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“Dead gods,” says Aunte Gull as she heaves the shimmering nets, “are almost as useless as live ones.”

We work together, numb to the sea cold. We haul our catch back to shore, and I save my breath for work, knowing my aunte’s way of speaking. She is weighing up what to say and none of it will be the kind of thing I should repeat. There is a reason no one has taken Gull as a wife, even as a second or third. She is too much herself, and learned too late to keep her tongue still.

My mother always points at her older sister to say, “Learn from your aunte, Ishahn, she is everything you should not be, if you wish to have a home and hearth and husband.” She will not speak of her youngest sister, and how those three things did not save her.

I never tell my mother that these are not the things I want. I have learned to keep my heart closed small as a high-tide anemone. Instead of replying to my aunte, I pull harder, the rough-woven nets chafing into skin that is burning numb with cold and salt, my back and shoulders aching.

“When the gods first formed the scattered islands out of the raging seas, and filled them with the little mud creatures they would later call human, it was just a game to them. This was long before Drift, before the world lost its magic and began spinning into nothingness. Back then, the gods believed their own stories.” My aunte snaps the words between her teeth as she pulls; each sound is an affront to her face. She names Drift as if it were an incidental thing, and not the islands unmooring and spinning away into empty skies, the left-behind screaming as they die.

Gull has a wide, flat face, weathered, her hair cropped short and grey. She is no beauty, but that is a common thing among our people. We are solid and plain. “In those days,” she says, “the gods walked among us, twisting our lives this way and that for their amusement. Forget the porridge-mouthed bleating of priests and holy women; the gods were no better than us, they were just bigger and stronger.”

I pause for a moment to brush a lock of hair from my wind-stung cheek. Perhaps it would be better if I cut my hair like Gull’s—after all, there is no man in our village who will fall in love with me for my looks. My mother worries about this, but I do not.

It is the anniversary of my Aunte Tomi’s death. No one likes to say her name because it reminds them of their guilt. But Gull remembers, and this is her way of laying blame: at the feet of beings who are gone, instead of the husband who killed her and the village that looked away.

She pauses to squint at the silver thrash of fish, lobsters, crabs, all squirming and clawing over each other to reach freedom. “The gods squabbled among themselves like hogs at a trough, they stole and murdered, they wove the threads of lives to suit their own ends, never caring what happened to us. And one by one, our gods died, and only we remained.” She spits in the water. “Don’t put your faith in gods, and even less so in people.”

A pause, a slow frown puckering her already lined brow. “What’s this?”

Sometimes among the fish and crabs, we trawl squid and octopus, or little sharks, all added to the pots. Sometimes it’s a fish person, a thing we cut free and do not talk of, pretend we never saw.

Today, it is part of a god.

Gull hefts the huge black hand higher, squinting at the shape that lies under the corrugated barnacles. She flicks a cushion star off a knuckle.

Though I have broad, rough hands, calloused and blunt, against the god’s hand, mine looks smooth and small. Like that of a pampered princess from the mainlands.

Of course, no princess would be standing thigh-deep in freezing seawater, fish thrashing about them. Gull passes the hand to me, and I take it, shivering. I have never touched a god before, nor any part of one. It is heavy, as though the god were made of melded metal and rock. When I turn the hand about, I find it hollow like a glove. The urge to slip my hand inside fills me—to see what it feels like to be powerful, even for a moment.

I know better than to act on such a thing.

Some of the islands are rich in god-debris; have thrones made of godbones and carapaces, crowns of claws, capes of woven hair. They even sell godpieces like trinkets at market stalls, but here in Yeske, so far from the centrum, we have only scraps. Bek as Salkin, who was once married to my Aunte Tomi, keeps a flame inside a twisted horn on his boat—a godlight that will always guide him home. It marks his status, allowing him to lord it over the rest of the village. But godpieces can bring disaster as easily as they can bring power.

Gull juts her square chin to the god’s hand I’m holding. “Throw that back, Ish, before it brings us bad luck.”

My chest twists inside with want, but I am a child of the Scatter and learned obedience in the cradle.

I drop the black hand into the water, and it sinks, disappearing into the murk and the soft sand. There are fish to drag to shore, to kill and gut and hang to dry in the smokehouses.

