Jump to content
The Hidden Fortress
Sign in to follow this  
mad

Flipside

Recommended Posts

The tunnel roof grew lower, and the water higher. I took some comfort in the continuing level floor; this had been constructed, made to go somewhere. I just hoped we got to the somewhere before the water went over our heads.

The walls were dark, smooth and gleaming in the torchlight. I ran my hand over the surface. Slate. To be expected here in mid-Wales, where it had been mined for centuries.

Hal, who had been leading for a while, stopped, and gestured to me.

‘It gets narrower here, and lower, but I think it goes further.’

‘And wetter.’ The water, currently just over our knees, rose nearly to the top of the tunnel ahead.

‘Nae problem, lass.’ He grinned, and unhitched the sealskin from its place over his back.

‘I should come with you.’ Daere spoke for the first time since she’d joined us.

I choked back my immediate response. Did I want her down there in the water with Hal? No, damn it, of course I didn’t. But that was personal. Did I trust her? No. But I’d chosen to invite her along. Did it make sense for two to go rather than one? Yes.

I looked at him. ‘Your call, love.’

He paused, thinking, met the kelpie’s eyes. ‘Okay. But you stay behind me, well back. If I get into trouble, you come straight back here.’ He passed me his clothes, and wrapped the sealskin around him.

She met his gaze, inclined her head briefly. Turned back to the rest of us.

‘Would you mind…’ a spiral motion of the fingers, indicating we should turn our backs. I shook my head, not trusting her that far.

She walked several steps back into the tunnel, where it was darker, glancing back over her shoulder. We stayed where we were.

Behind me, Hal gave a cheerful bark, and the seal slid into the water with barely a splash.

Daere curled up, crouched down low in the water, and there was a nasty, organic, squelching, crunching sound. Shadows shifted unpleasantly. Her otter form shook itself, loped past us and followed Hal into the water.

‘Was that wise?’ Lugh put his hand on my shoulder, huge and warm.

‘I’m not sure. I hope so.’

We waited.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

A splash, a >whoosh< of exhaled breath, and the seal form of Hal appeared in the dark water.

We waited, eyes averted, as he changed back.

‘Whoo!’ he sat, waist deep in the water, and grinned up at us in the torchlight.

‘Well?’ I wasn’t feeling particularly patient.

‘Thirty yards, or so… then it opens up. Big – can’t say how big, we didn’t have lights, but it opens up. Smells vaguely of humans, too. There’s the stink of iron, and the fungi that come with breathing.’

Thirty yards.

Thirty yards of icy cold water.

Oh, deep joy.

 

I took off most of my clothes, stowed them in the waterproof sack in my pack, along with Hal’s. Okay, the trouser legs were wet, but it would be better than wearing soaked clothes. Thom and Lugh were busy doing the same, stowing gear in the bags I’d brought along.

‘I’ll take you through.’ Hal held out a hand, warm fingers wrapped around mine, a promise of safety in his eyes in the torchlight. Light. We’d be relying on my wind-up torch on the other side. I checked it was buried deep in the waterproof sack alongside my pistol, sealed it up, slung the bag on my back.

‘Okay. Let’s do it.’

I took several deep breaths, filling my system with oxygen. One last, huge inhalation, and I was under. Gods, but it was cold. Within a few seconds, I couldn’t feel my face, my fingers; I kicked hard, but it probably made no difference, as Hal hauled me along faster than I could swim. I breathed out slowly as we went, a trail of bubbles in the dark. Too dark to see anything; I shut my eyes, kicked, tried to stay close. I felt the tunnel narrow around us, then the feeling of constriction stopped, and we kicked upwards.

We broke surface in a darkness as deep as I’d ever known. If I hadn’t blinked, I’d have thought my eyes were sealed shut. Only the cold air feeding my lungs told me I was out of the tunnel and into whatever was beyond.

Hal hauled me onward and lugged my shivering body up onto a shelf above the water. Rubbed me roughly, hard, then stood back.

‘Stay here. Get dressed and warm. I’ll get the others.’

 

Microfibre towel. Dry T-shirt, warm sweater, waterproof anorak. Wet trousers and boots. Somewhere in the darkness, an unreliable kelpie. I dressed quickly, and before I was finished, Hal had hauled Thom ashore beside me. I rummaged in my pack and found my wind-up torch. I gave the thing a couple of minutes charge, and checked out our surroundings.

