Playing at darkness, part 4
The old rowing boat is nothing special. For sixty years she worked the mouth of the great river, plying the dangerous waters around Black Middens until the old trade waned. Now she is the last of her kind. Five winters weathered her boards on the steeply banked pebbles of Prior's Haven. Then men took her, painted her gaudy in blue and white and named her anew. Now the "Northumbrian Water" rests high above the water line, berthed forever in the turfed earth beside the Gibraltar Rock.
The man straightens, leans his weight awkwardly on the gunwales and reaches into a back pocket for his tobacco. Planting bulbs is backbreaking work but he takes an old man's pride in what he does and there is rough love in the labour. He draws deep on his tab and glances over his shoulder at the Rock with unguarded distaste.
Like the boat on which he is working the public house has been newly made over, its ancient fittings ripped out and replaced and the nicotined ceilings afforded a lick of paint. It is a carvery now, and upstairs some sort of themed bar. He has never been inside. Never will. At least they haven't changed the name.
He runs a miner's hands over the timbers of the boat. The wood is cracked and split beneath the new livery but there is strength there - strength and the memory of another name. He traces the over-painted lettering. Morannon. The word seems oddly familiar and he repeats it to himself under his breath. What have they done to you, girl?
Five minutes later he is whistling tunelessly as he returns to his task. Twelve dozen bulbs to plant up the compost-filled boat and the narrow bed they have dug between her and the road where it turns north along the coast. He is no gardener but he is happy enough to be out of doors and working with his hands again. To be working at all. Maybe they'll put me out to grass one day too. He spits. Or under it.
His bladder is causing him to regret the flask of tea he drank earlier. There is a new coin-op booth outside the Rock but he can no more bring himself to use that than he could enter the public house.
He takes a bulb from the box at his feet. What is it? he wonders. Not snowdrop, they're the tiny ones. Crocus? He plunges the narrow blade of his trowel into the earth at the prow of the boat they set here when they buried the old Victorian Conveniences. The bulb goes in deep and he covers it over. That will have to do for now.
He drags the boxes and his tools out of sight behind the boat and heads down the hill towards Prior's Haven and the minor promontory people his age still call the Spanish Battery.
It is a hike to the rowing club, especially on the way back, but there is usually someone there this time of day. If not he can always take a piss behind the ramshackle club house. No one is going to be looking.
Malcolm stared out across the sea. It was too dark to read his watch but judging by the flush of grey above the horizon morning couldn't be more than an hour or two away. He had spent the entire night on Penbalcrag.
What am I doing here?
It was a question that had occurred to him several times since he met up with Stitch and the others outside the castle the afternoon before. This time, though, he meant it literally. What was he doing up here on the cliff top at the extreme limit of the rocky promontory?Running away.
It was true. Yes. He ought to be back there with Stitch. Wherever she was. She needed him.
She needs a Champion.
Somebody strong enough to help bear the terrible burden she had taken upon herself.
Would you defend my person and my honour against all challenge of the Dark?
In the tiny chapel he had watched her light a candle to set amongst the rest then kneel, her long coat and bridal gown spilling around her on the cold broken tiles. Leather and lace.
She bared her left arm and he felt the terror close in on him as it had outside during the Serkarë ceremony. In the confines of the chapel it was far, far worse. Fear lapped at his feet, began filling the room like a dark tide. Malcolm drew his sword, swung ineptly for a target. Smoke curled from the candle-strewn altar. Fire and shadows. He couldn't breathe.
They are coming!
When Stitch spoke it was no more than a whisper. "Forgive me".
He turned and caught flames dancing along the razor edge of her blade. Her arm was stretched out to one side. Head bowed in submission or prayer. It was an offering. Serkarë. Blood pooled slick and black on the floor beside her.
The tide was still rising, so fast he could see it now. A dark tidal swell against the walls of the chapel. A stone bench ran along one side of the room. If they climbed onto that they would be safe for a little while. Breath caught at the back of his throat. Ammonia in the school chemistry labs. Vomit and stale urine. What can I do?
He was wiping sweat from his eyes. Two paces to the door that stood ajar.
Outside the air was cold. He gasped it down, panic receding. Got to go back. He turned but the door was shut tight. Had he done that?
What kind of Champion does that?
This kind of Champion.
He would go back and find her. He had no idea what he would say but he had no choice. Besides, there was nowhere left to run. Two paces had taken him through the door of the chapel and away from her. Two more - and a low wire fence that he could barely see in the darkness - were all that stood now between Malcolm and the crumbling cliff edge.
One hundred feet below him the North Sea strove ceaselessly to undermine the headland. He had seen the heavy stone and brickwork buttressing from the pier. The concrete boulders placed about their knees to break the force of the water.
"In a time that is not a time. In a place that is not a place ..."
Malcolm spoke the words aloud, certain there was no one around to hear. Halfway between night and morning. Where land and air met the sea. How did it go? Ran's voice clear in his head.
Between the worlds and across forever
"Found it!" The shriek startled Malcolm out of his thoughts. His hand flew to his side. The blade was one quarter drawn when he heard a loud Shhhh! and realised he was in no danger.
It was just as well. He still had no idea how to use the thing. He thought back to Aleysha twirling a sword around on the grass earlier in the evening. He allowed the weapon to slip back into its sheath. Maybe she'd give me some lessons, he thought with little humour.
