Mariad’s island stood on the lip of a great waterfall, and split the river in two just before it plunged a thousand feet down to the sea. A short distance upstream, partially hidden by a bend in the river, was another waterfall. Thus the air was always damp with spray no matter which way the wind blew. But this did not concern her.
Neither did the constant thunder of falling water, coming from all around her. She did not notice it all now - if she ever had.
On the north side of the river the land rose almost vertically, a sheer wall of rock. Splintered and jagged at the top, slick with moss and moisture lower down. Mariad never bothered herself with the north.
The southern bank was less steep, and supported a thick forest almost down to the edge of the racing water. Even so, the tangled vegetation presented a formidable barrier, and Mariad paid little attention to it.
Except at one point, just downstream from the river bend, where an eddy in the water rendered it almost tranquil, and a small beach had formed. There was even the suggestion of a path, a track left by animals coming to drink, leading back up the slopes and away to the world beyond.
Mariad watched this beach constantly, for this was the only way by which anyone could come to her island. It was no great distance, though separated by the torrent, and she could see clearly if anyone was there.
Likewise, she could easily be seen by anyone on the shore. A slim figure, swathed in flowing white, with long tresses of pale gold, awaiting her rescuers.
There was only one building on the island, a strong stone tower built on the seaward side. It stood at the very edge of the precipice, its top high above the spray clouds, so that the view from there was spectacular. But Mariad never looked out to sea, for no rescue could come from that direction.
Each morning, she walked the hundred paces from her tower to the end of the island, and watched the beach for rescuers. When she had need, she returned to her tower. And so passed her days.
In stormy weather, winds of terrible strength howled around the island, channelled by the rocky walls, so powerful that even the tough little trees that grew there were sometimes uprooted and flung far out to sea. To avoid such a fate, Mariad remained in her tower at such times, and forsook her inspection of the beach.
It was after one such storm had finished its raging, and a bright noon sun had begun to shine down on the island, that Mariad discovered a man cast up on the tip of the island, near the end of her well worn path to the look-out point.
He lay half out of the water, along with the usual flotsam of branches and other debris that the storms habitually flung up at that spot. Face down, so that Mariad could not tell if he was drowned or still drew breath.
Her first thought was to look at the beach, but, to her surprise, it was quite empty. No sign of any camp, or boats or companions to the man.
And if this were not mystery enough, the man himself was most strangely clad. His helmet was not of metal, but of some bright orange material that she did not recognise. His clothing was of a smooth yellow fabric, and he had also a remarkably bulky red waistcoat. Mariad looked him over carefully, but could see no sign of weapons. So she sat and watched to see what might happen, whilst also looking often to the beach.
After a while, he moved a little. It seemed he was not drowned after all, and so might be a rescuer. Mariad gave him her full attention.
Whether from the beneficial warmth of the sun, or from his own strength of constitution, or both, the man recovered further. He moved again, gave a low groan and made a weak attempt to lift himself. At which point he suddenly vomited, bringing up a considerable volume of river water. Afterwards, he lay still again for a short time, but then gathered his strength, pushed himself up and turned his head.
At this point his gaze met Mariad’s, and his eyes widened in surprise.
“Help…” he gasped and collapsed back to the ground.
Help? Mariad frowned. It did not seem the sort of thing a rescuer would say.
“Help me…” he said again, stretching out a hand towards her.
Mariad was not sure what she should do. This had never happened before. But the man had seemed to be giving her an instruction. She supposed she could follow it, and perhaps matters might become clearer. So she reached out, gripped his hand, and pulled him up.
Though slender of build, and seemingly delicate, Mariad was remarkably strong, and the man was easily dragged clear of the river and up onto his feet. The surprise he had shown on first seeing her became shock, and it was only by leaning against a tree trunk that he remained upright.
“How did you do that?” he gasped.
Mariad didn’t understand the question, so she ignored it. “Hast thou come to rescue me?” she asked.
“I think you just rescued me!” he answered with a smile.
Mariad was confused by the answer. “No sir, tis thou that must rescue me!”
He shook his head. “Sorry, but I don’t think I’m in fit condition to do any rescuing today!”
