Extract from The Fire Eternal by Chris d’Lacey

Sunday. February 14th. St Valentine's Day. The words spiralled round Suzanna Martindale's head as she walked hand in hand with her daughter, Alexa, along the deserted High Street in Scrubbley. It had been five years to this day since her partner, David Rain, had disappeared during a student field trip into the ice cold waters of the Arctic Ocean - and still the memory would not settle. In her mind, she replayed that dreadful moment, holding him, willing him to keep on breathing, remembering his head falling into her arms before surrendering his body to the breaking ice and the awesome power of four guardian polar bears. Tears burned her eyes, fuzzing out the street lamps. She whispered his name. David. A gust of air as sharp as a blade replied, landing a crystal of ice on her face. She touched it, rubbing it into her tears. David, she said again, and squeezed Alexa's hand.

“Mummy, are we going to see Santa Claus?”

The sheer sweetness of the question made Zanna chuckle. Such innocence could almost make her choke on joy. “No, darling, we did that at Christmas.”

The little girl lifted her feet into a skip. The antlers of her reindeer hat flapped to the beat. “Are we going to see Snigger?”

Snigger. The 'hero' of David's squirrel story. Now a bestseller and family favourite. Zanna turned her head to one side. They were passing the precinct that branched off the High Street and led towards the library and the gardens beyond. Among those trees and twisting paths, David had first been inspired to write. “No, baby. Just to the shop.”

“Mmm,” went the child. And it wasn't really clear if she was satisfied by this answer or not. She changed her legs, almost stumbling for a pace or two.

“Careful,” Zanna said, and swung her to a stop.

They were looking at a small bay window, with slightly rotting frames and gaps in the putty. It was a shop, Zanna's shop, and it was closed for the evening. The interior was locked and dark. But in one corner of the window, on a candlestick as gothic as a vampire's finger, a candle spilling lava trails was burning freely. Beside it was a card. A Valentine's card. A single red heart on a tall white background. It was open, but the words were difficult to read. Next to the card sat a small clay dragon.

“Ruffen!” cried Alexa, pointing to it.

“Guh-ruffen,” said her mother. “Don't forget the 'guh'.”

“Guh!” went Alexa and put her hand on the glass with just enough force to make it rattle.

To no one's amazement, the dragon rolled his eyes in recognition. He lifted a paw and dibbled his slightly stubby little fingers.

Alexa responded with a happy wave. “What's Gruffen doing?” she asked, pronouncing his name correctly this time.

“Just guarding,” said Zanna, and feeling overwhelmed added quietly to herself, “Just guarding Daddy's flame.”
A gallery of pictures flashed through her mind. They gathered in a spear of ice in David Rain's heart. She took a tissue from her pocket and dabbed her eye. “Lexie, I've got something for you.”

The little girl turned on her heels.

“Hold out your hands, together, in a cup.”

No stranger to presents, Alexa adopted the pose right away.

“Listen carefully,” said Zanna, dropping down on one knee. She brushed a curl of black hair off Alexa's forehead. “You know we talked about polar bears and the icy place they live?”

“Yes,” said Alexa (possibly hopeful of receiving one).

Zanna looked at her a moment and tried to frame the words. Those eyes. His eyes. That rich dark blue. Unsettling and comforting, all in one glance. “Your daddy gave me a dragon there once. I want you to have him, because…because mummy can't look after him any more.”

The little girl frowned and tilted her head. “Mummy, why are you crying?” she asked.

Zanna bracketed her hands as if she was holding an invisible piece of rock. “You have to look very, very hard to see him. But he's there. He's real. His name is G'lant and his is a flame that will never die out.” She opened her hands - as if she was scattering the ashes of her grief - and set G'lant down on Alexa's palms.

The girl looked thoughtfully at the space above her gloves. “I like him,” she said.

Zanna sobbed and reaching out, hugged her daughter tight. “I like you,” she said. “And I love you so much.” Her pale lips tremored against the child's head.

A second went by then Alexa gasped.

“What? What is it?” Zanna drew back to look at her.

Alexa turned her face to the open sky.

And from out of the darkness came fairy lights: snow.

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