Playing at darkness, part 1
She starts from nightmare into a far more terrifying reality. Her broken mouth is wide open. She gasps for air with the desperation of someone breaking the surface for the third time.
Her eyes are open too but there is no light, nothing upon which they can rest.
Tears stream down the wreckage of her face, making little pattering sounds against the cold floor that is already wet with her blood. She does not need the pain to tell her that her leg is shattered below the knee. And she has been cut.
She fights to control her breathing. It stills at last, enough for her to scream. The sound comes back from walls close enough to reach if she could walk. A room, then. A prison. But no help comes. No jailor. She is alone.
She tries to move but pain sweeps her back into unconsciousness. On the point of oblivion she hears - what is that? A kitten? Some tiny creature mewing in the darkness. Again it comes - and now the rushing of water. Waves upon stone.
"I want to see the sea. Anyone coming?"
Malcolm waited in case one of the others offered to accompany Stitch but no one seemed to have heard her. Devon and Shy Stephen were joking together about something, little Aleysha hanging from Devon's skirts as usual. Halt was still propped against the low stone parapet that gave down into Eddie's Bay a hundred feet below them. He hadn't spoken or moved in half an hour.
Stitch stared at Malcolm, her invitation hovering in the air between them.
"Sure," he offered at last with an attempt at nonchalance. Stitch smiled and headed off without another word. As he followed after her Halt's cracked voice called after them.
"Hail the Lady and her Champion!"
Stitch took the taunt gaily, turning back and managing a curtsy without breaking her stride. Malcolm cringed but tried to accept it as a small sign of his acceptance into the group. It was rare for the dour cripple to speak to him at all.
Of all the Clan he found Halt the most difficult to read. There had been no outright hostility but any attempt Malcolm made to engage Halt in conversation was met with little more than grunts and the occasional scathing joke at his expense.
Perhaps it was just his way, as Devon maintained. Like the rest of them she was deferential towards Halt, as though he was owed an reverence Malcolm just couldn't see. Unless it was pity.
Whatever the cause - and on this the normally voluble Devon refused to be drawn - Halt's right leg was incapable of supporting its share of his twisted but otherwise substantial frame and was usually caught up off the ground in a webbing sling of his own devising. In its place Halt wielded with crooked hands a crutch that save for its decoration would not have looked out of place in a Crimean hospital.
The thing was plastered with text from The Lord of the Rings. There appeared to be no coherent message; pages torn haphazardly from the book had been pasted at random over the wooden frame and then varnished heavily. The leading edge of the crutch was encrusted with small metal badges of the sort which normally adorn the walking sticks of veteran ramblers. They lent the ensemble a certain kitsch gaudiness.
There were also Clan stickers and images of the Fellowship, the latter culled mostly from movie magazines and trading cards. Aragorn seemed to be a favourite of Halt's though Boromir was also well represented. Most prominent of all was an Anime graphic of the would-be king and an unfeasibly breasted Arwen locked in a tight, almost pornographic embrace. From the cross bar of the crutch on coloured threads hung a collection of amber beads and a tattered bunch of white feathers.
Not for the first time it occurred to Malcolm that Halt's crutch was a totemic device, not only for himself but for the Clan as a whole. Which made Halt what? Some sort of medicine man?
Officially there were no rankings amongst them but it had been obvious to Malcolm from the beginning that for all his gruff manners Halt was the group's elder statesman. There was also some sort of history between him and Stitch. Malcolm had no idea what it was but they went back a long way. Perhaps he would ask Devon some time, although he wasn't sure he wanted to know.
In single file they climbed the narrow foot-worn track around the corner of the castle and suddenly the air was full of sea birds. Malcolm ducked his head as they wheeled about the two of them and almost lost his footing. Then he noticed the charvas.
There were three of them, sat high above the path on the grassy bank that buttressed the high walls, swigging back bottles of coke and throwing chips to the gulls. At a glance they were maybe fifteen years old, dressed in the usual Berghaus and Burberry uniform. They laughed cruelly at Malcolm's discomfiture and one of them muttered "Goth bitch!" in a voice just loud enough to be heard.
