“Idiot!” he heard Bohr call. And then, more clearly, “Blackstone!”
He ignored it. His feet flew.
The dragon roared, its head turning to look at him. It was already moving, he had limited time…
He ran, ducking down to grip the hilt of the sword. It was still warm, whether from Caldir’s hands or the dragon’s breath he didn’t know.
Caldir was still moving around the dragon, never stopping – she couldn’t afford to – but he saw her look at him. Then her eyes were back on the dragon.
It was still watching him. Fear crawled up his spine, and he saw it rear back in preparation – then it was sending a great plume of flame his way.
He rolled just in time, hitting the ground. The sword hilt smashed painfully into his fingers. He scrabbled to his feet one-handed, using the fine silver sword like some kind of strange walking cane. He realised as he ran towards Caldir – Caldir, he must get to Caldir – that he could smell singed hair, and the back of his neck stung. Ah.
He reached her, and she looked at him with a mixture of surprise and utter fury, silent. He passed her the sword and she took it with a nod, then jerked her head in the direction of the forest.
He fled towards the trees, and towards Bohr, who smacked him around the head. It stung perhaps even more than the burns.
“What – ?” Blackstone managed.
Bohr only glared at him. “You deserved that, and she won’t do it. She’d never raise a hand in anger.” He tilted his head, as if conceding some point. “But my thanks for the effort.”
“I – ”
“I shouldn’t have brought you here.”
“I’m sorry, but I couldn’t have let her…”
Bohr sighed. “She would have survived. Probably. But you didn’t know that. Come on, we should return to – ”
“No.” Blackstone cleared his throat. “I mean… I mean that I’d prefer to wait until it’s dead.”
Bohr nodded. “On your head be it.”
That wasn’t a bother for Blackstone. He had come here searching for some sort of adventure, and he’d found it; risk rarely deterred him, or he wouldn’t travel as he did. He’d seen rainforests, climbed mountain faces, watched the flight of strange new birds, and now he stood before a dragon. A dragon.
He should have been thrilled and composing studies in his head, making notes to transfer to paper later. Part of him was. Yet that part felt distant, faint. It had fallen behind, his lead thought instead the strange, stoic swordswoman who was –
Mary and Joseph. Who was clambering up the dragon’s spine, holding valiantly onto knobbles of bone, which were larger than the dracolisk’s but similar.
The dragon rose up and thrashed, trying to throw her off. Still she clung, and Blackstone watched, his heart in his throat.
Her progress was slow, but she climbed, her hands white-knuckled, her sword sheathed at her hip and clanking slightly against the beast’s scales. She moved to the next bone protrusion, almost hugging it, her legs kicking as she fought to find purchase on those scales.
Another movement upwards, another, another – then she was clinging onto its head.
She reached down for her sword, hugging herself to the beast’s skull still, her legs wrapping around the back of its neck. She brought out her blade, raising her other hand to grip the hilt –
(Blackstone inhaled sharply, remembering accidents he’d seen in a circus, too aware of how long the fall would be.)
She leaned forwards, past the dragon’s ears –
– Blackstone took a step towards the scene, his hands twitching –
– she angled her blade, still sitting atop the creature’s crown –
– Blackstone winced –
– and she drove the sword through its eye socket. Then twisted.
Blackstone grimaced once again, this time in sudden sympathy for the dragon.
It let out a high, piercing screech – a scream, in fact – that made Blackstone shiver. Then it swayed and began to fall – and Caldir fell with it. To Blackstone, the world almost appeared to slow.
In the moments before it hit the ground, Caldir leapt from its head. By then the fall wasn’t long, but she rolled to save her legs the impact.
Blackstone could do nothing but blink as she rose, a picture of Saint George victorious. Her hair had come half-loose and brushed her face. Two fresh cuts were on her cheek, and another bled on her lip. She sheathed her sword and strode towards them, chin high and shoulders strong, her armour clanking with each step. Her face was pale and she was breathing heavily.
When she was approximately ten feet from them, Blackstone comprehended the expression on her face: it was that white-lipped, cold anger he’d seen before.
She eventually stopped in front of him and said, “You could have killed us both!” She fell silent, attempting to catch her breath. “I should – ” An inhale. “I should… do something. When I realise what that is.”
