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James: Witch-Hunter (SAMPLE)

 

James

Witch-Hunter Prequel

K. S. Marsden

Copyright © K.S. Marsden 2017

Cover: Jatin775

Cover photo: Mirko Stoedter

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted be any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without prior permission of the author.

Available from all online book retailers.

This prequel is designed to be a standalone story, suitable for people new to the main Witch-Hunter series, or established fans of the trilogy.

There might be a few teasers, but there are no spoilers towards the trilogy.

*

I would like to thank my editor, for her continued hard work on making these stories readable.

I would also like to thank my invaluable beta readers for their feedback. Wilmar Luna, Jeni Ferris, and Chris Rogers: I don’t know what I’d do without you guys!

Prologue

The surprisingly mild autumn night, was made all the warmer by the huge bonfire that crackled and blazed in the middle of the clearing. All around it, people laughed and chattered, their expressions one of excitement.

There were tables with food and drink… and one with a young man strapped to it. He moved feebly, groaning as he fought to wake up. His torso was bare, and covered in shallow cuts, made by those who were too impatient to wait until the official time.

Behind his table, there was a large mass of wooden boughs and thorns, the trees shaped to their masters’ will, trapping three other people. Over the hours, they had gone through the process of screaming, begging, and trying to reach through the unmoving branches for their friend. Now, they sat curled up in the middle of their cage, only wanting to stay out of their captors’ attention. They flinched at every sound, nursed the bleeding grazes on their arms, and tried to stem the inevitable panic.

The party-goers moved freely, helping themselves to delicate pastries and drinks, whilst looking at the victims with neutral curiosity. They smiled at their pleas for help, and chuckled at their tears.

Lughnasadh wasn’t normally such a big affair, but secrets were badly-kept amongst the witchkind.

A new power was coming, one that would change everything; one that would free them from living in hiding, fearful of these mere mortals.

The shifting sands also meant that certain ambitious individuals could move up in the world. Many witches came tonight, using the minor festival as an excuse to show their loyalty to the strongest witch in the region. It was an obvious attempt at garnering favour.

The strongest witch in Oxfordshire, and many a surrounding county, was enjoying the show of subservience from the other witches. Finally, as midnight drew near, she picked up her knife and headed over to the man strapped on the sacrificial altar. She rested her hand on his shoulder and closed her eyes, sensing the strength and untapped power in his veins. A slow smile spreading across her lips.

“This one will do nicely,” She said to her cousin. “Kill the rest.”

A blond-haired man nodded, and stepped keenly forward. He drew magic into the palm of his hand, and ignited it. He caressed the flame for a long, lingering moment, then threw it onto the wooden cage.

The contorted trees went up as quick as dried kindling, in the magic-fuelled fire; the flames reaching for the dark sky.

There were fresh screams from his burning victims, which rang out above the noise of the party.

The mistress of ceremonies raised her knife above the young man’s bare chest, the blade bright-red in the firelight…

Chapter One

The town of Oxford was abuzz with activity, as bright young minds flooded the streets with their suitcases and families in tow. There was a certain excitement amongst the many young people that were moving away from home for the first time; finally making their own choices.

James had arrived on the Sunday before Fresher’s Week, so his uncle wouldn’t have to take the day off work to drop him off. James had offered to take the train, but his uncle had insisted on driving him down and, well, James hadn’t argued too hard. Taking the train was a noble idea, but a bloody awkward ordeal when travelling all the way from Yorkshire with all his possessions crammed into old suitcases and makeshift bags. His uncle’s work van was much better, even if the old man insisted on listening to BBC Radio 2 on the whole drive down.

They had been lucky enough to get a parking space only twenty metres away from the main gate of Exeter College, and after a few trips stumbling up the stone staircase, all of James’ possessions were piled untidily in the living space of his shared set.

James took a moment to absorb it all. The thick stone walls of this historic college, the shouts of passing students, everything was just so different. And he had earned this. He’d worked hard to get a scholarship here; he’d worked even harder in a year off, to earn money to pay the rest of his way.

There was a cough, and James looked over at his uncle, who had finished inspecting the small rooms, and now stood looking very uncomfortable. This was an alien environment for his uncle, one of those ‘bloody posh places’ that made him even gruffer. As a mechanic, he had worked hard all his life, to provide a modest but happy existence for the family. Oh, his uncle was proud that James was going to be the first person in the family to go to university, but nothing from his own experience could help him.

James shoved his hands into his pockets, looking around the small space that was his home for the next few months. Glancing back at his uncle, he shrugged. “Do you… er… wanna grab something to eat, or… something?”

His uncle cleared his throat, “Nah, I best be off before I get a ticket on me van.”

An awkward tension rose between them. Should they hug? It was a social convention. Even his uncle’s arms moved in anticipation, before he casually ran his hands over his balding head instead.

“I guess I’ll see you at Christmas.” His uncle said. The older man glancing about the room. He looked as if he was about to say something, but coughed and pulled his van keys out of his pocket. Without another word he left, the heavy door swinging shut behind him.

James stood for a few minutes, appreciating the silence. At his aunt and uncle’s house, with his three younger cousins running around, there was never a moment of peace. He liked how quiet this was – guaranteed until his roommate arrived, which could be any time between now and next Wednesday when the course officially started.

As he was the first to arrive, he checked the rooms to put dibs on the best one. After some time deliberating which was the comfiest three-quarter bed, he picked the one that had a view over the quad. He spent the next couple of hours putting away his things with an orderliness that bordered on OCD. By the time he’d finished, the silence was beginning to grate.

He’d never been one to sit and quietly mope, or shyly wait for someone else to start a conversation. He supposed there was some social protocol for meeting the people in his dorm, that he should following, but it was much more fun to do something impulsive.

James grabbed his phone and his keys and headed out, knocking on every door he passed.

*****

Once Fresher’s week was underway. James made his way over to the Society Fair with some of the other first years in his dorm. It was only a short walk through Oxford’s narrow and twisting streets. Luckily there were signs everywhere, pointing them towards the Exam School, which was yet another impressive building in a city filled with architectural beauty.

The students milled around the entrance, and once inside, James and his new friends parted ways. There was no way he was going to sign up for Am Dram or the Photography club. The drama crowd was about three deep – as much as James liked to make a prat of himself, he never did it for public entertainment.

He pushed past, and headed to the Rugby Club. Two guys were sitting at the stall, casually chatting, and only looked up when James coughed.

“I want’a sign up.” He said, looking for the sign-in sheet.

The guys look up at him with surprise.

“I beg your pardon?” The blond one countered, frowning at James with pinched features that made him look permanently annoyed.

“I want’a sign up.” James repeated.

“Good lord, I can’t understand a word. You can’t be serious in joining the club.”

It never ceased to surprise James, how some people struggled with his accent – as far as he was concerned, it was very mild. Of course, he couldn’t help but wind them up.

“If y’cannae fathom me, I c’n write it messen.” James replied, snatching the clipboard and writing his details in clear capitals, so they had no excuse. He dropped the sign-up sheet, and the exaggerated accent. “I’ve been playin’ for the Doncaster Knights youth team for years.”

“Clearly professional stuff.” Blondie sneered. “Fine. Try-outs are on Wednesday at 6.30pm.”

