“We’re almost there now, Lady. Just round that jut of rock and I’ll have you safe ashore in no time at all.”
Djaniye nodded at the grizzled old fisherman at the tiller of the small sailboat, and as ragged flutterings of early snow swirled and danced across the water, pulled her fur-lined cloak more tightly around her. She gazed eagerly at the rocky headland that rose before them.
“Tis scarce more than a whistle of a place, Lady,” observed the fisherman.
“Yes,” she replied, “but up over the cliffs…”
His face was turned away from her, eyes fixed upon the crags above them, and the treacherous outcroppings of rock that filled the mouth of the small harbour beyond; yet she sensed the flicker of sudden surprise that ran across his weather-beaten features, felt again the underlying tension in him that were all the unspoken questions he no doubt had wanted to ask from the very first.
“Them that live there call it Journey’s End,” he said.
Djaniye smiled. A flock of grey-streaked gulls dipped and wheeled over them, shrieking welcome.
“It is Journey’s End, master Alvar,” she said quietly. “I was born there.”
And now the fisherman’s eyes did come away from their intent scrutiny of crag and reef and widened in amazement as they lit, for an instant, on the small iron-bound chest upon which she sat. Djaniye laughed, a joyous welling of sound that stirred the gulls overhead into a frenzy of answering cries.
“You’re taking me home, Alvar,” she cried. “Home to my scarce more than a whistle of a place!”
Alvar flushed a deep crimson and hurriedly returned to the task of guiding them through the waters that boiled around the clutching fingers of the reef. They passed into the shadow of the headland and the wind began to roar, the ocean to foam and seethe around the boat…an instant of thunder and chaos until they had slipped between two talons of stone…and then they were through…in a sheltered cove where an errant shaft of late afternoon sunlight, slipping through the wrack of clouds, turned the slate-grey sea to a shimmering expanse of green and gold.
“Your pardon, Lady,” muttered Alvar. His quick hands trimmed the grey sail as the wind rushed from its belly; the gulls shrilled a final welcome and flung themselves away in search of supper.
Djaniye found herself standing in the bow, her heart pounding furiously. She raised gloved hands to brush away the tears from her dark eyes.
“My thanks, Alvar,” she whispered, dizzy with joy and the sight of the wharves tucked in among the crags of the cove.
“You’ve brought me home…to Journey’s End…”
The stone piers at the foot of the escarpments were alive with brightly-clad figures when Alvar brought the boat to rest against one of them, and Djaniye stepped back in time–seven years–to her childhood. The oldsters in their caps and sheepskin coats raised their hands in greeting, and the ragtag children in pale blue and earth-brown woollen tunics came rushing down the dockside with a half dozen mongrels yapping at their heels. She turned back to the old fisherman with a fresh flood of tears in her eyes.
“Thank you,” she said again, bowing her head. “Thank you ever so much and forever.”
Alvar paused in his labouring with her sea-chest and looked up at her, his gaze suddenly proud and eagle-bright.
“Thank you, Lady,” he replied. “For the honour of doin’ you service.”
And then there was no more time for speech as they became the centre of an excited frenzy of babbling children and dogs snapping at snowflakes, milling of reaching hands and shy smiles… until the old ones caught up to the children and one of them saw the silver star- patterns embroidered on her cloak. In a moment there was utter silence, no sound save the keening of the wind and the water lapping at the stone supports of the pier.
“Ashtarii..” said an old man hoarsely, as he quickly doffed his cap, and the children stood back from her, wide-eyed and half-fearful, whispering Sea-witch to one another as brother sought sister, and grandfather hands stilled excited grand-daughter questions. Alvar’s voice boomed through the hush.
“Well….” he cried. “Will ye keep her here on the cold dockside until springtime? Who has a cart for the Lady? Who’ll take her to lodging at the inn?”
The oldster who had named her Sea-witch stood forth, twisting his cap in gnarled fingers, his white hair wind-ruffled on his bowed head.
“My house, Lady,” he said softly. “You’re welcome.”
Djaniye smiled to herself, reached to caress the upturned face of a flax-haired girlchild.
“Thank you, Orreth,” she replied, “but I’ll go to the inn.”
The old man’s head jerked up and she saw a half-formed terror swimming in the depths of his age-darkened eyes, felt a pang of regret for her innocent deception.
No one of them knows me, she thought hurtfully. Has it been so long? Have I changed so much?
“Orreth, I am Djaniye,” she said to him, “Danner’s daughter… Djaniye. You dandled me on your knee once, and ever gave me sweets when I scraped my knees.”
Recognition dawned in the fisherman’s eyes, and in those of the others as she named them in turn, yet they all stood unmoving but for the twisting of caps and the shuffling of feet.
“Come, Lady,” said Alvar at her side. “Tis too late for me to even think of goin’ back to Gower-on-Strand tonight. I’ll see you and your sea-chest t’the inn myself.”
“No,” she cried, “I’m enough in debt to your kindness, Alvar–”
But he was striding through the press of children with her sea-chest on one shoulder, and they stood back from her as she followed him. Her pleasure dimmed with the waning of the day; an old emptiness came gnawing at her heart.
They climbed the crags slowly, taking long but careful steps on the spray- and now snow- slicked walks of stone carved from the face of the cliffs, that zig-zagged upwards from one level to the next, with small wooden cottages tucked away in hollows at each landing. Djaniye felt long-forgotten muscles in her legs stretch and strain with the climbing, yet the conflicting emotions that warred in her breast clouded her sight and blinded her to Alvar’s struggle with her chest.
