Rachael sat on the rooftop, huddled in her jacket, staring out over the city with dead eyes. Barely visible through the wall of cloud, the sun was just beginning to descend towards the horizon. After their narrow escape from the construction site they had been constantly on the move. Rachael had slept little, and she had a feeling that Justin was sleeping even less. Food had been scarce, with both of them unable to risk returning to their usual haunts. Every time the sun set, Justin had repeated his strange ritual, drawing the mark in blood on her forehead. To keep them from following her, he claimed. Each time she watched him pierce his thumb with that knife blade she felt a chill run through her body, but arguing had been pointless.
Even running was beginning to seem pointless. She was tired. Tired of everything. Tired of being cold and hungry. Tired of being frightened. Tired of watching the few remaining pieces of her life fall apart. She felt like an insect with its legs being pulled off one by one.
She let her head fall back against the ventilator duct. It was cold outside and the air felt damp, like it would rain again soon. She wondered when Justin would be back from whatever he was doing. Scouting, he had called it. Finding out more about the people who were after them. She wondered if it would really do any good. If anything would. She just wanted him to be back. She just wanted to sleep. Her eyes began to drift closed.
The sound of a voice woke her. Rachael’s eyes flicked open and she looked up. Sitting across from her was a girl of about her own age. Her skin was dark, and her black hair was tied up in a ponytail.
“Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” the girl exclaimed, holding up her hands.
“Who the hell are you?” Rachael snapped in surprise. As the shock passed, she gave the girl another look over. She was curiously dressed, in baggy green trousers and high topped leather boots, with a loosely fitted white tunic.
“I’m Arsha. You’re Rachael, right?”
The girl turned her head to look around, with an awe-struck expression.
“Wow… So this is London? I mean I’d heard about it, but… I’ve never seen a Hearth city before. It’s so different.”
“Who the hell are you?” Rachael snapped, “How’d you know who I am? You following me too?”
“No, no, I just… Someone was following you?” the girl said.
“That’s cute,” Rachael said, halfway to her feet. “Act like you don’t know.”
“Don’t know what? What happened?”
Rachael shook her head in astonishment. She got to her feet, striding forwards to stand over the girl, her fists clenched at her sides. Arsha looked up at her with a trace of nervousness in her eyes.
“What the hell is this? What’s your deal, Arsha? Why are you here talking to me, if you’re not one of them what was trying to run us down the other night?”
“It’s OK, it’s OK,” the girl said, holding up her hands. “I’m here to help.”
“Right. And I should believe you because…?”
The girl looked completely at a loss. After a moment she just shrugged, helplessly, her eyes downcast.
“Yeah, you’re not convincing anyone here,” Rachael said.
“I’m sorry. I’ve never done this sort of thing before. My dad could explain better, but he can’t talk to you like this, so it kind of had to be me. Sorry.”
“And what’s your dad got to do with this?” Rachael said. She had to admit that curiosity was overcoming her now. Arsha seemed so pathetically helpless that Rachael couldn’t imagine the girl was any threat. But at the same time, there was something about the way that she sat there, with her legs folded under herself, totally defenceless, that suggested she was either very cool headed or entirely sure that she was in no danger.
“Well he’s an archaeologist. We live on a ship, called the Triskelion. It’s small, but it’s nice. We’re on our way to London right now. That’s why I’m talking to you like this. My dad wanted to let you know that we’re coming to find you. We’re going to keep you safe from those guys who were chasing you, and anyone else.”
“Yeah, that’s great. So I need you to keep me safe now, do I?”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. I just mean…” Arsha paused for a moment, as if trying to collect herself. “We’re coming to help. That’s why my dad wanted me to talk to you, to let you know that… That we’re coming to help,” she finished, limply.
“Sure. How’s it I have a hard time believing that? And if your dad’s out there on this ship, how’s it you’re here talking to me?”
Arsha looked puzzled for a moment.
“Well, I’m not really here, obviously. I mean, this is just… Well it’s sort of like a sending, I guess.”
When the girl stretched a hand out towards her leg, Rachael stepped back instinctively, Arsha’s hand passing through the space where she had just been. In that same moment, moving on instinct, Rachael reached down to snatch at Arsha’s collar, meaning to haul the girl to her feet.
But when her hand met the girl’s tunic, it passed straight through. Straight through her whole body, as if there was nothing there at all.
