(Reprinted in Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2013, ed. Paula Guran)
I studied the village of Keyward from the packed gravel by the water. Judging by the skulls roped to the pylons in the estuary, the people here knew how to take care of themselves. But even if there was no fight to be had, perhaps the townsfolk would be interested in the one and only book I had to sell.
I peered at one of the skulls as I passed. It had been there long enough to have lost the lower jaw and most of the teeth; mussels the size of my thumbnails had attached themselves to the sides like bristling purple sideburns.
It was common enough on the coast to tie pirate corpses out for the gulls, but I couldn’t help but remember how easily I might have become a pirate myself all those years ago, suddenly homeless with only my learned violence to serve me. I shuddered and renewed the Tactic of Floating Among Lilies, taking a deep breath and transforming the air into a false pink light that only I could see, caressing the edges of my vision as I exhaled. Thus calmed, I guided my horse along the muddy sand that bordered Keyward.
The town hunched above salt-worn rocks, bisected by a harried stream. The tall, narrow buildings were almost disguised by the pines, but even from the bottom of the hill I could see iron bars on the lower-level windows. Wooden bridges fluttered with laundry, some of it sporting faded, rusty stains. Bandages.
The closest building was a stout inn with a pattern of pale streaks marking the walls. Scars from dismantled scaffolding, I realized when I noticed there were iron grids installed across the upper windows as well.
High above me, a man with a crossbow lazed on a balcony on the second floor. He wasn’t rude enough to aim yet, but his eyes were on me.
I waved. He pulled a cord. Perhaps it meant I was friendly; perhaps it was a warning. I thought it best to wait for a greeting.
Expensive defenses like glass, iron, and crossbows meant that Keyward not only had a supernatural threat but they could afford a trained professional to deal with it. I just needed to convince them they’d rather hire me than await the slow mercy of the Order of the Divine Lady.
“Good day, cousin.”
A man with a dark woolly beard the size of his own head stepped out of the inn, looking down from a wooden terrace that wrapped around the ground floor. Jagged scraps of iron stuck out of the shadows beneath the walk where he stood. The scars from the scaffolding stopped just under the defenses, and I wondered why they’d even bothered putting grids on the windows when anathema would have to get past those enormous iron teeth.
Clusters of gold coins tipped each of his matted ropes of hair. They only fell past his chin, so he hadn’t been wealthy for long. Mine were to my waist, and while I had a modest amount of coin woven in, I had never had to cut a single one to use it. I wondered what had prompted him to shave his head and start over. That kind of ostentatious prosperity belonged on a tough street lord in a port city, or at least a mercenary like myself—not an innkeeper on the coast.
Aloud, I only said, “Good day to you, cousin. My second name is Bane. I’m looking for a room.”
“My second name’s Browan. If you like the place, you can bring your horse ‘round back.”
We entered through the inn’s front door, which held seven different locks and a bar, all of them forged of iron. The windows, too, had been built to keep out anathema—the sills were iron, as were the bars that held the glass panes in place. Keyward could definitely afford my services, and moreover, seemed to need them.
Browan passed me a drink when I asked for his best. “No one in these parts understands what best means,” he said. “Something tells me you’ve traveled enough to advise whether or not it’s worth the word.”
My eyes wandered over the room as I swilled the brew over my tongue. Stuffed creatures—mostly shore birds and small predators—perched on the rafters; pelts of marine mammals like seals, otter, and beaver hung above the mantel.
“It’s darker than I would have brewed it, but if you’re not already sending kegs to Kalperry, consider doing so.”
“Thank you. Please pardon me if I’m impolite...” I knew without a doubt what he would ask. His line of sight wasn’t quite meeting my eyes. “Out here, we don’t get many westerners. I’m familiar with the Lady’s Column. But your mark?”
“It’s called the Exit Cross,” I said. Or, to some, the Betrayer’s Cross, but I kept that to myself. The first line represented the pillars that held up the roof of the Lady’s temple. The second intersected it at the center and divided my forehead into quadrants. “I don’t serve the Lady.”
When Browan rang a bell, an unkempt ghost of a child, all bare feet and shaggy white-blonde hair, scurried in and left a tray with thick rye bread, cheese, and an apple. The child darted back out, leaving only an impression of androgyny and fear.
“If not the Lady, who do you serve, cousin? If you don’t mind me asking?”
“The people,” I said. “I put an end to trouble. I’m not cheap, but I’m well worth the expense.” I took a bite of cheese, a bite of apple, and a bite of bread, and chewed them all at once. One, two, fifteen, swallow. A seer had predicted my end in a storm of fire and blood, which I preferred to the ignominious death of choking at table.
“Why would people hire you, instead of sending for the free aid of the disciples of the Fierce Mother?” He sounded genuinely interested.
“The Fierce Mother is slow in her aid,” I said wryly. “And no one in her employ has this.”
I unbuckled my cloak and withdrew my line of prizes. I coiled the thin linen rope on the table, letting the trinkets form a clinking spiral of teeth and bones and one withered, resin-encapsulated eye.
He sucked in a breath, and pointed at the last. “This?”
“Sandwiel. Kypteri desert. Nothing from the eastern coast, yet, though I saw bandages hanging on the bridges. Perhaps I’ll take a prize here.”
