Dogfighters – Excerpt
To all the readers who didn’t throw the book at the wall after the cliffhanger in volume one.
Volume Two of Under the Hill
With a lithe movement, Oonagh swung her leg over the dragon’s ridge and slid to the ground. Here she proved taller than Flynn remembered. Seven feet tall and willowy, shiny and black as polished obsidian. She had changed herself, as casually as Flynn might change a jacket, in order to match her steed, and the only patch of colour between the two of them was the dragon’s red and amber eye, fixed with reptilian curiosity on the little golden birds of Sumala’s headdress.
“I must confess, I’m disappointed.” Oonagh drifted close enough for Flynn to touch. She had done this to him. She had ordered his plane shot down. She had been the one. How right that she should be the colour of soot, like the inside of the Lanc’s Perspex once it had been coated with burning airman.
He thought of grabbing her, putting a hand around her throat and squeezing. But despair was still reverberating in him like the aftereffects of a struck gong. He felt as though he stood at the bottom of the ocean, miles down, submerged beneath the pressure of tons and tons of grief. It was so heavy he couldn’t move.
While he thought, the queen’s guards fell into place around her, their long spears gleaming with viscous, almost living light. The elf guard were all sharpness, even the silver glints from their armour fell on the eye like razors.
“It cost us some pains, finding out exactly what the prophecy meant,” Oonagh went on. Her bare feet did not sink into the marsh. The white flash of her chain upon chain of diamonds had a pinprick glitter. Like Sumala, she had left off other clothes, except for a black hooded cloak beneath which she was clad entirely in jewels. Unlike Sumala, her figure was warlike, tall and honed and sturdy. She noticed him looking and swept out a hand in what seemed a gesture of invitation. With the spear tips behind it, it was a command. “Walk with me.”
She led the way back to the oaken causeway, through thickets of gorse that came into bud as she passed. The silver eyes she affected today gleamed with the same edge as her guardsmen’s knives when she looked sidelong at Flynn’s shell-shocked face. “Nor were you and your friend easy to locate. We have the promise that you will prove instrumental in saving me from a great threat…”
“As long as I am not dead.” Flynn thought about suicide. Rumours that some divisions had been issued with cyanide pills for just that purpose had proved in the end only rumours, but now he thought, If only.
Oonagh smiled. Her skin had the texture of hot tar and the smile looked greasy as a result. “Ah, yes. As long as you were neither dead nor alive. And which would you say you were?”
A new horror joined the sick realisation in his stomach and made the tic above his eye start up, maddening as the drip drip drip of water torture. Alive, he’d said, confidently enough to Liadain, but that was before he’d seen his harness rot into the ground in seconds.
Neither alive nor dead? Huh, yes. How remarkably appropriate. He felt in his pocket for the final stub of his last cigarette, only to find he had already used his last match. So, it seemed destiny did own the fates of men after all. Free will was only so much hogwash and wishful thinking, and he was doomed, ever since he made that first bargain with the hag, to end up somehow supporting the elvish equivalent of Hitler.
Oonagh’s dragon performed a strange leaping hop in an attempt to keep up. Unlike the queen herself, the creature had sunk deeply into the mud, had to use all its wing power to pull itself out with a pop and a whiff of marsh gas. It came down before them on the firmer bank of the river, swam out into the stream to get clean. Sumala, surrounded by guards, ran and squatted on the bank, calling to it. It leaned its chin on the reeds in front of her, and he could hear them whispering to each other, she in a barely audible murmur, it in a hiss like iron quenched in a bucket.
“What do you want of me?” Flynn asked Oonagh. He was surprised at Sumala’s seeming carefree attitude. A moment ago she’d seemed to understand that something dreadful had happened. Now she was off, making new friends.
A lurch of guilt caught the thought up as concern for her fought a weary battle with his own selfish misery. Why was he thinking badly of the girl when she had just given up her own escape for his sake? Yet why had she been so ready to do so?
He wondered if Liadain was right. Was Sumala’s real purpose to stick with him, to control him? If that was the case, then of course she would have turned down the chance of being sealed in a different world from him. Was she being noble, a good friend? Or had she just proved herself a spy?
Oonagh put a firm hand on his shoulder, breaking these uncomfortable thoughts. “I want you to do what you have been brought here to do.”
He shrugged it off, there was a tickly charge to the touch, and he didn’t want her reassurance. “I won’t help you invade other countries, enslave their inhabitants and plunder their resources. I don’t care what I’m destined to do. I won’t do that.”
Accepting the rebuff, Oonagh climbed up to the lip of the riverbank. The fog was breaking up and streaming away, and it seemed for a moment as if she were the lightning in the centre of the cloud. Then the sun broke through, and she dazzled so bright he couldn’t look. “My poor child,” she said. “I cannot invade anyone’s country, and no one can invade mine. No one comes in or out of this realm without the permission of one of its queens. That is how it is for the queens and kings of all worlds. Only your own is as leaky as a sieve. That is because the human world has killed its king and half destroyed itself in the process. I think you have been speaking to someone who has told you lies about me.”
She had a plausible voice. He felt compelled to believe her, and even as he noticed and resented the compulsion, Sumala said, “That’s true. And that’s why you had to kidnap me, because you thought that if you had me as a hostage my father would have to agree to open his realm to let me back. Then you could take your warships into his country and have it for yourself. Well, I won’t let you, and neither will he.”
“Someone has been saying remarkable things to you both.” The queen beckoned, and her dragon set its great claws in the bank and heaved itself like a crocodile onto the land.
“Someone should be eaten,” it said, in a voice like wind through gravel. “A moment’s snack and it’s done.” It laid its head down in front of Flynn, and its muzzle alone came up to his thigh. With its jaw on the ground, it and he regarded one another eye to eye.
There was a whole universe of fire in its gaze, welcoming him into cave upon cave of gold and amber, maze upon maze of riddles. He saw himself briefly as it must see him, in monotone, surrounded by a lapping cloud of something. It looked like smoke. No, it didn’t look like anything—it tasted, he tasted of weariness and confusion and despair.
He was leaving a vapour trail of homesickness behind him. It tasted the washed-out blue of a woodpigeon’s breast and smelled like frankincense. Flynn shook his head, stepped back, and Sumala put herself between the mocking yellow gaze and him. “Leave him alone!”
The rumble of dragon laughter was like stones falling. Its face did not change shape, but it raised its wings as a dog might raise alerted ears. “He is not above a mouthful, but I would have trouble getting the taste out of my mouth afterwards. You, on the other hand, covered in gold…”
It slid out a long, bright blue tongue and lashed the air around her. “I could crunch the bones, melt the gold and spit it out to add to my hoard. You are a toothsome morsel.”
Hands on hips, Sumala stared it down, and at last the avalanche of laughter came again. Flynn thought, for one mad moment, that it winked at him, the glow in one eye fading, flicking back on.
“Up you come then,” it finished with ghastly cheer, jerking its chin to gesture them up. At the same time, one of the guards jabbed Flynn in the back with his spear, and the energy in it gave him an acid zing, as if his blood had turned to lemon juice.
He staggered but managed to stay on his feet, propping himself on the dragon’s neck ridges. A murmur went through the onlooking warriors, and the one who had struck him stepped back, looking frightened.
As he pushed himself upright, the dragon’s neck surprisingly warm beneath his palm, the scales smooth but not slimy, it occurred to him that they had expected him to fall over, unconscious, and he remembered, belatedly, how much stronger he was than they.
Could that help him now? Could he turn, unexpectedly, fight them all and… And what? Certainly not go home. So what else was there to do? He looked speculatively at Oonagh, who was leaning on her own spear, quite calmly, waiting for him to do as he was told.
The skipper would have fought her just for that. Just because he didn’t like to be told what to do. But Flynn would never see the skipper again, so what the hell did it matter?
Liadain’s information came back to his mind and, bruised about the heart though he was, he felt a stirring of purpose return. Perhaps he couldn’t fight his own war any more, but in this world, could he still do his bit? The thought of resistance grew slowly, but as it did, the dragon’s mouth opened slowly in a gape of moonstone teeth, and a wash of cool purple flame flickered about his ankles.
Ah. Yes, he thought, good point. Setting his foot in the angle of the dragon’s elbow, then on the shoulder, he climbed up and took a seat on the long, sinuous back. It had what he considered to be the traditional arrangement of spikes all along its backbone, but when seen up close they were more like the humps of a camel, smooth knots of flesh beneath which the skin indented as it did in the hollows of a backbone. The result was a natural saddle, like that on a medieval warhorse, with a pommel before and cantle behind. A little tight for him, particularly in his boiler suit, flying jacket and Mae West, but smooth and not too hard, padded by a layer of fat.
The muscle worked beneath him, and he fell forward as the dragon brought its hind legs beneath itself. He grabbed at a dorsal spike to avoid being flung back again as it pushed up on its forelegs, walked with the awkward, deliberate tread of an iguana back to more solid ground. Sumala ran lightly up the trailing tail, followed by two guards, and as the dragon turned, bringing himself nose on into the wind, for all the world like a Lanc about to take flight, Oonagh jumped from ground to shoulder and set herself in the embroidered saddle.
I could kill her now, Flynn thought, separated only by the dragon’s spike from her vulnerable back. His knife was still in his boot. A single stab and he could avenge the death of the boys. He could end Liadain’s war at a stroke. These people at least could have peace.
With a swarming, uncomfortable run, the dragon hurled itself at the riverbank. It was higher here, two or three feet above the water’s surface. The great muscles bunched and thrust. He scrabbled at the turf with claws as silver as moonlight, digging the point on his tail in and using it for extra thrust. The huge, membranous wings snapped out—the shape of his back changing beneath Flynn’s seat. Flynn gripped with his knees as he’d been taught to do riding the carthorse on his uncle’s farm, but the black scales gave no purchase, only a million reflections of himself, looking wild and wind tossed and a little fraught.
The river surface flattened in the down drop and pressure hammered Flynn into the ridge of spine. Tears came to his eyes. They rose in the air with a bound. Another down blast, and the dragon tucked its feet in close and, just missing the other bank of the river, began to laboriously climb the air as a man might climb a flight of steps. Every riser an effort.
Despite twenty-three operational sorties, Flynn didn’t like to see the ground recede beneath him. He missed his navigator’s cabin and the blackout curtains he could pull around him to shut out vision and fear. But he swallowed around the familiar smooth pebble of fear in his throat and looked down, memorising the lay of the land—river to waterfall, waterfall to industrial heartland, distant glimmer of spaceships and mountains beyond. In the other direction the river bisected high moorlands and terminated in a lake ringed by tall hills and forest.
“Why didn’t you tell me about the spaceships?” he asked, his hand heavy on his knee, as if he already carried the knife in his palm and was conscious of hiding it there.
“It is your destiny to do what you will do.” Oonagh swung a leg about the pommel of her saddle, and used it to swivel, facing him. “Already there are signs that things are working out to my advantage. Is it my place to make your choices easier?”