The voices had dissolved into suppressed giggles. Malcolm couldn't see anyone but they sounded young. Female. Devon maybe but he doubted it. She was childlike in many ways but not giggly. Girlie. Besides, he couldn't imagine it was anyone who had accepted Ran's challenge and crossed the line of torches.
Stand forth then in the name of the Lady!
Malcolm had no idea what the others had encountered beyond the fire but he doubted they would be in any mood for frivolity. These two sounded drunk. They were probably amongst those who had returned to the Cottage after the ceremony in the ruined priory.
That's all it is to them, he thought. A fucking party.
And you are better? The voice in his head might have been his own. You only came here because you had the hots for Stitch.
"She kissed me," he retorted aloud to the night. On the defensive. She did. But even to his own ears his protest sounded pathetic. He had been hot for her. Had been? If it wasn't for Stitch he wouldn't be here. Would never have joined the Gothrim in the first place.
Words ran loosely through his mind. Serkarë. The Hallowmas. A blood day and a holy day. The old ways of Middle-earth reawakened. Rediscovered. This was a sacred time. Yes. A day of blood, perverted of old by those who had heeded the Enemy's words. Reconsecrated after the fall when the world was remade.
Light out of darkness.
Another shriek and now the two girls were running through the ancient graveyard. Cold electric torch light played chaotically amongst the headstones.
Find the light anew.
At the time Malcolm had not taken Ran's words literally but it occurred to him now that perhaps the torches had been hidden around the headland for the challengers to find. In which case it wasn't so much a challenge as a test. Some sort of Gothrim initiation.
That would explain why only a portion of them had gone forward and why the longer-serving members - Halt and Denny amongst them - had been nowhere near as concerned as he and Ruth had been. The old ones were there to monitor the test. Prevent any cheating. Is that what it was, then? A game. A bloody charade.
What about Stitch? That wasn't a game. Not that. The pale lines across her forearm. Old scars above the new wound.
Anger rising fast Malcolm pushed up the sleeve of his coat and extended his left arm. He couldn't make out the tattoo in the dark but the skin was still tender and the letters were raised slightly from the adjacent skin. He traced the narrow band of Tengwar with his finger, just as Devon had done.
Playing at darkness.
Back then - could then have been part of this same night, it seemed a world and an age ago? - the greatest challenge Malcolm had faced was resisting her teenage body. He thought back to how she had looked, sat close beside him on the floor of the party room, white flesh spilling out of her tightly laced corset. Christ, she was hot! Had she been trying it on with him? It hardly mattered any more. Did it?
Despite the horrors of the past couple of hours Malcolm realised he was getting hard. What was that line he'd read once? A stiff prick has no conscience. His certainly didn't seem to. He was alone on a cliff top with a hard-on when he should be with Stitch. At the very least he ought to be thinking about her, not Devon.
He cast quickly behind him but the girls had disappeared and the only sound he could hear was a distant thrum of music from the Cottage. With a detachment approaching disbelief he unzipped his trousers. The air was cold on his skin. He stood a full minute looking down at himself. Every twenty seconds the beam from the lighthouse illuminated him palely. He was hugely, painfully erect. The blood pulsing through him was like liquid fire.
"Devon!" He breathed her name, his breath a cloud that hung about him in the still air. Then "Stitch!" - and this louder so that she could have heard him if she had been nearby. Almost he wanted her - someone - to approach. Not to witness the act but to scare him out of it. But there was no one and he had to take hold of himself.
He decided Devon was safer. Quicker. He visualised her reaching for him. His hands fumbled to unlace her. Breasts pulled free of her corset, naked under the fishnet shirt. He lay back against the cushions as she got astride him ... The fantasy was deliberately graphic and uncomplicated, good old-fashioned lust to transport him safely and as rapidly as possible from the nightmare. But it was not going to be so easy. In his head Devon was laughing, tugging at the weapon strapped around his waist.
"Malcolm! Is that a sword or are you just pleased to see me?"
But it was too late and now it was Stitch who gyrated on top of him. She had shed the long leather coat and the skirts of her bridal gown billowed about his body on either side. The bodice was unbuttoned and hung off her shoulders. Her breasts were full and high. Between them on a cheap gold chain swung a tacky signature pendant. Six cursive gilt letters. S-T-E-L-L-A.
Malcolm wasn't enjoying this at all. The muscles of his stomach were cramped and he was beginning to feel physically sick. Wherever this was heading it was somewhere he didn't want to go. But still his hand worked away. His climax was mounting and he was powerless to stop his progress towards it. Stitch reached down between her legs and now it was her hands he could feel on him. Gripping him. Guiding.
Devon! He tried one last time to take command but his mind was no longer in control.
When Stitch had engulfed him completely she sat up straight and in the same motion drew her own sword from beneath her discarded coat. She held it horizontally above his chest as she began slowly riding him. He pleaded silently with her. No, Stitch. For God's sake!
There were letters etched into the curved steel. He tried to read them but he couldn't make out the words in the flickering candlelight. He knew now where they were. And where he had seen the pendant before.
"This is Hadhafang," he heard her say. "A noble blade for a noble lady." There was ice in her voice. Ice and profound pain. She moved her head slowly from side to side, examining the subtle patterns etched into the steel. "This is not the first time she has tasted blood."
