It was raining again, the British summer living up to its usual gloomy stereotype as heavy bullets of water spat viciously from the sky, plummeting droplets falling unstoppably towards the bleak grey tarmac of the pavement below, drumming their syncopated rhythms of chance as little steamy rivers of condensation dribbled idly down the frozen surface of the large picture window, imposing the miniature rivers and rapidly forming tributaries onto the drab city scene below. She sat alone in her private room, a sparkling white cell located within the bewildering labyrinth of hospital corridors, sternly watching each raindrop in its perilous course to its final destination, long spidery fingers absent-mindedly playing with the irksome cannula that had been sunk into the back of her bony hand, her hazel eyes blank and fixated as she watched the incessant rainfall, dark hair loosened in a cloud of gossamer strands fell across her bony shoulders, grazing faded porcelain skin which was riddled with the ugly protrusion of slender bones in a frightening knot-work pattern like a decaying raffia basket, her spine standing out clearly from her hunched back- protruding like some invertebrate wearing its skeletal structure on the outside, the cold clinical environment had long since robbed her of any of her usual mystique, each ugly callous on her soul lying open and exposed to the elements, confusion dining hungrily upon her crumbling state of mind.
"Not safe conditions to be out on a broomstick…" she thought idly to herself as a jagged bolt of lightning carved ruthlessly across the humid skies, before flinching sharply as her bewildered senses tried and failed to categorise the unexpected thought. "Broomsticks?" she muttered beneath her breath, pulling at a trailing sliver of hair with trembling fingers, winding the ebony strand tightly around her digits, as she distractedly tried to find some form of logical meaning to her irrational outburst. "Where on earth did that come from?" She closed her aching eyes and cradled her head in her ice-cold hands, massaging her temples furiously. A sudden jolt from beneath her saw her clutch tightly onto the arms of the immobile chair as her imagination felt her launch from side to side, a wild wind whipping exotically through her hair as her nervous system tingled with the pure adrenaline of being alive- flying as high as the clouds in the perfect still sky…
Her eyes flew open, her breaths coming in short panicky gasps, her lungs constricting in terror as she clutched fearfully onto the temporary lifeline that was the chair, the grounding reminder of her present day surroundings, her fraying harness as she stood atop the crumbling rock of her reality which was threatening to disintegrate beneath her once more and pitch her into the dark chasms of madness. Broomsticks? Magic? Potions? Every day, a new bewilderment came to tease her, taunting her with the deliciously welcoming prospect of the madness that awaited her.
"Stop it… being hysterical again…" she admonished herself as the quaking ceased, "Magic does not exist outside of fairy tales…"
Nothing had been the same since then, the day that everything had changed- the day of the accident. Nothing made sense anymore- it was if her life had shattered into fragments at the touch of fate- her very soul splintering into several thousand shimmering pieces, glistening mirages of false perception littering her hazy recollections of the past- a dark, unsettling vortex of pain and non-clarity, little snippets of information peppering her stagnating interest in day to day existence as she desperately continued to try to apply her once logical mind to the nigh on impossible task of analysing her current situation.
Constance Hardbroom. The helpful letters on the tag fastened securely around her slender wrist bore her assumed identity. Constance. She wasn't even sure if she was a Constance, but the name had had a comforting nudge of reality about it, a faint tug of reassurance that she had clung onto with the grip of a drowning man, the one lifebelt that she had been thrown and she had seized it. But the daily question evaded her as usual- just exactly who was she? As far as she could remember, she was a teacher, a teacher who had had an accident, a big accident, and now, all that she could think of was the insane notion that she somehow had the occasional, delusional thoughts that kept crossing her mind, references to… magic?
"Don't be silly… Constance?" she tried the name for size once more as she muttered distractedly to herself, wrapping her long arms tightly around her bent knees, "Magic does not exist…"
Her roving eyes fell upon the clock that slowly marked the passing of her life, religiously continuing in its steady path, not one tick spared in pity as the metal hands crawled past once more, caught up in an eternal race around the circular plane of the clock. Half past three. Any time now…
Her quiet reverie was interrupted by the usual knock upon the door before a kindly looking nurse showed the usual eclectic mix of concerned looking women into the quiet white haven; the short plump woman with greying hair and angular spectacles, the elderly old spinster with wild, untamed frizzy hair and a disconcerting habit of punctuating her speech with urgent swipes into thin air with a conductors baton that she wore safely stashed behind her left ear, and finally, the young, tanned woman dressed in a royal blue tracksuit that looked strangely misplaced against the flowing black garments of her fellow visitors.