That seemed no better to Mariad, but it did suggest that he might rescue her at a later time. She wondered if that was sufficient. It was unclear, and she disliked it. Best to wait a little longer and see if what transpired. Mariad was good at waiting.
The man was taking off his strange orange helmet. His hair was blonde, Mariad noticed, of a similar shade to her own, but cut very short. Not unlike a knight, though he did not speak or dress like one – or perhaps a monk? But there was no tonsure.
Gingerly, the man felt his head, and winced. Looking at the helmet, he traced a crack on one side, corresponding to the tender spot on his scalp.
“I think I remember that one.” He said, half to himself. “Don’t remember much after it, though.”
“Hast thou been in battle?” asked Mariad. “Perchance, thou must fight thy way to my side?”
He shook his head, and swore. “Shit, that hurts…. Every damn thing hurts…. Is there a rock I didn’t hit?” He looked at Mariad. “The only battle I had was with the river! And why are you talking like that? Is this some sort of historical re-enactment thing?”
“Sir, I but talk as I ever have…. I know nought of these other things thou speakest of.”
“Oh?” He seemed as puzzled as Mariad herself. “Well – what’s your name, then?”
“I am Mariad.”
He raised an eyebrow, and laughed. “Well, that fits in with the accent! Mariad, the Doomed Princess! Right out of legend.”
She understood little of what he said, but answered what she recognised. “In truth, sir, I am she – Princess Mariad. Hast thou come to rescue me at last?”
He shook his head. “You really are in character, aren’t you? Well, Princess Mariad, I’m Sam Tanner, and very glad to meet you!” He pushed himself away from the tree, grimacing. “When I lost my canoe I thought that the next person I met would be wearing black and carrying a scythe!”
She puzzled out his words. “You thought to meet Death, then, Sam the Tanner?”
He nodded. “It was a crazy thing to do, really. Canoeing the High Race is one of those things that everyone talks about, but no-one has ever actually done…. I thought I’d be the first!” He looked around at the surrounding river, the rocky peaks beyond, and at the partly visible waterfall upstream. “Shit! Did I come down that!”
Mariad shook her head. “In truth, Sam the Tanner, such a journey would be impossible. Were thou not drowned by the fury of the waters, then thou wouldst most surely be dashed against the rocks, and all thy bones broken!”
He shook his head. “The lifejacket kept me afloat” – he slapped the bulky red waistcoat - “and this waterproof is the latest thing.” He fingered the yellow material. “Micro-fibre re-inforced. Tougher than steel, but flexible with it.” He winced again as he moved. “Needs more padding though!”
“This bright coat – it is thy armour, then?” Mariad eyed it speculatively.
“Armour? Oh, OK, if you want to fit it into your fantasy!” He spoke absently, whilst examining a frayed piece of fabric dangling from the ‘lifejacket’. “Damn!” he continued. “Radio beacon’s gone! I’m sure I triggered it! Might still be working – could be anywhere, though.” He looked back at her. “Have you seen a bright yellow tube washed up on the shore? Flashing light on top?”
The man, the Tanner, persisted in talking nonsense. Mariad sought to return to the one topic of importance. “In truth, I have not. And though I do not misdoubt the wondrousness of thy armour, I think it more like than not that thou swam from yonder beach. Seeking my rescue.”
Sam looked at the beach and shook his head. “I don’t think so. In fact, I don’t recognise any of this.” He continued, looking round again. “I thought I’d memorised every landmark from the satellite photos. How far down river are we?”
Mariad pointed. “The sea is there.”
Sam’s draw dropped. “The sea! You mean – the End Falls? This is the Lower Race?”
“It is the River.” Mariad had forgotten the name, if she ever knew it. “There is the sea.”
“The sea!” Suddenly, Sam burst into laughter, broken off by another burst of coughing. “Shit and double shit – I must have come fifty miles downstream, through the wildest country left on the planet, and unconscious most of the way! Why am I not dead?”
“Sir, I do not know.”