 

We seemed to be sitting on a wide stone strip, a foot above the underground lake. The beam wasn’t strong enough to reach the far side of the cavern, but I got the impression of a vast emptiness.

 

There was no sign of the kelpie.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

 

forty-four

 

 

 

 

Darkness.

Steady drip, drip, dripping of water.

The small patch of light from my torch, tracing the rockface behind me. Pale tracery of ore, dark wet gleam of slate.

An eruption of water and air as Hal pulled Thom through the tunnel, shoved him up onto the platform, took a huge breath and plunged back into the black water.

I wrapped Thom in the towel, rubbing him down, noting in passing that he wasn’t actually as scrawny as he seemed. Not bad for a guy over five hundred.

‘Hope this doesn’t start your sneezes up again.’

‘You hope?’ he dressed quickly, adding an extra layer. ‘Where are we?’

‘Who knows? This is carved out of the rock, it’s man-made, probably some sort of quarrying place…’

‘And full of iron.’ Daere’s raspy voice came from somewhere in the darkness beyond the torch’s range. ‘Bands of it, everywhere. In the ground, in the walls, the place is full of it.’ There was a slight tremble in her voice.

‘Show me.’

I got up and followed the sound of her feet, a slight splashing on the wet floor.

‘Here.’

I turned the torch downward.

Rails, set into concrete.

An underground railway? Made sense if this was a quarry.

‘Okay. Go back and wait for the others, tell them where I am. Got it?’

‘I’m not stupid.’

‘Good. Then you’ll do as you’re told.’

I swung the torch along the rails, curving away into the darkness to left and right. There was a thin layer of rust on them, but they didn’t look too corroded. Something tickled at the back of my mind, a feeling that I should know what this was.

I took a guess, and went left.

 

The tunnel was definitely man made, and the rails ran straight up the centre. After a few hundred yards, it opened up again.

I stopped, listening for the sounds of the others following. Switched the torch off for a while, to see if there was any light at all.

The blackness was like being smothered in velvet. A sense of claustrophobia, of being unable to breathe; my heart started racing. I don’t mind the dark, though I’m not fond of small spaces, but this was in its own league.

I switched the torch on again, a faint yellowish glow that sputtered and faded. The pulse hammered in my throat.

Stupid.

I cranked the handle again, counting two minutes in my head as I built up the charge again.

‘Malin?’

‘Down here. Watch yourself on the rails.’

I gave the handle a couple of extra turns.

 

The beam flickered back to life, a wavering point of light on the grey slate wall ahead. I scanned the area, and stopped as a flash of colour caught my eye.

Faded red, dull blue.

Trousers and jacket.

A figure, halfway up the rockface.

As the others made their way up the tunnel behind me, I held the beam steady. Whoever he was, he didn’t move.

Forcibly calming my breathing, I mentally kicked myself, realising what it was my memory had been trying to tell me.

The figure would never move; it was a model, part of a diorama, the figure of a slate miner of times past.

‘Damn it.’

‘What’s up?’ Hal was the first to reach me, his reassuring bulk at my back.

‘I know where we are.’

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

‘I came here when I was at school. It was a field trip – a week away, looking at the geography of North Wales.’

It had been fun, if damp. Twenty or so teenaged girls in a hostel, for some it had been the first time away from home. For others it was a great opportunity to get up to the old mischief; midnight feasts, gossip, truth or dare… I’d just been glad to be away.

‘We’re in the slate caverns. They show visitors how it used to be, run them round on a railway cart.’

‘Hence the iron rails.’

‘Mmm. I remember it having a very steep incline somewhere. But I think there were a lot of stairs, too.’ I stopped, thinking about this. There would have to be a backup, another way to get people out of the deep mine. As far as I could recall, the stairs were metal.

Railway or stairs. The rails for certain were iron. If the stairs were, too, we were in deep guano. Very deep.

 

The railway ran through a series of caverns, more of the model figures scattered around, showing the history of the slate mines. We concentrated on keeping off the rails and moving forwards.

The torchlight bounced off something bulky. With any luck, the iron would have stopped anything UnSeelie colonising the caverns, but I wasn’t taking chances. Torch in one hand, pistol in the other, I ghosted forwards.

