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Salt and Sand
    by Kate O'Connor

Salt and Sand
Artwork by Anna Repp

The blood-orange sun was slumping towards the western horizon when the funeral boat came ashore, groaning in defeat as it crested onto the sand. Saesa had watched the boat throughout the day, tracking its slow progress in between settling her other visitors. The little boat had teased her, coming close and then drifting back out with the tide, but it had finally arrived.

Saesa held still, savoring the moment before she went to peel back flesh and crack bones to reveal this next visitor's story. Her pointed teeth ached with wanting and her mouth watered. There was a lifetime of thought and emotion that would be waiting just beneath the skin of the next corpse.

A board creaked and Saesa froze. There shouldn't be any noise. Funeral ships only brought one thing. The sound had been sharp and immediate - too sudden for Saesa's beach and the long line of empty vessels left by her day's work.

Something shifted just beyond the boat's railing. Before Saesa had time to react, a thin figure lurched upwards, sprawling over the rail and tumbling down onto the hot sand.

Saesa jumped back, her heart thundering in her chest. She had seen living people countless times in memories, but to have one in front of her was another matter entirely.

The figure moved, coughing and choking as it pushed itself up. Saesa stared. The woman was as gaunt as a corpse, but very much alive. Her face was pinched and pointed as she collapsed back onto the hot sand and lay still, breathing heavily. Her clothing was simple and filthy, faded to a colorless brown by long use. A sword hung from her belt.

Saesa skirted around her to the far side of the boat. Her throat ached with hunger. The woman's presence didn't change her need to get to the boat. Living memories and warm flesh wouldn't feed her. The boat could not have reached the island without another passenger.

She climbed over the side of the boat, sparing one more glance for the living woman. The woman remained still and oblivious to Saesa's presence. A soft tendril of memory beckoned to Saesa on the familiar smell of decay. It whispered sweetness and deep, raw yearning.

A girl lay towards the bow of the little boat, tucked carefully in a rough-worn horse blanket. The braids in her thick blonde hair were slightly crooked and her small hands were folded over a tiny, rust-spotted dagger.

Saesa settled beside the girl, brushing her round cheek with gentle fingers. She closed her eyes, hearing the sand stirring in the wind, the heartbeat of the constant waves echoed by the living woman's breath scarcely a boat-length away. Letting her own self drift, Saesa lifted the girl's hand to her mouth. The rot-softened skin was slick and yielding against her lips. She bit down, pointed teeth working until tepid, sluggish blood and splintery ivory bone released the first hints of the girl's memories.

Rin curled tight as a hard toe connected with her upper arm. Stupid city kids and their shoes. It was a glancing blow, but it stung. The three boys boxing her in were still shouting insults. She spat at them and they closed in once more.

Her desperate eyes settled on Tallis leaning against the wall of the gem merchant's shop as calmly as though she were watching the clouds pass by. Rin opened her mouth to call for help, but her mother's grey eyes met hers with all the warmth of winter stones. She snapped her jaw shut, twisting away from the next blow. Tallis's expression said everything. This was Rin's mess to deal with.

Rin forced herself to move, clawing and biting as she tried to get out from under the bigger boys. The silence that would come if Tallis decided she had embarrassed their mercenary band would be far worse than scrapes and bruises.

"Rin!" Garen's bellow was enough to make the boys pause, even from half a block down the road. She heaved herself up, taking advantage of their distraction to dig an elbow into a vulnerable thigh. The boy yelped and grabbed her hair. She swung her slender arms, shrieking in pain and frustration.

The hand in her hair let go abruptly and another latched on to the back of her tunic. She struggled harder. If they managed to pick her up, there wouldn't be much she could do. The fabric burned against her skin as she twisted as far as she could, digging her nails into the hand and bending the thumb back.

"Dammit, Rin! Pay attention to whether you're swinging at an ally or an enemy!" Garen shook her gently. She froze, the blood rushing to her cheeks making her face feel hot.

"Sorry, Garen." She looked around for her attackers. One of the boys was on his rump in a horse trough, dripping as he looked at Garen with huge, startled eyes. The other two had retreated to a safer distance.

