Often, we watch the sea, Ardùvai and I, waiting, hoping, for square sails in the distance, for the glint of sun on bronze. Come the evenings, we sit, each on our own side of the fire. I cook. He eats. He has a taste for mussels stewed with thyme, for fish baked in the ashes.
When Ardùvai is close by, I am safe. The islanders fear him, fear his knife and sword and skill, have quite forgotten he ever was their slave. When he is close by, I can dig for cockles on the shore or pull mussels from the rocks.
Me, they do not fear. The nights he walks the shore, I sit alone in the dark. This place was once a shepherd’s cot; the inner room still has its roof. Shelter enough, for those who do not look for comfort. I hear islesmen’s feet padding around, islesmen’s hands rattling the stones on the other side of the walls; islesmen’s voices whispering through the fastened latch what they will do when they catch me. How long it will take. How much it will hurt. At such times I pull the dried sealskin above my head. It is true enough: all men are monsters. Even Ardùvai. Especially Ardùvai. They would not fear him else.
Their fear is my hope. Not even Ardùvai could stand against them all for ever, should the islanders set it aside.
Sometimes he and I try to talk, to drive away the silence for a while. Never of Varthin. Never of Thorinah. If Thorinah is alive, he will return—no one could have seen him look at Ardùvai and doubt it—but sharp reefs and deep waters and hard weather lie between this shore and Lyikené.
At such times, looking across the fire to Ardùvai, seeing his fear and rage and hatred, I wonder how long a man can live without his heart.
For myself—well, I remember what I was before ever I came to these isles. I wish I did not. Memory is heavier than iron, and a far harder weight to bear...
My brothers died upon midsummer’s day, when the world was full of light and out of balance. Not knowing the nature of these isles, we had sought rest on this shore, as on many another before it. We basked and drowsed upon the sands while the sun climbed slowly up the sky to noontime, banishing all shadows with its brightness, and then the islanders came with nets and clubs and knives.
As my brothers died, I dragged myself, bloody, broken, above the highwatermark into the marram-grass. The path I left a fool could follow, but the islesmen were busy with the skinning and it was Varthin found me in their stead. I flinched away, baring my shattered teeth. But he had knelt and spoken softly, promised me sanctuary, offered me his ring to keep me safe from monsters.
“It will hurt,” he warned, holding it out upon his palm, “given what you are, but, if you take it, all that is mine shall be yours too.”
On any other day, Varthin and I would not have met. His was a world of fire and iron and light everlasting; mine of the cool depths and a dark that was no dark at all, mapped by the subtle changes in taste and temperature and pressure of the saltwater that was my element, far more than ever air could be to those who walk the land their whole lives long. But it chanced I passed the tideline on midsummer’s day when Varthin stepped beyond his door into much light and little darkness, and so we met within the marram. He was the master of the Tricoloured House. From its red fire, he drew his warmth; his life was twined from its golden light; its black iron gave him his strength. These gifts he offered with his ring, and freely.
I knew full well his iron ring would maim me. How could it not, I being what I was? I drank in such stories with my mother’s milk, an infant rolling on the sands, tumbled laughing by the tides. Iron was wrought of light and fire; my nature was of neither. But my brothers were dead and I alone within the world with neither strength nor skill to grant them vengeance. I sloughed off my past and stood naked before him, slipped his ring onto my finger and saw another world unfolding through my pain. With my sea-darkened sight, I’d thought Varthin a man when first he came to me. Now I saw clearly his eyes of burning gold, the tongues of flame lapping at his hair, the iron within his blood and bone.
Varthin asked nothing, those first months within the Tricoloured House; he washed my wounds and salved my bruises and watched in silence as I wept for seven brothers. A time to mourn. A time to heal. Later, I turned to him. A consummation, a conflagration, sense and self burned away, leaving only love behind.
There was a price, of course. There always is a price, even for love, even for freedom.
“If you cleave to me, you must forsake your past,” Varthin warned before ever I lay with him. “Let slip all that you love, all that you hate.”
