Gender Bending Entry #9 The Sea-Folk's Price by Z. Riddle

A mystery author has popped into the game with a haunting post about the Sea-Folk. This adds another book to the original list of authors, but this author will remain unnamed for now.

Entry #9 The Sea-Folk's Price is a disturbing tale to set us off into the new year.

Here is how it works:

Several authors submitted pieces they had lying around. I asked only that they choose something that would not easily be identified with their writing style. Fans can easily pick up on an author's voice, and since several of the authors are very well known, I didn't want people recognizing specific writing styles.

When an author didn't have pre-written piece, they wrote a piece just for this blog, primarily because we knew that once it hit the interwebs, it would become a freebie for everyone.

We took a brief hiatus for the holidays; however, I'm back now and will be running posts until we reach the end of the contest. Please keep your comments focused on the question at hand.

As always, please don't break my website.

Here we go ...

READ THIS FIRST: The rules and the prizes. Your mission: comment on whether you believe the author of this excerpt is male or female.

The Sea-Folk’s Price by Z. Riddle

Dai stomped through saltgrass and spinewort along the sea-cliff’s edge.  He wanted to howl curses out into the basso roar of the waves below, but this was no night to say such things aloud.  The full moon rising out of the sea was baleful orange, the surf seething and clawing at the land like a wolf roused to wrath.  It was a wild night, a raidheilge night, when the sea-folk would hunt close to shore, and they loved to catch curses and twist them against the speaker. 

Dai saw no sleek dark heads bobbing in the roiling foam, but lightning flashes of green and indigo lanced along the breakers, a sure sign of the sea-folk’s presence.  At the promontory’s highest point a mile distant, where pinprick lights outlined the Dragonhead Inn’s stacked, overhanging balconies, sightseers from the city would be pressed against the balcony rails, chattering like eager children and peering out into the waves. 

Old Owain, proprietor of the inn, would’ve warned them not to climb down to the beaches.  Cityfolk might think the sea-folk were ethereal sprites who granted wishes and seduced seamen, but the fishers knew better.  They’d buried the savaged corpses of capsized friends and relatives, seen the water churn red with the blood of fools who ventured too far into the waves.  Some, like Dai, had seen more. 

Flat black shark’s eyes staring into his, a fanged grin amid seaweed hair, and blood blooming in the water, so lovely, so terrible…

Dai’s breath came short.  His stride increased until he was almost running along the clifftop despite the chancy terrain, but the desperate anger burning in his chest didn’t ease.  By rights he should be working at the inn tonight, same as he had the last two years.  Carrying cinnamon cider and mulled wine to the guests crowding the balconies, and keeping a weather eye to make sure none were so foolish as to disobey Owain’s warnings.  But his father had gotten to Owain first.

Your father needs you, boy, Owain had said when he turned Dai away.  He can’t work the nets with his hands pained bad as they are, not alone. You’re done here.

I don’t work the boats, Dai had insisted, through gritted teeth.  Not anymore. I told you that when I first asked for a job.

You do now, Owain said, a terrible sympathy shining in his dark eyes.  Or do you want those pretty little sisters of yours to starve?  Now Andras has run off, you’re the only hope your father’s got. I can’t pay you half so much as he can earn with you in the boat. 

Andras.  Without slowing, Dai snatched up a stone and pitched it off the cliff.  The rock arced through the air and disappeared without a trace into the cauldron of waves.  Better if the rock had smashed his older brother’s head.  Andras, with his hard strength from years at the oars, his rough mockery, his wild, flashing grin -

Andras, who’d run off with Dilys the butcher’s daughter, leaving only a scrawled, barely readable note about seeking his fortune in the city.  Dai didn’t hate him for running.  Didn’t even hate his brother’s typical selfishness in forcing Dai to take his place. 

Dai hated that he’d lacked the courage to run first.

He could still run now.  His steps slowed, thinking of it.  Get away from the sea, before -  

But, no. He wasn’t Andras, who never thought beyond his latest passion.  The twins’ small faces wouldn’t leave his mind’s eye.  If Dai left, six-year-old Cadi and Efa might not starve outright; the other fishers would help as they could.  But they’d see to their own families first, and coin was scarce for all living on the Skali Coast.  Even Owain, with wealthy merchants bedding down in his inn, hadn’t much extra.  Dai knew, because he’d helped Owain with the ledgers.  The inn devoured money, with all the constant repairs and food orders and wages for cook and groom and maids, and most months the rooms were near empty.  Only now, in the fall, when the sea-folk came close to shore and the idle rich flocked to the coast to see magic flicker along the waves, would Owain make enough to see the inn through the rest of the year.    

Cadi and Efa had never been strong, born early as they were.  Living on scraps, they might survive a while, but when the winter plagues swept through the village…they’d die, as Dai’s mother had the winter after the twins’ birth. 

Old grief knotted his chest at the memory.  No.  He couldn’t simply slink away.  But what could he do?  His father thought it was simple fear that kept him from the sea, and so did Owain.  None of them understood.  None knew the truth of that terrible day two years ago, when Jakin had died and Dai had rowed in alone, numb and shivering with shock.

Against his will, the sea drew Dai’s eye.  He stopped dead, staring.

Someone was walking on the slender silver crescent of sand between cliff and waves.  A girl, in a pale dress already sodden with salt spray, thin fabric clinging to breast and hip.  Tendrils of dark hair rose and whipped in the wind like kelp in a storm-tide.