“Leave it, Alvar,” she cried when she was but a step behind him. “Leave it here and I’ll have the innkeeper send someone to fetch it.”
The old fisherman turned heavily to her, his face reddened by exertion and the breath coming in ragged clouds from his lips.
“Is’t true ye’re the innkeeper’s daughter, Lady?” he asked, so softly she scarce could hear him. “The one daughter who ran away from here seven years ago?”
Djaniye’s breath caught in her throat as she nodded to him, and the emptiness became a painful clutching at the workings of her heart.
“Ah, Lady,” he sighed, shaking his head. “Then with all respect, I misdoubt ye’ll find consideration or welcome from Danner, him bein’ your father or no.”
He turned to resume his climb, but Djaniye stayed him with a hand on his shoulder, and a cry almost of anguish.
“But why Alvar?” she said to him. “How can you know that?”
He would not look at her when he answered.
“Because, Lady, I’ve been to the inn four, maybe five times since the day you left. He never spoke of you in the first year, but thereafter he said much…after your mother died…and there was never a kind word in all of it…”
She crept cautiously from the darkened room, her heart like a caged bird fluttering in her chest, steeling herself not to jump at the dancing shadows cast by the small fire on the hearth, and praying silently that the floorboards, this one time only, would forget to creak beneath her bare feet.
She clutched the bundle of soiled linen and towels tightly, daring a single glance at the seated figure limned in the firelight as she moved towards the door. She reached a small hand towards the knotted-cord pull and froze as a harsh voice broke the silence.
“Come here, child,” said the sea-witch.
For an instant Djaniye’s only thought was of flight, to leave the linens and the towels in a heap by the door and run as fast as her sun-browned legs would carry her…anywhere…so long as they took her far from the faceless thing beside the fire.
“I will not hurt you,” said the sea-witch, and Djaniye heard a faint note of amusement in her voice. “Come, sit with me awhile and we will talk. You may leave your washing by the door until we are done.”
Trembling, Djaniye walked slowly toward the forbidding figure in the chair, until she stood blinking in the firelight, eye to eye with a grey-haired woman whose placid hands lay in the lap of a sky-blue robe embroidered with silver stars.
“Ah…such a pretty child…” said the sea-witch, but now the harshness of her voice was softened somewhat by a gentle smile curving her lips. “What is your name, little beauty?”
“Djaniye,” she stammered. “If it please you, Lady.”
The smile broadened and the fire-born shadows fled from the lined face, leaving a visage of immeasurable warmth and light.
“That is no name for a Taratal lass,” said the witch.
“If you please, Lady, my father says he heard a woman called by the name once. In the land of the Lion Kings, Lady.”
The witch was silent.
“He says they prize things of beauty there but know only how to bruise them and spoil them.”
The witch smiled again, though sadly.
“Your father is right, Djaniye,” she said softly. “And I fear me he is oftentimes too much like them…but that is no concern for a Taratal lass, no matter what she is named. Sit, child. Here, at my feet.”
Djaniye gratefully sank to the fleece rug before the chair, tucking her legs cross-wise beneath her shift, and her eyes never left those of the sea-witch–deep peaceful eyes every bit as blue as the robe that fell in soft folds across her knees.
“How old are you, Djaniye?”
“Twelve stormings come Windfala, Lady.”
“Are you afraid of me, Djaniye? The dread sea-witch of Ashtari? Have I and my sisters wrought so much ill that we have earned the fear of a twelve-stormings-come-Windfala lass?
Djaniye felt her face grow very warm.
“No, Lady,” she said quickly. “The sea-witches work only good things…and…I was frightened, Lady…but not anymore…”
“Good, little beauty,” said the sea-witch, nodding, and now smiling a third time with a smile of wondrous radiance.
Djaniye lowered her gaze, awe-stricken by the gift of the smile, and thought a thousand thoughts, no one of them finding the proper words to be given life in speech. She sat quietly, waiting, with a strange certainty growing within her that she would never again be quite the same for having met the woman who sat over her.
“Djaniye,” whispered the witch. “If I ask you a certain question that bears upon a great secret, something you have never told anyone else, will you answer me?”
For a moment Djaniye felt a fluttering of her fear return, yet it was gone just as quickly. Still, she nodded in answer, not trusting her voice to speak clearly.
“Do you know the fox that lives in the ruined cot upon the headland, Djaniye? And the raven that nests in the roof-beams?”
“What do they tell you of the summer, Djaniye, and the storming to follow?
All the fear went out of in that instant, replaced by a flood of joy rushing into her soul, a whirling gush of light and laughter, that her secret was discovered and recognised by this strange and wonderful woman.
“The summer will be long and kind, Lady,” she said breathlessly, “but the storming will be angry and cruel when it comes.”
And then they both were silent for what seemed to be a very long time, and Djaniye looked up, expecting to see that the sea-witch had fallen asleep; instead, she found the deep blue eyes staring down at her with a mixture of joy and sorrow in their depths.
“Djaniye,” said the witch finally, “each of us is given a name when we are birthed into the world, but a sea-witch wins a second name known only to herself and, the gods willing, to the one who becomes her pupil.
“When you come to the isle of Ashtari, Djaniye, ask for Tandra, and I will be waiting for you…”
The memory faded and Djaniye found herself alone on the walks of the crag, staring through the swirls and tatters of early snow to the open sea, where the sun shone its last rays upon the foam and the fishing fleet that now made its way through the reef–to home and hearth and reckoning of the day’s catch. She caught the edges of her cloak, secured them with three silver clasps and began to climb again. Alvar awaited her on the next landing, hunched down beside her chest.