Browan leaned back and laughed. “Nothing so dramatic as a sandwiel here, I’m afraid. Mackilvie got in a fight with a seal over who owned the fish in his net.”
“And the claw marks on the walls?”
“That... that is something else,” he said. He smiled. “We’ll take care of it, though. We have a book on anathema, and it’s served us well so far.”
He said my name, and I laughed a bittersweet laugh. He clearly didn’t believe me, so I pulled my sword partly from its sheath that he might see “IMURI BANE” engraved in the hilt.
“You’ll write yourself out of a job,” he said.
“Sadly, never. Knowing their nature doesn’t necessarily render someone capable of defeating them. Have you identified the anathema?”
“If I tell you,” he teased, “you’ll kill it and send us a bill. Think of Keyward as a vacation, cousin.”
He showed me to my room, which was an attic loft with a bed near the warm stones of the chimney. Perhaps I would write myself out of a job, but I wasn’t going to stop using my bounties to have that book copied again, and again, and again.
Anathema was the blanket term the church encouraged, and it was commonly thought that all anathema were the same: supernatural constructs that could take any form they chose, to torment humanity and tempt us or herd us away from faith. Within the Order of the Fierce Mother, however, we were taught the science of anathema, their anatomy, husbandry, and nature.
I had come to trust in that science. It had saved my life. I’d pushed for posters and books detailing the forms in which anathema could appear, disseminated among the parishes. “Teach them how to classify, discover, and avoid anathema. They should know how to combat these threats,” I’d insisted.
High Priest Kellar had smiled at me like a patient father with an unruly child. He responded with the motto of the Order of the Fierce Mother: “It is for us to fight with a sword; they must fight with faith.”
“We can’t protect them all the time. And it takes us time to answer a summons. We must teach fishermen that a selkie’s blood spilled in the sea will certainly raise a storm. They should learn how to extinguish a marshlight, how to lay the fitful dead to rest.”
“Without the fear of the dark, Sister Imuri, what need would they have for us, the bringers of light?” Priest Kellar had asked.
Even thinking about it warmed my guts with a familiar anger. I quickly renewed Floating-Among-Lilies to quell the feeling. When my heart was cool again, I excused myself to tend to my horse. Once done, I exited the dim stable and headed back to the inn, toward the kitchen entry. The lines I had thought were scars from scaffolding continued up the walls to the doorjamb, but here they skewed and overlapped, the cross-hatching of a mad artist with a knife. Now I could see them for what they were—claw marks.
Something had tried to climb inside, and Browan’s mysterious remarks made me suspect it would try again. The scratches weren’t deep—it wasn’t digging its way through.
It was just writing the promise that it would.
The science of anathema arrayed itself in my thoughts unbidden. I counted the marks—five in each swipe—layered from multiple nights of scratching. They reached as high as a man, avoiding the iron fittings on the window frames and the kitchen door.
Whatever it was, it was as big as me. Something that size wasn’t a fair match for ignorant villagers with nothing but a book written by an ex-priest.
I made certain to bar my door when I retired for the night.
♦ ♦ ♦
I woke to a woman’s scream.
The crescent moon was wasting away on the western horizon and a wet smear of light marked the east. Fog blanketed the sea and shore, fading into wisps among the trees, but from my window, I could see dark shapes slithering through the white miasma, and the shouts of men ricocheted through the ravine.
I renewed Floating-Among-Lilies, which had torn in my sleep, leaving me with dreams that were sometimes black-and-white and devoid of emotion and sometimes fiery bursts of passion that seemed to break my heart. I was grateful for the awakening.
With the clawmarks as a warning, I’d slept in my clothes. I donned the thin mail shirt and skirt. As I wiggled my helm into place, my thumbs touched the rusted holes on either side where the holy smith had desecrated his own work by tearing out the wings.
Browan’s wife stood in front of the fire, clutching a shapeless bit of cloth in one hand and a knife in the other. In firelight, the hunting trophies looked particularly grisly where they stared down from the walls.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Anathema stole a child from Fenny Smith.” She stared at my scarred armor and the Exit Cross on my forehead. After a moment, she pointed through the window. “Up the south hill, above the smithy.”
I strode out the door into wisps of mist and crossed the narrow ravine that divided the town. Watching-as-The-Owl, I peered between the houses wedged onto the steep hillside. If there was danger, I wanted to see it first. Only moths stirred around the smith’s windows, though the walls below were scored with now-familiar claw marks. Sobs echoed within.
The door hung open, as if they welcomed the return of the terror now that they were awake and armed. Inside, I found a man weeping as he clung to a woman who seethed in his embrace. In the corner, a bereaved sibling crouched as far from the adults as she could get. She hugged her knees, and her mop of cornsilk hair covered her face.
“I’m sorry,” the man whimpered through his sobs. He was huge, shirtless, and though a dark braid thick as a horse tail hung down his back, not a single hair sprouted on his arms. The smith, I guessed.
The woman’s hard gaze sharpened on me as I entered. “Who are you?” she spat.
“Imuri Bane,” I said.
She shrugged off her husband. The miserly lines around her mouth deepened as she sized me up. “Bane? You deal with anathema, then?”
“For a price.”
Only a ghost of grief pained her voice when she asked, “How much is my child’s life worth?”
