Rowan smiled, unimpressed with the flame dancing around Eleanor’s hands. His teeth, once so straight and pristine, looked crooked and sharp in the writhing blue light.
‘I know who you are, Eileanori,” he said as he circled around her. Eleanor twisted to keep him in front of her. “I know what you are, half-dragon. You’re the same as me. You—’
‘I’m nothing like you,’ Eleanor spat and shot a blast of searing cerulean flame from each hand.
Rowan spun out of the way of the first blast, which smashed through the wall behind him, but the second caught Rowan’s billowing coat.
‘You’re quicker than I thought, Ma.’ He smiled at her as he took off his now burning jacket. ‘Faster than an old woman ought to be, don’t you think?’
Eleanor leapt forward, flaming hands swiping at Rowan. He dodged to the left and came at her. Eleanor let her training take over as she moved with Rowan and met each of his blows with a blue shield. White lightning cracks appeared in her fiery defences and she was pushed back to the hole she had blasted in the wall. Eleanor planted her feet to throw another flurry of flaming punches at Rowan, but her foot caught on the rubble and she tumbled backwards.
Rowan seized his opportunity and fell on Eleanor. There was no time to raise a shield. Eleanor rolled to the side and Rowan’s fist crashed into the floor where Eleanor’s head had been half a heartbeat before.
‘Too fast for an old woman,’ Rowan said, pulling his hand from the shattered floorboards.
‘You know I’m not some old woman, you monster. I’m Eil—’
‘Eileanori Halfdragon. I know. You’ve been on quite the journey since I last saw you, haven’t you? Discovered a lot about yourself. It seems I married into quite the family.’
Eleanor paused, holding back the ball of fire and lightning in her hands she’d readied to hurl at Rowan.
‘What do you think Lizzie will make of all this, Ma?’
‘Don’t you talk about her.’
Flames and electricity crackled through the air. Rowan held up his hands to defend himself. He caught the fireball and power echoed through the room, causing the walls to shake and rain with dust. Embers swirled as the dust cleared and there was Rowan, smiling with his crooked, sharp teeth. Smoke trailed from Rowan’s hands and Eleanor could see, although he tried to hide it, that she’d scorched him.
'Now, now, Ma. You should calm yourself. I’m just saying that this’ll be a big pill to swallow for Lizzie, won’t it? Her mother comes home one day looking younger than she does. That stress won’t be good for the baby.’
Eleanor let another blast of energy fly. This time Rowan darted out of the way and the rippling fire and lightning blew another hole in the wall. Eleanor caught a glimpse of the dimension outside the house: it was dark and difficult to make anything out, only shadowed trees and broken statues.
‘I suppose you could glamour yourself. I suppose Isullandar taught you that trick? No, well I can show you. Then you can explain everything. Lizzie’s grandfather’s a dragon. Her husband’s half a demon. But do you think she’ll believe you? You’re losing your mind, Ma. You’ve been putting your wine glasses in the oven. Are you sure this is even real?’
The light from Eleanor’s lightning-wreathed hands flickered, faltered. The last few weeks had been strange. Could it be a dream? Was all this just her subconscious creating a story out of her fear of leaving her home? Rowan had always been so friendly to her. He wasn’t a demon, was he?
A thump from a distant room then a scuffle and a muffled cry. Hal.
Rowan scowled and for the blink of an eye Eleanor saw his true nature painted across his face. His teeth were no longer straight and white, but crooked and sharp. His ears were long, but moved of their own accord. His eyes: once she’d thought them beautiful and piercing, but she could see now they were dead, calculating, and hungry. He was beautiful, but deadly. He was a wolf sniffing for weakness so he could rend his prey limb from limb.
‘Do you think she’ll believe you?’ Rowan said, too loud to try and cover Hal’s cries. ‘Or, do you think she’ll believe me? Her husband. The father of her unborn child.’
Eleanor planted her feet and the fiery storm surrounding her fists swelled. She would not let Rowan escape. For everything he had done, all the damage he had done to so many people, and for the deceit he laid so readily upon her daughter. She could not let him escape.
