I was born during a storm so terrible rivers overflowed and drowned the deserts. Waves rose up to swallow whole cities. The weight of the raindrops crushed men in their paths.
During labor, my mother paced like the midwife ordered, until her feet wore jagged canyons in the rough hewn floor. When the time came, the midwife led her to stand on two great tins filled with egg whites as an offering for Marquesa the Fertile. My mother gave me life with one hand on the Brigantian midwife, drawing strength from she who blesses all mothers, and one hand on my father's shoulder, the god who ruled over the home with the strength of a hundred men.
Like the tides flooding the Sycrosian countryside, my mother's waters flowed and I fell into the salty ocean twixt the tins. They should have known then, my parents-- the outstretched fingers of Gellawyn the Wave, should have warned them-- but they were blinded by the joy of their first successful pregnancy after so many miscarriages. So it was that they found themselves staring in horror at the slick furred creature that frolicked in the Chasm of the Tins, swimming in the waters of birth.
My father later said that it took a full four minutes for the screaming to start and when it did even the banshees hid. My father was the one who picked me up and put me in the cradle. He always said, when telling me the story, that it was the only time he ever heard me whimper. My sister came a full fifteen minutes later, riding the crest of a second tide that was much weaker than the first. All around her the waters turned red with blood, a thick rise that crashed through the Chasm of the Tins and up into the cradle to bathe me in ichor. I frolicked in the crimson joy of it.
My father, Breck Na'Tirna was a practical man. He came to look at us after my mother stepped down from her failed throne of egg tins and went to reign over a mug of stout instead. My father once worked for the King as ambassador to the Phyrians. He said he met all sorts of strange folk on his travels, from dancing princesses twelve feet tall to talking butterflies no bigger than a thimble. Since Phyrians are such a varied people, the king required my father to know all manner of fey. He told me that he once met a selkie and that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, except for that siren he had escaped a year before. The selkie, as she herself said, was born a seal and became a woman. And as my father stood watching us, mewling and filthy he remembered the selkie's words for, indeed, my sister and I were born seals.
It was my mother's idea. Ferga Na'Tirna had seen, in the market at the yearly Gathering of the Clans, a man selling a pelt. The man was so thin, his bones showed and his clothes hung upon him like rags on a scarecrow. His voice was like dry chaff falling onto sand and he had two great ram's horns that curled around the side of his head. The pelt, the man said, came from a creature so fearsome it took a year to catch. Its eyes were like red globes and it had a call like that of a hound to lure one into a false sense of familiarity. Stripped of her pelt, the creature stood beside him, nothing more than a beautiful but meek woman, tamed by the capture of her pelt. The man donned the pelt, which my mother said was slick and seemed wet though when Ferga touched it, the skin was dry. Then the man stepped into a great vat, filled to overflowing with water as salty as the sea. The man, looking out behind the pelt's great whiskered hood, breathed as if the water was air and the thousands of fish that swam around his cloaked figure no more than birds. My mother said that the pelt, and the woman to whom it belonged, sold that day to a man with skin like cured leather. He was a sailor captain, with one leg gone, eaten by the kraken, and an eye missing, sacrificed to Kraxus of the Deep who drowns men or saves them. The sailor said that the woman was a selkie. Waving a great plumed captain's bicorne, he said that sailors see them sometimes, seals with great big liquid eyes who shed their skins to become beautiful maidens. Only women, never men, with golden brown eyes and hair the color of loam. God touched by Gellawyn the wave, he said. Their pelts grant many boons, but only if the selkie still lives. Well, my mother never had much faith in the gods.
So it was, upon recalling that most informative sailor, Ferga decided to sell our pelts. Unfortunately for my mother, no one bothered to inform her that selkies don't shed their skins for a full year after birth. So she was left with the onerous task of keeping us alive until we had the decency to shed our pelts. Ferga refused to feed us herself, calling us slimy little rats, and suggested instead that we be fed stout for the hilarity of watching us flop around drunkenly in our soiled bassinet. Luckily, my ever practical father hired a wet nurse who exchanged her tongue for a job and four gold ingots, insuring we would be fed and that our maid could never speak of the creatures she fed. We suckled for a year and relished the occasional fish we ate as we grew fat. That maid was our mother and our father for the time she was with us. She cared for us when no one else would. I wish I had learned her name.
