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2005 Moonridge story; Calic0cat
Note: This is an AU set a considerable time in the future. Rapidly rising sea levels have altered the coastline during that period, drowning or half drowning coastal towns and creating islands where none exist today. Civilisation has collapsed. A Government anxious to maintain power by finding a scapegoat looked to minority groups to blame for their problems...
The boat was just small enough for one man to handle.
Sometimes, especially when the weather was inclement and the wind too strong, Jim wished that it was a little smaller, but at the same time he recognised that smaller would have been too small, for as well as being his home, it was his world.
And at least his father had been generous - more generous than he needed to be, when Jim's re-emerging senses finally branded him a sentinel. William had - Jim had come to realize - tried to protect his son by forcing Jim-the-boy to hide his abilities when they first appeared, and when, years later, they had reappeared and an unwary word had betrayed Jim-the-man, letting an unfriend identify him as a sentinel, he had at least been an adult with 'army' experiences that gave him some survival skills. In addition, William had had the indelible identifying 'S' the law demanded be put on Jim's forehead tattooed on. The tattooist had initially been unwilling to approach a sentinel, and had suggested that the mark be branded on, as many families did and as the authorities always did when a family could not be traced, because branding was fast and cheap. Not long after being banished, Jim had encountered one such unfortunate, the 'S' still raw and weeping, the young woman unable to resist clawing at the itch every time it began to heal, and he could only be thankful that William had been willing to pay the exorbitant amount the tattooist had demanded before he would agree to do the job. He would have offered to let her share his boat - hers, while better than some, was too small to be a comfortable home - but something about her, fellow sentinel though she was, made him uneasy, and he had been glad when her boat had proved to be too slow to keep up with Panther.
It was the only time he had met another sentinel, although he had once or twice come across the wreckage of a small boat that had clearly never been meant for use at sea, and suspected that these had been sentinels' boats.
For the law's other demand was that the sentinel had to live away from normal people, somewhere he would be unable to spy on their private lives - either deliberately or accidentally. The sentinel's family was therefore expected to provide him - or her - with a boat, so that he could live at sea.
Jim had a strong suspicion that such a law had been suggested, passed and enforced by people whose private lives did not bear close inspection.
And that was the second part of William's generosity. Saying something about giving him the best chance he could, he had provided Jim with a well-stocked, seaworthy boat, rather than the tiny inland water craft that was all some sentinels' families could afford, and all that the authorities were willing to provide when they had to take the responsibility of providing one. Such vessels were tantamount to a death penalty, for there was on them little or no shelter from the elements, no room to store more than a day or two's stock of even the most basic necessities; even if such a boat did not capsize in the first gale of winter, the constant exposure to cold and wet inevitably killed their young occupants within a very short time.
Their only hope was to find one of the mythical guides who, according to whispered legend, could suppress a sentinel's senses and make them normal. They would be dependant on the guide's good nature and generosity for the rest of their lives, but at least they would be allowed to live on land somewhere. Even for the fortunates like Jim, whose families could afford to buy a reasonably-sized boat and were willing to do so, a guide would make life much simpler, and undoubtedly more pleasant.
But on the evening before Jim left his family home permanently, William finally admitted to his son that for twenty years and more he had tried to find a guide - ever since he first suspected that Jim had enhanced senses - and he had failed to find one. Of course, how would such people know they were guides? There was nothing to identify them except that one legendary ability, and in the absence of a sentinel, how would it ever manifest itself?
But even the best-stocked boat eventually runs low on certain things, and - with varying degrees of success - in the months since his legal ostracisation, Jim had several times been forced to approach one of the small harbors that were home to the fishing boats that provided most of the protein for the inhabitants of the coastal strip. His last gift from his father had been enough money to continue stocking his boat for many, many years... if he could find anyone willing to trade with him.
He had travelled south for - he estimated - some eight hundred miles before turning back north, heading south again just before he reached his starting point; then north again after eight hundred miles, and as he headed south once more he knew that he could no longer return northwards. It was being made clear to him that he had outworn the patience of most of the few settlements that had provided him with supplies. So this time, instead of turning back, he had carried on southwards, into completely unknown territory.
Now he was approaching a small harbor, situated in a small and unexpected cove in a shoreline that was a hostile, almost-sheer cliff, and from which probably only one fishing boat operated. As Jim's boat neared the pier, a man began to walk forward, preparatory to catching the mooring rope of the incoming vessel; his face, while not welcoming, was not unfriendly.
Jim knew the moment the man saw the tattoo. His face took on an ungracious scowl.
"Get back out to sea. There's nothing here for the likes of you."
Jim had learned months previously that pride was a commodity he could not afford. "I seek to land only long enough to reprovision at your store," he said, allowing a note of pleading to enter his voice. "I don't even need to leave the pier, if someone could bring - "
"We have no store. The nearest is thirty miles inland," the man said flatly, cutting him off, and Jim knew he lied. There was, however, no point in persisting; the man had the law on his side, and if Jim tried to insist, he might indeed be permitted to land - and become the target for a bullet. A well-aimed one would certainly end a life that held no hope, but could he depend on that? The short answer was no. He was more likely to be deliberately wounded then, denied even the most basic of medical care, driven away to recover if he was strong enough, or, more probably, die a lingering and painful death from septicaemia. And while a quick death would be welcome, a lingering one would be more than unpleasant, and was not to be courted.
He turned away. Starting Panther's engine, he reversed, swung around and retreated. When he was some two hundred yards from shore, he stopped the engine and quickly hoisted the sail. His supply of fuel was getting worryingly low; he dared not use a drop more than necessary, for although the sail provided power enough most of the time, there were occasions when the additional power of the engine was vital if the boat was not to founder in a rough sea.
From the pier, the scowling man watched him go. The little community could certainly have used the money the unexpected sale would have given it; but he would take nothing from a sentinel, a witch who might suck the soul from someone even as he listened to that person's secret thoughts. He spat to right and left to banish evil, and continued to watch as the boat disappeared around the headland. Only then, knowing that there was nowhere for the witch to land for many miles, did he relax and return to his hut.
Jim cast a despairing eye at the cliffs as he passed. As well as food and fuel, he needed to replenish his water, but these steep hillsides were dry, with no streams tumbling down them where he might stop for long enough to fill his water tank. The little settlement was built at the only place where there was a small, steep valley, the first place he had seen for several days where a river ran from the inland plateau to the sea. Indeed, that was why he had twice turned north again on reaching this stretch of coast; the shore was too hostile, and he had no idea how far he would have to go before finding a friendlier, uninhabited spot where he could get water and, perhaps, some fresh food other than fish - he had occasionally stopped at uninhabited bays or islands where rabbits lived, and they made a welcome addition of fresh meat to his diet.
Some hours passed before he saw another break in the almost-sheer conglomerate of the cliff. A tiny stream had cut its way into the ground, deepening its bed over god only knew how long, and was now flowing down a steep slope to a rocky beach that closer inspection showed him bordered a small sheltered inlet that was not immediately visible from the open sea, an inlet that the crew of the local fishing boat had probably never noticed. Indeed, they had probably never noticed the stream, as small as it was. It was even possible they had never come this far from home. He sailed in as close as he dared, then, finding the water deeper than he had expected, went fully into the inlet and dropped anchor; furled the sail, swung out his little dinghy, and taking two gallon-capacity containers he rowed the few yards to shore. He sniffed the water of the stream carefully, then tasted it. Satisfied that it was not contaminated in any way, he placed one container under a tiny waterfall. While it was filling, he glanced around, checking the bay. Movement caught his eye - a rabbit!
When the first container was full, he placed the second one so that it would fill, and took the first back to his boat. He tipped it into the tank with a sigh of relief - it would take many more trips to fill the tank, but at least he had made a start. He paused long enough to retrieve half a dozen snares, then returned to land.
The second container was full, and he put the empty one in its place, then stopped to set a snare before taking the water back to his boat.
Several trips later, with all his snares set, he began to check the rocks at the water's edge to see if the outgoing tide was revealing anything he could use for food. Some mussels, perhaps? But all he found were limpets. While he could eat them if he had to, he knew a better use for them. He knocked a few small ones from their hold on the rock and took them back to the boat with the next container of water.
He delayed long enough to bait a four-hooked fishing line and drop it over the side, leaving the remaining limpets in a bucket of sea water, then returned to ferrying water, taking a few minutes between each trip to check out the lower hillside for edible plants, and finding more than he would have expected. Of course - he glanced upwards - this place was barely reachable; where a friendlier shore would be harvested by the people living up to half a day's journey away, this one probably did not produce enough to be worth exploiting. It was too far from the settlement he had just been driven from for them to know it was there, though there might be another village relatively close in the other direction, or even inland. For one person, however, it would provide a bountiful supply of green food.
And all the time he continued to listen carefully, but heard nothing. There was nobody to tell him to move on, that he wasn't wanted there.
It was nearly dark before the water tank was full. By that time his snares had trapped four unwary rabbits, as many as he could use before the meat began to spoil. He retrieved the remaining two snares and returned to his boat, quietly satisfied with his evening's harvest even before he checked his fishing line. He had hooked three reasonably-sized fish - fairly small compared to some he had caught, but enough for three meals - and he looped the line over the rail to dry. They were larger fish than he would have expected in this small inlet - the feeding here must be good, he decided.
Jim skinned the rabbits quickly and skilfully, but then, in the middle of gutting them and the fish, he paused, struck by a sudden idea. The inlet was hidden from the open sea. Once he had finished cleaning them, he put three of the rabbits into his larder, collected a blanket, took the fourth rabbit, the fish and the plants he had collected, and two cooking pots, a knife, fork and mug, and returned to the land.
The dim light of late dusk was no handicap to him; he easily found a corner where a fire would burn safely. He quickly gathered some of the driftwood that lay along the high tide mark, and built a fire, filled the pot with water, adding a very little sea water for the salt, put in the jointed rabbit, and as it heated chopped the plants into it, and left it to stew. A little ingenuity allowed him to fasten a cord, attached to two fairly long pieces of driftwood, above the fire, and he hung the fish there to smoke. A few hours wouldn't be long enough to preserve them properly, but would add a day or two to the time he could keep them before they spoiled.
He wrapped himself in the blanket and leaned back against a convenient rock, looking up at the sky. Although he allowed his thoughts to wander, there was part of his mind still alert to his surroundings, registering that there was no living thing near him except rabbits, some birds, and what he thought were probably mice. A falling star shot from the zenith to disappear over the top of the cliff opposite him, and he found himself making a wish, as he had done as a child. He smiled a little ruefully, remembering the last time he had wished for something, perhaps a week after his mother's funeral; recognising now the sheer futility of his desperate six-year-old wish that his mother would come home. He had never wished upon a star since then, no longer believing in the power of anything to make wishes come true. So why make a wish now? Stupid, stupid...
Leaning forward again, he stirred the contents of the pot, sniffing appreciatively. He tested the meat with the fork... nearly ready.
He put some more wood on the fire, and the smoke swirled up around the fish. He dipped his mug into the soup and leaned back again, sipping slowly, savoring it, then when it was finished, used the spoon to retrieve a piece of rabbit from the pot.
He ate the whole animal, shredding the last bits of meat from the ribs and backbone back into the soup before throwing the bones away. He put the pot to one side, then continued to sit by the fire, keeping it smoking steadily, till the moon made an appearance over the top of the cliff above him and he knew that it would be dawn in perhaps three hours.
Not the most sentinelphobic of 'normals' would deny his right to anchor for the night, even if they didn't want him anchored anywhere near them; but it was not a good idea for him to sleep on shore - not when the law said sentinels must live on their boats. He gathered together his things, placing them carefully in the dinghy, and used the second pot to scoop up seawater to put the fire out. Then he rowed back to Panther. He put the fish and the pot of soup in the larder, and settled down for the rest of the night.
He slept well, waking when it was full light. Although Panther was anchored in the shadow of the cliffs, it was quite warm. Concentrating almost to the point of greying out, he could still hear nothing that spoke of other people, so he stripped and jumped into the sea. He swam around Panther several times before climbing up the rope ladder to the deck, towelled himself dry and dressed, thinking that this would be a good place to wash his dirty clothes. He checked again, automatically; still nobody within reach of his senses. He gathered the clothes that needed washed and climbed down into his dinghy, then rowed back to shore.
Cold seawater was not his first choice of washing medium, but it was all he had, all he had had for many months - fuel and fresh water were both too valuable to use for something as mundane as washing. Here, however, he did have the luxury of fresh water in which to rinse his clothes. Then he returned to Panther, and hung them over the rails, spread them over the deck, and left them to dry.
There was still no sign of anyone, and he decided to stay there for another night.
In the end, he stayed in the little bay for several days. The evening before he left, he trapped three more rabbits and cooked them, and gathered as many edible plants as he could find - not that there were many left after the way he had been harvesting them - then he sailed on down the coast, hoping that the next small settlement he approached would be willing to sell him some fuel, at least.
The shoreline was completely hostile again, however, sheer cliffs dropping down into the sea with no friendly bays where he might stop, and for three days he sailed on, anchoring at night too close to the cliffs for his peace of mind; although the wind was still fairly light, he could feel that the weather was changing and he feared a sudden gale that might crash Panther against the cliff, but he had no choice. He could not remain awake indefinitely, and he had to go close in to find water shallow enough for his anchor to reach bottom.
It was with considerable relief that he realized, on the fourth day, that the cliffs were gradually getting lower and their slopes less sheer. There was even a narrow strip of rock-strewn shore between their base and the sea, a strip that slowly grew wider. At least now when the threatening storm blew up, he had a reasonable chance of riding it out.
Late that afternoon, with the sky clouded over and the sea getting increasingly rough, he saw a small island ahead of him, the channel between it and the mainland several hundred yards wide. Focusing on it, he decided the island was perhaps half a mile across, and rose to some two hundred feet. It looked reasonably fertile, and he hoped it was uninhabited; there was still no sign of another settlement on the landward side, and if there was none on the island, he could anchor in its shelter until the storm passed, and perhaps gather more perishable food on it.
As he reached it, Panther sliding into the calmer water in its lee, he knew that he would be unlucky. There was a small cruiser tied to a wooden pier in a tiny, steep-sided inlet that had almost the look of a harbor that had been constructed, rather than being purely natural; and then, two hundred yards or so from the shore, he saw a surprisingly large building tucked under the shelter of the hill, most of its windows shuttered.
Striking his sail, he allowed Panther to drift towards the pier, waiting to see what his welcome might be.
For a moment, he was unsure whether it was a man or a woman who left the building; the long hair, worn loose, hid enough of the person's face to make it uncertain. Then he caught a glimpse of a chin rather darker than the cheeks above it, and knew it was a man who approached, a welcoming grin on his face.
In a gesture of near defiance, Jim raised his head so that the 'S' tattooed on his forehead would be clearly seen; and to his amazement, the grin remained, its welcome unaltered, although the man's eyebrows lifted just a little.
"Can you sell me some supplies?" Jim asked. "And may I anchor in the shadow of the island until the sea calms somewhat?"
"I'm sorry - I'm not a trader. I get my supplies from a settlement a few miles down the coast. But you can certainly stay here while the storm lasts, and when the weather improves, I could go and buy supplies for you - the people there would probably sell to a sentinel, but there are never any guarantees."
"That's... very kind of you," Jim said.
The man moved his hands in a 'so what?' gesture. "Just common humanity, man. Plus... I'm a student of human nature. I've been studying society's attitude towards sentinels and how it's changed over the last hundred years or so, and I don't like what I'm seeing. Now, as for anchoring - why don't you come right in and tie up?" He beckoned Jim closer. "And I'm sure you'd like the chance to stretch your legs, maybe sleep for a night or two in a bed that isn't swaying? I've got room to spare, and I'd be glad of the company. It can get lonely here."
"Why do you live here, then, rather than at the settlement?" Jim asked before he could stop himself. "Sorry - I have no right to ask."
But the man was clearly not offended by the question, and held up his hands to catch the rope Jim threw to him. He pulled Panther's bows in to the pier and fastened the rope, then took the stern rope and fastened it, too, before saying quietly, "I live here because it's my family home. This island has belonged to my family for six generations, but I'm the last one. My forebears are buried here, as are my wife and son. I've arranged for someone from the settlement to come and check up on me if they don't see or hear from me for several weeks, and bury me if I've died. After that..." He shrugged. "After that, the island will be up for grabs - if anyone wants to move to it. Somehow I don't think anyone will. Even the fishermen prefer their homes to be on the mainland... and in another generation, there may not be any fishing boats working out of any of the villages anyway - there seem to be fewer boats being built these days, and the settlements might find it impossible to replace one that's no longer seaworthy." He seemed to shake off his brief melancholy, and grinned again. "Pick up what you need for a week and come ashore, man."
Jim hesitated. "The law says... " he began.
The man made a short sound that might have been the beginning of an unamused laugh. "Who's to tell the authorities? Besides, nobody tells me what to do on my own island. Nobody tells me I can't invite someone to spend a few nights here."
"You're not afraid of having the big, bad sentinel so close?" Jim asked. He could feel a tightness in his throat that spoke of tears threatening, and forced them back. Strange, he thought, that kindness might break me where insults and scorn can't.
"Historically, a sentinel was a protector, guardian of his community. I can't believe that instinct has disappeared just because the law is an ass." The man sighed. "I don't deny that a sentinel might be driven insane by the way he's treated by society today, but that wouldn't automatically make him dangerous. It's more likely to make him shrink away in fear of what might happen to him."
Jim looked at him for a moment before deciding to take the chance that was being offered. He had been alone and desperately lonely for months, and the thought of a few days' companionship was irresistible. Quickly gathering up some clean clothes and his washing things, he pushed them into a bag, fastened the cabin door and jumped ashore, still half alert for a sudden change of attitude - on one occasion he had been told he could buy provisions, then when he landed he had been set on and beaten up, although the man who originally told him he could land hadn't been one of the attackers. But that was the paranoia of habit; instinct told him that this man could be trusted.
"The name's Blair," his host was saying.
Blair cast his eyes over Panther. "That's a nice boat you've got. Not many sentinels are as lucky." He glanced questioningly at Jim. "Or live as long."
"My senses only developed a few months ago," Jim said. "And my father... He was as generous as he could be. More generous than he needed to be. I think... From something he said, I think he'd maybe had a brother he loved who was a sentinel, and his father had given as little as he could, wanting his family's shame to die as quickly as possible."
"That seems to be a common reaction nowadays," Blair said as he started walking towards the house. "You know, from everything I've read and heard, it's rare for the senses to develop late. Most sentinels seem to develop the senses when they hit puberty, or maybe just a little before, even if they manage to hide what they are for a while. And the current legislation victimising them is killing most of them off young - which is undoubtedly what the authorities want. Legalised genocide. Though if sentinels do run in families, the genes won't die out altogether, just become completely recessive... maybe." He sighed again. "There was a time when sentinels were valued members of society, you know. Not something to be ashamed of."
"Valued?" It was a concept entirely new to Jim.
"Oh, yes. For hunter-gatherer tribes, having someone who could see the animals they hunted from a mile away was a great advantage. Having someone who could smell if a carcase they found was tainted was a life-saver. Having someone who could tell that the weather was changing hours before it did - can you say that's not useful to you?"
Jim nodded. "I've known for nearly four days that there's a bad storm coming," he said. "I've been looking for somewhere to shelter, and regretting leaving the last sheltered anchorage I found - a nice little natural harbor - but I'd already been there nearly a week, and it's not a good idea for my kind to stay too long in one place, even when it seems safe enough. Though the best I hoped for, when I saw your island, was that I could anchor in its lee."
Blair stopped. "Four days?" he whispered. "I've been aware of it for a few hours, from reading the clouds and the waves, but... four days?" He shook his head as he resumed walking. "Someone who could warn the fishermen of that would be of so much value to these small settlements - but you couldn't persuade most of them that a sentinel is anything other than bad news. It's not the law that makes so many of them refuse to sell to you, you know. They think you bring bad luck." Reaching his house, he opened the door. "Come in and be welcome."
He led Jim up a flight of stairs and along a short corridor, opened a door then, apparently finding his way in the dark room with the ease of experience, went to the window and unfastened the shutters, saying, "I keep the unused rooms shuttered. Pure habit - my mother did it, so I do too." He closed the actual window, turned back and indicated a second door. "Bathroom. This house was built in the days when the rich took it for granted that each bedroom would have its own bathroom attached, and there's plenty of water now. It comes from a spring, and although water could run low when the house was full, back in my great-great-grandfather's time, with just me here - and now you as well - the supply is more than adequate. There's sheets and a comforter in this chest - do you want to make the bed up now, or later?"