Feeling very little incentive to stay and hang around the two sour-faced lads, James backed away. He wasn’t about to let a pair of arrogant little shits stop him from trying out for the team. Playing for the Blues was worth a little aggro.

“Ignore them.”

James turned at the feminine voice to find a rather amused-looking young woman. Despite the baggy jeans and casual top she was wearing, and her thick black hair scraped back into a messy bun; she was still the most striking girl he’d ever seen. Dark, flawless skin, full lips and big brown eyes that were full of good humour. James suddenly forgot how to process words.

“Johnny spent the whole of the last game on the bench, so he’s taking it out on freshers. But don’t worry, most of the team aren’t like that. It’s a shame you didn’t sign up yesterday, my boyfriend was manning the stand, you could have got by without the casual belittlement.”

Ah, so she was beautiful, but taken. The small fact made it easier for James to start using his words, like a normal person. “It’s fine, nowt I can’t handle.” James looked up at the stand behind the girl. “‘Lawyers Without Borders’… sounds, um. Not rushed off yer feet?”

“No, I suppose it’s quite specialist. The law students all came in yesterday, so now I’m just twiddling my thumbs, finding random people to chat to.” The girl grinned, and held out her hand. “I’m Charlotte, Charlotte Summers; second year Law at Exeter College.”

James shook her hand, “Hello Charlotte-Charlotte-Summers. I’m James Bennett, first year Engineering at Exeter.”

“Oh excellent, a fellow stude. Are you in dorms this year? I hope you got a better room than I did, the smell from the sink was always horrendous.”

“No, it’s nice. I got a shared room, but haven’t met my roommate yet.” James said with a shrug.

“Don’t worry, the whole dorm is a lack of privacy once term gets going. Last year, they found a way to unlock the shower doors from the outside using a two-pence piece, and every lock had to be replaced.” Charlotte shook her head, and smiled fondly at the antics. “But there are bonuses, too. The first Exeter Bop is on tomorrow night, you should go.”

“I’m always up for a party.” James said, honestly keen to have a few drinks, meet some new people, and the inevitable energetic dancing. “Are you and your fella going?”

“Yes, I’ll introduce you, then you’ve got at least one friendly face with the rugby team.” Charlotte said, “but in return, you have to take one of these leaflets so I can save face at the next committee.”

“Deal.” James grinned and accepted the rather snazzy-looking leaflet. Carrying it around was a small price to pay for establishing friends in his new life. “I guess I’ll see you around.”

Chapter Two

James scrolled through the text messages in his phone, as he walked back to his dorm later that afternoon. His cousins were all excited about the new rescue dog they were getting, and had been bombarding him with texts and photos of them at the RSPCA centre. It was nice to know that they were getting on with their lives without him, but James couldn’t help the wave of homesickness.

He sighed, pushing the phone deep into his pocket and climbed the stone steps, and focussed on not bashing his legs with the heavy carrier bag. The food at the college was great, but after a couple of days with nothing in the fridge and snacking at the local McDonalds, James had ventured out to the supermarket. It had been a strange new experience, shopping for himself, but he felt that he was proving he could do this grown-up thing.

As he reached his door, he found it ajar. He paused on the landing and heard voices inside. Had his new roommate arrived?

He felt a stab of anticipation, wondering about the guy he had to share a dorm with for the next year. He didn’t know anything about him. James shrugged off the thought, after all, what was the worst that could happen?

James shoved the heavy door open and had half-stepped inside, when he felt the air knocked out of him.

A lad about his age had him about the throat, pushed back against the wall.

“Who are you?” He demanded in a growl, his brown eyes fired up and dangerous.

“You’ve… got to be kidding me.” James choked out.

“Hunter, let him go.” Another voice commanded, from further back in the room.

The black-haired lad stepped back obediently, looking a tad ashamed at the situation. “He surprised me,” he muttered in defence.

“Sure, that’s a reason.” James rubbed his sore throat, he couldn’t believe the shoddy excuse. “Anger issues, much?”

James looked down at his shopping bag, the contents strewn over the floor, and groaned. This was not how he expected the day to go.

“Sorry about my son, he gets his manners from his mother’s side.” An older gentleman stepped forward, his features sharp and attractive, and his black hair peppered with silver. He shared his son’s brown eyes, but they were much more gentle. He glanced down at the mess by James’ feet and tutted, sticking his hand in his pocket and pulling out a leather wallet. “I know it’s not much of an apology, but let me pay for that.”

James eyed the reddish note that was being held out. Fifty pounds was more than double what he’d paid for the shopping. “No, that’s ok.”

“I insist.” The guy pressed the note into James’ hand. “So, are you one of Hunter’s new neighbours?”

“Uh, no, his new roommate.” James said. When he was met with stunned silence, he pointed to his new bedroom. “I’m in the one that faces the quad. I guess we’re sharing the living area.”

There was a sudden silence, and Hunter and his father exchanged a look.

“I thought you requested a single room?”

“I did!”

“At the beginning of summer, like I told you to?” His father sighed, “I warned you accommodation would fill up fast.”

Hunter made a less than confident reply.

James would have laughed at the family argument in front of him, if he wasn’t still pissed at being attacked.

“Well that won’t do.” A woman’s cold tone broke out. Hunter’s mother stepped forward, her manicured nails drifting over the furniture as though she feared it would contaminate her. She was shorter than all of them, by at least a head, but she held her space with complete confidence. Her tailored outfit was immaculate, and her blonde hair perfectly in place.

When her grey eyes passed over James, he felt as though he were an inanimate object that didn’t meet her approval; or some unevolved creature grovelling in front of her.

“I’ll speak to Dickie on the school board; our son needs a private room, or he needs to share with one of his friends. How can he possibly prosper, if he shares a room with this… northern…” She waved a hand insultingly towards James. “How do we know he’s not a grubby thief?”

A grubby thief? James stood there, so shocked it actually managed to silence him; a rare feat indeed. He’d come to Oxford, knowing that he might have to put up with narrow-minded comments from upper-class students, that didn’t know any better. It never occurred that someone’s mother would spew the same crap!

“Mother!” Hunter snapped.

“Enough.” The father-figure took a deep breath, trying to gain control of the situation. “Well, you don’t need us here, Hunter, I’m sure you can sort this out yourself. How about dinner at the Belmond before we leave? You’re welcome to join us… ah, sorry, I didn’t catch your name?”

“James. Thanks, but I’ll pass.” James stood, still dazed from what was happening around him. He’d heard of some university nightmares, but he thought they would hold off until term actually started.

“That’s OK, father, I’ll be heading out with a few of the lads soon.” The other boy’s ostentatious voice was really starting to grate against James. “I’ll see you and mother next weekend.”

James tried to ignore the rest of the family interaction, as the boy said goodbye to his parents, and they left, looking suitably proud. He grit his teeth and grabbed the kitchen towel, mopping up the mess of his damaged shopping. Only half of the milk had spilt, the rest could possibly be salvaged. Concentrating on the menial task distracted James from the horrible feeling of jealousy. He couldn’t possibly be jealous of his violent roommate, his flash dad and perfectly rude mum.

