At the very western tip of the world lies a land of clear waters and cold winters, where wild storms turn the sky and sea to dark gray, and white-sailed fishing boats once glided like swans over white-crested waves.
During one particularly fearsome storm, where thunder crashed and lightning lit up the sky for miles, a group of travelers huddled in an inn.
“Tell us a tale then,” urged one cloaked traveler, nursing a cup of something hot and nasty smelling. “Something to take our minds off this dratted thunder!”
The flimsy wooden shutters rattled open, lending the occupants a view of huge waves pounding relentlessly against the rocks and cliff where the inn was perched, punctuated every few minutes by another bright flash of lightning falling out of the sky The innkeeper’s wife hurried forward to bolt the shutters closed, replacing the view of storm-tossed ocean with badly-painted shutter.
“Come on now, Fion,” added a raggedy-looking woman in a faded red cloak smoking a pipe, “best make it quick though, before this whole cursed rock falls into the sea.”
“All right then,” conceded Fion, a younger man with a mane of long brown hair tied back at the nape of his neck, who wore a battered hat with a feather. “It just so happens that I know the perfect tale for nights like these,” he said, standing up and bowing grandly to the other inn’s guests. A storyteller by trade, he made his living by keeping audiences enthralled. The woman, Nell, told fortunes, and the other man, well, he made sure that no one bothered their small band. Together they lived their lives traveling, surviving off the small coins tossed into his cap after a performance. “
As I was saying,” Fion stepped forward into the firelight, casting dark shadows over his usually handsome face, “storms like these bring to mind a certain tale I heard a while back. You folks ever heard of Searain?” he asked, mentioning a rocky peninsula a little ways north and east of the inn. The inn’s guests nodded. “Funny name for it, eh? Seeing as there’s been no rain there for over a decade, nearly thirteen years it’s been, now, hasn’t it? Well, it wasn’t always like that. Used to be the wettest point around here, and that, my friends,” he said, as the rain pounded on the roof and the storm still raged outside, “is saying something. Now the Fisherfolk used to be quite common here in Iristerra,” he continued, naming this land where the colors of the sea and land shifted and changed like the rainbow.
“Few years ago, the Fisherfolk were as common as seagulls and as good at fishing too, but then came that huge storm, you remember that one, Nell? Nearly washed her wagon off the road, it did. I was only a young man then, just starting out on my own, before I joined up with the Travelers. Wiped most nearly all of the Fisherfolk out, and the ones that survived left after that. Nowadays it’s rare to see those beautiful boats with sails like wings sailing down the harbor.” He surveyed his audience, the inn’s guests ignoring their drinks and turning their faces to the storyteller. Even the innkeeper’s wife had stopped wiping out glasses to listen.
“Once, not so long ago, when the Fisherfolk sailed these waters, was a young woman who lived on one of those boats, one of the Fisherfolk, yes, but different. Most of those in Iristerra have light hair, pale brown or yellow as daffodils. Her hair, though, was dark as midnight on the water, and some said that it shown with blue and green lights when the firelight hit it.
“These people live by the sea, off the fish they catch. Most never leave their boats except to trade in the town. Rather like us Travelers, in some aspects. She, however, could often be seen wandering along the shore or in the town whenever her boat wasn’t anchored too far off shore. She never learned to fish; how to haul in a net or fillet a catch. Refused even to watch a hook and line, something even they let their youngsters do.
“She could swim, though. Swim like a fish or a seal, her eyes glistening blue-gray like the sea itself. She could even catch fish with her bare hands, but would always let them go. Odd, that was, considering that most of the Fisherfolk never learn how to swim. Say that if they can’t trust their boats from not sinking, then what’s the point? Uncanny, they said. Unnatural even.” He paused, taking a sip from a mug that the innkeeper’s wife offered him.
“Some even called her a weather-witch, one who could tame the winds and ride the storm. And it was true that on days when the wind howled and the rain nearly washed the paint off their boat, she could be seen balancing on the bowsprit, right above the figurehead, and that dolphins came to her call. But the Fisherfolk all have their way with the ocean; it’d be considered uncanny and unnatural if dolphins didn’t come to their call. Half-dolphin already, the whole pack of ’em, leastways they were.