“Yes, if I’m to be your champion.”
“No. If that is what you are destined to be, that is what you will be.” It was hard to tell what the thoughts were beneath the silver mirrors of her eyes, and her face was flawless and expressionless as a result. But her sigh was the sigh of a very old woman. “Yet if you have seen my country, you know why I must act. Your people are not the only ones fighting for their lives, Navigator. Tell me, do you like raining fire on the heads of innocent children? A warrior’s honour is never to fight with drudges, serfs and women, and yet you go to war against all of these. Does your conscience not trouble you?”
He could have said yes. But not to her. “Not really. They bombed us first. Besides, Hitler has to be stopped. Gas chambers? Extermination camps? You can’t compromise with that. Let them get rid of their madman, and we’ll stop bombing, but there are worse things than dying, and having him win would be one.”
“You would do anything to stop him.”
“Then we understand each other, for I too am fighting against a future I will not allow to come to pass. You fight for your freedom. I fight for survival.”
“Fine words.” The slipstream blew bitterness out of Flynn’s mouth. “And I’ve heard a lot of fine words recently. Which ones am I supposed to believe?”
She laughed, a full-throated, startling sound. “This is why I shall not give you any more words. If you are to be my champion, then my champion you will be, without persuasion or force.”
“No force?” Sumala shouted into the wind, gesturing behind herself at the guards. “What do you call this?”
“Safeguarding my investment.” Oonagh laughed again.
Beneath them, her merriment fell like rain on a pristine meadow. Between the mountains, the tallest thing in the plain lands was the hill of the palace, its crown as smoothly green as the pastureland, speckled with poppies and cornflowers. The slope of its sides looked bright as red flares, the lime wash reflecting the rosy light of sunlight. A processional line of standing stones wound up to the single great door, and the turf between them was smooth as any English bowling lawn. But where the river pushed its way back into daylight, the exit was concealed by a small copse of briars and elders.
There were other copses here and there in the meadow, making Flynn wonder if they concealed other exits. There was no reason, after all, why path upon path could not be threading through the darkness above and below the city’s public streets.
“What do you intend to do with us?” Sumala asked, shouting over the woosh and rush of the wing beats and the shrill of all her bells.
“Nothing you need fear.” Oonagh smiled. “It is important to me that your father should know I have not mistreated you.”
Sumala’s winglike black brows swept down over her almond-shaped eyes. She scowled very fetchingly, Flynn thought, and the thought had more weight than he might have liked. He could not go home, that much was certain. Therefore he must—if he was to live at all—learn to live with these people. It was probably allowable then to start noticing, once more, how very attractive the girl was.
Don’t give up yet. We’ll find you a way home.
His stomach was a snake pit, full of writhing cold. For the first time, he was sure his imaginary friend was lying. In any event, better treat life from now on as if he’d bailed out over occupied country. Better not to cling too hard to thoughts of what he’d lost—that way lay madness. Better think instead of what he might usefully achieve here.
He reconsidered his knife. The guards were behind Sumala. How quickly could they get to him? Quicker than he could bend down, draw the knife and stab it into Oonagh’s back between the ribs?
Looking back, he met the gaze of the elf who had jabbed him earlier. This particular type affected red eyes, red hair and green skin. Ghastly! That and the intense stare, the look of personal affront he’d worn since he’d failed to lay Flynn out flat the first time, indicated a character who was waiting for the slightest opportunity to pounce.
Flynn leaned, got his fingers into his boot, and the shaft of the spear came down hard on his shoulder. The head of it, flickering with lime-sour light, stood out a little way from his chin. All the cells of his body cringed from the threat of the sting. He pushed the knife back into its scabbard and leaned away. Well, that answered that.
Through his clamped knees, he could feel the surge of a great heartbeat, and he wondered about the moment where he had seen the world through dragon eyes. What would it be like to bank and fly under your own power, in a grey world beneath a constant stream of tastes and scent? He could imagine it if he tried, but could not find words for the experience, even to describe it to himself.
Still, he could feel the jolt of impact from the landing through his own arms and legs, could almost imagine he felt the grate of soil and pebbles through his fingernails. He clung on tight as the great beast dug in, bracing itself against the sudden stop. When everything had settled enough for him to look up, he found its head swung towards him, an emotion that looked like laughter in the inferno of its eyes. Plumes of steam rose from its nostrils and glittered in the sunlight like a fountain of ruby.
Oonagh raised the deep hood of her cloak over her head before she leapt off. Her shadowed face disappeared, and only her jewels could be seen, glittering bloodlike in the radiance of the setting sun. It hung above the distant mountains like a shield of bronze, and the snow beneath it looked like gore.
Another zinging touch with the spear, and Flynn was beginning to get a little brassed off with his guard. But Sumala caught his wrist as he spun to take the creature down, shook her head. She pulled on the straps of his life jacket, bending his face down to hers. “Don’t. You need to be conscious when they put you on the slab. It won’t work, otherwise.” And he thought that since he had decided he was trusting her, he might as well carry on doing it.
Subsiding, he watched the dragon swarm down the side of the hill like a gecko on a wall, headfirst, disappearing into the front gate, scattering passersby as it went. He and Sumala were escorted across the top of the mound to where a toppled monolith lay covered with worms of carving. Oonagh spoke to it, and its shadow became a stairway, leading down by private ways into the blue underground light of the city.
The escort of soldiers closed in about the queen and drove Flynn and Sumala before them through empty passages. No one to mark their queen’s passing, to bow or fawn, or offer violence. The idea of her sneaking through her secret tunnels, far away from the gaze of her subjects, did not count in her favour with Flynn. But perhaps she too knew of the resistance, and was afraid.
His musings ended when he found himself once again in the prison of the sleepers. When he was prodded to lie down on one of the stone tables, his misery and resignation evaporated. This eternal sleep looked too much like death. Sod just lying there and taking it! He panicked, put his head down and charged at the guards, got in a couple of solid hits, a fierce delight in being able to do something fizzing in his veins.
He tasted bitterness, like lemon drops in the back of his throat, as Ghastly dinged him a glancing blow with his cattle prod of a weapon. Grabbing the spear, he wrested it from Ghastly’s hands, caught the elf beneath the ribs with the butt of it. And was just swinging it round to bring the head to bear when Sumala stepped to his side, avoided his flailing arms with ease and pressed a spot at the centre of his biceps. The scalding pain was followed immediately by numbness. His hand opened by itself, and with a rapid twist and wriggle he could barely see for its speed, Ghastly pulled his spear back and gave Flynn one more shot of tooth-jangling pain.
“Oh, bad show!” Flynn cried, looking at Sumala with disappointment and no small betrayal as five of them seized his arms and legs and forced him to lie down flat on the table. There was a feeling of pressure, struggle. He saw the arch of the ceiling above, laced with grey stars.
…and then he slowly became aware of his den around him, the slip and slither of rounded golden pebbles beneath him, smooth as water-tumbled cobbles. He tasted oil and meat, and the blood-copper tang of the lines of malachite in the distant walls. Closer to him, the stink of eagles, guano and gore and their incessantly cheeping chicks. Lazily, he extended his snout and butted the bars that separated their nests from his. “Keep the noise down!”
He stretched out a claw and examined it in the dim of the cavern. Yes, still his claw, adamant tipped and sharp. When he flickered out his tongue he could taste only birds and gold, all the usual presences of his off-time world. But had he really said “Keep the noise down” like a father of toddlers to a rabble of urchins in the street?
He sniffed again, tasted the floor to see if he could scent the faint savour of footsteps, and someone—he was sure it wasn’t him—giggled. A flick of ears detected no unknown breathing in the vicinity. The eagle chicks were waiting for their hourly ration of bull carcasses and had not matured enough to speak. He’d never known an eagle to giggle, in any case.
Wait, he thought, picking up his claws and touching his face with them, poking himself in the nostril and then the eye. Where are my hands?
The giggle came again, and with all his senses on alert, he was aware, this time, that it came from within the depths of his own mind. “Silly. They’re on the slab with the rest of you, in the room of sleepers.”
He uncurled his bulk and scrabbled out of the bowl of his den—the bowl lined with gold. Dragging himself to the door, he squeezed beneath the lintel into the main tack house. Servants bowed and averted their gazes, covering their eyes as they would have done for the queen.
There was no one here who would have giggled. No one here who even knew of the room of sleepers. But the fleeting moment of malice towards Oonagh echoed strangely in the caverns of his mind, as if it reflected from more than one mirror.
He closed his eyes, concentrated. “Sumala, is that you?”
“Of course it is. It’s both of us.”
Setting his chin in the entrance of the city, so that the stream of business must climb over his nose, Kanath amused himself by people-watching, smelling a thousand different varieties of fear and resolve. “This happened when you looked at me, he hazarded. Before you mounted. You looked in my eye. This happened then.”
“I’m sorry!” A female voice came with memories of splendour, of green woodlands hot with the smell of hibiscus, tall slopes leading up to snow, of prayer flags and trumpets, chariots and elephants and drums. Its apology was unconvincing—it felt it had every right to act as it had done, and beneath the righteous certainty, it also felt very pleased with its own cleverness.
“What have you done?” Kanath asked, though he could smell them, now he knew, smell them on his back and his harness, and trace that smell down the spiral winds of the city to the still place just below the heart, where time was siphoned away from the ne’er-do-wells and criminals of the city to go towards Oonagh’s projects. “How is time passing for you at all?”
“You have a splinter of my soul in you,” replied the female voice smugly. “And the soul is eternal and beyond time. All things happen to it at once. It creates the illusion of past and present to make sense of the tangle, but it is outside the threads. The people of your world seem very capable of manipulating time, dragon, it is sad that they know nothing about what they meddle with.”
At the conversation, feeling the difference between the bright, innocent naivety of Sumala’s presence and the age-worn weariness of the dragon, Flynn managed to locate enough of his own mind to differentiate himself from the others. “You did the same to me,” he thought, and his mental voice sounded worried to himself, anxious and tired. Their mutual fatigue gave him a strange cross-species sympathy for the dragon. “Does that hurt? How many times can you do it before there’s nothing left?”
“Silly.” Sumala’s smile coloured her mind electric blue. “The soul is like time—it can be divided infinitely, and each part will be whole. All my people can do this, easy as breathing. If I had not done it to you, you would be still suspended in the moment when you lay down. You’d know nothing else until you woke, perhaps a thousand years into the future, and experienced one bright flash of death before becoming part of the dust on the sleepers’ floor.
“This is the way I helped you to come and rescue me, teaching you how to work the controls when you should have known nothing. You weren’t aware of me, but I was there. One cannot, though, sneak into a dragon’s mind unobserved. I think you helped us, Kanath. I think you want to help us more.”
He roused again, straightened his aching legs and crawled along the pleasant scratch of the main road, out into the night. Above, the night sky looked exactly like the vault of the sleepers’ chamber, grey stars and two grey moons hanging over a grey land. The air tasted of burrowing things, worms come up to peek at the surface, night-hunting birds and the gold-green-blue outpouring of hot scents from beneath the hill.