He dumped the shopping that was beyond saving in the bin, and turned to see his roommate unzipping matching suitcases, taking up most of the shared area.

“Your room is over there.” James said, gesturing towards the door that was mere metres away – obviously too far for this git to carry his bags.

The black-haired boy looked up at him, surprised. “What’s your problem?”

“Seriously? You don’t think it’s owt to do wi’ your dick introduction?”

The other guy shrugged, tense and uncomfortable, but not looking apologetic in the least. “What can I say, my nerves must have got the better of me. It was a simple mistake, no need to get worked up.”

“Simple mistake?” James echoed, “Well, another ‘mistake’ and I’ll report you to the university. You’ve got another thing comin’ if you think I’m puttin’ up wi’ that shit.”

The lad turned to face him, completely unconcerned with James’ rant. “Good lord, your accent is ridiculous. Are you putting it on?”

Before James could respond, Hunter tossed his bags into his bedroom. The dark-haired lad looked decidedly depressed at the size of his room.

“It’s just my luck that I end up with Exeter College’s Poor Kid-”

“What?” James snapped.

“Well, you know, that one student from a low background. The College take them on to prove that they’re not exclusive – which of course, they are.” Hunter eyed him as though he were a curiosity. “You’re basically a charity case.”

“I’ll give y’bloody ‘charity case’ in a minute. I aced my entrance exams an’ got a soddin’ scholarship. So, you can-”

James was interrupted by a knock at the door. The relief he felt for the distraction was short-lived, as a familiar blond head poked through.

“Hunter, you finally made it! Come on, Martin’s getting the drinks in for the first time in months.”

James wondered where he had seen the pinched features of the young man before, and his stomach sank when he realised who it was.

This was perfectly timed with Blondie seeing James, and his smile suddenly dropped. “Yorkshire? Don’t tell me Hunter is stuck with you as a roomie?”

James inwardly groaned. Of course, the fates hated him, it was only natural that the two dicks he’d met so far were buddies. “It would appear so. Unless you want to swap rooms?”

Blondie’s face fell further, a flash of guilt as he considered whatever upmarket accommodation he had. “Sorry, can’t I’m afraid. Second years wouldn’t be seen dead in dorms. No offence, Hunter.”

Hunter rummaged through his rucksack and pulled out his wallet and phone. He grabbed his coat in a hurry and shoved Blondie through the door. “Let’s go.”

James watched the two guys vanish, still trying to process his misfortune. He needed a beer. Or two. And luckily there were plenty of people in the dorms that didn’t mind his existence. James had already learned, all he had to do was knock on a few doors on his way downstairs and he’d quickly gain some company for the pub.

*****

The following evening, Exeter College was a hive of activity. James could hear the music from his top-floor room, and as he looked out his window he could see people already milling around the quad, even though it was barely six o’clock.

James pulled on his jeans and favourite top, and headed out. His roommate was nowhere to be seen – in fact James had hardly seen him since he arrived. He must have crashed at his friend’s last night, and only briefly appeared today to change.

James made his way into the crowded quad, and soon found a drink in his hand. He was surrounded by laughing faces, some of which he was beginning to recognise. A Biffy Clyro song came on, making the crowd cheer in approval, and James couldn’t help but jump along in time to the music. The drinks must have been flowing because the lads started to take their tops off to do their best Biffy impressions, and James was vaguely aware of himself joining in.

It would probably explain why he was searching for his top, half an hour later. James wasn’t shy about his body, but he bloody loved that top! Moving past the drinks area, James heard someone call his name, and he turned to see the girl he met yesterday, hanging on the arm of a ridiculously broad-shouldered bloke.

“James, you made it.”

“Charlotte, hi.” He greeted, after scrabbling for a name. He eyed the muscular boyfriend, suddenly feeling rather scrawny.

“Oh right, this is Nathan.” Charlotte pulled at her boyfriend’s arm to claim his attention, “Sweetie, this is James – he’s the rugby player I was telling you about.”

“Oh yeah, I heard you had a run-in with Johnny.” Nathan replied. “He’s not put you off the Wednesday try-outs, has he?”

“Nah, he’s not that scary. I’ll be there.”

“Awesome,” Nathan replied, before his attention drifted. He gently brushed Charlotte’s arm, “Sweetie, I’ve just spotted Derek, I need to speak to him about our project. Catch you later?”

“Sure.” Charlotte beamed up at her boyfriend, but he barely spared her a glance as he left. Charlotte noticed James watching and looked a bit sheepish. She shrugged at the situation. “It’s Nathan’s final year, he’s totally obsessed with his dissertation. Between that and rugby practise, I hardly ever see him. Sorry, I don’t mean to moan. Hey, did you get to meet your roommate yet?”

James gave a harsh laugh and took a swig of his beer. “Yeah, now there’s a story…”

Ten minutes later, after energetic gesture and a fair amount of swearing, Charlotte was left looking dazed.

James downed the rest of his pint, waiting for her to have some sort of response.

“You’re kidding me?”

“Nope.”

Charlotte frowned, her brown eyes filling with worry. “You need to report him to the Dean, no one should have to suffer violence.”

James shrugged, “S’fine. I warned ‘im that I’d report ‘im if he crossed the line again, he’s been alright since.”

“James, this isn’t something that should just be forgotten. If he hurts you again, it could be without warning, and it could be worse.” Charlotte stressed. “You don’t know this guy.”

James moved to refill his beer, not wanting to admit that Charlotte was right.

“Look, take my number.” Charlotte insisted, digging through her handbag and pulling out her phone. “You can call me anytime, if you ever think you’re in trouble.”

“Awesome, I’ve scored a phone number at my first party.” James joked.

Charlotte thumped him on the arm, smiling at his comment. “Fine, you can go chase the single girlies, you don’t have to hang out with me.”

Chapter Three

James woke up the following morning, feeling rougher than he could ever remember feeling. How many beers had he had last night? It couldn’t have been more than four or five, or was it six? Oh shit, but then there were the shots that Charlotte’s boyfriend had brought round when he returned from being boring.

He groaned and pulled the pillow over his head, as he tried to remember the night’s activities. Aside from the drink, there was dancing, definitely lots of dancing, he could still hear the Foo Fighters music pounding in his ears on loop. There had also been a girl, a blonde; James was fairly sure he had snogged a blonde girl. Was it one of Charlotte’s friends? Hn, that was a bit fuzzy.

The only thing James was completely certain about, was the fact he needed coffee if he had any chance of cohesive thoughts. James took a deep breath and carefully raised his foggy head out of bed.

As soon as he stumbled out of his room, into the shared living area, James was jolted awake. There was a very leggy lass, blonde hair cascading down her back, fiddling with the jar of coffee. All she wore was an oversized white shirt that was very complimentary to her supermodel figure. Her perfect legs seemed to go on forever.

James stood there, rather dazed. He’d snogged a blonde girl, but he couldn’t remember it going any further, and he didn’t remember her being clearly out of his league. He should say something, rather than just stand and stare. Yes, definitely say something…

When the words failed to come out, he gave an awkward cough.

The girl spun round, her eyes wide in surprise. She blushed and pulled at the hem of her shirt, making sure she wasn’t flashing.

