Queen of the Cruel Sea
Arms aching, Lim set Pari down and collapsed next to her. No sign of the Wimmist army behind them. Maybe they had stopped, or turned off in pursuit of other prey. He hoped it were so. Two days of flight was two days too many.
They sat on a shore, perhaps twenty yards from the water, amidst a flood of other villagers. As Lim struggled to catch his breath, Bell lay Cracra down next to him, and the two-year-old immediately ran toward the water.
“Stop,” Lim called, too tired to get up. “Come back.”
“He’ll be fine,” Bell said. She reached out and held Lim’s hand, then turned to Pari, glancing at the girl’s blackened, twisted legs. “How are you doing?”
Pari gave a weak smile and shrugged. She would have been dancing round the trees at her rite of womanhood next month, had Lim not done what he had done. But past was long past, with the Wimmists sweeping them out of their homes, they had more pressing problems now.
A mosquito buzzed past, landed on Lim’s leg. He flicked it away. As the sun sank near the horizon, red light blanketed the sky, mirrored in the water. Cracra played in the sand at the water’s edge, kicking out holes and scooping up mounds with his arms. Such innocence, free of concern, oblivious to the lurking danger. For a moment Lim wished he were a child again. But childhood came wrapped in its own cloud of mystery—too many things unknown, deep fears that he had till now forgotten.
Ev stood up a few yards from them. Two months now since he’d been chosen as village leader, something Lim never would have thought to happen when they were both boys. “We can’t stay here,” Ev said, to groans from some of the villagers. “We’re still too close, far too close. They’ll come for us, if we stay. I say we move south, to Othiparra.”
“Are you mad?” It was the new blacksmith from Mawcrannet. “Listen. This group would have a hard time crossing the chasm by day, let alone in the middle of the night, which is what it’ll be by the time we get there. We head south, we’re going to our deaths. Besides, the army won’t march by night. I say we rest, then go around the chasm dawnlight tomorrow.”
Ev shook his head and stuck his hands in his pockets. “Wimmist armies will come. They always do. Night won’t stop them. They’ll come, while we sleep.”
Bell nudged Lim. “We need to rest,” she said, motioning at Lim’s arm. He’d hurt it earlier that week when a stone fell on it. Not broken, but painful enough that he wouldn’t be hoeing anytime soon. “If they come,we’ll see them long before they get here.”
“And then what will we do? Outrun them?” He swatted away another mosquito. Confounded things swarmed heavy here. He missed his fields.
“Then we go south,” she said, tying her hair back. “And we cross the chasm, by day. Or go with the smith. We’ll see when we get there.”
“Now is our best chance. They won’t follow us, and they can’t get past the chasm on horses. They’d have to go the long way round. We’d be safe.”
Bell frowned. “Too risky, especially with the children. And even if—”
The new blacksmith stood and cleared his throat. “New plan. Camp here for the night, set off tomorrow, but go north, not south.”
Ev stared at him, bristling. “Closer to Wimmist? Madness.”
“No,” the blacksmith said. “We go into the wastelands, build boats, and then sail down to Othiparra, or even as far as Sala. Skirt the chasm. Skirt the whole problem—Wimmist has no navy.”
“Too dangerous,” said Ev, “and we’re hardly prepared to build seaworthy boats. Stay if you will, but I’m going to Othiparra, and I leave now.” He set off walking and didn’t look back. His wife and twin sons followed. After a long moment, a few more families left after him.
Lim watched as they disappeared behind a grove of trees a few hundred yards down the shore. He caught Bell looking at him, a question in her eye. He sighed. “We stay. But only till dawn.”
She nodded and with a grim smile set to rubbing Pari’s legs. Lim and the other villagers began digging out shallow holes to sleep in, hoping they would provide some cover should the Wimmists come this way in the night. The grove would have hidden them better, but it was too much a risk.
“Look at this,” Bell said. She pulled more mud and grass and bug carcasses away from a human skull wedged in her side of the hole. It was large enough to belong to an adult, and as Bell cleared away more of the dirt, Lim could see a jagged hole in the bone.
Jisti, their neighbor back at the village, came over to see. “When I was a girl, my granther told me stories of a great battle out here hundreds of years ago. Men against the gods.”
Lim wiped a slug off his hand. It left a reddish stain and a slight sting. “More likely this fellow got mauled by a beast or fell on a sharp rock.”
“Maybe,” Jisti said, and went back to Hanti and their two children.
Lim picked up his stone and continued digging.
“Do you think they’ll come tonight?” Pari asked.
“I hope not,” Lim said.
Pari glared at him. “I asked Mother, not you.”
“Please, Pari,” Bell said. “Some kindness.”
Pari folded her arms and went silent. Lim’s efforts at peace were ever for naught, it seemed.
Half an hour later, as the last light fell from the sky, the hole was just large enough for Bell and the two children, with the dirt mounded up on the inland side, forming a rim high enough to hide them. Lim had volunteered to stand guard during the third watch, but until then he could sleep on the ground behind the hole.
Bell curled up in the hole. Lim gently set Pari down next to her, then persuaded Cracra to let go of the bundle of sticks he had in his hands and lay him in Bell’s arms. Lim stretched out on the dirt and rubbed his bad arm. There was a breeze, but it was still warm enough and would likely remain so through the night. He stared up at the sister star watching over them, granting a protection that still did not help him feel safe. Perhaps he would never feel safe again.
He closed his eyes, shut out those thoughts, and then he slept.
Lim stood on the outskirts of the camp, watching westward for any sign of the Wimmist army. Nothing so far, and for that he was grateful. He wrapped his arms around himself more tightly to ward off the slight chill of the morning. The breeze rolling in from the sea brought with it the sounds of birdsong from afar.
Behind him, people were starting to wake up, grumbling about the sore lack of food. They’d have to find something soon. His own stomach hurt, but he steeled himself to ignore the pain. There would be plenty of time for eating later. Besides, the children needed it more than he did.
He saw a small group of soldiers riding toward them on horseback. Still too far to see their colors. Perhaps a scouting party.
“Soldiers,” he shouted. “Be ready.”
Jisti asked, “Should we run?”
“Wait,” said the blacksmith. “If they’re Wimmist, it’s already too late. They’ll chase us down if we run, and we won’t have as much strength to fight.”
Old Sal, whose eyes were perhaps the keenest there in spite of her age, said, “Colors are Rewhannen, not Wimmist.” Osansilan confirmed it, and Lim could feel relief sweep through the camp. Not a danger, and perhaps the soldiers could protect them. There weren’t many of them—six or seven from the look of it—but they were surely armed, and that would be enough.
As the soldiers drew near, one of them—a stout, familiar-looking man wearing a red stripe across his chest—jumped off his horse and ran up to them, waving. “Lim!”
Gansy, after all these years. He caught Lim in a tight embrace. “I came to Crenny, saw what happened there, heard you’d fled this way. Glad I found you.” He stopped to take a breath. “How is everyone?”
“We’re alive,” Lim said, as everyone gathered around them. “We split up. Ev took a group south last night. How are things back there?”