He was a man when he desired, as I was a woman, but he was fire made flesh. Sea quenches fire, deep water devours light, salt causes iron to rust into the likeness of dried blood. If I would be his, and he be mine, one of us must put aside our nature. Upon the land, that one was I.
And so I did, sealing half my life into the stone kist outside his door. My brothers were dead. There was nothing left to bind me to my past, and I could walk above the tideline if I chose.
It was easy to let the world go by without me, all the years I dwelled in Varthin’s Tricoloured House; easy, within those walls, to forget I’d been born with saltwater in my veins; easy to let even the memories of my brothers slide from my mind; easy to forget all I had been. So very, very easy, save on the nights when storm winds howled their passage ’cross the sea. On one such night, I stepped from light into the gale, careless of what it might toss up onto the shore.
It had been a hard winter and a late cold spring. Even a month after the equinox, the buds were barely swelling into life and the barley was still no more than grain in the furrows. Not much living to be made from the land those months; little surprise the islanders should set a light in darkness on the clifftop to draw in their catch, like a moth into a candleflame. A ship, they hoped, out of the Later Lands, a mercatship filled with silks and spices, red wine and walnuts, trinkets and fairings for trade and fancy.
Almost, I could have laughed to see such hopes so quickly disappointed. No more than men were strewn across the shore, men of the utmost west, men of Lyikené, drowned in saltwater or battered on the rocks, dragged down to death by the weight of mail. In the belly of the ship were swords and spears and arrows with sharp-pointed heads, all of polished bronze. The only silks were coloured scraps knotted into dead men’s hair.
The headman of the isles shrugged and gave his orders, making the best of it he could. Then an islander’s eye was caught by movement ’neath a thorn tree at the head of the shore, by a gleam of pale flesh in the half-light. He cried out, pointing through the rain, and the gleaners took up his cry, hounding away across the strand in search of better pickings.
I was watching from the shadows when they found the two strangers. The first, the one glimpsed at the head of the shore, was naked, a stocky man, rough-haired and powerful. He looked up as the islesmen approached and stood to meet them. His hands were soiled and muddy. The other lay slumped beneath the thorn. His eyes were closed, his black hair straggled ’cross the sodden leather of his jerkin, little sign of life to him at all but for the shallow rising of his chest and the look upon the first man’s face as he stepped forward, setting his body between his comrade and the islanders.
The naked man turned his head and looked full at me, and the hairs pricked on my neck that he should see me. His mouth opened, he held out his soiled hands in gladness or in greeting, but I had left that life behind. I slipped from sight between the shadows and the rain to return to the Tricoloured House.
It was not fear of the islanders that made me away, for all they’d killed my brothers. I had no need for fear, for I was cloaked in Varthin’s care; with his ring upon my finger, no man could touch me. Most could scarce even see me, save perhaps as a flicker of movement at the edges of their eyes. No, it was not fear made me flee the shore that night but what I saw reflected in that sea-stranger’s face. He had held out his hands as if he’d seen me as myself, as if he knew what I had been before my brothers died.
I paused by the stone kist outside the door of the Tricoloured House, my mind surging with the sea, with the memory of slipping through saltwater, the twist and turn and dive into the deep.
The rain fell down, cold tears upon the stone, washing such thoughts away. That life was long years gone; to dwell on it changed nothing. I had the iron ring and the Tricoloured House and Varthin, enough to fill a life thrice over. I crossed the threshold and let the oaken door close behind me, shutting out the sea-stranger beneath the thorn. Shutting out my brothers and my grief. Within, beyond the world, beyond the rising and the ebbing tides, was a home and love and safety. Within these walls, my past was far away, with no more substance than the green depths of a dream.
“I am sorry,” Varthin told me. He slipped into sight and took my hand. “I would have kept you company, had I known what washed ashore.”
“It is of no matter. He is only a man.”
He must have heard the lie but held me close, soothing my past away. “No need to look on him again. It is for men to deal with men.”