I thought about what I knew, about windows and an abundance of iron, about common townfolk who could afford nice crossbows.
“If the child still lives, eighteen imperial horseheads. If it’s dead when I get there, I’ll bring you the remains for ten. Either way, I’ll kill the anathema and teach you how to stop it next time. Half up-front.”
One of the men staring out the windows turned around. A Lady’s Column inked the back of his right hand, and he wore a black silk sash around his waist. Mine had been orange, the second-brightest color in the Assembly of the Divine Lady.
His sleek black brows rumpled, but his voice was even when he spoke. “You would charge for a service our Fierce Mother provides for free?”
“If you’d prefer to wait for a Disciple, I won’t argue. If the weather holds, they might even get across the mountains before the passes close. Whatever you decide,” I said, turning to address the pinch-faced woman and her wet-faced husband, “please decide soon. If you don’t require my services, I’m going back to my warm bed.”
The sobbing father barked at me. “I have the money, and I’ll pay it. I want Keeley home.” He turned haunted eyes on me. Swollen and red, they reminded me of the sagging, fleshy anemones that slept during the low tide. “You’ll swear it?”
“I swear on the Suffering Sailor’s blisters, the rope that bound him, and the storm that freed him.” It wasn’t the standard oath in Fierwa, but it was serious enough, especially among fishermen.
The parish keeper—he’d have had a Column on both hands if he was a full priest—said nothing, and though his eyes latched into the Exit Cross on my forehead like a hook in a fish, he remained unnaturally composed.
He was Floating-Among-Lilies. I was still doing it myself, so I didn’t even smile when I noticed. The practice of distancing your soul from the moment, packing it up and setting it on an invisible shelf, was the first of the difficult Tactics. My teachers had done everything from pricking my face with skewers to throwing a dead, dog-chewed child into my lap. Eventually, I had stopped flinching. I wondered if this parish keeper truly had learned Floating-Among-Lilies or if it was a text-book mockery of my own perfection.
“Browan said he’s seen a book of anathema,” I said. “Which did this?”
“Anathema are all the same. They take the form that hurts us most. If such a book existed, I wouldn’t consult it,” the parish keeper said.
I nodded. “I thought you’d refuse to help a child if it went against doctrine.” It was a calculated barb—at the moment, I didn’t hate him for his simple, pleasant existence or the lack of responsibility on his bony shoulders. I only wanted to be sure I made my bounty.
“You’re—you’re charging them!”
His incredulity knocked his soul off the shelf. Sinking-Among-Lilies, I thought, but I still didn’t smile. I would be smug later, when my emotions weighed so heavily that they forced me to release the Tactic and feel all the stomach-sickening passion it had kept at bay.
“Tell me exactly what happened, and show me where it occurred,” I said.
The wife took the lead, climbing a leaning wooden ladder with fitted iron braces. The carpentry was so perfect it was like climbing stairs. The tiny mezzanine held one empty bunk, crafted with the same love and skill as the ladder. No blood, but water droplets dappled the floor. I put my finger in one and tasted it. Salt.
I mentally listed aquatic threats: kelpies, jennies, sharkums, niskies, kraken. The water trail began at the window; when I glanced out, I saw claw scrapes on the sill and, below, something white in the bushes. I dashed outside. It was a ladder, constructed nearly as well as the one I’d just used, but this was of driftwood, bone, and scraps of dark knotted rope that peeled away under my fingernails. Seaweed.
Nothing on my list could do this. Not a jenny, who haunted freshwater. It could only be niskies if there were many, because it would have taken at least ten to carry this ladder, and besides, they were too small to make the marks on the walls. Whatever it was, it had left the ladder behind.
The parents waited in the doorway, their pale faces like sad twin moons.
“Was the anathema interrupted in its task?” I asked.
The wife shook her head. “No. I heard a crash outside, and when Browan got up to investigate, I went upstairs. She was gone.”
I went over the ground around the house, but of course their kinfolk had already trampled it into a sea of chopped, muddy boot prints.
I took my soul down and stopped Floating-Among-Lilies, because now I would need my intuition.
It didn’t feel much different. I was still working. It wasn’t my child, and it wasn’t the first, or even the fiftieth, of the children I’d attempted to recover. I vowed it would not be the twenty-seventh I’d lost. The hill sharpened into a cliff as it neared the water. I squinted in the dark. Watching-As-The-Owl, I spotted long horizontal scrapes in the moss on the vertical rock face.
I tiptoed through the fog, silent in my leather-soled boots as I hugged the cliff. The identity of the anathema gnawed at me. I had narrowed it down to sharkums, which built complex cities of coral beneath the waves, but I’d never seen a sharkum leave the water for more than a minute or two. It might be only a clever human predator, transferring the suspicion onto anathema.
Or the anathema might be unlisted, something new.
I found a trail of human footprints, adult, not much larger than mine. I lost them over fucus-furred rocks and found them again, skirting a herd of sleeping, log-like seals. The trail stopped at the rising tide.
Simple, ugly. She’d been put into a boat and floated out into the grey nothing. She’d be sold into slavery, perhaps, or kept for the amusement of a repulsive but unfortunately common paedophile.
