After an hour in the carriage I am tired and hungry. The driver call down to me: “Should we go on, miss, or do ye want to rest?”. “Rest, please” I call back. I am tired. The day has been full of experiences and dark thoughts. Dr Husk’s last words to me keep resounding in my head. I am not angry or afraid, but still I am concerned what people like him might do. I will be all right. The Society will protect me – but what of others? We stop at the next inn. The driver jumps down and opens the door for me. He gives me a hand on my way out. “Maybe a bit of food, before we go on, eh, miss?” I smile and nod. I enter the inn, while he takes care of the horses. I order food for two, and he arrives just in time for the hot food. His name is James Wilkinson. We eat and chat. After four days of being scrutinized it is nice to have a common conversation about little things.
A man comes into the inn. He looks like another driver. He looks around, pick us out in the crowd, and comes over. “Grace Hunter?” he asks. I nod. “Miss Cassie Edwards sent me” he says “To bring you home”. “Oh” I say “How sweet of her. Will you eat with us, before we leave?” He declines. He has just eaten, he says. I finish up. Say goodbye to James, who says he will return to the country house after he has finished eating.
I get into the dark carriage. There is someone there. I have no time to react before a soaked cloth is put over my mouth and nose, and everything fades to black.
I wake slowly. I remember moments of semiconsciousness. Being moved. Being slung onto this floor. It is cool and hard. I lay on my side. I let my hand sink into it slightly, but something stings. There are metal slivers in the concrete. I pull my hand back out with a hiss. “Oh, an onead” a soft voice says near me. A soft hand touches my hand and I try to get up. “Careful” the voice says “You are still groggy”. I blink and look at her. She is beautiful, but odd looking. Her eyes are big. Her fingers are a bit elongated, and webbed. Her hair seems to float about her face. “I’m Selene” she says “I am a nayad. It is rare to see another nymph. I didn’t think oneads ever left Straithclyde”. “I grew up here” I say. My voice is hoarse and scratchy. “Among people”. Her words finally reach me “There are really oneads in Straithclyde?”. She makes a shrug “I’ve heard” she says. She reaches out to me again. “Can you sit up?”. I get onto my hands and knees and manages to sit up and look around. I am in a cell. Selene is in another cell next to me. Beyond her are other cells with people in them. The figure just beyond Selene looks huge. Selene looks where I am looking. “That is Grum” she says. “He and you and I are the only true inhumans here”. “Inhumans?”. “That what they call us”, she replies “Grum is a troll. From Götaland. I figure he is only a kid. He cries for his Mama a lot”. “Mama?” a deep grovelly voice says “Var är du?”. The troll is at least 2 ½ meters tall. He looks like a great big boulder. His skin is grey and greenish. I can’t tell if the green is hair or moss. He is all curled up. The cells are not large enough for him to stand up. Selene presents the occupants in the other cells – there are 10: Two dwarves share a cell. A man and a woman, Salvatore and Agatha from Atlantea. They huddle together. Beyond them is another dwarf. “Big Bill’s me name” he calls out “Born and bred i’ tha Docks. Worked there all ma life. Fucking misfortune ter end up ‘ere”. “Here?” I ask “Tha Pit” he says. “Ya’ll learn soon enough”. Selene presented the next pair of inhabitants. Or person…? They look like two people, but they are joined at the hip. They have three legs to share. They walk towards the cell wall to look at me. They walk smoothly, synchronized. “Mi and Mo” Selene says “From the west”. And they do in deed look western with their slanted eyes and black hair. A middle aged lady in the cell next to theirs step into the scarce light. She looks perfectly normal, but for the beard. “I’m Dora Smithers” she says. “My neighbour is Leonard, but he doesn’t say much”. I see a huddled figure in the cell next to hers. He is wrapped in a heavy cloak. “He is a hermaphrodite”. I frown “A what?”