Mary Ringwald opened her door with a full hand but kept it open with a foot. She had worn long pants in defiance of tradition, an act induced by her laundry schedule. Her auburn hair had been like fire once, and years ago she had been beautiful. She still got looks. Her arms were full of bread and eggs, and a briefcase with folders full of dark, over-printed pages. She stepped over the threshold and her door slid shut behind her with a mind of its own. Startled, she looked up and saw Roger in the darkness.
He was wearing a black suit, sitting on a ottoman with his elbows propped on his knees. Windows over his shoulder lit the room, but left him in a single patch of deep shadow. When she'd come in he had been staring at his hands, but now looked up without straightening. He had to stare at her through his thick black brows.
“Roger,” Mary whispered.
“Is this social?”
The monosyllabic answers and the tone were enough. The door was shut fast behind her, and even if she dropped everything, she wouldn't make it out.
“Is this professional?”
He glanced back down at his hands.
“So I've warranted a personal call?”
He look back at his hands and his huge knuckles. His hands alone were big, but his knuckles were freakishly large. When he didn't flex his fists, the skin still went white across them. Mary had a sudden violent hatred for his soft, short answers.
“So why are you here professionally for me?”
“Are you here to kill me?”
Roger shrugged again.
“Roger, don't be quiet.”
The big, dark man looked up again, then down, then back up as if it took effort to do so. Then he nodded slowly. He spoke very clearly and very succinctly. “Yes, Mary. I'm going to kill you.”
She felt like she won something when he started speaking in complete sentences. “Can I put away my groceries first?”
“Yeah,” he acquiesced and looked down again.
“You're heart isn't in it, Roger.”
“Being heartless is good some times.”
The eggs went into the refrigerator. There were slots for a dozen, which she half filled. The milk went in the door.
“Who invited you in?” she asked as she began unpacking her paper bags. Little things went into cabinets and shelves.
“Your land lady. I told her I was your cousin. She didn't believe me at first, but I lied for a while, told her stories. Eventually she relented. Better that way. She's an old little thing. I asked her softly. She's fine.”
He looked up. She had a knife in her hands. It was a big one, imported from the east, and the edge of the blade had waves like an angry sea. It cut through sourdough effortlessly.
“It's been a long time coming,” Roger said, unprompted, while he watched the motions of the knife. He was peculiarly fascinated by it. “Edmund's dead. We dropped a safe eleven stories onto him. Someone in Surrey had a cold iron safe that weighed half a ton. It was too perfect not to use. With him out, you're next. I could have come in the night, but then you wouldn't get your last sunrise. Now you won't get a last sunset, but I went around and around over that in an alley until I figured it didn't actually make that much difference. Besides, I was here already.”
Mary finished her knife work. Her hands moved in short, dexterous motions that plunged the blade deep into the loaf and slid it out, gliding the cutting surface through the cut. She worked the kitchen knife like a razor. When the loaf was meticulously divided, she held it negligently. Roger kept looking at it. She plunged it into a wooden block holder swiftly yet gently, and it barely rattled. Her visitor looked disappointed. Auburn haired Mary carefully laid the bread slices in a wooden box.
Her murderer rose and faced the window, eying the setting sun set fire to the clouds. The kitchen rattled with faint sounds. Cabinetry opened and thudded lightly closed, and gravity rang hanging spoons like tinny bells. Then it went still. Roger turned and looked back.
Mary was standing in the center of the room, drying her hands on a dishtowel, waiting.
The big man cocked his head at a slight angle. “You didn't try to run?”
“No. I won't.”
His head pulled back against the mounds of his shoulders, and muscles on the back of his neck bulged forward. When he recovered from his recoil, he asked, “Then do you have last words?”
“How do you intend to do it?”
“Then no words either.”
“Have you nothing in your life of enough importance to be remembered?”
“Lots, but not that I'll say to you. Had I last words, I wouldn't tell them to you at a time like this. My attempted murderer won't be the recipient of the final letters of my life.”
“I'm intending to fight.”
It wasn't a question. It wasn't even an attempt to be such. It was a flat, derogatory expression of disdain, the first emotional words Roger had spoken to her in years. Earlier he'd had nothing but emptiness. Now he unveiled scorn.
“I'm intending to fight you. I'll kill you if I can.”
“But you can't.”
“Yes. We will. I've got at least eight stone on you.”
“We call it fifty kilograms now. Or a hundred and some pounds, if you like only somewhat newer terminology.”
Roger shook that aside with a visible shudder of apathy. “Woman, do you think I'm not going to do my job? You think I'll turn aside?”
“Then why didn't you take the knife!?” he demanded, waving a sweeping hand towards the kitchen over her shoulder.
