Blood and Brine
Candle slid out of the gate on her side, and lifted herself up on her skinned elbows to see where she was. The ocean lay before her, grey and cold, with a few lonely seagulls shrieking as they rode the air currents. The abandoned village of Balyow lay before her, empty and deserted, exactly as she and Locryn had left it barely an hour before. How much had changed in such a short time.
She collapsed onto her stomach, resting her cheek on the hard packed earth, exhaling through her nose and drawing in the sharp scent of brine. She was safe, for the moment - it was highly unlikely anyone would think to look for her here. Not that anyone except Rasmus was interested in finding her. Tears stung her eyelids and she dashed them away angrily with one grubby fist. She had always known her time at the Ancestors Own was borrowed, she told herself, severely. She had always known that as soon as they saw her eyes it would all be over. It was just she had not expected to mourn the loss so intensely.
She gave into her grief, not bothering to move from the dirt where she lay, letting her tears fall directly onto the ground. She had never had friends before, never had anyone who cared about her. She had never felt such acceptance, never felt so loved. She thought of Locryn's cold voice and saw again and again the betrayal in his face as he looked at her. She would never see him again. Not Locryn, not Delen and not Jory and Pasco might not even be alive.
She lay there, sobbing until her position became too uncomfortable to tolerate any longer. She rolled over onto her back., staring up at the sky as she tried to calm herself. A cloud drifted down off the mountains and half heartedly spat a few droplets at her. She watched the trajectory of the rain, blinking the drops out of her eyes. At length it stopped and her stomach rumbled so fiercely that she clambered up, and headed into the deserted village.
Someone must have left some food behind. That was another thing she would miss - all the glorious food. She had never eaten so well in her life, than those too short weeks with the Ancestors Own. Slowly, as if every step was painful she set about searching the place for breakfast. It was disturbing, to look through other people's kitchens, to see looms with work half finished, needles still in place and paints going hard next to partially worked canvases. The occupants had packed up most of their smaller belongings, but at least the iron shutters were still in place, and the wider stone circle intact and charged. She would be safe from the dead as long as she remained within the confines of the village, however depressing the prospect was. A door banged in the wind and she jumped, but there was no one there.
Her search yielded meagre results - some dried fruit and a solitary jar of seeds. She took them down to the beach to eat, sitting cross legged on the dunes and staring discontentedly out at the dark grey waves. The day was fittingly dreary.
Once her unsatisfactory meal was over, she lay on her back scanning the sky for signs of life, hoping to see a black pair of wings but the skies remained grey and empty. She bit back a sob, her loneliness a hollow stone sitting like a lump inside her stomach. She sat up again, watching the waters break, looking for something, anything to distract her from her rising panic.
She drew some runes in the powdery sand, tre for home, teylu for family, then dashed them through with her palm. Even in Hanternos, ignored and bullied she had lived surrounded by people. She had enjoyed watching them from her rooftop, or from the shadows of the treetops. She looked back over her shoulder at the abandoned buildings of Balyow, where the wind was ghosting through the empty streets. She couldn't sleep there tonight, not alone. She shuddered and turned her face back towards the sea.
The sun came out from behind the clouds, and an icy white light caught the tips of the breakers as they rolled towards the shore. Far out in a bay a giant squid leapt out of the water, its tentacles writhing and crashed back into the foam with a shower of glittering spray. Flying fish sprang through the swell.
The play of light on the water was hypnotic, and the thought crept into Candle's mind, unbidden and dangerous, that she had nothing to lose by going in the water. So what if she couldn't swim? So what if she was pulled under by some great leviathan of the deep? No one would miss her if she drowned. She was utterly pathetic, a complete waste of space, and it couldn't get worse. She had no friends and no family to care, and not even the Ancestors themselves would notice if she walked into the sea and never looked back.
She scrunched her hands in the sand, grinding the grains into her palm, furrowing her brow as she considered this course of action. She would just put one toe in. What could be the harm? And if it went badly, so be it. She stood up and walked towards the water.
She hesitated on the edge for a long time, the wind tugging the curls of her hair. The tide lapped the sand a mere hand span away from her naked feet. Now she was so close, she was afraid. What had Pasco said about Revenants? They beguile you with words both fair and foul...they only have their own interests at heart. But she felt a yearning for the water that had nothing to do with Jotham. She felt something, whenever she was around water, a lure she could not explain. Or was it just her drive towards self destruction getting out of hand?
Nothing to lose, she thought, bitterly. She took a deep breath and stepped forward, letting the water wash over her foot. It was unexpectedly cold and she snatched it back at once with a squeal.
Going for a swim? asked a familiar voice and she jumped as the great black dragon landed in the sand behind her, showering her with debris.
"Maybe," said Candle, wiping sand out of her eyes. A treacherous, foolish part of her was happy to see him.
Do it, said the dragon, what could go wrong? She turned and laughed at him then, a manic, hard laugh with no humour in it. What must it be like to have no fear? To be an apex predator? To saunter through life with confidence and grace, free from all fear? She couldn't even imagine. She had been so powerless for so long, so unimportant. At best she was a cog in the gears of other people's plans; at worst she was a nuisance and a liability.