He laughed again, more carefully. “I’ll tell you why, Princess Mariad or whatever your real name is! Because Sam Tanner is bloody indestructible, that’s why! With a little help from technology true, but all the same - hell, what a story! And rescued by a beautiful Princess at the end of it, as well! Damn if it won’t make a spot on the national news!” Still grinning he fumbled in a little pouch attached to his coat and brought out a small metal tube. “Indestructible, but I still feel like one giant bruise.” He popped a small white pellet from the tube and swallowed it. “Pain killer and stimulant all in one. Should keep me going for a bit. Just got to let it kick in…”
Mariad watched him as he slumped down on the ground, half sitting and half leaning on the tree again. “Art thou dying, Sam the Tanner?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Hell, no, Princess. I just need to rest a bit, let that pill take effect. Then you can take me back to your camp. Some hot food and a beer or two, if you’ve got them. And call for a ride home. You do have a radio link, don’t you?”
“Nay sir, I have none of these things of which thou speaks.”
“What?” He looked up at her. “I know you people are keen on historical accuracy, but there’s got to be some health and safety in place! Surely you can call for help?”
She shook her head. “No sir.”
“Then… you have transport, of course?”
She shook her head again.
He looked aghast, then understanding crossed his face. “Oh, you’re not still acting out the part, are you? Shit, lady, come back to the real world for a minute will you? Of course you have transport! You surely didn’t walk out here wearing that!” He reached out, and tugged at the folds of white gossamer that floated round her like a garment.
She snatched it back from him, annoyed! “Do not touch me! I am Princess Mariad – didst thou not hear me say thus? Of course I did not walk here! The Queens men brought me here, and left me, and here I wait for my rescuers!”
He stepped back, a puzzled look on his face. “What sort of cloth is that… it feels like…” He shook his head. “Never mind. Look, I’m sorry if I offended you. I’m not coming on to you or anything. But I’m getting a bit tired of this fantasy world of yours. Where are the rest of your people? There must be someone who can make more sense!”
Mariad was herself becoming tired of this Sam Tanner. Why could he not stop asking meaningless questions and simply say the words? “There is no one on the island save thou and I.”
“No one….? Island?” Perhaps his ‘pill’ had begun to work, or perhaps it was shock – but suddenly Sam Tanner was filled with energy. Turning away from Mariad, he pushed his way through the tangled vegetation. Just for a short distance, till he came out on the north shore.
He stood for a few moments, taking in the sheer plunge of rock that was the north bank, the churning race of water sweeping past to the spot, not far distant, where it vanished into open air.
“An island?” he asked again. Turning he rushed past Mariad, and down the path towards her tower. Frowning, she followed him. Not swiftly, there was no need to hurry.
A few minutes later, she came upon him again, in the little rocky clearing in front of her tower. He was sitting with his back to the stone walls. He had taken off his bulky red ‘life-jacket’ and opened up the yellow ‘armour’. Mariad was pleased to see that.
“It’s an island,” he said.
“Yes. As I told thee.”
He pointed to his left. “Waterfall.” To his right. “Waterfall.” He pointed upstream. “That way, river, with a hell of a current, and another waterfall.” He jerked his head to indicate behind him. “And the sea.” He looked up at her. “There’s no way off.”
At last he seemed to be understanding. “Of course not. That is why the Queen put me here. To wait for rescue. Will you rescue me?” she added, hopefully.
He laughed. Not pleasantly. “You crazy bitch! How the hell can I rescue you? I’m the one who needs rescuing!”
“Thou art impertinent, Sam the Tanner! To talk thus to a Royal Princess! Were we in the courts of Arongard, thy head would be forfeit for such speech.”
He gave her a long look. “Arongard. That was in the legend as well. A fortress – or a palace?”
“Tis the Royal Seat of Derren! The High Throne of the North! Surely even an ignorant tanner such as thyself would know this?”
“You’re really into it, aren’t you?” His tone had changed. He was no longer mocking her. “You actually believe that you are the Princess Mariad. How long have you been here?”
Mariad could not answer that. She had no conception of time, and could only shake her head. “Since I was brought here.” He continued to look steadily at her, so she went on. “I do not count the days. I suppose it must be some long while… years, mayhap?”
“I’m not much into history,” Sam said softly, “but I remember the legend. Queen Tarien, was it not?” He saw her nod, and continued. “The Witch-Queen of the North, who ruled with fear and terrible power. But she was not the true ruler. The legend says she came to the throne by marriage. She was the King’s second wife, and he had several sons and heirs by his first Queen. And a daughter – Princess Mariad.”