I renewed Watching-As-The-Owl and added Unsinging-of-Cats, so if a child cried on the water, or even a paddle sloshed among the waves, I might pick out the wrong notes in the otherwise peaceful symphony of the shore. Nothing.
My eyes fell on the prints one last time as I turned to leave. There were five tiny holes in the sand, each one directly in front of a toe depression. Claws. And the toes were webbed.
Even if the villagers wouldn’t tell me what was plaguing them, I would solve their soiled laundry and scarred wood. I would get them a better, uglier skull to display down by the water.
♦ ♦ ♦
When I returned to the inn, my ears were still sensitive with the Unsinging-of-Cats. Notes of anger filtered out through the inn’s stoic cedar walls. As I crept across the bridge, I held my arms out from my sides so the mail wouldn’t clink against itself. Even with all my precautions, I could barely hear the conversation, and it ended too soon.
“It’s an abomination, Browan. Heresy!” The words rushed into the night air as the parish keeper stormed out the door. Though his face twisted with hate at the sight of me, he passed me by. I stepped inside and found Browan setting out china for breakfast, which wasn’t for a few hours yet.
“Couldn’t sleep,” he said.
“Nothing will happen to a child in this house,” I promised. “Does the parish keeper often raise his voice?”
He chuckled, running his thumb along the edge of one hand-painted dish. “He tells me you’ll take care of the anathema, on Fenny Smith’s gold.”
“I’ll try,” I said. I stared hard at his brown eyes—long-lashed and friendly and covetous of their secrets. I didn’t think he would tell me why he was unusually prosperous at his out-of-the-way inn, and his wife likely wouldn’t either.
But children had less sense about such things.
♦ ♦ ♦
I spent the day scouring the foggy shore. In this remote stretch of beach, there were plenty of anathema, but none of them seemed a likely culprit. I saw niskies in the waves. They giggled and blew foam bubbles, and the only corpse they played with today was that of a battered gull. A more stately selkie lounged in seal form on a slab of barnacle-crusted rock—I only knew she wasn’t a mere seal because of the fear in her gaze. A real seal was stupid. Fragments of coral structure from a storm-torn sharkum city littered the tideline, but there was no telling how long they had been knocking about in the depths beyond Keyward, or how far away the city might be.
I returned for the mid-day meal with damp sand-filled woolens and a few cuts from prying oysters off of the rocks. These latter were my excuse for entering the back door.
Browan’s child was there, as I suspected. It crouched on a pile of sacks by the woodpile, strangely far from the fire’s warmth. I decided it was a boy. His snowy hair reached his shoulders, and when he turned his eyes on me, I suddenly dropped my hand to the hilt of my sword.
The parish keeper’s talk of abominations hadn’t been about me, after all. It was expressly forbidden by the Lady to harbor or treat with anathema; the king’s penalty was death, and the Lady’s penalty was excommunication. The sour little man had known the whole time.
I kicked myself for observing without thinking. Every adult in Keyward had brown hair, and I’d seen two blonde children, unkempt and poorly clothed despite the town’s unexplained prosperity. There had only been one bed in Smith’s house—the blonde child slept on a rumpled blanket while the missing Keeley had a custom bed.
I took a step toward the blonde boy. He pressed himself against the wall, his feet kicking dirty burlap between us. His mouth hung open, panting like a dog’s, his sea-grey eyes wide with horror at the sight of all that steel. All that iron. I glanced back at the doorframe—the handle was iron, the doorjamb, the hinges, and there were so many iron nails pounded into it that not even the fiercest of adult selkies could hope to claw through.
Suddenly, the furnishings in the main room became a sinister cruelty instead of a strange display of wealth and prowess. Pelts.
The parish keeper was right. This was an abomination. And not just to break the Lady’s edicts but to subjugate any living thing, supernatural or not...
“I won’t hurt you,” I said. My voice was so gentle it surprised me. “How many of you were stolen?”
“That’s none of your mother-damned business, Prodigal.”
Browan stood in the doorway to the common room, his bulk not quite obscuring the raw-eyed smith behind him or a lean woman about my age with a cudgel propped on her shoulder. She looked like she might be Browan’s sister.
So the parish keeper had explained what my cross tattoo meant. I took to my feet slowly. I had my sword, and I had a bag of fist-sized oysters. All the rest of my weapons were in my room.
As I rose, the selkie child flashed three fingers at me. The webbing between them had been sliced away, to make his hand seem more human.
The child shrieked as Browan thrust his iron-tipped club toward it, dragging the metal down the boy’s leg. It left a streak of bluish-purple, like a scar exposed to the cold.
Browan turned back to me, his brow low and his teeth bared. “Leave town.”
“What made you decide to come after me?” I asked. “Is this how you afford your china, Browan? Robbing those who trust your hospitality?”
“Dandla saw you sneak into the kitchen with a bag of treats for my anathema. Leave now, and the most you’ll lose is your horse.”
I slipped out the door and strode toward the beach. Unsinging-of-Cats would let me know if they followed me, but it was still difficult to control the urge to glance over my shoulder.
♦ ♦ ♦
I knew they would attempt to murder me—their apostasy and treason were too great of secrets. They were well aware that I was a trained warrior. They would try to take me in the night.