“Miserable. I’ll explain more.” He waved his men over, then mounted his horse and cupped his hand around his mouth, a touch unnecessary since they were so few in number. But that was how Gansy did things. “Wimmist has sacked the Five Cities. Half the council is dead, the other half lost. But our army’s still intact. And we’re going to attack—we’re going to slice through their ranks and make them wish they’d never set foot in Rewhannen.” A cheer. “But we’re short on men. I have orders to recruit twenty-five.” At the collective gasp, Gansy cleared his throat. “We do need them. But,” and here he spoke more quietly, “because it’s you, and because of times past, I’ll settle for five. Five men, volunteers, stand right over here. I’m sorry we have to take any.”
No one spoke for a long moment. Then the blacksmith: “Are they coming after us?”
Gansy’s frown deepened. “It looks like it, yes. But we’re going to fight them, and we’re going to win. And then you can go back to your homes and your fields. But we can’t do that without soldiers.”
“Leave us alone,” someone said from the back.
Gansy slowly shook his head. “I wish I could.”
Slowly, one by one, five young men shuffled over to where Gansy had pointed. They looked sick. Poor boys, Lim thought. But they had more hope there in the army with weapons than they did here, in a herd to be hunted down and eventually slaughtered.
As Gansy’s men handed tattered spears to the boys, Gansy dismounted and motioned at Lim. “Can we talk for a moment?”
“Of course.” Lim nodded to Bell, then followed Gansy several paces away from the group.
“Lim, we need people with the talent.”
He should have guessed that’s what this would be about. “No.”
Gansy waved his hand at the hills behind them. “They’ve got shifters. Small as a grain of sand, sometimes. We can’t defend against that, not without the talent.”
Lim shook his head. “Pari.”
“Maybe that was a fluke,” Gansy said. “Maybe it won’t happen again. Look, we can help you figure out how to control it. We have others, people who can teach you, train you. Masters.”
“I can’t take that kind of a risk.” He thought of Pari’s legs, the crying late in the night, the betrayed looks. She still didn’t trust him.
Gansy plunged his spear into the ground. “We have to, Lim. If we can’t stop Wimmist, Pari and you and me and everyone here is dead. Or a slave.” He wiped his brow and gazed out at the waves. “I’d like to have a family myself someday. Good wife, nice kids.”
“I can’t do that to her again. You know I can’t. It could kill her, and I couldn’t live with that. I’m sorry.” Desperate though times were, there were bounds Lim could not cross. He started walking back to the group, not looking back.
“Then I’ll have to use force,” Gansy said from behind, almost in a whisper. “I’m sorry, too, Lim. You need to come with me.”
Just as Lim felt the sharp prick of the spearpoint settle against the small of his back, a loud gushing sound came from out on the sea, like the gasp of a giant’s breath, and something dark and round flew out of the water, arched, and slammed with a wet thud on the shore behind the grove of trees.
“What was that?” Gansy didn’t wait for an answer. Lim followed.
They came upon it in the sand, the water lapping at its low end. It was bean-shaped, larger than a man, slimy, slightly see-through, with something long and dark at its center, like a seed. They moved closer, Gansy’s soldiers coming up behind them with their spears out. There was movement inside the pod. A person. Someone inside, Lim was sure of it, clawing to get out. Gansy did nothing.
Lim spoke up. “Should we help him?”
“We don’t know what it is,” Gansy said.
“He’s human. Look at him.”
“What if he isn’t?”
“I don’t think he can breathe in there,” Lim said. “Let’s get him out, and then you can deal with him. I’ll do it.” He took a tentative step up to the pod. “I need a knife, in case he attacks.” At a nod from Gansy, one of the soldiers handed him a dagger.
Lim knelt next to the pod and started scraping away the jellylike substance closest to the person’s face. It came away easily and felt like wet leaves. After a few minutes he’d made a hole big enough for the man’s face. Human enough, though the man’s nose was too large and sharp for him to be from anywhere around here, and his wet, stringy hair was somehow darker than Lim’s.
Gansy took a step closer to the pod. “What are you?”
The person blinked, coughed, and stared at them with an unfocused gaze. “A man,” he said, coughing out more of the jelly. “Vornim ka Gaz by name. From Bis Mawna. Please get me out.” His accent was heavy.
“Bis Mawna? Why are you here?”
“Trader ship,” Vornim said. “En route to Iamon Oro and then Griven. Shipwrecked. Captured.”
Lim turned to Gansy. “Should I dig him out?” Gansy nodded, and as Lim went back to his work, the other soldiers helped him. It didn’t take long before they were able to pull him up out of the cocoon and onto the sand, accidentally tearing his shirt, once white, now closer to the color of his loose grey pants.
At Gansy’s command, they began walking him back to the camp, holding him up. They cleared the grove and could see the people milling about, ragged and hungry. Hanti, Jisti’s husband, stood knee-deep in the water, lunging in what looked like an attempt to catch fish. Most of the people were huddled in small groups on the dirt. Lim couldn’t see Bell or the children.
Vornim, who had been staring at the sand, followed Lim’s gaze. His eyes widened. “Your people?”
“Yes,” Lim said. “Wimmist army’s coming—”
“Get away from the shore,” Vornim said, his voice raspy but urgent. “Now. Everyone, get them away. It’s not safe.”
A sound like thunder erupted from the sea, this time with a high-pitched squealing. What looked like a massive chariot surged out of the water, and atop it strode a woman, tall and noticeably unearthly even from this distance. Vornim began shaking and yelling about a seawitch. He tried to break free and run back to the grove.
Suddenly long tendrils of water or seaweed lashed out from the chariot, reached into the camp, savagely wrapped themselves around people’s waists, and pulled them up into the air and out to sea, plunging them beneath the surface. The squealing grew fainter and the chariot sank swiftly down beneath the water, taking the woman—the seawitch—with it.
A vast silence. “Too late,” Vornim whispered. Then, yelling, running, half the people stampeding inland, half staring out at the sea, eyes wide with shock. Lim left Vornim to the soldiers and ran down the rest of the way to camp.
He found Pari trying to claw her way inland, grabbing at Evie, who kept screaming, “Mama!” Cracra stood there in the hole shuddering, staring at the sea with open mouth. Bell wasn’t there. Maybe she had run to help someone else. Lim looked around but couldn’t see her. “Where is she?” he yelled.
Pari shook her head and pointed up at the sky. “Taken.”
No. No, no, no. Lim fell to his knees, unable to stand, as if on the brink of a world-sized hole that had just opened up before him. Gone.
But he had to get the children to safety. He grabbed Pari with his good arm, picked up Cracra with his bad, almost dropped him from the pain, and bit his lip in resolve. “Evie, I need you to run with me.” And they ran.
Jisti and her son and daughter ran up next to them. “I can hold Cracra for you,” she said. Lim passed the boy to her.
“Where’s Hanti?” Lim asked in between breaths. He couldn’t see her husband in the rush.
“Out there,” she said.
They ran for another couple minutes, then collapsed next to the other villagers, breathing heavily.
“Are we far enough in?” Jisti asked.
“I think so,” Lim said.
