When Tillie awoke, her head felt like it was floating underwater.
Then she realized that her head actually was floating underwater – and so was the rest of her body, for that matter. Her arms hovered waist-high in front of her, drifting in the gentle current. She tried to swim, but something was tied around her legs. She glanced down and saw thick green weeds knotted around her ankles.
Well, here I am – drowned, Tillie thought. I always suspected that I’d come to a bad end.
She waited for a few moments, but nothing happened.
I wonder how long this whole drowning thing will take, anyway.
She began to count. When she reached 132, she became very annoyed and started tugging at the weeds around her legs. One knot seemed looser than the others, so she prodded it in an effort to undo it.
“You! Outlander!” a harsh voice barked from somewhere behind her.
“Stop trying to escape immediately,” the voice continued, “or I will be forced to cut your throat!”Her captor, who looked to be around Tillie’s age, was tensed up like a snake preparing to spit. He wore a short kilt made of leaves and a chain mail shirt made from hundreds of fish scales bound together. A leather scabbard was strapped around his right leg. No shoes covered his feet, and his toes were spread wide, revealing fleshy webs. Dark blue tattoos crisscrossed his forearms in what looked like letters from a language Tillie had never seen. His thick hair (which, Tillie noted, was a suspicious shade of greenish-blue) spread out in the water around his head like a halo.
“Who are you?” the boy demanded.
Tillie tried to answer, but the words turned into meaningless burbles and bubbles. She noticed a tightening in her chest and, for the first time, became really scared of drowning.
“You need more slygill,” the boy said, his tone matter-of-fact. “I tried to get you to eat some before, but you were pretty out of it.” He produced a brown sprig from a concealed pocket on his kilt and held it out to Tillie. “Chew this.”
Tillie grabbed the herb from him and shoved it into her mouth, crushing the leaves between her teeth. It tasted like a cross between rosemary and applegrass. The tightening in her chest immediately vanished.
“There,” the boy said, swimming a few feet from Tillie and drawing his dagger. “That should last you for a couple of days, at least. Now you can answer some questions, starting with who you are and why you’re here.”
“My name is Tillie,” she said and then gasped in surprise. Even the gasp was understandable. “I can talk underwater!” she exclaimed.
“I thought you’d be more surprised that you can breathe underwater,” the boy countered.
Tillie’s eyes widened. “You’re right, I can! I thought for sure I was going to drown. Or that I already had.”
“If you drown, I’ll let you know,” the boy said. “Right now you’re fine, but if you don’t answer my questions, I might just let you drown.”
“Look here, you,” Tillie countered, “I just told you my name, so it’s only fair that you tell me who you are before I answer any more questions.”
He poked his dagger at Tillie. “No more stalling! Tell me why you’re here! Who sent you? Are you a Lapadanian spy?”
“I’m not sure where I am or how I got here or what happened to Eve or even if Ophelia’s still alive!” Tillie yelled. “I may never get home again, not to mention back to my true size, and if I don’t figure out how to fix my uncle’s glass eye, I don’t know what I’ll do!”
The boy’s stern features softened a little. “My name is Grayden,” he said, lowering his daggger. “I would have told you that before, but, well, I’m not really supposed to.”
“What do you mean you’re ‘not really supposed to?’”
“I’m a warrior for my pod and we’re supposed to collect information and escaped prisoners, not give information out or let prisoners go.”
“Who made that rule?”
“Lord Mareel,” Grayden answered. “He’s been making all the rules lately, especially the ones dealing with prisoners.”
“But I’m not a prisoner!” Tillie insisted.
Grayden grinned. “Actually, you kind of are now.”
“What have I done to make you arrest me?”
“You’re an outlander,” Grayden explained, “and the other warriors and I have been charged with collecting any outlanders and bringing them back to our pod for questioning.” He raised his dagger. “I’m going to free you from that strangle plant, but first you’ve got to swear you won’t try to swim away from me.”
“What makes you think my word is good?” Tillie asked.
“Just a hunch,” Grayden said. “And if you try to swim away I can easily catch you.” He held up his hand and wiggled his fingers so that she could get a good look at the webs. “Now, promise you won’t swim away?”
Tillie shrugged. “I don’t know where I’d go anyway.”
Grayden cut through the tough green plant that twisted around Tillie’s legs. “So, why are you trespassing in my pod’s water anyway, Tillie?”
“Because of the rain, I suppose,” Tillie said. “I mean, rain brought me here, so I guess that’s why I’m here. I don’t have a better reason than that. I was a full-sized human and then, bam, I was shrunk to this size and swept by a rainstorm into your pod’s water.”
Grayden looked pleased. “A-ha! So you’re one of the still-giant land dwellers, then. That explains a lot. I didn’t think you had the beady eyes of a Lapadanian.”
“What’s a Lapadanian?”
“They’re regular-sized members of a pod on the opposite side of Lake Loch from my pod.”
“What do you mean by, ‘regular-sized?’” Tillie asked.
“I mean my size, of course.”
“The Lapadanians are real trouble,” Grayden continued. He pulled part of the strangle plant up by its roots. “I thought you were a Lapadanian spy when I captured you. I couldn’t understand why you’d nearly drowned, but I just figured that some Lapadanians were so thick-witted that they sometimes forget to carry extra slygill with them.”
Tillie shot Grayden an irritated look, but then realized that because she hadn’t been carrying extra slygill with her, perhaps she was thick-witted.
Grayden stepped back, beaming with pride. “All done!” he said. “You’re free from the strangle plant.”
“Marvelous!” Tillie exclaimed. “I’d shake your hand, if only you weren’t the person who tied me in that plant in the first place.”
“Nothing personal,” Grayden assured her. “Just a warrior’s duty.”