With a cry she loosed a torrent of flame and lightning at Rowan. He danced to the side, easily avoiding the searing energy. But Eleanor had not been aiming for him.
As the walls shook and Rowan blinked away the falling dust, Eleanor charged at him. She grunted as she threw her shoulder into his belly and shoved them both out of the new hole in the side of the building.
There was a moment of weightlessness as they fell. Rowan scratched at Eleanor’s back. Eleanor threw one flame-drenched fist after another into Rowan’s side.
As Eleanor began to wonder if they would ever hit the ground, or if there even was any ground in this dimension, they smashed into sand and salt water. They carved foaming furrows into the shallows as the impact threw them apart.
Eleanor pushed herself to her feet and winced at the myriad slices now carved across her back. As Rowan clambered upright some distance away, Eleanor took in the desolate dimension she had been dragged to.
Everything was drenched in darkness and tinged with cold. It was as though the sun had turned its back on this place, and with that rejection all the light and joy had seeped away. They stood at the edge of a dark ocean, black waves lapped at a greyscale beach and the bleak sea rose in the distance as though each wave jostled the others to be next to grind down the shore. A decrepit manor house stood nearby, its foundations almost in the shallows with them. There was a fresh hole in one of the walls. Perhaps once it had been a warm place full of love. Perhaps in some long distant past the sash windows had been filled with light and had shown the silhouettes of people living their lives. If they had, it had been a long, long time ago.
‘What is this place, Rowan?’ The question slipped out before Eleanor realised she’d asked it. There was such a weight of melancholy to this place that she could not help but ask.
‘A dead place,’ he replied as he wiped blood from his lips with the back of one hand. ‘It was where I was raised. Where I was left. People can’t stand those that are different from them, half-dragon. The creatures that took me in didn’t love me. They didn’t truly care for me. They did the bare minimum to keep me alive for fear of what I would become.’
‘What happened to them?'
‘I happened to them. They knew the kind of power I had and they feared me. They tried to fix me. To carve me into something I could never be, that I should never be. So I showed them my true power. Don’t you see this is what will happen to you? You are useful to them now, half-dragon, because they are using you to get rid of me. But when that’s done? What use will they have for you then? They’ll cast you aside and this is what you will be left with.’
He threw his arm back and gestured to the scene around them, to the bleak and broken home that Rowan had made for himself.
Eleanor watched water swirl around her legs. The wounds on her back dripped blood into the ocean and the bright crimson stirred something in her. Blood was all Rowan had ever sown and pain was what he reaped.
‘You’re made of hatred, Rowan. Whoever took care of you tried to help you. They wanted you to grow into someone kind and strong. Your hatred is what made this place, and if I don’t stop you then you’ll turn all the worlds into this broken darkness. I can’t let you do that.’
‘I would unite the worlds, you fool. There would be no suffering. No children left with those that did not want them. All would sit beneath me and all would be equal.’
The blood floating between Eleanor’s legs began to glow. The water surrounding it bubbled and frothed.
‘Enough of this, half-dragon,’ Rowan said as he caught sight of the frothing crimson water. ‘Have you not realised you cannot—’
The water between them exploded in a flash of light and crack of thunder. Something colossal erupted from the shallows. Rowan cried out in frustration as Isullandar, his light and power resplendent in this broken dimension, roared and circled above them. More figures followed from the portal to join Isullandar and Eleanor even as Rowan summoned his own heinous minions to face them.
The dragon landed with a spray of saltwater and let out another thunderous roar at Rowan. Behind Rowan, beasts of shadow and ash swirled together in a mess of talons and teeth.
Isullandar turned his great head back to Eleanor and she felt his voice touch her mind.
Are you hurt, Eileanori?
‘A little worse for wear, but I’ll be okay. How did you find us? Rowan said he couldn’t be found.’
Two figures, one male and one female, moved up to stand next to Eleanor. Isullandar nodded to them.
