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Authors: Elizabeth Haydon

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BOOK: The Tree of Water
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“Who's teachin' this lesson?” Char asked.

“Well, this morning it's a four-year-old herring schoolmaster. As herring go, that's very old. I was chatting with him a few moments ago during breakfast, and he told me about the lesson.”

“What did you have for breakfast?” Ven asked.

“Herring, of course.”

“You were, er, eating his fellow herring?”

“Yes.” The merrow looked surprised. “Why?”

“Didn't that upset him?” asked Char.

“Goodness, no. In the sea you eat whatever you can to survive. No one takes it personally.”

“Oh,” said Ven. He thought back to Madame Sharra's warning.

Everything in the sea is food to something else. And the sea is always hungry
.

“Well, I suppose if I get eaten, I won't take it personally either.” He watched as all the color drained from Char's face. “Just kidding. Where's the school, Amariel?”

The merrow pointed out to sea in the direction of the other skellig, this one smaller and darker than Skellig Elarose, its peak blanketed in soft mist.

“Just past Skellig Lilyana is the beginning of the coral reef, that wall of living creatures I told you about. Between here and the reef the water is deep enough for the herring to practice forming their Ball. The reef near the skelligs is thinner than it is around the rest of the Island of Serendair. Once you get past the reef the ocean floor drops off sharply, and that's where the krill are.”

“Krill?”

“Tiny shellfish that everyone in the ocean feeds on. They hatch in swarms, bazillions at a time, and when they do it's a huge feast. The herring like the krill because they are about the only food in the sea smaller than herring. But since whales, sea lions, dolphins, salmon, and all kinds of other creatures feed on the krill, too, it's important for the herring to stick together. When predators show up, the herring form a gigantic ball to protect themselves—although depending on the kind and number of predators, it sometimes doesn't help much. But it makes them feel less defenseless, and it's fun to see. Sometimes a Herring Ball can be a mile wide.”

Char whistled. “That's a
lot
of herring.”

Amariel nodded. “Millions. There will be fewer this morning. The herring are eager to get out to the krill beyond the reef. So if you want to catch the lesson, we have to go now. The schoolmaster will be looking for sunwater to demonstrate the technique—you've seen sunwater, it's that fuzzy light beneath the surface. Thrum, in combination with sunwater, causes a sunshadow.”

“Is that where your thoughts look like pictures in the water?” asked Ven.

“Yes, so be careful what you are thinking if you are swimming through it.” The merrow pointed to a spot where the early-morning rays of the sun were reflecting on the surface of the sea. “That seems to be a likely place—and, as you can see, the birds are gathering, so I assume the Herring Ball practice will be there. Come on.”

She dove beneath the surface.

“Got your stone?” Ven asked. Char nodded.

“All right—then let's go.”

They followed the merrow through the swirling water. The waves around the skelligs were violent, crashing in many different directions, so the boys sank as deep as they could, away from the surface, to the skittering sand of the ocean floor where the drift was not so strong.

All around them, denser curtains of small, thin fish were swimming, mostly in the same direction, making the green water flash with the reflection of sunlight on their silver scales.

Ven peered into the hazy light where the sun had broken below the water's surface. A long, thin fish, more gray than silver, was hovering at the light's edge.

“That's the schoolmaster,” Amariel's thrum whispered.

“Oh,” Ven thought back. He watched as the hazy water turned clearer.

Suddenly the drift was filled with a moving picture. In the image were millions of small silver fish like the ones watching the lesson. They hovered in the water for a moment, then went from the flat formations in which they normally swam into a series of circles that eventually formed a giant ball in the sea, spinning like a globe. It revolved in the water, the different sections rotating inside the ball, taking turns at being away from the vulnerable outside.

I can't really explain how I knew that I was watching a lesson, but it was unmistakable.

With each new movement, each new strategy, there was a thrum that instructed the movement. From the vibration that returned from the immense curtain of fish, it was obvious that the herring were understanding the instruction. The directions were clear and simple. It made me wish my teachers back home had been able to communicate our lessons in thrum.

A few moments later, when the sunlight above the surface shifted, the image in the sunshadow faded.

The huge wall of fish that had been hovering in the water, watching the lesson, began to move into the patterns that the schoolmaster had directed.

All around me, the wall of silver scales shimmered, then formed a sphere that spun in the water just as the lesson had shown.

I could feel the approval of the fish teacher vibrate in my head.

Very good
, it seemed to say.
Tighten up those corners, now. The top is a little sloppy.

Amariel was smiling broadly.

“See?” she said as the gigantic ball of herring rolled past. “You'll never see anything on land do that.”

“No,” Char admitted. “But there are some pretty amazin' things done by land animals. Have you ever seen a bunch of ants build a hill?”

“I've seen a family of crabs make a tower almost a hundred fathoms tall. Don't try to top the merfolk, Chum, you land-liver. Our animals are bigger and smarter, our mountains are taller, our trenches deeper—you can't begin to match what's in the sea.”

“So what happens now?” Ven asked hurriedly, swimming quickly to get between them. Char had started to open his mouth, then choked, forgetting to use thrum in the heat of the argument.

“Well, now that the herring know how to make the Ball, they will head for the coral reef, then out past it, where a storm of plankton is blooming. We can go watch and see if they make it.”

Ven and Char looked at each other blankly.

The merrow sighed.

