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.

Status: Not dead.

(Isn’t that nice? I like not being dead.)

Anyhow, my apologies for the lack of posts recently. Between illness and jobhunting, things have been rather hectic and there’s been limited time to blog. Gratuitous GIF of me.

So, status updates:

  • Light As Air is going on hold while I edit and clean up some plot holes. Posting will resume soon.
  • Not to Yield will still be posted. It’s fairly short, but if you want your fill of “angry woman and reluctant man on an adventure,” it might suffice. A toffish Victorian explorer and an impatient dragon hunter are forced together by events and must somehow deal with it while defending a village. Cue mutual understanding and feelings.
  • Past Lives will still be posted irregularly but enthusiastically.

Light As Air: Part Twelve

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It takes him far too long to wake up, and he has to work to surface from under the misty haze of residual tiredness. He has the gritty, dissatisfied feeling that signifies of a bad night’s sleep. He blinks, wondering why everything’s become dark – has he gone blind? – before he finds that he’s staring at his pillow. Oh. He rolls over to eye the ceiling instead. It’s not exactly a more interesting view, but it’s less likely to make him panic and wonder about whether his vision needs correcting. Stifling a yawn, he rubs at his eyes, the gritty remnants of sleep scraping against his eyelids and making him grimace. Time to get up, he thinks.

He checks his alarm clock. 7:30, the display reads, the red, square letters blinking in the half-darkness. He’s got an hour and a half before he has to open up – more than enough time to get ready and sort things out. He sits up with a groan, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. He stands and stretches in the same movement, meandering slowly into the corridor and down to the bathroom. In an absentminded reflex, he turns on the light as he walks past it.

Hiss. The sound is quiet, muffled through the wood of the door, and it’s oddly soothing to his ears. It’s too early in the morning for them to be properly working yet – they tend to take a while to warm up. The sound’s gentle, a nice thing to wake up to.

He pauses at the door, still too bleary to think, and presses a hand to the door. It doesn’t give. Locked.

He becomes aware of three things at once: Angela is living with him, Angela is in his shower, he’s standing in only his boxers when she could come out of the bathroom any minute, and Angela is living with him.

Bollocks.

He freezes, spending another second too long blinking at the bathroom door. Then he turns and heads back to his bedroom rather more quickly than he came out of it.

Books, he thinks. He’ll read while he waits. He heads to the bookcase, and he happens to walk past his mirror as he does. He didn’t want one in here; he didn’t particularly mind it, but he hadn’t asked for one. Olivia forced him to drag it in here, saying that he’d probably forget to put his trousers on if he didn’t catch his reflection once in a while. He conceded that she might have a point, but he’s starting to regret it.

He forgets, sometimes. He’s never been particularly self-involved, and he often doesn’t think about what he looks like until he’s actually standing in front of a mirror; it can sometimes be a rather unpleasant surprise. He’s all angles and corners: skinny arms with sharp elbows, prominent knees. His clavicles stand out starkly in the yellow light, and the whiteness of his skin makes him look sickly, jaundiced. He has the potential for good shoulders, he supposes, but that’s about it. He perhaps has the sufficient height to be imposing, but without the width, he’s simply a beanpole. It’s not as if he’s underweight or ill – he’s not shuffling his way towards the grave, and he doesn’t he look like he is, either – but he doubts he’ll ever grace the cover of fitness magazines. He’s just… resoundingly average, somehow, awkward and inelegant. He doesn’t look like the sort of person who’s designed for anything – he looks like someone most comfortable sitting on the sidelines, pretending they’re not bothered by the fact that they can’t be useful, and unfortunately, that is indeed who he’s been for most of his life.

He shakes his head. Whether he’s disappointed with himself or with the entire situation, he doesn’t know. Still, he doesn’t linger next to the mirror, and he does his resolute best to ignore the sinking feeling somewhere under his ribcage. It’s rather too familiar by this point.

He’s been rereading Great Expectations for ten minutes when he hears the sound of the bathroom door opening, and then the sound of footsteps along the corridor. He keeps his eyes on the book, even though the letters are blurring before his eyes and he’s only pretending to read. When he hears the click of the spare room door shutting, he sounds the mental all-clear and decides that it’s safe to use the bathroom.

