* * * * *
I would like to introduce you to two women who physically resemble two other women whom we know and love. However, their characters, and everyone else portrayed, are the product of my own sick and twisted imagination.
Warning: there is violence contained within; minor drug taking; and swearing. Lots and lots of swearing. I apologise for this, she wouldn’t shut up. There is also sex (eventually) involving two adult and consenting women - if this is illegal where you are, if you are under 18 or if you disapprove if this... perhaps you should be reading something else.
Please note: Lleuadraeth doesn’t exist. The East Metropolitan Borough Council doesn’t exist. This St Vincent’s Hospital doesn’t exist. And I’m not entirely sure London exists, but might, in fact, be the product of someone else’s sick and twisted imagination.
Also please note: I do not work in the medical profession and I don’t speak Welsh. I’ve done a lot of research into the medical issues and procedures, and the Welsh language, however, I apologise profusely for any errors or mistranslations there might be. In fact, please let me know if you spot any and I’ll do my best to change them.
The spelling isn’t incorrect, it’s just British.
If you’re so inclined, explanations to the chapter titles, quote sources and translation of some of the Welsh can be found in endnotes at the foot of each chapter. You do not have to refer to them to follow the story.
I’ve read a lot of ┘ber alt fiction, but I’ve been incredibly lax in saying thank you to some truly wonderful bards. So this is my thank you to those who have made us laugh, cry and... well... get rather heated in some inappropriate locations. If there’s anybody out there less lax than me in their feedback, my e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
For DG, my cariad.
I think that’s it. There’s 26 chapters ahead of you. Good luck....
* * * * *
"Know ye not then the Riddling of the Bards?
’Confusion, and illusion, and relation,
Elusion, and occasion, and evasion?’"
- Gareth & Lynette, The Idylls of the King, Tennyson
* * * * *
Chapter 1: The Princess had no occasion... [i]
She opened her eyes, momentarily.
"Hello, love, can you hear me? You’re in hospital."
Blurred faces... blurred sound... very bright.
"Can you tell how deep that wound is?"
Pain. Big pain.
"We need a CT scan."
Her eyes screwed shut.
"Can you tell me your name, love?"
"Christ, she’s going into seizure."
"Make sure she doesn’t fall off."
She could feel her body moving, although she didn’t want it to. Someone was holding her, the gentlest touch. Hands sure on her shoulders. It felt safe.
She opened her eyes again, although everything seemed so dark now. Except for the eyes. Two perfectly blue eyes, that reminded her of the sky over the bay.
Then her body jolted her into darkness.
* * * * *
She badly, badly wanted to tell this pompous sonofabitch to go fuck himself.
"You should have waited for the Security staff."
Badly. "He was so drunk he won’t even remember," she said.
"That’s not the point. You could have hurt him, if he wasn’t hurt already."
"He wasn’t hurt already, he’d come in to get out of the rain."
"Then you should have asked him politely to leave."
"Yeah, like that was going to work. He’d been verbally abusing half the genuine patients, waving his dick at the nurses and was about to piss up the reception desk."
"A member of the Accident & Emergency staff should not be seen to manhandle people in that manner..." Striker opened her mouth, about to protest again, but was interrupted, "..not to mention the fact that your language was completely inappropriate for a public waiting area...." Striker opened her mouth again. "St Vincent’s Hospital is one of the biggest medical establishments in London and we have a reputation to uphold." That bit she could quote verbatim, and had to stop herself from doing so. "Now, this is not the first time we’ve had this conversation. You will take this as an official warning. You’re a valuable member of this team, and I don’t want to lose you, but right now you are walking on very thin ice. Please think about that."
"Go fuck yourself," Striker said as she turned and marched out of the office.
"I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that," she heard as she slammed the door.
Another day in the fun factory.
Okay, so maybe she had been a little rough on the drunk. Personally, she preferred to think she’d given him some assistance in the genitalia department - pulled him in the right direction, so to speak - he obviously didn’t know what to do with it. Most of those present had been grateful - she’d even heard a spontaneous smatter of applause - but some little shit had complained. She knew it was that little rat-faced guy who had given Ria such a hard time. Maybe she should have just turned the drunk round and got him to piss in his lap.
Striker strode through the now quiet A&E, ignoring Ria’s call. She was in a foul mood, she had a blinding headache, and she wanted to take it out on someone. But not Ria. Besides, she was in street clothes, she was off shift and she was going home.
But she stopped as soon as the cold, damp, February air hit her face.
It wasn’t the rain that brought Striker to a halt, or the thought of the cramped and dreary journey home, or that Danny was out and there would be no one at the end of that journey.
