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.

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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

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

Not to Yield – 1

PART ONE

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?”

Stories

For Jean.

We tell stories so often, but we so rarely ask why.

Sometimes they’re a diversion, a distraction, a way to pass the time. We laugh and we weep and we forget for a while, then we pick ourselves up and move on.

Sometimes they’re a correction, an apology. We didn’t do enough, or we did the wrong thing, so we smooth things over. We sew in new patches: middles and endings, scenes that should have been, answers for the important questions we forgot or were too scared to ask. We make it right, if only in our heads. We make heroes of ourselves or the people we love. We make them icons, statues, noble and brave. We wash away the blood and old shames, we smooth down wrinkles and we create an ending, so we can rest. So they can rest. We remember, but we remember right.

Sometimes they’re a lesson.  Let me tell you why your father used to hunt there – it’s where the good mammoth are. This is what happens to people who don’t look when they cross roads. The heroine kept riding, kept trying, and determination and a cool head prevailed.

Sometimes those lessons are also confessions: I never asked enough, I never tried to understand; there were many hours of silence that could have been filled, so many stories untold, and please, know it all while you have it. We take our regrets and we give them to someone who needs them. We press them into palms, fold fingers around them. We look into eyes and say: Take these. Study them, and understand them so you won’t repeat them. We say it, but we can only hope it gets through. On the good days, it does.

Sometimes a story’s enough. Sometimes it isn’t, but we try anyway. We keep trying, we keep going, and we hope that someday the story will be told right. Someday they will learn, or they will live again, or they will be happy, truly, just for a moment.

Sometimes a story’s enough.

Free eBook!

Merry Christmas, everybody. Now I’m sitting here, by a roaring fire, in my hideously festive socks and ridiculous Santa hat, I’m here to offer you all a (probably underwhelming) present. No, it’s not gin. Stop looking so hopeful.

Biscuit Assortment is every Strange Digestives short story, from the birth of this blog to… well, now. Past Lives isn’t included, but that’s all that’s missing. You should find a couple of stories that haven’t been published over here, too. Every story hasbicuita been meticulously (if sometimes tiredly) scoured for typos. This is the new, revised edition – the bumper one, you might say. Look, it even has a purple cover and everything. And it’s free. Did I mention it’s free?

You can acquire it by clicking on the links below: