Rebecca Storey (Author)
Finch’s Song: Chapter 10

Vidar finds a familiar face in a new home. Tafari’s path as a Dragon Speaker is set before him.

Vidar is 29

Drakewood City was the largest and finest urban settlement in all of the Rustica Empire. Great red and gold buildings seemed to tower as high as the sky, while the streets swept majestically in loops and figure-eights around tall monuments and acres of parkland. Statues of the City’s founder, as all great cities had in Rustica, stood majestically in front of numerous museums, libraries and the cathedral. Amidst all the finery, a young man emerged from a house and headed in the direction of a green park area where the remains and sounds of a party were faintly straining on the wind.

Great changes had occurred in the last four years for Vidar. Finch had gone, Choral and her child were now unheard of, and he was settled into a routine in a Dragon City. Marianne too was gone – she had perished in a house fire a year ago in her village. The three losses had hardened Vidar to a state he had previously unknown and for a time he had been almost scared by the levels of his own grief and anger at what had happened.

Drakewood City never let him feel down for long though, and amidst all the frantic flurry and activity of everyday life, Vidar began to feel a gradual belonging and sense of security. He had come across the City six months ago in his wanderings and decided to lay low for a bit whilst learning the trade of the merchants. The Dragon Guardians were the best protection he could have had, and he was learning all the while to see a new side to the docile creatures whose brothers he had once slain.

He entered the parkland and crossed the bridge that led to wide open grassy play areas. He did not much like parties and frivolous merriment, but for once, he wanted to be out in the sunshine amongst company. Already, he could see bands of people spread out over the banks by the river, and a knot of celebrating adults and children gathered by a table under some trees. He recognised a few smiling faces and returned a nod here and there. There were people from other Cities, and they were welcomed with warmth from everyone they saw. Even now, Vidar did not understand the easy friendships that others could fall into so naturally. Amongst the crowd, he spotted a figure he recognised and whom could easily have raised his hackles at any other point: the tradesman, who had won Marianne from him some years previously.

He knew who Florian was of course; Niall had mentioned him briefly and both he and Florian had even met and spoken once at a traders’ meeting a few months ago while Vidar had been working undercover. There had been no sign of a little girl though, but now …

Florian turned as shrieks of laughter danced through the air. He called to a young child who was running barefoot through the grass. The girl swerved, screamed with merriment, and jumped into her father’s embrace. She accepted a piece of cake from him and then ran on, all sticky crumby lips and cheeks fattened by the treat. Vidar reeled for a second.

It couldn’t be. Marianne’s daughter? Here?

Vidar tried to ignore the little girl as she dashed, giggling, from one tree to the next, followed by a number of other tiny children. So like her mother – he remembered how Marianne had never been on her own; she had always had someone to talk and laugh with. He couldn’t help but stare though, as he tried to work out whose party this was. Was it her birthday? Did she and Florian live here? If that was the case, then certainly Drakewood City was no longer for him. He needed to move on straightaway. He thought of the one place he had always felt safe and happy, and where protection was always guaranteed. He must make plans to go back to Niall’s school at once and apply to be a recruiter …

‘Hello, Vidar.’

He turned, at once forgetting everything Niall Kobor had ever taught him, too entranced by the innocent charms of the party and his own wild thoughts. Choral stood before him, smiling wanly. It had been seven years since he had seen her. He had to blink three times to make sure she wasn’t an image he had conjured up.

‘It is a surprise seeing you here.’

‘I could say the same,’ he answered cautiously, wondering if she was going to start a scene. However, there was an expression in her eyes that suggested that she was not going to. She seemed exhausted inside. He wondered what she had been doing with herself the last few years.

‘What are you doing in Drakewood City? Do you live here?’

She shook her head. ‘No, I have been travelling. I have been for a while now.’

‘With your son? With …?’

‘It’s Tafari,’ she reminded him, a hint of the old smile back on her face. ‘It’s his birthday today, actually. We’re having a little celebration before I move on.’

She pointed Tafari out. A small boy by the trees on a grassy slope was surrounded by a group of children singing to him. The boy was grinning merrily, looking as if he could not believe he had some friends. Vidar had to force himself not to look shocked or tear his eyes away; with a pang, he recognised much of himself in that overjoyed expression.

‘There’s not much time for me to explain what’s been happening to me and Tafari, but I do need your help …’

‘Anything,’ he assured her.

‘Finch always said Tafari would be special. He was right, in a way he never got to know how. Those who are different are always going to attract attention, and Tafari will be in permanent danger of attracting the wrong sort …’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘My son can talk to dragons, Vidar. He has always been able to, ever since he was very young. I can’t explain to you how or why right now, but Tafari has the Gift.’

‘The Gift? You’re sure? But that is what …’ He stopped abruptly.

‘I know, it’s what Theodoric Oadir has,’ Choral murmured, and an odd shadow passed over her face. ‘And you know his aims. You were asked once to join him in slaying all the dragons in Rustica.’

Vidar could feel himself beginning to redden. Any moment now, she would bring up Finch’s death. But how could she know Oadir had the Gift? It was only really well known amongst the dracologists and among the slayers.

‘You think that Oadir may be interested in learning more about Tafari?’

‘I have no doubt of it. He is really dangerous, Vidar. Truly treacherous. I must ensure Tafari is kept well out of his reach.’

‘Choral, if you’re in any danger, we can hide you and your son here,’ he told her seriously.

‘It’s too late for me. Tafari must stay here, under the protection of the dragons. If I could ask, under your protection also.’

Vidar frowned. ‘Wait a moment. You’re leaving Drakewood City without him? For how long?’

They stopped talking abruptly as the little boy rushed to his mother and pulled on her hand. Vidar jolted in surprise to see how much he looked like Finch. There was a gap in his top row of teeth that tugged surprisingly for a second at Vidar’s heart.

‘Wait a moment, sweetheart. There’s that friend of yours who wants to play with you.’ She pointed at Marianne’s little girl who had wandered nearer.

Choral waited until Tafari had run off before she continued. ‘I really don’t know. There is no telling when I will be back for him, but I must leave today before time runs out. I wanted to stay this week for him, to see his seventh birthday. All I can tell you is that there is a force out there which Tafari will be much safer from in a Dragon City. You understand about fighting and wild dragons. I have to keep him safe from all that; even as a Dragon Speaker, Tafari will not understand. Not yet. And I want your word you will watch over him until I return.’

‘I …’

Please, Vidar. The dragons have agreed to do the looking after, but he needs human counsel too, from a trusted source. There is no one else to ask.’

Vidar knew he could say no. This was a woman who had berated, blamed and hated him for years, and now she was requesting favours of him simply because she knew nobody else. But what possible reason could he give? He wasn’t a full-time babysitter, he didn’t enjoy children, and she had a cheek approaching him out of the blue after years of silence? She would hear none of those.

‘Melchior will take care of him. I must ask that you will be there too, if he should need you.’

‘He needs you. Where are you going and why?’

‘I can’t say, Vidar, please don’t ask me. In case a trail follows me away from Drakewood City. I just need to know Tafari will be protected. You know as well as I do that having the Gift is not going to make life easy for him. But I have tried to make it as painless as I can, providing him with some dragons to live with.’ What she said next almost took his breath away. ‘For Finch,’ she said eagerly. ‘Do it for him, Vidar. He would have wanted his son to be looked out for by his best friend if I couldn’t. I take back what I said. You can be his guardian again; you can look out for him properly now.’

She had trapped him on that point and he could not think of a reply. He was frankly staggered.

‘You’ll do it?’ Choral pressed.

Vidar hesitated, and then nodded.

‘Thank you,’ she whispered. ‘Thank you. You have no idea what this means.’

Don’t thank me, Vidar wanted to say. Take your son and leave with him now. Take him away so I don’t have to look at him every day and be reminded of the best friend I lost. Take him away so I don’t watch him being friends with Marianne’s daughter and see her every day.

When it came down to it, Choral had no idea what leaving Tafari in Drakewood City was going to mean for any of them.

‘One more thing I must ask. Don’t tell him who you are. Or who you were. Revealing that you are a slayer of the creatures he can Speak with will only confuse him. And I don’t want him hating you because of it. I don’t want that.’

Her eyes shimmered with an indescribable emotion. Was this her attempt at a tentative reconciliation?

‘Choral …’

‘Goodbye, Vidar.’

His childhood friend gave him a grateful glance and hurried to where Tafari was playing with Eirian in the shade of the trees. I could have protected you, he nearly said to her back. I could have been the one to save you and your son, even if I couldn’t save Finch. He turned away for a few minutes to let them have a farewell, and when he searched her out again, Choral had gone. He blinked in surprise. It seemed she might be able to teach him a trick or two about disappearing. Tafari too was looking puzzled, staring around him at the crowds. Only the Chief Guardian of the City, Melchior, did not seem surprised. The dragon caught Vidar’s eye and swiftly took to the air, landing immediately at Tafari’s side. The young boy smiled in delight, reassured to see a familiar friendly face.

The sun soon disappeared behind the clouds and spots of rain began hitting the outdoor furniture. Melchior had to leave Tafari’s side to confer with the Guardians, and Florian collected Eirian to take her home. Finch and Choral’s boy began wandering about by himself, searching in earnest. After two minutes, he spotted Vidar and remembered him as someone his mother knew. The child ventured to his side and Vidar, quite unintentionally, took a few steps back.

Vidar could clearly see plump tears forming in Tafari’s eyes. He felt a sudden surge of indignation that Choral could do this disappearing act to her little son, on his birthday too. What was the matter with the woman?

Tafari looked up at him, dark eyes filled with confusion and worry, and his bottom lip beginning to tremble.

‘Where’s my mummy?’

                                    

That’s all, folks! Thank you so, so much for reading these past ten weeks - I don’t know where the time has gone.

This final chapter now sets the stage for the events of THE BALANCE OF FOUR, (available on Amazon,) first in the ‘Dragon Speaker’ trilogy, where Tafari and Vidar’s stories continue …

Finch’s Song: Chapter 9

Choral realises the true cost of Tafari’s strange talent. Vidar’s course is set as his nemesis moves in. 

Choral is 23

           

'Is this how you imagined your life?'

Choral asked that question to herself in the mirror every morning, and always received a resounding but silent no in her ears. It was not the dream she had seen for herself the day Finch had proposed to her or the evening she had discovered she was expecting. Both days had been saturated with insurmountable joy and what she was living now was a far cry from the golden vision of security and happiness.

Oh, she was content all right. Tafari made her days as bright and joyful as she could possibly have hoped for. It was just she wasn’t sure whether she was happy. Nobody could have imagined when they were nineteen that just four years later she would be in this position, without a partner, living alone with a small child in an anonymous village on the shores of the Rustica Empire with barely enough money to scrape together for food for the week. Choral carried out quiet cleaning tasks for the village while Tafari went to various houses to play with friends. It was a small mundane life, but they both kept it reasonably well. They spent all her free time just the two of them, going for walks, talking and playing together, and had developed a strong bond that allowed for nobody else.

The three year-old pottered around to pick toys and other objects up and stack them together at neat angles: he had such an enquiring mind, Choral thought fondly. And he was so good – she had heard tales of horror of sleepless nights and screaming tantrums. Tafari seemed to have skipped those phases entirely. He was such a happy toddler that she felt guilty she had subjected him to those last stressful few months of her pregnancy, but relieved that it had not seemed to affect him.

And yet …

When they went out together, he was a cheeky little thing, always laughing and smiling, very affectionate, and wanting to know more about simply everything. Alarmingly, this included things beyond her own knowledge. He seemed to have another sense; something that she was unable to pick up. It had become unexplainable and yet more prominent in the most recent six months of his life.

No. He was her boy, and he was perfect. She looked at him with love, and Tafari glanced up and grinned back at her. He ambled across, grabbed her hand and tugged her over to see his tower close up in all its glory. ‘Look,’ he announced proudly, ‘look at what I’ve done!’

‘That’s lovely, Tafari,’ she said, giving him a kiss on his smooth chubby cheek. ‘See if you can make them all line up.’

He got to work with gusto.

Choral watched her son hard at work in his serious play, and considered. Her father had mentioned that with Theo there had been signs – very early and prominent ones. But what were they exactly? She had never thought to enquire further. Now she began to notice the way little Tafari seemed more engaged than usual with the world, as if he were receiving signals no-one else could.

Tafari glanced up sharply as a faint whirring sound came from overhead and made straight for the window. Choral followed him without realising. Tafari hauled himself up onto the window ledge and squealed with excitement. ‘Mummy, it’s dragons! Hello!’ he called, waving enthusiastically. ‘Hello, dragons. They talked to me, they said hello!’

Stop,’ Choral whispered.

‘Hello dragons!’ Tafari shouted at the top of his voice, almost roaring at them as they soared far above the house, and waving frantically at them as though they were long-lost friends.

‘Stop it, Tafari …’

‘I can’t stop it, Mummy, they are talking to me. My name’s Tafari!’ he yelled through the glass, smacking it with his palm. ‘Don’t go, dragons, stay and talk some more …!’

‘No!’ Choral shouted. She dived at Tafari, almost knocking him over as she scooped him up and away from the window. Tafari pouted, wondering whether it was safe to cry.

‘Sorry, sweetheart,’ she soothed as tears shivered on his eyelashes. She sat down on the ledge with him and pulled him onto her lap. ‘I didn’t mean to startle you. What … what were those dragons saying to you, then?’

‘They asked me my name.’ Tafari sniffed and gulped, using his little hands to wipe his eyes. ‘They were talking about looking for food.’

‘Were they wild dragons? Or City ones?’ She could see Tafari did not understand. ‘Never mind. Can you finish your line of toys?’

‘Don’t want to.’ Plainly affronted, he slid off her lap and kicked the toys over.

Choral told herself to be patient as she left him to sulk in the corner. She could feel reproachful brown eyes following her as she began to clear the table for tea, and she began to think very fast.

Could she arrange for Tafari to see a healer? It might be nothing; he could easily have been pretending those dragons had spoken to him. He was almost four years old and it was extremely unlikely he knew how to interact with any kind of dragon. Yet if it turned out he really could talk to them, she did not want it widely known in the village. Tales of her brother and his deeds were spreading and the last thing she wanted was for this news to reach him. The Gift, as far as Theo was concerned, was his alone and no-one else must have a connection to it. In the four years since the brother and sister had had a proper conversation, terrible things had been associated with him. She could state as a fact he had murdered more than once, both people and dragons, and his powers made him almost untouchable.

For one strange wistful moment, Choral thought of Vidar and remembered what he had offered. Maybe he had been right. Maybe she did need someone to talk to. But who? Her adoptive parents had emigrated to another shore beyond Rustica’s influence, and since Finch’s death she had cut herself off from nearly everyone else.

Tafari had stolen over while her back was turned to retrieve some of his toys, when his head came up and he started listening intently.

‘What is it?’ she asked urgently.

Tafari ignored her.

‘Tafari, come here and talk to Mummy …’

‘I can’t hear them when you are talking,’ he told her with a brush of irritation.

‘Who? Who can’t you hear?’

Them! The dragons outside!’

