A young man wakes up in a box on an island in the middle of a lake.
|Lord Sisil breakfasted alone under a clear sky, contemplating the subtle-tinted vastness of the mountain lake. His table, neatly laid with silver coffee things, a rack of toast and an assortment of pots containing duck eggs, anchovy butter and jam, was a single spot of civilisation in the grand wilderness. It alone – and the painted trunk a stone's throw from the breakfaster – spoke of easy pleasure and human industry. Lord Sisil smiled appreciatively at the contrast as he licked a speck of anchovy oil from his lip.
A white arm groped out of the packing case like a blind worm flailing. Lord Sisil set down his butter knife. He was a sharp, angular man with a shock of white hair. His pale, witchy eyes seethed with unspeakable emotions. They sharpened to points as a dark head followed the arm out of the box. A face whiter than the arm, with a tinge of nausea and studded with unsettled eyes stared back at Lord Sisil.
"Come and have some coffee," said the lord crisply. He filled a cup and held it out on an immaculate saucer.
"I know you," said the person in the box. Young and pretty it could have been a person of either sex but, rising unsteadily, the person became a naked young man. He gripped the edges of his box fervently but seemed unable to think of a way out of it. "Your Grace," he said after a moment. "Is your man around to help me? I appear to be trapped."
Lord Sisil's smile disappeared. He placed the cup of coffee on the cloth and, selecting tongs from among the glistening tableware, dropped two cubes of sugar into the swirl of black and cream. "There is no man," he said.
"Then how am I to get out?"
"I hardly dare advise," Lord Sisil murmured. "Your coffee, sir. It cools."
The young man shivered suddenly and looked round him, looked up at the empty sky and shuddered. He swayed a little in his box as a bird shot past overhead. The little rippling murmurs of the water raced against his ears all of a sudden and he shivered again and scratched at his back where a lake breeze ruffled the tiny hairs on his back.
"My clothes?" he asked.
"Are gone. You vomited on them in your drunken state. I disposed of them. I find," Lord Sisil went on, his eyes coolly scanning the ribbony distances of water, "that coffee is a great cure-all. You might try lifting one leg, sir. And placing it outside the box."
The young man flushed but climbed carefully out of the box, flustered for a moment at his nakedness and then with assumed dignity, walked wincing over the pebbly shore and slid into the chair opposite Lord Sisil. He grasped the cup of coffee and drank it down in one gulp.
"'Steeth," he winced and then laughed. "I suppose Herring and Bunting put you up to it, Your Grace. I've been kidnapped, haven't I? I told them I wanted the real stag experience but they get carried away. Must have been a wild night last night. Where are we? Miles up the lake I suppose – I haven't ever seen this stretch before."
Lord Sisil's smile was cool as lake-water. "You shallow, self-regarding, prancing little clotheshorse."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Lap dog. Toy."
Perbeck stared at him. Then he laughed. "I don't understand," he said. "Is this some sort of trick? A joke?"
Lord Sisil's eyes grew even chillier. "Do you know what day it is?"
"St Winaloe's eve," said the young man cautiously. "The day before my wedding."
"Twice wrong. It is St Winaloe's day and there will be no wedding. I have forbidden it."
The young man looked affronted and pink spots of temper appeared on his cheeks. "What do you mean?" he asked.
"Mincing little jackanapes," said Lord Sisil, "Do you think I'd let my god-daughter marry you?"
The young man's lip quivered. The breeze lifted and danced his hair up over his forehead as it flushed and paled and flushed again. Lord Sisil watched the changes with the same narrow-eyed appreciation as the drifting of mist over the waters, the dappling of sky-patterns on the almost-waves.
"Lady Milsenti is a young woman of spirit," he said at last. He flicked the dregs of his coffee onto the grey rock and fading grass. "She has money, influence, a great and powerful future ahead of her. She must not become nursemaid to a baby like you, nor your personal bank. I say she shall not marry you."
"She said she would," said the young man faintly. He glanced round him at the bare rock of the island at the ring of water and the more distant ring of stone. "Her parents don't object."
"Her parents are fools," said Sisil. "They do what she tells them. And that is unfortunate in this case. For there are objections."
"I haven't much money but..." began the young man.
"Money! Yes," agreed Lord Sisil. "It certainly would make up for a lot. But that's why you're marrying her. For her money and to be turned into a great gentleman by her father. I will not allow Lady Milsenti to be squandered on such a parasite, when with the right management she could achieve such greatness. A firm hand, a guiding voice – could you provide them? Hah! I have another, more suitable candidate in mind and I will not be crossed in this matter."
"But I love her! At least – I think I do."
Lord Sisil rose. "Explain the relevance of that, sir."
