by Serena W. Sorrell
Far, far away, across four hundred leagues, Vandkys came to fear every dawn. Each morning brought closer the day she most dreaded, but couldn’t delay: the day she’d be wedded. Winter was ending, drawing to a close, and no matter how much she prayed the ground would soon thaw. The first day of spring lurked only two weeks away. Two weeks. What could she do to escape her fate as a tool for both father and fiance to make their living by. One meant to sell her hand, the other would buy. No matter how she tried, how she reasoned they were kind, with each passing moon Vandkys grew more enraged. She should have stayed on the sea, or ran far from home. She was the fool. She had known what was waiting.
Vandkys spent her remaining unwed days wandering the streets. More than often, sneaking visits to the church. Brother Jord’s library held no further use, but when she was wed she knew she’d be able to visit less. It was on such occasion, on her way home, she heard from the docks a screaming commotion. In her small town, with only a sad, little bay, any sound from the docks was a curious event from the smallest to the eldest. So it was also to Vandkys who hurried on steady feet until she heard the calls clear. Then her world swayed. For the screams that lifted all cried the same.
“Siren! We got a siren!”
A hundred and fifty terrible thoughts raced through her mind, and in each one Halimeda was dead. Vandkys ran on faster, unsteady although, and then she saw the horror ahead. Indeed, tied up by her tail was a siren, bleeding out though already dead. Vandkys felt her heart cry joy and then guilt, for she was overcome it was not Halimeda who hung, but her shame at that joy made her eyes overrun. Across the thick crowd already parts were called out and prices of those hollered back to their buyers. The siren was flayed, bit by bit, scale by scale. Terrible rage filled Vandkys like never before.
She shoved through the crowd, she kicked and she hit. She made her way closer to the knife’s chopping sound. By the time Vandkys’ boot touched blue blood the siren’s heart had been taken, her kidney, and both eyes. Scales had been torn from her arms and her tail, but the sea had ensured the heart scale, so coveted, would never be theirs. Vandkys would see to the rest as her last deed of free will.
With a fast fist she clubbed the dockman who went down. She grabbed up his knife and sliced through the rope. With a heavy drop the siren slumped dead to the planks. Vandkys removed the great hooks that held her to the ropes and with all her strength rolled her over the edge. A splash could be heard, but when the crowd looked the siren had sunk from their sight. Though Vandkys knew better. The sea had taken back its daughter to sleep for all time.
“Thelxiepeia!” Vandkys roared at the currents as hands groped for her arms, “I have returned one of yours, so remember this debt from the human Halimeda saved.”
Vandkys was dragged, roughly, back home. She was thrown before her father who was told what she’d done. Her father seldom was wrathful, but the men from the docks demanded the worth of their bounty. That earned Vandkys every piece of gold her father paid as a slap or a hit. His fury was as great as his strength, and though Vandkys just as strong if not stronger than an old man, she stayed her tongue and her feet for she had not been wrong. He shouted every curse he could name. His very own blood bankrupted his shop and dirtied his name.
Curled in a tight ball his strikes were less painful, but when he reached for a hot iron, at last, she ran from him then, rage in his bulging, round eyes. She went to her workshop, barred the door with a besom. He kicked it to splinters in a matter of seconds, but Vandkys was ready. She would not be killed, not on the land, not so far from the sea. If she had to be murdered she’d be killed by her wishes. Her father, enraged, burst in through the door and the oiled, steel tail hit square across his chest. He stumbled back, he tripped, he fumbled, and dropped the iron. He gasped, his breath rasped, and then he stopped moving.
Her hair was bedraggled and tears laced her face. Her voice hitched as she called out to her father. No reply came and she called it still louder. She had not meant to murder him, as he had intended to her. She’d only wanted to knocked him aside and escape from his fury. What could she do, now that her father lay dead? Should she go to Brother Jord; no, it’d only cause trouble. Could she ask her fiance; no, he’d just have her executed. Who could she turn to to help her now? No one, Vandkys realized. She was utterly alone.
