Shades of the Sea – J.A. Prentice

Shades of the Sea – J.A. Prentice

Cover art
January 2022

The village children found Larnia lying in the crashing surf. Her clothes were drenched and ragged, her side torn by a deep red gash, and her hair tangled with flecks of coral.

The children raced along the winding path that led up from the beach, towards the house near the cliff’s edge where the healer Tasia and her husband Miron lived. Halfway there, they found Miron sitting amongst a flock of sheep, facing away from the sea, silent and grim. His eyes were red from weeping.

The children grabbed at him, shouting, begging him to come, but Miron would not be stirred. Through his enshrouding sorrow, they were voices from a thousand miles away, faces seen through a white mist. “Larnia!” a girl said at last. “We found Larnia!”

Miron looked up, his eyes wide, and leapt to his feet. Without a word, he began to run, towards the beach, the children straggling behind him. It had been years since he’d run so fast.

Larnia.

Three days, she had been gone, lost with her parents beneath the waves. The storm had struck, hard and furious, and the sea leapt up in swelling mountains to swallow their ship, dashing it to matchwood. The bodies had been lost, though the village folk searched for hours to bring their bones home.

Larnia had drifted into the deep dark, where dappled light gave way to endless midnight pressing on all sides, where the shadowed things dwelt—shades and leviathans and the Deep Court. The curls of her hair had flared out in a black cloud and the waters had whispered in her ears all the secrets the ocean knows.

Three days, Miron had prayed that the gods would bring Larnia back to them. He had loved her like his own blood, like he would have loved the children he and Tasia couldn’t have. They had tried, again and again, but each time the child had been lost. Tasia still wouldn’t speak of them, buried in their shallow graves.

Miron could not bear the thought that Larnia might have been lost also. Nine years was longer than his own children had lived, but hardly a life. The gods could not be so cruel. Miron still had faith, despite his suffering, and so he kept praying, though he knew the odds were slim.

Three days, and now she was lying on the beach, still as driftwood, her lips pale blue.

He came to a halt some feet from her, and stood unmoving, not daring to touch her skin and feel the cold of death, the stillness of her chest, the stiffness of her muscles. The children clustered like sheep around him, unsure whether to be afraid, sad, or exhilarated in the face of mortality.

Then she coughed. Spluttered. Seawater ran down her lips and her fingers twitched.

Miron’s heart leapt. He thanked each god by name for her deliverance as he rushed to her side, wrapping strong arms around her tiny body.

“Get my wife!” he shouted and the children scattered, bare feet pounding sand. “She needs a healer!”

Larnia stirred, her hair brushing his arm. Trickling water pattered on darkened sand. Weak breaths hissed from pale lips. Her eyes fluttered open and she stared straight at him, with a burning intensity. Then her eyelids closed again, and she turned her head away.

Miron took a deep breath, his heart thundering against his ribs. It must have been his imagination. A trick of the light. Larnia’s eyes were brown, like her father’s, like her mother’s. They always had been.

He carried on across the sands, carrying Larnia in his arms, and tried to forget the eyes that had stared up at him out of his niece’s face—eyes the swirling midnight blue of the deep sea.

A week, she lay in bed, tossing and turning under sheets that rippled like wild waves. Sweat dripped from her brow, yet her skin remained ice to the touch. She muttered as she writhed—fragments in a strange tongue.

“I’ve done what I can,” Tasia said, sitting in an old wicker chair. “The rest is with the gods.” She looked at Miron and frowned. “There’s something you aren’t saying.”

She could always tell his mood. Miron was an easy man to read. His feelings were written in every line, every wrinkle. “There’s nothing,” Miron said. “Nothing.”

Tasia pursed her lips, brushed greying hair from her leather-brown face, but said no more. That was the way her mother had taught her, and her mother before. The way of silence. A healer did not show her feelings. She let them boil beneath the surface, buried in the dark.

Between them were many things unsaid. One more, she supposed, would hurt no one.

On the seventh day, Larnia woke. Her sheets tumbled onto the earthen floor as she stretched her arms and blinked her wide eyes.

