Ferryman by Claire McCall
Three floors of uniform boxes in various stages of disrepair, the school, Dylan was sure, had been designed to curb enthusiasm, creativity and, most importantly, spirit. Registration was in Miss Parson's room on the top floor – another tired-looking cube that the teacher had tried to brighten with posters and wall displays. Strangely, her efforts only made the room more depressing – especially now, filled with thirty clones chattering inconsequential rubbish as if it were life-altering drama.
Then she grabbed one last, important item from the bed. Egbert. Her teddy. He was greying with age and fairly battered, with one eye missing and a slight tear along the back seam, out of which the stuffing was making a desperate bid to escape. He'd never win a beauty contest, but he'd been with her since she was a baby and having him near her made her feel safe and comforted.
She wanted to take him, but if her dad saw Egbert he'd think she was a baby. She hugged him to her chest, undecided. Then she put him on the bed. She drew back her hand and looked at him. He seemed to stare back, looking unwanted and abandoned. Instantly feeling guilty, Dylan grabbed him and placed him gently on top of her clothes. She zipped up the bag, then half unzipped it and chucked him back out. This time he fell face down and couldn't gaze forlornly at her with his one accusing eye. She zipped up the bag again and walked determinedly out of the room. Egbert lay discarded on the middle of the bed. Exactly twenty seconds later, she dashed back in and grabbed him.
"Sorry, Egbert," she whispered, kissing him quickly before stuffing him into the bag as she ran out of the door.
Tristan sighed. He had known that this point had been coming, but had hoped to postpone it as long as possible. But there were no parlour tricks or games that could gloss over what had happened. Dylan had seen and felt those things. They could not be explained away as wild animals. He had no choice but to be honest with her. He wasn't sure where to start, how to explain in a way she would understand, how to break it to her and yet cause the least amount of pain.
Reluctantly he crossed the room and sat down on the bench beside her. He didn't look at her, but stared at his interlaced fingers, as if hoping to find the answers there.
Normally, when revealing the truth became an unavoidable necessity, he just blurted it out. He told himself that a short, sharp shock was better than drawing it out painfully. But in reality, it was because he didn't care. Whether they cried, sobbed, begged or tried to bargain, there was no changing things. He just turned off and waited it out until they accepted the inevitable, and then the two of them could go forward together in mutual understanding. But this time… this time he didn't want to.
Sitting close enough to feel her breath on his face, he turned his head and gazed into her green eyes, a luscious, deep green that made him think of forests and nature, and felt a twist in his stomach and a tightening in his chest. He didn't want to hurt her. He wasn't quite sure why, but he felt a yearning need to protect this one, more than he'd ever felt for any of the others.
"I'm sorry, Dylan," he added, not as an afterthought, but sincerely. Although he didn't understand the reason, he hated inflicting pain on her, wished he could take it back. But there was no undoing what had been done. These things were set in stone. He did not have the power to change them, and it would be wrong to do so even if he could. It was not his place to play God. He watched her blink twice, saw the realisation settle into her being. Any second now the flood of emotion would begin. He hardly dared to breathe, waiting on tenterhooks. He was afraid of her tears.
"How many people have you…" Dylan paused, unsure how to phrase her question. "… guided over?"
He looked up, and this time there was a definite sadness in his eyes. "I honestly couldn't tell you. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, probably. I've been doing this a long time."
"How old are you?" Dylan asked.
This was a question that he could answer, but didn't want to. He sensed if she knew the truth, if she knew how long he had lingered here – not learning, growing and experiencing the way a human did, but simply being – then the delicate connection between them would break. She would see him as old, someone strange and other, and he found that he didn't want that. He attempted to make a joke out of it.
"How old do I look?" He held out his arms and offered himself up for inspection.
"Sixteen," she said, "but you can't be. Is that when you died? Can you not age?"
"In technical terms, I've never really lived," he replied, a wistfulness in his eyes. Quickly that gave way to a more guarded expression. He had already let slip more than he should. Mercifully, she seemed to read that in his expression, and asked no more questions.
She felt Tristan's eyes on her, and when she twisted round to sit down on the mattress, noticed his gaze was evaluating her.
"What?" she asked, smiling slightly. Now that the truth was out in the open she felt, oddly, much more comfortable around him. It was as if the secret had been a wedge keeping her in the cold.
He couldn't help smiling back at her. "I'm just astonished at your response, that's all. Not one tear." His voice tailed off as her smile fell, and sadness took its place.
"What good will crying do?" she asked, with the wisdom of a much older soul. She sighed. "I'm going to try to sleep."
"You're safe here. I'll keep watch."
And she did feel safe, knowing he was there, alert. Her protector.
"I'm glad it's you," she mumbled, just as sleep overcame her.
Tristan's face was confused, unsure of her meaning, but it made him happy all the same. He watched her sleep for a long time, looking at the shadows of the fire flicker and play across her face, untroubled in unconsciousness. A strange longing to touch her, to stroke down her smooth cheek and brush away the hair that fell over her eyes, came over him, but he didn't move from where he sat. It was simply her youth and vulnerability that was bringing out these feelings in him, he told himself. He was her guide, her temporary protector. Nothing more.
In the dream, Tristan held her hand as they walked, slowly weaving in and out of the trunks, following no set path but simply choosing a winding route to nowhere. Her skin seemed to burn where his hand touched it, but she was frightened even to twitch her fingers in case he let go.
They didn't speak, but it didn't feel uncomfortable to Dylan. They were content just to be near each other, and words would have ruined the peace of this beautiful place.
In the cottage, as she slept, Tristan watched her smile.
"Did I die in the wasteland winter?" Dylan's eyes were slightly amused, but also intrigued. She wanted to know more about this strange place.
Tristan stared at her, deliberating over how much to tell her. Guides were supposed to deliver their souls across the wasteland and nothing else. Most, when they discovered where they really were and what had happened to them, were too absorbed in their own sorrow and self-pity to show much interest in this road between the real world and the end. Dylan was not like any other soul he'd ever encountered. She had accepted the truth calmly, with no outbursts. Now the eyes that examined him were simply questioning, curious. And a little more information might make it easier for her to accept and understand, he argued with himself, but in truth, he wanted to share it with her. He wanted a way to be closer to her. He took a deep breath and chose.
"No," He smiled. "It's your fault."
He had to bite his lip to stop himself from laughing. Her reaction was exactly as he had expected: perplexed and a little bit outraged. Her eyebrows furrowed and her lips pursed, her eyes narrowing to green slits.
He raised his head to look at her, and pain seemed to darken the blue of his eyes. He shrugged, and his words came out stiltingly. "I appear to each soul in the most suitable way. I keep that shape till I meet the next soul. I don't know what I was before I met my first soul, if I was anything. I exist because you need me."
Tristan saw the regret, guilt and – worst of all – pity in her eyes and felt a confusing mixture of emotions. On the one hand, there was a kind of perverse pleasure that she cared enough about his pain to feel sorry for him, but also a niggling frustration that she was making him think about things that he’d long since accepted and come to terms with. For the first time in a long while he felt aggrieved at his lot in life. At the never-ending circular prison his existence amounted to. All of those selfish souls who had lied, cheated, wasted the life they had been given; a gift he could never have and longed for.
"What's it like?" Dylan suddenly asked him.
"What's what likd?"
He watched her purse her lips, searching for words to phrase her question.
"Ferrying all these people; taking them all the way across, then watching them disappear, or go over, or whatever. It must be hard. I bet some of them don’t even deserve it."
Tristan stared at her, astonished by the question. Nobody, not one soul of all the thousands he’d guided over, had ever asked him that. And what answer to give? The truth was hard, but he didn’t want to lie to her.
"At first, I didn’t really think about it. I had a job, and I did it. It seemed the most important thing in the world to protect each soul, to keep it safe. It took a long time before I started to see some of the people for what they really were. Who they really were. I stopped pitying them; stopped being kind. They didn’t deserve it." Tristan’s voice twisted as bitterness coated his tongue. He breathed in deeply, pushing the resentment back down, glossing over it with the facade of indifference that he’d perfected over time. "They cross over, and I have to watch them walk away. That’s how it is."
It had been like that for a long time now. Then this one had come along, and she was so different that it was knocking him out of the role that he usually played. He’d been fairly horrible to her – sneering, patronising, making fun of her – but he couldn’t help it. She had him off-balance, off-kilter somehow. She was no angel, he knew that, saw it in the million different memories of hers that played in his head, but there was something unusual – no, special – about her. He felt guilt stir in the pit of his stomach as she squirmed uncomfortably in the chair, compassion and borrowed sorrow etched across her face.
"Who's been the worst soul?" She asked quietly.
"You." He smiled, but the gesture didn't reach his eyes.
He did prefer the start of the journey when the souls drifted out of consciousness and he could be almost alone. Sleep was like a curtain, shielding him, even if only for a few hours, from their selfishness, their ignorance. He was staggered that this… this girl would have the compassion, the selflessness to think about his feelings, his needs. He glanced over at her, huddled in the chair, looking for all the world like she wanted to disappear into the ancient cushions. He felt moved to do something to take the awkward blush from her cheeks.
Tristan dropped his grip on her arms and took a step forward. He wound his arms around her waist, hugging her tightly, their full bodies touching. Dylan froze a little at the close contact, her pulse racing. She hoped he couldn’t hear it. Squeezing her hard, he pulled backwards. Dylan felt the mud start to loosen its grip on her legs. With a disgusting, plopping sound, the bog finally released her. Without the marsh to hold her, Tristan’s pulling launched her forward. She let out a sound that was a cross between a yelp and a cackle as he staggered backwards, trying to keep his balance. Splodges of muddy water splashed up and spattered their faces and hair.
Tristan’s arms tightened around her as he tried to stop the two of them from falling into the marsh. Taking a couple of awkward steps backwards, he finally managed to steady them. Looking down, he saw Dylan’s mud-freckled face staring up at him and he was caught for a second in the dazzling green of her eyes as she laughed.
Held tight in Tristan’s embrace, Dylan swayed, not yet sure of her feet and still a little giddy. She grinned up at him, momentarily losing her shyness. He was staring right back at her. The moment deepened and the laughter died in Dylan’s throat. Suddenly it was hard to breathe. She drew in shallow gasps and her lips parted slightly.
The next instant, he had released her. He stepped away and looked off towards the hills. Dylan stared at him, confused. What had that been? She had thought he’d wanted to kiss her, but now he didn’t even seem to want to look at her. It was very puzzling, and not a little embarrassing. Had she just made a fool of herself? She wasn’t even sure. She stared at the only safe place: the ground.
"We should get going," he said, his voice oddly rough.
"Right," Dylan mumbled, still slightly dazed. He turned and splodged on, and she traipsed after him.
