Ruairí de Barra
They rode hard towards the setting sun. For two days and nights, she held on tight to the neck of the tireless Griogair.
On the morning of the third day, as the sun rose behind them, a shape appeared on the horizon in the far distance. Its angular lines broke the soft roll of the hills, which lay green and lush before them. A castle. With each passing minute, the silhouette grew clearer. Its dark shape wasn’t menacing, however — it stood more like a sentinel over this place that teemed with life. Eleanor had admired the changing landscapes as they journeyed onwards, but they were not the only changes she’d witnessed. The closer they got to the castle, the less weary she felt, and there was a stirring in her. Her heart pulsed in time with another beat.
‘Ambush!’ Griogair’s shout tore Eleanor from her reverie.
Her new second pulse surged forward as she looked about them. Charging from the surrounding thicket was a pack of those demonic hounds, and in the lead was that awful cat, Weasel. Instinctively, she brought her hands together as blue flames burst from her fingers. As Griogair jinked left and right to avoid the first snarling arrivals, she aimed her growing fury at Weasel; the boggart emitted a guttural growl and leapt at her, a terrible mass of fur, teeth, and claw. Eleanor thrust her arms forward, and a bolt of blue flame discharged to meet her foe.
The impact hurled Weasel aside, and he shrieked as the magical flame engulfed him. He tumbled and rolled on the lush green grass; a hideous sight, the burning boggart flickered between his forms. As the screaming thing fell backwards into his pack of minions, the flame bit at the slavering hounds. It took on a life of its own, jumping from creature to creature wherever the burning fur made the slightest contact. Griogair lunged at a gap in the thin trees and rode straight over a dog that had been lying there in wait. His sharp hooves slashed at the matted black fur, and Eleanor recognised the sharp crack of breaking bones, the soft pop of flesh giving way under tremendous force.
As suddenly as they had been attacked, they were free again. Eleanor checked over her shoulder and saw no followers, but Griogair never looked back; he just continued to sprint over the earth as fast as he could. The screaming of the boggart faded quickly.
They approached the castle at full gallop. Unseen persons or forces lowered the drawbridge across a moat that sparkled in the glorious sunshine. Lily pads in bloom hugged the neat stone on both sides, and here and there, on the sloped base of the castle walls, hardy, flowering plants made their home. Their trailing flowers followed the curve of the stonework over the now-exposed main gate, creating a living arch of colour; Eleanor caught scent of the deep perfumes from the blooms as she and Griogair went under.
She looked up as they slowed to a walk and passed into the shadow of the gatehouse. First, cool darkness, and then a rough-edged shaft of sunlight as they passed beneath the . . . murderhole. Her brain provided the word to her on sight, though she had never seen such a thing before. Murderhole. The realisation forced its way in, breaking the thin veil of romantic notions of castles, knights, and chivalry that had come unbidden to her. An iron portcullis perched above her — stout gates ready to come crashing down and bar the way. This would hold whoever breached the gates under the murderous shower that would surely fall from above.
The entrance angled sharply to the right, and they passed beneath another gatehouse. It was identical to the first in all respects except for the colours of the flowers. Installations of war and death, strewn with garlands; a castle ringed in primroses, fenced with flowers and iron.
Griogair followed a cobbled path between the high walls, his hooves echoing on the stones. They turned a final corner into a flagstone square. In the centre of the square stood a fountain — an elaborate, elegant centrepiece that cast water in leaping arcs into a bright blue pool, its regal artifice quite at odds with the marshal nature of the surrounding austere-hewn stone.
And there were people there. One was a child, cradled in the arms of a weeping woman on her knees; beside her, a figure in a woollen cloak, their face shrouded in deep shadow. The last was a man who stood staring at her. Perhaps not at her, but maybe through her, she thought. His eyes veritably glowed with energy; beneath his straight grey hair, his eyes were pure black, except for amber pupils — only this feature marked him as a non-human. The rest of him was tall and square, with not an ounce of spare flesh apparent. Everything underneath his neat, grey clothes seemed to be either muscle or bone. In his arms was a large, folded sheet of cloth, its surface sparkling with the reflected light from the fountain. He was familiar to her in a way which Eleanor could not quite place.