I walked down the stream toward the sea. The entire village was complicit in this grotesque slavery, not to mention the loss of all the belongings that I had been forced to abandon in my room, and there were few places left to hide while I strategized.
The islands, nothing more than dark smears in the dissipating fog, beckoned to me from the bay. Let the men and women of Keyward navigate their way out there in the dark, past the selkies they’d wronged. I had Warmth Of The Bear to keep me, at least until morning.
I stole a skiff and two iron-reinforced oars. Fenny Smith’s work was fine indeed, and I thought perhaps I might burn it when I was done with it.
I rowed straight out to the islands, a row of jagged black silhouettes rising out of a bed of fog. A fine mist obscured the struggling sun, and as I approached, I found the rocks less friendly than I’d imagined. Rain soaked my clothes and hair. I despaired of finding a way to climb ashore without cracking my bones in the angry surf before I discovered a slender crescent of sandy beach. It lay submissively at the feet of the sheer cliffs on the tallest island.
Selkies eat birds, so I wasn’t surprised when I stepped out of the boat and found a horde of anathema crawling out of crevices in the rocks.
“Why do you intrude, human?” The anathema’s voice was like the rain on my skin, smooth and cool and shiver-inducing.
“My conscience,” I said.
The anathema who had spoken first cocked its head to the side. “I wasn’t aware the thieves of children had such endowments.” Its sibilant speech crashed against my ears like the tide on the rocks.
“I’ve never stolen a child,” I said. “But tonight, I will steal three.”
The anathema held still, but its gaze slid over my weapons and mail, over the coins dangling in my hair. “If you speak of our children,” it said, narrowing its eyes, “you must mean eleven.”
My teeth ground against one another for a brief moment before I regained control of myself. Browan brazenly wore the coins of a warrior or a thief king; he mimicked the men who gambled that their deeds were so fierce, so brave, that if you tried to take their hair you’d regret it.
Yet the lying wretches of Keyward had taken every golden disk from the sale of the most helpless of all anathema: a creature enslaved to the holder of its pelt.
“If you go to retrieve our children, we will help. I am Lum.”
“I am Imuri. I welcome your help.”
“You and I shall swear on fire,” said Lum. “It burns us both, and the one who breaks their word will suffer its wrath.”
I nodded. They escorted me inside the largest of their caves. It was damp and smelled of salt and stone. I couldn’t tell if I was a guest or a prisoner, but the plan we discussed was mostly mine, so perhaps I was a general. A general of anathema, Lady forgive me, but when her followers acted as they did, what were right and wrong but simple words?
In the corner, two human children huddled, terrified of the anathema and not mollified by the woman with a sword who politely sipped cold fish soup while discussing the terms of the children’s ransom and the punishment of their parents.
Lum was lanky, with rubbery grayish-white flesh and a mostly human face. I recognized that the skull on the pylon outside Keyward wasn’t a man—the sockets were too angular, the breadth of the cheekbones too wide. If there’d been any teeth left, they would have been pointed.
“You know you cannot stay,” I said. “They’ll find you here, and destroy your home.”
“If I cannot keep mine,” he replied, “then why should they keep theirs?”
His wife held out a wide flat clamshell that I could have used as a dinner plate. A coal smoldered in the center.
After speaking his oath to me, which I accepted, he placed his palm on the coal and allowed his flesh to sizzle for three seconds before lifting hand. The air reeked of charred fish and charcoal.
My hand hovered over the coal as I spoke mine, and then my toes curled in my boots at the excruciating pain. One. Two. Three. The sickening scent of baked ham scalded my nostrils. I pulled my hand away and allowed his wife to wrap it in cold seaweed.
It was time to return to Keyward.
♦ ♦ ♦
The parish keeper answered the knock at his window holding an iron knife and a handful of salt. He didn’t know the difference between selkies and nippers—Browan and Fenny hadn’t shared the book with him.
He was the reason I couldn’t stop giving away my books. He needed to know that nippers wouldn’t be interested in his salt; the grains were too small, and the shining surfaces would hurt their bulbous eyes. It would be better to distract them with a handful of black rice. It could be my fault if he died, or worse yet, if he taught a child the wrong way to defend herself.
Just like it was my fault the villagers had the information that led to the slave trade in selkie pups. Guilt stung me as the thought surfaced again, until Floating-Among-Lilies sagged under the weight of my grief. I had included the most benign of anathema so they might be separated from the more dangerous niskies and sharkums, not so they might be preyed upon.
I was cleaning up my mess, Lady bless me. I would scour it with fire and steel and if I had to, the most dangerous Tactic: Fight-of-the-Crocodile.
“What do you here, Prodigal?” The parish keeper spat the words as if they tasted of his own guilt.
“I found the human children,” I said. “For a small fee and an answer, I’ll tell you where.”
He didn’t ask me how he’d know I was telling the truth. He could afford to trust me; with such a successful parish, he had plenty of coins to spare. And he cared about those children because at least in that, he was faithful.
“What answer would you have of me?” he demanded.
“Why haven’t you told the Order of this town’s sins?”
He shook his head. “I wouldn’t see Keyward’s children become orphans because of behavior that can yet be changed. And your criminal insistence on solving problems best left to members of the Order hasn’t helped reinforce their trust in the Lady.”
