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I was lost in an old town of narrow cobbled streets. I saw a wrought iron sign arched above an open gateway – it read: ”INFORMATION”. I approached – hoping to get directions. Passing between two dilapidated buildings I entered a small dusty courtyard. There, in the centre, on a low, crumbling plinth, she sat – sipping a cup of tea through a straw with a trance like gaze.
Without looking at me she snapped, “I have nothing to say!”
“But, I haven’t asked you anything yet.”
“You were going to though – I know you were – they all do. Questions, questions, questions. Complete strangers coming in here off the street bothering me when I’m in the middle of my tea.”
“Sorry, I’ll come back when you’re…”
“There’s no need – I have nothing to say on the matter!”
“What matter?”
“Whatever matter it was you wished to ask me about!”
“I just wanted…”
“But what about what I want? Hm? No-one ever asks that. Never has anyone come in here and offered to answer any questions I might have. Not once has that happened!”
“But the sign says…”
“I know full well what the sign says – but I don’t suppose you noticed the question mark at the end of it did you?”.
“I, er, sorry…”
“Well look again on your way out.”
“OK, I’ll go then.”
As I turned to leave she said, “I expect you’re lost aren’t you?” I stopped, she continued, “Well I’ve got news for you – we’re all lost!”

MaskedQueen-WEB

Lights were strung between the small houses that were stacked on either side of the narrow street. It was a warm night and the marketplace was busy. Exotic aromas mingled in the still air creating a pungent and heady fug. People chattered, laughed, gossiped and haggled – it was bedlam.

Suddenly, all was silent. Without a fanfare or any discernable announcement a beautiful masked figure had appeared at the far end of the street. Everyone around stood very still as the exotically costumed woman slowly and elegantly walked between the market stalls. There was no entourage – no courtiers or guards – and there appeared to be no need of them – for all around were quiet and respectful. Without once glancing left or right the masked woman proceeded in silence to the end of the small street and disappeared around the next corner. Instantly, all was hub-bub and noise again.

An old trader turned to me – and with a big grin upon her face said loudly, “The queen must think ours is a very quiet world indeed, wouldn’t you think?”

“Mmm, I suppose she must,” I agreed.

“So what’ll it be?” asked the old woman, jesturing to the various items layed out on the stall before her.

“Oh, I’m just looking,” I replied hastily.

“I see,” she said, “a voyeur! – If you only want to look I have just the thing for you,” she declared, picking up something that I took to be an old, brass telescope and handing it to me.

“But, I…”

“You shouldn’t dismiss anything without looking into it first,” she insisted.

And so I obliged her – lifting the viewfinder to my eye – I looked into it. To my amazement I could see the queen, encircled by a dark ring, walking among more of her subjects on another street entirely, before passing between two large gates and entering her palace. I was able to follow her progress through long corridors and palacial rooms. Then I watched as she stood in front of an ornately framed mirror and began to remove her mask.

“On second thoughts,” said the old woman, snatching the device from my hands,
“I don’t think you could afford it!”

I followed the sound of sobbing down the narrow passageways to a central chamber. And there before me sat the minotaur. Apparently unaware of my intrusion he was looking down absorbed by the skull cradled in his arms which he caressed with a calloused hand while drifts of bleached bones lay in the dark corners behind him. Between sobs he was muttering to himself.

“I can’t bare to think how many lives I have taken – how I have butchered so many.” Tears ran down his brutish face as he continued to berate himself for several minutes – then his mood shifted,

“But I was banished from the society of men – surely, therefore, the usual rules don’t apply. I’m as much a victim as they are. I didn’t choose this life. But they chose to come seeking me. Thinking my head on a stick would make them their fortunes. Greedy fools! They got what they deserved.” He now spoke with relish in his voice.

But almost instantly sadness befell him once more. “So why then did she have to come? Said she was lost. Thought she’d found refuge when she happened upon my home. She had, I suppose – for a while.” Then his apparent remorse was gone again – and he chuckled. “They do say the way to a man’s heart is through his belly.”

“But then I’m not a man – and my hunger is far greater than any mere man’s. Which brings me to you!” he suddenly snapped. Looking up he stared straight into my eyes. “Thought I hadn’t seen you, eh?”

I turned and quickly retreated back into the labyrinth following the trail of white stones I had dropped on my way in – trying desperately to tread them into the dirt as I ran.

“Who are you?” I had asked.

“Who do you think I am?” she’d replied.

“I don’t know you, do I?” I said.

“Are you sure?” she questioned.

“How do you mean?”

“Well”, she smiled, “Look again.”

I looked again, but with a mask leaving only her mouth visible, it was impossible for me to recognize her.

“No, I’m sorry. Maybe if you took off your mask?”

“Why of course,” she replied, tearing the mask from her face with a flourish and letting it fall to the ground.

My eyes followed it’s tumbling decent.

When I looked back at her face I found that it was once again obscured by an almost identical mask.

“Now do you recognize me?” she asked.

It was dark and the street lights above were made hazy by the thickening mist. I was cold and walking quickly to try and keep myself warm. As I walked I became aware of feint footsteps some way behind me. They quickened until they were a lot closer and keeping pace with my own steps. As I turned a corner I quickly slipped into a gateway and waited until my pursuer was almost upon me. Then I stepped from the shadows and he stopped with a start. To my surprise I found myself facing a tall, but not particularly threatening figure.

“Forgive me,” he said quite calmly, “I didn’t mean to alarm you.”

“What do you want!” I snapped – still a bit unnerved.

“I am only here to observe you,” he replied in a matter of fact way.

“What?”

“It is my task to watch you.”

“I don’t like the sound of that.”