“Oh hey, you’re Hunter’s roommate? I’m Bea.” Her lovely Scottish brogue was accompanied by a dazzling smile. “Do you want coffee? I was just making some.”

Ah, right, so Hunter was the lucky bugger. Looking at Bea, James could easily forgive that she was using his coffee.

“Ah, sure.” James said, shuffling forwards, very aware that he was wearing his oldest, patchiest pair of pyjamas. Although, he thought, it could be worse. At least he wasn’t wearing the Power Rangers ones his aunt had bought him as a joke last Christmas. “Milk, two sugars.”

Bea turned back to the small counter and grabbed another mug from the mismatched set. She glanced back at James in all his hungover glory. “Did you go to the bop last night?”

James tried to say yes, but it came out as a grunt.

Bea chuckled and shook her head, feeling no pity for his self-inflicted pain. “Hey, weren’t you one of the guys who tried to streak across the quad as a dare from the rugby team?”

James cast his mind back, but couldn’t come up with a solid answer. “Sounds ‘bout right,” he said without embarrassment. He’d done much worse than that when drunk.

A door opened behind him, and his roommate stepped into the room. The git was wearing just his pyjama bottoms and with his messy just-out-of-bed hair, he looked like he’d rocked in off a photoshoot. It didn’t seem fair that he was rich, good-looking, and successful with girls.

“Hey, I woke up and you weren’t there.” He walked confidently over to Bea and kissed her.

“C-coffee.” Bea swooned, “I was making coffee. I didn’t want to wake you.”

James turned away from the couple, mentally berating that they should be making things awkward, when all he wanted to do was drink coffee and watch shit on TV. James looked out of the window, he could see people clearing the quad from all the traces of last night’s party.

Something colourful glittered in the morning sun and caught his eye. He picked up the burnt orange crystal and inspected it. It was murky and ugly, and just a plain random accessory for a guy to have.

“Is this yours?” James asked, holding it towards Hunter. “Are you into feng shui or summat?”

“Feng shui? Sure.” Hunter replied drily, his arm still wrapped around Bea’s waist. “It’s just a fire opal. Make sure you put it back, there’s a good chap.”

James reluctantly put it back, and when he turned he found the couple making out between him and his precious coffee. He groaned and went to grab his towel, “I’m going for a shower. When I get back…”

James’ voice trailed off, fully aware they weren’t listening. He swore beneath his breath and texted Charlotte to see if there were any good coffee houses open this early.

Chapter Four

Wednesday and the rugby try-outs rolled round soon enough. It was the last day of freedom before his classes started tomorrow, and James couldn’t work out which he was more excited about – being an actual university student, or holding a rugby ball again.

He was really starting to love everything about Oxford, well, almost everything. He had come to an uneasy truce with his roommate, where they basically each ignored the other’s existence. Which was going to be difficult today, as James had overheard Hunter discussing the team try-outs on the phone.

Although a part of him was mad that his roommate had to mar James’ favourite sport, he had to admit that he was very much looking forward to knocking Hunter on his arse. James couldn’t help it if rugby was a very physical (and occasionally brutal) game; and after all the hours of training James had put in, it was unlikely this pampered prince was a match for him.

Half an hour before they were all due to meet, James came out wearing his tracksuit and with his kit bag slung over his shoulder. He looked up to see Hunter pulling on a tailored navy suit jacket, and fiddling with his cuffs.

“You’re not wearin’ that for rugby?” James exclaimed. “Y’know it involves sweat and grass stains, right?”

Hunter gave him a sharp look. “I’m not going.” He snapped, “I have a meeting to attend with my father. It had to be bloody now.”

James just stared at him. A meeting? It looked like he was ready to go to court.

Hunter looked pissed off, and for once it didn’t seem to be directed at James.

“Would you tell Johnny…” Hunter’s voice trailed off, “Never mind, he’s heard all the excuses before. Good luck at the try-outs.”

James watched as he left, slamming the door behind him. Huh, Hunter must be very pissed off to actually wish him luck.

James shoved his concern aside and headed to the pitch.

There must have been fifty lads gathering to join the rugby team; some who looked ready to step on the pitch, and others who looked as if they’d never run a yard in their life. The club council split them into groups and had them do simple exercises that showed off their strength, stamina, and ability to throw and catch.

James moved through the stages with a growing confidence, as he quietly proved himself in each task. The rest of the time, he was chatting and joking with the other lads, pleasantly surprised that Charlotte had been right – only Johnny had been a jerk.

The whole thing was wrapped up in a couple of hours, and despite the varying levels of exhaustion from the lads, they were all keen to head to the pub for some well-earned drinks.

James was on his third beer, when he noticed his roommate turn up at the bar. Hunter had lost his suit jacket, and had rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, but he still looked very well-dressed compared to the rest of the rugby team.

James wasn’t the only one that had spotted him, as Johnny appeared at Hunter’s elbow.

“I don’t want to even hear it.” Johnny said, jumping in, his hand raised to stop whatever excuse Hunter was going to come up with.

Hunter accepted a glass of whisky from the barman, before turning back to his friend. “Fine. How were try-outs?”

“It was a good turn out.” Johnny answered. “There’s a few new promising players, including James. I know you guys don’t get on, but he’s good, really good. We’re going to put him on the second team, see how he gets on, then maybe even use him as a sub for the firsts.”

As James heard his name, he kept his back to them, hoping that they wouldn’t notice him eavesdropping. A definite place on second team, and potential play for the first? His insides did a backflip. That was rare for first-years, and he couldn’t wait to tell his uncle and friends back home!

“Do what you have to do.” Hunter replied dully, “And what about me?”

Johnny’s answer was so slow coming that James wondered if they’d walked away, but eventually he spoke.

“This isn’t a high-school kickabout, Hunter. These guys are serious, and there’s only so many strings I can pull.” Johnny sighed, obviously tired of making the effort for him. “I told them you were the best player in our college; they’re willing to put you in the second team. But you must show up to every training session and every game. If you don’t, there’s nothing more I can do.”

Feeling that Johnny and Hunter were about to dig into past grievances, James decided to move away. He was planning on having a great night to celebrate a great start to his university rugby career, and he didn’t want someone else’s drama to affect his high.

He’d not gone far from the bar when a familiar face popped up. Charlotte was wearing a wide grin, and grabbed his arm, making him almost spill his beer.

“Congrats on today! Oh, I know it isn’t official or anything yet, but Nathan told me you’re on the team!”

“Yeah, I overhead some of the other guys talking about it.” James chuckled at her enthusiasm. “Hey, where is Nathan, I aint seen ‘im since we got here.”

“Oh, you know him, he keeps it low-key.” Charlotte replied, not trying to hide her grimace. “He’s headed home early to work on his…”

“Dissertation?” James guessed.

Charlotte nodded, “I really want to make that word illegal.”

Knowing he couldn’t help on the legality of the term, James did the next best thing and offered her some of his beer. “Hey, I meant to ask you, how’s your friend? The blonde one… I want to say Sarah?”

Charlotte took a hearty swig of his beer and wiped away the foam from her full lips. She raised a brow at his question. “The one you got friendly with the other night? You mean Laura.”