"If I do it now, it's done," Jim said, thinking how comfortable the bed looked.
"Okay." Blair retrieved two sheets from the chest. They made up the bed between them, then Blair shook out the comforter and laid it over the top sheet. He smiled cheerfully as he pulled a large, fluffy towel from the chest, and handed it to Jim. "I'll leave you to freshen up. I'll be in the kitchen, when you're ready."
Jim looked at the closed door for some moments after Blair left, listening to the retreating footsteps, unable to believe his luck. Panther was comfortable enough, albeit just a little cramped for someone his height, but this... this was luxury such as he hadn't known even as a child living in the house of a wealthy father. He stripped and headed for the shower.
Hot, fresh water. He had almost forgotten how good it felt.
Good manners drove him from the shower sooner than he would have liked, but a grateful guest did not take advantage of his host's generosity. He towelled himself dry, shaved, put on clean clothes and - feeling cleaner than he had done for months - went in search of Blair.
He found the man in a well-appointed kitchen, checking the contents of an oven at the side of a stove that his nose told him was burning wood. The succulent smell of roasting meat was coming from it. Not rabbit, he decided. Steam rose from several pots sitting on the top of the stove. There was a big basket of logs of varying sizes at the side of the stove, and Jim decided that before he left he would gather and chop up some driftwood in payment for Blair's hospitality. The storm would certainly provide a fair amount of it. There was a soft, steady and surprisingly comforting ticking sound that drew his attention to a clock, an obvious antique, sitting on a sideboard.
Blair glanced around. "About half an hour," he said cheerfully.
"Can I do anything to help?" Jim asked.
Blair chuckled. "You can wash up afterwards." He glanced out of the window. "I think you reached here just in time; it started raining a few minutes ago."
Now that Blair mentioned it, Jim realized he could hear the rain, though it wasn't lashing against the windows the way he would have expected, and he said so.
"You have no idea how sheltered we are," Blair said. "It doesn't matter what direction the wind is from, the house is almost completely sheltered. The east side is the only one that's at all exposed, and we don't get many winds from the east. The pier is almost as safe - my great-grandfather had the harbor dug out after his boat dragged her anchor one wild night and ended up beached half a mile down the coast."
Jim found himself edging towards the heat of the stove; it was the first time he had felt comfortably warm since being forced into a seafaring life. Even on sunny days he found the inevitable sea wind chilly. Blair noticed, and gestured to a comfortable-looking armchair. "Have a seat. I tend to make this my living room - it saves heating another room when this one is warm anyway."
"That's your chair," Jim half protested.
Blair shrugged. "So? I live on my own, I only need one chair; but there's another one exactly the same in the 'proper' living room. It'll take me all of two minutes to fetch it." He was already half-way to the door.
Recognising that it would be ungracious to say anything more, Jim subsided, and when Blair came back with the second chair, he found Jim sitting, very obviously enjoying the warmth from the stove.
As Blair put the chair down beside Jim and settled into it, the sentinel asked, "Why do you say people think we bring bad luck?"
Blair shrugged. "Like I said, I study people. In another time..." He trailed off, then resumed with an apparent change of subject. "How much do you know about reasonably modern history?"
"Only what we learned in school."
"And school history covers only superficially the collapse of 'civilisation' around a century ago when the economic world went bankrupt and what had been pretty well a global culture collapsed. School history completely ignores the details of why that happened."
Jim nodded. "Our teachers never seemed able to give us any reasons."
"There appears to have been a conspiracy of silence about it, with a lot of the records destroyed at the time, because the people who had been at the top wanted to stay there, and were afraid of what might happen if the general population discovered the truth. I only know because my great-grandmother kept a detailed diary and a scrapbook of cuttings from what she called 'newspapers', which as far as I can make out were semi-official documents that informed everyone of what was happening in the world; and her private record survived when official records and reports... disappeared.
"Basically, things went to hell because of greed. Big Business getting bigger and bigger, buying out small firms, too many eggs in too few baskets, and when a particularly nasty computer virus hit - "
"Computer virus?" Jim asked.
"A computer was... oh, a combined typewriter and storage-of-data machine. There was a world-wide computer link, and Business pretty well depended on it; and apparently there were some people who thought it funny or clever to try to make the system fail. They used things called viruses, that - as far as I can make out - made computers malfunction. Whether the guy responsible for it intended it or not, this one apparently caused the system to collapse completely." Blair shook his head. "I don't really know; Great-grandmother Elizabeth used the words, and presumably knew exactly what they meant, but I've had to work out what she was talking about from context and dictionary definitions of a lot of the words.
"Anyway, there was still plenty of wealth around, but only in the hands of those who had the foresight to actually go to the banks and withdrew as much money as they could, which I gather my great-grandfather did - and since your family could afford a boat like Panther, yours did, too. Of course that speeded up the economic collapse. Wealth that existed on paper - and a lot of wealth did exist only on paper - vanished overnight, and for a lot of people, there was unemployment and poverty. People couldn't pay for medical care, and in any case the medicines the doctors needed had run out and the links for ordering more had disappeared; the death rate rose alarmingly."
"In conditions like that, the ones who died might have been the lucky ones," Jim commented soberly.
"Trade, too," Blair went on. "Countries that had been dependant on trade either found they had no market for their goods, or had no means of buying the goods they needed. Internally, barter gained respectability again, though a completely fair and viable barter rate still hasn't been worked out - probably because there's still enough money around for people not to depend on barter except inside each settlement. The one I use for my supplies... I'm known there, my family was known, and I'm on friendly terms with the headman and most of the people there, but even so, I'm not considered a true 'local', and anything I want, I have to use money. I've got nothing I can use to barter with them." He fell silent for a moment, then added, "The current system won't last much longer, you know. These small settlements must use money to buy their supplies from the larger ones, the ones that have resources they can exploit; but because they depend to some extent on internal barter, they have no way of getting more money except by selling to outsiders, and there aren't many of those around. Once a small town exhausts its supply of money... "
"All right - so if they need the money, why are so few settlements willing to sell to me?" Jim asked.
"Because for a long time, leaders have realized that having a common enemy unites the people of their countries behind them. Sometimes it was a minority population, usually with some kind of ideological difference, sometimes it was another country - again with an ideological difference - that was presented as a danger to 'our' country, 'our' way of life.
"Sentinels had been rare before the collapse; they suddenly became more common after it, possibly because society, in the form of small communities living a hand to mouth existence, needed them. They were a gift to leaders wanting a scapegoat to blame for what had gone wrong; people with heightened senses, who could spy on others, see and hear at a distance...
"So the authorities of the time spread the rumor that a sentinel could hear people's thoughts, that sentinels were trying to take over and enslave everyone who wasn't a sentinel. Sentinels had to be marked so that they would be recognised, and people know to avoid them.
"Within a generation, public demand for 'protection' made it easy for the authorities to pass the law banishing them. The people in these small settlements aren't bad, aren't at heart unkind, but they may never have produced a sentinel, so they've never known one personally - and they've had at least three generations of being told that sentinels are bad news.
"Those who will sell to you... It's not that they don't believe you're a witch, it's not that they doubt what they've heard over the years, it's that they want, sometimes desperately need, your money and, more importantly, they want rid of you, and making sure you have supplies to take you away from them is, in their eyes, the fastest way to do that."
"And you?" Jim asked.
"Me?" Blair's lips twisted slightly. "It's not kindness, though I hope I'd have the humanity to help anyone in your situation. It's not lack of superstition, though I'm not particularly superstitious. I have knowledge that probably nobody else alive today - at least in this country - does - including the authorities. After three, four generations, I suspect that even the authorities now believe their own lies. But I know what sentinels were. I know what they're born to be. And some hundred-year-old lies aren't going to make me distrust you, man."
"What about guides?" Jim asked.
"Guides?" Blair asked.
"Where I come from, it's said that a guide can control a sentinel's senses, suppress them, so that he can live as a normal person."
"I think I do know what you're talking about," Blair said after a moment's thought. "But I don't think it works that way. One of the old books here talks about sentinels in tribal communities, and speaks of each sentinel having a companion who did help him with control - for example, have you ever found yourself losing time? greying out, and becoming aware of your surroundings maybe hours later?"
"It's happened occasionally," Jim admitted. "I've had to learn to be careful."
"According to Burton - an explorer from around three hundred years ago, who wrote the book I've got - it happens if a sentinel concentrates too much on just one sense. The companion's job was to keep the sentinel grounded, keep him from greying out by encouraging him to use more than one sense. But being able to completely suppress a sentinel's abilities? No. I don't think it's possible."
"Anyway, it's academic," Jim said. "My father told me he tried for years to find a guide, and couldn't."
Blair frowned thoughtfully. "Why would he want to find a guide?" he asked. "Unless he himself was a sentinel, had managed to hide the fact, but believed that if he had a 'guide' it would be easier?"
Jim shook his head. "It was for me. He... he admitted that he'd seen signs, when I was a child, that made him suspect... and he - well, bullied me into forgetting I could see or hear things, so I know it's possible to suppress the ability... but he was always afraid that I'd remember. Which I eventually did.
"I said that even if he'd found one, how did he know I'd be allowed to stay, not be hounded away anyway, and he said there was a little-known footnote in the statute books that said that if a sentinel had a guide, he would be marked, but otherwise allowed to live as normal a life as possible. He thought that perhaps when the laws against sentinels were passed, there had been some powerful enough opposition to it that that 'escape' clause had been included as a sop to persuade everyone to agree to passing the anti-sentinel laws."
"Only there's no way for a sentinel to find a guide," Blair said. "Not when they're banished the moment they're identified as sentinels."
"There's no way for a sentinel to find a guide," Jim said ruefully, "because guides are a myth."
"No," Blair said. "Historically - "
"Blair, how would you identify a guide?" Jim asked.
"I... don't know," Blair said slowly, almost reluctantly.
"Exactly," Jim said. "Since the senses usually develop fully when a sentinel is in his early teens, he's going to realize he has more acute senses than most people, but even if he tries to hide what he is, sooner or later he betrays himself. All it needs is one careless word. But there's nothing except the ability to - well, muffle a sentinel's senses, to let a guide know what he is; and because of the way the law works, a sentinel is never going to meet one. As far as sentinels are concerned - those few who may have heard of them - guides are nothing more than a cruel myth."
Blair thought about that for some moments, and sighed. "Typical bureaucracy. Pass a law that appears to give hope to a persecuted minority, knowing there isn't a chance in hell of anyone ever being able to benefit from it, if only because they also keep quiet about it so virtually nobody knows it exists." He got up and checked the meal. "It's ready. Let's eat."
The meal - chicken, subtly flavored with something unfamiliar to Jim - was very good, and he said so. Blair grinned. "I enjoy cooking," he said, "but when I'm on my own, it doesn't seem worth while going to a lot of bother. This is a treat for me, too; normally I just roast rabbit or chicken, without bothering to add herbs. How well do you manage cooking on your boat? It's big for one man, but there can't be that much space in its galley?"
"Well, when I can get supplies, I settle for what gives best value for its bulk," Jim said. "I'm not fond of oatmeal, but it's nutritious and good value. Pasta, too, flavoured with herbs... when I can get them. Dried meat - soaked in a little water and stewed, it's edible, if a bit... uninteresting. Stewing, boiling, steaming - those are the most practical ways of cooking on the boat. I usually try to do enough to last two days, and have it cold the second day to save fuel - fuel is my biggest worry. I use it to cook with as well as for the engine, and I'm running very low."
"I know what you mean about supplies," Blair agreed. "I go for value for bulk too, in what I buy, but I live off the land a lot of the time - there are rabbits, and a fair number of feral chickens - there are no predators here other than some of the big gulls, and for various reasons it was easier to let my mother's chickens roam free after she died than try to keep them as domestic. I get as many eggs as I can use just by taking a walk round the island occasionally, though I'm noticing they're more seasonal now than they were; I have to be careful to take eggs from new clutches, ones with up to maybe six eggs, where the hen hasn't started sitting - and I catch a young cockerel occasionally for the pot. There are plenty of fish in the sea, and a lot of edible plants."
"I fish when I can," Jim said, "but I can't often get bait."
"Bait? A scrap of cloth or bunch of feathers works wonders."
Jim's jaw dropped. "Cloth? Feathers?"
Blair chuckled. "It's amazing the information you can find in old books. Apparently at one time people always used hooks decorated with feathers when they fished. In some areas it was illegal to use bait."
"And they actually caught fish?"
"I'll show you - after the storm passes."
When he went to bed, Jim lay for a while savoring the comfort, and hugging to himself Blair's implied promise that he could stay for more than just the day or two while the storm still battered the coastline. Although he had always been something of a loner, disliking crowds - and he had come to realize that that was because crowds irritated his senses, even before he knew what he was - Jim had been lonely. He enjoyed being with other people in a one-to-one context. This evening of quiet acceptance, of quiet conversation and discussion, had soothed him and calmed him; he couldn't remember when he had last enjoyed himself quite so much. Blair, too, he suspected, was lonely, and glad of the companionship - for a few days, at least. Well, he'd admitted as much. But Blair was a free agent; he could go to the settlement where he bought his supplies and be accepted, and if he wanted he would be allowed to stay for a day or two - a privilege denied to a sentinel.
Jim determined not to overstay his welcome, knowing that while he stayed he could gather memories to comfort the lonely days that would come again too, too soon. He fell asleep still mulling over some of the things Blair had told him.
A world where sentinels were not only accepted, but valued. Valued. No. Impossible. Sentinels must always have been feared and outcast because they could see and hear things that ordinary people wanted kept secret. But it was a nice dream...
When he awoke, it was half light. It took him a moment to remember where he was. He listened, and could hear no sound of movement. Blair, it seemed, was not an early riser... but then, what need did he have to rise early? Whatever chores filled his days, when the weather was inclement he had no need to venture out of doors. And Jim had no doubt that the weather was still inclement. He could hear the sea crashing against the shore - a more distant sound than usual, to be sure, and once again he thanked a god he didn't believe in for the generous-hearted man who had given him shelter. Without Blair's kindness, he would have been out there, even in the shelter of the island sleeplessly aware of the elements; without the shelter of the island, he would have been fighting all night to keep Panther's nose into the wind, cold and wet and with his senses being battered non-stop by wind and water. A flash of light lit the room briefly, and seconds later came a long rumble of thunder. He shivered involuntarily, and snuggled back under the comforter.
When he woke again, it was to the sound of someone moving around. Just as he sat up, there was a gentle knock on the door. It opened, and Blair came in carrying a steaming mug.
"Ah, you're awake."
Jim smiled. "Awake, after the best sleep I've had for months," he admitted.
"Well, the storm is still battering us," Blair said, "though I've no doubt you know that. I've brought you some coffee."
"Thank you," Jim said as Blair put it on the small bedside table.
"This isn't a wake-up call," Blair added. "Stay in bed as long as you want."
Jim smiled. "I was just thinking about getting up. This is the laziest I've been for a long time."
"Just catching up on your sleep, I'd have said," Blair murmured. "I sometimes go off in my boat for a few days, and I know what it's like; when you're anchored or tied up for the night somewhere, even in what seems to be a flat calm, half of your mind is still on the weather conditions. You don't sleep properly, just doze, prepared to jump up and do whatever is necessary to weather a sudden rough sea. And I only do it from choice, when the weather seems set fair, and with a sheltered harbor to come back to; you have no choice, and no respite."
"I'm not sure," Jim said, "that the youngsters who are given nothing but an unseaworthy craft that will drown them inside a week aren't luckier than someone like me, with relatives rich enough and with enough family feeling to give them a reasonable chance to survive."
"Don't say that, man!" Blair exclaimed. "Everyone deserves a reasonable chance. Look at you - you're here now, and... I said I'd get supplies for you, and I will if you ask me to, but you're welcome to stay here as long as you want."
A single tear trickled down Jim's face. "You... you... I... Thank you," he managed.
Blair dropped a hand onto Jim's shoulder and pressed firmly. "Now drink your coffee before it gets cold, then come and join me in the kitchen." He went out, giving Jim a chance to pull himself together.
Jim swallowed, and forced himself to think. To stay... it would be wonderful, especially since, even on their short acquaintance, he really liked Blair. But he didn't want to risk getting Blair into trouble. The law clearly said that a sentinel must live...
No. That was how it was interpreted, but as worded, the law merely said that a sentinel must live 'where he could not spy on others - for example, at sea, aboard a boat which would normally be provided by his family'. It might have been deliberately worded by those powerful enough to include the clause about guides, but nothing - nothing - in the law specified that a sentinel couldn't live on a small island - even an island where someone else lived, provided that person accepted him.
He drew a deep, relieved breath, and reached for the coffee, wondering, as he had done the previous evening, where Blair had managed to get a supply. Coffee was a luxury few settlements could afford; his father had been able to afford coffee, though he hadn't always been able to get it.
He drank slowly, savoring it, then had a quick shower, shaved, dressed and, taking the empty mug, went to join Blair, finding him sitting in front of the range. Putting the mug down beside the sink, he crossed to sit beside Blair. "I'll be more than happy to stay," he said quietly.
"Good. Now, what do you want for breakfast?" Blair grinned. "Tell me what you want, and I'll tell you if I have it."
Jim looked at him. Tempted for a moment to joke back and ask for something completely impossible, he suddenly decided to be serious. "You said something yesterday about eggs?"
"Boiled, poached, fried, scrambled, or an omelet?" Blair asked.
"Scrambled," Jim whispered through a tight throat. "Please."
They spent the next two days learning about each other.
Blair - who was still in his late twenties - had travelled a surprising amount in the previous twelve years. He had spent time with various communities up and down the coast and had even penetrated inland for several days' travel more than once - although 'inland' was a dangerous place. There were people there, but people who feared and distrusted strangers even more than the people living along the coast did. And there were also a growing number of wild animals, some of them dangerous. "A lot of them were domesticated once," he said, "at least to the point where they were used to people, and protected from predators. But the transport system collapsed along with everything else and there was no way to get them to market; the farmers stopped bothering and most of the cattle ran wild. A wild cow protecting a calf... even coyotes think twice about tackling a cow with a young calf."
He had once penetrated the ruins of a large town - one of several both along the coast and inland. Jim had passed more than one, where the tops of buildings showed here and there above the water, and had steered out to sea to avoid what appeared to be a positive hazard to a relatively small boat.
"Not an experience I want to repeat," Blair said frankly. "It was a graveyard of a lost culture; buildings abandoned a century ago falling down, the rusted remains of land vehicles, skeletons - or partial skeletons - all over the place. You could see that as the system collapsed people had looted the stores, desperate for the things they needed; they'd fought and killed each other for the few resources that were left, and when nothing else edible was left... they turned to cannibalism. A lot of the bones were charred and had cut marks that showed where the meat had been removed. I'd expected the place to be full of animals like rats, but it wasn't; it probably had been at one time but there was nothing left for even them to eat. Everything organic had either been eaten or had rotted away. The only living things were just some plants that had self-seeded, growing where they could - including on what roofs were left - and a few small animals like mice.
"I suppose many of the people had left before things got too bad, but they wouldn't have had any survival skills either. Even a lot of the people living in rural areas didn't have the kind of knowledge that would make it easy for them to live off the land. There must have been a lot of suffering in that first generation when everything collapsed. I don't think I really realized that - not fully - until I went into that town. You don't realize it the same with the drowned ones. With them, you get more the feeling that they were abandoned over a period as the water rose; and of course you don't see any vehicles or bodies when you sail past them. The more 'inland' parts that are still above water are probably very similar to the one I saw."
"I was in the army for three years," Jim said. "A lot of our time was spent on survival skills - we had to live off the land wherever we went. We were sent out on 'guard duty' after basic training - God knows what we were supposed to be guarding - some sort of invisible border, I think - it was certainly unmarked - but we never saw anyone in over two years until our relief came and we were marched back to base camp and discharged. We were pretty far inland, but there wasn't much there - certainly nothing I'd have expected anyone to want. A lot of our time was spent foraging - the ground was semi-desert and had been well picked over, and most of the animals that might have lived there had already been killed by the time we arrived. We were... marched isn't the word because we were trying to gather food as we went, eastwards for a month, then turned and 'marched' back west again for a month, ostensibly on patrol. I suspect there might well have been another army ten miles away, on its side of the 'border', doing exactly the same as we were... But I was glad of that training when I found myself on the boat, with nothing but what I knew to keep me alive."
