Part one can be found here.
The silence lengthened.
“I did,” he admitted. He couldn’t help but add, “It’s… rather late, isn’t it?”
Her face was still set, betraying no emotion as she said, “I don’t intend to be long.”
He looked away at that, uncertain how to proceed. It was evident that she didn’t want to be here; there was anger in her lack of response. Moments ticked by, marked by a clock in the corridor. The sound punctuated the silence.
After what seemed far too many moments, he sighed. “It seems I’ve been quite the ungrateful wretch. I would have been eaten by some… strange reptile if not for you, and so…” He cleared his throat. “Thank you. Without you, it’s likely I wouldn’t be here. Being ungrateful.”
The smallest movement happened on her face, and he realised after a moment that she was restraining a smile. Her lips twitched once more before she replied, “I see. I’m given to understand you know my name already. Do you have one, other than ‘ungrateful wretch’?”
A reluctant smile crept to his own lips. “My mother would say not. Jonathan Blackstone.” He found himself reaching out his hand, quite to his surprise.
A nod. “Caldir Hunter.” Rather than shaking his hand, she gripped it tightly, raising it in the air between them, and then released it.
He stared at her.
She stared back, her brow furrowing. “Is that not what you do?”
“No. Is that what you do?”
With another tight nod, she responded, “Unity, strength, lack of weapons. It’s a first greeting where I come from.” She cocked her head, her curiosity apparent. “Why, what do your people do?”
He reached out his hand again. She hesitantly raised her own, clasping his, and then he proceeded to give her a reasonably firm handshake.
When it ended, she looked at him, dubious. “It seems rather… floppy.”
“The movement is intentional.”
She still seemed puzzled. “That makes little sense as a show of strength.”
“It’s not…” He sighed, trying once more. “It’s not supposed to be an obvious one. It should be subtle.”
She sighed. “If the idea is to make an honest assessment, then it’s pointless. There are times for subtlety, and I’m uncertain whether this is one.”
“Politeness is overly prized. And there are many ways to be polite. This one seems pointless.”
Speaking of politeness: she was still standing in the corridor, and he realised belatedly that he should have shown her in. Yet bringing a woman into his chambers… He hesitated, caught between two alternatives that were less than ideal, and eventually decided that, damn propriety, it was unkind to offer such a lukewarm reception.
“You may come in. If you’d like to,” he tried.
He saw surprise cross her face – a slight opening of the mouth, an incremental raising of the brows – and then she nodded once, shortly, as if afraid the offer would be rescinded.
He backed away from the door, and with unusually hesitant steps, Caldir followed him.
“I…” He searched for his words. “I meant to thank you for your actions in the forest.”
Another curt nod. “I would do the same for anyone else.” She inhaled ever so slightly in the silence. “But thank you. I’m glad that you” – a pause – “weren’t eaten by a dracolisk.”
Shocked by her bluntness, he stared at her. It was while he was staring that he saw her lips twitch, the corner of her mouth rising. It was the barest hint of a smile, there and then gone, easily missed. She was laughing at him, albeit subtly.
Before he could stop himself, he found that he was doing the same. “I’m…” The words deserted him, partly due to his laughter. Perhaps near-death experiences brought out an odd, macabre sense of humour in him. “I’m also glad.”
Her smile faded as she looked at her boots. “Is that all?”
About to say yes, she could go and free herself from this terribly awkward situation, he paused. “When you said that saving people was ‘what you do’… What do you do, exactly?”
She looked surprised, and appeared to struggle for an answer. “I… Did you not hear my name?”
“Caldir?” he asked, and when she shook her head, he paused, reconsidering. “Hunter?”
A nod. “Many have problems with the beasts here. Not all are so generous as the dracolisks. They attack farmsteads, villages… and we solve the problems that brings.”
Blackstone couldn’t help but raise his eyebrows and ask, “You kill them?”
She nodded. When she saw that Blackstone’s eyebrows were still high on his forehead, disbelieving, she hastened to add, “It isn’t sport.”
He recovered his composure, clearing his throat and looking at his boots. As was habitual, he had polished them to a bright, fine shine, but the mud of this place had rendered them a scraped and murky brown. He was beginning to wonder why he bothered.
“I’m sure it isn’t,” he replied, once he had rearranged his thoughts. Dragons? Hunter of dragons? It was as if he were in a snowglobe someone had shaken; he could feel the world shifting and changing around him, yet he was stuck still – he had no hope of keeping up. “Other beasts, you say? What… what kind of size are these, er beasts?”
She glanced at the ceiling, and then the walls. “Some would dwarf this house.”
At that, his eyebrows shot up so far they threatened to leave his forehead altogether. He shivered, though whether it was with fear or anticipation, he could not say. The thought of seeing such a creature, of knowing it existed… Yet she stood here, frowning at his silence, after speaking of dragons as if they were the weather, or fish stocks.
