Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
– Ulysses / Alfred Tennyson
Blackstone sighed. The sound was soon lost amongst the others in the forest, as if it were just another of the breezes which ruffled the leaves around him, or the flow of one more nearby stream.
Truth be told, he was considering turning back and finding a boat to take him home. He had six and twenty years behind him; he’d seen much in his time, his investigations, but the utter boredom he faced now seemed certain to defeat him.
He had come here following its recent discovery, keen on the trail of an adventure. There had been tales of strange beasts and even stranger people, and such an intriguing combination had made him begin his journey. It was the latest of many; he wasn’t naive enough to think himself seasoned – after all, it seemed that new wonders always lay in wait to delight and terrify – but he had seen his share.
Until now. Yes, nature made its usual music here, but the sounds were insignificant. The noises of foreign voices, strange hoofsteps, unknown roars – all were conspicuously absent. At first that silence had made him afraid: every snap of twigs seemed an intruder, every disturbance of stones a new foe. Soon, however, that fear had abated, replaced instead by boredom and the slow, inexorable march of time. It was as though he could feel the life leaving him with every moment that passed.
When he heard a rustling behind him, he assumed it was simply the forest settling…
…Until he was pulled backwards and into a bush, a rough hand clamped over his mouth.
“Mmph?” he managed faintly, looking to his attacker. His eyes widened.
She – for it was certainly a she – was wearing what appeared to be an odd combination of leather and chainmail. Her face was smeared with paint – or perhaps dirt in places, he was unsure. It was in shades of brown, black and dark green, some almost the same colour as the leaves. Her eyes were a sharp, far brighter green and lined with kohl. He could see red hair, a contrast to the other colours of her outfit, twisted into some sort of braid. She grinned; it appeared to be mostly comprised of teeth and wildness, little humour in it. “Good evening,” she said quietly. She nodded to something Blackstone couldn’t see. “Dracolisk.”
He followed her gaze, wondering what on earth she’d said.
Thudding footsteps shook the ground, and then a creature wandered into view. It was twice as tall as a man. It was scaly and tough-looking, as if it had been created for war, and its skin was an earthy brown. It had many teeth, and all of them were impressively sharp.
Oh, he attempted to say, but it came out as another, “Mmph.” He did his best to gently remove the stranger’s hand from his mouth, leaning forwards to frown at the beast.
It had slitted pupils, almost those of some great cat’s, and bony growths protruded from its back, appearing to follow the course of its spine. It reminded him of illustrations he’d seen in recent scientific journals, but those creatures were supposedly millions of years old.
Dracolisk. Draco, dragon. A draconic beast indeed. He couldn’t help but stare.
His rescuer – for he was rapidly realising that “rescuer” might indeed be the word – watched him, poised to strike, her weight on her back leg even as she crouched. She intended to be certain he wouldn’t make a sound and give their position away.
He waited as the dracolisk paced the clearing, occasionally making odd little snuffling sounds. It made several circuits, as if patrolling, before it eventually moved on. Those great, thudding footsteps faded, and Blackstone was left staring in its wake.
She nodded in a satisfied sort of way. “Thank you.”
He did not speak immediately, instead waiting and attempting to find his words. “I… That was the dracolisk?”
“Yes. They will not attack in the way of their bigger fellows, but they’ve been known to eat a man if their territory is intruded upon.”
“‘Bigger’?” he echoed, numbly.
She nodded.”I’d advise you to leave.” Her accent was odd, meandering; at times it had the soft, sonorous syllables of the Irish or French, then it became something different again: harder and utterly unfamiliar. He wondered how she could speak English, how she knew…
“How did you know I was English?”
“You were” – she frowned, pausing and evidently attempting to find the correct word – “talking. But only to yourself. Something about time going by and boredom?”
He remembered his earlier thoughts about the tedium of the place and tried his best not to flush. “It was a quiet forest,” he protested.
She raised her eyebrows and with a movement of her head seemed to concede that. “Mm. We do what we can.”
The phrasing did not escape him. “‘We’? There are more of you?”
She gave him a sharp look that was well on its way to a glare. “Go home. This forest is dangerous for… tourists. And it would be best if you were quiet about what you’d seen.”
Blackstone felt not inconsiderable offence, partly at “tourist” – exploring was what he did; he wasn’t some sort of hobbyist – and partly at being told to shut his mouth and go home.
“Is that a threat?” he asked.
Another sharp look, as if he were an idiot for suggesting it or possibly for breathing in her direction. “Believe me, that would be a waste of my time.” She stood, the movement graceful in its simplicity, and then began to walk away with nary a glance behind her. “Farewell.”