I kept my last thought to myself, that he had sworn to uphold the Lady’s dominion over every other concern. Whether he admitted it or not, it wasn’t the Lady’s dogma he was defending but her spirit. I smiled for him then, a real smile. I told him the truth—the children were tethered where I said—but I added a lemon-sour lie.
“There are twenty-five selkies waiting there,” I said. The words stung my lips like a catscratch. “I would have saved them myself and demanded a bounty, but your townfolk have stolen my belongings—”
“Do not speak to me of theft,” he snapped. He threw a handful of coins in the dirt and slammed the window shut.
Floating-Among-Lilies, I stepped into the stream and stood still as a sleeping ghost. The parish keeper didn’t take long rousing the townfolk. Lanterns flickered to life in their hands, like a nest of wasps radiant with rage. The lights flowed away over the hill.
Only those who couldn’t fight were left behind, with a few able but inexperienced youths to protect them; Watching-As-The-Owl allowed me to see them pass through the darkness. They congregated in the smithy, not the parish. Perhaps they wanted the safety of the iron fittings, or perhaps they knew the Lady wouldn’t shelter them after what they had done.
I sheltered them in her stead. Their safety was part of the bargain I made. The selkies and I were there to punish, not to torture; we planned to burn wood, not people. The prisons in Keyward would be too easy to use again if we didn’t destroy them.
I stepped into the inn’s kitchen and whispered for the selkie child who Lum called Izhmir. It was a girl, not a boy, and if I had not been Floating-Among-Lilies, I would have been excited to see her again. She had risked Browan’s iron poker to tell me how many of her sestren were captured. Our names were similar.
And she wasn’t there.
♦ ♦ ♦
The smith’s house was empty as well; so was the chandler’s, where the third selkie child was supposed to be trapped.
I found Lum standing on the bank of the stream. Already, flames flickered on the roofs and walls of the other houses. He stared down the hill at the forge. Yellow light spilled out of the windows, pale and weak compared to the raging flames of the smith’s house just a few yards up the hill.
“They’ve moved the selkie children,” I said.
He was silent for a moment. “Show me where my daughter was.”
He followed me to the inn, and when I opened the door, his nostrils flexed, as if it smelled of feces or sickness. He jumped over the doorjamb and forced his feet across the iron-nailed boards.
Lum stopped where his daughter had slept, a tiny patch free of poison metal. He shredded the sacks with his claws and began wrapping his feet.
Then he picked up his harpoon, grabbed a piece of firewood in his free hand, and stood between me and the door. Floating-Among-Lilies made this nothing more than a fact. I didn’t fear him. I also didn’t understand.
“Why?” I asked.
“Our children are hostages in the smithy. The villagers think this makes them safe. No one is safe.”
Things scraped against the outside of the walls like large insects. The selkies were setting kindling around the inn. They would burn it down, with me inside. I was reminded why I wrote in my book that no one was to treat with anathema. This incomprehensible betrayal strained at my Floating-Among-Lilies. Curiosity weighed heavily on the invisible shelf above my head.
“I helped you.”
“You are the only human who has found our caves. The others stole our children from the shore. You must die, and take your knowledge with you.”
“See me keep my oath. I appreciate your help, and for this betrayal, I will suffer the wrath of fire.”
“I am the only one who can get your children out of that building,” I said. It wasn’t a desperate plea; it was the truth. The townfolk would be back soon. I alone, armored and unafraid of iron, could walk into the smithy and disarm the humans who were guarding them.
“We’ve already said goodbye to them,” Lum said.
They were going to burn the smithy, with everyone’s children inside.
Floating-Among-Lilies tore apart, sagging and ripping under the weight of my anger. I choked it back, but it was a flood torrent, filled with sharp pieces of regret and guilt. While the calm of the lilies slipped from my grasp, the darkness beneath became real.
I drowned my way down to the last of the Tactics, the only one I had never used before.
Fight-of-the-Crocodile couldn’t be practiced among friends, because every blow that weakened one combatant poured strength into the other. I would have less time in which to win, and less strength to flee the flames.
♦ ♦ ♦
Lum was paths of blood, branches of a cold tree I needed to chop down. He glowed with an aura of oceanic violet; in contrast, a corona of deep orange-amber throbbed around me. Honey-sticky strands of light stretched between us, shifting with our thoughts, our breathing, and the beat of our hearts.
I sallied forward with a series of whirling cuts. Heat stung my throat, but I could only think of opening those veins and spilling that violet ichor.
He jabbed with his harpoon, a powerful thrust that would have punctured my heart if not for my mail overshirt. The bone barbs slid off the metal links. Some orange light sucked into the purple, where it dissipated like blood in water. I sliced his arm before he could draw back, and light swelled around me as he dribbled blood. He was too fast, though, and the cut was shallow.
Lum asked, “What have you done?”
I didn’t answer; he’d find out soon enough.
He advanced, swinging the driftwood to force me away from the door. My sword chopped off splinters. I stumbled back, maddened by the tantalizing purple power just out of my reach.
I had forgotten that Lum fought sharks with his harpoon, under the weight of water. His muscles were fast and perfect in the light resistance of the air, though his aim was off, and he coughed heavily, his slimy lungs less prepared than mine for the hot smoke.
