Chapter Twenty-Seven: The Other Side.
There was something wrong with the air.
That was the first thing that struck Mark as he awoke. It was chill like early spring and after weeks of stifling summer heat, the air scalded his sinuses like ice-water.
That wasn’t it, though.
Vision clearing, he found himself on a grassy headland, overlooking a familiar bay. He had no idea whether the sidh had translated him through time or some other dimension, but this was still Wicklow.
And yet it wasn’t.
Looking north across the bay, the familiar sickle shape of the coast along the Murrough looked like home, but up close, things told a different story.
The harbor, as he knew it, didn't exist. There were no east or north piers, and the north bank of the Leitrim River where it discharged into the harbor, a towering concrete packet pier at home, was little more than a sandbank with a wooden beacon. The town was smaller too, hardly a town at all, more a collection of steep-roofed wooden buildings flanking the river which, without quay walls to constrain it, took a wider and more natural course to the sea. In this tír the harbor was a natural river bowl protected by the jutting sandbank and there were wooden jetties and longboats all about its perimeter. People milled about near the jetties and several longboats were plying the current.
Mark had been holding his breath as he took all this in. His brain eventually took control and he drew a gasping breath.
Then it struck him. There was no air pollution. The ever-present smell of traffic and industry, so pervasive at home, was absolutely absent. It was like being transported from the kerosene stench of an airport runway to a remote beach, but not even the most unsullied beach at home had air like this. It was ozone fresh, like wind-dried cotton, but orders of magnitude purer and sweeter.
He got to his feet, his rucksack dangling from his hand, and looked around.
Behind him, where the Black Castle should have been, was a circular wooden fort with huge doors. It occupied the whole outcrop and had a drawbridge over the defensive trench. Behind the fort, where the Danes’ Steps should be, he could just see the dragon-headed prows of wooden sailing vessels. Interest piqued, he crossed the headland to get a closer look.
It was impressive.
The fort's engineers had built a complex of wooden jetties and buildings on stilts around the entire outcrop. From the sea it must have looked like a small wooden village perched on numerous levels on the cliff. Dozens of longboats were moored along the jetties which extended around the base of the cliffs to Travelahawk beach.
A watchtower with a lighted beacon rose out of the sea on stone foundations midway between the fort and the cliffs to the south of the beach. Two robust rope-bridges joined the tower to the fort on one side, and to the cliffs on the other. Where the bridge was anchored to the cliff-top was another wooden fort containing numerous buildings, and a series of wooden steps and buildings on many levels down the face of the cliff leading to another set of jetties below.
Mark's admiration of the complex was interrupted as the main fort doors creaked and began to open. Not waiting to see who emerged, he ducked behind a nearby hillock. He heard several men’s voices as they crossed the drawbridge and passed his bolt-hole in the direction of the village. He waited, his heart hammering, until the voices faded.
At that moment it struck him hard that there was no sign of Niamh and Ferdia, or of McCabe’s crew. Fear gnawing at him, he looked about. Maybe they had arrived in a different location. He searched the environs of the fort, going as close as he dared to the walls and defensive trench, but there was no sign of them.
Now he was really scared. He stood alone near the fort, and for the first time in his life experienced absolute isolation. He’d have been grateful to run into Chris McCabe at this stage. He looked at the village, then at the fort, then back at the village, and with a crawling sense of helplessness, realized he had no idea where to go or what to do.
He was completely alone in an alien world.