 


 

Free time is not something island children know. Yeske-born learn to work as soon as they learn to stand; to fish and gather and weave and cook and pluck and card and spin from dawn until the torches are lit. My fingers are marked with thin white lines, the countless scars of my upbringing.

I’m on the long stretch of strand we call whitehills, where the best flotsam and jetsam washes up, where once we found Tomi, her face a crumpled mess of bone and meat, her body bloated with seawater. The ground is calm beneath my bare feet, the sand shifting only with my movement rather than with the telltale shiver and hum that precedes an Island losing itself to Drift.

For this, I am grateful, if only in an incidental manner. We have grown old under the threat of Drift, and become used to it.

Last night a storm beat its fists against the shore, and the strand is a spill of deep-sea gifts. Normally the dunes here are low rolling hills of white, dotted with scrubby dune daisies and the long fingers of creeping freya. Under the swordsilver dawn, the beach is instead a lattice of tangled kelp, with drifts of shiny blue-black mussels. The bounty won’t last long, and I am not the only person filling my woven baskets until the grass braids stretch and warp.

It was not my intent to come looking for the god hand, so I absolve myself.

I was meant to find it again.

It lies in a heap of black mussels and the long pale shells of maidentails, half hidden, just another piece of sea junk. One of the larger barnacles catches the corner of my thumb as I pull it free, drawing blood.

It is blood and pain that brings me to god.

The other scavengers are all bent-backed, filling their bulging baskets, and no one sees me heft the god hand into my bag. The thrill makes my skin grow tight and prickly, the way it felt when I got drunk on my father’s heather wine when the traders came, and I kissed a nameless merchant, let them slide clever, slender fingers under my skirt, press into my cleft, and we gasped together, breaths mingling.

I hide the hand under the scraggy gorse behind our house.

That night I take the bucket of kitchen and garden scraps to the hog pen, whistling to them, calling out, “Quick-quick now, time to eat.” There are no slaves here to do the work, not like in the high town where the salt throne sits, but this is unsurprising; my mother’s mother only worked off her slave price when my mother had already been taken for a wife. Our family’s meagre gelt comes from hard work, my mother’s flock of white, screaming geese, and my father’s skill with making wines from almost any plant I can bring him.

This year’s hogs are tall and fat, their red-brown fur stiff as broom bristles. Their grunts and wet-snouted greetings are friendly; they’re eager for their meal at the hands of this two-legged monster they have known since they were small as cats, crowded at their mother’s teats. Soon it will be killing day, and I wonder what they will think when they hear the screams of their siblings.

Is this what we were like to gods, once? I rest my hand on the high shoulder of the nearest pig, try to divine its thoughts as it grunts and slobbers, snout-deep in its meal.

Probably nothing more than food food food food. Did the gods wonder what we thought when they fought and fucked us, or were we just things to amuse them, to feed off when they hungered?

I leave the hogs, and with the twilight flowing green and gold and dark around me, I retrieve the god hand from under the gorse. More scrapes and scratches, more blood for dead gods.

Again, holding its too-heavy weight, I am filled with the desire to slip my hand inside. This time there is no one to frown disapproval or stop me. My hand slides into the hand of the god, a small, quick hermit crab finding a new home.

I feel nothing.

Then the metal goes cold, as though I have plunged my hand up to the wrist into a bucket of icy slush. The hand flexes around mine, shuddering alive, and before I can scream and throw it from me, it tightens, trapping me inside.

The god’s dark, subtle skin shimmers pearlescent, smooths until the edges of the glove meld into my goosefleshed skin, and then it is as if there was never a god hand at all. Just my own rough-knuckled hand, red and raw from fishing and weaving.

I stare, breathless and uncertain. I will it to be a waking dream, a fancy that took too deep a root, like a weed that must be hacked back each spring. But my right hand is unnaturally heavy; it aches in every joint. Frantically, I push at the place where the god hand ended, looking for some seam where my flesh can split, peel apart, but there is nothing, no outward sign that my hand is anything but my own.

“Shit,” I whisper.

