OFF TO MARKET
The fortnightly market took place in the car park of an old steel mill, which had closed down decades ago. The building was an L-shape and the car park and market sat in the right angle of the L, closed in on two sides by corrugated iron.
Sammy stood at the edge of the market and watched her mum elbow her way into the crowd. She tightened her already tightly crossed arms and rocked back and forth on her heels. She should be smacking a ball around the park, not freezing her butt off at some lame market in the middle of nowhere. She’d got her own way, in that they’d gone to the market, but what did she actually expect to happen now that they were here? Would the old woman even be here today? She let out a long, weary breath and wondered whether she should just wait on the street until her mum was done. She wanted to demonstrate how little interest she had for shopping, but her problem was that Mama loved having her around. Even when she was completely immersed in shopping.
She couldn’t upset her mum. Not after everything she’d been through with Dad.
Besides, the old woman could be in there somewhere, so there was no point dwelling on the missed kick-about. The mission was on and Sammy was ready. She’d tackle it like a ‘Double O’ agent. Constantly aware of her surroundings, treat every civilian as a potential threat. She should’ve arrived in the early hours of the morning to do a recce, but her mum wouldn’t have gone for that. And it was too late now. The one ace she had up her sleeve was
that the old woman wouldn’t know what time she’d be coming. Perhaps she’d get the drop on the old girl.
The market stalls were of the old wooden variety with red-and-white or green-and-white striped canopies. They were piled high with goods and jumbled together in no particular configuration, with all the free space in between packed with people. Sammy watched those people. A lot of them looked like they could handle themselves in a fight. But none of them took any notice of her, so she rated them as low threats.
A teenager in a baseball cap and England shirt hurtled past, making her jump. He shouted something at a group of others behind him, but kept going. The others jeered without breaking stride and continued to patrol the outskirts of the market aggressively, perfecting their best gangster walks. Sammy walked quickly on without making eye contact. Not because she was scared. It was because she had to remain inconspicuous for the mission. She could take them. Maybe.
It was mostly clothes on sale at the market. Novelty t-shirts, jeans, hats and coats. But also dotted about were stalls selling other items. The most unusual of which lurked in the dark, far corner, bordered on two sides by corrugated iron cliff faces and on the other two by heavily laden clothes stalls.
The stall was piled high with knick-knacks and old junk under a frayed canvas canopy covered in black mildew spots. And it was deserted.
Sammy shouldered her way through the clothes stalls and into the small clearing around the knick-knack stall.
She slowly turned 360 degrees to scope out her surroundings, waited a moment and then approached the table. Old door knobs, odd-shaped bottles and cheap-looking jewellery covered the surface. The items lacked any kind of arrangement and seemed to have been dumped where they lay. Yet beams of sunlight had found their way into the clearing, projecting directly onto individual items of junk, illuminating them like holy artefacts and
making them appear to possess value far in excess of their real worth.
“Come closer, child,” encouraged a voice from the dark recesses behind the stall.
Sammy couldn’t see her, but she knew who it was.
The old woman in the pale blue headscarf stepped into the light. Dark, piercing eyes scurried up and down over Sammy’s flesh.
Sammy shivered but tried not to show any outward appearance of fear and folded her arms across her chest.
“Why have you been following me?”
“So we could meet each other,” the old woman said. She had an unusual accent. The sort of accent you’d hear on a mysterious stranger in an adventure movie. It was nothing like Sammy had ever heard before and a million miles from the broad Northern accents of the other stall owners.
Sammy assessed the situation. She was trapped in a corner with nowhere to run if the woman attacked. But then, could the woman do anything in the middle of the market without someone seeing? Sammy reasoned that the woman probably wasn’t going to attack. She would have done it yesterday after school when no one was around.
“Why do you want to meet me?” Sammy asked. “I don’t know you.”
“You don’t know me, but I know you. I used to know your father.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Esther. You are Sammy.”
“Yeah, I’m Sammy. What do you want? And how do you know my dad?”
“I want to show you something,” Esther said. She gestured at the items on the stall. “It’s on here. See if you can find it.”
Sammy approached, but kept her eyes on the woman. What was her game? “This?” She picked up a golden sword hilt, inlaid with
gemstones, and turned it over in her hands. The blade had broken off, leaving only a thin shard protruding from the end.
“That is an ancient dagger hilt. The blade snapped off in the black heart of a monster.”