She closed her eyes for a moment, and clearly saw the woman’s face: deathly pale skin framed by bloodied auburn hair, and those eyes. Eyes as deep and wild green as the sea. That single moment seemed to have lasted forever. Striker had held her like a baby as she watched those eyes fade like the moon setting.
Oh dear God, I’ve got it bad.
Her hand went inside her jacket and brushed against the cigarette packet.
These facts were known. The woman had a head injury, she had been operated on, and now she was in the care of the ICU. Coma had been induced to stop her brain from swelling as a result of her injury and the subsequent surgery. But Striker did no know... no one knew... the woman’s name.
She had been found, unconscious, in a dark and unsafe area of east London, presumably the victim of a mugging. She might have been hit from behind, she might have fallen and hit her head. Either way she was left with no identity, bar a police file. She was alone.
It was that that gnawed at Striker. This woman was alone with no one to support her, hold her hand, reassure her in the depths of her coma. This woman whose body she had held, and in whose frightened eyes she had drowned.
How many patients had she seen over her time at St Vincent’s? How many patients had she supported, helped, talked to, genuinely felt for? Those who had been surrounded by families, friends, acolytes - and there had been that one guy with the goat; she shook her head at that memory.
And always those who had been alone.
But ultimately, looking back, through all of the life and death that passed through these doors, in the true spirit of professional detachment, no one meant a whole lot more to her than a drunk or a rat-faced guy.
Except this woman.
So, in a gentle revelation in the middle of a sleepless night, Striker had decided to be the one to support her, to hold her hand and reassure her. To be that friendly voice that would lead her back home.
The thought and the rain soothed her... slightly... until she saw, through the diminishing shower, the rusty car parked in the darkened lot. She smiled, feeling the reassuring gush of anger through her blood. She stalked towards the vehicle and knocked on the window.
Slowly, it was wound down, releasing air rancid with the stink of beer and the bittersweet reek of dope smoke. "Excuse me," she said sweetly to the four teenage inhabitants, "you can’t stop here. This area is reserved for ambulances."
The response was what she had hoped for. They laughed. What’s the point of rebelling against the society by becoming an asshole?
"You do realise that you could be endangering lives if you blocked an ambulance’s ingress?"
A gruff voice came back to her from within the car, "Yeah, right. I don’t see any ambulances around here, do you, Yank?" This was greeted with laughter.
"That’s beside the point." Striker smiled. "Of course, the hospital is within its rights to call the police, should you continue to park here, and I’m sure they would be equally interested in that substance you’re smoking."
"I’d like to see you try."
"We like it here, we’re not moving."
And then the voice closest to her said, "Unless you want to get in ’ere and we’ll really show you how to park," followed by more laughter. This last comment was also accompanied by a large bubble of saliva, which landed with a splat on her jacket.
This seemed to cause even more hilarity, until Striker reached in through the window and pulled the nearest teen halfway out of the car. Her hands gripping his collar, he dangled precariously over the tarmac.
She brought his face close to her own and stared him in the eyes. "Would you care to repeat that?"
Caught in the headlights of her gaze, he made a strangled, squeaking noise.
"I didn’t think so. Now, I’ve had a shitty day and I don’t need a little dick like you to make it worse, because then you’d be in serious trouble. So the first thing you’re gonna do to make me feel better is clean my jacket."
The young man brought his arm up and wiped the spit away with his sleeve.
"And the second thing you’re going to do is leave. Okay?"
"Good boy." She dropped him back through the window. She caught the shocked expressions of the faces of his friends. "Thank you. Now fuck off."
Striker watched as the car coughed to life and moved off as fast it could.
She felt so much better for that.
And, with her temper calmed, she turned on her heel and made her way to the ICU.
It wasn’t strange to see Striker’s tall, dark figure pacing halls of St Vincent’s Hospital at any time of day or night, so no one gave her a second glance. It was late, past dinner time, past the normal lights out. Here and there were pockets of activity: little dramas that filled the evening with noise and light. But Striker ignored them and found herself at the churchlike corner that was Intensive Care.
The woman was in the last bed of the ward, discreetly separated by her room-mates by a half-pulled curtain. Machines, like gargoyles, watched her every breath and heartbeat, every movement of blood in her veins.
Striker stood for a moment, her own movement stilled by the sudden reality of what she was doing.
She was caring. And every single nerve-ending was screaming a warning.
But a look at the pale skin, the auburn lashes lying against white cheeks, lids hiding those eyes, and Striker knew she had no choice.
So she pulled a chair to the side of the bed, careful not to disturb any of the technology surrounding them, or the other patients in their own worlds. And again put her hand inside her jacket.
