Not to Yield – 4

Previous parts: 1 | 2 | 3


“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.

Rain, again

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.

Not to Yield – 3

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.


PART FOUR

Past Lives: Cold Open

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.”

“No problem.”

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.

A Dark and Stormy Night: WIP Previews

At the moment, I’m working on some not-particularly-short short stories. Beginnings of upcoming stuff:

velocity

I guess things really went to shit when I got the powers. I mean, my life wasn’t brilliant or anything, but it was… you know, normal. Get up, brush your teeth, get some water on and scrub stuff, go and work in Burger Buddy and get yelled at, pretend you’re not sleepwalking. So on. I’d stand at the counter and think, huh, maybe there are better things I could be doing with my Physics A level, but it wasn’t fair to take that out on the customers, so I’d paste on a smile and ask if they wanted fries with that. Or gherkins. One time a bloke asked for asparagus on his cheeseburger. I told him that sadly, we didn’t have any handy, but it goes to show that you never can tell with people.

So anyway, it was a velocity kind of day. Wait – I guess that needs explaining. Some days things are slow and I get bored, so I start trying to work out the velocity and force of a flipped burger. I try to do it subtly, though – Stacey’s usually on the grill and she’d think it was a bit creepy if I was staring vacantly at her and not-quite-muttering.

So, it was a velocity kind of day. And I’m wondering if the added mass of a cheese slice would make a burger go faster, or whether it would make it less aerodynamic. While I’m struggling to answer that profound question, something comes up on the news. Something about a leak of some chemical that may or may not be a mutagen. Generally I like to keep half an eye on the science and technology stuff, but I’d gotten absentminded and managed to nearly lean on the grill. I was wondering what that smell was and hoping it wasn’t my frying palm, while Stacey grunted something about plasters and elbowed me out of the way to go through the tool draws. I stared at the neat red lines on my hand and thought that this was probably against some kind of health and safety law.

Looking back on it, I really, really should’ve paid attention to the news.

I saw it and then I dismissed it, just let it float out of my head. I think people do most of the time. There were days I used to watch the news and my hands would be white-knuckled on my knees because there had to be something I could do, but there never was. Least, it seemed that way.

You’ve got to let it go or you just get weighed down by how crap the world can be, you know? Anyhow, I was a little busy nursing my stinging palm and thanking all that was holy I was left-handed. The rest of my shift went by pretty quickly, so I said bye to Stacey and headed out. It was a miserable night, with that kind of wet, cold rain that rattles your teeth and always seems to get down your shirt, no matter how many layers you’re wearing. I thought maybe it’d help cool the burn, but it didn’t, so I shoved my hands in my pockets and started to shuffle home.

And then I heard the squeal of tyres.

I looked up and saw headlights. Rapidly approaching ones, seeming to grow brighter as they sped towards me. And I had two thoughts: Mum and oh, fuck.

Didn’t think much after that. The world went black, then the world was gone.


when the fog rolls in

It’s when the fog rolls in, they’d told Jas. That’s when things get dangerous.

She’d figured they were exaggerating; it was only a nice little place with a few hills, maybe a bit of rain, right? She should’ve remembered that Northerners were more prone to understatement than hyperbole – she was from Wigan, after all.

And then the fog rolled in, and she thought, Oh. Oh, no.

It was fast. There was a little bit of mist maybe over the hill, and then within half an hour, everything was a sea of white. It crawled up slowly – starting in the fields beside her, then behind her, and then she could barely see a thing. She’d got visibility of maybe three feet in front of her, but the rest… well. She couldn’t see tree roots, so trees hung, skeletal in the white. She’d think she saw shadows of hills, but then she’d realise her mind was tricking her and they were just little rises in the land, dips and bumps.

To make things even better, she was now lost. Completely lost. As in, she looked around her and thought, I’m almost certain this is the fifth time I’ve circled round that rock. Tension started to crawl up her spine, making a home somewhere around the back of her neck, and she shivered. The cold was setting in, too, and a dampness seemed to worm its way under her waterproofs and stay there. She rubbed her arms and kept walking, even though the cold felt like it was stiffening her knees. She wondered how long she could keep going before that got really uncomfortable, and the thought bothered her. There were places she could get help, a bus… They might have only been a few yards away, but God, she wouldn’t be able to see it. She needed to map out the land, or… or try and get above the fog.

That was it. She needed a vantage point.


before midnight

Liam!”