 


 

That night I lie on my back, listening to the snores of Gull and my youngest unmarried sisters Ty and Mika, their bodies warm and sweaty against me in the women’s bed. Sleep is impossible. All I can think of is the peculiar weight and pain of my right hand, the aching stiffness in my knuckles and bones.

Sleep comes in scattered snatches, nightmarish, woven through with the terror of Drift, of losing my home, of the wailing women as they covered Tomi’s body in seagrass, filling her shallow grave. The piles of stones waiting.

In the morning, I eat my barley porridge quickly, distracted by memories of Tomi’s funeral, my childhood horror at her body gone fat and soft with watery decay, the shredded pale flesh, bloodless and nipped by fish and sea bugs. The relief I felt as her corpse was covered first by the armfuls of grasses, then by slabs of black slate.

The feel of the wooden spoon in my hand is subtly wrong, as though the carved wood has grown slippery, soft.

My mother frowns when I am done, snatching the spoon from my hand. “Ishahn ias Sora, you left this to get wet,” she says. “A waste of work.” The spoon has gone the colour of soaked wood, spongy with decay.

But this bothers me less than the rush of seething impatience that flows through me, the exhaustion and despair that even a brush of my mother’s fingers across my god hand has raised. I glance up, take in the heavy circles that puff under her eyes, the deep frown lines pulling at her mouth, her forehead. It happened so slowly that I hadn’t noticed it—Sora turning from mother to crone, distorted by the burden of bairns and a husband.

“I’m sorry,” I tell her. “I’ll carve a new one.”

“You have work enough already,” she snaps back, and I know from that quick touch that her anger is directionless, constant, brought on by years of thankless drudgery that never ends. My father will spend the day brewing, and when he comes back, he will expect my mother to hold his feet in her lap and rub the cold from his chilblains and bunions, to bring him seaweed and mussel porridge and to comb out his hair as though he sat on the salt throne of Yeske.

All men think themselves kings. At least my father has never beaten his wife to death.

So I bow my head to my mother, and let her have this.

 


 

Work is slower left-handed, but I keep my right pressed against my upper stomach, tucked into the front of the short coat I wear belted at the hips.

“What have you done?” Gull asks, voice flat and disinterested.

“Nicked my finger, a silly slip.”

“Salt water will be good for the wound,” she says, and ignores me to drone on about how much she hates the dead gods, the living people of our small village, how much better her life would have been if she’d been born a son. Regret and anger at her space in our world has made her bitter. She is more like my mother than either sister would care to acknowledge. I can barely concentrate on her words; my hand pulses in a thrilling, pleasurable agony, as though I have bound it with rope and finally released a tight knot, let the blood flow wild again.

Like the merchant closing their fingers about my throat, just between soft and hard, their mouth over mine.

It is like dancing until you cannot breathe, and all I can think of is that throb, endlessly cresting.

My daydreams of my merchant are cut short when I bump into Bek as Salkin on the way back from selling our catch to Evin the fishmonger. My skirt-purse jingles with each step, coppers clinking together cheerfully, and perhaps it is this that draws Bek’s attention. He stops me in the middle of the village’s main road, all puffed with self-importance, like a pelican with its beak filled.

“Tomi’s niece,” he says to me, something between a greeting and a command. He has no time to remember the names of women he does not intend to marry. He squints, as though trying to see what value I might have beyond a purse of fish coins. His wife stands behind him, but she looks through him, through me, her gaze on the distant fall of the ocean.

I wonder if she dreams of a boat that will take her far from this man who decided to wed her.

Despite everything I feel, I know better than to stir trouble. I bow a little, my god hand twitching, as though it longs to strangle him on my behalf. “Ishahn ias Sora,” I remind him, though I know he will forget by the time the sun sinks.

“Ah,” he says, and he looks behind me. “Where are your lovely sisters today?”

I smile blankly. “At home,” I tell him. “Working.” Safe from men like Bek as Salkin, at least for a while. Visions of Aunte Tomi’s bruised and bloated face shift into those of Mika’s, then Ty’s. I stare into his blue eyes and picture his skull crushed in a vast hand, black and barnacled, the pop of his bulging eyes, blood running dark from his ears.

His nameless wife shifts her blank attention to me, as though she has caught the razor edges of my thoughts. “Good day to you, Ishahn ias Sora,” she says. “May your nets stay full.”