Her late night revelation had been followed by a decision. She would read to her. They were strangers, with no knowledge of each other’s history - she couldn’t talk about her life, she couldn’t refer to memory. And her normal vocabulary seemed to scare children and hospital managers. Reading would give her something to say, and maybe focus the woman’s mind. She thought long and hard about what she might read, but chose in the end something safe and familiar... maybe familiar enough for the woman as well.
Carefully, she slid the old book out of her jacket the cover brushing comfortably against the smooth, dark leather, and made immediately for the marked page. With one further glance down the ward towards the empty corridor outside, she leaned forward, and quietly started to read.
"’Once upon a time there lived a King and a Queen, who lacked but one thing on earth to make them entirely happy. The King was young, handsome and wealthy; the Queen had a nature as good and gentle as her face was beautiful; and they adored one another, having married for love - which among kings and queens is not always the rule. Moreover, they reigned over a kingdom at peace, and their people were devoted to them. What more, then, could they possibly want?’"
As softly as a summer breeze, Striker’s words breathed a different life into the clinical room, and, should anyone have been listening, they would have been carried away to another time where a princess can sleep for a hundred years and be wakened by a single, sweet kiss....
But no one was listening, except the captive woman in the bed. And she was as still and unresponsive as the sanitised walls around them.
So Striker’s secret was safe. As the princess and her prince lived happily ever after, she closed the book, placed it carefully back into her leather jacket and stood. Briefly, she grazed the woman’s hand with her own. Then, at a loss for words, she left.
* * * * *
The second night she was caught. A soft step interrupted the two ugly sisters choosing their ballgowns and Striker jumped, dropped both the book and the woman’s hand, and spun up from her seat.
"Jesus, you gave me a shock," she said, relieved at who she found behind her.
"And you never fail to surprise me," Kishen Mistry said.
"You’re here late, aren’t you?"
"And you’re here. Shouldn’t you be beating people up in A&E?"
Striker grinned. "We offer the full service down there: break ’n’ mend."
"And what are you doing here?"
She ducked her head. "Reading."
"Thank you for stating the obvious." He picked the book up from the floor and raised an elegant eyebrow at the cover. Sleeping Beauty and Other Fairy Tales.
"She’s alone," Striker said. "No one’s got time to spend with her."
Kishen raised his other eyebrow and handed the book back to her. "You’re a good person, Striker."
"Yeah, well don’t tell anybody. I’ve got a reputation."
"Oh, yeah, and a damn Yankee attitude."
She pulled herself up to her full height and looked down on him from her two inch advantage. "Hey, without that damn Yankee attitude half the crap wouldn’t be done round here."
"Including reading fairy stories to patients."
"Striker, what you’re doing is a good thing. I’m not going to stop you from doing this because you’re attached to a different department. I’ll let the nurses know what you’re doing. They’ll leave you to it." He paused and smiled. "Of course, this could be valuable information: big, bad Striker reads fairy stories...."
"Get out of here, before I kick that cute ass of yours."
"You would as well, wouldn’t you?" Kishen said, and got out of there.
Striker turned back to the woman and reached out for her hand again. Her voice lowered and softened. "Hey, sorry about that. But Mr Mistry’s a good guy. You’ll be okay with him. You’ll be okay." She squeezed the hand. Despite its stillness it felt warm and soft. "Um... where were we?"
* * * * *
Always the busiest night of the week. It had started with a pitched battle between two gangs of rival soccer supporters. Then two separate road accidents had added to the usual late Saturday human detritus of drunken brawls and drunker teenagers. It had made Accident and Emergency a conveyor belt of blood, vomit and body parts, and Striker’s shift had stretched into the early hours. The staff were always reassured by Striker’s attendance on a night like this. Her height and strong, authoritative presence would often be enough to quell any confrontations, and if not... more than one would-be combatant had found their backside cooling on the pavement outside A&E, or being handed over, caught in an iron grip, to security guards.
Now it was quiet. Again Striker stood in the entrance of A&E and watched the rain fall - each drop spotlighted by the street lamp, before it fell into darkness. A soundtrack of dripping and the whoosh of tyres on the wet road ahead greeted her ears.
"Does it do anything but fucking rain in this goddamned country?" she muttered to herself.
She pulled out a crumpled packet of cigarettes, extracting one with her lips before lighting it. She huddled into the corner of the covered entrance - the last point of shelter before the wet night could claim her - so as not to block the doorway, so as not to be seen by the anti-smoking brigade.
She could just leave: catch the night bus, go home, see if Danny was back, just chill, talk, laugh, sink a few.... But she knew she wasn’t going to.