Blackstone knew farewell. He knew it, for lack of a better word, well. Farewell meant a permanent parting; it had an air of finality to it.
No, he decided. His curiosity had led him this far. It wouldn’t desert him now. He began to follow her, listening for plants being disturbed, for the clinks of chain and the heaviness of booted footsteps.
She turned, furious. “Leave.”
With a shake of his head, he asked, “Who are you? Who are your people?”
“These answers aren’t yours. You have no place here. Leave.”
“Look, he said, thinking quickly, “if I set out on my own, it seems quite likely that something will find me.”
“A dracolisk at most.” Her tone was dismissive.
“Perhaps. But you would still have the blood of an innocent man on your hands. And I sense you wouldn’t like that.”
Now it was her turn to shake her head. Beads clicked in her hair as she did. “Not innocent, in some of our terms. There are those who would say you made a contract with the land when you came here. You knew there could be danger, and yet you still walked loudly into an unknown forest. You took your welfare into your own hands.” There was uncertainty hiding behind her words. It was subtle, but it was there. She didn’t necessarily believe her own words.
Blackstone seized upon that uncertainty and asked, “Do you believe that?”
She thought for a moment, two, before she spoke. “I believe you are innocent in the sense of ignorance. You don’t deserve to die for that mistake.” She frowned at him, the shadows on her face lengthening and becoming harsher. “What do you want? Guidance to safer paths?”
“I’d like to see the others you spoke of.”
“Not an option. Something else.”
He made an assessment. She seemed immoveable, and so he decided to work with what he had. “Safe passage, then.”
She nodded. “Follow me.”
She began walking, and he stayed at her heel. The forest somehow seemed darker with his new knowledge of it, of the beasts lurking within it, and yet so much more alive. It called him.
She asked, “Why did you assume I wouldn’t leave you?”
“You saved my life. That seemed far from apathetic. Why not ensure my life continued further?”
Her reply was so quiet that it was nearly lost amongst the forest sounds. “It’s… what I do.”
He wanted to ask, but that seemed as if it would be testing his luck. He kept his counsel, and they made their way through the forest, which had fallen silent once again.
The journey seemed oddly fast to Blackstone – perhaps she’d found a shortcut. Soon enough, they had arrived at the town.
The few townspeople who were still outside their houses looked at Blackstone suspiciously. He noticed with some surprise that their faces softened when the looked at his travelling companion – in recognition and indeed, in familiarity.
When Blackstone had first read about this place, he had been certain his eyes were deceiving him. The texts he’d found seemed to indicate that there was a previously undiscovered tract of land on a British coast. A small but reasonably thriving town had grown nearby, developing and flourishing oblivious to their unknown isle.
One of the fishermen – one who seemed to enjoy glaring at Blackstone when he went into the town to buy supplies – nodded at her in acknowledgement and asked, “Trouble?” The word was mostly muffled by a truly impressive beard. The man’s face was almost as grey and weathered as the rock around him, as if he too had been worn down by prolonged exposure to the sea. He looked, utterly, like a fisherman.
That was the thing, Blackstone mused as he was ignominiously delivered: most of the people here were the same, toughened by weather and work. Everyone seemed to look like a fisherman. The only exception was the women – and not even all of them were excepted.
“Dracolisk,” Blackstone’s companion responded. She gestured towards Blackstone with a thumb. “He was in the way.” She ignored his glare.
The fisherman nodded understandingly, as if commiserating, and Blackstone adjusted the direction of his glare. It was ignored this time as well, and the fisherman said to her, with the hint of a smile, “Have some new trout in, if you’re interested.”
She hurried forwards, glancing into his basket with barely concealed, almost girlish sort of delight. “Excellent.”
Blackstone could only stare dumbly as she poked her nose into the basket. He was left with a view of her back, and noticed with considerable surprise that several small, bright flowers had been braided into her hair. His dumbfoundedness only increased as the fisherman passed her a shell. It was a bright white and symmetrical in an attractive way, as if it had been plucked from a postcard. It had obviously been kept for ornamental value.
She thanked the fisherman quickly, pocketing the shell, and then turned once more to face Blackstone. The joy in her expression faded, replaced by the grim stoicism he’d witnessed before. “You may leave,” she said stiffly.
It was a clear dismissal. His first instinct was to obey it, but he hesitated. “How may I find you?”
With a shake of her head, she replied, “Our agreement is concluded.” There was something softer, a sort of resigned sadness in her face, as she pressed, “Go, traveller. Find safer shores.”
