Vanda jumped away from the cliff face as soon as she saw the boat arriving, but sulked her way into the boat. She flung herself down on a bench dramatically and held out a silver coin between two fingers.
“Does this mean I get to gloat?” Wilom asked, holding out his hands for the coin. She dropped it into his palm.
“Yeah. You’d think I’d learn to look when I cross the road.”
Wilom stopped in the middle of holding the coin up to examine it. “Wait, what?”
“Yup. I could have sworn that car wasn’t coming around the corner when I looked.”
Wilom looked at the coin in what little light there was. It did indeed look shinier than any nickel he’d ever seen. The ridges on its edges were fine, almost like they’d been machine-made, and he could see the duller metal peeking through on the edges. One side of the coin showed a tall tower with tiny windows picked out on the raised picture. The other had a simple number and letter – 25c.
“Did it occur to you that you could have easily rigged this bet?”
“Eurgh, no thanks. If I was going to catch a terminal illness for money, I’d make you bet way more than an old bronze coin.”
“I meant just lie. I’d never know. But out of curiosity, how much would you catch a terminal illness for?”
Vanda looked up at the ceiling, hands folded behind her head. “Tough question. It’d have to be at least enough to buy a house.”
As they pulled up to the bank, Wilom noticed that the ferryman was looking at something on the bank.
“I will be a moment,” he said, stepped past Vanda and over Wilom, and out of the boat. “I must speak to someone.” Soon, he couldn’t be seen in the mist.
“What’s that about?” Wilom asked.
“I have no idea. I couldn’t see anything, could you?”
“Well, since he’s gone.” Vanda stepped out of the boat.
“I’ll see you next time you die. Bet you again?”
“Idiot. Come on, get out of the boat.”
Wilom glanced at where the ferryman had gone, and the eddies he’d left in the mist. “Why?”
“Don’t tell me you don’t want to see how I do it!”
“You mean, the way back out?” Wilom found he was already standing up to get out of the boat.
“Yep. But we have to go quickly. He’ll come back soon.”
Wilom grinned. Oh, yes. A feeling, both familiarly exhilarating and strangely childish, was building up in his chest.
“Sure. Let’s go.”
Vanda barely waited for him to get out of the boat before she was off and striding down the bank. He jogged behind her, trying not to look at his feet standing on ground that, according to his eyes, wasn’t there.
“This way,” she said.
“Let me know if we need to be quiet or anything.”
“I don’t … think so. Noise doesn’t seem to bother them. I mean, don’t shout or anything, but talking should be fine.”
“You’re talking about the shades, aren’t you?” Wilom glanced around. He’d completely forgotten about them.
“Yep. Just try not to smell tasty.”
Suddenly, this seemed like a much worse idea.
The ground changed, and Wilom wasn’t sure what the substance was under his feet. Mud, perhaps? The mist got thicker, in a way that suggested the bank was getting wider. Walking to the edge to check, though, would probably be considered ‘bloody stupid’.
In the distance, a hunched figure appeared. She stopped abruptly and turned right.
“Come on, we need to go around.”
Wilom nodded, and let her lead him through the mist. It grew thicker and thicker, until he could barely see Vanda in front of him, let alone anything else.
She reached back and grabbed his hand.
“This bit gets tricky. Try to follow me as close as possible.”
“No, I’m going to wander off and get tortured or eaten, thanks.”
She looked at him with a delighted grin. “I knew you were going to be fun!”
Following her was, however, far easier said than done. The ground under their feet didn’t seem to want to stay stable; one moment, it was soft and pliable, then solid, then Wilom’s foot slipped on loose rocks. He put his free hand out, on reflex, and found that there was a wall beside him.
“What is this place?”
“I call these the Caves.”
Wilom looked around. There was something obscuring his vision – it was definitely harder to see through the mists here than usual, but there weren’t any rocks. “Isn’t it usually a little easier to tell when you’re in a cave?”
He could just see Vanda turn around, and her puzzled frown. “What do you … hm, they surprised me on my first time. I wonder… Hold up, I think we need to go this way.”
She turned left abruptly.
“Yes, probably around the next corner.”
“How can you tell?”
“There’s a certain smell, sometimes a sound.”
“Just how many times have you come through here, anyway?”
“A few times. You’ll have to move quicker than that.”
“Right.” He sped up as much as he dared on the ground he still couldn’t see.
They turned sharply right, then veered left. Occasionally, Vanda would stand at a patch of mist that was just like any other, as far as Wilom could tell, look from side to side, then choose a direction to drag him along.
“The ferryman told me that this was the ‘dark’ part,” Wilom said. “Does it look that different to you?”
“Not really. I think it’s just an expression. Alright, you can stop worrying now,” she said. “That’s the end of the Caves.”
“Who said I was worried?”