In the chapel the chain of the tawdry necklet had been wrapped around her wrist. "Is that your real name?" he remembered asking. He had only ever known her as Stitch. Stella was "star", wasn't it? Star-lady? Elbereth.
He had meant it and she had smiled wanly up at him. Drawn the sword from beneath her coat and pulled it across the inside of her arm below the silver lines of old scars. Malcolm had run from the place, tripping over his own sword in his desperation to get away.
With all the grace of a caress Stitch stroked the naked blade across his chest. As blood soaked his clothes and hers she arched her back and from deep inside her came a sound that was not wholly human, the cry of some lost thing trapped in the dark.
Stitch! And then came a kind of release and the cry died in Malcolm's throat.
His hand was wet and by that alone he knew it was over. He wiped himself on the inside of his coat and threw up into the grass. He stumbled back from the perilous edge. He had to find her.
One step into black air and Malcolm was falling. He reached out instinctively but succeeded only in tipping himself headlong down a set of concrete steps. He hit the third to last step hard and everything went very dark.
Can't breathe. Panic shocked Malcolm awake. He was lying on his face at the foot of the staircase, his right leg twisted unnaturally beneath him. His mouth seemed to be full of blood. You're choking, the voice told him. It sounded angry about something. You're going to die.
He thought about this. Moving would be so great an effort and he wasn't actually in any pain. Pain would come if he moved. If he survived this it was going to be bad. His leg was probably broken.
You pathetic bastard. The voice was louder, close, as though the speaker was down here with him. Crouched over him. She needs you. Get up!
With a groan that expelled the last breath from his lungs Malcolm shifted onto his left side. He retched violently. Gobs of blood spattered the floor of the stairwell. He must have bitten his tongue. There was a certain grey light but it illuminated nothing of his surroundings. He could remember falling but that was all. He had no idea where he was.
Who needed him? He was the one who needed help.
Something small and cylindrical glinted in the shadows. Malcolm elbowed himself towards it. His leg screamed with pain but he was able to move it a little. Maybe it wasn't broken after all. His fingers closed on the object. It was a small penlight torch; the kind you got on key rings. Or in Christmas crackers.
Two figures running about in the dark. Silver flicking amongst the gravestones. The priory. Serkarë. He knew where he was.
Find the light, Ran had charged them. Did that mean he had won? It didn't feel like winning. The torch didn't seem to have an on/off switch. It took him a moment to adjust his position on the floor; to bring both hands to the task.
How does this bloody thing work?
A splinter of white light. The ground Malcolm was lying on was smooth and grey. Concrete. Two feet in front of his face it disappeared under a railing or gate of close iron bars. Was he inside or outside?
A hissing close by. Harsh breathing. His own?
Old fears assailed him. His father with a shovel in his hands. The pathetic remains of a kitten that had starved to death in their locked garage. Malcolm hadn't thought of it in years, until tonight. The memory had come back to him in the upstairs room of the little house, sat with the others in the dark as Ran told his stories.
A pit of sorrow with no joy, suffering without end ...
Malcolm fought to rationalise his fear. He had fallen down a flight of stairs. He was hurt but he had to be outside the bars. In pain and alone but not trapped. He traced the torch up one of the bars to where it met the wall. He had to crane his neck to follow the light higher, twist his body until it hurt. How far had he fallen? Fifteen, twenty feet? At last he saw an edge. Old brickwork against a flat grey sky. A fringe of grasses.
Outside. He was outside.
He collapsed back onto his side. He needed help. Cleared his throat spitting away the last of the blood. He wasn't sure anyone would hear him if he called out but it was worth a try.
The torch was still in his hand. The narrow beam shone between the cold steel bars into the space beyond. A miscellany of junk. Boxes. Wood stacked in a corner. Caught for a moment out of his need Malcolm was intrigued. He thought of an old archaeology book of his father's. Howard Carter at the opening of Tutankhamen's tomb. Breaking the sealed door for the first time in centuries.
What can you see?
Malcolm dragged himself nearer to the bars. There was a sudden glint of gold. Silver - but it was only tinfoil. A discarded cardboard crown. A collection of wooden swords. Shields. A black swan on a crimson field.
A body, erect on a painted throne. Lank fair hair framed a face taut with silent anguish. Eyes staring straight at Malcolm. Hollow and dead.
A hand clamped hard over Malcolm's mouth, choking his scream and forcing him over onto his back. Breath hot on his face.
Malcolm jerked free from his assailant but one leg was useless and he succeeded only in manoeuvring himself into the narrow space between the foot of the staircase and the wall. The man had withdrawn into the shadows. Escape up the stairs might be possible, if he could walk, but right now even standing was out of the question. He fumbled for his sword but it was no longer at his side.
"Is this what you're looking for?" An arm extended into the pale light. Malcolm's blade swung forlornly from broken traces. "You should be more careful." The voice was harsh. Bitter.
"Halt!" Recognition sprung at last. "You bastard." Malcolm pushed himself into a sitting position with his back against the wall. He wasn't alone.
The cripple grunted and tossed the weapon across Malcolm's lap. He shuffled forward leaning heavily on the guard rail for support. A second later he raised his wooden crutch in an arc that passed close over Malcolm's head. Malcolm shied back fearing an assault but Halt planted the timber where the floor met the wall and in a single movement propelled himself onto the third step from the bottom.
Bright eyes regarded Malcolm closely. "You scare easy."
