Laura knew then what they had struck: a coral reef. Captain Norp cursed and fluttered about the deck, running one way and another, commanding and demanding to pull lines one way and then the next. Everyone else had already accepted that no wind would pull the Luu’tre from the great mass beneath them. They needed the tides.
Laura felt alone and crowded all at once. There was so much she didn’t understand about this world. Why did the great current in the Straight of Loe run so swiftly? Why did it run all the way down the coast of Traea? And most of all, why did this world exist in the first place? James had shown her his magical dictionary, humorously called How Not To Be a Barbarian, Fifteenth Edition. She was dismayed to find that the author, one Azimus Barthalamule, had gone into hiding and would no longer be supplying new entries. She wanted to know what was going on just like everyone else, and this little book that had once been sixty pages was their only connection.
Laura most of all wanted to understand why Luthien, a man she couldn’t quite remember, even now some weeks later and after having seen his face in Sempur, had wanted her in the first place. What did she have that Luthien, a man of apparently untold power, wanted?
Now she looked down over the deck of the Luu’tre and into the great red and pink mass below. Great waves bubbled and exploded. They weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Darl was right. They were grounded.
James stood beside her and she tried to give him a sympathetic smile. He had tried to hide his emotions from her, but she could see through him, even if he wouldn’t admit it to himself. He was terrified and disappointed in himself. She stopped speaking to him about his magic to make things easier. She wouldn’t want to be reminded of her faults either.
But James was in bad shape, and she knew it despite not having a clue how the magics of this mysterious world worked. What she did know was that anyone with a hand that was constantly healing was not in good health; James needed more powerful healing magic and fast.
James didn’t return her smile, though he glanced at her with sunken eyes. “Coral,” he said.
She nodded. “I wonder how far it goes. Maybe it’s like the Great Barrier Reef.”
“You remember that Discovery Channel show we watched,” she started, attempting to keep up the conversation. It had been too long since they’d talked as friends. “The one with all the little orange fish.”
“Clown Fish,” he said.
“Right. And that really long slithery snake with the pointy teeth.”
“Right. So you remember it?”
“Yeah.” He eyed the reef below. “It gave me nightmares for a week when they showed those sharks eating the seals, though.”
“I remember. You wouldn’t stay at my place because we had fish.” She laughed. “You were afraid of the goldfish.”
James frowned. Then with enthusiasm he said, “Those were huge goldfish though. They had those big eyes too.”
Together they laughed.
Laura turned to look out into the vast ocean beyond and found herself face to face with Captain Norp and his tiny Littlekind face. He grinned and looked her straight in the eye. She yelped and jumped back.
“Don’t sneak up on people like that!” She cried.
“Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am. Couldn’t help listenin’.”
“No, I imagine not. You nearly scared me half-to-death.”
“Better than full-to-death.”
“What’s the Discovery Channel?”
“It’s a T.V. channel,” she said instinctively. Catching herself, she corrected, “Where I come from it’s a visual show about nature.”
“What, like a play?”
“Why’s it called Discovery Channel?”
“Well, because they discover stuff.”
Captain Norp rubbed his chin. “Sounds boring,” he said, ending the conversation and hopping off the railing to the ground. He skipped back to the bridge. A moment later his little arms could be seen grasping the wheel, turning it one way and then another. Curses followed.
Laura groaned. The Littlekind was going to drive himself madder than he already was if he didn’t let up. Or, he was going to drive everyone else mad with his gallivanting about with concerns and quibbles. She watched Captain Norp turn the wheel, run one way, then other, and slip down the stairs to pull on ropes and scream out commands. When she turned back she noticed that James had gone. She frowned. Whatever was going on in his head he wasn’t going to talk to her about it, even though she was his best friend. And he certainly wasn’t going to talk to any of the others.
Triska came to the railing from across the other side, taking care not to get hit by the whirl of ropes and pullies around the center mast. Laura returned the woman’s smile out of courtesy; she was too worried about James to smile with sincerity.
“He’ll be alright,” Triska said.
Yeah right. “I just wish I could help him,” Laura said, letting her weight fall to the railing. “He won’t let me. He saved my life and I just want to help him, but I can’t.”
“He has to help himself. We can’t do anything for him now.”
“I don’t believe that. There has to be something we can do,” she pleaded.