"And you were just sailing on down the coast?" Blair asked.
"Well, I sailed up and down the coast several times," Jim said. "I have to... had to keep moving. If I stayed too long near any settlement, even the ones willing to sell to me, it was made clear that I wasn't wanted, that they'd let me stay long enough to reprovision and I could show my gratitude by getting as far from them as possible as quickly as possible. And they didn't want me coming back, either, although I did visit the friendlier ones more than once... though two or three times was the limit of their patience. You were right when you said they didn't sell me provisions out of kindness; it was the easiest way to get rid of me, and I'd guess I was severely overcharged a lot of the time. This is the first time I've come this far south."
"Did you ever think about trying to cross the ocean?"
"How far is it to the other side?" Jim asked wryly.
"One of my books could give you an estimate - " Blair began.
"And in any case," Jim went on without really listening, "I didn't know what sort of reception I'd get there, or if the money I have would be any use in another country. Though once I had to carry on further south, because I'd been flatly told nobody would sell to me again in the stretch of coast I'd been following, I knew that sooner or later I was bound to pass that invisible boundary I spent two years guarding. That's when I would find out."
"That's true," Blair agreed. "Though our dollars are accepted for a fair way south of here. I never went north - the coastline was too... well... "
"Unfriendly? It is, for a hundred, maybe even a hundred and fifty miles north of here. That was why I turned and headed up the coast again a couple of times."
"There are travelling traders - that's how a lot of the settlement stores get their supplies. They cover a fair distance. Though eventually I suppose you would reach a country where your money isn't accepted. On the other hand, it mightn't be so rabidly anti-sentinel."
Jim sighed. "Is that likely?"
"It's not impossible. According to Grandmother's journals and her books, some of the countries further south weren't as... well, technological, I suppose you'd say, as ours. They lost less, so their leaders wouldn't have the same need to look for scapegoats. And even if they did, they wouldn't necessarily pick the same minority group."
"There's still this damned S on my forehead; they'd want to know why, and that would show them that my country considered me a danger to society."
"They might welcome sentinels."
"And pigs might fly," Jim said bitterly.
Blair looked at him, and said no more on the subject.
The storm eased two days later, and fairly early the following day, Blair headed off for Banksville, the nearby settlement where he normally bought his supplies.
As his small cabin cruiser chugged down the coast, Blair automatically noted where driftwood had been thrown up on the shore - it was information that Simon, at the settlement, could use, for although gathering driftwood was a constant job for Banksville's ten-to-sixteen-year-old children, they normally only went up and down the coast for four or five miles, and much of the driftwood he was passing was further from the township than that.
The trip took just over two hours, and when he finally approached the small pier he was looking forward to a mug of herbal tea and a chat with the headman, Simon, while a couple of the men provisioned his boat.
The man who caught his rope was known to him, though not well. "Hello, Peter," he said cheerfully.
"Blair." Peter's voice was very neutral, and Blair frowned. This was far from his usual welcome.
He secured Wolf beside the settlement's small fishing boat, and swung up the ladder to the pier, and promptly realized what was different. While he was tying up, Peter had been joined by another man. "Kincaid?" Blair said. "Where's Simon?"
"He left," Kincaid said flatly. "I'm in charge here now."
Shit! Blair thought. Kincaid was the kind of man who caused trouble wherever he was, who enjoyed stirring things; the kind who could create havoc in an empty house. "What happened?"
"Let's just say we had a difference of opinion, and I won," Kincaid said. "I thought he was more generous with our supplies than he had a right to be, too fond of outsiders, and most of the folk here agreed with me. So he left with the few who sided with him... oh, three, four weeks ago now. I'm surprised you didn't see him - he went north. It would have saved you a trip if you had." His voice, already cold, went colder.
"Are you saying you won't sell me provisions?" Blair asked, careful to make it a non-confrontational question.
"Well... since you're here... I'll sell you some fuel - we won't be needing it now; we've decided to stop wasting time fishing and mean to develop the land. We'll fill your tanks, but it'll be the last time, and it'll cost you two hundred dollars."
Blair's jaw dropped. That was double what Simon had charged him, and blatant profiteering, but he had no choice but to pay it; he needed it for Jim as well as for himself. "What about food?" he asked.
"No, and if you argue, you won't get the fuel either."
"All right," Blair said mildly. Getting some food would have been useful, but getting the fuel was vital. He followed Kincaid to the small store at the end of the pier, Peter at his heels, and once inside reached for the money pouch hanging from his belt and carefully counted out two hundred dollars.
Kincaid gathered up the money and nodded to Peter, who turned towards the door. Blair said quietly, "I'll just go and help him. I... hope you make a success of your farming project." There was, after all, no point in alienating the man and making more of an enemy of him than he already was.
There was a slightly apologetic look in Peter's eyes as he pumped the fuel to the first of Blair's tanks, although he said nothing. As Blair unscrewed the line from the first tank, however, Peter murmured very softly, "I'm sorry. You're not a local, but your family's dealt with us for a long time."
Blair shook his head as he fastened the line to the second tank. "Kincaid's never liked me," he replied, as softly. "I'm surprised he's let me have the fuel."
"Since we won't be fishing again, we won't need much," Peter said. "He's just selling you something we don't want." He began pumping again.
"Food, on the other hand... " Blair said after some minutes. "Though if you're farming, you should have food to spare... "
"It was one of the reasons people turned against Simon," Peter said. "He wouldn't consider trying farming. Kincaid's worked it out. We can earn more selling our produce inland. We'll be prosperous in two or three years, not living hand to mouth the way we've been, getting a few dollars now and then from people like you." The tone of his voice had changed and Blair guessed that Kincaid was approaching.
"Well, I wish you luck," he said. Kincaid moved into his line of sight, watching suspiciously, and Blair guessed that he had come to make sure Peter didn't allow him to fill any extra small containers as well as Wolf's tank and the big tank he carried on these trips to give him a supply at home. A few more minutes and he said, "Okay, that's the tank full." He disconnected the line, replaced the cap and handed the line up to Peter, who secured it then moved to unfasten the ropes - Kincaid, who could have done it, made no move to help.
Riiight, Blair thought. Simon had always worked alongside his people. Let Kincaid carry on like that, leaving the others to do all the work, and he might find himself with a mutiny on his hands before he was much older.
However, since Blair was no longer welcome here, he wouldn't know unless someone made a point of coming to his island to tell him they'd trade with him again. He started his engine, looked up, said a "Thank you," directed primarily at Peter - it nearly choked him to appear to thank Kincaid for anything - and reversed away from the pier.
On his way back to the island he watched the shore even more carefully, but he could see no sign of Simon and his group.
As he neared home, he frowned thoughtfully. Who would have gone with Simon? His wife was dead, but he had a son, Daryl, who would certainly have accompanied his father. Other certainties were Henri and Joel - like Simon, both were clearly of immigrant stock from several generations previously; all three men had black skin. If Kincaid objected to Blair, who had white skin but was not 'a local' because he lived fully two hours away, how much more would he object to men who carried their 'not local' ancestry so obviously - even though Simon's family, at least, had lived in the area as long as Blair's family had been on the island, possibly even longer.
It was almost certain that Megan would have left. Kincaid liked to see women kept in their place, and Megan was a free-spirited, feisty woman who would never accept Kincaid's ideas of how she should behave. Rhonda? Possibly; she had fostered Daryl for five or six years after his mother died, when Simon felt the boy was young enough to need a woman's care. Daryl had moved back to live with his father around two years previously, when he was thirteen or fourteen, but had maintained a close relationship with Rhonda. Even although she was the settlement's healer, Kincaid had probably given her no chance to stay because of her friendship with Simon and Daryl. Who else? Rafe, probably. Rafe was an incomer, who had arrived at the village some five years previously. Blair had actually been at the township the day Rafe stumbled in, skeleton thin, exhausted, somehow managing to support his brother, who was in even worse condition.
The brother died two days later, in spite of everything Rhonda could do. Rafe had recovered, but it had taken several weeks for him to regain his strength. He had never, to Blair's knowledge, said anything about where he came from or why. It was, of course, possible that he had told Simon, who would certainly have wanted to know something about the stranger before he agreed to let him stay, but Simon was a man who never betrayed a confidence, never let anyone guess that he had been told something in confidence.
As Blair came in sight of the house, Jim left it and moved quickly down to the pier. Blair cut the engine and coasted in. He threw the bow rope to Jim, who caught it and pulled Wolf in.
Blair scrambled ashore. "I've got good news and bad news," he said.
"Why does that sound ominous?" Jim asked.
"The bad news is that I couldn't get any food. There's been a change of leadership at the settlement and the new headman doesn't like me. Doesn't like anyone who isn't white or wasn't born in the settlement of parents and grandparents who were also born there... Of course, he also doesn't like anyone who is white and born in the settlement of parents and grandparents who were also born there. How he managed to persuade most of the folk in Banksville to go along with him and kick out Simon, I'll never understand."
"Simon? That the headman you know?"
"Yes - and he's the friend I asked to check on me and bury me if I'd died. He's one of the black-skinned Americans - I don't know where his family came from originally, but they've been here as long as mine."
"And the good news?"
"I did get fuel, but only because he was offloading something he wasn't going to need and at double the price I usually pay. He made it clear, though, that he wouldn't deal with me again."
"Fuel's the important thing."
As they went up the path to the house, Jim said, "I'm glad you're back. I'm... I don't know, uneasy. There's something niggling at the edge of my awareness - it started about an hour ago, and it won't go away."
Blair looked at him. "You think there's maybe something dangerous building up?"
"You believe me? You don't think it's just my imagination?"
"Jim. You're a sentinel. Regardless of all the stories rampant in the settlements about 'never trust a sentinel', I happen to believe the older story that sentinels were guardians, watchmen, people who served their communities. You say you're uneasy about something; that's good enough for me. Do you think it's maybe something like an earthquake building up?"
"I don't know. It might be. It's not a storm, though I think it could be coming from the sea. It's not something I've ever felt before." Jim shook his head. "It's not even something I'm feeling, not quite. More like... " He hesitated, trying to find words to explain what he meant when he himself wasn't too sure. A memory from his childhood surfaced. "It's like... if someone is threatening to tickle you - not actually touching you, but you react as if they were. It's something threatening, very distant, that I think is going to get a lot worse." He shivered. They reached the house and went in. "I think - as sheltered as this house is, it isn't necessarily going to escape undamaged."
"Would we be safer at sea? Should we maybe get both boats fuelled up and ready to go, and stock them with some food from the house too?" Blair asked. "The shoreline is often the most dangerous place to be when the sea is really rough."
"I don't think we have to do that immediately. It's not close," Jim insisted. "Whatever it is is still hours away. Now you're probably tired and I'm sure you want something to eat."
Blair ran his tongue over his lower lip. "Yes, but... I wonder... " he said. "I've read all the books in this house, and there's something I half remember... " He lit a candle and went briskly into the normally unused living room. Puzzled, Jim followed as Blair crossed to a bookshelf. He ran a finger along the row of books, and pulled one out. He put the candle down as he checked the index then riffled quickly through to the page he wanted, saying, "These books were printed before everything collapsed... Here we are. 'Tsunami. Sometimes called a tidal wave, although it has nothing to do with tides. It is usually caused by an earthquake or, occasionally, an underwater landslide. A massive amount of water is displaced and travels from its source at speeds of up to five hundred miles an hour. In the open sea where the water is deep, sailors are typically aware of a swell of a few feet, and ships there are in no real danger, but when the wave reaches shallow water its base is slowed by friction while the surface water continues at the same speed, causing a wave of thirty feet or more to break on the coast. Ships moored where a tsunami hits have sometimes been carried inland for up to half a mile.'" He looked up. "If what you're feeling, Jim, is the run-up to an earthquake out at sea, that could lead to a tsunami; I think we do need to get the boats fuelled now, and head out to sea as fast as we can."
Jim shivered. "I don't like going out of sight of land," he admitted. "I don't like the open sea. It's so deep and unforgiving... "
"Jim, if there's a tsunami, it's depth of water that will save us," Blair said as he put the book back in its place. "Yes, we could leave Panther at the pier and hope it's sheltered enough to protect her, use Wolf to go over to the mainland and accept that we'll lose her, then try to get as far inland and as high as possible, but if we do that, we can't carry much in the way of food. We could leave both boats tied up and hope they survive, make several trips with as much food as possible to the top of the island and camp there till it's over; I think the hill is high enough to keep us safe. If we go out to sea, though, we can save both boats, and frankly that's what I'd rather do."
Jim had a rabbit casserole cooking; they ate quickly, then gathered together as much food as they could carry and took it down to the pier, putting it into a cupboard on Panther, then started filling the fuel tanks on both boats. Then, with the boats fuelled up and the tank with what was left lashed firmly to the cruiser, they make several trips back to the house for food until Panther held as much as possible and there was practically none left in the kitchen. As they went back in the fading light to secure the house, Blair asked, "How do things feel now?"
"Much the same." Jim hesitated for a moment, then said, "Blair, I think you should gather together anything that has particular sentimental value for you, and some clothes. You can't guarantee the house will escape serious damage. I think we should make sure the stove's out, too, before we leave. Flood water would probably put it out anyway, even if it hadn't already gone out from lack of wood, but if you know it's out, you won't have to worry about the possibility of fire - just flood damage."
Blair nodded, aware that the main reason they had taken all of the available food to the boats was their mutual unspoken fear that the house might be destroyed, but remaining, on the surface, obstinately optimistic. "I don't think a wave hitting the seaward side of the island would hurt the house, but it'll probably bounce back after it hits the mainland, and you're right, that could cause damage."
They separated, Blair to gather up a few things he particularly valued, while Jim saw to extinguishing the fire in the stove and gathered up the last of the food, including Blair's small stock of coffee - a luxury they were unlikely to see again, and which Blair had unhesitatingly ignored in favor of actual food. He had just finished when Blair came in carrying two bags, the larger of which looked quite heavy. They hurried to close the open shutters and secure them, then as they went out, Jim picked up the clock. He grinned at Blair. "Well, I like it!" he said.
They closed the door - in this remote spot, it seemed unnecessary to lock it - then Jim quietly but firmly took the heavier of the bags, and led the way back down the path to the boats. They put the bags into Panther, tied Wolf to Panther's stern, then Jim started the engine and they set off.
After a few minutes, he said, "We should really try to warn the settlement - "
"They won't listen," Blair said quietly. "If Simon was still there, I'd say yes; he'd at least hear us out and probably get everyone to high ground. But Kincaid won't. He's the kind of man who thinks it weak to take someone else's advice, even when that person has information he doesn't have. And not only that, you're a sentinel. He'd immediately assume you had some hidden agenda intended to do him harm. We'd waste several hours and accomplish nothing. Believe me, Jim. I wish we could warn them, but Kincaid wouldn't act on our say-so even if he saw a huge wave forming behind us, even if an earthquake was splitting the ground open between his feet. That's the kind of man he is.
"I hope to hell that Simon and the folk who went with him are in a safe place," he added after a moment. "And I'd still like to know how Kincaid persuaded most of the folk in Banksville that he'd be a better headman than Simon."
Jim held a steady course away from the land, his face expressionless as he fought his growing fear. Blair, who had started off sitting to the side, sensed how tense he was and moved to stand beside him, putting a hand on his arm.
"It's all right," he said softly. "Just relax. Breathe steadily, slowly. Breathe in to a count of four, then out to a count of four. In, two, three four; out, two three, four." He continued counting steadily, his voice steady, almost hypnotically monotonous, and Jim found himself obeying.
Once he was satisfied that Jim had the rhythm, Blair stopped counting aloud, but kept his hand on Jim's arm. He glanced back, but could see nothing in the darkness, no shadow of the distant land to give him any idea of how far they'd travelled now that the moon - still in its first quarter - had set.
"The stars are bright tonight," he said at last.
"Yes," Jim replied. "Do you know any of the constellations?"
"Some," Blair said. He began to point out the ones he knew, glad to have something to take Jim's mind off the open water.
A very bright meteorite shot across the sky, travelling from high above them down towards the horizon, and Jim caught his breath, remembering the one he had seen several days previously.
"Blair - when you were a child, did you ever wish on a star?"
Blair glanced at him, wishing he could see the other man's face clearly. "No," he said. "My mother was always very careful to avoid teaching me anything that spoke of superstition. Wishing for something... That was something I read about, not something I ever did."
"My mother," Jim said softly. "I wasn't often up late enough to see the stars, but sometimes on a winter night just before I went to bed she would show me the stars, and any time we saw a shooting star, she would make a wish, tell me to make one. After she died, I wished one night that she'd come back - well, I was just six and didn't really understand - and when she didn't come, I stopped believing that wishes ever worked. Until... I saw one just three or four nights before we met, and wished I could meet someone who could accept me... "
"Coincidence... " Blair said, but there was a note of uncertainty in his voice, as if he didn't really want to think that.
Another meteorite shot across the sky, and then another and another...
"I've read about this," Blair whispered. "It was called a meteor shower. There were... are... several every year, some better than others and some years better than others. But I've never seen one. Usually because I'm in bed and asleep."
Most of the shooting stars were white, but every now and then a brilliant line of green light crossed the sky. "It's... magnificent," Jim murmured.
There was one wish paramount in his mind as he watched streak of light follow streak of light across the sky - that Blair should not suffer from befriending him.
After a while the stream of meteors lessened, their frequency much reduced, and the thoughts of both men returned to the sea. Dawn slowly crept in, allowing Blair to see clearly again.
"What do you think?" he asked after a while.
"I can feel... I don't think it's far away now," Jim said. Sure enough, a few minutes later they felt Panther rise in a sudden swell. Moments later, it had passed.
"That's it," Jim said.
"Seems almost... anticlimatic," Blair said wryly. "Out here, at least. It's a few minutes from now, when it hits the coast... "
Jim nodded, somehow subtly... not happier, but less worried about the depth of water than he had been, since it had clearly saved them a lot of danger.
"Wolf's wake hits the shore then bounces out again," Blair said after some seconds. "I think we can expect it back quite soon."
When there was no reply, he glanced at the other man. "Jim?"
Jim was gazing fixedly ahead, his attention apparently completely taken up by something Blair couldn't see.
"Jim?" he said again, and reached out to shake Jim's arm.
He could feel Jim jump. "What?" Jim asked, his voice uncertain.
"You were looking at something, and didn't seem to hear me," Blair said.
"Oh. No, I was listening to the water." After two or three minutes, he went on. "The wave's hit land. I can hear it."
"We have to be at least sixty miles out," Blair said, awed. "That's... Man, that's really something."
"It's pretty faint," Jim said, almost dismissively, but feeling surprisingly pleased by Blair's comment. A few minutes later, he added, "It's coming back."
He swung Panther round in a wide arc and began to head back towards the land. Blair nodded, understanding; they were better to meet the returning wave head on.
The sea was rougher this time, and the two boats tossed in the choppy swell. Jim increased his speed a little to ensure keeping the bow pointing into the waves. Slowly the swell eased, and they headed back towards the land.
It had been a long month for the small group that was making its way slowly along the coast. Rafe had gone from being abjectly apologetic to very quiet. Simon was still coming to terms with the ease with which the sly and untrustworthy Kincaid had ousted him, his twenty-odd years of effective leadership of his community apparently forgotten by everyone except the handful who had accompanied him as he left Banksville - not that Kincaid had given them much option.
Rafe had been so careful... until the day one of the children rushed back from the beach, excitedly shouting that there was a dead seal on the shore. Big enough to give every house in the settlement a portion, it would have been a windfall. But when the men reached it, Rafe announced, quietly but firmly, that it had been dead too long, the meat was going bad. Simon instantly ordered it thrown back into the sea.