I reach home filled with worries and jumbles of distracted thoughts. While Bek may have his eye on my sisters, he is not yet in the market for a new wife.

That evening, I accidentally touch one of the hogs while emptying the slop buckets into their trough. Its wide, wet snout against my right fingers, questing for scraps.

Ishahn, it says, voice in my head like dandelion clocks under a palm. Ishahn food-friend, quick-quick now time to eat, love Ishahn, food then scratches, hello, Ishahn, hello. Love Ishahn, come play, food-friend.

I did not know the pigs knew my name.

 


 

It’s the god hand, and short of cutting off my own limb, I have no idea what to do. I can hardly turn to my mother and confess what I’ve done. She is tiredly devout, hoping that by fulfilling some religious pledge, she will be granted favour; that her children will live to adulthood, that her husband will not beat her, that she will have a home, food, clothes on her back. That, most important of all, Yeske will stay rooted in the water, and not lose itself to the Drift, like so many of the Scatter.

My merchant told me that when they went to trade with Tiwake Island, they found nothing there but a jagged circle of rocks, the white breakers the only sign that an island had once made its home in those waters.

I shudder. Perhaps prayer is better than nothing. I leave the pail next to the hog fence, and climb the tussocky hill to the god stones. Most of them have fallen—proof, Gull says, that the gods are dead. Only three still huddle at the centre as though they are whispering secrets to each other. The Twisted Man’s stone has sunk askew, leaning in, and I frown. Perhaps he is dying, somewhere out there in the Scatter, surrounded by the corpses of his fellow gods.

I wonder which of them once bore my hand, which one’s magic now infects me. The god hand allows me to feel the emotions of others, which seems like a good and useful magic. Until you hear your food call you friend and realise that your world has now become a rotten-bottomed boat, and that your choice is to drown fast or slow.

It also rotted the wooden spoon I held, and that seems to me a frightful magic, though it has done nothing else like that again. I take a seat on one of the fallen god stones, trace the carved glyphs with my new hand to see if this sparks any connection. The rock is bitter ice against my arse, the cold seeping in even through the multiple layers of my skirts, and the wind is a jagged knife at my face.

This is the stone of the Grain Wife, and it does not speak to me.

Ignoring the standing stones of the Good King, the Twisted Man, and the Empress of Fools, I go from fallen stone to fallen stone, resting my hand against them.

I find my god some way off from the main circle, half buried under orange-brown bracken and the spindle stems of end-season nettles. There are as many gods as there are islands, so it takes me some time to decipher the glyphs, brushing moss and crumbled stone from the pictures until I can almost read them.

The Storm Daughter, who is not a god people often call on. She was one of the Empress of Fools’ many elemental children, and when the war began, she raised the Twisted Man’s banner and fell in battle, killed by her own mother. Another tale says the Twisted Man, in a contest between the gods, made a man out of a sea storm, but the youth was so beautiful that the Twisted Man fell in love and married him.

In that story, one night the Storm Son goes to sea in a boat made of cormorant feathers and drowns, and after that, the Twisted Man fell out with the Good King and left the world of gods.

Two gods, two stories. They might be the same god. There’s no telling with the old tales. Gull says none of them are true, and all of them are true.

I press my god hand against the stone, and the dull thrum inside the rock makes my palm itch, feverish with wakening power. “What am I supposed to do?” I ask the Wind Daughter-Son, but dead gods are useless at giving advice or succour.

How am I to kill and eat hogs who know my name, who call me friend? And if I free them, does my family starve over winter? I must make a decision that will cost the life of one over another. “Shit and arse,” I tell the gods, “is this how you felt about us, after all?”

My only answer is the wind wailing through the stones and thin saplings that have begun to form a small copse. The place is neglected, the priests too old to care. Perhaps I should do as the gods did, and leave. Run away from all the things that bind me to Yeske, unmoor myself like an island falling upwards.

 


 

I set the pigs free, but it makes no difference. My red-back hog does not understand. Even though the gate is open wide, and I cluck and coax and bang the tin pail, the hogs only crowd at their trough, thinking I have brought them a second dinner. “Idiots,” I tell them. All I can do is leave the sty open; it’s up to them to leave, to save themselves. “If you know what’s good for you,” I tell my pig friend, “you’ll run deep into the forests and never come out.” That’s what I would do, I think, if someone opened the gate to my pen.

