The Stone Mage and the Sea
|SYNOPSIS: The Stone Mage and the Sea follows the story of Sal, a teenager wandering with his father along the border between two sparring nations — one the coastal Strand, and the other, the Interior, confined to the arid heart of an island continent. In a small town on the seaward edge of the Strand, Sal's father hopes to find a solution to the problem that has been haunting him for most of Sal's life. Instead he draws attention to his son and brings upon himself the fate he has been dreading for years.
Chapter 5: A Tear in the Water
Mrs Milka, a middle-aged woman with only two fingers on her right hand, had a voice with a regular, sing-song quality that made Sal want to sleep.
"The Sky Wardens rule us, their subjects, only indirectly," she was saying. "Each village is run by a group of ten elected Alders, who in turn elect a Mayor. The Mayors then elect a Regional Governor, and these gather once every four years in the Haunted City to meet with representatives of the Sky Wardens and discuss governance of the Strand. The Alcaide, equivalent to a grand chancellor or highest judge, and the Syndic, the Alcaide's chief administrator, hear the requests of the governors and decide how best they can be met. That way all are heard, and all have a say in the future of our great nation."
Sal fought a yawn and tried to concentrate. He may have heard it all before, but it was the easiest way to avoid looking at Shilly, who sat two seats across from him. They had been studiously ignoring each other all morning. It took a great deal of his attention.
"Similarly, we keep our villages small to ensure everyone receives the attention they deserve. Neither the weak nor the strong slips through the cracks. The former are given extra care by their community while the latter are often Selected to join the ranks of the Sky Wardens themselves. This ensures the greatest well-being for all, and gives everyone the chance of attaining the highest possible level in the Strand. Are you following this, Sal?"
"Yes." He'd known it ever since he'd been old enough to go to School. His father made sure he knew the important things about the two lands whose borders they travelled.
Mrs Milka pulled out a map and began naming the various regional centres and important towns along the Strand. She gave a brief history of each of the major ports: where trading ships went to and arrived from; who the governors were and what they championed; which famous Sky Wardens had come from which place, and what great works they had performed. The map was sketchy when it came to Interior geography, though, listing at least two major cities in locations Sal believed to be wildly incorrect.
"Does anyone remember the name of the current Alcaide?" the teacher asked, reverting to current events.
A half-dozen hands went up. "Yes, Manny?"
"Close. It's 'Braham' with a B. What about you, Sal? Can you guess the name of the Syndic?"
He didn't need to guess. "The current Syndic is Nu Zanshin of Farrow. She was elected unanimously five years ago by an emergency sitting of the Conclave after the death of her predecessor, Salton Halech, in a freak accident."
The teacher blinked. "Well, I guess you do know a lot about our affairs, after all. Well done." Behind her surprise was genuine pleasure at a student doing well, and Sal felt instantly ashamed for trying to show her up. "Perhaps, tomorrow we'll look at the state of play of the Interior nations, to even things up. It's always good to refresh our knowledge in these areas. I'm glad we have an excuse."
Sal dreaded the thought. He knew as much about the Interior as he did the Strand, since his father made sure he knew the important things about the two lands whose borders they travelled, like who was in power and what that meant. But she, no doubt, would expect him to be intimately familiar with every aspect of it, right down to the smallest details, and he wouldn't be able to provide it.
Still, anything would be better than listening to her drone on, he thought. If he made up a few stories along the way, it might even become interesting. At least she hadn't asked him what he was doing in Fundelry -- the one question he couldn't answer, for all that he wanted to.
"Is it true, Mrs Milka," called a voice from the back, "that the Stone Mages cut the heads off their kings when they've finished with them?"
The classroom fell silent. The teacher's eyes flickered to Sal, then away again. "What makes you ask that?"
"It's what my dad says." A poorly stifled snicker came from someone else at the back -- and only then did Sal recognise the voice. He had been ignoring Kemp, too. "When their kings are too old or sick or gone mad, they cut off their heads and feed them to the dogs."