“And I am she!” Mariad broke in, but he continued with his tale.
“The King died, they say. Of age or illness… but none of his sons came to the throne. All died, one after another, and Queen Tarien ruled the land. Princess Mariad, however, wasn’t killed. Instead, she was taken away, imprisoned in a stone tower, and guarded by a terrible monster. There she must wait for the brave hero who would slay the monster, rescue her, and claim the throne.”
Mariad laughed and clapped her hands. “Yes! Yes! At last thou remembers! At last thou knowest me!”
But Sam shook his head. “What I remember is this. I heard that some ruins had been found. Ancient stones, long since cast down and buried. They thought it might be Arongard. Fifteen hundred years old, they said.”
It was strange for Mariad to think of Arongard in ruins. “Did some disaster befall that great castle?”
“I don’t know.” Sam answered. “I don’t think anyone knows. Until they found those ruins, it was just a legend. Gone and all but forgotten for a millennium.”
“That is a long time?” Mariad struggled to grasp what he was telling her.
“A very long time.” Sam stood up carefully. “Many lifetimes. So whether or not the legend was true, Princess Mariad is many years dead and gone. And you…” he looked at her. “I don’t know how you came here, or why, but you cannot be Princess Mariad, can you!”
“But I am!” she protested. “Truly I am.”
Sam turned away from her, and examined the tower. “These stones look pretty old. Is that what set this off? Here’s what I’m thinking. You had some accident – like me, perhaps. Washed up on this island. Perhaps you had an injury – blow on the head, maybe? Lost your memory?”
“Not so!” She snapped. “I told you – the Queen...”
“Ah, yes, the Queen!” he interrupted. “You knew the legend pretty well, I suppose. Maybe you studied it? But when you found yourself here, all alone, maybe injured – and then here’s this tower. Just like the legend! So now you’re living the legend! You’ve become Princess Mariad, waiting for rescue.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “I am Princess Mariad. Will you rescue me?”
He shook his head, sighed with exasperation. “Hell, your sound track is stuck on repeat! I can’t rescue you! I need rescuing – dammit, will you snap out of it?”
“Sir, I know not what thou means,” she answered.
“OK – right… we need to get to some real memory. Um – lets see – do you remember where you were born?”
“Arongard,” she answered promptly.
He snorted. “That’s not going to work, then. I need to ask you about something not covered in the legend. Ah – how about this, then. Where did you go to school?”
She shook her head, smiling. “I went to no school! Only monks and the sons of counting-clerks do thus!”
Sam swore under his breath, scratched his head, turned and paced. As he did so, his eyes fell on the doorway to the tower. Some ten feet above the ground, it was reached by a flight of stone stairs built into the walls, but it had no door. If ever there had been one, it had rotted away long since.
“Perhaps there’s something in there?” He looked at Mariad, thoughtfully. “You must have some supplies in there. Food - and some more practical clothes! Perhaps you’ve got some ID?”
“There is nought there but my sustenance, Sam the Tanner.”
“Sustenance, then, if you want to call it that! Enough to share, I hope? I’m near-on starved!” He went up the stairs and peered through the door.
It was surprisingly bright in the tower. Light poured in from the ceiling. Sam’s first thought was that there was a hole where the ancient structure had collapsed, but by squinting he could make out that there was some sort of skylight set into the stonework. Not only did it allow light in, but it actually seemed to gather and focus it into a beam six or seven feet across – fully half the width of the tower.
“What is this?” he said in wonder, stepping inside.
“Tis my sustenance.” Mariad explained patiently, following him in.
It was not a very bright day, but the hazy sunlight was so concentrated within the tower that the outside seemed dull in comparison. And Sam could quite clearly see that it was empty. No furniture, not clothing, no supplies. A mound of dirt was piled against the far wall, and steps wound upwards round the inner wall. The rest was just smooth, hard stone.
“Sustenance? But – there’s nothing here! Where’s your food, your supplies?”
She shook her head. “I have no use for such things. This light, this is all my sustenance.”
And indeed, she felt the need of it now, having spent longer away from the tower and expended more energy than she was used to. Stepping past the Tanner, she moved into the beam of light.
