art by Stephen James Kiniry
by Ann Chatham
"It's not my rule," said the sorceress, crossly. "It's a rule of magic, child. If you want a thing, you must be prepared to offer something you value as much in exchange. If you take my advice, you'll forget about this nonsense and speak to the young man on your own." She leaned on her hoe and watched the girl over her garden fence.
"But, mistress," said the girl, and began to offer some excuse she passionately believed in. The old woman sighed; there was never a drop of sense in them when they were fifteen and in love, or thought they were. Of course, if she'd had any sense herself at that age she wouldn't be living in this little hut on the cliff's edge peddling simples, so she tried to be kind. This latest girl was very pretty, although perhaps she didn't know it, with her gray eyes and skin a good deal paler than most of the people along this coast. She had probably been sickly and sunburnt as a child, and showed no sign of knowing yet that she'd grown into herself and could likely catch the eye of whatever man she wished.
"I can't change the world for you, child," the sorceress interrupted her after a minute, and she stopped before saying that she didn't wish to, either.
"There is nothing in the world I value over his love," the girl protested, "not even my own life."
"And much good it would do you to be beloved and dead. Who is this young man, child?"
The girl scowled. "You are mocking me! You know nothing of love."
It was the sort of thing so many of them said, and the old woman wished that more of these youngsters remembered the value of being polite to those they wanted favors from. Unlike the griping fishwives from the village, she still remembered that their mothers and grandmothers had been no better in their day. The young men, of course, were worse. She leaned the hoe against the fence, gathered up the pile of pulled weeds in her apron, and mustered her patience.
"Child, if you wish to be united with your lover, I'll need to know something about him. That's also the way magic works; if I make you up a spell all unknowing, then odds are you'll end up beloved of the miller's boy when you wanted the fisher lad next door. If you want my help you'll stop looking for offense where there's none meant, and you'll come in and tell me what the trouble is from start to end, and we'll see what's to be seen."
She turned away to carry the weeds to the rubbish heap before the girl could answer, but after a moment she heard the girl's footsteps in the garden, rather than the long path back down to the village.
Inside, the girl sat on the bench that didn't wobble and twisted her hands in her apron until the sorceress put a knife and a bunch of carrots into them. The older woman stirred up the fire, brewed a tea, and steamed open a handful of mussels for her stew while the younger chopped carrots. After a while, the girl began to tell her story as well.
The young man, it seemed, was no fisher's lad or lord's son at all, but a wild lad of the sea with kelp for hair and the slim tail of a fish. In the highest, wildest tide, when the men pulled their boats out of the sea entirely and the women climbed the cliffs beyond the harbor and cast nets into the unruly waves, he had ridden the surf in as heedless as a human boy on a horse riding breakneck across unknown terrain, and caught her net out of the air for a joke. She had fallen in, of course, and he had saved her, with what she took to be a great many fine words of apology, although they had no language in common. But they had met again in calmer tides at the end of that same dock where he had brought her, so she had some reason for believing he cared for her as well.
"What do you want then, child?" the sorceress asked when she had done. "A fish tail of your own so you can leave all you know behind for a green-haired lad you can't talk to? To speak his tongue and lose your own? It's a pretty story, I grant you, but what do you know of his kingdom and what you'd find there?"
"I know what I see in his eyes," said the girl, plunking down the knife in the middle of the chopped vegetables and scowling.