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?’
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.’
‘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 …’
‘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.