Ishahn food-friend, quick-quick eat now?

“No, you fool thing, quick-quick leave now, go, shoo.” I motion to the open gate, and the pig stares shrewdly between freedom and food.

I thought being a god would be powerful, but instead, I am filled with despair. Perhaps if the choice were given to me, I would also prefer the comfort of a warm, well-fed death to the ocean of the unknown.

 


 

Three weeks later, I am in the groves gathering yellow apples for the feast of the last sun, and I find the other hand. Or rather, it finds me. It starts like a stomachache, a twisted knife rammed into my gut. At first I think it is wind-cramps—I have taken to eating only roots and fruits instead of the salt pork and fish my mother cooks—but the ache becomes fierce, clawing my belly until I stumble away from the hills and down to the sea, where the horizon is blackening with the wall of an oncoming storm. The ache lessens when I walk in one direction and returns when I go the wrong way. It reminds me of when I played Hunt the Fire with my siblings, only the pain is real.

It leads me along stony goat paths, down to a narrow, secluded inlet, barely big enough to be a beach. It is a crowded gash of rock pools and slanted black stone, slimy with bright green slick-weed. I find the other hand lodged in a crevice, home to a small octopus and covered with limpets and sea bugs and the crumbled chalky casing of ridge worms.

This time, there is no one to hide from, and I have become used to my little godhood. The second hand shrinks around my flesh, tightening to fit as it becomes part of me. I flex my new fingers, turn them, and the wind turns with, caressing my face, pulling my hair back like a messenger pennant on a boat.

I flick my left hand, and the wind snatches at the sea spray, makes it leap up, almost overhead, arching and twisting in the greenish storm light.

“Hello, wind,” I say softly.

Hello Ishahn, storm-self, wind-self, sea-self.

My heart spasms, and I do not know if this feeling is joy, or fear, or some nameless thing that only gods have felt before me. I spread my hands wide, palms up. The distant storm softens, the wall of cloud thinning and breaking up. I curl my right hand, then my left, fingers dancing, and I conduct the merchant winds, bringing the last-of-the-season trade ships to shore.

 


 

The feast of the last sun is riotous, and even rural families like mine leave their villages and go to the market stalls and dice dens and public houses of Yeskehaven. The rich take boats of goods, the rest of us walk, pulling our handcarts. My father goes to sell wine jars, my mother to sell geese and loom-woven goat hair blankets, dried saltfish, children. The latter she does not trade as blatantly, though she eyes the heirs of other families at the feast markets, and all the mothers quietly talk bride-prices while the fathers pretend the decisions have been made, that their word is law.

“Eilan’s boy will inherit his uncle’s farm,” she tells me, as we shoo the geese into their pens. I am careful not to touch the birds, overwhelmed by the sound and thunder of the heaving square. I long to spread my fingers, to summon a storm down and obliterate this place, its sweat-and-shit stink, its grease-slick cobbles, its leering, drunken men.

“Eh?” I move to avoid the outstretched neck of a goose, and miss.

Gander-girl, the goose voice hisses in my skull. Betrayer, egg-eater, feather-stealer. Bite you.

“Tan as Eilan,” my mother says. “Him, there.” She cocks her head sharply towards a young man leaning against a cow stall, more farmhand than fisherman, ruddy and square, with hair that is the colour of sunsets and heartwood. “Dance with him tonight.”

My mother has been careful in the choosing, I know. She will not tie me to a man like Bek as Salkin, who took a new bride before the last stone was set on Tomi’s cairn.

I nod, but I have no intention of being at the market dances. Eventually, my mother will trade Ty instead, and begin looking for someone new for Mika. My sisters smile and chatter, too young to remember Tomi.

Gull snorts, her irritation plain where mine is carefully hidden. “Don’t go tying your daughters to men who don’t deserve them.”

“And what would you rather they do?” my mother says sweetly, as she wrangles a wayward goose back into the pen. “Beg? Live under my roof forever?”