He tried not to sigh, stopping the motion of his mop and turning to look at the person who’d called him. It was Cynthia, his… well. He refused to call her his stepmother. She wasn’t, really: she was just some woman that Dad had married. That didn’t make her his anything, no matter what she thought. He supposed he should be grateful; she’d lifted them out of poverty, given them a fair share of her business. It didn’t make the sting of her presence any better, though – not when she’d done her best to eliminate every trace of the woman that came before her. Just seeing her started off a hollow ache in his chest. It wasn’t quite as bad as the one left by Mum’s death, but it came close.

“Cynthia?” he said. He felt his shoulders tensing, felt the way he curled up and tried to make himself seem small. He didn’t know why, but something about her made him need to.

She didn’t like it. She’d been trying to get him to call her Mum since he was seven. Ten years later, and he’d never done it once. It just didn’t feel right, somehow. That name was for Emily and Caitlin – it wasn’t one he had a right to, and it wasn’t one he ever wanted to use. His mum was six feet under.

Cynthia was a formidable woman, tall and sharp-chinned with a face covered in precision-applied makeup. She had eyes like a hawk’s: distinctive if you liked them, scary if you didn’t. Those eyes were shrewd, calculating as they took in first him leaning on his mop, then the squeaky-clean floors. With a short nod of approval at his work, she looked back to him. “I suppose you’ve heard about the do at your school?”

He wanted to say yes. He wanted to be honest, to say that he wished he had someone to take, but being honest was dangerous around Cynthia. If she saw a weakness she wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of it.

He shrugged. “I guess so?”

Another short nod. Her eyes flittered round the room again before she said to him, “I suppose you’re not going?”

He’d been considering it, but he felt a heavy stone drop into his chest at her words. If Cynthia said something like that, he could be certain he wasn’t going. “I, er, I wasn’t planning on it.” A lie, but that tended to be the safer option, much as he wished things were different.

A smile sneaked onto her face. “Good. I needed someone to look after the cafe while Emily and Caitlin are at this…” She sighed. “…dance. God, you’re not American, I don’t know why the school are embarrassing themselves with this kind of thing. Look, your father and I needed some time to ourselves, so we’ll be heading out on the night. I trust you’ll be fine on your own?”

He nodded, feeling a little like someone had just put a foot on his chest and pushed. He was tempted to ask whether he’d get paid, but he already knew the answer. Cynthia always said “it’s not work if it’s family,” and no work meant no wages, either.

He nodded, wishing he could do something different. Wishing he could just make himself say something, stand up instead of just taking it.

She ruffled his hair, said, “Such a good boy,” and then she was gone, leaving him leaning heavily on his mop and wishing he were anyone, anyone else.

 

 

Not to Yield – 2

Part one can be found here.


PART TWO

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.”

“Dishonest.”

“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.”

“It’s polite.”

“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.


Boom.

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.”


PART THREE

Blood and Water

three

Her little brother comes into the world kicking and screaming. Literally. He screws his eyes up and throws his small fists into the air repeatedly, as if he wants to fend off the world. That’s after a labour that lasts most of the day, of course, because Adrian’s always been an awkward bastard – it leaves their mother sweaty and exhausted, and Olivia with several new “do not use at the dinner table” words in her vocabulary. (She will, when the neighbours they most want to impress are in the middle of the salmon course. But that’s for another day.)

She doesn’t really understand any of this at the time. At the time, she just tries to shield her ears from the annoying noise in the corner. When she looks, she sees him, small and strange and pink as a prawn.

She wrinkles her nose. Ew. What an ugly little thing. Why does her mother look so happy?

 ~

seven

She’s half-asleep when she hears a noise. It’s quiet, there and gone as quickly as a breath of wind. A snuffle, what sounds like a sob. It’s on the other side of a wall, but she still hears it; she hears most noises, when he’s making them, like her ears are a radio tuned just to his frequency. It sounded… scared.

She’s up, out of bed and padding into the corridor before she really realises what she’s doing. She can hear her mother snoring a couple of rooms away. She doesn’t want to wake her. She’s busy sleeping, and she always gets angry when she’s busy and Olivia interrupts her. That’s why she closes the office door, why she tells them to “hesitate to call”. Olivia doesn’t get it – it’s not like they’re phoning her. Dad says that it’s an expression, and that she’s seven, so there’s a lot she doesn’t get.

Maybe. She shrugs at the thought, opens Adrian’s door.

He looks tiny curled up in his bed, just a lump beneath the sheets. She hears him panting like a dog… or like someone who’s crying. Yeah, he really does sound frightened – it’s more obvious now that she’s closer to him. She edges forward, raises a hand to the corner of the duvet, and pulls the sheet away.