When he makes his way downstairs – clean, dressed and overly cautious – she’s in the kitchen. She’s fetching herself a glass of water. She’s pristine, her hair carefully styled, wearing what he knows is the charcoal suit from the first time they met – he was terrified enough by the meeting that even her attire stuck in his memory. He wonders if she wakes up like that, if she even had any need of the shower or if she was simply curious. He then realises that his mind has drifted perilously close to the danger zone of Angela in the shower. Feeling ill, he quickly diverts his thoughts from that thoroughly unwelcome road. She raises the glass to her mouth and takes a sip of water, only lowering it to say, “Good morning.”

He jumps. She didn’t even turn round, or give any other acknowledgement of his existence. “Morning.” He moves on muscle memory, and he’s halfway to shoving a couple of slices of bread in the toaster when he thinks of it. “Do you – do you eat?”

She deigns to look at him this time. “I’m in a body that’s mostly human. It needs food as a human’s would.”

Oh. That could be a problem. Feeding two people, rather than one? Doable, but not necessarily pleasant or allowing much room for manoeuvre. He tries his best not to let his face fall.

“I’ll pay for my own provisions,” she says.

Inside his head, he exhales in relief. He lifts a slice of bread, suddenly much more chipper than he was, and asks, “Toast good for you?”

She nods. “That’ll be fine.”

It’s one of the fancy four-slot toasters, so he inserts two more slices and sets them to toast.

While he’s making a cup of tea, the bread pops up. He takes the slices, hissing at how hot they are, makes a desperate grab for a couple of plates and then puts butter on them. It’s probably polite to ask if she wants anything on hers, but he’s still a quarter asleep and she seems not to care as long as she doesn’t starve, so he serves the toast as it is.

Which is how he finds himself in the hopelessly strange situation of eating breakfast with an angel, the two of them mowing through the toast. She’s sitting opposite him on the little kitchen table, and he’s oddly gratified by the fact that even she can’t make eating toast quiet and elegant: it crunches, spraying crumbs onto the plate, even though her bites are far from careless.

The silence is broken by the shrill ring of a telephone. It’s the landline, so he dusts the crumbs off his hands and trudges to the phone. “Hello?”

It’s Olivia. “Hi. Is this a bad time? You’re sounding rather bleary.”

“No, it’s… it’s unusually early, is all. Is there any particular reason for you calling?”

“I’m sorry, I thought you’d have been up for a while by now. I didn’t mean to…”

“You didn’t. You’re absolutely fine. Now, you were saying?”

“Apparently I’ve made it to the top three applicants in the job I’m trying out for. It means I’m in with a solid chance.”

He grins. “That’s great.” He means it. She’s spent far too long searching, and though she does her best to appear chipper, he knows full well that she’s slowly beginning to despair.

He hears the sounds of a plate being dumped into the sink, shortly followed by the loud thud of a heavy object – he has a horrible feeling that he knows exactly which heavy object in particular it is – being dumped on the kitchen table. “What are you doing?” he asks, as quietly as he possibly can. When he turns, sure enough, she has the hideous, brick-thick book open and is flicking through its pages. Though he ‘ll freely admit that he’s curious, now really isn’t the time, and he thought from what she said that he wasn’t allowed to see inside it. If so, why has she plonked it in front of him within easy reach?

“Research,” is Angela’s curt reply, and she doesn’t even make a token effort to lower her voice.

He knows Olivia’s heard her. It’s barely there, but he hears it – the smallest intake of breath down the line. His silence quickly makes it obvious that he knows she knows – good God, that sentence is going to get confusing. The silence continues for the space of a few breaths, then Olivia says, “Should I ask?”

Light As Air: Part Eleven

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He turns at the sound of a knock on the door. It creaks open slowly. “Sorry,” Olivia says, “I just…” She looks round in surprise. “She’s gone?”

He nods, preparing himself as best he can for the inevitable onslaught of questions.

Sure enough: “What was that all about?” she asks. It will be the first question of many, he just knows it.

Adrian refuses to comply. He’s done enough things he doesn’t want to do today. “Believe me, it’s complicated and there really isn’t time to go into it. It’s been – it’s been a long day. Do you mind if I kick you two out for a while?”