She carried her father’s body without much trouble. It surprised her how light he felt and how strong she was. Had that been what killed him? A hard blow to the chest to stop his heart beating was the best she could guess. Vandkys put her father to bed, covered him up, then sat there watching. It was true the dead didn’t move, but he still looked half-living. Vandkys expected him to open his eyes and come swinging. But no, he didn’t move, he didn’t breathe, he was gone. Back in her workshop, beaten purple and blue, Vandkys rehung the weapon with which her father she had killed. She slept in the chair where every scale she had carved, her head resting on the wood while her hands fingered the heart scale. It was great comfort to her, in some inexplicable way, to have a piece of Halimeda with her every minute, every day.
The following day, just before noon, her fiance came calling for her father. He’d heard of the commotion in town and feared for his soon to be family and their fortune as well. It was Vandkys who received him to his faltering smile, she replied only that her father had not yet woke. This alarmed the youth and he made his bride hasten to lead him to her father’s door. He rapped upon it lightly, then harder, and more; at last he broke the thing down. For Vandkys had been clever and remembered a small lever that let her locked the door from inside. Her crime undiscovered the boy bleated over the body which had certainly perished some time in his sleep.
The mayor was called, and the coroner followed. The former explained the shop still owed the docksmen much money. Vandkys listened, though distantly mourning; her boy listened though, intently, every word sticking in place. She considered with her father’s demise she could cancel their wedding and pay off the debt, but while she considered the boy pulled the mayor outside. Vandkys slid to a window, noticed by none. She listened on, hidden, while her groom told the mayor his poor bride was ill from grief and still plagued from her time on the sea. He would pay the money the shop owed with his own wealth if the mayor ensured the deed bore his name alone. He would wed the poor, mad girl and when a son was had, why, it’d be safest for all to have her committed. The mayor nodded at this and when he shook the boy’s hand it left several coins heavier. All of this Vandkys spied while she listened.
Three days left until her wedding, devoid of emotions, Vandkys lived in her workshop. She polished her bells and listened to their song like Halimeda’s voice. She buffered the scales which had murdered her father. Every day her boy came by with gifts to ease her supposed mourning of father, when rather instead it was her freedom she missed. She could still run, but where would she go. Not a coin to her name, only bronze bells and black scales. At last her fiance had had enough, and he told her as much as he upended her bench.
“Your tinkering and silence, it all has to stop!” His voice split her ears, “When we wed you must stop acting mad.”
“What does it matter when you mean to lock me away? What does it matter when you want only my family’s name?”
The boy turned white at the accusation of truth. He’d been discovered by the burdensome bother. He tore at the bells and knocked them to the floor. He pulled down the tail she had hung from the rafters. He spewed anger at her, for what she was costing him, all to inherit the name of her father.
“If that’s all you want then take it. I’d rather lie dead than bear you a child. So, go on, drag me down to the sea since I am half mad. Drown me in the waves and leave my corpse there.”
At the insults and invitation he grabbed her by the hair, yet Vandkys stayed silent. Her threat had not been a trick. She would not scream to draw attention as he pulled her through the night streets. She would not fight or kick though he could easily be beat. What life was it to be wed to a man with no love? To bear him a son? To be locked in a cage? She’d rather be drowned the way sirens were. This way she had hope, no matter how small, to see Halimeda once more, though she’d not know her at all.
It was but fifteen minutes from town to the shore. And soon enough Vandkys was knocked to the sand. He dragged her into the shallows and shoved her head underwater. He held her shoulders so he’d not leave a mark. The salt stung her eyes she kept open, her heart filling with hate for the men who had killed her. She tried though to remember Halimeda, if she kept a droplet of love then perhaps she would know her. Water began to fill up her nose and it swam in her throat. She struggled a bit as fear began to take over, yet the boy held her down, his promise not over. Vandkys coughed in a fit, bubbles escaped. She dizzied and felt her breath being stolen, the hands at her back never let up.