Choral flew to the window but she could not see anything beyond the trees on the bank.

‘You can’t see them,’ Tafari explained patiently. ‘You have to listen for them up in the sky.’ He gave a sudden gasp. ‘Mummy, they’re coming here! They said! They want to find me.’

Speechless, Choral stared at her little son. Trying not to alarm him, she walked calmly to the door and opened it slightly so that a beam of sunlight shot through and lit up Tafari’s face.

Choral bit back a scream as she saw what was just in front of her. Tafari knew straightaway something was wrong, and he jammed his thumb firmly in his mouth, retreating into his corner. Choral’s appalled eyes fixed themselves upon her brother, striding straight towards the house. Two dragons hovered in the light behind him, their eyes a blood-red shade, their minds gone, utterly in Theo’s power and control – the dragons which had sensed Tafari and brought his uncle straight to his presence. 

                                                 *

The door slammed shut with a resounding shudder. Oadir did not break his stride and he felt perfectly calm as he reached the threshold and rapped on the wood.

‘Let me in, Choralette. I want to talk to you.’

There was shouting from inside the house. ‘No, no, no! Go away! Go away! I don’t want to see you!’

‘Is he in there with you? Is he?’

‘Leave me ALONE!’ A thump sounded against the door.

‘I know you’re both there, Choralette. I won’t be going anywhere. I want to meet my nephew.’

There was silence.

‘What did you name him?’

Silence.

Oadir began to fidget. ‘We can do this all day if you want. I’ll be waiting here. Quite unusually, I have only one demand on my time later.’

Choral was crying – she never stopped crying, Oadir thought in irritation. ‘Why can’t you just leave? Go and do some of your hateful activities like slaying dragons or using your powers to possess them – it’s what you enjoy, isn’t it?

‘You are twenty-three years old,’ Oadir answered scornfully. ‘You know very little of life, and especially of mine! I don’t enjoy killing. It is a necessity. It is what our parents would want.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous! Mother and Father would never …’

‘Not them. Our real parents. And you know it.’

Choral flinched behind the door and he seemed to sense it.  

‘Oh, I see. So it is absolutely fine when others you know kill dragons, but you don’t believe it is right for your own brother to do so, and for more noble reasons!’

‘It’s not noble,’ Choral sobbed. ‘It’s not right. Slaying all the dragons in Rustica won’t bring them back.’

‘I have been given this Gift, this opportunity to put things right. It could not be more apt. Further down the line, I have far greater plans. With my powers, I could control all, even all the elements could be under my command. Perhaps your son could help me. Help him to help me in my task, Choralette.’

At that, Choral began to scream. She screamed and screamed relentlessly for help, and the cries of a distressed young child mingled with hers, until villagers began running to the source of the sounds. Oadir was able to steal away under the heat of the confusion.

                                                        *

It was continually drummed into them that one must never go off on their own when hunting down dragons, but it soothed Vidar to do so, day after day. Sparrow and Hawk had begun avoiding him after their disastrous attempt to pair him with Choral, always leaving to go off together, and he knew that they preferred each other’s company to his.

‘I do not care,’ Vidar told himself. ‘I do not care.’

He had the sense that Niall Kobor did not know what to do with him anymore. He was no longer a student or an associate member, but a qualified killer. Everyone else in his unit had left and very few had stayed on to join the national slaying programme. Vidar continued to hunt alone in the confines of the unit’s territories without really understanding why.

It was one such conversation that had cropped up time and again. Vidar was very prone to digging up the past, much as he could see Niall hating it when he did so.

‘You are not being kind to yourself, Vidar,’ Niall said gently. ‘I’m not sure you know how. You have had a hard time and …’

‘I don’t need you to be my counsellor, Niall,’ said Vidar testily. He was never outright rude to his old trainer, but he could become sharp-tongued and impatient. ‘I am well aware of what has happened.’

‘Now think about what could be. You know I would be very happy for you to stay in the slayers’ programme; indeed, I should be sorely sorry to lose you. But it makes no sense for you to remain within these confines now you are qualified. If you choose to stay here and ask for any guidance, I shall give it to you without question.’

Vidar gave a tired smile. It was comforting to know that his old mentor at least wanted him around.

‘I spoke briefly at the traders’ conference a week ago,’ Niall said abruptly; it sounded as if he had been waiting for a correct time to release this information. ‘Marianne’s husband Florian was there; he and his wife have a baby. A little girl. She is one now.’

Vidar closed his eyes briefly. ‘I had hoped that … I had scarcely dared believe that she might … change her mind about marrying –’

‘I said that to help you understand there is no going back for you on that score.’

‘If that is so,’ Vidar snapped heatedly, ‘then never mention her again! I don’t want to hear her name.’

 ‘Be resolute,’ continued Niall patiently as though Vidar had not spoken. ‘Forget about what you do not have, and concentrate on the gifts you do own. I have a proposition. Return to the unit next year as a recruiter. Help me select the best candidates; you would recognise them better than I could now. Everyone knows you are the best slayer this unit has ever seen. Then you can teach the new trainees under my guidance …’

No. Nobody would want to learn anything from me.’

‘This self-pitying does not become you,’ said Niall sharply. ‘I did not offer you this opportunity to have it thrown back at me in that manner. I want to see you as you were: a focused young man with a job on his mind. Either you stay here or you choose to go. I want to hear your choice now or I shall make it for you.’

Only Niall could have got through to him like this. Vidar found himself lost for words suddenly.

‘Well?’

‘I … I … can’t stay, Niall. I want to go and hunt properly now.’

‘On the condition –’

‘I don’t want conditions. I am free of your unit. I’m twenty-five years old and I think I can find my own way in the world.’

‘I want to hear from you frequently, Vidar. For the peace of mind of an old friend. We shall continue to confer over the business of the wild dragons and curbing tactics; it won’t be all about chasing you up.’ Niall’s eyes shone with a glint of something akin to affection.

‘How often?’ Vidar said, not entirely reluctantly.

‘That lies with you. Good luck, Vidar. For whatever may be ahead of you.’

The two of them shook hands and parted. Vidar looked over his shoulder as his old mentor and trainer disappeared from view in the sunlight, melting away into the sharp shadows. He roamed aimlessly for a few hours at the eastern border in sight of Iceflame City and could see a glimmer of the Sea on the horizon.

Later that day, he strode through rocky terrain. Suddenly feeling curiously free of Niall and the unit, he had an unusual spring in his step and he scanned eagerly for any signs of the wild dragons. It was strangely quiet and he had a feeling in his bones that there was a presence in the air, one that he could not name. Alert for the sounds of any whirring growls of dragons, he picked his way cautiously through the waist-high boulders and sprang up on one for a better scan around him.

There was a growl. And a hiss, with a muttered breathless whisper. Vidar spun around on his knees as it hit him that the growl was not made by a dragon. As his eyes took in the view behind him, his eyes slowly adjusted to three men making their way up the pass behind him. Vidar hesitated, not liking the look of them. He slid off the boulder, fell smoothly like a cat, and stood up, watching their approach uncertainly. They made no attempt to be secretive. Watching in bewilderment, he simply saw them approach him, taking out their swords. In a flash, his hand whipped to his belt to retrieve his own sword.

‘Kestrel?’ one man murmured in his ear.

‘Who wants to know?’ Vidar said roughly. How had the man known his code name?

There was no time to wonder any further. Fists shot out, punched him in the stomach and throat, and brought him to his knees. Vidar choked and scrabbled wildly, retching in the dust.

‘In, in, in!’ barked the man who had spoken.

Helpless, Vidar felt himself being lifted and shoved off the path. What an insultingly smooth operation, he thought angrily. What a buffoon he was. He felt the air grow colder and his sight clouding as the group entered an opening in the rock-face, and he was once more kicked to the ground. He sprawled, undignified, in front of the figure who had emerged out of nowhere at the back of the cave.

‘Hello again, Vidar. We must stop meeting like this.’

‘Who … are you?’ Vidar tried to focus his eyes as he lifted his head.

‘Oh, I think you will have heard of me. I hear my name is reaching all four corners of Rustica now.’

Vidar’s eyes rolled back as he fought for breath; one of the attacker’s feet was pressed into the back of his neck. At last he focused. The man looking down as him seemed mildly amused, his arms folded with the ghost of a smile flitting at the corners of his mouth.

The man who had confronted him at his and Finch’s ceremony.

‘Oadir? … Theodoric Oadir?

‘The one and only,’ Oadir smiled in relish. ‘I apologise for the rude welcome, I really do. My boys get somewhat caught up in their duty towards me – as you might have known yourself once, if only you had not passed up that chance! You and I have business that is left unfinished.’

‘I’m going to be sick,’ Vidar ground out, the words spat between his teeth, one weak syllable at a time.

‘No, you’re not.’ Oadir’s voice was gentle. ‘I want to know why you killed my dragon, Vidar. Be quick about it. The swords are thirsty for your blood.’

‘I kill many dragons.’ Vidar could hardly breathe.

‘And I commend you for it; you are doing half my job for me. But this one … this was my one. It obeyed my orders. I didn’t have to possess it to make it do what I want.’

‘I don’t know what you mean! I don’t know which dragon.’

‘Oh yes, you do, Vidar. Think back. Think on the dragon which was your most significant killing. The situation which cost you and Kobor dearly.’

‘I d-don’t …’ Vidar suddenly saw back three years as the memory engulfed him like the sea. He saw Finch laughing, the wind blowing his hair back and his blue eyes dancing in mischief. He watched as the dragon struck his best friend and sent him spinning to his death.

‘No,’ he moaned, feeling the old sorrow resurface and crash inside, pressing on his lungs.

The blood was everywhere. So much blood

No …’

‘You see? That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now if you remember, I required you for my services and you turned me down. Do you see now what you will receive and will continue to receive if you attempt to deny me?’

‘But it was a wild dragon! I went on that particular course to kill it.’

‘Don’t lie. It belonged to me.’ Oadir signalled for the men to pull Vidar back to his feet. ‘You defied me, and you murdered it that day, and now I am going to murder you for it.’

It was on the tip of Vidar’s tongue to agree and go without giving any trouble. Now he knew the reasons behind Finch’s death: it had been no accident, and he was to blame for Oadir’s revenge attack. But his instincts came back to him, as did all of Niall’s lessons, and the impulse to survive roared within. He ducked as he saw a knife swing out of mid-air, and twisted around, seeing the looks of surprise on his ambushers’ faces as he did so. A gap in the circle revealed itself and he made a false lunge in the opposite direction. His attackers mimicked the dive but Vidar swerved at the last second, feeling wings on his feet as he shot from one side of the circle to the other. He easily slipped through the gap, hands flailing uselessly behind as they failed to seize the target. Hearing Oadir’s howl of rage, Vidar fled from the cave and swung himself immediately out of sight onto a hidden ledge. 

‘FOLLOW HIM! FOLLOW HIM! YOU IMBECILES!’

An army of feet thundered below him as Vidar lay flat on the ledge above the cave’s opening, staring straight into the sun’s rays and thinking of nothing. His fingers crept to his belt where his sword usually showed – but it had been snatched from him and left in the cave, and he did not dare venture back down. He glanced to his left, expecting at any moment to see Oadir’s head rear over the ledge, his grin heralding death.

Theodoric Oadir? This was the man who spawned legends and talked to dragons? He looked nothing special. Vidar again strained to remember where he had heard the name before, but the memories were weak; they were rapidly seeping away like raindrops draining into marshland, leaving no trace.

Vidar’s mouth was dry. Oadir had killed Finch. He had forced Choral into a life of desolation and left her with no choice but to raise a fatherless child. Could he be beaten? It would be virtually impossible: he had the Gift, he controlled dragons and was forcing an unheard-of regime of control over Rustica. Who could possibly accept such a challenge? A new fear, one he had never before experienced, was threatening to crush him. For the first time, he truly understood Niall’s words: what it was to be prey, how the hunter and hunted were connected in all things.

As if Oadir had heard Vidar’s thoughts, his voice immediately boomed through the valley, magnified, shattering against the rocks like the sea.

‘You may think you have escaped me. But I will find you. I will hunt you down and slaughter you for what you have done. Be on the watch every night, Vidar, for I will never stop hunting you. This is your fate for the rest of your life.’

                                              

 

Finch’s Song: Chapter 8

A horrific event has shattering ramifications.

Vidar is 22

Being free of the school and entered into the slaying programme granted one certain pleasurable privileges. No longer required to stay within marked territories, free from assessments and examinations, and with the possession of a licence to ‘responsibly lessen’ the impact of wild dragons in Rustica, Finch and Vidar became top of their game. They were not in competition, but rather shared the responsibility fairly and as equals. While Finch was happy to plan, track and identify routes and breeding grounds, Vidar was in his prime killing any dragon that might get in their way. Niall declared frequently he never had such a pair of slayers before. He had even assigned Vidar and Hagar new names, so that the four friends were now in a small coded cohort.

There was more to think about than just their jobs. Six months before, Finch and Choral had announced that they were expecting their first child.

‘You’ll be our child’s guardian, won’t you, Vidar?’ Finch pressed eagerly. Choral had looked a little worried, but then her face cleared and she smiled.

‘Yes of course he will. We’d love you to be.’

Vidar had been thrilled: it was an exciting time. More than anything, he wanted to be involved with this new family that was slowly taking shape. It was even enough to put Marianne at the back of his mind for a few weeks whilst plans for the new baby caught fire between the three of them. However, it was not very long before both he and Finch were once again back to discussing the women in their lives – a little more peacefully this time.

‘You have it so perfect,’ Vidar complained humorously one day as the two friends set off on a trek overlooking some rather dangerous ravines. ‘A wife and a child on the way, and what do I have? Nothing and no-one.’

‘You’ll find someone, Vidar!’ Finch said encouragingly as they worked their way down a chasm with a sloping ledge, carefully negotiating the footholds into the canyon.

‘I don’t want anyone else. I only want to be with Marianne. I can’t help it, Finch. I’ve felt this way about her for years.’

Finch stopped and slowly turned in his tracks. ‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’

‘I wish I could make you see. I really do like her,’ Vidar confessed. ‘More than I’ve ever liked anyone. Except you, of course,’ he added hastily. ‘And all I want from you is your blessing.’

‘Ooooh Vidar, I didn’t know you cared,’ simpered Finch, placing two fists over his heart.

‘Shut it, Finchy,’ Vidar grinned.

‘I see, Kestrel,’ Finch said with a grin back. ‘Well, I can see I’m not going to convince you otherwise. I wish you and her all the best.’

Vidar thought he had misheard. After all the years of Finch openly declaring his dislike of Marianne; his repeated fears that she would let Vidar down? ‘You do?

‘What else can I say as your best friend? Good luck with it. Tell her as soon as you can.’

Vidar slung his arm around Finch’s shoulder, feeling lighter than he had done in months. ‘Thanks for saying so. I really …’

‘All right, Vidar, don’t go overboard.’ Finch playfully tussled with him. ‘But if you think I’m coming to the wedding …’

‘I came to yours!’ Vidar blurted out indignantly, before realising too late that Finch was teasing.