Blackstone raised his eyebrows, waiting.
The silence grew, and she rose on her toes, exhaling. Eventually, she said, “But… thank you. I appreciate your intention. I think.” She sighed, rubbing a hand across her face. The motion did away with much of the paint, and Blackstone suddenly noticed a long thin scar across her nose and cheeks – a claw mark, perhaps. It almost looked like a slim smear of paint, but it was pale and obviously old. She stifled a yawn and looked to Bohr. “Is Ginniver still available?”
Bohr nodded. “Come on and get cleaned up.”
She relaxed slightly, the tension seeming to leave her shoulders, and began to make her way towards the woods. Blackstone, unsure what to do, meekly followed.
There’s a river running riot round the streets, galloping through gutters and shimmying down steps. Puddle reflections lend colour to grey pavement. The drops beat down like a rhythm, and maybe there’s a song below it, if you take the time to hear.
You blink away raindrops and watch people duck their heads, grasp for umbrellas. Their hair is frizzing up just before a meeting, they’ve just had it dyed, their boss will never forgive them…
And fair enough. But you’ve a little time, so you wait.
The song is there. It’s just at the edge of your hearing.
For any followers wondering about the sharp drop in posts (I’m just going to pretend I have interested followers for the sake of this hypothesis): technical difficulties have been an absolute bugger to sort out. I’ve still been writing, however; it’s just posting that can be trickier. I’ll be back with some concrete updates soon.
The boy just grinned. “I am looking after the villagers.” He glanced at Blackstone and allowed, “A villager.”
This did not please Caldir. “I meant the villagers at home. You know Ginniver could have done this. With Gram if necessary.”
Bohr’s cheer didn’t falter. “I wanted to steal a look at him.” He turned to Blackstone. “I give you my name. Bohr Hunter, and I’ve heard a lot about you.” He held up a hand.
Blackstone was still confused. However, his manners hadn’t gone the way of his wits. “I… Jonathan Blackstone.” He gripped Bohr’s hand firmly, remembering just in time to keep still, as was their people’s way. “I – I give you my name?”
Bohr nodded approvingly, releasing Blackstone’s hand and looking again to Caldir. “He isn’t as stupid as you said.”
Caldir grimaced; it was evident even with the paint. “Bohr!” She exhaled heavily, and seemed about to raise a hand to her face before she remembered herself. “Don’t – do this again.” It was an obvious plea. “They might say I got my brother killed because I couldn’t hold my tongue, and I…” She lost the words, her head bowed.
Bohr stepped forwards and laid a hand on her arm. “They won’t. I won’t.” He withdrew, reaching into a large leather bag that Blackstone was sure had been on his back only moments before. With both hands, he lifted out of it a helmet. It looked as if several dents had been hammered nearly back into place. Scratches and perhaps clawmarks lined it. “Helm or not?”
Blackstone couldn’t help himself. “You’d fight without a helmet?”
With that level gaze which made him feel so very stupid, she answered, “It can breathe fire. Hot metal isn’t kind to one’s face.”
And with that, true understanding struck Blackstone. “It…” He waved a weak hand towards the village and the improbable beast which trampled upon it. “You’re going to fight… that?”
Her face was calm, but a muscle in her jaw twitched, and she watched the dragon, not him. “It’s my job.” Her eyes at last met his. “I’d rather you stayed alive. Do your best.”
He opened his mouth – to protest, to wish her luck, he wasn’t sure which – but she was already riding into the village.
He turned to Bohr and Ginniver. “She’ll die!”
Bohr raised a brow. “Doubtful, as she’s taken three like that down already.”
Blackstone choked. “Three?” His head swam, and he swayed on his feet.
“Please don’t swoon.”
Ginniver cut in, “Agreed. Keep moving.” Despite her words, an amused smile hovered around the edges of her mouth, never quite settling.
Blackstone stumbled onwards, his mind still echoing with three like that. Mother of God.
