Skimaskall, the Last Dragon is the front end of the time-slip story from which Guy de Hamahall is taken.
This wasn’t how I originally planned it. But I felt it more important to get the time-slip element up front, rather than character and setting development. I then shaved the first scene down to its minimum – it had included an imagined conversation with her grandmother, showing her regret at selling her grandma’s house and moving to Yalesham; it had little vignettes of where she lived, and again of her job. I then realised I’d overdone it, so I fed a few details into the second and third scene.
So, here it is, in its much clipped but not totally denuded version. I hope you enjoy the read. I’d be interested to hear whether you think I’ve still overdone the paring.
. _____ .
Neve looked away from the glancing sun and the hurricane-force easterly that suddenly roared from behind the shelter of workshops and boathouses to slam into her face. Oh the deceit of a sapphire sky and undisturbed leaves in the garden. But, not to be bullied by a blustering wind, she clasped her jacket and, head-down, pushed on.
Once clear of the corner it wasn’t so bad. And she wasn’t the only lunatic out of the promenade. There was a determined dog-walker with his long-legged Dane.
At the jetty she paused to mull upon wisdom. Her intent had been to gain its far end where the town council had kindly provided a coin-operated telescope for the curious to spy upon Aquilergy’s progress. From the prom, if she squinted, she could just make out the wind turbines, yet half-constructed, like upturned thimbles on a white lace trim. But she made her decision, pumped up the volume on her iPod, loaded with hard-rock for walking, and set out. As her feet touched the wood of the pier Sammy Hagar blasted into her ears, singing of Satan’s desire, how he’s here to see us all burn in hell. The planks of the pier gave beneath her feet causing a moment’s hesitation – in mind if not in her body. The entire structure rocked as a rolling wave spent its force on the pilings. The plank, at her next step, threatened to snap and plunge her into the briny. She ought to turn back, yet something beckoned her.
At the seaward end was a small wooden shelter with condom- and crisp-packets piled into its corners, beneath its bench lurked tangled webs of fishing line and a battered bait-box. And despite the chill of the day, flies swarmed upon indeterminate droppings. She turned her back on it.
The telescope required a £1 coin to operate.
With a snapped expletive Neve snapped shut her purse. It bulged with copper and silver but not a £1 coin. She sighed and leaned on the railings instead. She gazed out to sea. But the wind was again in her face, along with a grit-laden, saline-tasting spray cropped from the orgasmic waves that every seventh threatened to drench her. She ninety-degree-turned.
So now her view was the beach, and she could have seen that from the promenade. She remembered that beach, crowded with children all wanting to help her to build a sandcastle. Not now. Now only ruffled gulls frequented there. They stood in rows looking like sentinels guarding the land. Neve sighed aggravation. No telescope, no view over the sea, she’d best turn around and go home.
At that decision the wind instantly dropped.
“Hah!” She held out her arms.
“Well.” Warmth like a fleece enfolded her. So maybe she’d stay.
She breathed in deep. And at the crest of that breath came a voice from behind her.
“You’re illegal, Lady Nineve, child of Constance Oath-breaker.”
Less than six months living in Yalesham, only three people knew her by name, and they didn’t know of her mother. Neve swung round. Impolitely, she gawped and gasped.
She was used to seeing peoples’ auras but this wasn’t the usual scrimped affair. This was grand, even brighter than hers. As a child she had stood in front of her grandma’s mirror, fascinated by the whorls and ripples and sprays and eddies, the subtly changing hues, all blues and greens, some blindingly bright, some dark. She couldn’t understand why her grandmother said nothing of it. Why did people say of her eyes, her swallow-an-elephant mouth, her bouncy bonnet of brown-black hair, yet never said anything of her aura? She was one year at school before she discovered that others couldn’t see auras at all.
Now this one before her . . . she thought of Byzantium art, of the saints and apostles. But this wasn’t a mere head-circling halo. This golden shimmer – like the haze of an August road – issued from every part of him and unbroken by ripple or jag.
It disturbed her eyes. She couldn’t immediately focus on him.
When she could again see, she saw him as a lad, sixteen at most. He wasn’t yet shaving. By his hair and complexion she thought him southern or eastern: Mediterranean, Spanish, Italian, Greek, or even Lebanese or Indian maybe. He was tall. If he worked out and developed his muscles he’d one day be a veritable Adonis. But who was he?
He was a scruff. Distressed jeans thick with dirt. Leather jacket scuffed and torn. A runaway maybe? He obviously lacked washing facilities though he looked healthy enough. So was someone feeding him?
Her mother perhaps?
That would explain how he knew their names. So was her mother finally going to claim her after all these years? That would be something. Then another thought struck her.
Same hair, same complexion – though hers was pale from the winter – same generous mouth, even the shape of his chin. Could he be her brother?
“It’s not your fault,” he said.
She narrowed eyes. What was he on about?
“You’re part-mortal. You had no say in your begetting.”
