“You drowned, miss. People don’t usually survive that, do they?”
And they never told lies, but not telling lies isn’t the same as telling the truth…
“Thank you for the hospitality,” she said, carefully. Always be polite when dealing with fairies. “But I really have to go back now.”
“Aw, going so soon?” Another fairy appeared from within some foliage. “We haven’t even had the feast yet!”
“I’m very sorry, but I’ve already eaten.” Somewhat true. “It wouldn’t do to become a glutton.”
They looked upset, though it was hard to see with the permanently smiling faces. The harshness was almost terrifying.
Lynn unfastened the cloak, which was still very dry. “Here,” she offered. “A thank you gift for bringing me to your home.”
“You would give us nothing in exchange for your life?” Venom seeped into the melodic voice like a dissonant chord. The stuff that made your ears hurt to listen to. Smart move angering the fairies, Lynn.
“You can’t see it? It’s a story, passed down through our village for generations.” The outline of the cloak was faint, as if it were glowing in response to her words.
The smell of home had never been stronger, in this strange, foreign land under the sea. “How does it go?” said a fairy.
“Its goes like this,” and she was back on the beach, looking at the tower with younger eyes, listening to mother, father, grandmother say:
Once upon a time, there was a king and a queen who had no children. They begged the sea for a child, and it blessed them with a daughter so fair that she had rows and rows of suitors by her eighteenth birthday.
The princess, however, cared not for the affections of man, and set her sights on exploring unknown seas. This angered the king, who had need of an heir to rule his kingdom after his death.
They locked the princess up in a tower on the cliffs, so tall that she would never be able to touch the seawater again. The sea was angered, for the royal couple had treated its gift so poorly, and it sent waves to knock the tower down, to no avail.
The kingdom, however, suffered the sea’s wrath. None survived except for the witch, who was another denizen of the sea. With the last of her magic, she cast a spell on the princess to put her to sleep until the time came when she could return home.
The cloak was a fluffy woolen brown in her hands. The smell of home had not left, and oh, how she longed for the wind of the open sea, the fires on grey sand underneath twinkling stars.
The fairies were still listenng. “My parents gave me this story, and they received it from their parents, and their parent’s parents,” she said. “The witch weaved it into this cloth, which becomes real if you believe it is. She gave it to me, as I now give it to you.”
“So you would give away someone’s gift in exchange for your life? Have you no respect, child?”
“No,” she said. “Gifts are meant to be shared, not kept to yourself. We share food with our families. We give away our children to their partners. What comes around, goes around.”
She felt that she’d gotten the last part slightly wrong, but did it really matter?
“Very well,” said the fairy who’d woken her up. “We accept your gift. Now, close your eyes.”
Lynn blinked. The sky turned purple, and the stars blinked back at her. A cloudless sky.
The rest of her senses came back in increments, like the sound of waves on sand, the smell of seawater, the feel of damp sand under her skin. She got up to check whether all her limbs were still intact. You never could trust fairies. Fortunately, it seemed like they hadn’t broken anything. For now.
This wasn’t home. The sand looked different, for one. No houses along the beach, for another. No boats, not even her own.
She went and explored around a little, because the beach bordered the sea and she didn’t feel like talking to the sea just yet. Terror and betrayal had surfaced, but anger was still stuck in the depths of her mind.
Sand gave way to plains and forests. Up on the hill stood a tall tower, the same one she’d seen all her life. So this was the island of the cliffs, was it?
A short hike up the hill brought her to the tower. The door was unlocked, yet the inside was as dark as the sea at night.
No lantern. Back to the beach, then.
“My lantern,” she said, to the sea. No ‘please’ this time. No pleading with a murderer.
You are in no position to make demands, child.
“Hmm, I don’t know. I think I might be, actually. Remember when you tried to kill me? That wasn’t very nice of you.”
We are the sea. We are more powerful than you can imagine. We do not do… nice.
“You’d better learn,” said Lynn, who was getting very annoyed. “Angus is mean, but he’s like, ten? How old are you again?”
We have existed since the creation of this world, far before you—
“Exactly. You’re still no better than a child.”
The horizon lifted. A big wave, traveling who knows how far just to end her life. How flattering.
You will be punished for your insolence, for daring to—
“No, shut up.” It was easy to talk over the waves, and surprisingly satisfying, if you liked having your lifespan shortened to ‘whenever the next wave comes in’.
“You can’t get into the tower, but I can, and I’m not doing that without a light. The fairies believed the story, which means it’s true to an extent, which means right here and right now, the only person who can return your princess is me. Who you tried to kill. Don’t forget that.”
Lynn sighed. “But I’ll still do it, because I’ve always wanted to, and you can’t change that. Give me my lantern.”
The wave approached in a wall of seawater, and she sighed and laid flat in the way everyone told you to. It still hurt, but standing up would mean toppling over and smashing your head open on the rocks.
She got up on scuffed arms and saw the faintly glowing silhouette of the boat, rocking slowly on bashful waters. It was dry, surprisingly, and the lantern was still lit, with its soft glow illuminating the night.
“Thank you,” she said to the sea, out of habit, and headed up the hill.