It’s blunt, but she’s unruffled by it. It’s just the way they communicate; the truth expressed fairly seems better than a million awkward excuses. “Certainly. Is there anything you want me to help out with?”

“No, thanks.” His voice sounds distant even to his own ears. He wants to sleep, to bury his head under the covers and wait until this all blows over – if it ever does. “But thank you.” Wonderful – it seems like he’s a master of tautology today.

She gives him her best attempt at a smile, but it settles into something utterly unconvincing; she still looks too worried. “I’ll just finish my sandwich, then I’ll head out.”

Something compels him to ask. “What did you end up with?”

She shrugs. “Gouda and cucumber. It’s actually not that bad.” She closes the door, heading back into the other room.

He would love to be good company, he really would, but he spends most of the next few minutes trying desperately to involve himself in a novel and pretend that none of this is happening. When Olivia and Paul come through, Paul very obviously being hustled out of the door by Olivia, he bids them goodbye as cheerfully as he can, even though he knows it sounds depressingly lacklustre.

He spends the next few hours doing the accounts and hoping desperately that Angela won’t return. Night has fallen, and darkness lurks outside the window. The ticking of a clock in the back room is all he can hear as he sits at the counter, trying to sort out the accounts and just ending up with a headache. If anything, he’s better at this kind of thing than Paul – it’s one of the reasons why they decided to go into business together – but the combination of stress and maths is definitely not one he can say that he enjoys. If he sees the word revenue again, he thinks he may well scream.

When the bell above the door rings, his shoulders slump. He looks up, much as he wants not to, and sees Angela entering the shop, walking towards him. She isn’t exactly unexpected, but somehow, his heart still sinks at the sight.

He doesn’t want to speak first, but the silence is getting to him, so he asks, “How did the business go?”

“Well.” Her eyes flit around the room; she’s obviously looking for the suitcase.

“It’s behind the counter. I didn’t want anyone trying to steal it.”

“I see. That was probably a wise decision.” It’s almost respectful. Bloody hell, he really must have fallen asleep on the accounts. She pauses, looks up. “Your friends have left.”

He wonders if she can hear the lack of noise, or if she just has some sort of rather terrifying mind-reading skill. He hopes it’s the former, but with the direction his luck seems to be heading, he wouldn’t be surprised if it were the latter. “Yes, they have. Why?”

He returns to the arduous task of accounting, but looks up at the rustle of clothing and the footsteps close by. She leans to reclaim her suitcase. She’s less than a foot away, and the action leaves them almost eye to eye. Her gaze falls to the accounts. “That should be forty two pounds,” she says after a moment.

He doesn’t ask her which is the relevant column – he knows already, he simply hadn’t got around to correcting it. Still, it’s wonderful to be treated as a fool yet again. “Did I ask for your help?” he snaps.

She straightens smoothly. “No.” She looks again to the back room door. “Where’s the room you mentioned?”

He slumps, moving forwards in his seat until his head’s nearly touching the countertop. He has the dreadful, quietly deadly beginnings of a headache; he wonders if the cool wood against his skin might help to relieve the pain. “Give me a second.” He stands reluctantly, too slowly – tiredness is making him a premature old man, every one of his joints aching. “Right. Come with me.”

There’s something creeping up on him, and it becomes more apparent with every step what it is: guilt. That frustrates him; he shouldn’t be guilty. It’s not as if talking to her abruptly is a new thing, and neither is it as if she’s been treating him any better. Even so, as he walks upstairs and listens to the soft, regular footsteps barely a moment behind his own, he thinks that snapping at her as he did might have been more than a little rash. Perhaps, though it was an odd, awkward thing, hers was a genuine offer of help. He shrugs without realising it, then becomes aware of the fact that he hasn’t actually said anything – it makes him feel even more awkward than he already did. At this rate, he’s surprised that’s even possible. It’s not as if it matters now; it feels as if it’s too late to say anything by this point, and if he tries it’ll be a show of awkwardness that will just make her look down on him further. He can’t afford to give the thought any further consideration – it’s doing nothing for his nerves – yet…

“I’m sorry,” he says into the silent corridor. “What I said earlier – I shouldn’t have, and it was unfair.”

“What did you say?” The rhythm of her steps doesn’t even stutter, the question a smooth, barely inflected one.

“I said I was sorry,” he blurts, not exactly in a hurry to repeat it.

