Playing at darkness, part 2
She is quiet now, mind and body numbed by the piercing cold and loss of blood. She has no idea how long she has been there. Hours. One night. A week. From time to time she sobs aloud for her mother. Her attacker. Someone. But no one comes. Twenty feet to her left there is a patch of grey. The merest lessening of blackness but she clings to it given by this faintest of tokens a hook upon which to hang a hope. I might survive this.
The cuts to her hands where she grabbed at the blade reopen in the attempt to drag herself across the tiled floor. The stench of blood and piss is overwhelming but there is not enough left in her stomach to vomit. Instead she retches, clutching her chest tightly against the pain. Several of her ribs are broken.
It takes an hour for her to cross the room. In that time the circular patch of grey has grown brighter and now faintly illuminates one corner of her prison. She collapses in front of the grated vent. Gulps greedily at the trickle of air. Over the stench of stale urine the air smells faintly of the sea.
Again she hears mewing. Something trapped in here somewhere. With her. Like her. I am not alone. The girl's heart goes out to the creature. For a moment she is thinking not of her own tragedy. It's alright, she mouths silently. It comes again, channeled by the narrow soakaway and she knows the sound for what it is. The plaintive call of gulls on the wing. She recoils physically; pushes herself away from the sound and the smell of Outside. I will die here. She puts out a hand to steady herself. Finds his body cold beside her in the dark.
The promontory of Penbalcrag was dominated by the ruins of the medieval priory; its cream coloured masonry loomed pale in the growing gloom of the evening. The edifice facing them as they left the shop stood perhaps half its original height. Above the vaulted archway of the west door two fractured piers defined a space that in former days held a window of painted glass one third the width of the building and the glory of the house. It looks like a broken picture frame, Malcolm thought.
Stitch led him along a gravelled path. As it veered right, away from the priory, Malcolm caught a glimpse of people moving amongst the shadows. He recognised Shy Stephen and one of his tech cronies from the Field but there were others too, maybe seven or eight in all. Stephen was holding a large tray of lit candles in clear glass jars. The others moved back and forth setting the lights around the ruins. Four enormous wax barbecue torches, for the moment unlit, had been planted in a large square on the lawn to the south of the church.
Malcolm still had hold of Stitch's hand and he must have hesitated because now she was pulling him forward.
"Come on. How about a drink first, to warm up?""Okay." Sure.
Before them a squat square house of red brick nestled against the outer walls of the castle, looking out of place amidst its neighbours' ancient and venerable stone. The windows of the house were barred but there was light inside and shadows danced behind the shutters.
Malcolm was on the point of asking Stitch what was happening when a small child careered down the steep steps from the house, through the gate and along the track towards them. She skidded to a halt at their feet and bowed dramatically, first to Stitch and then to Malcolm.
"Welcome, my Lady ... my Lord ..." Out of breath from running. As she spoke she extended her left arm towards the little house. "Welcome to the Cottage of Lost Play!"
The child's black leather coat reached almost to the ground. Beneath it she wore a dress like the one Stitch was wearing but stained a deep shade of purple. A goth-dressed Arwen doll was clasped tightly in her other hand. Aleysha. The tumbling locks of red hair had for once been tamed and were caught in a beaded net of silver wire.
Malcolm was about to speak when Stitch inclined her head to the child and thanked her graciously for the welcome. She ended with a lilting rush of Elvish that Malcolm failed totally to follow. Aleysha beamed as though she had been given a surprise present and then skipped off across the grass in the direction of the twinkling lights.
"She's been so excited about tonight," Stitch confided as they continued towards the house. "She did really well, don't you think?"
"Sure." Unsure what else was wanted. Not for the first time Malcolm wondered whose child Aleysha was but there was such a strong note of pride in Stitch's voice that he was afraid to ask. Impossibilities surged in his mind. Ages. Surely not. He realised he knew nothing about Stitch's life outside the Clan. All of his carefully crafted fantasies collapsed around him. They were ridiculous, adolescent. Pathetic. He shouldn't be here. He had nowhere else to go.
They passed through a picket gate into the sparsely planted garden. Lit by more candles in glass jars a flight of eight stone steps brought them to the green-painted front door beneath its massive porch. At the top of the steps Malcolm hesitated. He wasn't ready to go inside. Not yet. He turned and stared back the way they had just come.
