Chapter 6: The Hidden People
A fantasy novel
Author’s note: This is Chapter 6 of my second novel, The Hidden People, a fantasy story with a romance element. The previous chapters can be found here:
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When they reached the guards at the bridge, the guards gestured curiously at Jo. Annurin said something brisk and peremptory. The same happened at the main gate. They entered into a large flagged courtyard, surrounded by buildings of different sizes, like a medieval castle, and the men reined in their horses.
The men helped Jo get off the horse—Annurin handed her down to them—then he dismounted and gave the men some stern, angry-sounding commands. The men looked sidelong at Jo, with something like pity, and then saluted Annurin. Several of them walked away.
The buildings surrounding them were strangely liquid; it appeared that someone had blobbed grey-white stone in dollops, then carved doorways and windows into the stone in an elaborate filagreed fashion. Jo had a sudden horrible suspicion that the buildings hadn’t been made by humans. Then she stared as one of the towers caught her eye: skulls grinned at her from in niches the tower wall. She squeaked—were they real, or just carven?—but her captor ignored her.
“Please? Let me go? I’m scared,” she whispered. Her fear strengthened when Annurin wouldn’t meet her eyes.
“Be quiet,” he hissed, then pulled Jo along by the wrists.
He walked too quickly for her, pulling her up wide stone stairs and through tunnel-like corridors with elaborate tapestries featuring strange people and animals. Jo stumbled. “Argh!”
He stopped. “Shh.”
“Too fast,” Jo mouthed. Annurin shook his head, came closer and put his ear right next to her mouth. It was disconcerting—did he have animal teeth hanging from his ear?—but Jo whispered: “You walk too fast.”
Annurin drew back and a series of emotions flitted across his face: shame, irritation and amusement, warring for dominance. He said something and then gestured at her to walk. As she reached him, he began to walk more slowly, matching his pace to hers. Something about his posture, however, said that he was finding this very irritating and wished he could go back to striding ridiculously quickly.
Jo walked extremely slowly, just to spite him. Sometimes small rebellions could give the greatest pleasure, as she knew from time in unpleasant squats her mother had inhabited.
At each stage, Annurin had an exchange with spear-bearing guards with shoulder-length braided hair, all of whom looked at Jo curiously. They began to see other people too, scurrying about, wearing short hair and caps, as well as the odd bee gremlin.
Eventually they reached a tall white door with a curved upper lintel, inlaid with trees and animals in bronze. The guards standing on either side of the doorway looked at them curiously. Annurin leaned over, and whispered in Jo’s ear. “The Throne Room. Be civil. And … ‘ware the Prince of Skulls.” His gaze became intense. “I was bound to bring thee here. Naytheless, if ‘tis in my power to prevent it, I will not let them harm thee, by my full name which I gave to thee.”
Goosebumps prickled up Jo’s arms. “Thanks,” she whispered.
They entered a high-roofed room with soaring buttressed ceilings and carvings of unicorns, manticores and dragons, along with other creatures Jo could not identify: was that a snake-panther? Bee gremlins flew in and out, through oval-shaped holes in the roof. They seemed to be delivering scrolls to people in the room, then flitting back out, or sitting on perches on the roof.
At the end of the room, a figure sat on a grotesque throne made entirely of gold. Jo had always thought no one could be paler than she was, but she discovered she was wrong. The person seated on the throne was so white he gleamed: his long white hair fell to the floor, his skin was the colour of paper, and his clothing looked like it had been bleached. The only colour was provided by the gold circlet atop his head. His eyes were closed.
Around the edges of the room stood other men with long braided hair of different colours—red, blond, brown, black, white—longer than Annurin’s hair, threaded with feathers, leather thongs, ribbons, jewels, beads, and metal trinkets. Jo wondered if she was imagining the scorn on their faces when they looked at him. She was surprised to discover that she felt protective.
As she got closer, she thought that she had never seen anything like the clothing these men wore: long draping robes of all colours, covered in fur, pearls, teeth, scales, feathers and gems. It was like an insane magpie had decorated their clothing and the more random items they’d attached to it, the better they were. She thought they looked ridiculous, not impressive.
She glanced up at the white figure of the King and her stomach suddenly churned. His clothing was plain. There was a wide space around the throne; perhaps she wasn’t the only one who felt uneasy.