In those early days, we received some kindness. Our parents built a pool for us, which we circled endlessly. We basked in the sun beside our Ocean, imagining we swam with all of the sea's creatures. We rode the waves created by one another's passing and we choked on the greenery of neglect that we thought was seaweed. The day I first shed my pelt, a whole flock of swans with great black wings and arched ebony necks swarmed our Ocean and my parent's house. The swans perched on the graceful wings of my father's mill and replaced the gargoyles guarding my mother's garden. My parents should have known they were Walo's creatures, she who heralds sorrow and rides in the chariot of the war god Tyr. But they were blinded by their plans, so carefully laid, and were far more concerned with selling me as soon as I freed myself of my pelt. What they didn't expect was that I would be a boy. Everything they had read, all the stories they had heard, said I shouldn't exist. A selkie boy? Surely there was a mistake. They postponed my sale.
It was my father who figured it out. On a trip to the city, a monthly endeavor to sell the dryad wood he milled, Breck spoke to his replacement in the embassy. The new ambassador, a fellow whose girth rivaled that of the moon, remembered seeing a traveling poet perform the Great Mysteries. The poet, the new ambassador said, was a woman who wore her hair down in waves of gold and wore a dress of gathered silver. Her jewels were cords of pearls so thick they served to cover the breasts left bare by her dress. She hailed from the land of Argos, the new ambassador said. Alone among the Great Mysteries shown by the poet, the ambassador remarked on the particular similarity of one Mystery to the creature my father described.
The poem spoke of Tyr, the mighty war god, that bloody King of Vengeance, and the child he had of Gellawyn the Queen of Waves. A tragic piece it was, with a murdered warrior prince, one of Tyr's men, who sleeping was crushed by Lyr the sea god's steeds. Naturally, the Lord of Anger was quick to protest and when he could not find the sea god, he was revenged upon Lyr's innocent wife Gellawyn. But no wilting girl she was, Gellawyn the Wave, for she cursed Tyr in a voice that shook the war god in his star encrusted armor. As for the child she had, she loved the boy with all her will. The boy-god carried in him the calmness of the Wave but roiled with his father's anger. The boy grew up and joined with a mortal girl and sometimes, the blood of this son appears amongst the mortals. They are called seawolves the poet said, and carry the mark of sea and war alike. Always a clever man, my father thanked his replacement and went to the great library in Iapeta to learn more about what I was.
The library was miles long with millions of books, stacks of them reaching so high that the top books housed eagle rookeries. It took my father three weeks, without stopping and without sleeping, to find the poem. After scribing a copy, he returned to Sycros and my mother. She informed him, upon his return, that both of the rats, my sister and I, had changed and that the second rat was female. My mother had not been idle. She had taken our shed pelts away and hidden them from us. She had also built beside our Ocean a house for us, fit for cockroaches and perhaps an alley cat. Our Mansion kept out the rain but did nothing to protect against the bitter Sycrosian winters. My mother had also fitted us with our very own collars, complete with a lovely string of chain. It served to bolt us to the Mansion so that we might enjoy its amenities. At my father's news, my parents decided to discard our sale completely.
My father was a smart man. Born and raised in the highlands, his family bred hounds, the best in all of Sycros and wanted throughout the continent for their unerring ability to find deer. It was said that the Hunter, Cerrunos himself, bought hounds from family Tirna. As it was, Breck knew well how to breed hounds, for it was his life before giving his estate into the keeping of his stout-loving wife while he went off ambassadoring. She lost the hounds and most of the family's land a year into my father's sojourn in Phyris as the Sycrosian ambassador. But, never keen to failure, Breck put his ambassadorial earnings into the building of a mill alongside the small estate upon which I was later born. The mill sustained them well enough, for they milled rare dryad wood that my father had secured trade for in Phyris. This was unfortunate for the dryads, who, convinced to leave Phyris by clever traders, supposed they were going to a new land where the soil was richer and the ground less populated. They decided, my parents did, that the mill could sustain them and the two urchins chained to the Mansion outside without difficulty. The maid who fed us, much to our grief, was remanded to assisting my mother's garden grow by way of fertilizer. I am told my sister cried for days over it, though I do not remember.
So it was that I came to live in the Mansion beside the Ocean, with my sister and me as sole proprietors of a fantastic vacation getaway where we could bask in the sun at the end of our chains or swim circles in the green sludge of the Ocean. We were fed regularly enough to stay alive and usually had water to drink. My father always said we were given every kindness necessary.