“I’m sorry,” Arsha squeaked. “I just meant to show you it was a sending, was all.”
Rachael heard the words as a kind of distant buzzing. The girl was still sitting in front of her, seeming in every possible way to be real. Or almost every way. Already she could see how the breeze didn’t quite seem to touch the girl’s hair. How she had felt nothing when the girl’s hand passed so close to her.
“No. No, no, no, don’t be this, don’t be this,” she mumbled, feeling the words collapsing into each other. Rachael staggered back a step, and fell down against the ventilator duct. The metal thundered with the impact. She felt her knees curling up to her chest, felt herself collapsing down into a place deep inside, like a seed in the darkness. Distantly, she heard the girl’s voice, shrill with concern, but already she knew that it was just her imagination. Her eyes were closed tight as she repeated the words over and over, until they became a buzzing noise, blocking out everything else. Her heart thundered in her chest as she drew rapid breaths. Her desperate prayer echoed through her thoughts, trying to wish the world away.
Arsha felt the link break, like a glass shattering in her hands. The rooftop became a jumbled blur, a whirlwind of flickering images that spiralled apart to leave her floating in darkness. Arsha tried to call out, to tell the girl it was OK, but Rachael was already gone. The comforting darkness suddenly felt strange and frightening. She seemed to be tumbling, falling, though there was no sense of an up or down. She called out again and heard a voice answer. Milima’s voice, calm and steady.
“Let it go, Arsha. Let it go. Close your eyes, take a breath and slowly remove the mask.”
She forced herself to breathe. She imagined her eyes closing. Felt her fingertips brush her face, brush the edges of the imaginary mask.
“Feel yourself returning. The mask floats away. The thread is gone.”
Her body seemed as light as a feather.
“Open your eyes.”
There was a sensation like a sudden movement, as the ship fell into place around her. For a moment she was surprised to feel the floor underneath herself. Dizzy, she nearly toppled over.
“Careful sweetheart,” Milima said, her calm tones breaking into bemused laughter. Her hand gently supported Arsha’s shoulder.
Arsha sat up, her head spinning. Everything was exactly as it had been. Milima was looking into her eyes with concern as Arsha shook off the headrush. Sat across from her, Ilona’s eyes were still closed, her breathing deep and slow.
“Are you all there?” Milima said, leaning in close to study her eyes.
“Yeah. I’m OK,” she said, casting a worried glance over at Ilona. Their hands were still entwined, though Ilona’s grip had slackened.
“Give her a moment,” Milima said. “It’s different, being the power.”
Ilona’s eyes slowly fluttered open, as if she was awakening from a very deep sleep.
“Are you OK?” Arsha said, unable to keep the worry from her voice.
Ilona nodded, releasing Arsha’s hands.
“What about you,” her father said, stepping closer to the circle. “Are you OK, love?”
“Yeah, I’m fine, it’s just.. I think I messed up. I talked to her but…”
He held up a hand to silence her.
“Tell me in a moment. You’re sure you’re OK?”
“So, when do we get to find out who this mystery girl is?” Milima said, pointedly.
“In time,” her father said. “Thank you all for your help, but I really should talk to Arsha alone now.”
Milima stood and gave her shoulder a squeeze. Then she held out a hand to Ilona. Ignoring it, the woman tried to stand, but her legs wouldn’t seem to take her weight. Milima caught her just in time, and gently lifted her upright. Abasi and Micah followed the women out, without a word spoken between them. The door closed and Arsha was alone with her father.
She realised that she was still sitting cross legged on the floor. Her legs felt numb.
With deliberate care, her father extinguished the smoking bowls with handfuls of sand. Then he stopped just in front of her and held out his hand. She took it, unsure of what his silence meant. Carefully he lead her out of the circle. Only when she had crossed the outer ring did he let go.
She looked up at him, not quite sure what to say as he leaned back against a nearby crate.
“You did well,” he said, at last.
“Thanks,” she said. It felt a little awkward, just standing there, so she hopped up onto a barrel, her heels making a knocking sound.
“What did you make of her?”
“I don’t know. She was angry and scared and… I don’t know. Confused? Like she didn’t really know what was happening. She said that people had been chasing her.”
She saw him frown, saw the concern in his eyes, but he said nothing.
“And there was… It was weird, it looked like she had something drawn on her forehead. It was mostly covered by her hair, but it was some kind of symbol. It might have been done with blood.”
