Chapter 1

The sun burnt across the sky in a flaming orange, its emerging tendrils turning the bare blue into a cacophony of purple, cyan, aquamarine and rose. In the cooling sand, a boy lay sprawled like ragged piece of driftwood in the tide-line. His sunburnt face was a nest of freckles over an upward-turning nose and hollow cheeks. Dirty reddish hair was glued over the eyes by dried-out seawater and the marks of too many lashing peered slightly through his ragged shirt. His hands were thin and bony, his knees knobbly and his feet were hard and callused. He looked a little like a sub-maritime scarecrow, covered in seaweed and molluscs, discarded by the indifferent depths.

It gradually grew later. The sound of heady birdsong warbled out from the nearby trees. A monkey gave a harsh croaking cry. There was silence for a while, until the noisy avian chorus picked up its song sheet once again. Time trickled onwards with the boy still unmoving on the beach. Wisps of cloud drifted over the cerulean sky. An inquisitive seagull hopped gradually towards his feet. It pecked slightly at the exposed flesh, but fluttered away in alarm when the offended limb jerked slightly out of the way. The small lizard that had settled down to sunbathe on his exposed back twitched uncomfortably; then there was peace again.

As even a small crab tentatively tested one of his cracked lips with a small leg, the boy finally showed some signs of life himself. His mouth closed, protecting his burning throat from further torment, and he rolled limply onto his back, disturbing the wildlife that was using him as a sunspot. Half his body was coated in a layer of glistening sand and his eyelids scrunched into a wrinkled knot against the imposing glare of the heavens. Then he fell back into unconsciousness again.

When he awoke, someone was holding his head and tipping a dribble of liquid against his lips. Reflexively his mouth parted and he gulped greedy streams of life-giving fluid with such determination that it took several moments before he became conscious enough to become aware of his aching throat, the stickiness of his skin and eyes and the all-consuming taste of salt. Every muscle in his body hurt with burnt-out exhaustion and his neck was stiff as a board from the uncomfortable angle he had lain in. His head felt strangely light and dizzy, he couldn't even open his eyes… and then there was the taste of salt. It was all-consuming and deliberate in every pore of his mouth. It hinted of the macabre suggestion he would never taste anything else again.

"Be careful now," trilled a feminine voice beside him. In his bedazzled state it sounded like a dozen klaxons going off in his ear. He groaned slightly in response. "You don't want to drink this all at once. You'll be ill." The blessed water was removed. The taste of salt grew stronger in his mouth again. The boy groaned again. With an effort he forced his eyes open. Immediately he was hit by such a maze of blurred shapes and colours that he snapped them shut again, wincing with blinded agony. "Careful!" Apparently his body had wobbled too for he was suddenly in a much tighter grip.

Almost against his will, he felt himself being pulled upright into a sitting position. After a moment to adjust to the new verticality he propped himself forward on his legs. The hands let him go. He swayed, but held firm.

"Well, I dunno who he is," came a new voice, also feminine, but older and with a far less refined accent. "Not a local boy, I can tell that much. Maybe he got washed off a ship after a storm?"

"Off a ship?" the first voice sounded sceptical, "You make it sound like some sort of fantastical pirate story. Shipwrecked on a tropical isle and all that… Surely that sort of thing doesn't actually happen?" The voice seemed very certain of herself; the sort of voice that had been well, and expensively, educated to achieve her view of the world and did not accommodate new information easily.

"Well, I don't know ma'am, I'm sure, but there've been a lot of nasty storms out there of late and they get a lot worse at sea. We can check with the radio tower later, see if there's been any news of ships in trouble."

"Man-over-board, and all that, I suppose," the first voice drawled, "Mayday, Mayday… or is that planes? Yes, I suppose that's sensible. What shall we do with him now? He can't stay here. I presume he ought to come with us to the house. Will you help me lift him?"