Finch doubled up with laughter. ‘Ah, so it is serious!’

Vidar gave him a shove and the two scuffled humorously for a few moments.  Finch broke away, leaping onto a ledge in the side of the crags and flinging his arms out as though flying. He whooped long and loud in sheer exuberance, with that easy enjoyment of life that Vidar had always secretly envied in him.

‘D’you ever think about where we might be in the future?’ Finch asked, gazing out over the magnificent terrain. ‘Maybe I could be the head of a unit like Niall, and in a few years time, Choral and I can have more children, and they can be in a unit to track dragons down … We could move to a Dragon City and really understand what it is to live alongside the creatures … What do you think of me in a councillor position?’

Vidar kept quiet as Finch breathlessly babbled on. He was unable to tell his best friend that he saw nothing in his own future except Marianne.

‘What’s wrong with just one child?’ he asked when Finch had at last subsided.

‘Nothing’s wrong with it at all. But you never know, do you? We might want another.’ A strange flickering shadow slid across Finch’s face, like the sun vanishing behind clouds.

‘What’s the matter?’

‘Nothing, no, I was just thinking … This baby of mine is going to be special, Vidar, I can feel it.’

‘Well, naturally, it’s your son or daughter …’

‘No, more than that … my child is going to be somebody. Someone truly amazing, someone gifted. Choral and I know it for sure.’

‘I’ve not heard you talk about Choral for a bit. You and her … you are all right, aren’t you?’

‘Of course!’ Finch was never fiercer than when defending his wife. ‘Everything could not be more perfect.’ His voice was carried away by the fervent breeze. ‘We’re stronger than ever.’

Vidar wondered what that was supposed to mean. ‘You’re going to be just fine. You and she will be brilliant parents.’

‘You’re not wrong there, Vidar! With Choral’s looks and my intelligence, nothing can go wrong for our child!’

Finch stood laughing, his dark hair whipping around his head as the wind roared. Vidar was to carry that image of him away for years. He looked at his best friend with a leap of love as Finch soared up and punched the air. And both heard the war-scream of a dragon as it plunged to earth, sweeping Finch away with the side of its wings, sending him spinning over in mid-air into the chasm, and slammed him into the rock face.

                                           *

 

No …

‘Vidar, give him to me.’

No … Do something … please …

‘It’s all right, Vidar, just hand him over now. I’ll take care of everything.’

Vidar did not even realise he had been shouting ‘No!’ out loud over and over again, and it was not simply a dizzying whine inside his head.

‘Vidar, where’s the dragon? Focus! Where’s the dragon?’ Niall bellowed.

‘I think I killed it.’ Vidar’s frantic yells dwindled to a whisper. ‘I don’t remember. There was blood everywhere. So much blood.’

                                             *

 

The world had suddenly turned soulless. There was nothing that could be done. Long days of emptiness stretched into months. Time and time again, Vidar caught himself thinking that he needed to tell his best friend something that had happened, or that he ought to be meeting Finch of an evening to lay plans for their next day’s hunting. There was a constant emptiness yawning inside him and at the same time, a solid lump lodged inside his chest and throat that was never properly shifted, that no amount of crying everything out could help with.

Choral’s fury and sense of loss had been devastating to experience, and he avoided her for weeks after her first passionate outburst. What kind of a slayer must he be in her eyes that he only been able to eliminate the dragon after it had killed her husband?

Marianne was also keeping suspiciously quiet. He longed to see her now that one close friend could never be seen again, but her travels with her unit were now keeping her away for a month at a time. When at last he heard of her arrival back, he felt something akin to an aching joy and left his village at twilight to find her. It had just begun raining softly. When they parted after only fifteen minutes, the rain had become heavier, and Vidar remembered that stormy night for the rest of his life as one of the worst of his existence.

                                                  *

She was getting married, Vidar told himself as he lurched out of the public house hours later. She was getting married. He hadn’t even known she was seeing someone! Finch and Marianne lost to him in the space of two months. How?

He did not see Niall Kobor as he stumbled in a daze around the street and he almost crashed into him.

Niall halted just in time before the collision and he studied Vidar pityingly. There was always something going on in that boy’s head.

‘Vidar?’ Niall caught hold of him, and tried not to recoil as the scent of alcohol fumes hit him full in the face. ‘What’s the matter? Is it Finch?’

Vidar seemed to stare straight through him, his eyes lost. ‘No,’ the poor kid whispered. ‘It’s ten times worse.’

                                                 *

Vidar could hear both Marianne and Choral all that long week, screaming that they hated him. Choral’s motives were for Finch, he could understand that. But there were obviously reasons that Marianne had that he could not see. He wanted to escape from his own head, as their crying swelled in his ears, becoming noisier by the day until he could not bear it. How had everything gone wrong so quickly?

He missed Marianne desperately over the next few months, and kept wondering what she was doing. He even missed Choral. He had to keep reminding themselves the two of them hadn’t died; they were still living, unlike Finch.

‘Wouldn’t do that if I were you, Kes.’

Vidar dragged bleary eyes upwards, somehow finding himself sitting in the public house yet again. Hagar and Mal were standing over him.

‘What?’ he said blankly.

‘Be all alone like this all the time. Not with all those pitchers.’

Vidar had not realised he had been swigging repeatedly for a while. That was how he passed his days now; the hours were ruled by how much he could forget by the end of them.

‘At least offer us some.’ Hawk winked as he and Sparrow sat across from him

Vidar gave a very reluctant smile and pushed over two drinking goblets. He did not mind these two; they had been good friends when they had all been studying together years before.

‘How are you keeping, Vidar?’ Sparrow asked, with a touch of concern.

Vidar did not bother replying. 

‘I know your problem,’ Hawk observed sagely. ‘You’re in love with Marianne from the conservation unit. But she’s not an option, Kes. She’s already married. Let her go, and you find someone else.’

Vidar looked down at the table, tracing a fingernail along the cracks in the wood. ‘There isn’t anyone else. There never has been.’

‘We can think of someone.’

‘Oh?’ Vidar felt too tired to scoff. ‘Who?’

‘What about Choral?’ Sparrow asked.

Vidar spluttered into his goblet. ‘My dead best friend’s wife?

‘Why not?’ Hawk took over again. ‘Look, it might not be such a bad idea. When the baby’s born, she’s going to need help and a bit of looking after. The child’s going to need a father, and if you want to be with someone … well, all I’m saying is, you could do worse. And she’s a nice girl. She’s reasonable, and she likes you.’

‘When I want useless advice, Hawk, I’ll ask for it,’ Vidar snapped, draining his goblet. ‘Has it completely escaped your notice that Choral lost her husband two months ago, and she blames me? What makes you think she will come anywhere near me now? Anyway, she isn’t mine. She belongs to Finch and she always will.’

‘You’re that youngster’s guardian, aren’t you? Didn’t Finch say so? Choral hasn’t any excuse for you not to see him or her.’

Vidar thought it over. Hope rose in him suddenly at the thought of acceptance from somebody – even if that somebody was a little child. He thought of the uplifting possibility of having a ready-made family, a spark of light in the dark embers of his mind. He and Choral could be company for each other and remain friends with Finch’s child bringing them together. They wouldn’t be living together as lovers; it was inappropriate, as the two of them were still mourning for the loved ones they had lost, but it was a start.

Why not indeed? When Choral had forgiven him, might she not agree to the idea?

                                                *

‘What about a letter?’ Sparrow suggested hopelessly as the three of them had stood staring at Choral’s door for three minutes without doing or saying anything. Vidar did not reply. His mind was racing and his palms were clammy.

‘You can’t put this sort of thing in a letter,’ Hawk objected contemptuously. ‘Most likely once she sees Vidar’s name, she’ll chuck it straight onto the fire without reading it.’

‘Thanks pal,’ Vidar said sarcastically.

Hawk hammered hard on the door. ‘May as well get this over with.’

‘Hagar, did anyone ever tell you that you’re the most …’ Vidar cut off suddenly as the door swung open and a dark interior was revealed, and Vidar found himself staring into a pair of haunted brown eyes.

Choral did not look happy to see any of her late husband’s friends. ‘What do you want?’

‘Hello, Choral,’ Sparrow said gently. Hawk pushed him to the side and stepped to the front of the group. Choral ignored the other two and she stared straight at Vidar, not speaking. Her eyes were crimson and swollen with weeks of crying, and Vidar’s heart squeezed at the pain in her face. Twenty years old, and she must feel as if her life was over.

‘Vidar here wants to talk with you. About you, I should say, and your little one,’ Hawk announced.

What?’ It was remarkable how rapidly she could turn from a grieving girl into a snarling tigress as her hands moved protectively over her stomach. ‘What has he to do with anything of mine?’

‘Bye then, Vidar,’ Hawk said quickly, and he drove Sparrow back in the direction of the public house. Both Vidar and Choral distinctly saw him mouth ‘Good luck.’

There was a terrible pause while Vidar wished he could sink straight into a hole in the ground – once he had pushed Hawk in first.

‘Can I come in?’

Choral huffed out a weary sigh. ‘Come in if you must.’

Meekly, he followed her inside Finch’s house. The place was a complete mess and he wondered if he should offer to tidy. It seemed she had no-one to talk to, and certainly nobody appeared to be looking after her. Hawk might be right.

‘What?’ Choral repeated discouragingly.

‘I was thinking that you might want some help,’ he blurted straight out. ‘Now that the baby’s nearly here …’

‘I don’t want help. Certainly not from you.’

‘But I want to,’ he suggested tentatively. ‘I could …’

‘I don’t want you coming near us,’ she said in a brittle voice. ‘Not ever.’

What?’ Vidar blurted in dismay. ‘Choral, wait –’

‘I mean it.’ There were tears strangling her voice. ‘After what you’ve done, I don’t want you near my child. I don’t want you being his or her guardian.’

‘But Finch – Finch said …’

I’m saying that you can’t. You won’t be able to see the baby. I will be moving out of this place as soon as it is here.’

‘You can’t travel around with a new-born,’ protested Vidar. ‘Where will you go? What will you do for money?’

‘That isn’t up to you. I can’t stay in this place where – where it happened. He’s here all the time. Watching me.’

‘Choral, listen.’ Vidar had decided the time had come to speak plainly. ‘You need someone with you. Stay here and I will take care of everything. I’ll look after you and the child, until you are back on your feet or for however long you wish. I can support you both …’

‘And just how do you plan for that? Are you suggesting you live here? Become one of the main influences in my child’s life? You, who deprived my baby of a father? You want to pretend to be Finch, suddenly? Get out, Vidar!’

Vidar did not know which question to answer first. ‘I … didn’t mean …’

‘Get out!’ she screamed. ‘Don’t dare to presume you could ever take his place! Get out, get out!

Vidar stumbled blindly to the door, the flickering flames of the new life he had fleetingly glimpsed shattered amongst a blackened hearth. He heard items flung after him and crashing to the floor as they missed their aim. She could not throw properly, but she had clearly been practising as the room was strewn with items. On the threshold, he heard a different cry of pain. Turning back, he saw Choral bent over, struggling for breath as the first spasms of labour seized her.

Finch had always cheerfully self-proclaimed himself useless in a crisis, but Vidar wished for nothing more than for him to be there as head of operations now. Having clearly been eavesdropping under the windowsill, both Hagar and Sparrow dashed in. Vidar felt a peculiar shot of fury that they came so quickly, perhaps under the assumption that he had been physically hurting her. Sparrow took one look at the near-hysterical Choral and promptly turned tail from the room, returning minutes later with his wife who gently helped her back to her feet. Vidar backed fruitlessly into a corner at the sight of Choral’s panic at what was happening to her, and her fright froze him where he stood.

Had he only known it, that sight of her shaking under the other woman’s arm was the last he was to see of her for many years. Choral was led from the house and straight into the healers’ centre. He was never to see the new-born. He only glimpsed several figures emerging a day later, one with a bundle in her arms.

After what had seemed like an age of sadness, grief and anger for both him and Choral, that one brief look at her face showed Vidar he had been wrong ever to think he could simply enter into her life just like that. She had closed off and all her attention was centred upon her baby. There was a light in her face that had come back, coloured her cheeks, and sparkled her eyes. Choral was smiling.  

                                        

                                       image

FINCH’S SONG: Chapter 7

An unwelcome guest makes his presence felt on a joyful day. Could this be the end of the road for Finch and Choral? 

Finch and Vidar are 21

A scorching, sweltering summer’s day greeted the trainees on their morning of their graduation from the intermediate core training into the advanced specialty year. Such a momentous occasion of course demanded that all of Finch’s family turn up in their finery – along with his new wife. Finch and Choral locked eyes all the way through the ceremony, with hopeless adulating smiles that drooped their jaws.

‘Look, it’s Vidar!’ Finch’s mother exclaimed with what seemed genuine pleasure, surging through the crowd to greet her son’s friend. Feeling the gaping lack of his own mother, or indeed anyone he knew at his special day, Vidar allowed himself to be warmly hugged and kissed, and for Finch’s father to shake his hand.

‘How you’ve changed, son,’ Finch’s father said heartily. Vidar looked around for Finch automatically – but no, it was him who was being addressed. ‘I still remember you and our boy playing at pirates together when you were youngsters.’ He sighed in fond memory. ‘Those were the days! None of this studying lark!’

‘No, sir,’ Vidar answered politely, thinking he could see very well where Finch got his tendencies from.

‘And now he’s married,’ Finch’s mother added tearfully. Vidar cast an anxious eye round for Finch as his parents looked set to go through all of Finch’s twenty-one years with a golden nostalgic yearning. ‘And the two of you qualified to slay dragons! It’s a momentous achievement. Where does this lead you now?’

‘Well, we’ve done some intermediate training since we finished our core years, and now we’re ready to start hunting dragons alone. Not on our own,’ he added hastily, as both Finch’s parents cast looks of fleeting terror at one another. ‘Even professional slayers don’t ever do that. We’re assigned hunting partners for every expedition.’

‘And will you stay here?’

Vidar nodded. ‘Finch and I are now on the national slaying programme. We’ll be working with governors’ guidelines from each City to work out which breeds need to be lessened and where.’

‘Well! That’s … that’s wonderful,’ Finch’s mother offered weakly, looking as if she thought it was anything but wonderful. ‘Do you know what darling Choral’s plans are while Finch has his job here?’

Vidar knew very well that Finch and Choral had moved in together as fast as possible into a house within a small dwelling near to Iceflame City. It appeared they had neglected to let their parents know. ‘Er … not exactly.’

‘Well, we’ll let you go for now, dear. I expect your mother’s somewhere near, is she? I must have a word.’

Vidar was saved from further mortification by the arrival of Finch and Choral who hurled themselves into the vicinity like enthusiastic overgrown puppies, much to the delight of Finch’s parents. He slipped away thankfully, noticing that Choral’s mother and father were now on the scene and all the in-laws greeted one another with a keenness that they seemed to excel in, and came naturally to those in large families. Watching them all for a moment, he caught a glimpse out of the corner of his eye of a shadow floating quickly out of sight. He quickened his pace and dodged round a few make-shift tents where drinks and cake were being served, somehow missing where the figure had gone.