‘We found you,’ said the man. He was tall and thin and his face was pallid and gloomy like a distant storm. ‘We would not find Rowan, but once your blood mixed with the salt water here we found your scent. Isullandar could scent your direction from your blood, but it was not until your blood mixed with the sea that we could pinpoint you.’
They are finn-folk, Eileanori. Like your mother.
‘You’re my family?’ Eleanor asked.
‘Distant family,’ said the woman. Where the male finn-folk was grey and dour, she sparkled with a sharp beauty. If he was a distant storm, then she was the calm sun-kissed ocean. ‘Your mother was my cousin.’
‘And my niece,’ the other said. ‘We cannot stand by whilst you are in danger. There are more of our kind coming, but my name is Brimfus and I am the Finnman. And this,’ he gestured to the female finn-folk beside him, ‘is Frieth, the Finnwife.’
‘I wish we could meet under better circumstances, Eileanori,’ Frieth said. ‘But I hope there will be time for us to catch up later.’
Eleanor smiled, nodded, and turned back to her dread foe.
During this brief conversation the battle lines had been redrawn. Between the shore and the decrepit manor house, Rowan’s forces of ash and shadow and fangs coalesced. Islluandar kept them at bay with blasts of fire and swipes of his claws. In the shallows, dryads, kelpies, finn-folk, and all manner of strange and wondrous beings arrayed themselves.
Try as she might, Eleanor could not see Rowan in the churning mass of his minions.
‘He’s run into the house,’ a familiar voice said from behind Eleanor.
The vampire Callidora put her hand on Eleanor’s shoulder and smiled at her. Eleanor looked around at the vampire dressed in a torn wedding dress, at all the beings and people that had come to fight with her, to save her and all the worlds from Rowan’s clutches. She felt her soul lift and strength return to her weary muscles.
‘He’s got Hal somewhere in there,’ Eleanor said.
Then we will hunt Rowan down and save Halion if we can.
Isullandar roared once again. This time as a signal for the final battle to commence. All the hordes of darkness screeched in response and surged forward like a tidal wave. The forces arrayed before them cried out their defiance and the fight was joined in a mess of hooves, teeth, claws, magic, and pain.
The last dragon sent a blast of flame into their enemies, collected Eleanor, Brimfus, and Callidora in his claws and leapt into the sky. As they flew over the battle Eleanor shot blasts of lightning and fire into the dark mass of Rowan’s minions. Howls of pain reached her ears but she could feel no remorse for any being that would want to force all the worlds into Rowan’s bloody grip.
With a few beats of his wings, Isullandar carried them into the house through the hole Eleanor had made. In the heartbeat before the dragon’s hulking form would have smashed into the house he transformed in a golden coruscation and they all stumbled into the creaking, rotting house.
‘Where is he?’ Isullander asked, now in his human form.
Callidora sniffed the air and pointed them to one of the doors. ‘This way.’
As they rushed through the house, the darkness solidified into horrifying creatures that attacked them with vicious glee. The first monster looked like a cross between a spider and an elephant. It was colossal, nearly cracking the floor with its weight, standing on legs that looked too spindly to support it. It used its trunk to try and grab Callidora and shove her into its gnashing mandibles, but Eleanor sliced off its trunk with a well placed blast even as Brimfus used his staff to batter the creature into oblivion. The next had octopus tentacles, a wolf’s head and a stag’s antlers. Its tentacles attacked them all simultaneously as its jaws tried to tear into them. Callidora cried out as two tentacles tried to rip her in half. Eleanor’s blast to save her flew wide as another of the tentacles pulled her off balance. On the other side of the room, Brimfus fended off the creature’s teeth and antlers. It was left to Isullander to tear the tentacles apart with his bare hands. After a few more moments of yelps and crunches the monster dissipated back into shadow.
As they stepped through the room, leaving the gloom-drenched corpses of Rowan’s creatures, they took a moment to catch their breath. Issulandar gestured Eleanor over to him.