Malcolm considered debating the point but decided against it. The truth of the matter was self-evident. Besides, crippled and unarmed as Halt might be - if the crutch could be discounted as a weapon - he was fit and strong. He was also seated above Malcolm on the stairs blocking any attempt at escape or rescue. Ally or not the man might prove to be but in either event it made little sense to antagonise him.
Another grunt. "Some kind of Champion."
"Look, you gave me this sword ..."
A flash in those eyes. "It wasn't my choice."
Malcolm was tired. Cold. His leg might not be broken but it hurt like hell. Angband. It hurts like Angband. And there was something else.
"Look. Halt. There's a dead body. In there." Pointing across the narrow space to the barred grille.
"Did you hear me? A body. There's someone dead in there!"
"No." Halt was sat ten feet away but the word came from much further off than that.
Malcolm waited. What do you mean, 'no'?
"There is. Look -" He twisted the torch on again and shone the beam across at the bars but from where he sat there was little penetration onto the space beyond. A glint or two but no sign of the enthroned corpse.
"This -" Halt waved his hand in the air between them. "It was all for the war. Magazines for the artillery on top of the cliff."
Malcolm's head was hurting now. I've probably got concussion. Why are you telling me about the war? "The body -"
"It's not a body."
"Listen to me. It's a dummy. For some pageant. They have them here in the summer. Tostig and Oswin. Shit like that. Old kings. Old battles."
Malcolm struggled to grasp what Halt was telling him. There was no dead body. It was a mannequin, a prop for some am dram performance. Gold paint and tin foil. Wooden swords and plywood shields like the ones they sold in the castle shop for the tourists.
Old kings and old battles.
"Are you sure?"
Halt shrugged. "Take another look if you don't believe me. Call the police when you get home."
"I believe you." It made sense. Who was going to leave a dead body down here for anyone to chance upon? No, he had just spooked himself, seeing it like that. "I've hurt my leg. And my head."
Halt said nothing. He fished about in the pockets of his coat. A flare of orange flame as he lit a cigarette; tossed the match to the ground where it glowed briefly before going out. It didn't look like the man was planning to move any time soon.
"Look." Exhaustion and fear was giving way to anger. "I was on top of the cliff." Masturbating into the darkness. "I fell down the stairs. Nearly broke my leg."
Halt drew on his cigarette. A pulse of red. Curls of smoke in the shadows. Malcolm thought of Strider in The Prancing Pony.
"I'm hurt, you bastard."
Another blood red pulse. "I saw you."
That brought Malcolm up short. He'd assumed Halt had come upon him by accident after his fall. He wasn't sure how long he'd been lying there. If he'd seen him up on the cliff top ...
"Look, help me out of here. I've got to find Stitch."
"You need to know."
"What? Need to know what? About Stitch? I know already."
"What do you think you know?"
Malcolm was about to object again. There wasn't time. But it wasn't going to get him anywhere. Halt would move when he was ready and no sooner. Besides, if Halt had sought him out, struggled down the stairs on that damned crutch of his, then whatever it was he wanted might be worth waiting for. It might even make sense of what had happened to Malcolm since he followed Stitch into the castle.
She cut herself. Bled all over the chapel floor. Can you make sense of that?
Halt was waiting for him to continue.
"We - we were the last to go through the fire. I don't know what happened to the others -"
"It was pitch black after the glare of the torches. And cold. I kept asking Stitch where we were going but she wouldn't say. Just pulled me forward. There was stone everywhere." Malcolm paused, recalling the towering bulwarks of masonry that had blocked out the sky. Enormous lancet windows staring down on them on three sides.
"It's the Presbytery."
Malcolm didn't know what a presbytery was or if it was important but when no further information was forthcoming he continued with his story.
"There was a door. A square wooden door. It looked too small - out of place - but Stitch pushed it open. Inside it was so bright. I couldn't see properly. There were candles everywhere."
"What else?" Cold. Unrelenting.
Malcolm wasn't sure he could trust his memory. Images flickered in his mind like so many shadows playing across stone. Stitch moving into the centre of the small room, wreathed in flame. He cast about for something real, something solid to ground himself. Stained glass windows: dead images of old Saints with only the night behind them. Above his head the vaulted ceiling was ribbed with stone like the branches of ancient trees.
And swaying beeches bear
"There were stars. Gold stars, painted on the ceiling!"
Halt said nothing but Malcolm could hear his breath across the space that separated them.
"Were you there? Watching us?"
Halt drew one final time on his cigarette and flicked the stub through the bars into the darkness. There was the faintest hiss as it went out. "No, Malcolm."
It was the first time Halt had ever used his name. This is important.
"I - planned to. But there was a girl."
Malcolm had forgotten Ruth in all that had happened but now her face was clear before him. She had been terrified about going through the line of torches; had practically begged Malcolm to let her come with him and Stitch. But he had turned her away and in the end Halt had accompanied her through the fire.
"Is she okay?" Considering what had happened he might have done Ruth a favour after all.
"Don't worry about her. That room you were in is much later than the rest of the priory. Fifteenth century. The windows are very fine."
Why did Halt insist on giving him a history lesson? He sounded like a tour guide. Malcolm was missing something. "What is it? That place. What's it called?"
"It's the Lady Chapel."
Stella. My Lady of Stars.
Cold as he already was, Malcolm felt a dread descend on him. Of course it is.