He had not been imagining things. There had been a cloaked man on the edge of all the proceedings, and he had definitely had his eyes trained on Choral. Vidar felt a surge of indignant protectiveness towards her – she was his best friend’s wife after all – and it was his duty as Finch’s friend to warn off anyone else. And Finch had been right: Choral was not all that bad once he had got to know her better just after the wedding. They shared a good story and a laugh together while Finch was elsewhere, and she had turned out to be kinder and wittier than he had expected. So the thought of anyone else chasing after her made him feel suddenly indignant.

And Marianne? a little unwanted voice piped up in his head. 

Well, of course!  The very thought of it made his blood boil. The question was, what was he going to do about it?

Could the two of them …? Would they …?

There you are!’ Finch’s voice broke into his dreaming thoughts; and Vidar felt like picking up one of the gardener’s tools from the shed at the back of the unit and walloping Finch over the head with it. ‘Where’ve you been? I had to tell Mother that you’d seen some family friends; she doesn’t know your mother isn’t here. You’re going to have to spin her some story, Vidar, I can’t put her off much longer!’ He stopped and peered at Vidar’s face. ‘You’ve gone all flushed. What’s the matter?’

‘I … uh …’

‘Vidar. Were you thinking about her again?’ Finch said sternly.

Vidar did not reply. He glanced at Finch and down at the ground.

Finch groaned. ‘You have your head in the wrong place. You could have your pick of anyone …’

Vidar reddened. ‘No I couldn’t –’

‘… and you’re interested in that Marianne! Why? In case you haven’t noticed, you’re not exactly the best suited to her. She wants to save the dragons – and you don’t! See how far that will get you if you ask her to come out with you of an evening and you two start discussing your interests.’

In that moment, Vidar was glad he had not, after all, told Finch about Marianne’s behaviour towards him around her dracologist friends.

All the same, he could not help thinking of her. And she could be kind when she wanted, and humorous, and she plainly enjoyed having him around when they were alone. Best of all, she was so stunningly beautiful that he felt he could always forgive her everything and anything.

Why shouldn’t he ask her? What had he got to lose?

Vidar trailed behind Finch to be welcomed by his family once again. Choral’s adoptive parents were introduced, and such a merry time was had, with food and drink on endless supply, that Finch’s mother completely forgot to enquire any further about missing family members. Somewhat ironically, Finch’s little brother was nowhere to be seen. It had grown somehow into the happiest of days, and seeing everyone so joyful had made Vidar’s spirits lighten. Choral caught him beaming across the group’s huddle, and she gave him an unexpected sweet smile in return.

While all the goodbyes were being said at the closure of the day, and Niall was sweeping round greeting all the parents and being his usual effortlessly charming self, Vidar again seemed to sense a pair of eyes boring into all their backs. Impatiently, he swung around, but nobody was in sight. Taking a determined breath, he felt for his sword which was permanently attached to his belt, and set off yet again round the back of the tents to chase the intruder of this happy scene. 

To his great astonishment, the watcher was there waiting for him. It was a young man, with shoulder-length dark hair and shrewd eyes that looked like pools of blackness. He briefly raised a hand in greeting.

‘Who are you and what do you want?’ Vidar asked bluntly.

‘Manners?’ asked the other man with a fleeting smile playing on his lips.

Vidar shrugged. ‘I don’t have any to give you. Why are you spying on that family?’

‘I was watching you, not them.’

‘Me? Who are you?’

‘A friend.’

Vidar crossed his arms. ‘I choose my own friends.’

‘You are Vidar, aren’t you?’ the stranger checked. ‘Vidar the slayer just entered into the national slaying programme? Niall Kobor’s student?’

Vidar neither confirmed nor denied it. ‘You were watching Choral. I saw you earlier. What do you want with her?’

‘Nothing – not any more. She knows me well enough not to come and see me, which is a shame. So she’s married now? A nice little project for her, I suppose.’

‘How do you know her?’

‘We were friends a long time ago,’ the man shrugged. ‘She now appears to have cut me out of her life.’

‘I can’t feel too sorry,’ Vidar said scathingly. ‘She’s with Finch now. Sorry to disappoint you.’

‘Finch? His name’s Finch, is it?’ The young man actually smirked. ‘Well, she could have done worse for herself. But enough! I expect you’re wondering why I wanted to meet with you. I have a proposition for you.’

Vidar waited, bored.

‘When you tire of the slaying programme, I have the prospect of a job for you – a career. Dragons always need to be slain. There is an associate of mine who has a vision: a grand, glorious vision of there being no wild dragons left in Rustica. Those who are conditioned to slay dragons are also conditioned to grow to hate them. It is inevitable.’

Vidar thought of Marianne, of how she would take this news if she were the one listening to this instead of him, and his cheeks grew hot. ‘That’s nonsense. That’s preposterous. You couldn’t do it.’

‘I thought so too, at the start,’ the man agreed genially. ‘Think of the thousands of hours! The resources! The locations! But there has been a great deal of study work on this very theme. The conservationists and the slayers, though they don’t know it, have contributed many useful threads and ideas on how it could be done. We are talking trained slayers in their hundreds, curbed nests, a fifty-mile radius between one nest and another, weakening their food sources, making it easier for them to die.’ 

‘Why would anyone want to?’

‘Why does anyone want anything? Think on it, Vidar. My associate’s name, the one with the grand plan, his name is Lord Oadir. You may wish to meet him.’ And Vidar could have sworn the stranger winked.

More troublingly, the name seemed to ring a faint call from childhood. Vidar battled to remember, but the memory stubbornly refused to resurface.

‘You could be useful. News of your dragon-slaying has spread all over Rustica. Lord Oadir had been extremely impressed by your skill and he believes you can be of a great help to him.’

Vidar felt a flash of temper. ‘Well, you can go and tell Lord Oadir that he’s wasting his time with me. Tell him that I will not abandon my duties to Niall Kobor in order to go to his side. I don’t want to hear from him again.’

The man raised an eyebrow. ‘Forgive me, my friend, but you are making a serious mistake in trying to cross his Lordship –’

‘I am not your friend. I don’t want to hear from you or him again.’

‘This will not be the last you hear of this. He can be extremely persistent.’

‘So can I,’ said Vidar grimly.

*

 A week passed before he could see Marianne again. Once more, she was off on one of her long trips around Rustica’s wilder regions to examine and monitor various studies and submit reports on the breeding grounds. Vidar tried not to mind too much, but he did use the time to do a little research. He looked up the name Oadir in the unit library, but could find no mention of a lord, or anything to do with a scheme for killing all of Rustica’s dragons.

‘Niall?’ he asked, sticking his head around his supervisor’s study door, ‘have you ever heard of anyone called Lord Oadir?’

Lord Oadir?’ Niall looked up from his desk and frowned. ‘I … no, I haven’t. There is one such individual with that surname whom I am trying to trace. Very interested in dragons, it would seem. How did you hear of him?

Because someone mentioned him. Someone who wants me to join him. Someone at the ceremony. No, he could hardly tell Niall that. ‘I came across the name in a book somewhere,’ he invented wildly. ‘I wondered what else you might tell me.’

Niall got up from his stack of papers, invited Vidar in, closed the door and looked hard at him.

‘Are you talking about Theodoric Oadir?’ Niall did not even wait for Vidar to reply. ‘Well then, what I am about to tell you, Vidar, you must say to no-one else. No-one, is that understood? I am telling you this because I trust you.’

And he proceeded to tell his once-time student a long, dark drawn-out tale, one of mystery and intrigue, control and power, and death and grief; one that Vidar could hardly understand and that he could scarcely believe.

 He was still thinking about their conversation three days later as he was finally, finally, able to meet Marianne. The two saw one another across a clearing and Vidar’s heart rose in gladness. When they embraced in greeting, Vidar held on to her a little longer than usual. She had brought two horses along with her for them to go riding together, and she was superb in her handling of them. While they rode, Marianne chattered blissfully away about her excursions while Vidar simply wanted to listen to the beautiful silence of the day, not being able to stop thinking about the dark conversation he had had with Niall.

‘What?’ Marianne asked finally, seeing his distant expression. Then she smiled mischievously. ‘Did you miss me, Vidar?’

Always. Vidar shook himself, startled. ‘Marianne, I wanted to ask you something. What do you know of the Gift?’

Marianne looked briefly shocked. ‘The … Gift? Why?’ She reined in her horse to listen and then slid down, looking up at Vidar and frowning.

Vidar felt uneasy with them being on different levels, so he copied her and disembarked from his own horse. ‘Someone told me about it. Someone at the unit.’

‘Why …?’

‘There are certain … rumours going around. One man appears to have it, after everyone believes it to have died out. His name is Oadir, and he wants to use his powers …’

‘Powers?’

‘He has the ability to talk to dragons, but not only that …’ – Vidar remembered, far too late, that Niall had sworn him to secrecy – ‘he’s able to use wizardry. The thing is … this Oadir … he wants to kill and control and possess all dragons. I didn’t realise it at the time, but … I was asked to join him and work alongside him. I was asked at my ceremony.’ He waited to hear any form of commiseration that she had not attended, any acknowledgement, any excuse. Anything, really. 

‘Oh, Vidar!’ she said in dismay, and there was a sudden flash of fright in her eyes. ‘You didn’t say yes?’

‘Of course not!’ Vidar was annoyed that she doubted him. ‘This Oadir person is clearly mad. The Gift is such a rare phenomenon that you’d think he would take care to treat it with caution and all the dragons with respect.’

Marianne was silent for a while. The pair found an open grove and sat down amongst the beeches to talk some more.

‘I think I have heard of him,’ she continued slowly. ‘His name is quite well known across the different units. Wasn’t he the boy who lost his parents and sister to dragons?’

‘That’s him. With that kind of background, and the Gift at his disposal, he’s going to be a danger. It isn’t only the wild dragons he’s after. He will want to use his Gift to control and kill every last one, right down to the City Dragons.’

Marianne looked aghast.

‘Don’t worry,’ he assured her, proud that he could be the hero in this instance. This was the kind of thing that Finch was good at. On an impulse, he reached out and wrapped his fingers around hers. ‘I’ll do everything in my power to stop him in his tracks.’

Marianne’s face crinkled into a wide grin. She threw her arms round Vidar and gave him a kiss on the cheek. ‘That’s for the dragons.’

‘Th-thanks,’ he gulped.

Marianne laughed. ‘I do love you sometimes. You’re so funny.’

He watched her sitting right next to him on the bank, twirling her hair in her fingers and humming under her breath, and his heart beat just a little faster.

He was about to speak again when he heard Finch calling his name, and suddenly he was before the two of them, staring suspiciously at Marianne. She glanced coldly back and got to her feet. Without a goodbye, she made her way down the stream and disappeared from sight.

There was a long silence between the two friends.

‘You’re a fool, Vidar,’ Finch said bluntly.

‘You don’t know her.’ Vidar found himself breathing heavily with rage.

‘And thank Tuathal for that. She’s an enemy, Vidar. If ever there was proof of different sides, this is it. She’ll drop you and be done with it.’

For a dizzying second, Finch had become Vidar’s father. Vidar found he wanted to hit him and at the same time, he was frightened of any hidden truths Finch might be speaking. He recoiled. ‘What makes you think Choral is any better?’

Vidar had no idea what had made him say it, let alone what he meant, and he wanted to retract it immediately.

Finch’s eyes turned to slits. ‘What?’

‘Choral might very easily get tired of it all.’

‘I asked her to marry me, didn’t I?’ Finch shouted. ‘And she said yes.’

‘You asked her to marry you,’ Vidar went on relentlessly and recklessly, ‘because you know she might get tired. And she can’t back out and leave once she’s found herself stuck with you. She got married at eighteen, and hasn’t any idea what the next sixty years will look like. I suppose you still don’t have any idea that there are others sniffing around her too?’

Finch let out a roar and charged. Vidar ducked, swerved away and ran through the darkening woods, following Marianne.

*

There had to be better people than Vidar to have as a best friend! Finch fumed all the way home and was annoyed still further to find Choral was not waiting for him. Where was she?

He listened out for her over an hour as he sketched some routes of where he planned to go on his next hunting expedition. Becoming increasingly hungry and there being no sign of his wife, he placed a pot over the fire. Still enraged at Vidar, he brooded for a while near the flames, feeling the scorching heat over his face. He ate as soon as the stew was cooked, thinking of a few more choice words he should have thrown at him about Marianne when he had had the chance. Because that was always how he and Vidar fought, wasn’t it? By vilifying a third party that the other one of them loved.

Finch turned his head as he heard Choral’s voice in the street outside. Gladdened, he rose and crossed the room to open the door. The cool night air blasted in and for a moment he could not see her against the stream of lamplight seeping into his eyes.

In the centre of the street were two people. Choral and a young man were squaring up to one another and it was clearly the middle of a fight. Choral was in tears and shouting incoherently. Finch caught the words ‘dangerous,’ ‘dragons’ and ‘Theo.’ The young man appeared angry, gesturing in frustration and he turned away. Finch left the doorframe and began to walk over to them, about to intervene against whoever was upsetting her, but Choral ran after the man and plucked at his back, pleading with him. She wrapped his arms around his neck and cuddled into him. Finch watched in silent disbelief. The young man seized her hands and plunged them back down to her sides. Then he turned tail and was gone, leaving Choral weeping quietly under the lamplight.

Finch staggered against the side of a house and retched. What had happened to her, to them? The world was spinning crazily and he had to grab onto the window ledge to stop himself sinking to his knees.

‘Finch?’ A single whisper brought him back to earth. Just a few paces away stood a woman of his own age with auburn hair and coffee-coloured eyes. She had emerged from her house, the one he was weakly leaning against; he supposed she must have come to investigate the shouting. He recognised her vaguely as a spectator to some of his unit’s debates.

‘You’ve had a fall-out, haven’t you? It is her loss, Finch. She has never appreciated all that you have given her.’

Finch tried to tell the woman not to talk about his wife like that, and that it was not him with whom Choral had argued, but his throat was stuck. He looked over his shoulder. Choral had slammed into their house, having not seen him. To his horror, he felt the first heat of tears rising into his eyes.

I can keep you company if you’d like,’ she offered suavely, and her silky-smooth hand trailed softly over his face, pushing back a strand of his hair. ‘If you need someone to take your mind off things. I’ve always been keen on you. Choral is just a child. She will never see what is in front of her.’

Finch had always loved Choral for her innocence, her sweet smile and her adoration whenever she looked at him. Every time she gazed at him, it was as if she could see the whole world in his face. Might she be starting to lose that? Might Vidar be right? She married me, he thought bitterly, and she was so young. It cannot last. It cannot possibly last. See how she had already betrayed their marriage with this ‘Theo’. 

Two could play that game. A betrayal was nothing really, without a betrayer and a betrayed. As if in a dream, he stood upright and followed the woman across the threshold and inside her house.

                                              image

Finch’s Song: Chapter 6.

The parallels of Vidar and Finch’s lives are shown in painful contrast. Choral makes a surprising effort, while Marianne’s behaviour stuns Vidar.