‘It’s the tourist train.’ Open-sided carriages that had taken the visitors around, day in, day out, now static and rusting behind the battery-powered train. Behind it loomed the stairway, a pale cobweb at the edge of the light.

Time to find out if we could get out of here.

I felt Hal shiver slightly, then he stepped carefully around the train and over the rails to the bottom of the stairs. He put out a hand to the railing, touching it with the tips of his fingers.

‘Some iron, but not wholly. Some sort of coating.’

He put a foot on the bottom step, pulled it back with a slight intake of breath.

‘Nasty. Unpleasant, uncomfortable… but not impossible. We’ll have to go quickly.’

We joined him, and I got a better look.

Steel, and aluminium, galvanised, painted. The steps were non-slip, and countless feet had worn away some of the coating, leaving a blunt checker-work of metal points.

Lugh’s boots would protect his feet a bit, and being only half-Fae he seemed more resistant, but both Hal and Daere were barefoot; even going quickly, the iron in the steel would have ripped them to agonizing shreds by the time we got to the top.

I swung my bag round, rummaging around to find the things I knew were somewhere in there. As usual, what I wanted had made its way to the bottom.

‘Socks. Thom, have you any spares? Doesn’t matter if they’re clean.’

Between us we managed four somewhat damp pairs, which selkie and kelpie were persuaded to pull on.

‘Lugh, you lead off, then Daere. She gets into trouble, you haul her. Hal next, and Thom and I will help him if there are problems. Once we start, we keep going, don’t stop until you’re on stone. If you can, don’t use the handrail.’

I heard Lugh’s sword slide from its sheath.

‘You never know what we’ll find up there.’ His grin was a faint crescent moon in the dark.

‘Okay. Let’s do this.’

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Seventy-something metal stairs in almost-darkness. No breath wasted on talking, just the rhythmic thump of feet and occasional clang as we climbed. When my feet hit the concrete at the top, all I could hear was heavy breathing. I leaned on the rail, swung the torch round to check behind us and ahead.

‘Everyone okay?’

Daere was bent double, retching. Hal’s face was pale, but he gave me a wan smile and a nod, as he peeled off the shredded socks. I bent to check his feet; in the torchlight they looked as if they had a bad sunburn on the soles.

‘I’ll recover, just have to take it a bit carefully for a while.’

Lugh looked slightly grimmer than usual, but gave me a thumbs-up before turning to cover the tunnel ahead.

‘More tunnels?’ Thom had got his breath back.

I tried to remember, but came up blank.

‘There are more rails here.’

Two levels? I turned off my torch, let my eyes adjust.

‘I think it’s lighter over there.’ Daere coughed, somewhere to my left.

True enough, a faint greyness glimmered hopefully.

‘Looks like daylight.’

‘Guess we’ll just have to find out.’

 

The tunnel led through to an opening in the rock overhead, a pale grey sky drizzling down on our upturned faces. Ferns grew thick on the sides of the quarry, gathering more water that splashed down in heavier drops. There was no obvious way out; the track led back into a tunnel at the far side of the opening.

Thirty-five-year-old memories surfaced.

‘This is all one level. The train runs round through a load of caves, but it’s the same level as the entrance.’ Two tours – one to the deep mine, one through the other workings. We’d all gone on the deep mine tour, of course. You got to wear hard hats.

‘All we have to do is follow the rails and we’ll end up at the entrance.’ Another memory popped up. ‘There’s a little gift shop. Ooh, good! I want to visit it.’

‘Souvenirs, Malin?’ Thom chuckled.

‘Something much more useful, I hope!’

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

It was level going, through dark tunnels and more places open to the sky. The rain was getting heavier, and the slate gleamed and shimmered with trickles and streamlets and small waterfalls, sheets of water pooling out across the tracks, pebble-dashed with falling raindrops.

I really could do without more cold water.

Thom hurried across the space into the shelter of the opposite tunnel, shaking his head to get rid of the water in his hair. Hal, on the other hand, paused in the middle of the space, turning his face to the sky and revelling in the downpour. His enjoyment made me grin in turn, before I pulled up my collar and followed on.

 

The entrance finally appeared, light through glass panels and pale stone floors. We had to break a panel to get out, carefully knocking all the shards from the frame and ducking through.