Within the hour, Kincaid had accused Rafe of being a sentinel who, for his own reasons - whatever they were - had tainted the meat, and accused Simon of endangering the settlement by permitting a sentinel to stay there - as well as breaking the laws regarding sentinels. Simon tried to answer calmly, tried to deny the accusation, but Kincaid's impassioned, near-hysterical denunciation - which had included Henri and Joel and Rhonda as well as Simon's son Daryl - had persuaded most of the community to stand behind him, despite his being one of the least popular members of it, Simon one of the most respected and Rhonda one of the most loved. Only Megan, of those not accused, had looked from Kincaid to Simon and then unhesitatingly moved to join Simon. The word 'sentinel' aroused fears that were very potent even in communities that had never knowingly encountered one, thanks to the rumours of their magical powers. The small group had been given a few minutes to gather together their possessions, and were then driven out. A few stones were thrown, aimed primarily at Rafe, and when one well-aimed one caused him to stumble, it had needed very little urging by Kincaid to drive some of the men forward to attack him. They had actually injured him before Megan and Rhonda faced them down, giving Simon and Joel time to lift Rafe and carry him away.
Once the group was well outside the perimeter of the settlement, the men following them began to drift back towards their homes. Simon encouraged them to go two or three more miles before stopping.
Rafe's leg was broken just above the ankle.
Rhonda set the leg, splinting it with two pieces of reasonably straight driftwood, and suggested that they stop for several days to let the leg begin to heal. Simon, however, did not trust Kincaid, and would only wait until the next morning before moving on.
Rafe tried to persuade them to leave him and go on themselves - he was quite sure that Kincaid would find some way to let the other settlements up and down the coast know that there was a suspected sentinel around. Simon refused even to consider it.
As they went, the other three men in the party took turns carrying Rafe piggyback.
They could only travel a mile or so each day, for they had to live off the land as they went, and gathering and preparing food took time. Although they did search for food along the shoreline, travelling along it was too uncertain - there were cliffs where they could be trapped by the tide. There was, to Simon's knowledge, at least one stretch of quicksand, and where there was one, there might well be more - and while quicksand might not always be deadly, it would certainly be a considerable inconvenience to them. There were stretches of uneven rocks that it would be difficult to negotiate when one of their number had to be carried. No, it was much simpler to stay perhaps half a mile from the shore and travel over more even ground.
Knowing that Rafe's leg needed time to heal, Simon had a short-term destination in mind; the island where his friend Blair lived. Well, friendly acquaintance was probably a more accurate description, he admitted in the privacy of his own mind. He was quietly certain that Blair was open-minded enough to accept Rafe, even although the man did have some sentinel abilities - something Simon had indeed known. Rafe had owned up to it when he asked Simon if he could stay. He and his dead twin brother had, between them, been a sentinel, Rafe possessing the senses of taste and smell and his brother, touch, sight and hearing. When they realized what they were, the brothers had left their home in an inland community before they could be marked and, lacking any skills to let them find food easily, had travelled for several weeks, growing steadily weaker, before stumbling into Banksville. Rafe had never told anyone his brother's name, and Simon was sure he still mourned.
As they went, Simon at least knew that they were lucky it was staying dry; there was little shelter on this stretch of coast. Rain would have made their journey more than slightly unpleasant. Three weeks into their journey, however, he realized their luck was failing; there was a storm brewing. It was with some relief that he saw the jumble of fallen rock that some long-past earthquake had tossed down the not-very-high hillside between them and the sea, and he guessed that the rocks would provide shelter of a sort. A quick check proved him right; several of the rocks had fallen in such a way that they made a sort of cave, large enough to hold all seven. They sheltered there for an uncomfortable and hungry three days before the storm passed and they were able to continue.
Within another day they reached the shore opposite the island. They spent the night not too far from the shore, fascinated by the shooting stars - Rhonda, on watch, wakened the others to see the display - and started for the coast as soon as it was light enough to see. Henri let Rafe slide from his back to sit on a rock, while Simon studied the island. After a minute he said, "I don't think Blair's there; I don't see his boat. But I don't think he would grudge us shelter."
"How will we get over?" Daryl asked.
"We'll have to swim."
Simon directed them to strip to their underwear and gather their clothes - including the spare ones they had managed to take with them - into a bundle, which they fastened onto their heads. The others split Rafe's and Simon's between them because Simon was going to have to help Rafe, who had already had enough problems stripping; Rhonda had had to remove the sticks splinting his leg then refasten them once his trousers had been eased off.
They swam steadily - all but Rafe the children of a coastal settlement, they had learned to swim when still very young - and it took them only a few minutes to cross the channel to the island.
They quickly pulled clothes back onto their still-wet bodies - there was a coldness in the wind that chilled wet skin - Rhonda once again helping Rafe, and as they turned towards the house, Daryl said, "Dad, what's happening to the sea?"
Simon glanced at the channel; the water was disappearing from it with horrifying speed. "I've heard of this kind of thing. No, leave the clothes!" There hadn't been time to repackage their spare ones. "Run, all of you!" he snapped. "Get as high as you can as fast as you can." He hauled Rafe up and over his shoulder - it was quicker than getting him onto his back - and followed the others as quickly as he could.
Daryl hesitated, staying beside him. "The house?"
"Might not be high enough. Now go. Run!"
"Leave me!" Rafe managed.
"No," Simon gasped. He panted harshly as he struggled up the lower slope of the hill that sheltered Blair's house from the open sea. Somewhere, already near and getting steadily nearer, he could hear a roaring noise, and knew it was the sea returning in a massive wave.
Behind him, he heard the water crashing against the land, and forced himself on and upwards, heading for a huge boulder, knowing that he couldn't get higher before the wave hit the island, knowing that if there was any shelter for the two of them, it was here. He lowered Rafe behind it.
"Go on!" Rafe said.
"Too late. Find something to hang onto." Simon braced himself, feet against the hillside behind him, hands against the rock, trying to give Rafe some additional support as Rafe clung to the boulder with desperate fingers.
Just as the water surged over and around the rock, he heard Daryl's voice, although it was almost drowned by the sound of the water. "Dad!" And then he had no time to pay attention to anything except fighting the force of the water that tried to pull him away from the boulder.
About fifty feet in front of Simon and Rafe, and a little higher, the others had paused to look back. "Dad!" Daryl yelled, and took a step back downhill.
Joel grabbed him, holding him with unexpected strength as he struggled to free himself. "No! We need to stay up here."
And then the water lost its force, and ran back down the hill.
There was silence for a moment, then Simon slowly pushed himself into a sitting position.
"Dad!" Daryl broke free from Joel and slithered downhill, relieved to see the two bodies still there behind the rock. Simon caught Daryl in a fierce hug, then gently put him aside.
Rafe rolled over. "Thanks," he murmured. "You should have left me... but thanks."
Simon grinned. "We didn't haul you all this way to let the sea get you now," he growled.
They stayed where they were, watching the water hit the mainland again, then come back towards the island, but this time it just broke against the rocks of the shoreline, splashing a few feet over the low ground. Another, lesser, wave hit the mainland, but it, too, only broke against the rocks of the island. At last Simon said, "I think it'll be safe to go down now, and see if enough of the house has survived to give us some shelter."
As they went, Joel carrying Rafe, Henri murmured, "I've never seen anything like that. How did you know we should go high?"
"Something my great-grandfather used to talk about until he died when I was... oh, seven or eight. I know my parents and grandparents were tired of hearing the story, but I found it exciting... how he was high on the cliffs one day when he was still quite young, gathering gulls' eggs, and the sea rushed away from the land like the tide going out but faster and further than he'd ever seen, then it came crashing back and splashed halfway up the cliff he was on, and the force of the impact shook the rock so he thought he might be shaken off and into the sea. When he got home again, everything was wrecked by the force of the water, and a lot of people had drowned; the survivors were mostly people like him, who had been away from Banksville gathering food. I don't think anyone else in the family believed him, but I wasn't old enough to doubt him. I haven't thought about the story in years, but when I saw the water disappearing..."
Henri nodded. "My grandpappy used to tell all sorts of stories," he said. "We never knew if he was talking about things that had happened or about things he just thought had happened. But he never said anything about huge waves like that."
"It would be before he was born," Simon said. "It must have been at least a hundred years ago, possibly a little more."
As they approached the house, they realized that it had escaped relatively unscathed. The shutters still covered the windows and the door had stood firm - but of course, although the water had crashed onto the shore and the lower part of the island, even this landward side, it had mostly run up the slope. Opposite it, the mainland showed the scars of the huge wave that had crashed down on it. This side of the island had lost less of its vegetation because the wave hadn't battered down onto it as badly, but it was certain that any creature that hadn't been able to fly or run high enough had been washed away.
"You know," Megan said, "I reckon we owe Kincaid. If he hadn't driven us out... "
Simon nodded unhappily. "Hard on everyone else, though. I still feel kind of responsible... I'm tempted to go back and see if there's anything I can do - I could get there in a day if I didn't stop to look for food - but reason tells me that everyone will have drowned."
"I know what you mean," Rhonda said quietly. "There's not one of them I haven't tended at some time - hell, I birthed a lot of them! And I feel I've somehow failed them by not being there. But Simon, they rejected us. They chose Kincaid rather than trust your judgement. Not one of them argued with him when he said I had to go with you, even though that left the village without a healer - well, apart from Cassie, but she had only been learning from me for a few months. Not one of them argued when he said Joel had to go - the best builder in the place. The only one who clearly disagreed with him was Megan, and she voted with her feet when she joined us. And he didn't even try to stop her - the settlement's teacher, dammit! Did he want the children to grow up totally illiterate, totally ignorant?"
"Yes," Megan said. "Even a lot of educated people - if you sound confident enough, they assume you know something they don't. However, it's easier to control your followers if they don't know anything. That way they tend to believe whatever you choose to tell them; you don't have to convince them that what they thought they knew is 'wrong'. And every generation since the Collapse has lost knowledge that Mankind once had. I could teach the children to read - we still had some books. What I didn't have was any easy way to teach them to write. Same with sums. I could teach them simple counting - but only what they could do in their heads. We didn't really have anything to write with."
They had reached the door. It opened easily enough, and as they went in Joel said, "Whoever built this did a damned good job."
The floor of the hallway was wet - some water had clearly found a way in, probably under the door - but there seemed to be no real damage. Trying the various doors quickly showed them the kitchen. Joel crossed to the window, fumbled for some seconds, then swung the shutters open.
A quick check ascertained that the house had been stripped of food, and Simon sighed resignedly. "Looks like Blair's gone off somewhere again, even though he didn't let us know - or maybe he tried to, only we'd already left Banksville. Well, this is shelter, and I'm sure he wouldn't grudge us that. Rhonda, see to Rafe. He took quite a battering. Daryl, Megan - see if you can get the stove lit. Blair must have some wood inside the house for kindling, though I suppose most of his stock of wood will have been washed away. Joel, Henri - come with me. Rafe and I are soaked - let's see if there are any clothes in the house that we can borrow. Then we'll have to go out and try to find something to eat."
The first door Simon tried led into what, from the faint light filtering through from the kitchen, appeared to be the living room. As he turned away from it, Joel called from upstairs, "I think this is Blair's bedroom; there are a lot of clothes here."
Simon and Henri joined him. He had already opened the shutters in this room too, making it easy to see. They selected a shirt and trousers that they thought would fit Rafe, and Henri took them back to the kitchen while Simon carried on searching the wardrobe - without much hope - for something that would fit him. Joel moved on to the next room, wondering if there were any clothes there left by now-dead members of Blair's family, and came back again carrying a sweater and trousers. "I thought Blair lived alone," he said, "but these are too big to be his. The bed in there is made up, too - he must have had a visitor."
"It's possible," Simon said as he stripped off his wet clothes and pulled on the dry ones. "You know the way he goes off from time to time, stays away for weeks. He probably knows people for some distance up and down the coast. I just hope he's all right, wherever he is." The sweater fitted quite well, though the trousers were just a little short in the leg. He shrugged. "They're dry. That's all that matters."
They went back to the kitchen, where Megan had lit the stove, using the dry wood from a supply in a small room beside the door, gathered up Henri, and each taking one of the baskets stacked inside the door, the three men set off on the hunt for food. Shellfish were a definite possibility - it would take more than some heavy waves to tear most of them off the rocks - and there might even be some stranded fish. Henri went off along the shore with one of the baskets while the other two headed for higher ground, seeing Daryl above them, already hunting for more wood along the level the wave had reached. There was unlikely to be any dry wood there, since the island carried no trees, only some small shrubs, but surface wet on branches thrown up by the wave would soon dry.
About an hour later, they met up at the end of the island. Henri had a basketful of mussels; Joel and Simon had filled their baskets with edible vegetation, and had also found several fish thrown up by the wave and unable to wriggle back into the water as it retreated.
Satisfied with their harvest, they headed back towards the house.
Once he was sure the sea was calm again, Jim stopped the engine to conserve fuel, and raised the sail. Their speed dropped, but they were in no great hurry; Blair might be anxious to see how his home had fared, but he was also afraid to find that it had been destroyed.
A few hours later, as Panther neared land a little north of the island, both Jim and Blair studied the damage done to the shoreline by the tsunami.
The wave had crashed against the coast, tearing much of the vegetation away and leaving a much wider 'beach' than there had been; almost all the plants growing lower than some forty feet above sea level had gone. The few scattered trees above that were unharmed. One huge tree Jim remembered seeing growing on its own a little lower than the others had gone, its trunk snapped several feet from the ground. At the lowest point on the shore, water was still trickling back into the sea, and he wondered how far inland the wave had reached.
"That's new," Blair said, pointing to a huge rock some twenty feet above the waterline, and Jim nodded, sure that he would have seen it as he sailed past.
The island hadn't suffered too much, as far as Jim could see. It, too, had lost vegetation from the lowest part, but the hill composing much of it was untouched. With luck, the landward side wouldn't be too badly damaged but - after seeing the devastation on the mainland - Jim wasn't too hopeful that the house, only some fifty feet above high tide level, could have escaped serious damage, and he knew from the look on Blair's face that he had no hope at all of still having a home.
He swung Panther carefully around the end of the island, lowering the sail and allowing momentum to carry her on towards where the pier had been.
Blair's attention was still on the mainland, and Jim could guess why. He looked over towards the house...
"Blair! The house is all right!"
"What?" Blair turned to stare at it. "How?" He drew a deep breath. "I knew it was well built, but to stand up to that wave... "
Moving very slowly, Panther reached the little harbor, and Jim jumped to shore. Much of the actual pier was gone, but Jim wrapped his rope around one of the uprights. Blair joined him, and they secured both boats. Then Jim raised his head, his attention drawn from what he was doing. "Blair - I smell wood smoke. And... yes - there's smoke coming from the chimney."
They looked at each other. "There's someone in the house?" Blair said.
"Looks like it." Even as they spoke, both men were aware that they were stating the obvious. "Some of the shutters are open, too," Jim added, his mind belatedly registering what his eyes had already noticed.
"But there's nobody... and there isn't a boat... " Blair said uncertainly.
The door opened and a big man came out. He started down towards the harbor, and they waited warily for a moment. Before the man had taken more than a dozen steps, however, Blair exclaimed, "Simon!" and ran forward.
Jim watched as the two men met and clasped hands, and unashamedly eavesdropped as the big man started talking.
"... Kincaid chased us out, this was the only place I could think of to come to, at least in the short term. Rafe's leg is broken, and it's taken us close on a month to get this far."
"Of course you can stay here, as long as you want! But Simon - there's someone else staying with me. If you can't accept him, I'll take you as far up the coast as necessary to find a settlement that hasn't been affected by the wave, but I'm not telling Jim to go - not even for you."
Jim felt his throat tighten again.
Simon looked thoughtfully at the smaller man. "Why do you think I mightn't accept him?"
Blair took a deep breath. "Jim's a sentinel."
Simon was silent for a moment, then said, "Do you know why Kincaid chased me out?"
"Peter said, because you were too fond of incomers."
Simon nodded, very slowly. "Yes, that makes sense. They would have come up with a cover story. Kincaid wouldn't want anyone just calling in for supplies to know we've had a sentinel in the village for the last five years - "
Five years. "Rafe?"
"Rafe. He and his brother were twins and had split the senses between them. Rafe just has taste and smell, so it was easy for him to hide it. He slipped up, warning us of tainted meat, and Kincaid grabbed his chance."
"Typical of the man," Blair said. He glanced round at Jim. "Jim - this is Simon. Simon, Jim."
Jim moved forward cautiously, still not completely sure of Simon's reaction. Simon grinned. "I think I owe you for the loan of these clothes, Jim."
Jim looked closer at him, and his mouth curved into a matching grin. "Well, they certainly fit you better than Blair's would have. How did you actually get to the island?"
"We swam over. Reached here a few minutes before the wave hit. We got just enough warning to make the high ground."
"If you'd still been at Banksville, we'd have come to warn you," Blair said. "But I knew Kincaid wouldn't listen, wouldn't let the others listen."
"I'd like to go back and see if there are any survivors," Simon hinted, looking fairly pointedly towards the boats.
"If there are, we needn't think to bring them back here," Blair said. "If they wouldn't accept Rafe, who's lived with them for a while, they certainly won't accept Jim."
The two men looked at each other, and Simon slowly nodded. "I'd still like to go back and at least offer help," he said. "If there are any survivors."
"And I'm willing to take you," Blair said. "And Rhonda."
Simon smiled. "How did you know Rhonda was one of our group?"
"She fostered Daryl. She wasn't going to stand back and watch you and him walk away while she stayed behind with the man who'd exiled you. I'd say the others with you are Joel, Henri, Daryl of course, and probably Megan."
"Damn. Spot on. You always were good at reading people, though."
"Kincaid wasn't all that hard to read," Blair said quietly. "He hated anyone who was different, and anyone with guts who disagreed with him. I suspect there were two reasons more didn't go with you - a pointless fear of the part sentinel, and a slightly less pointless fear of the unknown territory away from the village." He shrugged. "I'm glad you thought to come here."
"Food will be a problem, though," Simon said. He glanced to the north. "I don't know how far up the coast the next settlement is, and it could have been destroyed too. We might have to go a long way to buy food."
"It's five days' sail," Jim said. "Less if you use the motor, of course. It could be far enough up the coast that it wasn't affected."
"Depending on what we find, we might be able to set up a supply line with your trader," Blair suggested, looking at Simon.
"I'm... not sure," Simon said. "If Jack arrived during the last month - and he was certainly due - Kincaid might well have told him why I was no longer there, in case I tried to contact him, tried to set up a supply line for wherever I settled. The fact that I accepted a sentinel - part sentinel - into the village could be enough to damn me forever in Jack's eyes. He always had plenty of new stories about how a sentinel had bewitched someone... and I'd be another statistic for him."
"It just occurs to me," Blair said, "that the main reason sentinels are feared is because the travelling traders have been spreading these stories about them for a long time, and are keeping the fear alive by continuing to tell 'em. If they were to stop, inside a generation sentinels would be unheard-of in most of the small towns, and if one turned up, as Rafe did, nobody would think to fear him."
Simon looked thoughtful. "Could be. Lee - the trader before Jack - had plenty of stories too, and they both told them to everyone they saw. There were times I wondered if they'd come to trade or tell stories."
"Well, we can discuss that as we go," Blair said. "Let's collect Rhonda and get moving. Jim, we'll just take Wolf. I... doubt we'll find more survivors than will fit on her."
"Hold on," Jim said. "I should come too. If there are injured survivors I could help find them."
"I know you want to help," Blair said sadly. "And I know your help would be invaluable. But one look at that S on your forehead and any survivors would probably die from sheer terror."
"Blair's right," Simon said. "Like I said, Rafe warned us of tainted meat, and the warning, and the five years he's been with us, counted for nothing. Indeed - although the folk with me have accepted Rafe, before Blair and I go we'd better make sure they're going to accept you."
The three men walked up to the house.
The rest of Simon's party were in the kitchen. Rhonda glanced around. "Blair!" she said. "Glad you... " Her voice faded as she saw the S on Jim's forehead. "Oh, you poor man!"
Rafe's mouth dropped open. "You... you're a full sentinel?" he asked, a touch of awe in his voice.
Blair looked at the others. "Jim is here as my guest," he said quietly. "If you can't accept him, say so now. But I'm not telling - or even asking - him to leave."
It was Joel who answered. "We've known Rafe for five years. Granted he's only a part sentinel, and we didn't know until just a month ago, but we've never once had reason to think that he could do any of the things sentinels are accused of. I'm willing to believe Jim is the same."
The others nodded, and Blair smiled. "I've got an old book here - a very old book. It claims that sentinels were protectors. I think they are."
Simon said, "Blair's taking me back to see if Banksville survived. Rhonda, I'd like you to come too."
Rhonda nodded. "Yes, of course."
"I'll come too," Joel said.
"And me," Henri said.
