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.
‘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.