by Serena W. Sorrell
Far from the sea and far from the shore Vandkys worked to create something new. Not entirely new, but new just for her. The final in a series of bronze alloy bells. The first was far too much tin, and when iron was added the sound fell flat. It took several attempts, and each seemed more wrong. She at last wandered to town to find what she needed: how to make a bell sing like a siren. She succeeded at last, but her work just begun. Halimeda had sang with a rainfall of bells.
Most likely this latest bell would be the final she needed. It was almost quite right, just the pitch of Halimeda’s lowest dulcimer tone. Vandkys had lathed out the center, the thickness perfected, so she added it to the contraption she’d created. When she pulled on a wire the bells sang in a chorus, but still just a sad imitation of Halimeda singing. Yet, even a shadow of the siren brought Vandkys a smile. The same indeed true of her other crafting project.
From the leftover steel from blacksmithing orders, Vandkys melted and pounded thin sheet after sheet. With oil she blackened the steel. With sweat she cut every shape, curving and polishing each one. She fit them together until they took the shape of a long eel-like tail. Of course not just any tail, the details were clear, it could only be one. The tail that swam through her dreams and haunted her thoughts. And, though Vandkys knew well she would sink in a tail of steel scales just having it near staved away the pain of Halimeda’s farewell.
Hard laughter broke Vandkys from her day mooning. After her father’s followed the sharp mirth of her fiancé. The pair always were merry, and why not? Her father’d soon have the heir she was not. Her laughing man was neither cruel, vain, nor plain. Vandkys merely didn’t like him, all the same. His smithing was fair, hers was far better, that alone was reason to spite him. His clothes ever clean, hers always sooty, which proved he spent less time at the anvil than he ought. The men turned and lumbered into Vandkys’ small workshop. She steadied her nerves and stilled her tongue, knowing the girl she was to their minds. They looked over her workings, with nary a word. Her father tutted over the waste of steel to make scales, and bronze to craft bells.
“I assure you,” he bellowed through his moustache, “when she doesn’t dally and play she can smith with the best.”
“Oh, of course,” came the younger’s reply as he fingered a dark scale yet unattached. “It really isn’t so queer, considering all she’s endured. Lost at sea a night and a day, poor dear. And the bells are quite charming, perhaps they’d sell well? Though the tail’s a ghastly sight.”
“These bells are not for sale.”
“Vandkys.” Her father warned with her name for speaking back to her man. “You’re right, of course, the girl has been through much. She appreciates your understanding and kindness,” Vandkys did not, “as do I.”
“I aim to please, dear father and bride, for when winter ends a family we’ll be. Understanding and kindness make a strong foundation for a good house, don’t you agree?”
Attention on her, Vandkys mumbled a reply. No matter how she struggled she could not make herself kind. What they expected of her seemed awfully unfair. Her father’s love had gone away, given to this boy, and he whom she’d wed got to lay claim to their shop. She had grown here, learned to smelt steel here, left for distant lands from here, and after Halimeda, she had returned here. A mistake she was more and more certain with each passing day. Everything was wrong since returning to land. Everything was wrong since Halimeda had gone.
“Won’t you be so kind as to forgive her small fits? She’s still but a child, though such behavior cannot pass for much longer. I hope I am clear, Vandkys.”
Like her boy, her father, too, was a good person. He was strict, but fair. A bit controlling, but only to keep her from danger. That had been the way of his father, and his before him. He was only doing his best to ensure Vandkys didn’t the groom before legally bound. Her father raised her with love and kindness in spades. He had taught her all he knew of their blacksmithing trade, but he’d always lamented being given a girl to inherit his name. Now, at last, his dream neared on the horizon, and he’d let no one, not even Vandkys, interfere.
True, neither man was wicked, and yet, since swimming with Halimeda and hearing of her birth Vandkys liked them both less. And hated herself for it. They had never drowned a girl and made her into a creature of wrath. Neither had ever driven a girl to sink and become a phantom of sorrow. Vandkys knew these things and still would not bear their company for more than half of one hour. Standing before her they bartered the bride’s dowry, the contract of the union, and whose name the boy’d inherit. In seconds, all Vandkys could bear expired. So, soot and all, she left wrapped tight in a shawl.
The autumn winds were near over and every day came colder. What had once seemed so far crept everyday closer. Though she’d never expected happiness with the boy who’d been chosen, with each passing sun she dreaded spring more. She could never, would never, love him. Her heart was somewhere far undersea. The only heart she had now a hard, shimmering blue-gray scale. In a velvet pouch where her locket once laid hid Halimeda’s gift and hung over her lost heart. It was her last bond to the siren who’d swam far away and she clung to it fiercely lest it too, swim away.