"Count me in," Megan said.
Blair shook his head. "We need to keep space on Wolf for any survivors, even if we land them on the mainland opposite here, where we can make sure they're all right but keep them away from our sentinels. That's why we originally thought just three of us; to have more space free. Jim volunteered too, but taking a sentinel into a village that just chased one out isn't the brightest of ideas. But... we might have to dig graves. So maybe one of you. Simon?"
"Joel," he said. "The rest of you - " he glanced at Blair - "get rooms ready for us? We haven't had time to do that yet."
Blair nodded. "Jim, you know where I keep the bedding. Maybe you could get the food in Panther back to the house, but we'll take some of it with us, enough for two or three days. The danger is over, isn't it?"
"I think so," Jim said. "That feeling I had is gone now. But be careful."
Blair grinned, slapped Jim's shoulder, and turned towards the door. Simon, Joel and Rhonda followed him.
As Wolf chugged southwards, her crew could see the damage the wave had done. It wasn't that the coastline had changed, exactly, but landmarks Blair had been familiar with had either gone or were altered to some degree.
As they rounded the last headland, they could see the damage done to Banksville, and Simon groaned.
"Megan was right," Rhonda muttered. "We owe Kincaid. If he hadn't driven us out... "
"And wouldn't he hate it if he knew," Joel said quietly.
Blair took Wolf in close, slowly because of the debris floating in the water. Two of the uprights of the pier were still in place, leaning drunkenly against the soil behind them, and Joel caught one of them. They tied up, and scrambled onto the land, all of them too, too aware of a faint and unpleasant smell. Less than a day, and already the smell of death was present.
They all swung round at the cry from the ruined village. A child, a girl at most nine years old, Blair decided, stood in front of a badly-damaged house - only one wall and part of the roof, drooping at the opposite end to touch the ground, were left; and Rhonda ran forward, followed by the others. "Lena! Are you all right?"
"Yes... but Roy... "
Lena moved aside, and they saw that in the doubtful shelter of the ruined house, someone - it could only have been Lena - had manufactured a nest. A boy two or three years younger lay there motionless. The blanket she had used for a bed for him was wet, but that no longer mattered; they could see that the child was dead.
"He said he can't move his legs," Lena said.
Rhonda shook her head. "You did what you could, Lena, but I'm afraid he was too badly hurt to get better."
"He's dead?" Although obviously meant as a question, from the flat note in her voice they were fairly sure that she'd already known that, but had refused to admit it to herself, if only because admitting it would mean that she was entirely alone.
"Yes. I'm sorry. But what you did - you made a bed for him, made him comfortable; he knew you were there. Nobody could have done more."
"Can you tell us what happened?" Simon asked gently.
"I was up there - " She gestured at some higher ground. "Mom wanted herbs for a stew, and sent me out to get some. I saw the water coming and screamed, but I don't think anyone heard me. Even though it was early, all the men and a lot of the women were out at the new fields and the water went right up the gully and hit them. The other women, the other kids, were all in their houses... When the water went back, there was almost nothing left. Just the ruins of this house and some bits of others. I was still trying to understand what had happened when there was another wave, but it didn't come up as far as the houses. Alan, Morris and Amy were out looking for wood," she added. "I thought they might have been all right, but they haven't come back. Anyway, I came back down looking for Mom, and on the way, I found Roy. He was jammed against a rock with a big stone holding him there. I managed to pull it off him, and carried him here, found that blanket and made up a bed for him. He was still alive then - he spoke to me. But he went to sleep not long after. Was that... was that when he died?"
"Probably," Rhonda said softly. "Lena, you don't need to feel guilty. There was nothing more you could have done. There was probably nothing else I could have done."
"You said the men were working in the fields?" Simon asked. "What fields?"
"Up there," Lena said, gesturing inland. "Kincaid got seed from Trader Jack - just two or three days after you left. The men, and all the women who didn't have young children, have been up there ever since, putting in fences and digging the ground and planting it."
"Peter told me Kincaid wanted to stop fishing; that farming would pay better," Blair said.
Simon shook his head. "They might have managed a crop for the first year, maybe two," he said, "but that's all. The ground was ruined for farming years ago; that's why I never thought it worth trying." He looked from Blair to Joel. "Another of my great-grandfather's stories. The land was farmed back then, but the wave like the one yesterday flooded the fields; because of the lie of the land, the water didn't all drain back into the sea, and there was a lake there for a while - and although it eventually dried out, for years after that nothing would grow there except beach weeds. Too much salt in the ground. That was when they turned to fishing, gathering what they could, and buying food in from the traders." He sighed. "We'd better start looking for bodies."
Rhonda looked straight at him. "We'd better get Lena to the boat, put her to bed," she said. "She's had a bad shock, and she looks tired."
"Yes, of course," Simon agreed. "If you do that, Rhonda, the rest of us will start searching."
There were three or four bodies among the wreckage of the houses, women pinned down by debris; the three men laid them out gently, then, although it was getting quite late, they turned to go towards the area Lena had indicated for the fields, seeing how the high land on each side of the small river that had supplied the settlement with fresh water had funnelled the wave. As they went they passed more debris, lying where it had jammed against rocks; and two more bodies, which again they pulled out and placed reverently on open ground. As they retrieved the second one, Rhonda joined them.
"Lena's sleeping. Poor child - the emotional strain must have been tremendous, though she doesn't seem to have been hurt at all."
Simon nodded his agreement. "Did she say anything more about the ones who were out gathering wood?"
"Alan, Morris and Amy," Rhonda said. "No. But Simon, if they were gathering driftwood, they'd have been right down on the shore; they wouldn't have stood a chance."
"Mmm, I don't suppose any of them would have been high enough. Their only chance would have been if they'd been on the rocks separating the different beaches, and the odds on that... "
Nobody answered him.
They went on, following the path up the gully cut by the lower reach of the river, climbing a slope that rose to some thirty feet above sea level, seeing how the water had been forced much higher up the hillside by the very narrowness of the gully. Near the top the path veered away from the river, which ran from the higher ground on the right; a few steps more and they found themselves gazing over a huge lake. The wreckage of a boat lay on its side just over the rim of the gully, and Simon immediately recognised Banksville's fishing boat, carried inland by the wave. A loose plank bobbed on the small waves created by a gusting breeze, and bumped against the hull again and again, the soft thumping sounding like a funeral drum.
Separating, Simon and Rhonda went to the right, Blair and Joel to the left, though they knew there was little chance of their finding many bodies; any that had been carried to the far side of the lake by the force of water were too far away for them to reach unless they spent several weeks searching. Any actually in the lake were unreachable until the water finally drained away.
Between them, in the failing light of the next hour, they found five bodies, which they carried back to put beside the others, glad of the moonlight, faint though it was, without which they would have had to leave the bodies where they were until the next morning. In all, there were fifteen bodies, eight of them women, four men, and three children, all younger than Lena.
Leaving the bodies in the doubtful shelter of the house where Lena had taken Roy, they went back to Wolf for the night. Between them, Blair and Rhonda prepared a light meal - none of them felt like eating, but knew they must; and then, tired out - emotionally more than physically - they settled down for the night.
Banksville's graveyard was under the water of the new lake.
In the morning, while the men went in search of more bodies, Rhonda - carrying the two spades they had brought with them - looked for a suitable place to bury the dead. Lena, clearly desperate for the reassurance of an adult presence, stayed close to her.
"What'll happen now?" Lena asked after a while.
"We'll bury everyone we can find, then go back to where we're living now."
"What'll happen to me?" She sounded close to tears.
"You'll come with us, of course. You didn't think we'd leave you here alone, did you?"
"No... but... "
"Rafe's with you... and he's a sentinel." Lena sounded frightened.
"He's just a part sentinel," Rhonda said, "and didn't he warn us about some bad meat? If we'd eaten that dead seal, it would have made us all ill."
"I heard Dad telling Mom... "
"Dad said Kincaid told them there was nothing wrong with the meat Rafe said was bad, that Rafe was in... inflooncing Simon, and using Simon as his mouth; that the sentinel was taking over, and if we didn't chase them away, everyone would end up doing what the sentinel wanted."
So that was how he did it, Rhonda thought. "Lena, think about it," she said. "Why would Rafe have lied and said the meat was bad if it wasn't? It wasn't going to gain him anything, and if he had been using Simon as his mouth, all it did was give him away.
"You liked Rafe before that, didn't you? He worked hard for the village."
"Well... yes," Lena admitted. "But what about all those stories Trader Jack knows about sentinels and the bad things they do?"
Rhonda thought fast. "Did your Mom ever tell you stories? About giants and faeries and people like that?"
"Yes, but they were all made up stories. Nobody believes in giants or faeries."
"A lot of the stories about sentinels are the same. Made up. Yes, they can see better than most people, hear better... But think about your Aunt Alice - she couldn't see anything clearly unless it was really close. To her, you'd have had sentinel-level sight."
It was clear to Rhonda that Lena was thinking it over very carefully, and she wisely left it at that.
There had never been anywhere suitable for a graveyard close to the sea, which was why the graveyard had been inland and nearly a mile from the houses, so while they talked, Rhonda had led the way up the hill to the north of the ruined settlement. Now she paused beside a stretch of grassy soil, high enough to have escaped the wave. She looked at it carefully, and decided that it would probably be deep enough; she put down one of the spades, and started digging to make sure.
The men found no more bodies and decided that most of the dead were somewhere in the water of the lake. They returned in the early afternoon to find that Rhonda had already dug out a reasonably-sized trench in the sandy soil. Blair joined her, helping to dig, while Simon and Joel carried the bodies up; they put the bodies into the mass grave and covered them again. Simon, as their deposed headman, stood beside the grave for a minute in silence, then said simply, "May they rest in peace... and all the others we didn't find, wherever they are." He turned away, and led them back down the hill.
Back in the ruins of Banksville, they searched for anything they could salvage, finding almost nothing. The one thing they did find was that the tank of fuel was still miraculously intact, and they refuelled Wolf from it before they left, knowing they could return at their leisure to retrieve the rest of its contents.
The half dark of two hours later found them back at the island.
The group left there had made good use of their time. While Daryl went off in search of more edible plants, the others opened up several of the unused rooms then, feeling that the kitchen was too small for nine people, they had managed to sweep the chimney in the living room, using a small leafy branch washed up by the wave, which they tied to a stone to give it the weight needed to pull the branch down from the top - a ladder lying against the kitchen wall proved just long enough to let Henri climb onto the roof. There was less soot than they had expected, and Henri suggested that Blair's family would have kept it swept, and it might have been done not long before he stopped using it. After cleaning the room, Megan started a fire in the grate there. As a result, the house was warm and welcoming, while a big pot of soup simmered on the stove - something that could be kept ready for the four who had gone to Banksville, no matter what time they returned. None of them had seriously expected that there would be any survivors, and they greeted Lena with an enthusiasm that went a long way to reassure her of her welcome.
Later, after a meal and with the child put to bed, the others gathered in the living room to discuss their options.
It was Blair who said what was in all of their minds. "The island can't support ten of us."
As the others nodded agreement, Jim, who didn't know Blair's family history as the others did, said, "I thought you told me that there were times when the house was full. That would mean... what? A dozen people? More?"
"Yes, but that was in my great-great-grandfather's time, at least a hundred and fifty years ago - before civilisation collapsed, and bringing in food was easy. When my mother was a child, there were six people living here - Mom and her brother, her parents, a distant relative and her son; and they had to go to Banksville for supplies every week or so, even though they gathered as much fresh food as they could. Mom married her cousin, but not long after I was born, he and my uncle went off on a fishing trip, and never came back. We never found out what happened to them, but Mom always insisted that they'd died; that they wouldn't have decided to desert us. By the time I was ten, there was just Mom and me, and we only needed to go for supplies about once every four or five weeks. And this last two years when I've been on my own, I could stock up with dried food for two or three months at a time. I've tried to be as independent as possible, but I couldn't easily do without that stock of dried food.
"Now we're back up to ten - and there isn't a settlement within easy reach where we can buy in food."
Jim glanced at Simon. "That's true. Like I said, the nearest one to the north is five days' sail away from here. Probably... It's hard to be sure, the wind wasn't favorable, so I wasn't travelling far each day - sixty miles, maybe a little more. It looked pretty poor - as if it was failing. Even so, they wouldn't sell to me. I don't know about the south."
"Nearly seventy miles south of where we were," Simon said.
Jim looked surprised. "I thought it was just the cliffs that kept that village so isolated. Further north, they're much closer together. Maybe fifteen to twenty miles apart at most."
"They must have better land, better hunting and fishing further north," Simon said. "The distance between our villages gives each a reasonable fishing area without two neighboring ones competing, and a bit of land for gathering edible plants or even trying to grow some, as well as hunting ground, though we never went far. There weren't many animals, apart from rabbits, anywhere near us."
"We meet... met... the folk from S'bara occasionally, at the furthest south point we fished. We never went far north, though," Simon went on. "Blair's family was here, and needed the fish they could catch around here. So I never knew the folk to the north, or how far away they were."
"Actually, we never went far to the north either," Blair said. "We usually went south for maybe an hour, or further out to sea. The fishing to the north wasn't very good - big enough fish, but not many of them."
"That would fit with them being poor - they'd be almost totally dependant on what the traders brought in," Joel commented. "Once their money was gone... "
"No more trade, so no more food... " Rhonda said unhappily.
"Collapse of the settlement," Simon murmured.
"If any of them survived the tsunami," Blair said.
"Tsunami?" Henri asked.
"That's what the ancients called those big waves," Blair said. "There's something about them in one of my books. They could affect hundreds of miles of coastline. We could be the biggest group of survivors anywhere along the coast for a thousand miles, maybe even more. And without help - and people inland aren't going to know about it to help, assuming they were willing to - a lot of individual survivors will die. If we hadn't gone to check Banksville, what chance would Lena have had?"
There was silence for a moment, then Megan said, "And we don't have the resources to help anyone else."
"Yet if we found other survivors, would we be able to turn our backs on them, ignore their need? Could we live with ourselves if we did?" Blair asked.
"The most we could do is offer to let them join us," Simon said quietly. "But I suspect that the moment they saw we have a sentinel with us, they'd refuse. You can't help someone who refuses to be helped."
"Since we know Lena was the only survivor of your town, talking about finding others implies that we're all thinking we'll have to leave here," Jim said.
There was silence for a moment before Blair said, "I don't think we have any choice. The island won't support us, and the probability is that any other settlement near here has been destroyed as completely as Banksville. The traders might come in on their next scheduled visit, but as soon as they see the destruction, they won't come back. Even if we went to Banksville and stayed there until Jack made his next visit, it's doubtful that he'd bother coming back to anywhere that had just ten people, if it was the only village with inhabitants on the coast. It just wouldn't pay him." He looked at Jim. "When you first arrived, we talked about the possibility of finding someplace where sentinels weren't feared. I think it's time to go looking."
Jim said sympathetically, "We didn't bring your bags back to the house; I think that without any of us saying so, we surmised we'd probably have to move away from here. I know you took the things that held most value for you down to the boats, but it might be a good idea, now there's time, to check everything and see what else you want."
Blair thought for a moment. "I'd like to take as many books as possible. Quite apart from the information in them that might be of use to us, some of them might make good trade items, once we get past the area affected by the tsunami. And clothes - a lot of mine will fit Rafe and Henri and Daryl, and there are clothes that were Naomi's and Christine's that will do for Rhonda and Megan, and some can be cut down for Lena if the ones left from when Naomi was a child don't fit her. There are some older clothes that belonged to my father and uncle that might do Simon and Joel, and give you a few more than you have, Jim. And enough warm bedding for ten. But we can't afford to take too much that isn't essential - we're going to be pretty cramped for space."
"I thought we could travel in Panther, and use Wolf mostly for storage, towing her. With the devastation, we can probably afford to anchor at night and sleep on shore... or the rest of you can, while Rafe and I stay on the boat."
"Tarpaulins," Blair said. "I don't say we couldn't manufacture shelters - we could, though only where there are suitable raw materials - but it probably won't be worth the effort to make shelters for just a night or two. I've got two or three big tarps still in pretty good condition, and a couple of smaller ones, we could use as tents. We'll need something - the dry season is nearly over. Simon's group was lucky, coming here. They found the only bit of shelter there was, just before the storm hit."
"Yes," Jim said slowly. "Tarpaulins would certainly be fast to make into tents if it was raining. Though if it was really bad, it would be more sensible to stay on the boats."
Although it was getting late, they took an hour to check through the clothes, taking enough that fitted to give them each three or four changes. Blair provided cases for them all, and they each packed one, with Rhonda packing as much as possible for Lena.
In the morning, Blair went straight to the living room after breakfast and began to check through the books. He pulled out one and, without looking through it, put it on top of the bookcase. Jim, who had followed him, looked at it as Blair pulled out another one and placed it on top of the first. "These are ones you want?" he asked.
"Yes," Blair said.
"Although you didn't check the contents?"
Blair grinned. "I've read them all," he reminded Jim. "I know what's in them." He pulled out a third book.
In the end, he selected ten books. "These contain general information that could be of use to us," he said. "They're ones I'd like to keep... along with the ones I already picked out.
"Now - books we might be able to use for trade... " He began to check again, and over the next few minutes pulled out another dozen. "Not quite as generally useful as the first lot, but fairly informative. The rest are mostly fiction. I'll be sorry to lose them, but fiction is a pure luxury, and we don't have the room for that. If it had been just the two of us we might have been able to fit in some of them, but as it is... "
Jim nodded agreement. "I have a few books on Panther, old favorites that I was able to take with me," he said. "I was thinking that if I leave them here, these ones - " he nodded to the pile of 'essential' ones - "could go onto my 'bookshelf' so they wouldn't be taking up extra space." As Blair opened his mouth to speak, Jim added, "What you said, Blair. We don't have room for luxuries."
"You've lost so much... " Blair murmured. "To give up some of the little you have... "
"Simon and the others lost everything," Jim said.
They took the 'keeping' books down to Panther, removed the books there and put the new ones on the shelf, then carried Jim's books back to the house, fitting them carefully onto an empty shelf in the bookcase. Jim was sorry to lose these old friends, but balanced against what he had gained in the last few days, he had no real regrets.
Much of the day, thereafter, was spent with Blair, Rhonda, Joel and Rafe packing Wolf in a way that stored as much as possible as accessibly as possible - although he still couldn't walk, Rafe could at least sit in Wolf and put things away. The case holding the 'trade' books went into Panther. Lena went with Daryl to collect more edible vegetables, while the others went in search of any animal food they could find. In the evening, they cooked the rabbits and chickens the hunters had caught - enough to do them for a couple of days - and packed the meat carefully into containers before going to bed.
There was no sign of Blair in the morning when Jim made his way into the kitchen, although he had heard Blair - strange that he had no doubt it was Blair - leaving his room half an hour earlier. Simon sat in front of the stove with a mug of what Jim's nose told him was mint tea. There was no sign of the others, but Jim had heard movement in the bedrooms and knew they would soon be making an appearance.
"Where's Blair?" Jim asked.
"He's gone to say goodbye to his family," Simon told him. He sighed. "He wanted to be buried here beside them, but I don't suppose that's possible now."
"I remember him saying his wife and son were buried here," Jim murmured. "I didn't like to ask what happened to them. Do you know?"
"Yes," Simon said. "After his father died, Blair and his mother got into the habit of going off for a while every now and then, and four years ago, when they came back, Blair brought a wife with him. They never said where she came from, though my guess is that she was from an inland town. Their son was born ten months later, and they were really happy. But once Michael started to walk, he got too adventurous...
"We don't know exactly what happened. What we do know is that a couple of months after his first birthday, Christine went off to gather shellfish, taking him with her. The most likely scenario is that he may have toddled down the shore and into the sea while her attention was on what she was gathering. Naomi heard her screaming and ran out, but she didn't know exactly where Christine had gone, and in the time it took her to find them, they'd both drowned - Christine wasn't much of a swimmer. Naomi managed to recover the bodies although she said there was a bad undercurrent - which was probably what carried Michael out - but she was seriously chilled doing it.
"Blair got back from a day's fishing trip to find himself widowed and childless, and his mother already very ill. Naomi never fully recovered, and died a few weeks later; and Blair was left alone."
"Poor Blair," Jim said quietly.