‘Your powers, Eileanori, are the only ones that can truly kill Rowan. We can harm him, but our power is limited. He has woven charms and spells into himself over the years, the centuries. Each protects him from our magic to some degree and so our attacks will be blunted. As a child of the storms and the oceans your powers, however, transcend a single world. No spell or charm that Rowan can call upon will be able to defend against it, not truly. He is strong, but not invincible.’
‘Together he won’t be able to stop us,’ Eleanor said and smiled at Isullandar.
The last dragon smiled back at her, but it was tinged with a sadness that Eleanor did not understand. ‘Together we will succeed. Remember, my child, that all of us here have come knowing the risks. We know that this is a battle we may not walk away from. Do not hold back.’
Eleanor frowned. ‘What do you mean, I—’
‘No matter what happens.’ Issulander put a hand on Eleanor’s shoulder and looked deep into her eyes. ‘Do not hold back.’
Before Eleanor could respond, Marisol called out that she had Rowan’s scent once more and they rushed to find him.
It did not take long.
At the end of the corridor they turned right into a large dining hall. Faded paper peeled from the walls and at the other end of the room a fallen chandelier lay half-submerged in a crater of cracked floorboards.
Rowan stood in the middle of the room. He held Hal up with one arm around his neck, a shining blade at Hal’s throat. Rowan had abandoned all pretence of humanity. His eyes shone like furious coals, his fingers were longer, taloned, and Eleanor saw thin wisps of smoke forming skeletal wings at Rowan’s back.
‘It’s touching you’ve come to watch your friend die,’ Rowan spat as they fanned out to keep him penned in the room.
Let me distract, Rowan, Isullandar’s voice came straight into Eleanor’s mind once more. Once Halion is safely away then you should all attack Rowan with everything you have.
Eleanor’s muscles bunched. She ached to leap to Hal’s defence immediately, but she knew that Isullandar’s plan was their best chance to get everyone out safely.
‘Look at you,’ Rowan continued. ‘Pretending that you are allies, friends, but your word is just like everyone else’s. Worthless. You’ll turn on each other as soon as it’s convenient.’
‘How dare you speak to me of worthless words,’ Callidora cried. Her tattered wedding dress shifted as she took a step forward. ‘You only ever told me what I wanted to hear. You wormed your way into my affections and then took everything from me, you took my wealth, my family, my friends and left me and I became this.’ Callidora gestured at herself, at the ragged and blood-stained wedding dress. ‘I hope that somewhere deep in the abyss you call a soul that you felt some remorse for what you did to me.’
Rowan cocked his head as he looked at her. ‘I didn’t think of you at all, Callidora. As soon as I left you were gone from my mind.’
Callidora shrieked and leapt at Rowan. Within that heart-wrenching cry, Eleanor felt the weight of a broken heart, the sharp edges of lost hopes and the cold, unending clutches of death. It was a cry that mirrored Callidora’s soul.
Eleanor tried to stop the vampire, to let Isullandar get Hal safely away, but it was too late. Callidora was already half-way to Rowan, her hands outstretched and her fangs bared.
Rowan smiled and tore out Hal’s throat. Blood sprayed across the room, splattering across Callidora’s once-white dress. Hal’s body tumbled limp to the floor as Rowan readied himself to meet Callidora. But the vampire did not attack him directly, instead she tried to wrestle the knife from Rowan’s hands. He tried to keep hold of it, but Isullandar, Brimfus, and Eleanor all rushed in to help their friend. Distracted, Rowan was forced to let go of the knife to defend himself. Callidora crowed her victory and slashed the knife across Rowan’s back. The half-fae screamed as the iron tip cut deep. Smoke hissed from the wound and, as his coat fell away from his body, Eleanor saw that Callidora had cut expertly through an arcane tattoo. Rowan roared in frustration. His smoky wings batted them all aside and then he leapt on Callidora, crushed her throat in one hand, and flung her into the wall. She fell, finally lifeless, and lay still on the floor.
‘You see,’ Rowan panted. ‘I cannot be defeated. Even all of you together are no match for—’
Isullandar crashed into Rowan and carried him out through the wall. As they fell, there was a flash of golden light and Isullandar returned to his true form. The last dragon smashed Rowan into the ground and carved a deep furrow into the manor’s dead garden using Rowan’s body as a plough.