"Well," said Mrs Milka, "I hate to disagree with your dad, but I don't think he's got it quite right on this count. First of all, the Stone Mages don't have kings any more than we do. They're ruled by an Advisory Synod made up of the most important people in their land -- merchants, teachers, warriors, doctors and the like. Once every full moon they meet in a place called the Nine Stars to make or change the laws. They have a system of Judges who enforce those laws, and officers who make sure that sentences are carried out. Although they do behead people who have committed particularly bad crimes, they never kill their rulers. Just like us. There are better ways."
Sal kept carefully still, neither speaking up nor looking around.
"But my dad -- "
"Your dad and I were in School together, Kemp," Mrs Milka said firmly, "and I don't recall the Interior being his strong subject." She looked around the room. "If there are no other questions, I'll move along." She barely paused. "As I was saying, not all Sky Wardens come from towns like Fundelry. Indeed, most of them belong to three major families, or Lines, called Air, Water and Cloud. Newcomers to the Conclave may not initially belong to one of these Lines, but it's common for them to ally themselves with a Line that suits them. These alliances can be very strong, and are sometimes sealed by marriage. When a marriage happens between Lines, the resultant partnership belongs to the third line -- that is, if a Cloud marries an Air, the couple belongs to Water. This prevents aristocracies from forming, and spreads power evenly throughout the Conclave.
"The Interior has a similar system," she added, "but with Earth, Sun and Fire Clans. Is that right, Sal?"
"Yes," he said shortly.
She smiled at her newest student. If she noticed his reluctance, it didn't faze her. She just seemed relieved that the brief awkwardness had passed.
"Now, although there is no present enmity between the Strand and the Interior, there has been in the past." She turned to the blackboard and began to write dates and names. "In the fourth century ... "
Sal's attention was already wandering when a spitball hit the back of his neck with stinging force. Ignoring another faint titter of laughter, Sal gritted his teeth and wiped it away, feeling his ears grow hot. He couldn't retaliate. All he could do was hope to get through the day in one piece. After a while they would give him up as a lost cause and ignore him. Hopefully.
Then, perhaps, he could get on with finding out why he was here. That was his biggest problem. He had to find a way get Lodo to speak to his father, properly. The sooner he did that, the sooner they could move on. He didn't want to be stuck in Fundelry forever. The thought of that was too horrible to contemplate.
It wasn't Fundelry itself, though, that made him feel that way. Although not much of a town, it was far from the worst he had seen. He had simply become used to a nomadic, ever-changing lifestyle which -- although it did annoy him at times -- was better than staying in one spot for long. In a lifetime of travel, he had rarely seen any single town more than once, and never stayed anywhere longer than three months. He had watched his father work as a jeweller, a weaver, a manual labourer, a cook, an ironmonger, an alpaca herder, a fruit-picker, even a grave-digger. He had seen many of the things he would otherwise only have been taught about, like mountains, rivers, deserts, and now, perhaps, even the sea. He had met countless hundreds of different people, from the dark-skins of Fundelry to people with colouring exactly like his, on the edge of the Interior.
He suspected that he was more realistically educated, as a result, than Mrs Milka, whose cheerful zeal probably hid rote learning and jingoistic Sky Warden propaganda. It certainly seemed too good to be true. In Sal's travels he had heard rumours of conflicts, slaves, torture, horrible crimes -- some of them in the distant past, some more recent -- all denied by the governments on both sides. He didn't doubt that some of the stories were true -- they couldn't all be false -- and it was simply ironic that some of Kemp's suspicion and paranoia of the Interior were probably founded in truth. No doubt there were others like Kemp on the far side of the borderlands who felt the same way about the Strand, with just as little actual justification.