Stitch seemed not to notice them and laughed gaily as she waded through the cloud of birds but, following after her, Malcolm burned with impotent fury. There was nothing to be done. The youths were in a commanding position above the path and any attempt at retaliation, verbal or otherwise, would undoubtedly be met with more jeering and a bottle or two lobbed after the chips with casual accuracy.
He was still seething as they emerged onto the grassy promontory of the Mount. For a moment he feared pursuit but the charvas seemed for the present to have exhausted their adolescent vitriol. He and Stitch were alone.
The Mount was roughly pentagonal and a sun trap even so late in the year. They walked out together to the furthest point, a jutting prow of land either side of which the ground fell sharply away into the castle's defensive ditch.
Before them the forgotten bay of Prior's Haven sheltered between the sandstone massif of Penbal Crag upon the left and the lesser headland known locally as the Spanish Battery. A woman was walking her dog on the sandy beach and two men in waders busied themselves about one of the gaily coloured rowing boats racked up above the waterline. East of the Battery, high upon his monument, Admiral Lord Collingwood stared forever across the mouth of the river to the sea beyond and the memories of older days.
Minutes passed as they took in the view. Malcolm's anger abated and he found it replaced by uncertainty. This was the first time he and Stitch had been alone and he was unsure of protocol. On one level things were simple enough. He was besotted with her.
Long before he knew her name he had watched Stitch with her people in the town square beneath the window of his favourite cafe; had gone back each week to watch them gather while he lingered over his breakfast and endless top-up coffees.
He had felt drawn to the Gothrim. Like him they walked the shadowy border between Middle-earth and the real world but, far more than he did himself, they seemed to belong there, to know the rules.
By nature a loner Malcolm had gradually come to believe that his path had crossed theirs for a purpose and at last he had dared approach them with his new leather coat and the Tengwar tattoos still smarting about his wrist.
The welcome had at first been mild. Halt in particular seemed instinctively to mistrust newcomers and afforded Malcolm little encouragement. Giving the lie to his nickname Shy Stephen had been chatty enough and Aleysha seemed to accept him from the first as someone new to play with but Malcolm had little in common with either of them.
Stephen was the archetypal geek. He operated half a dozen fan and clan-based web sites when he wasn't running his own software business and seemed unable to talk for more than five minutes about anything else. Aleysha was six and a half years old. How she came to be there Malcolm had never learnt. She was just there, more or less every Saturday, like the rest of them.
Only Devon had really taken to him; trashy little Devon whose young breasts perpetually threatened to burst from the confines of her leather bustier and who on Malcolm's first day amongst them had confided dramatically in his ear that she was saving up to have hers surgically pointed "just like Galadriel's".
The blatant display of teenage sexuality both excited and unnerved Malcolm, especially in the face of the much cooler response he received from Stitch. Often he would catch her looking at him and she would smile and nod then return to whoever she had been talking to. That was mostly Halt or Denny. The three of them seemed to form a little coterie of their own within the larger group.
Nevertheless he persevered. Now, rather than gazing upon the square from above every Saturday he was down there amongst - if not quite one of - them.
Old Eldon Square was one of the oldest parts of Newcastle. Once it had stood proudly as the grassy centrepiece of the city; the tree-lined square surrounding Hartwell's war memorial of George subduing the Dragon bounded in its turn by fine Victorian arcades to the west, north and east.
The lawns and the dragon remained but the original trees had been replaced in recent times and the monument fenced to keep skateboarders and other undesirables from the wide stone steps. Of the arcades only that to the east survived, converted now into an eclectic mix of boutiques and eateries including the first floor cafe from which Malcolm had first observed the Gothrim. The rest of the noble architecture had long since fallen to the sprawling concrete shopping malls that usurped its name.
In these modern times the square was somewhere to walk past hurriedly unless you were waiting for a bus or under twenty years old. In the latter case it wasn't called Old Eldon Square at all but the Hippy Field, meeting point for all the teenage tribes of the city.