He’s so pale he’s nearly the same colour as his hair. (As hers, too, hers is the same colour.) He’s shivering, and he’s making distressed little noises. His lips almost look blue in the half-dark. Then she looks closer. No, they are blue. His teeth are clacking together. She touches his arm and it’s freezing.

“Adrian,” she says.

There’s steam coming from his hand, and as she looks, she sees it – ice, slowly crawling up his fingers. It’s at his wrist now, and it’s climbing higher…

“Adrian!” she hisses, shoving him.

He rolls over, mumbling something, but then he seems to wake up. His eyes snap open, and he sits up, nearly headbutting her in the process. “Cold,” he says. “Why – why’m I cold?”

“I don’t – You did something.” She looks down at his hand again. The ice is moving back down it, and his skin’s turning pink again. Good. He was scaring her. (He still is, but she doesn’t want to say it.) “Why were you scared?” she asks.

He hangs his head. “I had a bad dream. There were these trees, and…” He trails off. She waits, but he doesn’t say anything. He does that sometimes – he’ll start, and then it’s like he gets lost and takes a while to find his way back again.

She’s still staring at his fingers. The ice is nearly gone now, but they’re still steaming. The night isn’t even cold, but he is. “Have you seen this?” she asks him, taking his hand. “What you did. It was… I think it was magic.”

Now he looks down, stares at his hand. He’s always had these big blue eyes, like a puppy or some other baby animal. He looks frightened all the time. But now? Now they’re even bigger, and tears are welling up in them.

They know about the mages, the Scholars. They’re amazing, like something out of stories, and they’re scary. They can hurt you, kill you, but they can heal, too. So many of them seem afraid, even with the watches, the ones that shine and are meant to help them.

He’s crying properly now, and he’s leaning like he’s going to fall over. His shoulder touches hers. She tucks her arm round him and hugs him tight. He’s sobbing, whimpering, and he’s shaking almost as badly as he was when she came in. He cries like he’ll never get another chance, like he’s afraid he’ll never stop. She doesn’t let go, and she listens. The rest of the house is silent.

He’s four. He doesn’t understand.

 ~

seventeen

Sometimes she really does wonder if there’s something supernatural in the way she can just find him.

She sees the corner and sees that a few feet away, they’re laying into him – badly. There are three of them, two boys and a girl. They look about his age; they’re probably in his year. One of the boys has Adrian’s watch and is holding it above his head, laughing.

Adrian isn’t even making the effort to reach for it; his eyes are screwed tightly shut and he’s curled in on himself. Trying to shield himself from the blows and leave as little of himself accessible as possible. Like he’s used to this, because he is, and Olivia hates them in that moment, hates them so much she’s frightened by the intensity of it.

The girl spits on him, then frowns at her friends. “He’s a bloody warlock and he’s just taking it, look. Shouldn’t he be frying us or something?”

Olivia’s shoulders tense at the slur, but she knows the answer to the girl’s question. Sure, he’s a Scholar, but he’s also Adrian, and that’s the problem. He could, but he won’t, because it wouldn’t be “the right thing to do.” As it stands, she’s not sure she much cares about the right thing – whatever gets them away from her little brother works for her. If they end up a little scorched round the edges, well, all’s fair in war.

He seems to be abnormally talented at getting beaten up. Maybe it’s the magic – well yeah, it’s mainly the magic – but that isn’t helped by the fact that he’s quiet and spends most of his time with his head buried in books. It’s probably jealousy, seeing as they can barely string a sentence together.

She stands there for a moment longer, frozen with anger, and then she sees him take a boot to the ribs. That kicks her brain into gear, too. She runs, and she knows that the three of them could probably take her if they wanted to, but she also knows that she has a reputation for refusing to put up with shit. She desperately hopes that that will be enough.

“What the fuck’s going on?” she calls. She reaches them, throws her shoulder into a shove that sends the larger boy reeling. Good. The little shit deserves it.

“You the sister, then?” He looks down at Adrian. “What, you need a girl to fight for you?”

Adrian shudders, mutters to the ground, “Fuck. Off. She’s…” Nothing more. Maybe he’s got lost in his head again. He still does, sometimes, when he’s scared or so angry he’s frothing with it.

She snatches the watch from the girl, who’s still staring stupidly at the scene unfolding in front of her, then gives them all a vicious glare. “You move, or I move you. Your choice.”

