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Sample Story from "The Master Weaver: Tales of the fantastic for grownups"

"Gift of the Sea" © Copyright 1995 Bronwyn Calder
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"The Master Weaver" has 17 stories and 1 poem, most of them new. 3 stories have been published before.
"Gift of the Sea" has appeared in:
Bennett, W and Hudson, P. (eds). (1995) Rutherford's Dreams: A New Zealand Science Fiction Collection. New Zealand: IPL Books.

Gift of the Sea

The city spread below us like a grey-black fungus on the beautiful rust yellow of the desert. It rose straight out of the sand - grey buildings tall, crooked like teeth, with windows like rotted holes black in the sun. The city crowded the shore of a flat oily green sea. It appeared to me as if no light escaped it.

"I don't think we should go down there," I said.

Willa laughed. "You worry too much, monster." She called me that when she was annoyed with me. "Stay here, then." And she walked off, down, stumbling and tripping in the deep sand. I watched her angry march, her head high, then I set off behind her, almost tumbling to her side. "I knew you'd come," she said, grinning widely, crinkling up her wind-freedom tattoos.

"I must protect you," I said.

She laughed, gently this time, and patted my horn. "Dear Ran." She had forgiven me.

* * * * * *

The road man put the idea in her head. "You headin' for the city?" he'd said, swinging the bar with which he was levering a boulder aside. He made his living charging travellers a fee for clearing the road.

"Which city?" I asked. They were scattered all about, dead places, full of rats, diseases and creatures that would knife you for your coat. Well, Willa and I would knife you for your coat, but only if one of us needed a new one.

"Down on the sea. They say there's a tribe down there. All settled. I seen lots goin' that way."

"A tribe?" Willa said. She kept a low profile around strangers. People were afraid of me and usually kept a respectful distance. But there weren't a lot of women wandering the roads. It paid to be inconspicuous.

"A tribe," he said. "Just the place for a nice little girl like you."

That was when she began to think of it. A tribe. Her own tribe were all dead. She remembered her mother, she told me, mainly the bird and the wind that danced on her face - the bird in the corner of her left eye crinkling up and nearly disappearing when she smiled, and the wind, a streak on her right. Willa had the same tattoos.

"Why do we seek the city?" I asked one night in the summer as we sat by our fire while the moon was high. I had heard many bad reports of the place. That very day a way-man, bent almost double under his load of fire wood, had told me the tribe in the city ate all those that came seeking them.

Willa sat before the fire, gazing into it. She poked at it with a bit of jolda stick. "I want ..." She wasn't looking at me. "I need a tribe." I couldn't recall her expressing a desire before for something that she couldn't just take.

"There are plenty of humans," I said.

"Vagrants, murderers, thieves. They'd cut your throat for that." She snapped her fingers.

"So would we," I said.

"I want what the birds have," she said, as the first bird of the morning gave a sharp cry.

"You want to fly?" I thought, for a moment, that she was talking about the tattoos on her face.

"I want a nest. I want my own people."

I never told her how she hurt me. I did not know, do not know, my own people. I don't think there are any others like me. She was my people.

I'm not human. I don't know what it means to be human. I don't know a lot of things that mattered to Willa but, whatever I am (and no one, including me, really knows) I didn't see why Willa couldn't be happy with me as she had been since I took her from the burning ruins of her home when she was five years old.

We walked through the long summer, across the desert of grey rock and yellow sand. It was not a lonely trek. We met many way-men lugging their wares, some even selling water to travellers who miscalculated the walk between water holes. The way-men had tales to tell of cities and plagues and wars, and the state of the roads. Many had heard of the city by the sea, but none had been there, or knew anyone who had. The city was ruled by a queen with such a terrible face to look upon her was to drop down dead.

When autumn came we met a way-man taking weapons to the city by the sea. He told us he was going there and how he was to get there and we camped together to discuss terms for a side arm for Willa whose previous weapon had been lost in a card game with a pig man several months before.

"I can let you have top of the range in return for her," the way-man said, rummaging through his pack and producing a 30 cm long automatic hand gun.

"What?" Willa leapt to her feet, hand to her kick blade.

"I'll let your devilish mate have this weapon if I can have you." And he reached out for her, drawing her to her feet, over balancing her into his filthy arms before she had the blade from her belt. She screamed and clawed at him and before he knew any more I howled and threw my kick blade across the small distance between us. The blade flew true and struck the way-man's head off.

Willa was furious, swearing and kicking the body, taking the head by its hair and hurling it as far as she could into the jolda scrub.

