CHANCE ENCOUNTER…OR WAS IT?
As can happen, my first notion of danger came to me in a troubling dream. In it, I had been caught in the clutches of a skystinger, and in that uncomfortable position was being berated by an angry and grizzled kyte hunter, who ended his tirade with the words: “Oh, you numb fool.”
“Oh, you fool! Fool!”
I struggled to understand why the kyte hunter’s voice had changed from a bass boom to a far gentler and higher tone, with a young man’s timbre.
“Oh, such foolishness!”
I opened my eyes…to be utterly astounded by my restricted view, darkness crisscrossed by narrow, angular patterns of a twilight glow.
Hopeless! I’m on Hopeless.
I tried to move, but found myself entirely restricted, smothered by a hundred thousand tiny grips. Fighting panic, I recalled my previous experiences of Hopeless flora, specifically its tendency to cling…ensnare…wrap…cover…choke…
It seemed that the moss had crept up in my sleep, spreading to take me into a suffocating embrace.
“Help,” I croaked.
I began to struggle, bucking my body in an attempt to shake myself loose, but that only resulted in the moss tightening its grip.
“Stop moving, you’re only making it worse.” The young man’s voice said, confirming that he hadn’t been a figment of my dream.
I relaxed my body as much as I could, immensely grateful that I wasn’t alone. “Please, help me.”
“That’s what I am doing,” the voice replied.
I could see him now, or rather, I could see a darkish shape move about through the mossy visor that restricted most of my view.
“What are you doing?” I asked, willing him to just rip the moss away.
“Tickling the snare-moss with a feather,” was the reply.
The moss giggled.
“Shush, be still, for crying out loud.”
I did my best to freeze into a statue, fighting the urge to remedy sudden itches, ask a thousand questions, or tell the moss to stop its maddening high-pitched titters, twitters and tee-hees. I was much encouraged in my efforts when I sensed that the giggling moss began to ease its relentless hold on me.
“Apart from being ticklish, snare-moss is generally slow,” the tickler spoke. “You must have been asleep for at least eight hours.”
“I was tired.”
“You’ve got to be an outlander. No sane local even slightly attached to life would lie down on a bed of snare-moss…oh, wait…that argument doesn’t really apply around here…plenty are disheartened enough…”
“I’m an outlander,” I confirmed, swearing a silent and solemn oath never to lie down on a bed of snare-moss again.
“Shipwrecked, were you?”
“No, I came to Hopeless of my own free will.”
The movements ceased for a second. When the tickling resumed, the tickler spoke again, slowly, emphasising each word. “You. Chose. To. Come. Here?”
“Yarr. I chose to come here.”
“Why in the name of every puff bug in Hopeless would you want to do that?
I fought my instinct to shrug. “I’m a journalist, for the Brighton Gazette. I came to interview someone.”
“You’re a bigger fool than I thought,” the tickler muttered. “There we are, my lovelies.”
The moss, now in uncontrollable fits of merriment, eased its hold on me entirely, and the entangled web that had constricted me began to unravel.
“Quick, now,” the tickler said. “Up and away.”
I scrambled up, but wavered unsteadily on my legs, until the tickler took my arm and led me away from the moss, which wriggled about angrily, squeaking a hundred thousand outraged protests.
I glared at the deceitful greenery, then looked at the tickler. I saw a young man, about my age, maybe a little older, with a narrow, thoughtful face, long black hair, and a tuft of scraggly hair on his chin.
He looked puzzled. “You have me at a disadvantage; I don’t recall meeting you before…”
“Ned, Ned Twyner.” I shook his hand enthusiastically. “We’ve never met, but I kind of know you…”
“Kind of know me?” Owen frowned.
“In a manner of speaking, I’ve read about your adventures! That’s why I came to Hopeless, to interview Salamandra!”
“Sal? You haven’t picked the best day. When I left this morning, she was busily flying plates, saucers, and cups at my head.”
“Flying? Throwing, you mean?”
“Oh, no.” Owen shook his head. “She was definitely flying them at me. I was lucky to get away unscathed.”
I glanced at a large basket behind him. It held a large roundish object, wrapped in an old sheet stained with fresh blood. Reminded of my own luggage, I checked that my writing satchel and knapsack were still companions, suddenly grateful that I hadn’t relieved myself of their burden before falling asleep, and also relieved that they weren’t bleeding.
“Well, I suppose you might as well come along,” Owen decided. “If she’s still fussy, she might choose to decapitate you with a teapot, rather than poor old me. And I can hardly leave you here on your own; I don’t think you’d last very long…”
I nodded my heartfelt agreement, and followed Owen, after he picked up the basket that had straps which he slid over his shoulders.
We walked at a brisk pace, pausing only when Owen deemed it safer to wait while a herd of ur-deer thundered by in a wild stampede, chased by something blurry, leaving me mostly with the impression of scores of glinting claws, hundreds of razor-sharp teeth, and several pairs of luminous green eyes.
The scenery changed as we climbed steadily upwards. Wet and slimy trees made place for evergreens, the spongy ground beneath our feet gained solidity, and rocky outcroppings started popping up every now and then. Before long, we started passing buildings. Some grand and elaborately designed, but crumbling with age, others seemingly hurriedly assembled with any materials that came to hand.
I frowned when I heard a sound that was simultaneously familiar and yet out of place somehow.
“The sea!” I exclaimed, when I placed the sound as waves lapping against rocks and shingle.
“Indeed,” Owen confirmed. “We’ve crossed the island.”
The sea came into view, as did a rugged coastline: Outcrops of craggy rocks, becalmed coves and pebbled beaches between precipitous overhangs and jagged edges of granite cliffs.
“It’s high tide!” I said joyously.
Owen looked at me strangely. “That does happen, quite frequently in fact, though not with predictable regularity, the waters here have a mind of their own.”
“I thought it was rare…” I tried to explain.
“That’s on the tidal plain, on the other side of Hopeless,” Owen said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “Tides are far and between there. Just as a truly low tide on this side is remarkable enough to cause folk to jabber on about it for a week or so.”
Recalling Ole Ted’s talk on tidal peculiarities, I ventured: “And is it mostly highish tide on this side of Hopeless because it’s lowish…elsewhere?”
Owen furrowed his brow, before reluctantly conceding: “There are other islands which are cut off from general reality, aye. Ragged Isle for one, not to forget Tantamount.”
“Maybe I could visit them after Hopeless,” I mused.
Owen barked a laugh. “You are amusingly naïve, Ned Twyner. Did you think it would be easy to leave Hopeless?”
I chose not to answer, partially because my attention was drawn to something catlike floating by in the air.
“There!” Owen pointed in front of us.
I looked to see a partially submerged, and slightly tilted, lighthouse in the distance.
“Not much further now,” Owen said. “Let’s go find out if Sal’s mood has improved.”