Twenty-four

29 3 6
                                                  

The Thanksgiving Festival took place every year around the same time. Nobody could quite remember when it had started, or what the original point had been, but they carried on regardless. Rufus could remember back when it was a specific, single day - he had diary entries to confirm it - rather than the sprawling extravaganza it had ballooned into. In fact, the edges of the festival were now so blurry that it was hard to know precisely when it began or finished. Life in Cragside was perennially good, so there was always reason to celebrate; one feast rolled into another, which piled into the latest games competition, which collided with the building of a new yurt or the yielding of another crop or the unlocking of new technology or insight from the Temple. Summer, autumn, winter, spring - they were all there to be appreciated. Sunrise, sunset, full moons, rainfall, clear skies: each offering their own justification for festivities.

Rufus sat them out, mostly, observing from the edges, jotting down thoughts and ideas into his notebook. It was a rough collection of paper, bound with thin string. The Temple had a continually replenishing supply of paper, marked as an essential component of life. Many in the village scoffed at the notion of reading and writing being critical to anything, but they were the dual pillars of Rufus' world. The stories he formulated and committed to paper with his thinly-sharpened charcoal stick often seemed more real than the people around him. He imagined far-off lands, taking his cues from the maps on the Temple board. Through the workings of his own hand he journeyed to deserts, ice plains, deep into jungle. He'd invented an entire underwater society of fish people, reasoning that a planet with so much water must have sea people as well as land people. He'd travelled to the moon using a gigantic slingshot and had encountered a peculiar type of grey plant which blanketed its entire surface and glowed white at night.

Perched atop one of the watchtowers, his regular nest, he looked down at the gathering in the village square. The fire pit was black and ash, with lingering embers from the feast still visible even the morning after the feast. Almost the entire population of Cragside had turned out. The day was to be a series of challenges and competitions, supposedly to work out who would be best to go on the expeditionary team, but more accurately described as an opportunity for Tommy and Harry to show off.

The idea of venturing out and encountering the world appealed to one half of Rufus' brain, the part which knew that such a journey would provide years of new inspiration and story ideas; but that was always countered by the cautious whisper in the back of his mind which counselled him to retreat to the refuge of his imagination - after all, nothing they could encounter beyond the valley could come close to rivalling the concepts he'd put into his own tales. His stories were grander, more exciting, more moving than the real world; and they did all of that while being safe. The comfortable barrier of fiction neatly compartmentalised the dangers within.

Upon the team's return he'd be able to mine them for information regardless, so he was really in a win-win situation.

Below, a race had just concluded, with contestants running the length of the village, kicking up a loud of dust in their wake. The winner was being hotly debated, while Tilda stood off to one side making notes into a battered sketchbook about where the points were falling. Didn't seem like her kind of thing, but she'd been more involved in recent months and had shown some interest in the people around her for the first time in her life. Rufus hadn't quite figured it out - not yet, anyway.

Barely waiting for the scores to be decided, Harry announced the next challenge: they all charged down to the lake, flocking around and past the watchtower, some of them tearing their clothes off as they ran, down to their underwear or entirely disrobing. Harry was first there, leaping into the water with a cry of excitement. He was followed in by an enthusiastic gaggle of contestants, all eager to prove their worth - or, at the very least, have a good time. Rufus got to his feet and leaned on the wooden, half-height wall of the watchtower.

"Here's the plan, everyone, so listen up!" Harry pointed behind him at the lake, his voice loud as ever. "We go out until it's deeper. Then, on the count of three, we go underwater. We hold our breath for as long as we can. The top five, whoever stays down the longest, get a point each."

"Everyone clear?" Tommy bellowed from the shore, seemingly sitting this one out. He gave the countdown and at least twenty people ducked under the surface, the cascade of ripples gradually diminishing until the water became oddly becalmed. From his vantage point Rufus couldn't make out what was happening, with the reflection on the water too vivid to permit him to see beneath.

His gaze drifted from the lake to the shore, where Eva was crouched, peering at the water and occasionally leaning down to put her ear to its surface. Always so inquisitive, always learning, absorbing her surroundings. She was a sponge for knowledge, spending half her days in the Temple trawling through the records and re-watching them to the point that she knew the words by heart. She was the factual counterpoint to his love of make-believe and fiction. Eva tried to make sense of the world by explaining it; Rufus wrote stories to illuminate their place within it. He liked to think that he provided a framing context to help her conduct her studies. And she always read his work - or said she did - gratefully receiving the pages and sometimes even giving him feedback. She'd even developed a solution to fixing his writing to the page, so that it didn't smudge or wear away.

Ramin was nowhere to be seen. Even Erik was a distance away, playing with other people for once. Rufus took a deep breath, summoned his courage, and slid down the watchtower's pole to go talk to her.

*

The lake water was cold, mud and sand kicked up from the base by the contestants clouding his view. Harry crouched, drifting his arms in front of him, pushing his trailing hair away from his face. At his count he'd been under for two minutes. This would be a game of nerve, to see who would give up soonest. Harry knew, as he always did, that things would turn out all right. And so he stayed crouched, his lungs burning, his throat aching as his body scrabbled for oxygen. He felt his chest constrict and his tongue swell as he fought against every natural instinct. He could see others surfacing all around, disappearing from his view with a splash and burst of bubbles, until there were only legs, clustered around him. Still he held on, allowing only a tiny string of expended bubbles to escape.

He felt the water pushing at him, willing him to go up. It thickened and swelled beneath him but he resisted still, clutching at rocks and plants on the lake's floor, his legs floating above while he clung on. There was a barely perceptible distortion in the mottled dark of the water, enveloping him, encouraging him to abandon his mission. He refused.

His body sank down to where he still gripped the rocks, his muscles screaming at him to give up. A little longer was all it required, he was sure. If he did this it would secure his place on the expedition, regardless of what happened for the rest of the games. It would make him leader of the team. His vision blurred, blackened around the edges, the sound of his heartbeat smashing against his skull, and he started to drift away.

Then it happened, as he'd known it would. A slender, silver thread descended from the surface, swirling and spinning its way towards him, a vortex of air carving its way towards him. It was thin, spiralling, reflective of the sun above. The sharp point at its end prodded at his face, looking for purchase, then it spread, widening until its circumference covered his face with a rippling bubble. He opened his mouth and hesitantly took a breath: air entered his lungs from above, moving down the pipe of air as if sucked through a straw. He refilled his lungs, only able to breathe slowly through the thin lifeline, then released the rocks, shifting into a more relaxed, cross-legged posture beneath the lake. The pirouetting air vortex burst and vanished, bubbling to the surface. The others, so lacking in confidence, stood nearby in the water, some of them occasionally ducking their heads below to take a look at him.

He remained for another minute, before calmly getting to his feet and bringing his head back above the water. As his eyes and ears cleared all he could hear was the frenzied cheering of the crowd, and all he could see was Tommy standing at the water's edge, frowning and suspicious.


Thanks for reading! We're heading into the latter half of Arc 1 now. Votes and comment gratefully received - let me know what you think of the story so far, and where you think it might be going. :)

No Adults AllowedWhere stories live. Discover now