“You’re going to have push now honey, come on, push!” Myrrdin’s voice was loud in my ears, but not as loud as the screams that filtered through my tired brain. What was going on? Someone should tell that person to be quiet so I could hear my mother.
“Alice? Alice! Come on, open your eyes.” Matt sounded so worried. Why was he so worried? There wasn’t anything to worry about, was there?
“She’s not opening her eyes Myrrdin, why won’t she open them?” I didn’t want to open my eyes; clearly whatever was happening was horrible, or whoever was screaming wouldn’t be making such a fuss.
“I remember this process well Matthew dear, opening one’s eyes is not the first instinct of the mother at this point.” Myrrdin’s voice sounded stressed and tired, but there was a bit of pride there too. What had I done that would make her sound like that? Something niggled at the corner of my mind and I tried to conjure it into a thought, but it eluded me.
“But she looks like it hurts so much. There’s nothing I can do to help?”
“Matthew dear, you should go wait outside with Darrian and Blake and the others. I think I can be of more help than you can at this point. Off you go. Shoo!” I could imagine the hand gesture that went along with that word, and in thinking about the dismissive wrist-flick I must have reconnected with something on the surface. My body came rushing through me and the pain hit me like a big red bus. My throat ached, everything below my ribs was on fire. My teeth hurt. How do teeth hurt? Had I been beaten up? I was just coming back, why did it hurt so much? I’d done this before and it had been confusing and bizarre and so many other things, but blindingly painful had never been one of them.
“Alice, you’re back. I know this is all very confusing but it seems something rather strange happened when your experiments backfired; I didn’t want to tell Matthew before I told you.” Her words meant absolutely nothing. I was panting for air and it didn’t seem to be there.
“Though, on the topic of Matthew, he’s a lovely lad. Very kind and caring, he won’t leave your side. It really scared him when you died. He seems like he really really wants to help, but he can’t.” I couldn’t respond. Where was the air? And why did I care that Matthew was nice?
“Breathe Alice.”Myrrdin’s voice was suddenly sharp and the shock seemed to shove air into my lungs. I gasped and rocked forwards, my whole body spasming. What was going on? I was lying down but I was so far from comfortable. Why was the hard ground the most comfortable thing about this moment?
I released a strangled sound from my throat and Mum’s hand smoothed my hair off of my face.
“You’re nearly there Alice. There’s a spiky bit coming up next, but you should be fine, come on, let your aura do all the work.” A spiky bit? What did she…. Oh.
Whatever was going on, the ‘spiky bit’- an exceptionally apt name – was pure agony. Rising from my thighs and stomach, kicking my heart and lungs and knocking all my wind away. It was wrenching pain, like nothing I had ever experienced. I screamed and my throat produced a rough scratchy sound that really sounded like a pathetic baby magpie crying for food. My aura was doing all sorts of crazy things; it was tracing over my skin healing me as injuries appeared. It was helping something out of me. Nothing was supposed to come out of me. What was this? Why was I going through this? What had that stupid picture frame done to me?
And then there was… Peace. Sort of anyway. A small prickly object began a slow slithery march up my stomach under my clothes, tiny pin pricks scattered across my body and I felt something hot touch my chin. I reached up gingerly and touched it. It was hard, bony and sharp but with two large gummy orbs on the front. A sound came from the thing and I retracted my hands.
“Oh Alice, I think it wants a hug.” What wants a hug? I looked down and nearly shrieked. The spiny hard sharp thing was a small head, no longer that my thumb. It was a little dragon, A little red dragon, with big green watery eyes and a curious flickering tongue. She looked like me, just really small and, obviously, not me.
*Hello mummy.* She was speaking to me.
*I’m sorry I couldn’t save you mum. I tried.* She was trying to save me. Of course. Because that made perfect sense.
“I know you did darling.” I reached up and stroked the crest behind her left eye, scratching lightly and watching my little baby’s eyes close in bliss. I had a little baby. How bizarre.
“You can talk to it?” Myrrdin sounded surprised. I looked up at her and I frowned a little. That was unusual?
“She’s a she Mum.” I didn’t feel like talking to Myrrdin right now; my little baby was so much better. “What should I call you? Do you have a name?” Myrrdin interrupted me.