“Please, Roger. You were in my house first. Let's mutually acknowledge neither of us is stupid. I assume you made sure that knife bore no threat to you.”
“Then don't you have a gun on you? A little thing that throws metal? Are you going to throw little iron bullets at me?”
“You've searched my house by now. Did you find anything to indicate I have a gun?”
“So you actually intend to fight me? With bare hands?”
So perplexed was Roger his mouth hung open. He suddenly glanced over Mary professionally. Her feet were ever so slightly outside shoulder width apart. Her weight, less than half his, rested evenly on both toe and heel. Her hands were open and relaxed, by her hips. She'd tied her hair back tightly, a severe bun that made her look younger, and it wouldn't get in her eyes. Nor was her clothing encumbering. She stood barefoot on the stone floor. She didn't look confident, but she did look utterly at ease. Yet she wasn't making a move.
Then Roger began to move. He rolled his shoulders back, then upwards, and rolled them forward until his huge arms took positions beside his head. Unrestrained by a tie, his neck swelled in his shirt and pushed the collar wide down to the second button. His feet slid apart from each other, and he deepened his stance. The slight illusion of loss of height was insignificant compared to the immense size advantage over Mary he already had, and the corresponding illusion of increased width seemed to double his mass. He stepped forward, away from the window, and shouldered aside the sunlight until he loomed in the dark. His shadow filled the kitchen. There was nothing in his face, nor an instant's hesitation in his movements.
He advanced slowly, probingly across the floor. His shoes slid on the rug, and his torso rolled with every movement. His entire body was erratically gliding on a thousand points with nearly infinite mobility and struck like lightning from an astonishingly long distance away.
Initially he threw a short jab, lunging behind it, and when Mary sank aside, the following cross was already following. She couldn't dodge that, but foiled the contact with a braced forearm. It rocked her. Roger kept coming, and stepped even closer, driving in another slamming jab. She was able to dodge this, and counterstruck an elbow to his temple. He let her connect in exchange for a perfect uppercut that threw her into the ceiling. Dangling pots broke their hooks and went flying, scattered like kitchen shrapnel. She bounced back down towards the ground, and he spun kicked her out of the air. Without contact with the ground, she had no way to dodge. His entire body fell behind the shin, and when it hit, she crashed backwards, broke through a plaster wall, and tore a hanging painting from the wall as she went down.
Roger ignore the hole in the wall and went to a nearby door. It opened away from him, so he didn't bother trying. He grabbed the knob and yanked, and broke the thin thing in half, throwing the pieces behind him. Mary was back on her feet. He resumed his boxing stance and advanced again.
She hit him with a chair. He shoulder-checked it, and let it shatter about him, but had to close his eyes against splinters. His hands went up to guard his face. Going straight for his throat, she shot through his guard and jammed her thumbnail into his Adam's apple. He gurgled, tried to catch her arm, failed, and she hammered the inside of his knee with a bit of the chair. She was back before his eyes opened, and then she bounded off her dresser to come over top. Her fist fell like stone rain, she followed past to nearly the ground, and rose from beneath his guard, aiming for the crotch. He blocked, ducked even lower until they were on the same level, and struck with open hands.
Roger struck like a snake, Mary retreated like water, and the snake got soaked when she closed. She got inside his guard, matched him, and hammered his head, hands, and knees. He threw elbows, knees, and jabs at too close a range, and then shot in low trying to take her down. Mary played out wide, and his rush shoved her back. Her bare feet barely resisted sliding across the stone floor. She redirected him when he nearly clipped the bed, and redirected him into the wall. Only then did she let go and retreat. Roger grabbed a desk one handed, braced against a wall with his other, and hurled the thing at her backhanded. She ducked and it put a hole in the wall. He followed up with another lunge, connected, and kicked her back into the kitchen. This time she didn't fall.
They circled warily. Suddenly they closed, several hits were exchanged, and they separated. They did it again and again. Someone outside started yelling. Neither of them made any noise beyond breathing and striking. Mary kicked him in the knee. He tried to counter and missed. She kicked him again. He repeated his earlier action. She kicked him again, in the head this time, and put all her weight behind it. He shrugged it off like nothing and tried to punch her out of the air. She had already retreated, and put the kitchen island between them.
Roger threw the island at her. Mary ducked, now scared, for thick beams had anchored the island to the floor. It ruined the sofa, but the effort took him a moment to recover from. She hit him again in the throat, right in the trachea, and he starting gurgling again. She went with an open palm strike to the ear, punch to the throat, kick to the knee, jab to the throat, thumb to eye, punch the throat, inner thigh, throat, throat, eye, throat, eye. Glancing strikes to his head and arms meant nothing, but he started sucking air sloppily, trying hard to breathe. She retreated, made him chase her, and ducked around the broken couch. He almost caught her with another round kick, and when she dodged that her feet got tangled up in a rug. Mary went down. Roger took the countertop from the ruined island and broke the granite over her head. She stood back up in a dust cloud.