Tristan waded ahead through the bog, trying to put a little distance between them to give him time to think. He was perplexed. For decades, maybe even centuries – it was hard to accurately count the passage of time in the wasteland – he had protected and guided souls as they made their journey. In the beginning he had taken the role to heart in a way that had proved impossible to sustain. He had cared for each one, listened to their stories and tried to comfort them over the loss of their lives and futures and, of course, the pain of leaving those they loved behind. Each soul that waved goodbye at the end of the journey had taken a small piece of him with them, torn off a tiny piece of his heart. After a while, he had hardened. He no longer reached out to them, and so they could not get inside him. In the past few years, guiding souls had been little more than a chore. He had spoken as little as possible, and attempted to hide the truth for as long as possible. He had been a cold machine. A sat nav for the dead.
This girl had somehow managed to cause his old self to resurface. She had uncovered the truth at an astonishingly early stage, and had accepted it with more maturity than many who had spent a full life on Earth. She treated him like a person. Here in the wasteland that was a rare thing. Souls were too wrapped up in their own demise to even entertain the thought that their guide was someone. She was a soul worth protecting. A soul worth caring about. A soul that he wanted to give a piece of himself to.
But there was something more than that. He couldn’t define the feeling. Holding her in his arms had caused something inside him to stir. Odd feelings, feelings that had him thinking about her instead of watching the sun lowering dangerously in the sky. He felt almost… human. That couldn’t be right, but Tristan had no other word for it. Human.
But he wasn’t. He shook himself awake with a jolt. Feelings like this were dangerous; they could cause him to lose his focus. They put Dylan at risk; they needed to be smothered.
Run, she repeated to herself. Run! But she couldn’t move. Her legs were frozen, as if they had forgotten how to function. She had always laughed scornfully at the victims in horror movies who were paralysed by fright and fell foul of the crazed axe-murdering villain, but here she was, indisputably immobilised by fear.
It was impossible to move. Cold hands gripped her insides and twisted, chilling her to the bone and taking her breath away. Every inch of her longed to stop. To lay down on the ground and have the demons pull her gently downward to where it would be dark and she could sleep. A place where she could cease struggling and be at peace.
Suddenly Tristan’s words burst into her head. "You run towards it and you don’t look back. Once you’re through the door, you’re safe." With it came an image of his face, speaking to her earnestly.
Sheer will drove her forward, step by step, towards the open door. Every movement was agony, every breath stabbing pain. Her body screamed at her to stop, to give in, but she determinedly and doggedly pushed on. As she inched closer, the screaming, howling and hissing intensified. The demons doubled their attack, pulling and ripping and scratching at her. They swirled around her face and attempted to blind her eyes. Just a few metres away she fell to her knees, exhausted. Screwing her eyes shut tight, she forced her aching lungs to breathe and began to crawl. The ground was cold under her hands, small stones scraping at her palms and digging into her knees. Move, she thought desperately. Just move.
She knew instantly when she had crossed over the threshold. The noise died away immediately and the cold chill inside her dissolved into a numb ache. Spent, she collapsed onto the floor, breathing hard.
"Tristan, we made it," she croaked, unable to lift her head from the floor.
He did not answer. And there was no sound of breathing behind her, no movement in the cottage. The ice in her heart returned, multiplied tenfold. She was afraid to turn around.
"Tristan?" she whispered.
Dylan rolled over onto her back. She lay there for a moment, too scared to open her eyes, afraid of what she might see. Her need to know won out. She forced her eyelids open and surveyed the scene before her.
Unable to speak, she let out a pitiful whimper. The doorway was empty, the night outside black.
Tristan hadn't made it.
Dylan didn’t know how long she lay on the floor. She couldn’t take her eyes from the doorway. Any moment Tristan was going to walk through it, windswept, breathless, but fine. He was going to appear and be okay and take control. He had to. Her heart was crashing in her chest, straining painfully against muscles that felt locked in stone. Completely drained from her exertions, her body started to shake.
After what may have been mere minutes, but felt like an eternity, the cold seeped through from the floor and penetrated to the very core of her bones. Her trembling limbs began to seize up, and she knew she had to move.
Her muscles protested painfully, making her groan as she pulled herself up into a sitting position. She still didn’t dare take her eyes from the doorway. Tristan was going to arrive any second, as long as she kept looking. Somewhere at the back of her mind a small voice told her that this was ridiculous, but she held on to the belief, because it was the only thing keeping the panic from rising up in her throat and erupting in uncontrollable screaming.
They held, but continued to sputter because of the draft. Dylan turned and looked at the door. Closing it felt like closing her hope, and meant closing the door on Tristan. But she couldn’t lose the fire. Feeling as if she was moving in slow motion, she rose and walked over to the door. She paused there, fighting a desire to run out into the night in a desperate attempt to find Tristan. That would mean surrendering herself to the demons, though, and Tristan wouldn’t want that. Unable to watch, she shut her eyes, and then the door.
As the latch clicked closed, something broke within Dylan. Tears blinding her, she blundered sightless across the room until she met what felt like a bed. She threw herself onto it and gave way to the sobs that threatened to overwhelm her. Panic engulfed her, and she battled desperate cravings to run and scream and break things.
"Oh God, oh God, oh God," she repeated again and again in between gasping sobs. What was she going to do? Without Tristan she had no idea where she was going. She would get lost, wander till it was dark and then be a sitting duck for the demons. Or would she have to stay here, and wait? But who would come for her? If she didn’t need to eat or drink, would she wait here for an eternity, like a cursed princess in some ridiculous fairy tale, hoping for a prince to come and rescue her?
And then other thoughts crept into her head. The loneliness and fear dragged up issues that hadn’t had a chance to surface since the crash. Visions of Joan swam before her eyes. She imagined where she might be now, whether there had been a funeral held yet. In her mind’s eye she pictured her mum receiving the call at the hospital, saw the devastated look on her face, her perfectly arched eyebrows crumpling as her hand reached up to cover her mouth, as if she could hold the truth out. Dylan thought of all the arguments they’d ever had, of all the mean things she’d said and never meant, and all the things she wanted to say and never had. Their last proper conversation had been a fight about seeing her dad. She could still remember telling her mother she was going to visit him, could remember the look on her face. Joan had stared at Dylan as if she’d betrayed her.
This thought wove into another as naturally as day follows night. Her dad. How had he reacted? Who had told him? Had he mourned for the daughter he’d never really known?
All of a sudden her situation, her death, hit home. It wasn’t fair. How much could she be expected to lose? Her future, her family, her friends… all were gone. Now her ferryman, too? No, not just her ferryman. Tristan. Stolen away, just like everything else. Dylan didn’t think she had any tears left, but as his face burst into her mind, more bubbled over, hot and salty on her cheeks.
It was the longest night Dylan had ever endured. Every time she closed her eyes, haunting images flashed through her head: Joan, Tristan, a father figure who was terrifying without a face, flickers of the nightmare from the train. Slowly, sluggishly, it passed. The fire dimmed to an orange glow, and the dark outside dissolved into a soft light that filtered through the windows. The first rays of dawn chased away the colourless grey and brought life to the cottage, but Dylan didn’t notice. She continued to stare at the logs in the fire till the warm colours of heat had dimmed to grey ash and the spent pieces of wood could do nothing but smoke softly in their grate. Her body seemed to have turned to stone. Her mind was shell-shocked, and took refuge in stupor.
It took until mid-morning for her to realise that the light meant that she was free to escape her haven that was somehow also a prison. She could search for Tristan. What if he was lying somewhere in the valley, hurt and bleeding? What if he was waiting for her to come and find him?
She eyed the door, still closed against the terrors of the wasteland. Tristan was out there, but so were the wraiths. Were the valley’s shadows deep enough and dark enough for them to attack? Would the morning light be strong enough to keep her safe?
When she thought about going out into the wasteland, on her own… her entire being shied away from the idea./span>
But Tristan was out there.
"Get up, Dylan," she told herself. "Don’t be so pathetic."
She hauled her tired body, grumbling from yesterday’s enforced exercise, off the bed and over to the door. She paused with her hand on the handle, took a deep breath, then another, and tried to make herself grip the doorknob, twist and pull it open. Her fingers refused to obey.
"Cut it out," she muttered.
Tristan needed her.
Holding that thought in her head, she swung open the door.
Gliding across the surface, climbing the hills and wandering up the pathway, were hundreds upon hundreds of what looked like… well, Dylan couldn’t even find the words. They were human and yet looked formless, only the briefest outline identifying their age and gender. Dylan looked closely at the ones nearest to her. They seemed not to see her, not even to be aware that they were really there. They were intent on only one thing – on following the brightly glowing orb that radiated in front of each of them.
Every figure was shadowed by a host of black spectres that hovered around their heads and circled in front of them. Dylan drew in a panicked breath as she watched them, fearful for each of the figures, but though the wraiths swirled in the air around them, they kept their distance. It was the orbs, she realised suddenly. The wraiths didn’t want to get close to the pulsing balls of light, though where the shadows were heaviest she noticed they glowed less brightly and the demons dared to swoop more closely. Little cogs clicked into place at the back of her head as she stared.
She was one of those things. This was the real wasteland. And Tristan was her orb. Without her orb, could she even step outside safely? If she left the safe house now could the demons attack her even though it was daytime? The only way to be sure was to step outside the protective charm of the cottage. Could she do that? She swayed gently in the doorway as she thought about it. No. Tilting out, she caught the hiss and wail of wraiths. That was enough. Horrified, she stepped back and slammed the door. She leaned her back against it, as if she could hold the wraiths at bay. Her strength lasted only a few more seconds before she sank to the ground, wrapped her hands around her legs, dropped her head to her knees and began to sob.
"Tristan, I need you," she whispered. "I need you!" Her voice cracked and broke as tears tumbled forth. "Where are you?" she cried, her lips trembling so much that the words were little more than a confused mumble. "I need you…"
She was trapped. Not only did she not know where she needed to go, but if she stepped outside, the demons would get her. The only safe place was here in the cottage, but how long could she stay here? How long could she wait for Tristan?
Minutes sauntered by, but after a while Dylan pulled herself together a little. She stood up and dragged a chair over to the window. She settled into it and leaned her head on her folded arms, which she rested against the windowsill. The view was the same as from the front door. A crimson desert dotted with drifting souls blindly following and being followed. It was mesmerising to watch. Seeing the demons still made her stomach churn, remembering the feel of their claws and the screaming in her ears.
The thought of facing them again caused a trickle of sweat to slither down her back. She knew that she would not be able to walk outside today. It was still possible that Tristan was out there, trying to make his way back to her. She had to hold on to that hope. She could wait at least another day.