My first memories are of the only time my sister ever loosed her bonds. We were, perhaps, six summers old or so, maybe seven. By then we had names. I was Rat. My sister was Mouse. My sister and I had named ourselves though. From those early days on, spoke a language only we knew. When my mother named us thus, pointing out the creatures that lived in the corners of our Mansion, my sister and I felt shame. But, because there is power in names, my sister named me and I named her. She called me Rua, Red, and I called her Evra, Ivy. These were the names we used in secret, for to use our own words was to request a swift cuff from our mother or a rattling blow from our father. My sister, I think, intimidated my mother with her beauty. She had dark brown hair, like rich loam or coffee, and great big golden-brown eyes, just like the sailor with the leather-skin had described. My mother always gave her difficult tasks to do and would say that someday Ivy's beauty would fade because of it. Only real women, she said, have soft hands. Ivy's hands always had blisters then, which later turned hard and rough. Our mother told her that she was weak and strange, nothing like the confident women of Sycros, with their orange-red hair and freckles. Instead, Ivy was an ugly mud brown, like a drowned rat, fit only for peasant work. Ivy never complained but that did not stop her from making mother's life miserable. There was the time Ivy put black root in our mother's tea, turning mother's tongue black. She thought she had caught the plague and called every doctor in from the city that she could find. Ivy was far too clever to be caught, but mother always suspected. Ivy was always quiet, but she was strong and smart and resilient. She was mother's servant, kept in the house during the day as a servant, and returned to the mansion by night. But me, I was a sea wolf with hair the color of blood, a red so dark it was almost black. There was no hiding that I was odd. So during the daylight hours, I worked in the mill, alone with the screaming and dying dryads. They cursed me, those poor creatures did, as I pushed their corporeal bodies through the saw. But the mill's magic kept them from harming me. A good thing too, for no doubt I would be dead otherwise.
That wonderful-terrible day when Ivy escaped, we were lounging by the Ocean, which had recently received an influx of rainwater and so was less green than usual. I, as was my tendency, was discovering new ways to pull on the chain binding my neck. I pulled on it, twisted, did a few jumps, and only succeeded in making myself sore. As a parting blow against the stifling chain, I pulled a final time. Unfortunately, I slipped on a bit of seaweed-algae and tumbled into Ivy. Somehow, I got tangled in her chain and she in mine. Why this had never happened before, I don't know, or maybe it had but we were too young to remember. In any case, we sat in a heap with Ivy scowling at me and me looking sheepish. And then I stood and discovered that my chain had somehow attached itself to the loop connecting her collar to her chain. When I stood, it snapped.
It took us twenty minutes to get the trick of it and after much tugging and trying, I was rid of my anchor. Then, Ivy led me to the place from which our mother and father emerged carrying lovely fish to throw at us. She called it the "cellar." It was the first time I had been beneath any roof but the Mansion's and the mill's. I opened the door, I remember that, pushing until it groaned and let us in. What I saw was better than the days we would get splashed with clean water, better than the days that it rained and filled the Ocean, better than the days Ivy played tricks on mother. There were fish, fish hanging from the rafters, fish in jars, fish stacked in dry piles, and even whole barrels filled to the brim with fish that tasted of salt. The last I discovered after clambering up on top of a barrel in an attempt to reach the fish hanging from the ceiling. I had nearly reached a piece when the barrel tipped over and I fell headlong into my own mountain of salted fish. There were trout and catfish, pike and perch, bass and I even found salmon. Ivy and I ate until we were sick. She laughed as she curled into a bed made of fish and I laughed with her, sprawled out as I was with my distended belly content. I could barely move. We fell asleep like that, with fish as bed and blanket.
I don't remember hearing them coming. I only remember waking, knowing something was wrong. Before I knew what I was doing, I had gotten to my feet and stood over Ivy. I heard a sound. It was a rhythmic whirring sound, like the call of an eagle and the snarl of a bear at the same moment. It took me a second to realize it was me making the noise. I was growling. Ivy was awake then, scrabbling in the fish and salt for a corner. But when my father approached, blocking the moonlight from the door with the breadth of his shoulders, I knew only anger. He loomed over me, as big as a giant, his eyes flashing thunder. He raised his hand, twice the size of my head I tell you it was, and he prepared to strike me.
I don't know how many times he hit me, I just know that I didn't feel any of it. And then I had my teeth in flesh richer than any I had tasted before. Blood was flowing into my mouth and I gloried at the scent of it, acrid and metallic. Then I felt my bones stretching, warping, struggling to move. I felt like my body was no longer my own, like I did not fit in my skin, and it hurt. But my father had threatened us and I couldn't let him hurt Ivy. I tried to hold on but he was hitting me and I hurt and I couldn't. I let go and then I was waking up in our Mansion, with Ivy beside me, curled against me for warmth and protection. I felt sick. I stayed that way for several days until the full moon passed. That was my first failed change among many. Without my skin, I could not shift. Like the Captain's selkie whose skin he had stolen, I was doomed to live at the mercy of those who held it.