“Lady…?” he said, concerned, but still wary of showing overmuch familiarity; and then, “Forgive me. It wasn’t my place to say–”
“No, Alvar,” she said to him. “It is better to know beforehand…and yet…so many things seem so much the same.”
He took up the chest a second time and they resumed their ascent of the cliffs, the old fisherman’s silence in no way concealing his contrition–for having brought sorrow to her homecoming–or his sympathy for her. Djaniye laughed to herself, but found only a bittersweet irony:
I am an Ashtari sea-witch and he pities me. I am young, and may ask, even demand, anything of anyone in all this land…and he grieves for me. Oh Tandra, I begin to understand the sadness in your eyes.
They reached the top of the cliffs in murky twilight and plodded through the wind-hewn archway that led into the sheltered vale beyond–a shallow depression among the spires and dizzying heights of Taratal’s northern coast, where the village became a town and the focal point for the crofters and herders farther inland.
Below them lay scores of cottages, shops, and an open-air market, all in shadow, but marked in increasing numbers by pinpoints of light as windows became fire-lit from within. On the grassy slopes above the town, small herds of sheep moved in pale ghostlike clusters, grazing and seeking nooks and hollows for the night. Djaniye walked as one half in a dream, with a tightness in her throat that made swallowing painful.
“Alvar…” she said, minded now to turn and go back the way they had come, where she might ask shelter for the night from Orreth, who had offered, or one of the cliff-dwelling families. And leave in the morning.
“It’s nothing,” she whispered, but she saw the old fisherman nodding to himself, as if he well knew what had passed in her thoughts.
They descended the stone steps cut into the hillside, and Djaniye was overwhelmed by scents and sounds that were as familiar to her as the very act of drawing breath—wood-smoke and the bleating of sheep on the heights, the oily stench of fish and the creaking of cartwheels, the rich smell of grass and dew-drenched hay, mothers calling errant children home for the evening meal… as her mother once had called to her…to Arne…
And then they came to the foot of the stair, and the pebbled track that wound its way through the town, and Djaniye’s slipper-shod feet moved of their own volition, tracing again the path she had taken so many times, so long ago. She walked beside Alvar, through an alleyway, across the garth of a cottager, and forced herself to go more slowly for his sake because even the misgivings in her heart could not slow the pace of homeward-wending.
The inn loomed before them now, all grey stone and sparkling windows of dearly bought glass panes that shone with a warm orange glow from the huge hearth within. She stood in the market square, her breath billowing in cool misted clouds, and never was a door so welcome to her sight–banded with iron, scarred by the childish carvings of boys…and one girl…who sought to live forever in their name-signs.
“Shall I go in before you, Lady?” Alvar offered softly. “Perhaps it will…”
His voice found no words to say what might be, but she put a hand gently to his arm and nodded.
“Yes, do that please, Alvar,” she replied, “only…do not say who I am…that his daughter’s come home to him in the guise of a sea-witch.”
He crossed the square quickly and went in through the door, but not quickly enough that she failed to hear the voices within, or the sound of laughter and heavy earthen mugs on thick wooden trestles…
“You will learn to look and listen to the world in a manner entirely different from those around you, Djaniye.”
“How will it be different, Tandra?”
“Like a well-loved song in the hands of an outlander, little beauty. You will see and hear into the very heart of all living things, yet you will be a stranger to all of it. You will feel the pulse of Life all around you, and you will be alone. And if the gods are well disposed you shall be loved and feared as a recompense for it. Elsewise, only hatred will temper the fear…”
…And these drew her irresistibly forward so that Alvar had scarce put down his burden when she stepped through the door herself, and a half score heads turned, an equal number of voices stilled at the sight of the silver-starred embroidery of her cloak.
“Welcome to you, Lady,” came a voice through that stillness, and a man to match its tenor limped across the common room–tall and broad-shouldered, in rough breeches of earth-brown and a white linen shirt…much worn…washed…mended…
Djaniye drew back the hood of her cloak with a gloved hand and a cascade of midnight curls rustled and fell to her knees. She began to ache with the need to reach out and touch the strong square jaw, run her fingers through the black-shot-with-silver hair, along the old lines of his face and the new ones that seven years had placed there…and somehow find a way to extinguish the smouldering fire of grief and anger that still burned deep in his grey eyes.
“Father,” she said. “Father, I’ve come home.”
Like the others, he failed to recognise her at first. His eyes narrowed in close scrutiny, widened in disbelief, softened for one so small thud of her heart, and then blazed again with the fire she had seen a moment before.
“Why have you come back?” he said harshly. The coldness in his voice went through her like a scaling knife. “We thought you were lost on the cliffs, drowned in the sea…and then came news you were seen takin’ ship in Gower…with never a word…and that was worse than death…”
“Softly, Danner,” said someone at a table, urgently. “By the gods, man, she’s Ashtarii….”
Danner turned on him with a feral snarl.
“And by the gods, she was my daughter ere she was anything else!” he cried angrily. “Twas not enough that half the life went out of her mother when the sea took Arne…no…not enough by half again…so she left without a word and put the killin’ stroke to her!
“Why did you come back?” he asked again, shouting, turning back to her with one massive fist clenched and shaking before her face. “Why, damn you!”