“Would he let us even if there was?”
No, she thought.
“Just let him get over this. He has a lot weighing down on his heart.”
Triska patted her arm reassuringly and walked away. She looked back over the railing into the pink below. In the background she heard the wind battering the sails. Voices spewed commands left and right, ropes became taut, snapping with resonating sound, and the ocean roared a violent triumphant note as she lunged her watery arms over the coral and along the grounded hull of the Luu’tre. Laura turned away and went back inside the Captain’s Quarters alone.
* * *
They were completely stuck and no manner of yanking, tugging, or commanding the sails and the wind could manage to pull the Luu’tre free. Hours had since passed and no progress had been made. Captain Norp was the most upset by it. He clambered over the deck roaring at anyone and everyone he could find to blame for their predicament. The little that Laura knew of Captain Norp told her that the worst thing one could do to the Littlekind was to strand him on his own boat; the glorious Strait of Loe had done just that.
She hadn’t spoken to James since her reminiscent moment earlier in the day. Her concern had amplified ten fold when she found blood pooled in the rough shape of a hand on a railing. She prayed his illness wasn’t getting worse, though she feared that if something drastic didn’t take place he might lose the hand. Infections were her greatest concern now. Whatever magic had succeeded in escaping his veins, or entered them for that matter, had caused him untold damage. So long as his hand bled, he would never use magic and he would always be in danger; his sword carrying days were on hold too. Darl, it seemed, had great plans for training James, all of which were dashed beyond hope—there would be no lessons and Darl would be grumpier for it.
Laura’s eyes hazed over as she stared out into the ocean. She let her mind wander, finding sweet comfort in not thinking about anything at all. Except her mind had other ideas. As it wandered it came to events she either thought she knew nothing about, or had suppressed. She had been glad to have forgotten what Luthien had done to her. Such thoughts brought her no joy, nor comfort. But her mind moved into a world of subconscious thought, begging to unleash the forgotten. When it came, the information was a torrent and she found that she could do little more than twitch her arm.
The eye held her in its old, dragged her as if by a mystical, invisible hand through a circular, flaming vortex. It felt like a tube of fire roaring around her, her hair flying in every direction, hitting her eyes, stinging her face as it whipped against her skin. Then the vortex spat her out and she found herself looking into a pair of black boots. Before she could look up, lights flashed and her body lifted until darkness overcame her.
The vision faded and her muscles loosened. She blinked rapidly, feverishly, in hope that reality would leave her and she could stand still and remember nothing. Tears streamed from her face of their own accord. Emotions she didn’t and couldn’t understand welled within her. The images that created them were lost somewhere within her subconscious and she didn’t want to relive them. Living nightmares once was more than enough in a lifetime. Finally over, she sighed.
The Luu’tre rocked suddenly. She grabbed the railing as the ship leaned sideways, pushing her face-first to the pink coral below. She held on for her life and clutched the wood until her nails dug deep canals. Fear clutched her heart; she scrambled with her feet, pushing against whatever she could to keep her from tumbling over. Grasping with her toes, the soles of her shoes, anything. Then she managed to cram her toes into the crack between two boards and held herself still. She dared not look down into the giant reef below. Her face was firmly planted sideways against the rail and her chest rest on the corner, heaving feverishly with adrenaline and fear.
“Laura!” James called from somewhere behind her.
She held firm and whispered, “I’m alright,” knowing full well that nobody could hear her. She heard rustling and the clatter of feet on the wooden deck. Metal clanked against metal; a rope hissed as it was drawn and pulled. Orders spewed out from somewhere far out of her view, but they weren’t Captain Norp's. Someone else bellowed orders now.
The ship groaned; wooden beams and boards protested against the pressure of the reef. Waves smashed and the vibrations rocked the masts. Laura braved a glance below. She saw the pink and red brighter than it had been before. The water that had splashed over the reef had since dissipated. Half-hoping it was just the tides, she moved her head so she could see farther out.
There, rising above the edge of the reef, ominous, blue and terrifying, a great wave rolled in. She watched it as it came up over the reef and crashed into the Luu’tre. Watched as the ship lurched and she held on for dear life. Watched as her hands lost their grip and she tumbled, down, down, down, and the rushing, turbulent waters came closer. Behind she heard her name, then nothing as she plunged into the roaring ocean.