I kicked his driftwood and swung my sword, slicing into his arm again, but even though it was a deeper cut, the cost was a harpoon stab in my leg. The aura of his life swelled with my injury. I hobbled backward, my back bumping against the swinging door to the common room.
If they were burning the inn the way I taught them, the roof was already ablaze. Lum smashed the lantern hanging above the big table, and drops of flaming oil spattered across the furniture and floor. I had taught them this as well, how to quicken the fire with oil.
All the trophies above the fire remained but one: Izhmir’s pelt. The time I caught Browan’s wife by the fire with the limp thing in her hand, she must have been threatening the child with it. If Izhmir’s relatives were near, attempting vengeance, the pelt was the only way to control anathema who might otherwise risk a leap to freedom, iron doorjamb or no.
That same twisted scene was probably happening at that very moment, in the confines of the smithy. Three little pelts. Three terrified selkies.
I stabbed my fury toward Lum, connected, pulled free. Gutblood dribbled down the pale line around his waist where he often wore his pelt. He hadn’t brought it to the fight, of course—if he was captured, it was better to die than become a slave, like his daughter.
Their nature. It was what I preached, and I knew their weaknesses as well as their strengths. My weakness was the need for my shield. When it was strapped to my arm, it was a part of me. But the townspeople had driven me off without it.
My mooning got me a harpoon punched into my other leg. Now I had two limps. My orange light shrank down toward me; Lum’s purple glow expanded. Gritting my teeth against the oozing ache of each step, I stumbled back toward the stairs.
Let him keep me in the house, then. If Browan hadn’t pawed through it yet, I might have an armory upstairs, in the attic. I hoped the smoldering roof would hold out long enough for me to find it.
Lum, afraid I’d climb out the window, followed. His coughs slowed him. The smoke was thicker in the stairway. It stung our eyes.
I could no longer kick and still hold my balance, but as I backed up the stairs, I managed to hook the driftwood with my sword hilt and knock it loose. It thumped down to the ground floor, leaving a flickering shadow that pointed toward us. The flames from the spilled lamp grew, a garden of threatening light.
When I reached the attic room, I slammed the door behind me and locked it. It was only wood, no iron but the handle and hinges, so he threw himself into it over and over. Thump, thump. Purple glow flared along this side of the door and then melted away each time. My orange light wouldn’t glow through the door; there wasn’t enough left.
Lum would break the wood but perhaps not before the burning roof collapsed on us. I could win that way, if nothing else. My armor heated up, sweat tickled my skin, and the smoke was suffocating me. I rushed for the window like he expected, to breathe fresh air one last time, even if I couldn’t escape.
What I saw stopped me.
They hadn’t burnt the bridges yet. They were standing on them, watching this building, watching their leader’s last brave act. Waiting.
I would choke to death on smoke or be roasted by flames or get stabbed in the back, but the last thing I did would save the smithy and everyone in it. I knew the nature of fire. I knew the nature of the anathema.
I held my breath and lunged for my things, in the corner where I’d left them. They’d been pawed through, but my crossbow was still in my saddlebags, and so was the cylindrical leather case where I kept fifteen steel quarrels.
Coughing, squinting, I elbowed out the glass panes and yanked the iron cross out of the window. It was hot enough to leave a scar on my palm to match the ink on my forehead. I threw it down and grasped the crossbow.
This was what I was trained for. I didn’t have the strength, I think, as I loaded and loosed quarrel after quarrel. The iron soared through the night like hunting hawks, each finding the hearts and guts of the selkies on the bridges. Only Lum’s life would leak into mine, so my orange light grew thin as I watched the selkies fall and bleed. Their thick blood flowed slowly, too slowly. It might never make it to the water.
Behind me, the door crashed open. I turned in time to knock Lum’s harpoon aside with the crossbow. He drew back, coughing. The air was better on the floor, where I lay, but he didn’t know this. He thought he was winning if he was still standing. His purple was smaller, but my orange was barely visible.
If I didn’t get out then, I never would.
I couldn’t stand—my right leg cramped when I tried—but I could swing my sword. Lum was blinded by smoke, jabbing toward me but missing. I swiped as if chopping wood with an axe. When I hit his leg, a long slab of meat peeled off and flopped down. Blood poured out.
The branching tree inside his body crumpled as he fell to the floor; the purple fluid drained him to a dry husk. And the glow moved into mine, feeding the orange light. It flared, I think, but maybe that was the fire. The flames were orange like my aura. Like the silk sash I had worn long ago. The flames were mine, too.
I lay beside Lum, my mail shirt scalding my skin where it touched, but I couldn’t do anything but cough. I heard howls ripping through the world, through the flames, but I didn’t know if they were Lum’s, or the other selkies, or the villagers, or wolves who had smelled cooked meat and come to feast. There was a rumbling I thought might be Lum coughing, but I couldn’t force my eyes open anymore.
In the midst of the choking inferno, just before I passed out, I felt something cold and wet. I knew it couldn’t be real, but I was no longer Floating-Among-Lilies, so I hoped.
♦ ♦ ♦
When I faded back, the world was different. I coughed, but instead of smoke, I inhaled air like that of the mountain passes: crisp, fresh. It stank of charred thatch and wet pine needles. Rain stung my face, driven by a howling wind, and I wondered if I had fallen out the window after all.