"Don't worry about it, kid." He set her down, dusting off the back of her tunic with a few rough pats. "You're getting too old for this."

"Then you shouldn'ta saved me." She glared down at her bare toes, squinting hard against the shameful tears that were threatening. There was nothing worse than needing to be rescued. It would have been better if she had lost the fight. It might even have been better if she had run away. Scarcely daring to look, she glanced over towards the gem merchant's shop. Her heart dropped to her stomach and sat there like a lump of spoiled meat. Tallis was gone.

A keening wail broke Saesa out of her trance. She leapt backwards off of the boat as the sword point whistled past her nose. It smelled of steel and old blood.

Tallis was barely recognizable as the tall, cold woman she had seen in Rin's memory. Her grey eyes were hot and wild as she swung the sword again.

"Stay away!" The slender sword whipped out towards her, glinting golden in the light of the setting sun.

Saesa leapt nimbly away, scuttling up the bare trunk of a palm until she was high enough to avoid the sword's edge. Saesa looked hard at the weapon. Some of her visitors had known the feel of sharp metal too well. She didn't think it would kill her, but she didn't want to find out.

"Don't touch her." The woman stood unsteadily between Saesa and the boat, her fawn-brown hair flaming as brightly as the sword. In spite of the woman's obvious exhaustion, the point of the weapon was leveled unerringly at Saesa's chest.

"I must." Saesa's voice was as raspy as wind-blown sand. The words came from a long way away, from a thousand memories gathered like shells from countless bodies on the beach. She could not remember having ever spoken before. It made her throat feel strange and tight.

The woman's eyes turned inward as she drew herself up. "No."

"She is mine." Saesa clung to the trunk of the swaying tree, grasping for enough of the half-understood words to explain. "She is mine," she repeated in frustration. The dead that came had to be hers. Saesa existed to pass their memories back to the world.

The woman's grey eyes jerked up to meet hers. Saesa bared her pointed teeth in challenge as they stared at each other. Tallis's sun-reddened face paled and she stumbled back. "You're dani," she whispered.

Sensing an advantage in the woman's fear, Saesa slid easily back down to the sand. Dani missed the truth of her. She wasn't a demon and it wasn't just the corpses she wanted; it was the memories hiding in flesh and bone that drove her.

The woman backed away until she came up against the unforgiving bulk of the boat. The weight of it seemed to steady her and she met Saesa's eyes again. "You won't lay a finger on her." Her voice trembled and her knuckles were white on the sword hilt. "I'll kill you first."

The fading light in the west drew Saesa's eye. The memories she had already gathered swirled uneasily in her mind, nearly ready to be released. It was time to return to her nest to digest and let the memories she had gathered return to the world. Without their occupants, these boats and their worldly goods would crumble to sand in the darkness. The beach would be fresh and clean come morning, except for this woman and the girl.

Tallis took advantage of her distraction and lashed out again. With Rin's shame echoing in her mind, Saesa turned and ran.

Saesa huddled in her soft nest in the soaring canopy, shivering as she waited for the memories to settle in her mind and return to the heart of the world. Tallis's presence caused new and terrifying emotion. Saesa's waking eyes had seen what Rin had known and she had lost herself.

Saesa shook her head hard, sending her tangled black hair into her eyes. It couldn't be allowed to happen again. She had a duty to the dead who came to the island. Without her, their memories would be lost, drifting as ghosts until they faded to nothing.

Rin deserved better. All of Saesa's visitors did. She got to her feet. She would have to find another way to deal with Tallis.

When Saesa returned to the beach in the morning, Tallis had her shoulder to the bow of the boat, gaunt face bright red as she tried to push it back out to sea. It rocked a little in the pale sand before jolting forward a scant few inches.

Saesa watched from the safety of a flat rock, hands twisting in her lap. Other boats were coming ashore, begging for her attention, but she couldn't tear herself away. She didn't know if a boat could leave, but if this one did, she doubted it would ever return. Rin would be lost.

