This is a story submitted as part of the Flashback week competition. It’s a flashback taken from a novel in development written by Ruth Connelly.
Tilda could not think of a single thing to say, so she simply stood up, walked out, went upstairs to her room, locked the door behind her, and lay down on her bed. It was her normal response whenever she found anything just too much to deal with, although she usually did it with rather more shouting and slamming of doors. Once there, she clasped her hands over her stomach, and stared at her ceiling, her mind strangely blank. She could hear her parents’ voices drifting up the stairs – they were talking too loudly as usual.
‘We need to go and check on her,’ her father was saying,
‘Leave her, Ronic,’ her mother said, ‘she’s just had a huge shock, she needs time by herself to absorb it.’
‘But we don’t know what she’s doing up there! Whatever happened to her friends could happen to her – it could be happening right now. We need to go and see!’
‘She’s locked in her bedroom. She’s not going to just disappear. She’ll come down and talk to us when she’s ready. We need to give her time.’
Tilda heard her father harrumphing, but then things went quiet, and she figured out that her mother must have prevailed, which was a profound relief. Much as she loved her parents, she just didn’t think she could cope with them right now.
There was nothing to see on her ceiling, except for the shifting patterns of shadow and light as the breeze ruffled the branches of the bunton tree outside her window. She watched them play across the plaster for a while, and then closed her eyes to watch instead the patterns inside her eyelids. Time was passing, but she didn’t know how much. No tears came; it was as if her emotions had simply shut down, along with the rest of her. She knew that sooner or later she would have to get up off the bed, to eat or drink or go to the toilet, and that she would have to go downstairs again, sit at the table, and discuss things with her mother and father. At some point she would have to deal with this, she would have to go back to school and see the empty desks where her friends had sat, and fend off all the questions and the teasing… but not now. Now she just wanted to lie there, staring at the inside of her own eyelids, not doing anything, not thinking anything, not feeling anything, just lying.
Of course, it is impossible to not think anything indefinitely, and soon she found her mind dwelling on her friends’ disappearances, going back over the details of the previous night, all the statements made, hints that had been dropped, trying to work out what she could have done to prevent… whatever it was that had happened. It was fruitless; they simply hadn’t told her enough for her to even take a reasonable guess at where they had gone. The thing that she found most difficult to understand, was that they should both have disappeared on the same night. They had had separate plans, secret even from each other – or at least, that’s what they had told her. The suspicion that they had actually conspired together, excluding her, and were even now playing some joke, with her as the butt, took hold. It was the first thing that had any sort of emotional impact – suddenly, she felt hurt, and that hurt was strangely comforting, because it was within the boundaries of normality. She rapidly started persuading herself that this was the correct, the only, explanation: they must be playing a mean trick on her. It was tough to think that her only friends at the school had turned against her, but at least now she knew them for what they really were, and maybe her father would finally consent to taking her out of the awful place and sending her somewhere more normal, where there were others like her. Perhaps even one with boys. She began to imagine what another school might be like, although she had only very limited ideas, as her experience of school and her experience of the Myrmed Academy were one and the same. It was just as difficult when she tried to imagine making new friends: Conny and Hex were the only friends she had ever really had, and their faces kept drifting into her mind. It was just impossible to think of her life without them.
Eventually she gave up trying, and instead thought back to the first day she had met them, nearly a decade ago. Tilda could still remember vividly what it was like as she left her parents at the gate: her mother trying not to cry, her father trying to comfort his wife and hide his own emotions at the same time. Her uniform was strange and uncomfortable, the school gates were huge and capped with intimidating statues, her new books were heavy and awkward to carry, and the teachers were terrifying. Worst of all were the other girls. Most of them were bigger than her, all of them looked neater than her, and as she scanned around the playground with a sinking heart she saw that they all looked fully human. Not only that, they mostly had the dark skin of the highborn. Some were a bit paler, but there were scarcely any sallow complexions, and absolutely nobody else had the greenish tinge that bespoke Orc ancestry. In the five years of her life, Tilda had never been anywhere where she didn’t belong, but now, she felt a powerful trepidation that she didn’t belong here.
At one end of the playground was a seating area of benches and tables, and in the middle sat a group of girls who were obviously the most important girls in the school. Without exception they were dark-skinned, and much, much, bigger than her. They were surveying the arriving new girls with haughty disdain, sticking their noses up at most of them. When they caught sight of Tilda, they glanced at each other, whispered, then crossed their arms and stuck their noses higher in the air than ever before. The girl in the middle, who seemed to be the leader, stood up and starting walking towards her, and not in a friendly way. Tilda stood, rooted to the spot in terror, with no idea what was going to happen next except for that it probably wasn’t going to be very pleasant.
Luckily, she never found out: before the girl could reach her, she was accosted by another first year, one much more confident than Tilda.
‘Marta! Hello!’ called the little girl.
‘Seryn!’ the older girl exclaimed, and stopped and bent down to talk to her, a huge smile on her face. There was a family resemblance between them: Tilda guessed that they must be sisters or cousins, and wished she had someone to meet her and smile at her. Instead, she took the opportunity to slink away, making herself as inconspicuous as possible. She went over to the far side of the playground, where there was an area of garden, complete with some bushes which looked suitable for hiding.