Even then it was too late. One cannot unsee what one has seen, nor ever does the moth resist the flame. Did Varthin know it too, each time I kissed him after?
I think he did, for he never spoke of the rough-haired stranger with the sandy earth upon his hands, although he must have known how often my thoughts turned to him. And after, always, to my brothers’ bones scattered ’cross the foreshore, pecked clean years since by ravens and by crows. It was like Varthin to keep silent. He ever left me free to make my own choices.
I would I could speak of myself so well. Ardùvai does not know what use I made of his skill and knife within the mill. I hope he never will.
Outwith the walls of the Tricoloured House, the tide rose, the tide fell, but within, time slipped its bounds and the sun stood ever still at noontime. Perhaps a month had passed since the shipwreck and the storm when next I crossed its threshold, perhaps a sixmonth. No, it cannot have been so long; there were yet flowers upon the thorn. Others than I had seen strength in the rough-haired stranger from the sea, and he had been put to work within the village mill, a bondsman in irons and ill-fitting britches. He bore fresh marks of flogging on his back; no doubt he had slackened off before the day’s labour was done. Slaves do this when they are first set to turn the millstones. They learn not to, by and by. His masters had left him his eyes, unlike the islesman chained to the other beam. Slate-dark, those eyes, restless as the sea ’neath storm clouds. The iron shackles had burned and chafed his wrists. Seeing his blood, I clenched my fingers. Here, within the world, my right hand was heavy with the weight of iron.
The sea-stranger paused when he saw me; he had learnt his duty but not to think he was a slave. He could reach up just far enough to push his hair back from his face. He spoke first: “Why do you wear that mask?”
“Because I have no face.”
He laughed at that. “I’m not a child, mistress, nor one of these fools they’ve set up as my masters.”
It was a pretty thing, my mask. Varthin had made it for me when first I lay with him. It mattered, then, to me, that whatever I had had of beauty had been smashed away by an islesman’s club. Varthin chose carefully, waiting until the one who wore it first was at the very zenith of her beauty. He stole her likeness as she slept, and sometimes I, glimpsing my reflection in saltwater, saw the shadows of her dreams flick across it, fleeting and lovely.
The sea-slave said again, “I’m not a child. I’d look upon your own true face.”
I peeled the mask away and showed him what was beneath, what had been left behind that day upon the shore.
He merely smiled, this stranger from the sea, this slave with bloody wrists. “Aye, I thought it when I saw you first.” Almost as if he pitied me, he asked, “Who was it took your skin?”
I wanted to cry out, It was not so! It was my choice, for ever and for always.
Instead, I crooked my withered finger beneath my whole ones and kept my silence. The miller’s man came in to find why the stones no longer ground their meal. His face was black with anger; any shortfall in the day’s measure would be paid for from his wages.
“Twenty lashes,” he told the slaves. “Ten now, ten in an hour.”
I watched, unseen, in the sunlight pooling from the open door. The sea-slave did not scream until the sixth; the other, knowing the futility of fortitude, howled at the first.
The black-haired stranger was in the shambles where ram lambs waited to be slaughtered. He wore no bond beyond a slave’s ring round his neck. Maybe the headman was a kinder master than the miller, or perhaps it was no more than a butcher must needs use his hands. He had lost flesh in the weeks since his finding, but the iron had left no mark upon him. I could see his life burning within him, a steady, vital flame. As much as any bronze sword or spear or arrowhead from his ship’s hold, he was shaped for granting death. A swift, smooth movement of the knife and the lamb beneath his arm crumpled to its knees. He took the next one and the next, easy, indifferent; he could have been a butcher his whole life long.
I let myself appear a woman, borrowing a face from across the hill, a farmer’s wife, well set in middle age and prosperous. The headman, knowing her well, came out to talk to me, wiping his hands down the front of his apron, a man well-pleased with the world and all things in it. A sea-sword in its scabbard danged from his belt. He’d found other uses for the black-haired slave, he said, beside the butchering.