After a brilliant sunset of oranges, reds and burgundies, the sky grew black. With the darkness came the whistling and screaming around the cottage. Dylan had long since lit the fire – this time in the light with matches she had found on top of the mantelpiece. It had been a much longer process than the previous night, but finally she had coaxed the flame to grow and devour the twigs. Now the large logs had caught and it was crackling and spitting, providing warmth and comforting light. She had abandoned her post at the window. The darkness frightened her, and she could not tell who was outside, watching her. Instead she lay on the bed and gazed at the flames till her eyes drooped as she slipped into semi-consciousness.
When she awoke hours later it was still pitch black outside. She looked up at the ceiling, and just for a few moments she could have been anywhere. In her cramped room at home, surrounded by posters of a certain film star and cuddly bears, or in a strange room in Aberdeen getting ready for another day of getting to know her dad. But she wasn't in either of these places. She was in a safe house. And she was dead. A steel band wrapped itself around her ribs. She couldn't breathe. Tears threatened, and she struggled to hold them in.
The cottage was warm. The fire that she had so carefully constructed still blazed in the grate and sent shadows dancing across the walls, but that wasn't what had pulled her from sleep. Turning over onto her side to watch the flames, she noticed the true reason for her waking. A figure was silhouetted against the light of the fire, unmoving. Fear flooded her and she froze, but as her eyes adjusted, the outline began to take shape, a familiar shape. A shape that Dylan had feared she would never see again.
"Tristan!" Dylan gasped. She jumped off the bed, almost falling in her haste to cross the room. He stood as she approached and, forgetting herself, she threw her arms around him in relief. Quiet sobs escaped her, making her chest shake. She nestled her head into his shoulder and let herself drown in the ocean of safety and pleasure that engulfed her.
Tristan stood immobilised for a moment, but then wrapped his arms around her and squeezed her tightly to him. He rubbed her back with one hand as she continued to cry into his chest.
Eventually Dylan felt the rush of emotions subside into calm, and she drew herself away from him, as the awkwardness returned. She had little experience of being held by boys, and her head was a whirlwind of confused emotions. A blush warmed her cheeks slightly, but she forced herself to look up into his eyes.
"Hi," she whispered. His back was to the flames, his face hidden in shadow.
"Hi," he replied, the smile evident in his voice.
Tristan’s face was barely recognisable. One eye was puffy and almost closed; the other bloodshot. His jaw was bruised and swollen, and one cheek had a deep gash running the length of it. He struggled to smile, but the attempt clearly hurt. Even in the dark, his eyes conveyed the suffering he had endured. Dylan reached a hand up to stroke his face, but hesitated, afraid to cause him any more pain.
"It doesn’t matter," he replied. "It’s nothing."
Dylan shook her head slowly. It wasn’t nothing. Tristan’s face had been ravaged, mutilated. Was that because of her?
"Shh," he soothed. "I told you, it’s nothing. You’re still sleeping," he commented, an obvious attempt to change the subject.
She nodded. "It was just to pass the time."
"Do you think you could sleep more?" She shook her head before his sentence was finished. "Well, at the very least you should lie down and rest, tomorrow we have far to go."
Dylan stared at him with pleading eyes. She knew he was trying to avoid discussion of where he'd been, but it felt as though he didn't want to talk to her about anything. She felt rejected. She'd thrown herself at him and made her joy at his return very obvious. Now she just felt foolish. Her eyes smarting, she folded her arms across her chest. He seemed to sense her emotions. He reached and caught one of her hands, pulling it gently away from her side.
"Come on, lie down. I'll stay with you."
"I…" she was hesitant, uncertain.
His voice was a low murmur in the dark. "Lie down with me," he coaxed. "Please."
He shuffled backwards till he was leaning against the wall and pulled her over beside his chest. She nestled into his side, feeling self-conscious but safe. He didn't seem to want to speak, but was content to lie there beside her. Dylan smiled to herself and allowed herself to relax for the first time in two days.
In the mornin light Tristan’s injuries looked even more horrific. His left eye was a blur of blue and black shadows, and his jaw was covered in shades of purple, brown and yellow. The gash down his cheek was beginning to close, but the dried blood stood out starkly against his white skin. He also had several long scratches down his arms. As the morning chased the gloom from the cottage, Dylan traced her fingers down one particularly vicious-looking wound that ran the length of Tristan’s forearm. She still lay in his arms, and though she felt incredibly comfortable and secure there, she was afraid to speak and break the silence.
"We should get going," Tristan whispered in her ear. His voice was soft and low, his breath tickled her neck and sent a shiver down her spine. Embarrassed, she jumped off the bed and away from him, coming to a standstill in the middle of the room, opposite a window. She glanced out of it and saw that the wasteland, her wasteland was back.
"Oh." Dylan was quiet for a minute, but she continued to sneak looks at Tristan, wondering if it was alright to pose the question that she really wanted to ask.
He caught one of her sidelong looks. "You want to know what happened to me," he guessed. She nodded.
He sighed, the desire to be honest and share with her fighting the knowledge that she should not know more about this world than was necessary for her to travel through it.
"Why does it matter?" It wasn’t so much a question as a stalling tactic whilst he tried to decide what to do: what was right or what he wanted.
It worked. Dylan was silent whilst she thought about it.
"Because, well… because it’s really my fault. You’re here because of me, and if I had been faster, or kept the sun out longer, shining more brightly, then… well, then it would never have happened."
Tristan looked surprised, and he was. This was not the answer he had expected. He’d thought it was simply curiosity about this world, he’d thought it was the human need to know everything. But it was because she cared. A glow began in his chest, and he knew his decision was made.
"You didn’t tell me they could hurt you," she said softly, her green eyes wide with empathetic pain.
"You should have stopped," Dylan blurted out. "You should have stopped the wind and… and fought them, or—"
Tristan shook his head, stopping her words. "I had to make sure you were safe. You are my number one priority in the wasteland." He smiled at the horrified expression on her face. "I can’t die, and I am duty-bound to protect the soul first, myself second."
Dylan nodded numbly at this. Of course he wasn’t just putting himself in danger specially for her. It was his job.
"The last thing I heard was you calling for me. I tried to fight them off to get to you, but there were too many of them. At least I knew you were safe." He looked at her, blue eyes piercing straight to her core. Dylan could do nothing but gaze back, lost in awe, lost in the depth of his stare.
So of course she fell. Her foot, without being guided by her eyes, caught on a clump of grass sticking out from the ground.
"Oh!" she gasped, as she felt herself falling forward towards the ground. She closed her eyes and waited for the thump that would force the breath from her lungs and coat her clothes in moisture and muck. Her hands came out in front of her to protect her body from the worst of the impact, but it never came. Tristan’s hand darted out and grabbed the back of her jumper, bringing her to an abrupt stop just above the ground. She opened her eyes and peeked at the path. As she’d thought – wet and mucky. She hadn’t even sighed with relief before she was yanked backwards as Tristan pulled her upright. He tried very hard to keep a straight face, but a laugh escaped his clenched jaw.
"Ah, I see," he said, grinning. "Well, you’ll be relieved to know we’re past halfway. You’ll be out of here soon." He meant it to cheer her up, but Dylan’s face fell a little at this news. Then what? What was beyond this wasteland? And did that mean she would never see Tristan again after this? This news was more upsetting than her fear of the unknown. He had become the only person in her world, and she couldn’t bear to lose this final thing.
"Oh yes," said Dylan, looking forward to being able to have a wash for the first time in days. She splashed the water on her face, shivering at the icy temperature. Playfully she scooped up a handful of the water and turned to throw it at Tristan. She stopped short, the water falling through her slackened fingers to bounce off the flagstoned floor. The room was empty.
"Tristan!" she screamed, panic-filled. The door was standing open and, though it was still light, night was fast approaching. Did she dare go outside? She could not be alone again. That thought was her deciding factor and she started purposefully forward, just as Tristan appeared in the doorway.
I’ll go and stand over here," he said, crossing the room and taking up position in front of the sink. "You can change by the bed." He looked away from her and stared out of the small kitchen window. Dylan scurried over to the bed and, after a quick glance at Tristan to confirm that he was indeed staring in the opposite direction, she whipped off her clothes as fast as possible.
Tristan remained resolutely staring at the glass, but the dark outside and the firelight inside turned the window into a mirror. He could see Dylan pull first her jumper, then her T-shirt over her head. Her skin was smooth and pale, her outline travelling down from strong shoulders to a narrow, delicate waist. As she shrugged out of her jeans he squeezed his eyes shut, trying to hold on to some vestige of chivalry. He counted to thirty in his head – slowly, making each number match a breath – and when he opened his eyes again she stood there in the too big clothes staring at his back. He turned to face her and smiled.
Tristan had never been caught before, had never been overpowered by the demons. He'd told Dylan that protecting the soul came first, and that was true, but only to a point. Self-preservation always took over, and so sometimes souls were lost. Not this one, though, she was too special. He would sacrifice himself to keep her safe, and these pains were a small price to pay.
"You needed me. That brought me back. I… I didn’t know that could happen – it never has before – but you called to me. I heard you. I heard you, and the next thing I knew, I was back at the entrance to the valley. You saved me, Dylan." He stared at her, eyes warm and full of wonder.
Dylan opened her mouth, but shock robbed her of speech. An image flashed into her mind of herself, cowed on the floor, her back holding the door closed and crying for Tristan. Is that what had done it? That was insane, impossible. But then she thought about the odd things that had happened in the last few days. Clearly things could happen in this world that bent the laws of reality.
In fact, he was fighting with his conscience. Dylan was only a child, compared to him little more than a baby, really. The feelings he had for her were inappropriate, wrong. As her protector, he would be taking advantage of her vulnerability if he acted on them. But was he so much older when he lived in a world where he never experienced, never grew? And what was age to a soul that would think and feel for eternity?
He was sure she had feelings for him, he thought he read it in her eyes. But he could be wrong. The care she showed for him could be nothing more than fear of being alone. The trust she put in him could be merely borne out of necessity – for what other choice did she have? Her need to be close to him, the way she wanted to touch him, could be nothing more than the comfort a child yearns for from an adult when they are afraid. But he could not be sure.
There was one final consideration, and it was a clincher. He could not follow where she was going. He would have to leave her at the border, or, more correctly, she would have to leave him. If she did feel for him, then to give now what he would soon have to take away was cruel. He would not put her through that. He must not act on what he felt. He looked at her, saw her watching him with those green eyes, dark as the forest, and felt his throat constrict. He was her guide and protector. Nothing more. Still, he could comfort her. That much he could allow himself. He smiled at her and held out his arms.
Dylan crossed over to him shyly and climbed onto the bed, curling up into his side. Absent-mindedly, he stroked her arm, sending a tingle jolting into her core. She dropped her head onto his shoulder and smiled to herself. How could it be that here, in the midst of all this chaos and fear, having lost absolutely everything, she suddenly felt… whole?