Sal had no desire to end up like Kemp. He had to get out of Fundelry as fast as he was able to, and if that meant nudging things along more directly then he would do it. How, though, was the question. He didn't want to nag, and putting his father and Lodo face to face hadn't helped at all. There had to be another way to break the impasse. Unfortunately, the only other one he had thought of appeared to be a dead end.
After working with his father all the previous afternoon, followed by a night of dreams of being chased by people hidden behind masks made of feathers, he had woken feeling nervous and irritable, but at least relatively rested. Before School -- which his father insisted he attend -- he had gone to look for Lodo's underground lair. If Lodo wouldn't come to his father, maybe he could bring his father to Lodo. But even in the light of day, locating the entrance had proved to be impossible. All the dunes looked the same, and any footprints that might have remained had been washed away by the squall.
He had stood for a long while on a large dune that seemed to be in about the right spot, looking for any sign at all. The bushes at its base hid nothing but sand and the odd shell. Shielding his hands against the sunlight, he'd looked despairingly about him. Dunes marched off inland for a distressing distance before slowly merging with scrub. The coast stretched west to east like a winding ribbon; he could see two more towns in either direction, blurred by distance. And the sea to the south was more visible than it had been at any previous point. It seemed to fill up half the world, grey and massive, like a cancer.
He had suddenly had the feeling again that he was being watched. He looked around nervously, but there was no-one to be seen. No Kemp or any of his cronies. No Shilly or Lodo either. And no strange-looking boys waving bells, either. He was alone.
Then a slight noise drew his attention to a seagull standing behind a patch of sea grass. They stared at each other for a second.
"I don't have any food," Sal said, feeling slightly stupid. But the bird kept looking at him as though it understood what he was saying perfectly well and didn't believe a word of it. Its feathers ruffled in a gust of wind. The deep black eyes didn't blink. They made him nervous.
"Garn!" He waved his arms and made shooing motions at the bird. It skittered sideways a step or two, cawed noisily, and finally flew away, its wings slapping into the distance.
Giving up on his quest, Sal had returned to the town proper and gone to School, where his worst fears of the day before had been realised.
Finally it was lunchtime. A bell rang to indicated midday, and Sal looked up to notice the bilby-faced boy looking keenly at him. Both of them glanced hastily away.
Sal slipped out of the classroom as soon as he had the chance. He was unsure for a moment where to go, whether to retreat to the hostel or brave the square. As he stood, undecided, outside the Senior School building, the weathervane on top of it caught his eye. It was distinctive, as Von's directions had suggested, despite its silver being tarnished almost black. Only its eye retained any gleam, winking down at him like a jewel. It was pointing east in defiance of the wind.
"It doesn't move," said a voice beside him. "Some say it's pointing at the Haunted City, but I think it's just stuck."
Sal realised that he was dumbly staring upward. "What?"
He looked down into the bilby-faced boy's crowded face. The large eyes were studying him closely. For a moment, Sal thought the boy was going to say that he'd seen Sal the previous night, in the storm, but he didn't. He wondered if he should say thanks anyway.
"You must have travelled a long way," said the boy.
"Yes. I have."
"As far as the Haunted City?"
"Maybe as far all up, but no, I've never been there."
"You'll go there one day."
"I don't know." Sal felt a little uncomfortable. The boy seemed open and friendly, but he sensed a hidden intensity. He noted that no-one else in the class had spoken to him when leaving. "Unless dad wants to."
"Why wouldn't he?"
Sal shrugged. He was about to ask about the bell-ringing incident when Mrs Milka came up behind them.
"Are you bothering Sal, Tom?" The teacher put one hand on each of their shoulders. "I see you've met our star student," she told Sal proudly. "Tom will be Selected this year like his brother before him, if I'm any judge."
Sal looked at the boy in surprise. The boy -- Tom -- didn't seem any older than ten, and the Sky Wardens rarely chose anyone younger than twelve. He was either older than he looked, or very smart.
"Just goes to show what hard work can do," his teacher beamed.