As she entered its circle, the filmy folds of substance that Sam had taken for her garments responded, billowing up and spreading out around her. Layer upon layer appeared, stretching out to the full width of the light. Each layer absorbing a different part of the light, so that she took its entire energy into herself, and the floor beneath her was hidden in thick shadow.
Open mouthed, Sam stared.
There was a shimmering of rainbow colours amongst the gauzy layers, bright blue at the top, shading down to deep red near the bottom. The effect was exotically beautiful, like an abstract sculpture in light – lent a surreal element by the face of a attractive young woman, staring at him from the centre of the piece.
“Solar powered,” Sam muttered incredulously. “She lives off sunlight!”
“Nay, Sam the Tanner” Mariad corrected him. “Not sunlight alone. Only that which comes through yonder crystal has power to give me life.”
Sam began walking slowly round the inner wall, never taking his eyes off her. “This – this is unbelievable,” he said to himself. “Must be a hoax…” He thought about it, shook his head. “Can’t be, though. Who would set up such an elaborate thing, all the way out here, just on the chance that someone might stumble on to it?”
He walked further. “Yet – if this is real…. “ He shook his head in wonder. “Mariad – tell me again – how did you come to this place?”
She sighed, impatiently. “The Queen had me brought here.”
“Queen Tarien of Arongard.”
“And why did she do that, Mariad?”
“To await my rescuers –as indeed I told you!”
He nodded. “But the real Princess Mariad couldn’t live for fifteen hundred years. Couldn’t live on a diet of sunlight. So – who are you? What are you?”
She frowned. “I am Princess Mariad! So the Queen herself told me! I am her bone, her flesh, her blood!”
“Yet – not her…. This Witch Queen had real power. To take the body of the real Princess – I’ve no doubt that she killed her along with her brothers – and to re-animate it. To give it a different sort of life… but why? Why go to all this trouble if the heirs are dead and her rule unchallenged?”
She watched him carefully.
“I can think of one reason.” He continued. “Perhaps her rule was not unchallenged. Perhaps there were those who might seek her downfall, given opportunity. She must seek them out and destroy them, if her throne is to be safe. And so… a decoy. A trap.”
He looked directly at Mariad. “You.”
“You are wise, Sam the Tanner. None who came before thought thus.”
“Who came before me, Mariad?”
“Yes. They would have come to rescue you. No doubt the Queen saw to it that word went out – the Princess still lived, shut away in a tower, in a remote place. She started the legend herself! And if anyone thought to bring down Queen Tarien, why, then, the first step would be to rescue the last survivor of the royal line! Because then they could make their own claim legitimate!”
“Whosoever dost take me to themselves, shall take with me the throne!” Mariad reminded him. “Dost thou not desire the throne, Sam the Tanner?”
He shook his head. “But there is no throne, Mariad. There has been no Kingdom these thousand years and more. Didn’t you wonder why the rescuers stopped coming?”
“You have come.”
“But I am not a rescuer. As I told you. How long has it been since the last?”
The question was difficult for Mariad. “I cannot say… it was not this day. Nor the one past… before that, then.”
“You have no sense of time, do you?” He watched her face, blank and uncomprehending. “Never mind… perhaps there is a clue here?”
In his pacing, Sam had reached the mound of dirt against the tower wall, and was examining it with interest. Reaching down, he ran his fingers through the pile, and touched something more solid, which he pulled free.
Gold glinted in the crystal-light, and gems flashed. Sam brushed more dirt off the object, and held it up.
“A sword hilt.” He said wonderingly. “The blade has long since rusted away – but gold does not rust…. It must have belonged to a very wealthy man, a noble.”
“Duke Caddaw.” Mariad told him. “He came with two of his sons, and many soldiers.”
“You kept his sword?”
“The Queen bade me keep mementos of my rescuers, that she might know them. Thus did I place in my tower such artefacts – their swords, and helms, their armour, their shields and blazons?”
“All rust now –save for the gold.” He stood up, still holding the golden hilt. “Let me guess how it was, Mariad. You rescuers would come down to that beach, following the clues the Queen left for them. They would look across the water, and see you walking on the island. Looking just like Princess Mariad.”
“I am she!”