Djaniye shook her head, wordless in the face of his fury, trembling before it, feeling it come crashing against her with such force that it took every ounce of control in her mind and body not to react to it.
The common room whirled in a dizzy haze as his rage flooded her, pounded at every nerve and sinew. Her eyes closed and she swayed on her feet, conscious only of his anger, oblivious to the words themselves that he hurled at her like knives…
After a time her eyes opened painfully to a room where mugs of ale and suppers sat abandoned on the trestles. Only Alvar was there, between her and the sweat-soaked, panting figure of her father.
“Ashtarii or not, Djaniye,” he said in a hoarse whisper, “you’ll have nothing from me. D’you hear? Nothing…!”
Numb and exhausted, she dared one glance at his eyes…raised her head once and lowered it down…slowly…before she turned away and went out into the square.
“I should send word to them, shouldn’t I, Tandra?”
The sea-witch looked up from the embroidery in her lap and frowned ever so slightly.
“You have always been free to do so, Djaniye,” she said softly. “We all must make our own choices as to what we shall do and what shall be, little beauty, even as we must accept the consequences of our choosing.”
“But I don’t know what to tell them, Tandra. Why I had to go…come here…”
Djaniye saw the strange sadness in the witch’s eyes for the second time.
“Then you must weigh the difficulty of finding words to make them understand your choice against the consequence of your silence, little one…”
“But I didn’t know why…then…” she cried aloud. “It was there, inside me, but I didn’t understand it enough to explain…and after…when I did understand…I thought it was too late…
“And now it is too late…for my mother…” she breathed, and the hardness of that thought made her shiver…
She wriggled deeper into the hollow beneath the roots of the raven tree and watched the moon rise over the eastern rim of the valley, the stars winking into existence, one by one, in the black vault of the sky. Beneath her, the town slept quietly, and even the late-season lamb who had greeted her earlier in the evening, and startled laughter from her lips with its ungainly frisking, had wandered off to the warmth and sleep-welcoming softness of its dam. There was no lack of weariness in her, but each time her eyes closed she saw her father again, felt the pain of his hurt and anger.
She sought escape in thoughts of her days on Ashtari, the long hours spent wandering alone over its rocky coasts–listening, watching, tasting, feeling the ocean and the wind and the sky, learning to recognise every facet of their combined personality until she knew it as well as the gulls and gannets and eagles whose lives were dependent upon the instinctive knowledge of such things. She remembered her first time upon the southern crag, in the storming of her fifth year among the witches…and it brought her back to her father again, for the fury of that storm had been a kindness next to the storm of her father’s rage. She wondered that she shed no tears, supposed herself beyond simple grieving, and knew that she lied to herself.
“You deserve his anger in greater part than lesser,” she whispered. “And the tears would be for yourself, rather than him.”
And so she sat on the hillside, and listened and watched, learning from a pair of ravens that the night would be chill but clear, the morrow bright with sunshine. Having thus made herself useful, in the way of all sea-witches, the turmoil inside her eased somewhat, and she noticed the tall, slender figure that toiled up the hillside in her direction. She scrambled to her feet, stood with her back to the trunk of the raven tree. The figure stopped a dozen paces from her, face in deep shadow.
“It took no small amount of time,” he said, “but I finally found out what’d so put the wind up me da’s trousers at the inn. And then I had t’rouse up the old sailor’d brought you, hear his tale of your runnin’ off the way you did. And then I thought you just might come back t’the old raven tree t’think things out…”
The figure shrugged, seemingly quite pleased with himself, and moved closer.
“You’re prettier than ever, Djaniye,” he said quietly. “I’m glad you’ve come back.”
He half-turned into the moonlight and she knew him at once.
“Then you’re in small company, Toller,” she said softly, “and like the prettiest of them yourself.”
She saw him frown, though it could have been just a trick of the light.
“I’m not here to fight with you, Djani…or tangle leaves in your hair, either. You can’t be blamin’ yourself for your mother. After Arne died neither of them gave you much reason to stay.”
“I owed them some consideration.”
“But no more than what they owed you, Djaniye, as their daughter,” he countered quickly, fiercely. He sat himself in the grass at her feet, motioned for her to sit beside him. She went to the edge of the hollow instead and sat looking down at him.
“I want to help you, Djaniye,” he said. “We were friends…”
“I’m a sea-witch, Toller,” she said wearily, and to her, it was all the answer necessary. “Ashtarii…a sea-witch…”
“Aye, that you are,” he laughed. “I’ve never known a sea-witch ere this…though I knew one who became a sea-witch, and she was ever worth knowing…”
They were silent, and she, having the advantage of him with the moonlight at her back, studied the lines of his face, seeing traces of the boy she had known in his dark eyes and the handsome lines of his face…and knowing the falseness of his light-hearted manner.
“You’re curious, ” she said to him, “and seeking amusement. You’ve grown, Toller, but have you changed? Is there no one in the town who will let you into her bed tonight?”
She felt his discomfiture then, and oddly, felt regret and shame for being the cause of it.
“I want to help you,” he said again, and she chose to believe him. “What will you do? Will you stay on here?”
His seeming concern gave her pause, to think seriously of that which she had feared to think of at all. And she realised she had made her decisions long ago.
“I will stay,” she said, breathing easier for having said it. “And never lack for things to do, Toller, of that I’m certain.”
His face lightened. “There are others who will welcome you,” he said eagerly. “And a place for you…if you want it…in my house…”
She shook her head and smiled.