“All right, let me see if I can put it in land-liver words you can understand. Imagine that the harbor was the city of Kingston, and that here, around the skelligs and the coral reef, is like the inn where you live. Out there, past the reef, is like the Wide Meadows beyond the inn. Does that make sense so far?”

The boys nodded.

“Good. Now imagine that on one day, every flower, vegetable, and seed that acts as food in the Wide Meadows ripened all at the same time. That's what a plankton storm is like—a giant banquet of food in the sea.”

“Got it,” Ven said. Char looked doubtful but his thrum was silent.

“So, on land, if every bit of food was suddenly available in one place, all the animals that need that food would appear, wouldn't they? Mice, rabbits, rats. squirrels, bugs, all those nasty little creatures I saw when I was on land with you, would show up in droves, looking to gobble the food up. Right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, those vile little animals are like krill. And everything that eats those creatures, from cats to coyotes and wolves, would come to the feast. It would be one big disgusting picnic. And, of course, wherever there is food, there are birds. Whether it's seagulls or ravens, there always seem to be birds.”

Amariel pointed up to the surface. Ven looked up. The flocks of seagulls he had seen before entering the sea that morning had grown until they covered the blue of the sky. He thought he could hear their harsh cawing even below the waves as they circled above, diving occasionally for herring that had ventured too close to the surface.

“Sky rats,” Char murmured.

“So if you were a mouse that needed to cross the Wide Meadows in the middle of a feeding frenzy like that, the only way to do it would be to join forces with a lot of your friends and try to make it through all the predators,” the merrow continued. “That's what the herring do. Obviously a lot of them are not going to make it, and that's as it should be—I mean, the bigger fish need to eat, too. But many of them do, because there's safety in numbers.”

“I kinda wish we had brought along the rest of our friends from the inn,” Char said. “Nick and Saeli and Clem and Ida—well, maybe not Ida—”

“They would have had no way to breathe,” Ven interrupted. “I think it's best that we just tell them the story when we get back.”


If
we get back,” said Char gloomily.

“That's the spirit,” said the merrow. “Let's get going—the herring are starting to head for the reef. They must feel that there aren't many predators, because they're swimming in sheets. That's a sign that they have clear seas—so we had better take advantage of that while we can. And if they make it, the herring will throw a party, and we'll be invited, of course. It will be a huge celebration.”

“Let me guess.” Char's thrum sounded sour. “A herring ball?”

The merrow blinked. “Well, yes. Herring are great singers, and they dance pretty well, too.”

“Of course they do.” Char looked at Ven, who was scowling at him. “All right, let's go.”

“If you listen, you can hear the herring singing,” Amariel said as they followed the great silver cloud of fish through the drift and out to sea. “Their thrum is pretty.”

Ven listened. At first he didn't hear anything, but after a moment he could feel in his skin a pleasant tingling, as if he were being brushed by a feather. Then he realized the thrum was all around him, echoing through the sea.

“That
is
pretty,” he said.

“It can confuse predators, if there are any nearby,” Amariel said. “Soothing sounds and smooth gestures go unnoticed. A whole school of fish can swim right past a shark if they are singing nicely. It's jerking movements and thrashing around that comes when a creature panics that will catch its attention.” She gave a thrust of her powerful tail to catch up with the herring.

“We'll keep that in mind,” Ven thought out loud. He let the drift carry him as Amariel had showed him, and found that he was able to follow the fish fairly easily.

He was paying such close attention to keeping up with the curtain of herring that he didn't notice the change in the seafloor.

Until something large and dark as night with wings like a giant bat passed directly beneath him.

Waving a sharp weapon that gleamed menacingly in the light of the sun.

 

10

The Coral Reef

“Uh, Ven,” the merrow said. “Don't move.”

She didn't have to tell me twice.

In fact, I'm not sure she had to do so even once.

The immense creature glided along the ocean floor, which Ven could see now was alive with strange formations in many shapes, sizes, and colors. Some looked like plants, others like stone, but Amariel had told him enough stories that he was fairly certain he was now hovering above the coral reef the merrow had told him about.

Coral formations made up of billions of tiny animals.

The bat-like beast came to a halt just above the coral bed. It turned to face them, then puffed its back like an angry cat. Its dark hide was mottled with flecks of gray and white, and it looked hollow as it watched them, its gills opening and closing quickly. Ven guessed it was bigger than the bed he slept in back home in the Crossroads Inn.

It's a marble ray
. Amariel's thrum echoed in his head.
A stinger. You've startled him. He doesn't want to hurt you, but he's frightened, and he will if you make him feel threatened. And he can kill you very easily. He can break your leg with a swipe of his tail, and that barb is like a land sword—it can run you through.

Ven held still. He hovered next to Char in the drift, who was frozen beside him.

“Sorry to have bothered you,” Amariel said to the ray. “All a mistake. No problem here.”

The enormous fluid creature stared at them, but didn't move.

Sorry.
Ven thought as he hung motionless in the drift.
Very sorry
.

The ray stared at them a moment longer, then turned and floated away, its rubbery body and whiplike tail with its shiny barb skittering over the glorious colors of the reef below them. Ven heard its thrum in his head, two separate thoughts, as it left. One he could understand easily.

Idiot.

The other was harder to pin down, but as best he could tell it was an observation that each of the sea creatures they had met had made.

Out of place
.

BOOK: The Tree of Water
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