There was a discomfort at his throat that was building to pain. He tried to ignore it, to keep jabbing and reaching and clawing, and then he realised that he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t cry out. His windpipe was being crushed. He stared at the moon-face above him, brought his sight into focus, centring his gaze onto the slitted eyes and taut-lipped grimace. Murray.
‘...God’s sake, Blaketon, quit it, I tell you. Quit it, you stupid sod, you screaming bastard. It was an accident. What the xxxx are you trying to do? It was an accident for Christ’s sake.’
Murray’s words streamed away into the dark hole of the night as the skin around his eyes relaxed. The pinning arm moved to the top of Nick’s chest, and Nick drank in air like a drowning man returning from the dead.
‘Are you with us now?’ Murray hissed. ‘Speak to me, you prat.’
Nick couldn’t get the words to form and instead shut his eyes. Exhaustion was cascading through him. Every limb ached. A pain was returning to his head, throbbing behind his eyes.
‘Stupid sod!’ Murray spat at him. ‘It was an accident, you bastard. What the hell were you trying to do to him?’
Nick lay panting, his brains scrambled. He wasn’t sure he could form a thought that was coherent. He could hear a whistle, could feel the ground reverberating beneath pounding boots. Someone was shouting. Hodgson. Hodgson was shouting.
When Murray rolled off him, Nick thought he was going to float up from the ground. He dragged air into the furthest reaches of his lungs as if it would act as an anchor, and it hurt, it hurt like hell, each depressed rib springing up to resume its natural position. He struggled to his knees feeling oddly uncoordinated, and was hauled to his feet by Murray’s powerful arm.
‘What’s going on?’ Hodgson was demanding. ‘What happened here?’
‘I... I had the ball and a clear run for the line, and... and I was tackled and... and I went down, we went down... and...’
Nick raised his head to look at the youth a couple of strides to his left. He was of similar build, his short-cropped hair making him seem almost bald. A hard man, except that he wasn’t. He was scared, the hang of his shoulders shouting submission, his gaze darting between Hodgson and the ground, between the ground and Nick.
‘I was right on their heels,’ Murray was saying. ‘I saw it all. The tackle was a bit iffy because of the mud. They both went down, and Blaketon caught a boot in the face. He thought it was deliberate...’ Murray swung his attention to Nick, his expression full of grim warning ‘...but it was an accident, and as soon as I got here I separated them.’
Hodgson stepped forward. ‘Let’s have a look at that wound.’
Nick tried not to wince as he allowed his face to be prodded.
‘I don’t think it’ll need stitching, it’s mostly grazes, but you’d better get yourself to the Med Centre for a once-over and an anti-Tetanus jab.’
‘Will it be open?’ Murray asked.
‘In the morning, then.’
‘Sorry, mate,’ the youth said over Hodgson’s shoulder. ‘I didn’t even know I’d caught you. I didn’t mean to.’
A hand was being offered, a tentative reconciliation. Nick looked at it, an alien thing, as colourless as pork rind in the weak floodlight. There was an urge to smack it aside and go for the youth’s throat, but the urge was deep inside him, unconnected to the reality of his heaving chest and aching muscles. The way he felt he would be hard put to fight his way out of a paper bag. The thought amused him and he laughed. He nodded to the youth, and raised his hand in acknowledgement, but even that was a feat beyond him and the gesture was lost in a swaying of his arm. Enough, he decided. Enough. And he turned toward the bright lights of the Sports Centre, which spun in front of him as he staggered.
Murray was one side, peering into his face, Hodgson the other, holding him with one hand and waving at the muddied players who were all heading for the light.
‘There’s something wrong with him,’ Nick heard Murray say.
‘Probably just a touch of concussion,’ was Hodgson’s return. ‘We’ll know better once we get him inside.’
‘What happened?’ Nick asked.
‘You’re okay,’ Murray told him. ‘Just keep walking.’
Within a few strides he had walked himself conscious. The floodlight stood brilliant against the night sky, the lashing rain streaking diagonally across its stanchion. A blur of colour resolved into the Sports Centre. There was a crush at the entrance ahead of them, mudmen shoulder to shoulder seeking respite from the rain, and then they had funnelled up the steps, and he saw her.
The red and blue panelled umbrella had been furled. She stood back from the muddied path left by the players, but well within the cast of the porch lights. He could see her, but she hadn’t seen him.
Nick drew himself free of Hodgson’s support. His heart began to beat strongly, pumping his blood, releasing the fire.