Vandkys followed her feet as they wandered through town. Though, whispers of the poor, sea-spelled blacksmith’s daughter followed behind as well. She was not spelled, of this she was certain. Vandkys was no child, despite the claims of her father. She knew love when she felt it. Her admiration and gratitude to Halimeda had grown to ardent adoration. Every memory of the time she’d spent with Halimeda was more precious than gold. If there might be a way back to the siren Vandkys would seek it, and so, she sought it in books.
The town church homed a library the public was permitted to peruse. Vandkys washed her soot-stained nails and cheek and entered in time to hear the ending of mass. She ducked behind a pillar, the closest to the bookroom. It would not open until the keys arrived after mass prayers. Vandkys did not think God would answer her prayer. She insisted instead to turning to stories and tales. Surely, somewhere, amongst the rows and the stacks she could find some answer. If not an answer, Vandkys would settle for a hint.
At last Brother Jord, smiling, came to the door. The keys to the door jingled in his hand. He laughed at the sight of Vandkys. He laughed much more than the other monks did. They were solemn and quiet and boring to hear, but not Brother Jord. Only a few years older, he was like a true brother to Vandkys. He always had smiles and knowledge to share. It was that deep knowledge she came to him for. For if an answer existed Brother Jord would know how, and if not exactly, he’d know where to look.
“I saw you come in and hide right away,” he laughed, “but so did the abbot, so expect an earful on the way out. So, my dear Vandkys, what have you come for?”
Brother Jord was a friend, the family of her heart, but Vandkys pondered how much she could share and wondered if he’d believe. He had never betrayed her. Always stood by her side, and when others murmured sea madness he boxed their ears. It was a great risk and small chance Brother Jord wouldn’t laugh at her tale, and then even more wonder if he offered to help. Vandkys took a deep breath, and surrendered. For if nothing else, perhaps she’d escape the marriage and be locked away.
“I have many questions so I’ve come to your books. But, to have hope in my search first I must tell you the truth. I know what they say down in town and whisper in church, but I am not mad. Please, say you’ll listen, Jord, no matter how strange my story, and then say if you’ve any aid.”
In all his years of watching Vandkys grow Brother Jord had never heard such ambition in her voice or seen such need in her eyes. He unbolted the door to their scripts and their scrolls. He poured two glasses of spiced winter wine, locked the door again, and bid Vandkys sit while he stood. If any service he could be for this little sister he’d perform it with care. Vandkys, her her part was relieved. At last, someone would listen and, desperately, she hoped believe her words were sincere.
“The ship I had boarded to return here to home sunk two days into our voyage.”
“Two days,” gasped Jord, “by God’s grace! What happened?”
“A storm surrounded the ship, and being a girl onboard I was thought to be unlucky. So, overboard I was thrown to calm the sky and the sea. Yet, the storm raged on, louder and harder. At last the ship sank, crumbled to pieces, at the song of sirens at hunt.” Vandkys watched for Jord’s reaction, yet he urged her to go on. “I alone was saved. A lone siren swam to me and she swore to ferry me home. It took a week and then some while she swam with me upon back. When I was hungry she hunted food and water for me. When I needed sleep she made beds of sargassum and stayed by my raft.”
Again, Vandkys stopped. Three weeks had passed, but still every detail was clear. There was still more of the story, but far more to ask. She would let Brother Jord have his say and test out the waters. She’d test his faith in her words.
“Jord, in all of your reading have you encountered the mercida?”
Jord blanched at the query. His smile had vanished when her story began, but now his eyes pierced in a way Vandkys had never seen. It took less than a moment for Jord to look thrice his age. The tired eyes of a scholar set in the the deep creases of his face. His gentle eyes darkened and Vandkys became nearly frightened. Would Jord join the ranks of those who whispered her ocean-touched?
“Vandkys,” at last Brother Jord spoke, the lines of his frown carved with a knife, “I’ll not ask what you saw in the siren’s company. The creature is cursed, though by no fault of her own. I know many tales of the sirens, the mercida, too, though I wish I did not. I wish you’d not ask, but I know that you will, for I greatly fear you are seeking your doom.”
Vandkys reflected on his words, for Brother Jord had never spoken so frank. His warning sent shivers all along her spine, like looking again into the maw of the Sea Queen’s gaze. Was she seeking her death, a way to be at Halimeda’s side no matter the cost? Vandkys wanted to assure him she sought only knowledge, but inside her stolen heart Vandkys knew it was only half true. She would not lie to Jord, not over something so grave. He took her silence as the reply she meant it to be. He saw her resolve and knew she’d not be swayed.