After a minute, Gansy and his soldiers met up with them, carrying Vornim.
“It’s his fault,” the blacksmith said, pointing at Vornim. “He led them to us.”
“No, that’s not true,” Vornim said, shaking, his eyes wide and rimmed red.
Jisti asked, “Who was that woman?”
“Seawitch,” Vornim said. “Queen of the sea, or at least this patch of it. She is—”
“We’ve got to go back and get them,” Lim said.
Vornim made an odd sound that Lim realized was laughter. “Doomed to fail. She held me deep beneath the sea—hundreds of fathoms down. They put me in that jelly, I think to keep me from escaping—not that swimming away would have done me much good.
“When I was there,” he said, scratching his chin, “I could feel her thoughts. Not clearly, not words, but ideas, vague feelings, imaginings. There’s something ancient buried in barrows beneath the sea, something large. Old gods, perhaps. She’s afraid of them. They’re very dangerous. She wants them to stay buried, but something bad has happened and they’re crawling out, emerging from their slumber.” He coughed and spat out something small and black. “The witch needs humans to fuel her magic. She drinks their souls.”
Gansy grabbed him by the collar and held a dagger to his neck. “Did she drink yours?”
Visibly trembling, Vornim shook his head. “No, the vile thing spat me out like a bone. I don’t know why.”
Lim frowned, looked out at the sea sprawled out beyond the shore, a vast menace harboring monsters. But Bell needed him. “I’m going to swim out there,” Lim said. “See if I can see anything. Bring them back.”
“Then you go to your death,” Vornim said. “May the seventh god carry your soul.”
Lim wasn’t familiar with whichever Bis religion that was and didn’t know what to say in return. “I’ll be careful.”
“Careful will not be enough. You expect to march into the sea, yes? Tell me, man of Rewhannen, do you breathe water? It’s folly, absolute folly. A swarm of creatures surrounds her kingdom, vultures of the deep, always on the hunt, always watching for her cast-off refuse. You will not even get close.”
“I must try.”
“She is gone,” Vornim said, grabbing Lim by the shoulders and shaking him. “I do not mean the cleaving of mind from body, to go stand with the circle of gods on the eternal cliff. I mean that her mind no longer exists on its own. She is part of the seawitch now.” He let go and stepped back, wiping sweat off his forehead. “Your cause is admirable, if pointless.”
Even so, Lim could not stand idly by. Perhaps it was not yet too late. And Vornim did not know everything.
Lim knelt next to his children and hugged each in turn. “I will come back,” he said. “With your mother.”
Pari frowned. “Haven’t you been listening? It’s too dangerous. You’re not going to come back.”
Lim attempted a weak smile with more confidence than he had. “Remember Taranamon the Intrepid, in the stories? Plunging into the throat of death itself to bring back his daughter? Go, I must. Try, I must.”
“So you will orphan us.”
“That is not part of my plan. Pari, there may still be time to save her somehow.”
“I want her back, but if you are lost as well, who will care for them?” She motioned at Evie and Cracra, then sighed and looked away. “Be careful.”
Lim nodded and gave her a kiss on the cheek. Before he could change his mind, he stood and began running out to the shore. He ignored the calls behind him, ignored the voices within him crying out that this was madness, a death run, that of all the foolish things to do, this ranked as one of the worst. Any moment now the seawitch would surge above the surface again and he’d feel the cool, violent sting as those tendrils grabbed him. But go he must.
He hit the water, colder on his feet than he expected. He waded out, slowing down with each step. This was surely certain death. But Taranamon succeeded, and perhaps Lim would too.
When the water reached his knees, he knelt down, dipped his head under the water, and opened his eyes. Shells and stones scattered on the sand. Vivid blue and pink plants swayed. Small fish, mottled white and brown and orange, swam by in a school. Far off in the depths, Lim heard what sounded like singing, though too high-pitched and haunting to be human. He couldn’t see much out that way, however. Too murky.
He stood up, gasping for breath, and continued his walk. As the water level came up to his chest, a deep fear took hold of him in a heart-pounding embrace. Vornim was right—he couldn’t breathe water. Not only that, but it had been many years since he’d been out to the coast, and even then he had only once tried to swim.
He would die out here. The closeness of that death wrapped itself around his mind, coyly tugging at him, beckoning him to follow. But if he did, Bell would be forever lost, and perhaps they would never meet again in the holy forests of the yonderworld.
Lim took a breath and ducked back down into the water. His heart shuddered. Not two paces in front of him the seafloor sharply dropped off into a blurry darkness. He had almost walked straight off the edge of a cliff. He stood, trembling, and took large, gulping breaths. This was a fool’s errand. There had to be some other way to save Bell.
From the shore he heard the blacksmith call out to him. “See anything?”
“Not yet,” he said, shivering, wrapping his arms around himself to try to stop the fear.
He thought again of the tales of Taranamon, who came to the first threshold, bound by his own fear, but who overcame, and when stepping over the threshold, grew stronger. Lim took a deep breath and went down again. His heart pounding, he began to swim out over the chasm. Think like a fish, he told himself. This is home. This is like plowing the fields.
He could now see a shimmering light, shining faintly through the murkiness, like a sun beneath the sea. Lim swam toward it, clumsily. An eery feeling of dread came over him. His skin tingled.
A vivid image came suddenly into his mind, of rocks falling from the sky in droves, down, down into the depths of the sea. It was stronger than a thought or a daydream or even a memory.
After surfacing for a breath, he dove deeper, closer to the sea sun. The eery feeling returned, followed by another image, this time of darkness followed by an immense feeling of sadness and desolation.
And then a panic seized Lim, a throbbing fear that made his arms and legs limp. He tried to think of Bell, of her embrace, her smile, their years together. He flailed, tried to push his way to the surface, gasped, swallowed water, choked, spluttered, reached the surface, couldn’t break it for a breath, flailed some more, began to sink. He tried again, failed again. He was going to die. He thought of Bell’s embrace again, and this time he felt it. In his mind, as darkness enveloped his view, they were standing on a path in the yonder, about to set off on a journey. And then everything went dark.
When Lim opened his eyes, he was on his back, staring up at the blacksmith’s remarkably ugly face. He sat up and coughed up some water.
“You don’t know how to swim?” The blacksmith scowled, breathing heavily and wringing out his long hair. “Are you mad?”
“I saw a light, a second sun. I think that’s where she is. The seawitch.”
“Even so, didn’t you hear what the man said? Vultures of the deep?”
Lim flushed and felt lightheaded. “Were it your wife, you would do the same, smith.”
A long pause. The blacksmith stood. “We need to get away from the water, in case she returns. Come.” He held out a hand to Lim and helped him back to camp.
“What happened?” Pari asked. Others gathered round to hear.
He told them what he had seen and heard and felt.
“That’s it, then,” she said. “We can do nothing. Unless you use—”
“No, I can’t,” Lim said quietly, sitting down next to her. Evie crawled into his lap and began playing with the tassels hanging from his collar.
Pari fidgeted with a twig. “Evie and Cracra need a mother.”
“So do you,” Lim said. “But what if it doesn’t work? Lose you too—is that what you want of me? You’ve changed your mind rather quickly.”