The boy opened his eyes again. Kneeling in front of him was a well-dressed girl, a few years older than he was, in a well-tailored cream jacket and skirt clearly intended for a colder climate. She had a rather equine face and a sharply-angled nose. Long hair, not yellow enough to be called blonde or brown enough for brunette, was pulled back into a messy cross between a bun and a ponytail at the back of her head. Her chin was rather weak, her lips were rather thin and her short-lashed eyes were a pale washed-out blue, but it was clear that she was the sort of girl that someone would fall in love with and think beautiful, if only because she bullied them into it. Her companion was a middle aged woman with darkish skin and a floral-patterned dress that was clearly homemade. Calling her 'plump' would have been an obvious kindness and she had a rather bowed gait that wore away at the reed sandals she wore. A smattering of tiny spots marred her chin, but she had a wide and friendly smile and huge eyes that radiated an all encompassing grin out onto the world.

"Perhaps if we both take a shoulder," the girl said, standing up. She ran a hand across her fizzled hair and sighed, adjusting the sleeves of her jacket.

"Can walk," the boy croaked, sitting back on his arms. Both the women turned to look at him in surprise.

"Glad to hear it," the girl replied curtly, snapping back around to face him, "I don't suppose you could tell us who you are?"

The boy shrugged slightly without really focusing on her. He smacked his lips slightly. They were still too dry and his mouth was smarting with the taste of salt.

The girl frowned, her neck straightening as she regarded him coolly. "You must have a name?"

He gave another shrug. His head turned slightly towards the deep azure of the ocean and he watched the bright sunshine play on the waves with a sort of wage smile. The older woman scowled and rolled her eyes.

"What about a family?" the girl demanded; her face stern with impatience.

Shrug.

"Does anyone know where you are?"

Shrug.

"Is there anyone who might be contacted?"

Shrug. The boy still hadn't moved.

The girl narrowed her eyes in frustration. Her nails bit into the tender flesh of her skin. Even her companion had her hands planted on her hips in a dangerous sort of manner. "Well - where are you from? Were you on a ship?" A sixth shrug had the girl smacking the sole of her plimsoll rather forcefully into the ground. "Are you stupid, boy? Is that it?" Her face was fast turning a rather angry red. It made her companion roll her eyes at her now. The boy on the other hand, turned his head slightly towards her, grinned the wicked infuriating smile of the young teenage boy and gave a final calculated shrug.

The girl screeched in barely concealed fury, her fists visibly shaking. "Oh you… Fine, you little… Urgh… I've got a mind too..."

The older woman laughed and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Now don't you go forgetting yourself, ma'am. There's nothing wrong with that one that a good hiding won't fix. He's just trying to wind you up – and succeeding too. The young men are all brats at that age. Just don't you pay him any attention for it, see what he does." The girl swallowed hard and appeared to chew her lip as she calmed down. Her eyes were fixed thoughtfully on the boy, who was still grinning with obvious enjoyment of her torture.

"You got any more water?" he chirped, sitting up. The girl turned away disgusted. Her eyes were locked determinedly on the horizon without ever really seeing it.

It was left to her companion to pull one large hand from the folds around her waist and waggle it pointedly in front of his nose. "You know the magic word?" she shot back, an eyebrow raised.

"Alakazam," he grinned, smirking up at her.

She cuffed him smartly over the head with the back of her hand and handed him a brown leather water bottle from the pockets of her skirt. "And bear in mind I'm being kind to you, young lad, on account of your unfortunate circumstances," she warned him, indicating to the girl that they should be heading off, "Normally you'd have gotten a hiding so hard you'd still have felt it in a week. Now if you can walk as well as you say, you'd better come with us. There'll be some food and fresh clothes in it for you if I'm any judge, so you'd better not run off. You won't get far on this side of the island at any rate. There's only us and the forest around here. The house is that way."

She gave an all-encompassing sweep of the arm toward a knot of trees on her right, which appeared to be the general direction of purpose, and led her still somewhat moody companion away towards it. After a moment, the boy staggered to his feet and followed them.