made us keep moving from place to place.”
Annurin grimaced and stood, wiping his hands on his grey and white trousers, and shook his head. “As I feared.” He abruptly turned and lay back down.
“Pompous old git,” Jo whispered again, and lay back down. For a brief moment, she had wondered if Annurin was flirting with her. She had been astonished and unsure what to do about it. However, his look of distaste suggested she’d misread the situation.
She stared at the trees and worried about her brothers. There wasn’t a blind bit of anything she could do from here. Instead she watched the strange iridescent insects flit around the tree she was tied to, listened to the whicker of the glistening horses, and wondered what other creatures they had here. She then tried to focus on the things in her peripheral vision which kept sliding out of view, but that gave her a headache. Then she called out as she had an unpleasant realisation. “Hello? Hello? Can someone untie me?”
One of the other men came over; he was much more wary than Annurin. Jo jiggled up and down on the spot. “I need to—go. To the loo. And I’d really prefer not to go in front of a bunch of feather-heads.”
Another man came up. They watched her jiggle and make desperate faces, and they had an intense conversation. They woke Annurin, although from the speed with which he rose, Jo thought he hadn’t been sleeping anyway.
Annurin scowled, untied the rope from the tree, untied her hands, and put the rope around her waist instead. He twitched the rope. “I feel like a man with a lynx on a lead.”
He led her further away from the campsite, then cleared his throat, looking sour. “Dost thou needest … shall I dig a hole?”
Jo stared at him. “Er. No. Number one. Just—don’t look.”
“I do not know the meaning of the number, but I will not look.” Annurin let out slack in the rope, went around the other side of the tree.
Jo relieved herself, looked around for something to wipe herself, and settled on several very large handfuls of silvery, slightly furry leaves from a plant growing on the ground. Then she stood up and pulled up Simon’s pyjama trousers, which were now looking decidedly shabby. “Finished.”
She toyed again with fleeing from her captor and wondered if she could pull him over and run while his back was turned. She gently tugged against the rope in an experimental fashion.
Annurin pulled the rope in again, a fisherman reeling in a fish. He was much stronger than her and she realised sadly that she probably could not have pulled him over. Even if she had managed it, all those other men would help him find her, and this was their land, not hers.
He shook his head at her and clicked his tongue. “Jojoanna. Do not run. We will catch you. Among other things, that arrow wound needs proper treatment.”
Jo was tickled by his continued mispronunciation of her name and decided that she would not correct it. She held out her hands. “Wash my hands?”
He took her back to camp, where he tipped water over her hands, and then put the stinging lotion over them.
“When is morning?” Jo asked.
Annurin turned and looked at her, his dark eyebrows raised. “It is morning.”
“But the sun? Where’s the sun?”
Annurin shrugged in a strange sinuous way. “I do not understand?”
He tied her hands back up in front of her, tied the other end of the rope to the tree, then he turned away and began to bark orders at the men.
Once the camp was cleared, Jo was put back on the horse and Annurin swung up behind her. This time, they’d let her keep the blanket and so she wrapped it around herself. It was soft and grey, and felt like it was made of alpaca wool.
On their left-hand side, a structure, somewhat like a huge decorative termite mound, stood in a clearing by the road, with bee gremlins flying in and out. “What is that? Do the bee gremlins live there?”
“Beaga hive!” murmured Annurin. Jo resolved to ask him more later, if she had a chance.
And then, in the distance, towers loomed out of the feathery silver trees: strange towers that seemed to defy gravity and sense. They were too top-heavy to stand, but there they were: deathly white, whiter than Annurin’s hair, which she’d realised was more a very pale peachy colour, rather than white. The windows of the towers were carved with extraordinary, filigreed detail. “What is that place?”
Annurin said, “Shh.”
Jo’s heart was now sinking right down to the bedraggled pink pom poms and ruined rubber soles of Miss Pickles’ slippers. She did not like the bone towers, not at all. Annurin and his hunters seemed okay, but there was something ominous about this place.
As they got closer, a faintly glimmering white stone-paved road materialised out of the forest, but frustratingly, it wound as much as the previous path had. They began to see other people on the road: people on horses in uniforms of some kind, people with carts drawn by donkeys, other people trudging past on foot. Among them flew bee gremlins, but they weren’t like Jo’s bee gremlins. They were on a mission and there was no chittering or cheekiness. These bee gremlins seemed to be wearing white clothing, and bearing things in their hands.
Everyone—whether human or bee gremlin—seemed wary of Annurin and his men. The bee gremlins kept a very wide berth indeed. Jo noted this as a mark against them—if bee gremlins didn’t like Annurin and his men, she wasn’t sure she liked or trusted them either.
Suddenly the trees ended, and they entered into a very large stone circle, large enough to enclose a whole village. Within the circle, the trees had been cleared, and on the mound in the centre of the circle stood a castle, although ‘castle’ was not an adequate word. It towered above the trees and seemed to have grown organically, in a way which made no logic or sense. To Jo, it looked like the hideous skull of a grotesque deformed creature. The big gate at the front was a black gaping downturned mouth. A milky white-blue moat enclosed the castle. Guards with spears stood dotted at intervals on the walls and guarded the gate.
“I don’t want to go here,” Jo announced loudly. “Let me go, or I’ll scream, now. Or help me find my brother like you promised! I don’t like it here. I want to go home.”
“Shh,” said Annurin again, urgently.
Jo wondered if she’d die if she threw herself off the horse while her hands were bound. She made an exploratory lunge to the side. Annurin pulled her back and murmured in her ear, “Do not be a fool, Jojoanna. And do not speak thy tongue again until we see the King.”
“Get your hands off me! And why can’t I speak English?”
Annurin let go of her and growled, “Ach! Just—do not. Dost thou trust me?”
“No, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” Jo mumbled sullenly and fell silent.