“Want to help you?” Kanath paced up the ramp to the top of the hill, and this time Flynn got to feel the takeoff from inside—the burst of energy and effort, the painful haul, the drop from the edge of the mound and the air beneath his wings like water beneath the arms of a swimmer. There was no more exhilaration than there would be for a man setting out for a walk, and Flynn felt, on the whole, that being inside a Lanc was a better deal. “Why should I desire to help you?”
Good question. “Well,” said Sumala, an edge of uncertainty in her mental tone, “because you do not like being a beast of burden. Because you are proud and free and no pet.”
“I am no pet.”
“Because,” Flynn hazarded, “you don’t seem to be fighting this. I can’t say I was keen on walking around with someone else’s soul inside me, but you seem to have taken to it like a natural.”
“You wish me to resist you? I could snap my mind like my teeth, chew you both and swallow you.”
In their shared belly, Flynn felt fire roil—literal fire, the tongues of it tickling pleasantly. Kanath rumbled and a wash of brimstone-tasting smoke lapped up his throat. Flynn tried to make him blow smoke rings, but his grasp on the body had become slippery. He’d raised the claw with no difficulty, before, but now Kanath knew what was happening, he had restored his ownership with so little fuss Flynn had not noticed it happening. He breathed out a jet of flame, in what Flynn could feel was laughter.
“Not at all. But if you felt like helping us…?”
All this time the dragon’s steady wing beats had been driving it upwards, straight towards the larger of the two moons. The stars had become very bright as they burst through thin films of icing cloud, looked down on the haze of atmosphere, and the palace and grounds. It was possible to see the edges now, to see they had come from a worldlet whose roots dangled into nothingness.
Kanath took one last breath of depleted air and closed his nostrils. Another wing beat and a surge forward, and he breached the outer layer of air, sailed out into space. His scales clamped tight, forming a natural pressure suit, and the fires inside warmed him against the utter cold. The weightlessness was as soothing as a bath for a moment, before he had caught the lip of the closest moon’s gravity well and was using it to fling himself past, and out through the x-rays and the violet scent of the solar wind.
This closest moon was shaped into a rough pyramid and covered on all sides with fields. A continent of vineyards, an archipelago of orchards, and three-sided fields the size of countries, burgeoning with other crops. Obligingly, Kanath focussed—he had long sight that would put a hawk to shame—and Flynn saw the figures toiling in the fields, wondered what it was about them that looked familiar.
“They are human slaves.”
Coming out from beneath the bulk of the harvest moonlet, they swam up towards the second moon, which proved on closer examination to be a huge, blasted world. They dived into its arid air, and though everything Kanath saw was monochrome, this place smelled grey. As up became down, Flynn saw the dejected shapes of a city below. Laid out like the palace, around a road that was a single spiral, it looked at first like a dropped shell buried in black sand.
Kanath swept down and landed on the cracked pavement of the central avenue in a district where stone amphitheatres gave way to lumpy cairns. They gleamed fitfully as the scouring breeze removed a layer of dust only to replace it with another, and Flynn saw they were made up of swords, arrowheads, spears, pile upon pile, surfaces constantly abraded by the wind, rubbed blunt but shining.
“What on earth?”
No reply from Kanath, only a reverent sadness, such as a man might feel when he walked among graves.
“I think they are sacrifices,” Sumala said, her mental voice hushed. “I think this city is a temple. You see down there? Hostelries for the pilgrims, baths where they can clean themselves. A place to give up their weapons. It is a temple of peace, I think, but the god has left it.”
“Or she is dead,” Kanath acknowledged. He had come out from among the abandoned piles of blades and now he left the road, turning right into a mausoleum of crumbling sculptures. A crushing weariness built up in Flynn with every inchoate shape.
Incense, gold, blue, like a smell of firecrackers, and Kanath’s head swung round, sniffing. Once he had stopped moving, the wind coated him in dust, made him indistinguishable from the ruins—a statue of a dragon. But, inside, all three of them had leapt a little for joy.
The centre of the city was three massive buildings arranged around a parade square. Each building trailed a curved tail of small shrines, so that—observed from the air—the effect was of a three-legged wheel. All were decrepit and empty except for the small shrine closest to them. There, a candle-lantern’s wax-warm light flickered. When Kanath peered, they could see, through the windows, an undamaged statue of a woman in a carriage of living wood, driving on her team of spotted panthers. There were flowers at her feet and a black bundle of something that slowly unfolded itself from its crouch and became a young priest with his eyes closed and his fingers smudged with pollen.
Kanath looked away, and Flynn was glad of it. It seemed intrusive to stare at the poor creature, left alone in his pieties in the middle of ruin.
“My father said Oonagh’s people were once like ours,” Sumala offered gently. “Glad to make music and dance before the gods. But they lost their gods and we did not. It is a terrible thing, my father said, to be suddenly without the purpose for which you were made.”
Scent came like a shout streaming past them from the central square, the taste of bronze and elf-flesh with its almost chlorophyll-like tang. Kanath swarmed forwards until he could put his snout around the final statue and look. There was a rumbling and a shudder beneath his feet, and from the broken doorway of the farthest temple elvish figures began to emerge. A batch of nine came sauntering into the dusty air, drew themselves up into a ragged line, and as they were doing so another nine emerged, and then another.
Barracks underground, Flynn thought, and some kind of lift to the surface. They’re coming out for a bit of square bashing? They bloody need to, they’re an absolute shambles.
He counted eighty-one groups of nine soldiers, and then a group of three, all of them in chain mail except the last. “Why are you showing me this?”
Kanath’s fire leapt, filling him with warmth. “Show you things? I am merely out for my evening’s exercise.”
“Where’s the army to be sent?”
The blaze grew so hot it scorched him. “How am I to know? Shall we look?”
The scratching of his claws blown away by the ever-present shrill of the sandstorm, his nostrils and eyes slitted, the dragon writhed like a great lizard out from the shelter of the garden of statues into something what must once have been parkland, if the dust-filled flowerbeds and dead trees were any indication. He reached the terrace of shrines and, digging his claws into the stone, swarmed slowly up to lie along the flat roof like a carving.
The last three elves of the host were now lying down on couches set around an ornamental pond in the centre of the parade square. With a flash that turned the swirling dust clouds into bright white veils, the waters lit up, mirror smooth, mirror bright. When Kanath looked through, they could see farmland beneath clear skies dotted with cloud. A tractor in the distance and, closer to them, a man in overall trousers and a checked shirt, bending down to rub behind the ears of his mongrel dog.
Flynn’s body rested in timeless suspension back at the palace. Without it—without moist palms, the plunge of his stomach, the halt and race of his heart—he could muster only an intellectual horror. But that was bad enough. “I was told Oonagh meant to attack Sumala’s people. Not mine!”
“She will have to go through your world to get to mine,” Sumala said, a note of strained patience in her tone, as if she had expected him to have grasped this earlier. “And she will not wish to move her armies through hostile territory. It is only good tactics for her to capture your world first, in order to get to mine. I thought that should be clear even to you.”
There was no body to provide the panic and the sickness, but no sickness and panic to distract him from the ramifications. This was why he was here in Elfland, then. Not for Oonagh’s prophecy, and not due to some cosmic mistake. No, he’d obviously been placed here to stop this, providentially given the chance to save his world. It was the war, writ large over the universe. What point defeating Hitler if the world was only to go down beneath an even more inhuman regime?
“Take us back, Kanath. Now!”
“Uninvited guests should be more polite,” remarked the dragon casually. The three-way whole of them which had begun to feel almost comfortable wavered as a dark-shining mass bulged beneath it and burst. Flynn’s grasp on himself exploded into flying droplets. He grabbed for them and they ran through his mental fingers. He was three people at once, and none at all. He was desolate and resentful at his father’s inaction, satisfied over his triumph as he would have been over the sweet taste of a mouthful of gold.
Something in Flynn, impatient and certain, thought, No. I don’t have time to lose myself like this, and began to plot the coordinates of himself on his own mental map. Here was his ego, here his memories of RAF training, here a cloistered and lonely childhood, and here his mental skipper, revealed as three parts wishful thinking and one part need.
The skipper had his insubstantial foot on a thing that looked like a horizontal silver tree. Lightning moved up it and down again, bathing it in an eerie blue light. “Give this a kick,” he said. “Tell your young woman to do the same.”
“She’s not my…” he began, guiltily, and then stopped as his priorities rearranged themselves. “I need your help. Not yours—you’re just a figment of my imagination. I need the real man. He’ll know what to do. I’ve got to let him know.”
Sumala’s dance-toughened foot kicked the silver thing so hard that pain went through Flynn’s head like a needle. But the pain subsided faster for him than it did for the dragon. When she did it again, he used that moment of grace from Kanath’s will to reconnect all his severed parts into one personality. He could feel the graze on his jaw as Kanath whipped his head from side to side, trying to shake out the agony.
The landscape of his mind bulged and distorted, and Flynn felt the pressure of the beast’s will come against him like a flying cloud of ash. He resisted being pulled apart again, resisted the sting and scour and increasing agony. Wished for a body so he might double over, sob ’til his nose streamed blood and the pressure drove blood out of his tear ducts and his burst ears. But he had no body to either suffer or fail, no prospect of relief by lapsing into unconsciousness. Instead, he pictured himself pushing his way forward through the blast of will, kneeling on the tree—it looked now like a stream with many tributaries, all of them flickering with electrical impulses, and he understood suddenly that it was a nerve ganglion in the dragon’s brain, one that, activated, caused him agony.
He pictured himself pulling the knife from his boot and jabbing it down where the fibres were most tangled, watching the pulse of darkness follow the wound, laughing in the strange blazing ecstasy of the pain.
“Stop it!” Kanath writhed on the derelict roof, trying to bury his head in the cold dirt to get some relief from the stabbing ache. He rolled onto his back, felt the lip of the roof too late and fell, flailing, into the narrow street in front of the shrines. Dust broke his fall, fountained up all around him, and the wind whisked it away with a hiss.
The fall shocked them into an uneasy truce, for long enough, at least, to notice how the light had changed. Kanath heaved over and got his feet back on the ground. His jaw landed with a muffled thud on the street and, as he was pawing at his sore muzzle, he opened his eyes and saw, through the bracket of his claws, the priest of the shrine, lantern held high, watching him with mingled wariness and concern.
The idea struck Flynn readymade. One of his rare moments of inspiration. “Sumala, quick, put a piece of your soul in him. Tell him he has to warn the skipper about the invasion. Tell him I said ‘remember Doncaster’. You’re pretty much divine already, he’ll think it’s a message from his goddess. He’ll be glad.”
“Have I not done enough for you already? I want out. I want to go home.”
“Please. If Skip can stop her getting through my world, then she won’t ever get to yours. You’ll still have a home to go to. Sumala!”