Most of the promontory stood now in shadow, the growing darkness relieved here and there by the lights still being set about the ruins. It was a pretty sight but it did nothing to reassure him. It wasn't right. It's not normal.
No doubt beyond the high walls of the gate-house the lights of Tynemouth were being lit in pubs and bars, sea-front hotels and houses. Surely as on any other evening street lamps and traffic sketched the curves of the coast road northwards in white and red and sodium gold. But Malcolm couldn't see them from here. He might have been on a different planet. Or in a different time.
He scanned the skyline. Beyond the priory the North Sea was a narrow leaden band beneath a mottled sky. The lighthouse he had visited with Stitch was just visible above the castle walls. It wasn't lit but further right across the corner of the garden a pulsing light marked its sister upon the southern pier. Malcolm realised he had been holding his breath. He let it out in an audible sigh. He might not know what was happening in here but out there everything seemed normal enough.
There was a sudden blaring of light and noise. Stitch had opened the door and had entered the house without him.
He had a moment only in which to make up his mind. Inside the Cottage there was music and warmth, alcohol perhaps. Company - and Stitch. The door began to close: slowly, affording him every opportunity to follow her. It was a test. He knew he was supposed to go in. In a world that had not seemed normal for several hours the house promised diversion, refuge. Perhaps even understanding.
Still Malcolm hesitated. He was alone on the outside and the door was closing. In a moment it would be too late. There was a lull in the music from within and he heard a woman's voice declaiming loudly in Elvish. He couldn't catch what was said but then there was a gay laughter and that was unmistakably Stitch.
Almost no time at all.
The door was scarcely more than ajar. A beam of golden light swept the step, narrowing as it neared him. Two heartbeats and he would be alone. He cast a glance towards the priory. Someone had lit the wax torches. In their flaring light Aleysha was running to and fro across the close-cropped lawn. She held something in her hand that flashed in the torch light. It looked like some sort of blade.
Malcolm's heart hammered.
The narrow beam extinguished. Too late. But then Devon was at his shoulder, pulling on his sleeve. Laughing too loud. She pushed him forward. He felt himself falling and put out a hand against the door to save himself. It gave way before him.
A wall of light and noise hit him as he stumbled across the threshold. The room beyond was full of people. Through a din of music and voices he distinctly heard the sound of the door as it closed behind him.
Devon was sitting close beside him in the corner of the room but the music was so loud Malcolm hadn't caught what she said.
"I said it's a great party!" She shrugged the coat from her shoulders and let it fall about her onto the floor. The fishnet vest she was wearing underneath did nothing to hide the breasts pushed up and together by her tightly thonged corset. Her minutely pleated skirt rode just above the knee.
"Yeah. Great." Malcolm wasn't sure if he thought so or not. He was acutely aware of the body on display beside him but he couldn't relax. He had no idea what was going on or why he was there. He hadn't seen Stitch since Devon thrust him bodily into the house.
"Do you want another drink?" Devon shook her empty wine glass in his face to emphasize the question.
"No thanks." His own glass - the first of the evening - was almost empty but he wasn't ready yet for more. The clear dry liqueur had gone straight to his head. He wasn't drunk but something was happening and he needed to keep his wits about him. Devon called it a party. If that was all it was he was fine. He was a bit out of practice but he could do parties.
"It's okay." He smiled, hoping it came out right. Perhaps it didn't.
Devon leant closer to make sure she could be heard. She smelt good, like Stitch had earlier on the pier. Incense and some musk-laden perfume. Studiously avoiding her cleavage Malcolm studied her face. Beneath the heavy Gothrim makeup Devon's skin was fresh and clear. Her eyes gazed back, brown pools of concern. She was worried about him. About something. At least a couple of years his junior but those eyes held secrets. She knew who she was. He envied her that. He would have given a lot to know that about himself.
"Malcolm - are you okay?"
A strand of hair slipped from behind her ear and fell across her cheek. She brushed it away, eyes still locked on him. Malcolm saw that her Clan markings were not tattooed like Stitch's were but had been carefully drawn at her temples in something that had stained the skin a dark umber. He hadn't noticed before.
"Sure, I'm fine". Another smile, and this time it came more naturally. He reached out with one finger, touched the twirled lines on her skin. "What is that?"
Her brow furrowed. "It's the symbol of the Clan." She sounded uncertain. Surely he knew that?
Malcolm relished her confusion. "I know what it is. I mean how is it done? It's not a tattoo."