“Hello?” she called.

Miron leapt from his chair and ran to his niece. “My little one. We were so worried.”

He pulled back and looked into her eyes: sea-eyes, full of dancing shadow.

“What are these?” He stroked her hair aside. “Your eyes were brown.”

“Were they?” Larnia asked. “How strange.” She looked around at the curving wattle-and-daub wall, the rafters holding the thatched roof in place, the smooth earthen floor, and the arched blue door. “This is where I live?”

“You don’t remember?” Miron asked. “Do you remember me?”

“Of course.” Larnia’s bare feet kicked the air. “You pulled me out. Out of the dark.”

“The dark?”

“Pressing in on all sides.” Larnia hugged her knees to her chest. “Cold. Dark. Forever.”

Miron smiled and put a hand on her shoulder. “You’re safe now.”

“No. No.” Larnia wrenched away. “Not safe. Never safe. She’s coming.”

Tasia frowned as she examined the sleeping Larnia. The girl’s skin was still cool, but she no longer twisted as she had before. Her sleep seemed peaceful, untroubled by dreams. And yet… “There’s no reason her eyes should have changed.”

Miron ran a hand through his hair. “And the memories…”

“I’ve heard of that.” Tasia looked away. “My grandmother was called to the Great War, when the seas were red with blood. Her ship was raided by the enemy, her friends killed. She was fished from the wreck, but she couldn’t remember what had happened. Couldn’t remember her own name. She just kept praying, clinging to her grandmother’s bone…” Tasia instinctively reached for the finger-bone hanging around her own neck. “She lay awake for months after they brought her home, screaming that the enemy were coming to slit her throat.”

“You’ve never spoken of this before,” Miron said.

Tasia couldn’t bear to look at him, to see the pity in his eyes. “It isn’t a thing that’s spoken of.”

“But she was well again?” Miron asked, leaning forward. “In time?”

Tasia ran a hand over Larnia’s forehead. “She was better. She was never well.”

Miron wrapped an arm around Tasia, and she rested her head on his chest. It hurt, dredging up these memories. An old wound should not be reopened. Better to let it stay, and live with the little aches.

“But Larnia is young,” Tasia continued. “This may fall beneath the waves of memory and be nothing more than a forgotten shadow.”

She kissed her bone and Miron nodded. “Let us pray it will be so.”

Beside them, Larnia whispered in her sleep, a sound like the sea-wind whistling over the swelling grey hills of the open sea.

They found her perched on the cliff’s edge, singing her strange syllables. Like a soldier keeping watch, she peered at the tides crashing against the beach below. There was a tremor in her song, like she was singing it to keep the fear at bay.

“Larnia!” Miron called. “Get away from there! You could fall.”

“Fall.” Larnia turned the word over on her tongue. “It is different, isn’t it? With air and earth? No swimming. No drifting.”

“Yes.” Miron took her hand and pulled her back. “Come to the house.”

Tasia looked at the girl, then clutched at her bone. Larnia cocked her head to one side. “I don’t understand it up here,” she said. “It’s very strange.” A rippling laugh came from deep within her like a spring of fresh water. She ran a hand through the long grass, letting it tickle her skin, and plunged her fingers into the earth.

Frowning, Tasia knelt beside her. “What is ‘up here’? Why is it different?”

Larnia tore up a handful of soil and grass. Her skin stained black and green.

Tasia seized her by the shoulders. “Who are you?”

“Larnia,” the girl sang. “Larnia. Larnialarnialarnialarnialarnia!”

“Let her go!” Miron picked Larnia up, his back straining under the weight. “She’s frightened.”

“She’s something.” Tasia’s grip on her bone made her knuckles gleam white. “I can’t stay here. I have to think.”

Miron called after her, but Tasia didn’t turn back. She walked down the cliff-path, away from the cottage and towards the churning surf. Still holding Larnia in his arms, Miron went back to the cottage. She squirmed and he let her down, collapsing into the wicker chair. Watching Larnia play on the ground, running her hands over the earth, he tried to forget what his wife had said.