The tower door creaked as she shut it behind her. Stairs made up the entirety of the interior structure, spiraling upwards into the sky. It didn’t seem like anyone used to live here, at least not on the lower levels.
The stairs held as Lynn ascended, never shaking or giving away to the fall. It was strange. Perhaps at the top was a fairy that had been taking care of the stairs and would cut off the legs of whoever managed to make it all the way.
There should be a dragon, she thought. Something else, to make the ascension difficult. A real trial. Not some stairs that didn’t creak, even as she out her whole weight into the step.
Last step. No fairy to cut her legs off. Light from the lantern illuminated the room at the top, and her attention naturally fell to the bed with the bones.
They’d rotted away a long time ago into barely recognizable shapes, and melted when she touched them. Well, the sea wouldn’t be too happy about this.
Who cares what the sea thought? It was a dead human, or something that knew how to climb stairs, and it had died here, alone, with no one to bury it. She folded the bedspread around the bones in the same way she saw the witch wrap Grandmother in the shroud, and fastened it with the pin that had once held her cloak in place. It had held the story together, after all.
Sending the dead off could wait for now. There was another set of stairs going up, and she climbed it, expecting the real monster to pop out, pushed open the shutter, and was greeted with a strange giant lantern-shaped… thing in the centre of the room.
It was breezy here, in this room. She found the open window, pushed it further open to reveal the wide expanse of sea.
From up here you could see the world.
It was still night. Tiny dots of light adorned the island she’d lived in all her life. It was pretty, from up here. It was like when the sea was calm and reflected the twinkling stars. The lights moved around, scattering, coming together. She watched them for a while, then went to look at the giant lantern.
Whatever it was, it was most definitely some form of light source. Here was the wick, here was where you filled up the oil to keep the source alight for hours, here was the nook you kept the firestones in, and here was the… mirrors? That wasn’t an ordinary lantern part.
Lynn lit up the giant lantern anyway. It shone an incredibly bright beam towards the wall, illuminating the entire room. It felt so much like daylight that she had to check outside to make sure.
Lights still scattered around home. Wait. They should have been out at sea by now, to get to the good fishing spots.
They were looking for her, she realised. She could see it now, in her head. Scattering out along the coast to look for the stupid little child who wanted so much to tag along with the fishermen…
The giant lantern didn’t budge, but it turned. Slowly. The beam spun round the walls until it met the window, where it spilled out like the sunlight among the leaves.
If they couldn’t see the beam, there was nothing else she could do to signal her whereabouts. Lynn raced down the stairs, carefully grabbed the makeshift shroud, raced down the even longer stairs, took one long look at the sealskin coat hanging on the door and took that too.
It was getting bright outside. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but its light shone through the horizon, turning the purple sky pink.
The sea was unusually quiet when she reached the coast. She’d stuffed whatever rocks that was heavy enough to sink and light enough to carry into the shroud, and it sank gently into the blue water.
Our daughter, said the sea. How we have missed her so.
“Was the sealskin hers, too?”
No. It belongs to someone still living. You may keep it if you wish. She has made no plans to collect it herself.
Lynn looked at the grey coat. Perhaps it looked back, too, from a place far away from here.
“Yes?” She climbed into the boat and fished around for the paddle, which was tucked up under the seat.
Father and Uncle Connor and the rest of them had been looking for her, and they had been worried, and they made very certain she knew about it. After about the fifth lecture, Mother had joined in too, and Lynn’s ears rang all the way to her bed, where she slept till afternoon, dreaming mostly about getting one up over on the fairies.
The silver lining was that Father had relented on his ridiculous ‘no going out to sea’ rule, and promised to take her fishing the very next morning.
For now, Lynn cleaned the fish for lunch and threw the guts into the sea and talked with her parents about many, many things, not least of all the scratches on her arms and legs.
“That is why you do not go sailing alone, Lynn! The sea can seem friendly to you, but it has taken the lives of so many—”
She tuned out.
“Hello, Lynn. I heard you’ve had a long day.”
The witch’s cave, with its clicking of the loom and whooshing of the waves, was like going back to a time where she’d never even took out the boat to the sea. Eternally unchanging, as was its sole inhabitant.
“I brought you a thank-you gift, miss.” She held out the sealskin coat in front of her.
The witch glanced at the coat, and smiled. Click-clack went the loom, weaving the fabric of time thread by thread.
“I believe I told you to let the matter go?” she said.
“Yes,” said Lynn. “But I went out to the tower and returned the princess to her home, and I think you deserve to be able to go home, too.”
“Did you now? Very interesting.”
Click-clack, went the loom.
“I’ve been very happy here, you know. Home is where you make it,” said the witch.
“Yes, but you’ll be able to go wherever you want, home or not. It’s your choice, miss.” Saying that, Lynn left the coat the same place she’d left the sandwiches an eternity ago, and walked out into the sunny sea.
Listen, said the waves. The clicking stopped, and there was a splash. She didn’t look around to see the empty cave, or the seal diving deep under the water, but she listened all the same.
In the evening the witch would be in the cave as if nothing ever happened, and she’d visit for treatment for her scuffed up limbs, but in the here and the now, Lynn went fishing instead.