Charlie was crying. His father beside him was trying to break out of his bonds, shouting at the children to let them go. They both knelt at the execution block, their hands bound behind their backs. A huge blade towered above them, three children manning it. All it would take was for the children to let go of the rope, and the blade would fall.
Charlie took a shaky breath, and raised his head. He was not going to die weeping. He closed his eyes and breathed in the dense musky air, letting his lungs fill until he felt lightheaded, and then slowly exhaling. He had never properly appreciated how smooth and fluid each movement of his body worked; the strong, easy pulse of his heart; the soft feel of his skin. He opened his eyes again. How jagged and mossy the rock wall before him was. How beautifully imperfect, so rough yet smooth; each weathered line telling a tale of its own.
"Prepare to die." It was Clove, whispering softly into his ear. Then, in a strong voice which rang through the cavern; "The execution is about to take place. Gather round, gather round."
Charlie expected to feel himself panicking, but instead felt himself surprisingly calm. He heard footsteps closing in around him and his father. Joe was silent now, waiting.
"The blade comes down in three…"
Charlie breathed deeply, a long, shaky breath, and felt his heart beating between his tightly bound wrists.
A cool quietness stole over him; it no longer mattered… nothing mattered…
He closed his eyes for what he knew would be the last time…
A huge crash echoed around the chamber. Charlie's eyes snapped open. He wondered for a second if he was dead, but no, the blade was still towering above them, though the children manning it were no longer looking at them, they were staring at something Charlie couldn't see, eyes wide in shock.
Charlie craned his neck around, trying to see what everyone was looking at. The children were all looking confused, trying to follow the orders of a screaming Clove.
"Don't just stand there, quick, surround them, SURROUND THEM!"
Charlie got a glimpse of a group of people in the middle of the hall. There were four small children, all with fair hair and dressed in what appeared to be dirty night clothes. And… could it be… a tall woman with dark hair? He got a glimpse of the woman's face as she turned. Pale and wild eyed, with high cheekbones and pinched skin. She looked angry, desperate, almost murderous. The Shell Bay children were trying to tie her up with ropes of seaweed, but she struck out at any child who came within her reach.
"Catch the children then!" screamed Clove, whose eyes were bulging as she yelled at the Shell Bay children, who tried to grab hold of the four fair haired children. But the woman threw the children behind her and struck violently at any child who dared come too close.
"Well, at least we're not dead," said Charlie, half to himself. It was then that he saw one of the fair haired children had vanished.
Jack heard shouts from above. What could be happening? Perhaps… but he dared not hope that it was the children he had dreamed about, bringing an adult to touch the clock. Then he heard footsteps, running fast. Someone was coming down the stairs. The footsteps slowed. The person was in the room.
"Jack! It's Jack, isn't it? We've come, we saw you, we brought someone with us, she's going to touch the clock." The voice was scared and out of breath - he could tell it belonged to a girl, a young girl. He felt someone lift the heavy clock from his chest. At once his breathing was easier and he could sit up. The heavy stupor like feeling had lifted.
The child before him was indeed a girl, perhaps about eight, with curly blonde hair and a small, oval face with large eyes. "I'm Lizzie," she said timidly, "But please, come quickly, we've got to get the clock to Mary." And with that she was off, capering up the stairs, Jack trying to keep up and get the cramp out of his legs and back from lying on the hard stone for so long.
They reached the top of the stairs. That air was fresher, not as stale and cold as in the room Jack had been prisoner in. Before them stood a woman, tall and dark, defiantly facing the army of one hundred or so wild, savage like Shell Bay children. Three small children, Lizzie's siblings, Jack assumed, were huddled behind her. Lizzie ran forwards to the woman, whom Jack assumed was Mary.
"Mary, I've got it, I've got the clock! Quick, touch it!"
The heartbroken, defiant cry came from Clove. She stepped forwards, into the no man's land between Mary and the Shell Bay children. Jack could see tears pouring down her cheeks. "Why do you want to do this to us? What have we done to you?"
"Lily," said Mary softly.
"L - Lily?" faltered Clove. "Lily Wren? She was there… she was there that day… but she left."
"She's dead," said Mary harshly. "She killed herself. Because of you."
"It's not my fault that she left," spat Clove. "If she had stayed she would have been immortal, like us. It's not my fault that she was too scared... no, no wait, please," her voice rose desperately as Mary reached towards the clock, "I didn't mean that! Please don't touch the clock! We're sorry, we'll do anything." Suddenly, she gave a echoing, defiant screech, and launched herself at Mary.