That day marked a change in our treatment. We were no longer breeding stock to be tolerated, fed, and ignored until coming of age. We were dangerous beasts to be broken and made tractable. My father replaced my collar a week after I broke it, trusting me to stay since my sister's collar was already replaced. My collar was silver, though, with strange markings. My father said it was Tiberian made, from across the great ocean, created for seawolves and meant to keep us weak. All I knew was that it burned terribly. I couldn't break it, my father promised, and I would never grow out of it. It was my binding, like the genie in the desert tale. I could try to escape it, but it anchored me to the Mansion and only by the good graces of my father could I grant wishes. My father also began teaching me the Great Mystery that the Poet had shared with the new ambassador. At first I would not say it and when I refused he would beat me. It became a horrible game between us, like chess. I would move a pawn into dangerous territory by refusing to fight back because if I did my father would hurt my sister, he would slaughter my queen. And that was how he taught me how to read. I would glare at the poem, watching the words swirl to form pictures of snakes and snowflakes, and Breck would remind me how to read if I didn't oblige him. The first time he broke my nose, I had been refusing to read Lyr's name correctly and called him Liar instead. It was a small torrent of blood in a crimson history. Eventually, I learned to read, but would only do so on my own. Somehow, I forgot how to read when my father was around. And no matter how hard he hit me or yelled, he couldn't get me to read it. He was a raging giant and I, a small thorn lodged in the pad of his lion's paw. A pity for him that the Mouse was on my side.
We stayed at an impasse for a whole year. While it lasted, I prospered. My father had given me books, stacks of them heaped in a pile in a corner of the Mansion, as a bribe to make his violence all the more terrible. But they were old and tattered relics and he didn't care enough to remove them. So I was left worlds filled with castles and dragons and princesses and gods, worlds with soldiers and treachery and battles, worlds better than our Mansion and Ocean. And I read them all. I read each night to Ivy, sharing with her the tales of Lykourgos the murdered Tyrian wolf who started the seawolf curse. I told her about Ilusian the All-Mother who sacrificed herself to create us all. I dreamed waking and shared that dream with her.
It was a winter night and we were huddled together for warmth. I heard yelling, like the snarling of wolves, and I heard a door slam. That sound never boded well for me. I had learned our little reading sessions could usually be counted upon when father was in such a mood. For me, the sound was like the tolling of a funeral bell, like the smell of rot, like the sight of a child-sized coffin. And that night, in the cold, it was the howl of the winter wolf tearing apart the innocent lamb. My sister started crying when he hauled me out of the Mansion, but I told her to be quiet or he'd hit her instead. So she put her fist against her mouth like she always did and went silent. We went out into the night.
We walked a little way, my father and I, before he pushed me and I stumbled to the ground. He started pushing me into the snow then and I felt cold, so cold. I was choking on it. I felt like the traveler in the Snow Queen's domain, the one murdered by the ice ghoul. The traveler had choked to death on beautiful snowflakes as payment for denying the Snow Queen's loveliness. As I lay there, choking, I had two thoughts. One, who was going to take care of Ivy? And two, that I had never seen the real ocean. Then I could breathe again and I thought I saw the ice ghoul behind me, standing with his beard full of icicles. What happened next I do not wish to describe. It was terrible, a shame so great I felt like the soldier Serisan, who died for the shame of killing his loyal wife out of mistaken jealousy. I wanted to disappear. I remember crawling back through the snow, knowing how the mares feel when locked in fierce battle with the stallion as he gouges huge rivulets of pain in her neck. I knew the deep ache of the stag's rut. And I saw blood on the white snow. I don't know how long it took me to get back to the Mansion, but I was shivering when I did. I had lost my furs somewhere. But Ivy took me to her and I huddled against her for warmth. She told me to think of the stories I had told her about places far away from our miserable hovel and grimy pond. Together we went to a place where there was no such thing as tears, where there was laughter and peace and where we could run free. Eventually, I slept.