"Malcolm. What happened tonight - what exactly happened?"
"Don't you know?" Malcolm tried to get his leg underneath him, to push himself up from the cold concrete but it wouldn't bend and he collapsed back against the wall. "Last year. You were in there last year with Stitch. Weren't you?"
"Yes." At last. "Three times." Three years. Forever.
"You were her Champion. Before me." As the words left his lips Malcolm feared he had gone too far but Halt threw back his painted face and gave out a barking laugh. The sound was as shocking as anything Malcolm had encountered that night.
"Oh yes, my friend. I was her Champion. That blade -" he lifted the crutch in Malcolm's direction. "That blade I bore for our Lady until it grew too great a burden for me." In the growing light at the bottom of the stairwell Halt caught Malcolm looking at him.
"No," Halt grunted. "Not the leg. That's not why - why Stitch chose you. It's in here." He slapped the heel of one hand to his temples.
"I don't understand."
Halt shook his head. "In the Chapel. Tell me."
"Stitch. She lit another candle. Then she took her sword out and ..." Malcolm's voice failed him. The memory was too deeply interwoven with what happened afterwards. With his own shame and betrayal.
"She cut her arm until the blood flowed onto the tiled floor. I don't think the tiles are original. Victorian maybe, like the ceiling." Halt's voice sounded hard but there was a tremor in it he couldn't hide.
"Yes." A whisper.
"And you felt the fear like a slick tide about your ankles. Filling the room."
"Yes!" There were tears now behind Malcolm's eyes.
"You are the Champion," Halt declared simply. "No -" responding as Malcolm tried to interject. "Your leaving her was nothing. She has already forgiven you. It was your test. You stepped back from the Dark where others could not." Where I did not. "There is some hope in that."
Forgiven me? "You've seen her?"
"Take me to her."
"First you must ask me."
Halt shook his head. Stretched his good leg straight out in front of him. A teacher's patience with his pupil. "You must ask me what you most need to know."
"Is this another test?"
"It's - friendly advice."
Malcolm hesitated. He knew what was needed. What he must ask.
"Why?" So small a word. It terrified him.
Halt reached forward and pulled Malcolm bodily to his feet. "Come with me."
Malcolm's knee gave way part way up the stairs but Halt waited for him at the top.
"Is that leg going to be okay, Malcolm?"
"I don't know. Think so."
Halt raised his face to the sky. He sniffed the air as though he mistrusted the message it carried. The black and white face paint had smeared. Here and there it had rubbed through to bare skin. "One up on me, then." Again there was that barking laugh.
"Where are we going?" Malcolm asked as they headed along the gravel path that wound beside the ancient graveyard.
"To the beginning. To the truth."
"From my heart to your heart."
Malcolm was alone with Ran in the story room. The bowl of floating candles on the floor between them was the only illumination, though daylight pressed hard at the curtained window.
It felt to Malcolm as though he was being passed from pillar to post. First Stitch, then Halt and now the mysterious Warden of the castle. Halt had promised Truth but had merely walked Malcolm back to the Cottage and told him to make his way upstairs. The rest of the house seemed deserted. The party was certainly over. Had everyone gone home? Stitch - had Stitch gone home?
"As do all true tales ours begins with two lovers." Ran's voice was soft; barely above a whisper. "One day they wandered high above the sea beyond the walls of the great castle. Careless they went being young and in love, though it had been well they had taken greater care. For if the Elder Times were no more, still evil and those that evil weave went widely in those days. And found them, even as their Protector watched from the castle walls."
Malcolm was trying to listen but it was hard to concentrate. He hadn't slept in twenty-four hours and his head still throbbed painfully despite Ran's cursory fingertip inspection and his insistence that no lasting damage had been sustained.
"From his vantage he could only watch as the lovers were assailed. Careful for each other they did not stand but fled to regain the castle by the straitest way."
Malcolm looked hard into his companion's face but the flickering candle light made deep pools of Ran's eyes and he could read nothing there. What has this got to do with Stitch and Halt? Were they the lovers in the story? Was Ran their Protector?
"And the terrible deeds of that day unfolded."
Whether because of weariness or to better follow the story Malcolm could not afterwards say but he closed his eyes. And again there came the vision he had experienced during the Serkarë.
Two figures running hand in hand at the bottom of a deep ditch. It is Stitch and Denny and they are in the moat defending the approach to Penbalcrag. They keep looking up to the path above where two charvas are hounding and taunting them. A can lobbed with casual accuracy explodes at Stitch's feet. She skids to a halt, Denny careering into her. A cider bottle follows. Arching gracefully through the air it strikes Denny to the ground.
Was Ran still speaking, telling the tale?
Malcolm can hear nothing but the heart-rent agony of Stitch's cry as her lover falls. The vicious mocking laughter of the charvas. Then Halt is behind them in violent fury. With one arm he throws the boy bodily beyond the guarding rail and Malcolm's heart sings to see the body fall.
The girl, no more than fifteen years old, punches Halt hard in the face and runs to the flight of steps which lead down into the ditch.
"It's all right, my love." Stitch crouches over Denny who is lying on the grass. She is conscious but blood runs freely down the side of her face.
The boy's body is nearby. He does not move and Malcolm knows his neck is broken. An accident. Halt didn't mean to ... But there is no time to think. The girl is almost on them. Screaming at Stitch from twenty feet away.