Not that hippies were in the majority. Goths, sk8ers, punks, newboyz, charvas and tribes Malcolm had no name for all came to the Field of a Saturday to parade their contrasting affiliations. It was a heady mix. In the days when he observed it all from on high Malcolm had been amused and intrigued at the different groups and how readily they intermingled. Friends within the same and from widely differing tribes habitually greeted each other with much hugging and embracing but this familiarity, attractive as it was to behold, had made it difficult for him to work out who was who.
The broader divisions Malcolm could distinguish readily enough but even now he had not conclusively defined the boundaries of Stitch's clan within the larger goth community, most of whom owed no more allegiance to Middle-earth than they did to Disneyland.
Every time he thought he had it clear in his head the boundaries shifted. People would transfer from one apparent group to another or somebody would appear out of the blue to be greeted like a long lost relative. It was very confusing, not least because it made Malcolm's own situation all the more uncertain. Was he "in" or not?
Of all the tribes only the charvas held themselves apart. In their high street attire they looked normal enough on the surface. The boys wore expensive Berghaus coats and Rockport boots: their Burberry baseball caps were a trademark to the point of self-caricature. The girls favoured pastel Kappa and Ellesse sports wear, enormous coke-can fringes and cheap gold jewellery.
To begin with Malcolm hadn't considered them as one of the tribes at all - they didn't appear "alternative" enough. He soon learned the truth of it. Charvas defined themselves in terms of their opposition to everything alternative.
On the Hippy Field where goth and mohican mixed harmoniously and anyone with a leather coat or a Slipknot hoodie could find a smoke and a friendly face the charvas were universally despised. With good reason. Violence between or within the other groups was rare but there were few amongst them who had not at some time been verbally or physically abused by a mob of charva hyenas. Their spite was unreasoning and vicious and none excited it more than the Gothrim.
Perhaps envy lay at the root of it. To Malcolm the charva girls were universally, perhaps genetically, ugly - a state unrelieved by any hint of grace or intelligence and perversely paraded under masses of catalogue-store jewellery. It was a goth joke that charvas were born with a gilt complex. By comparison almost all the goth women he knew - of whatever ilk - displayed intelligence and a deep, almost unworldly allure.
"Are you my Champion, Malcolm?"
Shaken from his reverie he turned and found her close at his side. The question seemed to continue Halt's earlier joke yet there was a tension in her voice he had not heard before.
"And what would the Champion do for his Lady?"
He looked hard at her before answering. Her long raven-wing hair was caught back behind her ears with two small tortoiseshell combs. She wore little make-up aside from the black mascara and ruby lipstick that together with the tattoos at her brow line marked her as one of the Gothrim. Her eyes were dark and wide open, her lips a little pursed. There was nothing there that he could read.
"Whatever she desired."
Something moved across her face the way shadows do on distant hills.
"Would you defend my person and my honour against all challenge of the Dark?"
It wasn't a game. What was he getting into? It scared and tantalised him. Whatever it was, it was already too late to turn back.
"Yes. My Lady."
The shadows deepened and then were gone. She smiled and inclined her head, self-mockingly regal.
And with a pull at his sleeve that sent him careering after her Stitch launched herself shrieking down the grassy bank into what once upon a time had been the castle moat.
Malcolm opened his eyes to the sound of the sea and a world full of sky. Clouds heavy with the threat of rain rolled towards and over him. He had no idea where he was. It didn't seem to matter.
Other than the sky he was aware of nothing save a numbing coldness that penetrated body and bone despite the heavy leather of his coat. He arched his back away from the source of the cold, winced at the stab of pain the movement evoked in the muscles of his neck. Bloody stupid place to fall asleep, he thought, but the rolling tableau fascinated him and he relaxed again. For a time he made no further attempt to move.
It came to Malcolm that he had never really looked at the sky before. It was always there, of course, a component and indicator of the weather but not a thing to be given attention in its own right. There was certainly plenty of weather in the sky at the moment. He seemed to be sheltered from the wind but up there it was blowing strongly in from ... from the sea. He could smell it. Something tugged at his consciousness but he let it slip away like the clouds overhead.
