Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Cross Bound

by Julie Travis


All there was was the crushing weight of water. The pressure of it was the world, had been her world for as far back as she could remember and beyond. It was the salt water burning her throat, it was the deep sea crushing every inch of her body, it was the roaring in her ears. She was blind, deaf, mute with it but still not dead, not allowed to die. It was as if what she had suffered had not been punishment enough and there had to be more.

And now this: pulled from the depths, dragged upwards by a colossal force, backwards to the surface. A fleeting glimpse of the outside world, the dry world that she'd longed for over so many years, then upwards again but still in water and finally to rest, high above the Earth, in a damp but solid mist.

Then she remembered the plotting that had taken place in the icy depths of the sea. Plotting driven by pain and anger, unhindered by mere blindness, deafness and the inability to speak. And a chance, now, to put the plot into action.

####

Marcus Miller walked to the top of Laughter Hill, sat on a rock, and watched the comings and goings of the birds and insects. Despite the time of year, the afternoon was dusk-like. The low, heavy cloud that had blanketed the sky for months was taking two hours or more off the daytime. Marcus, like many others, missed the sun rising and setting. The cloud was so low that it brushed the top of the hill. At times he felt it wrap around him and he imagined that he'd been swept away from the world, but then it would untangle itself and blow away enough for him to see that he was still on his rock on the top of the hill, and he was relieved and disappointed at the same time.

Sometime in the mid-afternoon the cloud lifted a little. He could see all the way down into Kennet village and he was going to look for his house but something in the cloud caught his eye. It was a figure; a man, hanging out. The man dropped out of the cloud and landed on the ground a small distance away, on the saddle between Laughter Hill and Hollow Hill. It was not the most delicate of landings. He was not the most delicate of men. But it was not far to fall and the man got up and brushed himself down.

Marcus watched for a while then got up and walked over to him.

"Where did you come from? You fell out of the cloud."

"I did not," replied the man.

"Yes, you did," said Marcus. "I saw you. You came out of a hole in the cloud."

"You are mistaken. How could I have done that?"

Marcus scratched his beard and then pulled at it. The man evidently would rather not have been seen. He tried a different tack.

"Who are you? You're not from the village. I've never seen you before."

"And if I'm a stranger then I'm bound to be trouble. Is that how it still goes?" asked the man. "Better if I'm not a stranger, then. My name is Phillip Hawk."

"I'm Marcus Morris Miller. Everyone in the village knows me. They'll tell you I'm an idiot but I'm not. Do you live in the cloud? How long have you been there?"

Phillip Hawk glared at him. "I was living in the cloud for a little while. I won't be going down into the village -- my plans are for further afield. We shall not meet again."

He began walking towards Hollow Hill then turned back.

"No one will believe that you met me. They will truly think you an idiot if you tell them a man fell from the sky. Goodbye, Marcus Morris Miller. Good luck; you shall need it."

"Why will I need luck?"

"Because," said Phillip Hawk, turning away and walking again as he spoke, so his words were nearly whipped away by the wind, "I am trouble. Or, rather, we are trouble -- there are a lot of strangers around today. And we're going to Swim this country."

He climbed the boulders that made up the summit of Hollow Hill, looked around to orientate himself, then disappeared down the other side. It was getting dark. Marcus thought about the conversation. He hadn't understood what the man had said but it sounded like a threat. But the strange man was right -- no one would believe him if he told them what had happened.

Then he thought of the one person who might, and hurried down the lush green grass of the hill towards home.

####

Blue skies. Gillian had never seen such blue skies. The blue was pure and there was not a cloud in sight. She stood in the middle of the field to get the most of the big sky and drank in the sight. The bare skin on her arms was beginning to burn and she knew she should cover up or apply some sun cream but she couldn't bear to move, not yet. For the first time in two months the sky was clear and she guessed that a lot of people were going to get sunburnt today. She soon gave way to her sensible side and slipped on a shirt. But she kept her face to the sky and gazed upon blue, the most beautiful colour in the world.

The last eight weeks had been extraordinary, yet little had actually happened. It had begun with reports of a fishing vessel off the south coast of Iceland being nearly sunk by a bizarre phenomenon. The crew had described it as "the sea rising up like the finger of God." The water had risen about two hundred feet and had then evaporated violently, creating a small cloud. The crew of the fishing vessel had watched the phenomenon continue for several hours, water pouring up into the sky, a waterfall in reverse, the cloud increasing all the while. The vessel had almost been sucked into the maelstrom and the crew had needed all their skill and strength to keep it out, then had fled the scene and on their weary return to land had reported the amazing event. At first they were not believed - the footage recorded by their mobile phones was blurry and inconclusive but meteorologists were able to confirm that a huge, low level cloud had indeed formed to the south of Iceland.

It began to move. It rose to two thousand feet and the wind pushed it south-east, towards the British Isles. And that was where it settled. The 'supercloud', as it had been christened by the media, covered the mainland like a blanket and stayed there for two months. Cloud that was so gray and even it looked like concrete, so low people would reach up to try to brush it away. At first it caused chaos. British airspace closed for a week while tests on the make-up of the supercloud were done to see if it was toxic to humans or dangerous to aircraft. All that was found was that it was unusually dense but it was safe to fly through. Daily life cautiously returned to normal. Those who lived by the coast spent their time looking out to sea, able to see the edge of the cloud, but while they watched the sun glinting off the water on the distant horizon the same grayness suffered by everyone else in the country lay above them and sight of the sun was thwarted by a thick sea mist that came in at the beginning and the end of each day.

And then, after eight weeks and without shedding a single drop of rain, hail or snow, the cloud dissipated. The population -- Gillian included -- ran outside at the first sign of blue sky. It was a time for celebration and while Gillian fell in love with the sunshine, there was one thing that held her back from the happiness she knew she should be feeling.

The so-called village idiot, Marcus Miller, had run into the bar of The White Hare two nights before and thumped the table Gillian was sitting at. Her drink, as startled as she was, had fallen over and spilt and while she covered the table with beer mats to soak it up, she demanded Marcus tell her what was wrong. For a while it seemed as though he wasn't going to speak. He pulled at his beard, as he always did when anxious or puzzled. There was clearly something he wanted to say but it wouldn't be the first time he hadn't been able to express himself.

"He fell from the sky. He's going toSwim the land. His name is Phillip Hawk. He's no longer a stranger but he's still trouble."

Gillian heard someone sniggering behind her, someone else whispering loudly, "They shouldn't let him out". It annoyed her. Marcus was often annoying, but never malicious. She knew he was intelligent and simply preferred his own company most of the time. He also wasn't a liar -- sometimes it was just a matter of deciphering what he was saying. But a man falling from the sky was impossible. She wanted to know what was bothering him but she didn't want it to take too long. She herded him to a quieter part of the pub.

"Marcus. Sit down and calm down. Buy me a drink to replace the one you've just spilt and tell me what's happened."

Over the course of the next hour Marcus told her exactly what had happened on the hill. She questioned him on every detail but he would not be shifted. She had gone home confused and unsettled, wondering if the weeks of not seeing the sun had affected his mind. Perhaps up on Laughter Hill, a place where the cloud was low and touchable even before the days of the supercloud, he had made himself see something to make sense of the situation.