“As you said, we have a chance to save Mother from that … creature.”
Lim thought of the light beneath the water, of the seawitch and her chariot, of Bell buried in one of those cocoons. “If Vornim is right,” he said, “it’s already too late.”
Pari threw the stick at him. “I don’t trust Vornim.”
“He was down there.”
“In a jelly pod,” she said. “He paints his guesses as though they were truth. Don’t believe everything he says. Something is off about that man.”
Evie looked up at Lim, put her hands on his cheeks. “Are you going to go back in the water?”
“I don’t know,” he said, trying to forget the memories of flailing, of not being able to breathe. “There must be something else we can do.”
“We have a chance, Father, if you but dared to use it,” Pari said, feeling her legs.
“No,” Lim said.
Before she could object again, the blacksmith, who had walked over to his family, stood and loudly called a council. So he was assuming leadership of the group. That bothered Lim—the smith had been in town only a matter of weeks, and Mawcrannet folk didn’t often get along in the outer villages. But the man had saved Lim’s life, and that was something.
“The army may still be in pursuit,” said the smith. “We don’t know that they are, but we must be prepared.” Lim looked around at those remaining. The smith and his family. Jisti and hers. Old Sal. Osansilan, newly married last week, his bride now wed to the seawitch. Gansy and his crew of soldiers off to the side, looking impatient and scared. Five or six other families. Not many people left at all. The blacksmith cleared his throat. “I know some of you won’t want to leave, but I still hold that we ought to go north and build those boats.”
A long silence. Then Jisti said, “I’m not leaving my husband.”
“He is dead,” said Old Sal, wheezing as she sat braiding her long, white hair. “They are dead. Go, all of you. Go to safety in the south. Don’t follow this fool—there are dark things in the wastelands. Go south.”
“What, you mean to stay behind?” said Osansilan.
“I saw a sight,” she said. “Death’s plow, not ten feet off, waiting to harvest my soul, his hand behind it, beckoning. My time is short.” She smiled. Lim thought of her husband, dead some thirty years now, a tragic accident in the fields. An imminent reunion. A bittersweet smile crept across his face.
“I cannot leave my husband,” Jisti said again.
Vornim, who had remained silent, now spoke. “You people do not understand. You no longer have a husband. The seawitch has swallowed his soul. He is part of her now, as your food is part of you.” A pause. “I am sorry for the comparison.”
“You’re absolutely wrong,” Jisti said.
“No,” said Vornim. “Unpleasant, yes. But I am not wrong.”
“Hard though it may be,” said the blacksmith, “I believe we must go. And soon—that army may be mere hours away.”
“Why are they doing this?” asked Osansilan, whose eyes were red and wet.
Gansy, who had also kept silent till now, smoothed out his uniform and said, “Wimmist wants our fields, our food. Their own fell to the blight. I’ve heard rumors that Wimmist’s population has surged in recent years, out on the western coasts, from some fell magic gone awry. More people, less food. Therefore, they come.”
“And they can’t just ask us kindly to share a portion?”
“Ha!” said Old Sal. “They’re not peaceful folk. Remember who used to live in those lands of yore, before they came? The Wimmist are a nation-devouring monster, and we’re their next meal.”
“Besides,” said Gansy, “we’ve got scarce enough for ourselves.”
Osansilan frowned. “Why us, then? The fields of Hannest or Nelm or even Parrno are far richer than ours.”
“True, but we’re the easier target. Smaller army, no mountains to cross.” Gansy scratched his nose. “But it’s all mere guessing. The Wimmist have not told us why they do what they do, nor do I expect them to.”
“I’m not leaving,” Jisti said. She sank to her knees and wrapped her arms around her children. A small swarm of mosquitoes buzzed past where she had been standing and dispersed through the camp.
“Understood.” The blacksmith walked off to the side and drew a short line in the sand with his foot. “Who goes with me?”
His family—wife, two sons, five daughters—joined him. Lim caught Gansy’s eye, and the soldier shook his head. Lim wasn’t leaving without Bell anyway. No one else moved.
“Goodbye, then.” The smith folded his arms. “After we land, we’ll make for Traparra, along the River Esteen. I’ve heard they’re friendly to foreigners there.”
Old Sal cackled. “I’ve heard they’re so friendly they never let you go.”
“We’ll take that chance,” the blacksmith said. “Better than dying at the hands of that army. Far better than being dragged into the depths of the sea. Farewell.” And he led his family away, trudging through sand for a minute or two before disappearing behind a bend in the coastline.
“I’m hungry,” Evie said, climbing onto Lim’s back.
Vornim smiled at her. “I will go to the trees, to look for food.”
“And if there’s a treebound?” Lim said.
“I don’t fear their kind.”
“Perhaps you should.”
Vornim smiled. “Surely they are not all bloodthirsty demons. Also, it is bound. It can do nothing to harm me.”
Lim watched the stranger trudge toward the clump of trees. As a child, Lim’s mother had told him stories of treebound breaking their bonds and eating the faces of men, but they were only stories. And Vornim was right; the treebound had no power when bound.
“I’m sorry, Lim,” Gansy said, coming over and nodding out at the water. “She was a good woman.”
“Is,” said Lim.
“Yes, of course.” A long pause. “I still have orders to bring back anyone with the talent.”
Lim looked at his children. Pari and Old Sal were weaving something together with twigs and grass. Evie watched them intently, and Cracra lay asleep on the dirt. “I don’t—”
“But,” Gansy said, glancing back at his men, “perhaps in the confusion I mistook you for what you are not.”
“You clearly do not have the talent,” he said, with a brief hint of a wink, “and so I clearly cannot take you.”
“I …  Thank you, Gansy.” Lim shook his hand, and the soldier then walked back to the other side of the group where his men were feeding their horses.
After Lim returned, Jisti approached him, put a hand on his arm. “Thank you for staying.”
Lim thought of Bell on their wedding day, the way they had both grown in their time together, the plans they’d had to move up to Mawcrannet. All for naught now, if Lim failed. He gazed out at the sea—so indifferent, so vast. Quietly, he said, “I fear it’s as hopeless as they say.”
“Perhaps,” Jisti said. “Perhaps not. What about your talent?”
“Absolutely not,” Lim said. He pulled Jisti away from his children, out of hearing. “Too dangerous.”
“I know,” she said, “but perhaps there’s more to your talent. Perhaps there’s a way to use it that won’t hurt her.”
“And how will I learn that way without hurting her?”
Jisti sighed. “I don’t know. Where was she, back when it happened? Close to you?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Lim, my husband is out there. Your wife, too. Without your talent, they are dead. Gone forever.” The force of it seemed to hit her, and she turned away, wracked with sobs.
Lim wrapped his arms awkwardly around her. He may as well tell her. “Pari was at my feet, yes.” She had been holding on to his legs, a mere baby. At nights he could still hear her ear-slashing cries of pain as the blackness had crept up her legs. But closeness was not why she’d been hurt—they had taken her to Nirinelst, the only other person in the village who had a talent, and the old woman had wiped a tear from her eye and said that there was nothing they could do, and that the talent would always drain the body and soul of Lim’s eldest child. That was mere days before Nirinelst had been hunted down by the queen council’s prill squad. They never saw her again.
