Gather supplies. Check the stars; your lover is trapped very deep down indeed, and if you are to reach him, it must be done on an auspicious night. At precisely midnight, where the surf pounds against a rocky cliff, climb down and make your way in. Scribe a circle on the underwater stones at your feet, as a beacon for the powers you are about to call forth.
Dissolve a pinch of comfrey in three of the cherry-sized tears of a kraken. Drink half. Gargle with the other half and spit it into the waves. This will grant you the power of breath underwater.
On your upper chest, above each lung, draw the sigil of incorruptible strength in lavender oil. This will grant you the power to swim even down-dark-below, in the crushing blacks that would snap a mortal diver in two.
Invoke your gods. Gods of the sea, gods of the lost, gods of desperate measures—but most of all, gods who know you and consider you a friend. Chant to them. Flatter them. Rage, wheedle, plead. Dance in the knee-deep water. Pierce your skin and bleed for them, if that is a part of your practice, or sing. "Nessun Dorma," if you have the pipes.
Cry to the gods until everything is wet, everything salt. You may feel immense power building as they heed your call. Or you may not. The gods will do as the gods will.
With or without them, kick off with your own two legs and swim down, down, down.
(You knew when your lover sank. Knew, a week before you got the letter: you woke in the night and saw his ship, a waking vision, cracking and splintering before you. The bright white sails alight with flame, shriveling like a love letter tossed in the hearth. You caught a glimpse of his wine-dark eyes, brave, stoic, careful, the same eyes you fell in love with on the white clifftop years ago. Your breath caught in your throat as you watched him edge across the rigging, towards the single lifeboat. A beam fell. He fell. You thought at first that he leapt, but there was no purpose in that movement, only a mindless fall of wood and rope and flesh together. He fell into the deep, as the waves crashed over him, and fell, and fell, and fell.)
He will be waiting for you at the very bottom of down-dark-below, where the water squeezes breath from you like a pressed-down pillow. Past whale-depths, past squid-depths, past anglerfish-depths, into the very abyss with the worms and pale crabs. There will be a jagged hole in the bottom of the sea, a caldera where black steam and red magma boil into the freezing water around them. There he will be, face upturned. Frozen, frightened, wounded, and as beautiful as you remember.
Fall on him with kisses. Let his arms wrap around you again. Let him tell you how he didn't think you'd come; he didn't think anyone could come. Enjoy this part. Tell him about the magic, if you like. Or just touch him. Remind yourself how he feels.
Cuddled in what passes for comfort down-dark-below, with your back to his belly and his mouth to your hair, tell him about the surface. Ask if he remembers it.
He will shake his head. He's been down here too long. Sinking, without gods and songs and kraken-tears to protect you, does things to a person. The instant he hit bottom, he'd already been down here too long.
Tell him about the sun, the feel of grass under bare feet, the smell of fresh air. Hold his hands just right. Lightly stroke his palms with your thumbs. If enough of your heart is in the words, he will remember a shadow. Not the sensations, but the reflection that sensations used to make in his mind.
Remembering may hurt. Take this part slow. Let him hold you until his breath comes steady and regular again.
Then ask: "Do you want to come back with me?"
"Yes," he will say. If there's hope. If you've done it right. "I wish I could."
He will look up at what would be the surface, if you were not so deep. There is no gleam of muffled sunlight, no gentle surface ripple. Everything's black but the flickering lamps of the deep-fish, and the trickle of magma yards away.
"Don't be silly. All we have to do is swim."
He will shake his head.
Look carefully at his feet, which have twisted into a rottenness you at first took for fins. The salt-leached paleness of his skin. The slim iron shackle, round his stubby ankle, which trails off into the boiling rocks, farther than you can see.
Realize this is going to take a little longer than you thought.
(Your lover was going south, in that great white ship. He had promised to bring you back pearls. You believed him. He had already brought you roses, books, beautiful shells. A sea-green robe that made you dream you were the sea itself, that he would drown in you and yet live. You liked when he went out to bring you gifts, but you liked when he stayed even more. When he lay with you on your simple bed, divested of everything. You would murmur to each other of the next gift, the next voyage, the home you were building: all that could and would be, in just a little more time.)
Invoke your gods again, if you have gods with you, or ask the sea if it will grant you a little of its strength. Feel a power, warm and dry like sunlight, rising under your skin. Then begin the slow work of exploring him, not as a lover explores, but as a healer.
You will have some modest successes, in those first weeks. His skin will begin to feel less like scales, more like the sturdy softness you remember. He will smile a little more. But the feet, and the shackles, will stay. When you reach for them, he will flinch away.
"Don't," he will gasp, suddenly panicked. "It hurts when you do that."
When he says "don't," you must stop. That sounds obvious, but it will not be. It is such a small step from helping someone to hurting them, against their will, for what you think is their good. You have been hurt like that before. Take that step even once and he will be lost to you.
It is terrible here. The dark presses down on his eyes; the damp corrodes his lungs; the cold eats his bones. Crabs come scuttling along the rocks and bite his skin.
Yet this is all he knows. He recognizes you, but he does not remember his ship before it sank, nor the feeling of sunlight and salt spray. He will tell you—in a whisper—that he longs to be rid of this place. But as the crabs eat him up, inch by inch, they whisper back, We are starving. It is cold here. Thank the gods of the deep for the currents that bring such useful scraps to our door, such necessary dead things. Now we will live.