Kanath was already looking at the man. Close to, one could see he was not young at all. Age had piled up in his gaze like the dust on his world. Out of the corner of Flynn’s mental eye, he thought he caught a glimpse of something golden, glittering, that passed like a comet’s tail along the locked gazes. Then the priest frowned, shook himself as if from a sleep, and picked up a conversation Flynn had not been aware they had been having.
“No, windlord. I am too old for the vanity of war. I cannot tell you what you ask. I have not paid attention to anything beyond these four walls for a thousand years.”
Kanath’s disgust was like a red itch beneath the skin. “Go back to your dead god, then, priest, entombed in your mausoleum. You have been no help to the living, lo, this millennia, why should you start now?”
The dragon paced back into the garden of sculptures, found the highest and climbed it, his claws leaving gouges in the undefined shape. There might have been a crown on the head where he perched for a moment, getting his breath back. Then he tossed himself out into the streamers of dust. The great wings snapped out, caught the wind, and he allowed himself to be swept away like a kite with a cut string.
This time the journey through space passed slowly enough for the dragon to begin to feel the burn of oxygen deprivation in his muscles, the maddening urge to breathe. When they reached the ground, Flynn felt as wrung out as if he’d just put down after a twelve-hour flight over Happy Valley. He knew the feel of a joyride well enough, and that—that had not been it.
“Look, Kanath. I apologise for being rude and for causing you pain. But you showed us that for a reason, yes? Help us now. Help us to get free so that we can do something about it.”
“He’s Oonagh’s dog, after all.” Sumala’s tone was grim. “He showed us this just to make us sad, because he thinks we are powerless.”
She slipped through the loom of consciousness and tugged on the threads that moved the dragon’s head, pointing him at the palace, at the waterway entrance through which Flynn had sailed to save her. “Go there!”
Kanath grumbled but obeyed, landing in the stream, swimming like a huge black crocodile into the darkness.
This time they passed boats coming in the opposite direction, watched the boatmen cover their eyes and look away. The scent of fear was like frankincense. It made Flynn think of Sunday service and quieted Kanath almost in the same way. “I am no dog. I am a god,” he said.
Hauling himself out of the water at the landing place, he shook himself and was for one moment surrounded by flying diamonds of blue-lit drops. Then he writhed up to the stairs and put his head in the arch of the first spiral of the stairs. A certain smugness had now come back into his thoughts.
“Go on!” Sumala kicked out again, the jab of pain uniting with Flynn’s sudden realisation of the truth. He rode along and felt the jolt of cold stone against his own shoulders as Kanath tried to squeeze into the hole. It was far too small for him.
“And the stair down to the sleepers from the Gate of Will is smaller.” Flynn reached out to soothe with his imaginary hand the place they had battered between them. The flow of current rejoined itself seamlessly, and Kanath raised his head higher, put up the ridge of his back as a crest and gave a full-body shake.
“Exactly,” he said. “I cannot because I cannot. You should have chosen another host, my parasite friends. I cannot free you from your prison. No matter how you torment me, I cannot reunite you with your bodies. So now the question is, do I let you stay on whole in my mind, or do I pull you into such tiny pieces you will never come together again?
“Fee fi fo fum, I smell the soul of an Englishman. Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his mind until it’s fled.” He laughed with a burst of purple flame. “What do you say to that then, you who dared to command the windlord of a queen?”
“Need to talk to you, Padre.” Chris thumbed his phone open and shut, watching as the reflection of the stained-glass window was deflected up to hit one of the angels of the roof beams square in the face. A service of baptism had just finished, the proud parents and godparents departed, and Grace, in full ecclesiastical vestments, was putting out the candles and smoothing the cloth that covered the altar.
She smiled to see him, though it was a smile with a touch of exasperation. “All right. But you can turn that thing off and put it away. You’re in the house of God, nothing more important than that is going to happen while you’re here.”
With a little laugh, he switched the phone off and tucked it into his back pocket. “It’s a deal. Grace, I want to talk to you about—”
“Just one moment.” She finished her tidying up, pulling a small plug out of the font and wiping it dry with a linen cloth that she passed to a beaming child in a surplus. Chris made his way into the Lady Chapel, where a modern-art Mary, looking like an Isle of Arran chessman, sat in front of the mutilated remains of an earlier statue. Evidently the queen of heaven was making a cautious comeback now the iconoclastic passion of the more zealous kind of Protestant had been tamed.
For lack of something to do, and for luck, he put 20p in the collection box and lit a candle, standing it upright in the sandy tray in front of her niche. The light was calming, still and upright, golden as the summer morning outside.
“So.” Grace returned to sit next to him on one of the modern upholstered chairs. She had taken off the gorgeous green silk and the floor-length snowy linen of her vestments, and was now resplendent in a ragged skirt, tie-died T-shirt and a pair of Doc Martens. “Tell me what’s on your mind.”
Easier said than done. Chris picked up one of the meditation stones that had considerately been placed nearby, next to a rack of leaflets on new and trendy ways to pray. “I think Geoff’s alive.”
Grace crossed her legs at the ankle and leaned forward, intent. “The Geoff you told me about? The one…”
“My lover, yes.”
She looked startled, a little offended, but he didn’t have time to play games. She’d brought this out into the open herself, now let her deal with it. “To be more specific, I think he’s alive and a prisoner in Faerie. Tell me how I can get him back.”
Grace lit her own candle and pondered it. The flame picked out the lines of her frown in gilding. “Why do you assume that I know?”
“Because this is your job, Padre—the supernatural. If you don’t know, you can find out. I want him back, and I don’t care what it takes.”
Her sigh echoed in the tall, empty room. “Yes. That’s why I worry.” She raised a hand to forestall his protest. “No, don’t say anything. I know all the arguments. I just wish you weren’t going up against them while you are in such a morally fragile place.”
“Bollocks, Padre.” Chris leapt to his feet, instantly enraged at the silence, the dim sepulchral loftiness of the room, the cross on the far altar and even the light streaming through the stained-glass saints. “I could go down the road to St. Andrews right now and find a priest there who’d be glad to marry me to Ben or Geoff, bishops’ guidance notwithstanding. Don’t try and tell me you’re the only one who’s got the inside gen on this. The church is practising a Christian charity it doesn’t preach, and I’m all for that. If you’re going to be a hypocrite, you ought to do it that way around. I’d still rather you weren’t a hypocrite at all.”
Grace stood too, her mouth gone hard, her pink hair looking ridiculously festive atop an expression that promised hellfire. “Don’t call me a hypocrite, Chris. You know I believe what I believe, and I’ve never claimed anything else.”
“I didn’t come in here to argue theology.”
“Why did you come?”
He considered for a moment taking one of the meditation stones and throwing it through a glass angel’s wing. But the colour was so beautiful, the painting so subtle, a master craftsman’s heart and soul had gone into it, and he couldn’t. He couldn’t even hold on to the anger. She believed what she’d been taught, so had he, not so long ago.
He sighed, sat down. “I came for help.”
At his surrender, Grace softened. She perched on the edge of her chair and gave a quiet laugh. “You have such a way of asking for it, Chris. But then I’ve always known that. I shouldn’t let you rile me up. I’m sorry.”
Chris spoke to his joined hands, wedged beneath his knees where they could not betray him by trembling. “I know it’s been fifteen years. Nearly seventy years, even. I just want it dealt with now. I hate the waiting.”
“I hate”—Grace gave a little laugh—“that my church doesn’t seem to know what to believe any more. I know God’s there—I can feel him—and that should be important. Yes? Yet we’re bickering over gay rights the same way we bickered over women priests. It should be obvious—the answer should be obvious. The way should be lit, so that we know how to follow it. And it isn’t, and I don’t know why not.”
“Crisis of faith, eh?”
“No.” She laughed again with a little more heart to it. “Or not at least in Jesus. But in the church, yes. And it makes me sad. My father always says that in Nigeria we preserved the faith as it was handed to us. Those who came and taught it claimed that they knew the answers to everything. But now it seems that they were lying about that too, he says. We have kept it alive the way it was handed to us, and in the meantime, in the home church, they were falling away—or rising up—and leaving us behind. And now you expect us once more to do things your way, even though you keep changing your mind.”
Chris reached out and picked up the stone again, rubbing it. It was soothing, strangely enough. “Who’s ‘you’ in this context?” he ventured at last.
Grace shook her head. “Don’t mind me. It’s a shock, I suppose. I thought we were agreed about this, you and I. It was a comfort. Now I’m not sure what to think.”
“Okay, I’ll tell you what I think about your problem. Then you give me the gen on mine, okay?”
She tilted her head, he took that as a yes.
“When you can stop a teenage boy from thinking about sex every five minutes, then you can talk to me about ‘it’s not your fault how you were made, it’s all about how you act’. That’s bollocks too, as Jesus knew perfectly well. Guy who looks with lust at a girl—just as guilty as the one who lies with her. So don’t try to give me that middle-of-the-road clever little compromise. It doesn’t work. What I do or don’t do, being gay is what I am. And if that’s abominable, then I’m abominable. Hate the sin but love the sinner isn’t possible in these circs. I am the sin.”
This was not what he’d come in for, but there was something undeniably satisfying about saying it aloud. Here of all places, where the sunlight nesting amid the rafters was blue with incense, and the silence had a quality suggesting a listening ear. “So, Grace, you’d better decide now what you really think. Am I deserving of eternal punishment because I was once in love with the bravest, though the most indecisive lad you ever did see? If Him up above opened up the furnaces right now, would you throw me in?”
She looked insulted. “Of course not!”
And he swallowed a little feeling of relief. One friendship saved at least. On shaky foundations still, but with hope of improvement later. “Glad to hear it. D’you think God’s more or less merciful than you?”
“All right.” She got up, jerked her chin towards the back of the church, where, behind carved ash doors, a small kitchen was hidden. “You’ve made your point. Feeling the thirst after righteousness? Shall I put the kettle on?”
“I could do with something.” Tea, as usual, calmed the friction, brought order back into a frayed world. “Got any biscuits?”
With a mug and a chocolate digestive in hand, they opened the nave door and sat on the worn flagstones together, looking out at the graveyard, which was clad in trumpets of bindweed and shaggy with long grass that was turning champagne blond in the long hot summer without rain.
“So,” he said, eventually, “any ideas?”
Grace twitched as her expression of deep thought passed through bemusement—catching up with the change of subject—and then into wariness. “I’d suggest prayer, but I know you’re not a praying man.”
“I’ve been known to shriek for help from the Almighty now and again. But I agree it’s not something I should do in the main course of things.”
“To get someone out from Faerie you need magic. Strong magic. I don’t know whether it can be done without an unshakeable faith in something.” She propped her chin on her curled hand and contemplated the toes of her boots. The scuffed red leather looked in the sunshine like ruby slippers—if slippers had calf-high lacing and extreme grip, kick-ass, black rubber soles.
“Do you have an unshakeable faith in anything, Chris?”