Once her sobs began to fade, Jisti pulled away. “Can you try something small, far away from her?”
“No.” He told her of Nirinelst. “Besides, even were I to use the talent, I don’t know how to save them with it.”
“Can’t you just pull them up out of the sea, wherever they are?”
He shook his head. “It isn’t a sickle or a plow. It doesn’t work like that. It’s … hazy.”
Jisti folded her arms. “What if that old woman was wrong? Perhaps her talent worked differently. If Pari was right next to you, that could have been it.” She bit her lip. “Lim, this may be our only hope. Please.”
Nirinelst had been a wise woman. But she could have been wrong, it was true. “Only if Pari says yes.” Which she would, of course, unless she had changed her mind again.
“Thank you, Lim,” Jisti said.
They returned to the children and explained it. Pari nodded. “Glad to see you’ve come around. Now go get our mother back.”
They stood down the coast, on the opposite side of the grove of trees. The wind was stronger here, bringing in a cluster of fat, dark clouds from the horizon. The sand beneath their feet was wet. A dead fish lay on the ground nearby.
“How do you begin?” Jisti stood fifty feet off, hopefully far enough away from him.
He swallowed, remembering all too clearly. The thrill, that feeling of power coursing through him, followed by the paralyzing realization of what he’d done to Pari. And now he was in all likelihood about to do the same to Jisti. He almost gave up, but no, this could save Bell. “Last time, it felt like I was digging a hole in my mind. Water gushed out of it.” And then Pari’s screams.
“What were you trying to do with the talent? How did you focus it?”
“I … didn’t. It was accidental.” Which wasn’t completely true, but it was close enough.
Jisti furrowed her brow, paced back and forth. “In your mind,” she said, “can you try digging a smaller hole? Less power, maybe more control. What do you think?”
“I don’t think it works that way, but … I’ll try.”
Lim closed his eyes, breathed in deeply, stretched out his arms. And then he listened. At first he couldn’t hear it, but slowly, softly, from far away, the eery melody sounded. And then in his mind there he was on the hill again, shovel in hand. This time he looked around. To his left he saw a long string of hills stretching out to the horizon, each like the one on which he stood. In front of him there was a wooded canyon. Two moons hung in the sky, low and full. And to his right there were clumps of forest surrounding a gnarled, twisted tree far taller than any he’d ever seen before.
He put the shovel down. As he knelt, he noticed a familiar hole farther up the hill. The memories came back again, stronger, and it took all his strength to keep from letting go. This was not a good idea.
Lim dug with his hands, one slow, careful handful at a time. The ground was loam, spotted with soft, green moss. It crumbled as he scooped it out.
A trickle of water emerged from a small hole. Lim opened his eyes. He could see both the trickle and the sea at the same time, making him dizzy.
“How should I—” But as soon as he started talking, the hole closed up and he could see only the waves rolling in. He shook his head, closed his eyes, and pushed the dirt out of the way again. The trickle returned.
In his mind, he took hold of the shimmering trickle of water, which became tangible like rope. As soon as he touched it, he felt a whooshing within him that left him lightheaded. He pulled a length of the water out of the hill, wound it around his hand, and then imagined himself diving into the sea.
It was disconcerting, seeing the real sea, seeing the hill in his mind, seeing himself diving into the sea in his mind, all at the same time. Several times he felt it all coming apart, but he clung and grasped and somehow kept it together.
His ghost self reached the seafloor just as the trickle was getting harder to hold, starting to draw itself back into the hill. He willed his ghost to look around under the sea and saw there a large fish, at least five feet long. That would be a good test. He wrapped his ghost’s arms around it and began swimming back to shore. The fish weighed almost nothing, but his grip felt secure, neither of which he had expected.
When he broke the surface, his real self saw a pale figure—himself—out in the water, carrying a fish. His ghost self, the one with the fish, saw his real self standing on the shore, Jisti farther down the way. The surprise at seeing himself made him drop both the fish and the water rope, and his other selves melted away, leaving only his real vision.
Panting, exhilarated, he turned to Jisti. “I did it. Did you see it?”
Jisti held her hands out for him to see, her face twisted in pain. Four of her fingertips were now charred and black, the same as Pari’s legs. Oh no. His insides grew cold. He’d gotten carried away, had gone further than he should have. If he had stopped in time …
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Now we know,” she said, whimpering a little. “I’ll be okay, I think.”
The feeling inside grew colder. “You were right. Whoever stands nearest to me.”
“Perhaps we can find something else to take the backlash. An animal, maybe? A fish?” She winced.
An image crashed into Lim’s mind—a great battle, monstrous titans fighting above and under the sea. He saw a whirlpool form in the middle of the battle and then, in a jarring shift, the sea was calm, gulls flying overhead. A long line of heads were piled on the shore, staring blankly out at the water.
He opened his eyes. He was lying on his back, and Jisti was slapping his cheek with her good hand.
“What happened?” he asked.
“You fell. Like the bones in your legs had been pulled out.”
He told her of his visions. “I don’t know where these come from. Perhaps some kind of magic of the seawitch—the visions didn’t start till I got close to her kingdom.”
“Perhaps.” She winced again.
Lim ripped off part of his sleeve, dipped it in the water, and wrapped it around Jisti’s hand, hoping the salt would help and not hurt.
She smiled. “That’s … a little better.”
Lim pulled up a thick clump of grass, shook off the dirt, and tasted a blade. Edible enough. He handed some to Evie and to Cracra, who had been crying for food for a long time now. As they chewed on it, he poked around in the ground beneath them, looking for bugs safe to eat.
Earlier, he had left Jisti in the care of Old Sal, then had gone back out by himself, farther down the shore so nobody was nearby. The attempt had failed. He had tried to reach the hill in his mind, but he couldn’t grasp it long enough to get there. There wasn’t much hope left after all.
“Thank you, Papa,” said Evie, twisting the grass around in her hands. “When’s Mama coming back?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Soon, I hope.”
His fingers hit something hard. A rock, though not too many of those in this area. Probably another skull. He dug around it, clearing away the dirt. It was larger than he’d expected. Underneath the grime, it was a faded white. Lim moved away the rest of the dirt to find that the two jagged halves of an old skull, with a smaller, whiter skull inside. He immediately stood up and backed away, pulling Evie and Cracra with him. They did not need a wraith interfering right now. He pushed the dirt back over the skull, which would appease the wraith if he were lucky.
“Nine battles here, all along the coast,” Old Sal said. “Long time ago, of course. Maybe a thousand years, maybe more. Before Hearn, before the twin kings, probably even before Iamon Oro split off from the wastelands.”
“You think he fell?”
She shook her head. “This sand wouldn’t crack a head in half. It was a cleaver that did that. A battle bloody and fierce. Poor fellow.” Lim decided not to mention the inner skull.
Someone called out. A man approached on horseback, wearing Rewhannen colors.