“Of course. So you believe. So they believed, as well. And seeing you, they would think their quest successful. All they had to do was build a raft – or perhaps they brought boats? – and paddle it across. Hard, with that current, but strong men could do it. With a rope attached so that those left behind could be pull them back. Only – none of them ever did go back, did they? No one left the island, no one rescued you.”
“It was not the Queens will that I should be rescued.” Mariad told him. She was concerned, now, for this Sam the Tanner knew more than any other had before, and so was dangerous.
“Of course it wasn’t.” He agreed. “You weren’t there to be rescued. You were there to get the rescuers to come to the island. But what happened then?”
He paused for an answer. She said nothing, so he continued. “The legend says there was a monster guarding you, so perhaps that’s true as well.” He lifted the sword hilt. “Poor old Duke Caddaw and the others – thinking they had the throne in their grasp, and then….” He shrugged. “Was there a monster, Mariad? Did they meet it?”
“They met the monster.” Mariad told him. She was frightened now. He was so close to the truth, and still had not said the words. Would not say them, if he understood. And what then could she do? The Queen had given her no command for such a thing.
But there was a distraction – a timely one, for Mariad, though a puzzling one. A noise from outside, loud enough to be heard above the waterfall’s thunder, but one she had never heard before. A throbbing, droning sort of noise – becoming louder, closer.
Sam heard it as well and clearly both knew and welcomed it, for a smile spread across his face. “They must have picked up the radio beacon!” He ran for the stairs, and up them. “It’s probably caught on the island, or bobbing around in the sea down there….” He disappeared, gone up to the roof.
Mariad followed, more sedately. She had no need to run; there was no other way down.
She rarely climbed these stairs herself, only venturing up when something obscured the crystal. It occurred to her that Sam Tanner might seek to damage it, which she could not permit, so she increased her pace.
But her fears were groundless. She arrived at the top of the tower to see Sam standing at the very edge, staring out to sea. Following his gaze, she saw the source of the strange noise – which was now very loud – a great insect-like thing, bright red in colour, with huge eyes reflecting the light, and strange whirring wings.
She shuddered at the sight of so terrible a creature, and would have run down to hide in her tower, but Sam was waving his arms and shouting at it.
“Hey – over here – here, dammit!”
“What is this thing, Sam?” She asked him. She herself must needs shout against its noise.
“Helicopter!” He shouted back over his shoulder. “They’ve seen me!”
The ‘helicopter’ thing had indeed turned directly towards them, and was coming closer and yet louder.
“Just wait till I get back!” Sam was still shouting. “They won’t believe any of this – but they’ll come to see anyway! And this should help to convince them!” He waved the remnants of Duke Caddaw’s sword. “Must be worth a fortune by itself! I’m going to be famous! The man who discovered a living legend!”
The Tanner was talking mostly nonsense again. Mariad was more concerned with the flying thing. Now it was closer, she could see that what she had taken for eyes were in fact windows, and behind them she could see the figures of men, pointing in their direction.
So then, this was no monstrous insect, but some magical contrivance by which men might fly. Such held less fear for her, and she felt relief.
The thing was now almost upon them, and turned so that it was sideways on. It continued to drift yet closer, though more slowly, and a door opened in the side. Within, another man was peering out and waving at them.
A mighty voice boomed out – loud enough to be heard above the roaring of waterfall and ‘helicopter’ alike. Mariad was startled by the volume, but took it to be merely some further example of magic. She was more interested in what was said.
“This is Air-Sea Rescue! Stand back from the edge. We are coming closer. Get ready to receive a line and strap yourself into the harness. We will take you one at a time.”
Mariad did not understand all the words, but one caught her attention. Rescue! At last!
“They have come to rescue us?” she asked Sam. “To take us away from here?”
“Yes! Yes!” he shouted back. His attention was all fixed on the helicopter, and the rope that was slowly descending from it.
“And this was by your instigation?” Mariad continued, frowning as she puzzled it through. Such intricacy of thought was difficult for her. “That is – you called them here?”
“Yes! I triggered the radio beacon and they homed in on it!”
“Then you are my rescuer,” she decided, with great relief. At last it had all become clear.
He turned, the smile fading from his face as he began to understand.
She unsheathed her claws, pumped poison into her fangs, and stepped forwards.