Annurin reached the edge of the space around the throne and made an announcement. It sounded like a ritual greeting of some sort. The other men stopped talking amongst themselves and stared at them.
The King opened his eyes. To Jo’s horror, his eyes were completely white, with no pupil or iris. His entire body seemed to have been bleached of colour. But it appeared that he was not blind. He turned his head slowly and gestured to Annurin, extending a long thin finger with a yellowed, curled fingernail and beckoned to him.
“I don’t wanna go!” Jo whispered, filled with horror and fear, but Annurin pulled her forward.
“Kneel! Now! Forehead on ground!” he hissed. Jo was tempted to disobey but the urgency in his voice made her think again.
They both knelt on the floor and put their foreheads on the ground.
After a time, the King said something and Annurin whispered, “Sit up, Jojoanna.”
Jo sat up and looked at the King. She immediately wished she had not. Here was a creature—she was not even sure if he was human—who could cleave her flesh from her bones and unhinge her mind from its moorings. She sensed that he did not care about the little crawling things before him.
To Jo’s shock, the King spoke comprehensibly in English. “A human woman, Annurin? Art thou sure?”
Annurin glanced at Jo and spoke. “I have not undressed her to see, Sire. But—she has breasts and she pisses like a woman.”
Jo squawked: she had not realised undressing was a possibility and felt profoundly glad that it had not been exercised. Something occurred to her, then. “You looked when I went to the toilet!”
“I saw only that thou didst squat, from the side of mine eye, when thou didst pull against the rope! Naught else!” Annurin’s cheeks were pink.
Another man strode forward into the circle, laughing derisively and shaking his head. His eyes were a strange tawny gold; his hair was white and so long that the ends brushed the ground. He wore a long jacket of blue velvet, covered in black pearls and sparkling white gems, over a blue robe, and his earrings and jewellery were gold. The King sat impassive, unmoving, but everyone else went silent.
The man looked Jo up and down. She was sure that he was mentally undressing her and she crossed her hands over her breasts.
To Jo’s surprise, the man also spoke in English, his lip curling. “Thou’rt weak, Annurin. Thou did’st not sample her? I will go where thou wilt not, coward.”
Annurin said something stiff and looked at the King, as if he was hoping that the King would intervene.
The King said nothing.
The other man laughed again. Jo winced: there was an unpleasant edge to his laugh. Then he bent down and grasped Jo’s face in one hand. His fingernails were immensely long and decorated with red nail paint. They dug into Jo’s chin, as the man turned Jo’s head back and forth, against her will.
“Unattractive. No doubt a mere serf. But she will do.”
Jo’s cheeks burned with shame, her heart pounded with fear, and Annurin burst out with something furious.
Suddenly the man hesitated. “What’s this, what’s this?” To Jo’s shock, he hooked a long red nail into her earring and roughly pulled it from her ear, so violently that she thought her ear might be bleeding.
Annurin said something and gently drew the necklace on its chain out of her pyjama top.
The other man recoiled with an expostulation, and Jo recalled that her mother had said that horseshoes were good luck and protection against Them. She began to feel hope. Then the other man grasped the little horseshoe and pulled the chain off Jo’s neck so that it broke. Jo began to whimper—it had been a gift from her mother. She was suddenly filled with determination. She was not going to let this man take her mother’s ring.
While Annurin and the other man were shouting at each other, and the King was looking at the necklace with intense interest, Jo slowly pulled the ‘wedding ring’ off her hand—there was just enough movement in her bound wrists for her to be able to manage it. Then she put her hands up to her chin slowly. She fumbled with the ring because of her bound wrists, and was relieved when it dropped safely into the breast pocket of her pyjamas. Then, with great difficulty, she pulled out her other earring as best she could with her tied hands, before the nasty gold-eyed man could remove it too, and it flicked off her finger and rolled onto the ground with a tiny tinkle.
The gold-eyed man grabbed the earring greedily. “Was there more, Annurin?”
Annurin turned to Jo. “She bore a ring.”
“I think it fell off,” Jo lied, holding out her bound dirty, naked hands. “My hands were tied and untied.”
She immediately regretted this: the gold-eyed man strode over and hit Annurin across the face with the back of his hand. She was about to confess that the ring was in the breast pocket of her pyjamas when the gold-eyed man spoke. “I claim her.”