“That’s what I said, Laura.” James replied, grinning. The party was still rather fuzzy. “Did she mention me?”

“Oooh yes.” Charlotte replied, looking a little embarrassed. “She thought you were cute, but I think she went off you when you said she looked like a less-pretty Emma Stone.”

“I didn’t-”

“No, I believe your words were ‘a cheap version’; which you argued to be a positive because if she was ‘a proper version’, she’d be out of your league.” Charlotte continued.

“Huh, I guess that does sound like something I’d say.” James replied, finding her words somewhat familiar. “So, do you think she’d see me again?”

Charlotte laughed at his optimism. “I’ll ask, but no promises.”

Chapter Five

The following week, James found himself getting into a routine. His classes had started, with each of his new course mentors giving the same introduction over the span of several days. By the end of it, James was glad when the real work began. He’d been worried how demanding university-level work would be, compared to college, and everything he’d picked up at various Engineering courses over the years. But most of his professors started at a gentle level to ease them in. Most. His environment teacher had thrown them in the deep end with a drivelling and detailed lecture on permits and legalities that made it hard for James to stay focussed.

Luckily, he’d found that first and second years of all courses were bunched together for the statistical analysis that would become the basis of their final assignment, or dissertation. This meant he had the unexpected bonus of having one class with Charlotte a week, so he could leave his competitive and mostly male engineering classmates, and relax with Charlotte and her law friends.

Wednesday afternoons were traditionally kept open for sports, and James religiously attended the rugby training sessions, along with the short sessions on a Monday and Friday evening.

With his course and sporting activities, James found the time flying by. Plus, all the people that he hung around with were no longer strangers, and he was pleasantly surprised with how many friends he had in the dorms; classmates; teammates; and of course, Charlotte, who turned out to be one of the sweetest and funniest people that James had ever met.

The only person he still wasn’t getting on with was his roommate. After a brief glimmer of humanity, when Hunter hadn’t been able to go to rugby try-outs; the arrogant arse seemed to purposefully out-do himself. On a good day, he just ignored James; on a bad day, he’d slip in any jibe that came to mind.

James couldn’t believe how petty and small-minded the lad could be. He’d been through much worse, and had been called worse; making Hunter’s mild bullying seem very insignificant, a mere irritant.

It was very easy to distract himself with work, and ignore Hunter.

Once his studies were feeling part of a routine, James started to run every morning to keep his fitness up. Running at 6 am, when the rest of the world was lounging in bed, and having the city of Oxford to himself, was the perfect antidote to any stress.

In Doncaster, he’d merely enjoyed the exercise; but in Oxford, the streets and beautiful buildings around every turn; the canal and little nuggets of greenery, made a much more appealing background.

James’ mind was relaxed and taking in his surroundings, when he noticed a familiar figure jogging across the junction in front of him. Obviously, Hunter had the same idea.

James picked up his pace, curious about where his roommate liked to run; and feeling a competitive edge over who would be faster. As he got to the junction, he saw Hunter take a right turn about a hundred metres further down. James continued to run, his feet pounding the street. At the next corner, he couldn’t see a trace of Hunter.

He stood for a moment to catch his breath, then jogged the rest of the way back to the dorms.

James told himself that it hardly mattered, that he saw his roommate running with the rest of the rugby lads every week during training. Hunter proved himself a fit guy with plenty of stamina, but he was no Usain Bolt.

Even when Hunter had dismissed Johnny’s idea – suggesting that James and Hunter should go running together, being roommates and all. The black-haired git had simply sneered and insinuated James would slow him down – which was becoming a perfectly normal response.

But something nagged at James. The longer he was in Oxford, the more convinced he was that his roommate was hiding something. And it occurred to him; that ‘something’ could be at the place he ran to every morning.

For a few consecutive mornings, James tried to discreetly follow Hunter, trying to find his route. But it was all to no avail, he couldn’t effectively keep up, and keep his distance on these winding Oxford streets.

Unable to let it go, James decided to put his university training to good use. In one of James’ favourite lectures, his electrical engineering professor had teased the students with some of the tracking devices and advances in technology available today. James knew it wouldn’t be entirely legal, but it wouldn’t be the first time he’d crossed that line.

James set the thing up to connect to an app on his phone, and replaced Hunter’s phone by the charger, then tried his best to act casual when Hunter left in the morning.

James hurried to pull his own running togs on, and grabbing his phone, he left the dorms. A little blue dot flashed along the map of Oxford on his small screen, and he followed it at a steady pace, finding it easy to keep up. He followed Hunter’s tracks for a good mile, along a route he’d already confirmed during his spying episodes.

When Hunter got to a quieter area of town, where offices silently looked down, James stopped. He was sure his tracking device was going haywire, and shook his phone, hoping it wasn’t buggy. It was impossible to run that fast, and James could only think of two answers: either the tracking app was misfiring; or Hunter was randomly hopping into a taxi for that stretch of road.

The following morning James sought the answer. He knew that this was bordering on obsession, but he just needed to know. He made sure he was out of the dorms before his roommate, and ran to the area in question, finding a nice hiding spot behind one of the city’s statues. He had a clear view of the empty street. He watched and waited.

James felt like he had been waiting an age, his muscles were cold and cramping, and he began to wonder if Hunter had other plans this morning. But eventually, he appeared at the far end of the street.

Hunter glanced over his shoulder, the action one of habit, and then he began to sprint.

James swore beneath his breath, and quickly caught some of it on video. OK, so maybe Hunter had been completely cruel when he’d said that James couldn’t keep up. No one could keep up with that.

James waited until Hunter was long gone, then he headed back to the dorms, walking as he mulled it over. So that was the secret Hunter was keeping, that he could run fast? Like, exceptionally fast?

Sure, it was freaky, but James didn’t know why he bothered to hide it. Running like that, Hunter could be the next Olympic star; or at the very least he could run circles around the rest of the rugby team.

James sighed and tucked his phone away in his pocket. He’d probably show the video to Charlotte later and get her opinion, although he could already imagine she’d say he was just being paranoid.

Chapter Six

One weekend in mid-October, James’ rugby team had its first game. It was just a friendly match with another university team, but that didn’t stop them from giving their best. The pitch was surrounded by students and friends of the players, braving the wind-driven rain, with their scarves and waterproof coats for this typical British autumn weather.

James eyed the warm coats with a stab of jealousy, as he jogged on the spot, trying to block out the cold in his shorts and rugby shirt. He listened in to what the team captain was saying, but he found it hard to focus. He was on the starting line-up of the first game!

They all lined up on the pitch. The referee blew the whistle to set them off, and the opposing white-shirted team started with a drop kick that travelled deep into Oxford’s half. It was picked up by a burly second year, his blue shirt straining over his muscles. He ran it almost back to the half-way line before he was tackled to the muddy ground, and James joined as they piled into a ruck. There were straining limbs everywhere, and Oxford won the ball and started a play, just like they’d practised. The ball was thrown to James, and he ducked and feinted to his right, before racing past a rather dazed-looking opposition. James sprinted down the side of the pitch, the dirty-white line that marked the touchdown was coming close. He felt a stab of elation in anticipation of scoring the opening try, quickly followed by a stab of pain as he was knocked clear off his feet. The breath was smashed out of him, and he landed with a heavy thud on the muddy ground, only a metre short of the line.