‘So where are we?’ Lugh sheathed his sword. ‘I have no memories of this place.’

‘I think we’re just outside Blaenau, but that’s why I want the gift shop.’ I stepped out from the shelter of the entrance awning to check. Direction sign… pub and Victorian village…slate workshops… gift shop. ‘This way.’

With any luck this place was too far out of the mainstream for the shop to have been raided already. We had to break in, which told me I was right.

Coasters, mugs, stuffed toy dragons. T-shirts and sweaters... ‘Find us some that fit,’ I pointed, and went on looking. Replica tools. Books, now that was getting closer…yes! They did have a few maps. I found the familiar orange top of the OS Explorer map series, and rummaged through to find the right one. Awkward, the way the overlaps went, but eventually I got one that covered the land between the slate mines and the coast where we hoped to meet up with the ship. Nice to be able to plan ahead, to avoid obstacles.

A sudden thought made me look at my watch. The second hand was ticking round nicely, and the hands stood at half-past two. Afternoon, obviously, but what date? I twisted my wrist around, trying to see in the dimness of the unlit shop. 14th February. Hal had been right, or so it seemed…unless my watch had just stopped while we’d been in Annwn and was now running out of kilter with the real world.

I went back to the others, to find Lugh holding up a rather large red dragon toy, with a look of incredulity on his face. The dragon looked equally confused. Thom and Daere were rummaging through racks of some rather attractive knitwear, finding things that fit. Hal stood by the door, keeping watch through the drizzle. He didn’t look happy.

‘What’s up, love?’

‘Nothing…well, I think it’s nothing… I’m not sure. Just a feeling.’ He shrugged.

I knew better than to ignore his instincts by now.

‘Come on folks. Grab what we need and let’s got going. Daere, how much do you know about the rivers round here?’

‘Not a lot, not really my area. More a lake girl, me.’

There was a tourist information leaflet rack by the door, and I checked it over, looking for adventure centres. Nothing in the right direction.

‘I think we should go.’ There was an edge to Hal’s voice now.

We went.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

We planned on heading south, cutting to the west to avoid most of the town, following the road down the valley ridge. I’d studied the map and it was going to be a fair hike to the estuary, where I hoped the ship would be waiting. It was only fifteen miles or so, but we’d have a lot of water to negotiate along the way, which would probably double the distance. I hoped if we hit the river we might find a rowboat or, ideally some canoes, but to do that we had to get as far as the river in the first place.

You might ask, why didn’t we ride the kelpie? It had crossed my mind, but then I thought about the risks. I didn’t trust her that far, and wasn’t prepared to rely on her unless I absolutely had to.

What concerned me more was whatever Hal was sensing out there.

Even with two of the party having sore feet, we didn’t hang about; it was raining, the sun – what we could see of it through the cloud cover - was going down over the hills to the west and we were heading into thickly forested country – the very places Sulian would be looking for his new spars. For once, the road seemed as good a route as any other.

We crossed the railway on a bridge, skirted the semi-industrial edge of the town, splashing in the puddles past the sports field and out along the open road, beside the dead bracken and rocky outcrops that marked the ancient landscape. A huge modern factory loomed out of the twilight to our left, abandoned cars and containers, plants starting to break through the tarmac of the car-park. Nothing moved, but Hal kept glancing back over his shoulder, and I kept the party moving.

The way followed the side of a valley, but stayed away from the trees for the main, which I found reassuring. There were a few building, farms, small settlements set amidst overgrown fields.

I didn’t feel like talking, and the others seemed content to plod on in damp silence.

My brain whirled with ap Nudd’s words. I really didn’t want to think about it, but, as is the way with such things, it kept rising to the top of my mind, like scum in a boiling pot.

One of us to die, before the year’s end.

If one of us didn’t, I would have to choose.

Well, here we go again, I thought. He must have known there was no way I would choose one of my friends; if they made it through, there was only one who would be making the journey back to the eternal afternoon of Annwn. Wryly, I wondered if this was why I’d been spared the death that the Cailleach had foreseen. I wished I could talk it over with Hal – of all of us, he was the one I knew it couldn’t be.

‘Selkies don’t come here, Malin!’