“You have to forgive her,” Miron said to the girl. “Her sister died. Your mother. She’s distressed.”

“She keeps touching that bone,” Larnia said. “Talking to it like it can hear her.”

“It’s your grandmother’s bone,” Miron said. “But you know that.”

Larnia blinked and nodded. “Grandmother’s bone…”

“Your grandmother is buried under the house,” Miron continued. “Her shade is bound to this place, so she protects us from evil spirits and the wandering dead. Our souls cannot be claimed; our bodies cannot be stolen.” He smiled. “The bone protects us if we leave the house. We carry a little bit of her with us.”

“Magic,” Larnia whispered.

“There is no magic stronger. Or older. All spirits, all demons, and all gods must respect it,” Miron said. “But it only works for us. Only her family.”

Larnia pressed an ear to the floor.

“What are you doing?”

“Listening. For her.”

A smile cracked Miron’s weathered face. “It’s just a story.”

“Are all people buried under floors?”

“We keep them close.”

“But your wife’s sister…” Larnia opened her midnight-blue eyes. “She is not close. She drifts in the waters of the deep. So far from home. So alone.”

“Your mother.” Miron tightened his grip on her shoulder and his lip trembled. “She was your mother.”

But in his heart he already knew that wasn’t true. He knew the child in his house wasn’t his niece, no matter how much he wanted her to be.

In grey-white wisps, the mists swelled against the cliff. Tasia and Miron stood above, outside their cottage, with Larnia asleep inside. Their voices carried, echoing over the crashing tides below.

“It isn’t her,” Tasia thundered. “It isn’t Larnia. She speaks strange tongues. Her eyes are blue as the sea. She does not remember anything. This is not our girl, Miron. It’s a sea-shade…” She touched her mother’s bone. “Wearing her like an old coat!”

“She’s a little girl,” Miron snapped.

“Do you believe she is our niece?”

Miron looked away.

“Answer me, Miron. Look into my eyes and tell me you believe this is our niece.”

Miron kept his eyes on the mist. On the horizon, darks clouds swelled, building for a summer storm. “I…” Miron shook his head. “I don’t know.” Then… “No. No, it isn’t her.”

It hurt, admitting that truth, like he was sending Larnia back into the deep. He felt the tears welling up again, the grief clawing at his heart.

“Then you think we should keep a sea-demon in our house?” Tasia demanded.

Perhaps Tasia was right, Miron thought. Perhaps this shade wearing Larnia’s skin was a demon, an evil here to kill them. But she had seemed so peaceful, when she played with the earth, and her laugh was so bright, so clear.

“What do you say we do with her?” Miron threw up his arms. “Stone her?”

“Put her back where she came from,” Tasia snapped. “Cast her into the sea!”

A sound came from the cottage. The tiniest ray of light shone through the ajar door. Miron reached out and pushed it open.

There, curled against the wall, sea-eyes moon-wide, lip trembling, knees clutched tight, was Larnia.

Miron looked down at this thing wearing his niece’s body, this shade from the deep, this demon. She looked back, with a frightened child’s face. Her voice was the smallest whisper, faint as wind. “Please don’t put me back.”

Miron picked her up in his arms and held her tight to his chest. “Never.”

She was not evil, this child. Whatever else she was, she was a child. A frightened child, who needed love, who needed kindness.

He turned to speak to Tasia, but Tasia was gone, the door swinging in the wind.

Thunder sounded in the dark of night. Larnia trembled. She sat upon the cliff’s edge, Miron standing behind her.

The sky was grey and churning, rain pattering against the earth. Ocean waves lapped against the cliffs, hungrily tearing at pale stone. Birds shrieked and the wind howled.

Larnia clutched at Miron’s sleeve. “She’s coming. Stirring in the deep waters.”

“Who?” Larnia said nothing, staring into the pounding surf. “Who is coming, Larnia?”

“I’m not…” She took a deep breath. “Not her.”

Miron sighed. Waves cracked against the cliff and a sliver of white stone splashed into the churning sea. “I know.”