“Thieves,” he told me, smiling, “reivers. Caught driving sheep over the boundary. He did what was needed very prettily. A good day’s entertainment, and a warning to any others might think to go a-thieving.”
I kept my thoughts behind the woman’s empty smile. No need for him to tell me of such things; I’d watched from the sunlight of the Tricoloured House, seeing all reflected in saltwater in a silver bowl. He could use a sword, this man, this butcher, as if it were a part of him; the thieves had gone down easily as the lambs did now, in the same broken, twitching huddles.
Three boys, the ages of my youngest brothers.
Varthin had found me as I poured away the bloody water. “It’s true,” I said, putting my arms about him. “All men are monsters.”
I’d learnt that lesson long ago, the day my brothers died upon the shore. Clubs and sticks had served the islanders well enough, no need for swords or knives. No need, at least, until the skinning. The headman of the time, this man’s grandsire, had paid for his bride with six fine skins; the seventh he kept back to spread upon his floor the day he welcomed her into his house.
The headman bustled off about his business. I stayed a while in the shambles, watching the butcher at his work. “What did you say to those boys who’d been caught reiving?” I asked. “Before you picked up the sword, you spoke to them.”
“That I would not strike the first blow. That I was not their enemy.”
“Still you killed them.”
He tossed a heart into a bucket; scooped lights and liver into another. “I do not want to die.”
“And so you are content to live a slave.”
Something flashed in the depths of his black eyes. He hated them, these islanders who had made him a murderer, and yet, when the thieves were dead, he had set down his sword and bowed his head before his masters, quiescent as a lamb.
I pressed harder on the hurt: “You make yourself a knife for others’ using.”
He nodded to the mill, towards the grating grind of stone on stone. “Thorinah,” he said, as if it were enough.
I remembered a naked man stepping forward to place his body between his comrade and the islanders. That man had looked down at this one, a look that was like a touch.
In answer to my silence, the butcher said, “He is bound with iron and I do not have the key. It’s a heavy weight for him, even above the tideline—I do not think he could bear it long alone.”
“And yet you wear cold iron and neither burn nor bleed. He is a man, this Thorinah?”
He shrugged. “Not all men of Lyikené are born above the tideline.”
Nor women neither.
I knew I should walk away, should leave the butcher to his cleavers and the drudge to his grindstones, should return to Varthin and the Tricoloured House, should shut its door behind me and never step outside again until both sea-slaves were dead.
Often these days, watching the sea, I wish that I had done so. The dead are dead and come not back, no matter what we do for them.
But my brothers’ cries howled through my mind, and I lingered until the millstones ground to silence. The butcher paused in his task, the bloody knife suspended in his hand. The long, long moments after were counted out in his quick heartbeats, then a man screamed in the mill and the butcher caught in his breath. He tensed and shivered at each cry, his pale face growing whiter still, as if he shared a little of the agony...
Last night in our shepherd’s cot, again, Ardùvai woke me with his screams. He dreams, I think, of drowning. It is said brave men cry out for their mothers in face of death. Perhaps at the last they turn towards that place where nothing and no one can hurt them and all the world is far away. But, on such nights, it is not his mother Ardùvai cries out to.
I did last night what I have not before: got up from my bed and knelt beside him, putting my hand upon his shoulder. He murmured, “Thorinah’, and slept.
This morning, I could not meet his eyes. It is as foul a thing as lying, the offer of false comfort.
That day I first spoke to the butcher, I did not return to the Tricoloured House until long after the screams ceased in the mill. I halted at the threshold, my hand on the stone kist, my mind dwelling on the past within it, and forced my thoughts into their proper path, towards my present and my promise and my love. And yet I could not drive my brothers from my mind.
When I slept, I dreamt of the silken flow of water ’cross my skin, of the roll and twist and tumble in the depths, the crunch of fishscale and fishbone ’twixt my teeth. When I woke, it was to the echo of Thorinah asking, “Who was it took your skin?”