Some small comfort, I thought.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The road bent left, and the trees grew closer as we headed down into the Teigl valley, crowding in around the tarmac ribbon, a darker shadow against the dank and dimming sky.

‘Are we going to keep going all night?’ I might have guessed the first moan would come from Daere.

‘Where do you suggest we stop?’ Hal snapped, before I could respond. ‘You want to spend the night in the forest?’

‘Could be worse,’ she retorted. ‘Have to stop somewhere, and at least it’ll be out of this bloody rain. And my feet still hurt.’

Hal growled under his breath, and joined me. ‘She has a point, we will need to stop somewhere. But not – definitely not – under the trees.’

‘What aren’t you telling me?’

He sighed, shook his head. ‘I don’t know what’s there, Malin. I only know that either we need to keep going, or stop somewhere secure. And I would prefer to avoid the forest after dark. Does your map tell us anything?’

His insistence made me shiver more than the incessant rain did.

I pulled the map from my inside pocket, wound up the torch and checked. Made a mental note to myself to find a red filter for it, if we had to do much night work.

‘Okay .. we’re...about here. The river’s … here. If you want to avoid the trees, looks like this farm here – it’s about quarter of a mile – is the last chance we have. There are a few places further on, but…’

‘No. The farm is as good as it gets. Let’s hope there’s nobody there.’

I was definitely getting tired of this hide and seek style of travel.

 

It was a big farm, large modern buildings, and a scattering of vehicles littering the main yard. No lights, and no signs of life. Thom checked, in his own way, and said there had been no-one there for months.

The back door of the farmhouse was open. I wondered what had happened – had the owners heard something, that night, and gone out to check? Or had the Fae – or worse - come in after them? I had a deep-rooted feeling that the Fae had not been the only ones active the night the world changed. Some things seemed too grim even for them.

The door opened into the dusty kitchen, and with a little searching, we found a couple of oil lamps. A rummage in the pantry revealed a decent stock of cans, some still in date, and we fired up the old wood burning stove to provide warmth and cook supper. I let Thom and Lugh do the cooking, while I checked out the rest of the house.

It was cold, and dank. A thin film of mould spread across the bed linen, and over the walls upstairs. A spreading dampness on the bedroom ceiling – and the carpet below – told a tale of winter damage.

Downstairs, it was drier and warmer, now the heater was going. The kitchen and front room had deep, battered but inviting, sofas.

I went back to the kitchen, where they’d managed to find the makings of beef stew for supper.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

‘Is this secure enough?’

Hal checked doors and windows. ‘Maybe. Best post a watch, in case.’

‘Okay. Five of us, three asleep, two on watch – front and back windows. Staggered handover, gives the best chance of some decent sleep. We head out at daybreak.’

Cautious, I took the watch that most overlapped Daere’s.

 

Outside, a thick darkness spread across the farmyard. Trees crowded around the edges, a darker mass in the gloom. I found myself a suitable perch by the kitchen window, and waited. Checked Daere was okay in the front room, where she had a clear view of the road and a few old cars.

Watched and waited.

Nothing but darkness, under a blanket of cloud. The weavings of long-dead spiders around the window frame. Flyspecks on the dusty glass.

I swapped over with Hal at around two in the morning, burrowing into the warm cocoon he left under the sealskin on the kitchen sofa.

Without the distraction of keeping watch, my brain inevitably drifted back to the thing I least wanted to think about.

How the hell could I get us out of this mess?

The easy answer was, of course, for us all to make it through, and then I would turn myself over to Annwn. Inside my head, I laughed at the notion, firstly that we could all sail so easily through what may come, and then that I could just go… I considered Hal’s likely reaction. Come to think of it, it was probably for the best that ap Nudd had prevented me discussing the problem.

I couldn’t predict the future.

That much was certain. Everything else was conjecture, and I’d have to take it as it came. Not Hal though, my mind whispered, at least it would not be Hal.

Hell, fuck and damnit! Why was I thinking of just rolling over? I shuffled under the sealskin, totally annoyed with myself.

What were the consequences of us all surviving, if I didn’t choose?

He’d hunt us down, with the Hounds, he said.

I’d already dealt with Hounds…so with a bit of preparation… bugger it, I thought, after everything I’ve been through, if I can’t deal with one Lord of the Underworld and his pet doggies, I wasn’t the professional bitch I knew I was.