Jo’s heart went up into her mouth and she clamped her teeth together to stop from screaming.
Blood dripped from the corner of Annurin’s mouth. He wiped it away with the back of his hand. “My right as captor is first, Prince.”
Jo shuddered as she realised this was the Prince of whom Annurin had warned her, and tried not to panic, but her heart was pounding, and her breathing was shallow and quick.
“But thou hast not claimed it?” the Prince sneered. “So—I have the right of it by rank, do I not?” He leaned down put his hand on the rope around Jo’s wrists. Jo tried to move away from him.
After a short, horrified pause, Annurin called out something in his own language and then repeated it in English. “I claim the first right by capture! Let it be heard by all! I would swear a Blood Oath by the ancient law! Now, with all as my witnesses!”
His announcement was punctuated by gasps from the watching crowd.
“What right? What oath?” whispered Jo. “What are you doing?”
Annurin did not tell her, and instead, pulled the copper dagger from his belt, and Jo flinched. “I was going to teach thee to swear oaths, Jojoanna. But I did not think it would be this one.” He extended his right hand to her, and to her horror, she saw that his palm was criss-crossed with scars and cuts.
Jo heard a strange sound and then she realised that it was the King, laughing until he choked. He wiped his eyes. “I have not been this entertained for many a long year. Go, Annurin. Swear a Blood Oath with this woman, if thou wist.”
The men behind started to make whooping, cheering noises, and the bee gremlins up in the roof stopped their flying, buzzing progression in and out.
“You can’t allow him to claim her, Father,” said the gold-eyed man, furiously. “You cannot.”
“It is our law that he can, despite his status. His right has priority over thine and he may choose to exercise it in this way.” The King called out something in his language and the men behind called out a word which sounded approving. The King brought his palms together in an awkward clap, hampered by the long curled yellowish nails. “It is decided. Swear the oaths.”
Annurin cut the ropes around Jo’s wrists hastily with the copper knife, his fingers shaking. “Forgive me. Please forgive me. A beag will sting us first. ‘Twill not hurt too badly.”
Jo flexed her tingling fingers and rubbed her wrists to get the blood flowing. Meanwhile, Annurin looked up and called something out, and one of the bee gremlins above flew down, a larger one with a shiny gold carapace and sting. The bee gremlin grinned at her, then swiftly pricked her and then Annurin in the arm with a long slender sting.
“Yowch!” Jo’s stung arm smarted and buzzed. “You promised to help me, don’t forget?”
Annurin did not reply, but made a cut across his palm, then took her right hand in his own. “I must cut thee too, for it to bind.”
Jo winced, feeling a little hysterical. “If I do this—please—can you take me back home?”
“I promise by my troth that I will look for thy brother.” Annurin’s hand was shaking more violently than before. Nonetheless, he was clearly practiced at cutting without making it too painful; Jo suspected if she had been left to her own devices, she would have made a terrible mess. She watched the tiny beads of blood ooze from the neat shallow cut on her palm.
Annurin said phrases with a sound of ritual to them and then said, “Thou must needs repeat every word after me.” He sounded out phrases and Jo dutifully repeated them.
“Clasp my hand, Jojoanna, with thy right hand.”
She took Annurin’s hand, and he pressed his palm to hers, so that the cuts were touching.
Then he spoke.
Jo cried out: a buzzing warmth went up her arm. She swivelled on her knees and glared at Annurin. “What did you do to me, you bastard? Take me home now!”
The gold-eyed Prince burst out laughing and said something mocking. The King smiled like a shark.
Annurin’s dark eyes were filled with tears. “I am sorry. I am so very sorry.” He took her hand and to Jo’s astonishment, he kissed the cut on her palm. Then he turned away.
The men behind started to call out taunts. The bee gremlins gathered above made a clicking, buzzing noise which made the roof shake.
“I want to go home!” Jo wailed, too upset to be ashamed. She was suddenly filled with dismay and utter horror. “Where’s Henny? Where’s Simon? I want my Mama! Mama! What did you do to me?”
The King began to laugh again, as did the courtiers, while Jo wept.
Finally, the King said something. Annurin replied in a restrained way and the King made a flicking gesture with his horrendous claw nails and responded. He repeated himself in English. “You may go.”
Annurin put his head on the floor, and, shaking all over, Jo copied him.