We called it our Haven, the place where Ivy could go when mother taunted her and called her ugly. It was the place I could go when I clutched the icy roots of the trees behind the Mansion and struggled to keep silent. I never told Ivy what happened that night, nor any other night in which my father visited me. But she knew. She would squeeze my hand when we heard the door slam. "We can finish the story tomorrow," she would say, stilling my words before he came into the Mansion and dragged me off. I never begged him to stop and never gave him the satisfaction of seeing me cry. Ivy never asked about it and I never told her. I was only happy that he never touched her. I could stand it, if it meant he stayed away from her.
The day my sister began to bleed, I thought she was dying or that my father had gotten to her. But my mother came in, checked her over, and clucked with satisfaction. "Finally," she said. I didn't know what she meant, but only looked at my sister with worry. We had learned to discern tones that meant good things and tones that meant bad things. This, this was a bad thing. I spent the night looking it up in the tattered medical dictionary I had in the Stack in the Corner. Discharge led to flow led to uterus led to an understanding of how babies are made. This led to another assembly of words, semen, erection, insertion. I wondered why I didn't have babies if that is what it took and looked that up too. Boys, I discovered, can't have babies unless they are gods, which I thought was silly because that would mean boy gods aren't really boys. Girls, on the other hand, build up the walls of their uterus so they can have babies, but if they don't get pregnant they bleed it all out. And that was what had happened to my sister. She wasn't dying. She was just men-stru-ating, like the dictionary said. But I still couldn't figure out what that meant for us and why my mother seemed so happy about it. I just knew Ivy wasn't going to die and that was a good thing. After a week or so, it stopped.
About three months later my mother unlocked my chain from the wall and led me to the house. I had never been in it, except for the storeroom that held the fish. Compared to the Mansion, it was as if I had stepped into the fairy realm, where the trees bend themselves into houses with great sweeping arches and parapets like running water. There were hundreds of rooms, left, right, all around. There were statues that spoke and paintings that moved. There were birds in cages that sang about the moon. The ceilings were filled with stars and the walls were painted with gold. It was beautiful and warm and wonderful. She led me to a room hung with boughs. Cerrunos himself could have called it home, it looked so much like a forest. Ferga laughed and called me her Little Warrior. She left me alone then, enthralled with this huge expanse that, when I climbed onto it, sank like a downy cloud. It was soft and glorious. I rolled on it, amazed at how wonderful it felt to lie upon. It was nothing like the floor, nothing like the snow or the banks of the Ocean. It was remarkable. And as I was bounding, I saw a box at the foot of the soft bit. It was carved with whorls and leaves and dancing fauns. I opened it, grinning. Inside, there were two furs, one reddish brown and one a deep brown-black. There was a moment of stillness when I ran my hands over it, my hands automatically going to the reddish one. It seemed to hum beneath my touch, like it was speaking to me. I could almost hear its words. And then there was pain and I was lying on my side on the floor. My mother stood over me, her hair unbound. She told me to stay out of the trunk and accentuated that command with a few swift cuffs. But I knew, the fur had whispered to me. It said I am yours. It belonged to me. It was the thing I lacked, that piece of me that struggled to warp itself into a new shape every month and could not. Again, I do not wish to speak of what happened next. Suffice it to say, I would have understood less had I not looked up my sister's bleeding. I learned firsthand how exactly one makes babies.
And that was it. Ferga left me alone.
For almost two weeks neither my mother nor my father touched either of us. I read the whole medical dictionary again and learned such words as viscera and cardiovascular but nothing that would tell me why Ferga had been thrilled to know my sister bled. I told Ivy stories about fawns dancing in the moonlight and satyrs writing songs for princesses. We enjoyed the Ocean and basked at its banks. Then, one night, when mother came to feed us our usual plate of fish and half-gnawed bread, father came with her. This was out of the ordinary. But my mother put the plate down and we ate. They didn't leave when the fish was gone and our stomachs full. This was the first moment when I felt something was wrong. I tried to get up but I felt sick and warm. I couldn't breathe. I began to get hot, like flames were burning me. I realized, as the world began to swirl like air on a hot day, that I was in hell. Something had transported me there. I could feel Damascus' fires charring me. I heard my mother say "hold her down" and I felt my mother push me toward Ivy.
I don't remember much of that night. I remember that I felt horribly hot, from shame and from whatever they had given me. I woke up the next morning very ill but by nightfall I was well. But as the night fell, the same thing happened once again. It was the same every night for a month. And when my sister did not bleed again, it stopped. I knew what that meant. She was pregnant.