If he broke free, would he not be killing them?
He will promise to think about it, at least. That will be nearly enough. Wrap your arms around him and tell him it will be okay. Nestle down with him in the meagre rocks his chains can reach, in the place least frequented by crabs. You will still imagine day and night, even in the unending darkness; there will be restless times, times you wish to move and speak, and times when sleep sinks into your bones. So make yourself comfortable for the night.
And the next.
And the next.
And the next.
(The moment you realized you loved him, you were sitting on a white clifftop, eating together, watching the surf. An ant had fallen to the bottom of his empty cup and could not climb out. He lifted it gently on one strong fingertip, let it scuttle away. He could not suffer anything to be trapped. He glanced sideways at you after, somehow ashamed, and you thought, Here is a man I would trust to hold me.)
You will notice your nails growing, your hair flowing longer in the down-deep currents. You will notice the pain of a thousand tons of water bearing down on you. You will hide from the ravenous crabs, and occasionally fail to hide. Your lover will comfort you, then. He will hold you with the gentleness of a warm mountain breeze, and you will both mouth the words of the healing spell together. He has been down here a long time, after all; he has learned how to comfort himself as best he can.
"Stay with me," he will whisper, when the water shines with lures, brighter than stars in the down-deep gloom, and the crabs are being quiet for once. "It isn't so bad, is it? Everyone has things to endure, even up there in the sun. And when you're here, it isn't so bad."
Say nothing. Lean into him, and let him slip into fitful half-drowned sleep at your side. Then slip away—it is so easy for things to shift and flow, in the sea—and take out your runes.
You will no longer remember if you even brought your runes, if the worn-away stones in your pocket were even meant to be runes to begin with. But you will see symbols on them, if you strain your eyes, whether by chance scratching, illusion, or design. It will be enough for you.
Look up to the blackness in which you can faintly remember a surface dappled with sunlight. Cast another circle. Then throw the runes. Watch them float lazily down to the bare rock.
“Tell me the future,” you will say to your runes, but they will not quite tell you that. Instead you will cast them, again and again, and each future you see will be different.
In the first future, the one you are most afraid of, you fail. Even with all your gods, with your healer's touch and kraken's tears. You are hardly the first witch to crash against the rocks this way, dying to save a man who does not wish to save himself.
Eventually, your hope will run out. The sea has already worn him away. All you can do now is save yourself.
When you kick away from the jagged sea floor and begin the struggle upwards, it will feel like you have broken yourself in two.
He will not complain. He will not speak of dying alone. But you will both know the sea will wear him away to nothing. The crabs will eat him to the bone.
It would have happened anyway if you had stayed.
You will try not to think about this, on the way up, but you will. You will kick against the water too hard and too fast. You will wash up on the shore curled in agony as decompression bubbles burst all through your body.
You'll live. You'll spend months learning over again to walk on dry land, but you'll live. You'll love again, but not the same way. You will never again look at a man and think, but I can save him.
In the second future, you hang on. Slowly, in agonizing fits and starts, he begins to heal himself. You are there for him, but he is the one who must do this work and he does. He shapes his feet into something that can walk again. He shapes his lungs until they can breathe the air. And finally, one night, in spite of the agony and guilt and the terror that this will bring down something even worse than crabs, he will take a rock and smash the shackles himself.
The way up will be longer and harder than the way down. All at once the sun will appear, a teasing dance of light far above you. He will cry out, recognizing it. You will break the surface side by side and gasp with long-neglected lungs in the ocean air.
Everything will hurt. You will tumble onto the shore more exhausted than you have ever been before. Yet green grass will grow on the cliffs above you. Fisherfolk will bring you in and dry you by the fire. As you watch the smile growing on your lover's face, the strains of "Nessun Dorma" will echo again in your head. You came this far, and you won. You won.
(It is really your lover who won.)
In the third future, your strength will run out. You will return to the surface. You can see, in the runes, the difference between this future and the first; but if you live them, when you live them, they will look precisely the same.
You will struggle, blaming yourself for having to leave, wondering if it would have made a difference if you had taken another week or month or year, just to make sure. But you'll live. Your heart will fill with other things.
And in the meantime, down-dark-deep, something will stir.
Time will pass, down there, as he floats in the crushing cold. He will breathe, despite everything. He will hide, scrounge, survive. He will think about the surface world. He will think of everything you said about it. He will remember being beside you, feeling something other than this.
It was not your failing, your weakness, that drove you to leave. Not his failing, either,only an accident of time. He was not ready when you came for him. But one day, after more time and more thought than you could bear to witness, he will make up his mind.
Maybe he will be old by then. Maybe you will have nearly forgotten him. Maybe you, as well, will be old and forgotten. Or maybe it will be very soon indeed.
His limbs will be weak from lack of use, and the tides will wear him down. But, old and broken as he is, he will wash ashore as you did. You will think that you failed, because you could not make it happen by force of will. He will think that he failed, because he lost you. But he will feel the sun on his skin, the wind on his face. And the fisherfolk will gather him.
What do you wish to do? Knowing that nothing is certain, and that his war is not yours to fight, do you wish to dive down and do what you can?
Then go. Gather your comfrey, your lavender oil, your kraken's tears. Wade down the rocks of the shore, and dive deep.
Your lover is waiting.