. “Hermaphrodite”, Selene says “Both male and female. He doesn’t fight, but they put him in the show case”. “ Like me” Dora says “I don’t fight either. Merely for show”. “I don’t understand…” I say. I suddenly tune in to the person beyond Leonard. He throws himself against the bars. He growls and reaches out to me from across the aisle. I scuttle back, even if there is no way he can reach me. A demon! His eyes are red and glowing, his skin is sagging on his bones, his flesh is crawling. “Not a demon” Selene says “Possessed by one, though. He is a pitiful thing”. I stare at her. She gives me a sad smile “Look at him. You can hardly see the man he once was”. So I look at him. Not a demon, but a man possessed by a demon. Like Vincent, but without me to keep the voice and will at bay. I have killed dozens like him. Something inside me squirms. I have killed the shell, demons have possessed. I have not killed demons. Only sent them back to Tartaros where they belong. I hear the barking of dogs nearby. Selene turns her head to the sounds “There are also dogs here. And a bear. They used to have a tiger, but Grum killed it. They also have snakes” she shudders “And roosters”. She looks at me with such sadness “Have you guessed what sort of place you are?” I have big eyes. I nod slowly. “The Pit” Big Bill says “We fight or we’re paraded like freaks. They couldn’t find enough non-’umans, so they came for us that don’t fit their pretty pictures of proper people. Can ya fight?” I nod “I can”. He snorts “I bet. Yer all can. Or will of ya don’t wanna die”. “Quiet now, Bill” Selene says “Let her get used to the thought”.
And I do get used to the thought over the next days. We are in the cells, when we are not fighting, or on display. Dr. Husk comes by on the second day. Oh, how he smirks and gloats over me. He is co-owner of this place. Started it up over 20 years ago – first as just a fighting ring for dogs and roosters. But every now and then an in-human crossed their path, and was set to fight here. He says he will keep me here for a loooong time. He will show everyone what a freak and beast I am. The Society cannot save me, and my friends don’t care. I know he lies, but I do not provoke him. Things are bad, but he can always make it worse. There is iron everywhere, which numbs and pains me. But the first time I get into the arena to fight, one of the officials throw me a horn of some kind on a leather string. It is titan in origin, and when I put it around my neck, I become fast like with the Apple. I can effortless change my skin to stone. I am stronger. I become the perfect gladiator. I am always – well, almost always – pitted against humans. Great big, trained fighters. Often in mask-like helmets that make them look like mythical creatures: cyclops, Medusa, amazons. Once I fight dogs. I am afraid I broke a lot of dog teeth that day. Biting hard down on stone is a bad idea. They never put the dogs on me again, and cut the fight short. What were they thinking? Poor dogs.
Selene and Big Bill gives me advice: make a show of it. You last longer, if the audience keeps wanting you to come back. They have both been here a while. Big Bill is called Death from Below in the arena. Selena is called The Drowner. Grum is called Beast, and I am called Brutalia. Not that I am brutal. I do not attack. I defend myself, and I strike back. I am often unarmed, so my strength, my speed and my stone skin is all I have to work with. I am afraid that I break a lot of bones. A lot of noses too. But I do not kill. But once. They set the obsessed man on me. His human shell is truly pitiful. Selene has made me see through it. The shell is still conscious. The human knows what happens, but have no way to control his body or make a difference. The demon on the other hands makes the best of what he has – he claws and bites, kicks and hits. After a few minutes of brutal fighting I catch a tiny glimpse in his eye. For just a tiny moment the human looks