I spread my hands before my face and marked, as I might mark a flaw upon a stranger’s hand, the withered finger that wore Varthin’s ring. In the sunlight of the Tricoloured House, I thought, around the bond of iron, to Thorinah. Not as he was, a slave burned and bloodied by his chains, but as he’d been upon the shore. All his comrades from the ship, the living and the dead, had come from the sea clothed in bronze mail and padded leather, with bright silks knotted in their hair, but he had stepped mother-naked from the water. Nor had he borne the marks that would come from being tumbled in the flood; only sandy soil upon his hands. And his eyes, his eyes...
Slate-dark, sea-dark, looking beyond the weight of iron to what no man should see.
I poured saltwater in a silver bowl and said a word to still it. I peeled off my mask, the lovely skin Varthin had given, and saw those same eyes staring back. All the thoughts I had no wish to think swept through my mind, like the floodtide up the shore. From far away and long ago, from the depths of sea-washed memory, the part of me that had died with my brothers on the shore, that lay buried in the stone kist beyond the door, demanded retribution.
Slowly, slowly, I rose up, leaving my mask behind me, another woman sleeping on my pillows.
I looked back at the threshold, hoping Varthin would come, would speak, would stop me. If I stepped inside, stepped back beneath the lintol, I would be beyond the world, beyond the reach of monsters. Within, I was safe. Within, I was loved. If I followed the ribbon of memory back to slate-dark, sea-dark eyes, I would leave all that behind. My brothers were dead, and nothing I could do would bring them home. So much easier, so much safer, to return to Varthin, to all he’d shown me, all he’d given me.
I bent my face into my hands, remembering my brothers. They had cried and they had died. Even across the space of years, I flinched from the memory, the knife blades sliding beneath still-living skins.
Brightness around me. He was there, my love, my light, my life. He laid his hand on mine, his whole finger over my withered one, and asked, gently, so very, very gently, “What is revenge, in place of all I’ve given?”
I had no answer but the one: “They were my brothers.”
Varthin was a part of me, a song in my heart of iron and fire and light everlasting. He had comforted me, had loved me, had given me his ring and shared with me his nature. Yet my mind slipped ’twixt the future and the past. I said, “They’ve waited too long for vengeance.”
There was a terrible darkness in the light. I looked into my love’s eyes and saw them hard and black as iron. “If you do this, you will have nothing.”
“I know,” I said, turning away, stepping out into the world. “I know.”
I slipped, unseen by any eyes but his, between the shadows and the sunlight.
Down in the village the millstones ground their barley, slowly, slowly. A bad bargain for the miller, a slave sick near to death within a sixmonth. I found the black-haired butcher in the shambles and stood a little time beside him, watching as with careful movements of his knife he stripped a carcase of its hide. He used a bronze blade from the ship, not the iron of the islanders. Such a little thing, a man might think, to choose one knife and not another, and yet so much easier to shape him to my purpose without the weight of iron. He turned and squinted into the sunlight, feeling my eyes upon him. Standing so near, I could taste his rage and grief, so close in flavour to my own.
I drew a breath and stepped across the line from my thoughts into his. To the shore.
The butcher looked around, ready, wary. I showed myself as a shape at the edges of his eyes, let the image settle into the farmer’s wife he had seen before. To the thorn, I whispered, fanning the spark within, speaking to the beat of his heart, if you would give Thorinah back his own.
I had done enough to know that he would follow, and I hastened to the shore. The haws were red upon the thorn; more time had passed than I had thought. If it was too late for Thorinah, if he had been too long a man ashore, I could do nothing, having no hold upon the butcher but his fierce desire that Thorinah be whole and free. As I scrabbled in the sandy soil, a part of me, I cannot—will not—say how much, hoped it was too late, hoped I could return to the Tricoloured House, could weep and weep in Varthin’s arms for what I’d lost and, in the end, be comforted.
Hope lasted no longer than the little time it took to find the thing I looked for. Thorinah had not had time, that night of storm, to bury it deep.
A step on shingle and a breath behind me; I turned to see the black-haired butcher, his eyes a-blazing in his curd-white face, the bronze knife in his hand.