“Alice, the point is that you name your own children.” I ignored her.
*What do you want to call me? I was thinking about something beginning with an mmmmm noise, but I don’t know. What do you like?*
“I like that kind of sound. Maybe we can work on thinking up the best possible name. In the meantime, this here is Myrrdin. She’s my mother and your grandmother.” I pointed up at the woman standing over us and my little dragonet stretched her neck its full eight inches to peer up, blinking hard.
*Hello Grandmother.* Myrrdin didn’t respond and my little one looked at me. Her mental tone was worried. *Does she hate me?*
“No, I guess she can’t hear you, that’s all lovely.”
“I can’t hear what Alice?” Myrrdin sounded more than a little miffed.
“You can’t hear her talk, can you?” Myrrdin looked mystified. That answered my question.
“Maybe it’s an acquired skill.” I looked down at myself and was horrified to see the mess; my aura had fixed whatever damage my dragonet had caused but that hadn’t removed the traces of the injuries. I washed it away with a wave of power and adjusted my clothes, changing them into my normal robes. I clambered up off the floor, one hand holding the little baby tight to my chest.
“You shouldn’t get up yet, it will take a while to recover Alice.” Myrrdin sounded like a frustrated teacher.
“I feel fine Mum, really.” I actually felt almost normal; there was something a little bit wrong maybe, at the fringes of my mind, but my body felt better than fine, and my sura felt alive and anxious to get to work.
“Where’s Matt and Blake and everyone?”
“Arthur found something outside; whales or fish or flying pigs, I haven’t the faintest idea. The boys are all very excited about it. I think we need to talk about how we’re going to handle the Last Descendants issue now you’re a mother.” Boring, but a very valid point. On one hand, a young anything is at more risk than an adult of the same species. On the other hand, my newly birthed spawn was a dragon. She didn’t feel very fragile; in fact, she felt robust and powerful. Her chest was full of fire and her eyes were bright and intelligent.
“I think it might be wise to hide away, and I think Matthew might be a good candidate as a sort of offsider. You will need someone who can handle everyday human stuff if you’re to hide away in a human abode. Darrian told me about City and Hollow Earth, and as safe and insulated as that sounds it really wouldn’t be as safe as just pretending to be human.” She was making a lot of sense. I didn’t mind spending time with Matt and the idea of playing house was like a bit of fun. On the other hand, how do you hide a dragon in a suburb? They get big, and even small they make sounds and damage things in a way most mortal creatures don’t. Matt could be really helpful in that respect; he might be able to hide her existence while keeping our cover strong.
“I think that’s a good idea Mum. I think it would be a good way to get away from the influence and work out how she factors in the prophecy. She’s red, if that means I’m no longer the last red dragon, then maybe that throws the whole thing into the water.”
“You have a good point Alice. I think I will send you and Matt on your way without out telling Arthur or Blake. Darrian is proving surprisingly useful, and seems happy to follow my orders rather than yours, if that’s okay with you?”
“I like both those ideas. Darrian gets on my nerves, he never sounds sincere. And I think it would be safer if fewer people knew where we were.”
“I was thinking one step further; I don’t want to tell Arthur about the little one at all. He’s been out the whole time and hasn’t been in since you reappeared. He didn’t realise you were giving birth and neither did Blake or Darrian. With Matthew in your presence, only you, he and I will be in the possession of the knowledge relating to her birth.”
“And he would never betray us, so we should be safe.”
“I don’t know why you characterise the chances as ‘never’, but I will trust your judgement there, on that count. I think you should leave in haste. I will clean up here;” I looked down and saw the mess I had made. The blood looked sticky and altogether unpleasant. I could smell it too and it made my stomach feel funny, like a mixture of raw egg and fresh meat. “And you will leave with your new companion; use the Library and let him pick the place. Go somewhere you’ve never been before and try and keep your profile low.”
“I think I should leave straight away. Could you go fetch Matt? I’ll wait here.” Myrrdin nodded and left. I stood cradling my newborn against my chest. She poked her head out and licked the underside of chin.