at me. Pleading. I nod, and when the demon attacks me again, I turn my flesh to stone and I get a chokehold on him. Broken nails claws at my arms. When it takes too long to choke him, I take a deep breath, gather all my strength, and tear his head half of his body. Blood spurts everywhere. The crowd goes absolutely wild. The empty body falls to the ground, a heap of already decaying flesh and bones. The demon jumps free of it, but have nowhere to go. He cannot enter me, and he cannot flee the arena that is so ensconced in iron. I feel him – more than hear him – scream in frustration, until he gets pulled back into Tartaros. People chant at me ‘Brutalia the Slayer’ ‘Brutalia the Bloody’. Not so many cries of ‘beast’ and ‘monster’ and ‘freak’ today. I am shaking when I return to my cell. Selene reaches out to me, and we hold hands in silence, trying not to let our skin touche the iron bars that separate us. I know I did him a favour and I am not sad for his death. But I am conflicted about the demon obsessed I have killed before. Could they have been saved? Or were they lost the moment they let in the demon? Is Vincent doomed? And my thoughts jump. Does he miss me? Does Cassie miss me? Do they know that I am missing? Are they looking for me? Dr Husk interrupts my thoughts. “Well, well, well, little freak. Quite the killer, aren’t you? I knew that a demon would get the… very best out of you” he smirks. “I think you will be a really lovely addition to my little freak show here. I have made so much money on you today that it would blow your mind!”. “Please” I say “Please let me send a note to my friends. They will worry about me”. He snorts “And yet, they do not. They are busy. They don’t even know you are gone”. “But they do” I say. “I told Cassie I would be back within a few weeks. We have plans to go the the playhouse. She will wonder, if I do not return. She will come look for me”. Dr Husk looks at me with narrowed eyes. “I will let you write. But I will read every word, so don’t get any ideas”. He fetches paper and a pen, and dictates to me, what to write. I add ‘Tell my friend Niall hello’ – the secret codeword Cassie and I agreed on meant ‘help’. When Dr Husk berates me for it, I explain to him that Niall was supposed to come with us to the play, and that Cassie would wonder if I did not remember to mention him. He snorts, puts the note in his pocket and leave with the writing tools. The cells are quiet, as everyone is looking at me, except Grum who growls his usual ‘Mamma’ in his sad, heartbreaking voice. Dora is the first to speak “There is hope?”. I nod. “If he delivers it, there is hope. My friends solve this sort of mysteries for a living. They will find us, and they will set us free”.
This night they pit me against two fighters. The keeper come to my cage, and stick the stick with the neck iron towards me. He poke me with it until I take it myself and put it around my neck. I hate it. But they are afraid of us, and that is how they take us to the cage in the arena. He drags me long and the iron burns me. It makes me feel weak. We wait outside the cage door, while we listen to the introductions. I hear the sprechstallmeister call out: “Welcome to the third and final game of the night! Please welcome, the brute, the merciless warrior, the slayer of men: Minoootauros”. The crowd cheers. It sounds like a full house tonight. “To join him we have a woman you do not want to mess with, the nimble, the brutal: Hiiiiiippolytta!”. Again the cheering. “And now: you have seen her break bones, spill blood, but can she master two adversaries? Bring in the inhuman Bruuuutalia!”. They cheer for me too, but many hiss and boo in stead. They do not all come to see me win. Many delight in seeing me get hurt.
The keeper opens the door and pushes me into the little cage into the arena. With a jerk he frees the neck iron, and I roll my shoulders and shake my head. One of the helpers toss the titan horn at my feet. I pick it up and put it on. Power rolls through me, and the door to the cage opens. I step out onto the sand.