Finch and Vidar are 20 

The fourth year drew the students in once more. When exams were taken half-way through the year, and results were given out, the students were released from the compulsory minimum training requirements for trainee slayers. Whilst some of the students chose to leave to pursue other vocations involving dracology, fencing, equestrian studies, or indeed other creatures within the Rustica Empire, Finch and Vidar did not. Vidar was too entranced by the life of a dragon slayer and what it could bring him. Finch had a little less interest in this, but he stayed on because Vidar did.

Friendships had strained slightly since Choral’s discovery of Marianne, and Vidar knew that Finch suffered divided loyalties. He felt little remorse however; Marianne was his friend, not Finch’s, and he was secretly pleased that she was the one thing it was impossible to share.

Choral had threatened to go straight to Niall Kobor over the matter when the four stood looking blankly at one another on the moorland.

‘Why?’ Finch asked her mildly. ‘What would it achieve?’

Vidar had never seen her shoot such a furious look at Finch. He suspected the threat had been an empty one, designed to win favour with Finch over him.

Now, almost a year later, relations had thawed. Choral lost interest quickly and showed no further curiosity towards Vidar’s activities at the unit. She was present at the school more than ever: she had left home and was working as a young governess so that she could be nearer to Finch. Vidar felt secretly and wickedly sorry for any children who were forced into her care. Her duties meant that she was free for one evening in the week and one day and night at the weekend, and she spent every waking hour of them with Finch.

In contrast, Marianne was spending more time away with her own unit, burdened with extra responsibilities, planning, and designing a conservation park with her associates. More often than not, and on an alarming regular basis, Vidar was kept away for more than a week at a time before she was free to go horse-riding and exploring. He found the situation, especially when comparing it with Finch’s idyllic one, profoundly frustrating.

However, relationships had improved between Finch and Vidar. This year, the two were paired up to research and track prime nesting locations. This was something Finch had learned to enjoy. He felt the urges of the hunter take over him as the two spent evening after evening sketching maps, outlining routes, detailing where dangerous nesting breeds might lie in wait, and coached each other on the lists of equipment they needed. For the first time, Finch began to seriously apply himself, but it only barely kept him on the right side of Niall Kobor, who in the last few months had breathed heavily down the necks of those choosing to slack in a year that no longer consisted of compulsory training. To his surprise, he found that he wanted to learn.

Vidar was delighted that Finch was suddenly showing an aptitude for the unit. It lured him away from Choral and helped him to enjoy what Vidar had been excelling in for far longer.

Do you enjoy killing the dragons, Vidar? he recalled Marianne asking shortly after their first meeting. Do you enjoy killing? He could not remember what he had replied.

He was thinking of this conversation with its forgotten end early one morning, on a day when Marianne would finally be back and they would meet after their studies were finished for the day. The birds had been making a racket for three hours before the sun was up. Vidar lay staring at the walls as shadows eventually shifted over the sill of the window. When he could make out the shape of the chest of drawers and the bedside stand, he rolled out of bed, splashed water on himself and pulled on yesterday’s clothes. Today was the day he and Finch would turn their two weeks’ worth of theoretical planning into practical rewards. Excitement pumped through his stomach as he visualised the light-grey granite-like shells of the dragon eggs somewhere in their nests high on Rustica’s wild moors, and watched himself slowly crushing them one by one with an insatiable, unexplainable hunger.

He scooped up his bag and one of his proudest possessions that he had saved up to buy for himself on his twentieth birthday – a professional slayer’s sword, as suave and slick as any Niall owned. It was against the rules to take anything on hunts other than school property, but he was determined that such a victory today would be won by his own prized belonging. Securing the sword to his belt, he left the room and knocked lightly on the neighbouring door. When no answer came, he stuck his head around.

‘Finch! It’s time.’

No response from the huddled shape in the bed. Then, the sound of a light gasp.

‘Finch?’ Vidar said more uncertainly. ‘It’s our tracking assessment day.’

There was a shuffling as covers were shifted. A shape rose in the semi-darkness. Finch snored on as the image of Choral, bleary-eyed, guilty and fearful, stared over at Vidar. Reflecting in the others’ eyes was a matching shocked expression.

Neither of them spoke but there was a fierce message in Choral’s face that Vidar later wished he had thrown back at her:

Don’t ever tell.

 

Finch was still blissfully unaware of what had occurred when the two at last set off for their assignment. Nevertheless, it was still Choral this and Choral that all the way, over five miles of wild moorland, not focusing on their route, joyfully recounting all their best memories together and gloating over anticipated moments to come – up until the point that Vidar thought he might just tell Finch what he had seen in order to make him stop.

‘And I’ve got the best surprise for her later,’ he ended breathlessly after what seemed like hours of spouted nonsense.

Vidar had heard quite enough about Finch’s ‘surprises’ and was heartily sick of the subject.

‘Which is why I was hoping,’ Finch continued in a wheedling manner, ‘that you could cover for me this afternoon. I’m bored with tracking. Who cares about nest eggs? We should have learned how to kill fully-grown dragons by now, not wasting our time looking for nests. Would you fill in my chart for me while I go back and find Choral?’

Vidar said nothing, his back to Finch as he knelt over some claw scratches in the earth. He felt a slight ringing in his ears and himself beginning to shake slightly with rage. It wasn’t fair. Finch knew how much he had been waiting with excitement for this trip and their first excursion alone together in weeks. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Finch dangled the piece of paper near him.

‘Please, Vidar?’

‘All right,’ Vidar snapped, throwing out his right arm to snatch at Finch’s rough drawing. Finch was not ready for it. His fingers held on for a second too long, and the scroll tore down the middle.

‘Thanks a lot,’ Finch huffed. ‘I don’t have time to do it again now.’

‘Neither do I, Finch. Go off and see Choral if you want to, but don’t expect me to back you up when Niall comes to see how we’re doing.’

‘That’s uncalled for.’

‘So are you! You know how much I have been looking forward to today, and you want to go off and spend it with her …’

‘It’s schoolwork, Vidar. It’s not the be-all-and-end-all of our lives. Relax! I’ll fix this scroll. You look for your eggs and we’ll meet up after dinner and find our cave again.’

‘Choral too?’

‘Of course. I wished you liked her more, Vidar, she’s good fun.’

Vidar privately thought Choral was a misery and a whiner, but to say so would mean certain death at the hands of an enraged and loyal Finch.

‘I’ll see you soon.’ Finch gave him a sudden friendly punch on the shoulder. ‘Have a good time. And I’ll make sure Choral knows she has to include you in things too. You never know, we might have a surprise to share with you later on.’

Finch ran happily back the way they had come, while Vidar rolled his eyes and sighed, kicking at some loose stones. He supposed he should be glad of time free of distraction. Examining the chart that he and Finch had plotted over the last two weeks, he tried to scale it down to the area he was in, but it was hopeless. He frowned. Where had Finch brought him? Hadn’t he been concentrating at all?

He decided to keep walking and see if he could scout and see anything he recognised. After another ten minutes of wandering aimlessly, he gave up and decided to retreat. Angry and disappointed, he calculated he had lost a good few hours of his assessment time and would have to extend once he arrived back at a place he knew near the unit. There would be no time to meet Finch and Choral now before seeing Marianne later, but maybe that would be no bad thing.

Stomping up a hilly part of the terrain, he heard shrieks and laughter from behind him. He turned his head, inwardly cursing – who had, without authorisation, entered into the reserved assessment area? Niall would hear about this straight away. He caught a glimpse of golden hair and his heart suddenly lightened.

He rushed eagerly down the slope, delighted at seeing his friend in so unexpected a place. ‘Marianne!’

Marianne looked round and then up at him as her five companions began sniggering, and she did not seem too pleased.

‘Are we still on for tonight? I have found some breeds of dragon that you might be interested in seeing. We can view them from the trees.’

Vidar’s grin faded as the open stares of her friends drilled into him. His gaze moved to Marianne, who scrutinised the purple heather some way off. There was colour rising in her cheeks.

‘Vidar, I didn’t know you would be here,’ she said eventually.

‘I didn’t know you would be either,’ he told her in pleasure.

‘Niall Kobor is looking for you,’ an older girl mocked. ‘I expect a dozen dragons need to be killed before sunrise. Don’t disappoint him now, will you?’

Vidar stared around at the unforgiving faces, lost for words.

‘Are … are you coming, Marianne?’ he said weakly at last.

Marianne’s eyes darted uncomfortably around. ‘I can’t really talk now. I will see you soon. All right?’

Vidar suddenly saw. So it was fine for the two of them to see each other outside the study units – but she was clearly embarrassed by his presence in front of her dracologist friends. He shrugged, trying not to let everyone see how stung he was. ‘Don’t put yourself out.’

As he slunk away under a blaze of humiliation, he heard her friends begin to question her. ‘Who’s he? … Why are you friends with him? … Don’t go and talk to him, Annie, you wouldn’t like him …He’s trampled right over our study ground, he’s not allowed to …’ Marianne did not say a single word in his defence, and he felt sick.

Wounded, he fled to the one who would console him, who would help him in berating Marianne for her selfishness, for her selective choosing of when he could be her friend. He fled to Finch.

 

He finally saw the two of them from a distance, walking hand-in-hand by the stream running by the fields adjacent to the unit. Vidar followed them silently, not letting on he was there, and not knowing why; perhaps it was to linger for a while in the wake of someone else’s happiness. He watched how the two of them smiled, laughed, joked and kissed one another in carefree bliss, and felt a powerful envy streak hot and furious through his chest.

The couple stopped and sat next to the stream. Choral lay on the banks, threading flowers through her hair which Finch seemed to observe with dumb-struck admiration. She rolled over onto her back and sighed, tucking one arm under her head. ‘This is perfect. Don’t you wish things could stay the same for ever? You and me like this, for all time?’

Finch fixed her with a grave stare, his blue gaze seeping into hers. ‘Well, why can’t they?’

Choral shrugged. Sitting up, she brushed a hand over Finch’s hair and kissed him lightly on the lips. ‘You know why. Things happen. People move on.’

‘I don’t want to move on, Choral. Forget everyone else; you and I are the most important ones in our world. We always will be. Come here.’

Finch leapt to his feet and pulled Choral up as well.

‘Imagine us together forever. Just imagine it. You want that, don’t you?’

‘Of course! I want nothing else.’

‘I love you, you know that. I want to make it official. I want to tell everyone that I can’t ever picture myself without you there at my side. I want … I want to …’

‘Finch, what are you trying to say?’ Choral asked, with a wide smile splitting her face.

Incredulous, Vidar watched as Finch knelt down. ‘Marry me, Choral. I want to spend the rest of my life with you.’

Choral shrieked with joy and pulled Finch back to his feet. ‘Yes! Of course I will! Yes!’

The two embraced, laughed and tugged each other around in a delirious dance of excitement. Their fervour died down as they looked at one another and became serious. They kissed again, their arms wrapped around one another, separated from the world in their bubble.

‘I love you so much,’ he heard Finch murmur, and she responded in kind. He pulled her closer and soon their hands began to wander.

Vidar spun and ran. He blundered through empty nesting grounds, kicking up feathers, dung and fragments of shell. He kept running until he was yawning for breath, until his lungs burned, until he could taste blood swirling at the back of his throat, and his legs were weak beneath him.

That boy gets everything he wants, he heard his father say again from years before.

But it was true. For the first time in his life, Vidar hated Finch. No, that was silly; of course he did not hate Finch. They were each other’s best friend. He hated the person Finch was becoming, and the things Finch had and took for granted so easily. Finch had the supportive family, the love of a girl, the talent for making friends, and with all these gifts, he owned the ability to enjoy life. Vidar’s isolation grew, and a feeling of guilty shame rose with it. Hadn’t he, for one selfish second, hoped to see Choral refuse, and that would be the end of her always hanging around?

 

‘Where have you been?’ Finch yelled, reaching towards him and pulling him into a rough hug, ruffling his hair. ‘You’ll never guess …’

‘We’re getting married!’ Choral screamed in equal excitement, leaping onto the boys in an undignified scrum. Vidar struggled weakly for release from the joy of the two of them and their physical squeeze. He felt he was being suffocated.

‘What is it?’ Finch said in concern, looking at his shadowed eyes. ‘Who’s upset you?’

Vidar shrugged. You. Her. Everyone.

‘What happened at your assessment?’ Choral asked tentatively.

Vidar had forgotten all about the assessment. The memory of Marianne turning away from him in front of her friends threatened to overpower him, and he could not speak for a second. ‘Nothing,’ he whispered finally.

Finch and Choral looked at each other in silent bewilderment – Is it us? Did we do something? – and Vidar felt terrible that he could not give them the reaction to their news that they wanted so badly.

But only slightly terrible.

The three parted ways shortly after and Vidar walked blindly in the cool gardens, finally feeling relief after hours of scorching hot air out on the moors. What a day. He could not possibly begin to rationalise it, let alone understand.

It was about ten minutes before he became aware he had company. Choral had followed him. Vidar had not even realised: some tracker he was turning out to be! She seemed to sense his despondency, and hung back once she had seen he had spotted her. When he continued to blank her, Choral approached him.

‘I know it might take time for you to get used to this.’

‘It won’t,’ Vidar shrugged. ‘I’ve got used to the idea already. I hope you’ll be very happy together.’

She was evidently unsure whether he was being sarcastic. ‘I know you don’t really like me, Vidar.’

‘I do like you,’ Vidar responded honestly: she was perfectly all right in small doses.

If she was surprised, she hid it well. ‘Finch and I are going to be wed. He’s going to be my husband. I also know he’s your best friend and I wouldn’t do anything, ever, to get in the way of that.’

He looked up as Choral sat next to him and offered a genuine smile. She put a tentative hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently. Vidar felt calmed at her presence suddenly, and in that moment, he knew he had a friend.

Across the garden, Finch saw them together and he beamed. Vidar and Choral looked up and waved for him to join them. Together, the three toasted the future.

 

It was not until a good few hours into the evening that Finch found out exactly what leaving Vidar behind to sneak off and see Choral truly meant. Alone and unsure of the tracks he ought to have been taking note of, Vidar had floundered off course. An extremely incensed teacher of Marianne’s sent reports back to the unit of Vidar stumbling across the private and clearly marked-out territory of the conservationist. He had not only interrupted their measuring, but had spoilt their turf and upset a group of young women whose year-long project results were now damaged beyond repair.

Niall Kobor was rarely cross with anyone, but when he hauled the two boys into his quarters after the evening meal, he was angrier than Finch or Vidar had ever seen him. The news that Finch was due to be married was passed over with a contemptuous sniff; it did nothing to raise Finch’s disgraced stature in his eyes. This was about much more than Finch playing around in class, he stormed at them; it was the reputation of all dragon slayers at stake. They already had a precarious existence in Rustica. Professionalism was the key and Vidar had banished this ideology forever as soon as he had taken one step into the domain of the dragons’ protectors.

‘But they’re our enemies!’

Niall was off again into a fine flow. Enemies, it was stressed, was not a word that was used within the unit and Finch’s careless usage proved he had learned absolutely nothing in three and a half years of study.