Simon nodded. "I invited him to come and make his home in Banksville, where he would at least have company, but he said the island was his home and he wanted to die here. I was a little worried for a while - I wondered if he was suicidal. I don't think that now, but just recently I've been wondering if the day would come when he left and didn't come back, because he finally couldn't bear being where all he had was his memories."
Jim frowned thoughtfully. "He certainly seemed very... accepting that we couldn't live here, that we'd have to move away."
"Yes," Simon said. "I suspect half of him is relieved to have an excuse to leave, but the other half feels guilty about it."
The small graveyard was fairly close to the shore, but had not been seriously damaged by the tsunami, although one or two of the marker stones had been shifted a little by the force of the water. Six generations of Blair's family lay there, but the only ones he was immediately concerned with were the three most recent burials - his mother, his wife and his infant son.
He knelt on the ground beside the grave that held Christine and Michael. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "I love you, and I planned to be buried here beside you, but everything's changed this past few days, and I've got to leave. I don't know where we're going, and I don't think it'll be possible for me ever to come back. You made me very happy, Christine, and no other woman will ever take your place. I promise you that. And at least you and Michael have each other."
After some minutes, he rose and moved to where his mother lay. "At least you're here with the rest of the family, Mom. Dad and Uncle Robert... well, they're together, wherever they are. I have to go - I've got responsibilities to the others who escaped the tsunami, but even if I didn't, there's nobody now to bury me even if I were to stay on the island. We'll probably have to go a long way before we find someplace we can stay, and it won't be practical for me to ask anyone to bring my body back here when I die."
During the two years he had spent on his own he had seldom permitted himself to think of the past, of the happy days he had spent with his family; but now he moved to sit on a big boulder overlooking the graveyard, and stared over the channel to the mainland, allowing himself to remember... not just the time he had had with Christine and Michael, but his childhood and the years after his grandparents died when it had been just him and Naomi. He slipped into a quiet, near-meditational state, finally allowing himself to think of the past, storing memories...
An indeterminate time later, he realized he was no longer alone, and turned his head. Jim sat on a nearby boulder, not quite watching him, but Blair was sure the other man was fully aware of his every move. Sure enough, when Blair looked at him, Jim rose and moved over, to lay a gentle arm round his shoulder. Blair leaned sideways, surrendering to the one-armed almost-hug.
"You're not alone now," Jim said softly.
"I know," Blair murmured. He looked back at the two graves nearest him. "Mom, Christine, this is Jim. I haven't known him for very long, but I like him, and I think you both would have liked him too. He's going to be travelling with me."
Jim looked down at the graves. "I promise you I'll look after Blair and keep him as safe as possible," he said. Blair glanced at him, and Jim grinned a little shyly. "Hey, you said that sentinels were protectors."
"I know, but in today's world, it's the sentinel who needs to be protected," Blair objected mildly.
"Then we'll look out for each other, right?"
Blair rose and turned inside the circle of Jim's arm, slipping his arms round the bigger man, and the two stood for a long moment in an embrace that both gave and took comfort.
Finally they drew apart, and Blair looked back at the graves. "Goodbye," he said softly. Then he turned away and led Jim, not back towards the house as the other man had expected, but a little way up the hill. "I'd forgotten, until I was sitting there," he said. "All the actual money I have, I took with me last time - apart from Grandmother's journals and the Burton book, that's all that was in the big bag. However - my several greats-ago-grandfather didn't entirely trust banks; something to do with a financial collapse a long time ago, when the family lost most of its money. When we had money to spare again, he bought as much gold as possible, in the belief that it would never lose its value. That included gold coins - and he brought up his son to think the same way. It was a reserve, not to be touched except in absolute emergency - the family's buffer against poverty in the future."
"He was right," Jim said. "I came from a fairly large town, and gold, silver and jewels were often used there instead of money. I think my father paid for Panther with a gold bracelet and a diamond ring."
"The gold was brought here and hidden, added to as often as possible - the last time anything more was put in the box was just before everything went to hell, when my grandfather cashed in everything he had; he was able to buy a little more gold, and the rest of the money is what my family has lived on ever since. All of us were shown where the box of gold was hidden when we were eighteen."
He hesitated once, looking around, then carried on, finally stopping beside a flat stone lying against the hillside in a small hollow. He dragged the stone away from the hill, revealing a hole, and from it he pulled a wooden box, about a foot wide, long and high. "The hole is lined," Blair explained. "It's waterproof." He opened the box as he added, "I was shown this, but not what was in it."
It was almost threequarters full. There were bags that clearly held gold dust and, lying loose, some nuggets and a lot of small ingots, coins and pieces of jewelry, mostly set with gemstones.
Jim whistled softly. "That's quite a fortune."
Blair was looking slightly awed. "Yes, it is. But what we have, you and I, has to support ten of us now - plus anyone else who might join us."
Between them they carried the heavy box down to Panther. There was a hidden compartment where Jim kept much of his money; they put the gold carefully into it, as well as most of Blair's money, both aware that in a more populated area, someone might sneak aboard in search of anything valuable. They put the box into Wolf's cabin, aware that at some point in the future they might need to store the gold in it again, then returned to the house.
When they entered the kitchen it was to find the others just finishing breakfast.
Although neither man had eaten, neither was hungry. They accepted mugs of herbal tea from Rhonda, and sat drinking while Joel, who was still eating, finished his meal.
There was nothing left to keep them there. From habit, Blair carefully fastened all the shutters while Jim again extinguished the stove and the others washed the dishes they'd used, then they gathered together the last of the things they were taking with them - the rest of the food, and extra plates and mugs. Then Blair closed the door, took a deep breath, then turned and led the way down to the boats. He had been away from the island several times over the last few years; the last thing he had expected to feel was homesickness, yet already he was aware of a pang of it. The difference, he supposed, was that in the past he knew he would be returning; this time there would be no return.
As the others boarded Panther and Jim started the engine to take them out of the sheltered channel, Blair waited to cast off. He looked back once at the house, unfastened the last rope and jumped aboard, squeezing past the others to join Jim at the helm, resolutely gazing forwards.
Because they knew they could refill the tanks at Banksville, they continued under power until they reached it. The smell of death was no longer detectable, but sight of the destruction was too discouraging for them to want to linger. They stayed only long enough to fill up the fuel tanks, including some small containers Simon had found in the house and insisted on taking, pointing out that after Banksville they had no idea when they would be able to refuel again. They didn't quite empty the Banksville tank, but there wasn't much remaining in it when they left, this time under sail.
They reached another devastated village four days later, not long after leaving the beach where they had camped for the night, and Blair, who had actually visited the place during his travels, confirmed that it was the remains of S'bara. The air was heavy with the stench of decay. There was no sign of a landing stage, so they anchored and, leaving Rafe and Lena on Panther, the others rowed ashore to check the place.
There was no sign that anyone had survived. Bodies - not many - were lying where they had been carried by the wave. In grim silence they retrieved as many as they could find, dug a pit and buried them, then checked the immediate area for anything they could salvage.
An hour was more than enough time to determine that there was nothing they could use. S'bara had been in a more lowland area than Banksville; there was no knowing how far inland the wave had reached, carrying with it the debris of a lost settlement. Returning to Panther, they sailed on, all anxious to leave such a depressing spot although by then it was getting late; they would have to stop fairly soon for the night.
They found a suitable place two or three miles further on, and set up camp in the fading light that followed sunset, but none of them slept well. Waking from an uneasy dream, Jim looked up at the sky and determined from the position of the stars that he had been asleep for perhaps three hours. Beside him, Blair tossed restlessly.
They had already fallen into a routine dictated by the size of the four tarpaulins Blair had provided, where he and Blair shared one, Megan, Rhonda and Lena shared the second, Simon and Daryl the third, and the other men the fourth and largest. Even though that night they hadn't bothered to use the tarpaulins because the weather was holding fair and they had been very late landing, they had still automatically moved into their usual groupings.
Glancing over towards the dark shapes of the others, seeing them clearly in the light of the almost-full moon, he noted that they too were restless. One of the men - he thought it was Rafe - was muttering indistinctly, and Jim found himself straining his ears to catch what the other sentinel - part sentinel - was saying.
He jerked, feeling a hand on his arm. "Blair?"
"Hey, where were you?" Not wanting to disturb the others, Blair kept his voice down now that Jim had responded.
Jim blinked. "I was... listening to Rafe." He, too, spoke softly. He glanced up at the sky, and realized that nearly an hour had passed without his being aware of it. "Oh, hell - I did it again."
"'Did it again'?"
"So that's greying out... But you came back pretty quickly once I spoke to you."
"Not more than a minute or two."
Jim shook his head. "Impossible. After I was identified as a sentinel, I did it three or four times before I left home. The fastest my father managed to get me out of it was about ten minutes."
"Jim, I swear, it wasn't more than two minutes, tops. But if you were speaking to Rafe, why didn't he realise...?"
"He was talking - or rather, he was mumbling - in his sleep. But I couldn't make out what he was saying, and I was curious, so I concentrated harder, and... " He shrugged. "I knew better, I really did. I just didn't think."
"Mmm... Jim - I think you greyed out for two or three minutes just before the tsunami hit land. We were talking, then I said something and you didn't answer me. I shook your arm and said you didn't seem to hear what I'd just said. That was when you said you were listening to the wave."
Jim turned his head to look at his friend, glad of the moonlight that let him see Blair's face clearly. "Listening... " He hesitated. "No, I don't think I was fully greyed out that time." He sounded a little surprised. "You pulled me back before I totally lost it. But if I'd been alone... " He paused for a moment. "If I'd been alone, I'd probably be dead now. I knew there was danger out at sea; you knew what it was and what to do about it. I'd have stayed too close to the shore."
"And if I'd been alone, I might well be dead now, too," Blair said, "because I wouldn't have known it was coming. All right, the house did escape, but I would almost certainly have been working outside. Even if I'd been in the house - and that's more likely because it was quite early in the morning - some of the windows wouldn't have been shuttered and the glass could have broken, and the place been badly damaged. It's probably fair to say that we helped each other."
"I suppose it is," Jim agreed.
Blair sighed. "Everyone was restless when we set up camp. You didn't sense anything that might explain why?"
"No," Jim said. "Checking my surroundings last thing at night... well, it's become automatic. I checked here before we settled down, and couldn't see or hear anything except a few birds.
"I think... Although we've been sleeping on the shore every night, I think it was reaction after seeing what was left of S'Bara, and knowing how close to the sea we are. Even with what you said about how far the destruction could stretch, I suspect all of us - including you - half hoped that you were wrong, because the damage has to stop somewhere, or that the major damage was to the north, and that by the time we got here it wasn't going to be so bad even though we could see the coastline was still devastated all the way to here."
"There's a drowned city not much further to the south," Blair said after a short but surprisingly comfortable silence. "A really big one. I think we might be all right tomorrow night, but we'll probably have to sleep on the boat the next night."
"Ten of us? It wouldn't be my first choice," Jim said wryly, although he'd known they would probably have to do it some nights.
"Or mine," Blair agreed. "And we'll have to have someone at the helm all the time - we won't be able to go close enough in to anchor safely."
Remembering the drowned cities he had passed further up the coast, Jim had to agree. He had gone too close in to the first one he saw, and discovered he was sailing in water of very variable depth. In some places, the remains of buildings that were totally underwater came far too close to the surface. Once was enough; he had given the other ones he passed a much wider berth.
"Talking of having someone at the helm all the time... " Jim hesitated for a moment then, encouraged by Blair's enquiring 'Mmm?', he went on. "From something Megan said, while the others were travelling to the island, they had someone on watch every night. But nobody's suggested that since we started sailing south, even though we've been sleeping on the land."
"I think part of it was they didn't trust Kincaid not to follow them and attack at night. The other part... Although they'd only known you a couple of days when we started off, I think it shows that in that time they accepted you, what you could do - maybe because they already knew Rafe, and realised that he wasn't the monster they'd been told sentinels were. I think they're trusting you to know if there's danger, and warn the group."
"But I can't, if I'm asleep."
"I wonder. You said Rafe was talking in his sleep - was that what wakened you?"
"It could have been," Jim admitted.
"So even while you're asleep, part of your mind is alert. All the same, I'm going to suggest we do start having someone on watch from now on. It's not fair leaving it all to you - even if none of us actually realised that's what we were doing."
"You... You don't need to," Jim whispered. "I'm used to... "
"Having your own needs ignored by others?" Blair asked softly as Jim's voice tailed off.
"Depending on myself." There was a note of utter desolation in his voice.
"Your father gave you a good boat... but I remember you saying that he bullied you into suppressing your abilities when you were young. Did anyone, even your father, ever really care about you, about what you needed?"
Jim was silent for some moments before saying, "He always expected us to be stoic, unemotional... self-sufficient. Even although he said he'd looked for a guide for me... I don't know that I really believed him. It was only when he had to provide for me that he proved generous. So he must have cared... but he never showed it before that."
Blair slid over the narrow space that separated them, and pulled Jim into his arms. "Everyone needs a hug occasionally," he said when Jim stiffened. "Hell, you knew that with me, back at the island."
Jim relaxed into the embrace, surrendering to the offered comfort. They were still snuggled together when Jim drifted back to sleep, but Blair remained awake, keeping guard and wondering... Just what had wakened him?
Jim woke again in the half-light of early dawn, aware that although he had only slept for two or three hours, he felt more rested than he had for many months, apart from his first night on the island. He was aware of a warm feeling of... yes, contentment, that was unfamiliar; he couldn't remember the last time he had felt so happy, apart from the moments when Blair invited him to land on the island and stay.
There were arms around him, holding him, and he felt safe. He hadn't felt completely safe for a long time. It took a moment for memory to connect. Blair! He moved slightly, blinking his eyes open. "Blair?" he murmured.
"You stayed awake," Jim said.
"Yes. You needed your sleep... and you knew I'd stayed on watch, didn't you?"
"Yes. Yes, I did. But how did I know?"
"I think that subconscious awareness you have of your surroundings may have told you," Blair said.
"No," Jim said as they rolled apart. "Not just that. I'm aware of you, somehow, in a way I've never been aware of anyone else, ever. We've only known each other a matter of weeks - the last full moon was before we met, so it's been less than a month - but somehow it's as if I've known you all my life. When you're beside me, I feel at peace. I feel in control in a way I never have be...fore." He hesitated as a thought struck him. "And when I Greyed out last night... you pulled me back, far faster than my father ever did. Blair... I think you're a guide." His voice was a mixture of awe and near disbelief. Against all the odds, in a world where there was no easy way to identify a guide, he had found one.
Blair propped himself up on one arm and lay silent for some moments, thinking over Jim's words. "It's possible," he said at last. "When I first saw you, I... " He shook his head. "I'm not usually so trusting. Normally, in view of the approaching storm, yes, I'd have said you could anchor in the shelter of the island, but I wouldn't have invited you to land. Nothing to do with your being a sentinel, just - well, caution; an awareness that I was on my own, and smaller than you, probably not as strong, and for all I knew, you had the idea of killing me and taking the island for your own. Knowing you were a sentinel gave me more reason to trust you, certainly, because of what I'd read about sentinels. But I liked you on sight. I wanted your company, wanted to get to know you better. Wanted to help you. Even Christine... and Naomi and Michael. I loved them, and I miss them very much - but I think that if I lost you, I'd miss you more.
"We'll need to check how much I can help you control your senses," he went on, "but we can do that as we go. I'll need to re-read Burton first, though, and remind myself exactly what he says about the companion's role."
"The myth is that the guide can suppress the sentinel's senses," Jim reminded him, "so that the sentinel can live a normal life."
"Do you really want them completely suppressed?" Blair asked shrewdly.
"At one time I would have said yes," Jim said quietly. "But now... No. No, I don't. My ability to sense the tsunami may have saved our lives. That's made me realize that the senses can be useful."
"Right," Blair said.
Once everyone was awake, they ate, took a little time to top up the water tanks from a nearby stream that trickled down to the sea, once Jim had checked its freshness, then set sail again, heading on southwards. After a few minutes, Blair, raising his voice a little so that everyone could hear him, said, "We'll soon be coming to a stretch of coast that was heavily developed; we might be able to land tonight, though I wouldn't depend on it; we certainly won't be able to land for two or three nights while we pass it, because it goes on for quite a long way. We'll have to sleep on the boat, and there'll have to be someone steering right through the night. I know Jim's done all the steering up till now - it's his boat, after all - but we've just been travelling roughly eight-hour days; he can't steer without a break until we get past the ruins. I can take over for some of the time, but it would be better if we'd three, or even four, possible helmsmen. Did any of you work on the fishing boat?"
"I did," Henri said, "but I never had to steer. David was the steersman, and Peter his relief."
"I did, and did some steering," Simon admitted, "before my father died and I took over as headman. But that was over twenty years ago."
"You'll probably remember fast enough," Blair said cheerfully. "Why not give it a try now, see how you get on? Then if you and I steer most of today and let Jim rest, he can take over when it's dark - if we can't land."
Simon made a face, and it was clear that he had little faith in his ability to regain his old skill, but he moved forward gamely. Jim hovered for some minutes, but it soon became clear that Simon had not in fact forgotten how to steer, and both he and Jim relaxed as Panther continued on down the coast, driven by a favorable wind. After a little while, Blair said, "You know, people, I thought of something else last night - we're being pretty lax here. Simon, you said you had someone on watch every night while you were walking north?"
"Yes, we did. I didn't trust Kincaid not to follow us, and attack if he thought we were all sleeping."
"Uh-huh. But it occurred to me that we haven't been bothering with a watch while we've been sailing southwards. Yes, I know the land's been devastated for quite some way inland, but there could be a few survivors who'd banded together, or people from just far enough inland to have escaped the wave, who might think of attacking us for the boats, since we're clearly well-equipped. I know Jim does a check before we settle down, but all that's doing is confirming that there's nobody around when we go to sleep.
"I think we should set a watch. We could make it ten till two, then two till six, when we're waking up anyway, and with nine adults it would mean we'd only have to take a turn every five nights, alternating the first watch and the second."
"You're right," Simon said. "It's not likely that anyone would risk travelling in the dark, at least without a known destination, but we were all uneasy last night for no obvious reason; if we had someone on watch we probably would feel more confident."
There was a general murmur of agreement. Blair wondered if he was the only one who saw the gleam in Daryl's eyes at the realization that he was now being classed as one of the adults.
"We'll need to take the clock ashore," Blair went on, "but we'll need to be careful not to get any sand or water into it, because if we lose it we won't be able to split the watches fairly."
"When we were travelling, we each took a full night," Simon said. "But it was pretty tiring."
"That's why we don't want to lose the clock," Blair agreed.
Soon after that, they noticed some ruined buildings on the land they were passing. Looking ahead, Jim said, "You're right, Blair; we've come to the start of the developed area. Simon, I think we should head a little further out to sea."
Simon nodded, and swung Panther's nose a little to the west.
The wind, which had been fairly strong in the early morning, had dropped to a light breeze, but there was enough to keep Panther moving, albeit slowly, even handicapped as she was by towing Wolf, and the decision to save the fuel rather than use the engine was easily made, even though they were all anxious to get past the depressing reminder of what the world had once been as quickly as possible.
It was Daryl who voiced what most of them were thinking.
"How many people lived there?"
"Before everything collapsed?" Blair asked, glancing up from the book he was reading. "Over three million - probably more than are in all of America today. And that was just in the main city. If you add in the people who lived in nearby towns - and we're seeing the ruins of some of those, too - maybe nine, ten million."
"How could they bear to live with that many so close together?" Daryl was far from sure how many 'three million' was, just that it was a lot.
"They were used to it," Rafe said. "My home town... there were probably around a thousand people in it. It wasn't far from the ruins of one of the big cities, so although we never went there, I grew up knowing how big some of the cities were before the Collapse. When I first came to Banksville, I found it hard to adjust to how few people lived there; to how much everyone depended on everyone else."
"It was a completely different way of life, Daryl," Megan said. "Have you forgotten so much that I taught you? Most of the people who lived in the cities couldn't have survived if they had to fend for themselves, find their own food... "
"One of my ancestors who lived at the time of the Collapse left a diary," Blair put in. "It could be the most complete record there is, anywhere, of what happened." He thought for a moment. "Even in Banksville... Before the tsunami, there were... what? about fifty people there?" He glanced at Simon for confirmation.
"Fifty-three," Simon said. "Nine married couples, eleven unmarried or widowed adults, eight teenagers, and the rest were children."