I wait. As usual. I do not attack. I promised Callum, and even here I do not attack. But I do defend, and I do harm, when it can’t be helped. It’s part of the show. I move swiftly, I duck and I parry with my arms of stone. His axe and her spear hits me several times, but my stone skin keeps me unharmed. In a rather fancy move I disarm Minotauros, and his axe clutters outside the arena. A helper run to pick it up. Hippolytta strikes at me, but I grab her spear and pull her in, and hits her right in the face with a granite fist. Blood spurts, and the crowd are split in boos and cheers. I know she is a favorite – beautiful and deadly as she is. But not so beautiful now her nose has splashes across her face. She hisses at me ‘Freak!’, and I do not feel sorry for her. Shortly after Minotauros gets a hold of my arms and wrenches them behind my back. He is strong, and I struggle. Hippolytta sees her chance and pokes me once hard and fast in the side. I don’t have time to make the skin hard, and I feel the pain of the blade in my side. Blood runs down my side and soaks the white and flimsy garment I wear. She steps up to me and grab the titan horn, and fling it aside. She raises a spear, and for a short moment I imagine I hear Cassies volice shouting my name. The sprechstallmeister pauses the fight. “And here we have it, ladies and gentlemen: the inhuman beast is defeated. What do you say: should we let our warriors slay her?” A moderate amount of cries of ‘kills her’ and ‘finish her off’ rings in my ears “Or do you want to see her fight another day’. To my relief the cheer is much louder now. Hippolytta catches the sprechstallmeisters eye and he nods to her. She raises her fist and get her revenge for today: she strikes me hard in the face, and I black out.
A hand grabs my shoulder. I am lifted from the cold floor into a warm embrace. Far away a voice: “Grace, are you hurt? Grace, can you hear me?”. It’s Callum. He checks out the cut Hippolytta gave me. His fingers are warm against my skin. I open my eyes, and it really IS Callum. I grab his shirt “I didn’t kill anybody, Callum” I say. My voice is hoarse and weak. “I only defended myself. Like you said. I never attacked anybody. And I didn’t kill… Except the demon host. He was so miserable! He was so broken and in pieces and…”. The look on Callums face is so pitiful it hurts. “It’s all right, Grace” he says softly. I see Cassie over his shoulder. I almost jump into her arms. “Cassie! I knew you’d come! I knew it!”. She holds me so tight. She is crying and saying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!” over and over again. She is breathing in great gasps, while she apologizes a thousand times for not knowing I was in trouble, for not feeling that something was wrong, for not coming sooner. But how could she have? I hold her tight. I don’t want to let go. She is here, and she has saved me. Again.
They are all here: Mackenzie, Callum, Max, Henry, the new guy Alejandros, Vincent and Cassie. They all came. They saw me fight, and Cassie tells me how hard it was not to do anything. How the others told her that it would ruin their chances of saving me, if they did. It’s alright, they are here now. Vincent is unlocking all the locks. Except Grum’s. I tell them that he is just a kid, and that we do not leave this place without him. Vincent unlocks it, and Mackenzie approaches Grum carefully. She says something in götalandish, and Grum responds. I have only ever heard his say very few words. Mostly he just calls for his Mama. I almost choke up, when I see Mackenzie take his giant hand in her tiny one, and he follows her docilely. I introduce everybody. They stare fascinated at Selena, and she preens. Cassie looks around “Does anyone need help?”. We – us fellows of the pit – all turn to look at Leonard. He is the only one who has not exited his cage. He is still huddled up inside it. Cassie goes towards him, then look at me, torn between helping Leonard and holding on to me. I let her go, and seconds later Vincent scoop me into his arms. His embrace would have crushed a person more delicate built. He cries into my neck. No words escape him. He just holds me and cries in big heartbreaking sobs. I hold him tight. I am so glad he is here!
Now we must get everyone out of here. Alejandros speaks to Agatha and Salvatore. He says they just want to go home – worst vacation ever! I hear Big Bill being his own burly self – larger than life as allways. He plans to head straight for the docks and get on a ship – any ship! He barely says farewell, before he is out of here. Callum and Alejandros brings a closed butchers cart over to tranport everyone in. Mackenzie thinks it best to get Grum to Mrs M’s house, while we take everyone else to our own place. Callum volunteer to take Selene home to her river, and drafts Alejandros into driving. I hug her farewell, and watch her drive off. I am finally home! I get a long, warm bath and warm, clean clothes. When I am settled in an armchair with biscuits and warm tea, Cassie comes over with a small kitten, and place him in my lap. “His name is Shortcake” she says “Haggis brought him home”. “Haggis?” I ask. “Oh, Mackenzies dog! You don’t know! Oh, I have so much to tell you!”. While I eat and drink tea and pet this gorgeous little furry creature in my lap, she tells me of their latest adventure. About an astronomical clock named after the male genitals, and a young inventress named Charlie, and Lady Sibyl, and a mechanical crab named Gizmo. When she finishes her tale, Mackenzie peeks in with a worried frown. “Cassie? They are not back yet. Callum and Alex”. Cassie jumps up. She look very determined. “Don’t worry, Mackenzie! We will find them! I will not let this happen again!” She is halfway out the door, then returns to me “Is it alright? I hate leaving you! Can you manage?”. “I’m good”, I say. “I’ve got Shortcake and well, shortcake, and tea”. “And me” Henry says and pop in. Cassie nods and she and Mackenzie and Vincent are out the door to find our lost friends.