Tallis was relentless, still strong in spite of whatever ordeal had brought her to Saesa's island. Several times, Saesa moved forward. Whenever she shifted, Tallis's hand would drop to her sword. For the first time in an existence that had spanned eternity, Saesa was helpless. She wasn't strong enough to overpower Tallis and she couldn't bear to let Rin's memories be lost.

The boat left the shore in a rush. Saesa reached out into the emptiness between them, wanting to hold the tiny vessel back. For the first time since Saesa had returned to the beach, Tallis's proud face was triumphant as she threw herself over the railing and paddled hard against the waves.

The boat wallowed, looking for a moment as though it would break through the current. Saesa's heart leapt as the waves won, pushing the craft high up on the white sand once more. Tallis threw herself out of the boat again, shoving until she slid down to the sand, trembling with exhaustion.

"You will go nowhere without a sail." Saesa approached slowly. The woman seemed too tired to lift her sword, but that had been no guarantee before.

"Then I'll get one." Tallis got to her feet and marched on shaking legs towards the nearest of the other boats.

"Everything will turn to salt and sand without my desire for it to stay," Saesa said.

"Help me then." The relentless command in her weary voice forced Saesa to swallow down a snarl. She was neither a dog nor a soldier.

"No." Saesa raised her chin. Their eyes locked. She could see the woman gauging her resolve, looking for a weakness that would force Saesa's cooperation.

"There has to be a way." Tallis turned away.

"The dead come here to stay," Saesa said firmly.

"I'm not leaving her here to be eaten." Tallis's hand returned to her sword again. "I came to get her back." The woman's voice broke.

"Get her back?" Saesa asked, puzzled. Rin was dead. Nothing could change that. It was a wonder Tallis hadn't died herself on the journey here.

"The boats take the dead to the land of the gods." Tallis folded her arms, looking embarrassed. Saesa doubted she believed what she was saying. "Sometimes the gods bargain, right?"

Saesa knew of many gods through her visitor's memories, but she had never met one. Certainly not one who walked and talked and bargained like a living person. When she gathered memories, they returned to the heart of the world and became part of all things.

"She didn't deserve to die," Tallis continued, oblivious to Saesa's silence. "Surely there is a god who can be made to understand that . . . or at least one who wants something."

"There are no gods like that here." It was repulsive to imagine those poor souls trapped somewhere, removed of purpose and waiting to fade away unless some higher power granted them a second chance. Saesa felt ill. She treated her visitors better than that.

"But . . ."

"No." Saesa's hand cut a sharp denial in the air. Language was coming easier with practice. "I eat them and learn their lives. When night comes, I let them go back to the world's heart to be made anew. They cannot live again." She walked away, repelled by what Tallis suggested.

"Wait!" Tallis ran after her, her voice raised in desperation. "You take their thoughts?" She paused until Saesa nodded. "Can you give hers to me?"

"To you?" This idea was worse than the first. Even if Saesa could do it, it would be an abomination. Two people's lives would tear a single body apart. "No. And if you continue to interfere, she will fade away completely." Saesa moved forward again, leaving Tallis standing in the sand. A line of boats stretched out before her. There was work to do and she had wasted too much time already.

"There has to be something you can do." Tallis's voice sounded small and desperate.

"I can help you leave," Saesa said after a long silence.

"How?" Life leapt back into Tallis's voice like a fire splashed with oil.

"I will make the sail."

"Won't it just turn into sand?" Tallis's grey eyes were sharp.

"It will not, if it is my hand that weaves it." She hoped. She had never tried anything like it before. "But I have a price."

"What price?" Tallis folded her arms.

"I will have to steal from the dead to do this. For every piece of cloth, I will take a piece of Rin." It hurt her to think of taking what should have been discarded, but nothing else came to mind. Tallis could not live on the island with her forever, nor would Rin's memories wait indefinitely.

"No." The denial was immediate.

"Then you will die here," Saesa said firmly. "And Rin will be a whisper on the tide."

"Why are you doing this?" The anger in Tallis's voice was a whip-snap.