“Then you’ll let her take me. Down into midnight.” Larnia looked at him. “It’s lonely there. And cold. The Deep Court sit on thirteen thrones of coral and bone. Hers is the largest. The skulls of kings lie beneath her white fingers.”

The birds shrieked again and the mist laid icy kisses upon Miron’s cheeks. “Tell me…” His breath turned to a cloud. “Did you kill Larnia?”

Eyes wide, the girl shook her head. “No. Never. I tried to pull her from the waves. But she was… empty. Gone.” She looked away. “I couldn’t help her.”

“But you tried.” The girl nodded. A tear glistened on her eyelash. “What do I call you?”

“We have no names in the deep. No flesh. Only whispers and bones. I wanted to walk on the surface. To feel sand in my toes. To feel the wind. To feel. To be.” She closed her eyes. “I’m not ready to go back to the dark.”

“I’ll call you Larnia, then.” A wistful smile crept over Miron’s lips. “I think she would have liked that.”

Larnia looked up. “You won’t leave me?”

“Not if all the shades of the night came for you.”

“Why? I’m not her.”

“No. But you’re you.” He kissed her forehead. “And I think you’re special enough.”

They sat there, rain pattering against their skin. Lightning struck across the sky, a white crack in creation. Larnia let out a cold breath.

“Who’s coming?” Miron asked again.

“The Queen of the Deep Court,” she whispered.

Miron stood, brushing down his trousers. “Get inside.”

“But she comes.” Larnia pointed to the waves. A shadow stirred in the waters, moving towards shore. “For me.”

“Get inside,” Miron said. “If Tasia returns, tell her to bolt the door.”

She clutched at his sleeve. “Where are you going?”

He smiled. “I’m going to meet the Queen.”

The cottage was dark when Tasia returned. No fire burned in the hearth. The winds around her were pounding, the rain hitting hard as stones. The storm had come suddenly. Tasia had barely made it back in time, racing through sheep fields and terraces as the earth turned to mud and rainwater ran in deep rivers.

She wanted to talk to Miron about the girl. She had left too abruptly, spoken too much in heat and anger. That heat was cooled now, her anger turned to something quieter. As she had walked, it had risen from her like steam, until she was left with only a cool rationality.

Miron was too trusting, too hopeful, by his nature. Tasia was no longer so soft. The world had taught her that hope today meant hurt tomorrow. She knew this shade in child’s shape would turn on them. She knew—however much her heart wanted it to be otherwise—the shade was dangerous, even if it hadn’t done anything to harm them, even if she seemed so much like a child, even if she made Miron happy, even if her laugh—

Tasia shook off those thoughts with the rain, and opened the door.

“Miron,” she called, but there was no answer.

There was a noise in the darkness. A soft sobbing. It was the girl—the shade. Her eyes peered out from the shadows of the corner, behind her bed. They were so dark, so strange, those eyes. Tasia felt like they were staring right through her.

“Where is he?” Tasia demanded. The door swung open behind her, groaning in the wind. The shade stared through it. Her eyes were wide with fear. She looked so much like nothing more than a frightened child, and Tasia wanted to embrace her.

But she was a shade. A danger to them all.

“Gone, gone, gone!” the shade bleated. “Told him not to! Said he wanted to keep me safe.”

“Into that storm? Stupid man. He’ll be drenched, if he’s not drowned.”

“He said bolt the door,” the shade said. “So she can’t get in.”

“She?” Tasia put her hands on the shade’s shoulders. Her little face was wet with tears, and Tasia reached up, without thinking, to wipe them away. “Who’s she?”

“The Queen of the Deep! She’s come for me!” The shade trembled. “She’ll take him, to get to me.”

“Then she can have you!” Tasia snapped. The shade wailed and darted back beneath the bed, out of Tasia’s reach. “I won’t lose him! Not after—” Her breath caught. She shook her head and looked down at the shade. “I’m sorry. I…” She gathered her breath. “The gods have taken too much. I won’t lose him as well.”