‘Welcome, Eileanori,’ came a voice from under the woollen cloak. ‘Hail, Griogair, a thousand times a thousand thank yous.’
Eleanor recognised the voice instantly. She fought to control herself as Hal Ferry threw back the hood and smiled broadly at her.
Griogair reared on his hind legs after Eleanor alighted onto the stones. ‘I must depart at once. There is much to do and many to gather.’ Without another word or glance, the kelpie turned and galloped away, his hooves ringing brightly on the cobbles like the bells of a church, tolling out a warning.
Before Eleanor could utter a word to her old friend, the weeping woman looked up at her, eyes wet, raw, and red. She recognised the woman from the photos at Marisol’s house.
‘Do you see what that creature Rowan is capable of?’ Lorelie said. The child in her arms was still and stiff.
‘He lured her away, used her as bait. He knew it was probable that you would come to us, so he was going to use her as a token of exchange. Marisol and I would have to swap you for . . . her.’ A new surge of grief overtook her, and tears flowed down her cheeks. Eleanor had never witnessed such agony. Her heart ached for the woman, who continued to sob as she spoke.
‘It could not be done, though this sweet child is more important to us than we could ever say. I refused. I pleaded for the life of our adopted daughter. He laughed, and then he murdered her. Batted her aside like he was swatting a fly. Rowan actually laughed. Then he was gone.’
The last words were half screamed. Eleanor heard them as an outpouring of anguish and fury that shook her to the core. ‘Why? Why would you not save her instead of me? I am an old woman. She is just an innocent child with her entire life ahead of her.’
‘This girl child was still too young for her name to have revealed itself. She was a lost human child. No magic dwelling in her . . . no ability to resist . . . him.’ More sobs broke the woman’s answer. ‘There was no time. Her frame could not withstand the single, unexpected blow. The only mercy is the savage strike stopped her kind heart in an instant.'
The selkie’s eyes glowed with a dulled anger as she lifted her gaze from the dead girl towards Eleanor. ‘But I would have had no choice. Because you are more important than all of us combined now. Except, perhaps, for Isullandar.’
Eleanor searched for words to say but came up short. Everything that raced through her mind sounded inadequate in the face of such terrible pain. ‘I . . . I’m sorry. I just don’t know wha — I don’t know.’
Through the tears, Lorelie somehow managed to find a gentle smile for her. ‘How could you know, you poor child?’
Eleanor followed the selkie’s beckoning fingers as she said, ‘Come look at yourself in the waters, Eileanori. See your true self again.’
She walked forward slowly, that second pulse rising and flowing inside her as if it was seeking to act like a blanket and soothe her jangling nerves and racing thoughts. Marisol touched the rippling waters. The soft foam sped away from her fingers as the droplets stilled their dancing, and the fountain’s bright blue hue dimmed, replaced by silver tones — all contained neatly within a perfect circle under Lorelie’s touch.
Eleanor gazed into the pool. Her breath caught in her throat as she inhaled sharply. Her hands and joints were not the only parts of her where age had fallen away over these past few crazy days. The young beauty who stared back at her was familiar to Eleanor. It was the face in the picture frames that lined the hall — her graduation, her engagement to Bill, the magical day of their wedding. Gone were the lines and crow’s feet. The sparkle that had dimmed in these past few years shone again fiercely in the bright eyes; the eyes that looked back at her were definitely her own.
Lorelie touched her shoulder, and Eleanor turned to face her. The tracks of the tears and raw red eyes could not mask the love in them. ‘I am sorry, Eileanori. You are confused and shocked. I can see it in you. I am only in the bright beginnings of my grieving, and I shall not be able to bear explaining all you must know.’
‘I understand. It must be painful for you. You don’t . . .’
Lorelie shushed her and took her hands. Eleanor let herself be seated down beside the body of the young girl. A contraction of pain cut through her chest as she watched the selkie lean over and kiss the cold blue lips and then reached out to take the gossamer sheet from the silent man. The man closed his black eyes and bowed low as Lorelie softly laid the shimmering shroud across the poor child’s lifeless form. She lovingly wrapped the girl and placed the last fold across her silent face. Eleanor felt the pulse inside her react to something in the air; a moment later, she watched as Lorelie traced a pattern over the shrouded child with her hands.