*What’s going on? Are we going somewhere?*
“Yes lovely, we will go with a man named Matt – and now, be careful, he’s not like either of us, his mother was completely mortal – and he will help hide us. Matt is like your dad, he would probably like it if you called him that.”
*What if he can’t hear me? Like grandma?*
“I don’t know love, we will work it out. I thought of a name for you too. A couple of really strong ones. Do you want me to list them then you tell me what you like?”
*I would love to hear ideas.*
“Well you like the mmmm sound, so maybe Maple? That suits your colouring. Or maybe Mab? That’s a very powerful name. Magnus? I know it’s more of a male name, but the name really reminds me of something grand; like the name you might give a storm or a natural disaster.”
*I would like to be a natural disaster.* That sounded odd to my ear. She wanted to be a disaster?
“I think you’re too lovely and sweet to be a disaster.”
*Well whatever you think, I think Magnus is a lovely name. I want that one. Magnus.*
“Okay Magnus. You’re my little Magnus.” She preened against me and the hum of her purrs were strong enough to make my ribs vibrate.
“Alice? Alice, you’re okay? Oh thank the… What is going on? I don’t know much about this whole childbirth thing but I’m pretty sure there’s at least a week of bed rest involved.” I opened my mouth to correct his assumption but my mother beat me to it.
“Matthew, that might be the case for human women, but spook females are surprisingly repairable. I feel the need to point out that she will be tired for a few days and you will both have a very new routine. Alice, I explained to Matthew everything he needs to know, I’ll leave you to make introductions, but I think we really ought to get moving.” I nodded. Matt did too; he looked really eager to get started on our witness protection-style scheme. “I think the best way will be for you three to come through my Library, don’t you Alice?” Why would it matter?
“That sounds fine, but Matt gets to pick the place we go to, and you’re not to know.”
“Agreed.” Matt sounded very firm and self assured. I wasn’t surprised to hear the tone, but aimed at my mother was a bit less than expected. How long had he known her? Long enough to be comfortable talking to her like she was somewhere between an acquaintance and a sibling?
“That’s settled then. Matt, I’ll introduce you to my little bundle of joy when we get there. First off, let’s go Mum.”
“Right, follow me then you three.” Myrrdin sounded a bit exasperated but she withdrew her key from the folds of her robes and walked to where someone had carved a doorway into the icy wall and made a slit that operated as a keyhole. Magnus stirred but I placed my hand over her head, keeping her secure and safe. We followed her to the door and she opened it, letting first Magnus and I then Matt through before shutting it behind her. She led us to a tall mirror about four feet wide and lightly let her fingers rest on the knob; I knew what it was, it would let us go wherever we wanted, and we didn’t need a key. It was like the portal I had shoved Sophie through, except I didn’t need a key to do it this time, and I wouldn’t be shoving anyone through.
“Just open this and step through, Matthew first as he will pick the destination. You know how this works Alice, don’t you?” I nodded and relayed the story of Sophie falling through mine. She smiled and chuckled. “That does sound amusing. A little worrying that she didn’t realise that the key wouldn’t help. She’s a spook, she should know about the mirrors.”
“You would think so.” I looked at Matt and smiled politely. He smiled back and I watched his eyes flicker between my face and the lump on my chest. I could tell he was curious about my child, but I wasn’t sure how he was going react when he saw her little scaley demonic face.
“Do you know where we are going Matt?” That was essential, I didn’t know what would happen if he went through the frame without having a clear idea of what was on the other side. Would we end up in the middle of nowhere?
“I’ve got a lovely little place in mind. Ready to follow me into the unknown?”
“Ready as ever.” I smiled and Myrrdin gave me a strange look, cocking her head and narrowing her eyes slightly as if trying to figure something out. What was so odd about what I had said? Was it too much for me to say that? Was I acting like a girlfriend or something? Was that the wrong thing to do?
“Good, so I just open this and step through?”