Moments later a white gull sailed into view, effortlessly riding the air stream landward. Malcolm's eyes focused automatically and he tipped back his head to follow it. The granite bulk of the beacon tower reared massively into view. Against the streaming sky it was falling upon him. Shock brought Malcolm fully to his senses and he sat up at once, drawing the coat tightly about him. He checked his watch.
"We'd better go!"
He must have dozed on the broad stone step beneath the lighthouse but in little less than an hour Stitch seemed not to have moved at all. If she heard him now she did not respond.
"Stitch -" he began again but now the wind was all about the tower and it threw the name back at him. The sign had said they locked the gates to the pier at four o'clock and it was almost that now. The part of him that worried about such things could not wholly be stilled but he had come cautiously to accept that there were other ways of looking at the world. If Stitch wasn't worried ...
Malcolm forced the knot of anxiety down inside him where it was still numb and cold. He clambered stiffly to his feet and walked the half dozen steps to stand beside her at the wall.
Stitch seemed not to notice his approach but as he stepped onto the shallow ledge she spoke to him gently, in that way of hers he had never heard but which spoke to him sometimes in his dreams.
"You feel it too."
It wasn't spoken as a question but Malcolm knew it was one. More, it was a test, a challenge to the person he had been and a touchstone to everything he longed to become. He dared not look at her. The answer was not to be found in the pale beauty of her face, nor in the hair the wind drew out behind her like wild flame.
Instead he followed her gaze out over the stone parapet. Clouds still swept towards him, streaming now across water whipped into running lines of foam. He had the uneasy sensation that it was not the clouds but he who was moving. He was standing at the prow of some great ship. An Elf ship, perhaps, sailing him into the west with his Lady beside him.
This was no ship but the northern breakwater of the river Tyne and though the wind blew from the east it was cold and in his face. And the woman beside him, fey and beautiful as she was and who filled him by turns with longing and a fierce dread, with her jet black hair and sea-grey eyes and the Clan marks of the Gothrim upon her, she was none of the Eldar but a mortal child.
"This isn't Middle-earth," he said at last and it was less an answer than an expression of despair from a heart that could not let go enough to believe otherwise.
She reached out to him then, took hold of his face and drew it round towards hers. Behind her the ruined priory crowned the headland of Penbalcrag against a sky the colour of old gold. Malcolm fancied he saw a light flicker there, then it was gone. It was a pretty sight but the romance of it did nothing to stem his grief.
Stitch did not let go of him until he would look at her. It was the wind, perhaps, that had brought the tears to her eyes.
Then she smiled again and on tip toes kissed him, her mouth open and warm. Before he realised what had happened she had stepped down from the ledge and was walking briskly back towards the mainland.
Below her tailored leather coat two inches of white lace danced ghostly in the growing gloom. Malcolm had to run to catch up with her. They reached the iron gates just as the man arrived to lock them for the night.
The path back up the hill was steeper than it looked and Malcolm found he had little breath spare for conversation. Stitch hadn't spoken since they left the pier and appeared lost in her thoughts. Malcolm retreated into his.
What had she meant, Isn't it? This wasn't Middle-earth. This was the real world. You couldn't change reality, just by questioning it and wearing funny clothes.
Despite everything Malcolm smiled to himself. His own attire was not particularly extreme but he looked goth enough to have been spat at in the street this afternoon on his way to meet the others. But of course, that was the point. To look different. To be Other and to evidence that Otherness. The mindless aggression it evoked in some wasn't part of the deal, though it did seem a portion of the price.
The Gothrim philosophy of Otherness - in so far as it was a philosophy at all - forbade anything as strictly regimented as a uniform. Like all the kindreds there was a preponderance of black leather, lace and Victoriana but each clan and each individual interpreted the code as they chose.
Differences, from Halt's copper and ambergris hair and white face paint to Devon's push-up corsetry and Stitch's predilection for wedding dresses, were all proudly asserted and celebrated.
Malcolm paused in the ascent and rested a moment against the iron railings that overlooked the castle's defensive ditch from the outside. What was his difference?