“I don’t know if I should be worried or happy about that. It sounds like someone is trying to hide her. It certainly explains a lot.”
“Hide her? How?”
“Well, it could be a ward. A kind of small spell that conceals someone’s Fate, for a little while. I had been trying to trace her with a number of, uh, old tricks that I know. This is the first time we’ve had been able to make any kind of contact though.”
“What does that mean?”
He gave a heavy sigh, and looked at her sadly.
“It means I may need your help again before all of this is done. Whatever connection you have to this girl, it might be the only thing that can get through that ward.”
Arsha swallowed, and nodded.
“We have to help her. She’s all alone.”
“We will,” he said. “You did well, sweetheart. I’m proud of you.”
He slipped one arm around her shoulders and placed a gentle kiss against her forehead.
“Go rest, pet. You’ll be tired after the ritual.”
She was, desperately tired. The nervous tension of the last few days seemed to be crashing in on her like a tidal wave. Her legs had gone to jelly, and she wasn’t even sure she could walk back to her room.
Her father seemed to sense what she was feeling. In a single motion he scooped her up, and she pulled herself tightly to him as he carried her back to her room. She felt as if years had fallen away from her and she was a small child again, bundled up in her Daddy’s arms.
Rachael heard the way his footsteps smacked across the tar-paper roof as he ran to her side. She felt Justin’s hands around her shoulders, heard the trembling in his voice.
“Rachael, what happened? Are you OK? What happened?”
Angrily, she pushed him aside, jumping to her feet.
“Get away from me!”
“Rachael, what’s wrong?”
“Just get away,” she repeated, her voice raw.
He was on his feet again, eyes wide with concern. She turned away.
“It don’t matter. It wasn’t real.”
She started to walk away, not wanting to see his face any more. Unable to bear that look of pity.
“What? Rachael, what wasn’t real? What did you see?”
Anger flared inside her as she wheeled about to face him, eyes full of fury.
“Would you just stop? Stop acting like this is normal. Like it’s OK for me to be seeing things that aren’t here, like it’s normal for all of this to be happening. I don’t know what your deal is, playing along like all of this makes sense, but I know what I am.”
At last, she saw his sympathetic mask crack, if only a little. Saw the way his fists clenched at his sides, the way his lip curled into a sneer.
“What? What are you?” he shot back. “Why don’t you tell me?”
“You want me say it?” she shouted back, taking a step toward him. “I’m crazy. Messed up in the head. A total nutjob. You hear me? Drugs, doctors, the whole deal. You think this is new? I’ve known about this all my life, and you trying to act like it’s not all in my head is the opposite of helping.”
She expected him to get angry, shout back at her, lose what was left of his cool. She wanted to see that mask shatter. But in his eyes she saw only sadness. He reached out to rest a hand on her shoulder.
“Rachael, I don’t believe that for a minute.”
“Yeah, well maybe you’re crazy too,” she said, pushing his hand away.
“You actually think that? You think that all of this is just in our heads?”
As he reached for her again she took a step back, eyes narrowing.
“Just who the hell are you, anyway? You keep acting like you want to look out for me, but I don’t know nothing about you. Who are you really, Justin?”
She took another step back, her weight settling on the balls of her feet. Ready to fight, or to run. He didn’t come any closer. He just stood there and watched her with those sad eyes.
“I’m here to protect you, Rachael. That’s the truth. I was sent to keep you safe, by someone who cares about you very much,” he said.
“Right. Because there’s anyone out there that cares about me.”
“Your mother does.”
The words felt like a shard of ice stabbing into her gut. Eyes narrowed, she looked at him with a cold rage.
“That’s not funny,” she said.
“It’s the truth,” he said, with an unearthly calm.
Her laughter was a sick and bitter thing, rising up like bile in her throat.
“My mum’s dead, you asshole.”
“No, she’s not. The woman who sent me here, she’s your real mother, and she’s been searching for you for a long time,” he said. “Rachael, your whole life, you’ve been lied to. Whatever family you knew was just a… An illusion. A trick. You never belonged in this world. It was just a cage they put you in.”
“This world? What are you even talking about?”
