Arsha pressed her hands against the bulkhead and waited for the world to stop spinning. When she seemed to be standing on her own two feet again she opened her eyes and straightened up. Her stomach still felt strange, but she grudgingly decided that she’d be all right, for now.
Her father had warned her that crossing the Veil would be different, but the reality had been even more unpleasant than she had expected. Even her cycles weren’t quite as bad. It was a little over twelve hours since they had cleared the ways, and the dizzy spells had grown less frequent, but only slightly less intense.
Steadier, she braved the stairs up to the bridge. In spite of her queasiness, this was something she had to see. She came up to find her father and Abasi already there. Abasi was at the helm and her father was examining the lumen-displays over one of the consoles. Traceries of light played out on the glass windows, projecting information; velocity, distance, angle of motion. One sweeping line for the horizon.
Past the displays all she could see was a darkening sky and an endless spiral of heavy grey storm clouds below. Her heart sank a little as she saw that there wasn’t even a glimpse of the city.
Abasi turned and caught her expression.
“Storm rolled in about an hour before we did,” he said. “I’m keeping us over her, for now.”
“The storm’s not what worries me,” her father added.
Following his gaze, at first she couldn’t make out anything but the wall of grey cloud. Straining her eyes, she finally saw the sleek white ship nestled in the clouds. It lay on the far side of the storm’s eye, made tiny by the distance, though she guessed it was nearly a match for the Triskelion in size. It’s hull was brightly painted in designs of brilliant red and gold.
“They were also here when we arrived,” Abasi said, with a heavy sigh.
“Who are they?” she said.
“It’s the Jyoti. She’s registered to House Bhandari,” Abasi said.
Her father examined another display, his lips pressed into a thin line.
“They’re staying veil-warped?” he said, glancing past Abasi, towards the distant vessel.
“As tightly as they can, by the looks of it,” Abasi replied.
“What does that mean?” Arsha interjected. “Veil-warped?”
“We try to be, uh, discreet, when we’re this side of the Veil,” her father said, considering his words carefully.
“Because they don’t remember the Exile,” she prompted. Sometimes, he seemed to forget just how much of this he’d already taught her.
“Right. The Veil keeps them separate from the other worlds. But it does more than that… It keeps everything about the Exile locked away. The Hearth is like the calm eye in the centre of a storm. So when we travel here, through the Veil, we sort of bring a part of it with us. By keeping that Veil around our ship, we make it…” He faltered. “… Hard to find, I suppose.”
“They don’t see us?”
“No. They just don’t remember,” Abasi said.
“Oh,” she said, not sure that she really understood. “So… Why did those other guys come here? What does House Bhandari have to do with this?”
Abasi turned to look at her father, and for a moment neither of the men spoke.
“It’s a little complicated,” her father said. “I’ve worked with Manindra… With Lord Bhandari, in the past, and I know the man is obsessed with Ur artifacts. The Seeds in particular. If he’s learned about what’s going to happen here, that a Seed is awakening, you can be sure that he’ll try to get his hands on it.”
“But how would he know?” Arsha said. “You said maybe even the Guild doesn’t know yet.”
“Yes,” her father sighed. “I suspect Manindra is the cause of that. He has many allies within the Chamber of Foresight. It wouldn’t be easy to suppress a prediction of this scale, but for Manindra, I think it would be possible. He could certainly pull enough strings, if he wanted this badly enough. And I know that he does.”
“If you’re right, Rishi,” Abasi added, “then it means we’re alone out here. Just us and the Bhandaris. No Guild backup.”
“I know. I’m not planning to start a fight, Abasi. Trust me on that.”
“Fates, I wish I could,” Abasi said, shaking his head.
“If you know this Manindra guy… Lord Bhandari… Why can’t you talk to him? Tell him how dangerous this is?” Arsha said.
“Because Lord Bhandari doesn’t exactly think very kindly of me, sweetheart,” he said, smiling in a way that suggested there was something else he was holding back. “Besides, Manindra won’t be here on the Jyoti. He’ll have sent his sons to do his dirty work. Rakesh and Naveen, probably.”
“And just what do you plan to do about this, Rishi?” Abasi said, without looking up from the controls.
“Get down there and find the girl. Before they do,” her father replied.
“And do you have any idea how you’re going to find one girl in a city of millions?” Abasi said, still not looking up from the console he was studying.
“Some,” her father said. “Arsha, you’ve been practising with Ilona like I asked you to?”
“I’m… I’m getting the hang of it, I think. But, I still haven’t managed to find anything.”
“No, I wouldn’t expect so. A seeker only really works over a short distance. That’s why we’ll be taking the Zephyr down. Once we’re flying low over the city, you should be able to make a connection more easily.”
