A Salt and Sterling Tongue
By Emma Osborne
I found my dying boy curled up in a pile of straw wet with his blood. Seamus rolled over as I entered the barn, and I saw then that he’d chewed his fingers down to the first knuckle.
“I can taste my King in my wet,” he said, rocking forward, naming his lost Merling lord. Seamus could barely keep himself up on what was left of his hands and his knees. I crouched and moved closer and he fell forward onto forearms thin as sticks.
Seamus’ teeth shone through the gore that coated him from nose to navel, and he’d bitten off a few of the scales that dotted the skin of his upper arms. One was stuck to his chin with blood.
“He’s stopped singing, but I can hear him in the waves and in my blood, my lord, my king.”
My youngest boy was the one of the unlucky few who’d heard the music of the Merling King while out collecting cockles, who came home the next morning shivering and soaked and vomiting up seawater, the salt crystalising in his scant beard, newborn silver scales peeping out of his skin.
“Sera, you can’t tell me you don’t hear that sweet melody?” He hummed a few bars of something soft and haunting.
I shook my head, too hurt to speak. I wanted to be angry, but who was there to fight?
Seamus hadn’t come back to himself, come back to me, even after the dying screams of the Merling King rang out across leagues of seawater when our valiant Queen drove her sword into his chest. No, he stayed as the others did: snarling and ready to knock down anyone who stood between them and the sea, ready to drink down salt and pray and weep along with the song of the Merling King, he who would drown us all. He’d become a boy who’d stand in the cold water if he could, would cup it in his hands and swallow it down even though it came back up. A boy who refused food, cursing the taste of dust and dirt.
I’d tried talking. I’d tried shouting. I tried bringing him an old shirt that still smelled like the lavender I’d tucked into his drawers. The overworked healer, our good lad Ned, tried every powder and tincture and smoke he could think of. Nothing shifted my boy or any of the others. Folklore and field medicine counted for naught. All Seamus did was weep until his eyes were so swollen that he could barely see.
“Seamus, son, do you know me?” I knelt down before him, smelling his dirty body and his waste, hating that he’d not let me touch him with unsalted water, or with a warm damp cloth.
He laughed then.
“I don’t understand why you won’t let me go to him, to swim and swim until I land on his island, until I am taken in by his arms,” he said. His eyes were dark, wide, and as reckless as the smash of wave on rock. “You always pull me back, saying no, saying please.”
“Please, Seamus. Come back to me.” My voice shook more than I’d like to admit.
“The salt on my lips is what keeps the dream alive,” he continued. “All I want is to press my mouth into his shoulder, to have his seafoam eyes look into mine, for him to tell me that I’m good, yes, that I’m his.”
“The Merling King is dead,” I said. “You heard his screams, I heard them. You can come back now.”
“Come back to what?” He nearly sounded his old self again, frustrated at my insistence that he do his chores. “I’m going, I’m his. Let me go, Sera. Let me go.”
Gods, he howled as if he were drowning on dry land.
I knew it my heart that there was nothing more to do but wait, a cup of cooling broth at my side in case by some miracle he wished it. What would I tell my strong lad Jonn, who carried my old battered blade in the service of the Queen? Jonn was so sure that Seamus would recover when the Merling King was finally slain.
I sat in the barn until Seamus stopped yelling and cursing, until my poor ruined boy fell into a feverish slumber. I cleaned his face then, and the cloth came away covered in blood and dirt and scales.
When Seamus was free of grime and in fresh clothes, I pulled him into my lap and rocked him as I’d done when he was a slip of a boy. I held him as his breath whispered slower and slower and finally to a halt. I was not a perfect mother, far from it, but I made sure that when my poor boy passed, he was not alone.
I sat with his thin body in my arms until the blacksmith came looking for me and made me wrap my boy up in my best blue blanket.
It was the same colour as his face.
The Bard arrived alone a month later, riding a dappled grey horse with copper charms braided into its mane and leading a mule laden with supplies. The village children shouted her arrival, the first bright noise we’d heard since the echoing wail of the Merling King and the horror that came after. The Bard was a sight for our sore and salted eyes; an envoy of the Queen, sent in advance of wagons of supplies to bring us a hint of lightness. A golden ripple chased over her skin now and then. It was a powerful ward granted by the Queen, cast over her most honoured advisors and diplomats.
The Bard was safe on the Queensroad.
I was mending an old shirt when I heard the children. I tucked it away and wandered out to the village square. The Bard swung down from the saddle carefully, her burnished red hair snagged by the wind, her harp tucked against her hip.