Jack watched in horror as Clove's hands latched around Mary's throat. Mary stumbled backwards. Jack and Lizzie lunged forwards and dragged Clove off Mary. Mary got to her feet, and, with an almighty strength, lifted Clove clean off the ground, and flung her at the opposite wall. There was an awful crunching thud, and Clove slumped to the ground, lifeless as a rag doll.
Mary's hand reached out. Lizzie hesitated for a second. A split second. In which all her fears and doubts collided and crashed into battle within her mind. In which she saw the children before her, their lives resting in her hands. Then, she pressed the golden instrument into Mary's hand.
For a second, the image before their eyes stood perfectly still, as it does in a movie when the disc is scratched, before the screen jumps a little, shivers with static, and then turns black.
When Jack next opened his eyes he was lying on the beach. He sat up, rubbing his eyes. His whole body ached, and yet he felt strangely calm. He lay on his back again, staring up at the iron grey sky. What had happened? Mary had touched the clock… then everything had stopped… or had it just gone fuzzy? He remembered a strange feeling of flying and a sickening jolt in the pit of his stomach.
Jack sat up again, and looked around the beach. Close by, Joe and Charlie were stirring, and beyond them were the four fair haired children, looking as though fast asleep.
Standing up, Jack stumbled to the low shelf of rock at the base of the cliff face, which, so long ago now, he had climbed over when he and his family had been at the beach. Clambering over it now, he saw that the cave was no longer there. The roof of the cave must have collapsed, and now all that remained of it was a mound of loose rocks and earth at the base of the cliff face.
Jack climbed back over onto the beach again. He saw Joe and Charlie, both of whom were sitting up and pulling ropes off their wrists and ankles. Charlie looked up and saw him.
"Hullo!" he called cheerily. "We almost got killed. Lucky that woman turned up when she did. Do you know how she got in?"
"Yes," said Jack, coming over to them. "But it's a long story." A little further away, he saw Lizzie and her siblings standing up, brushing sand off their tattered nightclothes, and beyond them Mary, who was staring out across the water with an unreadable expression. In her hand she was holding a smoking object which she dropped into the sand. Jack guessed that it must be the clock. For a second he was tempted to run over and thank her for saving them all, but Mary turned her back on the sea with a sad shake of her head and made her way up the dunes and into the woods before he could make up his mind.
Jack turned to Joe. "There's no cave anymore," he said. "It's full of rubble."
"But what about the children trapped inside?" said Charlie with a horrified gasp. "Dad quick, we'll have to tell the authorities so they can be rescued."
But Joe was shaking his head. "I think," he said gently, "that the Shell Bay children won't be needing rescuing."
"What… so they're… no, no it can't be…"
"Yes," said Joe sadly. "I believe they're dead. In fact, I think it's safe to say that the Shell Bay children have been dead for the past ten years."
Charlie and Jack were silent, digesting this information. "So… did the clock keep their ghosts alive or something?" asked Charlie, but Joe simply shook his head. He didn't know.
They stood in silence, looking at the cliff face. "At least the families can have the bodies," said Jack. "It would have been ten years worth of wondering whether their children were alive or dead."
Further away, the four Brent children were trotting up the sand dunes, the three younger ones being shepherded along by Lizzie. As they entered the forest, Jack saw Lizzie turn, and glance at the beach, empty save for Joe, Charlie and himself. He got the feeling Lizzie knew that the Shell Bay children were never coming out of their cave again.
"Well," said Joe, "Charlie and I will head to the road and hopefully hitch a lift home. Want to come with us, Jack?"
"No," said Jack, "My house is close by. I'll walk. Thanks for… for everything."
"No problem," said Joe. "Come on Charlie."
Jack followed slowly behind the father and son as they walked towards the road. As Jack reached the grassy verge between the dunes and the woods, he paused and turned.
Shell Bay lay, a grey brushstroke of sand across a spill of white paint sea. At that moment the setting sun broke through the heavy clouds, casting a strange golden light over the place. The waves tossed and played on the sandy shore, and the summer wind rustled the dry grass on the dunes. The place looked strangely empty, devoid of little ghosts playing jump the waves in the low tide.
Jack sighed, then, as the rest of them had, turned and walked slowly away, leaving Shell Bay behind.
A/N: Thanks so much for reading! As always, reviews are hugely appreciated, let me know if you liked this story.