‘You should not have left Vidar alone while hunting, and you,’ he jabbed a finger at Vidar who had been keeping determinedly silent, ‘should have been more alert and understanding of our partnership with the conservationists. Do you know what would happen if we simply killed every dragon in Rustica without a second thought or reason? The life-cycle of the dragons would be finished. Whole systems would fail without the function of the wild dragon.’

‘You sound just like that girl,’ Finch muttered darkly under his breath.

This was so astoundingly rude that Vidar was amazed that Finch got away with only clearing out the stock-room as punishment. Vidar was banned from entering the hunting grounds for the three days. Both boys felt they had received the worse deal.

‘Swap me,’ pleaded Vidar as they trudged back to their rooms. ‘I can’t bear not being out hunting for half a week.’

Finch refused. ‘You know we’ll be in worse trouble if he catches us.’ He seemed angrier at Vidar’s decision not to stick up for himself than anything else. ‘If you wanted to object, you should have done so back there.’

‘Finch …’ Vidar protested, hurt.

‘I’m going to send a letter to Choral. She’s just left, and thanks to you, I’ve missed seeing her. We’ve plans to make for the wedding. Don’t call for me in the morning.’

With that, Finch turned and stomped down the corridor to his left. Vidar watched the door shut firmly, a little stunned. Finch had abandoned him in the middle of their studies, caused him mountains of trouble with the conservationists and Marianne, and it was all his fault?

 

The cohort’s yearly review was started that night. As was the tradition, Gamal met with Niall and a third-year trainer to discuss the transition and progress of their students. Finch’s file was by far the most problematic. Bulging from the seams, Gamal staggered slightly under its weight and sat down with it, looking in near despair at the pages and pages of Niall’s notes on Finch. They covered grievances, disciplinary meetings, warnings, detentions and a few crumpled copies of Finch’s barely scraped assignments.

‘Are you going to ask him to leave?’ Gamal asked tentatively. ‘Tuathal knows I’ve thought many, many times about it even in his first term here. He is now at a stage where we cannot accept this standard in fourth year.’

‘No,’ replied Niall. ‘I too have considered it, but Finch will just suffer and lurch from one incident to the next if he loses the dragon unit in his life. He isn’t interested in what he can accomplish during his time here but what he can gain once he has finished. I think I can help him through. Finch’s trouble is he gets bored extremely easily; there needs to be a method by which we can draw that out of him.’

‘And his friend Vidar? I know that you were very impressed by him from the start …’

Niall gave a small smile. ‘Oh, I think we can afford to give Vidar a little more credit than just being Finch’s friend. Vidar has shown exceptional talent and promise. He will go far in this process. If we are lucky, Vidar may wish to stay on after his studies and join the national slaying program next year.’

‘You think he is good enough?’

‘Gamal, he is one of my very best; in fact, the best. He knows exactly what he wants and nothing will stand in his way.’

‘Well, you say that now, Niall.’ Gamal gave him a mischievous glance. ‘It has been a long time coming, but it would appear that our Vidar has lost his heart to someone on the other side. The girls’ school think such a match unsuitable, of course.’

Niall frowned. ‘I see their point. I like to impress on the boys that there isn’t a single difference between us … but I think in the long term, that pair will do each other absolutely no good at all. The young woman’s teacher was extremely displeased at their meeting during her class time, accidental though it may have been.’

‘Does she think much of him?’ the third-year trainer asked. ‘The girl …  Mary Something?’

Niall shook his head instantly. ‘I would like to protect Vidar from that for as long as I can. It is partly, but not wholly, my reasons for him staying here after he has finished his studies, and entering the Rustica programme.’

‘There is work to be done then, Niall. On both Vidar and Finch.’

‘Well, but we must be hush-hush about it.’ Niall leant back in his chair and surveyed the ceiling pensively. ‘After all, no student ever likes to believe that their teacher has the full measure of them.’

                                           

Finch’s Song: Chapter 5.
The students are brought face to face with their prey at last. Who catches Vidar’s eye at a training day?

Finch and Vidar are 18

The third year brought further challenges, more daring and demanding tasks, and more dangerous obstacles to overcome. Niall wanted to test their endurance, psychological strength and understanding even before they set a foot out into Rustica’s wilder terrain. They were sent on day courses, given team challenges, fighting tournaments, and orienteering courses, and were graded on every aspect, along with their teamwork and individual problem-solving initiative. Further, elements of their work became ever more involved, as they were expected to incorporate their previous learning into what they were doing now. They had to identify wounds, learn tracking courses by heart and be able to apply basic medical treatment as part of their practical assignments.

When the school arranged to liaise with another and co-ordinated a meet-up, Finch was in his element.

‘School trip - no work for the whole day!’ he gloated.

Vidar smiled indulgently but absently, continuing to scan down a list of dates in which a record number of wild dragons had been killed and incited the rage of a number of conservationist schools in the region. Vidar was in his own element whilst he was here. He not only wanted to pass; he wanted to excel, to be the best the school had seen for many a year, and learn at the same time. He knew Finch had a very different way of working, and while a few years ago, he might have followed Finch out of blind loyalty to echo his every move, there was something about Niall that made Vidar want to try and impress him.

The school hired ten dragons from a number of Cities to take the students on their trip. Many had been yet to even see a fully-grown dragon, and as they climbed aboard the majestic creatures, there was plenty of admired whispers and strained laughter; most were unsure how to treat the creatures whose wilder counterparts they would one day be killing on a regular basis. Vidar glanced round uncertainly at Niall who was watching the struggling party and helping a few of the more nervous aboard.

‘Go on Vidar!’ said Niall encouragingly, catching his eye. ‘I would have thought this small fry for you especially after the way you commanded those horses yesterday.’

Vidar managed a small smile back and hauled himself up on a dragon’s back. It wasn’t as if he were scared, he thought scornfully. It was seeing a dragon for the first time, expecting to see fangs and blood and uncontrollable roaring and … Vidar sighed. No, for some reason, these dragons were not like that. They were docile and helpful and seemed to want to attend to his every whim; nothing like what they had been warned they would be facing later on in the year out in the Rustica wilderness. As he watched the placid, almost dopey movements of the dragons plodding their way obediently out of the school gates, he felt himself having to fight a wave of nausea at their mechanical movements. 

The dragons were told to wait for them for three hours in Wingshine City, and the party headed off through the square towards a convention centre. Vidar cast amazed glances around him. Dragons were everywhere: milling around by food stalls, playing in fountains, chasing young children merrily between statues, and the citizens seemed astonishingly comfortable by having so many in such close proximity. They were outnumbered by nearly a hundred to one by the people, but it was the dragons that drew his and everyone else’s eye. Even the Wingshine citizens could not hide their admiration for these creatures. 

Niall came striding past, looked down and grinned. ‘This is something, isn’t it, Vidar? Enjoying your first time in a Dragon City?’ 

Vidar could not find the words to tell him how incredible it was, so he merely nodded. The class trailed out of the blistering heat and into the cool foyer of the convention centre. Vidar’s eyes immediately settled on students on the other side of the room, who had already made their camp by the water fountains and were taking turns to splash one another when their teachers were not looking. 

‘Who are …’ Hagar began, peering over Vidar’s shoulder. 

'Now then,’ Niall announced, gathering their attention effortlessly as always. ‘Over there you will see five schools from all over the region. They are a mix of students from slaying schools and from conservationist schools.’ 

Conservationists?’ The word hissed and snaked its way in disbelief through the group as though Niall had uttered a dirty word. 

‘Boo!’ Finch whispered mockingly, making a thumbs-down signal behind Niall’s back. ‘Down with the conservationists!’ 

‘There will be a debate in the next half hour in this centre. There are some very good speakers on show here today. None of you need to say anything; we will be in the audience listening to why dragons should be limited in numbers, and why they should not.’

'If you already know that we are right,’ Finch objected, ‘what’s the point of a debate?’

Instead of getting angry, Niall smiled at him. ‘But I don’t think we’re right, Finch. Not in any absolute way. That is the point of debate; you will be able to pick up some new views and ways of seeing how the dragons in Rustica are viewed through others’ eyes.’ 

The school followed Niall into the hall and settled into red seats that formed a semi-circle around a stage. In amidst the chatter and laughter and various low insults thrown across the hall from one school to another, Vidar spied several speakers stride on to the stage and take their positions. There was no-one from Niall’s unit. 

Niall and the other teachers were welcomed as honorary guests by a main speaker. Though their views obviously differed, many of the teachers from the conservationist schools treated Niall with an obvious respect and a few even waved at him. Vidar stared in awe at Niall who took it calmly; what must it be like, he wondered, to command such authority, even from those who did not accept your thinking? 

The lights dimmed, and two speakers on stage stood up. One was a youth from another slaying school, and another was an extremely pretty young woman from a conservationist school. They both made excellent points and a verbal sparring took off so quickly, Vidar did not have time to register the points. Niall seemed to have no trouble; he was making notes faster than Vidar could keep up. 

The girl was an extremely clear and confident speaker. Vidar’s mouth was hanging open in admiration. He noticed that a few boys from his own class were suffering the same problem. 

‘Dragons are becoming ever more threatened and vulnerable as their nests are culled. There are records of hundreds being slain each day. More and more subspecies are being placed on an endangered list. If the wild dragons of Rustica are killed, then where do we draw the line? That is one step away from saying all dragons are a danger and still one more towards deciding to cull the City Dragons too.’

‘Rubbish!’ whispered Finch fiercely, but Vidar was not listening. ‘Vidar! Stand up and tell her she’s talking rubbish!

‘Additionally, I call upon the dragon slayers to examine the harm they are doing, not just to the dragons but the whole of Rustica. If one chain is destroyed, others soon follow and they will find themselves culpable of disrupting an entire eco-system.’

Finch laughed out loud. The girl’s cheeks turned a faint pink, but she carried on. ‘Therefore, I can only suggest that the slayers dispose of their own behaviour and habits before disposing of anything else.’ She sat down with a bump all of a sudden, and the hall rang with applause. Vidar brought his own hands together in a few claps without realising.

‘She’s good,’ he murmured.

Finch shot the girl a disdainful glare and snorted. ‘Good on the eye, but that’s about it. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.’

Vidar kept quiet after that, but he watched the girl as the two sides broke up and finished for some refreshments. She seemed to be popular; hordes of both girls and boys milled around her, chattering and laughing with her.

‘Well done, Annie,’ he heard them chorus. ‘You showed them!

The girl finally broke free to pour herself a beverage from a table near the door. Vidar impatiently waited to make sure no-one else was in hearing distance, and on an impulse he walked over to her, leaving Finch looking around for him in puzzlement.

‘You were really excellent,’ he told her, careful to keep his back to Finch. ‘You’re Annie?’

‘No, it’s Marianne, really,’ she smiled, as she shook his hand. ‘And thank you. I don’t think I’ve seen you before. When did you join the conservation unit?’

Stay calm, Vidar told himself. This could be the moment when it all falls to pieces. ‘I’m not in your unit. I am from Niall Kobor’s school. My name’s Vidar.’

‘Oh, you’re one of the assassins.’ Marianne sounded merely surprised. ‘I’m sorry, I did not realise.’

Vidar laughed. ‘It’s not quite as drastic as it sounds, I promise. Although listening to you speak nearly made me change my mind.’

Marianne grinned back. ‘I’m glad to hear it! We are doing more events next month, I hope you will come.’

I hope you will come! Vidar felt like whooping for joy.

‘Which are your favourite dragon breeds, Vidar? I really like …’

 

It was one thing to have a new friend; it was quite another to keep such a secret from Finch. Vidar felt a sudden leap of pleasure when he remembered the girl’s smiling emerald eyes and her playful grin, a leap that was strangely and shamefully heightened when he remembered that Finch did not know. If this ever got out, he knew the two schools would likely be very unforgiving, and would never encourage such a friendship. Finch would be outraged and see it as the ultimate act of betrayal. Best to keep such news for another time.

Marianne had scurried over when she had seen his school leaving and pressed a piece of paper in his hands. Such a secretive manner perhaps meant she too was uncomfortable, and Vidar noticed she kept her back to her teachers, much like he had done to Finch. He looked down and started to unfold the page.

‘Don’t! Not here.’

Vidar raised his eyes to hers, in time to see her give a wink and a smile, and catch a last glimpse of her flying golden hair disappearing into the milling crowds next to the water fountain.

He thought of her all the way back to the school, riding silently aside the dragon and taking no notice of the shrieks and yells of the other students taking in the incredible view of Rustica’s landscape. In amidst the bustle and confusion of people disembarking the dragons and cooing over them, he slipped away round the back of the building and opened the letter.

            Vidar,

            Next one on Saturday 30th – same City, same time, same place!

            M.

 

He saw her on the planned date. And the next one, and the next. Nothing could stop him going. He made constant excuses to Finch – my mother is ill, I have to go home to see her, yes I know they have forsaken me, but still … Niall has asked me to go to Iceflame City on an ambassador errand … I have to do my trekking assignment, I forgot to finish up my results - knowing that Finch would never think to check out these stories. Mostly, it was incredibly easy: Finch would often visit Choral on most weekends, or she would travel to see him. Vidar felt positively guilty for lying, but he knew, as well as he could ever know anything in his life, that Marianne was the one thing he could not bear to share with anyone. She was his. His secret.

Soon the two were meeting up with rapid progression outside of the co-ordinated events. They shared a love for horses, for fencing and exploring, and both were fiercely passionate and protective of their subjects. They often enjoyed a good debate over their views, and Marianne never seemed to mind exploring other alternatives or points. Vidar could not believe how easy she was to talk to, share experiences with, and tell stories and jokes. After nearly six months, he felt he had known her forever; she was the female rare equivalent of Finch, and it was hard to tell sometimes which one he adored more.

Both had been surprised to discover that their schools were in fairly close proximity. This seemed to worry Marianne more than he thought necessary.

‘No-one could ever know,’ he reassured her. ‘Nobody could connect us. Our names aren’t even known to the other schools.’

‘Yet,’ she answered mysteriously. ‘They wouldn’t like us mixing.’

‘Does that bother you?’

He never received a satisfactory reply, but this did not faze him; he lived permanently in a giddy golden haze. His work did not falter or suffer, for he was thinking constantly of how he must study to succeed, and impress Marianne when he achieved his goal to become the best slayer the school had ever seen.

And then came the day he had dreaded. He and Marianne were caught out. But not by her school. Not by Niall. Not even by Finch.

He and Marianne had escaped the clutches of extra school-work for the day and were trotting on horses comfortably side by side. Neither spoke, but Vidar felt perfectly happy in silence, feeling the warm sun shining softly on his back, hearing the whistle of moor-hens and wind, and knowing that one of his best friends was with him on an exploratory tour of the wild moors. Nothing could match this moment. He loved the dragon unit! He loved this glorious day! He loved …

‘Vidar, I can hear someone.’ Marianne’s automatic anxious tones usually meant she thought someone had discovered them.

Vidar shook himself. ‘Hmm?’

