Darting down the rough steps of the narrow switchback trail didn’t phase little Tomas, despite the threat of a sheer drop into the waters below. His bare feet were tough enough to ignore the pointed tops of loose rocks but soft enough to grip the uneven stone blocks that flew beneath him. Occasionally he would slow, remembering that a particularly narrow section or a wobbly step lay up ahead, but soon after he would be back up to speed. Tomas knew the path well.
As the trail neared its end, Tomas rounded the cliff and skidded to a stop momentarily, his right hand holding him steady against the cool stone wall. The descent had taken some of the breath out of him, but he didn’t need to go much further, his destination was in sight. A wide grin burst across his face as a gust of salty wind whipped at his dark hair, bringing with it a few snippets of conversation from the fisherfolk up ahead, as well as the smell of their morning’s catch.
The fisherfolk moved about upon a sturdy wooden platform that hung from four thick iron chains and Tomas couldn’t help but follow them with his eyes. Up and up and up they rose towards the overhanging cliffs, until he spotted the Lifthouse, where an engineer could simply throw a lever and bring the whole platform rattling skyward to meet the village above. It was a marvelous sight, to be sure, and hadn’t Tomas already made himself dizzy by watching those twirling gears that very morning.
“Permission to come aboard?” Tomas called out as he made his way down the last stretch of the path, stopping next to a raised gangplank and a small metal box with two gears and a lever jutting out of it. A few of the men and women looked up momentarily and all but one went back to tending their nets and lines and to their interrupted talk.
“Aye,” replied a stout woman as she deposited a basket of fish near the cliff-side of the Lift near several others, “but I won’t have no nephew of mine getting underfoot, so you find a spot and you sit, alright?”
Tomas nodded emphatically but had already pulled down on the lever next to him before Auntie Anna could finish her sentence. The gears in the small box spun, one of them swift and smooth, the other stuttering along at a steady pace, and the gangplank slowly lowered towards the lift. Not a moment after it had touched down had Tomas raced across to join the working men and women, only to have the collar of his simple grey shirt grabbed from behind. “Now what did I say?” his aunt scolded softly, “find yerself a spot and sit. My nets’re over there.”
The boy visibly relaxed then, but the grin still hadn’t left his face and when his collar was once again free he took a mockingly slow and careful walk over to where his aunt was pointing. She rolled her eyes and turned back to her work, securing her basket to the rear railing with rope.
Sitting up against the railing, Tomas dangled his feet between the balusters and over the edge of the Lift. Now that he was away from the cliff face and its switchback path he could look back and see the underside of his home. Like all the floating islands of the world, which he’d heard his father refer to as motes, Tomas’s homeland drifted along above the waves. Occasionally the water would swell upwards and brush the tips of those hanging rocks, sending white sea-spray across the fisherfolk and their work. Sometimes those swells would rise up just high enough to soak the boy’s feet, still hot and tingling from their run down the cliff side, and the cold would trigger a tinkling laugh that was more than a little infectious.
All around Tomas, nets and lines stretched out behind the mote as it drifted Eastward, leaving small white lines of foam in the otherwise unmarred blue. Auntie Anna joined him then, slinging her net back over the railing before looking down towards the boy. “Fallen for her have you? The Boundless Ocean that is.” Tomas continued to stare out, but shrugged as if to say, I don’t really understand the question.
“Maybe I should give you a line,” Auntie chuckled to herself, “teach you how to fish so you can spend all day down here and still be useful.”
“I don’t wanna be here all day,” Tomas replied, spreading his hands out and gesturing towards the open water, “I wanna be out there. I’m wanna get a ship and go diving for treasure, like Granda!”
“Well that’s a nice little dream to have there, kid. But that kind of work can be dangerous,” Auntie leaned on the railing, casting her own eyes out to the horizon, “and your grandfather did that cause he had to, not for the fun of it. They all did, back then.”
Again Tomas shrugged and said, “I’m not scared,” but no more.
After a moment, the boy raised a finger and pointed towards a cluster of rocky shapes that had drifted into view, traveling Westward. Their grey stone sides glistened with sea spray, and a tangle of green could be seen covering its upper surface. “What’s that mote called?”
Auntie Anna squinted a little and screwed up her face, “Don’t recognise that one, little Tomas. But not all motes have names like our Wandering Wood. A lot of them are still wild. No one lives there, so there’s no one to give ‘em a name.”
“What about that thing?” Tomas pointed once again and the ever-patient Auntie Anna cast her eyes to the South, to the dark purple stain that had come into view as their mote drifted on. Even at a distance, flashes of light could be seen emanating from deep within those heavy clouds and the woman’s eyes suddenly widened. A whistle of air sucked in through her teeth unbidden.
“That my dear boy, is something you don’t see very often,” she knelt down beside Tomas and rested an arm on the railing. The boy’s back straightened at the sudden change in tone, this was something exciting. “Our mote doesn’t usually drift this close – that is to say, close enough to see without an elven eye – but that is the Maelstrom.
“Some call it the God’s Eye, or the Storm Unending. That last one is probably the most accurate, cause that’s what it is. A great churning storm at the center of the world and unlike all of our motes it’s always in the same place.”
She leaned in closer and her voice dropped to the kind of half-whisper that Tomas associated with ghost stories, “Every now and then, the Maelstrom grows bigger. Then part of it peels off and goes whipping out across the ocean like a great arm filled with hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning, you name it.
“You won’t remember this ‘cause it happened not long after you were born, but a while back we got caught up in one of those arms when it was still young and powerful. Had to hide ourselves indoors for days and some of the houses in town was blown away entirely.”
Tomas’s eyes had finally been drawn away from the ocean view and now stared awestruck into his aunt’s. “But storms always go away eventually. Da says they wear themselves out.” Auntie Anna could see she had an attentive audience now, and knew what question would come next. “Why doesn’t that big one?”
“Do you know about the Exodus, Tomas?” the boy simply nodded, “When the old gods left us?”
Tomas chimed in to prove that he’d heard the tale already, “And they tore up the land and threw it into the skies. I hear that story all the time at the temple!”
“Well,” Auntie Anna continued, “some folk reckon that the Maelstrom is the last connection to wherever it is the old gods went to, and that their anger, their indignation at being challenged, is still bubbling through. And like an overfull pot of boiling water, it tends to spill over on occasion.”
A creaking of rope stole Auntie Anna’s attention then, her mind and gaze turning back to her nets as little Tomas sat frozen, lost in thought. Lightning lit up those dark clouds on the horizon and Tomas couldn’t help but imagine a figure trapped inside, beating its fists against the swirling vapour.