A bit later Callum and Alejandros returns. I tell them the others have gone looking for them. They say they just took a long time to bring Selena home. Later yet Cassie and the others come home to find them all cozy. There are a bit of raised voices concerned letting others know where we are and such, and then everything calms down.
Cassie tucks me in, and she snuggles up next to me. Vincent comes in and squeezes into the bed on the other side of me. I fall asleep happy – in the arms of the two people I love.
Over the next days there are many things to sort out. Agatha and Salvatore gets tickets to go back to Atlanthea. Dora shaves her beard off, and offers to take Leonard home with her. She has a cottage in a small village, where no one will bother them. Mi and Mo are offered a job at the Society’s countryhouse, and go there. Mackenzie has organized that her business companion from Götaland, Kalle, brings Grum home, with the aid of the trollhunter Hasse that she met this winter. I hope he gets home well.
I spend most of my time with Cassie. She asks about my time in the pit, and I tell her. She says it is important for me to tell her everything, so that I can get it out of me. And I do, and it helps. One night we are alone in my room. I sit in front of my mirror with closed eyes and enjoy that Cassie is brushing my hair. She can do it for hours and I love it! Suddenly she sighs and hugs me from behind. Our eyes meet in the mirror. “I am so happy that you are back!” she says “I was so scared, when I realized that you were missing. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think! You know I love you, right? Very, very much! It’s different from how I love Vincent. But it is in a special way. I never want anything bad to happen to you ever!”
I put my hands on her arms “I knew you’d come. When I had sent that letter I just waited for you to show up”. Cassie nods “From the moment we recieved the letter, we did everything we could to save you! And in my mind, I knew that I couldn’t have known that something was wrong. But in my heart I feel like I SHOULD’ve known! But in stead I was busy being happy with Vincent. And that wasn’t wrong, but it FEELS like it was wrong, and I am so sorry we did not come before! Do you understand, what I mean? If it was me who was gone, I would expect you to come find me. You wouldn’t let me stay gone”. She looks away a bit dreamily “Off course Vincent wouldn’t let me stay gone, either. Especially now we are… you know. It changed something between Vincent and me. But it is a different sort of feeling than the one you and me have. Do you think you would know, if I was in trouble? Or is it just silly superstition?” I shrug “I don’t know. You have never been gone gone. When you were with Sybil you weren’t gone. And you sent postcards saying I should tell Vincent hello, so I knew you were safe. Wait, what was that with you and Vincent?”
She blushes “Well, me and Vincent, we… Well, you know I’ve always thought that Vincent was handsome, and nice and such. Nicer than other men even. Lately it’s become more than that. Some warm bubbly feelings. Vincent is so amazing! Not that he wasn’t before, but now it’s like I see him in a completely different light! Do you know what I mean? And then while you were gone, we were… We did…” Cassie blushes again, and stammers. I can’t remember the last time Cassie couldn’t find the right words. Then she says tamely “Well, we slept together. I have never slept with a man like that before. But it’s like we are closer now. In a new way. Argh, it’s really hard to say in words, Grace! Why is it so hard? But it’s like it’s love with both the body and the heart!”