The sun was doing her good. It would no doubt be doing Marcus good, too, and his belief in his own story might have dissipated like the supercloud. Yes, that would surely be the case. There was nothing to worry about.

####

As the sun began to rise Phillip Hawk crept out of the shelter he'd made in the woods a mile south of Hollow Hill and walked to the clearing. The birds had begun to chatter and sing some time before and he had time to piss and wash his face and hair with water from the stream before sitting on a fallen tree trunk and watching the gorgeous orange-red sun appear between the trees. As soon as the exhilaration of daybreak faded, he called to the birds and asked for news, as he had on the last three mornings since he had dropped from the cloud. And this time they had something for him. Bird had talked to bird across the country and this is what they had learned:

In Scotland, Alison Maundy, Sister Claire and Sabbat were making their way to the agreed locations. Progress was slow due to the terrain and the weather, but the three, like all of them, were reacquainting themselves with the land, enjoying the world above the sea again. Hawk accepted that no one would be in too much of a hurry.

Four of the Swimmers had dropped in the middle of England; Abigail Mouse-Maker, Renfrew, de Gilles and the child, Ronwen. Two were walking towards the coast, but two were not -- Abigail Mouse-Maker and de Gilles were walking inland, south and west. As far as Hawk could tell, they appeared to be heading towards Okehampton, their hometown nearly four hundred years before.

The two other Swimmers to have dropped in the south (Hawk being the third) - Gertrude Sticks and Siri Hex III - appeared to be safe and walking according to plan.

The last news that came in, from the north, was the worst. Brocken and Old Babble had dropped safely but Matthew Heart had met with disaster. He had misjudged the distance of the drop and had fallen on his head, smashing his skull. He had lain on a Cumbrian mountain for more than a day before dying.

Hawk cried for him and screamed at the trees. All the things Matthew had gone through to die a stupid, lonely death. When he had regained a little composure he wondered about the plan. Would it still work with one less of them? What were Mouse-Maker and de Gilles doing heading to Okehampton? The stinking sewer of a town where they had met such persecution surely held no attraction for either of them. If he had to go there and fetch them they would regret it.

While Phillip Hawk brooded, a woman quietly sat on a pebble beach on the south-eastern tip of the country. Between the strange chalets perched on the beach and the stranger forms of the nuclear power station sat Gertrude Sticks, a large pile of reeds at her side. She looked a mess. Her hair was matted and covered in algae, her clothes ragged. The people who walked past her took her to be an artist and smiled at her as she worked, plaiting the reeds into a rope. Left-over-middle, right-over-middle, left-over-middle, right-over-middle. It needed to be long and strong. By the time she'd finished it was late in the day and all the people had gone from the beach. She heaved at the reed-rope. It was solid. She wound it around her waist and then, with both hands free, scooped up a pile of pebbles. She muttered a phrase then spat over the stones. The spit made the stones bubble and soften. She pushed them together and they fused into one larger, multi-coloured rock. She put the rock down and pushed more pebbles in until it looked more like a boulder. She tied one end of the reed-rope to it, the other firmly to her waist.

It was dark now. The moon gave little light, but she could hear exactly how far away the sea was. She burrowed down into the pebbles as far as her knees and then she was ready. Heaving the boulder up above her head, she listened to the waves breaking precisely forty-nine and a third yards away then, with a scream, hurled the boulder deep into the oncoming tide.

"It has begun," she gasped.

####

During his early lifetime, de Gilles tried to be a farmer. That, his father told him, was the essence of life and thanks should be given to God for the privilege of toiling the land. By the age of fifteen, de Gilles was cursing God daily for the near-impossible task of making things grow. His crops produced mediocre harvests and he found no pleasure in battling against the poor quality land, the uncontrollable weather and the thieving birds for the pitiful results he gained. He left his family in Somerset and travelled the West Country before settling in Okehampton, by which time he had become obsessed with alchemy. He met with practitioners and magicians and began learning the art himself. Despite his best attempts at secrecy, his lifestyle -- mostly reclusive but with occasional drunken binges that ended in violent fights in the inns and streets of the town - and strange appearance aroused suspicion and in 1610, at the age of 35, life as he knew it ended. The discovery of his room, which was obsessively ordered, covered in symbols and indecipherable writing, frightened his landlord and the sight of de Gilles collapsed on the floor in a chalk circle, shaven headed, his lengthy beard wrapped around his face, making bizarre, animal noises, was all the evidence the landlord needed to make a formal accusation of sorcery.

He was imprisoned and tortured and made a most imaginative and disgusting confession. In a final public show of strength on behalf of the Church, the local Justice paraded the shuffling, damaged remains of him through the streets to the edge of the river. There they had him cross bound, his left thumb tied to the big toe of his right foot, and Swum in the river. He sank in the swirling water and was never seen again. In his absence he was declared innocent of all charges of witchcraft and consorting with demons. The Justice prayed for his soul and prepared to question the next accused.

And now here he was, four hundred years older and wiser, healed in body but most certainly not in mind, striding through the monstrosity that Somerset had become, with Abigail Mouse-Maker, a witch in her previous life, trying to keep up with him.

"This shire! It has become one gigantic village. And it is even more barren and grotesque than when I left," he protested.

Abigail Mouse-Maker grabbed his gesturing arm. "Everything will have changed, Gill. We knew this. Your rage shall be counter-productive. We must return to the plan. It is revenge enough."

De Gilles stopped. He turned and faced her, something he was usually reluctant to do. Abigail Mouse-Maker had not fared well, either in the last minutes of her life or in the seas afterwards. She had been caught in the act of sorcery little more than a year after de Gilles' disappearance. One of the few burnt at the stake instead of hanged for witchcraft, she had been pulled from the fire by her husband. He had poured water on her to douse the flames but to his horror and disbelief, she had dissolved before his eyes, the water that he hoped would save her splitting into glutinous balls and rolling the fragments of her --uphill-- to a stream.

She'd had one last glimpse of him as he ran up to the stream and stared into the water. It took her away and eventually dropped her into the sea, where she was returned to her former shape. The sea had cooled her terrible burns but unlike de Gilles, the salt water had not healed the wounds. Her body was a mass of melted skin. Her hair, long and black in life, now lay in clumps on her scalp and her limbs were withered and twisted. Most terrible was her face, part of which had been completely burnt away; her lipless mouth was set in a perpetual grotesque grin. Despite her disfigurement she considered herself lucky -- unlike de Gilles her soul was intact.

At his insistence she picked up a filthy blanket dumped by the roadside. It covered much of her up and stopped some of the horrified attention they were receiving. He nonetheless found her disgusting to look at and told her so. And he could not understand why she had no wish to take personal revenge on the descendants of those who'd tortured her, as he intended to do.

"England will pay for what it did to us and to so many others," Abigail continued, "but only if we do as we agreed."

"The plan will be carried out," said de Gilles. "I have thought about this; we can settle some scores and then take our places along the banks of the River Dart. It will be as effective as our original plan, I am sure of it."

He continued to walk.

This time Abigail Mouse-Maker kept up with him.