 

So, that was settled. I slept.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

‘Malin. Wake up.’

Hal shook my shoulder, whispering urgently in my ear. I blinked, rolled out of the comfort and warmth of the couch.

‘What’s up?’

‘You should see this.’

He went back to the grimy window, carefully standing to one side. Outside, the cloud had lifted, and the yard was starlit. The dark shadows of the trees stretched out across the ground, black and dense, almost oily. Something wrong, there. I squinted, looking to one side of what I thought I’d seen, using the best of my night-vision.

Something moving in the shadow. No – the whole shadow was writhing, spreading out across the packed earth and gravel, churning up the surface, stones and earth showering down.

‘What the hell’s that?’

‘Roots, I think,’ Lugh said softly from the other room. I went through to see what was happening out front.

Either side of the pale strip of the road, thick dark tendrils forced up through the dead grass, stretching out, blindly feeling their way over the ground. Anywhere there was no hard surface, the ground seemed alive, seething, writhing, swarming over each other.

So far, they seemed to be staying clear of the house.

I went back to the kitchen window. Long tentacles of roots probed the side of the barn, spreading upwards, clung on with shaggy rootlets, seeming to test the strength of the structure. A sheet of aluminium siding was wrenched off with a clang; there was a skittering as a couple of rats fled from their shelter, suddenly exposed.

They made it about halfway across the yard before they were grabbed and smothered and buried by the eager roots.

‘Good job you didn’t let us spend the night out.’ I squeezed Hal’s hand. ‘When did it start?’

‘Don’t know – we could only see it about an hour ago, when the sky cleared.’

We watched for another couple of hours, until the sky began to pale with the approach of dawn.

As the light grew, the roots stopped moving. As the first touches of sun hit the high clouds, they withdrew completely, vanishing swiftly beneath the churned earth. There was no sign of the rats.

Thom woke, to take over Hal’s watch for the last hours, and Lugh shook a reluctant Daere awake. I dozed on the sofa for about an hour, before hunting out the coffee and starting to construct breakfast.

‘You’d do better to keep watch, while I do that.’ Thom observed wryly, as I spilled baked beans on the table.

I submitted gladly.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Everything looked almost normal as we set off again, heading down the road to the bridge over the Teigl. Dark forests crowded either side of the tarmac strip for about a mile, quiescent in the chill sunlight. One or two cars rusted away on the roadside, deserted for months. The earth beside the road was churned up, as if a rotivator had been over it. Here and there, the tarmac was beginning to ripple and crumble, as if the roots were pushing up from beneath.

No sound of birds, or insects.

At the bridge, we dropped off the road onto the riverside path, keeping to the north side.

‘Don’t want to end up on the wrong side of the estuary. Too much mud and sand.’ Lugh read the map over my shoulder.

Trees lined both banks, old and gnarled, their roots dipping into the brown water. I eyed them with some suspicion, but they stayed where they were. Beyond the narrow tree margin, open fields stretched back to more woodland, the ground brown and wet, with mud that sucked at our feet. No farm animals.

I didn’t want to think too much about that.

Another mile, and we were rewarded by the sight of a campsite on the far bank, a few algae-covered caravans and the battered remains of tents that had survived the icestorms of Lankin’s winter. End-of-season adventurers making the most of the tail of last summer, their tents now reduced to shredded flapping nylon and skeletal carbon-fibre or fibreglass poles.

I wasn’t looking for camping gear, however. What I was after was, I hoped, a little more hardy than tents.

‘Fancy paddling across, folks?’

A narrow, gently-sloping beach faced us across the river, just below a shallow stretch. We walked across, the stream bed covered in cobbles the size of my head, the icy water no more than calf-deep, and climbed up the bank to the field beyond. I scanned the site for the telltale shape I hoped for.

‘Yes!’

Stick a campsite beside a river in Wales, and you’re likely to get canoeists. Between the caravans and the main car-park, I could see the familiar shapes of canoe trailers, their brightly coloured cargo still strapped in place. All I hoped now was that there were at least a couple intact.

 

While I inspected our finds, the boys brewed up. Again, never miss an opportunity to keep up morale.

Most of the canoes were kayaks, single-seaters. I was looking for more practical vessels. At the very least, I wanted a couple of two-man canoes.