That first child we named Naida, after a mermaid in one of our stories. She was a beautiful little seal pup that looked like what we must have looked like, all those years before. She had white flecks along her sides and eyes the size of saucers. We loved her, as much as Ilusian loved her children. She was ours and ours alone, despite what was done to get her. She grew, our little Naida, fattening into a roly poly ball of fur and seal pup. For a full year, things returned to how they were before the Bleeding Time. I told Naida and Ivy stories, my father took me out behind the Mansion at night, Ivy worked in the house between playing pranks on mother, and I worked in the mill as I watched dryads scream at me. But the night Naida shed her pelt, my parents came to watch. They left us after the change, taking her pelt with them. We watched them go, chained in our Mansion and holding a beautiful brown eyed girl. I stretched, pushing against my collar, until I could lie near the doorway. I listened and could hear them outside, discussing. "They'll all be selkies," my father said, "even the boys, and we'll just have to be patient until we can breed him for the seawolves. She'll be fertile again soon." They left and a few days later, what had happened a year before happened again. Eight times it happened and eight children there were. I have had eight children by my own sister. We were allowed to keep only Naida. All the others we kept for a year before they were taken from us. After Naida there came Roan, a male selkie but not a seawolf. Then there were Murron and Kai, both beautiful girls whose fingers and toes we counted in the few minutes we had to hold them after their change. And then there was Nessa.
Nessa was the same as all the others, a small seal pup who followed us on her belly as we went about our tasks. As the time of Nessa's change approached, Ivy grew quieter. Then she said to me, in the darkness of our Mansion after the world had gone to sleep, "Rua. They are going to take away my baby." She was so quiet and still, like a meadow at night when the fauns come out to stare at the moon. "I won't let them take my baby. My little Nessa." We lay curled around Naida, who held Nessa in her arms. Ivy looked at me. "Don't let them, Rua." And she stared at me, wide-eyed in the dark, and made me promise.
We planned with the same ferocity as Chester Morrington, the soldier who vowed to free his family from the Genjan army slavers in the Great War. Ivy would distract mother while I hid Nessa. If we could get the pelt and hide it, mother and father would have no reason to take her. Selkies are only worth money intact. So Ivy let herself get caught. She had almost finished moving a hornet's nest into the house when mother found her. She had a trick of completely covering herself in mud to get close to the nests. Ferga was so angry, I could hear her from the mill where father and I were working. I could hear the screaming, the screech of mother's siren call. I waited, my shoulders hunched, as father put down the bit of wood he was pulling out of the saw and Father left to investigate, leaving me alone with the screaming dryads. I waited to make sure he was gone, then began to pull. I had spent years pulling on the ring that attached my chain to the mill's wall, but always in subterfuge, while Breck's head was turned, when I stood to push the dryad wood into the saw, and sometimes when I pretended an angry dryad had frightened me. Now, I put my entire being into pulling on the ring. I could feel my flesh burning beneath the silver collar, but I thought of Nessa's eyes and the promise I made to Ivy, and I pulled. It snapped out of the wall, leaving only a hole, and I raced to the Mansion. Inside, Naida was waiting with Nessa in her arms. I took her and then ran back to the mill.
I could still hear the screaming and I knew Ivy was in a lot of trouble, but she had made me swear I would hide Nessa and not go to help her. I went into the storage room, that horrible cavern where the dryads huddled beside their stricken trees, dying slowly while waiting for their summons to the saw. They knew they were dead already, but the cries of their murdered brethren, whose deaths were hastened by the saw, told them what to expect. Into this storm I went, feeling them rage against me. They struggled to strike me but their pale green limbs could not overcome the magic of the mill. In amongst them I hid Nessa. I knew Breck would never enter there; he feared the dryad's curse too much. But there I placed her, Nessa, beneath the branches of a fallen oak. The oak's dryad looked at me, her gnarled limbs reaching out to me, and I went to my knees. "I give you my daughter," I said, "You are oak, daughter of the goddess Skaoi, who gives sanctuary to all. Hide her. She is innocent. I will carry any bloodguilt you place upon her." I heard whispering and felt a breeze and the dryad's voice said, "We accept." I turned and ran back into the mill proper and noticed that I couldn't hear my mother's screaming anymore. I turned to look at the door.