"Right. So you had thirty-seven working people in the place." Blair looked at Daryl. "You teenagers collected driftwood, and sometimes shellfish, right? And sometimes reeds?"
"That was your job; your contribution to the welfare of the village. But was the wood you gathered reserved for your families?"
Daryl shook his head.
"And the twenty-nine adults?"
"Dad was headman... Rhonda was the healer... Megan the teacher... Joel, Tom and Bill were the builders... Peter, Henri, Andy and David manned the boat, and... I think I see what you mean. Everyone had their job, and the ones who didn't collect food or wood traded what they did for food."
"While the ones who gathered food traded it for a house and furniture for it, or clothes, or healing care from Rhonda, or education for their children," Blair finished. "And if Peter cut his arm but Rhonda didn't at that moment need food, Peter could have given Tom some fish, and Tom could have provided Rhonda with something she needed - "
"And that would pay Rhonda for tending to Peter's arm," Daryl finished.
Blair nodded. "You didn't even have to think about it, you just did it. But before the Collapse, people didn't barter goods and services, they used money, so everything was... well, traded, at third hand. Everything had a set price. After the Collapse... Inside Banksville, barter was the most convenient way, but Banksville used money to buy the things that everyone needed from Trader Jack; some of that money came from me - because I didn't really have anything to trade, anything I got from Banksville, I paid for with money - money that I had because... " He paused for a moment, thinking how best to explain it.
"When everything was paid for with a set price, people could save money - that would be as if the builders had worked so hard that everyone owed them several years' worth of food or healing, so they could sit back and do nothing for a while, yet still have plenty of food. My family had money saved, so I've been able to buy food, fuel, whatever I needed. Jim's family had money, or they couldn't have provided him with a boat this big. But our money has to support ten of us now."
Daryl looked thoughtfully at him. "But we need to give you something in trade for that."
"In time of need, who counts? But your dad is helping us steer. Rhonda will provide healing if we need it. Joel will be able to repair anything that needs it. Everyone else is giving us company. You're giving Jim acceptance. And believe me, Daryl, those last two things are worth more than I can say."
"I could learn to steer, too."
Blair grinned. "Well, why not?"
"Why not, indeed," Jim said, and glanced over at Simon. "Feel up to giving Daryl a lesson, Simon?"
Eagerly, Daryl scrambled over to join his father as Simon nodded.
The breeze remained light, and their progress was very slow. The coast continued to show the remains of buildings, making it impossible to land, and as it grew dark Simon, Daryl, Joel and Henri used the small dinghy to take themselves the few feet to Wolf, where it had been decided they would spend the night; they scrambled on board, tying the dinghy firmly, and disappeared into Wolf's cabin.
Although Wolf was being used mainly to carry a lot of the things they would need, Blair - foreseeing that they would probably have to spend some nights unable to land - had made sure the bunks remained clear; and there was, of necessity, some floor space uncovered to allow access to the things in store. The four men settled down, and soon slept.
Back on Panther, Jim had taken over the steering. Blair, wrapped in a blanket, settled on the floor beside him, leaving the bunks free for the others. After a while, Jim said softly, "You can go to sleep, you know."
Blair grinned. "I know. I was just thinking, though - we're going to have to do some fishing tomorrow."
"There are still some supplies - " Jim began.
"We need to keep as much as possible of those for emergencies - you know that. I think tomorrow you're going to get that lesson in fishing that I promised you."
Jim frowned for a moment, then remembered. "Using cloth as bait?"
"That's right." He chucked softly. "I wonder what Henri - and Simon - will make of that?"
In the morning Henri, in particular, watched in open-mouthed amazement as Blair calmly and efficiently threaded short lengths of white cloth onto some of Jim's fish hooks, pulling the leading edge a little way up the line and leaving a short 'tail', and dropped them into the water, then within minutes began to pull in fish. Inside half an hour he had caught enough to last them two days - Rhonda, doing most of the cooking, had begun to follow Jim's routine of cooking for two days at a time, realizing that the sentinel had worked out the most efficient method of conserving fuel. Thereafter, Henri, helped by Lena, took over the task of keeping them supplied with fish.
As they headed on southwards past the continuing ruins of century-dead cities, Rafe and Megan, spurred on by Daryl's satisfaction at being able to help aboard the boat, also took lessons in steering, finding it easier than they had feared - Rafe, in particular, was determined that if the younger man could do it, he could. He was beginning to limp unsteadily around the boat, hanging on to anything he could reach for support, glad that he was finally regaining some mobility, although Rhonda decided to leave the splints in place for a little longer - it was hard to remember exactly, since they had no real way to count the days other than the phases of the moon, but she reckoned it was only about six weeks since his leg was broken. At their next landfall, she decided, she would see if she could find something that Rafe could use as a staff or a cane.
Only Joel was left feeling that he was contributing nothing - one attempt at steering had proved a total disaster because his reactions were not restrained enough - but when he said so, Simon was quick to remind him that if either of the boats needed repair, Joel would be the one they would expect to tackle the job.
It only took two nights for the others to realize that Blair was staying awake beside Jim during the hours of darkness; although Simon suggested that they take turns keeping Jim company, Blair shook his head, and insisted that he was perfectly happy to continue doing it.
Finally, however, the day came when they realized that the land they were passing was no longer covered with the ruins of buildings - there were still some, but they were more scattered. The coast, however, still showed the devastation the tsunami had caused - devastation that had been less obvious as they passed the ruined cities.
"How far is this likely to stretch?" Simon asked.
"The closer the tsunami is, the less chance it has to spread," Blair said unhappily. "Jim was aware of something building up hours before it hit, so this one came from a long way away. It had time to spread quite a long way." He put down the book he was studying and reached over to the bookshelf. "This is very old, but it'll give you an idea... "
He flipped through the pages, opened the book wide at one page and balanced it where everyone could see it.
Simon frowned down at the picture on the double page. "What's that supposed to be?"
"It's a map." Blair looked at the uncomprehending faces; only Megan seemed to have any idea what he was talking about.
"I came across mention of a map in something I read once, years ago," she said, "but I've never seen one."
"Well, this is a book of maps that's been in my family since before the Collapse," Blair said. He looked around again. "It shows details of all the countries in the world - as they were then, but because sea levels have risen the coastlines are no longer accurate. I've never needed to use it - but the book fascinated me as a child, and I looked at it a lot back then, so I know a bit about the geography of the coast as it used to be - and because we were heading into totally unknown parts - I've never been this far south because of all the old cities here - I thought it might be useful as a guide. Maps were usually drawn with the north at the top of the page. I think we're about here." He pointed to an area a little to the south of a city with the name 'Los Angeles' clearly marked.
"Now the day before the tsunami, I went to Banksville. I wasn't as long there as usual - Kincaid wasn't exactly welcoming - and got back home around mid-afternoon. At that time, Jim had just realized something was going to happen, though not what. The tsunami hit possibly eighteen hours after that." He looked back at the map. "Hard to say just where it started, but a tsunami moves at five hundred miles an hour - at the very least." He glanced at Daryl and Lena, whose faces showed blank incomprehension, and said, "It's taken us over a week to get here from Banksville. A tsunami would cover that distance in less than half an hour." When they still looked unconvinced, he went on, "You both saw how fast the water hit, didn't you?"
"Yes," Daryl muttered, remembering the moments of terror as he saw the water swirling around the rock where his father had taken refuge. "We couldn't run fast enough... "
"I think it probably started with an earthquake 'way out here." Blair pointed to where an island chain showed in the middle of a vast ocean, running north-westwards for some distance before turning north towards another huge continent on the other side. "If it did, it would have taken the wave five or six hours to get here, spreading wider all the time. I think - based on what I've read about tsunamis - all the coast to the north of us has been affected, and southward certainly as far as here." He indicated the tip of a long peninsula. "Maybe further."
"Would this bit - " Henri pointed the stretch of water marked 'Golfo de California' that was on the other side of the peninsula - "be affected?"
"Probably not," Blair said. "The high land of the peninsula would protect it. But do we really want to head north again, once we get that far south?"
Simon frowned. "Why wouldn't we, if the wave didn't affect the land there?"
"Because one of our reasons for moving south is to get away from the area where sentinels aren't welcome. I don't know if the boundaries marked on the maps here are still correct, but if they are, if we head northwards up that coast we're going to get very close to America again, or at least to an area that's probably influenced by American ideas. If you want, we can go north a bit and leave anyone who wants to stay somewhere that looks promising - and we can leave Wolf with you, too - but I think Jim, Rafe and I will still need to carry on travelling southwards. According to one of my books - granted it's at least three hundred years old - there are countries to the south where sentinels were valued. That's where we need to go, even if takes us a year to get there."
"No," Simon said. "We're all in this together. Right?" He glanced around at the others. There was a chorus of agreement, and he nodded. "We all go on south."
They landed for the night at a small cove backed by a not-too-high, but fairly steep, slope. A small stream ran down it, and above the line of devastation, Jim could see trees bearing what looked like ripe fruit.
Leaving Rafe to check that the water was untainted, and Megan, Brown and Joel to set up camp and start refilling Panther's water tank, which was again getting uncomfortably low, the others, taking baskets to carry anything edible that they found, scrambled up the hillside to check the trees. At the top, they found a small grove of trees all bearing fruit, although some of the varieties were unfamiliar to them; and, beside the ruins of a house, what looked as if it had once been a vegetable garden, its crops self-seeding over many years.
Rhonda gave an exclamation of satisfaction, and moved quickly forward, to bend over one particular patch of greenery. Within moments she was picking steadily.
Jim moved from tree to tree, checking the fruit. "All edible," he reported after a few minutes, not that any of them had doubted that. They started gathering fruit, beginning with the varieties they knew. After a minute or two, however, Jim stopped, glancing around. "We're being watched," he said softly.
"We haven't seen any signs that people are living here," Simon murmured.
Seeing that Jim was listening intently, Blair moved over to lay an anchoring hand on his arm. "Just one person, and I think - from the rate of the heartbeat, I think it's a child," Jim said.
"Then why doesn't he come out?" Blair asked.
"He could be frightened of so many strangers," Daryl offered. "You know what the youngest kids are like - were like - the first time they saw Trader Jack, Dad - I can still remember how terrified I was of this stranger... and it was the same when Rafe arrived. We could see he was ill, but even so, none of the kids would go near him."
"I always thought it was because you didn't know what was wrong with him, were scared you might catch it, even though it was just starvation," Simon said.
"No. Even though he was young enough that he started off with the teenagers gathering driftwood, it was months before we really spoke to him, and it was the oldest ones who accepted him first. If you try to catch this one, he'll run, even though he'd got to be terrified of being on his own as well; it's what I'd have done, until maybe a year ago."
Lena nodded. "Daryl's right," she said, sounding much older than her years. "If it had just been Blair who came to Banksville after the wave, I don't think I'd have called to him, even though I'd seen him before; I didn't know him. Being alone, not knowing what to do, was better than trusting a stranger."
Simon frowned. "I don't remember being scared of strangers when I was young," he said. "But... I think there was more travelling between villages then - we saw strangers more often, and saw that our parents knew them. But where did we go wrong, that our children were afraid to trust people they didn't know?"
"I don't think you did anything wrong," Blair said. "You know I've done some travelling, and I always found there was a tendency for children in isolated communities to be shy of strangers."
"But we can't just leave a child alone here," Simon protested.
"I didn't say that," Blair replied. "But we will have to be careful how we approach him."
"Let me go," Lena said. "He's less likely to be afraid of me. It'll probly be a while before he trusts any of you, but he should trust another child. And remember I was helping with the younger children; I'm not a baby any more. In another year I'll be old enough to go out looking for driftwood."
"All right," Jim said softly. "He's hiding in the ruins of the house."
Lena nodded, and began to wander in that direction, stopping from time to time to pick some more fruit.
Blair smiled. "Good girl," he murmured as he turned to carry on gathering fruit. "She's making it look as if going that way is sheer chance... Don't watch her, Daryl; we've got food to gather."
"Our watcher is probably scared we're going to pick all the fruit," Jim murmured. "It's probably what he's been living on since the wave. But he can't have lived here - the house is a ruin, and I didn't see any sign of a settlement at sea level."
"He might have come from a village a mile or two further south," Blair suggested. "With this place close enough to it that the people harvested it. So he knew he could get food here."
"But that would only last him until winter," Jim protested.
Blair grinned. "Jim, you come from the north... how many days' travel? This far south, we don't really have the same seasons you're used to. A wet season, yes, when it's a little cooler than in the summer, but you can expect a lot of crops to have a very extended season, at least where there's reasonable rainfall. I don't say you'll get the same kind of fruit all year, but there'll almost certainly be fruit of some sort all year round."
Rhonda joined them, her basket full of greenery. "I'd like to stay here for a day or two," she said. "There are several medicinal herbs here, and I'd like to dry some - they'll keep better that way - but I won't be able to dry them properly on the boat." She glanced around. "Where's Lena?"
"She's gone over to the house," Simon told her, keeping his voice down. "There's someone in there - Jim thinks a child."
"Ah," Rhonda murmured. "And a child will be less frightened of another child. Good thinking."
Blair put down his basket, which was half-filled with fruit. "If we're going to stay here for a few days, there's no point in gathering more than we'll need each day until we're ready to leave. I'd like to check one of my books, too, to see what's growing here, what kinds of fruit will keep best - we needn't take more than enough for a day or two of anything that will spoil quickly."
"There's Lena," Simon said softly.
The child showed in the doorway of the ruined house for a moment, then turned to look back; after a moment she moved forwards, holding the hand of another, smaller, child. Rhonda moved quickly forward; although she had never had children of her own, her maternal instinct was strong; Daryl was not the only motherless child she had fostered. She went down on one knee as she reached the children, instinctively dropping to nearer their height, and held out her arms. Her need to help the foundling was obvious; even the frightened child clearly understood that Rhonda only wanted to help and went unhesitatingly into the offered hug.
Lena hovered, clearly taking her responsibility towards the child seriously, as the men joined them. "Her name is Inez," Lena said. "She doesn't speak English, but I can sort of understand some of what she says as long as she speaks slowly, and she can sort of understand some of the things I say if I speak slowly."
After a minute, Rhonda pulled back a little, looking at Inez. The child was dirty, though not seriously so; she had clearly made an attempt to wash herself. Her dress, however, was filthy; not surprising because it was undoubtedly the only clothing she had. "Come with us?" she asked, speaking slowly and encouragingly.
Inez glanced at the men, clearly unsure of them. It was Daryl, the teenager, who smiled and said quietly, "You can trust us. I'm Daryl." The others remained silent, guessing that it was better to let Inez gain confidence at her own rate than try to force themselves on her.
She hesitated for a minute longer, then her face twisted and she threw herself back into Rhonda's arms, sobbing harshly. Rhonda held her tightly, comfortingly, and glanced up at the others. Very softly, so that only Jim could hear her - and he was sure Inez couldn't - she said, "Jim, tell Daryl to get back to the camp as quickly as possible, and let them know about Inez. Ask them to get some water heated - just warm will do. Get Megan to look out one of Lena's dresses and some of the spare bedding. Oh, and ask Joel if he can find some branches to make a drying rack for herbs."
Jim quietly passed the message on, adding, "Leave your basket; we'll bring it." Daryl nodded, and took off at a run.
As Simon began to distribute the fruit Daryl had picked between the other baskets, Jim snapped his fingers. "I should have told Daryl to get Henri to give Joel some fishing line to bind the drying rack."
"No, we don't need to waste any of the fishing line," Simon said. At Jim's surprised look, he went on. "One of our jobs as teens was to gather suitable plant material to make into cord... and then make the cord. It's amazing how many different plants you can use. Admittedly, it's not always very strong or durable, but we don't need strong or durable for a drying rack. It's only got to last a week or two. If the wood for the frame is good enough, we can take that with us, and just make more cord when we need it."
"You can use hair, too," Blair said. "If we ever run out of fishing line, it's hair we should use to replace it. Cord made from plants wouldn't last well in water."
Jim shook his head in amazement. "Of course, I grew up in a household rich enough to buy what we needed," he said. "We never had to make anything. Even when I was in the army... we had to hunt for our food, but I don't remember that anyone was ever assigned making cord as a duty... or anything like that. The army provided it."
Simon was looking around thoughtfully. "Rhonda, do you mind if we delay another... oh, ten minutes before we head back? There are some plants here we could gather for cord."
"No, ten minutes is fine," Rhonda said, and turned her full attention back to the child whose first wild sobbing had calmed to the occasional sniff.
Simon crossed to the patch of long-leaved plants he had spotted, and began to gather them, snapping them off close to the base. When he had an armful, he said, "This is enough for the moment. If we're staying here for a while, two or three of us can go off tomorrow looking for something that's a bit more fibrous. Rhonda, you'll want Lena and possibly Megan to help you with Inez?"
"Lena, certainly," Rhonda replied. "Everyone else should wait till Inez goes to them. That way she won't see them as too much of a threat."
Taking all the baskets, the men started off down the hill towards their camp. Gently, Rhonda encouraged Inez to accompany her as she and Lena prepared to follow.
On this first night back on dry land, Henri had the first watch and Joel the second, and just before ten the other adults headed for their 'tents' and settled down. It was the first time Jim and Blair had had privacy since they realized Blair was a guide. As they settled down, instead of lying a foot or two apart as they had done at the start of the journey, they found themselves choosing to lie snuggled together. Blair slipped his arm around Jim, who settled his head against the other man's shoulder.
"How are your senses?" Blair asked softly.
"Comfortable," Jim replied. He was silent for a moment, before continuing, "I feel in control of them in a way I never was before I met you. You don't even have to do anything except be near me."
"It works both ways," Blair murmured. "I told you I liked you the moment I first saw you, but it's more than that. The more we're together, the more... well, relaxed I feel. Before, I always felt I was looking for something - it's why I went travelling. I thought I'd found it when I met Christine, and yes, she made me very happy, but even before Michael was born I'd realized that she wasn't what I was looking for, although I still loved her very much and I'd never have abandoned her. I'd begun to get that restless feeling again. With you... with you, I don't feel restless; just being with you seems to keep me anchored."
Jim was silent for some moments as he absently rubbed one hand across Blair's back. "I wonder... " he said slowly.
"Mmm?" Blair asked when it seemed as if Jim wasn't going to say any more.
"I'm the first sentinel you've met," Jim said.
"Well... I'd met Rafe, but of course he isn't a full sentinel," Blair objected.
"All right, the first full sentinel," Jim said. "And you're the only guide I've met. It's possibly not surprising that we've been drawn together; we need each other. But I wonder... Could I have been drawn to any guide? Could you have been drawn to any sentinel?"
"Well, I've been rereading Burton with an eye to the role of the companion - the guide."
Jim nodded; he had registered Blair's absorption in the book over the last few days.
"And according to Burton, no. I'd certainly doubt there's only one possible guide for any sentinel, one sentinel for any guide, because that sort of specific requirement would make it very difficult for any sentinel to meet his guide. It's probable that any sentinel and any guide can work together up to a point - but from what Burton said, before they can work really effectively together, sentinel and guide do have to be compatible - be drawn together as friends."
"And we were," Jim said softly. There was a note in his voice that made Blair's throat tighten.
Was he the only person who had ever shown Jim unqualified acceptance and a friendly smile? Surely not!
He pulled Jim almost impossibly closer, feeling Jim's arms tighten around him in response. Still clinging together, taking comfort and reassurance from each other, both men fell asleep.
Partly because it was a good campsite, with a reasonable supply of fresh water, fruit and vegetables, and small animals that they could trap on the higher ground, partly because it gave a reasonably flat area around the camp for Rafe to extend his walking ability, partly because Rhonda didn't want to remove Inez too soon from an area with which she was familiar - certainly not until she had overcome her immediate nervousness of the strangers - they stayed there until the next full moon.
During that time, the two girls became close friends; where one was, the other was never far away. The adults weren't totally sure at first whether it was because they genuinely liked each other or whether, like it or not, they were thrown together as the only two children in the group, but after a few days it became obvious that in fact they did really like each other. Within the first week, Rhonda also realized that they were learning each other's languages. By the end of the second week, Inez - who had accepted Megan readily enough on their arrival at the camp - had lost her fear of the men, and was managing to make herself understood in English; on the rare occasions when her growing grasp of the language failed her, Lena could usually help her out. By listening to the girls' chattering, the adults - especially Daryl - picked up some words, but were far from being able to speak to Inez in her own tongue.