"I met him outside the gates of the concentration camp. He was actually relieved to escape, to be out of there. All he could think about were the things he hadn’t been able to stop. He was destroyed with guilt. He wished he’d been stronger. He wished he’d stood up to his father and refused to join, he wished he’d protected more innocent people. At times, he wished he’d never been born. I’d never seen a soul in so much despair for such selfless reasons. German soldier or not, he was the most admirable and noble soul I have come across."
Tomorrow. So soon. One more night, then he would have to let her go and never see her again. His throat constricted at the thought. Ordinarily, this lake crossing was the best part of the journey. Ordinarily, he longed to be free of whatever soul burdened him, desperate to get away from the whining, complaining and self-pity. Not this time. It would be agony to watch her go where she deserved, but where he could never follow. He watched Dylan’s eyes widen as she took in his words. They seemed to shimmer slightly and he wondered for one brief, euphoric but painful moment, whether they held tears. He looked away, concentrating on where he was going. He couldn’t stand to see her face any more. His fingers trembled slightly, and he tightened his grip on the oars as he pulled them closer to goodbye.
Dylan’s own mind was whirling. She was terrified of taking the next step. Tristan could give her no idea of what might lie in wait for her; he had never gone beyond the wasteland. The tiny amount of religious teaching that she had been subjected to told her that she was going on to a better place, but who knew whether that was true or not? She could be walking into anything – heaven, hell, or perhaps just an eternity of nothingness. And she would have to make that walk – was it a walk? – alone. Tristan had told her that he could not go with her. At some point she was going to have to continue the journey by herself.
The little waves of the lake began to grow, jostling the boat gently. Tristan frowned slightly and increased the tempo of his rowing.
>Dylan was too deep in her thoughts for the change to register. It was not merely that she would have to go on alone, but that she would have to leave Tristan. The thought caused a deep pain in her chest and tears to pool in her eyes. He had become her protector, her comfort, her friend. There were also other feelings, longings to be close to him. She felt constantly hyper-aware of him. A simple word had the ability to send her stomach erupting in butterflies, or drown her in a mire of self-doubt and sadness. At the back of her mind she wondered if this was his doing, if he was playing with her emotions to keep her under control and make his life easier, but something deep down told her it was real, and that was what she trusted.
She couldn’t imagine not being with him now. It felt much longer than a few days that they had been each other’s constant companion. She stared at him, drinking in the image of his face, trying to memorise every detail. Despair clouded her thoughts, and the sky seemed instantly to darken. A biting wind whipped up, stirring her hair and pulling at the jumper she wore. Dylan didn’t notice; she was lost in her pain. Tristan, however, glanced nervously at the sky and rowed even more briskly. He wanted to get across the lake without incident; he knew Dylan was nervous of the water. But Dylan’s emotions were working against him. The boat bobbed unevenly as the wind whisked up waves of deep troughs and white-capped peaks.
"You have to calm down, Dylan. Look at the weather." By now he was almost shouting over the wind. Dylan nodded at his words, but he wasn’t sure that they had actually registered. They hadn’t. She was looking at him, but all she saw in front of her eyes was him walking away from her, leaving her standing in a world of fear and uncertainty. Inside she screamed for him, begged him to come back, but he simply bowed his head and trudged on. Tomorrow he would leave her. Nothing else mattered.
"T-Tristan," she stuttered through blue lips.
"I’m here," he replied, anxiety plain in his voice.
She reached out for him and two strong arms gripped her round the middle and pulled her towards him. He nestled her into his arms and began to rub her upper arms and back, trying to warm her. She tucked her head under his chin, trying to get as close as possible to his body heat.
"It’s okay, angel," he muttered. The endearment slipped easily off of his lips, surprising him.
Dylan felt a warm glow at the word, and the sudden rush of emotion, combined with the adrenaline still coursing through her veins and the trauma that she had just endured, overcame her. Tears welled in her eyes and instantly spilled over, rushing down her cheeks and stinging her cold skin. Her breath came in gasps, and suddenly she couldn’t hold it back. She began sobbing hysterically. Her whole body shook and she gulped in air, exhaling raggedly in pitiful cries and whimpers. The sounds tore at Tristan’s heart, and he instinctively held her tighter, rocking gently.
"It’s okay, it’s okay," he repeated over and over again. Dylan understood, but just couldn’t seem to pull herself together. She would quieten down for a moment and lie peacefully in his embrace, but then the sobs would resurface from nowhere and she was powerless to stop them.
Eventually she cried herself out. Tristan still didn’t move, keeping hold of her as if frightened to do anything that might set her off. Finally though, the darkening sky forced him to speak.
"We’re going to have to move, Dylan," he whispered in her ear. "Don’t worry, it’s not far."
His arms released her, and it felt as if all of the warmth that had been generated by his closeness evaporated. Dylan’s shakes returned, but thankfully not the tears. She struggled to stand, but her legs wouldn’t support her and her arms refused to do what they were told. Her near drowning had exhausted all her reserves of energy, and she had no will to fight her tired limbs. Tomorrow she would lose him. That thought was all consuming. It made more sense to simply lie here and let the demons come for her. Physical pain would be a welcome relief from internal agony.
The door of the cottage was old, and its proximity to the water had caused the wood to swell and stick in the doorjamb. Tristan had to let her go to open it, and she slumped against the wall, staring at the ground. He twisted the handle and shoved his shoulder against the door. It groaned and resisted him at first, then gave way, causing him to half fall inside. Dylan didn’t move. Going inside meant beginning their final night together; it signified the beginning of the end. She was dimly aware of high-pitched howling coming from somewhere to her left, but she felt no fear.
Tristan also heard the noises from inside the cottage where he was lighting the fire. He turned to check on Dylan and noticed for the first time that she hadn’t followed him inside.
"Dylan?" he called. She didn’t respond, and the silence was enough to make all the hairs stand up on his arm. He leaped to his feet and was at the door of the safe house in three long, powerful strides. There she was, where he had left her, supported by the stone wall and looking into nothingness with dark eyes.
"Come on," he said, bending his knees slightly so that he could look into her eyes. They didn’t change their focus. It wasn’t until he reached out and took her hand in his that she seemed to become aware of him. She stared at his face, and he could see the sadness etched in every feature. He tried to smile in a comforting, reassuring way, but his muscles seemed to have forgotten how and it felt wrong to move his mouth that way. He tugged gently at her hand, and she followed him in silence.
I can't do it," she whispered, looking up from the floor to stare at him with passionate but terrified eyes.
What do you mean?" his reply was only just audible above the crackle of the flames. His whole being screamed at him not to have this conversation, to put her off; he could not deal with her pain as well as his own. But she needed to talk about it, so he would listen.
I can't do it on my own. Walk the end of the journey, or whatever it is I do. I'm too scared. I… I need you." The last part was the hardest to say, but also the truest. Dylan had accepted her death with a calm that had surprised her, and grieved only a little for those she had left behind. Surely if she was making this journey then, eventually, they would too. She would meet them again in time.
Tristan, however, would walk away from her tomorrow and vanish from her life for ever. He would go on to the next soul, and soon she would be a distant memory, if she was remembered at all. Dylan had asked him for stories of some of the other souls that he had guided, and had seen his face twist as he tried to dredge up long-forgotten memories. So many passed through his fingers that no one face stood out more than the rest. She could not bear to be faceless to him. Not when he had become everything to her.
No, she had no desire to make that final journey. She would not – could not – leave him behind.
Can't I stay here, with you?" she asked timidly, little hope in her voice.
He shook his head and she lowered her eyes, trying desperately to prevent more tears from surfacing. Was it not possible, or did he not want her? She had to know, but what if she didn't get the answer that she wanted?
No," he said, his voice even through monumental effort. "If you stay here, eventually the wraiths will get you and make you their own." He gestured outside. "It's too dangerous."
"Is that the only reason?" If he had not seen her lips move he would not have been sure that she had spoken, her voice was so quiet. But whispered as they were, the words flooded into his ears and formed in his brain, turning his heart to ice. This was the moment, to tell her that he didn't care for her, and make sure that she knew that he meant it. It would be so much easier for her to take that final step if she thought that he was walking away without regret.
His pause made her look up, green eyes braced for pain, teeth biting into her lower lip to stop it from trembling. She looked so fragile, as if one harsh word would crush her. His resolve crumbled; he could not hurt her like this.
"Yes," he answered. He reached up and grabbed her by the wrist, pulling her down to share the tattered rug with him. Then he cupped his hand to her cheek, running his thumb across the smooth skin of her cheekbone. It warmed under his touch, flushing a gentle pink. "You can't stay here, even though I want you to."
"You do?" Hope burgeoned, lighting up her face.
What was he doing? He should not give her hope now, knowing that he would have to take it away again. He shouldn't, but he was powerless. He thought back on all the faces she had shown him – frightened yet relieved when she had walked out of the tunnel, disgusted and disgruntled when he'd forced her to walk all day and sleep in dilapidated cottages each night, anger and pique when he had made fun of her, embarrassment when she'd been stuck in the mud, the joy when she'd woken to find he'd returned. Each memory made him grin, and he locked them in his mind, ready for when she would leave him and there would be no more to make.
"Let's just say you've grown on me." He laughed, still grinning from his remembered thoughts. She wasn't able to smile with him; she was still too needy, too on edge. "But tomorrow you have to go on. It's where you belong, Dylan. It's what you deserve."
"Tristan, I can't. I can't do it," she pleaded.
Then… I'll come with you. All the way," he said.
"You promise?" she asked quickly, desperate to trap him with words. He looked straight into her eyes and nodded. For a moment she looked confused.
"I thought you said you couldn't."
"I'm not supposed to, but I will. For you."
Dylan gazed at him. One hand reached up and pressed against his, holding it to her face.
You swear? You swear you won't leave me?" she demanded.
"I swear," he answered.
Dylan smiled tentatively at him. Her hand was still on his, and the heat from her touch seemed to burn down into his bones. She released him and he immediately missed the warmth, but then she reached out, fingers hovering in the air just centimetres from his face. The skin on his jaw prickled with anticipation, but uncertainty was painted all over her face and she seemed too scared to close the distance. He twitched the right side of his mouth up in an encouraging smile.
Dylan’s heart was jumping haphazardly in her chest, racing in spurts, then stopping altogether for the briefest moment. Her tired arm ached where she held it aloft, but overriding that dull throbbing was a tingling in her fingertips that almost verged on pain; a pain that would only be soothed by the feel of Tristan’s cheeks, his brow, his lips. She was nervous, though. She’d never touched him before; not like this.
She saw him give a tiny smile and then her fingers seemed to move of their own accord, drawn in like a magnet. She moulded her hand to the shape of his face and felt the muscles in his cheek move as he clenched and unclenched his jaw. His eyes were vivid blue, too bright for the muted light of the room, but they weren’t frightening. Instead they seemed hypnotic to Dylan and, like a moth to a flame, she was helpless to look away. Tristan released her face, reaching up to cover her hand with his own, pinning it against his cheek. Four, five, six seconds of silence ticked by, then suddenly Dylan sucked in a ragged gasp, unaware she’d been holding her breath.