He thought immediately of Geoff. Geoff who always knew which way to turn, which way would lead him home. Lost in a white shrouded world of nothingness, flying on artificial horizon and compass, with half an hour’s fuel and no idea where England lay, he’d say, “Navigator, can I have a course,” and the coordinates would come back before he had time to breathe. But Geoff—well he was obviously bloody trying, but he was equally obviously failing to find a way back here, and if he didn’t know, then what else was there?
“Beer and cigarettes?”
“Don’t be facetious.” Grace rooted around in the cutlery drawer and then the pile of hassocks, emerging with a triumphant “Ha!” and a small red pot of saccharine tablets. “I’m thinking about sacraments. A sacrament is a physical thing which represents and focuses a spiritual power. I could give you holy water. I could even give you the Host—I trust you that much. But could you really be resigned enough to God’s will to allow Him to work through them effectively? To work through you effectively. I don’t know that you trust Him enough.”
“I don’t know that you do either, Padre.”
“No,” she said, smiling. “That’s why there are so few miracles these days. It’s hard to give up power entirely without knowing the outcome first.”
A sparrow flew from the yew trees of the churchyard into the carven boughs of the church. Chris had a strange flash of sympathy for it, imagining hot little feet on cool stone, delicious shade, welcome after all that glare.
“So,” Grace continued, “Faerie is a spiritual realm, not a physical one. Its laws are responsive to your willpower. What you need, to force a way in, is to find something which works as a sacrament for you.” She steepled her fingers and pressed them to her lips. “Something which helps you to realise your own strength, which enables you to connect your will to your ability to use it. Does that help?”
“I don’t know! It’s a personal thing—I don’t know better than you do what’s likely to unlock the inner recesses of your soul. The MPA logo, maybe? That stands for everything we’ve been doing these past three years. We’ve seen off our fair share of paranormal beasties, and the MPA was always your baby. How about that?”
Chris imagined himself sewing the logo onto his shirt, going into battle with it on his chest, like a long-winded Superman. “I’ll have a think about it.”
“Do.” She put her palms behind her on the warm flagged floor and stretched. “And I’ll have a think about what you said too.”
The sky slowly clouded over as Chris walked home, along roads clogged with tourists and ramblers. Unhappy red faces all around him, for the grey clouds seemed to trap the heat. The roads sweltered as in an oven. Far off, over Matlock Peak, darker grey clouds held thunder, and the world seemed to crouch down, breathless, sticky, waiting for the rain.
The downpour had started as he opened his front door, switched on the computer and moved into the kitchen to give it time to boot. By the time he had filled the kettle, rain was tapping like fingers on the window. The light continued to fail, and when he stood by the sink and looked out, a sense of wrongness niggled him. Something was up. But the distant hillsides looked dour and calm as ever. Something in the garden, then? He focussed on the forlorn shapes of the engines he had taken apart to see how they worked and not quite managed to put back together. But they were as rusty and disheartened as ever in their tangles of quick-growing roses and pennyroyal.
Still something flickered, just out of sight. He stepped back, and there it was—in every droplet of water that ran down the windows was a face, and every face the same, all of them vainly mouthing soundless phrases at him.
But it wasn’t Geoff. He grabbed a soup bowl from the draining rack, wrestled with the back door and ran out into the deluge, holding out the bowl and catching the falling water. All the faces ran into one as he did so, and candlelight wavered up from the bowl and spilled over his hands.
He could see the face much clearer now—round, earnest, flawless, with plump pink lips like flower petals and milky, ancient eyes. At the same time, he knew he had been seen—the creature stopped talking, lowered the hood from around his head and showed hair brown as good soil, and on it a circlet shaped like a two-headed serpent. When he shook his wrists free of the cloak, they too were gauntleted to the elbow with golden snakes.
A badge of office of some kind, Chris thought. He expects me to recognise what he is. But he didn’t know the secret handshake, so he forced himself to smile.
It seemed to do the trick. The monk or priest or whatever he was, unrolled a scroll and held it out for Chris to read. In beautiful calligraphy, around which someone had clearly spent hours drawing and painting small birds, it said, He says you must be told there is an invasion coming. He has seen the troops himself, arrayed for battle and awaiting the command.
Oh shit. Chris stopped admiring the scroll, bit down on the automatic protest, the cry of Fucking hell! What do you expect me to do about it? That he knew was just the helpless anger born out of fear.
He does not know when nor where they will come. But so that you may know it is he who sends these words, he bids you remember Doncaster.
Geoff! Geoff was the only one in any world who could have sent that message. Chris patted himself down frantically but came up empty handed. No pen or paper. He dashed back inside, found the pad by the phone and wrote Where is he? Is he okay? Ran back out and found only a bowl full of rain, cold and grey. He flung it at the wall, felt no better when it smashed and the shards disappeared into the tangle of undergrowth.
Back to the kettle. He made himself a cup of tea, drank it, got the panic back under its cap and welded it as tight as he could manage. Still felt a little sick but that could be borne. The important thing was to take appropriate action, and getting into Faerie had never looked more vital. Back to the plan, then, just with a higher degree of urgency.
A place of power, hey? A physical reminder of his will, something with which he could change the world? Oh yes, there once had been something of that kind. Half an hour’s googling pulled out the information that there still was, away on the other side of the Peaks. In Langdale, the Museum of Aviation History housed one of the only complete Mosquitos left. They were working on it even now, trying to restore it completely to join the Battle of Britain flight. The Andrews Sisters warbled tinnily out of his computer speakers as he read, provoking a rush of calm as the learned habits of wartime reasserted themselves.
The website which claimed that the plane was nearly complete was itself a year old and had not been updated in all that time. He leaned back in his seat and looked at the picture. There wasn’t a plane like it. The Spitfire boys got all the glory, but he doubted if there was anyone left on the planet who could do what he could do with a bombed-up Mosquito.
He wrote down the phone number on a pad of paper, looked for the house phone, which he seemed to have left somewhere again. Bloody hell. By now it would probably have gone flat and need recharging before use. Why they didn’t keep them attached to cords any more, he didn’t know. At least you didn’t wander off with the receiver and lose it somewhere when it was screwed to the wall.
Taking his mobile from his trouser pocket, he switched it back on. Two messages, just in the short time he’d been incommunicado. He turned down the computer speaker with a huff of annoyance and played the first one. Stan’s number and Stan’s father saying, “I want a word with you, Mr. Gatrell. Don’t try pretending you haven’t got this message. I’ll know when you pick it up, so don’t try weaselling out of it.”
Extraordinary. He phoned Stan’s number at once and shifted in his seat as suppressed anger made his spine itch. He really did not have time for this today.
“Hello, Fred Grimshore here. Who’s that?”
“Mr. Gatrell. You asked me to call.”
The voice on the other end deepened almost a full octave into a growl. “Oh, it’s you, is it?”
“Of course it is. You asked me to call. What is this…”
“Why the fuck did you give my boy fifty quid?”
Chris’s mind was still a long way away, in the 1940s. He didn’t immediately see what was so wrong in helping a boy to develop his talent and in paying him a fair price for the components and labour he had put in on a project that benefited them both. “He’s been doing some work for me,” he said, unsettled by the man’s attitude. “Is there something wrong with that?”
“What kind of work?”
“It’s complicated.” Chris shrugged, noticed that his tea had gone cold and that the second message was from Ben. How was Ben, anyway, this first day back at work? Perhaps he should have checked? “Some…er…image processing.”
“You what?” The growl roughened. Malice could practically be seen, dripping off the sliver finish of the phone onto the floor, shimmering over it like a haze. Unprepared, Chris felt the hostility like a blow to the chest. “Pictures? What kind of pictures?”
He had a suspicion that the truth might not go down well, but what else was there? “Ghosts, mostly. Some elves, but they’re tricky—don’t come out well on any kind of film.”
“You fucking loony! Listen, I heard from our Karen at the Red Lion you’d started seeing things. Acting crazy. So I ask my son what he does with your lot and he looks shifty, and I find he’s got fifty quid from you stashed under the bed. You get my drift? So I’ll tell you what’s going to happen now. You get lost. You never talk to him again, you never come round here ever again. ’Cause if you do, I’ll fucking murder you, and I’m not kidding. I’ve got a spade and a patch in the garden marked out for you. All right?”
“It most certainly is not—” The phone cut off. “All right,” Chris finished, watching sparkly stars dance on the computer screen, advertising online poker. A chance to lose money without all this recrimination. He swallowed, something in his belly tying itself up in a knot. What on earth was that about? Sometimes he thought it was the entire world that had gone mad, not him at all. Bloody man, no wonder Stan was shy and something of a sneak, living with a father who reacted like that to a friendly stranger offering encouragement.
He called up Google maps and worked out how long it would take to drive to Langdale. A little over two hours. Not bad at all. Maybe he’d do it now, offer a knowledgeable eye or a test pilot’s experience. The threat of invasion surely trumped any other priorities he might have.
But the message from Ben remained unanswered. He watched the phone for a moment, trying to guess whether it would be good or bad news, and a little warmth stirred just under his breastbone and untangled some of his anger and anxiety. He realised he was holding the message in the palm of his hand for all the world as if it too were a sacrament, a talisman. But it wasn’t. It was only a phone call.
He hit Listen, anticipating the sound of Ben’s voice, the irreverent and glorious strength of it. The boy would have made a good flight engineer. Always calm, always thinking ahead. He knew how not to show fear, even when it was eating him up. He’d have done all right in a Lanc.
Chris was caught with a smile on his face when the first words tumbled out. “Fuck you! Damn you to hell, Chris. What the fuck are you doing? Oh please!” The saw of terrified breathing mixed with sobs.
“There was a thing at the office. It was going for a… It was going for a customer. I had to use the vial—the water—to get rid of it. I thought I’d run to the Red Lion, but now I don’t know where I am. There’s nothing outside the car. It’s all just white. I’m s-scared, Chris. I don’t know what to do. Shit! There’s something out there.”
Chris was already out of the front door, scrabbling in his pocket for his keys. They snagged on the inside of his pocket, tore, and Ben said, “Chris! Chris, where the fucking hell are you?”
“Hey, hey.” He got the car door open, the key in the ignition. “It’s all right, just hold on, I’m coming. I’ll be there in no time. Where are you?”
“You promised not to let this happen to me. You promised!”
Chris looked helplessly at the phone. For a moment he’d forgotten it was just a recording, half an hour old. Whatever was going to happen had already happened, and despite his fine words, he had not been there. He’d been looking up old planes on the internet and thinking of Geoff.
“Help me.” Ben’s words were all but indistinguishable beneath the choke of tears and terror. ““No. Chris. Help me! Help me. No!”
A rending noise, like a falling wall—like a steel door being torn down—and then a click. Silence. Chris thought for a moment he could hear something residual on the line, realised it was his own speeding breath. He felt nauseous with adrenaline, and his hands shook so much he dropped the phone into the footwell as he tried to put it away.
Where had they taken Ben? More to the point, where had they taken him from? Wherever the walls of the world had been punctured, a weakness would be left for up to three days. Other things—such as himself—might sneak through and back.
