The scent of the sea permeated the chill morning air.. The steady sound of the waves meeting the sea wall was an endless background thrum, the beating heart of the small fishing town.
Hettie, the baker’s wife, guided her old nag just out of town to make early morning deliveries, her friend Enna by her side. Despite the early hour they gossiped as they went, cheering the grey salt-rime fog that rolled in off the sea.
Their first stop was a tiny shack not too far out of town. This close to the water the salt air was relentless on wood, but the structure had been well enough take care of, and stood solidly not too far from the waterline. Nets and drying racks were arrayed outside, though they were all currently empty.
Hettie pulled the small cart to a stop.
“Now, Brenn has been acting a little strange lately, ye ken Enna?”
“I did hear some whispers. He’s sort of not all there?”
“Aye. Staring at nothing, not really talking. I mean, he never was much of one, but odder than usual. I swears it’s from him living all alone out there. Man needs a wife. S’why I like having someone come with my on deliveries.”
“So that’s why I got my old bones up this early?”
Both women laughed and climbed down from the cart. Taking their goods they headed up onto the creaking porch and knocked on the door.
It took a bit of time before the weathered door opened to reveal a drawn, tanned face and distant ice blue eyes.
“Morning to you, Brenn,” Hettie said, “I’ve got your delivery. Everything nice and fresh.”
“Thank you.” The man spoke, but his eyes shifted down to the baskets the women carried, dark brows furrowing as if he couldn’t quite remember why they were there.
Hettie glanced over at Enna.
“Best bread yet, I think. Tried some myself this morning. Are you going to invite us in?”
Brenn seemed to slowly realize and he looked apologetic, stepping back and indicating the two women should enter.
It was a fishing hut, so it was nothing particularly special inside, though it was tidy, for the most part. Hettie had always thought it could have benefited much from a woman’s touch. The curtains were drawn, leaving them in lamplight.
She tried to make small talk with Brenn as she laid out loaves and rolls on his table, but he would often trail off in the middle of speaking, or have to ask her again what she’d said. It was sad, and she couldn’t help but wonder if he mind was going.
Their conversation was broken was Enna made a sudden sound,
“Oh! I say! Who are you!?”
Enna was bent over, her eyes wide as she looked at a young child the likes of which neither of them had ever seen before.
The child was beautiful, and Hettie couldn’t say right away whether or not it was a girl or a boy, given how delicate the features were. But it wasn’t just that which caught their breath.
It looked liked a jeweled statue come to life.
In the lamplight, shoulder-length hair shimmered and swayed like liquid sliver. The child’s skin was pale, with a sheen like a white pearl. But it was the eyes, perhaps, that were the most striking. They were a vibrant purple, like the amethysts Hettie had seen once in a jewelers shop when she’d traveled down the coast to the harbor capital.
The whole picture was rather ruined by the child’s clothing, which looked like little more than a smock sewn out of a dull brown potato sack. The contrast was startling, like an angel mucking out a pig pen.
“Where did you come from, sweetheart?” Enna had a small brood of children of her own, and was quite good with them.
The child just stared at her, mute, before those purple eyes shifted to Brenn.
“Pay no mind.” Brenn’s voice broke the silence, more focused than Hettie had heard it in a long while.
The man made his way across the room, seeming intent on shooing the two women away from the child, and back toward the door. They were both too startled to resist.
“I said pay no mind, if you please. He is no one’s business.”
“How long has he been here?” Enna, surprisingly, seemed less phased by the strangeness of the child, than she did of his circumstance.
“No matter.” Brenn’s voice sounded slow once more, his focus lapsing. Even so he scooped a small pile of coins off the table and pressed them into Hettie’s hand before he advanced on them to corral the two women out the door.
Once they were on the porch he stood himself in the doorway, blocking the entrance. He was breathing a bit hard, as if standing there took effort. Behind them Hettie could see the boy. He hadn’t moved, and was still staring at them.
“I shall… return your baskets tomorrow.” His eyes had almost gone glassy, and after a moment he shut the door. There was a gentle thunk inside, as a bar was set across it.
The two women stood there, stunned, then turned, looking at each other as they tried to figure out what had happened. Eventually they made their way back down to the cart.