"No, well, not a proper one. My Mum won't let me." She was embarrassed at having to admit that but it was a touch of the real world in a strange place and it endeared her further to Malcolm. A moment later her spirit returned. "It's mehndi. You know? Henna. Like Indian women have when they get married. Denny did it for me. Do you like it?"
"I do, yes."
"Hey!" She was animated again. "I could do one for you! Den showed me. Not all the guys wear them I know but it doesn't have to be on your face."
"Oh yes - where would you suggest?" He was bolder now; playing with her. Perhaps the alcohol was taking hold but he felt a lot happier. It was a party; his first Gothrim party. Enjoy yourself.
Devon missed the joke; considered his question seriously before replying. "Well, Shy has one on his arm and Halt -"
"Oh yes," Malcolm interrupted. "Tell me. Where does the Great Halt have his tattoo? And how come you know so much about it, young lady?"
Realisation dawned. "Oh you're teasing me! I hate you." Devon scooted back from him against the wall and sulked so convincingly Malcolm was afraid he had really upset her.
"Sorry, Dev. I was only joking. Look, I've got one already." He rolled back the cuff of his coat to reveal the Tengwar lettering at his left wrist. It was enough to draw her back to her place beside him.
"Oh Lord, yes. I've seen it before. Not properly though. What does it say?" She took his hand in hers, bending it back and forth to read the delicate branching script. "P - L - A -Y - ING ... playing ... at ..."
"Ow, don't break my wrist! Here ..." He turned his hand over so that she could complete her investigation.
"DARKNESS! That's so cool! What made you choose that?"
Now it was Malcolm's turn to feel awkward. "It's from a poem."
He had brought up the subject of his tattoo to impress her but now he didn't want to pursue it.
"Did you write it?"
"What's it about?"
"I don't remember."
It was a lie and he wondered if she could tell. The line wasn't from a poem. It was a phrase that had come to him once about the group in the days before he ever imagined he would join them.
From a distance both literal and figurative Malcolm had always admired the goth look. The women in particular entranced him but he could never have approached them. The horror genre left him cold and their vampires had always seemed too modern, too Victorian to be worth the bother of believing in.
But with their Elvish greetings and Lord of the Rings t-shirts beneath their long leather trench-coats these Others - the word Gothrim was unknown to him at the time - were different. His kind of different. They weren't just into Tolkien, they trod the borders of the Perilous Realm with a confidence Malcolm yearned to own for himself. They belonged, to each other and to Middle-earth.
Week after week he had watched covertly from his first floor window seat in Boskoops cafe trying to decide if they were worthy of his belief, daring to imagine he could become one of them.
There was much about them that seemed to Malcolm wholesome and true. They were affectionate with one another, laughed easily and loud, took delight in the silliest of things. Even Halt-the-resolutely-taciturn.
Once, long before he learned the man's name, Malcolm had watched in amazement as the crippled goth, resplendent in short two-tone hair and harlequinned face paint, produced from beneath his coat a black and white magician's wand. With droll theatricality he had laid about him, tapping folk on the head as though bestowing fortune or inviting them to disappear. Those so assaulted failed signally to vanish but Halt seemed satisfied and soon the wand was being passed around the group as they acted out conjurous fantasies of their own.
For all the black leather and heavy makeup, for all that several professed allegiance to the Enemy in their attire (The Devil has all the best t-shirts had been Shy's laconic response when Malcolm queried the practice in his early days amongst them), despite the fact that many of them smoked and there were occasional indications of drug-sharing the Gothrim were children. Children playing at darkness.
At least he had thought so at the time and it had almost turned him away from them. That wasn't what he was looking for. And yet the borders of Middle-earth were no place for children unprepared to defend themselves. The Gothrim attracted derision and more than occasionally this spilled into outright aggression and assault.
In the main this was born with a reticence bordering on pacifism but once Malcolm had witnessed retaliation by a young meek-seeming goth which left his four charva tormentors bleeding on the flagstones. The police who were never far away had moved everybody on but the incident made a strong impression on Malcolm. Like most things in Middle-earth there was something of the Dark about them. It was this realisation more than anything else that had convinced Malcolm he should approach them, for his mild heart hid its own shadows.
Within a month he had ordered his new leather coat from the Internet and paid more than he could afford for the tattoo. In its origin an expression of disappointed contempt the phrase Playing at darkness had come to represent for Malcolm the paradoxical nature of the Gothrim. Etched about his wrist it was a permanent reminder of his uncertainty; a testament and a challenge.