“No. What are you apologising for?”

“Rather rashly, I declared that I didn’t need your help, and in retrospect, that might have been an unfortunate mistake.”

“Why are you waving your hands around?”

“Wha – ?” He pauses, looks down and realises that he is. He’s always talked with his hands, and it’s a habit that tends to intensify when he gets nervous. “Oh. Er. I do that.”

“I’ve noticed.” He might be wrong, but he can hear a trace of what might be amusement in her tone. It’s subtle and it’s bone dry, but if he’s not very much mistaken, it’s there. (He’s unsure whether that should annoy him or reassure him that she isn’t hurt. That said, she never is – anything he says only seems to slide off her without leaving a mark. Water, duck, back, all that, he supposes. However, that doesn’t stop it from being frequently disconcerting.) He’s just making the comfortably familiar decision of settling for annoyance when she says, “Thank you.”

“For – ?”

“The apology. It’s not like it really matters, but it’ll make carrying out my mission a lot easier if our relationship isn’t actively antagonistic.”

The hypocrisy of that strikes him then, and he’s unable to let that pass without saying, “You might want to remind yourself of that occasionally.”

“You may be right,” is her mild response.

There is one spare room. The desk’s a little dusty – no-one’s had to use it for a long time – but the bed is fine. Like the back room, it’s full of darkwood, but in a way that’s luxurious rather than oppressive; the high ceilings work to balance that, to overcome any potential sense of claustrophobia.This is an old building, but a well-designed one. A chest of drawers and a full-body mirror rest in the corner. The one window is large and tall, with long, dark purple curtains, and the bedclothes are the same colour. It’s the sort of place made for warming yourself by a fire on long winter nights. (There is actually a fireplace, but no-one’s ever got round to lighting it.) It’s not a particularly large room, but neither is it small enough to be boxy. It’s somewhere in the middle; as Goldilocks would say, just right. It’s a good room – probably better than his own, Adrian begrudgingly admits, even though he prefers his – his has more of a personality. More books, too, and that’s the important thing.

Angela looks round and then gives a nod of approval. “This is more than adequate. Thank you.”

“It’s not a problem.” That’s a lie, but neither of them have got into an argument yet and he wants to keep it that way, if possible. Besides, it seems somehow like the right thing to say.

She turns to him. “I won’t be here long.” It’s an assurance, her eyes and her tone of voice perfectly sincere. “Once this is over, you’ll have the room back.” There are many things carried in those sentences, things she isn’t saying. We won’t bother each other any more. I’ll be out of here as soon as possible. Remembering the kind of things she was saying in the pub, those things don’t surprise him.

He shifts awkwardly, not wanting to hover but uncertain whether he should go quite yet. “Do you need any help? Is there anything else I should do?”

She walks to the bed, placing the suitcase upon the covers and opening it. “I’m fine.”

“Right. Well. If there’s a problem or you need me at all, just call me.”

“That will be unlikely.”

“Believe me, I’m well aware. However, if the need does arise, I would like to be alerted before, you know, the apocalypse descends or I’m murdered in my sleep.” The curious young boy he’s done his best to bury – the one that would be awestruck, enthralled, because there are angels, angels are real, and he must know everything, all of it, right now – makes him ask, “Do you even sleep? Do you need to?”

She’s still looking through the suitcase, and she doesn’t turn at his question. However, she does answer it. “It’s not essential, but it is recommended when we’re in a human body. We don’t get tired in the same way that humans do, but there are symptoms of sleep deprivation for us as well.”

He nods and then feels like a fool. She can’t even see him. “I see.” He doesn’t, not really – she never seems to make an effort to clarify anything, and while it used to be intriguing, it’s now just frustrating. If he’s intrigued, he’s intrigued by the chance to discover more later. Now he knows that those answers will never come, intrigue has no room to grow, quashed instead by annoyance. Into the quiet of the room, he asks, “What you said, about, about seeing my soul?”

“That was true. We can see every human soul.”

He grits his teeth. “And the comment about my spine?” It comes out harsher than he intended it to.

She keeps on sorting through the case, and he has an absurd moment of wondering whether angels need to brush their teeth. She doesn’t speak, and after several seconds have passed, she still hasn’t. “Good night, Adrian,” she says eventually. It’s a very firm ending of the discussion.