He dug his hands deep into the pockets of his coat. It was ex German police; heavy and hard-wearing and - not less important to him when he had bought it online from military surplus - cheap. He'd spent hours dressing the leather, customising it with reproduction sixties fan buttons and stencilling Clan devices in white paint on the broad lapels.
The rest of the group seemed to like it. Devon loved him in the coat and the first time he wore it to the Hippy Field even Halt had grunted approval, passing his fingers over the leather with a grudging respect. "Good skin, man."
That was the moment, a couple of weeks ago now, when Malcolm had at last felt he was getting somewhere. Like maybe he belonged.
But he still worried he wasn't Goth enough. The cut of the coat was all wrong and the shiny pressed-steel fastenings were self-evidently modern. He'd wanted something longer, older and with more style. Something like Shy Stephen wore, or any of a dozen others he knew by sight from the Field. But he didn't have the money that kind of leather cost. This one would have to do.
There and then on the hill he decided to make a feature of the coat. Like the short blond hair he couldn't bear to grow longer or dye black to fit in, it was a part of him. It was his difference. The thought cheered him and he pushed away from the railing with a new determination. Maybe he was learning after all.
He found Stitch twenty feet ahead, looking back at him with her head a little to one side. Beneath the fine black leather of her coat the bridal gown shimmered, cream silk and pearls rendered silver in the half light. A few strands of hair blew across her face and she raised a hand to brush them aside. She looked so utterly beautiful that Malcolm had to marshal the composure not to stare open-mouthed.
"Come on," she called then turned away and continued up the hill.
They reached the main road together. The clock on the drinking fountain said four twenty three. It was hardly late but Halt and the others were nowhere to be seen.
Across the plaza the lights of The Gibraltar Rock beckoned but apart from the Dragon and a couple of pubs on the Darkside the Clan mostly avoided public hostelries. The threat of intimidation was never far away but more than that the lager and juke-box ambience of most bars hardly accorded with Gothrim sensibilities. They weren't in there. They must have gone home.
Stitch continued walking, making towards the bus stop beside the newly grassed knoll that was all that remained of the old underground conveniences. He had no idea where she lived but he couldn't leave her to wait here on her own. He would see her home. Maybe a cab, if he had enough on him. A Champion could do no less. She might even ask him in.
If this was indeed Middle-earth then for a moment he imagined himself Aragorn and as she walked beside him, so close he could feel her coat brushing against his legs, Stitch was his Arwen; nubile, voluptuous and available.
That kiss had to mean something.
But she turned away from the road and followed the path right, around and across the ditch; back towards the castle. Malcolm's fantasies vanished in an instant. He was confused all over again.
"Where are you going?"
Stitch pirouetted in mid-stride. The dress and coat span out around her.
"I'm off to see the Wizard. You can come too!"
Malcolm followed her towards the castle gate, past an English Heritage sign which clearly stated the property was closed to visitors after four thirty.
"It's too late, isn't it?" he asked, with little hope of dissuading her. "The place will be shut."
He hoped he didn't sound too timid. Too pathetic.
"Won't it? Stitch?"
"Not to us!" she called back without pausing or turning to see if he was still coming.
He had never been inside the castle before. The passage through the outer gatehouse was narrow, poorly lit in the gloom and disconcertingly irregular. Small barred windows appeared upon either hand with no discernible pattern.
A narrow doorway on the right opened onto a spiral staircase. As Malcolm passed he thought he caught a flickering in the shadows but when he turned his head to look again there was nothing there.
The far end of the passageway was barred by heavy iron gates. Through the gridwork Malcolm could see the world outside or, rather, the world inside the castle. Beyond a narrow gravel drive a broad swath of grass rose towards the ruins of the medieval priory and distant walls of cream coloured stone.
From within the gatehouse the daylight appeared much brighter than it had outside only a few moments before and that brightness seemed in turn to amplify the dark until Malcolm fancied he could feel it pressing in around him. He thought of Bilbo in the tunnels beneath the Lonely Mountain as he approached Smaug in his den. It didn't cheer him much.