####

There might be something to worry about after all, Gillian thought, as she listened to Marcus speculating about his own death. She had met him in the street under a sky that was scattered with fluffy, harmless clouds and she had expected him to be as happy now as everyone else seemed to be. To a certain extent he was; the sun had him squinting and smiling as he greeted her. But he followed it with a comment about how he was going to make the most of it before they were all killed and did she know if drowning was painful. He clearly still believed utterly in his story. She came straight to the point and told him about the research she had been doing. Most of it, anyway; she said nothing of the reports of the sea level rising in Dungeness, with the locals suspecting the supercloud of being to blame.

"I found a Phillip Hawk on the internet, from the early 1600s. He was a witch. Did you know this, Marcus?"

Marcus shook his head. "I didn't, but it would make sense. How else could he live in the supercloud?"

He glowered, suddenly understanding what she was getting at. "I don't use the internet. I haven't made it up. I thought you believed me. We're all scuppered and it's going to happen because no one thinks that it will and so they won't do anything to stop it."

She felt terrible then, for it was clear there were few people he had faith in. Swayed by guilt, she agreed to go to the site of the alleged meeting. Marcus was sure there would be a sign there, proof that his story was true. And so they walked up Laughter Hill, the pace just quick enough and the hill just steep enough to give Gillian a stitch in her side long before they'd reached the top. Marcus, also gasping for breath, was reduced to pointing at where he'd been and then up in the sky to where he'd seen Phillip Hawk drop from the cloud.

There was nothing. The blue sky made a mockery of the very idea of the supercloud and at the point where Hawk had allegedly hit the ground was a worm writhing in the mud. Nothing else.

"After we talked, he walked across to Hollow Hill, stopped at the top and looked around, then disappeared. I had it in my mind that he had somewhere to go," said Marcus.

They walked, alongside one another this time, along the saddle to Hollow Hill. Gillian remembered stories of the place, the network of caves that had been discovered long ago. It was undoubtedly a natural phenomenon caused by water and wind and time, but folklore described a band of pixies mining the hill and making their way around through the tunnels, unseen and almost forgotten, with evil intent for anyone caught trespassing. For a moment she wondered whether Phillip Hawk was with them. Waiting. Then they were atop the hill and it was peaceful, with just the mewing call of a pair of buzzards wheeling around the nearby wood to break the silence.

"There's no way of knowing where he went," said Gillian. "Where on Earth would we look?"

Marcus took out a pair of binoculars and slowly panned around. The buzzards caught his eye and he smiled briefly, enjoying the shape the birds made in the sky. He lowered his binoculars to the wood and gave a sharp cry.

"There! Smoke coming from the wood! I bet he's camping there. Thank you, buzzards."

Gillian could see a thin plume of smoke. It certainly looked like a camp fire. But it could be anyone -- a traveller, a vagrant, even children. She did not want to go running around the countryside to please Marcus. If, however, the man whom he'd met, (and she was sure he had met someone that day), was indeed in the wood, the story could be put to rest for the tall tale it surely was. The wood was not far away. It would be time well spent.

"All right, Marcus, we'll go to the wood and see who's made the fire. And then I'm going home. Okay?"

He nodded and they set off down the slope. The closer they got, the more uneasy Gillian became. Just what was she walking in to? What would they find? And she realised why Marcus had trusted her with his story; because she could imagine that a man, a witch, who was supposed to have died hundreds of years before, was tending a fire in the woods after falling from a cloud.

They took a track that led to the centre of the wood, taking time to look around for the fire. And near the centre, in a small clearing, they found it. A few feet away, on a tree stump, sat the most extraordinary man Gillian had ever seen. Not so much in his appearance -- he was shabbily dressed, in a tunic that didn't quite cover his belly, the remains of badly-made trousers and shaggy hair -- which was odd, but just as Marcus had described, but in what he was doing.

He was feeding meat to a bird of prey that sat on his arm. And he was talking to it.

Gillian guessed, from the mewing cries of the bird and its size, that it was a buzzard, perhaps one of the pair that had been circling the wood. The man was using similar sounds. And they seemed to be communicating quite effectively. He was asking questions and the buzzard, after some consideration, was replying. The sight, which should have filled her with wonder, or terror, or some other intense emotion, only made her heart sink. This was trouble.

Marcus, on the other hand, was overjoyed. Not only did this prove his story to Gillian, he was happy to see the man who had fallen from the clouds. And what was more, he had a buzzard on his arm.

"Phillip Hawk!" he shouted, running in to the clearing. Hawk, engrossed in the conversation, was startled. At the sight of Marcus the bird took fright and flew away, its talons tearing into Hawk's arm as it lifted off. Hawk grabbed his arm, swearing loudly at the pain and stood face to face with Marcus.

Frightened for Marcus' safety, Gillian ran out of the cover of the trees.

"I'm so sorry! He didn't mean for that to happen. He just wanted to find you."

"And found me he has," said Hawk through gritted teeth. "What is the nature of this intrusion?"

Was that a Lancashire accent? Gillian couldn't be sure.

"Well, first of all, you have a wound to clean. I have some water with me," she said.

She pulled the bottle from her bag and held it out. He let her splash some on the cuts, swearing again as the water entered the wounds. Marcus offered his handkerchief.

"It's clean. I'm sorry you got hurt. I've never seen anyone talk to a buzzard before. What was it saying?"

Hawk said nothing for a while. He sat back down and covered his arm. Then he looked up.

"Are there many more of you skulking out there?"

"It's just us two," said Marcus. "Gillian almost believed that you came from the supercloud, so I had to find you, to prove it."

"The cloud," said Hawk, "was just a means to an end. The end was to get back here, on dry land, in order to carry out a plan. Tell me; are either of you employed by the Church?"

Their expressions confirmed that they were not.

"Good Christian people, are you?" he asked.

"The Christian church has been responsible for many atrocities over the years," said Gillian. "Speaking for myself, I would hope that I'm a good person. But I'm not a Christian."

Hawk looked at Marcus.

"God," said Marcus, "is for children. So parents don't have to tell the truth about death."

"In which case," said Hawk, "I will show the pair of you mercy. Leave the mainland. If you stay in England, you will die."

And while the blood dried on his arm, he told them how, throughout his life -- which had begun in 1569 and had officially ended in 1612 - countless people around the country had been imprisoned, tortured and put to death, accused of witchcraft and all manner of obscenities with demons, imps and the Devil himself. In some cases, he was keen to stress, there was no truth at all in the accusations.

"Does that mean that in most of the cases itwas true?" asked Marcus.

"If a person should cast a spell to encourage a good harvest, or a calf to be born alive and healthy, would that be a sin?" said Hawk. "Many of these accusations came about from arguments between one person and another, from old feuds or simple jealousy. Brutal times. Such an accusation was levelled at myself. I was taken to Lancaster Castle and there I was questioned. Various encouragements were made to force a confession out of me. And a babbling confession I did make, but they were not satisfied and theySwam me, as they Swam many others. Should I float, then I would be deemed guilty, should I sink I would be seen to be innocent. All I remember of it was a blessed feeling of leaving this world. And then came the taste of salt water. A dozen of us Swimmers were taken from the torture but not to Hell or even Heaven. We had passed down the rivers of England and into the sea. And that is where we stayed until ten weeks ago. It is a long time, not dying but not being fully alive, able to express our anger and grief at losing our loved ones, a long time to feel pain. A plan came about. Those with the power of sorcery would teach the others, and we would return to England and make her taste the salt sea. And feel the smallest part of what we have been feeling all this time.