Abasi looked over at the two of them, incredulous.
“Rishi, you can’t be serious. You’re taking Arsha down there with you?”
“Out of necessity, yes,” her father replied. “I’d hoped to use some other method to find the girl, but she’s being warded. With Arsha’s connection, we should be able to track her down with a seeker, if we get close enough. It’s the best option we have, and I don’t like it any more than you do.”
“It’s OK Uncle Abasi,” Arsha added, giving the man a brave smile. “I wanted to help. Really.”
Abasi gave them both a strange look, as if there was something he was struggling to contain. With a forlorn shake of his head he turned away.
“Alright, I’ll start getting the Zephyr ready,” he said, heavily.
“Thank you.” Her father nodded. “Arsha, you should go find Ilona, get some more practice in. I’ll call you when it’s time to go.”
“OK,” she said, wondering if it was the lingering effects of the Veil that was making her feel nauseous, or something else entirely.
Rachael didn’t really remember him changing back. Just the sight of his face, an outstretched hand pulling her up from the cold ground. She remembered walking, his coat around her shoulders. Streets passed by in a haze, as she heard the rumbling of thunder overhead.
They came to an alleyway behind a burned out shell of a building. Another relic of the riots a summer past. She sank to the floor, huddled against the cold brickwork. Justin knelt beside her, his face heavy with concern. She felt his hands on her shoulders, saw his mouth moving, but she couldn’t make out the words. Her body seemed to contract in on itself, everything collapsing in toward some silent core where she could be safe and alone.
Rachael felt his arms around her, as he urged her to stand. His hand went to brush the hair out of her eyes, but she batted it away. His mouth kept on moving, making sounds that she could not understand. The legs of her jeans were soaked black with blood. She held up her fingers to inspect them, sticky and glistening red. She doubled over, felt the acid tang of vomit splash the back of her throat. For a moment everything swam.
She shivered in the cold, as Justin wiped a rag across her mouth. Footsteps blurred together. Boxes, bare floor, garbage piles and a metal bin that was blackened with smoke. A couch that had clearly been scrapped and salvaged many times over. She laid her head down and sleep took her.
Her dreams lead her through darkened streets, chased by something that she only glimpsed. Something wild and savage. A wolf, howling towards a moonless sky. A man with blood and foam around his lips. Sometimes she caught the flicker of a long coat. The streets kept leading her round in circles, and all the while the creature was closing. Finally she stumbled and fell. She looked up to see the creature charging at her, long hair wild and matted, lips dripping with blood. But it had Justin’s face.
When she woke there was a fire burning in the blackened oil drum. Her thoughts were foggy, her eyes dimmed with the faint traces of sleep. It took her a while to focus past the flickering light playing at the edges of the steel drum, to where Justin sat on an upturned milk-crate. His head was hung low, his whole body curved over, elbows resting on his knees. His shoulders rose and fell with each breath. The fire cracked and popped, the sound mingling with the downpour outside. The couch smelled damp and the air was smoky.
Her wrists hurt. As she rubbed at them, she saw that her hands were clean. She noticed a bucket of water on the floor, its contents stained dark.
She saw that Justin was watching her, his expression somewhere between pity and sorrow. She realised that he was looking at her cheek, where the man had clawed at her. Touching her fingers to the skin she could feel the ragged, stinging lines his nails had left.
“Don’t,” she whispered, her voice hoarse. “Don’t look like that.”
He turned his eyes away.
“I’m sorry,” he said. The words didn’t really seem to convey whatever he was trying to express.
“Don’t want to hear it. You ain’t my knight, or my bodyguard, or whatever. I never asked you to be looking after me.”
“I was supposed to be.”
“Right. On your quest to bring me home.”
“You still don’t believe any of this is real, do you?”
She stared at her hands, remembering the way the old man’s blood had glistened under the street lights.
“I believe it. I have to. Nothing else makes sense.”
“Did you kill him?” she said, still unsure of her own jumbled memories of the attack.
“Yes,” he said, his voice faint.
“Good,” she said.
Justin nodded, his eyes fixed on the embers of the fire.
“I’m coming with you,” she said, at last. “I mean none of this is gonna start making sense any other way, right? So, this place you’re supposed to take me to, wherever that is… I’m coming with you.”
“It wasn’t supposed to go like this,” he said.
“In my head… I imagined it would be different,” he looked up and met her eyes. “Sorry. That probably sounds really stupid.”
“A bit, yeah,” she said. He winced.
Silence stretched out between them, as she struggled to find something to say. Anything to take her thoughts away from the swirling storm inside her head. She could feel it all thundering away inside of her. The fear, the sickness, the screaming vertigo of the whole world collapsing underneath her. She could feel it all, even as she forced it back down, deep inside.