Gull glances at me, so quickly that I nearly miss the flicker of her eyes. “They could make their own way, sail or farm or fish. There is no law that says they must take a husband or starve.”

“Stop putting silly ideas in the girls’ heads,” my mother says. Then quieter, sharper, so that only her sister is meant to hear, “Don’t give the hogs hope that the feast day is for them, Gull. It is a cruelty to let them dream of better things.”

 


 

I find my merchant after sunset, packing up a stall with their shipmates.

“There you are,” they say, as if I have been gone only a few minutes, and an ocean and months did not lie between us. “Give us a hand with this.” They wink at me, coal eyes glittering under heavy, dark brows.

When I help move the boxes, I can sense the goods nestled inside: silk scarves from the far northern mainlands, cherry wine, furs, glass beads. No god trinkets—those are too expensive for the likes of us in Yeskehaven.

They cover the boxes with a canvas tarpaulin, and make themselves a seat near the top of the stacks, waving their jeering mates away into the night. “Come on up,” they say. “Plenty of room, and the view is smashing.”

I like the way they talk, like their words are yeast-light and frothy, salt-sour. Ignoring the hand they hold out, I clamber to the top of their crate hill.

“Guard duty.” They pat the little silver whistle hooked to their belt. “You don’t mind? I’ll be off in a few hours.”

I shrug. Now that I have found my merchant again, brought them to me with good trade winds and clear skies for market day, I find I don’t know what to say. Last market we met in the dance hall, both of us flush and reeling with heather wine, both needy and desperate for things we could not name.

But it is a pretty view—Yeskehaven is adorned with lamps and sail banners, with shell-strands, and those with gelt to show off have painted their wooden houses with lampfish blood, great swirling glyphs, bright enough to keep the gods watching over them.

“Your day has been good?” I ask awkwardly.

The merchant shrugs and pulls a green glass bottle from their leather sack. “Ey, so, so. Always good to have steady trade. Want?” They pull the cork with their teeth, hold the green glass out to me. “Cherry wine.”

We drink the treacly sweet wine, not half as good as anything my father makes, but brutally potent nonetheless, and watch the market move and dance, making observations, laughing a little. When the bottle is empty, my merchant leans over, close-kisses my mouth, as though asking permission.

I pull back, expecting a deluge of thoughts and emotions, of want and greed and desires that I do not wish to see. I catch glimpses of when we were together last, a fleshy, writhing hunger, fingers inside me, tongue inside me, bruises on the softest parts of my skin, like new dog roses just blooming after the cold spring.

“Everything all right?” they ask, suddenly hesitant.

“I don’t even know your name.” I pull my hands into my skirt, and wonder what will happen if I touch the merchant again—will I turn them inside out, drown them, know every secret they do not wish to tell?

“Ey, names are just words,” my merchant says, “but if you need one, you can call me Tallis.”

“If you won’t tell me a true name,” I say back, “then I’ll give you a new one, and you won’t like it.”

“Tallis is my true name.” They laugh. “Gods above and below, but you’re a strange fish.” They stand, swaying a little drunkenly, and bow to me. “Tallis Freymin, at your service.”

They do not use ias or as, daughter or son. But Freymin, this is a name I know well. Slave-born, and freed. “How would you feel,” I ask, “if you knew that if I touched you, I would know every secret you wished to keep, every desire you have hidden from yourself and others?”

“Hmm.” They settle back against their crates and glance at me sidelong, lashes casting spider shadows across their bronze cheeks. “I’d say you would either stay or go, and I would know by the staying or the going what you felt. In the end, I would know as much about you as you would about me.”

It’s not that simple, and Tallis thinks this is a wit-game. But I have told them the truth, even if they do not believe it. I lean forward and press my fingers against their neck, thumb against their jaw, and close my eyes.

In the darkness, I see myself. A rawboned woman, the last pretty traces of girlishness erased by salt wind and cold water. I feel myself kissed, kiss myself, tender and hesitant, then fiercer and rougher. I do not know which thoughts are mine, and which are theirs.