Vanda continued like he hadn’t said anything. “Next, the sneaking.”
Wilom put his hand out to the left. “There’s a rock here.”
Wilom felt for the edge, and looked around it. He immediately ducked back. “There’s a shade there.”
Vanda stayed behind the rock, but Wilom couldn’t help trying to get a better look at it. It was bent over something, so he couldn’t see its face, but he saw an arm unfold. It just … kept going. There was the elbow, there was the hand, and then the fingers, longer than the forearm, tapered until Wilom couldn’t tell where they ended through the mist. The fingers waved, or perhaps trembled, then suddenly the arm was gone again, plunged down in front of the shade so fast Wilom nearly missed it move.
“Good. It’s distracted,” Vanda said. “Next rock is there. Can you see it?”
“I think so.” He couldn’t see a thing, really, but Vanda was pointing at something and he was sure he’d run into it shortly.
“Alright, go! Go!”
Vanda shoved Wilom in the back, and he stumbled out from behind the rock, already working his way up to a sprint. Sure enough, he slammed into the next one and edged around the back of it, out of sight of the shade and its distraction, rubbing his jarred wrists.
He grinned at Vanda. “Having fun yet?”
“Hah. You wait till we get to the River.”
He looked around the rock. “I can’t see anything this way.”
“Nothing this way. I’m pointing at a rock.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Just run, you won’t miss it.”
They made it to the next one and paused again to look around.
“We’ll have to go towards the River now,” Vanda said. “Or we’ll miss the spot on the other side.”
“I wish you’d just tell me the whole plan.”
“Aw, come on, let me have my fun.”
Wilom sighed. “Are we safe, at least?”
“As long as that one’s got its toy, we’ll be fine.”
“What happens if it gets bored?”
“If we’re stupid enough to stand still that long? Then it finds us.” Vanda shoved him in the back. “Go, run!”
Wilom was a little readier this time, and kept his feet. The shade didn’t look up from whatever it was doing. He glanced back at it. The air in front of it appeared to be empty, but the shade was clearly holding something. Wilom couldn’t see anything besides its long arm and the shape of its shoulders and bowed head; the mist made the rest of it indistinct. But there was clearly only one figure there, not the one shade and one human soul Wilom had been expecting.
The arm raised again and plunged down. It made no sound. Nothing cried out in pain. There was the small shnk of something hitting sand.
Vanda passed him and began to pull away. Wilom turned his attention back to running, just to keep up.
He nearly tripped when his foot hit water for the first time. It seemed to grab at his legs, and it was difficult to lift his feet up to keep running. Their pace slowed. Wilom had to turn his hips, shoving his legs through the water, as it crept up to his hips and then his waist.
He heard Vanda take a breath, dive forward and began to swim.
Wilom glanced behind them. The other bank was nearly hidden by mist, but he could have sworn he saw shapes there.
“Come on,” Vanda said. “They don’t go into the River.”
Wilom took a couple more steps, using arms as well as legs to propel himself forward. He was standing on the tips of his toes, trying to reach the bottom.
“Just swim,” Vanda said. “It’s much easier.” She hesitated. “You can swim, can’t you?”
“Yes,” Wilom said. Well, he had swum before. He didn’t make a habit of drowning, at any rate.
Vanda lay back and moved her arms just fast enough to keep herself afloat.
Wilom leaned forward until he was floating, and tried to remember what his father had told him about swimming in rivers.
Arms forward, cupped hands, not spread. Pull back hard…
He scooted forward a bit in the water.
“That’s it,” Vanda said. “Kick up and down as well. And don’t worry, this is the best river in the world to learn in.”
“Is it really?” Wilom asked, though he was more paying attention to making his arms and legs move in rhythm through the viscous water.
“You can’t sink, and you can’t drown.”
Wilom tried to shrug, accidentally forcing his head underwater. He came up spitting gobs of River water out. It tasted both like nothing and stale, and had a texture like thin blancmange.
Finally, he caught up to Vanda. She flipped back over and began to paddle slowly next to him.
“When we get to the other side of the River,” she said, “We’ll need to go left.”
“Back towards the lighthouse?”
“Yep. There’s a spot in the caves on that side where we can get back out. You wouldn’t believe how difficult it was to find the first time.”
“Wait, we? You want me to come with you?”
“Exactly. Up to you, I mean. But do you want to?”
Wilom lost his rhythm and had to flail until he got it back.
“Don’t worry about offending me. It’s not like I’ll never see you again.”
“Um. I’ll decide when we get there,” Wilom said, trying to concentrate only on swimming.
Vanda looked around. “We’ll be able to stand again in a minute. Keep an eye on the shore. If you see a shape, don’t go towards it.”
The going was much easier when Wilom could put his feet on the ground and walk. They left the water, and stepped onto the sand, saying nothing as the turned left and walked towards the caves.