“You aren't bleeding,” Roger noted grimly. His voice was high and squeaky. Blood trickled down his neck.
“You took me for stupid.”
“There isn't a spell in this whole house but the ones I put there. I checked.”
The red-head made a face. She closed, and they traded shots in another fast round. Roger ducked low and tried to shoot on her again. She evaded, scoring elbows to his back, kidneys, and ribs. He threw her off, and started jabbing again. She won the trade and connected. They exchanged three more times before she risked a power kick and caught him perfectly in the liver. It should have stopped him. He caught her with a hit she only partially blocked and threw her across the room.
Mary got up. Someone was pounding on the door, trying the handle. The bolt wasn't shot, but the door didn't budge. A short, round silhouette was jumping on the lace curtain, and an old woman was yelling in fear outside. The carriage house was half destroyed inside. Immense, stoic Roger was closing, slowly, across the floor in his usual guard. Mary went for the knives.
She struck, he evaded and with shocking speed smacked the kitchen knife from her hands. She took another, and he ripped off the refrigerator door for a shield. She almost managed to skewer his arm through it, but lost the weapon for her trouble. He threw the rest of the refrigerator at her, connected, and broke another wall with her body. The water heater ruptured and blasted near boiling water everywhere. Mary dashed out of it, her pale skin flushed from exertion. She had a few freckles left. There were no burns, though her wet hair steamed in the hot room.
Waves of debris broke on the floor and made footing treacherous. Roger tried for another take-down, and she made him pay for it. She connected to his knees, throat, and ears. He started fighting sloppy, with his balance so shot standing upright was a chore. Mary retreated, let him command the center of the room, and took refuge by the fireplace. It ran on gas, and she wanted to find out if immolating him would do the trick physical violence seemed incapable of. His brows were bleeding, so he didn't see her well. His nose was broken, so he couldn't smell anything but his own blood. But relentless Roger kept coming, slowly, cautiously, like a rising tide. With a deft twist she opened the valve all the way, and then stood and fought.
He broke the floor, ripping the millstones up to hurl at her. One shattered the fireplace. Next he pulled the ceiling beams down, the better to beat her with. Impact's meant nothing to her. He got his hands on her eventually, and then Mary nearly did panic. Roger's immense, man-killing hands went for her neck, and with slow pressure meant to squeeze the life from her. Broken pipes flooded the room to ankle depth. He drove her to the ground,and put his weight against her. Her maneuverability meant nothing, and water lapped almost over her face as grim faced, he tried to close her airway. Now she began to gurgle.
Mary stopped fighting with one arm, pulled out a lighter she kept in a pocket, and it caught on the first spark. The entire apartment caught a moment later.
She got out about the time the building collapsed. Jets of blue flame gushed upwards around the rubble, and sucked greedily at the pipes for more. She staggered away, wet, bedraggled, and with bits of rubble stuck to her skin. Her landlord was away, yelling into a phone, and must have departed before the carriage houses ended to call emergency services. The blaze itself was going to go on for a while.
While she ran, barefooted through the evening wrapped woods, away from the town, streets, and people, she realized with distinct surprise her throat hurt. Putting her hands to it, she felt what would become deep bruises. Her wet skin didn't bother her, the heated water long since cold, and the flames that had consumed her house had not touched her. Yet Roger's hand prints burned around her neck. He had very nearly gotten through.
Edmund met her at the taxi stand at BWI. After a round of bad communcation with a cabbie, she was getting out of the black and yellow there instead of the departures gate. She had barely paid the fare when she felt a hand on her side. She spun around, recognized Edmund, and embraced him like mad. He held her long enough for the shaking to stop, then put her right back into the taxi, and ordered the driver take them back to Baltimore. She didn't argue, and they began talking quickly in old English.
“Where were you going?” he asked.
“Surrey, looking for you. Roger told me you were dead.”
“Roger? When did you meet Roger?”
“Not a full day ago. He found me in my home.”
“It was a professional visit.”
“I'm so glad you're alive.”
“Barely. He told me they dropped a safe on you.”
“They did, but it was bait. There's only one cold iron safe in the county, possibly the country, and I made sure it was in the town I lived. I couldn't very well put a ward on it, but I made absolutely sure I knew where it was, and a half ton safe isn't a subtle weapon. I was prepared that in such circumstances it could be used against me I was as protected from it as we can be from that much iron. There were arrangements that let them think I was dead. Roger?”
She was wearing a hooded sweater and pulled it open on the side. Her neck was bruised and black. Edmund hissed. She let her hood fall back.
“How did you-”
“Burned my house down on him.”
“How do you know?”