"Ye killed him y' goth twat! Al av ye - and yer lezzy bitch!"
As the distance closes Stitch rises to her feet and draws a subtly curved sword from beneath the folds of her coat. A pace forward puts Den safely behind her. Ten feet between them now. Six. With two hands on the hilt Stitch slices her blade across the girl's right arm and chest.
For a moment everything is perfectly still. Stitch stands poised, weight on her back foot, sword held vertically in front of her face. The younger girl has been shocked into silence but she doesn't seem to realise how badly she has been hurt.
Then blood is soaking the front of her Ellesse sweatshirt and the pain arrives. She is screaming again but now it is panic and fear. Denny is on her knees. Groaning. Holding her head. Malcolm wants to help. To do something. Shut the slut up. Anything. But he is not there.
The girl is still screaming when Stitch punches her in the head with the hilt of her sword. She buckles, collapses onto the ground and the screaming ceases abruptly but Stitch is not finished. She kicks repeatedly at the girl's undefended belly. Denny cries out to her but it only stops when Halt arrives and drags Stitch bodily away.
"Open your eyes."
Malcolm was alone in a dark place.
He had been there so very long. He was cold and broken, legs cramped and numb. His head hurt viciously but the pain was not inside him; he - his head, his whole existence - was inside the pain. A pain that was years old and was not yet ready to be healed. There could be no escape. He was trapped. Forgotten. They had done this to him. He was alone and afraid and there was nothing left except a kind of desperate peace because it would soon be over.
The voice came first as a little thing. A sigh. A whimper. The sound of something trapped and alone. Pitiful and immeasurably far away. Malcolm wept then, not for himself but that beyond such degradation and despair there could be something high and wise. It was perhaps love but it had no focus. It was not for Stitch or Denny, neither Halt or Ran. Not even for the charva girl though it was hers too.
She turned to the West, felt immeasurable pity and compassion
Gradually it came to Malcolm that the voice was Ran's. He knew where he was at last: sat on a cushion in the middle of the story room floor. He could feel the warmth of the candles through his closed eyelids. The warmth and the light grew stronger little by little until it surrounded the two of them.
"Open your eyes." Calm. Insistent.
Malcolm smiled in recognition but he was not ready yet. The ball of light had grown to fill the room and showed no sign of stopping. It expanded each time he inhaled, shrank back a little with each outward breath. Malcolm focused on his breathing, inflating the light until it overwhelmed the little house. A purple glow. Halt is downstairs.
Spilling outwards Malcolm strove for control. One perfect breath would encompass the whole promontory. Where is she? Stitch!
"Malcolm. Come back to me!"
Anger flashed green lightning through the spinning flames. Not yet! But he was losing his hold and the bubble collapsed. Energy rolled out from the centre like a sea fret, lapping the broken walls of the priory and filling its spaces. A flare of gold near the presbytery and he knew that was Aleysha.
There was another close by. He tried to zoom in on it in case it was Stitch but the mist spun him elsewhere. It carried him through an open doorway and up a spiral staircase to a small room high above the castle gate. Crimson burst silently on him there. Blood and fire.
He was wide awake in the story room. He was on his knees and Ran was holding him close.
"Let go of me."
He had found her.
Halt was downstairs, propped in the corner by the front door. He grunted at Malcolm as though he knew precisely what had just transpired. I'm coming too.
Malcolm didn't care. All he wanted was to find Stitch. As Malcolm crossed the room Halt levered himself upright and threw back the door so hard it rebounded on its hinges and would have knocked him to the ground had Malcolm not caught it. Another grunt and Halt led the way outside.
Morning had descended cold and damp about Penbalcrag. The short grass was grey with dew and their breath hung on the still air in little clouds that closed behind them as they passed along. Left out of the picket gate the crunch of gravel was the only sound Malcolm could hear aside from his laboured breathing.
His leg was still sore and he struggled to keep up. Forsaking any trace of his earlier compassion for Malcolm's injuries Halt propelled himself purposefully up the long grassy slope that led towards the castle gatehouse.
In the vision she had been in there - up there - where last night Malcolm had seen a lone flame flickering at the window. He glanced up at the stone. And she was waving to them as they approached, her old Champion and the new.
Malcolm called out to her but she did not answer and a moment later turned away. He raced the remaining distance overtaking Halt at the doorway. Passages opened on either side. He hesitated, unsure of the way.
"Left." Halt was at his shoulder. "Up the stairs."
Malcolm launched himself into the darkness. Almost immediately he came up short against a blank wall but as he turned to protest a spiral of stone steps appeared in front of him. Gritting his teeth against the pain he took them two at a time. The flight stopped at a narrow landing.
Guessing left Malcolm found himself on a narrow balcony that opened halfway up the wall of a great chamber that lay open to the sky. Directly across the dizzying space a dozen pigeons nested in the relic of a huge fireplace. Not this way. He turned, startling the birds into sudden flight. The rattle of their wings echoed after him as he fled. Where are you?
He backtracked. More stairs. A blind corridor choked with stone. "Stitch!"
And then frantic he turned and found her framed by an arched doorway. The long leather coat was open and her trademark bridal gown shimmered in the light that slanted through the open window. She was utterly beautiful, an Elven princess from another Age.
Despite everything that had happened or perhaps because of it Malcolm's heart ached at the sight of her. But her left arm hung loose and the hem of the dress on that side was dark with blood.