James swore and glared up at the other team’s full-back, who in turn smirked and jogged back to his position.

The ball had been knocked out of play, and James pushed himself to his feet as the two teams got in place for the line-out. James winced at his bruised ribs, and sighed as a white-shirted man took control of the ball.

The rain started to come down harder, and the pitch was churned to mud under the feet of the thirty players, and it was getting hard to tell the blue from the white uniforms as they became plastered with cold, wet sods of soil. As the end of the second half drew near, it was all becoming a test of endurance, as the players’ stamina began to flag.

As a blast of wind whipped the cold rain into his bruised face, James was beginning to wonder what bloody madness drove him to play rugby. He should play darts instead, in a nice warm pub with plenty of beer.

He saw the same exhaustion affecting all his teammates. Well, all but one. Hunter looked fresh, as if he’d just come off the bench. Only his muddy attire said differently. James was so tired that he couldn’t even come up with an insult in his head. He chalked it up for an extra name-calling later.

As the whistle went for the full eighty minutes, James found the ball in his hands. The only thing he could think was that the other team were ahead by just two points, and if he let it get out of play without scoring, they would lose their first match. He started to run down the centre of the pitch, dodging the opposing player, who slipped as he went to tackle him.

Through the grey rain, James could see the other team mustering a defence at this last-ditch attempt. At the same time, James became aware of a familiar teammate hot on his heels. With only a moment’s hesitation, James threw the ball to Hunter, seconds before the opposition tackled him to the ground.

James pushed the guy off, and sat up, watching Hunter drop kick the ball to score a final three points, and the Oxford team cheered. When he wasn’t quite as muddy and exhausted, James imagined he’d be feeling rather bitter that Hunter scored that winning kick, after James had made the effort to set it up.

One of his teammates came and helped him up, a silly grin on his mud-splattered face. “Nice one, James lad. What a way to start the season, eh?”

The spectators were already disappearing, after doing their duty and staying put in the cold rain for so long; and the rugby players were getting herded back to the changing rooms by the captain.

The air was filled with jubilation and noise, which quickly became a testosterone-fuelled chant.

“Pub! Pub! Pub! Pub!”

James joined in, grinning. It was pretty neat that their team sponsor, The Queens Arms, arranged a free round whenever the team won.

Chapter Seven

The Queens Arms was packed that evening. The first team had also won their match earlier that day, so the whole of the Oxford Rugby Club was celebrating. After a few beers, it was becoming a raucous affair.

“… did you see how smooth that pass was?” The team captain Eric regaled again, for the tenth time. “You two make a great team.”

Eric gave a hearty pat to a rather distracted-looking Hunter, and grinned at James.

“I think we need to get you two working together more in practise, see what magic you’re capable of!”

James smiled at his captain’s enthusiasm, and hoped it didn’t appear too much like a grimace. More time with Hunter, awesome. He hoped that Eric had already had enough to drink that his bright idea would be forgotten by tomorrow.

Eric gave Hunter another pat on his shoulder, then thankfully moved away to the bar.

James stood, nursing his half-drunk pint. It made him laugh that he’d been worried other people wouldn’t recognise his part in the winning kick. It never occurred to him that it could be worse.

Hunter turned to him with an unsure expression on his usually cocky face. “Thanks for the help today. I guess Johnny and the others were right, you’re not too bad.”

“Wow, that was almost a compliment.” James said, trying to hide his real surprise. “Does this mean you’re gonna stop being a dick?”

Hunter chuckled at his comment, and shrugged, “Probably not.”

“James!” A familiar girl’s voice called out, and soon James found himself being tackled by a Charlotte hug. “You were great today!”

“Thanks,” James replied, a little breathlessly. “I was surprised to see you, I thought you’d be watching Nathan play with the first team?”

A flash of hurt crossed Charlotte’s gentle brown eyes, and she shrugged. “I thought it’d be more worthwhile cheering for you guys. I’m getting fed up of not being noticed by Nathan.”

“I can’t imagine anyone not noticing you.”

James had completely forgotten about Hunter standing nearby, and he shook his head as the guy turned on the charm. James was beginning to lose track of the number of girls that had been ‘breakfast guests’ of Hunter’s. He seemed to have an infallible knack for attracting women.

Charlotte turned to face the other guy, looking flattered but suspicious. “And you are?”

“Hunter Astley, and-”

“Ooh, James’ dick of a roommate?” Charlotte smirked as she fitted the pieces together, her eyes roving over Hunter. “Makes sense.”

“Wh-”

“Oh, James, Laura is here, she’s decided to give you a second chance. I guess it didn’t hurt that you were one of the stars of the game today!” Charlotte said, punching him playfully on the arm. “I’ll go get her now, don’t move.”

“Wow, she is absolutely stunning, how come you’ve never brought her to visit our dorm?” Hunter said, his eyes fixed on the retreating back of Charlotte.

“Charlotte’s my friend,” James saw a confused look cross his face, “You know, that thing where a girl is your friend.”

“Can’t say I’ve ever tried it.” Hunter replied, “Sounds a dull waste of time, especially when they’re that pretty.”

“How the hell do you charm women when you’re such a git?” James snorted, “Well, Charlotte’s off limits; she’s too good for you. Not that you’ve got a bloody chance.”

“Sounds like a challenge.”

James bit back his argument, as Charlotte reappeared with her blonde friend in tow.

“I need a drink.” James exclaimed, “Y’comin?”

Not waiting for an answer, he grabbed Laura’s hand and dragged her to the bar.

“Couldn’t wait to get me alone?” Laura jested, with a soft Brummie accent that James had completely forgotten about.

“Nah, just had to get away from that guy.”

Laura’s smile faltered as she realised that she wasn’t his main focus. “Fine, I’ll have a glass of white wine, as I’m sure you were about to offer.”

“Oh yeah, that.” James dug into his pocket to pull out his very light wallet.

“Make that two.”

Charlotte popped up at Laura’s side, her grin halting, “Oh, I haven’t interrupted anything, have I?”

“No, it’s fine.” Laura said, looking relieved that she was here. “You decided to lose your new friend?”

Charlotte rolled her eyes, “I was talking about the volunteer work I did for London’s homeless shelters last summer, and he started talking about his year out, travelling to these far-flung places on daddy’s money – as if that’s the same thing!”

James snickered at his roommate’s gall. “Aye, I think that impresses most of the lasses he likes.”

“Lucky you’re with two intelligent individuals.” Laura ventured, motioning that the barman was waiting.

James sighed and ordered the wines and, after checking his money, half a pint for himself.

The evening went smoothly, and the girls insisted on paying for the next couple of rounds. James managed to score a table for them, and an hour later, he was struggling to keep focussed.

Laura seemed like a nice girl, but bloody hell she could talk. After she finished describing the law course she was on with Charlotte, she went on about her old school and friends. Names and people that James would never know, all blurred into one. And poor James couldn’t get a word in. He’d actually found someone with a bigger gob than him.

Eventually he used the excuse of needing the loo, just to get a break.

He pushed through the busy bar, and was suddenly stopped by a beautiful and leggy blonde.