“I invite heartache by teaching you this, yet better you seek them by me than alone without guidance. Yes, Vandkys, I know of the mercida. Women who chose to seek their own death by water. Yet, each died with regrets that haunted them still. So they float pitifully on currents and seek out living hearts, human or siren, anything at all; their favorite to eat are creatures full of thought and emotions, for these are what the mercida most miss.
Sirens, however, died by the hands of another: stranger, friend, family, or lover. Their human deaths can be called only murder. This, it seems, your siren already divulged. There is no shock in your eyes, no horror-filled look. Remade as sirens, their hearts are rage-filled and revenge consumes their minds. This live, pulsating hatred gives life to their voices. The need for vengeance creates their deadly song. These things you knew, yes? I see you still hunger to ask more, and yet I wish you would not. Vandkys, there are none who would drown you and the path of starting a mercida’s life is no life at all. If you seek to return to the sea you must find a different path. Please.”
Brother Jord’s plea in her mind, Vandkys knew she would not kill herself. A mercida had no will, and no heart. If Vandkys became one of those dancing women of glass she’d not know Halimeda, and would harm her if given a chance. Becoming a siren, too, meant she would lose all recognition, left only with hate. In either case, Halimeda would mean nothing to her. That would not do. For comfort, Vandkys squeezed the pouch at her neck. Hard edges prodded and poked through the velvet. Halimeda had said the heart scale had many uses. It was beautiful to behold and still cool as the deepest sea, but what could it do?
“Jord, my brother, do you know the uses of a siren’s body? I see them strung up on dock perhaps once a year, but whenever one’s caught every piece sells.”
This question also, something Jord would rather avoid. His sister had more straightforward questions to ask, but instead chose the longer way, testing his knowledge. That Vandkys would not share her hand hurt something inside. The day had come for his little sister to hide things, an inevitable part of growing up. What could he say to sway her from the subject? That she was displeased with her father’s decision was no secret. Her dislike of the betrothed, too, was well known to him. She was a master blacksmith. The whole town knew she’d been crafting for the old man these past some five years. How would knowing the dark sales of siren parts serve this small girl?
“This too interests you? Sailors rarely hunt sirens for work, most are brought ashore when they attacked a ship too near. It’s true their parts fetch high prices and hold many powers.
Drinking their blood will cure any illness. Eating their flesh will lengthen one’s life. Consuming their eyes allows one to discern lies. Sewing the liver inside of a corpse will return it to life. Inhaling the ash of their bones will stave off death. Swallowing fifty scales will ensure one never drowns. To feed another their heart is certain to kill. Oh, child, their teeth, their fins, everything down to their barbels are said to hold magic and garner much gold. Vandkys, you know I am your ally, ask me plainly what you seek.”
“I’m sorry, Brother Jord,” and she truly was, “I see what pain it brings you to speak. What power dwells in a heart scale?”
“A heart scale,” his brow tangled in knots as he repeated the words. “A heart scale disappears when a siren is killed. It is something which can only be given from a living siren. I know not its abilities, only its rarity. Why, with a single heart scale one could have any fortune.”
Vandkys’ heart sank. She did not want treasure or wealth or any vast fortune. She only wanted once more to be near Halimeda. It seemed there was truly no way back to the sea or to Halimeda’s sweet call. Tears glistened in her green eyes and fell like raindrops. Brother Jord walked between the rows of bookshelves. He’d left Vandkys in private to mourn her lost hope. After four frozen months, on the first day of spring, she’d be wedded and bound to a life on the ground. A book dropped to her lap.
“Hide this book from all others and return it when you’ve done. I hope you find a compass to your happiness inside of these old pages. Also, if my guess is correct, as it often is,” Brother Jord added as Vandkys stood to her feet, “don’t show the siren’s heart scale to anyone, ever, not even me. I will forget this conversation and all that it means.”
Brother Jord returned to his books and was silent from then. So under her skirts and scarves Vandkys bundled up the tome. She endured the abbott’s lecture, as Jord had promised there’d be. She returned to her father’s shop, now emptied of the two. She went into her workshop and cleared the desk of half-shaped scales. When at last she was satisfied she’d not stain any pages she brought out the book and read all its pages. It was much as Jord had said, containing stories of creatures from under the sea. Then her eyes fell on a word, a name, and they burned. A terrible gaze watched her from half a world away, and in that instant Vandkys knew the Ocean Queen’s name.
How would this serve her? Could it at all? Knowing the name of the oldest of sirens, the first of their kind, had to hold power. If any sway over the queen it held none was mentioned further in the cracked pages of the book so old worn. The book had nothing else to give but the name, perhaps it was enough. If a way could be found then Vandkys would find it, neither as mercida or siren, she would be with Halimeda. Whatever the way she had five months to find it.