Devon still had hold of his hand and was tracing the curved letters with her finger. Her white breasts threatened at any moment to escape the tightly laced corsetry. She was too young but his body didn't seem to think it mattered and he was getting disconcertingly hard. Extricating his hand from hers Malcolm shifted a cushion and leant back against the wall.
The ornately moulded ceiling was a whorl of shadows as people moved amongst the candles and lanterns that provided the room's only illumination. It reminded him of the sky he had awoken to on the pier. Clouds coming in from the East. Stitch.
"Who are these people?" he asked without taking his eyes from the faded plaster.
Devon moved beside him. Her bare legs were warm against his.
"All of them. I mean, we're here. You and me. Aleysha. Shy. That friend of his -"
"Big guy. Long hair. I've seen him at the Field a few times. Jason is it?"
He looked at her. "He's got a dog?"
"No, I don't think so -" She was laughing. "It's his name! Dog Jason."
"Right." Malcolm settled back into the corner. He tried to hide it but her laughter was infectious. They sat in silence for a while.
There were definitely fewer people in the room now although he hadn't noticed anyone leave. The music had changed too. When they first entered the house it had been very loud, some heavy rock that sounded like it belonged to another era altogether. He hadn't been able to make out any of the lyrics - could hardly hear himself think, as his mother would have said - but the thumping beat had been subtly hypnotic.
Two enormous case-bound loudspeakers stood against the opposite wall but he couldn't see a sound system of any kind. It must be upstairs. Now, despite the same past-decades timelessness, the music was lighter in tone. Acoustic. Voices rose and fell about him.
Dance in the dark of night,
Ringwraiths and a Dark Lord.
"What were you saying about the people?" Devon's voice intruded.
He sat up. "Oh yeah. Sorry. I meant I know who we are - you, me, Aleysha, Shy. This Jason bloke."
"Okay. Dawwwg". He drew the sound out hoping to amuse her but it drew no response and after a moment he continued. "Is Halt here too?"
"Of course, silly. Everyone's here."
"Everyone." Devon spoke slowly, patiently, as though explaining things to a child.
Malcolm knew he was missing something. Everybody was here. The whole Clan. And Randolph the Immensely Hairy. What did he call himself? Castle Warden. Keeper of the Keep. It was his party, then. And Stitch. Where was Stitch? He daren't ask the one thing he wanted to know most of all, in case he didn't like the answer.
"So who are this lot?" He waved his arm to encompass the dozen or so people still milling around the room.
They were self-evidently goth - Gothrim indeed, to judge by the profusion of Middle-earth emblems and paraphernalia. About their temples most wore a narrow band of intricately tooled leather, all florid sworls and Celtic knotwork. There seemed to be a preponderance of Dark symbolism. Malcolm noticed several Evil Legions t-shirts from the movies and the girl nearest to him had the Red Eye tattooed across the back of her hand.
Two heavily built guys over by the loudspeakers were in full Urûk war paint. Heads bowed they seemed intent on some private conversation. Once or twice Malcolm had caught them glancing across at him, unless it was Devon that had caught their attention. He didn't recognise any of them.
"Oh, them?" Devon seemed to be enjoying his discomfiture. "They're from down by Scarborough. Halt's people."
"What do you mean?"
"That's where Halt came from before he came here." She leant closer in. Her voice dropped almost to a whisper. "See that guy?" She pointed with one outstretched finger, the rest of her hand held close against her chest.
Malcolm looked across the room. For a moment he couldn't see who she meant. Then a young couple in front of them moved to the side door and left the room. Briefly Malcolm wondered where they were going. Then he saw who Devon was pointing at.
An imposing figure in a full length leather dress coat was holding forth to a small group in the centre of the room. A tangle of dreadlocks emerged from under an enormous wide-brimmed hat. The back panel of the coat, from shoulder to shoulder and almost to the waist, bore a ravening bear's head in closely stitched leather, its teeth picked out in white and scarlet paint.
Malcolm couldn't make out what the man was saying but suddenly - just as the music fell away to nothing - he raised both arms into the air. Throwing back his head he roared aloud in passable impersonation of a grizzly bear. The cry was taken up by the rest of the group including the two Urûks who, rather incongruously, were still clutching their wine glasses. The sound was deafening in the small room and Malcolm cowered involuntarily. Devon began laughing again, her body shaking quietly against his.