“No, thank you, Toller,” she said, looking up at the sky. “There’s a ruined cottage on the headland. That is my place.”
She spent the night in the root cellar of the cottage, with an old grey-muzzled fox for company and a black-feathered raven for sentry in the weatherworn rooftrees. At first dawnlight she was up and about, walking slowly back along the path she and Toller had taken the night before, and gratefully surprised to see Alvar and a handful of children toiling along the track with her sea-chest in tow.
“Good mornin’, Lady!” called the fisherman, waving as they came up to her. “The young lad who came knockin’ at my door last night was at it again an hour ago. Told me where you’d gone, and said y’might have need of your belongings ere the morn was much older.”
Djaniye thanked him warmly, and each of the children in turn, when they had given their names. With her chest safely stowed in the shelter of the east wall, she struck flint and steel to a pile of leaves and twigs, scooped rainwater from the shaded hollow on the craghead, and brewed them tea. Alvar provided a breakfast of corn-cakes and honey from a leather pouch he “just happened t’have with”.
When they were done, and the children off to a somewhat-more-than-subdued game of catch-me-if-you-can, she and the old man shared the last of the tea.
“It was good of you to bring them, Alvar,” she said, hands clasped around the small earthen mug that steamed in the morning chill. “And my chest, as well, “ she added with a smile.
He shrugged, waved a deprecating hand.
“It were no trouble, Lady. I was wantin’ an early start anyways. And then too, I was down t’the pier again last night–just t’make sure my boat was well seen to–and I found your gift, so I could do no less.”
“The silver was no gift, Alvar, but just payment for all you’ve done,” she said sternly.
“Forgive me, Lady,” he said, shaking his head, “but that’s not the proper way of things. What you do for one village is done for all. Ye’ll soon see the workings of it…but I’ll not pretend your gift is unwelcome, and there’s an end to it.”
Djaniye sipped her tea, and mulled over the fisherman’s words until Merya, the cooper’s daughter, ran up to them and presented her with a small blue cornflower.
“Please, Lady,” she said hesitantly, offering the tiny blossom. “I’ve scratched my finner.”
Djaniye accepted the flower, glanced at Alvar’s grinning face, and back to the child, who now stood with her lips pressed tightly together and the injured finger held up for her inspection. Alvar unwound his legs and stood to take his leave.
“Ye’ll soon see the way of it,” he said, still grinning, “and be well along your way quick as you please.”
He strode off down the track, waving.
“Thank you, Alvar,” she called after him. “Fare ye well in all wise.”
She turned back to the little girl.
“Does it hurt, Merya?”
“Just a little bit, Lady,” replied the child. “Was Taddy done it. When I get bigger I’m gonna punch him.”
Djaniye laughed, mussed the little girl’s hair and, after washing the cut and applying a salve from her chest, bound it gently with a scrap of linen. Merya looked at the finger from several angles and ran off.
“Thank you, Lady,” she cried. “I feel much bigger now.”
Wondering what was in store for Taddy, she smiled and shook her head, and looked down the slope to where a small procession of townspeople had appeared, laden with baskets, tools, and pulling what looked to be a small wagon full of quarried stone.
And that was the way of it, and of the days that followed. Her cottage was repaired swiftly, the roof re-thatched, her larder stocked with all manner of grains, smoked fish and common herbs. At first, she was reluctant to accept anything at all; but in a week’s time she came to recognise it as her due, an integral part of her relationship with the town, handsel for the aches and pains she would banish in the days to come, the broken bones she would mend, the odd bits of advice and comfort she would offer from her store of learning…and the one greater service that could be days or years before ever she were called upon to perform it.
“You will be the anchor to which your people may cling in times of travail and sorrow,”
Tandra said to her. “In turn, they will provide you with your reason for being, and all the joys and sorrows of your life. That is the way of it for us, Djaniye, and while you must never doubt the nobility of such sacrifices as you will make in the years to come, at the same time you must be wary of pridefulness in what you do.
“The eagle takes no pride in the swiftness of its flight, beauty, nor in the quick snaring of a fish for its supper. These things are inherent and instinctive to their nature, as other things are natural and instinctive to you. You would not have followed me elsewise…”
Djaniye looked down at the old woman who lay before her, so suddenly frail and fevered and tired with sickness. Only her eyes seemed untouched by the ravages of time, that still shone clear and bright as the sky in high summer.
“Do not cry for me, little beauty. Waste no tears on one who has lived long and well, you will need them for those who have long lives before them…and at whiles, even for yourself…
“But you will do us much credit, Djaniye, I know it will be so, and someday you will find a name for that which brought you to me. Then there will be an end to the sadness in your life…”
As Windfala drew to its close and the time of year called Hallows brought the first true turning of colder weather, Djaniye’s life became a measured round of early morning wanders through the hills in search of herbs and roots and berries for her medicines, days spent in their application, nights in commune with the elements of earth and air and fire and water, and also the wild creatures that came to her from near and far with further tidings of the world and its ways.
Of the townspeople, she saw much…and little…for the ills and mishaps of mankind moved to a pattern of their own; yet Toller was a constant visitor to the crag-head, with his own news of this or that, but always eager to be of some service to her, and always with a curious brightness in his eyes that she viewed with growing concern.
One evening he came earlier than usual, and found her at the very edge of the cliff, a dun-coloured gull perched on an outstretched arm and her head to one side, as if she listened to the harsh clackings and screeches of the bird.