When they finally left, Rhonda was happily stocked up with several different medicinal herbs and they had a reasonable supply of fruit and a full water tank.
The wind had picked up a little, and it took them only three days to reach the tip of the peninsula. They sailed north up the eastern side of it for a mile or so before they stopped for the night in an area that, although it was clearly inhospitable, had almost totally escaped the destruction - the wave had swung a little way up the coast that they had expected would be protected by the higher ground of the peninsula. There was nobody else near that Jim could detect - hardly surprising, considering the desert nature of the terrain - and for Simon and Daryl, standing watch that night, it was no different from the nights they had watched while travelling down the ravaged coast.
After studying Blair's map in the morning, they set off in a south-easterly direction, one that would allow them to make landfall as far down the coast as possible, but without straining their supplies - especially of water - too much.
On the second day, the wind, which had been varying between light and moderate, dropped altogether, leaving Megan, who was at the helm, unable to steer. Jim shrugged philosophically, and began to furl the sails; Blair and Henri hurried to help him, and after the first moment of startlement - he had been so used to doing everything by himself, he had forgotten he could ask the others for assistance - he left them to it and went to start the engine, setting it for the most economic speed possible. The fuel tanks might be full - they had used only a little for cooking during the days they had been unable to land - but there was no knowing when, if ever, they could get more. Drifting without any power was not an option any of them would choose.
After the gentler sound of the wind in the sails, the noise and vibration of the engine was jarring, even for the non-sentinels, but they soon adjusted. Blair moved to sit beside Jim, and, unnoticed by the others, put his hand against Jim's back, his quiet presence helping to ease the headache the constant and unaccustomed throbbing of the engine was giving Jim. Apart from the two-hour journey to Banksville, Jim had rarely used the engine for more than a few minutes at a time, except when they were out at sea during the tsunami, and he only now realized how much Blair's presence then had helped him.
As darkness fell, Jim took over the steering and Simon, Daryl, Henri and Joel crossed to Wolf; not long after that, the others went to bed, leaving Blair sitting beside Jim.
"Think the wind'll pick up soon?" Blair asked after a while.
Jim shook his head. "I'm afraid not. It's going to rain, though, probably before morning."
Blair frowned and nibbled his top lip. After some moments, he said, "My books are useful, but this is when I'm sorry they're so old. Some things have changed. The climate is very different from the way it used to be even a century ago... " His voice trailed off.
"Go on," Jim encouraged.
"Historically, there were areas that were dreaded by sailors, in the days before there were engines. Very little wind, but there was often rain and sometimes thunderstorms. Ships could be becalmed for weeks. But I'm pretty sure those areas were further south than this."
"Well, like you said, there have been changes. Look at the way all those coastal towns were drowned."
"So the relatively windless areas could be larger than they were," Blair murmured. "Hmmm." He fell silent, thinking, and Jim turned his full attention back to the sea.
It was nearly half an hour before Blair spoke again. "Jim, I think we should change course and head directly east. It'll cut the distance before we hit land again, and if necessary we can camp there until the wind picks up."
"Good point," Jim murmured, and swung Panther's nose round a little.
Late the next day, they reached an island where the land still showed some signs of wave damage, but not nearly as much as there had been; the sea had only surged a few feet onto the land, no more than it might have done if driven by a storm wind.
Rafe, steering, took the boats in close before cutting the engine. Momentum carried them a little closer as Jim stretched his senses, listening intently. After a minute, he said, "There's nobody living near here. A few animals."
Unsure about the depth of water, they anchored about a hundred yards from the shore. Simon looked gloomily at the rain, which had been falling steadily for several hours. "Do we really want to set up camp in this?" he asked.
"Another night on the boats won't kill us," Rhonda said, and the others nodded agreement.
"What are we doing tomorrow?" Daryl asked.
"Staying here, if there's water," Blair said. "If possible we need to wait until the wind picks up again; we don't have enough fuel to use it unless we must."
"Would this make a good home for us?" Henri asked.
"No," Jim said. "It's bigger than Blair's island, certainly, but I don't think it's got many more resources. Not enough to support eleven of us for more than a short time. If we were going to stop already, we'd have been better off staying back where we found Inez. I don't think we're too far from land, though - even with the rain cutting visibility, I could see a shadow on the horizon."
By morning the rain had stopped, although there was still no sign of any wind, and they went ashore to explore their temporary home.
They quickly discovered that Jim had been right; indeed, if anything this island had fewer resources than Blair's, even though it was bigger. Although there were some fruit trees, growing apparently wild rather than as the remains of an orchard, they were sparse. Much of the ground vegetation looked inedible. There was no sign of any animals larger than small rodents. The only thing there was in abundance was water; they found several springs, one of them fairly close to where they were already anchored, and it was there they chose to set up their camp.
Once again, a top priority was filling the water tank; a tank large enough to provide for one person for several weeks could only supply eleven people for a few days, and it was already more than half empty. Next day, Henri and Joel did that while the others went in search of firewood, shellfish and edible animals and plants.
There was plenty of firewood. Shellfish were reasonably plentiful, and provided a change from fish. However, three days were enough to exhaust the supply of edible plants on the island, and the largest animals they found were rats that were far too wary to be trapped.
On the evening of the third day, they decided that they had to move on, even though there was still no wind and they would have to use the engine.
They set off in the morning, and it wasn't long before they could all see land to the east. They passed several more islands, none of them large, some of them rising only a few feet above sea level, before the decreasing depth of water forced them to stop and anchor. They were still several hundred yards from shore, and on the sea bed beneath them they could see what looked like the remains of walls.
"This must have been a coastal plain," Blair said sadly. "It's been drowned like the cities we passed."
Jim focussed his attention on the land, and decided that nobody lived in this area, but he was less than happy at the idea of leaving Panther anchored so far from where they could set up camp, and he said so.
"We could leave someone on board," Henri suggested. "Then if there's a problem, there'll be someone on hand to deal with it."
"I know, but I don't like the idea of splitting the group," Jim said.
"How about a couple of us take Wolf and check the coast, see if we can find somewhere we can get Panther closer in?" Blair asked.
It seemed the best option, and Blair and Simon set off southwards. Before long they found deeper water in the form of a narrow channel that ran inland between two hills. It seemed to be a reasonably sheltered harbor, and there was no sign of tsunami damage, so they went back and led Panther to it.
Jim concentrated almost to the point of greying out before he nodded. "I can't detect anyone," he said. "And we'll be pretty well hidden here. Yes, it seems a reasonable place to stay if there are enough resources."
Once again the party scattered to check the area. There was water, in the form of a tiny stream, hardly more than a trickle despite the rain. There were fruit trees. At the head of the inlet was lower ground where much of the grass was recognizable as domestic grain close to being ripe, and Joel paused when he and Megan saw it. "Do you suppose anyone is farming this?" he asked.
Megan looked around carefully before shaking her head. "Jim said there's nobody nearby, and I can't see a farmer leaving his fields unfenced and with so much unharvestable grass and flowering weeds through the crop. The area has certainly been farmed in the past, but I think it was abandoned a few years ago. Maybe the people died, maybe they moved elsewhere... I don't know how much grain we can carry when we move on, but we can certainly harvest some of it."
When the group gathered again to discuss what they had found, they realised that this area had considerable resources; fruit, grain, other edible plants that must have been farmed at one time but were now growing wild, and as well as rabbits Daryl had seen a small deer. They could certainly stay there until the wind picked up, at which time they could move on southwards. Neither Jim nor Blair could explain why they both felt a strong need to carry on towards the south, even without the hint in Blair's book that somewhere to the south there was - or had been - a land where sentinels were valued; and once again they offered to leave Wolf and a lot of what they were carrying with the others if they wanted to settle there, since the area seemed so promising.
Simon shook his head. "I said it before. We're all in this together. We can stay here for a while, but once conditions are suitable, we all go on southwards. Right, people?"
There was a murmur of agreement.
"Besides," Megan added, "if this area is so promising why isn't there anyone living here? It clearly wasn't affected by the wave; there's no sign of damage to the shoreline at all. I think there has to be some problem that isn't immediately obvious that's driven away whoever used to live around here, and has kept them from ever coming back."
"But what?" Rafe asked.
"The sea's very shallow for a long way out," Henri said, "and I thought I saw the remains of some buildings under water as we were coming in. There might have been a fertile bit of land here that was covered with the sea levels rose. Maybe the people were afraid that the sea would keep on rising, and moved to much higher ground."
"It's possible," Simon said. "I don't suppose we'll ever find out, though."
They set up camp near the tiny stream, keeping one of Jim's gallon containers under a convenient little fall to collect a useable amount, and settled down for an indefinite stay. Part of each morning was spent gathering food for the day; the rest of the time they relaxed, mentally preparing themselves for the continuation of their journey. They would be following the coast again, rather than crossing a wide stretch of water, and hoped that they would be able to spend most nights on land. Checking Blair's book of maps, they realized that their journey would be a long one, but none of them felt any great need to hurry. And as they sat around the fire, talking lazily, the adults discovered that they were slowly picking up and using more words of Inez' language, as the two girls chattered together in a mixture of it and English.
Early in the afternoon of the third day, Jim suddenly stiffened, looked around, rose to his feet in a swift and easy motion, and stood poised to retreat to the dinghy that was pulled up just above the high tide mark.
"Jim?" Blair asked sharply as he too rose, to stand beside the sentinel. Whatever worried Jim, Blair was, without question, prepared to believe would worry him.
Several men appeared from the undergrowth nearby, surrounding the party; two of the men moved to cut off retreat to the dinghy. They were all armed with spears or bows.
"Why didn't I hear them coming?" Jim muttered.
Both girls shrank closer to Rhonda, nervous in the face of so many strangers, as the other men, and Megan, stood to face the newcomers.
Simon held out his hands to show himself unarmed, and said quietly, "We're peaceful travellers, staying for a few days until the wind picks up and we can sail on. We're not trying to take over your land."
One of the newcomers spoke; it could not be called an answer, for he spoke in his own language. The sounds of the language were familiar, however, and Simon realized instantly that these men spoke the same language as Inez.
"Rhonda, try to get Inez to tell them we're here because of the wave, and that we're moving on as soon as there's enough wind to let us leave," he said.
It took Rhonda a little coaxing, and it was Lena who eventually spoke to the men. Her grasp of the language, while adequate to communicate with Inez, was incomplete, however, and the men still seemed unable to understand what she was trying to tell them; she appealed to the younger girl, who finally started speaking.
The adults could only recognize an odd word here and there as Inez spoke. The man who was the obvious leader of the newcomers asked her several questions; she hesitated once or twice, looking to Lena to help her reply. Finally the man nodded, turned and walked over to Jim. He raised a hand to touch the tattooed S, glanced over at the children, and said something.
Lena said, "He wants to know about the mark."
Jim took a deep breath. "Tell him it's to mark me as a sentinel."
The two girls muttered together for a moment, then Lena translated.
The man nodded and replied. Lena said, "Why do you have to be marked?"
"Tell him... Our people are afraid of sentinels. We're forced to live away from everyone."
As Lena translated, one of the other men, horror in his voice, exclaimed, "Manan!" but the spokesman held up a hand, and the speaker fell quiet again. As Lena stopped talking, Jim went on.
"I'm only on the land here because there wasn't anyone else around when we got here, and I do have a guide."
Lena passed that on, the men spoke together in what was clearly a different language, then the leader looked back to Lena and said something.
Lena said, "He wants to know where we were going."
"Tell him south," Blair said. "We know there's a land to the south where sentinels were once wanted, and we hope they still are."
At Lena's reply, the men spoke together again, then the spokesman turned to Blair, asking an obvious question.
"Who are you?" Lena translated.
"I'm Jim's guide."
There was another animated discussion, then Lena said, "They want you and Jim to go with them. Everyone else is to stay here."
Jim and Blair looked at each other. "I don't like splitting our party," Blair said.
Lena passed on his comment, and the man smiled as he replied.
"Nobody will be hurt," Lena said, "but they want to show you something."
"We can't talk to them," Jim said.
The spokesman laughed softly as he replied.
"That doesn't matter," Inez said. She indicated the man. "Incacha will understand you."
"What do they want to show us?" Blair asked. "Have they said?"
"I don't know the words. 'Willka wasi'."
"I don't think you have any choice," Simon said. "They don't seen hostile, and if you do what they want, it might establish good faith. We've got to start trusting someone some time."
Jim nodded. "All right," he said.
Four of the men - the spokesman, Incacha, the one who had exclaimed 'Manan', and two others fell in around Jim and Blair, and led them away from the others. The rest of the strangers remained behind, and as they walked away, Jim heard Simon beginning to speak. He might have to use two children as interpreters, but he was clearly determined to initiate further contact.
One of the four - not Incacha - led the way as the party of six headed inland, into more and more densely wooded land. It was difficult to judge how far they had travelled; the undergrowth slowed them, but after what Jim thought was nearly an hour, they entered a clearing, in which stood a square stone building. It was built in four layers, each one smaller than the one below it. A flight of steps went up one side to a doorway on the second level.
The two men who had said nothing settled at the foot of the steps while the other two urged Jim and Blair up the steps.
The door opened into a big chamber, dimly lit by narrow 'windows', gaps between some of the stones. Jim had no great difficulty in making out the two stone troughs standing side by side at one side of it; Blair scowled as he looked around, aware only of some shadows in what seemed to be a big empty room.
Apparently able to see as clearly as Jim did - or perhaps he simply knew his way around the chamber even in the dim light - Incacha led them over to the troughs, which were filled with water. He indicated than they should get in, and made it clear by gestures which one Jim should enter, with Blair going into the one to Jim's right.
Blair dipped a hand into the water, discovering to his surprise that it was warm, shrugged philosophically, kicked off his shoes, stripped off his shirt and trousers and, clad only his underwear, sat on the edge of the trough, swung his legs over and slipped into the water. Jim copied him, also dropping his clothes onto the floor, and sliding easily into his bath.
The second man came forward and, standing between the two, offered each a small cup. Jim hesitated; Blair took his, peered at its contents and sniffed it cautiously. The liquid was dark in color, possibly green though Blair wasn't certain of that, and smelled... not unpleasant. He took a cautious sip, discovered it actually tasted quite nice, and glanced over at his friend.
"I doubt they'd go to all this bother to poison us when they could just as easily have killed us back at the camp," he said.
Jim nodded his agreement.
Blair lifted his cup in what was almost a toast. "Here's luck," he murmured.
Jim grinned, raising his cup. "Luck," he said, and both men downed the liquid in one gulp.
Incacha took the cup from Jim, his assistant took Blair's, then they quietly encouraged both men to lie back in the water. Despite his earlier words, Blair was unsure of their intentions for a moment, until he realized that his head was being placed carefully on a ledge, so that his face was out of the water. His eyes felt heavy, and he closed them for a moment, then blinked them open to discover that he was standing in a jungle where everything was colored blue, rather than green. Jim was standing a few feet away, his attention fixed on a huge black cat that was sitting watching him. As Blair moved to join Jim, a grey wolf padded out of the undergrowth to sit beside the cat - and then both animals straightened, rising onto their back legs, slowly morphing into men.
The cat-man said quietly, "You are welcome, Sentinel. Your skills are needed."
Needed? Jim shook his head sadly. "I'm not needed. My people fear and reject sentinels."
"They are fools. Believe; you are needed."
The wolf-man said, "And you, Guide; you have discovered what you are. Together you will be a valued addition to the tribe where you finally settle."
Both morphed back into animals; and then the wolf jumped straight at Blair, vanishing as it touched him, while the huge cat leaped at Jim, disappearing into his body as it reached him.
Blair woke first, to find himself lying in a bath of comfortably warm water. He still felt strangely tired, as if he had walked for many miles, and as sat up he remembered both where he was and the details of the dream he had shared with Jim.
"Easy," Incacha said from his seat on the edge of Jim's trough. "Take it slowly."
Not surprised to find that he could understand the man, Blair said, "I do feel tired."
"Yes," Incacha said. "A spirit walk is not something to take lightly. All you will want to do, when you return to your friends, is sleep, but tomorrow you will feel refreshed. And now we can talk direct to you, without depending on two children, neither of whom is completely fluent in the other's language, to translate."
"They did well," Blair protested.
"Yes," Incacha agreed as Jim sat up.
As Jim and Blair slowly dressed again, Incacha explained who he was. He was the shaman of a tribe that lived much further south, and the other man with them, Manco, was his apprentice. Their people valued sentinels, but had lacked one for many years. He, Incacha, had had a vision three months previously, and knew that a sentinel was travelling south but with no fixed destination. With two warriors of their tribe, he and Manco had set off northwards hoping to meet that sentinel; they had walked for nearly two months to reach this place, where they waited, knowing that the sentinel was close and would be drawn to here, where there was a Temple of the Sentinels; the place to which they came to bond with their guides. Sentinels were always drawn to the nearest Temple, once they found their guides.
"The people who live near here already have a sentinel, so were more than willing to let us stay here while we waited for you," Incacha finished. "We are not the first who have come here to find a sentinel, and we will not be the last."
Jim and Blair glanced at each other. "You are offering us a home?" Jim asked.
"Yes. We need a sentinel; there are not enough sentinels for all the villages. We were horrified when your children told us your people are afraid of sentinels, but perhaps their translation was at fault?"
"No," Blair said. "It's a long story, but the people who live to the north believe that sentinels are evil shamans who will harm them. So they are marked to show everyone what they are, and forced to live apart. Most die within a few days of being identified and driven out." He frowned thoughtfully. "It might be possible for the people here to go north, up the coast, looking for sentinels and bringing the ones they find back to safety - but they would have to work secretly - because they fear sentinels, the people in the north would probably think that anyone who actually wanted to find a sentinel was evil, and meant them harm."
"Yet you are travelling with other people? They do not think you will harm them?"
"One of them has two heightened senses, and managed to hide it until recently," Blair explained. "They knew that he had never tried to harm them; it made them doubt the stories they'd been told about how evil sentinels were." He shrugged. "But in any case, they're looking for a new home too. Their village was destroyed by the huge wave that destroyed much of the coast to the north just a few weeks ago." He looked directly at Incacha. "Where they go, we go. We found Inez just a few days ago, the only survivor of her village, but she's one of us too. The eleven of us go together, Incacha. The others have skills too that might be of use to your people. If you can't accept them, we can't go with you."
Incacha smiled. "You are loyal to your friends. That is good. It shows that you are men of honor, that you will not accept a new home if they do not get one also. There will be a place for them among the Chopek."
As they settled down that night, Incacha, Manco, and their two guards, Metztli and Pacho, remained with them, while the other natives returned to their own homes in a village some five miles inland. Their fathers' fathers had lived on the drowned plain, they explained, and they hoped that by settling some distance from the sea, on higher ground, they would not have to abandon everything and retreat inland again. Although they harvested the self-seeded grain close to the sea, they chose not to expend energy on actually tending these fields.
Incacha's party had taken two months to walk from their own land to meet with their new sentinel, but were happy to sail back south - originally a completely inland tribe, the Chopek had, over the past three generations, expanded until they reached the sea, and a boat - with an experienced crew to handle it - would be of great value to them. Wolf was of less value than Panther, because it was powered solely by an engine - and because the Chopek did not have fuel for it, the party debated leaving it with the local people, who might be able to get fuel. Joel, however, was sure than he could fit Wolf with a mast, once they had reached their destination. In any case they would need both boats to carry fifteen people unless they were to be uncomfortably crowded - a boat that was almost too big for one man was definitely crowded with fifteen aboard - so they decided to continue their journey with Panther towing the smaller boat.
While they waited for a suitable wind, Jim and Blair discussed with the local tribe the possibility of rescuing other sentinels from the north, finding them enthusiastic about it. Blair gave them a book containing a map of America, pointing out roughly where they were - on the map, there was indeed a wide coastal plain, with many lakes, that did not rise much above the sea level at the time it was printed, where they had landed - in order to give them a rough idea of how much territory they would have to cover in their search for young sentinels.
Many days turned into language lessons for all of them; the native Mexicans, who visited them every day, would need some English if they were to visit America, the native Americans would need Quechua and at least a little Spanish for their new life.
At last the day came when the wind picked up and the party was able to continue their voyage south. As they set sail they waved goodbye to their Mexican friends, then, without a backward glance, headed southwards towards their new life. There was a long way to go, but they knew that, at the end of their journey, a safe harbor awaited them.