"She's still not eating…" came the muted whisper that was meant to escape her superb hearing registers.
"Oh, Constance…" the grey-haired woman bit her lower lip almost nervously as she inched forwards, desperation and concern etched deep into the trench of every wrinkle that traced across her aging skin. She shook her head sadly as she once more met with the blank but slightly fearful eyes of the slender specimen. She knelt by the tall woman's side, softly stroking the back of her band, tears welling in her eyes at the involuntary retraction of the limb, the blatant refusal of contact represented in that one action may as well have been a row of steel shutters slamming down over her heart once more. "It's still no good, isn't it?" she breathed, a salty tear tracing down her cheek, "I am still unrecognisable from the next person to you…" She too retracted her hand, tucking a colourful blanket around the frozen limbs of the patient, careful to hide the extent of most of her obvious distraught. Every day she repeated this ritual, a maternal fire driving her on in the blind hope that one day the tormented woman who sat decomposing of life and the will to live in the chair opposite would reach out and take her proffered hand, the spark of recognition reigniting deep within those lifeless almond-shaped eyes, proudly announcing the return of her Constance, but they still remained resolutely blank.
Constance said nothing, but firmly bit the inside of her ulcerated cheek, reopening the old sores, pained and unsettled by the older woman's reaction, wishing with all her heart that she could reach out and offer the reciprocation that was so evidently craved, but a resolute dark fog had sprawled out over most of her recollections, shrouding them in an impenetrable gloom that made it impossible for her searching mind to seize the truth.
Two weeks earlier (These events are not currently remembered by Constance)…
Constance Hardbroom rose from her seat authoritatively as she swept onto the rostrum, summoning her notes for the Witch Education Conference onto the wooden reading stand with a small puff of purple smoke and straightening the imaginary creases in her black velvet gown before raising her hazel eyes to the captive audience, agog with anticipation at the promise of hearing her choice of discussion for the new academic year- "Confidence and Control". Her heart fluttered slightly in her chest as she felt the familiar prickle of adrenaline building within her as she met with the sea of eyes and faces. She cleared her throat calmly, waiting for the brief rustle of programmes and seats to reside inside the restless atmosphere of the auditorium before she began her address. A microphone sat unused to her right- her commanding vocals able to reduce the room to rapt silence within seconds.
"Good afternoon fellow witches and wizards, my name is Constance Hardbroom, Deputy Headmistress of Cackles Academy and advisory member of the Witches Advanced Educational Standards Committee. My topic of discussion for today I believe highlights the very area of which many younger witch students are severely lacking in their studies, the distinct deficiency of precision and finesse that determine the success or failure of many a complex spell or potion, the need for both confidence and control within one's magical work. I would like to begin by drawing attention to—"
She broke off, words freezing in her throat in fright as she finally made eye contact with the mysterious witch who sat in the very middle of the front row, directly in front of her as she lowered the black, monogrammed conference programme from in front of her face to reveal two familiar eyes that were sparkling with malice. A vicious smile crept across her faintly lined face as she tilted her head to one side, feigning interest as she watched Constance stumble, inwardly delighted at the fulfilment of her usual brutal influence within mere seconds of the speech commencing. She raised an enquiring eyebrow to the tall witch, conveying a simple but threatening message- "Missed me?"
Constance gripped the edge of the reading desk tightly, gulping in vital breaths of air as her traitorous hands gleefully betrayed her as they trembled violently, her knuckles threatening to burst through the milky, translucent skin that covered her hands, her heart rate doubling exponentially as she once again met the gaze of the feared adversary, trying desperately to re-gather herself and continue.
"I-I would l-like to begin by… by… by…" words choked her as the alien feeling of tears flooded into her hazel eyes, a scalding flow breaking loose and trailing slowly down her usually unflappable complexion, a wave of memories rising with the destructive power of a tsunami within her mind.