Tom's face had clouded. With a wordless shrug, he pulled out of her grasp and hurried off down the street.
Mrs Milka looked after him, her expression turning from pride to puzzlement. "He's an odd one," she confessed. "Rarely talks, even to his parents, and he doesn't have any friends. He did seem to take a shine to you, though, didn't he?"
She looked hopefully at Sal, but he couldn't think of anything to say. The look in Tom's eyes had almost been one of pleading. If Mrs Milka had seen it too, though, she was obviously as mystified about what the boy was pleading for. And if she couldn't work it out, Sal didn't know what good he would be.
He made his excuses and went to find somewhere to sit.
He took a spot on a bench out in the open, where Kemp or his cronies couldn't sneak up on him. He wasn't hungry yet, being accustomed to meals only at beginning and end of each day. No-one made any move to sit with him. He thought idly about finding someone to talk to himself, but figured that he was probably better off alone, anyway. Making friends and a living on the road weren't terribly compatible pursuits.
The problem was, being alone proved more difficult than he had expected. One of the younger kids -- a girl no more than three years old -- wasn't as discriminating as her older School-mates. She took a shine to him for no obvious reason and followed him across the square. When he sat down, she was looking up at him with a curious expression on her face.
"Hello!" she said.
"Hi." He wasn't used to kids at all, let alone ones so young. What was he supposed to say to her? "My name is Sal. What's yours?"
Instead of replying, she giggled and ran away.
That fixed that, he supposed. He scanned the square. Kemp was lazing on a bench in the shade, mindful of his pale skin, a crony or two in attendance. Shilly was squatting on her haunches just like she had been when they'd first met. She seemed to be drawing again, too. He was curious to know what her subject was this time, but when she caught him looking he turned away.
The young girl came back. "Hello!"
He wondered if that was all she could say. "Hello again. Are you going to tell me your name this time?"
She hid her mouth behind a hand but couldn't suppress a giggle. Then she turned and ran away again.
He'd become a game, he realised. It could've been worse.
He went back to watching Shilly. Her hands moved in swift, sure ways -- poking here, scribbling there, erasing everything with a palm swept from side to side a minute later. She seemed to be doodling again, drawing overlapping shapes that didn't mean anything. He noticed that nobody talked to her either, and wondered if that isolation was self-imposed. She was indeed stand-offish at times. On the few occasions they'd met she'd acted like she knew everything and he knew nothing. While he would never argue that she did indeed know more about Lodo, Fundelry and the Change, he was sure there were things she didn't know. Like how it felt to drive at speed on tarmac, or to see the desert fringes at sunset, or to fix an internal combustion engine. She shouldn't be so --
He started. "Oh, it's you again. What do you want now?"
"Present." The little girl held out a flower.
She smiled wider, and nodded. The flower seemed to shimmer in her hand, as though it was made of gossamer. He'd never seen anything like it.
He reached out to take it, and a bright blue spark arced between their fingertips.
She laughed in delight.
He jumped. It didn't hurt him, but it did surprise him. And on the heels of that surprise came another. The flower disappeared into thin air with a golden sparkle and faint 'pop'.
The girl shrugged and said, "Gone," in a resigned tone of voice, as though such things happened every day.
He clutched the bench beneath him for stability. The girl toddled off to find something else to do.
He watched her go, stunned.
"That's Eleni," said a voice.
He looked up. It was Shilly, standing with the sun behind her. Her hair seemed to glow around the edges.
"She's a source of wild Change, a natural talent. It'll probably burn out before she turns four, but in the meantime she's a great source of entertainment for herself, and those who can see." She looked at him closely. "You did see it, didn't you?"
"The flower? Yes." He shook himself. "Was it something like Lodo's false face?"
"On a very basic level, yes. An illusion is nothing special."
"Can you do it?"
She hesitated, then said: "Not very well, but I'm learning."
Looking around her, she added: "I was thinking of going for a walk along the beach. Do you want to come?"