"But I will show you two mercy. Do as I say; leave now and you will be saved."

Gillian was torn. The man's story -- which she no longer doubted was true -- was appalling but he was implying a terrible revenge.

"No one living now is to blame for what happened. The people responsible are long dead."

"The Justice and the torturers and the man who accused me are all dead, but, alas, many more of their kind remain. This country is as beautiful as I remember it being, but it is an evil land nonetheless. It is too late to make representations otherwise; you cannot undo four hundred years of anguish."

"What are you going to do, exactly? What did you mean just now?"

And Hawk told them the plan:

Twelve Swimmers. Twelve conspirators. Twelve points around the mainland of Britain. Each Swimmer to find or create by magic a rock, tie it to themselves using a long rope (or something fashioned from whatever is available) then the rock to be thrown into the sea. The weight of it -- magically increased to an incredible amount by the Swimmer -- will drag that region of the country under the sea. When all twelve have completed their task, the country will succumb and become submerged. Justice. Vengeance.

Gillian shook her head. "No! It's cold blooded murder. And now we know about it, you must expect us to stop you."

Hawk shrugged. "How can you? Either you'll decide you don't believe me, or no one shall believeyou. People will think you mad, will they not? Neither of you can fight sorcery. The best you can do is escape the country. You have a day, two at most. Now leave me. I have many things to do."

There was no negotiating to be done. Gillian beckoned to Marcus. They needed to be away from Hawk to discuss their options. As they left the wood they were startled by a group of rooks, cawing loudly and tumbling through the air as they flew.

The birds were on their way to see Phillip Hawk. And they had some very bad news for him.

####

The rooks were excited. Their roost, in the trees at the edge of a field some miles away, had always been a place of activity, of gossip and information. Usually it concerned the whereabouts of food, the weather, or how the current year's young were faring, but news from afar was also discussed, carried by birds migrating or returning home. News from all over the country could be passed around. The supercloud had sparked much discussion and anxiety amongst the birds. What was it? How dangerous was it? Would it ever go away? They were much the same questions that had been asked by humans. Apart from Marcus Miller, birds had been the only witnesses to the Swimmers dropping from the cloud, and the event had raised even more concern amongst them.

Phillip Hawk had helped the birds; he had spread information, telling them not to be afraid. The cloud would not hurt them, they'd learned, but they needed to prepare to leave mainland Britain very soon, forever. In return he had asked for sightings of the Swimmers, to see how their journeys were progressing and how they were coping with being back on land, with the living. The birds, ever ready to chatter about something, had been happy to help. Good news or bad, they were glad to pass messages on.

The rooks found their way to the clearing and landed on the ground. Phillip Hawk was looking at them expectantly but they were far too excited to talk of his comrades yet. For some minutes they hopped about and cawed to one another. Then they settled down and Hawk, almost screaming with impatience by this point, was finally given the news:

"The child, Ronwen, has met with tragedy," said one. "She was attempting to cross a road and was run over and killed."

The rooks gave noisy condolences; they knew much about losses from cars.

"And there has been another fatality," continued the rook.

It told Hawk the story: Sister Claire had been heading towards the western coast of Scotland but, after starting well, had made little headway. She had been walking through rivers, bathing frequently in them and drinking from them as if she had an unquenchable thirst. Such behaviour puzzled the birds but Phillip Hawk understood; her body had not readapted to life on land. She had been drying out. She was found, collapsed, by a female osprey out hunting. She had pecked at Sister Claire to see if she could wake her but the woman was dead and, despite the rain, dried out almost to dust.

The make matters worse, the errant pair, de Gilles and Abigail Mouse-Maker, were indeed in Okehampton. What they were doing there and whether intended to carry out their part of the plan Hawk could not guess. He hoped for the best but had to assume that as things stood they were all but useless. Nearly half the conspirators were gone. Would this make the plan unworkable? With the rooks gathered around him, Hawk drew a rough map of Britain in the mud with a stick, and marked where the remaining Swimmers should be.

It was not enough. Abagail Mouse-Maker and de Gilleshadto take part in some capacity. Okehampton was relatively close to his location -- a day and a half's walk, perhaps, over the harsh terrain of the moor. They would be easy to find, would stand out a mile in this changed land. Unable to be trusted alone, they would go with him to the coast.

He turned back to the rooks.

"What about the other Swimmers?" he asked.

At last they had some good news for him -- Gertrude Sticks, buried deep under the shingle at Dungeness, had not been discovered and Siri Hex III was about to drag the Land's End under the sea.

The authorities would panic. The masses would soon follow -- if people carried news half as fast as birds did, then the whole of southern England would shortly be in uproar. The task, grim now rather than celebratory as it had seemed during the plotting, stretched ahead. But if he left the wood tonight, he could be in Okehampton to deal with the matter of the two errant Swimmers and back under the sea before many more days had passed. To his surprise, he was quite relieved at the thought.

####

When they had first found themselves thrown together there had been chaos and panic. It had taken months, perhaps years, to not constantly, desperately, try to reach the surface of the sea, to stop choking on sea water; to realise there was no reason to choke on it. Their bodies had adapted to water from the moment they were thrown in. Exhausted, terrified, in agony from the injuries sustained from torture, death would surely have been a joyous release but they fought it nonetheless. And they did not drown. Their lungs filled with water and they sank. Once out of sight, safe from their accusers, their lungs cleared. The enormity of the miracle, even to the sorcerers amongst them, was difficult to comprehend.

Abigail Mouse-Maker, whose body had dissolved by the water thrown on her by her husband, had wanted to scream with defiance and ecstasy when the pieces of her had regrouped. It was she who had been first to come to terms with the situation and to begin communication with the eleven other souls floundering under the sea. They began to talk, and told their stories of suffering. They discovered they had all endured terrible wrongs. Most had left families behind, people who would grieve for them forever.

One, Siri Hex III, descended from a long line of mad men and women, all much skilled in magic, had been parted from his pregnant wife. His particular forte had been transformation, concocting ointments that, when applied correctly, had turned himself and his wife into all manner of creatures. In his struggles to free himself from being cross bound, he had torn off his left thumb. Under the sea it had re-grown; first a healed wound, then a lump of protruding skin and bone which grew and shaped, eventually a joint and even a nail forming. He had not cast any spells and was without his ointment. Magic, he had concluded in wonder, flowed naturally through his veins.

He wondered now, as he stood on the mighty granite cliffs of the Land's End, how Martha, his wife, had coped. He imagined their child -- which he'd foreseen would be a daughter -- growing up into a wonderful, strange woman, full of questions about the father she had never met.

This was for them.