Eleanor could see the grief-stricken woman’s lips move, yet the words she knew not. Lorelie’s final hand gestures were over the distraught woman’s own face and chest. When she turned to Eleanor again, the redness in her eyes had retreated slightly, and the tear tracks had dried, leaving marks on her pale cheeks like the faint river beds on sand which wait again for the next incoming tide to wash over them.
Eleanor reached over and grasped both Lorelie’s hands. Her voice wavered and nearly cracked as she spoke. ‘I am so sorry for this loss and for your pain. It must be unimaginable.’ Her throat caught, and the second pulse flashed up to aid her as she continued. ‘Please tell what you can. If you can.’
Lorelie’s voice was much stronger now. Eleanor knew that the something she had felt must have been a strong magic. As Lorelie began to speak, Eleanor again felt that strange pulse inside her swirling; it steadied her and gave her strength. Much like whatever incantation the selkie had traced in the air above the child and herself to push back the overwhelming grief.
‘Your mother’s name was Abgandila, and she was most beautiful. She was also one of the most powerful creatures to inhabit our world. Abgandila fell in love with your father, and you are their daughter. Together they protected many worlds; this one, the one you consider your own, and many others beyond counting.’ The selkie touched the water’s surface again, and it began to swirl within the perfect circle, the mirror now changing to display a field of stars.
‘When you were very small — just a baby — there was a disturbance amongst the worlds.’ The specks of light in the fountain moved faster and faster until they were shooting stars tearing across the night sky.
‘Your father left to investigate the disturbance and restore balance to a distant world.’
A star shone brightly as the image on the water began to slow, and a bright blue and green world emerged from its warming light. Its colours and clouds the only similarities that Eleanor could discern between her world, Earth, and this alien one in the pool before her.
‘It was a vast journey — your father was to be gone for many years. It was then that he seized his opportunity.’
‘He . . . Rowan?’ Eleanor asked.
Lorelie spat on the ground. ‘Yes. He came to seek your mother and usurp your father, but she rejected him. He vowed to have her. Your mother, realising the danger he presented in his madness, sent you away to us. To Marisol and I. We hid you in the other world, that which you have called home for these past decades.’
‘How can any of this be possible? I was eighty years old with children of my own, but now I am twenty again. None of this makes sense.’
‘Time is different between here and there, and the powerful magics involved make fools of us all if we try to comprehend them all at once.’ Lorelie patted Eleanor’s arm. ‘Your mother loved you so much that she was willing to suffer the heartbreak of sending you away to keep you safe. She missed you fiercely every day until her last.’
‘Safe? Last day? My whole life just feels . . . like a huge lie.’ The words snapped out, and Eleanor instantly regretted them. ‘I am sorry. I just don’t . . .’
‘It’s alright, child. It’s alright. We sent a guardian to you. A kind and caring creature, pure of heart and of great strength. He watched over you for many years.’
‘Bill? Bill was . . . one of you?’
‘Yes. And in the ways of these things, you fell in love with each other.’
‘Was that also a lie? Part of your plan?’ Eleanor was surprised to feel herself reaching inwards to touch the other pulse inside her before it flashed up to meet her growing anger.
‘That was no lie. That was life. Two pure creatures who were devoted to each other. It is the nature of Bill’s kind that the more energy he needed to expend in throwing his blanket of safety about you and your children, the more it wore on him.’
Fighting back to tears by stroking the pulse inside herself, Eleanor’s voice was firm but calm. ‘Bill died for me?’
‘No, my dear child. He lived for you.’
‘Did Rowan kill Bill?’
‘He did not. Bill had arranged your protection so well that, right until the final days, Rowan must still not have been sure if you were Eileanori.’
‘How is that possible? That this evil world-walking creature could not have spotted who I am, or rather, who you say I am?’
‘Bill had grounded you so solidly within that world and to your house, to your safe place. Rowan could not break through the guardian’s layers of glamour to see you truly.’
‘But I saw Rowan in my house . . . in the pond in the forest.’