"If you take her away, that is all she will be." Saesa gestured to the corpse, her own anger making her stomach tight. "I do not want her to disappear. The world needs what she has learned in her life. You will not let her go, so I must bargain."

Tallis was silent for a long time. The waves left dark crescents on the sand, pulling the never-ending pilgrimage of boats closer to shore.

"All right." Tallis's voice broke. "Take her. Save what you can."

"Get up, girl."

Something tickled Rin's nose. She snorted, batting it away. Sunlight streamed through the open tent flap, bright even though she squeezed her eyes shut. The annoying tickling returned. She cracked her eyes open.

Tallis leaned over her, grinning. She tugged gently at Rin's braid, tickling the tip of her nose with the end of it again.

"Tallis," Rin grumbled.

"Get up. We're going to the fair." Tallis grabbed her around the waist and hefted her, bedroll and all, over her shoulder and out into the open air.

Rin howled and giggled, squirming as Tallis spun them around in circles before setting her on her feet. She staggered dizzily, stumbling into Tallis. The older woman steadied her, smiling down as she gave her a rough, one-armed hug.

"The fair?" Rin had seen the fair yesterday and wondered . . . but it wasn't the sort of thing they did.

"Yep." Tallis grabbed her hand, pulling her towards the road. "Just the two of us."

Rin felt like her face was going to split. She couldn't stop smiling.

Tallis stripped the man's corpse with ruthless efficiency. When she had bundled up every bit of useful fabric, she climbed back down to the sand. Saesa touched her now-naked visitor's face in gentle apology, silently promising to return when she could give him the attention he deserved.

She went with Tallis from vessel to vessel until the sun was low in the sky. The bundle of cloth was heavy as Saesa's feet took her back to her nest. She ached for the long line of boats left occupied on the cooling sand, but she hadn't the heart to attend to them now. She would do it tomorrow, once the sail was started and her grief at the necessary desecration had settled.

Tallis scarcely acknowledged Saesa's presence, staring out to sea as though it was her soul Saesa had taken. Over the weeks that Saesa had been splitting her time between her other visitors and weaving the sail, Tallis had grown weak. It hurt Saesa to see the taut determination in the woman's face slackening and her eyes growing vacant.

"You will die here." Saesa breathed the words softly, half-afraid to make them real.

"It doesn't matter."

Tallis's voice startled her. She hadn't expected an answer.

"Would that be such a terrible thing?" the woman continued. "To stay here with her?"

"When I am done, she will not be here at all." Saesa didn't believe Tallis really wanted to die. "It is a stupid idea. Your death would be a waste."

Tallis's face went hard. She pushed herself to her feet and stalked off down the beach.

"I'm old enough." Rin fought the urge to fold her arms across her chest. It would look too childish. She wanted Tallis to see she could be mature enough to handle a weapon.

"No." Tallis didn't look up, her hand moving in smooth circles as she ran a whetstone along the gleaming edge of her sword.

"Just a dagger. I don't want a sword or anything." She clenched her hands, then forced herself to relax them. "You could show me how to use it." She was proud of herself for suggesting it. If she could convince Tallis she was ready to learn . . .

"No," Tallis repeated, her eyes flicking up to Rin's face and then down again. "I don't have time to waste on teaching you and neither does anyone else. You're too small, too young, too inexperienced."

"How am I supposed to defend myself?" Rin shot back. "You're gone all the time and I'm by myself. What if someone comes?" She wasn't really afraid of being alone. She was quick and quiet. Even Tallis had trouble finding her when she didn't want to be found, but Tallis wasn't going to give in just because she wanted to properly join the mercenary group. Better to try to sell her mother on an exaggeration of the truth.

Tallis's pale eyes bored into her. Rin glared back.

"Fine." Tallis pulled a worn dagger out of her pack and tossed it to her.

Rin fumbled and caught it. It was heavy in her hand. The leather-wrapped hilt was cool. She clutched it more tightly, scarcely able to believe it had been that easy.

"Learn how to use it." Tallis was already getting to her feet. "Don't bother me about this again."

Rin was certain she could talk Garen into teaching her. If not, well, she had watched all of them practice often enough. It couldn't be that difficult to copy them. "Thank you, Mother."