He stands by the door, every muscle in his body tense and poised for a confrontation, and honestly considers starting a fight – but truthfully, he’s tired. His eyelids are growing heavy, and playing these kinds of word games is utterly exhausting. Besides, if he goes to sleep, he won’t have to deal with her for any longer – or he can at least postpone it until the morning, when he’s had some sleep and got some caffeine in him. “Good night, Angela.”

He heads to the door. The moment before he shuts it behind him, he feels a prickling at the back of his neck, and knows that her eyes are on him, watching him steadily. Then it’s shut, and the feeling’s gone. He shakes his head, stifling a yawn and heading to his room. He’s relieved at the thought of this day being over.

Light As Air: Part Ten

Now Angela eventually has returned, she’s come bearing a suitcase.

He’s all too aware of the fact that Olivia’s behind him, having followed him into the room, and he wonders how on earth he’s meant to explain himself. Or, well, the case.

He turns to his sister and says, “This is… this is a complex order. I think I’ll need to speak to her for a while, so could you take the shop?”

“Sure,” Olivia says. She glances down, seeming to realise at the same time everyone else does that she’s still holding a slice of bread. “I’ll just…” She gestures back to the kitchen, the rest of her soon following the gesture.

When he turns back to Angela, he pointedly looks at the suitcase, not at her. Well, truthfully, it’s probably less of a look and more of a glare. “We need to talk.” When she nods, he shuts the door to the back room. The shop isn’t exactly private from the public, but they’ve had few enough customers that he’s certain they’ll get a few minutes to themselves.

“We had an agreement,” she says, as if that’s any sort of explanation or excuse.

“No. Like you always seem to do, you gave me an order and expected me to follow it. Any kind of agreement there was all presumed, and believe me, it was all on your end.”

“I have no choice,” is her irritable retort.

“Of course you have a bloody choice! You could go to a bloody Travelodge! I mean, honestly, I can’t say it’s as if the forces of Heaven would really care, would they? This is London, I’m sure there are some very good deals on nearby hotels, God knows it’ll be easy enough to find a Premier Inn or something if you put your mind to it…”

“I’m staying here,” she says, far too firmly and confidently for his peace of mind.

“No, you’re bloody not! Not after last night’s performance, I assure you. And it’s not even as if you know I have somewhere to put you. You might be stuck sleeping on the sofa, and well, Your Majesty, somehow I doubt you’d take very kindly to that – “

He’s surprised by how quiet her voice is as she says, “A sofa would be perfectly adequate.”

That halts him, even though he doesn’t want it to. “What?”

“Anything that would allow me to carry out my mission is enough. We’re trained to withstand inclement conditions and battlegrounds. This is hardly a trial.”

“Well, I’m sure you can survive anywhere, then, including the sofa or my spare room – Shit.”

“I knew.” She sighs.

“You knew?”

“I could read quite clearly that you were lying. We can with humans anyway, but you are an unimpressive liar.”

Right now, he wants her to be anywhere but here. Heaven. Shropshire, which according to some is the next best thing. Anywhere but standing in the shop with her practical, dark brown suitcase and staring him down. He certainly doesn’t want her getting into his only spare room. Just the thought of explaining it all is starting to give him a headache. “Why the hell should I let you stay here?”

“You say that as if you have a choice.”

He shrugs. “So I don’t. Fine. But if you stay here, we keep out of each other’s way. I don’t need you bothering customers while you’re here, or bothering me.”

With a shrug of her own, she simply responds, “Understandable.”

Well, that’s one word for it. As she often does, she’s taken the wind out of his sails. He sighs, wanting to sit down but realising that he’s not behind the counter – sometime during all this, he’s stepped forward, tried to get in her face and make demands. It’s nothing different from what she’s been doing, but he still doesn’t like it. He makes a conscious effort to take a step backwards, to loosen his muscles and to stop looking like he’s dying for a fight. Something occurs to him, and he wonders how to phrase it. “Look,” he tries eventually, “you might not want to do the Godvoice, or the glaring thing, so much while you’re here.”

She raises an eyebrow. “’The Godvoice’?”