“Well…the squall came just as you said it would,” he said, handing her a small basket that held three loaves of fresh-baked bread. The gull shrilled once as she turned to him, and then it took flight. “D’you really speak with them, Djaniye?” he asked, nodding upwards at the bird.
“How else would I learn all the things I must learn?” she said, questioning him in turn. “How else to know when there will be rain to shorten your day’s work or sun to lengthen it?”
The wind was wet and chill on the crag-head as the sky quickly darkened with night. Djaniye began to shiver in the cold, drew the sodden folds of her cloak about her and moved towards the door of the cottage. Halfway there she turned back to Toller, a small rueful smile on her lips.
“Come inside, you,” she said. “I’ll make tea and we’ll share a loaf of your mother’s bread.”
As always, he needed no second asking but followed her through the door with an eagerness to match the light in his eyes. Once inside, she shook out her cloak, put a clay pot on the hearth, and offered him a stool on the hearthstone while she combed out her hair. Toller stripped off his oiled outer clothing and moved the stool closer to her.
“You’re here much earlier than usual,” she said. “Was anyone hurt today?”
Toller shook his head.
“Iver took a drenching for the extra few minutes he lagged behind the rest of us,” he said, but you did warn us of the squall and…I wanted to talk…”
She looked at him questioningly, taking great care that the strokes of her comb remained smooth, unhurried.
“Don’t you get lonely out here, Djaniye?”
“I have no lack of company, Toller,” she said gently, making a small motion with one hand.
“Reyn is here most times,” she went on, nodding towards the grey-muzzled old fox asleep in the corner, “and the accommodations upstairs are always full…”
He followed her gaze and became aware of the constant rustling in the roof-trees of the cottage, where dozens of birds, great and small, perched above him, stared curiously out of the shadows with bright unwinking eyes. He shuddered, once, looked back at her incredulously.
“But what of your own kind, Djaniye?” he asked heatedly. “Would you not have someone else t’share this place with you?”
She smiled. Sadly. He mistook it for self-pity.
“All things are my own kind, Toller,” she said slowly. “As to someone else…here…with me…it is not unknown among us, the Ashtarii…but the choice is a personal one, Toller, and one I have already made.
“And the days are filled with others of my kind. Sometimes, too full. Just yesterday I spent much of the afternoon listening to all the gossip of the town from Tensi, the chandler’s wife…”
She stopped, wounded by the look of hurt and disappointment on his face, for a brief instant wishing she might offer him more in solace than the hand she reached out, barely touching his cheek.
“I’m sorry, Toller.”
“I knew you’d come back, Djaniye,” he said hoarsely, not looking at her. “And I waited for the day. For lack of anything else, when we were younger, I teased you, tangled your hair–”
“And put eggs in my shoes!”
“Aye! and put eggs in your shoes. And loved you all the while I was waiting on the day I’d go t’your father…I even told Arne once, and he laughed at me…”
“I know, Toller,” she whispered. “I knew it all along, thought of you often all the days and nights I was away on Ashtari. But I chose something else, Toller. A different path than the one I might have taken had I stayed here…for reasons I’m not sure you will ever understand…or I, for that matter…”
Now he raised his head and glared at her.
“But you never gave yourself a chance, Djani…!” he cried. “You always blamed yourself for things you had no hand in crafting–”
“No, Djaniye, can’t you see that all of it was your father’s doing? Arne never wanted t’go out with the fishing boats, but he did because he was Danner’s son, and the sea had crippled Danner so it was up to Arne to take payment for it, even if he was too young t’do the work.
“And your mother never once gave you any thought, Djani! It was Arne she loved. She died mourning him and hating your father for being his death and there was nothing left inside of her for you–”
“Toller stop it!” she shouted at him. “Do you think I don’t know all of it? Do you think I never saw…understood that part of it…? I had years to make it clear to myself, Toller, even if I let it chase me away from here…but I also realised it made no difference to me, that what I was doing and what I wanted to do came from something deeper, something more important than the everyday sorrows of a fisherman’s daughter.”
She flung herself away from him, startling the birds in the rafters, waking the old fox, who glared at the young man with bared teeth. The water boiled in the clay pot on the hearth, yet she could not bring herself to face him again, nor wound him further with thoughts and words that concerned him not at all.
“Fine!” he snarled, kicking the stool out from under him as he stood. “Stay here then with your dried up flowers and the bird-shit and the barn-stink. I won’t beg you for anything. Stay here…”
Long after he had picked up his oilskins and stormed from the cottage, she stood with her back towards where had been, unmoving. The clay pot boiled itself dry and cracked into a dozen pieces. A small dusty house wren fluttered onto her shoulder and cocked one eye up into hers.
She smiled and whispered, “Yes, I will stay…”
“…Tis been a rare and fine season, Lady,” crowed Wynder. “I’ll not be cursin’ the ill-luck that brought me here this time. I’ve fair doubled my catch from last year and will welcome the respite now.”
He winced as Djaniye tightened the bindings on his splinted forearm, went back to grinning at what he considered his good fortune. Djaniye fixed him with an admonishing stare.
“Next time leave your celebrating for dry land,” she said sternly. “You’re going to have aches and pains in that arm whenever it’s cold and damp, but it was a clean break, and gods willing you have sense enough not to strain it through the winter, it should be strong as ever it was, come springtide.”
“Aye, Lady, I’ll be a rare caution with it,” promised Wynder, hoisting his oilskins and walking to her door. “And thank ye, Lady, for patchin’ me up and for the luck of this season passed. The wife’s bakin’ a winter’s-worth of cakes; I’ll make sure a good number finds their way t’your cupboard.”