Her thoughts skidded to an abrupt halt as she caught sight of Tallis's expression. "Sorry, Tallis," she muttered, face flushing. City children had mothers - soft, round women with voices that were full of feeling, women who wore dresses instead of armor and baked bread instead of swinging a sword for whoever paid the most. Tallis wasn't a mother. Tallis was their leader.

Saesa turned the dagger over in her hands. In Rin's eyes, it had seemed bright and hopeful. The weapon she saw in front of her was small and dull. The leather was dark with blood.

"I gave that to her." Tallis stood behind her.

"Yes," Saesa answered. She held the dagger out.

Tallis took it. "Can you tell me what you see?"

"You know most of it." The sail was nearly half done and they had fallen into a pattern. Tallis would walk the island while Saesa did her duty to the dead, returning only when she was certain she wouldn't have to see the dani at her task.

"I don't know what she felt." There was a fine tremor in Tallis's voice. Her strong hands held the dagger lightly, fingertips caressing its sunlit length with the delicacy of a soap bubble.

"I will try." Anything to push back the terrible deadness in Tallis's eyes. Saesa couldn't stand to see that look on a living woman's face.

Tallis tucked the dagger away, catching Saesa's sharp-clawed hands and squeezing them hard. Her face was a tumble of wanting and fear.

Laughing wildly as she ran through a field that smelled of honey and damp hay, her arms flung wide. Huddling in a cave in winter, stomach so empty it was past complaining. Tallis herself, covered in blood and returning triumphantly to camp like a mythic heroine. A warm fire at a rare roadside inn. Garen in the boat they had cobbled together from driftwood, lying too still.

The memories ran together as the sail grew. Saesa's fingers fumbled the task at first, struggling to find the knack of it in the memories that flowed through her mind. It was green brocade and snowy linen, lilac silk and rough brown homespun, patched together at night while Tallis slept. The warrior-woman no longer wandered the island, but sat with her back to Saesa, listening with her entire being as the dani let the memories she saw turn into words.

Learning to mend armor. Dodging kicks from merchants as she explored a shoddy, colorful market. Hiding in the dark, wondering who wouldn't come home this time. Cutting her hands as she tried to hold the dagger just so.

"This is the last." Saesa ran her hands over the long, braided twist of fair hair - all that remained of Rin's body.

Tallis nodded and sank down onto the sand. She had calmed through the long days of exploring her daughter's memories. "I'm ready."

Saesa lifted the braid to her lips slowly. When this was done, Tallis would leave and Saesa would be alone again. The unbound end of the braid tickled her nose. She had to finish. It wouldn't be right to leave the job undone. She tucked the hair into her mouth, chewing the salt-tangled tresses and letting her mind go. The taste of fire burst hot and greedy against her tongue.

"Get under that log." Tallis pushed Rin down into the hollow and kicked up the leaves to hide her. "Stay until I come for you. If I'm not back by midday, take the road south to that village we passed through. Don't look for me and don't speak to anyone until you reach town. Understand?"

"No," Rin hissed. She didn't want to hide.

Her head snapped back as Tallis's hand connected with her cheek. Face burning, she sank back into the rotting leaves. Fury bubbled up in her chest.

"Stay here. Don't make me tell you again." Tallis's voice was sharp with disapproval. Rin watched her long legs carry her away through the trees and out of sight. Rin clutched her dagger, fighting tears as she settled in to wait. It wasn't fair.

The sky lightened. Every rustle made Rin sit up, only to sink back down again when it proved to be a squirrel or wind rustling the leaves. She closed her eyes, aching and exhausted. Next time she would find some way to prove she could help.

They burst into the clearing, swords a furious blur. There was blood on Tallis's face and she was favoring her right leg. Rin wiggled forward, trying to get a better look at the fight.

Her heart skipped a beat. Tallis was slowing down, her movements desperate and abrupt. Her opponent spun towards her, whipping his sword around in a complicated dance. Their blades met and locked. For a moment, it was stalemate, then Tallis fell. Rin covered her mouth with her hands, biting her cheek to stop from making noise. She crawled out from under the log. She had to help.