“Tell me about her,” she said. “The lady who sent you. My… My mother.”
“She’s… I don’t even know where to start.” He pushed a hand through his hair. “She’s gentle. And beautiful. But she can be scary, sometimes. Not in a way that makes you want to run, but more like… Like she could be dangerous, if she wanted to be. But you know that she’ll never turn it on you. That she’d never hurt someone she loves. You know she’ll protect you, with all that power. And she’s graceful, and delicate. She moves like water, or… Like leaves when they’re caught on the air. Like she’s always dancing.”
“This place, where she lives…”
“It’s somewhere called the Deep Wild. Past the Borderlands, so far out that no one has gone there in… In a really long time.”
Rachael scrunched up her forehead.
“It’s how they talk about it. The worlds they come from out there. Each one is part of this endless space called the Dreaming. They’re connected by these pathways that you can only see if you know how to look for them. Like, roads that aren’t on any map. Here, where we are now, it’s right at the centre of it all. It’s like a safe space. A world where none of this stuff can get in. They call it the Hearth. But the further out you go, the more the rules start changing. The Guild controls the lands around this world, what they call the Borderlands. Or at least they try to. But out in the Deep Wild… That’s where the Guild doesn’t go. No one goes there. No one except for people like her.”
“Because she’s not like us. She’s powerful, in a way that they can never understand.”
“Like, a… A sorceress or something?”
“Or something like that,” he nodded. “The part of the Wild where she lives, she created it herself. She didn’t have to find a world, she just imagined one and it came into existence.”
“You’re saying people can just create new worlds?”
“She can. I suppose that means maybe you could too.”
Rachael considered this for a moment. It seemed like too much to even think about.
“Can you tell me about it? The world she made?”
“It’s always autumn. But, just before the leaves fall, when the grass is wet from the rain and there’s that smell in the air, like the world is holding its breath. There are forests where you can walk for days, and there are wild horses…”
“Horses? Did you learn to ride?” she said.
“Yeah. And dance, and recite poetry and fight with a sword. All the things a knight should know.”
“Knights should know dancing and poetry?” She laughed. He shrugged, but she saw the faint hint of a smile.
“Well, that’s what I was told,” he said.
“Tell me more.”
“She has a castle. An actual castle. You can see it from any part of the land. It’s called the Bower Castle. It’s built right into the arms of a tree… But, I mean, a tree that’s taller than anything you’ve ever seen. Taller than any of the towers here in London. The arms spread out like an old oak, and the castle sits right there.”
“I’m going to live in a castle?”
“You’re going to live where-ever you want. Rachael, all of this… It’s just a tiny little bubble in the Dreaming. It’s just… Like a passing thought. You’re going to see whole worlds. Anything you want.”
“I think… I think I’d like that.”
She saw a flicker of a smile play around his lips.
“So what happens now?” she said.
The smile faded.
“That’s the tricky part,” he said.
He hesitated, drawing a slow breath.
“Because I don’t know how to get there.”
“It takes a lot of power, to reach her lands. To go out into the Deep Wild. Even the Guild don’t know how.”
“So what was the plan, genius?”
“She told me about something called a Seed. There are several of them, scattered across this world, hidden. They’re ancient, and very powerful. Something that her people created a long time ago. And there’s one right here in this city.”
“And this helps us get out of here?”
“That’s the idea. But first we have to find it. Even with all that she taught me, there’s no way that I could ever find it. It’s more than hidden, it’s… Buried… Under the skin of the world. It can only be found if it wants to be. But you can find it. You’re her daughter, and that means you have her power in you. It knows you. It was made for you.”
“So that’s it? I’m supposed to find some magic seed, and take us both out of here, because, what? Dumb luck? Did you at least bring me a flipping instruction manual or something?”
She jumped to her feet and stalked past him. He whirled to face her, leaping up from where he sat.
“Rachael, please. This was the only way. This thing… It belongs to you. It’ll call out to you. It has to.”
“Yeah, great plan you got there,” she said.
“Where are you going?” he called after her.
“Outside. Get some fresh air. Try to listen for this seed calling,” she snarled.
She stepped out into the narrow street behind the building and sat herself down against one side of the doorway. The sky above was thick with clouds, and the air felt heavy and damp, the pressure of the storm swelling invisibly around the whole city. It couldn’t be long now before it broke.
She couldn’t really say how long she’d been sat there when she heard the sound of footsteps. He sat down on the step beside her, pulling his coat around himself. She couldn’t help but notice how he left a space between them. She turned to glance back into the building behind them, walls blackened with scorch marks and smoke.
“I suppose we can’t stick around here for too long,” she said, knowing full well that she was avoiding his eyes. “Whoever dragged that couch in there and all that… They’ll be coming back soon, right?”
