Albanus was distracted by a commotion behind him. Something was being hauled up onto the clifftop. A voice was yelling over the sound of wind and water, “Make way!”
For reasons he could not fathom, the soldiers had brought up an artillery weapon.
“Too late, lads!” someone shouted.
“Are you going to shoot them?” demanded a child’s voice. Under the wet hair, Albanus was shocked to recognise one of his own pupils.
“Lucius? Does your father know you’re out here?”
The boy shrugged.
“Did he say you could come?”
“He didn’t say I couldn’t.”
Albanus moved closer. “I think I should take you home.”
“You can’t!” Lucius stood his ground. “This isn’t lesson time. I don’t have to do what you tell me.”
Albanus was tempted to point out that Lucius rarely did what he was told in lesson time either, but then the soldier, who had clearly recognised the lad as the son of his commanding officer, said, “If the ship had got close enough, young man, we was going to try and fire a rope out to them.”
Lucius’s eyes widened. “Can you do that?”
“Dunno,” the man admitted. “Never tried.”
Abandoning all interest in the stricken ship, Lucius began to engage the soldier in a discussion of the likelihood of ever being able to fire a line from a ballista and how much additional height would be needed to retain the right trajectory.
Albanus returned his gaze to the angry sea. He could not see the ship at all now. He felt oddly guilty that he had let his attention wander. As if he had been holding it afloat by sheer power of concentration.
He counted to ten, then twenty, but there was no sign of life out there on the heaving surface. Finally after he got to fifty he turned away and began to trudge back along the path, descending from the headland cliffs to walk above the strip of sand further along: the comparative safety that the vessel had failed to reach. He wove his way through the crowd, eyes down. He didn’t want to talk to anyone. Still less did he want to listen to them. Which was why the eagerness of the hand seizing his own and the announcement of, “It’s me!” was more of an irritation than a pleasure.
Of course it was me. Who else would it be but Virana?
He was not sure what he had done to deserve it, but after his nephew died the disturbingly attractive Virana had been determined to shower to him with her own peculiar style of kindness, interspersed with alarming sentences that began, “When we are married…” When he had finally mustered the courage to remind her that he hadn’t asked her, she pronounced, “Never mind, I can wait!” Last autumn she had followed him here to Arbeia, found work at the bakery and regularly introduced him to other customers as “My man.” As if that was not enough, last week she had managed to get herself a job in the house where he himself was employed. And now here she was again, bouncing along beside him, chattering in his ear about “Those poor sailors!”
He pretended not to hear, finally giving up when the pleas of “Why aren’t you looking? Are you all right?” became too urgent to ignore. “Albanus, look! What’s that in the water?”
He didn’t want to know. He had seen enough already. But now other voices were shouting, “There’s one!” and “Come on!” and “Throw him a rope!” and finally he took a deep breath of salty air and turned to see what everyone was pointing at.