I sat and howled, angry and grieved and fearful. When these fits came upon me only she could calm me, as she did then, kneeling beside me, taking my face in her hands. "Ran, stop that old noise now." I could smell the way-man's blood on her hands. "It's all OK now. And I got the side arm. Isn't it beautiful?" She flashed the gold-grey metal at the moon and the moon returned the gleam.

"I am afraid," I said.

"There's nothing to be afraid of."

I looked up at the moon. She gleamed back the dull, evil beam of the side arm.

* * * * * *

Now it was accomplished.

We stood at the edge of the city where its roads were broken and uneven and the buildings overshadowed us. In the shadows it was cold. The hair on my back stood up. Willa did not seem afraid. She moved forward, bent forward, as if excited. I pulled out my side arm and moved slightly ahead.

"Drop your weapon!" The speaker, a woman, stepped suddenly from a corroded opening in the building in front of us, her red hair flaming in the sun. I dropped the side gun. The woman was tall - at least two metres - and built as large as the road man we'd met. She had bright red hair, but her face was hidden behind a white cloth mask and dark glasses. She carried a cross bow.

"Drop your weapon." The woman was talking to Willa now. It was too late to use her new gun. She took it from her belt and gently laid it down.

"We offer you no harm," she said.

"That one is the Devil." Behind me another voice. I turned quickly. A young man, a youth, stood in another decayed hole. He stepped further into the light.

He wore Willa's wind-freedom tattoos.

The woman was walking around us now, bow readied, and ten or twelve people had appeared, all armed, all watching us. "He has only half the required horns. What are you, Devil?" she said, tipping her veiled face at me.

There was a sudden yelping, a loud cracking noise echoing among the decayed buildings, and a small black dog raced from the gaping mouth where the woman had been concealed, leapt at Willa and tried to tear out her throat. Willa twisted and raised her hand, fending it off. It sank its teeth into the hand, and Willa screamed. I grabbed the dog and held it as it continued snarling and yelping.

"Leave her alone!" the woman shouted at me. The dog growled and slavered and I struggled to hold it.

"It bit me!" Willa screamed. She held out her hand, showing the blood.

"She doesn't bite." The woman took the dog from me. "She is a friendly animal." She set it on the ground and it made a lunge for Willa again. This time Willa was ready for it and kicked it in the ribs as it attacked. It yelped, but came again, so I scooped Willa up and put her on my shoulders, carrying her as I had done when she was a small child. The dog growled and barked. I bared my fangs at it and it backed a pace, snarling.

"She's just being friendly," the woman persisted. She clapped her hands. "Tie her up," she said, and the young man with the wind-freedom tattoos took the dog away.

I put Willa down.

"Who are you?" the woman said.

"Wanderers," Willa said.

"You may stay one night. Tomorrow you must leave." She turned to me then. I couldn't see her eyes, but I knew she was examining me from behind the dark glasses. "What is that?"

"My friend, Ran," Willa said.

"What sort of devil is it?"

"I do not know," I said. "But I have a tongue that speaks."

"It may not come inside," the woman said.

Willa stepped close to me. "Did you see the wind-freedom tattoos?" she whispered. Then she left me.

She followed the tribe into the gap-toothed maze, leaving me alone in the road on the edge of the darkness of the city. I howled then, alone as I was for the first time since I had rescued the infant human from the ashes. Before that I had been alone a long time - I no longer remembered the beginning. For all I knew I was the Devil. But I thought not. The Devil could not die and, without Willa, I was going to die. I dragged myself that day to the heavy sunless shore of the sea where the city shadowed the water so nothing could be seen in its depths. It was the most water I'd ever seen together at one time and I sat on its shore watching its lightless surface, remembering the ease with which you could extinguish life by immersing yourself in water until you could not breathe ...

The sun went down and it grew even darker, and the moon came up, huge, round, white, glowing - she looked like the hilt of the knife of the King of Rags we'd met a couple of years ago in the spine forest. Mother of pearl, he called it, gift of the sea. I looked at the sea and wondered if it would give me a prize, such a treasure, but it seemed it would not, and the moon smiled upon me and I howled at her until, from somewhere above in one of the rotted buildings, someone shouted: "Shut the Devil up!" and a bolt from a crossbow thudded at my feet.

At dawn Willa came to me hand in hand with her young tribesman. She left him in the shadow of the building and came to where I still sat, still watching the sea and the rainbows of oil on its surface. At this time of day there was sun on the water.

She came right to me and sat with me. "Gloriana says you must go." Her hand had been bandaged.

