Now it was evening he could park on the street without risk of being clamped or towed and didn’t need to bother any of his security guard contacts at the building sites. He found Nelson just where he’d said he’d be, upstairs in the pub, propping up the bar. It was one of those old school working men’s pubs that you didn’t see much anymore – no food, definitely no cocktails or fancy wines, and as usual no women in the place at all. He touched the old man on the shoulder and without turning round Nelson immediately drained his glass and nodded at the barman. They left without anyone saying a word.
“Not much for conversation in there are they Nelson?” Joseph said as they scrambled down the steps.
“Nope,” he replied, “that’s good.”
The tide was in and a small fibreglass boat with an outboard motor was tied up at the little jetty alongside the embankment. They climbed on board, cast off, and once Nelson had given several hard tugs on the cord the motor spluttered into life. Joseph coiled the rope neatly in the bottom of the boat as they eased out into the current.
“Where to?” Nelson asked, one gnarled hand resting gently on the tiller.
“Downstream, in the same direction you saw the boat go last night. I must find it and it could be a long night, are you sure that’s alright?”
Nelson was a man of few words, but he was glad to be out on the river he knew so well actually doing something, rather than just staring into his pint glass. He would carry Joseph wherever he needed to be, for as long as it took. He didn’t know why they were looking for the little boat, and he wouldn’t ask, not his business. It was only his business to watch, and to help on a night like this.
They were soon through the Thames Barrier and beyond, out to where industry still stood beside the water, beyond the limit of the fancy flats for City workers. Nelson crisscrossed the channel as Joseph scanned the water ahead, but then he cut the engine and stopped.
“Something’s not right,” he muttered, sniffing the air. He peered over the side of the boat and plunged his hand into the blackness of the river. When he pulled it out again it was full of weed. He examined the slimy mess closely, rubbing it between his fingers and holding it up against his face to smell before throwing it back overboard. “Salt,” was all he said before restarting the engine.
On they went until, at last, in the dull orange reflection on the water from the lights of a supply ship tied up at a nearby wharf Joseph saw something. It was the skiff, seeming at first sight to be drifting in the middle of the river, and yet not really drifting as it was holding a steady position in the water. He pointed it out to Nelson and they steered a course towards it.
As soon as they drew near, the little wooden craft started to spin gently and began moving away from them, carried by the current, as if it had been set free from some invisible mooring. They soon caught up with it though, and Joseph threw their painter across and hauled the skiff in. Lying in the bottom, curled up in a foetal position with her head covered by a dark hood, lay Laura.
While Nelson held the two boats steady Joseph scrambled across. He pulled off the hood and Laura opened her eyes briefly and then closed them again.
“You came,” she murmured, “they said you would.”
“Are you hurt?”
“No, just woozy,” she was struggling to get the words out, “it was the flowers, made me sleepy…”
“You’re safe now. I’m just going to lift you across and then we’ll get you back.”
All Nelson had to cushion Laura with was an old tarpaulin, but she was still so drowsy that Joseph just laid her straight on top of it and she didn’t stir. The front of her shirt was torn and she was clutching it around herself, not loosening her grip on it even in her half-conscious state. Nelson tied the skiff to the stern of his own boat and they were soon making their way back up river towards the city.
After about half an hour Laura started to rouse. Joseph was desperate to know what had happened but he had wanted to let her rest. Now he helped her to sit up and spoke gently.
“Who was it?”
“The visitors, from the Gathering, the ones from the sea.”
“I thought so. What did they want?”
He knew about their plotting, but he didn’t understand why they’d taken Laura, or why they’d let her go again.
She opened her eyes fully now, and gave a shiver as if to shake herself back to life. When she spoke she sounded clearer and more alert.
“They gave me a message.”
“What is it?”
“I have to show you all – you, the Margrave and the Elders, altogether.”
She sat up a little straighter, lifted her chin a little, and but even in the dark Joseph could see she was blinking back tears.
“Please, we need to go now,” she said.
Joseph turned to the old man who sat silently by the engine, hand still on the tiller.
“Nelson, can you take us right in to the Bow Backs channel please?”
Nelson nodded and Laura whispered, almost to herself, “They said you’d take it seriously now.”
The first fingers of dawn were creeping across the sky by the time they stepped onto a shingle beach revealed by the tide that was ebbing once again. Nelson pushed his boat back into the current, wading beside it and asked to be remembered to the Margrave as he clambered aboard and chugged away.
Joseph had given Laura his jacket and she wrapped it around herself and stood looking blankly down at the ground in front of her.
“I don’t know the way,” she said simply.
Joseph led her across the shingle, following a stream that flowed out from an opening in the stone wall of the quay. It was only fully visible at low tide, and even now they would be knee deep in water, but it was the closest entrance he could think of. He turned around before he entered the tunnel and she was standing right there, but she didn’t look at him. He felt sick to the stomach at the thought of what she might have been through, and he was furious with himself for not finding her sooner.
As they made their way through the tunnels deep into the Riverways Joseph had to stop more than once to get his bearings, it was a while since he’d been this way. Each time Laura stopped behind him, not saying a word, just waiting to start walking again. Finally they reached the centre, and it was Edgar who spotted them first, calling out as he hurried towards them.
“Hi Joseph, hi Laura, come and see…” he tailed off when he got nearer and saw Laura close up.
“Go and find your father, tell him we must see him straight away,” Joseph said to him, “we’ll be right behind you.”
Edgar ran on ahead and by the time they reached the Margrave’s chamber he was waiting for them, a curious Edgar still loitering in the doorway. Laura spoke for the first time since they’d entered the Riverways.
“I have a message that I must show to you and the Elders together,” she said to the Margrave without looking at him. Then she sat down heavily on one of the wooden chairs in front of the desk as if her legs wouldn’t hold her any longer.
Joseph frowned, wondering why she was using the word ‘show.’ He’d noticed it when she first told him about the message and it had sounded strange then. The Margave sent Edgar to fetch the others, and soon his chamber was crowded as they all gathered round.
The Margrave spoke kindly, “Tell us now my dear, what is the message?”
Laura stood up, leaning on the desk for support, eyes cast down. She swallowed nervously and Joseph could see her hands were shaking as she shrugged her shoulders out of his jacket and let it fall to the floor.
“I can’t tell you the message, I don’t know what it is,” her voice cracked. “I have to show you.”
She glanced at Joseph, as if for reassurance, and turned around to face the wall, standing with her back to them all. Then, hesitantly, she took off her torn shirt, pulled her tangled ponytail aside and there it was, written all over the skin of her back.