Until they were gone. Vandkys flung her head from the water. She choked and she coughed, she sputtered and spat sea from her lungs. Why had he stopped? She looked at him through the night. The boy she was to marry stared wide-eyed at her, his head freed of his body. A tall figure, slender and silhouetted, stood silent with bloody knife in hand and dog at heel. The moon cast light on the killer, jagged black hair fell across deep, dark eyes. The head was thrown to the sands as the body fell too and the killer, Vandkys’ savior, a woman threw herself into her arms. She kissed Vandkys’ lips. She rubbed a bloody thumb across her cheek. Yet, nothing did she say. The woman held up a locket Vandkys knew well. Inside was a photo of her mother and a lock of her hair.
“Halimeda!” Vandkys pulled the siren close, “How are you here? Why are you human?”
Halimeda shook her head and patted her throat. She had no voice any longer, but smiled with a heart full of love. With a kiss to each eyelid Halimeda washed the blood from her hands and pushed the body into the sea. Vandkys realized all the siren had lost just to come to her side. Halimeda could not speak, she’d sing never again, and yet, she was here. She’d chosen to be at Vandkys’ side. Happy as she was Vandkys knew they must leave. Vandkys back to her shop, leading Halimeda by hand. There she wrote a letter to dear Brother Jord, the only one in her town who thought her not mad. She assured him she had at last found what she sought and that her heart was at peace and filled with love.
While Vandkys scribbled her letters on paper Halimeda turned to the hound who had led her so well. The trip had been long and painful and tiring, but every step of the way the dog had done well. She removed the silver collar that bound it to earth. Before the blink of an eye it raced into the sky with thunder behind it. Yet, Vandkys still wrote, so in the forge Halimeda threw the coat of the selkie where it crackled, and blackened, and turned to ash. Thus, the promises to those who had helped her fulfilled. Finished at last Vandkys squeezed her love’s hand and they went racing for the church where she’d leave the letter. On the way Halimeda stumbled and weaved, tears threatened to spill from her eyes. When Vandkys wiped away a tear Halimeda cringed in great pain from the simple, light touch. At last the human realized the siren had paid much. More than her voice and her scales had been taken away, replaced now with pain made of fire and blades.
More slowly now, though the moon was setting, Vandkys led Halimeda back to the shore where the boy had been murdered. Each step was a knife stabbing or slicing, every rustle of fabric like the sting of a bee, her breathing filled up her lungs with fiery pain, yet Halimeda endured it for Vandkys was there. Her journey had ended. She would stay and live as a human. Though with every step back to the sea she became more perplexed. Halimeda had murdered, the two of them had to run. It had been a few hundred years since she had been human, but certainly they’d both be put to death for her crime. Vandkys dropped Halimeda’s hand at the edge of the sea. The boy’s blood soaked the sand and the sun dyed it red. Vandkys took a step out into the surf, Halimeda motioned to stop. The Ocean Queen had promised death to this human she loved, and Halimeda’s heart held no hatred so she’d never be siren again.
“Thelxiepeia, I call you again. Come and pay your debt to me. Come, Queen of Oceans, eldest of sirens.”
Far from the shore the water rippled. Waves grew and undulated and came ever higher. Halimeda waded out to Vandkys’ side, ignoring the pain she laced their hands together so they’d not be split apart. The cliffside rumbled and the water bulged. The siren giantess emerged from the ocean. Her great eyes perched upon the two women who stood thigh deep in the water. She said not a word, only waited and watched.
“You owe me a debt for returning your kin,” Vandkys lifted her voice to reach the queen’s barbels. “I would have you return Halimeda’s voice and take the pain you’ve given her to face. She’s not one of yours any longer, she will stay with me on land.”
“Hoh,” Thelxiepeia bass shook grains of sand on the beach, “it has been some millennia since I’ve heard my name called. Yes, human girl, I do owe you a debt. One only. I’ll remove Halimeda’s suffering and make her fit for land life, but a siren’s voice, now that costs a great deal more. It takes hatred and loathing to make such a sound. It takes the murder of life.”