“Hey, you’re Hunter’s roommate?”

The Scottish brogue gave his memory half a kick.

“Yes…”

“It’s Bea, we met when, um.. It’s good to see you again.” The young woman glanced over James’ shoulder. “Is Hunter out tonight?”

Bea, of course. And it made sense that this stunning girl was only talking to him to get directions to Hunter. James was reminded again that she was out of his league, and he’d be better going back to Laura and try not to insult her tonight.

James was aware that Bea was still staring expectantly at him… oh right, the question. “I’m sure he was…” James looked about the pub, and saw Hunter cosying up to a black-haired girl at the far end.

Bea followed his gaze, and visibly slumped when she saw the cute little scene. “He wasn’t answering my texts… I guess I know why.”

“Bea, I’m sorry.” James blurted out, before he realised he wasn’t the one who should be sorry; he was just so used to being wrong around women.

Bea shrugged, “I thought… never mind. I just… want you to know that I’m not one of those girls that sleeps around. I’ve never had a one-night stand in my life, but I thought he liked me…”

James felt a pang of pity for the girl, “I can kick the ball at his head next time we play rugby, if that helps?”

Bea gave an uncertain laugh, “Thanks for the offer, I might take you up on it.”

She wrapped her slender arms around him briefly, in a sadly-asexual hug, then disappeared into the crowd.

Well, that was just great. It was becoming a habit for attractive women to quickly push him into the friendzone.

He sighed and made his way back to the table. Picking up his beer he noticed the sharp look he was getting from Laura.

“Who was that?” She demanded.

“Just a girl I know.” James said, sitting down beside her.

“Someone you know well? That looked pretty friendly.”

“Friendly would be the word.” He muttered, still sore about the slight. “She’s one of Hunter’s exes.”

“Huh.”

James downed the dregs of his pint, “I think I’m gonna head home. ‘Night Charlotte, Laura. Unless, y’know…”

Laura scoffed and picked up her half-full wine. “Is that your elegant way of asking me back to yours?”

“Well, now you mention it.”

Laura chuckled, “As romantic as that is, I’ll pass.”

“Oh.” James felt a stab of disappointment. This was the second time he’d screwed up, and he could already see the end of any potential relationship.

“How about a proper date, just you and me, and no drinks.” Laura suggested. “I know a place that does a great breakfast on a Sunday. I’ll meet you in the morning?”

“Yes!” James coughed, “I mean, yeah, I’d be up for that. ‘Night.”

Chapter Eight

The following morning, James woke up. For once, his muscles ached more than his head. The tackles in yesterday’s game had taken their toll, but James smiled at the memory. They’d won their first match, and he’d been able to impress the captain. The bruises were just trophies.

He got up and got his stuff ready to take to the communal shower. When he opened his bedroom door, he was suddenly aware of a very loud snore coming from the sofa.

James moved warily through the living space, and saw a splay of messy, long black hair and rumpled top of a mysterious girl. A blanket was twisted around her legs, and she looked almost comfortable.

Before he had a chance to work out who she was, or why she was there, Hunter came out of his bedroom, yawning and stretching.

“Hunter, there’s a girl on the sofa.” James hissed above the sound of snoring.

“Thank you for pointing out the obvious, James.”

“Well… why?”

“I had the pleasure of meeting her last night, and it was only when we left The Queens Arms that I realised how drunk she was.” Hunter said with a shrug.

“So… you brought her back here? You sick-”

“Hey, she was so rat-arsed she couldn’t even remember where her dorms were. I thought it was safest to let her crash here.”

James grunted, not wanting to admit it was the gentlemanly thing to do. But there was still a snoring girl on his sofa. “What are you gonna do with her now?”

“I was thinking of getting some coffee inside her, and finding out where she lives.” Hunter said, stepping closer to the sofa. He frowned at the sleeping form, then nudged her. “Sweetheart, it’s time to wake up.”

The girl snorted and started snoring louder.

James could feel a headache coming. “What’s her name?”

“I want to say… Danielle?”

James knelt down next to her, shaking her shoulder gently, “Danielle? DANIELLE?”

The girl’s eyes finally cracked open, and she squinted against the sunlight.

“Hey sleepy head. Do you want some coffee?” James asked.

The girl wetted her lips, and struggled to speak. “Um, water.”

“Water.” Hunter repeated, making to move to the small kitchenette, when there was a knock at the door. He glanced at James, noticing his patchy pyjamas. “You get the water, I’ll get the door.”

Before James could argue, Hunter went to answer the door. He sighed and played waiter for the girl, fetching her some water, anything to speed up the process of her getting off their sofa.

“Hunter!” An unfamiliar female voice squealed, far too energetic for a Sunday morning.

James looked up to see a well-dressed young lady throw herself into Hunter’s arms and kiss him passionately. Ah, so another of Hunter’s friends.

Hunter was trying to detangle himself from the girl, and regain his composure. “Alice, what are you doing here?”

“I came to surprise you. It’s been a month since you left, and you hardly call.” The girl said, pouting. She stepped past Hunter, into the small living area. “So, this is your dorm? Your parents said you were sharing.”

She looked pointedly towards James and the half-conscious girl, expecting introductions.

Hunter moved so he was standing between the new girl and the others, or so James thought.

“This is my roommate, James. And that’s James’ girlfriend, Danielle.” He caught James’ eye, silently pleading. “Our rugby team won yesterday, and a few of us overdid it at the pub last night.”

“Pleased to meet you, James.” The girl said, politely addressing the only fully-conscious person. “I’m Hunter’s girlfriend, Alice.”

James gave a snort of disbelief. Oh, this was gold. He wondered whether to just drop Hunter in it, and leave him to clear things up between Alice and Danielle.

“Hunter has told you about me?” Alice’s voice wavered.

“Nah, he raves about ya all the time. He just never said how beautiful y’were.” James said, casting a dark glance at Hunter. Oh, he certainly owed James after this one. “Look, me ‘n’ Danielle need to get showered and out for a late breakfast. We’ll give you guys some privacy.”

James picked up his bag of clean clothes and towels, then scooped Danielle up in his arms.

“Get the door, mate.” He snapped at Hunter.

Hunter obediently pushed the door wide, muttering thanks beneath his breath, before closing the door behind him, leaving James and Danielle alone in the corridor.

Danielle nuzzled gently against James’ chest, even half-asleep and with smudged make-up she was very pretty. Something that all of Hunter’s women had in common, it would seem.

“Where’s Hunter?” She murmured.

“His girlfriend’s here.” James stated, setting Danielle to her feet. “Can I get you a taxi somewhere? Or you can borrow my towel if you want a shower first?”

“I’ve been really silly, haven’t I?” Danielle muttered, her eyes growing watery. She held onto James’ grey top, curling into him for comfort. “A shower would be great.”

“Sure-” James broke off when a figure appeared at the top of the staircase.

Laura took one look at him holding the black-haired girl, and spun round, rushing down the steps.

James swore, and detangled himself from Danielle. “Laura, wait!”

He had to run all the way to the ground floor to catch up with her. “Sorry, I forgot about breakfast.”

“Yeah, I saw that you’re real busy with something else.” Laura shouted, stopping for a brief moment. “And don’t try and tell me that’s another one of your roommate’s girls!”