He shrugs. “The whole” – he lowers his voice an octave or two, knowing it sounds nothing like what she subjected him to; just the memory of that makes his legs turn to jelly all over again – “obey, tiny human trick. It can be rather… disconcerting, if you catch my drift.”

She raises an eyebrow. “It is a last resort.”

“Even so…”

“And in no way do I glare.”

He clears his throat, tilts his head to one side and tries his best to look at her like he’s planning her murder. He doesn’t quite manage it – it’s probably closer to “slightly confused zombie” than “angry Angela” – but it’s certainly a valiant attempt.

“That’s far from accurate.”

“I don’t care. You obviously understand what I mean.”

She stands steadfast, crossing her arms as if to ground herself further. “And why, exactly, should I take orders from you?”

“It wasn’t an order. I think you’ll find it was a request. The way that I see it, people have already convinced themselves that Scholars can summon things. They think we’re all…” He waves his hands about in a stupid, half-hearted look at me, I’m enchanting things kind of way. “…meddling with ‘unseen forces and communing with the devil. Whatever nonsense is in vogue this year.” He sighs. “If people find out that I have an angel in my bookshop, things could get difficult for both of us. Not just me – I mean, I’m sure there’s some way you could extricate yourself from that sort of mess, but, well, I doubt you really want the attention.”

She, too, seems to disengage. There’s no fight in her when she nods and says, “I understand. Thanks for warning me.”

Adrian is certain he must have misheard. Was that a thank you? From Angela?

With a nod of his own, he says stiffly, “Right.” He looks back to the door. “Look, if you’re going to stay, I need to get them out of here. I’m not up for all the questions and the, well, the interrogation.”

“You don’t need to yet.” At his questioning look, she elaborates, “I have some business to attend to. I’ll return later today. May I leave this here?” She lifts the case.

“I suppose so.”

“Thank you.” She walks past him, putting it down next to the counter, and then walks out of the shop with no further ado – not even a word. Typical. He’s left staring in the wake of her, wondering what the hell to do.

Light As Air: Part Nine

If you ever grow a spine.

It’s not like it isn’t true. Even so, it bothers him.Hearing it from someone else, rather than in his own head… It’s different. Crushingly different, in fact. He’s sorting out stock, opening cardboard boxes. He doesn’t mistreat books – it’s a personal peeve of his when people do – but he’s wielding the parcel knife perhaps a little more forcefully than necessary today. He’s minding the covers, but the boxes are absolute toast.

The bell above the door rings. Ah. His first customer of the day. He surreptitiously checks the clock: it’s just gone 9.30.

A bloke is striding through the door, smiling cheerily, and he looks like a scholarly type. No, not a Scholarly type – just your garden variety student. He’s wearing a long, striped scarf, and his glasses are round and half the size of his face, with heavy, black rims. He also has that sleep-deprived, not quite post-puberty look that just screams uni student. It makes Adrian think of that group in the pub and the feelings seeing them brought him. No. Not right now.

The bloke walks up to the counter. “Hello?”

Adrian realises that he’s crouching on the floor a few feet away from the counter, i.e., essentially invisible.

He pops up, steps to stand behind the counter, and the guy jumps a little. “Hi,” he says with his best serving-the-customers smile.

To his credit, the newest customer makes a very quick recovery. He assumes a cheerful demeanour and says, “I hear this is a good place for Scholar lore.”

“That it is.” He heads over to a bookcase in the corner of the room, and he hears the smallest intake of breath. Oh. When he glances back, the man’s eyes are on his jeans pocket; that’s where the watch is, seeing as he’s foregone the waistcoat today. He wonders whether to acknowledge it, or whether that’ll make things awkward. Very likely awkwardness will ensue, so he looks back to the books. On top of the bookcase, he knows, is a fairly self-explanatory cardboard sign that reads Scholars/Mages.“How complex are we talking? Are we talking about Scholar history, or magehood in this century, or…?”

“Activism,” the man says. He’s come to stand next to Adrian, and his eyes are flickering curiously over the spines of the book. He grinds his teeth a little at that; any thought of spines bothers him at the moment. “Mainly the movement, the rest of it. I’m… uh, I’m doing my degree on Scholar history. But this aspect of it, it’s – new to me.” He talks with his hands, like Olivia does; his hands move minutely with every word, his fingers seeming to fidget along with the rest of him, and he gestures to the bookcase every now and again. Adrian hasn’t actually met a scholar of Scholars – hah – because there aren’t many people who study it. Most people know the basics, and they view looking into it further as a waste of time, a soft subject.