“Yes Matthew, just step through. I would hold his hand Alice, the door can shut pretty easily and you don’t want to end up in two different places. I could do that. I reached out and grasped Matt’s hand. He smiled at me and squeezed my fingers together in what I think was meant to be a reassuring gesture. It might have worked too, assuming I had needed reassuring. We stepped through the darkness and I felt my feet leave any solid surface for a moment. I tried to focus on the pressure on my hand but it seemed to fade into nothing. Then I was standing in the bright sunshine on a little garden path running between a quaint hedged lane and a beautiful cottage with climbing roses around the doorframe and potted carnations and violets in under the eaves. It was like the cottage Red Riding Hood’s grandmother lived in, only hopefully without the wolf in human clothing. The yard seemed nicely enclosed and the trees looked like something Magnus might like climbing in and flying between.
“Do you like it?” Matt sounded very hopeful.
“I love it, honestly it kind of reminds me of the place I grew up. How did you know where it was? Where are we anyway?” I craned my neck, searching for any landmarks.
“It was my mum’s house, after she moved away from the monastery. We’re in the middle of the north of England, I’m not sure what the village is called, I didn’t ever pay attention as a kid, but I guess we could find that out when we go for a walk later to see the sights.”
“Oh that would be nice. Would you like to meet Magnus now?” Magnus wriggled excitedly and automatically my hand clamped down on the back of her head, holding her still and keeping her safe against my skin.
“That’s the name she chose from the selection I gave her. She seemed to like it. I’m fairly sure it’s a boy’s name, but she really likes the sound it makes so she’s keeping it.”
“That’s very well then. Should you really be smothering her under all those layers?”
“I’ll introduce you two inside the house.” I ushered him down the path and he quickly took the lead, unlocking the door by tracing particular shapes on the brassy doorknob. He then held the door wide open and let me step across the threshold. I was temporarily distracted by the feeling of crossing into the house; I could sense the power coming through the runes on the door and it surprised me that a half-blood with no aura could control that kind of potential. I shook my head and properly paid attention to the house in front of me. I studied the inside of the room; it was warm, with a smooth off-white finish to the walls and a warm wooden mantle hugging a tall narrow fireplace. It felt immediately like home. What a perfect little place.
“Do you want to sit down? Babies’ heads are very heavy you know, their necks need all the support they can get.” He was adorable, lecturing me on the care of children. As if he assumed that a child I produced without actually sleeping with anyone would be ‘normal’.
“I wouldn’t say her neck needs help of any kind Matt. Come on Magnus, out you get.” I let my hand loosen and the little dragon slithered up to my collarbone, hauling herself onto my shoulder and wrapping around the back of my neck. She reared her head back and, after touching the rim of my ear with her tongue, she turned her cool eyes on Matt. I expected Matt to scream, to yell, something, but his silence was solid. His eyes roved over me and my daughter, the whites of his eyes were visible all around his irises. His pupils had become so big that they appeared to be trying to suck us both in; I could see Magnus’ enquiring eyes reflected in them. She was concerned, I could feel it through our link, and she was getting more and more worried that her dad was going to say he didn’t like her. I didn’t really know where she got the concept of ‘dad’ from but I didn’t feel the need to correct her. Her worry was all consuming and my heart rate started to rise as her fears touched me deeply. I didn’t want her to feel rejected; I never wanted my little baby to feel like she didn’t belong. When the silence had stretched for too long I reached up and cupped her head, pulling it gently to my cheek so I could feel the cool but warm scales rub the skin there. She felt so good, and her little tongue was rough like a cat’s, but dry. It touched the side of my nose and I turned away from our stunned companion to examine the furnishings. Magnus showed keen interest in the curtains and when I got within a foot of them she reached out, her talons extended to their fullest extent in a bid to reach for the lacey fabric. She probably wanted to climb them, so I pulled her away from them and began to wander towards the stairs in the corner. I could hear Matt following us but I ignored him. I climbed the stairs and Magnus flapped a bit on my shoulders, catching herself and maintaining her balance as my weight shifted from stair to stair.
*He’s following us. Do we want him following us?*
What an astute little critter she was. What a good question.
“I don’t know, I’ll ask. Matt, why are you following us?” I stopped midway up the stairs, two steps from the landing, and looked down at him. He was following at a distance. He looked at me like a deer caught in the headlights again and for a second I appreciated what a scary vision we must have been; a tall young woman garbed in robes of a forgotten era and a small but still frightening visage straight out of every seminal mythology. And Matt was just… Just him. He wasn’t any more interesting than when I’d first seen him; if anything he had gotten more ordinary looking. How could that be? I cocked my head and examined him more closely. Maybe he was dressed too much like a human. Maybe I was just too focussed on Magnus. I was a mother ultimately, right? I had a little one and she was wrapped around my shoulders and making rude faces at Matt down the stairs.