“Everything. Everything you’ve ever known, this whole world, this whole universe is just a speck in the Dreaming. There are thousands of worlds out there, worlds where anything is possible. That’s where your mother is waiting for you. Far out into the Deep Wild, where your father imprisoned her after he stole you away. That’s why she sent me, to keep you safe, to bring you home.”
“Justin, what the hell is this?”
“It’s magic, Rachael,” he said, with a resigned sigh.
“That’s what this is. Magic and gods and monsters, and all the other things I didn’t want to talk to you about, because I knew you’d look at me just like you’re looking at me now.”
She could feel her breath growing short as she looked into his eyes and saw the conviction there, the unbending, unyielding force of his absolute belief.
“Jesus,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper, “you really are crazy. You actually believe all this. That I’m some kinda magic princess, and it’s all up to you to save me? Do you even know how insane this sounds?”
He took a step forwards, reaching out towards her.
“Of course I do. Rachael, I know this isn’t easy for you to believe, but you have to trust me,” he said.
Her eyes narrowed, as she studied his.
“No. I really don’t,” she said. She could feel her hands shaking as she turned and walked away.
“Rachael, stop,” he called out, but she ignored him. She expected him to come running after her, but the only thing she heard was a flutter of wings. Then something flashed in front of her face. A dark streak, blurred with motion. She thought it looked like a raven.
She glanced back for a second, but saw no sign of him. Then she looked up to see the bird wheel around in front of her. With a sudden turn it swooped down. She skidded to a halt as the bird spread its wings to hang, suspended, in the air before her. In her alarm she stumbled and fell backwards onto the ground, as the raven flew over her. Then, seeming to play out in one long and flowing movement, though it couldn’t have been more than a heartbeat, the bird disintegrated. Its body became a cloud of oily black smoke, bursting outwards in a liquid motion. The smoke moved like it was alive, roiling and shifting to take on a larger form, a body framed with cape-like wings. Then it condensed down, the wings becoming the tails of his long coat as Justin’s body formed from the smoke.
He fell with catlike grace to land on the balls of his feet, splayed fingers of one hand catching the ground. He was poised above her with a predatory look in his eyes.
Her heart thundered in her chest, and her breath caught in her throat. She was transfixed by his glare as her brain scrambled to comprehend what she had just seen.
She laughed. It seemed like the only sensible thing to do. It was so impossible, so ludicrous. Like the entire universe had decided to play a cruel joke. For a moment he seemed taken aback, unsure of how to react. It didn’t take long for her bitter laughter to turn to screaming, as she felt a wave of cold terror seize her. Hands clawed at him as she squirmed away. A foot lashed out and he reeled backwards. Halfway to her feet, she stumbled towards the edge of the rooftop. Laughing, sobbing, she gasped for air, feeling as if she was trying to breathe underwater. Hands fumbled in the depths of her bag, finally closing around the plastic pill bottle. Justin stood and crossed the roof to her in three long strides. Her fingers shook as she tried to prise the cap loose. Then he snatched the bottle from her hands.
“Did they tell you this would help?” he snarled, gesturing with the clear orange container. “That if you took the pills and closed your eyes, all the scary things would go away?”
Feebly, she tried to pull it from his grasp, but he turned and hurled it from the rooftop. Heart pounding, she rolled away from him, stumbling to her feet.
“What… What the hell are you?” she said, struggling to breathe. She could feel her pulse pounding, feel the world shaking, as if someone had turned up the volume on everything. The sound of the city, the wind, the car engines, it all seemed to thunder in her ears, a cacophony of noise.
Slowly, he turned to face her again. She saw his features soften, saw the anger fading from him, but all she could think of was the blood glistening bright red on the blade of his knife.
“I’m someone who cares about you. Shouldn’t that be enough? I’m asking you to trust me, Rachael. Haven’t I earned that?”
“Get away from me,” she said. She almost felt as if she was choking on her own words. “Just… Get away.”
She stumbled back a step.
“Rachael, wait,” he called out to her, a fading note of command in his voice. She stared at him, horrified. “I’m sorry that I scared you. I just needed to show you it was real. It’s all real. You’ve been telling yourself a lie, all this time.”
She saw the pleading look in his eyes, but she felt only disgust. She turned and ran, dropping down from the rooftop into the alleyway below. Just once she glanced across her shoulder to see him watching from above, but he did not follow. Down in the street she found the plastic bottle, lying in a puddle. The cap had shattered. The last few tablets were dissolving in the rainwater.
The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.