He watched her, without blinking, as he and Murray and Hodgson matched strides across the spongy turf. Murray was easing the grip on his arm. Hodgson was turning to look behind.
There was recognition in her change of stance before it reached her face. The tip of the umbrella pecked at the glossy surface of the perron and was lifted as she moved towards the top of the flight, her eyes brightening, her dark lips curving into a smile. Hodgson hung back as they reached the steps. Murray and Nick mounted the first together, slowly, like dancers.
Nick saw her shift the umbrella from both hands to her left. They mounted the next step, and she drew it to her side. The studs of their boots clattered against the terrazzo. Her fingers were flexing. The next step was gained. The manicured nails were reaching out. He raised his head as he lifted his foot for the final flier and the fire in his blood ignited his lungs.
Her figure-hugging jacket was unzipped almost to her waist, the white shirt beneath unbuttoned to the swell of her suntanned breasts. His gaze rose up the contours of her neck, firm and swan-like, to the dipped chin and painted mouth, lips already pouting; the small nose, the blushered cheekbones, mascaraed lashes veiling hazel eyes which looked much lighter now they shone from the deep tan of her face. Her arm was raised, painted nails ready to claw his shirt, a wet and muddied second skin.
His straight-armed barge knocked her off her feet, but he never saw her fall. Murray’s blow caught him in the chest and he plunged backwards from the steps. He heard the clatter of the umbrella on the terrazzo, saw Hodgson’s shocked expression, saw Murray’s bulky silhouette blocking half the lights from the porch and the windows behind.
The muddy grass broke his fall, partly on his side, partly on his left shoulder, and with the momentum Nick executed a backward roll that brought him to his feet. The cold rain washed his face and he laughed into the night sky, punching into the air as he jumped to give himself more height.
‘Any port in a storm, Murray! She’ll be grateful. See if she isn’t!’
He turned, and at a jog crossed the pitch beneath the floodlights, increasing to a run as he entered the gloom beyond. The darkness was so welcoming, so enveloping, he shut his eyes to savour it, the wind-driven rain the only sensation to touch him.
He jarred his ankle as his foot dropped on to the hard surface of the road, and his eyes sprang open, surprised that he had covered the distance so soon. Easing back to a jog, he cut down the alley between the buildings, the noise of his studded boots setting up such a clattering on the concrete that he glanced behind for sight of pursuers.
Jogging through the Sciences quad he didn’t pass a soul. The ungiving flagstones were taking its toll on his legs, and he changed course to stride along the grassy edge of the shrubbery separating the walkway from the glass and concrete buildings.
Behind the Law block the birches waved their sparse-leafed branches in welcome, and he slowed as he entered their shadowy domain. Gravel crunched beneath his boots as he walked towards the feeble street lamps of Salmon Grove. Rain didn’t fall here, it splattered, and he stood a moment, breathing hard, to open his arms and fling back his head in willing acceptance of each drop that marked him.
At first he thought it was wind-driven leaves he could hear, but as he listened he realised that it was water, a stream of water tumbling over rocks, splashing and gurgling and bubbling, calling him towards it.
His boots sank up to their laces in mud and he looked down at the track the water had cut between the trees. It was wide enough to be called a stream, but not deep enough, not yet; but it was water, and it was running, running from a dark cleft in the unwindowed crag of the building’s side. He moved between the tree trunks, keeping to the flow, his feet pressing through the sodden leaf litter into the fertile earth. The sucking of each lifted foot threatened to drag off his boot, but he did not change his course.
A broken downpipe taking water from the roof. The disappointment left him stunned. What had he been expecting? A brook surging from rock? It almost looked like that, the rippled surface of the grey concrete blocks. It could be rock, natural rock, if his mind allowed it to be.
Lifting a hand he slipped it into the cascade, only to have it knocked aside by the sheer force of the plunging water. Cold. So very cold. He stepped beneath it so that it hit him on the top of his head, numbing his scalp and sending shivers of pain down his neck and his spine. The water moulded round him, forcing itself into his ears, in his eyes, over his nose, until all the flesh of his head was numb. His knees buckled. The water pressed down on him. He was sitting in the streambed, his fingers rooted in the earth. And he was breathing easily. He felt relaxed. In control. He would pass through. This time, he, Ognirius Licinius Vranaun, he would pass through.
This completes Chapter 3. I hope you've enjoyed the excerpts over the last few weeks. If you are new to my #samplesunday offerings, Torc of Moonlight : Special Edition began on 19th December. Please leave a comment and Tweet the excerpt.
#Samplesunday will be back next week with an excerpt from one of my other works. Thanks for calling by.