Djaniye grinned back at him.
“Your poor Noni’s sent more than enough my way already, Wynder,” she said. “And it’s the gods alone responsible for the fishing this year so don’t be thanking me.”
“Well…ye’ve kept us out of what weather there was, Lady,” he said gratefully, “and there’s not a one of us doesn’t appreciate it. Be well, Lady, and good evenin’ to ye.”
“And to you, Wynder,” she nodded, smiling…
And she watched him from her doorway, the smile fading from her lips as he grew smaller and smaller on the path down into the town. Hallows had come and gone, Winter Eve was half-spent and then some, and mid-afternoon already bore signs of the swift plunge into night that would follow. She reached back inside her door for her cloak, wrapped it around her as she walked to the edge of the crag-head and looked down into the waves breaking over the rocks below, the almost imperceptible swells of the ocean farther out…
You must be wary of the quiet times, little beauty, and the mixed blessings of too-favourable weather. A falcon stoops to its unsuspecting prey, with no warning but the merest whisper of death-sleeping in the silence. So it can be with wind and water, Djaniye, and a thousandfold more deadly, in the bargain…
For well over a fortnight’s time, her cottage had been empty by day–the birds flown from the rafters, the small creatures gone from the corners and root-cellar, even Reyn the fox from her hearthstone–but ever they returned in the evening with no word of the storming and much in the way of unease. As she stood on the crag-head, Djaniye heard again the warning of her teacher, and, as she waited for the return of her watchers, she trembled with a near-prescient knowledge of what surely must come. In the cold unmoving air, she listened in the silence for a falcon’s whisper…and heard nothing.
Thereafter, what mending or crafting she did was just outside the door of the cottage, with needles, threads, cups and bowls before her on a small wooden table. At dawn she was out on the headland, watching the fishing fleet wend its way from the harbour and out into the open sea; in the evening she watched them return, naming each boat and its crew, counting them until all were safely within the reef and she might breathe easier for it.
“Tandra, I’m frightened,” she would whisper aloud each day, think it a hundred times more…and soon she added “lonely” to it, feeling it truly for the first time, as she realised there was no one else with her in the vigil she kept…that there could never be anyone else in such a time…save another of her kind–Ashtarii…sea-witch…
And the storming was birthed on the fourth day after her mending of Wynder’s arm, when Merya and Taddy and some other children from the town had come to visit her in the chill light of mid-morning, distracting her with their high-pitched prattling, their excitement and curiosity. One moment they were soaring in imagined flight, rapt in a story-circle, and the next they were come rudely to the ground again as the air above them exploded with a frenzy of beating wings and harsh voices.
“IT COMES! IT COMES!”
Through the turmoil and thunder of wingbeats, Djaniye struggled to her feet, disbelieving, yet full with horrible certainty. She fought down her own sudden terror, put it aside when she saw it mirrored in the faces of the children.
“Taddy! Merya! All of you!” she cried, herding them back towards the path to the town.
“Run quickly! You must warn everyone that the storming has come. Tell them to light the signal fires. Quickly now! The birds will not hurt you…GO…!”
Within moments she was alone on the headland, in and out again from the cottage with a brand from her own fire set to the pile of kindling and greenwood on the crag-head–one of a dozen kept ready in the storm season, to summon home the fleet at a moment’s notice. Fifty and seven boats to be summoned homeward, for she had counted them that morning…almost three hundred fishermen…and Toller as well…who had gone away hurting and never come back…
She knew she was dangerously near to complete panic, forced herself to stand for a moment, utterly still, seeking within the fabric of her being for that inviolate core of serenity and calm she had nurtured and made strong through her years with the Ashtarii. Her breathing slowed, became long and measured, her thought patterns untangling themselves from the mindless terror, casting it off so she could think clearly again.
She checked the signal-fire, saw the kindling had ignited the new wood; that a thick column of smoke had begun to rise into the maddeningly still air. Then she turned and walked back to the cottage, unhurriedly, drifting into the first stage of her preparation as the spark of calmness within her began to flare outward.
Inside, she drew off her cloak, exchanged the simple woolen gown she wore beneath it for a richly-dyed robe of indigo blue, silver-stitched with the star-patterns that identified her calling. Hundreds of eyes watched her–from under feathered crowns, over furred muzzles–and charged her with fear-bright intensity. Djaniye fastened the clasps of her robe, drew a deep breath, and walked to the door…turned…gazed back at them…
“I will do the best I can, little ones,” she promised, and went out into the wan sunlight.
“I suppose it had t’end somewhere.”
Toller turned to his father from the near-empty nets and shrugged. “That’s four casts so far this morning with scarce enough to t’feed a starveling gull its supper.”
His father grunted noncommittally, staring farther out to sea, his legs apart to brace himself against the low swell of the ocean.
“They’ve all gone t’bottom,” he pronounced at length, “though only the gods know why.”
He raised a calloused hand to shade his eyes from the sun. “There’s some cloud out there, but nothin’ else t’sign a storm comin’ on…”
The two of them stood awhile, idly, their gazes roving out over the rest of the town’s fleet–almost threescore small boats spread out over the ocean, bobbing on the low swells and, judging from the faint cries that reached them, having no greater luck than their own with the day’s catch.
“I don’t like it, lad,” growled his father. “I’ve spent as many days out here as you been alive and when the fish go t’the bottom like that you’re well-advised t’get yourself home and tie-down anything you can’t afford to lose….There now! There’s the clouds!”