“A monster?” Yeah right. “What about this?” She was reaching for a teardrop-shaped bottle containing pink vapour when something special caught her eye. A golden bracelet adorned with a green gemstone the size of a fifty-pence piece. The gemstone was set into an ornate clasp that looked to be some kind of mechanical device. Clock-style hands pointed straight out, left and right on either side, as if displaying the time quarter to three, and engraved around the setting were strange, looping letters in an unusual script that Sammy had never seen before.
Esther watched Sammy, a smile on her lips. “I think you’ve found it.”
“What is it?”
“The Midnight Emerald bracelet.”
“The Midnight Emerald …” repeated Sammy, trying not to sound too interested.
“It found its way into Alexander the Great’s possession several thousand years ago, but no one knows where it came from before that. He conquered most of the Middle East in his lifetime, so it could’ve come from anywhere; Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Persia. All he ever said was that an old woman gave it to him and she told of a lock placed on it. One that could only be opened by the chosen.”
Sammy wasn’t even going to bother hiding her intrigue. “Was he the chosen?”
“I don’t think so. He spent years trying to work the mechanism, but without luck. Finally he gave up and set the dial into a bracelet for his wife, Roxana. He died shortly after, struck down with stomach cramps after a banquet, never knowing the secret of the Emerald Dial.”
“Does that mean the Emerald Dial was never unlocked?”
“Maybe not, but something happened.” Esther leant forward and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Alexander’s wife, Roxana, was pregnant at the time of his death. Which meant a regent was chosen to govern the kingdom in the hope that Roxana would give birth to a boy who would later become heir.”
“And did she?”
Esther nodded and smiled. “She did. Many regents ruled the kingdom while the boy was a child. But before he came of age, a new regent took over. His name was Cassander. He wanted to rule the kingdom for himself, so imprisoned the boy and mother, later giving orders for them to be killed.”
“Men came for them in the night. They entered the prison, where a great screaming and commotion followed. Soon after, the men ran from the place, saying that Roxana’s bracelet had exploded, killing both boy and mother. But when the prison guards entered the cell, they found only the mother’s body, along with the Midnight Emerald bracelet, on the floor. The boy had gone. Cassander acquired the bracelet and since then it has been passed down from regent, to dictator, to Shah. Here to there, backwards and forwards. And now it finds itself here on my stall.”
Sammy stared at the bracelet, gripping the edge of the stall, her knuckles white. This must be how Mama feels when she finds a handbag she likes. She didn’t like being so affected by an accessory.
“But how did you get it?”
Esther shrugged. “Better you don’t know.”
“You stole it?”
“Hush, child!” Esther glanced about, clearly on edge.
Sammy stretched her arm towards the emerald and her fingers tingled as they neared. She snatched her hand back.
“You feel something? Yes?” Esther smiled. “I thought you might.”
“You have a gift.”
“A gift? What kind of gift?”
“I will get to that in good time, my dear. But there is more of the story I must tell. Now, it is well known that Alexander the Great spent many years tracking down the Vara of Yima, and I believe he thought this Emerald Dial held the key to finding it.”
“What’s the Vara of Yima?”
“It is what people of my origin call their Garden of Eden. You have heard of this Garden of Eden?”
“I’ve heard of it, yeah.”
“When I was a girl, we were taught about a shepherd named Yima. The great god Ahura Mazda asked him to create a vara, and to fill this vara with the fittest of men and women, and two of each animal, bird and plant, because of a terrible natural disaster coming. You have heard this story? Or one similar?”
“Noah’s Ark,” Sammy said. “Noah took two of each animal into his ark to keep them safe when the Earth flooded. So was the vara a boat?”
“No. It was a vast enclosure, a great realm. Noah’s Ark is the Christian variation of the story. But Noah is also in the Islamic Qur’an and in Jewish literature. In fact, there are also great floods in the mythology of the Greeks and in Indian texts. Many religions tell stories of people and animals rescued from floods and disasters. In my faith, Zoroastrianism, our great disaster is an ice age and our Noah is Yima. Yima created this vara with buildings, roads and cities, then sealed it from the rest of the world with a golden ring. People throughout history have searched for this place, believing it to be a perfect land, the real Garden of Eden.” Esther sighed. “Which at one time it probably was, long before it became polluted by great evil. Now it is time for the chosen to return and restore light to the lands of Perseopia.”
“Have you tried unlocking it? The bracelet?”
“I have tried, but I don’t have the gift.” Esther took a long breath. “I’ve travelled the whole world to find someone who does. And I believe you do. That is why I followed you.”