"I'm s-sorry, I-I can't..." she broke off, her legs feeling as if they were about to buckle beneath her miniscule weight as she folded her willowy arms across her chest and vanished to the sanctity of the dark world of the backstage wings, the wave of curious mutterings and gossip rising to a crescendo amidst the perplexed audience due to the sudden disappearance of their distinguished speaker.
Her head was spinning as she slumped weakly against the wooden panelled wall, her palms greased with a cold sweat as she mopped her brow, her heart still beating a violent tattoo as the next speaker was rapidly rushed onto stage, her sudden departure blamed upon "unexpected illness". Well, perhaps that wasn't quite so far off the mark… she thought to herself, shivering violently as if she had been doused in a bath of frozen water, her throat sticky and dry with fear as she peeped furtively out through the small chink in the heavy, plush curtains which enveloped the wings of the stage, shrouding her protectively in their heavy shadows. The seat in question now sat mockingly empty, its occupant leaving as soon as her unwelcome presence had been detected. Constance groaned faintly to herself as she slid down the length of the panelling, falling softly to the floor, exhausted limbs weighed down with shock unable to support her anymore, confusion flourishing triumphantly within her reeling mind.
She had no idea how long she had sat there, the muffled ramblings of the various speakers buzzing inside her aching head as if a swarm of wasps had decided to nest between her temples, her usual calm, dignified manner abandoned as she lay slumped in the darkness, her analytical mind desperately searching for the solution to the umpteen questions that were now flying around inside her head like a swarm of bats at sunset, ricocheting off at bizarre tangents of wild imaginations and paranoid threats that grew into a dense black cloud of terror. Why here? Why her? She had honestly thought that she could have survived the rest of her life without having to make contact with those deranged, staring eyes, eyes that pierced deeply into the depths of her very soul, wilting her assumed confidence as effectively as an ice cube being placed into the path of the blazing midday sun. She had always been able to break her down, burrowing so deeply inside her tortured mind like a worm-infested apple that she had no idea where her fears ended and her terror began. She had survived seven years of her torture, and yet she had barely changed in that time- hair still scraped back into that low bun, the familiar black garb worn with severe traditional pride, and the smile, oh that malevolent grin, the eyes narrowing to snake-like slits as she sized up her prey, almost licking her lips in anticipation, baiting her quarry before she struck, enjoying the torment and tasting the terror that cloyed heavily in the dusty air of the auditorium.
She rose to her feet, a quick spell blasting open the nearest fire-exit, a chilling breeze rolling through the open door accompanied by the faint roll of thunder from an approaching storm, the heavy bass rumble acting as the final antidote to the sweltering humidity of the day. She had to get out here before shereturned, solitude would only give her adversary the strategic advantage that she craved, so it would be safer to flee into the teeming crowds that littered the teaming Thames Embankment, to regain her anonymity as a faceless member of the crowd for long enough to safely dematerialise once more.
Heavy, frozen raindrops pelted her immediately as she ran into the soaking rain, her velvet gown absorbing most of the icy moisture immediately, soaking her to the skin, her long ebony hair unwinding from its usual tidy bun and escaping wildly, little tendrils plastered to her porcelain features as she ran through the deep puddles that blocked her passage from the hidden threat of the conference buildings to the safety of the public environment. Rounding the nearest corner, she paused to clutch breathlessly at a stitch that was now tearing ragingly in her side, the sudden exertion after hours of near paralysis affecting a near scream of protest from her cramping muscles. She straightened up, brushing hair angrily out of her soaked face before an aged hand appeared from the shadows, closing in a vice-like grip upon her frail upper arm.
"Well, look who it is… Constance Elizabeth Hardbroom, unless I'm very much mistaken..."
It had been over fifteen years since she had last heard those clipped tones, but even the slightly sour edge to her assailant's breath remained the same, true to the detail of every memory that haunted her incessantly, etched deep into her memories and nightmares to that very day.
She opened her mouth to reply, but her voice had frozen in her throat, magic rising in her veins as she bristled at the unwelcome touch once more.
The other witch leant closer, her sharp, talon-like fingernails clawing into the emaciated flesh of Constance's arm like a bird of prey swooping upon its target, any assumed niceties vanishing abruptly from her voice as she growled menacingly into her ear, the formidable witch paralysed beneath the weight of her whispered words.