"Stitch?" He could hear Halt some way behind as he struggled to manoeuvre himself up the tightly spiralled staircase.
Stitch didn't move but Malcolm stepped forward into the room. He grabbed her shoulders and held her at arms length until she looked up into his face. Stitch smiled but Malcolm wasn't sure if it was him she was seeing.
Now that he had found her he didn't know what to do. He had deserted her in the chapel - a room no larger than the one they were in now. She had needed him so desperately and he had run away. What kind of Champion does that?
And on the cliff-top he had debased himself and his memory of her. Perhaps he had wanted to purge his guilt by proving himself unworthy of the role. I didn't choose any of this! He was weak. It was no surprise he had failed.
He stared into her face but found there only a mirror of his own despair. Shame gave way to anger. Who was she to have snared him like this? To tease him, lead him along with the pretence of friendship then desert him amongst so many strangers.
Lips pressed against mine, alone on the pier.
Her make-up was smeared but she was still so beautiful it hurt him to look at her. He wanted to slap her. Gripped her shoulders tighter so that he wouldn't.
But then anger was gone and another voice spoke in his head and heart. It was quiet and softly insistent, so that after he became aware of it he could not have said how long it had been there. He had no name for it, unless it were Pity.
Many who live deserve death.
A girl, lost and alone in the darkness. A mewing call.
Can you give it to them?
There was a rasping sound behind him. "Stephanie." Malcolm turned to find Halt leaning in the doorway. "I kept my part. The Warden too. He is your Champion. You must tell him."
"I thought your name was Stella -" Malcolm spoke without thinking; regretted it immediately. "I mean ..."
Stitch stiffened in his hands. "There was a girl called Stella once," she said. "A long time ago. By some she is ... remembered."
You're still playing games, Lady. Malcolm took her left hand and drew it into the space between them. It felt cold and he turned it over like it was something soft and barely alive. The fine lace glove was gummed to her palm with congealed blood.
He felt nauseous but he could not back away now. Not again. He drew the sleeve of her coat back as far as the leather would allow revealing two pale lines scored diagonally across her inner arm. Below those the fresh cut gaped obscenely, oozing where he had disturbed the wound. But there was nothing wrapped around her wrist.
Stitch extricated her hand and pressed one forefinger to his lips. The tiny pearl buttons at her throat were difficult at the best of times and her fingers were numb with cold but she persevered until she had uncovered herself half way to the waist. The pendant hung between her breasts on a cheap gold chain. "Is this what you wanted?"
Malcolm could not answer. He had imagined her like this a hundred times but he was a long way from the comfort of his fantasies. It was some kind of relief that he had not imagined the pendant but he feared what its existence might mean. He prodded the thing cautiously with one finger. It seemed solid enough.
"So what is your name?" The words came out harsher than he had intended.
Stitch looked down as if surprised he had touched her there but made no attempt to cover herself up.
"Stitch -" There was more. He had seen it. Why wouldn't she tell him? He prodded her again, harder this time so that when he moved his finger and the pendant shifted on its chain the word was imprinted a moment on her chest.
Halt cleared his throat but Stitch spoke before he could intervene. "There was a girl called Stella once," she repeated. "A long time ago." Her voice held no trace of emotion. It seemed to Malcolm that she was reciting words she had long ago and many times rehearsed. "There was a boy too - I've no idea what his name was." A pause, so that he thought she had finished speaking. "They weren't very nice."
The pendant was still stuck to the underside of Malcolm's finger. He stared at it as if by doing so he could blot out the rest of the universe. Light played along the fine chain in time with her breathing.
"They weren't very nice and I killed them."
Halt moved from the door, momentarily blocking the light from the window. "Stephanie. The boy, that was my -"
"No." And she was strong again, wholly in the present. Cold and infinitely alone. "You were our Champion. You did your duty." She took Malcolm's hand in both of hers and forced him to look at her.
"It was bad, Malcolm. Terrible. Den was hardly conscious and the boy - I think he broke his neck. She came at me and ... There was so much blood. And they weren't human. Not really. You don't know what it was like in those days for the Gothrim. They hounded us. Hurt us." She reached for Halt who allowed himself to be drawn in closer.
"My Lady ..." he intoned.
"What did you do with them?" Malcolm could only think of what he had seen below the cliff top, the figure on his gilded throne. Tostig. Old kings and old battles. Halt had told him it wasn't real, just a prop from some amateur dramatics performance but where else would you hide a body in a ruined castle?
"Do you know how the orcs first came into being?" Stitch was quoting from the movie, Malcolm knew that, but her words thrust cold fingers down the back of his neck. "They were Elves once."
Taken by the dark powers, tortured and mutilated, a ruined and terrible form of life.
"Where?" He insisted, tried to pull away but she was holding both his wrists. The skin burnt where his tattoo had not yet fully healed.
"There's a door," and it was Halt speaking. "In the ditch outside the castle. Warden has a key. We dragged them in there." Trying to explain. "It was a maintenance way into the old underground toilets before they filled them in."
Dark glazed tiles on the walls and floor. White porcelain. Her blood in a smeared trail. A line of wash basins. Urinals.
"She wouldn't have survived, Malcolm."
"But she was alive! Stitch - wasn't she? When you locked her in there."
"Yes." Her voice was the sound a little thing might make if it was lost and alone. A kitten. Some tiny creature mewing in the darkness.