“I’ve never known a warrior before,” Tillie said. “I guess you have to be in a war to be a warrior, huh?”
“Of course,” Grayden answered. “We’ve been at war with the Lapadanians for five generations now.”
Tillie raised one eyebrow. “Why?”
“Because it’s the way things are.”
“But why don’t you, personally, get along with these Lapadanians?”
Grayden thought for a moment. “Well, they stole the Bell of Creation, for one thing.”
“What did this bell do?”
Grayden looked away. “I’m not sure, really. I think it was more of a symbol than a practical item.”
“What did it symbolize, then?”
He paused, pondering her question. “Peace, I think.”
“So, a war that’s lasted for five generations was started because someone stole a bell that symbolizes peace?”
Grayden looked at her sternly. “Lapadanians are just no good. Trust me. I don’t have time to explain all the things they’ve done to us right now. And, anyway, I’m supposed to be questioning you. Why are you here, anyway – aside from ‘because of the rain,’ that is? And how did you go from being a still-giant to being regular size?”
“I got to be regular size when my…” She paused, trying to decide how to classify Eve. “My…traveling companion… put a spell on me. She was trying to protect us from some nasty vanishing dust, but I guess she finished her counter spell too late.”
“At least you didn’t vanish,” Grayden interjected. “Vanishing can’t be fun.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Tillie said. “But it does make me wonder where I would have vanished to.”
“I think I’d rather not find out.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Tillie agreed. “So, that’s how I got here. As for why I’m here,” Tillie pointed to Grayden’s greenish hair, “well, I can see that the curse has already reached your pod, too.”
“Curse? What curse?”
“Why, the curse of everything black turning green, of course! Haven’t you noticed that your hair has turned green?”
Grayden looked puzzled. “My hair has always been green.”
“Oh, sorry! I didn’t mean to insult you. Personally, I think green is a beautiful color.”
“I’m not insulted,” Grayden assured her. “Actually, I thought your brown hair was the result of some type of a curse.”
“I don’t mean to dwell on this, Tillie, but you are my prisoner and we really ought to head back to rejoin the rest of my pod. The war council is going to want to question you.”
Tillie looked frightened.
“Don’t worry,” Grayden said. “I’m sure they’ll see that you’re not here to cause trouble, especially when they hear that you’re one of the still-giant humans.” Then he called out, “Fiona! Fiona!”
In a flash of silver light, a minnow shot from behind the nearest rock, a saddle made from strips of seaweed strapped to her back. The fish darted to Grayden’s side, her scales glistening like tiny rainbows. “Thanks for sticking with me, old friend,” Grayden said, giving the minnow’s nose a pat. He climbed into the saddle, and fixed his webbed feet into the stirrups.
Grayden reached a hand out to Tillie. “You’re not afraid of riding, are you?”
“Only of riding motorcycles,” Tillie muttered.
Grayden pulled Tillie up into the saddle behind him. For the first time that day, Tillie’s cowgirl costume seemed completely appropriate.
“I promise we’ll take it easy, won’t we Fiona?” Grayden said.
“Thank you, Fiona,” Tillie said.
“Well, except on the straight-aways,” Grayden amended.
Fiona reared up on her tail and sped away in a flurry of dirty water, the passengers on her back not slowing her at all. She sped over submerged hills, plains, and valleys that loomed out of nowhere and then receded into the murky depths as quickly as they appeared. Occasionally, fish would swim by in the opposite direction, nodding to Grayden in recognition. After a trip of only a few minutes, Grayden gave a gentle tug on Fiona’s reins, a signal for her to slow to a stop.
I never once feared for my life on that journey, Tillie thought. What a nice change of pace! She opened her mouth to thank Fiona, but the boy warrior raised one hand and shushed her. He dismounted and motioned for Tillie to follow, propelling himself forward through the water like a porpoise. As soon as Tillie dogpaddled free of the saddle, Fiona darted away behind her. Tillie struggled through the water after Grayden, feeling awkward and slow.
Grayden gestured to a group of underwater boulders ahead of them. As they neared the huge rocks, Tillie finally heard what had put Grayden on edge – a horn was sounding just past the boulders.
Grayden approached one of the rocks and peered over it. Tillie caught up to him and flattened herself against the rock beside him.
“What is that sound?” she whispered.
“It’s the warning alarm,” Grayden said, looking worried. “Something bad must be happening.”
The two of them peaked over the boulder. Tillie noticed that their hiding spot was part of a chain of carefully positioned rocks that formed a great wide circle around a small valley that was maybe 100 feet deep. On one end of the valley were around 20 round huts with conical roofs. On the other end of the valley, a larger hut sat alone. A group of warriors wearing kilts and chain mail armor were defending the cluster of huts from an attack. One warrior, positioned at the edge of the village, was blowing into a large shell, sounding the alarm.
“My division’s in trouble!” Grayden exclaimed, drawing his dagger from its scabbard. “No doubt the Lapadanians have reached our pod and are attacking in full force! There are probably squadrons of them down there. I’ve got to help!” He stood up on the boulder, preparing to dive into battle.
“Wait!” Tillie said, grabbing Grayden by the ankle. She pointed to the far side of the valley where the warriors had surrounded someone. “It looks like there’s just a single attacker, not squadrons at all!”
Grayden squinted. “You’re right,” he agreed. “But no lone Lapadanian could ever hope to hold his own against a whole squadron of our finest warriors.”
Just then, the warriors closed the circle around their attacker, pouncing on the assailant in unison. As the rest of the group of warriors struggled to apprehend the troublemaker, one of the soldiers produced a seaweed rope from a nearby hut and headed back to join his comrades. When the dust settled, Tillie could see very clearly that the warrior’s captive was, indeed, no lone Lapadanian.
It was Eve.