"Don't worry, Malcolm. It's only Bear!"
"Bear. I was going to say. These are his Clan. His people, like we're Halt's. You know?"
This was news to Malcolm. Halt, Stitch and maybe Denny were the unmistakable and unspoken core of the Clan. Its Inner Circle perhaps. It wasn't an organisational thing, more a mark of respect from the others. They were the oldest, for one thing but no one had ever told him Halt was in charge. Halt's people? Malcolm wasn't sure he liked the idea.
"And Halt was one of these lot? I mean before?"
"Sure. Bear is his brother."
Two hours later Malcolm was on his fifth glass of wine and was feeling very mellow. He was standing in the middle of the room with six of his new friends as Bear related another of his enormously implausible stories. This was probably the best party Malcolm had ever been to. The sense of unease had disappeared to be replaced by a supreme sense of identity, of belonging. He had probably never felt better in his entire life.
Shy Stephen, Dog and a few others Malcolm recognised had come in from the cold a while back but after a drink or two and a few words they had returned outside. Little Aleysha kept careering in and out all flushed and out of breath. He hadn't seen Devon for at least half an hour.
The music had changed several times. Either the person choosing it had very broad tastes or people were taking turns. Most was inspired by or featured Middle-earth and Malcolm had recognised the classics. Bo Hansson. Wakeman. Some of The Tolkien Ensemble's stuff which he had never been keen on. Most though was new to him and something of a revelation. He hadn't realised there were so much Gothrim music out there.
A version of The Mewlips had particularly affected him. He had never liked the poem, finding it childishly simplistic and unworthy of entering the matter of Middle-earth. Mewlips - whatever they were supposed to be - were certainly no part of his Middle-earth. Like vampires they were unworthy of the effort of suspending disbelief. But now an unknown group had imbued Tolkien's lines with the sincerest of menace and the rendition left Malcolm genuinely unsettled.
For the past few minutes things had calmed down to Annie Lennox's hauntingly beautiful Into the West. Then came a guitar riff so loud it reverberated physically around the room. A tremendous roar went up from the Scarborough clan. Bear's court was immediately adjourned as the big man led his cronies in a frenzied mosh that left Malcolm hovering uncertainly against the wall. The lyrics might have had something to do with The Silmarillion but Malcolm couldn't be sure. Clive, the taller of the two Urûk-Hai, gestured for him to join them. When Malcolm shook his head Clive shrugged good-naturedly and carried on with commendable abandon.
Devon was at his shoulder but Malcolm couldn't hear her over the noise. She came closer, reached on tiptoes to speak directly into his ear.
"I said come upstairs!"
She turned and crossed the room to the side door. Malcolm wasn't sure what kind of offer she had just made him but he decided he was up for it. He drained his glass and, wending his way through the heaving throng of Gothrim head-bangers, followed her into the unknown. The door opened into a narrow corridor running the length of the house to a narrow spiral staircase. He caught a glimpse of Devon's coat-tails as she darted upstairs.
Malcolm drew aside the heavy velour curtain and entered what must originally have been the bedroom of the house. As below the only illumination came from candles and oil lamps. Here they had been set out in islands that spilled their jewelled light across the unvarnished floorboards.
Around the flames perhaps twenty people were sitting on enormous cushions. Malcolm couldn't see Devon in the gloom but there was a space over to the right by the wall and he settled himself down. There was an air of expectation about the place. Everyone was facing the far end of the room. Nobody spoke. The only sound was a dull thudding of music from downstairs. Malcolm wondered if they were praying.
He glanced around him. He realised he was sat next to a girl he had spoken to earlier. One of Bear's clan. He didn't know her name but she had seemed friendly enough. A pretty girl, trad as you like with her silver jewellery and heavy make-up. Raven hair half way down her back. She glanced at Malcolm when he sat down. Flashed him a smile with her eyes. But now she had turned away again. Something's going to happen, Malcolm thought. And then it did.
Across the other side of the room a cloaked and hooded figure rose and made its way slowly to the front of the gathering. A low murmur ran around the room: not words, rather a half-voiced sound of approval and expectation. The figure sat down on a low stool and threw back the hood. Malcolm caught a flash of flame in the bright, liquid eyes. Long grey hair and a wilderness of a beard that trailed between his knees. Ran!.
