And so Laura went with them. She had no choice – the hands that gripped her shoulders were strong and there was no mistaking the threat underneath that softly spoken voice.
She stumbled along over the uneven ground for a short distance before being pulled to a stop. Then she heard a rustling sound as leaves were brushed aside and then the harsh scrape of unwilling metal. They were at the entrance she’d been searching for herself.
“Down,” came the terse instruction so Laura felt her way down the ladder, knowing now that it must be some of the Mer who had grabbed her. But why were they dragging her into the Riverways by force, surely not even Jorn disliked her that much?
Listening closely once she’d stepped off the ladder Laura thought she heard two further sets of feet climb down after her. She was given a shove to set her off and they were walking again, descending slightly it seemed. It occurred to her that perhaps Edgar or one of the others might be in earshot, but as soon as she took a deep breath to shout out, a hand was immediately clamped over her mouth.
The menace in that single word was enough to scupper any thoughts of yelling for help so Laura just kept moving, wondering where they were going. She altered her gait from walking to shuffling and dragged her feet for a bit to try and feel the ground beneath them. It was smooth, which told her nothing, so next she deliberately stumbled to the side, feeling the wall with her hand as she bumped into it.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“What doesn’t?” she replied, trying to sound casual though her mouth was dry and her heart pounding.
“Which tunnel we’re in. We will be outside soon.”
Even as he spoke she sensed that the temperature in the tunnel was dropping and felt a slight breeze against the hood that still covered her head. Then there was the creak of a gate or door ahead, and was that the sound of water? A few more steps and they were definitely out in the open air, by the river she guessed, as she could hear the water lapping against the quayside and in the distance the hum of the city. They paused for a second until one of her captors said “over there.”
Laura was hustled along again and almost went flying as she tripped over a rope that looped around a short metal pole sticking out of the ground. Strong hands caught and steadied her, before lifting her off her feet completely.
“Hey! What are you doing?” she cried out, turning her head one way and then another in a vain attempt to free herself from the hood.
“We don’t want you to drown.”
With rising panic as she finally realised who had taken her, Laura began to wriggle and kick her legs as hard as she could.
It was the threatening voice again, coming from somewhere above her this time as she was lowered over the edge of the quay. She landed in a heap in the bottom of a small wooden boat, which began to rock alarmingly on the water under the weight of two more occupants. Silently, the boat pushed off from the embankment and eased out into the current. Soon it felt like it was really moving, and just as Laura was wondering why she could hear no sounds of rowing nor any engine, a sudden change of direction sent her lurching backwards. Those same sure hands caught her once more.
“Hold tight, they are strong swimmers.”
She had realised as they reached the water’s edge that it was the Sea Mer who had snatched her, and now it seemed they were taking her down river, perhaps even out to sea. All of a sudden going for a late night wander in the wood seemed like a very stupid idea. No one knew where she’d gone, and who was there to miss her anyway? Now, for the first time, she was really afraid.
Laura was sandwiched between two of the Sea Mer as the boat sped on, carried along by the current and the swimmers who pulled it effortlessly through the dark water. They passed through the Thames Barrier and out into the estuary. She did not know it, but they were heading for Shivering Sands, one of the wartime Maunsell Forts that had guarded the coastline from invasion. It was windy out on the water and as the boat began to pitch more and more with the swell, she started to feel nauseous.
I can’t be sick in this hood, Laura thought, her mind dulled by the cold, and she pulled it off, desperate to gulp down some deep breaths of air before they could force it back on her. But they didn’t replace the hood, and warily she looked around. It was too dark to see their faces but the Mer were sitting motionless beside her. There was no escape, but if they hadn’t wanted her to drown, then presumably they wanted her alive, and she had no idea why.
“Where are you taking me?”
Laura felt slightly better now she was out of the hood and was determined to show them that she wasn’t going to be a complete victim, however scared she might be. There was no response to her question, so she tried again.
“Are we nearly there?”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth she was overwhelmed by a vision of her childhood self, in the back of her parents’ old Volvo on one of their interminable Sunday drives to some stately home or other. She bit her lip to hold back the tears that threatened as the reply came.
“We are there.”
The boat had slowed, and at its prow two heads emerged from the water. They nodded towards something ahead, and then out of the night the strange structure appeared. Four huge iron grey legs towered above them and in the darkness she could just about make out a rusting ladder leading upwards towards a platform above. It looked like some giant metal creature from a science fiction film, but it was real, and apparently it was also their destination.
Two figures climbed out of the water onto the ladder and tied up the boat. Laura knew then for sure that these Mer had been the swimmers, the silent engine effortlessly pulling the little boat so quickly across the water. She was prodded into action and on shaky legs she too scrambled to her feet and grabbed hold of the bottom rung of the ladder.
“Up,” came the instruction from behind her.
“Please wouldn’t hurt,” she muttered under her breath and began to climb.