It seemed to break the spell. Tristan moved back, just a centimetre or so, but he pulled her fingers away with his. His eyes were warm still, though, and rather than let go, he guided her hand round to his mouth and dropped a gentle kiss on the soft skin of her knuckles.
They didn’t speak much after that, content just to be near each other in companionable silence. Dylan tried to slow time, to savour each moment. But try as she might, it was like holding back a hurricane with tissue paper. Time ticked on at an astonishing rate, and she could scarcely believe it when light began filtering through the windows. The fire had long since died out, but it had done its job in drying her clothes and warming her freezing body. Still they continued to stare at the grate, watching the charcoal-grey logs smoke. Tristan had shifted over during the night and thrown an arm around her shoulder, tucking her in against his side, cocooning her there. Their backs were to the windows and, although both could see the light trickling over their shoulders and illuminating the back wall, picking out the faded yellow paint and an old picture so covered in grime and dust that its subject was barely visible, they didn’t turn.
He did not want to face today. He thought about what he had promised Dylan, and unease churned in his stomach. His mind battled with what was possible, what was right, and what he wanted. None of them could coexist together.
Dylan, on the other hand, was surprisingly calm. She had spent much of the night thinking about what might be coming today and had reached the conclusion that there was little she could do but take the final steps and see where they led her. Tristan would be with her. That was enough. She could take everything and anything else so long as he stood by her. And he would. He had promised.
The tension of the moment had brought several things to the forefront of her mind, sharpened her focus on the things that really mattered. She did not know what was on the other side of that line and, even though he had promised to follow her, there was something that she had to say.
Although the idea terrified her, and she knew by saying it she was making herself more emotionally vulnerable than she had ever been in her life, she was determined. The past few days had taught her a lot about herself; she was not the same girl who had dithered over packing her teddy bear. She was stronger, braver. She’d faced danger; confronted her fears, and Tristan had played a massive part in that. He had protected her, comforted her, guided her, and opened her eyes to feelings she hadn’t known existed. It was important to tell him how she felt, even though it made her stomach flutter and her cheeks burn. Just do it, she told herself.
"I love you."
Her eyes never left his face, trying to read his reaction. The words seemed to hang in the air between them. Dylan’s every nerve was tingling and alert, her hormones thudding through her veins. She hadn’t meant to blurt it out like that, but she hadn’t known how to broach the subject and she needed to say it. She continued to look at Tristan, waiting for a smile or a frown, for his eyes to shine or freeze, but his face was impassive. Her pulse, instead of racing, was beating in a disjointed pattern that made her fear that it might stop. As the silence lengthened, she began to shake, her body preparing for rejection.
He didn’t feel the same way. Of course he didn’t. She was just a child. She had read what she’d wanted to into his words and his touch. Her eyes began to sting as tears fought their way to the surface. She gritted her teeth, determined to keep control. Her fingers curled into fists and squeezed tightly, the nails digging into her palms painfully. It wasn’t enough. The pain in her chest was agony, like burning knives piercing her right in the centre. It rode over every other sensation and made it hard to breath.
Tristan stared back at her, battling with himself. He loved her too; he knew it in every fibre of his being. What he did not know was whether he should tell her so. Seconds passed and still he couldn’t decide. He saw her eyes widen, and heard her breathing become ragged, and knew that she was taking the worst possible meaning from his silence. She believed he did not love her. He closed his eyes, trying to get some perspective. If she thought he didn’t love her, perhaps she wouldn’t hurt so much at the end. Perhaps it would be easier. It was right to say nothing. His mind made up, he opened his eyes and stared into a sea of sparkling green.
No. Her pain, hurt, rejection… it could not be her final memory of him. He had to give her this one truth, whatever it cost them both. Frightened that his voice would shake, he opened his mouth.
"I love you too, Dylan."
She gazed at him for a moment, frozen in time. Her heart beat triumphantly as she processed his words. He loved her. She exhaled in a half-laugh, and broke into a grin, her eyes dancing. The pain in her chest melted away, replaced by a soft glow that crept up her throat and shone out of her smile. Taking a cautious step forward, she moved to him. She could feel his breath on her face; it, too, was coming in gasps. His eyes burned blue, penetrating into her very core and making her tremble slightly. She leaned up to him, close enough to see each freckle that patterned his nose and cheeks, then stopped.
"Wait," she said, drawing back. "Kiss me on the other side."
But Tristan’s hand was suddenly wrapped around hers, his grip vice-like. "No," he said, his voice low and husky. "Now."
With one hand he pulled her in closer to his body, with the other he cupped the back of her neck, sliding his fingers into her hair. Chills erupted over Dylan’s skin and her half-hearted protest died in her throat. His thumb stroked up and down the nape of her neck and she watched unblinking as his face dropped lower until his forehead rested against hers. He was close enough for their breath to intermingle, close enough for her to feel the heat of his body. He closed the final distance between them, dropping his grip on her hand and her neck and folding his arms around her back, pulling her nearer still. Tilting her head back a fraction, Dylan closed her eyes and waited.
Tristan hesitated. Freed from the depth of her forest green eyes, doubts crept back into his mind. This was wrong. This was not allowed. Every feeling he had for her was wrong, though. He shouldn’t be able to feel this way; it wasn’t supposed to be possible. But he did. And this was going to be his only chance to experience the wonder that humans lived for, killed for. Letting his eyes slide closed, he pressed his lips against Dylan’s.
They were soft. That was his first thought. Soft, and sweet, and trembling. He felt her fingers twist into the fabric of his jumper, her hands shaking slightly against his sides. Her lips parted, moving against his. He heard her utter a tiny moan, and the sound sent a ripple into the pit of his stomach. He squeezed her tighter, his mouth pressing harder against hers. His heart was crashing against his ribs, his breathing ragged. The only thing he was aware of was the warmth of her, the softness. He felt her grow bolder, going up on her tiptoes to lean further into him, lifting her hands from his side and gripping his shoulders, his face. He copied the movement, his fingers trailing down her hairline, around her chin. Memorising.
Tight in Tristan’s embrace, Dylan was light-headed, dizzy. With her eyes closed, the world around her didn’t seem to exist. Only Tristan’s mouth, pressed against hers, and his hands, holding her close, stroking gently across her skin. Her blood was singing in her veins and when he finally pulled away she was gasping. He held her face in his hands and stared at her for a long moment, eyes glowing vivid blue. Then he dropped his head again and placed two soft, gentle kisses on her lips. He smiled at her, a slow languid smile that had the muscles in her abdomen contracting.
"You were right," she said breathlessly. "Before is better."
She turned away from him, and appraised the line. It held no fear for her now. Tristan loved her, and he would go with her wherever she was headed. Ten confident steps took her to the edge. She looked down, savouring the feeling. This was her last moment in the wasteland. She could say farewell to the demons, to the uphill marches and sleeping rough in dilapidated houses. She lifted her left foot and paused, just over the line. One more deep breath and then she hopped across.
She was alone again. She had crossed over and there was no way back. Tristan was gone.
Dylan began to tremble all over, a sickening mixture of adrenaline, shock and horror coursing through her veins. She swayed unsteadily, then fell to her knees, her hands over her mouth as if she could hold in the sobs. She couldn't. They spilled over, beginning as quiet, gasping moans that deepened into agonised wails that screamed of the pain tearing at her heart. Tears streamed down her face and dropped onto the ground.
He had lied to her. His promises to accompany her had been nothing but deceit and treachery, and she had been his fool, believing it all. This must have been his plan all along. She saw again in her mind's eye the way he would smile at her, his eyes glowing, but then suddenly the expression would die on his face, becoming a cold and uncaring mask. He had known. But what about his final words? Were they a lie?
No, she did not believe that. Every fibre in her being told her the truth: he loved her. She loved him and he loved her, but they would never be together.
Already she found she couldn't get a clear picture of his face. Little details were trickling away. She couldn't remember the exact shade of his hair, or the shape of his lips. Like grains of sand in the wind, she couldn't hold them in her head. A heart-wrenching sound escaped her lips, agony that set every nerve on fire. Knowing she was alone, knowing that there was no one to witness her grief, she gave herself over to the despair that engulfed her.
She slammed her fist against the wall in frustration, then pressed her palm against it, wishing with all her might that it would dissolve and let her travel back through.
Tristan stood on the other side of the line, watching her fall apart. Like a policeman on the other side of a two-way mirror, he knew she could not see him. His deception had worked, and the pain he had caused was clear on her face. She knew he had lied to her, that he had planned this ending. She knew she would never see him again. Though it tore at his heart, he forced himself to watch every tear, listen to every sob and scream. He longed to rush forwards and comfort her, to embrace her and smooth the tears off her cheeks. To feel the heat of her in his arms again, the softness of her. He lifted one hand and placed in it the air, palm to palm with hers, cold agony – a wall of glass between them. Tristan willed his feet to move forward, to take him over the line, but nothing happened. He could not cross.
He had allowed himself to tell her that he loved her, allowed her to hope, and this was his punishment. He had caused this pain and he would endure every second of it. He only hoped that she realised that his final confession had been true and heartfelt. Under all the lies and pretence, his love for her had been honest and real.
He had always known that he would not be able to cross over with her. His promise had been a trick, a wicked sham to give her the courage to take the final step. It had taken everything he had to make her believe him, to watch her gratitude and relief, to let her trust him, and know that this moment was coming. To let himself kiss her and hold her, and know that he couldn't keep her. To know that when she crossed the line and looked back, she would discover his treachery.
Through the veil between worlds he watched her cry. She called his name and tears coursed down her cheeks. Shame, self-loathing, despair and agony welled up in him. He was desperate to look away, to hide his eyes from the consequences of his actions, but he would not.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, knowing that she could not hear it, but hoping somehow that she would understand.
Although every second he watched felt like hours of torture, eventually she started to fade. The edges of her beautiful figure began to shimmer and blur, and she started to lose substance. As he stared, Dylan became transparent, diminishing until she was little more than smoke. He watched her leave him. It was what she deserved. As her shape became a haze, he feasted his eyes on her face, trying to memorise every detail, trying to lock the exact shade of her eyes into his heart.
"Goodbye," he murmured, wishing with all he was that he could go with her. In the next blink of his eye, she had gone. He stared at the ground where she had been for a moment longer, then swallowed against the pain in his throat and took a deep breath. He turned back to the path, and began to walk away.
Tristan felt no excitement or thrill at the prospect of collecting the next soul. He did not even feel the disdain and indifference that had become habitual in recent years. He felt only the torturous ache of loss.
She was aware of somebody behind her calling her name, but she didn’t turn. Like the night she’d spent alone in the safe house, she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the scene in front of her. If she looked away, Tristan was really gone.