I knew her from my time serving the Queen as a soldier in the earlier battles against the Merling King, so when she looked around for our leader, I stepped forward and her eyes settled on me.
“Be welcome, Haran, Bard of Queen Fortune.” My voice was rusty with disuse, and I realised that it was the first time I’d spoken to another person in four days. “It is our honour to provide for you. We—”
I was supposed to offer her food and lodging, to press upon her the best of what we had. I was caught in a moment of shame. The Merling song had caused us to huddle close to one another, to leave our fields to tend to our loved ones. His song took our children and our heart for living with them. We’d not sent traders to nearby villages since the song began. We had salt fish and our winter stores, but they were dwindling, and I knew I was not the only one to worry that they’d not last when the seasons turned.
The Bard stepped forward, holding up a gentle hand.
“Good lady, I carry my own supplies, but would be grateful for a place to sleep while I am here. Just now I passed the village Southwell, who have an abundance of apples to share and none to share them with. Perhaps they’d trade you for some fish, for you know that they are landlocked? And I hear that Blackbridge still have their hives and would surely be eager to trade for grain, should you have any to spare?”
A few of us mumbled and nodded, and the miller confessed that he’d held back some grain, just in case we traded again.
“Here,” said the Bard, passing a few coppers down to Brell, the daughter of the miller. “Buy as much honey as they have to sell and ask them to bring it back in a wagon. And you, lad, go get us some apples.” She handed out more coin. “This should be plenty.”
And that’s how the Bard gently opened our trade routes back up again, when we were too broken and huddled to do so ourselves.
“Please, you’re welcome to stay with me,” I found myself saying. There were plenty of empty beds in the village, but now that I was speaking again, I realised how much I missed having someone to talk to.
“I am Sera, who fought for the Queen at the battle of Red Sands. I remember well the kindness you showed to our injured. Here, let me help you with your bags.”
I stepped forward, nearly stumbling in my haste to be of assistance, but the Bard only smiled at me and offered me one of her saddlebags. The worn leather smelled of pepper and dust.
“Thank you, Sera, your hospitality is welcome.” The Bard’s voice was sweet and nothing like my mournful rasp.
Jessup’s lad Alexi promised to rub down her horse and mule and stable them safely for the night. The Bard thanked the boy and passed him a few coppers for his help. It was more coin than Alexi had seen in his life, of that I am sure.
“Lead on,” said the Bard.
I took her home.
It was strange how easily the Bard fit into place in my cottage. I’d grown almost used to the silence with both boys gone, but it was no intrusion to have her settling into Seamus’s bed, cluttering around making tea and softly singing to us over the crackle of the fire.
I saw how she looked at me, traced my shoulders and my jawbone with her eyes that were bright and green like fresh shoots. Green like the softest moss. Green like hope.
It nearly hurt to have someone so beautiful look at me sweetly.
“You’ll let me know, won’t you? If you begrudge me the space?” The Bard murmured over a cup of tea, sweet leaves that had travelled with her from the capital. I was shelling peas.
“Of course, it’s no trouble.” There was a long pause. “I like having someone here.” The words scraped as I said them. “I like having you here.”
My eyes caught hers. She was nearly a stranger. How could I feel such kinship so quickly? Yet, everything about her told me she’d embrace me if I asked and I longed to do so. But who was I to ask her for comfort? Gods. I wished nothing more than to be held, to be told that one day, things would be easier. Her arms were strong and sun-brown and would surely feel wonderful around me.
The Bard toyed with her harp.
“Thank you,” she said, rubbing polish into the wood. She smiled up at me, and I took comfort from both her manner and her presence.
The last time I’d seen the Bard was after the Battle of Red Sands, when I’d been levied and lent my sword arm to the cause of our Queen, to fight the land-walking octopi that the Merling King sent against us a score of years ago. He had enchanted sea-creatures to walk on land, to punish us for fishing in waters he claimed as his.
I’d been full of songs of savagery and defiance when I marched off to defend our beaches from his monsters. By the end of the campaign I’d seen my share of blood red and blue, of pleading and screaming soldiers, and knew better than to crow my triumph over a field full of the slain.
The Bard had arrived in the aftermath. We’d not seen her for a week, not since she sang us off to the fight the many-armed creatures with a rousing song filled with fire and victory.
Her tune was very different, after. It was a lament, for us as much as for the fallen.