But the floor beneath my cheek was wood, and warm, and when I cracked my eyes, I saw the broken door, burning just beyond Lum’s motionless body. Even as I watched, the wind forced the door off its hinges. It splashed into a puddle in the center of the floor, extinguishing the flames. The roof had been burned by fire and torn away by wind.
In my book, it said you must not spill the blood of a selkie in salt water, for it would cause a storm. I had spilled several pints, all carried to the sea by the stream.
Most of the town was dark. Watching-As-The-Owl, I saw that even with the downpour, it was still ruined. Blackened beams stabbed at the sky, supporting webs of charred timber. I glanced down toward the smithy. The roof was dark; there were a few tiny flames struggling on the outside, but the storm had quenched the worst of it.
I gathered my belongings and climbed down the side of the building. From the back porch, I jumped onto the stable roof, which wasn’t burned at all. My horse whinnied—he hated the scent of the fire and the uncomfortable force of the storm, but he was unharmed.
I put my hood up, but it did no good. The wind was a wild thing, intent on badgering me in whatever way it could. It slapped my face with the coins in my hair, flung water into my ears and even up my nose. Without Watching-As-The-Owl, I wouldn’t have been able to see my way to the smithy.
I carried a bar for prying the lids off of coffins, and I used it to crack the door off of the smithy. Rain poured in through the roof in places, where the fire had burned through before the storm.
“The three blonde children are coming with me, back to the sea,” I said. “Anyone who tries to stop them will also go into the sea.”
The selkie children were bound with their hands behind their backs. They looked sickly amidst all the iron. Izhmir didn’t smile, but when she looked at me, her grey eyes were silver with hope.
One of the young men who was supposed to be guarding the prisoners cut them free. Browan’s wife looked as if she might try to throw the seal pelt in the fire, but the parish keeper hissed at her, and she grudgingly handed it to Izhmir. When the other children had their pelts, I shepherded them down to the water, and I told them the truth.
Two of them shed their clothes, tugged their skins on, and disappeared into the maelstrom. Izhmir watched them first, and then she tore off her human clothes. I was shivering under the sky’s onslaught, but she tied her pelt around her waist as if it was only a spring breeze and the rain was the heat of the sun.
“I want to see your book,” she said.
I wondered if selkies age the same as we do. Was she older than she seemed? I thought on it for a moment, and then I reached in my jacket. If she ruined the book, I could make another. I knew it well. And I would deserve it, after my volume had caused the slavery and destruction of so many of her people.
She picked through the pages from the back of the book to the front, using her index finger instead of her thumb the way a human would. Her hands still moved as if she had webbing instead of scars.
The storm shrieked around us while she perused the book. I realized I didn’t even know if she could read, or if she was amazed by the pictures, or if she could even see in the darkness. The few flashes of lightning couldn’t be enough.
Suddenly, she recited from the book, her voice clear and sharp as a ship’s bell. “...and if they find their pelt, they will return to the sea. Because of this weakness, selkies avoid humans when possible. They will not attack unless directly provoked, such as by sealers with harpoons. It is best to remain uninvolved.”
She turned to stare at me, and we studied each other’s faces in the blue darkness. The hollows around her eyes were black, her mouth expressionless. My own mouth fought me, trying to cry instead of speak.
I managed to say, “I’m sorry.”
Izhmir dropped the book in the sand. She draped the pelt over her head like a hood, and her body seemed to flow upward even as the pelt lowered toward the ground. By the time her round belly hit the sand beside the book, she was a seal. An orphaned seal, because of me. She dove into the surf.
I clumsily mounted my poor wet horse. I had one chance to escape the wrath of Keyward, and it was in the arms of this equally furious storm.
For hours, the horse and I trudged back the way we came, inland, away from the force of the gale. Finally, I spied a fallen tree near the road. It had blown over in another storm, long ago, and we sheltered behind the giant fan of its gnarled roots.
When I unrolled the old sailcloth I used as a tent, I saw Izhmir crouched against the edge of the roots, her head tipped back and her mouth open. Rain beaded on her lips and splashed directly onto her eyes, but she didn’t blink it away.
She had followed me through miles of shrieking wind and stinging rain. I was crippled by the cold as much as my wounds. If it was revenge she sought, she could have it.
“I thought you went into the water,” I said. With the webs cut from her fingers and her hair over her ears, only another Bane could recognize she wasn’t human.
“I did. Then I came back out.”
She crawled over and peered at the wounds on my thighs. They glared up, like two wet red eyes. My body accused me of poor judgment. The wounds said I should have floated out of Keyward on a bed of lilies, not stayed to defend children who weren’t mine, weren’t even human.
One of those children turned her large, pale eyes up to me.
“Why did you go into the smithy.” It wasn’t a question, the way she said it. That was fitting, because what I had to say wasn’t an answer.
“It’s been a long time since I stopped floating above everything. I’d forgotten what it’s like to swim along with everyone else, to feel currents instead of merely watching them.”
“You find pearls only when you sink,” Izhmir offered.
I fingered my line of prizes where it poked against my wet skin, jewelry created of blood and bone. How many times had I passed the opportunity to add something more beautiful to my memories?
“Yes,” I said. “I could do with more of those.”