Who was she fooling? He was already gone. He was gone and he wasn’t coming back. She just wasn’t quite ready to accept it yet. Dylan stared at the path defiantly. Her teeth bit down on her lower lip, cutting down hard enough to split the skin and taste blood. She didn’t. Her senses were numb.
"That is not right," Jonas told her, his forehead creased with concern. "Everyone else I have ever spoken to – my family, my friends – their first moment beyond, it has been in the place they think of as home."
Dylan didn’t know what to say to that. She should feel bad, she supposed, that she hadn’t been taken to her old home, or her granny’s house.
But she didn’t feel bad. She felt reassured. She was supposed to be with Tristan, that’s what her brain was telling her. As much as she hated the wasteland – the cold, the wind, the up! – that was where she was supposed to be.
She didn’t belong here. She didn’t fit in, like always.
She took a second to think about it. Dead. Really dead. Gone. It was frightening; her heart started pounding painfully in her chest at just the thought. But then… what was the point of being here? Yes, eventually Joan, her dad, Katie – they'd all make their way across. She could have her old life back, or some strange version of it. And she could be just as lonely, just as out of step as she'd been before; before the wasteland.
That was not worth waiting a lifetime for. If she knew Tristan was coming, then maybe she could bear to linger here. But that wasn't going to happen. He was never, ever coming. That thought sent a jolt of agony right into her core and she shut her eyes against the pain of it. Tristan. She could still recall with crystal clarity the burning feeling of his lips pressing against hers, his arms tight around her. How ironic that that moment was the most alive she'd ever felt.
Was it worth risking oblivion to feel it again?
"Any door will take you there. It’s not about the door; it’s about you."
"That can’t be right." Dylan shook her head dismissively. "If any door could take you there, everyone would try it."
"No, they wouldn’t," Eliza contradicted gently.
"Of course they would!" Dylan exploded. She was getting angry, feeling like this was a waste of time.
"No," Eliza repeated. "Because when most people try to open that door – and you’re right, many do try – every time they try to open the door, it locks itself."
"It’s this place," Dylan whispered. "It’s like a prison; it won’t let you out. I know," she continued, seeing Eliza shake her head, "most people don’t want to leave. But it should let them, if they want to."
"You’re wrong," Eliza said. "It’s not this place. It’s the souls; they stop themselves."
"How? Why?" Dylan shuffled even closer to the edge of the chair, suddenly interested.
"They don’t really want to leave. No, that’s not quite right. They want to leave, but more than that they don’t want to die. Somewhere deep down, they know crossing the wasteland again will likely be the death of them, and that thought stops them, keeps them here. Because they know if they’re patient, if they wait, they’ll likely see their loved ones again. They just can’t take the risk of trying, and failing; knowing that will truly be the end."
He always thought of her that way, as ‘the woman’. He didn’t want to think her name. She was a job to him; not a person, although she was mild-mannered and cheerful. Her sunny disposition filled the air with warmth and kept the sky shining blue. She was meek, too, swallowing the lies he told her without question. Each night they had reached the safe house with plenty of time to spare. It was just as well, because Tristan’s mind was not in the game.
Blank. That’s all he could manage. Blank and emotionless. Thoughtless. If he’d been concentrating, he might have felt sorry for the woman. She seemed nice; she was pleasant, polite, shy. What had happened to her was unfair – slaughtered while she slept by a sticky-fingered thief. She deserved his pity, but he was too busy feeling sorry for himself and he had none to spare.
Gazing into the night wasn’t enough of a distraction. After drumming his fingers silently on the windowsill for a long moment, Tristan turned back and resumed his vigil in the hard wooden chair. He reasoned there was an hour, maybe two, before the sun rose. Hopefully the woman would sleep till then.
That gave Tristan a long time to kill. Six hours he’d been sitting here alone, and he’d managed not to think of her. He allowed himself a wry smile. That was a record. It was also as long as he was going to manage. Closing his eyes, he sifted through memories until he found the one he was looking for. Eyes the same shade of green as the soul sleeping soundly beside him, but a different face. Tristan’s smile widened as he let himself get as close as he could to dreaming.
None of it was fair. Not what had happened to Jonas, to her. Not what was still happening to Tristan. He deserved to be freed from his… well, ‘job’ just wasn’t the right word. You got paid for a job. And it was possible to resign, to walk away. No, what Tristan had was an obligation. And he’d suffered enough.
Guilt tumbled over, crushing her with its weight. She’d killed the woman. Whoever she was, Dylan had killed her. Did she have a husband? Children? Had she counted on seeing them again? A flash of Eliza, waiting endlessly for someone who was never going to come, screamed in her brain. All because she had shouted out. She clapped her hand over her mouth to stop herself calling for him again. It was too late though, the damage was done. The woman was dead.
What had she done?
Tristan didn’t turn to look at her, but stared down at the spot in the long grass where the soul had disappeared. He didn’t seem to notice the remaining wraiths, who were circling him like sharks, teeth bared, ready to rip into their prey.
He still didn’t react when one swooped down, tearing at his shoulder. Or the next, which smashed into his face. Dylan gaped. Was that blood, running down his cheek? Why wasn’t he moving? Why wasn’t he doing anything to defend himself?
Why wasn’t he running for the safe house? For her?
Another wraith went for him, and another. Then more. They seemed delighted at his apathetic stance. Without realising it, Dylan threw herself from the doorway and was pounding down the path before her brain caught up with her actions. It was very dark now. The fire burning in the cottage behind her glowed much more brightly than the dying light of day. If he didn’t move, if she didn’t reach him…
"Tristan!" she gasped, flying towards him. "Tristan, what are you doing?"
Wraiths were whipping round her face, but it had never been easier to ignore their darting movements.
At last he seemed to come awake. He turned, still besieged by the smoking black shadows, and his face, blank at first, seemed to come alive, like waking from a trance. He reached for her just as she barrelled into him.
"Dylan," he breathed. Then he took control. "Move!"
Whatever had paralysed him before was gone now. Wrapping one hand around her lower arm and squeezing so tightly it hurt, he bolted back the way she had come. The wraiths screeched and snarled, but he was moving so fast they couldn’t find any purchase, and their claws were helpless to snag at Dylan, yanked along in his wake. A metre at a time, Tristan pushed and fought against their grabbing talons and biting teeth. Head down, jaws clenched, hand firmly wrapped around Dylan’s wrist, he drove them towards the safe house.
"What the hell are you doing here?" He rounded on her the instant they were inside. The clamour from the wraiths faded into the background and the cottage was quiet and tranquil but for the anger that seemed to emanate from Tristan’s every pore.
"What?" Dylan looked at him, confused. Wasn’t he pleased to see her? The icy fire in his eyes said no. They glowed as they stared at her. Not a trick of the light, it was frightening.
"What are you doing here, Dylan?"
"I…" Dylan opened and closed her mouth, but no sound came out. This wasn’t how she had imagined this conversation. There was a lot less hugging and a lot more coldness.
"You shouldn’t be here," Tristan continued. He started to pace in an agitated manner, running a hand through his hair and then gripping a handful. "I took you across, right to the line. You weren’t supposed to come back."
A strange feeling crept over Dylan. Her cheeks grew hot and her stomach squirmed. Her heart was thumping at erratic intervals in her chest, hurting her. She dropped her eyes before Tristan could see the fat droplets that were trickling towards her chin.
"I’m sorry," she whispered to the flagstoned floor. "I made a mistake."
She could see that now. The words he had said had been nothing more than lies to get her safely across. He hadn’t meant any of it. She thought of the soul he’d just been ferrying, the woman she’d accidentally killed with nothing more than her own stupidity; thought about the way they’d been holding hands as they’d run from danger. Had she swallowed Tristan’s lies as easily as Dylan had? Her gaze burning into the ground, she suddenly felt incredibly childish.
"Dylan." Tristan said her name again, but much more gently. The change in his tone gave her just enough courage to look up. He’d stopped pacing, was scrutinising her with much softer eyes. Embarrassed, she scrubbed at her cheeks, sniffed back the tears that still lingered. She tried to look away as he approached, but he walked right up to her until he was close enough to rest his forehead against hers. "What are you doing here?" he murmured.
The same words, but this time a question, not an accusation. This one was easier to answer, if she closed her eyes, if she didn’t have to look at him.
"I came back."
He sighed. "You weren’t supposed to do that." Pause. "Why did you come back, Dylan?"
Dylan swallowed, confused. Now that his anger was gone, now that he was touching her, his face just in front of her, if she had the nerve to lift her eyes, she was back to being muddled. There was only one way to discover the truth. She took a deep breath.
"For you." She waited for a reaction, but there wasn’t one. At least not that she could hear. She still didn’t have the courage to open her eyes. "Did you mean it? Any of it?"
Another sigh. But that could be frustration, embarrassment, regret. Dylan trembled, waiting. Something warm pressed to her cheek. A hand?
"I didn’t lie to you, Dylan. Not about that."
Her breathing spiked as she processed his words. He’d meant it. He did feel what she felt. Dylan curled her lips up into a timid smile, but she held a tight rein on the warmth building in her chest. She wasn’t sure she could trust it, not quite yet.
"Open your eyes."
Suddenly shy, Dylan hesitated for a moment, then dragged her eyelids back. Taking a deep breath, she looked up until she met his gaze. He was closer than she’d thought; close enough for their breath to mingle. Still holding her cheek, he drew her face forward until their lips pressed together, blue eyes still boring into hers. He held her there for a moment, then pulled away and curled her into his chest.
"I didn’t lie to you, Dylan," he whispered into her ear, "but you shouldn’t be here."
Dylan stiffened, tried to pull away, but he held on tightly, refusing to let her move.
"Nothing’s changed. I still can’t go on with you, and you can’t stay here. You saw what happened to that woman. Sooner or later, that would happen to you. It’s too dangerous."
Dylan’s breath caught in her lungs as she processed his words and an avalanche of guilt smashed down on.
"I killed that woman," she mouthed into his shoulder. There was no volume in the words, but Tristan somehow heard her.
"No." He shook his head, the motion rubbing his lips against her neck. The skin there tingled. "I killed her. I let go of her hand."
"Because of me—"
"No, Dylan," Tristan cut her off, firmer now. "She was my responsibility; I lost her." He took a deep breath and the arms coiled around her tightened, almost uncomfortably. "I lost her. That’s what this place is. It’s a hell-hole. You can’t stay here."
"I want to stay with you," Dylan implored.
Tristan shook his head at her gently.
"Come back with me," she begged.
"I told you, I can’t. I can’t ever go there, I…" Tristan made a frustrated noise, his teeth snapping together.
"What about the other side, then?" Dylan pulled back again, fighting against his grip when he tried to hold on to her. "My world. Come back across the wasteland with me, back to the train. We could…"
Tristan stared at her, his eyebrows drawn together in aggravation. He shook his head slowly, placing a finger on her lips.