The man stood over her mother. Tallis's labored breathing sent up harsh plumes in the chill, early-morning air. He kicked Tallis's sword away, sending it spinning into the undergrowth. She glared up at him with furious, smoldering eyes, never looking at Rin's hiding place.

Rin crept towards them, moving silently like Garen had taught her. The hand that held the dagger was sweaty and her legs shook. She held her breath, looking for a weak point. The man wasn't wearing heavy armor, which was good. Her dagger wouldn't have been much use if he had been. She wasn't even sure it would puncture his thick leather vest.

She was nearly too close already. There had to be a way. Squashing down the sick squirming in her stomach, she lunged in low. Her dagger slashed through the back of his knee. He shouted, going down almost on top of her. She jerked back, wrenching the dagger free. This time she aimed for the unprotected juncture between his neck and shoulder. The dagger slid in.

Hot blood spurted over her hands and face. She stumbled and sat down hard. He fell back and lay still. Rin's chest was heaving. The blood in her eyes stung and she wiped at them. When her vision was clear, she saw Tallis. Her mother stared at her with wide, shocked eyes.

Rin smiled. She got up and wiped the dagger on her leggings. Tallis would have to admit she was good enough now. She stepped over the body.

Tallis's expression changed. The dawning pride in her face turned to horror. Rin stopped. The leaves behind her rustled. She turned. The man was on his feet, blood bathing his left side. She had missed the killing blow. He took one decisive step. She stared up at him. His expression was as cold and blank as the one Tallis usually wore.

Behind her, a woman screamed.

Rin looked down. Her hand was wrapped around the burning cold steel that protruded from her chest.

He pulled back and the wound burst into throbbing, agonizing life.

She was on the ground. How had that happened?

Tallis had her dagger. She was kneeling on the man's chest, drawing it across his throat with the fury of a goddess.

Tallis was cradling her in her lap, sobbing. That couldn't be right. Tallis didn't cry and Tallis didn't hug her.

"Mother?" Her voice broke.

"It's okay, Rin. I'm here," Tallis gasped, stroking her blood-matted hair with shaking, desperate fingers. "I'm going to fix this. I'm going to fix this."

Rin smiled, even though it hurt and nothing seemed to work right. She felt distant and warm. Her eyes drifted closed. If Tallis said it would be fine, then it would be. She would sleep and when she woke up, they would be together.

Tallis leaned forward, her face in her hands. Her shoulders shook. Saesa wrapped her slender arms around her. Rin was gone - and soon Tallis would be too. The woman turned into her embrace, burying her face in Saesa's dark hair.

"It was my fault." The words were muffled. "I should have run the other way. Or let him kill me. Or thought to check that he was dead. I should have left her with some nice innkeeper the day she was born." She shook her head. "So many things."

Saesa shrugged. "Perhaps." What did fault have to do with it? "But all mortals die."

"She shouldn't have." Tallis pulled back, rubbing her eyes. A trace of the anger she had brought with her had returned. "What do I do now?"

Saesa sighed. Until Tallis, she had only seen mortal lives from afar. They were much more complicated up close. "You know she loved you and wanted you to live. You know you loved her and wanted the same. Go live."

Tallis snorted, the ghost of a smile flitting across her face. "Everything's simple with you."

"I am not mortal. Eternity is much longer to straighten things out." Saesa smiled, showing her pointed teeth.

A crooked smile dawned on Tallis's face. Saesa felt her heart lift. With that expression, Tallis looked very much like Rin.

Saesa carried the heavy folds of the finished sail down to Rin's boat. Tallis was waiting, her face calm and her eyes far away. The boat was floating in the shallows, rocking gently in the waves.

They rigged the sail in silence. When the last rope was tied off, the multi-hued patchwork rippled in the strengthening evening breeze, snapping and crackling as it filled.

"I'll be back when it's my time." Tallis spoke without taking her eyes off of the horizon.

"Yes." Saesa nodded. "And I will be here waiting."

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