Lost between the bank and the pub. But he couldn’t have been snatched from the car between those two places without causing chaos. He’d been pixie-led—guided inexorably to a spot of their choice and… The thought leapt up like an inspiration. They’d come through at Ben’s house, seen him there first. His body would find it easy to take him there on autopilot while his mind was magic-mazed.
Very well. Try the house. Chris drove to Ben’s work place and retraced the route he would have taken home, just to double check. No traffic jams, no upturned vehicles laced with claw marks. None of those goose-walking-over-one’s-grave moments that Chris had learned to associate with a breakdown of the normal fibre of the world.
Ben’s car was not in his drive. But could they have taken it while Ben dived out at the last moment and made a run for it? That too had got to be worth checking. Chris turned in and ruffled the immaculate gravel. The bell sounded shrill to him, the knocker portentous, but that was just nerves. He waited three minutes, knocked again and shouted while panic made blue lights fire up and down his spine, shrivelled his lungs in liquid nitrogen. “Ben? Are you in there?”
Pressing his ear to the glass brought sound, voices. It might not be too late after all! He tore around the back of the house, unclasped his pocket knife and cut through the plastic sheeting, sidled through into a blue-lit, cathedral-type space where the sitting room existed, half in, half outside. A liminal zone—they would like that, twilight creatures that they were.
The voices were louder here. The padlocked door stood between Chris and them, a man’s voice and a woman’s, raised in argument. He couldn’t tell, with the muffled effect of the wood, if the man’s voice was Ben’s. “Ben? Is that you?”
They carried on as if they hadn’t heard him while he looked around for something with which to force the door. The little black eye of a security camera gazed at him impassively as he returned from the garden with the pedestal of the birdbath under his arm. One blow of that, used as a battering ram to the padlock, and then another. The door boomed and splintered. The hasp of the lock stretched like rubber and snapped, and he ran inside still carrying the garden ornament, half-weapon, half-forgotten under his arm.
Empty rooms, freshly hoovered. He set the stone column down and brought out his knife again, turned the handle of the kitchen noiselessly. Edged it slowly, carefully open. A flood of sunlight glittering on spilled rain, tinted pink from the roses around the window. Countertops sparkled, and the Radio Four afternoon play spilled out remorselessly from a radio plugged into a timer on the wall. Security conscious Ben had set it to play in his absence, to fool the burglars into thinking he was at home.
Chris snapped it off, put the knife down on the countertop and staggered back to the table, sitting down while the battle readiness ebbed and left the shakes behind it.
Like amber and garnet in the sunlight, bottles of spirits lined one counter, cut-glass tumblers in a glass-fronted cabinet above. Chris took one down and half filled it, tossed it off and caught himself before he could repeat the performance. A bit of Dutch courage was good. Too much, less so. And there were still things he could do.
Sitting in the warm flood of sunshine, Chris took two deep breaths, counted to ten, and phoned Stan. The long drone of “number unobtainable” met his ear. He cursed his shaky hands, started again with slow care, making sure to get it right. But the result was the same. Cut off. That bloody father of his, no doubt. It was always the way—once one thing went wrong, it all went to hell together.
He left the tumbler in the sink, went out the way he’d come in, and within quarter of an hour was drawing up outside Stan’s house. The family was in the front garden, having a barbecue—there was no need even to ring the bell before the shit hit the fan. All he had to do was to get out of the car.
He walked through the gate and onto the lawn as Stan’s mum touched her husband on the arm and Fred put down the lemon he’d been drizzling on the chops and picked up the fire poker. Stan had been sitting in the shade of the porch, hunched over a handheld device, his gingery hair in his eyes and his white face more than usually sullen. He looked up as the bellow of his dad’s shout broke the peace, and there was a kind of despairing gratitude in his eyes that Chris didn’t feel he had time to deal with.
“Stan, they’ve got Ben. I need a trace on his phone. Can you do that?”
Chris dodged the flailing arms of Fred Grimshore, leapt back out of the way of the whistle of the poker.
“No problem, Mr. G., I’ll just get my stuff.” Stan was on his feet, dodging back into the house and closing the front door behind him. His mother gave a cry of distress or anger, dashed after him, but he had latched the door. She found keys, tried to turn them in the lock and found the door bolted on the inside. Distracted, Fred looked away, and Chris ran to the car, started it and got it round the back of the house just in time for Stan to drop first a rucksack and then himself out of his bedroom window onto the carefully positioned trampoline below, and thence onto the lawn. The boy vaulted over the low backyard fence, wrenched open the passenger door and poured himself inside.
Chris drove away as though there were five Junkers 88s on his tail.
“Fucking hell,” said Stan, appreciatively, “that was like something out of the movies. Jailbreak! Are the cops on our tail and everything?”
“If they weren’t before, they undoubtedly are now.”
At Chris’s expression, Stan’s smile faltered. “They don’t mean anything, my folks. Couple of windbags. Never done anything for me—tuition, parts, special skills—they didn’t want none of it. They’d be happy if I went down the mill for the rest of my life. Philistines.”
“Ben’s phone?” Chris asked, and then moved by the softly stubborn expression, “Maybe they just didn’t have the money for that stuff? Have you thought about the RAF? They’d sponsor you through college. For your mind, they’d think it was a bargain.”
“Don’t want to kill people, all due respect.” Stan had extracted a black box from his bag, was now unfolding a spindly wire dish that looked as if it was made of kitchen sieves and coat hangers. Some sort of radar, Chris assumed, trying not to feel rebuked.
“Well, it feels different when the other fellow is also trying to kill you,” he said, and took them out to the ring road where they could circle until they got a fix.
It came within minutes of Stan switching his contraption on. “Kind of left and a bit down,” he said, pushing back his hood to see the readout clearer. “Out of town, up towards the hills.” He waved his arm in an arc that made suspicion trickle like ice water down Chris’s back.
Chris turned the car and began heading for the Nine Ladies stone circle, Stan confirming the turns all the way. The shapes of clouds and sunshine moved over the silver-grey road between its dry stone walls, gilded and silvered the green grass and the speedwell flowers, orange poppies and heather dark as yew. The bones of the country began to show beneath the skin.
“You know where you’re going,” said Stan, as Chris turned before the boy had a chance to tell him to.
Chris gave a gallows smile. “I’m guessing, but it’s looking more likely with every turn. I hope… But, yes. Well…”
They had to draw up by the side of the road, and there was a layby and a little footpath, marked by ramblers, defaced by tossed-aside Coke cans and crisp packets. Stan squinted at the glare of the high sun as he got out—he was without his normal baseball cap. Chris fetched his fedora from the boot, landed it on top of Stan’s head, making the boy smile. “It’ll be okay, Mr. G, there’s a good signal from his phone. He’s probably asleep, right? Like Rip Van Winkle in the middle of the fairy ring. We’ll wake him up and it’ll be fine.”
He angled the dish with hands that were heavily freckled by the sun. He had the overlarge hands and feet of a growing boy, and his voice slipped from girlish to growl midsentence. He was, Chris realised, very young. Perhaps too young to bring into this business. Though, God knew, Ashby Cunningham on B flight had been almost the same when he was shot down over Hamburg, having lied about his age on admissions.
There was no sign of the fog Ben had spoken of, though the wind was silky with moisture. Chris found a gap in the hedge, brushed past, taking cobwebs with him, scrambled up onto the field in which the nine stones stood. The dancers, they were called, witches, dancing at their sabbat out here in the lonely country under the swollen sky, who had been turned to stone by a passing saint with no regard for their families or friends.
It was a desolate sort of place, even in the searchlight glare of a strong sun. The great silence engulfed the small peeps of heather-dwelling moorland birds and the hiss of the wind. When a car went by on the distant road, all it did was to bring home the emptiness of the land before and after.
Nine dancers, apparently. One had fallen onto its side and was covered in moss and yellow lichen. A red mark on it looked like a handprint. It wasn’t until one of the fingers began to elongate, to pool and drip that Chris realised it was a handprint—the print of a man’s palm in blood.
Stan had seen it now, was frowning as though the sight did not compute. He looked up into Chris’s face, down at the machine, fiddling with the dials unnecessarily. “Do you want to go back to the car?” Chris asked, seeing scraped-up turf, the gouged marks of a struggle. “I think I can find it from here.”
Stan put his machine down with enormous care, then grabbed hold of Chris’s pocket. “No way I’m going back to the car on my own. You know what’ll happen then. I’m sticking with you.”
Too many late-night horror films flashed into Chris’s memory. “Good point. All right, we’ll keep together. Hold on tight.”
They shuffled up to the trampled ground. The long scars of claw marks dragged from the closest stone through the centre of the circle and out again to the base of the low hill behind. Beneath the red handprint, the moss had been torn away from the stone in furrows. Easy to see where Ben had tried to hold on, been pulled away, scouring the skin off one of his hands in the process.
Drag marks along the heathery turf and buttercups spattered red. A little farther on, a shoe lay by the side of the spoor, upside down, the toe all but scuffed off. Below the hill, a sliver of silver upended in a flowering gorse bush proved to be Ben’s phone, still on, Chris’s number called up on the menu.
Ten accusing furrows like claw marks showed where someone had scrabbled against the ground. They slid up to the hill, disappeared into a tiny hole, a badger’s set. Crumbled soil around the base of it, and long, verdant grass at the top. Chris couldn’t see in more than a foot, but he knew that—even if he could—he would not have been able to see through to where they had taken Ben. It should have been a comfort to know that the handprints did not really culminate in that earthen grave, but it wasn’t.
Unwanted, the memory of Ben’s flashback recurred to him—his terror of the underground, his parents’ death, his need for a therapist. And to go like this, dragged into crumbling earth, clawing for purchase every step of the way…
Chris picked up the phone, bent over it, seeing his own face reflected in the scuffed plastic surface. God, he looked every bit of his near ninety years, and so he should. Pathetic old man, who had promised to protect Ben and failed, who had promised never to leave Geoff behind and broken that promise with a thoroughness that staggered. “Damn them. Damn them and damn me too.”
After a short period of heartbreak, he tipped the phone into his pocket, looked up and found Stan kneeling next to the abandoned tracer. The boy’s straggly hair looked as if it were made from copper wires, as though he’d become some kind of cyborg in sympathy with his machines, but no machine would have worn such a softly forlorn expression. “I thought this was going to be fun. Something to boast about to me mates at school…”
“It’s all fun and games until somebody loses a war.” With an effort, Chris smiled and helped the boy up. He gave a small snort of amusement—not because he felt it but because Stan looked in need of it, and he’d long ago had practice in faking it to cheer his crew. “Don’t fret, lad. Look, he was still fighting when they took him. Chances are he’s still alive. What we need is a way of opening this gateway again, and we need to do it in the next three days because the borders of the world have been weakened by this transfer.”
He picked up the hat which had fallen at Stan’s feet when he put the tracer down, dropped it once more over the small ginger head. “And I’m relying on you to find a way to do that. You’re my secret weapon in this battle, lad. What can you give me?”