“Oh, I mean you no harm – I am here only as a visitor – it is not for me to engage with anyone.”

“Surely you’re engaging with me now?”

“Mmm, that is true, but the engagement was instigated by you yourself and I must now watch your reactions at a distance from the situation.”

“That’s going to be difficult when you’re standing right in front of me. And there wouldn’t be a situation or a reaction on my part for you to witness if you hadn’t been following me in the first place.”

“I can see now that I have failed to remain removed from my subject and have become involved in a relationship.”

“This isn’t a relationship – we’ve only just met.”

“But surely all relationships start with the first meeting.”

“Yes, but…”

“I can see that my presence has upset you, and as that was not my intention I think it best that I now disengage myself from you. But maybe we can develop our relationship further at another time.”

He turned, and within a few quick paces he had disappeared into the dark fog.

I was walking in a garden enclosed by white-washed walls. Through circular openings I could see out over thick briars to the surrounding barren landscape which was picked out in sharp relief by the cool light of a full moon. In contrast, the overgrown garden felt warm – a heavy scent filled the air – creating the atmosphere of a tranquil sanctuary. But something kept drawing my eye beyond to the bare hills that made me think of long extinct volcanoes.

“Don’t you like my garden?”

I turned to see a woman leaning back against the wall. “It’s very beautiful.” I replied.

“How would you know?” she said accusingly, “All you’ve done ever since you arrived is look out to the hills – why is that?”

“I think it’s because I feel somehow trapped by the walls.”

“How odd,” she puzzled, “How very different we must be – I myself have always felt rather protected by them.”

At that point it felt as though the walls were closing in on me – although I was standing quite still they appeared to be gradually getting closer and the plants seemed somehow denser. The briars crept in through the round holes in the walls and slithered through the thickening undergrowth towards me entwining themselves around my legs – creeping ever higher they encircled me, clamping my arms to my torso so that I could barely breathe – and then they wrapped themselves around my head, covering my face and stinging my eyes.

Unable to move I heard the keeper of the garden say, “Thou shalt not tresspass.”

I lay on a deserted beach watching the gulls drifting in the blue sky above. The tide was on the rise – but the undulating waves were barely breaking as they gently washed over the stones of the ever shifting shoreline.

Then, amidst the white noise of the water and the gull’s plaintive cries I became aware of an odd kind of splashing sound. Looking up to see what it could be I was somewhat surprised to see the figure of a man wading through the water on a pair of wooden stilts.

As he came closer I called out to him.

“What are you doing?”

“I can’t stop – must keep moving!” he said.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“I don’t have a clue – I can’t see a thing because
of this blindfold.” he replied.

“Why don’t you take it off then?”

“It is obviously true that if I did remove it I would be able to see where I was going – but if I knew where I was going, then for me, there would be little point in making the journey!”

And without stopping to talk any further he continued on his way.

Outside it was raining and the wind was whipping the bent and twisted trees that hugged the wild moorland. Through the small window I saw a woman coming up the hill. She was barely wrapped against wet and cold – but she seemed almost oblivious to both.

Opening the low, wooden door I welcomed her and ushered her in – offering her a seat next the open fire where she warmed herself while I made some tea.

“Have you come far?” I enquired.
“Very far.” she replied.

“And where are you going?”
“Wherever the wind takes me.”

“So where has the wind taken you so far?”
“It has brought me to your door.”

“So I see! – anywhere else?”
“Too many places of no consequence to you – so I won’t mention them.”

“Have they been of consequence to you though?”
“Everywhere I’ve been has had consequences for me – some good – some bad. It doesn’t matter which direction you take there will always be consequences – and many of them will be un-forseen. ”

“But do you not set out with a goal in mind?”
“It is impossible to tell at the outset of a journey what may happen along the way let alone upon arrival at the destination – and so I see no point in trying to plan anything. That is why I let the wind dictate my course – whichever way it blows is the way I go.”

“And what if there is no wind?”
“Then I stay where I am until it picks up again.”

Outside I could hear that the wind had died down as the night had drawn in. I drew up a chair next to her and placed another log on the fire.

It was a cold wet night and I had come into the old medieval inn more for warmth than a drink – but none the less I had bought a beer – and having warmed myself by the blazing log fire decided to fill my glass again. The company was convivial, a group of musicians were playing in the back room and everyone was in good spirits.

Everyone, that is, except for the man who sat opposite me staring into the fire. His brightly coloured clothes topped off with a jester’s hat belied the sadness he exuded. I ventured to speak to him, saying, “Pretty foul night – glad we’re in here, eh?” Nothing too contentious – but he ignored me – his attention still drawn to the flames.

“You’ll get not a word from him, mister,” said a voice behind me. I turned to see an old woman hunched over her glass on the table next to me. She looked up, and as she started to speak again I noticed that she had perfect teeth which was rather at odds with her ragged appearance.
“He’s been the king’s jester once-‘pon-time,” she continued, “Had it all, gold, fine clothes, his pick o’ the ladies-in-wating as well as the king’s ear – but he got a bit too big for his pointy toed boots – pushed his luck with his highness – and a joke too far lost him his eyes – burnt out with a poker they was – so now he keeps his mouth shut tight in fear for his tongue”.

“But why would he worry now – surely he doesn’t work for the king anymore?”
“He may no longer be in the king’s employ – but he is still his subject – and some of what he knows would be better not known – by him or any other – so best not be quizzing him mister – you don’t want to be getting on the wrong side of his majesty.”

At that, the old woman rose from her seat – appearing surprisingly straight-backed and tall in stature. Just as she was about to leave, she added, “And they do say the king is never far from his subjects.”

As the heavy wooden door was about to close behind her the jester jumped up suddenly and followed in haste.