“Thank you, Sire,” said Annurin, and Jo murmured, “Thank you,” putting her hand over her pyjama breast pocket to keep the ring from rolling out.
Annurin helped her up, and they walked out, as the strange gaudy men hooted and called things out. Jo glanced back. The gold-eyed Prince was saying something furious to the King, but the King had closed his eyes and reverted to the unmoving position he had been in when Jo had entered the room.
Outside the throne room, when the doors had closed, Annurin leaned against the wall. His pale face was haggard. He closed his eyes. “I did not think even he would stoop so low. I should have broken our law and taken thee back to thine own world, even had I to forfeit my own life. I am sorry, Jojoanna.”
Jo bared her teeth at him. “What did you do to me?”
“Little savage.” Annurin opened his eyes and looked at her oddly. “I did not think the oath would bind thus. But come back to my apartments. This is not a conversation to have in the corridor.”
Jo looked at him doubtfully. “Me? Come back to your place, just you and me?” She backed off slightly and put her arms up. “Oh, no no no. None of that. You promised.”
Annurin drooped. “I swore that I would help thee. I will not hurt thee. No more than I already have, at the least.” Sincerity oozed from him, as well as a kind of anxious shame.
One of the guards by the door said something scoffing. Annurin stiffened, turned and snapped at him—Jo felt a strange jolt of anger sweep over her, too—and the guard shut his mouth. Then Annurin took Jo’s hand gently in his own—her left hand in his right hand. Jo could feel the cut on his palm and the other scars. She let herself be led: this was beyond her ken.
They went back out into the courtyard. A dark-haired feather-braided hunter stood waiting. He held out his arm, stopped Annurin by putting his hand on his shoulder, and asked him a question. Annurin glanced at Jo and said something short, looking embarrassed.
The dark-haired hunter stared, and stumbled, as if in shock. Then he shouted at Annurin, stepped forward, and shot Jo a venomous look. Jo stepped back, unsure what she’d done wrong, and raised her arms in case the man was going to hit her. Annurin waved his hands, sounding apologetic. The man spat something out at Annurin, made a rude fist-shaking gesture at him, and, giving Jo one last glare, he strode off at speed.
“What happened?” said Jo.
“Poor Eirnin. Who knows what the others will think when I explain fully?” Annurin sighed and led Jo to a towering white stone building right on the other side of the courtyard. He led her up a winding staircase, down corridors, and then more stairs, past many rooms. It was reminiscent of an insect hive, with curving corridors through the rock. Bee gremlins cleaned windows, swept the floor and buzzed around. Jo was scared that she might be stung again, and edged around them.
The door at which Annurin eventually stopped was large and plain and made from a black wood Jo had never seen before. He drew out a large silver key and unlocked the door. A man with short blond hair and blue angular eyes came out, said something friendly-sounding, and then propped and stopped short as he saw Jo.
Annurin pulled her in through the door, pulled the door behind them shut, and launched into a long explanation. Jo looked around. She wasn’t sure, but the room looked like an entrance hall of kinds, with strange horned animal skulls and skins on the wall, with three doors leading to other rooms.
As the explanation continued, the man’s blue eyes grew wider and wider, and his jaw dropped lower and lower. Jo’s fear grew. Annurin stopped the explanation and gently patted her shoulder. “I won’t let anyone harm thee. I have given an oath.” He launched back into his explanation.
The blond-haired man looked thoughtful. Then he said something and disappeared out the front door by which Jo and Annurin had just entered.
Annurin twisted his hands together, not looking her in the eye. “Welcome to my apartments. My man, Concor, is going to find a woman to help thee. We don’t have many. I daresay any woman he finds will be happy to have company?”
Jo blinked. “I did notice—everything is all about the men here. As far as I could tell, everyone in that throne room was a man? And I don’t think I’ve seen a woman yet—?”
“There are few women in the Bone King’s realm. It comes of the split between the King and the Queen. Wouldst thou like a bath first? I have only oils for men, alas. I shall fill it for thee while Concor fetches a woman and then I will leave thee in private. Hopefully we can find some clothing for thee. And then we can eat and speak—”
“Actually, a bath would be glorious,” Jo confessed. “And after that, a cup of tea?”
Annurin’s face was swamped by a relieved smile. “That, I can manage.”
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