He shuddered. "No."
"Oh, okay. If it's like that ... " She turned and started walking away.
"No, wait. That's not what I meant." He slid awkwardly along the seat, cursing the misunderstanding. Ignoring each other had been easier. "I don't want to go to the beach. Let's just sit here for a while instead."
She regarded him curiously for a moment, but came back. "Okay. I'm surprised, though. I'd have thought you couldn't get enough of the beach, being from the borderlands."
"It's not that simple." His father had always warned him away from water, scaring him with stories of drowning. But it was more than just fear. His father's uncertainty and nervousness was part of it too.
To change the subject he asked her the first question that popped into his head. "What are you doing at School? I thought Lodo taught you. Or are you following me again?" he asked, the idea occurring to him with vindictive relish.
She laughed. "Oh, it's nothing like that. I come to School three days a week, whichever three I feel like. Sometimes if I'm lazy I'll skip the first day and stay home to do chores. Anything is better than listening to Mistress Em drone on. But when I need a break from the old boy, I turn up. He can be a bit dreary too, at times. Sometimes I think they'd be perfect for each other."
He smiled at the thought. "Is that why you picked today? To get away from Lodo?"
"Not really. To be honest, I figured you could use help with Kemp."
"I can look after myself."
"I'm sure you can, in your own way."
He bristled. "What do you mean by that?"
"Disappearing may be easier than fitting in, for you, but it's not going to work here. Kemp has already singled you out. You need to retaliate, not retreat."
"Like that's going to be easy." He remembered the strength of Kemp's big, pale hands and the humiliation he had felt lying in the dirt.
"And like I said, I figured you could use the help."
He fought an instinctive response to kick back; she had an uncanny knack at getting a rise out of him. "Why?"
"Because we're both outsiders and we should stick together. I've copped a lot of flack from whitehead myself, and it isn't fun. This way we can spread it around a little."
"But why help me at all? You could just let me cop the lot and give yourself a rest."
"You're not going to be here forever, remember? It wouldn't really solve anything. Is that what you'd do in my shoes?"
He considered it. "No. It wouldn't be very nice."
"Exactly, my friend."
He looked at her, and realised she was looking right back at him. Her green eyes were no less startling than the first time he had seen them.
"We can be friends, can't we?"
Why? he wanted to ask. They weren't obliged to be anything. And just because she had made a move toward reconciliation didn't mean he had to return the compliment.
But everything she'd said about Kemp was true. He could use an ally. All thoughts of resistance crumbled at the thought of showing up the big bully, somehow.
"I guess so," he said.
"Good." She shifted on the seat. "So, what is it with the sea? Do you get seasick or something? Were you dunked as a baby?"
"Uh ... " He was embarrassed at the thought of telling her.
"Oh, go on. It can't be that bad. If you tell me, I'll tell you what I think Lodo thinks about us."
He wasn't sure he wanted to hear that, either.
"Does it scare you?" she asked with a wicked glitter in her eye.
"I wouldn't know," he shot back. "I've never seen it. Not close up."
She frowned. "What, never?"
"Never ever. In my whole life, this is the closest I've come."
She leaned back, amazed. "Well, that wasn't what I expected at all. And what a bizarre thought, to never see the beach." She suddenly stood. "Come on."
"Let's go. You can't possibly come all this way and not look at it. Why not now?"
"Because ... " He couldn't think of a reason she might accept. "What about School?"
"It's just over the hill, Sal. We can be back in two minutes. And if we aren't, so what? You don't live here and I don't care." She studied him closely. "What's the real problem? Are you afraid?"
He looked deep into himself. Not for the fear -- he knew that was there -- but for the inclination to confess to her about it.
"Tell me what Lodo thinks about us, first," he said, hoping to delay the decision.
"You and me?" Her smile became more of a smirk. "He thinks we're destined."