“If you touch his skin,” he said, “I’ll kill you.”
I reached out to the grey seal’s skin lying supple and empty at my feet; felt its stiff, coarse fur beneath my fingers and my slow tears run down my cheeks. I gripped the skin as tight as the memories of all I’d lost and set my mind upon my brothers.
A shift of shingle and a rattle of stone, a flashing and a flickering at the corner of my eye. I spun around, faster than any man could strike, flinging up my arm and, though I did not touch him, the butcher fell backwards to the stone, his knife beside his empty hand. From far away and long ago, my brothers called for vengeance.
“No,” I said, looking down into the butcher’s black eyes, “I did not think you could. But I’ve need of your skill, so I shall let you live.”
I picked up his bronze knife and offered it, showing myself clearly as I did so. He caught in his breath, but not, I think, at the ruin of my face.
“For Thorinah, as for me,” I said, pointing to my finger withered by iron. “How long before he’s maimed for good? You have as much need of me as I of you.”
Now, I have far more need of Ardùvai than Ardùvai of me. Knowing this, I seek always to please him, giving him the larger share of all I trap or catch or gather, padding his bed with heather and dried marram-grass, cutting peats to make the fire. He takes what he is offered, offers protection in return, but if I were not here, he would not miss me. In truth, he seldom thinks of me at all. His thoughts lie first with Thorinah and then with what he must be to keep himself alive ’til Thorinah’s return, trapped as he is with the islesmen’s hands against him. He has no boat and little means to build one, even were he a carpenter and not a butcher. Few trees beyond the scrub of thorn grow on these isles. The islanders’ shells of skin and stick serve well enough to pass between their islets, but only a fool would trust his life to one upon the open sea.
And Ardùvai, for all his rage and hope and anguish, is not a fool. Instead, he feeds the islesmen’s fears and shapes himself into a monster. He knots up his black hair with a rag stained with the miller’s blood, marks out our boundary with the heads of islanders he’s killed.
When we stepped that day into the mill, my ring was heavy on my hand. The blind slave quickened his pace in answer to the door hinges’ creak; the pull made Thorinah stumble ’gainst his shackles. He barely turned his head towards the light, nor showed any sign that he could see. The man who’d stood proudly on the shore was gone, his form filled by a drudge whose life was stone and pain and iron and nothing more.
I did what I had not before, setting my will within the miller’s mind to summon him. His step was swift, the keys a jangle at his belt. He stared to see the butcher standing there, tossing a bronze knife from hand to hand, a grim smile ’cross his lips.
All that was Varthin’s was still mine. Undo the locks, I whispered. Remove the chains. And so the miller did, thinking, poor fool, it was his own thought to do so.
When Thorinah was freed, he slumped heavy to the ground. The butcher crouched beside him, wrapping the sealskin about his shoulders, smoothing back his matted hair, whispering of what had been and what would be again if only he would come back. After a long, long while, Thorinah’s hand reached out, and their fingers locked together in a clasp so tight no power of wave or storm could break it.
At the back of my mind, I heard Varthin, tender, cajoling, calling me home. My eyes pricked full at the sweetness of his love. It was not too late. He could be mine and I be his, for ever and for always.
But I had made another choice.
I turned my back on all the gifts he’d given and all the promises I’d made, and I called out others to the mill, the headman and the miller’s man and an old woman who, in her youth, had taken six young seals’ skins as payment for her maidenhead.
Thorinah is free. I spoke within the butcher’s mind. You need no longer hold back your hand.
I had seen him kill before, quickly, cleanly, taking no pleasure in the act. This was otherwise. Although it was his hands that killed, it was my mind behind his eyes, my thoughts that shaped their deaths, my pleasure and my vengeance. I froze the screams within their throats and made them watch their red blood run across the floor. It was a wondrous sight to see: the patterning of vein and sinew ’cross naked flesh; how slight of substance was a skin when the form was no more within.
Thorinah gasped out, “Ardùvai, enough!”