She had to be one of the gapers from the city.  Dai had heard the stories they told at the inn.  Dreamy, utterly false fancies of sea-folk granting heart’s desires, healing the sick, bringing lovers back from the dead.  Just the other day, he’d been washing the common room windows and overheard a pair of city girls sighing over a tale of a maiden with a sea-folk lover – in the tale, a darkly handsome man whose cruelty was limited to simple abandonment of a maiden yearning for his touch.

Through long practice, Dai had held his tongue – helped by his desire not to lose his view of the bountiful cleavage so enticingly displayed by the girls’ tight-laced corsets.  Something must’ve showed on his face, though, because the room’s other occupant, a man with corn-gold hair and silken clothes nearly as covered in fripperies as the girls’ dresses, had cast an ironic glance Dai’s way. 

Not a fan of folk tales? the man had asked, flipping a silver coin idly back and forth across his slender knuckles. 

Dai wasn’t.  Not that he said so at the time.  Owain didn’t like him talking to the guests.  But for all the foolish tales helped Owain drum up business, Dai thought them dangerous as rip currents.  Look at that idiot girl down there.  She was far, far too close to the water.  The sea-folk didn’t often leave the waves, but on nights like this one -

She was walking into the water.  Dai’s throat locked.  Oh, lords of the ocean, no!  One part of the tales was true: sea-folk could cast illusions.  The creatures used them to lure prey into reach. 

Dai flung himself forward along the clifftop.  There, the precipice’s angle wasn’t so steep – he slithered over the edge and skidded down crumbling limestone.  Saltgrass sliced his palms, stone grating against his skin, his breath harsh in his ears as the roar of the surf swelled. 

Sand beneath his feet now, and he was running.  The girl was waist-deep, and beyond, dark heads bobbed up in the foam.

Dai shouted, wordless and frantic.  The girl didn’t turn.  What illusion blinded her, stopped her ears?  He kicked off his boots and splashed into the surf, red blooming behind his eyes.  The icy shock of the water slammed the breath from his lungs. 

A wave slapped his face.  Hungry currents sucked at his legs.  He lunged for the girl’s arm.  Her skin was icy beneath his hand.  He pulled, and she turned at last.

Bone-pale face, lightless black eyes, and a wide, fanged grin –

Dai couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, as understanding crashed in.  She wasn’t the prey.  He was. 

He threw himself backward, but she had both his wrists in an iron-hard grip.  She dragged him deeper, and the illusion blurred away, leaving dark, scaled skin and weedy hair.  He fought, not wasting breath on screams, but cold tentacles snaked around his legs, jerked his feet clear of the sea bottom. 

Ours, came an icy, alien voice in his head, just as it had that day two years ago.  Ours.  Dark heads were all around him, brine flooding his mouth and nostrils.  The creature who held him yanked his left hand up to its lipless mouth. 

A snap of gleaming teeth, and he screamed, then, as his smallest finger disappeared and blood sprayed dark into the water.

Ours, the voice said, silky soft.  We touched you once before, and we claim you now. Your bone and blood is in us.  You do our bidding, mortal man, or all who share your blood will pay the price.

A vision swam into Dai’s head, of little Cadi and Efa, his stern father, even vanished Andras: all of them shrieking, blood running black from their mouths and eyes as their flesh sloughed away.   

“No!”  Dai spat seawater, kicked and twisted in the creature’s grip.  It hugged him closer.  The stump of his finger throbbed, pain rising through shock.  Cold breath reeking of carrion washed over him.  He turned his face aside, squeezed his eyes shut.  “Don’t. Please. You – what do you want?”

Another vision: the rich man at the inn, lamplight gleaming on his golden hair, his pale eyes sharp and shadowed, the coin flicking back and forth over his fingers.

Kill this man.  Kill him, and bring us his corpse before the dark of the moon.  When we taste his dead flesh, your blood will be safe.

Dai sputtered, his surprise so huge his voice wouldn’t come.  They wanted him to murder some rich city man?  Why? 

The creature dragged Dai’s maimed hand up again.  Indigo lightning flickered, bright enough to blind, and agony melted Dai’s bones.  

The grip on his wrists, his legs, released.  The pain vanished with it, leaving Dai choking and flailing, abruptly alone in the surging waves.  He thrashed toward shore, terror still beating bright in his veins, but felt no touch other than that of the sea itself. 

He staggered up onto the sand.  Dizziness sent him to his knees, his head reeling.  How much of his blood had spilled into the sea?  He should stem the flow.  If he died here on the sand, the sea-folk might well cast their curse on his kin regardless.  He fumbled for his injured hand.

His breath stopped again.  Bone gleamed white at the severed joint, but no blood poured from the wound.  The ragged flesh was blackened – not as if seared by fire, but as if dipped in ink, or tar. 

Something was bound around his wrist.  A bracelet of smooth, dark shells, so tight to his skin he couldn’t get a finger under it.  He yanked at the shells, struck by the unreasoning, desperate conviction he must get it off – and was assaulted again by a vision of his baby sisters screaming, dying.  For remembrance, the sea-folk’s voice whispered in his head.  He retched, bile sour in his throat. 

Two years ago, as he’d been screaming the last air out of his lungs, struggling against the cold grip holding him under, they’d said, You beg to be spared? We’ll grant your wish, but there is a price.

He’d thought Jakin’s life the price.  He’d been wrong.