Chapter 1 - Reminiscences on a Larva
"Oh, Josie, you know there's no such thing as fairies."
Eric thought of them as famous last words these days, though luckily he was still yet to encounter one of the fey folk. He stared down at his lumpy meal... porridge? It didn't quite taste of porridge. It tasted... greyer. As grey as the dusty plastic of the fold down table in the mess hall. A couple of pilots who'd had a narrow escape with some Messerschmitts yesterday were expressing their giddy love for life by launching the grey lumpiness at each other's faces from dull, slightly bent spoons. Eric was probably supposed to tell them off, but his mind was elsewhere.
His mind was where it had been more and more often over the past few months, ever since his promotion and his prompt loss of close friends thereafter. His mind was in his garden, at home, in the moments before he and his sister Josie had found their dragon.
Josie had been playing outside by herself, her friends having gone home for their teas. Eric wasn't sure what she did out there, all on her own, but her imagination seemed to know no bounds. He'd be helping his mum dry dishes in the kitchen, and he'd see her. As he'd reach up with his little twelve-year-old arm to try and get that last glass on the shelf, he'd spot her out the corner of his eye pointing at something with a big, raggedy stick that nearly tipped over with every movement. She'd point it at something else, say something, then put her hands on her hips as if making a decision. Eric had no idea what she was deciding, but it seemed not to be that big a deal because a moment later she'd be running along the garden path again, away from the house.
When they were done with the dishes, Eric's mum, Helen, reached over the kitchen sink and undid the latch of the window. It was a fairly big strain, with her ribcage pressed into the edge of the counter, but she was able to push the window open with the tips of her fingers.
"Josie!" she called. "Josie, it's getting dark. Come inside!"
But there was no answer. Josie had disappeared down behind the line of trees at the bottom of the garden a while ago and she was probably hanging around the burn, maybe jumping back and forth across it. Sometimes she did that as many times as she could before tripping and getting her feet wet. Eric figured he should go get her before she got in trouble for wrecking another pair of shoes.
“Shall I go find her?" Eric asked, draping the tea towel carefully over a chair. The chair back was a spiral of slim iron bars so getting the towel to not fall off one side or the other was a skill Eric had had to perfect over the last few years. Josie, at the age of eight hadn’t started doing chores or getting pocket money yet.
“Yes please, honey,” Helen said, hooking one finger around the window latch and dragging it shut. Her long curly hair was tied back with a large, thick ribbon but it fell forward a bit as she leaned forward, almost dropping into the sink. She grunted. “If you wouldn’t mind.”
Eric took one last look at the tea towel, decided it wasn’t going to fall, and said, “Of course.”
He walked carefully around the table, which if he was honest with himself was more because he’d had a bad knock in the ribs last time he’d run round, rather than any sort of businessman-like dignity. Growing pains indeed. The door had been open to let the steam from the sink escape, but Eric closed it carefully behind him and crossed the thickly carpeted hall to the front entrance.
The front door was locked, but Eric had his own set of keys now that he took from pocket of his school trousers. He slipped outside, passed the living room window across a front garden of small stones with larger stone tiles as a walkway, then began to walk down the side of the house. There were no tiles leading you along this narrow path, with the stone wall of the house on one side and the high hedges and trees hanging over on the other.
As his shoes crunched on the small stones, he heard a call. “Eric?”
The call was whispered, but the caller was nowhere in sight. Still, there was only one person it could be. Eric rolled his eyes and wondered what secret his sister had in store for him.
“Come on,” Eric called back, though he kept walking. “Mum says you’ve to come inside because it’s getting dark.”
She was leaning casually against the back wall of the house, flat against it so there was no way she’d have been seen from someone looking out the kitchen window. When Eric turned the corner, her eyes widened, but quickly settled back into their nonchalant, half-closed pose.
“Hi,” she said, “Want to see something fun?”
Eric frowned at her. Her dirty blonde hair – dirty in shade and in state – was hanging half behind half in front of one shoulder, and he thought he saw a few twigs in it. There was muck all over blouse and skirt, but it was hard to tell how much of it was from today and how much of it was old. It was a good thing their mother made her change out of her school uniform when they got home, otherwise her good pinafore would have been wrecked long since.
“You’re meant to come inside,” he said, beckoning for her to come with him.
“Don’t you want to see something fun first?” she asked.
He threw his hands in the air in exasperation. “What’s so fun that you can’t show me inside? You’re just going to pull up the waistband of my pants again aren’t you.”
Josie pouted. “That doesn’t sound very fun, does it?”
“That’s what I said!” Eric exclaimed. “You said you had great fun!”
Josie shook her head and her eyes opened fully again. This time they stayed like that. “It’s not like that. But you have to come down to the burn.”
“I’ll come inside if you come look,” she offered, reaching out her hand to him.
“And if I don’t?” Eric eyed her hand suspiciously.
She shrugged, grinning slightly. “I’ll still come inside, but you have to catch me first.”
He groaned, remembering the way his very being had burned with what his encylopaedia called lactic acid after the last time he’d tried to keep up with Josie. If he didn’t want to fail in his mission he was going to have to do what she wanted. He took her hand and shook it. “Fine. But let’s hurry.”
Josie nodded and led him swiftly down the garden path between patches of decorative bark and slate. The garden was huge and circular, like a courtyard. And at the very bottom was a little gate that led behind a treeline boundary. Josie always argued it wasn’t a real boundary because it had a gate to get through so their mum saying they couldn’t go past the treeline made no sense. Their mum had stopped arguing against this long ago.
The burn was closed off from the sky by a canopy of pine trees, and the soft dirt of the burn’s banks was perpetually cluttered by a blanket of needles. It did smell rather nice.
Josie leapt across the burn and padded up to a tree whose roots were embedded in the steep opposite bank in a way that made them into a sort of staircase. But instead of ascending, Josie crouched and sat on one of the roots, fixing her gaze on something hidden from view by a point in the next root up that hung out a bit. All Eric could see was a little orange sparkle.
“I think it’s like a fairy or something,” Josie said.
“Oh, Josie, you know there’s no such thing as fairies.”
Josie shrugged. “Then come over here and prove I’m wrong.”
“You didn’t say I’d have to cross the burn!” Eric groaned. “I’d have changed my shoes.”
Josie laughed out loud. “I knew you were going to say that! But you’ve got big long legs!”
It was true, Eric reflected. He had indeed had a bit of a growth spurt recently. But when he’d claimed as much to Josie she’d just challenged him to a jumping competition to see who was really taller. She was definitely making fun of him. Still, whether she meant it or not, he probably was tall enough to cross the burn in one step now.
He edged up as close as he could get to the water, then carefully reached one leg out. But the slower, more carefully he went, the longer he was standing one foot for. He yelped and pushed off with his back leg but his weight had shifted too far forward and the extra air he got only just got him past the water. The back of his heel impacted on a stone, and the back of his trousers got a hefty splash. To make matters worse, in trying to keep his balance, his back leg shifted forward a bit and the toe of his shoe poked straight into the muddy water.
“No!” he cried, and immediately leapt forward, taking off from his front foot and swinging his back leg all the way up onto the third root.
“Why didn’t you go that far the first time?” Josie frowned, seeming genuinely confused.
“Just show me whatever it is.” Eric glowered at her and tried to wipe some of the mud off his shoe with a handkerchief from his school blazer pocket.
Josie beckoned him over and made a little room on her root. He slid in between her and whatever she’d been looking at, took a deep breath and turned his head to see.