"You know, destined. To be together, somehow. Maybe he means to live together and have babies." She pulled a face. "Maybe he means something else. I don't know for sure. But there's a weird look in his eye when he talks about you and looks at me. I know he's curious, and that's always a bad sign. Last time he took a real interest in my life it meant packing up and leaving everything I'd ever known, forever."
Sal must've looked as confused as he felt, because she didn't wait for him to ask.
"I'm an orphan," she said, "abandoned as a baby in a town a long way from here. Lodo adopted me when I was five. I don't know why he wanted me, but I like to think he acted out of my best interests. If he didn't ... " She shrugged. "Well, it's not as if I have many options."
They stared at each other for a long moment. He didn't know what to say.
"So," she finally said, "how about that walk?"
He was pretty sure no-one noticed them leave, which was good, because he didn't want any witnesses. He had no idea what to expect as they walked down the lane toward the sea. The glimpses he'd had and the ominous hints from his father over the years amounted to something more terrifying than he could imagine.
When he stood on the edge of the beach, looking down on the shore and beyond that across the incredible ocean stretching all the way to the sky, all of it shimmering and in constant motion, churning and heaving as though at any moment it might suddenly surge forward and engulf him -- yet so massively substantial it was hard to conceive that it could actually be fluid -- he almost turned and ran. It was too much, too alien, too incredible.
Shilly took him by the hand and he numbly followed her down the beach. The sand beneath his feet wasn't like desert sand. It was greyer, with bits of broken shells, smooth pebbles and drying weed everywhere he looked. The wind was gusty and thick with salt. He imagined that smell originating thousands of kilometres away, deep in the southern ocean where the legendary whales played and bred. He was standing on the edge of a vast, living blanket covering more of the Earth than land itself. If he wanted to, he could touch it, and that touch would reverberate around the world.
Closer to the edge, it was less threatening. The waves splashing on the shore startled him at first, until he learned to concentrate on the way they died -- in fast-ebbing ripples on moisture-dark sand. These last dregs of mighty ocean surges were nothing to be afraid of. When Shilly tugged him, unprotesting, close enough so that a wave touched the tips of his toes, it felt cool and refreshing, just like a river or a lake.
"How is it? Not so bad?"
He shook his head. It wasn't so bad at all. But he didn't want to let go of her hand just yet.
"Well, there's our claim to fame." She pointed, and he wrenched his eyes up out of the wavelets, almost lost himself in that impossibly flat horizon, then saw, further along the beach, a wooden jetty stretching far out to sea. Fishing boats were tied to one side, bobbing up and down in the water.
How did it survive? he wondered. Surely the water would smash it to pieces in a day. And the boats! Who would ever go out in such puny things on such a hostile surface?
"The longest for five hundred kilometres," she said, mock-proudly, like a tour guide showing off one of the world's seven wonders. "And a hundred years old if it's a day! We're actually at the centre of a wide bay -- see how the beach curves inward? If it had been a little less shallow, they might've built a city here. Maybe the Haunted City itself, they say, although I find that hard to imagine."
He stepped back and looked around, only half-listening to her. He'd imagined the sea just coming to stop, the grass and scrub continuing right up to the edge then drowning in water; he had never visualised it like this. The beach looked completely sterile to his unaccustomed eyes -- a flat wasteland dividing wet from dry, on which nothing grew. Yet there were footprints everywhere.
What did people do here? Fish? That was what the jetty was for, he'd assumed. Maybe they fished from the beach as well, although no-one was doing it at that moment. There was just one solitary person visible in the distance, not doing anything, just watching like he was. He'd heard of people swimming in the sea, but he couldn't understand why. It'd be too hard to get anywhere, with all the water splashing around so much.
"Are you okay?"
He shook himself, realising how stupid he must look, gawping at everything like the village idiot.
"Do you want to walk now?"
"Let's go this way." She pointed along the beach toward the jetty. "No offence, Sal, but your hand is getting sweaty."
"Uh, sorry." He removed it and wiped it on his shirt.