"I've been waiting for this day… for such a very long time…"
The probing fingers slid almost lovingly down the trembling limb, Constance's old wounds prickling with renewed fervour beneath the deadly caress as a stream of blue sparks shot from the bared casting gesture, a white-hot pain rippled through Constance's skin, causing her eyes to roll back into her head in agony, her lips firmly sealed, determined not to give the satisfaction of hearing her screams for mercy, summoning her own powers to deliver a heavy shock to the hand that was holding her. Powerless to focus her formidable magic, she kicked out blindly, a heavy thud telling her that her leather boot had indeed made contact with the desired area on the shins of her opponent. Unable to spare even a fleeting glance over her shoulder, she took to her heels and began to run, her natural instinct to survive kicking in as she felt the trace of the shadow of her pursuer snapping at her heels, her lungs nearly ready to explode beneath the taxing demands being placed upon them as she took the next left and sprinted helplessly into the midst of the blazing lights and roaring wall of sound.
Directionless and blinded by terror, the last thing she heard was the angry, urgent snarl of the speeding car horns before the heavy collision and the final sickening crack of her own head colliding heavily with the unforgiving tarmac before the world faded to nothingness.
Darkness reigned supreme.
(These events are set back in the present day)
Amelia Cackle shifted uncomfortably in her chair, the last dregs of her patient resolve beginning to ebb away. Seeing Constance like this every day was like having a knife repeatedly stabbed into her heart. Blankness, indifference, the skeletal figure that slept fitfully, hunched up into a tight ball in the bed opposite her was nothing but a shell; a walking, talking facsimile of the woman she had grown to love as a daughter of her own. In the past few years she had finally begun to prise the lid off the guarded heart of the other woman, getting to now a few scarce details about the notoriously secretive potions mistress, the roots of friendship slowly taking hold and growing between them were now brutally uprooted, torn apart by one act of fate.
How would she have felt, standing there on that unseasonably cold July morning, waving off her deputy headmistress to address the Witch Education Conference if she had known that that would have been the last time that she saw her, the last chance to see her beloved Constance before the accident? She remembered receiving the official looking letter, hurriedly scrawled in the elegant hand of Emmeline Hawthorn, the esteemed leader of the conference events, urgently informing her that one Constance Hardbroom had been taken ill at the conference during her speech, and then had later been involved in a serious road-traffic accident. She was now being treated in one of London's foremost hospitals. The embossed cream paper had slipped from between her numb fingers, fluttering lazily to rest upon the polished mahogany surface of her desk as her blood ran cold. Constance, her apparently indestructible, unbreakable deputy, the dependable certainty that lent her unique brand of calm stability to the academy, now lying helpless in a mortal hospital. Shock and adrenaline had prickled through her veins as she had frantically scanned the meaningless black scrawl once more, dazed as she reread the text again, wishing wildly that it bore a different account, feeling as if she were in the clutches of a particularly malevolent nightmare as she recalled her fellow members of staff from their respective summer breaks to make the long journey down to London, unaware of the cruel condition that awaited her. Externally, Constance's injuries were mild, her magic having taken care of the majority of her wounds, leaving only a mild coating of faint bruises and pale grazes that littered her pale skin, but magic had been powerless to reverse the effects of the internal confusion- the complete disturbance of memory, the absence of any recall of her past. A woman who had been one of the most formidable, powerful witches of her age, rendered useless in the split second that she had strayed into the path of the speeding cars.
"Why Constance?" she whispered, brushing a thin wisp of hair away from the slumbering woman's face, "Why did you run? What were you running from? What happened at the conference earlier in the day?" She paused to dab a tear away from the corner of her eye, her quiet tones falling to a hushed whisper.
"Come back to me Constance…" she appealed, "Please, come back…"
A/N: Yay, after 5 weeks of stubborn writers block, this little idea has been created to distract me from the stalling fifth chapter of Icecold Vengence- luckily, this fic seems to be progressing a little faster, and chapter 2 is already 75% written, so expect another upload fairly soon! Huge thanks to the lovely Dissecting Pomegranates for reading this through for me and for helping with the title (and putting up with my moaning about lack of inspiration for my other fics!)
Reviews always make my day!