“They already did,” he said.
She gave him a sharp look.
“Told them to leave. That’s all. They didn’t argue.”
His expression was calm, sincere.
“That’s all?” she said, not quite sure that she believed him. He just nodded. The silence hung between them, like a prickling sensation on her skin.
“You know it’s funny,” she said. “I… I hid out in a place like this. Just after I left home. It was just after the riots. I was so scared. I just kept thinking it’d all start up again, and there’d be police, and people setting stuff on fire and all, and I’d just be there in the middle of it. But nothing happened. I stayed there for three days. Then the people what owned the shop came back, and I had to move off.”
Justin said nothing. She could tell he was watching her, quiet discomfort radiating from where he sat. She could feel him holding back whatever else it was that he wanted to say.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “Why’d you do all this? Why’d you want to find me, protect me… What makes you think I’m worth all this?”
There was a sadness in his eyes, as he reached out to squeeze her hand.
“You are worth it, Rachael. Trust me.”
She looked away, swallowing nervously.
“But even… Even if you think that now… You spent years training… And you came so far…”
“When you meet her, you’ll understand. Your mother, I mean. Rachael, she’s incredible. She saved me. Saved my life. Or saved me from it, I suppose.”
She turned to look at him, searching his eyes for some sign of his meaning. He seemed nervous.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s…” he faltered. She said nothing, gave him time to find the words.
“I got moved around a lot,” he said. “Lots of different families. Foster homes.”
“It’d be maybe six months, or a year, that I’d be in any one place, you know? And I tried to fit in, I really did. But it just never seemed to work out. After a while, I didn’t even bother unpacking my stuff. It’s like… It’s always good at first, you know? When you arrive, they’re always nice. They give you a good meal, and they hug you, and buy you presents, and tell you everything’s going to be better now. But it’s not, because sooner or later you see the look. The disappointment. Because you’re not what they wanted. You’re not right. And eventually they get tired of waiting, you know? Waiting for you to get better. To turn into the person they were wanting. And that’s when it starts falling apart. And you don’t know how to stop it, because even if you wanted to be the person they were looking for, it’s like… Like you’re staring at something on the other side of this big ravine. And you can see it, but you don’t know how to get there. So you just let it go… You know what’s coming, and you can’t do nothing to stop it, so you just wait. And then it starts all over.”
He looked up at her, and just for a moment she glimpsed the pain in his eyes.
“Does that… Does that make sense?” he said.
“No, it does,” she said, nodding. “Like, you keep trying to be different, but… It’s like gravity, isn’t it? It don’t matter how high you jump, cause you always fall down.”
“But you see, then she found me. At night, I started dreaming. Dreaming of her forest, her castle. And she told me that she’d been searching for someone like me… Someone who needed a place to belong. She told me about her daughter… About how you’d been stolen away from her. She told me that it was up to me to find you, to bring you home. That she would teach me all the things I needed to know. That no matter what happened, no matter how many families gave up on me, that I would always have a home in her castle. That she would always be there for me.”
He looked at her with a burning intensity.
“That’s why. Because she’s the one person who never gave up on me. She’s the only real family I’ve ever had. I’d do anything for her, Rachael. Anything for you. I’ve been preparing my whole life for this, to find you, to bring you safely home. I know everything about this seems crazy, but it’s what we have, and I know she wouldn’t have sent me out to find you if she didn’t believe it would work. She knows what you’re capable of, Rachael, more than anyone else possibly could. She believes in you. And so do I.”
Rachael turned away from him, unable to hold that earnest gaze any longer. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest, cold sweat prickling her skin. The word ‘mother’ seemed to echo through her thoughts, over and over.
“You don’t think she’ll be disappointed? In me? After all this time she spent… After everything she’s done…”
“It’s not like that, Rachael,” he said, reaching out to touch her shoulder. “You’re her daughter. It doesn’t matter what it takes, what it costs… She just wants you back. You’re the only thing that matters to her.”
She looked away again, letting her eyes roam the skyline. Eventually she settled on one building in particular, dominating all of the others. A strange thought occurred to her.
“Why do they call it the Dreaming, Justin? This place that’s outside our world?” she said.
“Because it’s where our dreams come from,” he replied. “These worlds, they’re like bubbles, but the bubbles are all a part of this endless place called the Dreaming. It’s… Everything. Anything. It’s like… Possibility. Pure possibility. That’s what we see when we dream. Glimpses of all those impossible worlds. Even the things she taught me to do… That’s what magic is really. Dreams, that you make real.”
“Could that be how this thing is calling to me? In my dreams?”
He nodded, his eyes nervous, but sharp.
“Then I think… I think maybe I know where it is,” she said. “This seed… I think I know where to find it.”
The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.