“That child looked nearly four, Hettie. I’ve never seen him before.”
“Brenn could never keep a woman long enough to have a child. ‘Sides, there’s no way he could’ve kept something like that hidden. What kind of child looks like that? Like a wee faerie.”
“It’s no flesh of his flesh, I’ll tell you that. Maybe he walked up out of the sea. A mermaid’s child.”
“That’s silly. Ain’t no such thing.”
They both climbed back into the cart, making their way back. Neither spoke for some time. The fog was starting to lift, but both women were still mystified.
Enna looked over at her friend, tone soft. “You don’t think Brenn found the boy somewhere and is keeping him for… the unspeakable?”
Hettie had been worried about that, but she shook her head.
“He didn’t look scared, my gel. If there was something like that going on that boy would have been scared. He just looked plain, somehow.” There was no other way to explain it.
“We’ll tell the elder when we get back. She’ll see to the right of it.”
The bonfire roared on the shore, tended carefully by several adults. Dried driftwood crackled and popped as the flames consumed them, causing the sand to dance and ripple with in light and shadow.
The fire wasn’t needed for heat this time of year, the warm south wind bringing plenty of that, but the summer festival wouldn’t have been the same with out the tradition. The whole day had been filled with activities and fun, an unusual break for the usually quiet town. The occasional sailor or traveler often joined in, and families who lived further inland also often made the trip down for the day. Children were allowed to stay up late this one night for the bonfire.
It was a clear night, showing off the stars. The moon was already rising, full and round. Music played, and people danced.
“What’s that?” A sailor from far up the coast asked one of his companions.
He pointed away from the gathering, where the land gently curved upward, to a light on the shoreline. It glowed exactly like the moon above, silvery light spilling out around it. It might have been the reflection on the water, but the sailor could have sworn it hovered on the land.
“The reflection of the moon, of course.” His companion said, after squinting in that direction. “What are you daft? I know you’re not drunk enough yet not to see that.”
“Doesn’t look like any reflection to me.”
“It’s the moon come down to walk on the land,” said a small voice.
They both looked down to see a little girl grinning up at them, in the self assured away that children do when they know a secret.
“Watch.” She pointed, and they followed her finger.
Just as the sailor was about to tell her off for lying, the light began to move. It didn’t shimmer and dance like a reflection among the waves. Instead it moved, slowly but steadily along the line of the shore. The moon was walking upon the land.
“See, I told you.”
“Well I’ll be damned. Would you look at that Tomas?”
“I don’t believe it. Moons don’t walk around.”
“Of course they don’t, gentlemen!” One of the elders quickly hurried over, taking hold of the sailor’s arm, trying to take their attention away from the far shoreline. “Only a child would believe such silly nonsense.”
“What’s down the shore then? The light just there. Is it some kind of magic or something?”
The elder looked pained for a moment but then laughed again and shook his head.
“It’s nothing you need to worry about. It’s just Brenn’s boy, one of our local shore-gatherers. Man is crazy as a loon. The kid is a wild one, likes to play tricks on visitors like that, to scare them and cause trouble. He does that with a big mirror when the moon is out. Pay him no mind, he’s useless for everything. You know children, the more you encourage them…”
“See I told you it was nothing,” said Tomas, “just some stupid kid playing a prank.”
“Looks pretty real to me,” the first sailor said, sounding skeptical.
“Here, I’ve got something even better than a trouble-making boy. Would either of you like some more ale? We’ve just opened a new keg. Season’s finest!”
“Count me in! Come on Dal, let’s go. There are a few ladies I’d like to share a drink with before the night is over.”
Reluctantly, Dal followed, the bonfire swallowing up the strange light.
The elder let them go, sighing once he was alone, and sending the little girl off with a warning look. The sailors wouldn’t be the only ones to notice, which meant his night was going to be busy.
He caught up with one of the townsmen, catching him by the arm.
“I thought I told you to make sure Brenn kept that kid indoors during the festival. I didn’t want a repeat of last year.”
“Don’t blame me. He hardly knows what year it is anymore. You try talking some sense into him next time.”
“This can’t keep happening. We’ve got to do something about the pair of them.”