Without any preamble the Warden cast back the hair from his face and launched into tale-telling. The story was new to Malcolm; a tale from the Old Days when Elves first fared forth into the West. Brother and sister there were of the House of Lenwë who tarried overlong in the valley called Ialindë, Song of the Abyss. Guided by a dream they found a crystal chamber high behind the great waterfall at the gorge's end.
Then Lindiriel for joy and overweening love sang out aloud and her voice went forth, becoming one with the water and the crystal hall and the jewelled lights that played about the hall. And each in the other found an echo and a common theme that rose and swelled and rising blossomed like a flower enfolding both the Children in its glory.
For by grace had Lindiriel invoked a part of the Music that the Ainur sang into the foundations of the world in the time of its making. And this was by star and water, air and crystal fire and by the voice of a Child of Eru called into being, focused and magnified in the Chamber of Singing Lights.
What was revealed to Lindiriel is not told. For she, her spirit overwhelmed, never spoke in words nor sang again. Nor for all her brother's pleading would she depart the hall but by the curtained water sat and gazed as one transfixed.
At first Malcolm had felt foolish and restless. Foolish because storytelling was for children. He couldn't believe so many teenagers - and older, he had now spied Halt across the room - could sit still so long and appear so entranced. Restless because the cushions were less comfortable than they appeared and his legs had become cramped and irritable. He should have stayed downstairs. Bear's tales - full of life and not a little bloody gore - were another thing altogether.
In that place Lindiriel remained until at last her spirit passed away with the waters of the river. And her brother Ioron wandered forever in search of her who he had lost; the first of his people to age in body, to waste in flesh before the eyes of Men.
But he stayed and listened; not least because he had followed Devon here and had not yet located her. Ran's mellow voice washed through his mind as he searched the room for her, so far as discretion and the flickering shadows permitted. Over there in the corner, perhaps ... But he couldn't be sure. There were too many people sat in between.
She knew when first she came that it would not be easy
The voice was still Ran's but the timbre had changed. In staggered verse it narrated a story darker than any Bear had told him. A tale of entrapment, treachery and despair.
A rush of steel sounds, blood tastes, was all she remembered
The lights in the room seemed to dim; the walls contract. The other people were still there but slipped out of Malcolm's immediate awareness. His vision blurred. The island of lights to his right became a wall of flame. He felt light-headed. Dizzy. Too much wine, he told himself. He wanted to leave but was afraid he would throw up if he tried to stand.
First there was only darkness
Ran's voice was Malcolm's one point of reference. For a while it steadied him and the room slipped slowly back into focus. He looked for Halt. The cripple had risen to his feet and was propped heavily against the wall. He had half turned as though about to leave but his gaze was fixed rigidly on the storyteller. The pose gave his already twisted frame an additional grotesque veneer. Malcolm looked into the man's face. Halt's eyes were closed tight. Beneath the black and white grease paint his face was contorted in some dreadful pain.
Malcolm reacted without thinking. Halt was hardly his friend but he was suffering. He rose to his knees, was on the point of calling out to stop the storytelling. Help him. Then he saw Stitch. She was kneeling on the floor at Halt's feet. As Malcolm watched she reached up, felt along the wooden crutch until she found Halt's hand clenched tight about the frame. Her fingers covered his.
She felt them marring her face, cutting, shaping, slicing
Stitch was staring at Ran although it seemed to Malcolm that her eyes were not focused on him or on anything else in the room.
He reached toward her with misshapen arms
Tears streamed down her face. Malcolm tore his gaze away and closed his eyes. No more! But iron cold the voice went on, unfolding such menace the hurt of it reached across time into the darkened room to clutch at Malcolm's heart. He felt the pain of it as a physical thing, opened his mouth to scream in protest. Please.
And then he heard a sound so incongruous it wrenched him back from the void. The mewing sound of something crying in the dark. Lost. Trapped. It awoke something so deeply buried he had no recollection of it until that moment, although he knew also with absolute conviction that it was no story or nightmare but a moment from his own childhood.
Plagued by local children breaking into their garage his father had nailed the doors tightly shut. They didn't own a car and the damp garage was little use for storage. Months later six year old Malcolm had watched his father force open the door to fetch out a ladder to replace slates damaged in a storm. In the dank dark amongst the mouldering boxes and old newspapers Malcolm had found the skeletal remains of a young cat. His father had shovelled it into the trash. Neither of them had ever spoken of it again.