Vandkys stared at the creature Thelxiepeia, and squeezed Halimeda’s hand tight. Vandkys led Halimeda out of the water, and true to her word, not a single step bit, nor breath burned. Vandkys picked up the knife Halimeda had used to slay, blood had dried on the blade. Never letting go once, the two marched back into the ocean. Vandkys wrapped Halimeda’s thin fingers around the dagger’s hilt and pressed the point to her own breast where the heart scale slept.
“I choose to die for Halimeda’s voice to return. I won’t wake as a mercida, nor hunt as a siren. I’ve only love in my heart for this woman. Don’t cry, Halimeda. I’ve caused you enough trouble to come all this way, so live life for us both and remember my love for you is in every song.”
Halimeda threw the knife into the waters. The siren turned human embraced the human she’d rescued. How could she kill sweet Vandkys, for whom she’d traveled so far? In reply, the sea whispered like a thousand tides coming in although the water was still. The Sea Queen turned and stared out at the far ocean horizon. The rustling of nothing waves continued and in the distance they heard something deeper than ever the voice of the siren queen who voice rattled their bones.
“The Ocean has accepted the life taken by the knife. The Ocean has said that life meant to take another and so it is a good price. In exchange for the soul dripping with hate and with greed, the Ocean blesses you both with happiness, health, and wealth if you only pay its final demand: a siren’s heart scale given in love, and a human’s golden locket containing a woman and hair spun of bronze.”
Halimeda traced the locket which had led her to Vandkys, while Vandkys in turn gripped the heart scale’s pouch which had kept Halimeda beside her in dark times. The chains were unclasped and with nary a splash the two treasures fell under the surface and, as though pulled by a hand, floated far away. A soft wave rolled in from the sea and washed over them both, it left their clothes soggy and hair dripping. At the sight Halimeda laughed, bells rang like a breeze. Vandkys kissed her again and laughed by her side, surprised her own voice too, tingled like bells.
“An unfortunate trade on my end, I confess.” The Sea Queen pouted, her lance-like teeth chomping in a fit, “Halimeda was a fine siren, one of my best; and you, Vandkys, had the boy succeeded you too would have slayed hundreds. Poor me and mine, for the will of the Ocean must be obeyed. As its final gift, we are to ferry you from this place of death and of murder to wherever it is you wish to be together.”
At the knock on her door Sorcha wiped her hands clean on the old apron she wore. She bade the children to behave as she opened the way and light spilled into her house. Before her stood two women, one she knew a bit, the other she guessed had been the one the woman had hunted. It looked to be that she had found her catch.
“Did you burn me skin as me husband told you to do?”
“Yes, of course,” replied Halimeda in a voice that sang joy in each word. “And at last I can myself introduce, Sorcha, my name is Halimeda. Thank you for all you have done. I freed the hound, I burned your coat, and I found Vandkys, my dearest heart. We’ve come all this way to ask if your town has need of a smith? And if your husband has need of help fishing?”
Sorcha stumbled back. The mute, lost siren now gone. In her place stood a woman who sounded divine, and by her side the smaller woman smiled.
“Halimeda’s told me so much. How your family helped save her, and how you led her to find me. We can’t thank you enough, but the sirens gave Halimeda these as a gift. Please, have them.”
Vandkys handed Sorcha a pouch of seaweed filled with pearls of all shapes and sizes. Sorcha stumbled back further and sank in an old chair. They sat all together and Halimeda explained how they meant to stay in this village. Vandkys could smith any metal, no matter how thick or how fine. And, as their final parting gift, her siren sisters had taught Halimeda the words to make fishes obey her commands that she’d forgotten when cursed. Sorcha rejoiced in the women’s good fortune.
Halimeda called fish to her husband’s net every day and he made such a great haul, while Vandkys became renowned for her strong smithing and delicate necklaces of pearl. Vandkys and she lived nearby. They visited often to sing and dine on fish soup.