Ripples In The Sand
by Helen Hollick
"Mistress? Are you alright?"
The boy, twelve years old, grubby about the face and boots but well shod and clothed, touched Tiola's arm. "Mistress?" he repeated, concerned, "are you ill?"
Confused, bewildered, unsure where she was in time and place, Tiola stared at his face. His blue eyes, his mop of dark, wind tousled hair. In his hand a fishing pole and two plump sea bass.
"May I fetch help?" he asked again.
His mouth moved but the words reaching her ears seemed to come from far, far, away, as if they were spoken in another world, in another time.
The boy saw her as chalk pale. The wind had whipped her shawl from her head - she wore no bonnet - and her hair had been torn loose from its pins and combs, the long black strands flying and tossing as if trying to break free of her head. She was slim, not tall, dark lashes framed her darker eyes. He thought her the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. He touched her again, his hand, clasping her wrist, felt the ice coldness of her skin.
"Mistress? Shall I fetch someone to help you?"
"What?" Her voice croaked, she swallowed hard, concentrated. "No, I am well, thank you."
"Pardon me from saying, Miss, but you do not look it."
Tiola felt the wind on her face, the chill of its biting sting; heard the sea crashing against the wall, saw the flecks of spindrift tossing high into the air - to be snatched by the wind and stolen away.
She smiled. "I assure you, I am quite well Master Benson, a momentary day dream that took me too far away."
The boy grinned. "Dreaming of a lover? Sailed off to sea, with no knowing when he will return? My sisters are always yabbering about such things."
Securing her shawl over her head, Tiola laughed. "Not quite. My husband has only sailed as far as Bideford." They were walking now, heading back along Irsha street.
"To Bideford?" the boy asked eagerly. "Be that tha Sea Witch then? Lawks, but she be a booty!"
Tiola nodded, amused that the lad's polite, correct accent had degenerated, in his excitement, to a lilt more base and local. "Ais," she answered, moulding her deeper Cornish vowels to those of a Devonshire dialect. "Tha' were she. My man be tha Cap'n." "Jesamiah Acorne?"
They turned left down Meeting Street, their faces momentarily ravaged by the full force of the wind blowing straight off the quay. Ducking her head away from the icy blast, Tiola saw the gallows standing, empty, at the top of the hill. She shuddered and followed the boy quickly into the relative shelter of Market Street, the boys nail-hobbed boots clattering on the cobbles as he walked beside her. "Ais. Captain Acorne. You know him?"
The boy shook his head. "Father were speaking of Sea Witch this mornin'. Pa's a merchant; owns the ware'ouse along the lower quay, an' he has one in Bideford an' all."
They were walking past an erection of scaffolding, a shout, and the boy grabbed Tiola's arm and hauled her aside as a hammer clattered to the ground. Angrily the boy picked it up and hurled it further along the street. "You did that deliberate Dan Philbert! I will inform Pa of your slovenliness!"
A disembodied voice floated down from near the roof of the building. "B'lieve me young master Benson, if I'd a been droppin' tha' delib'rate, I'd not 'ave missed."
Ignoring the sarcasm young master Benson took a pace backward, and with his bunched fists on his hips shouted upward, "You nearly injured Mistress Acorne. She is a Captain's wife - he will be having something to say about this I reckon!" There was silence for a few moments, then legs appeared on a ladder, followed by the torso and the rest of the man. He stepped down on to the cobbles, touched his forelock at Tiola. "Beg pardon Ma'am, tha thing dropped from me 'and it be tha' bitter up there on tha roof."
"I am sure it was nothing but an accident, and no harm is done. Please, be about your business." Tiola grasped the boy's elbow and walked him onward at a stout pace down Market street, not stopping until they came to the Full Moon. "You will be getting yourself into trouble, young man, if you continue making accusations at people. It is rude and bad mannered." The boy wrinkled his nose, scowled and shook his head. "Nay Ma'am that Dan Philbert has a grudge against my family. Pa caught 'is brother stealin'. He hanged fer it."
"Maybe to Master Philbert the grudge is justified."
"And the property he's workin' on belongs to Master Vernon. He ain't no friend of my Pa's neither."
Suppressing a smile, Tiola asked, "He had a brother hanged because of your father too?"
Eyes widening in excessive patience the boy shook his head harder, "Nay, the Vernons took against the Lord of the Manor, Lord Melhuish. There were a big to-do about harbour rights. His Lordship lost the case, but even so the Vernons were none too pleased that Pa gave evidence for his Lordship." He pointed towards the scaffolding at the far end of the street. "They bought that cottage an' another further round - that big white-lime 'ouse with the red front door, d'ye remember walkin' past it? That be theirs." He tutted, as if he were a wearied old grandfather; "Folk hereabout are even calling the lane Vernon Lane now. Bain't no right to."
He stopped chattering suddenly and grinned. "At least you'm got colour in your cheeks now Ma'am. I'd best be goin', Ma'll whip m'backside if I don't get home with these fish." He ran a few paces, skidded to a halt and turned. Tiola was lifting the latch of the inn door, he called out. "D'ye think Cap'n Acorne would take me aboard his ship? She'm the finest I've ever seen." "I expect he will," Tiola called. "I will make a point of asking him."
The boy nodded, ran a few more paces then stopped again and shouted to Tiola as she stepped over the threshold; "Ma'am? Mistress Acorne? How did you know my name Ma'am?"
Tiola pretended she had not heard. She had masked the trembling well, the unease swirling inside her, but as they had walked - as the boy's chatter had anchored her senses firmly back into the present, the rise of uncontrolled panic had eased.
How had she known his name was Thomas Benson? He was too young to have come from her past, and she, for all her gifts of Craft, could not scry into the future. But something had nudged time, something had caused a ripple to run through the natural, proper order of things. Thomas Benson was a mere boy of twelve years old, yet when first he had spoken to her Tiola had seen him as a man in his forties. A man fleeing the excisemen for crimes of smuggling, and a man fleeing his conscience for being the cause of a sea captain meeting his death on the gallows. But what sea captain? She had clearly, so very clearly, also seen the boy standing beside Jesamiah.
Was this her distorted fancy or events of the future? Events she should have no part of? Something inside her, some corruption of her Craft was swirling out of control, like a rudderless boat caught in an eddy of the tide. There was now only one course of action: she would have to stop this dizzying whirl of disorientation and harness these scattered ripples that were upsetting the flow of Time back into some sort of sensible order.