But Perbeck couldn't.
"Now, if you'll excuse me. I must go and tell the bride of your unfortunate demise."
Lord Sisil stalked away from the table. A narrow canoe kissed the silver water on the far side of the island and to this craft Lord Sisil strode Perbeck hopping and skittering painfully after him like a frog on hot coals. He was too slow to reach the water's edge before his noble kidnapper, then reluctant to splash in after him. He gasped as the water shocked him and scrambled back onto land. Lord Sisil paddled a little way from the shore and reined in his bark to regard his prisoner with his witchy eye.
"You aren't going to leave me here to die!" cried the young man.
"No," murmured Lord Sisil. "I will send someone to despatch you thoroughly by and by. But not yet. I wanted you to know your inadequacy before you pay for it. Farewell, Master Perbeck. Enjoy your wedding day."
With that Lord Sisil flicked his paddle and the little craft skimmed off over the grey water like a bird swooping after drowning flies. And the young man stared after him in disbelief.
After a while Perbeck shouted for help. His cries rang against the mountains and returned to him empty-handed. Furious and despairing the he hurled stones into the air, then dodged as some of them hailed back down upon him. He threw himself to the ground and beat his fists against the stones. And finally Perbeck picked himself up and went to eat everything edible he could find left on the table.
His miserable breakfast done, Perbeck walked around the island several dozen times, staring till his eyes hurt at the shining distances around him. At last, like a gnat hovering over the waters, a grey figure came into view. Perbeck shouted to it and waved his arms. The hovering gnat grew curious and drifted islandwards, resolving at last into a low skiff where a few silvery, streaky fish lay dead at the feet of a red faced man with a fishing rod in his hands. He let the skiff drift in and then, just as Lord Sisil had done, he pulled up sharp and sat in the water, a finger working at an itch at the side of his laughing mouth.
"Glad I ain't you," he said.
"Take me to shore!" Perbeck cried to the fisherman. "I've been kidnapped and it's my wedding and take me to shore!"
Intrigued, the fisherman stowed his line with the fish and paddled a little closer. Perbeck hobbled down to the waterline and beckoned him in eagerly. But the fisherman stayed out of reach.
"Who took you if you was took?" he asked.
"Lord Sisil. Come closer. The water's too cold for me to wade out."
"You don't say so?" said the fisherman. "He took you and he took your clothes?"
"No, that can't be it. He took you and he left your clothes. Hence no clothes. Or left you and took your clothes. Hence no clothes again. Which will it be, I wonder?"
"It hardly matters," said Perbeck impatiently. "Jump out and bring that boat thing here. There's room for us both, I suppose."
"Certainly it matters," said the fisherman. "If it was you he took, then you must be worth something to carry over the water. If it was your clothes were worth something well..." He scratched his cheek again musingly. "He got there first, this lord."
Perbeck stared at him. "Come here!" he shouted, a storm of red racing over his skin. The fisherman's eyebrows raised as he watched him stamp about in an ecstasy of temper. Finally Perbeck came to his senses and found nothing had changed except that his feet were stubbed and he was colder than ever. The boat floated out of reach and the fisherman had started laughing again.
"I will pay you to carry me over the lake," said the naked young man stiffly.
"Yes, I can see you are a monied man," agreed the fisherman. "Don't do nothing for nothing. Good day to you."
"When I get to the shore I can get money, plenty of money. I have been robbed for God's sake. You have to help me."
The fisherman seemed to disagree. Perbeck splashed into the shallows.
"You're poaching. I'll tell the Lake Reeve what you're up to if you don't take me over."
"You're trespassing in the buff, squire," observed the fisherman. "And what do I care where you came from or why you're here. You can stay right where you bloody belong and devil take you." He wheeled his left scull and began to row away from the island.
"But I'm getting married. I'm getting married today! Wait. Wait. Wait!" And with each 'wait' Perbeck lunged forward through the water until the lake bed shelved away from his blundering feet and he disappeared with a cry of dismay. The fisherman leaned on his sculls. Finally the boy's gleaming head reappeared and then his hands, which etched panicked circles on the surface of the water.
"Can't you swim?" asked the fisherman with interest.
"Yes," gasped the boy.
"Get on with it, then."
The boy fought down his shock and rallied his limbs into a cautious breast-stroke. He paddled round in a vague half-circle uncertain which direction to take.
"You need to help yourself back to that island, squire," said the fisherman without breaking his rhythm. "Or the bloody angels will be after you."
"J-just let me hold onto your boat as you row," said the boy, reaching out an arm. "I won't try to get in."
"No, you won't," agreed the fisherman. "And get back to that island. Aren't you listening to me? Stop coming after like the idiot you are. Get back! Don't you hear what I'm telling you about the angels? Get back!"