“What news have you?” Osansilan asked as the man pulled his horse to a stop. The man was a boy of no more than twelve or thirteen, too small for his clothes, one red-drenched arm dangling at a wrong angle.
“The Wimmist army has left,” he said, spitting blood on the ground. “They march to Akalla.”
Osansilan frowned. “The queen court? Why? There are no fields there.”
“Perhaps they’re not seeking food after all,” Lim said. “There are two other groups,” he said to the boy. “One heading to Krev Chasm. The other, a smith and his family, left not long ago to the wastelands, there to build boats and sail around.”
“Thank you,” the scout said. “My horse is tired.” He dismounted with difficulty and walked the horse over to Gansy’s camp. Both boy and horse had a limp. A few minutes later one of Gansy’s soldiers climbed onto a horse and rode off past the grove to the south.
Lim turned back to his digging, hoping this time he would find bugs instead of remains.
After feeding the children the grass and bugs he’d found, which weren’t enough, he looked up to see Vornim approaching, lips stained green, holding a white, bumpy, hard-looking shell, cracked open to reveal a soft, green fruit inside. Lim tried not to think of the skull.
“Come, help me get more,” Vornim said.
“From the grove? It’s edible?”
“Yes, I ate one there,” he said, smiling.
Sitting off to the side, rubbing her legs, Old Sal said, “Did the treebound bother you?”
“It ate my face, skin and bone.” A long silence. Vornim grinned. “I jest. There is indeed a treebound there, near the fruit trees. I talked with it.”
Osansilan must have been listening, for he came over and said, “Have you swallowed your mind? Why would you talk to it?”
“I only talked with it because it called to me and said that earlier it smelled magic on him,” Vornim said, pointing at Lim. “It says that it saw what you were doing. The woman’s fingertips. It wanted me to tell you it knows a way to use the talent that doesn’t drain bystanders. I told it about the seawitch and your people, how you wish to save them, folly though it may be. The treebound thinks it is not folly.”
For a long time no one said anything. Nobody from their village had ever spoken with a treebound before, at least not that Lim knew about.
“It’s too dangerous,” Lim said. “It’s lying, no doubt.”
“Foreseeing your response,” Vornim said, “it bade me bring this leaf to you, of its tree, as a token of goodwill. Wrap it around the woman’s fingers, the treebound says, and she will heal.”
Jisti stared at the leaf, palm-sized and yellow. “Treebound magic,” she said slowly. She looked at Lim as if for approval. He shrugged. With her good hand, she caressed the blackened fingers, hummed something quietly to herself. “I will try it.”
She took the leaf from Vornim and wrapped it around her fingers. She clenched her teeth and hands, pressed her eyes shut, sank to the ground, cried out. It was hurting her, Lim could see, not healing. He reached out to take the leaf away, but she pulled back. After wailing for a short time, she dropped the leaf and grew quiet. Everyone watched as she opened her hand. Her fingers were clean, the tips no longer blackened and charred.
She flexed her fingers. “They’re better,” she said, wiping a tear from her eye. “No trace. And they don’t hurt anymore.”
Old Sal sat back and hummed what sounded like the Ballad of Griven’s Child. Lim let out a breath. This treebound magic might be able to heal Pari’s legs. It was a risk—a wild, unthinkable risk—but Jisti’s fingers were clean. His pulse began to race. “Vornim, can the treebound make more leaves like this?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
Then Lim must go, for here was hope. “Will you come with me?”
Vornim nodded. Old Sal got up and said, “I’ll come, too. If you do end up needing someone to be your fuel, it may as well be me. My end is nigh.”
Leaving his children playing with Jisti’s, and Pari staring blankly out at the sea, Lim left for the grove with Jisti and Old Sal following close behind.
They approached the grove cautiously, taking soft steps on the grass. Lim trembled. If Vornim’s words were true, this treebound could save both Bell and Pari. Lim tried not to think about what would happen were the stranger mistaken.
“The fruit trees,” Vornim said, pointing to a cluster of tall, thin trees inside the grove, each laden with heavy white fruit dangling from its branches.
The group edged round the grove and came to its seaside. There, rippling in the trunk of a tree, was the treebound, a haunting face the size of a small child. Lim wondered how long this one had been bound, and by whom. And what it had done to be punished this way.
“Ah, the magic-bearer comes,” whispered the treebound, then looking straight at Lim. “Your scent is delicious.”
Lim’s spine felt cold as the river’s water in winter. “The healing leaves—can you make more?” Too direct? Lim wasn’t sure how to talk to a treebound, so he treated it like one of the decadents. But perhaps he ought to have shown more deference. He should have asked Vornim beforehand.
The treebound smiled, a large, toothless grin. “Of course, of course. Who is the needy one?”
Lim swallowed. The less this creature knew about him, the better. But if it didn’t know enough, it may not be able to help them. “My daughter,” he said. “Her legs were crippled and charred by magic.”
The treebound’s eyes narrowed. “Ah, an accident. You’re to blame.” Lim’s cheeks burned hotter. “Understandable,” the creature continued. “Yes. But before we talk about that, let us talk about your people, the seawitch’s current delicacies.” It winked at him, which frightened him most of all.
Jisti told the tale, quietly and quickly, without tears.
“Tragic,” said the treebound. “But not irredeemable, perhaps. Magic-bearer, what is your name?”
The treebound nodded. “Lim, here is what I will do. If you allow me to help you save your people, I will make a healing leaf, as you call it, for your daughter.”
In every story Lim had heard of treebounds, there was a catch, a hidden condition, which was a large part of the reason they were so dangerous. “What do you want in return?”
“The joy of doing something other than staring at this Ikka-forsaken sea will be more than sufficient, I assure you.”
Lim looked to Jisti and Old Sal. Both nodded. This was their best and perhaps only chance to save Bell and Hanti and the rest. And Pari. “What are the risks?” he asked.
“Hardly any,” said the treebound. “The risk of quarreling with your wife once you have her back. The risk of your daughter running off to wed some brigand from the southern territories.”
“There are no other risks?” asked Jisti.
The treebound smiled. “There are no other risks.”
Lim asked, “What will you do, as your part?”
“While bound, my magic is limited, but one of the things I can do is channel your talent to drain something else instead of those standing by.”
“Something else? Such as?”
The treebound raised its eyebrows. “Condensation in the air out at the horizon, or a bubble of rock forty feet below us, for example. It depends entirely on what mood I’m in.” It glanced at Jisti and Old Sal and Vornim. “But fear not, your friends will be safe.”
“Do I need to do anything differently?” Lim asked.
“No,” said the treebound. “I’ll handle it all. You just wield the talent. And be sure to tap as large a conduit as you can. The seawitch has tremendous reserves of power. But you are powerful, too. So very powerful.” It sighed.
Lim took a deep breath. If only his parents could see him now, making a deal with a treebound. His mother would crack a joke and then bite her nails clean off until things were safe again. His father, cunning man that he was, would stroke his beard and seek ways to get the better of the treebound. And were Bell here, she would put her hand on his arm and whisper, close to his ear, “I know you can do this.” The thought itself gave him a surge of confidence.