I could hear my father coming and I could hear his cursing. My fingers fumbled with the ring hanging on the end of the chain, desperate to return it to the wall. But I dropped it in my haste. I reached down and grabbed it again. My hands shook as I turned to put it back into place, but my father's hand closed around my wrist just as it slid into the slot. He looked at me and I looked at him. He knew. He took the ring from me, his hand on my shoulder, and pushed me back. Then he hit me across the face with the chain. The silver seared my skin, tearing it from my face, and I felt the taste of blood. "What did you do with her?" he asked me. But I would not answer. He hit me again and the world went dark. When I awoke, Breck was standing over me with Nessa in his arms. He pulled me to my feet and opened the grate to the saw. "You are nothing more than breeding stock, Rat, and your pups are fast cash." And he threw her into the saw. I had no time to stop him, no time to even cry out. I heard her squeal and the crunch of her bones as the saw ground them into dust. Her blood coated me. And from the storage room I heard laughter and a shriek. "Blood guilt!" the dryads cried. "Blood guilt!" My father looked at me and pointed at the bloodstained saw. "You did that. Never again try to defy us."
I went to the Mansion that night covered in the crusted blood of my dead daughter. Ivy was there waiting, curled against the wall in our corner. She turned her head toward the sound of my entrance.
"Rue?" she said. Her eyes were swollen shut and her face was covered in mud-stained bruises. "She's safe. Tell me she's safe." But she couldn't see the blood. She couldn't see my face. She couldn't see anything. "Tell me she's safe, Rue." I didn't answer. "Rue?"
"There was nothing I could do."
She threw herself at my voice and stumbled into me. She beat her fists against my chest and slapped me across the face, pulling the cut made by the chain open again. She yelled at me. She screamed. She told me it was my fault. She knew our little girl was dead. I didn't have to tell her. And then she lay down in the corner and cried. Slowly, her tears stopped and instead she began to sing. It was a song of defeat and of hope, like the cry of a nightingale or a dove. It spoke of our Haven, where we would see our babies again, where Nessa would laugh and shed her pelt without fear, where she would frolic in the water of the true ocean. She sang the warbling song of her soul, ripping it from the depths of her quiet sorrow to mourn our child.
Things between Ivy and I changed that day. She didn't forgive me for Nessa and I couldn't forgive myself. I felt hatred for my father as never before, and the next few years only made the fires of my anger stronger. Neron and Oki were born, boys the both of them, and they were taken away as all the others had been. When Breck got a new saw, he gave me the old one and told me to bury it. He "gave me permission" to put up a tombstone and laughed as he watched. He drank lemonade in a chair beside the Ocean while I dug a ditch for the saw. He chuckled over cucumber sandwiches as I lifted the tombstone into place. He was amused that we had given her a name and he laughed as I chiseled it into the stone: Nessa Na'Tirna, 58-58. Not even a year old. That night, it was the tombstone that I clutched when he came to visit me. Ivy looked at me when I returned and wrapped her arms around me. "Tell me about the gryphon and the goat," she said. It was the first time she had asked me to tell her a story since Nessa died.
It was a few days after the full moon on the night Dorian shed his pelt. Ivy came to me, after, and cried, clutching Naida between us. We prayed together that Dorian would find the way to our Haven and we knew that one day we would see him again. Soon, they would come with the food. It had become a war with us. They had tried forcing me to eat it for the first two children, but when I bit my father that stopped. The new tactic was starvation. They kept me hungry for a while and as the moon approached it became more and more difficult to resist. I watched them feed fish to Naida, one by one, and give Ivy a huge salmon that she couldn't finish. But they stayed to take the scraps with them and to make sure they didn't sneak any pieces to me. I had enough water to stay alive but it was terrible, the gnawing emptiness in my stomach. Ivy would stay beside me and tell me it was all right, that I should just eat and it would be over faster. But I couldn't. It was horrible, what I did, and I couldn't, just couldn't eat it until I had no other option.
I remember lying on my belly, staring at the plate my mother had put in our Mansion that morning. It was dusk and my mother was sitting near the door, waiting. They took turns, my father and her, waiting until I ate. It was right in front of me, a whole pile of fish that I could smell from several feet away. Only a bite, I thought to myself. Surely a little bite wouldn't affect me. I inched closer.