When she got there, she walked straight over to the far side, and went behind the furthest bush, growing nearly up against the wall. She was startled to discover two other girls already there, talking together with bowed heads. Even on that very first day, the ten-years-older Tilda couldn’t help but recall bitterly, the other two had met first and were gossiping without her.
They looked up at her, equally surprised to see her. At first they looked hostile; but then, as they took in more of her appearance, and she more of theirs, they softened, and Tilda stepped cautiously towards them. The one on the left was unusually short, but stocky; she had pale skin, and dark hair falling in riotous curls. The one on the right was nearly as short, but much slighter in build; her skin was sallow to the point of looking downright yellow, while her straight hair was the same colour, and so fine that her scalp was visible through it. The most giveaway thing about either of them, though, was her ears: huge, and pointed, they protruded through her hair, and hairs protruded from them.
The one on the left was the first to speak.
‘Hi, I’m Conny,’ she said.
‘Hi,’ Tilda said, in a voice squeaky with nerves, ‘I’m Tilda.’ Conny nodded at her, with the solemnity only a five-year-old can muster. The yellow-skinned girl was the last to speak.
‘I’m Hexamaria,’ she said, ‘but you can call me Hex.’
‘Hi Hex,’ said Tilda, ‘are you…’
‘Half-elf? Yes I am. And Conny is half-dwarf. And you – you’re half-orc, aren’t you?’
‘Quarter-orc, actually. My father’s mother.’ Tilda said, and felt instantly embarrassed about saying to much to someone she’d just met. But Hex and Conny didn’t seem to mind. For a moment they all just looked at each other, awkward, but nonetheless feeling an unspoken bond. At last Tilda plucked up the courage to ask the question which had been bothering her since she first arrived.
‘Are there any others here?’ She didn’t need to define what she meant by ‘others’. Conny and Hex shook their heads.
‘Not that we’ve seen,’ said Conny. ‘No other halves, and certainly no pures. Not even any other quarters. We’re the only ones.’ It took a moment for the profundity of that simple statement to sink in.
They were abruptly interrupted when a tall figure loomed over the top of the bush which was their place of concealment. Looking up, Tilda saw that it was Marta. Her young relative, Seryn, appeared at the side of the bush and said brightly ‘Here they are!’
‘Yes, here they are,’ Marta agreed, grinning at them. Spontaneously, all three shrank back from her and huddled together. Marta, revelling in their fear, cracked her knuckles.
‘Now,’ she said, ‘I’m going to show you what we think of nons here,’
‘What are you going to do?’ The question came not from one of the three frightened targets, but from Seryn, who was looking up at the older girl in puzzlement. Marta didn’t look please to be interrupted.
‘I’m going to teach them a lesson, is what I’m going to do. A lesson that we don’t like their sort here.’
‘I think they know that already.’ Seryn’s matter-of-fact voice cut through the atmosphere of menace, and Marta sighed in exasperation.
‘Still, I want to make sure,’ she said, sounding less convincing than before.
‘Why?’ asked Seryn, ‘I mean, if they’re so beneath us, why bother with them at all? Mother says that all nons are so stupid, they won’t be able to learn to read anyway.’
Tilda was about to protest that she had already learned the alphabet, but thought better of it. Marta seemed lost for words. She eventually settled for spitting at them, and stalked off with the parting shot ‘You just make sure you stay out of my sight.’
Seryn stayed behind for a second, looking at them curiously. She had the deep, rich brown skin of the highest of the highborn, and she was tall for her age, towering over Hex and Conny. Only Tilda could look her in the eye. Her hair was plaited into four neat braids, two on each side of her head, and she wore a slim gold bracelet on her wrist. Everything about her bespoke of wealth, breeding, and class. Unlike Marta, there wasn’t any particular antipathy in her gaze, but there wasn’t any sympathy either. Just plain curiosity. It occurred to Tilda that she had surely never seen any other races up close before. After a few moments, and without saying anything further, she turned and left them skulking in the shrubbery. The three of them breathed a collective sigh of relief.
‘Clearly, school is going to be tough. I think we should to stick with each other,’ said Conny. The other two nodded fervently. The bell to call them into class rang, and they joined hands to walk out from their hiding place and face the world together.
It was the remembrance of that moment that finally made a tear fall from Tilda’s eye and run down the side of her face to the pillow. For they had stuck with each other; through ten years of school, her friends had always been there to help her, to protect her, to cheer her up. They had teased her; she had teased them. Once, she and Conny fell out, and each of them would talk only to Hex, but that only lasted two days before they all started laughing together. Sure, they had their secrets from each other, but Tilda knew, deep down, they would never betray her.
Which meant… that they weren’t playing a trick on her. Which meant… that they had actually disappeared, that they were probably in danger, or even…
Tilda abruptly sat up, her previous lethargy gone. A burning need for action replaced it, sadly unaccompanied by any clear idea of what she could actually do that would be any use. But she knew that lying in her bedroom was unlikely to help. As she got up and went out to the landing, she heard her mother’s voice calling up to her.
‘Tilly dear, are you ready to come and talk to us now?