“Sure.” Adrian knows what shelf it’s on, but it takes him a second to place it. He slides it out, listening to the gentle hiss of cover against cover. “Try this.” Magehood: Rights, Reasons and Relations. Revised edition, reprinted for its twentieth anniversary. “It’s usually a good starting point.”

“Thanks.” He does seem genuinely grateful, and he takes it gently, flicks through the pages with visible interest. “How much?”

“7.99.” Adrian cocks his head, thinks about it for a second or two. “Though we haven’t exactly had many takers, so I’d be willing to give it to you for six quid.”

The guy lights up. “Six is good. Yeah, I’d be willing to pay six.”

“Great.” Adrian turns to walk back to the counter, and the student trails after him, slow and absentminded, his nose still in the book. He stops, holds his hand out for payment.

The customer looks up from his book and startles, the hint of a blush growing in his cheeks. “Right. Sorry.” He places the book on the counter and then digs around in his pockets, bringing out money and attempting to sort it. He dumps a fiver and a pound coin in front of Adrian; the coin clatters as it falls onto the countertop, spinning a little before it falls. “Here you go,” he says, rather redundantly, in Adrian’s opinion; it’s not as if the handover was subtle enough to be missed by anyone within about twenty feet. Even though the noise makes him wince involuntarily, Adrian can’t begrudge him for it – we’ve all had those kind of days, Adrian especially.

Adrian smiles. ”Thanks. Bag?” At the man’s nod, he wraps the heavy book in a carrier bag – it’s nearly as much of a brick as Angela’s – and hand it over.

“Thank you.” He turns to head out of the shop.

“Have a nice day!” Adrian calls to his retreating back.

He sighs, slumping into his chair and leaning an elbow on the counter. It’s going to be a long day. He realises his elbow’s knocked something. A book. He reaches for it, sliding it back towards him, and grins when he sees what it is. Rise of the Dinosaur Ninjas. He’d forgotten – he must have left it here yesterday, before Angela ambushed him. He picks it up and quickly finds the page where he left off, beginning to read.

Sweat glistened on Aurileyna’s golden skin. Hours in the scorching desert had begun to take their toll on her, and she was feeling light-headed. In her exhaustion, she panted for breath, her round, plentiful, perfectly-sized bosom heaving. The fur of her bikini was her only refuge fsrom the hot red sun, and even that soon wouldn’t be enough – her skin had only developed a glowing, even tan so far, but would soon burn if it was exposed to the sun any longer. She was just considering finding some shelter when an earth-shaking roar sounded from somewhere close behind her.

She whipped round, her chest bouncing with the motion, and had only a moment to wonder how a tyrannosaurus rex could possibly wield a pair of nunchuks with such tiny claws before she began once again to run for her life.

“Adrian.”

It seems that he won’t be allowed even a moment’s peace. He reluctantly removes himself from the book, trying to seem politely interested but instead suspecting that he’s probably glaring.”Paul.”

“Did you get your buyer to pay for the book?”

He’s been dreading this conversation. “She’s promised to return in a few days.”

Paul raises a disbelieving eyebrow, and it’s not a question when he says it: “Has she.”

“I promise.”

Paul shakes his head. “I just don’t understand what you’re doing. You’ve got your head screwed on right, so I just can’t understand why you’d put through an order that big on a promise that vague.” He leans on his tiptoes to look past Adrian, at the door to the back room. “Do you have any Earl Grey?”

Adrian tuts. “Of course I do. I’m not sure what you were expecting. Just keep an eye on the shop.”

With a nod and a crack of his knuckles, Paul takes Adrian’s place behind the counter while he heads through the door.

When he returns, Paul has a fag on the go and is absentmindedly browsing Rise of the Dinosaur Ninjas.

“This is excellent,” he says. “Where’d you find it?”

“It was a birthday present.” He tacks on an explanatory, “Olivia.” He places a mug in front of him. “And put that out. You’re in a room with a lot of very flammable paper. And, well, a very irritable me.” He grew out of his childhood asthma, but he’s never quite forgotten the effect cigarette smoke used to have on him. He still finds himself on edge whenever someone lights up in an enclosed place. Besides, he lives here and Paul doesn’t, even though Paul owns the place, and it’s rude to do it without at least asking first. They’ve had this conversation far too many times before.