They were beasts, with minds unmade
Malcolm felt sick again but it was not the dizzy nausea of before. Churning and visceral, it threatened to spew everything he thought he knew across the wooden floor.
They destroyed her body, fed it to Their wolves
It was a tale of the Firstborn, those taken into corruption by the Enemy. Just a story, he tried to tell himself. It's not true. But violence and despair were overrunning him. This was the realm in which the Gothrim walked. This was Middle-earth. No comfortable Shire-land but the real world outside the garden. Malcolm heard a young voice in his head. Welcome to the Cottage of Lost Play!
Yes, he thought. Lost play indeed! Here evil prowled unfettered by remorse and the children playing at darkness had better beware.
Then the voice came again, closer now. My turn, my turn! And Aleysha was standing beside him in the darkened room.
The tale was over and the storyteller rose to his feet. He held his arm out to the child, beckoning her forward.
"Yes, Aly. It's your turn!"
Malcolm was aghast. This was no place for a six year old.
Aleysha skipped to the front of the room and sat down on the stool. "Here is a story," she began breathlessly, touching her right hand to her chest and then extending it over the adults seated at her feet. "From my heart to your heart."
The child settled into her tale; a rambling, ridiculous version of Bilbo's adventures with the Dwarves which diverted wildly from the published story yet somehow managed time and again to find itself back on track.
A few of the audience left - the child's storytelling was perhaps not to everyone's taste - but most remained to join in with laughter and groans as appropriate to the tale. Malcolm was entranced. He could never have sat up there and spun a story like that out of the air. This was real magic, to hold the imagination of others in the palm of your hand and he envied Aleysha for her confidence and undoubted, if immature, talent.
At last Aleysha's story came to its unlikely close with a party for Bilbo and the dragon Smaug (she pronounced it "Smorg") who turned out to be nowhere near as horrible as people - Dwarves and Wizards included - had led him to believe. There was a gentle applause. Somebody called out "Well told, Lady!" from the rear of the room. The girl's face lit up.
"I've got another one!"
"No, child, that is enough!" The stern authority in Ran's voice shocked Malcolm. Surely that was no way to speak to the child. Aleysha pouted for a moment then thought better of it. The Warden clapped his hands sharply together twice. "Friends," he declared. "It is time!"
With hardly a sound everybody rose to their feet. Aleysha appeared to have recovered from her disappointment. Malcolm saw her squeezing between the bodies on her way to the door. He joined the silent throng. Time for what? All over again he had the feeling that something big, something important, was happening and he was the only one with no idea what it was. He saw Devon ahead of him and tried to push towards her. Then Denny was at his side.
"Hello," she said and embraced him warmly. He hugged her back. He couldn't remember Denny ever holding him before. Over her shoulder he saw Stitch and Halt approaching.
"Hello." Malcolm felt awkward. He wanted Denny to let go so he could hug Stitch but Den seemed in no danger of releasing him. Instead he held out his hand. Stitch took it in hers, raised it to her face and touched his palm to her lips. He could feel her breath. The tip of her tongue touched his skin. Once. Again. Staring hard into his Stitch's eyes were deep grey pools, impossible to read.
Despite the silent crowd manoeuvring past them towards the door, despite Halt bent over his crutch behind her and the fact he had another woman in his arms; despite all these things or because of them the moment was intensely erotic. He offered a quick prayer to Eru that Denny wouldn't notice. A moment later it was clear that she had.
"Oh, Malcolm!" Pure goth-vamp. "Is that for me?" Denny pressed her body closer against him, ground her belly against his erection. One hand moved down his back, tracing his spine through the thick leather of his coat. Malcolm flushed, more confused now than embarrassed. Without meaning to he glanced at Stitch. Please.
Still holding his hand Stitch lifted Denny's from its assault. Mock-severely she admonished, "It better not be!"
All four of them collapsed into laughter - even Halt guffawed loudly.
"What's so funny?" It was Devon.
It took a full minute for one of them to stop laughing long enough to answer her.
"Nothing," Malcolm got out at last. "Nothing at all."
The pain and despair Malcolm had witnessed earlier on Halt's face, in Stitch's tears and his own heart had not disappeared but served now to bind them close together. Malcolm knew suddenly what had changed. They - these people, these Gothrim, were his family now. He was one of them.