I remember fear, and learning to be small and quiet and unnoticed, learning to read and count numbers. The spiralling galaxy of sums and charters wraps around me, and these are Tallis’s things, not mine. Their world is very precise, tallied. They know the worth of every living thing, of every seed and pearl, every skin and bottle. Their desires fill me like leaves falling from autumn trees, all shades of gold and fire. They want gelt and silver, jewels and precious things, a ship of their own; they want sails that fill with fierce wind, and no fishmarket wife or husband or bairns to anchor them.

They know the worth of a kiss. And the cost of one.

Perhaps we want the same thing, but from different angles. I open my eyes and draw back. My mother thinks it cruel to hope, but she is only human and small, and I am more than that now. The gate is open. “I can get you a boat,” I tell them. “If you will take me with you when you go.”

 


 

Bek as Salkin is as wealthy as one can be in our village, which is the reason my grandmother thought him a good match for my Aunte Tomi. Tomi was the youngest and prettiest of her daughters, and therefore the one best to bait the hook for a rich man. It’s not that my grandmother was cruel or mercenary—she wanted only to ensure her children would not starve the way she had, would be free, and have freeborn children.

But while my aunte smiled and kept silent, the story of her marriage was told in long-sleeved tunics to hide the bruises on her wrists, the way she always took sick when my mother or Gull tried to visit. The way she withdrew from the world of her family and disappeared.

It was Gull who found her body.

There was no proof of anything more than an accidental drowning. Her face was battered by the rocks and waves, her skin scratched raw by sand and broken shells. Bek as Salkin expressed the barest expected grief that his young wife was now under stones, and quickly married another young and pretty girl who would keep her mouth shut and wear her sleeves long.

My rage is cold and deep as the ocean, and my mind is full of the shredded tatters of Tomi’s funeral, my childhood helplessness as Bek as Salkin placed his final stone on her cairn. The crate under me begins to soften and warp as though it has lain underwater for weeks, and I pull my anger back into myself. There are better uses for my dreams of drowning.

After their shipmate comes to relieve them from night watch, Tallis follows me through the maze of wynds and closes to the small harbour where the less wealthy dock their ships. These are not the large trade boats, or the hunting boats of serpent-men, but neither are they the meagre, wave-beaten boats of fishermen.

“This one,” I tell them, when I come to The Merry Dancer. A light burns softly near the prow—an eternal fire trapped in the broken horn of a long-dead and nameless god.

Tallis crouches to touch the mooring rope, and looks up at me, their brow furrowed. “Who does it belong to?”

I shrug. “A man who does not deserve it.”

We slip on board to wait for dawn and for Bek as Salkin to return. I find us a hidden place in the ship’s small hold, and we pass the night in touches and shivering whispers, in the sound of wind curling carefully around us, waiting for my breath, my commands.

Tallis’s head is still full of their need and greed, but it is tempered at the edges, darkened, and there are things I can no longer see. I wonder if knowledge is enough for a strong-minded person to learn to close themselves off from me. Sometimes they slip, drunk on skin and sour wine, and I see myself reflected in their thoughts.

Their view of me is not flattering, but it is clear and sharp, and I find myself liking that—they see me in all my raw and ugly designs, and still find me worth the wanting.

“You can read people’s minds?” Tallis asks. “Like a sea witch.”

“Something like,” I tell them. “I … feel things, and see flashes of their lives, and I know the shape of their, not their every thought, but the ones right at the top of their minds.”

Tallis smiles crookedly and presses their index finger against the tip of my nose. “So what am I thinking right now?”

Amusement, a dry distance, the pale edge of their mind, like a coin spinning.

“That you are not going to kill anyone,” I whisper, and open my eyes to their face, shadowed in darkness and moonlight, the whites of their eyes like shards of milky wet glass. “But that you know how to look away when necessary.”

“Are you a killer, Ishahn?” They raise a curious brow. “Because you don’t look like one.”

No, but I could be. To set right a balance.

“Let me tell you something about murder.” Tallis’s grin is too wide, their yeast-froth voice too painfully cheerful. “Even when you’re doing it for a good cause, it marks you, like getting an ugly tattoo while you’re drunk in port. And there’s no getting rid of it.”

“Do you want this boat?”

They smile wider, which is the only answer I need.

“Then trust me.” Under me the sea sighs, waiting, and around the boat the wind croons my name.