On the first couple of racks, I found one two-man kayak; I hauled it off the trailer onto the grass, found the paddles. Reminded myself that whatever I found would need to be carried at various points downriver. A one-seat slalom boat on the last rack. Well, I thought, at least three of us could canoe down, and two would just have to go native and trust to their animal nature. It wasn’t ideal. I knew Hal wasn’t that fond of freshwater.

Bending down to grasp the rope loop attached to the front of the kayak, I noticed another canoe under the last of the caravans. I hauled the kayak out, and went to investigate.

Just what I’d been hoping for. A Canadian canoe, with plenty of room for our gear. I grabbed the rope tied to the prow and hauled, praying there were no holes in the hull.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Close checks of both my chosen vessels seemed to show no problems.

‘Hal! Give me a hand here, please?’

‘What have you found?’

‘The easy way back to the ship. If they float – can you take the end?’

‘Wouldn’t it be quicker overland?’

‘Maybe to start with, but as far as I can see from the map, the estuary gets very complicated, and this is the simplest way to head straight for the ship.’

‘Hmm. Makes sense. And I can help navigate later on.’

We took the kayak down to the water, and set it afloat. Hal sat astride it, and it stayed floating.

‘Good enough,’ he grinned, and we hauled it back ashore, and went to fetch the open canoe.

This proved equally river-worthy; we beached it carefully, and went to join the others.

‘For once, luck seems to be on our side!’ I flopped down beside Lugh and gratefully accepted a mug of coffee. ‘Anyone canoed before?’

‘I can handle a boat.’ Lugh offered.

Thom shrugged, ‘Not exactly my field of expertise.’

‘Are you including me in this?’ Daere’s voice was a little waspish.

‘I was thinking you might do better in one of your own forms.’

‘Really? And what about the selkie?’

‘I’m happy for him to do whatever he feels happiest doing. Hal?’

‘I’d prefer to be my selkie self, as far as I can, but I know there are shallows from the map. I’d rather be human for those. That way I can help carry stuff. As soon as we get to the estuary, I’m over the side!’

‘So, Daere, what would you prefer?’ I watched her face change, as she grasped the idea that she actually had the choice.

‘I’ll be otter, if I may.’

‘Sounds a good idea. So… Lugh and Thom in the kayak, me and all our stuff in the canoe, plus Hal where needed – and everyone helps where we have to portage. Okay with that?’

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

We set off down the river, and for the most, saw little of the kelpie, who had loped off ahead.

As I’d thought, the river ran deep and strong, and we made good time. It wound around between the hills, under bridges where there were settlements, where we had to navigate derelict shopping trolleys and an old car chassis, and through open country, occasionally hitting riffles and rocks, forcing us to carry our gear over the shallows. The sunlight was almost warm on my shoulders, and the rhythm of the paddling was soothing. We checked, deep-dipped paddles to switch direction, navigated channels and – one time – a small weir. Occasionally we shot small rapids. I could see the white of Thom’s knuckles as he clung to his paddle. The river, dark and sparkling, carried us onwards, winding between farmland and the deep, unsettling green of spruce forests. Slowly, it widened, and sandbanks started to show beneath the tea-coloured water. Low to the surface, we couldn’t see far ahead of us, and we grounded a few times, looking for the channel. The fourth time Hal pushed the canoe off the sand, he’d had enough.

‘If the damn kelpie won’t help, at least I can.’

He wrapped the sealskin around him, plunged underwater. Several seconds later, I saw the rounded seal-head surface off the prow, and dive again.

I wondered where Daere was. I hadn’t seen her otter-form for a while; she loped easily over the shallows which slowed us up, and didn’t seem inclined to wait for us to get across.

 

Hal barked from the channel ahead, and we followed, paddling carefully through the sandbanks. I couldn’t see my friends’ faces, wondered how they were getting on, stepped up my stroke rate to draw level while I could.

‘Okay, guys?’

Lugh grinned, and kept on paddling. In the front seat, Thom grimaced, half-smile, half-pained, and tried to keep pace with the stroke rate.

‘I’ll be happy never to do this again, Malin. I’m sitting in two inches of water, I feel like I’ve been thrown from here to wherever…and it’s making me feel sick.’