The light around him dimmed, and he realised belatedly that they’d entered the forest. To him, it was now far from the dull place of before; it seemed as if there could be dragon-hunters and villagers lurking behind every tree, a camp around every corner. He expected the bustle of more people like Caldir, Ginniver and Bohr, but it was as quiet as it had been on his first visit. In fact, the trees had almost swallowed the sounds from outside: the dragon was naught but a distant roar, and the sheer depth of the silence was daunting. Their footsteps seemed far too loud. It would be no surprise if a dracolisk crept up behind them and ate them all. Could dracolisks creep? He should have asked Caldir. Here he was reluctant to break the hush.
They turned a corner, stepped through some hedge growths, and then… the veil lifted. Sound surrounded them once more, and Blackstone blinked against the sudden light.
Before them lay a vast clearing speckled with what appeared to be brick huts and stone walls. Milling about were people, some of whom he recognised from the village. The buildings were simpler and the trees pressed closer, but in many ways it was a mirror image of the place he’d left.
“This is your home?” he asked.
Ginniver nodded, and Bohr said, “Some of it.”
It wasn’t a good answer, but it was an answer. Blackstone continued to follow them rather than prying further.
Bohr announced, “We’ll take you to the main hall, where you can wait with the others.”
Wait. Blackstone didn’t much like the sound of that. He’d never been one for waiting, for allowing rather than doing. After all, that was why he was here.
“I can’t just – “ He huffed a frustrated breath. “Is there not some way to help her?”
“No,” Ginniver and Bohr said in chorus.
There had to be something. “Can I at least watch her work?”
“No,” was Ginniver’s instant reply. Bohr, however, ducked his head, his shoulders tensing. Uncomfortable. There was something he was resisting the urge to say. Something that was likely important.
Blackstone tucked that information away for later, but followed them to a large brick building.
Flowers and vines coiled their way along it. It looked for all the world like a cottage from some pleasant little novel, but it was far larger.
He ducked through the door with this companions, and saw… well. He remembered reading of Viking halls; of arched timbers, long tables and great firepits. Of villagers walking in flickering shadows, of overheard conversations; of a central bustling place of life.
He saw something like that. Several heads turned as they walked through the hall; villagers watched them, some staring and some too weary to pay much attention.
Bohr clapped Blackstone on the shoulder and led him to a simple wooden seat, a glorified stool. Blackstone sat obediently and looked up at them.
Ginniver nodded, satisfied. “I ought to check on Gram.” Looking to Bohr, she added, “Keep him alive.” Then she turned on her heel and left.
Bohr hovered still, shifting his weight; he glanced up at the ceiling, then Blackstone, then the ceiling again. Blackstone waited, but Bohr didn’t attempt to move. Roughly a minute passed, in which Blackstone resigned himself to an awkward silence.
At last Bohr said, “You know, Caldir’ll kill you if you die.”
Blackstone frowned. “Wouldn’t I already be – ?”
Bohr gave him the flat “by God you’re stupid” look Caldir was so fine at. Suddenly Blackstone saw the family resemblance.
Blackstone’s mouth shut with an audible click.
“So,” Bohr continued, “what I’m saying is… Caldir. Off slaying the dragon. She likely wouldn’t appreciate spectators. But I’ve never been one for listening to my sister.”
Blackstone frowned at him. “What are you saying?”
Bohr’s mouth formed a moue of deep thought, then he said, “Fancy sneaking off and seeing a dragon-slaying?”
“I…” Blackstone managed, “Yes. Very much.”
Bohr clasped Blackstone’s shoulder. “Good.”
Saying nothing more, Bohr began walking away. Blackstone stood, rushing to follow without much dignity.
Bohr left the hall. Blackstone trailed after him. Blackstone had suspected where they would go, but he was still unsurprised to find himself being led back towards the forest. Bohr weaved his way easily through the trees, and Blackstone stumbled along in his wake.
After a few minutes, they heard a roar, and the trees shook. They were close.
Blackstone made to push through the trees, to the village, but Bohr had a hand on his chest and said, “Slowly. Stay behind me.” Blackstone looked, affronted, at this pipsqueak who was ordering him about – but then he recalled the boy’s name. Hunter. If his surmises were correct, he was in the presence of a dragon-hunter, someone far more experienced with the beasts than he. Resigning himself, he nodded and followed.