Ivy told Naida to go outside, and she did, our obedient and quiet little brown-haired girl. She was ten by then and had just begun to bleed the month before. Ivy watched her go, then turned to me and said, "Just eat, Rua. Eat." I considered and I could not remember why I should avoid the food no matter how much I tried. I went to the plate and ate. Nothing had ever tasted as good as those fish and they were gone too fast. But then I felt the heat and remembered. My mother called my father as the world started to swim and they took hold of my sister. But instead of pushing her to the ground, my father took her outside. I heard the sound of shackles and chains and my little Naida was led in with a collar on her neck and the attached chain in my father's hand. Ivy was not with him. I struggled against my collar and felt the silver begin to burn, but it was a distant feeling, shrouded by hell's flames as I was slowly transported there. I struggled to think but it was becoming difficult. They pushed my little Naida to the ground and she started to cry. I heard my mother say, "Are you sure they will work?" And my father said "We've been feeding them to her for almost two weeks. If she isn't ripe, I'll eat my hat. Come here and hold her." My mother went and took my father's place, holding Naida down, while my father stood and took my chain in his hand. He pulled me closer to Naida but all I could hear were her whimpers. I looked out of the door, desperate for anything to stop the fire, and there, hanging suspended above the Ocean like a great pearl, was the moon, it's reflection painting a road of white on the Ocean's surface. I wanted to walk on that road and turn circles in the moonlight. I felt my bones stretching and struggling, but it was a dull thing, deadened by the heat that called me toward Naida who lay there prepared and waiting with a whimper. I tipped my head back, feeling the chain's tug as my father pulled me closer to my child, and I cried out to the moon. I begged for strength, for freedom, for the ability to stop what was about to happen and what I got was fury.
I turned to face my father and began to run. He thought I was going to run into him, but I was a titan that needed to break its bonds. I was a demon trapped in hell, burning, burning, and I did the only thing I could think of to pass through the spiked gates and out into the world of the living. I drove my head against the Mansion's wall, splitting open my skull, releasing a river of blood as wide as the river that greeted my sister when she was born, thundering through the Chasm of the Tins to bathe me in ichor. My father slipped in it, dropping the chain to the ground, and the blood itself rose up to choke him, a great crimson shadow. My mother screamed, letting go of Naida, and was carried away on a red tide. Naida swam in it and was unhurt. She rode in it through the door and out of the Mansion. Inside, the blood flowed from my gash and I roared as my father struggled against it. And then I ran out of the door as the river parted for me. Outside, Naida and Ivy looked at me and the blood river swirled around us. "You broke your chain," Ivy said to me, and I looked at it. But no, I had not broken it, the blood river had eaten away at it like a hyena at a bone, breaking and crushing it as if it were no more than a branch. I tried to break their chains but I couldn't. The blood river was subsiding and as it did I began to feel fear. "Go," Ivy said, "Leave us here. They are coming." And Naida began to cry again. "Don't leave us," she said. But Ivy took my hand. "Go. We will meet again in our Haven." But Naida looked at me, grabbed my hand. "Don't leave me. Please." I could hear my father stirring behind me, could hear his footsteps. Ivy screamed. "Rue run!" And I did.
I ran, away from the bloodstained Mansion and the Ocean now filled to the brimming with red, away from the buried saw and the tombstone that stood over it, away from my sister and the only child I knew for sure yet lived. And as I ran, I heard a whispering. It was like a familiar voice that called to me, pleaded to me. It was like a missing piece of my soul that demanded my attention. I followed the voice. I ran into the door of the house, leaving a smear of river blood on it from where my shoulder hit it, and I grabbed the three furs found within my mother's trunk. And then I ran, away from the Ocean and the Mansion and the river of blood. I ran away from my daughter-niece and my sister-wife and from the life I knew, from the hell I burned in and stumbled through the forest to find myself in a moonlit river as wide as the mill, as wide as the mill and the estate and the Ocean together. The river screamed as I fell into it and I felt my bones grind beneath my skin. I pulled the furs against me and the reddish one slithered around me, whispering. I pulled it around my shoulders, and suddenly I could breathe. I could see. The scream of the river wasn't a scream, it was a song rising into the night. I danced in it. I turned circles and chased the flickering silver flashing through the water. I leaped out of the water and flew through the air. I called to the night.
How long I swam in that river I do not know, clutching Ivy and Naida's furs in my jaws. A long time I swam, until I felt a change in the water. Salty. I was in the ocean. The real ocean. It was vast, so vast that I could not comprehend it. I went to the shore and stared at it, stretching to the horizon forever. And there, on the banks of the World's Ocean, I vowed to free my children who were scattered to the winds and to return and free Ivy and my little Naida who I left at the mercy of my parents. But mostly I vowed to take my vengeance upon the sickly sweet woman who thought it would be more amusing to make seal pups drunk and watch them flop than to feed the children she had just birthed. I vowed to take my vengeance upon the ice ghoul who stood behind me in the snow and rutted. I vowed to end them.