She stared harder, feeling the muscles around her eyes tighten.
“The Oath was made, oh . . .” he shrugged a shoulder “. . . long ago – at the Reconciliation.”
She glanced the length of the jetty. It seemed to stretch far into the distance. And here was she, alone with this weirdo and no one knew she was here. She stepped obliquely away.
“And you are?” she asked. It might be safer to keep him talking.
“Well, yeh. That’s usually the first thing asked. I’m Raesan. I’m an angel.”
“Oh?” She licked her lips. They tasted of salt.
Then he waved dismissively. “Na, come to think, you probably know us as elves. Except . . . na, that’s not what we’re properly called, either. I’m an Asar.”
“What, Aesir-gods?” He sneered and spat.
He was most likely a care-in-the-community case, mentally disordered. She turned and walked. She wouldn’t run, she thought that unwise.
She walked slap into a barrier.
She flicked a look back. He was watching.
It was a trick of the mind. He had the same skills as her, though she’d not used hers since schooldays. It was an illusion, there was no barrier. As long as she believed it wasn’t there she could walk right through it.
There was a barrier.
She felt it with the flat of her hands. It had the same give and touch as the rubber sheets she’d used on her grandmother’s bed.
She closed her eyes and thought of the jetty as it ought to be. Without that non-existent illogical barrier.
Slam! She walked into the barrier again.
Stay. Be my friend.
She held rigid. He had spoken into her head. If she allowed it she could hear people’s thoughts, though seldom as words. But no one had ever spoken directly to her. Slowly she turned on the ball of her foot. An angel, he’d said, or an elf. Those she understood, but was an Asar.
“Please,” he said. And who wouldn’t be moved by the look on his face. “Be my friend. It’s been thousands of years since I’ve had a friend.”
“Yea?” She thought it wisest to oblige. “So, um, what are you doing here, on the pier?”
“The same as you. Watching the wind farm.”
She nodded, of course. What else would an angel be doing.
“Why? I mean—“
“I know what you mean.”
She nodded again. Yea, of course he would know, he was into her head, knowing everything.
“So …?” She jerked a shoulder towards the white towers.
“We buried Skimaskall on that island – Widow Cob’s Cat, yeh? We called it Haggleland. I’m worried the work there might disturb her.”
“And Skimaskall is?”
“Skimaskall. Beautiful scales. She’s a dragon.”
Her laughter held a manic tinge. She’d heard that grief could so turn a mind. As if she’d been sane before. James Bullock, her grandmother’s avuncular solicitor, had told her she needed to mix more with people. That’s why she’d sold the house. But he’d meant for her to move into the city. Instead she’d moved here. Less people, less voices, less scary after so many years alone with Grandma Phoebe.
“You don’t believe dragons exist,” he said. No question, a statement. And he was right. “Skimaskall was the last. That’s why we buried her here. But, if you don’t believe me, then I’ll show you.”
Of course he would. Why not, he was an angel, he could do anything.
There’s a moment of disorientation, as when waking in a strange bed. But she knows she’s still near the sea. She can smell it, fishy, weedy, ozone-y. She can hear it too but can’t see it for a low sandy mound. Beneath her feet she can feel the grass crisp. She glances down. There’s a speckle of flowers. And a hole, wide and deep, twenty foot minimum in every direction. A glint of something metallic at its bottom allows her a guess at the time. Perhaps not quite midday but certainly later than when she walked on the pier. She’s aware of people around her.
She knows their names. But how is that possible? See, there’s Guy with his squire. And Hawk with his rusted spear and battleaxe. She guesses by their fashions – woollen cloaks, shoulder-fastened with ornate silver brooches, Guy and his squire in Frankish knee-breeches, Hawk in long russet trousers bound with linen puttees – that this has to be happening around 1066. She’s seen clothes like theirs on the Bayeux tapestry, and they changed soon after.
Like the Asars around her, she turns her eyes to scan the sky, all looking westwards. What are they expecting? She’s not long to wait. There. That speck in the sky. It fast becomes a dragon.
Ypsi is riding her.
Oh brave, brave Ypsi! But how does she know him? She envies him, fears for him, up in the sky, on the back of that beast. His yellow shimmer is visible long before the features of Skimaskall.
And that dragon is not as Neve expected. She’s more of an undulating rainbow with her high-held copper-veined wings and pearlescent scaled body. Though not that head. It is huge and horselike and sports four wide-flaring horns. The mane too isn’t silky but long and ropey. While her tail is barbed and thirty foot long.
Neve can’t turn her eyes from this fantastical beast as it circles in the sky above the watchers. But she’s not sure what she’s seeing. Is it another illusion? But it must be. Like the barrier. Though . . . it could be that Raesan really is an angel, and here he is sharing his memories with her. Whatever this is, it’s a riddle. And when has Neve ever resisted a riddle.
Next episode: Widow Cob’s Cat