"I could drown," she said. "Swimming is not something humans are encouraged to try."
In the blink of an eye Jotham transformed into his human self and stepped next to her, flashing his teeth.
"I'll come in with you," he said, and pulled off his shirt. Underneath he was all sinewy muscle and darkly bronzed skin. "I love to swim."
She looked at him doubtfully. Why did he want her to go in the water?
"I find your enthusiasm disturbing."
"Stop procrastinating and get in," he said, hopping into the icy water on one foot. He looked so ridiculous it was hard to remember that a moment before he had been a magnificent beast of scale and claw. It was hard to remember the raging inferno he had produced with a wave of one hand. He was not what he seemed, she reminded herself, but she found she didn't care. He might be a Revenant but he had never done her wrong. He had even helped her out a few times.
The water was so beautiful, she thought, staring at it hungrily. It called to her, it always had, and she had not yet met Jotham when she had thought to take refuge in the well at Hanternos, a life time ago. She had not known him when she had got into trouble for splashing in the Bleujen as a child. Besides, she wanted to go in the water. Her toe had been fine when the sea had washed over it. Cold, but fine. If she died at least it would be an adventure. So she pulled off her gambeson and her leggings, leaving them in a pile on the sand. Before she could change her mind, she walked into the water in her cotton shirt.
The water was shockingly cold, like ice stinging her feet. This time she was prepared for it and didn't leap back. She stood calf deep with her muscles tensed, watching the surface for signs of danger. Her nose wrinkled as the scent of brine and metallic tang of magic filled her nostrils. The wine dark sea swirled around her feet and looking closer she saw incandescent flurries swirling amongst the edges of the ripples. Leaning closer, she saw the eddies were laced with shimmering lights of green and turquoise. It was as if a veil had been lifted from her eyes. She couldn't tell where the water began and the magic stopped, the two were so intertwined. The effect was mesmerising. She felt strong and whole, as if all her cares had been washed away, as if all the poison in her blood had been leached away. She took a tentative step forward.
"I'm going to die, aren't I?" Candle murmured. She felt strange, something was happening to her, and she had no idea what it was. She had never felt less in control, but she found she didn't care.
"Deeper!" ordered Jotham, who was submerged up to his hips in the darkening swell. "You won't die," he added. "At least not today. I'm here, little cousin."
She hesitated, for the water around him looked deep and dangerous, and the waves were already tugging at her legs, pushing and pulling her insistently. She could feel how easy it would be to lose her footing on the sandy bottom and get dragged under. This was no domesticated river running through a quiet field. This was a churning, heaving ocean full of monsters and bursting with magic.
Jotham held out his hand to her imperiously, gesturing for her to come.
Ignoring the part of her mind that pleaded caution, she waded towards him, her legs heavy as she pushed through the water. A rolling wave swept her off her feet and she went under, swallowing a mouthful of salt water as she did so. As the water closed over her head she began to panic. It stung her eyes and she couldn't figure out which way was up. She couldn't find Jotham's outstretched hand in the tumble and gloom.
And then something strange happened.
Her panic passed, and she was wrapped in calm. The water was cool and soothing on her skin, the churning motion of the waves was a soothing melody rather than terrifying scream. Her eyes snapped open and suddenly she was glowing like a star in the darkest part of the night. She was surrounded by magic, cocooned by it, wrapped in it, radiating it. Panic was replaced by awe as magic rippled across her skin, and every part of her body began to grow and change. Her limbs elongated and strengthened. Her eyesight sharpened, her skin prickled, every sense was suddenly hyper aware. Her head broke through the surface of the water as her body swelled in size. Her feet found sure footing in the sand down below, and great claws bursting from her feet. Glittering black scales erupted from her skin. She raised up her long, sinuous neck and flexed her wings, watching the water droplets gleam as they fell back to the sea.
She was standing in the water staring down at the tiny figure of a man in the water below. Jotham grinning up at her, his golden eyes blazing and his teeth white in the brown of his face.
"I knew it!" he cried, punching the air and then the man was gone, replaced by the magnificent dragon that was his true form. He was still bigger than her, but the size discrepancy was now proportional. He laughed down at her, her own form reflected back at her in the giant golden orbs of his eyes. She stared at her powerfully muscled body in bemusement, flexing her own limbs in disbelief.
Somewhere, long ago, little cousin, he said, his voice echoing in the recesses of her mind, we have a common Ancestor. He pulled back the lips and bared his teeth in a reptilian reflection of his familiar lopsided smile. Let me teach you how to fly, he said, and he beat his massive wings into the sky, taking off in a spray of droplets. She stared up at him, bemused, and then raised her own wings carefully. She gave them an experimental swing and screamed with joy as she careered up into the air. Her delight was not diminished as she crashed face first into the sea, sending up a wall of glittering sea water. She tried again and this time she stayed up.
Up into the air, she went, faster than she would ever have thought possible, her body thrumming with excitement, blood hammering through her veins. Up, and up she went, till the bay below was a tiny pool and the mountains of her home became inconsequential ridges on an unimportant earth.