This was a new kind of escape. It would take her far away from the cold rain, and the dismal apartment, and the unpaid rent, and her search....
She flung her half-smoked cigarette into the night, turned and stole back into the hospital.
Striker nodded at the duty nurse at the ICU station and found her seat by the bed.
She took the woman’s hand. "Hi," she said. "I’m sorry I’m a little late today. People like to kill each other on Saturday nights." And on Tuesday nights. The fourth night since she’d been brought in. Why did it feel like forever?
Normally, at this point she would have opened the book to start reading, but instead she simply sat there, gazing at the woman’s still countenance. Who are you?
But did she want to know? The moment she found her identity, Striker knew she would lose her.
The woman was thin, but not painfully so. Striker thought she had caught a glimpse of gently-toned muscles on her arms. There was no sign of abuse: she had seen enough drug users and prostitutes pass through A&E to recognise the signs. Striker thought she must be a few years younger than herself, even early twenties. She had a young face. Perhaps that’s why Striker felt so protective of her: it felt so wrong that she was here. She could picture her in the country, surrounded by green hills, or staring out to sea... not getting attacked in a dark, wet London street.
Her voice seemed to spill out of its own accord.
"I’m so sorry this has happened to you," she said. "You seem such a gentle person... so beautiful." She let her hand drift over the woman’s cheek. "I don’t know you... but I feel like I do. Is that crazy?" She rested her hand against the woman’s still jaw. "I don’t want you to be alone. You may have family out there, friends... a... boyfriend..." the word caught in her throat.... "and they’re searching for them. The police are out there looking. But in the meantime, know that you’re not alone, okay?" Without thinking, she lifted the small, soft hand and brought it to her lips, letting the kiss linger there for just a moment.
Then she laid it back on the bed, and lifted out the book. "I brought something different to read today. This is a book that my mom used... Oh God!"
Striker had lifted her eyes to the woman’s face, and found sea-green looking back at her. She stilled her breathing.
"Can you understand me?"
There was no response, just the clear, green gaze. Striker got up, and called back to the nurse’s station, "Maggie, could you call the duty doctor?" But she never stopped the fall into those eyes.
* * * * *
"Sir, you’ve come to the wrong entrance. This is the Accident and Emergency department."
"Can’t you just..."
"You need to go to the main reception in the other building...."
"Please... could you just...."
"Can I help at all?" Striker went up to the desk, addressing her question more to Ria than the man, but it was he who started talking again. His eyes closed in frustration at having to explain himself again.
He was speaking so fast, Striker could only make out a few words tinged with a strong, lilting accent that she didn’t immediately recognise. "Sir, can you calm down a little. I can’t understand what you’re saying."
The man took a deep breath, turned and looked her straight in the eye.
And immediately, Striker knew why he was here as she looked deep into green.
He looked like a kid who’d grown up to fast... physically and emotionally. He spoke slowly, punctuating his speech with shaking breaths. "My sister’s been missing... for almost a week. The police said a woman... was brought here a few days ago. She matches my sister’s description. Please..."
Jesus Christ... that desperation.
"Come with me."
She led him down corridors, a labyrinthine maze that only she and a few prepared others could ever seem to penetrate. Just call me Theseus.... The young man kept up with her, long legs and anxiety drawing him on as well as any ball of string. She didn’t say anything - it wasn’t her place to. It was important to maintain the woman’s confidentiality. What if this man wasn’t her brother? What if this was a complete stranger who, by total coincidence, also had those impossible eyes?
The man didn’t say anything. Already breathless with worry, he had nothing left to ask questions. Striker was grateful for that.
Intensive Care, already. And there she was, a few auburn wisps peeking out from under the bandage around her head; her eyes closed now, her skin as pale as the sheets. The only noise the electronic pulse of the cardiograph and the breath of three people.
And then a gasp. The young man went to the bed, moving slowly, as if the woman before him was a child paralysed by fright. He said something almost under his breath - a different language - Striker didn’t catch it. He reached out and took the woman’s hand and squeezed it; then turned and looked Striker in the eye... and nodded.
For one moment, Striker wondered if she wanted to know, or if she could walk out of there and keep her fantasy. But her mouth reacted before her brain decided: "What’s her name?"
"Morien," he said, "Morien Llewelyn," turning back to his sister.
And Striker left, almost colliding with Kishen Mistry. "Striker, what’s going on?"
"The mystery woman," Striker said, "she’s not a mystery anymore."
[i] From The Sleeping Beauty and Other Fairy Tales by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, admittedly from the final paragraph not the first. All the tales can be found online at www.bartleby.com