He looked to the fisherman, who simply raised both eyebrows in agreement. He turned, beginning the walk back to his accommodations. He noted half-hopefully that her words had not been farewell, but he knew in his heart that their meaning had been the same.
Sleep eluded him. He had spent several consternated hours staring at the ceiling, trying in vain to understand what he’d seen.
“Oblivious to their unknown isle” his posterior. The townspeople clearly had a rapport with his rescuer and likely the rest of his people. She spoke English, which would be impossible without contact with others who spoke the tongue. She even appeared to trade for fish.
Ah. That was a thought with potential.
He spent the night jotting down his observations, then returned to the obtrusive fisherman in the morning.
Said fisherman watched him warily, his eyes suspicious under heavy brows. Blackstone had assumed he liked to glare, but perhaps this was simply the way the man’s face was constructed. The man’s head turned to follow Blackstone’s movements and he eventually said, “What can I do for you?” It should have been a pleasant enough greeting, but Blackstone sensed its barely-concealed edge.
Without further ado, Blackstone replied, “I’m afraid I need to speak to her.”
Though Blackstone had thought it impossible, the fisherman became even more suspicious. “Reason for that?”
“That’s between us.”
The fisherman nodded slightly, his mouth twisting. “‘Between you’ my arse. Caldir deserves better than the likes of you bothering her.”
Caldir. That was useful.
Blackstone said with a barely concealed a-ha, “Thank you for your time.” He attempted to nod politely, turning to leave. As he turned the fisherman appeared to realise what had transpired, understanding dawning upon his face, but it was rather too late.
“Caldir,” Blackstone repeated. “Caldir, of the woods.”
The washerwoman squinted at him, and he momentarily wondered if she was related to the fisherman. “Never heard of no Kelda.”
“No, no, Caldir.”
She sighed. “I’ve got no money for an ear trumpet. You might want to try my daughter.” Before Blackstone could agree with this highly perceptive statement, she turned and yelled over her shoulder, “Pam!”
Blackstone attempted not to wince. He managed a small, “Thank you.” When she frowned at him questioningly, he reiterated, “Thank you!”
She nodded, settling back in her chair.
A young woman emerged from the house behind her. Pam – for he supposed this must be Pam – was of a little below average height. She had wheat-coloured hair, a dusting of freckles and a button nose. She was pleasant looking without being intimidating, the sort of woman Blckstone would have attempted to see in paintings advertising butter.
She smiled at him. Considering that most of the women he’d met here so far had attempted to ambush him or deafen him, he found it a nice change. She asked, “Who might you be?”
He removed his hat and bowed his head slightly. “Jonathan Blackstone, at your service.”
Her smile widened. “Quite the gentleman.” It was said with the hint of a laugh, and Blackstone wondered whether she was mocking him. “Pamela Oldburne.”
He nodded and then said, “I’m looking for Caldir, of the woods.”
“Oh, I see.” Genuine interest appeared to cross her face. “May I ask why?”
“I…” His tongue seemed to stick in place. He considered using terms such as anthropological discoveries or saying that he’d like an interview. However, something more pressing had occurred to him while he’d been contemplating the ceiling the previous evening. When he opened his mouth, what fell from his lips was the truth. “She saved my life. I forgot to thank her.”
Pamela Oldburne nodded, obviously finding this acceptable. “I’ll tell her you asked for her. I’m sure she’ll understand.”
Blackstone was less certain of that. In fact, he was certain Caldir would refuse his request. “But I – ” he began.
She placed a soft hand on his shoulder. Her voice was softer still. “You look tired. You should get some rest.”
Gentleness halted him where force wouldn’t have, and with a meek nod he replied, “I suppose you’re right.”
He turned to go back to his boarding house. As he commenced his walk, he heard the washerwoman say quietly, “Why’d you tell him about Caldir?”
Pam responded, “He seemed honest enough. Besides, it isn’t as if he could hurt her, even if he wanted to.”
“True enough. A little bony round the shoulders.”
Blackstone walked onwards, trying not to feel vaguely insulted.
Two days later, he was awoken by a knock at the door of his room. With a small grunt, he heaved himself out of bed, after making sure he was decent, opened the door.
Caldir stood in the corridor. She looked different out of the forest. Without the shade of foliage and the strange paint, she seemed paler. The brighter light picked out orange tones in her hair, almost rendering it spun copper. She seemed an outlier here: unusual and somehow… lonely.
She watched him levelly. “You wanted to see me?”