"And roll up your pants," she suggested. "It'll stop sand getting in the way later."
He followed her advice, and they walked off along the beach. They stayed close to the waveline, where the sand was firm and easier to walk on. Only gradually did the overwhelming novelty of it all ebb, bit by bit, and he began to think of other things.
Shilly asked him how he and his father had come to Fundelry, and where they had come from.
"Gliem," he said, pointing inland and to the north. "We stopped there for a couple of days. Dad did some work to refuel the buggy. He must've asked around about Lodo too, although I didn't know it at the time. We came straight here afterward."
"By buggy, you say. Is that like a car?"
"Sort of. It runs on alcohol and isn't very comfortable. But it keeps on going, which is the main thing."
"Do you like travelling?"
"I suppose so."
"You don't sound very sure about it."
He shrugged. The question was one he'd not asked himself before, since the alternative had never been an option. He hoped it still wasn't.
"This is the only place I remember," she said. "I've never visited Pounder or Butland." She pointed ahead of and behind them in turn, at the towns he'd glimpsed that morning. "Lodo sometimes goes away on business, but he always leaves me behind to keep an eye on things. He can be pretty paranoid about security and stuff."
Maybe with good reason, Sal thought, remembering Von's comment about Kemp's father wanting to run him out of town.
"What is he?" he asked.
Shilly thought about it for a long time. Then she said: "I don't know. You can see his tattoos, can't you?" He nodded. "Well, he won't tell me what they mean, and he keeps them hidden from everyone else, even his friends. The same way he fooled your dad into thinking he looked different. Would your dad know?"
"Maybe. He called them rank markings. But he doesn't talk much about important stuff, either." The more he thought about it, the more Lodo and his father had in common.
"I like to think he's a renegade Stone Mage, or something like that, but it wouldn't make sense him living here if he was one. Why wouldn't he just go back to the Interior? It drives me crazy not knowing!"
She kicked viciously at a shell and it skipped into the distance. Sal confirmed his guess that she really didn't like secrets. How she had endured this long with Lodo eluded him.
And that, he supposed, was why she was with him, now, rather than pursuing some mysterious destiny or other. More likely she thought his dad might know something about Lodo, and hoped that if she sucked up to him he might tell her.
That was an ungenerous thought, though. She wasn't exactly pressing him for information. It seemed like nothing more sinister than a conversation to fill what might otherwise have been an awkward silence.
They had reached the jetty. He knew what she was about to say before her mouth opened.
"Do you want to -- ?"
"It's perfectly safe, Sal."
"So you say."
"Why would I lie? We'd both get wet if I was wrong. I'd be with you, remember?"
He looked around nervously. What would he lose by saying no? Nothing at all. He could walk back to School any time he wanted, and the jetty's single guard rail did look absurdly thin.
But he couldn't say no to her. He was reluctant to make himself look any more of a fool than he already had. And she knew it, judging by the smile forming on her lips.
"Come on." She took his hand again and gripped it tight. "Last one in's a rotten egg!"
Before he could protest she ran full-pelt along the beach toward the jetty, whooping and pulling him along with her. He had no option but to follow. It was either that or be dragged. So intent was he on simply staying upright that he hardly noticed when the sand became wood, the beach fell away beneath him and he was on the jetty itself.
She took him half-way out before he managed to dig his heels in and bring her to a halt. He took two steps backward, then stopped cold. He'd caught a glimpse of the water through a crack between the planks, and a shock had gone through him like an icy fist. He couldn't move; he could hardly breathe.
He looked up, saw water all around him and felt so dizzy he had to close his eyes. Then all he could hear was the tiny splashes as the sea lapped against the base of the jetty, trying to suck it down. There was so much salt in the air he felt like he was already drowning.
He moaned in fear and fell to one knee. This was worse than anything he could have imagined.
"Sal? Oh, hell." Shilly squatted next to him. "Deep breaths, nice and slow. Take it easy."