Chris began leading the boy away from the stones, hand on his shoulder to stop him from twisting around to look back. “I dunno, Mr. G,” Stan said, cuddling the satellite dish of his tracer as if for comfort. “Open an interdimensional rift? Sounds kind of high-energy to me. Where are we going to get the power?”
“Reopening it,” Chris said, breezily. He ushered Stan into the car, turned up the heater. What they both needed was a cup of tea, something sugary to counteract the shock. His house, then. “And I don’t think it would need to be open for long. Grace was explaining something to me. If you could give me just a moment’s help, just a turbocharge, I can do the rest.”
The drive home passed in silence. Stan had taken out a school notebook and was drawing in it, his foxy brows knotted. He’d put his glasses on and the lenses were fogged up with moisture. Chris thought about offering a handkerchief, but in the end decided that it was kinder not to notice the tears at all.
There seemed to be some kind of incident going on next door, he thought as he turned into Snitterton Close and saw the police car parked in his neighbour’s front drive. The lights were on, flashing blue over the hard faces of two uniformed police officers. When he turned into his drive, a third man behind the wheel of the car drove in behind him, blocking his escape.
He switched the engine off, put his head into his hands and pressed his thumbs to the bridge of his nose to forestall the incipient headache. A callused hand tapped at the driver’s window. “Get out of the car, please.”
“What…?” Stan raised his head, took off his glasses and wiped them. His face beneath was wet with tears.
“I’ll, um…deal with this.” Chris put his elbow down on the door lock for just enough time to say, “You get working on that portal problem, all right? Take it to Phyllis when you’re done.”
“Huh. I think, um. I think we’ll let your father calm down a little first. Okay? Anything you give to Phil will get to me in the end.”
A hiss of intaken breath and Stan looked up as though he’d been slapped. He glowered at the policeman, who was now shaking the car by the door handle. “Is this my dad’s fault? Did he set ’em on you?”
When Chris unlocked the doors, they were wrenched open immediately, and a large hand in a blue serge sleeve reached through and took him by one arm and the back of the collar in a professional sort of way. “Well, he’s a man of his word,” Chris said, trying to keep up the smile for the boy’s sake. It was getting so hard to do that his face positively hurt with the effort.
“Fucking wanker!” Stan exploded with all the violence his asthmatic frame contained. “He’s got no right to set the pigs on my friends just ’cause I’m actually learning something. You hear that, lady?”
A brisk, blonde policewoman with feathered hair and arctic eyes had emerged from the squad car to take care of the child. She bent down with a reassuring smile that didn’t touch her cool, assessing gaze. “And who might you be, son?”
Her partner was grizzed, bald and fat, playing with the handcuffs on his belt meaningfully. “Are you Christopher John Gatrell of number two, Snitterton Close?”
Well, this was going to hell in a handbasket. “I am.”
Still, he’d committed no crime, Stan would back him up. Trip down to the station, evening of unpleasantness, it would give the boy time to think of something. Then he could hop in the car, drive to Langdale, borrow his “sacrament” and make an assault on the realm of Faerie. He guessed he could give them an evening when he’d only otherwise be spending it in misery and self-reproach.
“I’m going to have to ask you to accompany me down to the station.”
“Of course. May I ask what I’m accused of?”
“Most innocent people don’t assume they’re accused of anything.”
“Most innocent people haven’t just had a run-in with the boy’s father,” Chris said. “Unpleasant man. Seems to regard giving the boy an after-school job as some kind of perversion.”
“Is that right?” The policeman wrote down some kind of perversion in his notebook. His face compressed together, as though someone were squeezing the juice out. “As a matter of fact we have evidence linking you with a break-in at 20 Castle Road, Bakewell. The owner of which property seems to have gone missing in mysterious circumstances. But we’ll take the matter of the boy under review too, if you like.”
Opening the door of the squad car, he folded Chris into it, Chris unresisting, feeling like he were freefalling—like he’d just pulled the parachute cord and seen the canopy unravel, snap and blow away. “A break-in?”
“That’s right. I should caution you that you do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”
Too late to struggle now, Chris thought as the officer got in the back with him and the car began to drive away, leaving the policewoman and Stan behind, the boy looking confused and very small. But fuck. There really wasn’t any better word for it. Just fuck.
The minute the grip let go of his ankle, Ben was up and fighting, a stone for a club in his hand, and in his head the raw madness and terror of the bomb. He hardly saw the shapes ranged about him as he staggered out of the earth and onto marshy wet ground. He was struggling with the falling walls, the shrieking train, tapping into the berserker strength of a man fighting for his mother, for his father’s life.
He cut them down like a scythe through grass and ran, trying to get out, get out, and back to his car…get back to…
Brightness began to filter through his awareness—a pearl-grey sky above, the sound of water. Then his ankle was grabbed again and pulled out from under him, and time disjointed again under the impact of his panic. The ground blurred beneath him as he was picked up and carried, upside down, into the sky. Below him, a river twisted. Above him, he could finally see the thing that had brought him here. From its black snout to the lashing black coils of its tail, it was full forty feet long and had the lazy smirk of a crocodile.
“No!” He twisted up, not sure if this was real or if he was still in the grip of madness, and hammered his stone against the beds of its claws, making the dragon jerk and the meadow beneath him swing in dizzying circles. God, they were going fast now, a line of trees rushed towards him and a moment later all he could see was forest below. Some thoughts began to come back online—chief among them the expectation that the forest would sweep up to a mountain, and in that mountain would be the creature’s lair, where he would end his life in its larder.
“No!” he shouted again. “Fuck you. No, I am not… Let me go!”
He got in a better hit, wedging the stone deep in the softer skin between its smallest digit and the next, heard the yowl of protest and had time to think Oh shit! before he was falling headfirst straight down towards the trees.
Branches broke his fall, just. The canopy was tangled, resilient. He grabbed for it, managed to get himself turned around, slid, breaking branches and maybe bones from one perch to the next, tearing further his crimson hands, and not feeling any of it as it rushed towards him and past.
Then he was on the ground and shaking, and the blur inside his mind resolved into the pattern of twigs on leaf mould all around him, the smell of soil and sap, and a gap in the star cover above him through which came a green light and the shadow of circling dragon wings.
The pain didn’t come until he had got up, seen a suggestion of light ahead of him and begun to thread his way through the silent trees towards it, but it had been like this during the bombing of the underground too—superhuman strength, a numbness to pain, and when it wore off, a mental wound that still hadn’t completely scabbed over.
Yeah, don’t think of that. Just get somewhere safe. Okay? Just get… He stumbled over something, was bemused to see it was a helmet, lying between the tree roots, quite clean and unrusted. They were all over the place, in fact, coats of mail lying folded on top of quilted padding, surcoats, green and grey as the wood around him. They lay as if ready for an inspection, bowed and whispered over by the trees. Then a darkness moved in the corner of his eye—he glanced towards it, saw only spiders, scuttling into the cracks of the tree trunks—and when he looked back, the armour was stones and piles of leaves, and he wondered if he’d ever seen it at all.
A thin, high screech came, maybe nothing more than a branch rubbing against another branch, making a sound like nails on a blackboard, but it lanced straight through his head, pressed the button marked “panic”, and he set his head down and ran as he had never run before. There was an odd pleasure to it, scrambling over roots, lunging from one patch of sunshine to the next, discovering to his surprise that he was surer footed, faster, stronger than he would have believed.
Was there something in the air? Was the gravity lower? He felt as though he could run forever, as though it was the only thing he needed to do. But then the tree cover began to draw away. He saw, ahead of him, a long slope up from forest to…to…
He would have stopped and gazed—meadow giving way to silver streets that curved about a massive artificial hill, round and regular as a bowl. Towers covered it—grey and more shades of grey, topped off with silver, hot and molten bright where sunlight beat against windows. A city.
He would have stopped and gazed, but when he looked up, he saw the reflection of the dragon move over the many towers, pushing through the air as inexorably, as perfectly as a Viking longship up an undefended estuary.
Couldn’t stay among the trees, couldn’t stand here on the meadow to be crisped. He got his breath back, summoned a now slightly watery strength, and dashed for the road.
The dragon was circling like a great vulture, head arched down towards the forest. He thought he could get to cover before it looked his way, was sure of it, breath hissing hot through his own teeth, and his legs burning under him. There was a bridge and an arch, if he could only get under…
And a moat opened up practically beneath his feet—a citywide defensive ditch, narrow but deep. Invisible until you were all but on top of it. He plunged in, jarred his already aching head, tumbled into a nest of brambles at the base of it and used every swear word in his vocabulary twice in a flood of profanity that would have purged him of everything, left him calm and collected, if it hadn’t been for the dragon.
He lay still among the thorns and watched it circle against the empty sky. Around and around it went. So it hadn’t seen him come out of the woods. It didn’t know where he was.
The wave of relief that went over him was the worst thing that had happened since the claws. It told him he was safe and, in response, all his hurts rose up to overwhelm him at once. His head. God. His hands, his arms—scraped raw from elbow to fingertips. Oh fuck. His legs, cramping up after the long run, seizing solid.
His foot slipped into the ankle-deep mud at the bottom of the ditch. It was cold in the eternal shade. He thought it had darkened suddenly, but it was only his eyes blurring from fatigue and injury. It was all too easy to imagine himself falling face-down into the wet—drowning in a soup of algae and city waste. Not the way he would have preferred to go. Looking up again, he found the dragon had ridden higher in the thermal above the city, was nothing but a black dot that slowly faded out of sight against a sky of fumes.
It was gone. It wouldn’t see him any more if he found himself a safer place to collapse.
With his last reserves of strength, Ben got hands and feet into the rough-lain stones of the ditch on its inner side and slowly pulled himself out, rolling over the lip and down into a square by the city’s outer limits. There he sprawled, dry and dusty, with mazy sunshine soothing the road map of his bruises, and for a blessed moment he gave himself over to dark and velvety rest.
It lasted all too short a time before his head woke him by splitting apart. He could feel the gape, going all around his skull, through one eye and back around his jaw. The brain must be spilling out even now and sizzling on the strange grey metal of the pavement. God, that hurts. He pushed himself up onto an elbow—even that was sore—and squinted at the dazzle. At the movement, the headache gave the sort of throb that stole his breath, made his body heave and gag, but his mind had cleared enough to wonder, with the desolation of a lost child, what happened next. Where was he supposed to go to find help? What did they want from him?
He levered himself up to a kneeling position, everything swirling around him, full of sparks and colours. He could almost feel the air moving on his skin, smell a thousand different savours—metal and grease, dust, heat and coriander, kerosine and smog. Not quite what he’d expected from Faerieland.
Nor, to be frank, were the skyscrapers—every shade of metallic grey from pewter to platinum. Carved in a riot of invention, strung together with walkways as delicate as cobweb, painted with shifting colours, they reflected the grimy light down onto streets lined with dying trees. Brown, crisped ivy and trailing plants wound up the mirrored surfaces and shed their leaves with every movement of the wind. Flakes of colour blew off and joined the thick dust on the ground. The corners of many of the buildings were scored and crumpled as if by clutching hands.