Before he could say more he saw a mother and daughter pointing out into the darkness on the far end of the bonfire. He sighed, and hurried away to deal with them.
The waves rolled gently onto shore, the water glittering here and there under the cloudless sky. A gentle breeze helped cool the air the morning sun was quickly warming.
Iarod, cook at the inn, rode his mare down the beach. He enjoyed the sun, and so never minded having to run errands out to pick up produce from the shore gatherers.
The stop at Brenn’s house wasn’t anyone’s favorite. The man hardly worked these days, usually found sitting on his derelict porch, staring out at the sea. It was even harder to get him to focus on anything, and the town was convinced his mind had been addled. They only did pick up once a week now, instead of the far more regular visits of the past.
To his surprise he did spot someone wading in the surf just down from the hut. A spindly figure stood knee deep in the water, pants rolled up to keep them somewhat dry. It wasn’t Brenn, though, he could see that in an instant.
In the sunlight the strange, mute boy no one was sure was really Brenn’s son, looked very different than he did at night. His silvery skin was pale, dull, almost drained of life by the sunlight. His long hair was drawn up into a messy twist. It lacked all sparkle, simply a stark white mess atop his head. It was a rather disconcerting look, as if a ghost were wading in the sea.
The boy was stooped over, a tightly woven net hanging from his back, hands below the surface, searching. They emerged from under the water, holding a pair of large prize clams which he slipped carefully into the net. He plunged his hands instantly back under to search for more.
This was work Brenn usually did, though it was not unusual to see children helping their parents with the work.
Iarod pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted, calling out from the shore.
“Where’s your father, boy?”
The pale-skinned young man looked up, but said nothing. He never did. Instead he straightened and waded to shore, drawing the net from off his shoulder. He looked at the cook with those strange purple eyes, and held out the net. The bottom bulged with clams, crabs, and the other shallow water goods they purchased from the shore-grazer.
Iarod looked around, confused, searching for the older man.
Again no answer came.
He would have thought the boy deaf, but he was sure he could understand, and he was becoming impatient.
“You want to eat, don’t you boy? I can’t trade you if you I can’t speak to your father.”
This time the boy seemed to comprehend. He pointed toward the hut, then began to walk up the beach, leaving the cook to follow.
When they reached the hut the boy set the net down in a basin full of seawater to keep the catch fresh, and led the way up onto the porch.
There was a smell that hit the cook right away, that had nothing to do with fish. There on the porch, slumped over on the battered wood, was Brenn. His body was pulled in, and clearly stiff, the life having long since gone out of it.
Iarod gagged, and turned away. Somehow he wasn’t surprised, but he hadn’t come out here this morning expecting to see a dead body. He hazarded a glance, and the boy was still standing there on the porch, as calm as if nothing at all were wrong, as if his father weren’t dead.
“Come away from there.”
No answer, no movement.
“Damn it boy, I’m not in the mood for this! We’re going to have to do something about him. Give him a proper burial.” He stepped forward and took a swipe, trying to catch hold of a pale arm, but the boy jumped back and out of his reach too quickly.
Drawing himself up, Iarod tried to calm himself down. He looked at the boy focusing on him and not the dead body, gaze fixed, determined to get the boy to obey him.
For once, the pale creature seemed to react to something. He almost seemed to shrink and his gaze dropped down to the ground, as if he couldn’t stand the eye contact for too long. When he thought about it he couldn’t remember seeing Brenn ever actually look at the boy when he’d been around.
“I think you’d better come with me to see the elders.” He said, his voice soft.
He held out his hand, not pushing. The boy’s eyes shifted to it, looking unsure as to how he was supposed to react.
Iarod couldn’t remember Brenn ever touching the boy either.
But the pale child spooked, like a deer caught off guard, and he bolted inside, slamming the door shut behind him. The gentle thunk of the bar followed.
Iarod sighed. He was going to have to tell the town what had happened, and he wasn’t looking forward to it.
He thought of trying to say something, but what could he say to a mute boy he wasn’t sure was human? This was something better left to the elders.
Sighing, he made his way back to his horse, and rode away, leaving the dilapidated hut and it’s sole occupant behind, for now.