Surely they shouldn't be here. The place was closed, or closing. But Malcolm kept his silence, placing his trust in Stitch and trying to evince a confidence he did not altogether own.
Stitch headed directly for the gates. Maybe she has a key, Malcolm thought. But at the last moment she turned to the right where, hidden behind a buttress of ancient masonry, a modern door opened into the fluorescent glare of the castle shop.
The small room - perhaps originally a guard room to the gate house - was brightly lit, warm and reassuringly mundane. Against walls of undressed sandstone pine racks displayed postcards, books and brochures detailing the castle's history alongside Irish linen tea towels and selections of toy weaponry. Propped beside the till a card reiterated the seasonal opening times.
Malcolm reached for Stitch's arm.
They're closed. We shouldn't be here.
She turned at the touch but her eyes, suddenly wide with child-like excitement, were not for him.
Malcolm hadn't noticed the figure in the corner until that moment. Despite the fact Stitch obviously knew him Malcolm still expected their arrival to be met with a polite refusal and the suggestion they came back another day. Instead the man moved around the counter into the middle of the room and enfolded Stitch in a close embrace.
"Welcome, my child!"
Malcolm felt awkward, on the outside again. It seemed Stitch was not only welcome but expected. It was he who ought not to have been there. He should have bidden farewell to Stitch at the top of the hill and taken himself home with the memory of their time together on the pier. Now everything had changed.
"Who is this?" the man asked. The voice was deep and resonant, with the hint of an accent Malcolm could not place.
Stitch was still pressed against him, her face buried against his chest. The man's head was bent over her, chin almost in her hair. His left hand rested lightly about her waist. He was staring at Malcolm with an expression that might have been benign.
Stitch turned her head without breaking away and now two pairs of eyes regarded Malcolm out of a wild cascade of mingled grey and raven hair.
Malcolm felt he should introduce himself but didn't know how to begin. A line from somewhere echoed in his mind.
Who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?
Then Stitch extended her arm towards him. Without thinking Malcolm took one step forward, then another. Through the black lace of her gloves Stitch's hand was icy cold.
"Ran, this is Malcolm," she said. "My new Champion."
Malcolm searched for humour in her eyes, found nothing there but a dampness that was almost tears. She wasn't joking.
In whatever realm Stitch needed a Champion, that realm was real to her. And it came to Malcolm all at once that she did not walk there alone but in the company of Halt and Devon and the rest of the Clan.
Malcolm had almost imagined himself one of them with his new leather coat and alt-tolk t-shirts. It had taken him weeks to learn the proper Elvish greetings but he realised now that there was more to it than wearing the right clothes, mastering Sindarin and turning up at the Field every Saturday to be spat at by charvas.
Beyond fashion and affectation it was Middle-earth that bound them together, the peril and privilege of the Gothrim. They walked there. He was still Outside and had never felt more wretched. He looked up from Stitch's tears into the face of the man holding her.
"Well met," the man said
Behind the long hair and ridiculous beard Malcolm realised with surprise that the face was little older than his own. Who are you, then?
As if in answer to his unspoken question the man bowed his head. "I'm Randolph Forster. Warden of the castle here." He loosed his left arm from about Stitch's waist and waved it vaguely around the little room.
"Keeper of the Keep, you might say," he added - and if there had been no laughter in Stitch's eyes it danced in his. He stared at Malcolm as if waiting for him to respond to the pun with one of his own.
"We're not too late, then?" It was all Malcolm could think of to say. The words sounded ridiculous in his own ears but Randolph considered the question carefully before replying.
"Not at all, Master Champion. You are in good time. In Wizards' time, you might say."
The pale face creased behind the beard and Malcolm found himself grinning back. He still had hold of Stitch's hand. When he dared to look he saw that she was smiling now too, despite the tears that still glistened on her cheek.
"Then enter!" Ran declaimed, stepping aside to reveal a glass doorway Malcolm had not noticed before. "Go on through. The others are already here. I'll be along presently."
They were still hand in hand as Stitch led Malcolm through the door, out into the castle garth beyond.