"Has the dog gotten over its antipathy towards you?"

"Finn kept her tied up. She doesn't like me." The young tribesman seemed alerted by the use of his name, but he came no closer. "They think you're the devil. I said you were just a friend. But they're afraid of you. You have to go."

But I could not. I watched her return to the young man, Finn, and take his hand again. I knew she would stay, so I would stay - sitting here.

In the afternoon Willa brought me some food. "Gloriana wants me to stay," she said. She handed me the meat.

"What is it?" I said, sniffing it carefully.

"It's alright, it's only rabbit buck!"

"I will stay," I said. "I'll stay right here and watch over you."

"I don't want you to. Go away."

But I didn't.

I ate and rested and, as the next dawn broke, I went into the foul water and swam out from the city's shadow to the sunlit green velvet ripples. I did not do it to get clean; I enjoyed the freedom of my limbs as I felt its oily fingers sliding over me. If I were truly human that water would have killed me.

In the evening I hunted among the ruins by the shore and knifed a couple of rats and roasted them on the beach. In ones and twos members of Gloriana's tribe came to watch me eat, standing two or three metres from my fire. I ate the rat in pieces off my kick blade, watching the tribe all the time. They stared back at me blankly.

During the night most of the tribe congregated by the sea. I sat up, afraid to sleep, as their hostility grew; their blank stares changing to snarls as first one, then others muttered "devil" and the muttering grew to a hum. Some took up a chant, although it died away after only a few minutes. Then, sometime later, someone started it up again. They shuffled closer to the fire, until I snarled, and they retreated a few paces. Gloriana stood with them and, towards dawn, I saw Willa and Finn, her tribesman, arms about each other, slip from the building and into the ring of menacers.

That morning the sun pierced the heavy yellow clouds and struck down on the tiny patch of rocky beach that had become my world. Even the tips of the oil laden ripples began to sparkle. I took up my position, watching.

Then the chanting started again. "The devil, the devil, kill the devil." And a rock struck me in the middle of the back. I howled and snarled at them. They retreated slightly but continued to hurl rocks at me. One struck me on the head and I was dazed and sank to my knees, dimly aware of blood sliding down my face.

"The devil cries, the devil cries," they screeched, and I was aware I was whining and tried to stop but the pain ...

I heard Willa then, screaming "Ran! Ran! Stop them!" I struggled to stand. Willa was upon Gloriana, trying to pull off her mask and glasses, clawing at her eyes. The others stopped attacking me and turned to aid their leader. Gloriana screamed and tried to shake Willa off her back. Knives were drawn and Finn, Willa's tribesman, plunged his blade into Willa's back. She screamed and held on with her dog bitten hand, the other trying to gouge out Gloriana's eyes. Finn tore out his knife and Willa was bleeding.

"Let him go! Let him leave! He hasn't hurt you."

I stumbled up. "Willa," I said. "Willa ..." I saw her eyes, her pain, her blood slowly leaving her.

Then the dog, freed somehow, darted from the black gap-toothed maw, straight as the slash of a knife, and sprang, closing its jaws on Willa's leg, dragging her. It was too much and my Willa, weak already, lost her grip and fell to the rocky beach.

Gloriana, maskless, her broad shining face flushed and grinning, seized Finn's spear and turned upon her foe, but the dog was there already, tearing at my Willa's throat. I howled, sinking to my knees, but Gloriana's tribe all had their attention elsewhere, watching the destruction of their enemy.

I stumbled forward, took up my kick blade from the edge of the fire, held it poised and threw it, my aim true as ever, and the blade flashed once in the bright sun.

And then the dog yelped as if a sand crab had bitten it. It yelped just once and dropped. Gloriana's tribe let out a moan in one voice and crowded around it.

Willa now lay clear of them. I went to her. She lay twisted and broken. I sat by her and howled - a useless instinct my long dead and unknown mother left me.

"Ran?" Forced out between bloodied lips.

"Willa?" I bent close to her. Her eyes opened, their lids fluttering like the black butterflies over the slag heaps of the mining village where I had found her.

"Ran, forgive," she said.

"You killed her!" Gloriana screeched, levelling a spear at me.

Willa's eyes stared up at me, but their light had gone out. I snarled at Gloriana, baring my fangs and she backed away, and her tribe backed. Bending, I listened, but Willa's heart was silent, her eyes black dead pools. I howled and lifted her, carrying her, into the water. They would not follow. The water was lethal to them. I pulled her into the water and swam with her out from the shadows of the city, across the water to the horizon.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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