To Jisti, Old Sal, and Vornim, he said, “It would still be wise for you to stand back.”
The treebound frowned. “You don’t trust me?”
“Have you ever been wrong?” Even as the words left his lips, Lim’s breath tightened as he remembered stories of those who had offended a treebound and later ended up hanging from high branches by their feet, or buried to their necks in solid rock, or tied arm and leg to different large birds who flew in separate directions.
“Yes,” it said. “But not often.” And then it smiled, and Lim breathed more freely.
The others walked several dozen yards away, but then Old Sal frowned and hobbled back. “If the creature here is in fact wrong, you’ll need someone to drain.”
“I can’t ask you to do that,” Lim said.
“You didn’t. I’ve made my peace.” She sat down and folded her arms, and that was that.
“Thank you, Sal.” He turned back to the treebound. “I am ready.”
The treebound grinned. “Then, Lim, you may begin at your pleasure.”
Lim closed his eyes. He was back on the hill, at the same place he’d been before with the trickle. He’d need much more than that this time, however. He looked around and saw a larger hill not too far away. That would do nicely.
Halfway up the new hill, he began to dig, this time with the shovel he’d brought. The soil was slightly different here—more dry, fewer green spots, more rocks.
He made a larger hole this time, big enough that he had to sidestep the water as it streamed out. Bit by bit, he enlarged the hole, scraping away dirt with the shovel, until the hole was as big around as a grown horse’s body. The water gushed down the hill, but when it reached the bottom, Lim noticed, it vanished into the ground rather than pooling or continuing to flow in the valleys between the hills. Odd.
Bracing himself, he wrapped his arms around the stream, gripped, and heaved it up. It was heavier than the trickle, by far. He hoisted it up onto his shoulder to make it a little easier to carry. It was stable enough for now, but even on his shoulder it was hard to hold. He would have to work quickly.
He opened his eyes. The treebound was watching him with a ridiculously large, hungry smile. Lim looked out at sea, breathed again, and sent his ghost self running out to the water to find the seawitch’s kingdom.
He swam hard and fast, down through the water toward the glowing sun he’d seen before, past large, gruesome creatures and razor-thin eels. His ghost self was swifter than his real body, and this time he didn’t seem to need to come up for air.
After what felt like mere moments, Lim reached the second sun. It was closer and smaller than he’d thought—just a glowing orb floating in a vast empty space. No kingdom nearby. Nothing.
Furious and desperate, Lim reached out, grabbed, and … lifted. To his surprise, not just his ghost self and the orb but all the eels, creatures, fish, and more soared up through the water, broke the surface, and rose high in the sky. Lim stared, his mouth open in shock. The cloud of sea life floated in almost every direction as far as he could see, thick and wriggling. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The treebound behind him squealed with delight.
But perhaps this would make it easier to find the seawitch. From his vantage point on the shore he couldn’t see her, so he sent his ghost flying up to try to get a better view from above. Inside the cloud, however, all the movement became too confusing. He lost his grip and dropped it all. Fish, eels, and the rest fell and hit the water with a hard splat. Only his ghost still hung in the air.
Maybe the witch was under the seafloor, anchored down somewhere, which would explain why she hadn’t come up with everything else. Lim sent his ghost swimming down again into the murky depths. But it was too dark, and he soon saw that the vastness of the sea would take far too much time to explore. With more ghosts, however …
He tried to send a second one out, and to his surprise it worked. Lim sent out several more, then willed his new swarm of ghosts to swim in different directions. At first they did, but soon all the views became muddled in his mind and the ghosts ended up all following the same path. He cursed at himself.
Then, from below his swarm, he caught a scent of deep magic, of ancient power older than the sea. Yes. Magic cleaves unto magic, draws itself near, like moths to a flame.
As he sent his swarm swimming toward that magic, the seawitch rode her chariot up out of what he could now see was a vast, dark hole in the seafloor. Almost without thought, his swarm surrounded the chariot, wrenching it up out of the water with a splash, pulling it hundreds of feet high into the sky. As they began moving inland towards the grove, dozens of long, dripping tendrils dangled wildly from the flying chariot. At the end of each hung a pod. Bell.
The seawitch screeched and attacked Lim’s ghosts with smaller tendrils lashing out from the chariot, wrapping themselves around arms and legs, flinging each away. Each touch left a hot, stinging sensation. His ghosts fought in a frenzy as Lim struggled to pull the chariot away from the sea.
One of his ghosts grabbed hold of the witch’s arm, yanking hard at her tight grip on the rim of her chariot. The seawitch looked up and stared straight at the ghost. The eye contact sent a sharp stab through Lim’s body—those haunting, otherworldly eyes, a milky greenish-white film rippling over them. Suddenly his vision was flooded by an image of the seafloor, cracked and bubbling, cloudy reddish-green matter oozing up from beneath. Something was wrong.
When he opened his eyes a moment later, he was lying on his back staring up at the seawitch, her chariot, and the pods, all hurtling down towards him from above. He scurried back to the waterhill in his mind, grabbed the stream, and sent a swarm of ghosts up to catch the chariot.
And they did catch it, only a few dozen yards above him. The seawitch shrieked at him, tendrils writhing, water dripping down onto his face. More importantly, the pods were there, hanging from the chariot. Slowly they began to rise, as if the witch was trying to pull them back into the chariot. Her high-pitched shrieks made his head hurt. An odd feeling then impressed itself upon his mind, that she was only trying to defend her sea against a deeper, darker danger, something that could once again cleave the world apart.
Even so, Lim wanted his wife back.
He sent out a flurry of ghosts, dozens of them, pushing the seawitch and her chariot up into the sky, far higher than before. The shrieking stopped, but there was now a buzzing in Lim’s ears, thick and loud, and he felt suddenly weak, barely able to move. The treebound shouted something incoherent. Lim needed to get the pods away from the chariot and the seawitch—that much he knew.
The chariot and the pods began to fall. Lim tried to have his ghosts grab the pods, but the tendrils were too slippery and falling too fast. In one last lunge, the swarm was able to surround and hold onto a single pod. They clasped it tightly as the chariot plummeted, snapping off the tendril and leaving the ghosts holding the pod in mid-air.
Chariot, tendrils, pods, and seawitch slammed down into a grassy area not far from Lim’s body, sending up a cloud of dirt and a chaotic exodus of mosquitoes and brainers. The sound of the thud turned Lim’s stomach. Shaking, he had his ghosts slowly bring the salvaged pod down. Six or seven feet up, his mind faltered and the pod dropped, falling to the ground with another thud. He felt sick.
He pulled the ghosts back to himself and struggled to his feet. The stinging on his limbs was starting to subside, but moving them still hurt. “Bell!” he cried, limping over to the surviving pod. He collapsed on top of it and frantically scraped the jelly off. His arms felt as heavy as if they’d been filled with stones.
It took far longer than it should have, but at last he pulled Bell out, as carefully as he could. Her head and body were covered in blood and bruises. As he gently lay her down on the dirt next to the pod, she coughed, sputtered, opened her eyes.
“Bell, can you hear me?”