His arm came up, one finger pointing to a dark smudge on the northeast horizon…that broke apart and joined together and finally poured out from the horizon entirely as the massive flock of sea-birds sped southward.
“I’ve never seen anything–” Toller breathed.
“Nor I, lad,” snarled his father. “Get the nets in now!”
Others in the fleet saw the incredible mass of birds sweeping towards them and leapt into a frantic scramble to bring in the nets. Toller looked over his shoulder and saw the western sky broken by a dozen pillars of smoke.
“Remember there must be nothing between you and the storm, little beauty, not even the merest hint of a word or thought. Empty yourself of concern for everything–even those whom you would protect–except the storm, and then seek it out. Reach for it, Djaniye, with every fibre of your being, reach out and join yourself to it…until you are the storming and the storming is you. Then you may bend it and turn it as you will…”
She stood on the crag-head, staring down into the roil of waves breaking over the rocks at the foot of the headland, striving to maintain the delicate balance she had achieved within herself…to think of nothing…no one…not her father or Toller or the children or the fishermen or fifty-seven small boats …
“Tandra I cannot do it…!” she whispered
“You must do it, Djaniye…”
“They will die, Tandra! The sea will swallow them like it swallowed Arne…!
“Nothing between you and the storming, little beauty. You will be the storm, and you will turn it away…”
Her concentration broken, she looked up, saw first the birds that darkened the sky, then the fishing boats on the horizon…and imagined those who manned them–plying the oars madly, for there still was no wind to fill the sails that hung upon the masts–and what would happen to them if she failed in her calling, if she did not become the storm…wherever it was…because it was out there, and she the only one between it and the men, but only if there was nothing between her and the storm…
“I am Ashtarii,” she whispered, closing her eyes, thinking nothing.
“You are Ashtarii,” whispered Tandra, smiling…
…And then she was nothing, save perhaps a questing arrow of her nothingness, in flight over/through a vast ocean of nothingness, in search of a storm, empty and waiting to be filled…
“Seek it out, Djaniye, do not wait for it to find you. You must become the Storming ere ever it becomes Itself, taking the smoulder of its anger at once, so you may fan it back upon the fire of rage that will follow…”
…Sensing…somewhere in the nothingness…a shock…that there would be no slow building of this monster…no gradual burgeoning of strength in wind-teeth and sea-jaws…that she could not …ever…meet such a Storming as this…so far from her self…and then it was too late for even that jewel-sharp atom of thought…
On the headland Djaniye screamed, her outflung arms slashing cross-wise and down to keep herself from coming apart in the awful claws that gripped her, the hammer strokes that threatened to smash her senseless. Somewhere far out to sea, the Storming had leapt into being around her, broken the arrow of her flight and swept her into its seething belly as it rushed shoreward with mindless hunger for anything…everything…in its path…
As her first storm had been nothing before the storm of her father’s rage, the fury of what held her now was like nothing the world had ever imagined. Yet she struggled against it, and on the headland, her teeth ground together and her throat grew raw with soundless howls that spewed themselves through her clenched teeth. Like a man forced to drink faster than he might swallow, the storm poured into her, pounded at her insides even as she spit it out upon itself and swallowed again…interminably…as her body jerked and danced on the crag-head…and the storm rushed on…dragging her back to herself…she saw the fleet now through blind eyes….three quarters of them past the reef…a handful more…but a handful yet to reach shelter, and the storm gibbering with hunger above them…
“NO!” she screamed, wrenching her arms upward, fingers curling and clawing…to take it… imprison it …and it took her instead…coiled itself through her…and carried her away…
The common room was full with fisherman, their wives and children, dimly lit with candles, quiet as the grave, but for the agonised whisper of a young man who knelt beside a slender thing in blue and silver and sea-wrack in her long black hair.
“She was on the reef,” Toller said. “We’d fallen back to make sure everyone else got through and we could hear it coming at our backs…waiting for it to come…
“And nothing happened. The water was boiling around us. We should have been smashed against the rocks, and nothing happened. I saw it hit the face of the headland and explode against the cliffsides all around us…but it never touched the harbour and when I looked again she was there on the rocks with the sea as smooth as glass and the wind soft as summer…”
He looked up at the faces blurred by his own tears, scanned them one by one until he came to Danner, who stood with one hand curled over the head of his cane and the other knotted into a fist at his side.
“She tried to turn it away from us,” he said. “Your daughter… she told me once how it was done…before I let my hurt stand between us…sea-witch or no, it was too much for her to turn it away…turn it back upon itself…so she stood before it and took everything that would have crushed us…into herself….”
Dimly and so very far away, where she had fashioned a place for hopes and dreams and the foundation-stones for her own peace and happiness, she listened. She felt nothing. The storm had stolen all such things from her body. Yet she sensed her hand taken up and heard the sound of her father’s voice.
“Djani, why did you come back? I never wanted this for you.”
I know that, papa.
“I never meant for it to be so hard for you. I couldn’t stop blaming myself for what happened to Arne.”
I know that too, papa.
“I was ashamed. I was afraid to look in your eyes. To see you hating me the way your mother hated me…”
I never hated you, papa.
“I never stopped loving you, Djani. I just forgot to show you…”
I never stopped loving you…
She began to sink down into something warm and tideless that held her like the memory of a little girl cradled in the arms of a loving father.
“Please forgive me, Djani…”
Just forgive yourself, papa. It’s good to be home…