They broke through the treeline, and saw…
He saw Caldir. She ran around the dragon, circling it, insignificant as a fly to an ox. Its steps still shook the very earth, and it turned to keep her in view, a large tail sweeping in vicious arcs behind it.
At the sight, something seized Blackstone’s chest and pressed tightly. She was so very small in comparison, her life a flame that could be so easily snuffed out. One would have to just press a finger to the candle…
The dragon raised a foot – or paw, or claw – suddenly stopping, and brought it down to crush –
Caldir had already moved, almost dancing away, a frightening sort of grace in the movement. He was close enough to see her grin with bloody teeth, moving again, always moving…
The near-crushing had distracted her enough. That scaly tail whipped around, catching her in the stomach and sending her flying several feet. She hit the ground with an awful heavy thud and clanks of metal that made Blackstone wince. Her sword left her grip and skittered to a halt a few yards away.
The dragon made a sound terrifyingly like a laugh, a low rumble from its chest, and moved towards her.
Blackstone extrapolated. He saw like pictures in a fire what would happen next, how the fight would turn.
She rolled away as the dragon raised a foot to crush her again, but that still left her unarmed, and even while she reached down to her boot, lifting her leg and bringing out a dagger, he saw panic cross her face. She kept her eyes on the dragon, but her entire body leant towards it. Her mind was still with it.
Blackstone extrapolated, and then he was running.
1945. New York. A not-so-great neighbourhood.
“You wanna what?”
She watches him levelly, and then says again in that genteel British voice of hers, “I’d like to rent the apartment. And the offices.” It’s the first accent he’s ever heard that has a toffee-nose. She crosses her legs, uncrosses them, crosses them again – but she’s wearing big Army boots under that trenchcoat, so he doesn’t get distracted by any of the right things.
Mort frowns. “Are you sure?”
With a bright little smile like she’s asking him about the weather, she says, “Certain.” Puts that strong chin up and looks all steady at him, like she’s readying herself up for a maybe-fight she doesn’t want.
He wants to put his palms up and tell her he’s surrendering, Jesus, put it down, but instead he just leans back in his chair and asks, “The offices as well?”
He should be jumping for joy. She looks like she’ll pay pretty much anything, sounds it too, and he gave her the full viewing and the spiel about how great the crumbling walls and the possible roaches were. He just… wasn’t expecting her to come back, that’s all. Maybe she really is nuts. He wondered it when he saw all the black stuff around her eyes, the… star – hell, he doesn’t know – under one eye that stretched to her cheek. Shame to see on such a pretty woman. Then again, it’s usually the pretty ones who aren’t quite right.
She nods, relaxing just a little, and he can’t help it: he says, “I’m pretty sure you told me, but… remind me what you want them for again?” He knows for a fact that she didn’t, but he’d rather not get her back up.
That bright, shame about the rain smile again. It should be casual, should make him relax, but he gets the feeling she’s going to say something… odd. She tells him, “I’m hoping to open a private investigative agency.”
He rubs his forehead, feeling a migraine coming on, and manages, “I… I see.”
And somewhere the credits are beginning, but we’ll get to that later.
So List said sure, I’ll do it, because Mort’s not as young as he used to be and he needs the help. And List’s seventeen and he may look like a beanpole but he can lift stuff, and he’s pretty good at shelves, just ask Mom. He’s said sure, I’ll do it a million times and he knows he should probably get paid more, but he can stretch to a million-and-one because it’s the right thing to do and it’s currently all the work he can get.
Besides, he’s a little curious. The offices too, Mort said. Who the hell would want those offices?
Then he sees the trenchcoat hanging on the door, and yeah, maybe he’s grinning, because he’d know a big, beige private-eye trenchcoat anywhere. He’s expecting someone a little Dick Tracy, tall and with a chin you could bounce a bullet off and always with a pack of smokes in his pocket.
But he opens the door and he gets no-one. The place is empty. The door creaks and a tiny cloud of dust rises from the floorboards, dances round in the sunshine. He takes a step and the floor creaks, too. Another step. Another. He’s about to turn and go, maybe ask Mort if there’s been a mistake, when someone calls from behind the inner office door, “Come in.”
