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He woke to the sound of distant music, a gentle sea breeze washing over him from somewhere. He heard the creak of timbers around him. Where am I this time, he found himself thinking. He seemed to be in a low wooden room, decorated with carvings, but otherwise empty. The carvings were . . . strange: Mermaids singing, maps like something out of an old storybook, and smiling young ladies with . . . banjos? He shook his head, walking out onto the main deck. As his eyes got used to the bright sunlight, he saw that he wasn’t alone.
There was a man — weathered and dressed in rags, his long white beard trailing down over the deck — tied to the mast and fast asleep. The ship around him apparently wasn’t in great shape. There were areas of broken woodwork, as if some huge monster had smashed through them. Through one of these he could see the ship’s wheel, lashed into position. Off to one side, there was an island on the horizon. He was no sailor, but as best he could tell, the ship was going round in circles. ‘Well?’ said a voice as old as the sea. ‘Don’t just stand there — untie me, confound it! I want to see what that music’s all about!’
He stood and stared. This all seemed strangely familiar somehow . . . Though he couldn’t quite put his finger on why.
‘Hey, I don’t have all day, here,’ said the old man, complainingly. ‘As long as you’re just standing there, you could make yourself useful. There’s a bottle down there somewhere – feels like I haven’t had a drink in centuries.’
‘I . . .’ he shrugged and started looking round. No bottle.
‘What’s wrong with ye, you got wax in your ears? Don’t say the moment one of you lazy bums finally wakes up I gets the idiot – say, wait a minute . . . You don’t look like one o’ my crew . . .’
There was splashing from the sea below. ‘Hello up there!’ called a voice, a young lady’s, sounding like it was trying to keep pace with the moving ship. It was a . . . nice voice. He found himself wandering over to the rail to see who it belonged to.
‘Hey,’ said the old man, his beard ruffling in the breeze, ‘where’re you going! Come back here – I didn’t mean it, honest— Bah! Fine, be that way. ’S no fun being on an enchanted ship circling — anyway, what do you care. I hopes you fall over the side and go to the mermaids! (Now that I come to think of it, wasn’t that what happened to all the others . . . I been out here so long I can’t remember . . .)’
Which of course, would be when a sudden gust of wind blew by. A low wooden boom, trailing ragged pieces of sail and broken ropes as it went, swung round without warning. There was a heavy thunk, and a splash, and about the last thing he remembered was a slow sinking feeling . . .
He dreamed . . . Or at least, he thought he was dreaming . . . There were bright red fish, singing a strange, strange song. And a trail of spun gold. And a face that lit up like the sun . . . Then there was a hand grasping his shirt . . . Then blackness . . .
He opened his eyes. He was lying in the sun . . . surrounded by cheerful music from somewhere . . . and the smell of, he sniffed . . . barbecue?
‘Get back, give him some room,’ said the nice voice from before. Things were rather blurry, but he found himself looking up into a pair of bright, emerald-green eyes that seemed to sparkle in the sunlight.
‘Does he talk?’ said another voice.
‘How’s his head?’
‘Can he dance?’
‘And would he like something to eat? Sarissa, are those sea-cow steaks ready yet?’
‘Has anyone seen my banjo . . .’
‘Your banjo? Has anyone seen my snarkle-horn, it needs tuning . . .’
As the world slid back into focus, he saw a girl, a young woman really, looking down at him with a warm, concerned smile. ‘Hey . . .’ she said. ‘Thought we’d lost you for a moment there . . . My name’s Elysia, I . . . fished you out of the water when you fell – do you . . . have a name?’
‘And would you like some barbecue?’ said another voice.
‘You like music, right?’
‘It’s just we’ve got this big dance, and . . .’
Other figures crowded round. All of them dressed in curiously old-fashioned swimming-dresses. One held a banjo, another a seashell that looked weirdly musical; yet another held out a large leaf with a browned steak on it that smelled delicious . . .
His head was swimming, a dull, throbbing ache running through it. ‘Where . . . where am I?’
Elysia opened her mouth to speak, but got nudged into silence.
‘Don’t. He’ll get the wrong idea—’
‘Oh, for heaven’s sakes,’ said a girl with long honey-coloured hair done up in an old-fashioned style, ‘if you don’t tell him, I will.’
One of the other girls gave him a nervous smile. ‘. . . How much have you heard about the Isle of the Sirens . . . ?’