He put his arms as far as he could around a square stack of granite, the razor sharp barnacles that stuck to its surface cutting his skin. He spoke a word, put his mouth to the granite as if kissing it, then spoke the word again, more harshly this time. And the rock split from one side to the other, freeing it from the ground.

After that it was a fairly simple matter of securing the gorse rope he'd made; one end to himself, the other to the rock, cloth wrapped around his hands to protect them from the spiky plant. There were no people around. Only a pair of herring gulls watched him work.

He whispered a dedication; "For Martha. For my daughter. For myself."

The granite sent up a huge wave as it hit the water and then was gone. Siri Hex III, breathless from the effort of heaving it off the cliff, smiled for the first time in four centuries. He'd be with his family soon, and that was the greatest magic of all.

####

Gillian was almost at a run by the time she got home. Marcus was a few paces behind. As they got through the door, he asked her what she was going to do.

"Well, what I want to do is go to every house in the village and warn them, but that bastard was right. No one will believe me. And I'm still not sure what's actually going to happen. Just that something is going to happen. So I'm going to fight his magic with my own."

Marcus' jaw sagged. "I didn't know you did magic."

She held up a hand. "I'm going to use the internet. See if anything's happening around the coast. And if it is, I'll ask for help. Intelligently."

Marcus scowled at the mention of the internet but sat in sight of her ancient monitor. She went straight to the BBC and saw the breaking news -- the Land's End theme park had been evacuated and half the buildings had collapsed. The whole area was standing at a severe angle and the famous granite cliffs had sunk to sea level. With Dungeness also well under the English Channel disaster had now struck the south eastern and south western corners of Britain for no apparent reason. People living in both regions were frightened. Many were packing up and leaving.

"It's happening," said Marcus. "I knew he was telling the truth all along."

His voice choked with emotion.Don't cry, thought Gillian,if you cry then so will I and that will get us nowhere.

"Yes," she said, "I think Phillip Hawk really is who he says he is. And you can bet there'll be a hundred websites springing up with a hundred theories as to what's going on. There's no point in adding to them -- no one will find it in time. So we have to do something else."

"Do we?" said Marcus.

Gillian twisted around in her chair to face him.

"What has the human race ever done for you? It's certainly done nothing for me," he continued, "except make my life difficult."

Gillian chose her words carefully. What she said next would either get Marcus onside or might tempt him to stop her from warning the country.

"It's not just people who'll suffer though, is it, Marcus? The birds will have nowhere to land and all the animals will drown. We can't let that happen. Which is why I'm going to post on nature watch websites. We can get the people who really care looking for the Swimmers all around the coast."

Marcus' eyes widened at the mention of the fate awaiting the country's creatures and Gillian knew she had him. She turned back to her computer and began to type:

"We have been made aware of a plot to submerge the British mainland. This has already begun in Cornwall and Kent. To anyone watching wildlife around the coast -- if you see someone, alone, who appears out of place, let us know the location immediately. Do not approach them. We have around twenty four hours to identify and stop the individuals who are doing this.

Gillian Sands and Marcus Miller, Devon."

It was short on drama and outlandish conspiracy theory. Marcus read it and nodded his approval. Gillian posted the notice on several British sites, praying that they didn't get lost among the topics and threads that were continually appearing. She would have to add to them regularly to ensure that they didn't. Which meant she would have to stay at home, within reach of her landline's internet connection.

"So what are we doing now?" asked Marcus. "Are we going overseas?"

Gillian sighed. "I'm staying here to… co-ordinate things. You must go, Marcus. Get to Exeter airport and get a flight anywhere off the mainland.

"You can't stay here!" he shouted. "You heard what Phillip Hawk said. Kennet will be under the sea."

"I promise to keep an eye out. As soon as I can see water, I'll go to higher ground. Laughter Hill is high up. I'll be all right there."

He sat in silence, as unconvinced by the plan as she was. Then he walked out, slamming the door behind him.

####

Not only could he not find his old home, de Gilles was having trouble finding his way through Okehampton. The town was so different to how he remembered it. It was only the river and the castle, perched on a small hill outside the town, that had allowed him to get his bearings. They had walked from the castle gates to where he was sure he used to live, but the street had been utterly changed. And the noise and crowds of chattering people was making it impossible to think. At Abigail's suggestion they had returned to the peace of the castle, although he was becoming agitated by the place.

"I never liked this place. It always had a presence to it. And now… look at it! It lies in ruin and is even more unquiet than it was when I was alive. The whole of the Okehampton is unnatural."

Abigail peered out of the blanket that she had wrapped around her like a cloak against the drizzle. "Of course it is -- we are here completely out of our time. But your landlord and the Justice are long dead. Their descendants could be anywhere. And will be dead as soon as the plan is carried out. Slitting their throats won't make them any more so. We're wasting time."

De Gilles looked into the water. "It wasn't just for them that I was returning. You remember -- I was an alchemist."

Abigail nodded and then started. "Did you do it? Did you discover how to transform metal into gold? Is it papers, calculations, that you've come for?"

He turned to her, excitement and arrogance on his face. "I did discover the secret. It was part chemistry, part magic, part pure force of will."

He closed his eyes and told her of the wonderful moment of change, when a banal tin ingot had become something magnificent.

"The golden light shone like a tiny sun, a miracle in the darkness of my room. When I held it, it was warm and soft, new born, as big as my clenched fist. It took on the shape of my palm. I wrapped it in cloth and hid it as best I could. But I was so tired… the magic had conjured up winds that whistled around my room, strange faces pushed their way through the walls and stared at me. I crawled to my chalk circle for protection. The landlord found me there. Who knows what else he found? Perhaps the discovery of gold encouraged his accusation.

"But perhaps not. I always dreamed of it still being in the house, untouched, until I could reclaim it."

"And what good would it do you now?" asked Abigail Mouse-Maker. "What possible use would it be? Is pointless wealth what we've risked the plan for?"

De Gilles shook his head. "It's more than that, vile woman; the gold is a symbol of what can be achieved. And it is a magical thing. Who knows how much power it holds? When we anchor ourselves to the river, Okehampton will be dragged under. This I am certain of. We expect to die when it happens. I know some of uswantto die when it happens, but if I had the gold with me… I cannot say what will happen then."

"Well, you're welcome to have this place," said Abigail. "It is Hell; if you want to travel its flooded streets, crowing your accomplishments to the drowned, you're welcome. I say this -- if that gold was meant to be yours it would have found its way to you. You should not have to tear Devonshire apart looking for it." She looked towards the opposite bank of the river. "I will give you until the morning. Then we will honour our promise as best we can and hope our diversion does not ruin the plan we spent so many years preparing. As it is I'm certain that, one way or another, we will have the others to answer to."

####

It was dark when Marcus returned to the wood. He found his way, stumbling over branches, badger setts and bushes, to where Phillip Hawk's fire still burned. Dim though the light was, the look of furious determination on Hawk's face was plain to see; he was preparing to leave. Marcus, crashing through the wood, was spotted before he got to the clearing. Hawk spat a curse.

"I have no more time to talk," he said. "But you may count yourself lucky -- you have an additional day to flee. I have business on the other side of the moor."

"You're intending to cross Dartmoor now? On foot? That's madness!"