I shrank back into myself; the butcher set down the knife and sat, shaking a little, upon the bloody floor. The mill was filled with the stench of the shambles, with the blind slave’s stifled sobs. Thorinah’s sea-dark, pain-dark eyes met mine. He knew, beyond a doubt, whose vengeance he had witnessed. Behind the pain, behind the rage, I saw again that touch of pity in his face, that strength that could see and understand and not look away.
I spread my hand across the stone. The ring had become a part of me; it was a gift given freely, a promise made for ever and for always. But I had broken the promise, I had misused the gift, and the ring was now but iron bedded in corrupted flesh. I asked the butcher, “Can you do it?”
He touched the place where iron met flesh. “It will hurt,” he warned. He meant, You must keep silent.
The bronze blade sliced through flesh and bone, through withered flesh and old dry bone. The blood ran from my hand, fast as tears ran down my face. I had borne greater pain for longer, but then I was in Varthin’s care, beyond the world in his Tricoloured House.
I swallowed hard upon my hurt. The place within my mind where Varthin dwelled was silent as an empty room.
The butcher picked up the headman’s sea-sword and fastened its belt about his waist. His voice cut through the moment, urgent, commanding: “Thorinah, man, you must away.” As he bent over his lover, his face was like a light. “I’ll get you ’neath the tideline though all here stand against me.”
He pulled Thorinah onto his feet, caring too deeply to have pity for his pain. At the door, he looked back to me. “Will you come or stay?”
“I’ll follow, in a while. There is another place I must go first.”
I paused a moment in the mill, gathering my strength. Soon someone would come to trace the cause of silence and find the miller and his man, the crumpled heap of blood and bone that, an hour before, had been an old woman...
Was it well done? I cannot tell, nor yet can I regret it. Sometimes, in my dreams, seven brothers stand upon the shore and smile.
Dreams fade with morning light. I am not now what I have been. I have dwindled into a woman, I who had the salt sea as my birthright and the sunlight as my marriage portion.
I walked the path to the Tricoloured House as darkness gathered at my back. All the way, blood ran from my hand, marking my trail. The night was ice and shadow, moonlight spreading itself like frost across the stone. The stone kist was waiting, white as old bone, cold as my grave. I set my hands to the lid and opened it.
“Have you come to take back what is yours?” Radiance behind me, brighter than my eyes could bear. Varthin stood on the threshold of his house, and all the light within its walls blazed out around him. “And give back what is mine?”
I dropped his ring into his outstretched hand. Three drops of blood fell with it to hiss and smoke upon his palm, love and life burning away to nothing. He kissed me lightly on the brow, one kiss in sorrow and in parting, and then he closed his door, snuffing out the brightness like a candleflame, leaving me alone in darkness.
I drew my skin from the kist. It had lain too many years alone in its stony bed with neither the sea without nor me within and had become a dead and withered thing, an empty husk, dry as the rustle of sea grass in the winter wind. There are old tales in Lyikené of seals who slip their skins to love a man and live too long ashore.
All of them are true.
But a seal can live a long, long time outside her skin, though it is but half a life. I sat the night through on the stone kist, weeping, bleeding, and then, in the hour before the dawning, went to find the two men of Lyikené.
Ardùvai stood at the water’s edge, one foot in sea and one on shore, gazing into the west. His hands were bloody still. After a moment he stooped and washed them. Blood swirled and eddied, dark streaks in the clear water. I looked where he looked and saw a seal’s head at the edge of distance, breaking the smooth surface of the sea.
“He will come back,” he said.
But his flesh is weak and bleeding, for all his strength of love and will. No need to say such things. Ardùvai knew them, full as well as I. Sharp reefs and deep waters and hard weather lie between this shore and Lyikené.
“He will come back,” he said again, his hands clenched at his sides. “And he will not be alone. Lyikené will make a reckoning.”
And so we watch the sea and wait, a seal without her skin and a man without his heart. Perhaps one day we’ll see the sight we look for, square sails in the distance, the glint of sun on bronze.