“Some called her a Selkie, one of the seals that could turn into people, and that one day she would up and vanish to join her kinsmen beneath the waves. She didn’t though. Maybe she was a very patient Selkie. Maybe she was just human. In time she took up with a feller from Searain, a handsome one by all accounts, not one of the Fisherfolk, a merchant lad he was. He fell in love though, as all who met her did, and left dry land to join her and her family on their boat with sails like clouds.” He paused again, staring into the firelight, remembering the boats and the smell of salt spray. Of course it was just a tale, he chided himself: He never told anyone that there was anything more to it than that, never told anyone the circumstances that led him to the Travelers . . . the guilt and the fear and the long search afterward that still continued to this day . . . He shook his head to clear it, and went back to his tale.
“In time she gave birth to a child, a boy with his mother’s sea-colored eyes. Her family’s boat moved to the waters off Searain, so her man wouldn’t feel homesick. Her family grew to love him too, and he learned how to net a catch like she never did. He even learned to swim!”
All eyes were on the storyteller now. Even the stable boy, odd Ben, who had a strange habit of wandering off in the middle of storms and returning wet and drenched the next morning, who would sit still on a rock for hours, something most fourteen-year-old boys would have trouble managing, had come in from the rains to hear the tale. Fion’s eyes lingered a bit on the newcomer, his tawny ones matched stare-for-stare by the boy’s funny gray ones.
“They were quite happy for a year or two, as their child grew and walked and sat in his mother’s lap as she perched on the bowsprit when the wild weather came. One day though, as her man was pulling in the day’s catch, the woman saw something strange. An eagle, one of those that live on the cliffs hereabouts, came swooping down out of the sky, catching in its talons a gannet, but instead of taking the poor bird back to its nest, flew with it out toward the setting sun.
“The woman took this as a bad sign. Being as she was one of the Fisherfolk who take such stock in omens like that, she told her man to find safe haven somewhere, in the nearby harbor or in some rocky cove along the shore. But the man wouldn’t, saying she was being foolish, as eagles are wont to attack seabirds and eat ’em for their supper. Turned out he was the foolish one, stupid, stupid man.” Fion’s tone became bitter, and the listeners simply thought that it was one of his storyteller’s tricks, not realizing that there was something more. There was always something more . . . “That night, she sat on her familiar place on the bowsprit, clutching her child. That night, a storm blew in out of nowhere, wrecking their ship and half of the other Fisherfolks’ as well.”
“That’s it then?” asked Ben, surprising the innkeeper’s wife, for he seldom spoke, if at all, and never to strangers. “That’s all, the storm came in and they all died?”
Fion appraised him sharply. Yes, he was sure . . . he was almost entirely sure that this boy was the one . . . “Now wait just a second! Yes, most of ’em died, but not all of ’em. The woman’s child was found, afloat on an old trunk lid, some ways south and west of Searain. She had used her magic, whatever magic she might’ve had, to save the child’s life, when she could have saved her own. No one knows what became of her child after that, maybe he lived, maybe he died. No one knows what became of her man either. Only thing anyone knows is that it hasn’t rained in Searain since, the sea itself, they say, mourning the loss of the Fisherwoman who could swim with the dolphins. And it’s not going to rain soon, either, not until their child comes back on those white-sailed boats and brings back the rest of the Fisherfolk with him.”
It was the end of the tale, and the assembled audience clapped. They tossed a few coins, which Fion caught deftly in his cap.
“’twas a good tale,” the innkeeper’s wife sighed, “even if ’twasn’t true,” she added, with a glance at Ben. He was still in his corner, staring at that handsome storyteller gentleman, brow furrowed in thought.
The next morning, Ben and the Travelers were gone. “Oh, he said that that storyteller offered him some work with the Travelers,” said one of the maids, after being interrogated by the innkeeper’s wife about the whereabouts of the strange stable boy “Made sense, seeing as how those two were talking after he finished that lovely tale ’bout the sea woman and all.”
That summer, when the winter’s tempests had finally blown themselves out, white-sailed fishing boats were seen sailing down as if on wings off the coast of Iristerra. Those who saw them say that the lead boat was manned by a boy and a gentleman with a feather in his cap.
The night after, it rained in Searain.