‘Someone could be lost.’ She immediately veered her horse to the right and cantered down an incline to where a grove of trees circled a small clearing. Vidar watched her fondly, not really thinking about what she was doing. That was why she was so wonderful, he smiled to himself. Always thinking of others.

After thirty seconds, the horse’s head reared into view again and Marianne appeared on its back. ‘It’s fine,’ she said, shrugging. ‘They’re not lost, I checked. Just a couple of people out walking. I asked if they were all right and they are. I always tell people I’m from the conservationist unit, it makes them trust me.’ She laughed.

Vidar grinned indulgently. ‘You’re all heart.’

She smiled back.

Vidar indicated with his head. ‘Shall we?’

Marianne swung the horse’s head around and the two began climbing back up to the top of the ridge. Vidar only vaguely heard the sounds of someone struggling to follow them to the bank’s summit and catching a glimpse of the back of their heads …

‘You?!’ cried a voice of disbelieving recognition.

Vidar’s heart seemed to sink through his boots.

Almost in mechanical fashion, he twisted in the saddle and focused upon the girl standing behind them.

Choral.

And if Choral was there, that meant there was only one person who would be with her right now. The one person in the world who could make this situation any worse.

She shouted Finch’s name, and he appeared instantly at her side. Finch and Choral stared in wide-eyed amazement at Vidar and Marianne – the two on horseback looking obviously familiar and far too comfortable with one another – their mouths framed wide open in shock. 

                                              image

Finch’s Song: Chapter 4.

Vidar finds himself in his element with new friends. Choral makes her feelings plain to Finch, but will he listen?

Finch and Vidar are 17

 

It seemed to Finch that before he had time to look round, the long summer holidays were over and they were heading back for their second year at the dragon slaying unit. Finch enjoyed the prospect of seeing his friends again, and the term following this one was sure to be the best yet – finally, they would be released into the practical elements of the course which he had longed for. The only down-side was leaving Choral. The two had spent nearly every day of their summer together. Half the time, he barely knew where Vidar was, and he harboured the shameful secret that when he was with Choral, he did not care.

So it was a surprise to see, when he arrived back to the boarding house, Vidar seemed suddenly to have grown and changed beyond recognition. No longer a boy, the sturdy and well-built young man had muscles on his arms and legs, had shot to an impossible height over the summer, and had the faint lines of facial hair along his jaw. It was even more astonishing to view, when they started their new classes the following morning, to see that Vidar shot ahead of everyone else, whether it was archery, fencing classes, or tracking. He had clearly been practising his techniques in preparation for the year ahead. Such was his power and prowess that even those in the class on the opposite side of the field, along with their trainers, stopped to watch as Vidar flashed around the running track.

‘How are you doing that?’ Finch muttered out of the corner of his mouth after Vidar had flung himself onto a horse and managed to get it to rear and plunge under perfect control. 

‘I’ve had plenty of time to practise all the skills listed,’ Vidar said bluntly as he slid from the saddle. ‘You know, when I was left alone all summer.’

 Finch opened his mouth to protest, but seeing that Vidar’s eyes were cold, shut it promptly.

Both were saved from saying anything else as Gamal came jogging over with a stranger in his wake. He called the class round in a half-circle.

‘Well done for passing your first year, folks! Now I would like to introduce you to your trainer for the next three years. This is Niall Kobor. He works in one of the highest positions in the unit and is in charge of the national slaying program here in Rustica. He’ll take no nonsense from any of you, so those who feel they ought to have worked a little harder last year may see this as encouragement to buck your ideas up a bit.’

Both Gamal and Niall’s eyes settled on Finch. Finch shrugged and grinned apologetically. He heard a few laughs at the back. Vidar, he noticed, remained stony-faced throughout this encounter.

‘Niall will take you through the last of the ground work and finish your theory with you, but in the main he is here to teach the practical elements of your course.’ Gamal gave the class a wave and after a few words with Niall, he departed. Finch watched in wonder as Niall seemed to command silence without speaking; every single person kept their eyes on their new teacher and waited. 

Niall gave them all a kind smile and seemed to read right into their minds. Finch felt Niall’s eyes bearing into his for a little longer than anyone else’s as he surveyed his class, and he wondered what Gamal had told Niall. 

Each person was asked their name.

‘Hagar.’

‘Vidar.’

‘Finch.’

Niall smiled slightly at this and nodded almost knowingly.

‘Mal. Mal Sparrow,’ offered up the young man next to Finch, perhaps guessing that Finch had already won some favour.

Niall laughed and laughed. ‘So! We have a sparrow and a finch in our midst! Very good. That may come in useful.’

Mal and Finch grinned at each other, delighted at this unique recognition.

As some people in the class had previously been assigned to first-year trainers other than Gamal, Niall set them all some simple group exercises and tasks to get them talking to one another. He looked as if he were about to split Finch and Vidar up, but Finch dodged out of line and they ended up together, along with Hagar and the newcomer Mal. The four were instructed not only to find a way to cross the stream, but to plan and teach others how to do so with clear, unambiguous instructions. The four moved to a verge by the water and, almost immediately, Finch claimed leadership.     

Hagar was almost as hot-headed, while Mal and Vidar quietly watched them row. Mal shrugged, and ignoring the two, nodded to Vidar and held out his hand. Vidar shook it.

‘Leave them to it?’

‘Why not?’ Vidar grinned.

He and Mal instantly jumped into the stream, squirting each other with water and climbing over the rocks. Finch and Hagar stopped arguing and, seeing that there was fun they were missing out on, climbed down to join in. Nobody minded in the least when Niall held them all up as a terrible example of teamwork to the rest of the class or when they missed dinner because they were too long getting out of their wet clothes. From that day on, Vidar had won himself a new, respectful friend in Hagar and found a loyal follower in Mal.    

‘Oh good,’ Finch said delightedly when Vidar chattered happily on about their new friends. ‘Now that you have those two, you won’t mind me going off to see Choral more often, will you? She’s coming up here near the end of term.’

 

The end of the theoretical elements could not come too soon for Finch. They bored him immensely. The only bright side of the last few, yawning weeks of that term emerged when Choral and her parents visited him at the unit. She instantly made it plain that anyone else around Finch was unwelcome. Finch had the nagging feeling he ought to say something, especially after seeing Vidar storm off by himself into the trees to find dragon eggs, his face rigid and enraged.

‘Finch,’ Choral said sweetly, twining his hair around her fingers and kissing his face, ‘you’ll show me some dragon eggs, won’t you? I want to see some baby dragons newly hatched. I want to know all about the things you do here.’

Finch hesitated, realising too late that the best place to see them was where Vidar had already gone, and he already knew the two of them did not like each other.

‘Er … no, Choral, I’ve a better idea. Why don’t we go and practise with the swords? I’ll teach you how to fence.’

‘Fencing?’ She was clearly disappointed.

Finch tried to shut out the awful feeling that neither Vidar nor Choral were too happy with him as he collected two swords from the store-room and signed them out. The two of them went to the assigned practice yard but Choral was more interested in stroking Finch’s hair and planting lingering kisses on him than listening as he tried to explain the basics. She was hopeless once he started to teach her the techniques and despite himself, knowing it was something he never did, he began to get annoyed with her. Choral sensed this and she became withdrawn. The two walked back to the buildings in a disgruntled silence. Hurried offers to show Choral the nest eggs were met with disdain.

‘No thank you,’ she said icily. ‘I think I’ve had enough now.’

‘Don’t be like that. We can’t ruin what little time we have left together …’

‘I’m sorry.’ Suddenly she was tearful. ‘I’m sorry, but it’s been so hard. I never see you anymore and I miss you horribly when you’re not home. I’m so scared.’

‘What?’

‘I’m scared of how this is going to end. I’m frightened you’ll be out hunting, that something will go wrong … and I’ll get bad news. I wait every day for that bad news, and I … I can’t stand it …’

Finch kissed her fiercely. ‘Nothing is going to happen to me, Choral, I promise. Look at me! Nothing. But I have a life here, a purpose. It will only be for three more years. Scores of slayers have come through successfully …’

‘And those who don’t?’

Finch smiled. ‘Choral, I am not one of life’s unlucky ones! I know what I want out of this. You just wait.’

‘Finch, I don’t think I can bear to take that chance. You’re hunting dragons! It’s dangerous! When you start training for real, you will be killing real creatures, and they will be trying to kill you. It isn’t a game.’

‘I know, Choral. And I will make you a promise. That I will come home when I am finished here, and we can be together again forever.’

 

The two parted in the evening, agreeing to meet again and see the dragon eggs later that night. Choral arranged to leave her parents’ temporary accommodation near the unit and Finch would, as he put it, ‘heroically shimmy’ out of his window. He was glad to see her smile again.

Finch whistled to himself as he strolled across the grounds after what could not be called a dignified exit from his dormitory window. He hoped that Niall would fail to notice his ripped tunic in the morning. Fuelled by the thought of spending hours alone with Choral and nobody else in the world knowing, he broke into a spirited jog.

Finch!

Finch’s heart stopped, hearing a cry that was unintentionally distressed. He spun around and saw Vidar running towards him. ‘I’ve been looking for you everywhere. You wouldn’t believe what’s just arrived …’

‘Er, Vidar, I …’ Finch spluttered guiltily, not stopping to think why Vidar was not finding it unusual that they should both be outside after hours. But Vidar was clutching something to his chest and was not pausing for anyone.

‘Look at this!’ he exploded. ‘Just look! I wouldn’t have expected any …’

‘Choral thinks I should leave the unit before we start the dragon-hunting,’ Finch blurted. ‘She thinks it might be too dangerous.’

Vidar stilled. ‘She thinks what?’

‘Don’t be too hard on her, Vidar. You know as well as I do she has a point.’

‘A point? A point? You agree that you should leave? Because she said so?’

‘No, that it is dangerous …’

‘Oh, really?’ Vidar was shaking suddenly. ‘Yet you knew that from the start. Who does she think she is? The interfering … She’s fifteen years old and she knows better than us all of a sudden?’ Vidar shoved whatever was in his hands at Finch and began running into the forest. Finch started after him, and then stopped, scanning a piece of paper.

Vidar

I have to convey to you my utter disappointment at your failure to follow our express wishes time and again. We asked you to leave the dragons alone and come home, and yet you have persistently ignored us and our ultimatum for two years. Therefore, your father has instructed me to write that you are no longer welcome in the house and that any further communication …

Finch’s eyes widened in disbelief as he read further. Vidar’s parents had disowned him. They no longer considered him their son. He thought for a moment, glanced to where he knew Choral would be waiting for him with a moment of agonised hesitation, and ran after Vidar instead.

                                               

 

Finch’s Song: Chapter 3

Vidar defies a higher power, while Finch is given a sharp lesson in reality

Finch and Vidar are 16

'Woo-hoo! Vidar, wait for me!’

The melodic tones of Vidar’s best friend faded only seconds before his silhouette seemed to soar to meet the sky and reach up to the sun. Never standing still, never restful, Finch was a constant source of energy. Vidar would have died before mentioning it, but he loved Finch for it; for his enthusiasm in everything he approached.

Things he did not love Finch for, he was reminded of on a daily basis. Finch continually showed off presents his parents had bought him; he insisted on Vidar coming home for a weekly meal where a mortified Vidar was lavished with affection from Finch’s parents; he spoke constantly of events and trips his family planned that Vidar had never even heard of, let alone participated in. Finch tried so hard to include Vidar in everything that his family did but Vidar found it easier to refuse than have to struggle through whole days of seeing Finch act the part of the beloved son.

‘Look what I’ve got! It came an hour ago.’

Vidar had never seen Finch quite as excited as he produced a letter and began reading choice phrases out loud. ‘Pleased to accept you … look forward to meeting you on the nineteenth … skills you acquire will help you adopt a keen and enquiring mind, a vigilant outlook, and other qualities needed in the field of dracology …’

Finch’s joy was infectious but it did not stop a slow jealousy from rising inside Vidar as he read the letter for himself. ‘I wish I could go.’

‘Why don’t you?’

‘Well … you have to pay to go to this training unit, don’t you?’ Vidar asked doubtfully as he scanned the letter. ‘That looks expensive, it’s more than my family earns in a year.’

Finch looked worried for a second, then his expression cleared. ‘Not always. The officer in charge of the training says you can get a place by merit if you’re good enough. You’ll do it, Vidar! You beat me in everything.’

‘And the main objective is to learn how to slay dragons?’

‘Just the wild ones in the Rustica countryside; their nests always need curbing. And they teach you sword-skills, how to hunt and track, and everything! You will ask your parents? Then you can come with me next week!’

Finch’s enthusiasm made Vidar confident. ‘Of course.’

‘Great!’ Finch yelled. ‘This is our time! And guess who I met yesterday?’

‘Who?’

‘Remember that couple that was around here six months ago, they’ve got an adopted girl. Name of Choral, she’s almost fifteen?’

‘I don’t remember.’

‘I don’t think you’ve ever seen her. She’s back in the area.’

‘So?’

‘So … she’s agreed to come walking with me tonight and I’m going to show her some dragon nests.’

‘But we were going to go out tonight. We were going to practise with your new arrows.’

‘We can do that any old time.’ Finch grabbed Vidar’s arm and tugged him along. ‘Training starts here. Come and catch me … come on, catch me! Last one to the oak is a dragon’s rotten egg.’

Whooping and shouting, the two boys raced along the road together back towards the woods.

 

‘But why, Vidar?’ his mother asked him at their evening meal. ‘Why do you want to join the unit?’

Vidar could not think how to explain himself. When it came down to the basic reasons, there were no rational ones. He thought of his father’s drunken rages coupled with the desire to frighten others who were weaker, and remembered at a younger age how sick with terror he had felt when faced with the flying fists. Cornering the dangerous dragons, disposing of them to bring some good into the world, would make the hurt go away; it could atone for his father’s sins. Secondly, why should Finch receive parental approval straight away, and he shouldn’t? Finch had a future ahead of him and so many exciting times lay in his path. Vidar longed to join his friend. He did not want to be left behind while others lived their lives.

Finch is joining.’

His father sneered. ‘That is not a reason! That boy is a poor influence on you. He gets everything he wants. Your ma and I always planned for you to work in the apothecary. If you like dragons so much, you can sell scales and teeth in your spare time. They are becoming the fashion for decorations and jewellery in the non-Dragon towns.’

‘I want to go with Finch! He’s leaving next week for training. His parents said he could!’

‘And we say you can’t!’

‘You belong here,’ added his mother more softly.

‘Why, though? Why do I have to stay here? I could do something worthwhile. I want to see more of Rustica, and this is the perfect way to …’

‘No more questions!’ thundered his father. ‘You listen to your mother and no further back-chat!’

Vidar shoved his chair back with a rebellious expression. The idea of his only friend leaving without him to start a new life was unbearable, and filled him with a strange despair.

‘I hate you!’ he shouted as he ran to the door. ‘I’m going! I’m going, you wait and see!’

He did not even see his father’s fist collide with him seconds after he was spun back around by two pairs of hands. The only sensation he had was a dizzying blackness and of falling back into nothing.