"All the better for you if I didn't make it." Hawk replied. "That I sink to my neck in a bog or smash my skull on a rock. Well, I shall have help. The owl and the nightingale will guide me. Doubtless I will be filthy and exhausted when I reach Okehampton, but the matter is urgent."

Marcus thought quickly. "I can get you there much faster. I have a car. It's faster than a hundred horses."Only just, he thought.

"And why would you help me? It is the exact opposite of what you wish," Hawk pointed out.

"I'll be doing my best to talk you out of your plan, not for my sake but for the animals that live here. But I won't hurt you."

Hawk gave Marcus a pitying look. "Bearing in mind I could crush you like a bug and I have no intention of listening to a word you say, I will accept your offer."

He took a burning stick from the fire and by its meagre light gestured for Marcus to show the way. His elderly car was parked in a small layby at one of the entrances to the wood. It had taken some time to start it earlier, having sat unused for weeks. As Hawk squeezed into the passenger seat, Marcus prayed that the car would not let him down this time. He was pleased to have brought a little bargaining time. Despite what Hawk said, the man had to have some compassion. And as they got underway, he was elated to hear that Okehampton had two more Swimmers in its midst.

There was hope for them yet.

The car started on the second attempt, much to Marcus' relief. As they trundled along Hawk's face registered both awe and horror at moving at such speed. The cloud had been partly his making, its movement from Iceland to England a fantastic achievement, but its progress had been slow and deliberate, like a ship making a sea voyage. This metal box that flew along was surely out of control. After a few miles he could hold his stomach no longer and ordered Marcus to stop. He hauled himself halfway out and vomited.

While he was busy, Marcus took the chance to send a text to Gillian: 'taking hawk to okhamp more swimers pleas come'. His thick fingers were clumsy on the keyboard and he wasn't entirely sure if the message had actually been sent, but it was the best he could do. He knew what he'd want to say to the Swimmers but it would probably come out wrong. Gillian was articulate and argumentative enough for the both of them. For all the lives in Britain, he hoped.

Hawk soon regained his composure and let Marcus talk as he drove. He described the times he had spent on Laughter Hill, his walks there in the pouring rain or sitting on the moor watching a shrew or an adder go about its business. He spoke about how he would stay indoors for days at a time, unable to face a world that was often cruel and cold, the times he went without food because he had no money. And the rare but touching kindness of one or two people in Kennet. It was the most Marcus had said in years. Hawk was silent throughout and Marcus could not tell whether he was taking it in or even listening. When they eventually reached Okehampton, Hawk studied the map Marcus had given him.

"They both lived hereabouts, although I do not know exactly where," he said. "It is no matter -- they'll stink of sea salt and cold water. I'll find them soon enough and pound some sense into them."

He got out of the car and Marcus followed suit.

"Can I come with you?" he asked. "I'd like to meet them."

Hawk shook his head. "I would rather you did not. You are aware that nothing you said on our journey even entered my skull? They will be equally unimpressed with your pleading. You would be better off making for the nearest port."

And he set off along the quiet streets of the town.

####

Gillian found Marcus asleep in his car. She woke him and shared the flask of coffee she'd brought. He explained what was going on as they began to search the town.

"So, if three of the Swimmers are here in Okehampton," she said, "what will that do to the plan? Will the others carry on?" There was a twinge of excitement in her voice. Could it all fall apart? Could it be that they were safe now?

Marcus sighed, unhappy at dashing her hopes. "The others may not know about this. And Hawk sees it only as a delay. And two corners of the country are already under water. It's just a matter of how much of a catastrophe this will be."

He asked her if the messages she'd posted on the internet had got any response.

"I've had a lot of ridicule, some abuse, and one or two people actually believing me and saying they'll start looking up and down the coast. But what happens if they find one of them? What willwe do if we come across the Swimmers here? Torture them? Kill them? They'll think they're back in the witch hunts."

"I'll do anything they want," said Marcus. "I'll beg, I don't care. I don't want to drown."

Neither did they, thought Gillian.

Exhausted, she walked for a while in silence. They passed a petrol station, the day's newspapers bundled up outside the door. Gillian took one out and read the headline:"Climate disaster swamps north-west England". Another Swimmer had reached their destination. She swore violently.

At the first light of dawn they found what they were looking for. A cloud of starlings twisted and turned as one, then dived. They disappeared behind a nearby row of houses and Gillian broke into a run.

"I'll bet that's Phillip Hawk!" she yelled.

The row of houses, only five or six long, ended in an allotment and there Gillian and Marcus found a chaotic scene. The starlings, who were indeed under Phillip Hawk's instruction, were swirling threateningly around two strange looking individuals. One, a man, waved them away as if they were flies whilst the other, a woman, screeched threats at them from underneath a disgusting looking blanket. Hawk stood nearby, wagging a finger at the pair like an angry teacher.

"I shall make you all into mice!" screamed the woman. "Mice and rats and voles. Then the cats will have you!" As she spoke, some of the braver birds flew closer and pecked at the blanket, then grasped it in their beaks and uncovered her.

Gillian stifled a scream. What had been uncovered was nothing less than monstrous. The woman's face was stripped back to blackened bone in places, the body twisted, the flesh raw. For a moment Gillian thought the birds must have already attacked, before she realised the wounds that afflicted the woman were old. They looked like burn scars.If this is what was done to her in the name of justice, she thought,why in God's name wouldn't she take revenge?

Suddenly the starlings broke off their attack and flew to a tree. The boughs bent with their weight as they assembled to watch. Hawk had called them off. And though he did not look in their direction, both Gillian and Marcus knew he was aware of their presence.

"I care not for whatever wild goose chase you are on," he said to de Gilles and Abigail. "You must carry out the plan. Wewill Swim Britain. If that doesn't kill you, you may do whatever pleases you."

De Gilles was furious. His face reddened and his frame seemed to expand. With his shaven head and wild beard he was a frightening sight and the two observers stood still and tried to be invisible. But de Gilles was unable to take his eyes off Hawk. He went to the tree and plucked a starling from one of the branches, then twisted its neck to a grotesque angle, killing it instantly.

"I will do this to all of your tiny friends if need be. You would be wise to leave us alone. We will carry out the plan, of that you need not doubt." As de Gilles reached for another bird Hawk gave a whistle. A dozen starlings rose from the tree and swooped on de Gilles, covering his face like a mask. Back and forth went their heads as they pecked at him. A few moments later it was over and they returned to their perches. De Gilles covered his right eye with his hand but could barely staunch the blood pouring from it. Puncture wounds dotted the rest of his face.

"Any more of such talk and I will have them take out your other eye," said Hawk.

Abigail reclaimed her blanket, and wound it around herself protectively. She was evidently not going to raise a hand against Hawk. The resistance, such as it was, was over. Abigail noticed their audience. Hawk explained who they were.

"They're just two good people. Good but not wise. They want to reason with us instead of having the wit to flee."

De Gilles, one hand still covering his ruined eye, gave a bow. "Good people, prepare to die," he said coldly. "It will be easier for you than it was for us."

"For the sake of all the things that have not done you harm, please stop," pleaded Marcus.