Eleanor and Brimfus rushed to the hole in the wall and looked down at the garden, where Rowan and Isullandar writhed together in a mass of tearing claws, fiery blasts, and burning darkness.
‘Quickly.’ Brimfus took Eleanor by the hand and leapt out of the house. A moment before they hit the ground, water from one of the ponds rushed up to meet them and cushioned their fall. ‘Now is our chance, Eileanori. The wound Callidora gave Rowan means he is weakened and cannot flee. He is stuck here, in this dimension. We have a chance to end this.’
They rushed over to the tangled mass of light and darkness that was Rowan and Isullandar. Rowan looked to be trying to escape from the glowing dragon claws. He batted away one of Isullandar’s enormous taloned hands and started to scramble away, but Brimfus whipped a coil of water out, and took Rowan’s feet from under him.
Now, Eileanori. Now is the time.
As Isullandar’s voice came to her, the last dragon trapped Rowan with one mighty claw. The talon pierced Rowan’s chest and pinned him to the ground, although it did not stop Rowan from battering at his captor. Each time Rowan flailed he ripped away more of Isullandar’s beautiful golden scales.
‘I can’t hit him without hitting you,’ Eleanor cried. ‘Let him go and—’
Eleanor grimaced and summoned all her strength. She pulled on all of the pain that Rowan had caused, remembered all people that he had hurt, and channeled it into the maelstrom of fire and lightning between her hands. The glow lit up the garden and burned so brightly that it lit up the manor house, highlighting every cracked brick and broken window. Eleanor glanced once more at the elegant splendour of Isullandar, at the last dragon, and then she unleashed everything she had.
The energy blasted out from her in a spiralling inferno. The lightning crackled and snapped at the air as it crashed into Rowan and Isullandar, not caring who felt the sharpness of its storm-born fury. Within the cage of lightning, the flames were eager to incinerate Rowan for everything he had done and the heat wilted and set alight what little foliage remained around them.
Rowan wailed in agony. Isullandar roared with him. Eleanor could hear the blistering skin, the popping scales. She felt her conviction falter; her strength waned as the thunderous energy flowed out of her. She channeled a blazing waterfall filled with storms and it burned her from the inside.
A hand landed on her shoulder.
Brimfus stood alongside her, eyes closed, and she felt his energy feed into hers. His life force was deep and cold. It swept along with her energy with the slow, deliberate power of the tides. It felt familiar, as though she had been there once and had long forgotten. It was the energy of her mother, of her people, of the finn-folk.
The power eased the pain of her own fire against her bones. For an instant Eleanor worried it would douse the vigour of her energy, but within Brimfus’ power she found a deep anger and strength that melded with hers. Eleanor redoubled her efforts and blasted Rowan with the power of winter storms and the heat of the sun. The light from Eleanor’s power lit up the dimension and turned that dark place into something bright and lively. For a moment she could believe that it had once been a vibrant place filled with love and affection. Once.
Rowan’s cries faded underneath the thunder of Eleanor’s power and after a few heartbeats she let her power fade. Once more the world around them fell into darkness.
Eleanor rushed to Isullandar’s side. The dragon had been caught in much of Eleanor’s attack, his scales on one side were melted together and his soft underside was charred and scorched. His head shifted, but he could not open his eyes as the skin had fused together.
Well done, my child.
‘Oh Isullandar.’ Eleanor choked down a sob. ‘We’ll get someone to heal you. Brimfus can you—’
It is too late for me, child.
‘I’m so sorry, Maybe if I’d have been able to–’
Do not apologise for doing what needed to be done. I knew the cost and I paid it willingly.
Isullandar’s breathing was heavy, laboured. He coughed and it shook the ground. Beside them Rowan’s charred body stirred.
‘You see,’ Rowan rasped. ‘I cannot—’
Eleanor didn’t let him finish. She threw a blast of energy at him that lit up the sky and burned away the ground beneath Rowan. When she was done, nothing remained but a burned crater. Empty now, Eleanor panted and listened. She heard cries of victory from beyond the manor house and the fading breath of Isullandar.