“Magnus, stop it, it’s not polite.” She ignored me so I wrapped one hand around her snout and held it still until she calmed down. She stopped whining after a few seconds and lay still. I let her go.
“Now. Behave. Maybe go check out upstairs. Avoid windows little one.” I lifted her awkwardly off my shoulders and placed her on the floor. She paused, looking up over her shoulder like a puppy seeking permission. I smiled and nodded and she scampered up the stairs, disappearing around the corner. “There’s nothing she could hurt herself on up there is there?” I began to walk back down towards Matt as I spoke. He backed down, his heels catching on each stair on the way.
“She’s a dragon what could possibly hurt her?”
“I don’t know, large boxes falling on her head? Particularly vicious owls? Let’s go down stairs. You didn’t exactly handle the big reveal the way I would have expected you to.” My voice was dismissive and a little cold but I didn’t care enough to apologise or soften my tone. I passed him and he hurried to follow me down into the living room. Matt sounded winded when he responded.
“It’s not like it was an expected surprise. My baby is a dragon, how on earth did that happen?”
“Your baby?” What was he talking about? He couldn’t lay any claim on Magnus, she was my dragon, my inner beast.
“Well after what, uh, happened, in the monastery, and then you died and then you were giving birth I just made assumptions that the baby was mine, but it can’t possibly be can it? I mean, there’s no dragon blood in me.”
“The dragon is a manifestation of my powers, you know the big scary caley thing I turn into from time to time? Well that is it. In a small, albeit weak form. She’s always existed, whatever he frame did just gave her physical form outside of me. And what do you mean? Nothing happened at the monastery. ”
“You seem to have a very good grip on this, and I distinctly remember you and I doing something. Well, at least, I think I do. ”
“I feel like I should, considering the circumstances. I’m not sure how I know, I just do. Magnus feels so familiar, and I can remember her calling me her mother and trying to fend off the power of the frame just before I died. She was doing a pretty good job but there didn’t seem to be much fighting it; the strength and intensity of it was too much for anything.”
“So the frame didn’t harm her? It just killed you?”
What an odd way to think about it. It hadn’t harmed Magnus in the slightest. It had forced us apart and made her into her own being, but apart from that she had fared a lot better than I had from the whole experiment. I wasn’t sure how to respond to his allegations surrounding the monastery incident; I wasn’t totally naive in the terms of intercourse and I knew sort of what he was talking about but I did not remember anything untoward occurring in the bedroom department at the monastery. We’d shared a hug of relief, and then he’d gone to sleep. Nothing that would have made a child most definitely. I decided to just drop it and maybe bring it up later when I thought it might be a better move to make. Or at least at a time that I had the energy to approach this clearly complicated subject. I was no longer a nanny, why did I need to have a ‘bird and bees’ talk with someone I was not babysitting?
“Apparently. Maybe me dying dispersed the energy or something, I don’t know.”
“I had this whole ruse planned in which we pretended to be a newlywed couple with a new baby and interacted with our neighbours and made friends and did all those normal human things. That’s not going to work if our newborn breathes fire in the creche and kills all the other toddlers.”
“I guess we need to come up with a new ruse then.” He was not wrong; and even if Magnus did not kill her creche mates, she was far from a human child.
“How big is she going to get? You were huge when you shifted but right now she could fit in a large handbag. And how fast is she going to reach that kind of size? It might be completely unsustainable to do anything at all to pretend to be normal if in a few weeks we’re going to have to explain a dragon the size of a house in our backyard.” He sure found the real questions. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to answer them.
I stood in silence, pondering those gravest of questions, and suddenly there was a giant crash upstairs. I turned and ran as fast as I could up the stairs, my arms spread wide and my hands balancing me between the wall and the railing to maintain my balance and speed. I flew down the corridor at the top and finally came to an old and dusty room with a distinct odour of ash and soot emanating from it. I braced myself for carnage and entered.