I think about it for at long time, trying to wrap my mind around this. “I love Vincent too” I finally say “With my body and my heart. But I think not like you do. Have you… What is it called? Sexed?”
Cassie blushes again “Yes. Vincent calls it ‘making love’ and I like that phrase, because it is a sort of love. That was I feel anyway. But sexing is a good word too. That sounds nice and cozy. We should call it that! I know you love Vincent too. Is it okay with you, that Vincent and I have sex? That I love him like that?”
I smile “Sure! As long as you don’t involve me. I don’t like the fluids. And I’m not too crazy about the scent either to be honest. But I like sleeping with you. Should we stop doing that? If you’d rather just sleep with eachother? I’ve god Shortbread. And Haggis, when Mackenzie doesn’t know. And I could ask one of the others. Not Max – he smells of metal, but Henry maybe?” I consider this. Then I remember what she asked me, and I smile “And off course you may love Vincent any way you like! I love both of you, and you deserve eachother!”
Cassie hugs me tightly. “Thank you! I am happy to know that! We don’t want to do anything that would make you sad. And don’t worry, we were not going to bring you into it – the sexing. We’ll do that by ourselves. But really, I would be very sad, if we should never sleep together againg – you and I. But we can still do that, can’t we? Without the sexing. And then sometimes Vincent and I will sleep together by ourselves. No one can tell what to do with our sleeping arrangements! Shortbread is so cute! I understand that you like sleeping with him. He doesn’t want to sleep with me. But you know, he includes some fluids and icky smells sometimes too! But all is forgiven once you look into those big eyes of him. So cute!” She turns pensive “I love Shortbread and Haggis too in a way. I want to take care of them, and I am happy when I’m around them. Do you think there are many kinds of love? It’s so complicated!”
I shrug again “I haven’t thought about it. There are hundreds of different kinds of rocks, but it all rocks. Maybe it’s like that with love? And different degrees of love? Like, I care about Mackenzie and Callum and Henry, but I don’t think I love them, exactly. I don’t know if I love Shortbread, but I sure like him a lot. I like it when he tucks himself into my hair, when I go to bed. But it’s probably just you and Vincent that I truly love”.
“Maybe you are right” Cassie says “I think I will think of all of it as love, even if it feels differently. Like, I don’t think I loved Vincent before. But I do now. Isn’t it a kind of love to care for someone? Or maybe I just love a great many people! In different ways, I mean. Like your different kinds of rocks. But that’s alright, isn’t it? To love like that can’t be wrong, can it? Well, I certainly love you!” She hugs me tightly again “I think we should make a code of some sort, so no one can cheat us again, like that coachman did, when he said he was sent by me. Do you have any ideas?”
I consider this “Well, like, if I sent someone to you with a message from me, he should say something like ‘she sells seashells by the sea shore’. Or is that too hard? It could also be something with rocks, maybe a special sort of rock. Like lapis lazuli, that’s my favorite. They are really pretty!” I almost forgot she was talking about two things at once, so I also answer the other thing she asked me about “I don’t think you can love someone the wrong way. Feelings are what they are. You can’t control them”.
Cassie seem perfectly capable of juggling two conversations at once and she says “I think it would be too difficult with ‘she sells seashells by the seashore'” She says it very slowly “Too easy to get it wrong, and then what would we do? Also it is too obviously a code of some sort, but it’s a good idea with that rock. Much easier to put into a casual conversation. Lapis lazuli. I can remember that. Can you show me one? Let’s use that as a code for both of us – it’s easier to remember that way. And maybe tell the others also? Lapis lazuli, lapis lazuli, lapis lazuli. Yes, I can remember that!” And she jumps topic again “I hope you are right. It should be like that, that love can’t be wrong. Even if it is sometimes quite complicated!”
All the talk about love makes my head spin, so I find the lapis lazuli sample in my pocket and show it to Cassie. And I tell her about all it’s properties, and where best to find it, and all the other interesting things about it.