“Shit.” James let her go and watched her walk away. He was pretty sure she wouldn’t give him a third chance.

James sighed and turned back to his dorms, ignoring the stares of the morning pedestrians, amused by his scruffy pyjamas.

Chapter Nine

The rest of October passed in a blur of rain, classes and rugby. James had aced the first assignments of his Engineering course, which was gearing up to more difficult topics that was exhilarating.

After their brief truce, James and his roommate had entered a period of uncertain peace. James still hadn’t forgiven him for wrecking his chances with Laura; but Hunter had become a lot more tolerable.

Everything was ramping up towards Hallowe’en, a perfect excuse for the students to dress up and get a bit silly. James had been wondering what awesome costume he could put together; he had a history of having the best costumes at any party – in his humble opinion, of course.

In true university tradition, the Rugby Club had taken over creative control, and demanded that all players dressed up as women. James was disappointed when he first heard, but he dutifully went to the local charity shop and bought a yellow, flowery number and a blonde wig. He couldn’t find any women’s shoes that would fit his feet, so he hoped he could get away with flip flops.

James got ready in the living area of his dorm, an array of confusing make-up scattered on the sofa, as he tried to work out what each thing was for. Luckily, he was alone; Hunter had vanished earlier, muttering how he didn’t like Hallowe’en, and hadn’t shown up since. James was pretty sure it had something to do with that stick up his arse – heaven forbid he should join in the fun and embarrass himself.

James headed to The Queens Arms and was met by a group of the ugliest and oddest group of women he’d ever seen. He chuckled at his team captain, who was showing off his waxed legs, and headed to the bar. He was definitely going to need a drink to survive tonight!

The evening became a bit of a blur as they moved to other pubs in the area, causing amusement wherever they went. Wolf-whistles seemed to follow them, and James had his arse grabbed, smacked, and well-and-truly-molested by random students. It was crazy, on a night filled with zombies, vampires and monsters; it was a bunch of sub-standard drag queens that gained the most attention.

There were a few perks though, at one point a very pretty witch pulled James aside for a snog, then fixed his make-up. The mystery girl keyed her number into his phone, then went running back to her friends, giggling.

James grinned and headed to the nearest bar, waiting his turn for a drink. He noticed Hunter and Johnny standing close-by; Johnny was wearing a slinky, sequined red dress; and Hunter… was wearing his usual jeans and shirt.

“What have you come dressed as?” James asked, frowning. “It is Hallowe’en.”

Hunter eyed James’ outfit with barely disguised derision, “I had noticed,” he snapped. Hunter checked his watch nervously, and took a deep breath.

“I’m surprised you even came out.” Came Johnny’s drawling voice. He fluttered his huge fake eyelashes towards his friend. “You always have one excuse or another for not joining the fun on Hallowe’en.”

“I fail to see what’s fun about it.” Hunter countered. His brow crinkled in pain, “Sorry, migraine. Back in a bit.”

James watched Hunter disappear through the crowd, heading to the quiet and dark street. James looked back to Johnny for an explanation.

Johnny shrugged, not sure what he could say. “Hunter ‘suffers’ migraines, he always has. I’ve given up believing him – he’s fine most of the time, then it’s suddenly migraine drama when he doesn’t want to socialise. It seems to be his favourite excuse.”

“Should someone check on him?”

“Nah,” Johnny sighed, “I mean, you’re welcome to. But my advice is to just ignore it, and don’t let him ruin your night.”

James accepted a pint off the barman, and stood cradling it. The fun of the evening seemed disconnected all of a sudden. Maybe he’d just check on Hunter first, especially as Hunter’s actual friends didn’t give a damn.

James went outside; the cool air a refreshing experience beneath his skirt. Ignoring the wolf whistles of some guys dressed as zombies, he headed over to Hunter, who stood, scrolling through his phone.

“Y’know, when you moved in, I thought you were being an arse to me ‘cos you were some sort of snob, an’ I wasn’t good enough to share the same air as you.” James called out, “Now I realise you’re just a dick to everyone, it’s a miracle you’ve got any friends.”

Hunter’s head shot up from his phone screen, and he glared at James. “I don’t remember asking your opinion. And I’m not going to take the advice of a guy in a sunflower dress.”

“Oh, sunflowers… I was tryin’ to work out what-” James broke off, looking back at Hunter. “Never mind that, are you gonna come in and make an effort to be human?”

Hunter snorted at his question, and glanced at his phone again. “It’s nearly midnight, I’ve got somewhere to go. And James, if you value your sanity, you’ll mind your own bloody business.”

Hunter tucked his phone into his pocket and glanced away down the dimly-lit city street. “Can you tell Johnny that… ah, just tell him I went home. Not that he’ll ask.”

“Sure.” James said, as Hunter disappeared in the opposite direction of their dorms.

James stood, not sure what to do. Loud music and student voices were coming out of the pub, as everyone continued to enjoy the Hallowe’en party; but outside, the cool air was quickly sobering him up.

Party with all the relatively-normal students; or find out what Hunter was hiding? In the end, it was an easy choice.

James pulled his phone out of the surprisingly handy little floral handbag. With a few taps, he logged into his tracking app, quickly bringing up Hunter’s location.

With a final glance back towards normality, James jogged down the dark street, his yellow dress billowing behind him.

James kept jogging, away from the busy hub of the city, and away from the streets of architectural beauty. He found himself in a small bundle of warehouses, all dark and silent, apart from one. James tucked his phone back in the girly handbag, and moved towards the source of light.

The main door was ajar and, checking there was no one nearby, James slipped inside.

The warehouse was a neatly-ordered affair, with pallets and boxes stacked high in straight rows. James could hear voices ahead, he kicked off his noisy flip-flops and padded barefoot towards them. What he saw didn’t make sense. Someone wearing a cloak and hood stood at the head of a makeshift table, and numerous candles highlighted a young woman lying on the table. Another cloaked figure moved in front of James, blocking his view.

Somewhere, the distant church bells chimed midnight, and the two cloaked figures started to chant.

James rubbed his eyes, sure this wasn’t what it looked like. He shifted around to get a better view. The girl was strapped down, he could see dark material cutting into her wrists as she tried to struggle. She managed to lift her head, her eyes looking very dazed and fearful. Her gaze locked onto James, and he felt a jolt of shock – Bea? What the hell was she doing here?

The person at the head of the table pushed her head back down, showing no care or respect to their victim. They then raised their arms, and James saw a flash of metal.

“No!” He cried out, leaping up in Bea’s defence.

He was too late, and too far away. The cloaked person brought the knife down, and Bea slumped on the table.

James’ cry had gained the attention of the killers, who looked in his direction. The one wielding the knife raised their hand and James felt an invisible force throw him backwards. Everything seemed to be going in slow-motion, as James was helpless falling through the air. He noted a scuffle of activity as more shadowy figures emerged. Then everything went black as his head collided with a wooden packing crate.

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James: Witch-Hunter (SAMPLE)

  • Author: K.S. Marsden
  • Published: 2017-09-07 21:35:12
  • Words: 11796
James: Witch-Hunter (SAMPLE) James: Witch-Hunter (SAMPLE)