As my weary companions roamed the Queen’s own beaches, burying the dead and tending the wounded, she had walked, her skirts heavy with bloody mud, but her hands clean. I’ll never forget the stink of that battle. Our dying soldiers were bad enough, but the sea monsters who bled blue reeked of dead fish and stale water, and tossed and turned in the sand even after death. Even the greedy gulls wouldn’t touch them, but flew overhead, screaming.
The Bard played her small harp as she walked, singing a dirge that allowed those in pain to focus for a moment on something that wasn’t their guts falling out. They could nearly taste a sweet blossom in their mouth, or a lick of honey, rather than their own frightened heartbeat, stressed and wild one moment, flagging and drowsy the next.
It gave us, the horrified victorious, the will to march another few steps, to find our companions where they lay, to touch their eyelids closed and take their village-tokens from around their necks. Each of us carried a fragment of clay or tin stamped with home in case we fell. How else would we be able to count the lost? What else could we take home to their parents, their children?
I remembered her song that day, allowing me my grief at our triumph, urging me to hold my head high, to breathe through the stink, to keep living in a world that contained the sensation of yanking my stuck sword from a soft, pliable body. The octopus had screamed when it died and flailed its tentacles at me, grasping for my belt-knife. I pulled off the clutching suckers with gloved hands, shivering at the squelch of it.
Many of us died in those battles and that fracturing was precisely what allowed the Merling King to breach our defenses a score of years later with his salt lullaby. His might had failed, so he tried subtlety.
And so, our brave white-haired Queen Fortune went to fight the Merling King, who called our people to the sea. I am glad that she ended it, and gladder still that she sent her Bard to soothe us with her songs of healing.
“Tell me about your boys,” said the Bard, breaking our easy silence. I swallowed the lump in my throat and spoke.
“Ah, here I am lost in grief when they’re not even my blood. Someone had to take in Widow Catherine’s sons after she passed from the Summer cough, and everyone else saw only the sickness on them.” My voice was rough and sad, but the Bard simply listened.
“The poor boys were as fit as foals,” I continued. “Everyone knows that the Summer cough only takes the adults, but still, nobody wanted to risk them and so to me they went when they were but five and seven.”
I told her that I wasn’t a natural mother, but that did my best to do right by them, to keep them fed and clothed. I comforted them when they were frightened of trolls and ogres lurking in the woods and gave them my fiercest scowls and extra chores when they did the kinds of foolish things that growing boys do. I taught them all I knew with a blade, until they could best most times, and showed them herb craft, so that they might have something to offer one of the other youths in trade for skills. That was how we worked, in our little village of Bellbray-by-the-sea. Through virtue of teaching one another, of lifting our neighbours up.
“And so Jonn re-wrapped the hilt of my old sword with fresh leather, shined the blade bright and left to join the Queen in her fight, but his brother Seamus stayed with me.”
“He had no real heart for fighting, and would near faint at the sight of the butcher’s gutted pigs, but I loved him for his sweetness and couldn’t fault him for it.”
When my words ran dry I realised how much I’d needed to say them out loud, to someone who heard both the said and the unsaid. I wept then, and she let me, doing nothing more than stroking my hair over and over. I cried and cried, until my heart was squeezed to nothing, until my eyes were red and raw.
The Bard made soothing noises, spoke little nothing words of comfort, and when I stopped my weeping she was there with a bit of wet cloth to wipe my face with fresh water. When my face was clean she held me, as softly as if I were made from glass. We sat together in silence as the fire died down.
In the days that followed, our youngsters traveled to nearby villages and brought back apples and honey and with them tales of Southwell and Blackbridge. The Bard wandered our fields, planting held-back seeds and singing to the earth, calling up shoots of green that thickened and steadied under the autumn sun. They grew a few months’ worth in an afternoon, and with any luck would be ready to harvest before the winter cold set in. My neighbours sent their children to the Bard with gathered wildflowers, with tokens woven from leftover yarn. She smiled and thanked the children gravely, and then twisted the tokens into a loose crown. The green stems only brought out her eyes.
“Tonight, we will feast on the beach,” she told us, after drinking deep from a jug of cool water. “Gather driftwood and gather food, for we should eat and be together. It’s time to say our goodbyes to your lost.”
A bonfire was built, higher than the tallest cottage in the village, and we dragged out tables and chairs and faded cloths to eat from. I spent my afternoon making sweet honey biscuits, the kind that Seamus loved best. When the time came to meet the others, something called me to wear my best shirt, the one that I’d worn to the city to greet the Queen in. It felt right, to dress as best as I could.