“He's tougher than he used to be. Faster, stronger, and quicker. This,” she brushed her hood, suggestively. “-was after all my spells. I had everything I could on me, and years and years in the making. He broke them one by one with his hands and feet.”
“With the help of his own, I'm sure.”
“No. They were all confining. His magic is subtler than before. I walked into his trap without realizing it, and once in, I had to burn the house down to get out.”
“That would do it,” Edmund admitted. “If you could survive the house fire, it would clear anything he put on the house.”
“If I could survive being trapped in a house fire with him,” she corrected. “Big if.”
In agreement they stopped talking and stared out their windows.
Edmund was as fair skinned as her, and they had the same set of face and shape of jaw. His red hair was brighter, but hers was already lighter than it had been. She was strawberry blond again. For being centimeters taller, he wasn't much heavier. They looked like siblings.
“How was he?” Edmund suddenly asked, breaking the silence.
Mary drummed her fingers on the bench. She thought carefully about the question, because whichever way she described him was going to define things.
“Heartless,” she chose. “Pain, futility, or fire. Nothing slowed him down.”
“His magic is subtler. He's also stronger, faster, and tougher?”
“Please, do not take offense, but could you be forgetting how fast, subtle, and strong he used to be?”
“No. I have forgotten nothing of Roger, ever.”
She threw the words at him, and the old Indian cab driver looked up in the rear view mirror. He was an eon too young to understand the words, but he heard the venom.
Edmund said nothing, and then turned back to his window.
“He fell for your ruse,” she said suddenly, facing the pacing countryside.
“It was not a simple ruse,” Edmund said quietly. “Half a ton of cold iron.”
They were silent.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“I think we'll either find a way to deal with Roger, or we'll die.”
Mary's green eyes swept over to him, and met the reflection of his. They were browner and not as deep, flecked with green instead of pure emerald. Outside the cab the world was dark, and the countryside passed in flashing light posts on the highway. They alternated, and when the light came from her side, his window was a mirror. In racing reflections she held his gaze.
“Why now? Why after so long?”
“The thousand years since Arthur's fall is long past. Maybe Armen wants to come out from under the hill. Throw off the facade. Bring magic back to the world. You know that's always been his desire.”
“The world's more full of metal and fire than it ever has been before.”
“Well, maybe he's given up on waiting out humanity to wipe itself out.” Edmund turned from his window, when get sick of staring at himself or a yellow blur in alternation. He turned around entirely to address her. “We thought knights would do it, when they burned the fields and everyone would starve. Then it was long bows. Then guns. Then atomic bombs. Maybe it was atom bombs. By then there was no reason to keep waiting, because if men were going to wipe each other out, they would have done it. How much deadlier a weapon do they need? They even played with it. Mutually assured destruction? It's like a game of chicken standing in a fire. Yet people are still here. Maybe the disappointment of even after all that, they didn't fall from the world was finally too much for him.”
“Maybe he thinks men finally will do the deed, but with enough permanence to take out those under the hill as well.”
“You don't think so?”
“How many times have you known Armen to pay enough heed to the actions of men to openly fear them? Maybe long years have tempered him, but if they'd tempered him enough he worries about humanity, I doubt he'd send the Black Hound after us both. That doesn't sound like temperance.”
“Maybe Roger acted on his own?”
Edmund held her gaze until she stared out her window. Then the reflections betrayed her, and the dark glass held her gaze directly into his eyes. “Do you believe that? You remember him better than I.”
“I don't know what to believe. I wasn't as ready for that as I thought I was.”
“You sounded like you were.”
“Oh, I laid my traps and wove my spells, but-” Her words stalled. Finally they started again, like the sputtering of a broken motor. “Roger tried to kill me. I felt his hands on me again, and they tried to kill me. I had expected it always, but lied to myself when I thought I was ready for it.” They shared a long silence. Like the others, it was respectful, not awkward, but not comfortable either. Edmund knew she had something else to say, and Mary knew he knew, and eventually his patience won out over her aversion to saying it. “Do you blame me for that?”
“No. But we can't afford you to get weak over it. It's only going to get worse from here on out.”
“Do you want to take my heart, so I'm as relentless as Roger?”
“No. I want an ally, not a tool. We can't afford giving you that small kindness either.”
She nodded. “What did you do in Surrey?”
“I sold plants in little glass bottles,” he answered, an innocent tone for an innocent question. It seemed it was time for the more traditional exchange of information between people who hadn't seen each other in a very long time. “The metaphor amused me. What did you do in America?”
He shot her a look of disdain. “French?”
“It's a beautiful language.”
“Yes, but the people who speak it are French!”
“You've been above the hill too long. You're taking their prejudices as your own.”
“And you've been in America too long.”
“It's a beautiful language!”