In the streets, bustle and energy and dilapidation went on unperturbed by his presence. Music in the distance, a voice calling out a single phrase again and again in a language he could not understand. Yellow lamps creaked above folk of many sorts, hurrying past with their heads down and the air of preoccupied misery he associated with London in the rush hour. Why hadn’t they noticed him? Stopped what they were doing to stare at this invader of their world?
Only then did Ben notice that he was lying among other refuse, empty boxes, twisted metal and creatures, asleep, huddled into foetal balls, rocking. They were all—he too—covered in the dust, grey as the road. That figure over by the wall of the dried-up fountain, he surely must be dead, with half his head and torso missing like that.
The severed man opened his one remaining eye, looked at Ben without curiosity, closed it again. At this angle, Ben could see the veins pulsing in his open throat. He scrambled to his feet, and as he did so, a change came over the quality of the light—a dark, sweeping shadow ran along the distant boulevard, turning silver pedestrians, silver floating cars the colour of pared lead. Ben looked up as the shade passed over him and a wave of cold made his skin ripple.
The courtyard in which he’d lain boiled with activity as his fellow dossers scrabbled to their feet, ran for cover.
Darkness in the shape of spread reptilian wings passed over him, made a fluid black spiral in the air and came rushing back towards him like a hurricane.
Teeth. Teeth that looked like crystal daggers. Something lapping around its jaws and nostrils—a fume of smoke and the little flickers of violet flame. Shit! It had found him again.
Ben turned on his heel and ran. Up towards what might have been shops, crystals and spilled fruit skidding and mashing beneath his feet. Above him, windows slammed closed. He heard footsteps, running away, tried doors, but they had no handles, all he did was to make his fingers bleed again scrabbling at the cracks.
Far up the street, steps went down into darkness. If this had been London, he would have said it was an entrance to the underground tube stations. Here, who knew? Maybe the skyscrapers were only half of it, and the city went as deep down under the earth. At any rate, it was the entrance to a tunnel through which the dragon was too huge to pass. Part of Ben told him, Cover. Run for cover. A stronger part cowered, more afraid of reliving the nightmares down there than it was of the oncoming storm.
The dragon flapped its huge wings with a sound like the crack of a bullwhip. Ben ran for the tunnel, but it felt like running through treacle, running in a nightmare when one cannot move no matter how hard one tries. He made it to the first downward step and there his limbs refused his will, left him shuddering all over, unable to go any farther, with little pulses of memory throbbing in his mind, presaging a full-scale flashback. Not now. For God’s sake, not now.
The dragon landed with a rush and a run, its long claws gouging holes in the silver surface of the road, its tail displacing parked vehicles, knocking down the tall, ornately carved lanterns that lined the road, dragging them behind it by the wires, a chain of lights chrysanthemum gold. The pulsing rumble of its breath sounded like laughter.
It paced slowly closer. He could hear it breathe in, the huge forge-bellows of its lungs inflating with a sound like the tide coming in. Ben took one more step down, but the memory of being pulled under the earth was too fresh and he could not make himself go any farther. In desperation, he stooped to pick up a stone, threw. It bounced off the slickly scaled snout. Fire flickered in the creature’s nostrils and behind the uncomfortably sentient eyes. “Fuck!”
A sound broke through the battering of his heart. Hoofbeats. The dragon heard it too—it lifted its long neck and looked.
From the crossroads, out of the haze of gleaming dust and smog, a white shape tore, like clouds, like feathers, like the wings of angels. It came into focus, dazzling like snow under sunshine—a knight on horseback, in armour of silver, with streaming hair of silver-steel. With no time for cynicism, Ben felt a lift of the heart that was pure fairytale at the sight, as though the image had short-circuited a lifetime’s wariness. It didn’t occur to him not to reach up and take the hand offered to him, nor to feel comprehensively rescued.
He leapt up as the knight pulled, landed gracelessly half on the back of the swan-white creature that was his rescuer’s mount. “Hold on to me,” said a voice he recognised with a thousand stinging thrills, and the horse’s wings snapped out, beat twice, and they were in the air.
The dragon stood on its tail and breathed out a raging blue inferno of flame that singed the horse’s tail and the fetlocks of its legs. The horse gave a shrill, birdlike whinny and leapt forward. Behind them, Ben could see the dragon pacing across the street, climbing laboriously up the side of one of the buildings—a network of scores and creases in the mirror finish said it had done so many times before—trying to gain height enough to launch out and become airborne once more. But before it could do so, the mist closed behind them, and Ben was alone with his white knight in a sphere of pearl light and feathers and a rushing wind.
“Erm… Thank you,” he said, breathing hard, this second burst of adrenaline draining faster than the first, leaving his hands shaking, his muscles stretched to the point of tearing, even his hair heavy. The wind against his skin was frigid, and something pricked at his eyes. He loosened a hand from the knight’s slim waist and felt his eyelids—they were crusted with ice.
“Thank you for saving me, but we’re too—we’re too far up.” Panic came back in a wave. The air scalded him with cold as he breathed it in, but he couldn’t get enough of it to fill his lungs. The blinding, shrill pain of his head returned as if every brain cell was made of broken glass, and when he looked up he could see that the white sky had become indigo. The world was very far beneath him, and still they climbed. “We’re too far up. I can’t breathe!”
Why had he assumed this was a rescue? Why had he trusted anything in this place? What did he do now?
He tried to shake the knight, make him listen. “I can’t…” he gasped. Things were fracturing, falling away, he felt his skin pull off with a feeling of relief. Sleep came, numb at first, comforting after.
He woke up in a palace.
Red coverlets swaddled him, warm and soft as fur, but interwoven with gold threads that stirred and glittered with every movement. When he sat, he found he had been dressed in clothes of the same material, white trousers, white shirt and a sash of cloth of gold. Reaching up, he examined his head and face with his fingertips, then turned his palms over with surprise. They had been scraped raw, oozing blood. Now they were whole again. He shoved up his sleeves, and his arms moved without pain, despite the wrenching they had had falling through tree branches. Even the muscular aches of unaccustomed frantic flight were gone.
Trying to sit up in this pool of lapping red material was harder than it seemed. It was slippery as ice, softly entangling. He wasn’t sure he had the energy to fight his way all the way out. So tired, and so warm.
The roof above him was lapis lazuli blue, shot like the stone full of glints of gold. Three doors led off the round room in which he lay. They were all closed, but sounds of movement came from behind the emerald-painted archway of the nearest, where a vine scroll, painted onto the wood, seemed to move and slowly unwind as he watched.
It flowered, the door dissolving beneath it, and his rescuer walked through. Out of his armour, he wore a long tunic of dark blue velvet and carried a chalice—still looked like something stepped from a pre-Raphaelite painting. Ben recognised the face at once, though he’d only half-seen it before, outlined in bright strokes against a dim suburban night. There was no forgetting the hawklike beauty, or the hair like strands of platinum, cobweb fine, which rose and floated with his movement as though the air was buoyant as water to him.
“What happened?” Ben asked, the first and simplest of his many questions.
“I found you in a dangerous place and brought you away.” The knight’s narrow mouth was a pearly shade of pink, tilted up at the edges into a smile Ben felt bordered too nearly on the smug. “I had forgotten that you were human now and could not bear to go above the clouds unprotected. But no need to fret, we are safely home, as you see.”
“Home?” Ben asked, and then, “Human now?”
“I have missed you so grievously, Karshni. And yet it pleases me immensely to think you did not take your father’s part after all. You did not abandon me of your own will. It has been a great comfort to me to know that, though I own it shocks me what he did to you. I never intended this, you must believe me.”
They must have given him something to heal up his wounds, and it had left him groggy, obsessed with the need to sleep to the exclusion of everything else. He tried to wrap his mind around what the creature was saying, abandoned the effort as too hard, and gazed at it without comprehension. It was very pleasant to look at, especially with the expression of hope and fondness and apology that was shading further towards worry the longer he watched.
“You do remember me?” His rescuer knelt by the bed, putting the cup carefully down on the floor beside him. He was perhaps seven feet tall, slender as a rush and nacreous as pearl. His skin had a sheen on it like the dew on a white grape, and his eyes were indigo and golden as the skyscape above Ben’s head.
“We haven’t exactly met.”
At Ben’s blank look, the creature brushed back its hair, tucked it behind a pointed ear. His smile saddened. “But we have, many times. I am Arran. We were something greater than friends, other than brothers.”
“All I remember is you asking me which eye I saw you with.” Ben tried to swallow, his mouth dry. Arran radiated a kind of static electricity, and the prickle of it beat on Ben’s tongue and the inside of his mouth, making them feel swollen, achy. “I didn’t know what you meant at the time, but I looked it up. If I’d have told you which one, you would have cut it out. Are you going to blind me now?”
He tried to get his feet under him, but they were buried under too many layers of the slithery bedclothes—he wondered if it was a bed at all and not a trap. Arran put out a long-fingered hand and set it gently on Ben’s hair, rubbing the strands between his fingertips with a look of curiosity. Light flashed in little fireworks as he moved. His nails were covered in diamonds. “That was before I recognised you. I do not look closely at meat. A slight resemblance was not enough to jump to such an outré conclusion.”
“You don’t look at meat?”
“Humans.” Arran laughed. “Look not so appalled. You have called them worse in your time.” He picked up the goblet and offered it to Ben. When Ben made no move to take it, he lifted Ben’s hand in his and wrapped the fingers around the stem. It was a tender gesture, and his voice was sorrowful when he concluded. “Truly, you remember nothing at all?”
“I remember nothing because there’s nothing to remember.” Ben tried to get angry. This was some kind of mind-fuck, softening him up for something. “I am human.”
Another time there would be all kinds of depths of despair behind that cry, but it was hard to connect with them just now when the fear that had powered him for days had drained away and terror taken all his energy with it. Arran’s touch was soothing, and the smell of the drink was like nutmeg and camphor, like paan. A smell from so long ago he never knew before how much it made him think of home.
He wondered if it tasted the same, brought it to his lips, Arran helping him to sit up, supporting him. The look on the creature’s face now was kindly, warm as the bedclothes. A little scar on one cheek made Ben feel fondly towards him, though he couldn’t quite place why.
“Sip,” said Arran. “It’s hot. To get the cold of the high places from your blood.”
Cinnamon in Ben’s mouth, and something creamy that coated his tongue and his throat and all his insides with slippery, prickly warmth. The room swam out of focus and the stars danced above him. A sane, priggish part of his personality told him, disapprovingly, that he had just been drugged, but he wasn’t listening as he reached up to guide Arran’s smiling mouth to his. Other than brothers, better than friends? Yes, why ever not?
The kiss was just as he’d imagined—like lightning pouring into him, but he was unravelling and becoming a cloud, and all it did was light him up, every last particle of him. Someone laughed. He thought it was himself, steeped in happy dreams, realised it was his lover just as the flesh under his fingertips became liquid as water and everything changed again.