At Shivering Sands…
At the top of the ladder was the fort itself, a rusting metal hull that had been home to vital military equipment during the war, and had then enjoyed a second life as a pirate radio station in the Sixties. Long abandoned, it was cold, dark and eerie inside. There were windows of sorts, either filthy or smashed, a scrap of tatty carpet on the floor and an old wooden table and chair, cracked and tarnished by the salt air. A lantern on the table created a small pool of the dull blue light she knew from the Riverways, a glow that was just enough to see that there were several people waiting for her.
One took a step towards her and as soon as he moved Laura recognised him from the Gathering. Somehow she felt it was important to look brave, and so she said the first thing that came into her head.
“Been to any good parties lately?”
In the silence that followed she decided that this had perhaps not been the ideal opening gambit, and she felt suddenly conflicted. Mostly she was absolutely terrified, but that bit of her that always came to the surface in moments of tension was starting to think the whole situation was frankly absurd.
“Hello Laura,” Leon replied eventually, “so we meet again.”
So we meet again. That was it, conflict over, with her facetiousness reflex an easy winner, Laura’s shoulders were soon shaking with silent laughter. All he needed was a cat to stroke.
“What is it?” he looked puzzled, and then increasingly irritated.
“What?” he shouted this time and banged his fist on the table making the blue light dance and sending a shower of rust down from the ceiling that landed on them like confetti.
James Bond would mean nothing to them, of course.
The one who had brought her in the boat moved in close behind her and whispered in her ear, “You should be careful, this is not a game,” and she saw they were all watching nervously to see what would happen next.
“Sorry,” she mumbled. Suddenly it didn’t seem so funny any more.
“Do you know why we have brought you here?”
“No.” The last remnants of nervous energy evaporated and her shoulders sagged.
“Please sit down.”
Laura took a seat on the dirty chair and waited in silence. What else could she do?
The Mer began to speak, and she realised that she had become a pawn in their horrifying game. She listened in dismay to their plans to save themselves by somehow flooding the city.
“And how are you proposing to do that?” she scoffed, hiding her horror with sarcasm, “by using your magic powers?”
At that Leon caught the eye of one of the others who immediately made his way to the top of the ladder and disappeared from view. The rest continued to watch her with what appeared to be amusement. For a moment or two nothing happened, and then she noticed it: the rhythmic murmuring of the gentle waves below them was beginning to change.
Before long Laura began to hear the sound of breakers crashing against the legs of the fort. She leapt up from the chair and ran to one of the broken windows. Below them the sea had turned from a calm inky blue to a rough black and white as huge angry waves lashed the fort, but when she looked out towards the horizon the water was calm. Then, just as suddenly, as she continued to stare down transfixed, the swell began to subside. All became still once again and in the quiet that followed she heard footsteps coming back up the ladder.
Leon waited for her to return to her seat before he spoke again.
“Now you can tell them what you have seen.”
Laura could hear the bitterness in his voice, his anger with the Margrave for refusing to help them in the way they wanted. They had shown her their strength, but why did they believe that she had such influence in the Riverways, that she would somehow be able to change the Margrave’s mind? She tried to put them straight.
“But I still don’t know what you need me for? I hardly know the Margrave, he won’t listen to what I think, and anyway I agree with him – you can’t just drown London.”
“But he will listen to Joseph.”
“We heard from friends about this man’s influence over the Margrave.”
“I bet you did,” snorted Laura, thinking of Jorn, “but Joseph is a good man, and loyal.”
“That is what we are counting on.”
“What do you mean?”
“At present he agrees with the Margrave of course, but we are confident that his obvious loyalty to you will help him to see things from our point of view. And once he sees things our way, he will soon persuade the Margrave.”
Laura closed her eyes and clenched her fists to stop her hands from shaking – so they were using her to get to Joseph, and that way to the Margrave himself. Surely Joseph’s first loyalty was not to her though, even if these lunatics kept her hostage out here, or worse? But images flashed through her mind of the two of them together – in the battered red van, on the boat, dancing at the Gathering, and the look on his face when he thought he’d drowned her. Nothing had happened between them, but perhaps if these people had seen all this they might well draw that conclusion.
Opening her eyes again she just had time to glimpse her captors whispering closely together before one of them extinguished the lamp. A hazy dawn was breaking and it was no longer pitch dark in the fort, and after her eyes adjusted to the change in light Laura realised that they were all walking towards the top of the ladder.
“What are you doing?” she asked, scrambling to her feet.
“We are leaving you here, just for a while, to give Joseph time to think.”
“Are all of you going?” She didn’t like them, but liked the idea of being left out there alone even less.
“There is no need for us to stay. It is a long way to the shore, and we know you are not a good swimmer.”
So they had been watching.
With a sense of disbelief Laura watched them leave, the little boat dancing over the water. It had only one occupant this time – they must really like swimming. She was totally alone, and with nothing else to do she contemplated her surroundings. Shafts of sunlight were forcing their way into the fort through the grimy and missing windows and soon she could see clearly.
In one corner lay a big tangle of rotting metal and wires which Laura poked at with her foot. Graffiti on the wall told her that it was probably abandoned broadcasting equipment from the pirate radio days. There was a pile of old blankets, thick with dirt and she picked up the top one and shook it out. It was stiff from the salt air and sent up clouds of dust that made her cough, but if she got desperate it would be warm. Then she spotted that the lamp had gone from the table so she would be totally in the dark if she was still here at nightfall. In place of the lamp sat a big bottle of Evian and a bulging blue plastic carrier bag, the sort that convenience stores gave away. Closer inspection revealed its contents to be a sliced white loaf, a box of cereal, a jar of instant coffee and two sachets of cat food. Whoever did the shopping must have followed someone round and copied their basket, hoping that it would make up a suitable meal for their prisoner. At least she could drink the mineral water.
The day passed slowly and Laura kept herself relatively calm. She spent most of the time looking out of the windows and trying to calculate the distance to the shore – much further than she could ever hope to swim was her conclusion. The odd bird flew by, and away to the north was an enormous windfarm and the slow turning of the giant turbines was quite hypnotic.
But when darkness came and the Sea Mer did not return she became afraid. The sounds of the wind and waves seemed increasingly sinister and she began to fear for her sanity as her imagination ran riot. She stared and stared out of the windows to try and see any sign of life but in the end she gave up, wrapped herself in the blanket and sat on the chair to wait.