"She wanted to feed her. Take food to her." Halt defending her still. "But Ran - we - couldn't allow it. There was no other way in to her." Or out. "Someone would have seen us."
Stitch was crying now. There was no sound but tears ran from her eyes like they might never stop.
By some she is remembered.
Malcolm ripped himself free of her and elbowed Halt aside. The sword caught on the steps almost tipping him down the staircase. He wanted rid of the thing but the lashings had tightened about his waist and for now it would have to wait.
He was breathing hard as he thrust himself through the doorway into the cold fresh air. Mist still clung to the ground but the sun was climbing above the ramparts. It was going to be a nice day.
He dared not look up to the window; knew she would be looking for him. Instead Malcolm pressed on down the ramp. He had no idea where he was going, only that he had to be outside the castle and away from them all. The main gate would be locked but perhaps he could escape through the shop. He tried to imagine himself smashing his way through the inner glass door and unlocking the other from inside. Warden has a key.
He turned the corner at a run to find Ran standing in his robes before the heavily barred gates. Malcolm pulled up short. He had his sword but discounted it immediately. He didn't have a chance. Ran smiled at his discomfiture, then opened a small door in the centre of the gates and stood aside to let him pass.
"Thank you," Malcolm mumbled as he ducked his head through the opening. It was all he could think of to say.
"In the name of the Lady."
Malcolm was standing on the tarmac path outside the castle walls. Across the defensive ditch and the coast road which lay beyond it the village of Tynemouth was rousing itself to another day. His head throbbed, as much from lack of sleep as from the blow he sustained in falling down the stairs, and he couldn't put weight on his leg without pain but already he felt more normal. The nightmare was dissolving.
It couldn't be true. What she told him. Some Gothrim game for Halloween.
He stared into the moat. Down there, if Stitch was to be believed, two teenagers had met their end.
Malcolm half closed his eyes trying to recall the vision but the viewpoint was wrong and nothing came to him. He made his way slowly around the front of the castle towards the steps that lead down into the ditch. As a child he had played there many times on day trips to the coast. He remembered rolling down the grassy slope. Toiling back up the steps to the top for another go. Again. Watch me again!
A flicker of the vision and then nothing. It was like trying to tune a tv. Closer. Twenty paces closed the angle. He was almost at the top of the stairs. He could see now that the ditch was not symmetrical. By the castle the slope was steep enough to test the bravery of young children but from the road the drop was almost vertical and the wall on that side was faced with stone. He had never noticed before.
If you fell from there ... Or were thrown. The tv image flickered, searching for a lock. Images of an imagined past overlaid the present and his own childhood memories. In the middle distance he could make out the smaller promontory of the Spanish Battery. Admiral Lord Collingwood on his column, Nelson's second in command and the hero of Trafalgar. Beyond ran the cold waters of the Tyne but they and the southern shore were lost in a mist indistinguishable from static. White noise. Almost there.
Two figures on the roadside path that skirted the castle. The hill climbed steeply to the main road and the young girl was at full stretch as she propelled her sister's push chair in front of her. The boy, perhaps a year older, ran on ahead. Every few paces he stopped to lean over the railing. Gesturing aggressively into the ditch.
Malcolm's blood ran cold. He could not look down; was terrified of what he might see.
The boy's arm went back and involuntarily Malcolm followed the bottle as it arced high against the sky. Don't look! He lost the missile as a dozen gulls wheeled overhead, their plaintive call the mewing of some small thing lost in the dark.
Malcolm lost himself for a moment in their careering flight. He was dizzy, reached out for the railing to save himself falling into the moat while around him the world whirled. Above the cries of the gulls he could not shut out the screams. The whooping laughter cut suddenly short. The silence. An infant crying in its push chair, deserted at the roadside as its sister ran screaming for revenge.
"Hush. Don't cry ..." A gruff voice that could belong to no one else.
And when he dared to look there was nothing there except an old man leaning against the railing by the English Heritage sign.
The headland of
"Where did you go?" Aleysha found Malcolm sitting at the top of the stairs that let down into the old defensive ditch. "Are you crying?"
"Of course not."
He was obviously lying but Stitch had taught her grown ups didn't always like to admit the truth and for once Aleysha decided to be diplomatic. Without another word she seated herself beside him and linked her arm inside his. For several minutes they sat together in silence.
"Did you like the party?" The question was almost swallowed by an enormous yawn.
Malcolm smiled despite the emptiness that threatened to engulf him. "Sure. It was the best party ever."
"Do you want to see me roll down the slope?"
"You'll get your dress all muddy."
"So?" Aleysha scrambled to her feet. "Mind Arwen for me." She handed Malcolm the Gothrim-dressed doll. On an impulse she planted a kiss on his cheek. "Watch me!"
Malcolm watched the child run round to the front of the castle where the slope was less severe. Gathering her leather coat about her she lay down on the grass and allowed herself to roll down into the moat. She got stuck halfway and scooted the rest of the way on her bottom.
Despite himself Malcolm caught himself laughing. As she came back to the steps he noticed an iron door set low down at the bottom of the outer wall. It didn't look like it had been opened in years.
Aleysha was flushed and excited from the game. She careered up the steps. As she passed him Malcolm had just enough time to notice the tacky gilt pendant she normally wore inside her dress. It must have slipped out as she rolled down the hill.
"Again! Watch me again!"