They move. Yeah, good.

It’s not the victory, but it’s victory, even if she’ll probably have to do this all again in a few days anyway.

 ~

nineteen

It’s a shitty little bedsit, cramped and stereotypically student-y, even if she isn’t a student. The bed’s more of a futon, if she’s honest, and something that might be damp crawls round the higher corners of the walls. Even so, it’s hers. Sometimes that’s enough.

Today it isn’t. The walls are crowding in on her, the shadows seem longer and she’s shivering relentlessly, even though she’s boiling. She remembers that heatwave when she was six, when all she wanted to do was crawl into the freezer, shut the door and maybe die. This is worse.

Her mind knows she’s ill, but it’s like her body hasn’t caught up yet – even though she’d really like to get up, maybe find a doctor at some point, her legs won’t move.

She tries again. Nothing. Dammit.

There’s a noise outside her door, probably of something small being knocked over, and a scuffling footstep. Another. They could be robbing her for all she cares, but right now, she needs someone. Anyone.

“Help,” she croaks. Shit, that’s barely anything. A mouse wouldn’t hear that. She coughs, tries again. “Help!”

Better.

The footsteps pause. Then: “Olivia?” The voice is muffled, but it’s definitely Adrian’s. Oh, thank God. Well, thank her dipshit little brother.

“In here,” she manages.

“Right. I…” A pause, and Olivia tenses, wondering what –

Something strange happens to the door handle. It takes her groggy, sickness-addled mind  a few seconds to work out what’s going on, but when the locks begin glowing and then melting, she knows.

The door opens a minute later and lets in Adrian, who tosses the lock between his hands, puffing and making the universal noise of Hot! Hot! He lays it carefully down on her (metal) kitchen counter and then rushes over to her, nearly tripping over his own knees in the process. That boy’s always had too much leg.

He shakes mage-embers from his hands and comes to kneel next to her bed. His face looks like someone’s kicked him. “Christ.”

“Mmph.” Seems like her vocal cords have given up and all, but yeah, that’s about the sum of it.

His brow creases, and he looks even more worried than usual. He touches a hand to his forehead and hisses. Then he looks at his hands, and suddenly they’re frosted over, and no, no, she doesn’t want the nightmare and his fear again, of course her brother isn’t a Scholar…

He presses icy hands to her face and she wants to cry. It’s like heaven. In fact, she swears she can feel tears on her cheeks, though she prays it’s just melting ice. She’s got enough mind left to be embarrassed. For a moment, she can’t look at him.

“Eyes on me.” His voice is so calm. She thought being calm with things going to shit was her job. He shouldn’t be looking down at her like that, all gravity and hard lines. Hell, he shouldn’t be looking down at her at all. He’s her little brother, why won’t he remember that, he’s –

She notices he’s not talking. For once in his life, he’s shut up.

He doesn’t speak again until he calls the ambulance. Olivia lets her eyes drift shut, for once glad she’s cold.

~

twenty

Adrian looks like shit. It’s twenty degrees outside, but he’s shivering and his teeth are chattering. He’s leaning against the doorframe as if he’s afraid he’ll fall if he doesn’t, and when he raises his head his eyes look like something’s chasing him. She’s seen this before. Not often, but sometimes there’s  a bad job and one of the guys will come back and he’ll have a little of this about him. Words like “therapist” and “post-traumatic stress” start getting bandied about. As said: it doesn’t happen often, but it happens.

Often enough for her to understand.

She takes his shoulders and, gently as she can, drags him into her flat. He’s still shaking, and his breathing is all wrong – in-out, in-out, but too loud and harsh. He sounds like a rusty see-saw. He’s swaying on his feet.

She says, “Talk to me.”

He just shakes his head, still grimacing, pained, his breathing still wrong. Like it isn’t a choice. Can’t, not won’t. Adrian not talking? Something’s very, very wrong.

He collapses onto his couch, curling up and putting his face in his hands. All at once she remembers the boy on the playground floor, and she has to blink against the strength of it.

Adrian.

He looks up at that, and she mentally sighs in relief. That is, until she sees the tears coursing down his cheeks and the way his face is crumpling. “Cambridge…” he manages. A sharp inhale, more of a sob. “It’s all gone. Fuck, it’s all gone…”

She sits next to him, telling him it’s going to be alright, he’s alright, and tries to believe it. 

It’ll be alright. She’ll make it alright.

Vignettes and pieces of character study. Might eventually make it into Light As Air proper, but for now, here it is.