The shade went quiet. For a moment she just lay there, so still and small. Then she crawled out, and said in a shaking voice, “Then I should go to her.”

Her hand closed around Tasia’s, and Tasia’s heart stopped, remembering the days when she had prayed and prayed for a child to hold her hand like that. She had believed the gods were good then, as Miron still believed. After so many prayers unanswered, there was no faith left in her. She had asked again and again for a child, and the gods had given her only death.

Miron had wanted a child so badly. Tasia looked at the little girl before her, her niece’s face with those midnight-blue eyes, and understood why he had gone into the storm.

But why her, Miron? she asked. Why this demon-thing?

He answered, though he was not there, because she always knew what he would say: Because she needs us.

Miron—foolish, stupid, wonderful Miron—would not forgive her if she gave the child to the Queen, even to save his life. Especially to save his life. Miron loved this child, as deeply as he loved her, as deeply as she loved him. They were all tangled up in it, the three of them, fish caught in the same net.

Love was a foolish thing, Tasia had always thought. There was no reason in it. Perhaps that was why it came easier to Miron than to her. She had wrapped herself in too many layers of silence, of fear, of rationality. There was little opening for love to work its way in.

Miron left his heart wide open, and so this child had wandered in. Tasia could see how. The child might have gotten into her heart as well, if she did not guard it so closely, turning aside love before it could turn to loss. It was rare that Tasia allowed herself to love.

But she loved Miron, more than anything. It was a love that had grown over decades, until she could not imagine herself without him. They had grown together, like two trees entwined. She trusted him as she trusted nothing else in this world. She would not lose him. His absence would be a hole bigger than her world.

“I should go back,” the girl said, though she was shaking with fear, “and you two can be happy again.”

Tasia thought of the children she could not bring herself to speak of, of Miron alone in the storm, and of her sister’s family lost to the sea.

Not again, Tasia thought. I will not lose another.

She clutched her mother’s bone tight, and looked out into the storm.

From the roar of the tide and the pounding curtain of rain stepped the Queen. Her hair was sea-soaked rope cast into the depths, her cloak a ragged sail from a doomed ship, her face the parchment-white skull of a long-dead sailor. A pocked crown of coral crawled over her scalp, poking into empty sockets where blue flames blazed. Her dress was woven eel-skin, slithering behind her.

Drenched with rainwater, Miron stood rooted in the sand. She stopped, close enough for him to smell the rot, like old fish in the summer sun.

“You have one of my subjects,” the Queen said. Briny seawater spilled from between brown-encrusted teeth. “I would take her back.”

He stood straight, his chest puffed out, but his gut sagging. “Nothing here is yours.”

“She stole your niece,” the Queen replied. “She wears her corpse like a play-thing.”

“My niece is dead,” Miron said, though his voice shook when he said it. “Giving you that girl won’t bring her back.”

“She is not one of you. She is a thing of shadows and waves. She belongs to me.”

“Why do you want her so?”

“Why?” The Queen cocked her skull head to one side. “She is mine. My subject. Would a shepherd let a lamb be stolen from his flock? Would you let me steal coins from your purse?”

“She isn’t a lamb or a coin,” Miron said. “She’s a child. A person. She wasn’t stolen, either, unless she can steal herself.”

“What she is,” the Queen hissed, “is mine.”

“You can’t have her.”

The Queen’s laugh was the caw of carrion birds. “And what will you do?”

Miron raised his fists. “Whatever I can.”

“In other words…” Plaque-coated teeth flashed. “Nothing.”

She raised a hand and the wind sent him tumbling through the sands. Pinpricks of hail pressed against him like shards of glass. Red drops glistened on his skin.

“You are mortal,” she thundered. “Finite. Flesh and bone, easily broken. I am the shadow beneath the waters. I am the biting cold and the whispering dark. I am ancient and forever.”

“You’re nothing,” Miron spat. “Just mist and fear. Sunlight and a swift wind would sweep you away.”

The hail pressed tighter, cutting skin. Lightning tore the sky, followed by a drumbeat of thunder.