"I can’t do that either," he said.
"Have you ever tried?"
"Then you don’t know. The soul I spoke to said—"
He wiped her face clean with his thumbs, gently pulled her around until their faces rested together; forehead to forehead, chin to chin. Guilt still churned in Dylan’s stomach, but suddenly it didn’t seem so overwhelming. Not when she couldn’t breathe, not when her skin was tingling everywhere that he was touching her; her blood boiling and racing around her body.
"Shh," Tristan crooned, mistaking her ragged breathing for crying. He half-smiled at her, and then closed the final millimetres between them. Gently, slowly, he prised her mouth open, his lips brushing softly against hers. Against her will, he pulled away for an instant, gazing at her with cobalt fire, before pushing her back against the wall as he sought deeper, hungrier kisses.
Dylan just smiled impishly at him. Her eyes were bright and shining, screaming a green much more vibrant, much more beautiful than the hues of the wasteland. Tristan couldn't help but smile back at her, despite the lead firmly lodged in the pit of his stomach.
This wasn't going to work. But Dylan simply refused to believe that. He was afraid of her crushing disappointment, the disappointment he knew in his very bones was coming, but for now he tried to put it out of his mind. She was here, for the moment she was safe, and he should try to enjoy the extra time he got to spend with her. This was more than he'd ever dared to hope for.
He just hoped it would not end with a quill delicately erasing her name from a page in his book.
Beside her Tristan sighed dramatically. She looked at him, confused at the sound, and saw his eyes were amused. He flashed her an indulgent smirk.
"Piggyback?" he suggested.
"You’re wonderful," she told him.
He rolled his eyes, but turned so that she could scramble up onto his back.
"Thanks," she murmured into his ear when he had her in position.
"Uh-huh," he replied sourly, but she could see his cheeks lift in a smile.
She felt heavy on his back, her arms soon tiring of holding her in position, but Tristan didn’t complain, picking his way through the worst of the mud. Even with her extra weight, he didn’t seem to sink into the sludgy mire. Soon the marsh was no more than a distant memory and Dylan’s gaze was filled with the sheer slant of a giant hill, waiting patiently for her. She wrinkled her nose and huffed, disgruntled; she doubted she was going to able to convince Tristan to carry her up that.
"I was wondering… where did you go? After you left me."
She’d told every piece of her story last night, but she’d purposely avoided asking this. She hadn’t wanted to bring up what he’d done; how he’d tricked her. Betrayed her.
Tristan heard the real question.
"I’m sorry," he said. "I’m sorry I had to do that."
Dylan sniffed quietly, determined not to get upset. She didn’t want him to feel guilty, didn’t want him to know how much that had hurt. At least he hadn’t been there to see her break down, she thought.
"It’s okay," she whispered, squeezing his shoulders.
"It’s not," he disagreed. "I lied to you, and I’m sorry. But I thought… I thought that was the right thing for you." The final few words were stilted and despite herself, Dylan felt her throat tightening. "When I saw you crying, when I heard you screaming for me…" His voice faltered. "It hurt more than anything the wraiths could ever have done to me."
Dylan’s voice was very small. "You could see me?" she asked.
He nodded. "Just for a minute or so." He gave a short, sour laugh. "Usually that’s my favourite part. A whole minute where I am responsible for no one but me. And I get to see a quick glimpse of beyond. Just a flash. Wherever it is that the soul called home."
Dylan almost seemed to have lost her fear of them – or perhaps it was just that she thought he could protect her from their hunger – but she was a fool to flirt with danger. She couldn’t sense it, he realised, but the wraiths were furious. Not only had they failed to take her on the way across the wasteland, but she’d come back. She’d come back and she’d beaten them. Alone. Without a ferryman to stand between her and their grappling claws.
They were determined to make her pay for her arrogance.
Tristan thought of the assurances he’d once given her – that he would never lose her, that he would never let the wraiths get her. He’d been absolutely confident; now he wasn’t so sure. Thanks to Dylan, the game had changed, he’d changed, and he didn’t know all the rules of this new engagement. He was beginning to have an inkling, though, and that did nothing to allay his doubts.
"They’re surrounded," he murmured softly.
She chewed down on her lip, her face a mask of despair, and pressed harder against the glass as if she could reach out to them. Suddenly she spun round, stared at him. Tristan held up both hands, took two paces back. He knew what she was going to say.
"You have to help them!" she said.
He shook his head at her. "I can’t."
"I just can’t. Each ferryman is responsible for the soul they are ferrying. No others."
Dylan glowered at him incredulously. "But that’s ridiculous!"
"It’s how it is," he said heatedly.
She turned her back on him and he felt a stab of hurt at her scathing judgement. It wasn’t his fault; he didn’t make the rules.
"Have they got far to go?" she asked quietly.
Tristan looked out of the window again. They were still there.
"No," he told her. "But they won’t make it. There are too many wraiths."
Too many. Dylan shut her eyes, feeling the cold glass numbing her forehead. She remembered the feel of them: pulling, scratching, biting. Punching through her and leaving ice and dread behind. She thought of the poor child going through that and her eyes welled up. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right!
How could Tristan let this happen?
Suddenly she was seized by a mad idea. Not far, Tristan had said. So they wouldn’t need long. Just a minute or so. Maybe even a few seconds. All they needed was something to distract the wraiths…
She wheeled back and launched herself at the door, her body flooded with adrenaline, determination overriding fear. A few seconds’ distraction; that was all they needed. She could give them that.
"Dylan!" Tristan screamed her name and she heard him moving, felt his fingers scrape down her back as he reached for her, but he was too slow. She was already out of the door.
She didn’t know where she was going, where the struggling soul was, so she settled for plummeting straight out in a direct path away from the safe house. Heavy footsteps thumped behind her as Tristan gave chase. She could still hear him calling her name, his voice a mixture of panic and anger. A millisecond later, though, every sound was blocked out as her ears were filled with growling and hissing. The air around her was thick with movement and Dylan felt as if she’d been submerged in icy water. Goosebumps erupted down her arms. She kept running, though. If the wraiths were on her, it meant it was working.
Out of the blue, something grabbed her, held her in a pincer, but this grip was much more substantial than anything she’d ever felt from the wraiths. It was warm, too. Dylan realised what it was a second before she heard Tristan yelling furiously in her ear.
"What the hell are you doing, Dylan?"
She ignored him, fighting against him when he tried to wrestle her backwards. Instead her eyes scanned the dark uselessly.
"Are they still here? Can you see them?"
"Dylan!" Tristan hauled at her and he was much too strong. He forced her back a step at a time as she continued to struggle against him. "Dylan, stop it!"
It was hard to distinguish what was coming from the wraiths and what was Tristan, but Dylan felt as if she was being attacked from all sides. Her face stung, her hair was being pulled until tiny clumps ripped their way free of her scalp, and she couldn’t breathe as Tristan’s arms were painfully tight around her middle. She stumbled, one foot catching on Tristan’s leg as he fought with her, and felt her weight dropping down to the ground. The wraiths cackled in delight and for the first time Dylan realised what she was doing; what she was risking.
Her life. Her time with Tristan.
How long had she been out here? A minute? Maybe a few seconds more? That would have to be enough. Abruptly she stopped fighting against Tristan and allowed him to drag her back towards the safe house and the burning light of the fire.
For the second time, Tristan slammed the door closed. He leaned back against its weight, gasping, trying to quell the panic that was sending his pulse out of control. Dylan had stumbled to the middle of the room and he could feel her eyes on him. He kept his gaze straight ahead, though, trying to rein in his anger.
"Did they make it?" she asked quietly.
"What?" He whipped his head round and glared at her.
"The toddler and her ferryman. Did they make it? I thought… I thought if I created a distraction…"
Tristan gaped at her. "Is that what you were doing? Sacrificing yourself for a complete stranger?" His voice rose in pitch and volume. "Dylan!" Words seemed to fail him and he lapsed into silence.
"Did they make it?" she repeated, her soft tone a gentle rebuke.
"Yes," he hissed through clenched teeth.
A timid smile crossed Dylan’s lips. The gesture only aggravated Tristan further. Their survival would be justification to her; proof that she had done the right thing. He gritted his teeth.
"Never, ever do anything like that again!" he ordered. "Do you realise how close you were to being taken?"
Dylan hung her head, finally repentant. "I’m sorry," she whispered, shaking now, more afraid of his anger than she’d been of ceasing to exist. "I just had to do something. I couldn’t let someone else be taken too."
Her eyes blurred with tears before she could see Tristan’s expression soften.
It seemed to Dylan that Tristan’s anger was slow to fade. He sat in one of the hard-backed chairs in the cottage, his arms folded across his chest, his gaze firmly directed at the fireplace. The one or two tentative stabs she’d made at conversation had been closed down before they could begin and she’d retreated to the narrow, uncomfortable bed. She lay on her side, her arm the only pillow, and stared at his silhouette.
She wasn’t sorry. Some of the guilt she’d been carrying around since the poor woman had been set upon through Dylan’s carelessness had lifted. She could never bring that soul back, she knew, but at least her presence here had done something good. And she hadn’t been hurt, hadn’t been taken. So really, Tristan had nothing to be angry about, she thought.
But Tristan wasn’t angry. Staring into the pit of the hearth he couldn’t feel the heat of fury, just the cold lead of doubt and uncertainty. He was worried. They were halfway back to the train, had already overcome the most dangerous obstacles, and none of them had been enough to convince Dylan to stop, to give up this reckless endeavour and return to the safety of her new life beyond the wasteland line, where she’d be safe. He wondered why he wasn’t arguing with her; why he was letting her drag him further and further away from where she was supposed to be. The answer was obvious, and it aggravated him even more.
He wanted her to be right.
Weakness, that’s what it was. He was weak, giving in to her, letting himself hope that at the end of this journey they just might get to be together. Weakness. And tonight it had almost got her killed. But looking over his shoulder, taking in the way she stared at him, her eyes wide and defiant, her whole body crying out for comfort, he knew he didn’t have it in him to tell her no. To take control and force her to follow him. He could, he knew. He’d done it before in those early days.
He could; but he wouldn’t.
Tristan sighed and stood, shoving the chair aside with his foot. "Is there room on that thing for two?" he asked, wandering over to her and pointing to the rickety bed.
Dylan smiled at him, her expression saturated with relief, before she scooted back to the wall, making just enough space for him to spread out. When he lay down beside her their bodies touched from head to toe and he had to grip her waist or risk toppling off. She didn’t seem to mind, though. Her smile widened and a blush tinged her cheeks.
"I really am sorry about before," she whispered. Then she grimaced slightly and rephrased. "I’m sorry for making you worry."
Tristan smirked wryly. That wasn’t the same thing at all. It was probably the only apology he was going to get, though.
"And I won’t do it again," she added. "I promise."