Sammy stared at the bracelet. She desperately wanted to believe she was special, that she was Neo, but it couldn’t be true. “Let me get this straight,” she said. “I’m the chosen one that can unlock the dial and travel to the Garden of Eden. And when I get there I will restore light to the lands of that-place-you-just-said? Do you also happen to have sweets and puppy dogs to help entice me into the back of your van? You know, just to seal the deal.”
“You aren’t the chosen one.”
Sammy paused. “Wait. You said I have the gift.”
“You have a gift. One that can unlock the dial. But you aren’t the chosen one. I am.”
“You’re not doing a good job of selling me this stupid fantasy. I’m not climbing into the back of your van if I have to be Robin. I’m Batman. That’s how these things work.”
“I do not own a van,” Esther said. “Would you like to know what the words around the clasp say?” She leant across the table and ran her finger over the text. “It is written in Avestan. Not many can read such a language.”
Sammy shrugged. She didn’t care as much now. She wasn’t the chosen one so what was the point? “Let me guess. You can read it, because you’re the chosen one?”
“It is the language of my youth. I have not spoken it in many years, but I can still read it.” Esther traced the letters with her fingers.
“Raise your hands to the skies
“on the tone of midnight,
“and you will travel to the land
“of endless twilight.”
Sammy repeated it back under her breath. It was a pretty cool rhyme.
“I have had this bracelet for many years and I’ve never been able to unlock it,” Esther said. “Will you help me?”
Sammy wasn’t the chosen one, but at least she had a gift. She shrugged. So, she’d be Chewbacca. That was better than nothing.
“I suppose,” she said.
Esther didn’t acknowledge the response. She stared off into the middle-distance, her eyes wide. “They’ve found me!”
She snatched up the bracelet, thrust it into a bin liner and dumped it under the table. Then she pulled the tablecloth corners over the contents of the stall and hoisted the bundle over her shoulder.
“The bracelet’s in the bag under the table,” she said. “Keep it safe. Don’t tell anyone about it. Don’t lose it. And, most importantly, don’t try to work the dial yourself. I will find you again.” Then she shoved her way out past the other stalls and was gone.
As Sammy gazed after Esther, a black shape entered the clearing behind her. She turned to face a finely cut black jacket stretched over a barrel chest. A large man with hair sprouting out over his shirt collar peered down at her from behind a pair of mirrored aviators.
“Who was that woman you were talking to?” he asked.
Sammy just stared. He was a very big man.
He bent down so that Sammy could see her oddly stretched face in his sunglasses. He gritted his teeth. “Is she a friend of yours?”
“I … I’ve never met her before.” Sammy’s mouth became uncommonly dry. Was he threatening her? “I don’t …”
A mobile phone buzzed quietly inside the man’s jacket pocket. He stood up straight, pulled it out, tapped the screen and held it to his ear.
“Gone,” he said. “She’ll try to go into hiding again. Yes, I’ve got someone on her.” He watched Sammy while listening to the person on the other end of the line. “No one. Just a girl. She doesn’t have it.”
The man listened to the phone a while longer, then tapped the screen off and dropped it in his pocket.
“If the old woman contacts you again,” he said, “call me.” Then he handed Sammy a card and walked off.
Sammy turned the card over. It was blank except for a single mobile number printed in the centre. She climbed onto the table and watched the man go as she swung her legs back and forth like ‘just a girl’ would.
When she was sure he’d gone, she got down and crawled under the table to fetch the bin liner.
She leapt up, slamming her head into the table. Behind her a pair of tan leather boots and the underside of two carrier bags waited for her.
“What are you doing down there?” asked her mum. “And what’s in that dirty bin bag? Give it here.” She bent down and took it.
“Don’t,” Sammy said. “I need it.” She crawled out from under the table.
Her mother removed the bracelet and her mouth dropped open.
“This is gorgeous,” she said.
“Don’t get it out! I’m looking after it for the woman.”
“What woman?” Her mum lowered the bracelet. “Who does this belong to?”
“A friend. I’m looking after it … for a friend.”
“I thought you said a woman?”
“A friend’s mum,” Sammy said. “She’s a woman, clearly. Please. It’s important.”
Her mum stared into her eyes. “This looks like a very expensive piece.”
“I’m not a child. And I haven’t nicked it. I’m looking after it.”
Her mum squinted, peering deeply into her. “Okay honey, we’ll take it home. But promise me you’ll get your friend’s mother to come over for it.”
Sammy scanned the vicinity around them. She couldn’t see Esther or the man in black.
“Fine,” she said. “But can you put it back in the bag? Please!”