The fire roared as the light faded, as we ate and talked and cried and hugged each other. Grief could be so lonely, but we were united on the beach, with the Bard sitting amongst us like kin.
When we’d eaten the last few mouthfuls of traded food, the Bard nudged us all into a rough circle around the flames, calling forward those who had hung back in their grief and touching the quiet weepers on the tops of their heads. The wood popped and sparks flickered through smoke as they rose into the bright night sky. It was clear, and if I turned my eyes away from the flames I could see more stars than I could count in a dash against the black.
“Listen to me and each other, and we’ll make something tonight. Something for you, and something for the dead.” And then the Bard was humming low in her chest. The song was sonorous and resonant and something in it pulled tears from my eyes and a heaviness from my bones. I reached out, blinded by tears, and she gripped my hand tight. The hum moved through her, into my hand, into my body, and I found her voice with my own before I realised it. My hum was higher than hers, but it blended in, and there was the blacksmith coughing and adding her rough voice to ours. It was just a single note, sounded again and again, but it warmed everything as the heat of the fire warmed my cheeks.
When we had that solid base note, the Bard harmonised with us, everyone singing now, dipping her voice in and out of the song of our grief, filling it out with the memory of the blue hand of a salt-struck child, drawing in the sweet scent of apple blossoms, giving us back that sunlit morning when we’d hummed and made bread while everyone else slumbered. She comforted us with the knowledge that now that we were singing together, our voices lightly woven like thread made of smoke, we would never forget our lost.
“Alais,” said the blacksmith, tears in her eyes. “Oh, my poor darling. Why did it have to be you?”
“Alais,” echoed the Bard, singing her name as if it were a prayer. “Alais, daughter of Hild, daughter of the village Bellbray, daughter of our hearts, Alais.” We sang, our chests full and voices thick and we wove her name into our song.
Others stepped forward, adding the names of their loved ones, but I was frozen in place, grief heavy on my chest. All I could do was hum the names of our lost, and all I could see was Seamus’s sweet face before the song of the Merling King turned him into one of his salt folk.
Finally, there were none left but my poor adopted boy to sing for, yet still I could not find the strength to say his name. If I named him, he’d be gone. Surely that was how it went?
“Seamus,” said the Bard, resting her hand on my shoulder as she spoke. “Seamus Bellbray, son of Sera, who died at peace.”
Grief cracked my chest. Maybe he’d still be alive if I’d loved him more, maybe I could have done more when he’d faded to a wraith of sea salt and curses, blue from nose to navel, scaled from fingertip to forearm. But no, our bright song chased that away and I knew my worries to be false. I fell to my knees in front of the fire and sobbed my lad’s name. My boy, who I loved. My boy, who I lost.
I knelt by the fire until it burned down to coals. The others gathered themselves slowly and made their way home, lighter freer, healing now. My face felt tight from the heat, but it was a freeing fire, and with each crackle and drifting ember that danced up into the cold night sky I felt another touch of heaviness leaving my body.
“I remember you from after the battle, you know,” said the Bard, as she smoothed her thumb over my brow. “You thanked me for singing one of your men to sleep. A pale lad he was, not much older than fifteen.”
“Tad was his name. Just a boy.” The memory came back with surprising strength. “He’d huffed as he died, like a surprised horse. His eyes were grey like a calm sea and the shape of his chin reminded me of home.” I both hated and loved how much of the poor lad I remembered.
“Ah, he had no business on the field, but he’d stolen his cousin’s sword and slipped into the ranks, and we’d not had time to send him home before the battle. Besides, we needed his blade. Am I a fool to have kept him?”
“He saved your life, didn’t he? You told me, that day,” she said.
“I—yes. He hit one of the octopi from behind, just as it was about to stick me with its beak.”
“I’m glad I could sing for him, then. It sounds as if he was brave.”
“Brave, yes,” I replied. “Brave and young and foolish, but I feel like that could have been said of me, too.”
“We’re all children in war,” said the Bard. Her mouth tilted in a sad smile.
We stood together for a moment, until I remembered my manners.
“You must need to rest,” I said, staggering to my feet and turning toward home. Truly, I felt as if I could barely stand, such was the weight of the emotions of the evening.
“Oh, I’m awake now,” said the Bard, “But I’ll follow you home if you show me the way. I’ve gotten turned around on this beach.”
I didn’t believe her—Bards make a living out of knowing details small and large—but it was a kindness. We walked home together, her fingers twined with mine.