“I will hurl your corpse to the sea. The fish shall eat your eyes and the waves shall wear your flesh to nothing. Your shade will wander the waves forever, mine to keep, as all lost souls are. Give me the girl.”

“Never!” Miron snarled.

“Stop!” Footsteps pattered along the beach. Larnia raced towards them, dripping wet and shivering in the rain. The Queen’s eyes flared and she turned from Miron, letting him fall. Scratched and bloody, he lay on the sands, fighting for each choking breath.

“My subject,” the Queen said, “you come back to me.”

Larnia held her chin high. She seemed so small that the wind might blow her away. “You will not hurt him.”

“I have no interest in him,” the Queen replied. “Or any of the crawling ants on this little rock. My court is vaster than his world. Yet he stands between me…” She reached for Larnia and the girl stepped back. “And mine. The shade that defies me. The lamb that stole itself.”

“If I come with you,” Larnia said, “you will leave them be?”

“Larnia,” Miron croaked, trying to pull himself upright, “no!

There was a sound on the cliff path above, the gentlest shower of falling stone. Miron looked up and saw Tasia looking down upon them like a distant god, impassive as the stone surrounding her.

“Help me!” he screamed up at Tasia. “Help her!”

But Tasia said nothing. She stood, and watched.

The Queen bowed her crowned skull. “If you return to me willingly, I shall spare them.”

“Then take me,” Larnia said, stretching her arms wide.

Bony fingers, dripping sea-mud, reached towards her. A millimeter from her skin, they stopped, quivering like a tree in a storm. “What have you done, girl?” the Queen hissed. “Another claims you!”

And Miron saw it, dangling around Larnia’s neck: a single, yellowed fingerbone on a piece of old string.

Thunder roared and the earth shook under their feet. There was a smell in the air like incense on a winter morning. The Queen stumbled. Flakes of bone crumbled from her fingers and the coral in her crown bleached white, shriveling like an old orange in the sun. Her teeth cascaded from her jaw in a rush of dark water.

“She is mine!” she screamed. “You will not steal from me!”

A voice came from the cliff path, clear and strong even over the storm. “No,” Tasia said. “She’s ours.”

The Queen reached again for Larnia, but even as her arm stretched, it became dust and sand, scattered upon the sea wind. Her ragged cloak fluttered, then was lifted away, flailing as it was borne out to the crashing ocean waves.

Miron pulled himself to his feet. The winds howled around them, and the waves still crashed against the shore, but despite it, all seemed quiet now. Larnia sat in the sands, staring at where the Queen wasn’t. She reached out a hand, feeling the empty air. Mists hung over the sea, pale and hazy, and rain pattered down, no longer hard, as it had been before, but a soft rhythm, cold on Miron’s skin. He went over to Larnia, who was looking out to the sea like she expected the Queen to come back out, but there were only the waves.

Tasia walked towards them, her sandaled feet leaving deep marks in sea-drenched sand. She stopped beside Larnia and gave her a soft smile. “As long as her bones are near, my mother keeps her family safe from evil spirits. She would not let our child be taken.”

Larnia embraced her, burying her head in the folds of her dress. Tasia ran a hand through tresses of rain-wet hair and drew her close. “Nobody can touch you here. Nobody.”

Lightning flashed. In the grey curtain of mist, Miron saw the shadow of an old woman, tall and proud. Then the mist shifted like the trails of a silk dress and there was only earth and rain.

“Come on.” Miron put one arm around Larnia and other around Tasia. “Let’s get inside where it’s dry and warm.”

The three of them walked up the winding path, leaving the sea behind. Arm-in-arm, they climbed towards the old house. Larnia flung open the door, and Tasia went to stoke the hearth, while Miron gathered firewood. The fire burned, warm and bright, and the three of them huddled around it. Rain pattered against the roof, and winds howled, but neither could touch them, not here.

Larnia fell asleep, her head nuzzled on Tasia’s shoulder. Tasia looked at Miron, and he looked back, and all their walls were melted away.

Here, his eyes said, here is our family.

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