‘Oh, Rowan clearly suspected. He has a fairy road map of your world, and your house — or rather, the node on which your house stands — is marked upon it. That was part of the glamour to confuse him. Rowan must have been so confounded that he could enter the house, and yet, he could not tap the power there. He could feel your iron will, but he could not break it. If he could have removed you from that place, then the cracks in your protection would have appeared, and he could chip at them.’
‘Oh no! Lizzie . . . my daughter is with that monster —’
‘It’s alright. When we sensed that Rowan was on the hunt for you, we sent other guardians for Lizzie and Sam. Your children are safe.’
‘You sent them to protect my children, but you didn’t protect your own?’
‘Rowan is an evil creature who has grown in power. He must have had his own minions watching us as well and took advantage of some mistake or chink in our own defences. At first, Marisol and I thought she had simply wandered into the woods, chasing fireflies; he must have slipped through our wards and stolen our child. He had to because he could not get back to steal yours.’
Eleanor fought her anger, biting her lip to stop from saying anything until she could force the building hate back into the pit of her stomach. She turned towards Hal, fighting back tears as she said, ‘And you Hal Ferry or Halion . . . what the hell part did you have to play in all this? Where did you disappear to? You stopped writing to me.’
Hal’s eyes were are soft as she remembered as he spoke. ‘I am sorry for having played a willing part in these deceptions — I, too, am a Guardian. I have loved you since the day I met you and have worked my whole life to keep you safe. Bill won your heart, and to him fell the greatest burden of keeping you safe. I have done my part from a distance, yet, if you can ever trust me again, know that my love was just as firm and true.’
‘Love? Lying isn’t a great way to show love. Why didn’t you act sooner? I wrote to you . . . I told you Rowan wanted me out. You didn’t come to help.’
Hal's face was now wet from the tears which flowed gently down his cheeks, ‘I know it is hard trying to understand so much in one day. I haven’t been there with you because I was elsewhere, fighting for you. But I managed to raise the alarm back to this world, and although it almost burnt my reserves of energy, I helped to hold back Rowan in these last days. I fought to keep Bill’s wards firm for your protection.’
Eleanor struggled to force her mouth into the shapes of familiar words. She willed her jaw to move and her lips to separate from the thin, angry line they had settled in. ‘This monster has to be stopped. He can’t be allowed to hurt anyone ever again. He simply can’t.’
She looked at the pain building again behind Lorelie’s eyes and could tell the selkie’s grief ward was beginning to fade. Eleanor could not bring herself to ask any more questions lest she crush the last of Lorelie’s resolve. She could see the incoming tide of anguish as it lapped at the top of the selkie’s magical breakwater; soon, it would breach and flood over it. The thought of such pain inflicted on a child and its mothers was too much to bear.
She looked up to where the black-eyed man stood, looking over them all. The sun high in the sky caught the angles of his face; his skin was almost golden in the light. Eleanor couldn’t place why he seemed so familiar yet so strange at the same time.
‘And what about you? What have you been doing in all of this? Who are you?’
‘I have been absent for many years. There are other places, times, other shapes beyond your ken. I was not here when Rowan came for your mother. She fought him to her last breath, and he won only by terrible tricks and guile. I was not here when he came for this innocent child.’ He reached out both his hands to Eleanor.
She took them as she stood up. The first touch of the long delicate fingers sent a shiver of power up her forearms. His voice was melodic, gentle, and soft, yet within the touch was immense power. Equalled only by sadness, she thought.
‘Rowan has grown to a become a significant power,’ the strange man with the powerful hands and golden skin continued. ‘Together, we will stand against him.’
‘Can you tell me then, truly, what I am?’
‘It is simple, sweet child. You are Eileanori, daughter of Abgandila and he who is called the Last Dragon.’
‘Well, if that is who I am,’ — she gripped his hands tightly — ‘then tell me about this Isullander that Lorelie spoke of and where we can find him.’
The man’s angled face and thin, rosy lips curled into a slight smile. His skin shimmered, and he seemed at once to be the size of a man and something far more. As his golden light flowed into her arms and met her blue flame within, they seemed to rejoice in the binding. Like old friends renewing a long-lost connection.
‘That is also simple, Eileanori Halfdragon. I am Isullander, the Last Dragon.’
The Great Escape Chapter 8/9 will be published on Sunday September 5th.
Next week's author is Diana James.