"The witch hunts died out not long after your trials," said Gillian. "People realised how wrong they were, how many innocent people had died. Please don't make more innocent people suffer."

De Gilles spat on the ground. "I can still taste the salt sea," he said. "And beyond that I can still feel the agony of thestrappado. They hung me from the ceiling and attached weights to my feet. They threw boiling water over me. They pushed nails into me, looking for a place -- the Devil's mark - that would not bleed. That was not enough for them -- they tied me and threw me in the river. I have seethed with anger and grief for more years than you can imagine. The hope of forgiveness is centuries past."

Abigail Mouse-Maker strode up to Gillian, grabbed her hand and ran it down the horror of her face. "I was a witch then and I am a witch now. What of it? I healed people, I healed cattle, I let the living speak with the dead. I did no harm." She bent down, picked up a handful of grass and threw it back, over her head, to the tree where the starlings sat. The birds rose into the air but those on the lower branches were touched by the grass and dropped to the ground, bewitched, as Abigail had threatened. Now four legged, they ran for cover, their long, bald tails dragging behind them. Abigail Mouse-Maker cackled with laughter and de Gilles grimaced, distracted from his injury. Gillian and Marcus gasped, equally amazed and outraged -- as birds, the creatures would have had a chance against the fate befalling the country. But the act of magic gave Marcus an idea. He threw himself at Abigail's feet.

"Turn them into birds! The animals and insects that don't fly! Please! Give them a chance of escape!"

De Gilles dragged Marcus to his feet, took him by the collar of his shirt and drew him close, spitting words and blood into Marcus' face.

"All are guilty! Whether on two legs, or four, or six. If it breathes the foul air of this land, it is tainted."

He let go. Marcus scurried back to Gillian.

Hawk held up a hand. "That is enough. Abigail, de Gilles -- we head north, to the coast. Immediately." He looked at Gillian and Marcus. "This is your last chance. Save yourselves, I beg you. That is as much as you can do."

The three walked away. And Marcus, grieving not only for the lives that would be lost, but for the Swimmers and all they had endured, covered his eyes with his hands and cried.

####

After they had walked, silent and weary, back to the car park, they stood for a while, unsure of what to say or do.

"We should leave, both of us, straightaway," said Marcus. "The north coast is about twenty-five miles from here. They won't dawdle. We must be well away soon."

"I have to get back on the internet," said Gillian. "It's possible some of the Swimmers have been spotted. It's possible they can still be stopped."

"No, Gillian, it isn't. You heard what they said. They can't be reasoned with. There's not enough time to go back to Kennet if you're leaving the country."

"I'll check the website and put one more post up on each forum. Then I'll get a flight to Ireland. I've some friends I can stay with there. Okay?"

"All right," said Marcus. "As long as you promise to leave as soon as you can. I'll go home and pack a few things and I'll get a flight. I don't have a passport, though. I'll go to the Isles of Scilly."

Each was lying and the other knew it. They embraced, a little awkwardly, and parted. Gillian drove away first and glanced back only once as she left the car park. Marcus was rolling a cigarette. He waved at her.

It was the last time she ever saw him.

####

Just over a day later four figures stood on the north Devon coast. It had been hard walking, some of it in pitch darkness, until they had given up for a time and rested; even with the help of the night birds the terrain was impossible to traverse without daylight. And now, with the sun shining brightly on the sea and the sand, three of the four were close to peace.

Marcus Miller, who had strode off in search of the Swimmers as soon as Gillian was out of sight, was some distance from them. They had tolerated his presence, neither including him nor trying to get rid of him. He had heard Phillip Hawk talking to birds but it had been too dark to see what they were and the sounds they made were unfamiliar. Marcus had not fared well on the journey from Okehampton. His legs were shredded by gorse and there were blisters on his feet, which were soaking wet from him having blundered into a bog. Once he had fallen heavily and there had been a blinding pain in his ankle, but it had subsided and he'd managed to get up and continue, keeping them in sight despite their murderous pace. Even de Gilles, with his terrible injury, had not slowed. Marcus watched them. They were having a discussion, presumably organising themselves to do whatever it was they needed to do to make their plan work.

They had reached a decision, it seemed. Abigail threw off her blanket and turned towards Marcus. Perhaps she would come to him. She did indeed begin walking his way, her strangely shaped figure kicking through the soft sand. Marcus saw his chance -- alone, she might listen, be open to compromise or another plea for mercy -- and walked out to meet her.

The revving of a car distracted him and he glanced to a nearby sand dune to see a huge car rearing up over the top of it. It crashed down the other side, the whine of the engine now almost a scream. A man's head poked out of the passenger window.

"That's them! Fucking terrorists. Let them have it before they kill us all."

The car clipped Abigail and she spun to the ground. Marcus reached her at a run. She was not hurt. He turned to find the car stopped and two men getting out.

"What are youdoing?" he screamed, furious.

"We know what you're planning, you ungrateful ragheads," one of the men, the driver of the car, shouted back. "It's all over the internet. You lot are fucking dead!"

Marcus was baffled for a moment, then horrified. The men must have read Gillian's posts, or a version of them; who knew what kind of Chinese Whispers had been going on? They were the last people he and Gillian had wanted to reach. And now they thought he was one of the Swimmers.

"I'm Marcus Miller," he said. "It was me who helped post the information. And we don't want anyone to get hurt. That's the whole point."

His words were lost in a hail of blows that thundered down upon him and Abigail. He struck back wildly and hit someone. Then he was on the ground, being kicked. The blows stopped. He looked up to see the men standing over him but they were still, their faces and bodies frozen in expressions of hatred.

Hawk and de Gilles had reappeared. "Do you want to finish them, Abigail, or would you rather me do it?" asked Hawk.

Abigail wiped blood from the flesh that remained on her cheek.

"I will, thank you, Phillip," she said.

She took each man by the chin and yanked their mouths open, then looked down and spoke to the sand. The top of the dune lifted. It whirled around in a miniature storm and flew to the men's gaping mouths. Sand poured eagerly down their throats and found its way to their stomachs and lungs. It streamed in until they were full, the excess falling away from their stuffed open mouths like drool. And still they were rooted to the spot, only their wildly moving eyes able to register their last appalling moments.

De Gilles watched them from his one remaining eye. He turned away from Marcus and addressed the other Swimmers, "Come, let us make haste before more good people find us."

Marcus got slowly to his feet. He hurt, inside and out. He glared at the dead men standing before him, then roared an oath and pushed them to the ground.

####

Gillian was waiting outside the library at Okehampton when it opened and went straight to a computer. The news sites -- local, national and international -- carried the same phenomenal, impossible story;

Mainland Britain was drowning.

The result of hundreds, perhaps thousands of years of climate change had occurred in the space of several days. The map of Britain was being redrawn every few hours. Countless people's livelihoods had already been ruined, coastal communities had disappeared and inland towns and cities, usually so removed from nature, were being torn apart by riots or deserted by their panic-stricken inhabitants as the sea approached.