  

Finch heard a desperate hammering at the door, an incessant noise that drummed through the house. The sun was only just beginning to rise, and he heard the disturbed and annoyed murmurings of his parents and younger brother as they were woken. He opened the door to find a wild-looking Vidar on the other side.

‘What are you doing here?’ he asked as his friend pushed past him to go inside. The two were always turning up unannounced at each other’s dwellings, but an unexpected arrival before even the birds starting singing meant something serious. ‘What’s been happening?’

‘I’ve … run away,’ Vidar panted, struggling for breath.

‘You’ve certainly run from somewhere,’ Finch observed. ‘What do you mean?’

‘What else could I mean? I’ve left home. You have to hide me here.’

‘Now wait a minute, Vidar …’ Finch stopped as he tried to think of all the reasons why one might wish to run away from home and failed. ‘How long do I have to hide you for?’

‘Wake up, Finch! I’m coming with you to the unit next week.’

‘That’s good,’ Finch said in some surprise. ‘Your parents said yes, then?’

In reply, Vidar pulled back his fringe to reveal the bruising on his forehead.

 

Seven days later, an intense game of smuggling Vidar’s possessions out of the house each night had finally led to the two boys poised for action. On the morning of departure to the training school, hidden safely within the old tool shed where he had slept for the past week, Vidar spied on Finch being hugged and kissed by his tearful mother as if she were losing her son to a lifetime of absence. Finch’s father shook his son’s hand. Vidar glanced down at his own: bruises and red welts leapt out from where his own father had submitted his very different kind of treatment. Finch was finally released from his mother’s hold only to be seized again, as his younger brother leapt on him and the two boys tussled and punched one another in an affectionate goodbye of their own.

Vidar thought briefly how nobody from his own family had bothered to enquire upon his whereabouts. Did his parents know he was at Finch’s? Did they know he was still planning on going to the training unit? Did they even care anymore?

After what seemed an age of tears, squeezes, kisses and handshakes, Finch was discharged. Vidar counted for five minutes under his breath, and made his way to where Finch had slung his luggage on to an ancient and groaning horse and trap. Finch spied him coming and his face lit up. Vidar’ spate of jealousy vanished as he placed his one camping bag among the mountain already there. Even when he was annoyed with Finch, his friend had a knack of making him feel the most special person in the world.

Vidar sat behind the horse’s head while Finch walked, gently coaxing the horse onwards. The day was glorious, and Vidar felt the sense of adventure rising. ‘To freedom!’ he said suddenly and joyfully.   

Finch grinned. ‘To freedom, and the killing of all wild dragons in Rustica!’

‘New adventure …’

‘And new friends!’

New friends … Vidar felt a cold chill blasting unexpectedly through his chest. What did that mean? The unspoken ghost that hovered in the corner of all their conversations broke free. 

‘How did it go with Choral last week?’

Vidar could see Finch trying to play it cool and pretend he hadn’t heard, but there was a smirk playing near his jaw.

‘Just fine,’ he said cagily.

‘Will you be seeing her again?’

‘Saw her last night to say goodbye.’ A definite swagger came into Finch’s step.

‘And? You can tell me, Fin.’ 

‘Vidar, my friend, there are some things a man cannot tell even his closest companion.’

‘You can!’ Vidar protested, hurt at all the secrecy. Finch had never made him feel isolated before.

‘Oh Vidar,’ Finch sighed. ‘We’re going to have to find you a girl.’

‘No thanks,’ Vidar said instantly. ‘I don’t want …’

‘Don’t be stupid. Everybody wants someone. It can’t just be me and you all the time.’

Vidar took this to mean Finch and Choral were now in a relationship, and his blood secretly boiled. Finch had a special friend that wasn’t him. Finch wanted to see less of him. How could that be?

 

Labels, coats, bags. A list of classes. Strange faces and voices swam around, names disjointed, voices faded and swelling. The two boys felt the world expand and then crash around them, riding on waves of sound.

‘This way, Vidar.’ Finch had the list memorised in seconds. ‘This room here.’ Vidar followed rather more slowly to where Finch was in negotiation to claim the two back desks.

‘That’s mine,’ a light-haired boy protested indignantly when Finch swung his bag under the table space.

‘Shove off,’ Finch said amiably.

Vidar watched with sucked-in breath, waiting for the moment when Finch would be pummelled to the floor, and he would have to wade in to help. The boy and his cronies merely gave Finch an incredulous look and slouched away to a group of desks at the side. Moments later, he saw the boy give a half-glance at Finch and a small grin. Finch winked at him.

‘I’m Finch,’ he mouthed as a trainer swept into the room.

‘Hagar,’ the boy hissed back.

‘All right, folks,’ the trainer announced, his voice sharply thrown to the very back of the room in a manner that made Vidar sit up and pay attention in a hurry. Finch, he noticed, was slower to do so. ‘My name is Gamal. Welcome to your first two years here at Rustica’s training unit. Essentially there is a strict minimum of eighteen months for you to begin preparing for the practical element of your course. Learning the theory well and applying this to your tracking and sword-work will provide you with all you need to start …’

‘We’re not going to be doing any slaying?’ Finch interrupted, outraged. ‘We’re just taking notes, going tracking and learning about sword-fighting? For two years?’

‘If you had read the course material,’ the trainer answered, his tone betraying that he knew perfectly well Finch had not so much opened a book cover all summer, ‘then you would know that theory forms the fundamental base of dragon slaying. These next two years will serve you in understanding the hunter’s mind and also the mind of the dragon. Oh yes,’ he added, for Finch had snorted in disbelief. ‘Understanding the mind of the dragon and seeing through their eyes will help you go far, and you cannot hope to progress without that mentality. If you do not take to heart the words I have spoken in your very first class, then you can leave now. The door is that way.’

 Finch was speechless. Vidar smiled secretively in spite of himself. He doubted that Finch had ever been spoken to like that in his life.

 ‘As I was saying,’ continued Gamal, ‘the second year will consist of group practicals with elements of working in pairs for your coursework. The final six months of this twenty-four month period will demonstrate to us that you understand the twelve ways to dispose of dragons, no matter what the circumstances. Finally, your last exam will be the ultimate test that personally contributes to the unit’s slaying of dragons; you will rationalise, design, and prepare a hunting ground that you will then use to kill a particular dangerous breed with methods that have been identified through your theory and practical work. For we do not only run schools here, we are recognised as part of Rustica’s national and governor-driven scheme, working in partnership to curb dragons’ numbers.’

Gamal paused at this point and with almost a roguish glance at the class that sat silently in front of him, added ‘You should all be warned that none of this is to be taken lightly. This is not an easy course, and no-one has yet been able to coast through doing the bare minimum. After this year of theory, you will transfer branches and you will be under the professional guidance of a chief trainer who will take you on an extensive course of practical work. Any questions?’

Nobody spoke.

‘Good. I must point out to you though before we start, that we lose at least one student every three years.’

‘They drop out?’ Hagar asked. ‘That’s not very many at all!’

‘No,’ Gamal answered triumphantly. ‘The student is killed by the very dragon that they are trying to hunt down in their final exam.’

There was a stunned silence as the students all tried to work out if Gamal was joking. Finch had gone a pale green. Vidar stared down at his desk, dragging a thumbnail through a crack in the lid. Many others ducked their heads, desperately trying not to catch Gamal’s eye, as if to do so would mean an instant choosing of who would pass the course with success, and who would fail it in the worst possible way. 

                                        

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Finch’s Song: Chapter 2

Choral makes a wonderful discovery but Theo has other ideas.

Choral is 12

Choral brushed her long brown hair in the front of the mirror, and thought about many things.

She could hear voices downstairs and Father asking questions. Her mother and brother had arrived back from seeing a special visitor in town. Dear Theo, her sixteen year-old brother, who always gave her a kind word and looked out for everyone. She was not quite sure what all the secret visits were about, and who it was he had to see on such a regular basis.

Choral carefully laid down her hairbrush, hearing her father come up the stairs, and turned around with a smile. He entered her room with a tired smile back at her, and crossed the room to caress her hair.

‘Father, don’t. I haven’t spent minutes on my style for you to mess it up again!’

He laughed at that. ‘Choral, darling, come and sit here.’

She obeyed, sitting near him and inhaling the familiar scent of wood-smoke from his shirt.

‘Your mother and I need to discuss a few things with you and your brother.’ He played idly with her hairbrush on the table, dragging it gently on its side. His eyes were distant, an oceanic grey-green colour, and nothing like her own and Theo’s.

Choral knew that her mother and father was not hers by blood. She had always understood this but could not remember when she had been told. Vague, sketchy memories of her birth-parents flashed into her mind sometimes; they were dark vapour-like figures, accompanied always by the smoky scent of sadness. Far easier to remember was Theo’s anger; a constant frightening presence over the years since their parents had been taken. While she had forgotten the actual event, it was something that he could never do.

‘Theo has been to see someone. He’s been visiting someone for a while now. Do you know why?’

Choral pondered. ‘Is Theo sick?’

‘No, not at all. He is just a little different from you and me. You might start hearing some things said about him. But you have to learn to ignore them. He’s part of our family and we love him.’

Choral nodded impatiently. Of course she loved Theo; he was her big brother. She wanted to know what was making her father so grave.

‘Who has he been to see?’

‘He’s been to see a healer who is very good at understanding different types of speech. He …’

‘But Theo is good at talking,’ Choral frowned.

Father’s mouth twitched. ‘Yes he is! What this man is trying to do is to examine how Theo can talk in different ways. He can talk to us very well indeed. It appears now that Theo is able to talk to others too; to creatures that aren’t humans.’

Choral smiled uncertainly, believing her father was joking.

‘It isn’t funny, Choral. Theo’s ability to speak with other creatures …’

‘What creatures?’ Choral interrupted.

‘Dragons, darling. Now don’t interrupt again; this is important for you to know. Theo can understand dragons. The healer has run tests on him and used hatchlings to bring Theo’s speech out of him. Every dragon in his experiment has responded to your brother, and it is very clear that Theo knew what they are saying.’

Choral was impressed. ‘He must be very clever.’

‘He is a clever boy, there is no doubting it. But he hasn’t learned it by himself. It is something he has always been able to do, and the healer has simply encouraged it a bit more quickly out of him so your mother and I can be sure.’

‘Could I try it too?’

Her father hesitated. ‘Your mother and I don’t think you would be able to do it. With Theo, there were very early and persistent signs that hinted strongly he had this ability, this Gift.’

‘He is so lucky. How does he know how to do it? Is it something my other papa knew of?’

‘We think,’ her father said carefully, ‘that he did not just know about the Gift. It was something he was able to do too.’

 

This was so exciting! Theo felt like jumping, dancing and shouting for joy. There had been something simmering inside him for years. Now he knew what it was. It was a relief to place a name to it. He had the Gift! A phenomenon known to very few and even fewer could use it. His parents had been worried when the healer revealed his certainty. They had cautioned their son to be wary with the newly discovered talent, but Theo was ecstatic. There was power to be seized here.

Choral came running out of the door into the garden. Theo looked up and raced towards her. ‘Isn’t it amazing, Letty? I can speak to dragons! This is going to be such fun!’ He caught hold of her and whirled her round, brother and sister both squealing in celebration.

Choral could hardly breathe for laughing and at the same time, she felt as if she could cry in elation. Theo had been moody and withdrawn for the last few weeks, but now that the family knew what was behind the secrecy, everything was perfect. He would forget his furious vendetta against the dragons and be their friend instead. She watched her affectionate, grinning older brother and her heart soared. If he was happy, then so was she.    

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Finch’s Song

Prologue

He could remember only one time when he had felt truly happy. Chasing dragons was always exhilarating, but when your best friend was on the hunt with you, living and laughing and loving your company, there was no better experience. The feeling of being with his best friend was the closest thing to what he felt when he was with the other person he loved.

Then the fall came. Screams. His own and the dragon’s. Death. Destruction of a life.

The world turned black and red. Black, because his friend had ceased to exist, and what was his own life now, but filled with empty shadows? Red, because of the blood.  The body lay in a lurid puddle as the dragon screeched in triumph. There was so much of it. When he woke at night in a cold sweat, surfacing from the old nightmare and seeing it spattered on his own hands, it was always about the blood.

 

Chapter 1

12 years earlier

The shadows on the wall created a monstrous figure. Fumes of alcohol rose off the man in waves.

‘No, Pa! Please!’

‘I warned you … I warned you what would happen if you didn’t behave, you little cretin!’

‘Pa, don’t!’ The ten year-old let out a yelp as his father struck him, sending him spinning around and crashing into the wall. He whimpered as he lay winded, unable to speak. He gazed up at his father with terror shining in his brown eyes.

This only seemed to encourage his attacker, who began unbuckling his belt. ‘It’s the strap for you, my lad!’

The boy jumped to his feet as a grab was made for his arm, and he ducked. He fled into the shelter of the garden and his tree, knowing that his father would be too disorientated to know where to follow him. These stints always ended like this and there was almost relief in the predictability of the routine.

‘Vidar, come back here or you’ll be for it! Vidar! Vidar!

 

Two hours later, Vidar was still sitting in the tree branches waiting for the storm to pass and the swelling on his right eye to subside. He could hear the brunt of his father’s wrath down below in the house, vicious curses bellowed at his mother, but it was subsiding. When he was smaller, his mother had protected him, and he her, but this no longer happened. He could feel his own anger and sense of hopelessness rising.

‘Psst! You there.’

Vidar glanced down. The speaker was a boy looking about two years older than him, staring up into the branches. He had dark hair and wickedly shining eyes that danced in merriment.

‘Me?’

‘Yes, you! Unless there’s anyone else up there with you.’

Vidar shook his head.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Hiding.’

‘Why? What are you afraid of?’

Vidar raised his chin defiantly. ‘I’m not afraid of anything.’

The boy only grinned. ‘Come on down then.’

Vidar hesitated as another barrage of shouting and screaming erupted from the house.

‘Ah.’ The boy seemed to understand immediately. ‘Come away from there. You might need a friend.’

‘A friend?’ Vidar had never considered this possibility. ‘What for?’

The boy looked at him oddly. ‘You don’t have any friends? I’ve got loads.’

‘How nice for you,’ Vidar said acidly.

‘All right then,’ the boy replied casually, starting to walk away. ‘Then I won’t tell you about the dragons.’

‘What dragons?’

There was a sudden challenge in the older boy’s tone. ‘Do you like dragons?’

Vidar wasn’t sure whether one had to like dragons or not. ‘I’ve never seen one. Are the dragons your friends?’

‘Tuathal’s teeth, no! I hate them.’

Vidar hesitated again, but the boy intrigued him in some strange way. He dutifully dropped from the tree and stood shyly. Being an only child and living in a tiny hamlet away from the dragon-inhabited Cities, he did not know many other children or how to make friends easily whenever he was schooled. But he remembered one useful question his mother had suggested he use whenever he met someone new.

‘What’s your name? Mine’s Vidar.’

‘Teddy.’

Vidar thought he had not heard correctly. ‘What’s Teddy?’

The boy’s cocksure composure slipped and he flushed. ‘Theo,’ he corrected hurriedly. ‘My name is Theo Oadir.’