"Good," he grunted. Then he pressed his lips gently against her forehead. "Rest," he murmured. "We’ve got a long way to go tomorrow."
He shifted on the bed, turning to lie on his back, and pulled Dylan onto his chest. She nestled her head into his shoulder, smiling to herself. What would Katie say if she saw her now? She wouldn’t believe her. If she and Tristan did make it back, that was going to be one hell of an MSN conversation. Then after that, at school. She tried to imagine Tristan sitting beside her in class, writing an essay, watching the paper aeroplanes fly overhead. What would he think about the idiots at Kaithshall? Dylan could picture his horrified face. She laughed quietly, but refused to explain to Tristan when he lifted his head to eye her curiously.
In the morning, a thin veil of mist hovered over the wasteland, hiding the highest of the peaks from view. Tristan didn’t comment on it, but pulled the long sleeves of his jumper down to cover his arms. Then he looked at Dylan. Her T-shirt was thin and ripped in places. It wouldn’t offer much protection against the bite of the cold morning air.
"Here," he said, sliding his arms out of the sleeves. "Wear this."
"Are you sure?" Dylan asked, but she was already reaching for it. Gratefully, she yanked the heavy fabric over her head, pulling the arms down until they covered her hands entirely. "Ooh, that’s better," she said, shivering a little as she felt the warmth from his body heat against her skin.
Tristan grinned at her, his eyes raking up and down her body. She smiled back impishly, knowing she probably looked like a child in a grown-up’s clothes. The jumper was ridiculously big for her, but it was cosy and, as she dipped her chin down to warm her nose against the collar, she realised it smelled of him.
"Ready?" he asked.
Dylan eyed the nearest hill, its top was still hidden by the low-slung cloud, and nodded her head morosely.
Though the sun was hidden, the light was still strong and for once they didn’t have to rush. Instead Tristan seemed content to amble along, his fingers wrapped tightly around Dylan’s. The path was really too narrow for two people to walk abreast, but as their legs gently brushed against the wildflowers, delicate scents bloomed up to perfume the air. It was picture perfect, like a dream.
That thought nudged something at the back of Dylan’s memory. Another dream, walking hand in hand with a handsome stranger. The last dream she’d had before all of this insanity had started. The setting was wrong: the heavy dampness of the forest replaced by the tranquil exquisiteness of the meadow, but the feeling, the sense of happiness, of completeness, was the same. And though the man in the dream had never really had a face, Dylan knew instinctively that it had been Tristan. Had her mind had some inkling that all of this was going to unfold? That it was meant to be? Destiny? That seemed impossible, but still…
"Well, I think…" She clasped Tristan's hand a little tighter. "I think I stayed in the wasteland because that's where I was meant to be."
You're not meant to be here," he replied very quickly.
No, I know that." She smiled at him, refusing to be put off by the frown on his face. "But I think I was meant to be with you."
Silence followed this revelation. Dylan didn’t look at Tristan again to gauge his reaction, but stared around her, drinking in the beauty of the scene. She was right, she knew it. And with that certainty came an inner peace, a contentedness. She suddenly felt at home here, a place where she had no right to be.
"You know, it’ll be funny," she mused, speaking to cover Tristan’s continued silence, not wanting to hear his denial, if that’s what he was thinking.
"What will?" he murmured. He dropped her hand, but lifted an arm to wrap it round her shoulders, fingers playing with a rogue lock of her hair.
Dylan found it hard to concentrate over the chills that ran across her skin and raised the hairs on her neck, but Tristan twisted his face to hers, waiting for an answer.
"Being normal again," she said. "You know, eating and drinking and sleeping. Talking to people. Going back to my old life, pretending this never happened." Then a thought occurred to her. "I… I will remember won’t I?"
Tristan took a moment to answer, then she felt him shrug.
"I don’t know," he admitted. "You’re trying to do something no one’s ever managed before. I don’t know what will happen, Dylan."
"We’re trying to do something no one’s ever managed," she corrected.
He didn’t say anything, but she saw his lips twitch, a hint of a frown about his brow.
Dylan sighed. Maybe it would be better if she didn’t remember. It would be much easier to go back to being a pupil at Kaithshall, a girl who fought with her mother, who had to rub shoulders with the idiots in her neighbourhood. She couldn’t imagine herself doing any of those things now.
Maybe it would be better.
Then she realised that there was one thing she needed to remember. She turned her head and caught Tristan watching her. His expression made her wonder if he could read the thoughts flashing through her brain.
"I will remember you," she whispered.
She wasn’t sure if she was reassuring him, or herself.
Tristan gave her a sad smile. "Hope so," he replied. Then he kissed her, lowering his head and brushing his lips against hers. As he pulled away, she realised he had something in his hand, cupped gently between his thumb and forefinger. A flower, its delicate stem almost bowed with the weight of the vibrant purple petals. "Here." He slipped it into the thick folds of her hair. "It brings out the colour of your eyes."
He trailed his fingers down her face as he dropped his hand, and Dylan blushed furiously, her cheeks scarlet. Tristan laughed at her and grabbed her hand again. With gentle pressure, he urged her a little faster towards the cabin. Just in case.
"Can we go now?" Dylan moaned when at last rays of light poured through the cabin’s windows.
"All right, all right!" Tristan replied, but he was smiling at her indulgently, shaking his head at her eagerness. "Used to be I couldn’t get you moving in the morning. I had to just about drag you out of the door."
Dylan grinned at him, remembering how she’d pouted, whined, complained. "I must have made your life a bit of a misery at first," she admitted.
He laughed. "Misery is maybe too strong a word. Nightmare, perhaps…" He trailed off, and winked at her.
"Nightmare!" Dylan left her sentry post by the door to shove jokingly at his arm. "I’m not a nightmare!"
Her hand slid into the pocket of her jeans, fingers stroking the satin softness of the petals on the wildflower Tristan had given her. It had wilted since he'd picked it, but she'd refused to throw it away. Instead she held onto it like a talisman. Something to bind her to the wasteland; something to bind her to Tristan. Dylan only hoped that would be enough to keep them together.
"Dylan." Tristan pulled her to a stop, spun her to face him. "Dylan, this isn't going to work."
"No, it won't. I can't go to your world. I don't belong. I don't belong anywhere but here." He seemed to be pleading with her; half-angry, half-desperate.
Dylan played with her tongue between her teeth, stared at him. For the first time he look like a sixteen-year-old boy, small and uncertain. Rather than frighten her, though, his uncertainty gave her courage.
"Why did you come, then?" she challenged.
Tristan lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug, looking for all the world like an awkward teenager.
"Tristan? Why did you come?"
"Because… because…" He blew out an exasperated breath. "Because I love you." He dropped his head to the ground as he said it, missing the shock and joy that rippled across Dylan's face. A heartbeat later he pulled his gaze back up. "I want you to be right, Dylan. But you're not."
"You promised me you'd try," she reminded him. "Have faith."
He huffed out a black laugh at that. "Do you?" he asked.
"I have hope." She blushed. "And love." Dylan gazed at him, green eyes scorching. "Trust me."
She had come a long, long way for this chance and she wasn't going back now. Not without at least trying. Besides, they couldn't stay here. Tristan was hurt. Whatever had happened to him, the wasteland was hurting him now. He was wrong: this wasn't where he belonged. He needed to get out. Dylan told herself that and tried not to listen to the whispering voice at the back of her head suggesting that his injuries, his agonies, were happening because she was trying to make him leave the wasteland. Squaring her shoulders, she headed into the dark. Tristan had no choice but to follow; she refused to let go of his hand.
Dylan moved closer, ready to clamber up. Her fingers pulled Tristan’s hand from her elbow and curled it into her palm. She was taking no chances; she wasn’t letting go of him. She didn’t care how awkward it was. She was not going to be tricked again.
"Wait." He tugged at her, pulled with enough pressure to turn her round. Tristan’s other arm snaked round her waist and he drew her to him. The tunnel floor was uneven and so, for once, his face was level with hers. She felt his breath tickling her cheek. "Look, I…" he started and then fell quiet. She heard him take a deep breath, then another. He gripped her chin, lifted it a fraction. "Just in case," he whispered.
Tristan kissed her like he was saying goodbye. His mouth pressed hungrily against hers and he squeezed her so tight it was hard to breathe. Letting go of her face, he slid his fingers into her hair, pulling her closer still. Dylan screwed her eyes shut and tried to fight the tears that sprang forth. It wasn't goodbye, it wasn't. This was not going to be the last time she felt the heat of his embrace, smelled him, held onto him. It wasn't.
They were going to share a million other kisses just like this.cc"Wait," she croaked, far too late. She raised her hand, reaching in the direction he had disappeared, but the small effort exhausted her. She let her arm fold in half, dropping her hand to her face. It was wet. Her searching fingers found a mixture of tears, sweat and blood. Drawing her hand back, she stared at the shining mixture, glistening in the artificial brightness of torches and emergency lighting.
What had happened? Where was Tristan?
She remembered falling, bracing herself, arms stretched out, her only thought not tumbling down to lie with the bodies on the ground.
She’d let go of him. She’d let go of him to save herself, to keep her face out of the blood, the debris of death.
She’d let go of him.
Dylan’s lungs were aching, but she couldn’t stop herself gasping and retching. Her eyes stung and her throat constricted painfully. Whatever injuries she had dulled mercifully into the background and tears coursed down her face.
She’d let go of him.
"No," she hissed through chapped lips. "No, no, no."
Frantically, she shuffled position on the floor, then she thrust her hand into her pocket, ignoring the searing pain every movement triggered, fingers desperately searching. Her heart stopped for a painful moment. It was there. The flower. If that had made it through…
But where was he? Where was he? Why wasn’t he lying beside her?
Had she lost him when she’d let go of his hand?
Painkillers would be good; they’d help put out the fire burning in her belly. But they wouldn’t do anything for the gaping hole in her chest, the agony of being so empty. What had she done?
And that was when she saw him.
He was sitting to the left of the tunnel entrance, his hands wrapped around his knees, and he was staring at her. From this far away all that she could tell was that he was a boy, probably a teenager, with sandy hair that was being tossed around by the wind and whipping all around his face.
"Tristan," she breathed. Relief and joy swelled in her chest. She drank in the sight of him, here, in her world.
He'd made it.
Someone stepped in between them, cut him off from her. A fireman. Dylan watched as whoever it was stooped down, wrapped a blanket around Tristan’s shoulders. He said something to him, a question. She watched Tristan shake his head. Slowly, slightly awkwardly, he levered himself up from the grass. Saying a final word to the fireman, he started shuffling in her direction. Just before he reached her side, he smiled.
"Hi," he murmured, stretching out a hand to gently stroke the blanket that covered her. Trailing his fingers down her side, he grasped her hand.
"Hi," she murmured back. Her lips twitched; a trembling smile. "You're here."