It is done. It is finally done.
‘There must be something I can do, Isullandar. What if—’
No, there is nothing left to do. But do not mourn for me, Eileanori. I am glad that I was able to see what you have become, to see you grow into what you have always meant to be. I am happy and so proud of you.
Isullandar shifted, offering his enormous scaled, charred hand to Eleanor. She clutched in with both of hers and wept. Eleanor did not leave Isullandar’s side until the final breath of the last dragon faded away.
It was not until days later that Eleanor returned home. She stayed with her newfound friends to bring the bodies of the fallen back to Isullandar’s castle and give them a proper farewell. Hal and Isullandar were both given funeral pyres that would have rivalled the most powerful of ancient kings and somehow Eleanor still felt that it wasn’t enough. How do you honour someone who gave their life so willingly to save so many? Although Eleanor would have liked to stay in the castle, she knew that she needed to return to her own home. She had been away too long.
Brimfus and Frieth brought her back and during the journey they spoke with her Eleanor about her mother. There was too much to tell in such a short time, but they told her how to call upon them and that she was always welcome in their homes. In what time they had they were able to tell her the story of her birth. She learned how Isullandar had brought her mother to a snow-capped mountain as an ocean storm rolled against it and that was how she had come into the world, nestled between the thunder and the sea. A fitting entrance, they said, for one such as her.
Eleanor had thought that her home would feel strange after everything that had happened, that it would feel too small and mundane. But much to her relief, it did not. It felt safe. Firm. She toyed with her wedding band as she came up the garden path and felt the reassuring warmth of Bill’s love through it. It was as though she had laid a hand on his side of the bed just after he had risen for the morning and felt the lingering warmth of his body. Through that compassionate heat she knew Bill would always be with her and she could sense the power that he had suffused into their home and garden. This was what Rowan had wanted, she realised. Bill, as a powerful Guardian, had given much to this place and to Eleanor. If Rowan had managed to get Eleanor to truly leave and never return, or if he had killed her, then he would have been able to absorb all of this quiet influence and turn it into something sharp and dangerous. He would have been able to subjugate this world and everyone in it. Eleanor shuddered at the thought as she opened the front door.
Inside, the house was a mess. It was filled with half-packed boxes and whatever hadn’t yet been packed was strewn across various rooms and hallways. That could all wait until later. First, she could do with a nice cup of tea.
As she waited for the kettle to boil, Eleanor checked her messages. The buyers, who had been so happy to purchase her house so quickly, had pulled out the deal. Part of it was her silence over the past couple of weeks and part seemed to be the waning of Rowan’s influence on them now that he was gone. Eleanor wondered what Lizzie must be thinking. Her husband and her mother had disappeared for days and days.
She looked at the phone, dreading what the conversation with Lizzie would bring. How much could she tell her? Would Lizzie still think that she was a senile old woman that needed to go into a nursing home? Well, if she knew one thing it was that putting something off didn’t make it any easier. She took a breath and dialled Lizzie’s number before she could change her mind.
The phone had barely started its first ring before Lizzie picked up.
‘Mum?! Stay right there. I’m coming over. Don’t you dare go anywhere.’
Eleanor smiled. At least Lizzie hadn’t lost any of her fire.
It would take a few hours for Lizzie to arrive so Eleanor spent the time baking and tidying; finding the last few trinkets that Rowan had moved to convince everyone that Eleanor’s mind was on the way out. As she cleaned the kitchen table Eleanor found the brochure for Lake House Retirement home. She stared at the old woman smiling on the front of the brochure for a moment and then took great pleasure in ripping the brochure into as many pieces as she could and throwing it into the compost.
The sound of a car chugging into the drive. Eleanor straightened and brushed the creases out of her dress. As she made her way to greet Lizzie, she caught her reflection in the stained glass of the front door. It was not the reflection of a woman who was soon to be a grandmother. Eleanor focused and put up a glamour as she had been taught, so that she looked just as she had the month before. She was Eleanor the old woman once again. Rowan had been right about that. It would be best to tell Lizzie one thing at a time.