“Can I use the back yard?”

Adrian shrugs. “Certainly. Whatever lets you get your fix. Just not in here, alright?”

With a recalcitrant shrug of his own, Paul tucks the book under his arm and grabs the mug, the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. The cheap ciggy and the pulp paperback are a sharp contrast with his work shirt and trousers. He walks through, trailing smoke with him. Adrian waits until he’s out of eyesight to start swiping at the air, opening a window to let some of it out. Phew.

The bell above the door rings.

He resists the urge to snap, What?! When he turns round, he sees Olivia. “Oh, of course,” he sighs. “Of course this isn’t a private party, feel free to come and join us…”

“Us?”

“Paul’s in the back. Smoking. And stealing my bloody book.”

She puts her hands on her hips. Frowns. Tilts her head to one side and squints at him. Squints some more. “You know, you’ve got a face like a kicked arse.”

Now he does glare at her. “Thanks.”

“No, I mean right now. Something’s really obviously getting on your wick. What is it?”

What happened with the pub and with Angela – it’s too hard to explain. Besides, mentioning things like souls? He’ll sound like even more of a nutter, if that’s possible. He shakes his head, looking pointedly towards the back room door. “Paul was smoking in here again.”

Olivia’s irritation joins his. She glares towards the door, as if her gaze can penetrate three walls and skewer Paul. Who knows? Perhaps it can – it is truly exceptional. Adrian’s been on the receiving end of it enough times. “I told him. I told him that if he did it again I’d take those cigarettes and shove them up his – “

“Yes. Thank you.”

She darts twitchy glances around the room. “I’ll go out there and do it in a minute, but are you sure that that’s all it is?” Her eyes skewer him this time instead.

He debates with himself about it, considers lying. A half-lie, maybe – that might be better than nothing. If he uses that, he might be able to sound slightly less insane. “My buyer… She came back.”

Olivia’s eyebrows raise. “The angel?”

“No,” he lies. “Well yes, the buyer. But no, not an angel. I think you were right. Some sleep helped. But she was still impressively demanding.”

He can actually see her resisting the urge to roll her eyes. “Of course she was.”

He shrugs, raising a hand to rub the back of his neck. “In all frankness, I can’t say it went well.”

“How ‘not well’ did it go? Did she pay you?”

He wants very much to say yes, but he knows that she’ll soon go into the back yard and talk to Paul, who’ll start one of his rants on the subject. He’ll be caught out. “No,” he sighs.

The disbelief and the glare return in full force. “I can’t believe you let her do that.”

“She’s coming back,” he protests, backing away a step or two.

“Did she say when, or will she just randomly turn up and upset you again?”

He looks towards the back room door, praying for Paul to come in and save him. Actually, scratch that – Paul would probably just join in. “Turn up, probably. Hopefully not, but who knows?”

“Right.” She sighs, her shoulders slumping, and then looks towards the back room door. “Is he still out there?” When Adrian nods, she heads through to the back yard.

He lasts an hour until, with no customers and no sign of any more coming, he decides to take an early lunch break. When he heads out there, he finds Paul still buried in Rise of the Dinosaur Ninjas with another fag on the go. Olivia is next to him, seemingly reading the little labels on the flowerbeds. It all seem strangely harmonious – all is quiet, and no-one is threatening actual bodily harm. Adrian can’t help but be a little suspicious.

“So,” he begins.

Paul jumps. Olivia doesn’t. She probably knew he was coming from the moment he stood up behind the counter.

“So,” she returns.

“Is there any particular reason you’re here?”

She shrugs. “I don’t know. I just thought I’d stop by, and I… never quite left?” With a sigh, she asks, “Have you got any bread?”

He gestures into the kitchen and then heads back in. Paul hasn’t even stirred. Olivia follows him in and begins looking through cupboards.

He has his head in the fridge, seriously considering what can be done with one block of gouda, no butter and a cucumber, when he hears the shop bell ring. A few seconds later, Olivia nudges him. “There’s a woman here. And she’s asking for you by name.”

Oh, bollocks.

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?”