Huh. A Brit.
For some reason he feels like he should be creeping, like he should have his head down and be respectful while he greets Mr. Not-Dick-Tracy’s secretary or whoever, but he opens the door and –
Well, he does see a chin you wouldn’t want to screw around with, and she’s definitely tall, but she’s a she, and he doesn’t see cigarettes anywhere, and did he mention that she’s a woman? And she’s definitely not the secretary. Secretaries don’t lean on the desk like they already own it, and they don’t look at you like they’ve already figured out all your darkest secrets. Maybe what you’ve had for breakfast, while they’re at it. She’s wearing some of the weirdest makeup he’s ever seen but that doesn’t take away from those eyes, maybe the bluest he’s ever come across. He suddenly gets the accent because by God, they don’t make them like this at home.
“Uh…” He clears his throat. “Lease is in the name of Harrigan, I was told?”
She smiles at him. All of a sudden the severity drops away and leaves something softer, and boy, that’s scary in a whole different kinda way. “Melinda Harrigan.” She offers her hand.
After a second he realises he’s staring and rushes forward to shake it. “Alister Kord. Mort – Mister Ferguson sent me.”
She nods. “You’re here to help with the repairs?”
“I sure am.” He does his best to come up with a grin. Not much else he can do. “You’re the PI, then?”
Raising an eyebrow, she says, “He mentioned that?”
Now he’s genuinely laughing. “Actually it was the coat.”
“The – ?” She straightens up. It’s the first time he’s seen her unbalanced, and it surprises him. “Oh.” She smiles and says, “I suppose it wasn’t exactly subtle.”
“Not exactly,” he agrees. They share a smile as the dust motes keep dancing, and then he says, “You wanted some chairs moving in?”
Nodding, she replies, “I do. Thank you.”
As he’s turning to leave, he swears he sees her run a hand along the desk, swears there’s a half-whisper of something and a lightening of the air like an alarm’s just been switched off. But he doesn’t know what’s given him that feeling, and he shakes it off, goes to get the chairs.
Cut to a diner. Snow is falling outside, fluffy and white like it’s in a movie. Some of it’s white on the ground too, but most of it’s grey from the fumes and the feet of New Yorkers. Mary watches it through the blinds, and she figures that if she were in a movie, too, she’d be framed in black and white, her hair falling slightly loose around her face because of a long shift, shadows cast on her face. She likes the thought.
Things have been quiet, so she’s leaning against the counter, absentmindedly reapplying her lipstick, wrinkling her nose at the smell of bacon grease. It’s not that she minds the smell per se, it’s just that it’ll be in her hair at the end of the day. Spend long enough around cooking and it gets like that. She’ll walk past people and all they’ll think is waitress and bacon. These days all she thinks is waitress too, bacon or not. This was just meant to be a stopgap, something to tide her over, but the thing about stopgaps is that they stop. She doesn’t want to go home with bacon-hair every night for the rest of her life.
There’s a version of Jingle Bells playing quietly on the radio. She thinks there’s saxophone in it, and that bugs her somehow. She can’t help but wonder why everything has to be modernised and changed and made sharper – what the hell is wrong with the classics? She likes jazz when it’s meant to be jazz. This stuff gives her hives.
The bell above the door rings, and she catches a couple of things: the rustle of a long coat, a bowed head, a fedora. The newest customer takes a corner seat, and Mary gets the feeling that it’s to keep an eye on the room. That’d make her say soldier, but the figure and the wavy hair she sees once the hat comes off tell her she’s looking at a woman. Strangely-dressed, but definitely a woman.
Mary makes her way over, and the woman looks up. Below coils of dark hair are bright blue eyes, and makeup Mary’s never seen before. The weight of the woman’s gaze almost makes Mary want to shrink, but she smiles and it fades a little. She orders black coffee in a neat British accent, and Mary spends the next half-hour pretending not to look at her and thinking, PI. British female PI?
She’ll admit it, she’s a little impressed. And she has the feeling they’ve got a new regular.
Melinda lays down the wards – the protections against intruders, the preservation spells – and then picks up her coat. She switches off the light and as she closes the door, she listens to the quiet hiss of magic fading.