He hadn't realised how fast he was panting until she mentioned it. She had an arm around him, squeezing. He opened his eyes a crack to look at her and was blinded by the sun. The world seemed to be turning.
"I'm sorry, Sal. Honest. I shouldn't have made you do it. I just thought you were being silly. Come on -- get up and I'll take you back."
"I can't." He was still frozen. His arms and legs felt like they weighed a thousand tonnes.
"Yes, you can." One skinny hand went under his armpit and tugged, but to no avail. "Shit. Well, you'll just have to stay out here forever then."
The joke fell as flat as he wanted to. He went down on his hands and knees. Through two thick planks he saw grey-green waves dancing on the surface of an unfathomable depth. Bile surged in his stomach. He gasped and looked up.
There came a loud squawk from nearby, and a seagull fluttered over them. Shilly stood up and shooed it away, but it came doggedly back for another pass. Its wings seemed to graze them as it swooped overhead then angled back to shore. Answering calls came from birds nearby. Soon the air was full of birds.
"Oh, no." Shilly clutched at him. They huddled together in the centre of an avian maelstrom. Gulls came at them from all directions, pecking and scratching and squawking loudly.
One became entangled in Shilly's hair. She shrieked and flung it away. Something burned inside Sal's chest, and a clear space had momentarily opened over them, as though a gust of air was pushing the gulls back. Shilly staggered for a second, startled by the sudden respite, but soon took advantage of it.
"Bloody scabs," she muttered, tugging at Sal again with all her strength. "Come on, will you? I can't carry you back on my own!"
Sal did his best to stand up. He made it to his knees with Shilly's help. She put one of his hands on the guard rail and made him look away from the water. Staring at her from close quarters helped. He was able to get onto his feet again, albeit a little uneasily.
Then the birds came back again, attacking with renewed ferocity.
"Now, walk!" she ordered him over their racket, and he did manage a kind of controlled stagger. "That's it! One step after the other. All the way back. 'Cos if you don't -- "
She didn't finish. From somewhere within him, he found the strength to move. Waving his arms around his head, he pulled free of her and stumbled forward, beating a way through the birds, forcing himself through the swirling confusion. He didn't care where he was going, as long as it was away.
Feathers, beaks and claws parted in fright before him. Sensing that he was close to freedom, he broke into a run --
-- and collided with someone tall and hard and smelling of sweat.
Sal recoiled, blinking.
"Hey, it's you again," said Kemp. "What're you up to now, stone-boy?"
Sal staggered back a step and lost his balance completely. Shilly didn't catch him in time. His head knocked hard against the guard rail as he went down, and he saw stars, then black, then nothing.
The world lit up again the moment his head went under the water. There was a pain like white lightning coming from the ward in his. There was too much pain, everywhere. He didn't know what to do. There was no time to think.
Seawater burned in his eyes, nose and mouth. He choked, racked by spasms as his body fought for air but sucked in only more of the ghastly water. He couldn't see anything but bubbles; he couldn't tell which way was up. He was tumbling end over end into a deathly cold void, and was powerless to prevent it.
(And behind it all, he felt the same presence he had felt in the storm; an unearthly eye searching from afar, through hundreds of kilometres of water that in an instant seemed to part like smoke. The pain in his head was like a beacon, signalling that eye. Mighty forces dragged their attention ponderously his way, and he thrashed for safety, as automatically afraid of those forces finding him as he was to drown.)
His head broke the surface, and he seemed to hear people calling for him. He tried to swim but didn't know how to. There was little he could do but windmill his arms and kick his legs and hope for the best.
It wasn't enough. He went back under. The last dregs of air in his lungs escaped into the sea -- and he was sinking, fading, drowning, falling.
("Sayed?" a woman's voice called from the greying distance, growing fainter by the second. "Sayed, is that you?")
Then everything went black, and he was lost again.
Copyright © 2000 Sean Williams.