Hannah: July

by Ali Luke on October 27, 2011

This is the second of three short stories set prior to the first Lycopolis novel:

© Ali Luke, 2011 – Do not reproduce in any form without permission


It took Hannah an hour to get the kids settled into bed. She had another week of semi-freedom, and then the school holidays would start. She’d be Mum twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, until September. At least she could look forward to Megan starting nursery full time.

When she’d been pregnant with Denny, she’d told herself that her ambivalence was down to nerves – and the grim prospect of nine teetotal months. But after seven years, motherhood still felt like something that happened to other people.

Tonight, Mark had escaped to the pub. She was trying not to feel resentful: it was rare that he went out with his friends. But “rare” was a good bit more often than “never”.

She picked her way across the toys on the living room floor, slumped down at the computer, and logged into Messenger. A window popped up almost immediately, from Seth.

“Got a minute?” he asked.

“Sure.” What did he want? He rarely contacted her outside the game – and Hannah preferred it that way. Everyone else in Lycopolis seemed in irritatingly awe of him; even Mark, who’d badgered her into joining the game in the first place.

“I wanted to have a word about your roleplaying.”


“I’d like you to bring Matilda and her little band of ruffians back into the city.”

She’d chosen Matilda’s stronghold quite deliberately: a deserted, half-ruined village out in the wild lands to the east of the city of Lycopolis itself. With a handful of other players – and a host of imagined non-player-characters – Hannah had established it as a no-go zone for everyone else. They still had to shoot the occasional intruder, but that was becoming infrequent enough to stir up excitement in the game’s Chatroom.

“Why?” she asked Seth, though she already knew: the city was under the firm hand of Seth’s own character, Lord Cyrric.

“Game cohesion. They can have that network of back-alleys in the western quarter.”

It was up to her to decide what suited her character. But she was too tired to argue. And there was no point. It was Seth’s game. You played it his way, or you got kicked out.

“Okay,” she typed.

“Good good. I assume you’ll let the appropriate parties know?”

“Yes.” She scowled at the screen. Seth’s Messenger picture (a good photo, the artist in her acknowledged) looked smug and self-satisfied.

No-one else seemed to see him that way.

It was time to put into action something that she’d been discussing with Kay for weeks: an alliance between Matilda and the knights, who were led by Kay’s Sir Tristram. Kay was sweet and thoughtful and genuinely cared about everyone – unlike Seth, who ignored newbies, and treated most of the others with subtle condescension.

Kay was online tonight, and for once her status wasn’t set to “Busy”. She opened up a Messenger window and typed, “Exams all done? I think it’s time for Matilda and Tristram to have a chat.”

“Ooh, good. Yep, finished at last! Give me a sec, just clearing a stack of revision notes.”

It didn’t seem that long since Hannah’s own A-levels; but it was, of course. Back then, after school and during university, she’d had so many dreams: she’d spent days dragging her portfolio around studios and advertising agencies, hoping to land a placement.

“Right, done,” Kay’s next message said. “Where do you want to meet?”

“Seth told me to establish a new haven for Matilda and co. in the west quarter – you know where I mean, all those dark little streets.”

“Yep. I’ll send Tristram. Let’s meet at that shady tavern.”



Matilda – and a couple of her men – sent the barkeep scurrying away. She helped herself to a tankard of the best ale, which wasn’t saying much, and left a coin on the bar. The place was unsurpringly deserted; it was only a couple of miles from the city, and there were far better taverns inside the walls. It suited her purposes, though.

The door creaked open. Her men, either side of it, stood ready – but it was the knight, Tristram, who walked through, and he came alone.

“Stand down,” she told them. “And bugger off. Tristram and I are going to talk.”

She filled a second tankard, and held it out. Tristram took it, and put a bronze coin down next to hers.

“Have you finished all your endless bloody council meetings?” she asked.

“Indeed we have,” Tristram said, unruffled. She liked that about him: unlike most knights, he wasn’t easily insulted.


Glancing around the empty tavern, he murmured, “How freely can we speak here?”

“There’s no-one listening.”

“In that case … we’ve reached a conclusion. We’ll agree to let you go about your business – so long as it’s conducted outside the city walls.”

She shook her head.

“No? That’s what we agreed, Matilda.”

“I know. But I’m bringing my men into the city.”


“I don’t have any damn choice. That bastard Cyrric is going to have all our buildings torn down.”

“Buildings is a little generous. In any case, I’ve heard nothing of such plans.”

“And Cyrric confides in you, does he?” she asked, and laughed at his expression. “Exactly. So, I’m bringing my men back, I’m bringing some honour into these streets and kicking out the thieving scum.”