He was sculling hard now but the boy was swimming harder. Despite himself he was young and healthy and the cold water, now that he was immersed in it and using his body, filled him with a bubbling energy. A sudden determination flooded him and an indignation at the way he had been treated, how the world was still treating him.
"I don't care what he said," he thought to himself as he thrust his body on through the racing chill of the current. "I am going to marry her. Nothing's going to stop me."
Something so cold and alive it sent an electric thrill through the boy's flesh, brushed past him and disappeared. He floundered, lost his momentum and the skiff darted ahead.
"What is that?" he yelled. The fisherman's voice flew back to him.
"Didn't I tell you, it's the angels. They'll eat you alive, poor fool, if you're not lucky. But you're lucky enough for anyone, aren't you?"
The skiff dipped out of sight. The young man's head was alone between the plane of water and the plane of air with the undulating line of doubled mountains pulsating round him in a ring. As he hung still in the water, it seemed to grow warmer then a chill wafted over him like a presence beside him unseen.
"I won't let you stop me," said the boy fiercely to himself. He let out his breath and let himself sink under the water, staring with screwed up eyes through the lancing green and grey distances, underneath him at the darkening abyss and up at the shining, black-darted, rippling surface above him. There was nothing nearby. Just water.
And yet, there was something else. There was something down there where the light petered out and the dark hung like some substance colder and heavier than water. Something moved, some things moved and the boy came up for air. The shore line seemed even further off than ever. He essayed a few strokes, picked up his rhythm once more. But he forced his eyes open underwater.
There were figures gliding through the water far beneath him. They were long and white and for a moment he thought they were women with flowing hair swimming silently below. Then one of them rose in its path and he saw the flicker of light across its scales, saw the legs were a tail and the wavering hair a mesh of fine tentacles, scenting the depths. He redoubled his efforts and swam.
They were rising en masse now. They were just beneath him, rolling sorrowful eyes at his jack-knifing legs and stinging him with the tips of their tentacles. The water seemed charged with electricity. It seemed to hiss and spark around him as he ploughed desperately through it. One of the great fish jostled him and the boy cried out aloud for he had never felt something so coldly horrible in all his life.
"Leave me alone," he shouted. He lunged out at the nearest body with his foot but it merely glided out of reach. With a shudder of revulsion he realised they were waiting for him to tire.
"If I can just keep going," he thought. He fixed his eye on the shoreline and there, dancing towards him saw the red and gold flash of a boat. A wave of relief rolled him towards it but then a sucking horror took hold of him. For Lord Sisil sat grim-faced in the stern, his white hair flickering like flame above the bending backs of two burly servants.
"He's come back to kill me," the young man thought and lashed out violently as an angel thrust its cold body against him once more. A translucent tooth caught him, ripped a trail across his flank and snapped at his fist as he swing a water-impeded punch as its head. Agony burst through him as another hideous mouth jabbed at his leg and tore him there. He cried out and water poured into him, the boat lunged for him, the servants leaning over the side with blades in their hands to finish him off. And Lord Sisil stared down at him with no mercy in his witchy eyes.
The water filled with blood. Then a vice seized the boy's arm and twisted it mercilessly, jerking him forwards till he screamed and the blood and water poured into him like poison smoking in his throat. The world turned upside down, grew hard and thumped him massively across one side. The poison burst out of him, scorching his throat once more and running hot over his lips and cheeks.
"Just don't you dare be dead," said a voice against his ear.
The young man opened his eyes. His bride, her white gown soaked pink with gory water held him tightly in her arms. Her long wet locks hung above him like columns supporting her anxious face. It was a strong, wilful face, glowing with emotion and exercise and as his stinging eyes focused on it, it seemed the most beautiful face in the world. He lifted a hand and touched her cheek.
"Sit up, my darling, if you can." She helped him and planted six furious kisses on his chilly forehead. "As if I'd let a groom of mine be eaten on my wedding day!"
The young man tore his eyes from hers and found himself wrapped in damp folds of her white dress, in a red and gold gondola that danced over the waves at the insistence of two stony-faced servants.
"Lord Sisil..." the young man began urgently but Lady Milsenti only nodded and pointed a scornful finger at a huddled figure in the prow.
"That person," she said, "is a scoundrel. He told me you died. He told me that he loved me himself and would stand in as your replacement. But I knew," she said tenderly, to both of them at once, "that every word was a lie."
"You knew I would come for you," smiled the young man.
"I knew you wouldn't dare not," smiled the young woman in return. "I've made my choice and nothing's going to stop me."
"My angel," said the boy. And for the first time he kissed her and meant it body and soul.