She grunted, then gurgled and coughed up some jelly. Lim cradled her head and wiped away the blood, softly singing to her one of the lullabies he sang to the children, the one she liked most. He had saved her. Impossibly, he had wrenched Bell back from a horrible death under the sea. He could scarcely believe it.
Just then he remembered Jisti and Vornim. He looked over to where they were standing and saw Old Sal examining two charred bodies lying on their backs. His heart sank. It hadn’t worked. The treebound had lied to him—that conniving, filthy cur had lied. Lim started shaking uncontrollably and almost dropped Bell. His skin felt hot. If Jisti and Vornim had died, that far from him, then how had Old Sal stayed alive?
She walked over to them. As she got close, Lim noticed that she looked different—younger, but also a strange, new sense about her. Her eyes were white now, with a frenzied, wild look to them. She squatted before Lim. “I have to thank you,” she said, her voice deep and smooth. “I was bound there for three hundred and twenty-nine very long years.”
Realization dawned on him. His magic must have set free the treebound, who must have then jumped into Old Sal’s body somehow. A treebound freed, wrought in mortal flesh once more, was unthinkably dangerous. And powerful. A sudden terror struck his bones like ice rain. “They’re … they’re dead. You lied. You killed them.”
“No,” New Sal said, laughing. “Be honest, now—it was you who killed them, and you know it.”
“You told me they’d be safe.”
She shrugged. “I was wrong.”
“You knew it wouldn’t work,” Lim said, fighting back the urge to attack. “You just wanted my power, to unbind yourself.”
“It has been a pleasure, Lim.” New Sal stood and started walking off.
“Wait!” It was folly, but he had to ask. “The healing leaves.”
New Sal laughed again, a deep, throaty laugh. “As I said, a pleasure. Now I must be off—I have revenge to spread like a fell plague on those who bound me here. Good day, Lim.” With that, she melted down into the form of a large white wolf and ran off inland at a frightening speed.
Lim began to cry. It was all a sham. Jisti and Vornim, dead. Old Sal, possessed by the soul of a treebound, a fate far worse than death. Lim wondered whether Old Sal’s soul was still in her body as well, hiding in the crevices, or whether the treebound’s had pushed it out entirely. And if so, where had it gone?
He hugged Bell tightly, rocking back and forth. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
Her eyes still closed, Bell whispered, “Thank you, Lim.”
“Coming for me.” She cracked a thin smile. “Saving me.”
Relief flooded him. Not all was lost. “How do you feel?”
“Still numb in some places, but salvageable. What a nightmare. How are the children?”
“Good,” Lim said. “Safe. The army turned south, so we can go home.” He thought of the chariot and the other villagers. “First, though, I need to check the other pods. I won’t be gone long.”
She gave him a weak smile. “I’ll be fine.”
First he limped over to where Jisti and Vornim lay. Their bodies were entirely blackened, bits sloughing off onto the sand as the breeze blew. Lim sat in front of them and wept. He mumbled the prayer of passage, hoping their end had been quick and free of pain. He wondered whether Vornim had a family back in Bis Mawna. He hoped not, for their sake.
He then crawled across a small bluff to where he’d seen the chariot fall. The chariot itself was twisted into an unrecognizable shape. A carpet of thick jelly surrounded it, dotted with shallow mounds. As Lim got closer, he could see the mounds for what they were, and his heart sank. They had fallen too high, too fast. All dead.
He dropped to his knees and cried out. This was too much to bear. Lim the Slayer of Innocents. The blood of dozens now stained the heart of his soul, for he could have saved them, somehow—if he hadn’t dropped them, if he’d had more control.
Lim thought of Hanti and Jisti, of their children now orphaned. He wept. By his acts, he was now a demon wrought in human flesh, a destroyer, rending families apart. He did not deserve to live. Maybe he could have his ghosts lift him up and grant him a similar fate. Fitting. But someone must die, drained, for him to find that peace. He would have to find some other way to atone.
He stumbled from mound to mound, raking his fingers through his hair, whispering the prayer of passage to the remains of each villager, weeping over them.
After the last one, unrecognizable like the others, Lim heard a sound—a rasping, gurgling, scraping sound coming from the remains of the chariot. He slowly walked toward it. Perhaps not all had died.
Underneath what must have once been the front part of the chariot, the seawitch lay. What he could see of her body was twisted at many wrong angles. Her eyes were closed, but as Lim drew near, he could see that she was still breathing.
She opened her eyes. Lim stood back, bracing himself for the stinging. But nothing happened. She stared at him, at the ground, at the sky.
“It could have been different,” he said, dropping to his knees. “I am sorry.”
She loudly coughed up some yellow fluid. Her eyes closed. The formidable seawitch was dead.
Not knowing what to do, Lim said the prayer of passage, stood, and stumbled back to Bell.
As they hobbled into camp, Lim stared at the ground. He couldn’t face the others, not now, after what he’d done.
Evie ran up. “Mama!” She wrapped her arms around Bell’s legs. Cracra toddled up in pursuit. Bell hugged both of them and, sitting down, drew them into her lap.
Osansilan carried Pari over and set her down next to them. “Where are the rest?”
And so Lim told them. He spoke of Jisti and Vornim, of Old and New Sal, of the pods. When he finished, a deep sadness took over as people wept. Some of the men swore loudly.
Osansilan angrily grabbed Lim, shaking him hard. “You saved only your own wife? Why didn’t you save mine?” His eyes were redder than before.
“Stop,” said Gansy. He pulled Osansilan off Lim and shoved him to the ground. “Stop it, now.”
Osansilan broke down, trembling, and sank to the ground amid heavy sobs, pointing a finger at Lim. “You killed her,” he said. “You could have saved them.” Some of the others nodded.
“You should go,” said Gansy. He snapped his fingers at the other soldiers. “As must we. The Wimmist army is still a festering wound within our borders. We ride for Akalla. Farewell.” The soldiers mounted their horses and galloped off to the south.
Osansilan and the other men crowded round Lim and his family. Lim stood. His cheeks burned.
“Murderer,” said one man. “Lying witch,” said another. They moved in closer, cracking their knuckles, eyes dark with rage.
“Please,” said Bell, “there have been too many deaths this day. No more.”
“You would have those deaths go unavenged?” Osansilan spat on the ground next to Pari. Lim pushed back the thought to use his magic and fling Osansilan and the others far away where they couldn’t harm them. No. He would harm no more today. And the talent would surely drain Bell or the children.
“The seawitch is the cause of their deaths,” Bell said. “She is dead. They are avenged. Please leave us alone.”
One of the other men nodded, but Osansilan spat again. “Leave. Go far away, now, and never come back. You and your talent are a plague to us.” The others murmured their assent.
“I am sorry,” Lim said, knowing it was not enough. The villagers said nothing.
Lim picked up Pari. Bell stood next to him, weak and wobbling, and held Evie and Cracra’s hands. The villagers would not let them go home to the west, and the Wimmist army yet remained to the south, so they must go north. They weren’t too far behind the blacksmith and his family—perhaps they could find them and join their party.
“Farewell, then,” Lim said quietly. He turned and led his family into the wastelands of the north, far from home.