Tristram took a long draught of his ale. “I suppose that might be considered an improvement.”

“So, we’re agreed.” She stood, ready to tell her men.

He held up a hand. “Wait a moment. Matilda, surely you realise that if you’re in the city, Cyrric will no longer turn a blind eye.”

“If Cyrric sends his guards to interfere, I’ll have their heads on spikes.”

“You don’t have enough men for an all-out war.”

“I do.” He was right, though, damn him.

“I would rather not see the streets running with blood,” he said, “Whether it’s yours or Cyrric’s. Listen – I’ll need to talk to the Knights – but perhaps we can help. If Cyrric allows us to patrol these streets, instead of his own guardsmen…”

“No. No fucking way!”

“Just hear me out!” Tristram was on his feet too, now, hands planted on the table. He never backed down; she respected him for that. “Would you rather have my men, or Cyrric’s?”

“Your knights aren’t welcome.”

He frowned down at the table. “Then you’ll at least allow me, and the heads of the Orders, to enter.”

She swore at him, in several dialects. He stood unmoved. Scowling, she said, “Yes. But I don’t bloody like it.”

“And, I trust that if I ever need your aid in return…”

“You’ll have it,” she said, annoyed that he even felt the need to ask. “You know that, idiot.”

He looked at her, silently, then held out a hand. She spat into hers, and shook his, sealing the agreement.


 “Ew, lovely,” came from Kay, in Messenger.

“It’s Matilda,” Hannah typed, “What did you expect?”

“Fair point! Anyway, wow, we’ve finally got the alliance sorted. But why’s Matilda bringing all her lot back into the city?”

“Seth’s idea. I didn’t exactly get a choice.”

“Oh … sorry,” Kay said, and added a sad emoticon. “But he must have a good reason.”

Hannah had noticed how loyal Kay was to Seth. Whenever a newbie ranted about his heavy-handed management of the game – it was only newbies who dared – Kay would defend his right to kick them out. Hannah felt that Seth could at least boot them from the game quietly, with a little less cutting sarcasm in the Chatroom.

“I’m sure he’s got something in mind, yes,” Hannah typed. “Anyway, it might work out better. It’s a pain being stuck out there in the wildlands – no-one ever drops by for a fight…”

Kay sent a grinning emoticon this time. “Yeah, and Tristram’s kinda glad to have her back in the city. He thinks Cyrric’s getting a bit too all-powerful.”

Hannah had never asked Kay why she toed the Lycopolis party line so fully in real life, but played Cyrric’s biggest enemy in the game. Perhaps Seth felt that his character needed some token opposition.

Mark wouldn’t be home for at least an hour. She wasn’t tired yet – nor was she in the mood to carry on playing Lycopolis. There was nothing on the telly. She couldn’t face tackling the pile of ironing. Half-heartedly, she picked things up: socks, bits of the Guardian, Playmobil people, soft toys, comics. Her mind was full of what had happened in the game: she could see it so clearly, the warrior-woman and the knight finally shaking hands.

Without really meaning to, she sat back down at the desk, a pencil in hand. She took a sheet of paper from the printer, and began to sketch. Soon, her thoughts were full of lines and shadows, and time slid away. She could have been back at college, or in her room as a teenager, hunched over a sheet of paper as she drew, and drew.

It wasn’t until the front door rattled open that she looked up, and realised that her leg had pins and needles.

“Sorry I’m a bit late,” Mark said, putting his head round the living room door. “You didn’t need to wait up.”

“I know – I didn’t. I’m just finishing something off.”

“Oh. Right.” He came over and leant in for a kiss. He smelt of beer. “You coming to bed?”

“In a minute,” she said. It was half an hour, in fact, before she’d finished the drawing and scanned it in. She posted it on the forums, wondering what Seth would think. He’d never expressly forbidden game art, but he’d disabled avatars on the forum, insisting that as Lycopolis was a game of words, pictures of characters weren’t necessary.

She didn’t have to wonder for long. A Messenger window popped up on her screen.

“Nice sketch,” Seth told her.

“Thanks.” She was ready to get defensive – ready to channel some of Matilda’s own aggression – but his next words were:

“Can I put it up on the homepage? I’ll credit you as the artist, of course.”

No-one had called her an artist since college.

“Okay,” she typed, slowly. “Sure.”

When she went upstairs to bed, Mark was already snoring. The bedroom window was open but it was a hot, still night and she couldn’t get to sleep. Why was Seth suddenly playing nice? Did he want something from her – or had she just misjudged him?


 >> Click to go to next story (Mark: October)

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