There was stunned silence for a few seconds, then the Elders started whispering to each other and peering at the strange symbols and lines that were etched in black on Laura’s pale skin.
“What have they done to her?” Joseph instinctively reached out but the Margrave gently held him back.
“Don’t be afraid, we know what this is, and one or two of us have even seen it, but not for many years.”
“But what is it?”
“It is an old way of communication, for taking messages long distances under water, and that is the ancient way of writing. I only remember a little, but Arne will be able to read it.”
Arne was already standing the closest to Laura, pointing at the writing and talking to the others in a low voice. Joseph thought he looked excited by what he saw, and this infuriated him.
“Is she hurt? It looks so black, is it burnt on?”
“No, no,” the Margrave reassured him, “it is made from squid ink. It will fade, eventually.” He followed Joseph’s gaze and saw the anger in his eyes.
“I’m sorry if this makes you uncomfortable, they are interested to see something they know only from our history come to life.”
Arne turned to the Margrave, grim-faced, any trace of excitement gone.
“I have read it.”
“It is from the ones at sea who came to ask for our help. It is written in the old language, and in short it says they will be here when the moon is full, and the waters will rise.”
The Elders all began talking at once and pressed closer to Laura, leaning across the desk and jostling each other to get a clearer view. Joseph could see her shivering, her head bowed, and he could stand it no longer.
“Enough!” he shouted. “She has done enough.”
“Yes,” the Margrave agreed, and he picked up a heavy glass paperweight and banged it on his desk.
Those who had not already reacted to Joseph’s outburst, did so then. They tore themselves away from staring at Laura and turned to the Margrave, who suggested that a meeting be held in one hour’s time to discuss the message and its meaning. The Elders quickly left the chamber, starting to talk animatedly amongst themselves as soon as they were outside the door.
Laura was struggling with her torn shirt and wordlessly Joseph picked up his jacket and handed it to her. She wrapped it around herself before turning to them, her face ashen.
“They made the sea rough,” she said.
“A storm?” Joseph looked at the Margrave, “surely they can’t do that?”
“What happened Laura,” the Margrave asked her, “can you tell us?”
“It was under the fort, the waves were breaking against the legs. It was swirling around, one of them did it, he went down the ladder.”
Joseph and the Margrave exchanged worried glances.
“Was it just under the fort, or all across the sea? Was there a storm?”
“No. The stars were still out. It was just below.” Laura closed her eyes, she looked ready to drop.
“I’m so tired,” she said.
The Margrave went straight to her, “Oh my dear, I’m so sorry this happened to you, but it’s over now.”
He helped her across the room to the old sofa and she collapsed onto it, her eyes closing before she could even lie down. He covered her with the soft blankets she remembered from the last time she’d been in this room, and she fell at once into an exhausted sleep.
Joseph sat opposite her, clenching and unclenching his fists as he watched her, trying to process what had just passed. What the hell were they going to do now?
He looked back across the room and saw sitting at the desk, just for a moment before he collected himself, not a king but a frightened old man. As soon as his eyes met Joseph’s however, the Margrave straightened his shoulders and became a leader again. It was Joseph who spoke first.
“Can they really control the seas like that?”
“It is not unheard of to have such a skill, but I have never seen it used. I think it would be very limited – that is why the message talks of using the full moon and the tides.”
Joseph shook his head, this was almost too much to take in. He turned his attention to the one thing he could do something about.
“What about Laura. She can’t stay here.”
“No, I agree. We have too much to decide on, too much to do, she is too much of a risk.”
“I was thinking of the risk to her.”
“Of course you were, but I must put my people first. We have never faced a situation as grave as this before. Maybe Jorn is right, maybe it is time for a rising.”
“You can’t really think that?”
“At the moment Joseph, I don’t know what to think. I will meet with the Council of Elders later and get from Arne the full meaning of the message, and then we need time to think it over. But I agree that Laura is in danger so in the meantime she must be moved. There is a chance they will come for her again if they think we are not acting swiftly enough, or to their liking.”
They continued to talk quietly as Laura slept on. Joseph recounted how he had found her, what Nelson had seen, and how he now realised the Sea Mer must have been watching them both when they were outside the Riverways.
“She can’t go home,” Joseph concluded, “they must have tracked her there. The same goes for my place, they will have been watching me too.”
Then he stood up suddenly, looking at his watch. It was five thirty a.m.
“I’ve thought of someone who might be able to help. Let me go and give him a ring. Can you stay with her? I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
The Margrave nodded, and for the next half an hour he watched over Laura, trying to absorb some of the calmness of her sleep for himself as he thought about the crisis he was facing. He had to save his people, but at what cost? They had survived for so long against all the odds, but was the price now too high?