“I see,” he managed eventually. He didn’t, not entirely, and she didn’t seem to believe him either. Her eyebrows were doing a dance of their own.
Suddenly she frowned, struck with something. She nodded once, swiftly, as if receiving an order he couldn’t hear, and then said, “I should…” She bit her lip. “I’ve been here too long.”
She was turning and opening the door while he still struggled to find his words. By the time he had quite comprehended what had happened, the door had shut. He opened it again and peered down the corridor.
She cut a strange figure, striding along carpets in the lamplight, the chain and the dagger at her hip clanking with each step. It was as if a myth had walked into his world and pushed it, pulled it until it suited her. He thought perhaps that it would remain irrevocably changed.
And then she was out of sight, and the thought was gone.
He was awoken by the sound. Something shook, and there was another bang. He sat up, wondering what on earth –
Another resonant bang, and the entire room vibrated. He needed to leave, now. He heaved himself out of bed and began dressing to the sound of another great, resonant bang and… a roar? Surely it couldn’t be –
He was just about to put on his jacket when the door burst open. A young man – he couldn’t be more than twenty – early fell into the room. Blackstone caught a glimpse of ginger hair and shining chain before the boy turned to call, “It’s him!”
Blackstone had but a moment to ponder the significance of that before a voice called from the corridor, “Understood. Get him out.”
Blackstone’s arm was grabbed. The youth by the door gave him a sharp grin and said, “Good evening. With us, please.”
Still rather dazed, Blackstone nodded and allowed the boy to push him into the corridor. A woman in similar chain – tall, dark-haired, frowning – smiled when she saw him, as if she was suppressing laughter, and then set off. He followed, half-wondering whether he hadn’t yet woken up. He was led downstairs, then through the door, and…
Golden scales. Teeth, each as large as a man. The… dragon, for that is what it was, a dragon, reared, and the earth shook. It was larger than a mansion, larger than two mansions stacked atop each other.
Blackstone looked and quailed.
A hand on his shoulder. He jumped, turning to see the dark-haired woman, who said, “Keep going.” It was firm but not unkind.
He scurried – there was no better word – onwards, his hands over his head, his knees bent. With each step the dragon took, dirt and dust rose in clouds. It dwarfed the houses of the village, and Blackstone expected to hear screams, to see villagers fleeing, but aside from the dragon, things were surprisingly quiet.
“Where is everyone?” he managed.
“Safe,” the woman replied. “We have them.” He pretended to be reassured, but she was evidently unconvinced. She sighed. “Move.”
He did. There was little alternative.
He trailed after her, dogged, still bleary from dreaming. The dragon was only feet away; several times he was forced once again to scurry, afraid the speed of his movements would attract the creature’s attention. The noise of it… He wanted to put his hands over his ears, but he couldn’t afford to miss any orders or warnings.
The woman looked over your shoulder and asked, “Were your parents miners? Or are you?”
He stared as he scrurried, uncomprehending. “I beg your – “ He cleared his throat. “I don’t understand.”
She frowned at that, and then said carefully, as if talking to a young and particularly obstinate child, “You’re Blackstone. I assumed the black stone was coal.”
Ah. “I… My ancestors may have been. It’s an old name.”
“You wear someone else’s.” She shook her head, her frown deepening and her mouth twisting. Then she was looking ahead once more.
Was now really the time? They were far enough form the dragon that it couldn’t crush them under its heel, but even so –
“My parents?” he said all at once. Her phrasing had confused him, and he’d just understood why. “Women don’t go down mines.”
She turned, and again with that look, as if she were speaking to a fool, replied, “Of course they do.”
Blackstone imagined skirts and silks stained with soot, shovels gripped in delicate hands, but he had little time to contemplate that before he realised he was being led to the woods. The place where he’d met…
It was as if she’d been summoned. Out of the woods came a large chestnut horse, and on its back, her face painted once more, metal plates clanking as she rode, her hair tamed and twisted into a knot on her head, was Caldir. She slowed as she saw them, the horse trotting up to their little group and eventually halting. She ran a hand through its mane to soothe and praise. She was wearing soft-looking leather gloves, and on her arms were what seemed to be makeshift vambraces comprised of harder leather and some sort of metal. Blackstone was beginning to realise that the first time they’d met, she hadn’t been in full armour; he hadn’t even seen half of it.
She turned her head, and there was the clack of beads. Blackstone was certain she’d added a few more since the last time they’d met. Some appeared to be made of real gold and silver; he glimpsed symbols and words inscribed on them, but there wasn’t time for a further look.
“Ginniver,” she said.
His escort straightened her spine. “Hunter.” She swallowed but was otherwise silent, expectant.
With the smallest inhale that wasn’t quite a sigh, Caldir asked, “Is the area empty?”
The dark-haired woman – Ginniver – nodded. “As far as we know.”
“Thank you.” Caldir looked past Ginniver, to where the red-haired youth lingered behind them, and her face darkened. “Bohr.”