Wilom saw nothing until the face was right in front of him.
He saw a huge, circular mouth, full of teeth, and eyes that glowed yellow-white in the mist. That was all the detail he cared to stay for. Before his brain caught up with his legs, he was sprinting off down the beach towards the lighthouse, Vanda holding onto his wrist. He had no idea whether she’d grabbed him and pulled him along, or he’d started running on his own.
He risked a glance back over his shoulder. There was nothing there.
As soon as he turned back, he couldn’t shake the feeling that the shade was catching up and would take him by surprise. He tried to keep his eyes forward, so he wouldn’t slow down. But the sensation of being followed, whether it was his imagination, built and built until he couldn’t help it.
He glanced around again.
No — wait. There was a faint light, getting closer. Its eyes.
Suddenly, Vanda pulled up short, dropping his hand. He lifted a hand just in time to put it between his face and the invisible barrier that was blocking their way down the beach.
Vanda turned around and backed right up to the barrier, feeling along the wall for a way out as she watched the light approach.
Wilom glanced between her and the light, pressed as far back against the wall as he could go.
The light grew brighter and closer, until the lighthouse keeper appeared, holding his lantern in front of him.
“Right,” he said, walking up and grabbing Vanda by the shoulder. “You’re coming with me. We need to have a little chat.”
Vanda grabbed and clawed at his hand, but the lighthouse keeper didn’t give any indication he even noticed. He turned to Wilom, and all of a sudden, the barrier was gone. He flailed and fell backwards, landing with a thud that jolted up his spine.
“Go on back to the ferryman, lad. He’s waiting for you.”
“Wait! What … what are you going to do?”
“Vanda and I are going to have a chat. A cup of tea.” He glanced down at Vanda, who was trying to tug her shoulder away. “Stop wriggling, lass. I want to talk to you, not poison you.”
Vanda stopped, her hand still over the lighthouse keeper’s, and seemed to sag.
She tried to smile. “I suppose this conversation has been a long time coming.”
Wilom looked from the lighthouse keeper to Vanda and back again.
“Just go back to the ferryman,” Vanda said. “I’ll see you next time I come past.”
“Wait, I’m not in trouble?”
The lighthouse keeper shrugged. “If you are, that’s the ferryman’s affair, not mine. Go on.”
Wilom glanced back at Vanda, who jerked her head in the direction of the beach.
He didn’t see that there was much of a choice.
The ferryman was waiting for him, pole in hand, standing in his boat.
“There is a young lady down the beach,” he said.
“Um. Sorry for running away,” Wilom said, not entirely sure what to expect.
“I forgive you.”
Wilom went through the motions of finding and collecting the young woman without really concentrating on her very much. Did that mean he wasn’t in trouble? Why would Vanda be in trouble, but not him? Or had the ferryman been waiting for him, and wanted to do this job quickly, and punish him afterwards?
The young woman moved off into the mist with only a few words of encouragement from Wilom, and the ferryman turned the boat back around.
The ferryman didn’t seem to feel the need to start the conversation, so Wilom did it for him. “I know it was stupid and reckless to run off with Vanda.”
“I don’t believe I ever said that.”
“You didn’t have to.”
The hood turned to face him. “Did you learn something?”
Wilom frowned. What answer was the ferryman looking for? “I guess?” Several things, if he was honest.
“Did you hurt anyone?”
“And did you yourself get hurt?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“In the end, would you say you regretted doing it?”
Wilom had to think about that. He wanted to say yes – it felt like he should have. But it surprised him a little to realise that the answer was no. “I don’t think I do.”
“Then you can decide for yourself whether it was a stupid decision. But it does not meet any criteria that I can think of.”
“You’re not angry?” As soon as he said it, Wilom felt childish.
“I do not get angry.”
“Well, the … wait.” Cold realisation slid down Wilom’s back. “Did you deliberately leave the boat so I’d follow Vanda?”
“And the lighthouse keeper?”
“Knew about it, of course.”
Wilom slumped back. “So, that was all planned. To catch Vanda, I suppose? What does the lighthouse keeper want with her, then?”
“That is between the two of them. Perhaps the lighthouse keeper will tell you about it, if you ask him.”
Wilom crossed his legs on the bench and leaned his head on his hand. “Maybe I’ll ask Vanda when she comes through again.”
“Yes, she could answer that question, too.”
“Was I supposed to go with her? Did you two expect me to go as well?”
“Why? Was I supposed to learn from it? About shades, or the River? Was it supposed to scare me?”
The ferryman’s hood tilted, and Wilom waited for him to form his answer.
“You were supposed to learn about both those things,” the ferryman said. “Frightening you was not our intention, though it was a likely consequence.”
“Right,” Wilom said.
The boat touched onto the River bank.