Eleanor opened the door.
‘Hello, love. I’ve made a chocolate cake. Shall I put the kettle on?’
Lizzie stormed through the door, her hair was half up as though she had pinned it in the morning and over the course of the day it had fallen down again.
‘Shall I put the kettle on?’ Lizzie squeaked. ‘You disappear for a bloody fortnight and the first thing you say is: shall I put the kettle on?!’ ‘And that I made a chocolate cake,’ Eleanor retorted.
Lizzie shot her a look that said she did not find that amusing. Eleanor sighed and led her daughter into the kitchen. When they were stocked up with tea and cake, Lizzie looked at Eleanor.
‘Why did you bake a cake?’
‘In celebration,’ Eleanor said and looked pointedly at Lizzie.
‘How did you know?’
‘Let me bring the pot over. I have a feeling this conversation is going to take more than one cup of tea.’
Now that Lizzie had calmed herself down a bit, Eleanor noticed the bags under Lizzie’s eyes and the way she kept glancing at the door and windows with a nervous energy.
‘I’m sorry, love,’ Eleanor said as she collected the tea pot. ‘I didn’t mean to worry you.’
‘It’s not just you,’ Lizzie said. ‘Rowan’s disappeared. I don’t know where he is or if he’ll be back.’
There was an edge to Lizzie’s voice and a look in her eyes that told Eleanor that Rowan’s disappearance was not a completely unwelcome development in her daughter’s life.
‘I learned some things about Rowan over the past couple of weeks, Lizzie,’ Eleanor said as she sat back down. ‘I don’t think you’ll want to hear them right now, or possibly ever, but I know that he won’t be coming back. We’ll never hear from him again.’
Eleanor paused, trying to gauge how to continue. Lizzie’s shoulders were hunched and she kept glancing to the door and out the window like a cornered animal. Eleanor put her hand on Lizzie’s.
‘Listen to me, Lizzie. He’s not coming back. He will not hurt you again.’
The tension in Lizzie’s shoulders eased and she nodded, although Eleanor wasn’t sure if Lizzie totally believed her.
‘I’m still here, Lizzie. And I’ll be here for a long time yet. You and the little one don’t need to worry about that.’
Lizzie smiled and took a bite of chocolate cake.
‘It’s good,’ she said. ‘Just like you made for my birthday parties. But can you really protect me? Rowan... he was strong, Mum. He was... Now that he’s gone it’s like I know what he really was. I don’t want to see him again.’
‘Of course it’s good. When have you ever known me to bake a bad cake?’ Eleanor put down her tea and looked deep into her daughter’s eyes. ‘I can protect you, Lizzie. I’ll protect you and love my grandchild with every fibre of my being. You have my promise on that.’
‘Thank you, Mum.’ Tears welled in Lizzie’s eyes. She nodded and then threw herself around the table, knocking the cake to the floor in the process, and enveloped Eleanor in a tight hug. ‘Thank you.’
‘It’s what mothers do, love.’
They sat like that for a time, letting the chocolate cake seep onto the tiles. After a while Eleanor lifted Lizzie’s arms from around her.
‘Come on, love. Let’s go sit in the garden.’
Eleanor led her daughter out into the garden. It wasn’t an immaculate garden, manicured to within an inch of its life. It was her garden. There was a vegetable patch, fruit trees, waist-high wildflowers and paths that curved deep into the undergrowth and out of sight. They sat on the metal chairs and Lizzie brought the pot of tea out with them. Eleanor sighed as she sat with her daughter and soaked in the atmosphere of her garden that she had built with her husband, that had heard the shrieking laughter of their children, and would soon hear the bubbling chuckles of their first grandchild.
The old woman was smiling. It was easy to see why.
Thank you to all our authors this year!
Please check out their other works and if you want to take part in the next story challenge, keep an eye out for the details in spring 2022!
Thank you to Diana James for edits.