I checked the map.

‘You’ll be fine, Thom. The harbour should be at the head of the next inlet, round past those trees over there.’

‘Aye, and that’s a great relief. But Malin – we’ve not passed anyone from the crew – and shouldn’t they be somewhere, cutting timber?’

He had a point. I wondered how far the infernal roots had spread – had they got hold of Sulian’s men?

It wasn’t a happy thought.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

 

forty-five

 

 

 

 

We paddled across the estuary, through little waves, the afternoon sun bright but chill. It was a tricky navigation, winding between sandbanks, and on a rising tide it became harder work, but Hal led us through the obstacles. To our right, an odd-looking settlement glinted in the sunlight, ornamented towers and gabled rooftops spilling higgledy-piggledy down to the water’s edge.

‘What in earth is that?’ Thom shaded his eyes, trying to make it out.

‘Portmeirion. I can’t even begin to describe it!’ I called back, squinting to see if I could locate the ‘Sky Dancer’ in the distance.

As we rounded the headland below Portmeirion, and swung towards the Porthmadog shore, the outlines of small yachts bobbing at their moorings grew clear. I still couldn’t see the ship.

She’d be bigger than the usual trade, and I wondered if Sulian had managed to get her up to the dock. Or if the shifting sands had prevented him coming up the estuary.

‘See anything?’ I said, when Hal popped his head up.

He barked…it seemed a negative, but I’m not good in Seal, so I shrugged and indicated I didn’t get it.

He huffed again, and dived.

I waited, and in the meantime scanned the boats I could see. Something big at the southern end of the dock - could be the ship, but there were any number of boats nodding at anchor in the channel. I wondered what was going on.

Hal surfaced again, and barked at me.

‘Okay, Skippy, is it there? One for yes, twice for no.’

He barked again.

‘That’s a relief.’

Bark. Did I detect a sarcastic tone?

‘Go on ahead, we’ll need help to get the canoes aboard. Will you let him know?’

Bark.

O…kay. Good enough, I figured. And nobody down the well, yet.

I smacked myself around the head, mentally, and dug in with the paddle.

 

As we got nearer, I saw, with no small measure of relief, that it was the ‘Sky Dancer’. The ship’s boat bobbed alongside, and I could see sailors working to swing the davit across.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Sulian leaned over the rail as we drew alongside.

‘If you go about fifty feet that way, there’s a slipway. The lads’ll meet you there.’

I waved, and we paddled the last stretch. Hal, human again, caught the prow of the canoe and steadied it as I climbed out, my legs suddenly a little wobbly after being sat for so long. Lugh drove the front of the kayak up the slipway, and between us, we extracted Thom from the front seat. I thought for a moment he was about to kneel and kiss the ground, but he only rested his hands on his knees, before straightening up and plucking at his sodden trousers.

‘Not a form of transport I will choose again in a hurry.’

I wished I’d at least managed to find him a spraydeck.

The crew picked up the canoes, and carried them up to the ship. The boarding ramp was down, and we walked back aboard, to meet Sulian at the head of the ramp.

‘You were quick! We only dropped you off the day before yesterday!’

‘Is that all? It feels like much longer.’ So my watch was right after all. ‘Have you started looking for your spar yet?’

‘Not yet – we had a few problems getting in here – had to wait for the top of the tide and we still nearly grounded.’

‘There may be a few issues. Let’s get the gear sorted and I’ll explain.’

There was a whinny from the quayside.

‘That’ll be the lads bringing the horses back from their exercise run.’

‘No problems with the locals?’

‘No sign of anyone, anywhere.’

I looked at the quayside. A wide hardstanding, laid-up yachts, cars. Beyond that, the road, and beyond that, it looked like houses and gardens. There were trees, but they weren’t near. I found that reassuring.

Muireach led my mare up the ramp, and I went to greet them. Looking down the length of the ramp, I noticed we had one extra horse, a lanky black mare. She laid her ears back when she saw me.

‘Where did you find that one?’

‘She just joined us over by the bay.’ The helmsman shrugged. ‘First living thing we’ve seen, apart from seabirds.’

‘Hmm. Okay, Daere, you can stop fooling about.’

The mare stalked off behind a yacht on a trailer, and emerged in her human form.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in



Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  

×
×
  • Create New...