 


 

Bek as Salkin is still mostly drunk when he returns to The Merry Dancer with the rose and gelt dawn. That is as I wanted. But he is not alone: a young boy, not yet closing in on his manhood, supports his arm. This is not what I wanted.

“Two for the price of one,” Tallis whispers. “Some would call that a bargain.”

“I did not plan to kill a child.” A shudder runs over me, quick as the lash of a pig tail.

They shrug. “You only planned to orphan one.”

Choices, I think, and press my god hands against the wood, and pretend that I am like them, like the gods who did not care who died in their games, as long as they won.

I wait until we are far from the port before I walk up onto the deck, Tallis edging after me. The godlight casts a soft misted glow, warm and welcoming as though it recognises something in me.

The boy sees me first, wide-eyed, then angry, and he calls for his father with a voice that cracks apart like a badly fired pot.

His father turns from his work on the sails and knows me at once, the cast of Aunte Tomi in the angles and planes of my face. “Oh, it’s you,” he spits. “What did you do? Get too drunk again on your father’s wine and went looking for a place to fuck some stranger?” He dismisses me with contempt. “Your family are all alike, but I’m a decent man. Anyone else would have you overboard, but I won’t. I’ll take you home, and your father can pay your fare.”

“I’ll not pay a fare.” My voice trembles, and I make myself look only at the father, and not the son. My hands dance, drawing patterns in the air, and around us the waves surge and the winds turn. The fire in the horn leaps, eager as a fish on a hook.

Ishahn, storm-self, sea-self, wind-self, the waters sing and I know the shape of the waking dream we call the ocean, every fish and sea fan a thought, every current a plan.

The storm whirls around us, obliterating in an instant the sea and misted horizons. Dark folds over and over, wind tearing at clothes and hair. The sails judder, wood creaks and groans, but I am untouched and safe in a cocoon of power. My blood roars louder than storms, until I cannot hear my own thoughts.

I set the wind against the man who killed my aunte—whether he snapped her neck or smashed her skull or broke her by small degrees, it does not matter. He killed her, and I am finally strong enough to bring him a reckoning.

I scream, and the storm answers with arcs of lightning, splitting the black clouds, joining sky and sea. I clap my palms together, power sizzling through me, and a jagged breach breaks the world in two, arcs to touch the flame in its horn. An answering flare, and the lightning leaps from horn to man, and strikes Bek as Salkin stone dead.

He drops to the deck, smoking, stinking of burned hog, of autumn feasts. The pressure in the air changes, and I observe myself, distantly, with the amused satisfaction of who I have become. Oh, the curious cruelty of gods, like an island child dropping periwinkles into the pulsing hearts of anemones to see them feed.

It is done and I feel nothing. The wind stills and the clouds peel back to show the sun rising, the cormorants skimming the silver water. The waves slap gently against my boat. The day is new and full of promise.

I turn to his son and point to the darkening sea. “The gate is open, little pig. You can swim, or be eaten.”

 


 

You think this is a cruel story, and perhaps it is—by the limits of your understanding. Others will hear it, with their aching wrists deep in cold river water, their backs breaking, their hearts torn by the endless wailing of suckling babes, fingers burned by hot irons and fire pits, nettle-scarred. They will hear it and at the feast of the last sun, they will throw a heather dolly to the waves. They will ask Storm Daughter for nothing, because they are too used to nothing.

 


 

In the Scatter are many gods, most of them dead. But by the southern isles near Auselfre, Tay, and Yeske, the sea wives have a new god, and they tell their daughters stories of a ship that burns like dawn on the water and the storm god who sails it.

The Merry Dancer has two faces, the women say, and they are neither daughter nor son, but freeborn. Their bright ship is filled with gelt and silver, with cherry wine and furs, with glass beads and sea pearls. The god can raise the wind and waves, and sails filled, they bring the storm of retribution behind them.

They stay in no harbour, and offer no berth, no escape.

But still the women dream.

 


Editor: Hebe Stanton

First Reader: Hebe Stanton

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors



CL Hellisen is a South African writer living in Scotland. Their stories and poems have appeared in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Apex, Shimmer and others. Their novel Cast Long Shadows was shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award in 2023. You can find updates on Bluesky.

 

They are represented by Caro Clarke at Portobello Literary.

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