Meanwhile, gentle discussion was taking place on the threads Gillian had created on the internet; one man thought he'd seen one of the Swimmers in the docks at Liverpool. When challenged, the strange looking woman had shouted at him in Latin and walked off. The man had not followed, but had instead posted the news from his mobile phone. There was an almost whimsical air to the debate that followed, which seemed more concerned with the woman's use of grammar than who or what she might be. Gillian had checked the other sites she had posted on. Nowhere did she find any sense of urgency, no one taking seriously the connection between the strange people on the coast and the extraordinary fact that their country was sinking beneath the sea.

In desperation and with resentment at the position she was in, Gillian searched for other sites; the right-wing, the English patriot, the downright racist.At last, she thought, even these people could have a use. Glancing around the computer room at the library, she found that no one was looking in her direction. She registered with all the sites that had forums, then began a short, identical topic in each. As she read back what she had written she was tempted to laugh -- it was nonsense, designed purely to provoke. Muslims, she had written, were responsible for the sinking of England. They had placed operatives around the coast of this beautiful, free land to set off massive underwater explosions. They would carry out the attack and murder the entire country unless England converted to Islam. They must be stopped by any means necessary. God Save The Queen!

She hesitated for some time before submitting the posts, feeling ridiculous and disloyal. She wondered if the library's computers had a filter to stop people posting on such sites. She imagined an alarm going off, her terminal shutting down, the police being called. And the moment she did submit the posts she regretted it; everything, even her own principles, now seemed to be beyond her control.

But sixty million lives were surely worth losing her self-respect for.

She knew Marcus wouldn't see it that way, but hopefully he would never know. He would be in Exeter or Plymouth airport by now, about to depart to a safe place. Even if Britain were saved, he might never return. He had found something close to contentment in Kennet, but it had always been tenuous. There was surely a better place in the world for him. And if, by some miracle they were to meet again, the conversation she would have with him would be a miserable affair, more a matter of justifying her actions and begging his forgiveness than joy at finding that he had survived. Her mood swung back and forth between hideous guilt and anger at feeling so dreadful. After all, she had given the country its only chance of survival. Millions of people might owe her their lives.

She buried her doubts and returned to her car. The streets were quiet and calm. If the residents of Okehampton were panicking, they were doing it in the privacy of their homes. She assumed that she no longer had enough time to leave the country so she drove along the western edge of Dartmoor, the rising tors now looking like safe havens rather than bleak, dangerous crags. When she passed Brentor she imagined moving into the tiny church that sat on top of the twisted volcanic rock, but her instinct told her it wouldn't be high enough and she continued to Tavistock and loaded up with provisions.

From there it was just a few miles to Princetown, the highest town on the moor, where she booked herself into room above a pub and tried to make herself at home. And then all there was left to do was wait and hope she was high enough. In a few days, the room and the little town might be her whole world. Or it might be the place from where she'd watch the sea creep over the sinking land and she, along with the rest of them, would be floundering in it like the Swimmers had been four hundred years before.

####

When they were both down, he kicked sand in their faces, a symbolic but pointless act. He turned around to find himself alone, the three Swimmers having split up and begun walking along the beach. Phillip Hawk, bigger than the others, was easiest to spot. Marcus felt more comfortable with Hawk than with Abigail Mouse-Maker or de Gilles -- after all, a man who understood the language of birds must have a far wider view of the world than anyone -- so he limped across the beach to where Hawk squatted, knotting seaweed together. Hawk spoke without looking up.

"You will die, and all in your attempts to save foul beasts such as those."

"Some of us are worth saving. Not the humans -- to Hell with them, I despise people -- but the other life here. Please, please, don't do this," said Marcus. He was becoming tired of the sound of his own pleading voice.

Hawk tested the length of seaweed rope. It held fast, so he looped it under his shoulders and tied it at the front. The rest he gathered up and held.

"You have wasted your time and your life, Marcus Morris Miller, in the hope that I -- or any of my co-conspirators -- have any pity or love left in our hearts. And for that you surely are a fool, the idiot of the village, all the things they call you."

Hawk looked Marcus in the eye.

"There is nothing left in any of us except hatred. What else could there be? The depth of our anger made us able to create the magic, the energy we needed to construct the monstrous cloud that brought us home. Can you imagine the passion required for such a thing?

"And you people, you human beings, you have not changed, you have not grown." He nodded towards the two bodies on the beach. "The witch hunts continue, always under the guise of goodness and Godliness. Those two are just the beginning. Who knows what the others are facing?" He was silent for a moment before continuing. "History will understand us better, I suspect, although I care not for it. But I hope there is still magic in the world. It is the only thing that will save it."

Marcus rubbed the sand from his beard. He was too sad to cry, too frightened to attack Hawk, too sickened to speak.

"Undoubtedly not all of England will sink," Hawk went on. "Our plans met many obstacles. So rest assured, it is likely some of your snivelling brethren will survive. More's the pity. Goodbye, Marcus Morris Miller. I wish you luck."

Hawk set off towards the cliff and the boulders that sat at the foot of it.

Marcus let him go. He couldn't remember when he had ever felt to exhausted, so miserable, or so foolish. It had always been a hopeless, naïve mission. Even after the life he had led, he'd only glimpsed what suffering really was. Even now he could not fully comprehend what the Swimmers had been through. He looked out to sea. Behind him was Phillip Hawk, preparing to sink north Devon, and, a little further away, the bodies of two terrible examples of humanity. How long would it be before others like them appeared? Hawk was right. It was merely a matter of time. And Marcus had as much to fear from them as the Swimmers did. He could hear shouts, the baying of a mob, in the distance. They were coming already. Or was the sound just in his imagination?

In contrast to what lay ashore, the sea looked calm, limitless.

He stepped into the water. It was cold, but only for a moment, protected from the chill wind that swept across the beach. He waded in to his middle and squinted at the horizon. How far away was the southern tip of Ireland? Marcus could swim, but hadn't done so for years. Not that it mattered; he was never going to reach dry land.

He jumped forward and began to paddle, getting the feel of the water. He wondered how far he would get from the shore before he became too tired to continue. His clothes, already heavy, would become like stone and would help him sink beneath the surface. Perhaps he would find the Swimmers there when they had finished what they had set out to do.

More confident now, he began to swim properly. One slow stroke at a time, he struck out towards the open sea.

THE END


© 2011 Julie Travis

Bio: Ms Travis says: "I'm a horror/dark fantasy writer, from London but now living in Cornwall, with short stories published widely in the British slipstream and horror small press, including Kimota, Psychotrope, REM, The Third Alternative (now known as Black Static) and Premonitions: Causes For Alarm, which received an Honourable Mention in Ellen Datlow’s Year’s Best Horror 2009." Her work has also appeared in two queer anthologies: Necrologue – the Diva Book of the Dead and the Undead (nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Literary Award 2004) and Va Va Voom. This year two stories (God’s Favourite Creatures and Perpetual Motion) appeared in the Kimota Anthology (Kindle only) and The World Beneath appeared in the May 2011 edition of U.S. horror anthology Cover of Darkness (Sam’s Dot Publishing). A Kindle magazine, Kzine, will be available later in 2011, which will include Blue, a story originally accepted for Justina Robson and Rosanna Rabinowitz’s anthology Slip Into Something Uncomfortable, that sadly never saw publication.

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