I kindled a candle or three when we got back to the cottage, thinking it was too late now to revive the fire. I bit my lower lip, imagining the Bard’s kiss. I wanted it so badly and I wanted more, but something in me was still locked up tight. Ah, but she was so full of healing sweetness.
“Sera?” The Bard whispered a hand against my shoulder. “Are you well?”
“I…” I had no idea how to answer that question. I just looked at her, wanting.
Her face softened.
“Would you like me to kiss you?”
Bards are nothing if not forthright. Her eyes told me that she understood my need to be cared for, to be embraced, to be filled with something kind to hold back the goodbye ache.
“Yes, please.” I leaned in, stopping just short of her mouth. She lifted her lips to meet mine, and there was her hand cupping the back of my head. We kissed by the fire, again and again, until I was warm inside and out.
That night, my sweet Bard did not sleep in Seamus’s bed, but came to mine. The night was tender and fierce and we gave each other pleasure and sweetness. I fell asleep with her body pressed warm and soft into mine. I never hoped to keep her with me, but I took this one bright moment as she offered it and gave her what I had in return. As we woke and kissed again, I allowed her gentleness to sink into my heart and burnish it softly.
After that night of healing and tenderness I felt strong enough to take Seamus’s Bellbray village token to the sea. We’d burned the bodies of our salt folk out of fear that they’d rise again, so I had no grave to visit.
“Be at peace, my son,” I said, as I tossed the token into the water he loved so much. And he had, long before the song of the Merling King. I’d taught him to swim when he was small and whenever he’d finished his chores he’d run to the sea, whooping and bright, to drench himself in the cool water, to warm his wet skin under the summer sun. That’s the Seamus I would remember now that the Bard had done her work.
I watched the token sink and let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. When it was gone I left the beach for home.
After a week of sweetness I found the Bard on that same beach, watching the whales as they played in the water off the coast.
The Bard sang long sonorous notes, amplified somehow, matching the song of the great creatures of the deep. They called back to her like giant keening ghosts. Somehow, they and the Bard were kin in song, and as I watched the whales breach and smash down into the sea I knew for a moment that the world contained wonders beyond those that I could see. The sun warmed me and gulls cried in the air. Her voice was pure and clean and their song was deep and melodious and the combination was beautiful.
When she finished singing and the last fin slipped beneath the waves, she strode from the water with a face bright with wonder. When she saw me watching silently from the shore, the corners of her eyes crinkled as she smiled.
“I taught them the song of Bellbray-by-the-sea,” she said, reaching up to twine a lock of my hair between her fingers. She smelled of salt and wild roses.
“Oh?” I replied, tongue-tied.
“Indeed,” she continued. “The creatures of the deep live long lives, and they’ll sing you to their family for years to come. The song will travel as far as they can swim, and farther than that as the song is shared. Mayhap one of them will sing out the name of your Seamus a score of generations hence.”
I blinked back the tears that rose at his name.
“And are you teaching names to the whales at every place you stop?” I tried to sound teasing, but it just sounded sad.
“No,” said the Bard quietly. “Just yours.”
I knew then that it was nearly time for her to leave.
There was a question I wanted to ask her hovering at the back of my mouth but I didn’t get it out before she leaned in and softly kissed me. Her lips were soft and salted, her tongue sweet.
“My route takes me down the coast. My Queen commanded me to restore her folk. To help them heal.” Our eyes met, mine wet.
“Yes,” I said. “I know. I knew you’d not be able to stay.” I clasped her hand in mine. “You did something so good here and I thank you for it.”
The Bard leant in, pressed her body against mine and put her face into my neck.
“Just because I must leave, it does not mean I can’t come back.” She pulled back a little, looked at me. “Can I come back?”
“Yes,” I said, my chest sparking. The waves rolled in, as they would roll in in a month, a year, a decade from now. “Yes, you can come back.”
About the Author
Emma Osborne is a queer fiction writer and poet from Melbourne, Australia. Their writing has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, Shock Totem: Tales of the Macabre and Twisted, Apex Magazine, Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Pseudopod, the Review of Australian Fiction, the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror, and GlitterShip. Emma is a graduate of the 2016 Clarion West Writers Workshop (Team Arsenic forever!) and is a former first reader at Clarkesworld Magazine. Emma currently lives in Melbourne, drinking all of the coffee and eating all of the food, but has a giant crush on Seattle and turns up under the shadow of the mountain at every opportunity.