Night Tide – Grace Draven

Old man Solyom said he heard his wife’s voice calling his name last night.” Zigana didn’t turn her gaze from the vast expanse of sea before them as her father, Odon, spoke around the stem of his unlit pipe. They stood together, buffeted by the wind rolling off the water. Morning sunlight sparkled on the wave tips as the gulls flapping above screamed challenges to each other. “A voice speaking? All I heard was the strange cry.” She had awakened to a sound the night before, an eerie dirge no human throat could ever create and none she’d heard from any sea creature. She had crept down the stairs from her tiny attic bedroom to discover Odon standing at the window by the door. The waning moon cast no light through the clear panes. He stood silhouetted by the last embers of the dying fire in the hearth. Even in the dark, she sensed his worry. The dirge was a cold water splash against her spine when it came again, seeping into the walls and through the cracks under the door. “Do you hear it?” Odon asked in a whisper, and Zigana suspected he didn’t keep his voice low just out of respect for her mother sleeping in the next room. “Aye,” she whispered back and stood just behind him to peek out the window into the night. In the distance, a spectral green shimmer edged the horizon where the shoreline lay hidden behind a barrier of sand hillocks and salt grass. “What is it?” “That which doesn’t belong here.

” Even now, under a bright morning sun and a shoreline that looked the same as it had every day of her life, she shivered at the memory of his answer. Odon chewed vigorously on the pipe stem, his frown carving the lines in his face a little deeper. “Makes you wonder if anyone else heard the sound or a woman’s voice.” Zigana mimicked his frown and bent to bury her hand in the wet sand. Seawater flowed over her knuckles, summer-warm and full of secrets. The runnels told their tales to her in a hum through her veins and sometimes as a flash of images in her mind. Something had swum these shallows last night before returning to the deep. Something that scared away the usual predators. She squinted up at her father. “Can you feel it? The wrongness?” He squatted next to her, gliding his hands through the glass-thin slide of water.

“Aye. Like tasting poison in a sweet cake.” She found the comparison apt. The sea had its dangers. Every sailor, fisherman, and any who lived on the coast knew it and accepted it. Howling storms and creatures that could swallow a man whole—if he was lucky enough not be torn apart first. These were part of everyday life, and there wasn’t a family in their village who hadn’t lost someone to the Gray, including her. Still, this was different, an otherness lingering in the tide. Odon stood, dried his hands on his trousers and strolled back to the two draft horses waiting placidly on the beach. Zigana followed him, the world setting itself to rights when her gaze landed on her mare Gitta.

Gitta was a monster herself, at least to those used to fast, long-legged mounts. Built solid as an ox with hooves the size of dinner plates, the horse stood seventeen hands high at the withers with shoulders broad and thick as a barn door and hindquarters rippling with muscle. Zigana still had to take a running leap to mount her bareback without the aid of a stool or trace. Gitta’s offspring, a mare named Voreg, stood next to her, equally as massive. Their manes fluttered in the wind, and they ignored the screaming gulls above them as if they were no more than pesky sand gnats. Zigana patted Gitta’s neck and checked the knotting on her baskets. Odon did the same to Voreg’s load and gave a quick jerk of his head toward the ensemble waiting farther back on the shore—men and women standing next to horses like Gitta and Voreg. ‘What do you think?” he said. “Safe to trawl?” She turned back to the sea. Odon asked her that question every day during shrimping season.

With only a few exceptions, she said yes. Today, she almost said no. The waters cascading over her hand assured her nothing swam beneath the waves that wasn’t supposed to be there, but the sense of strangeness remained. She could almost taste it on her tongue, bitter and thick. “Safe enough,” she replied. “ Whatever sang its song last night is gone. For now.” Odon motioned to the waiting shrimpers behind them. The creak of cart wheels rolling over wet sand rose above the surf’s steady rush as the horses pulled the carts toward the water. In no time, Zigana and the others had unhitched the carts, set up the boards and attached the nets to their patiently waiting mounts.

Gitta ruffled Zigana’s damp hair with a quick burst of air from her wide nostrils as if to encourage her mistress to hurry it along. Zigana used the trace to mount and swung a leg over the mare’s broad back to seat herself in the wooden saddle. She adjusted the baskets tied behind her on either side of the saddle and whistled sharply. The mare padded steadily into the rolling surf, shallow breakers foaming over the feathers of her lower legs as she followed Odon and Voreg, shrimp net dragging behind her. The other trawlers joined them, a dozen fanning out to travel parallel to the shore, their horses harvesting shrimp from the sea instead of wheat from the fields. Zigana settled into the saddle, her body rocking to Gitta’s slow rhythm as the mare navigated her way through the surf, occasionally dipping her nose into the water. She tossed her head, collar thumping against her chest as she blew spray out of her nostrils. They had done this together almost yearly since Zigana was fourteen and Gitta a three-year old filly. Even when the sky hung overcast and the waters were cold and foggy, Zigana loved trawling. Loved the time spent with the tide purling up to Gitta’s belly and sliding between Zigana’s toes.

The briny smell of the Gray, the shriek of gulls, and the ceaseless salt wind that rolled off the water as they dragged the net; these things, without exception, soothed her soul, made her happy, brought solace in her greatest grief. Until now. The water carried memory. It always did. Like Odon, Zigana had always sensed the life of the Gray beyond that of sight or smell. Some might call it the second sight, but it wasn’t. She didn’t see the future or read prophecy in the sea. It was more of a feeling, as if the Gray chose to occasionally give up its secrets to her and fill her mind with hints of what swam beneath the waves. Most of the time, she could predict a coming storm, but any experienced sailor could do that, as could old Ambrus when his knees swelled so badly, he could hardly walk. Unlike her and Odon, they couldn’t tell if the waters were safe to enter or if one of the big predator fish had chosen to visit the shallows in search of prey different from its usual fare.

Most often the shrimpers trawled in water too shallow for fish large enough to attack a horse, but there were exceptions, and none took lightly the sight of a dorsal fin slicing through the waves as it patrolled back and forth near the shore. During those times, when Zigana dipped her hand in the Gray, she caught flashes of watery darkness and blood, the dull ivory of teeth like saw blades or mouths filled with Nature’s equivalent of sewing needles. They didn’t trawl then, and the villagers had come to depend on both her and Odon for their “water-sight” as they’d come to call it. This morning the Gray hadn’t felt unsafe, but it had felt fouled somehow. The waves flowing over her hands were no different in texture or temperature than the day before, but Zigana couldn’t shake the sensation of a sliminess and wiped her fingers on her skirts over and over in a bid to rid them of the feeling. Even now, riding an untroubled Gitta, she hiked her knees higher up the mare’s sides to avoid dragging her feet through the surf. They finished their first trawl and plodded back to shore to give the horses a rest and empty the nets of their catch. Zigana dumped the contents into her bucket and sorted through the heap of shrimp, crab and small fish, tossing the last two back into the foaming surf where a flock of gulls waited to catch an easy meal. The gossip around her lacked its usual lightheartedness, and she listened closely while the other trawlers sieved their hauls and talked of old man Solyom. “He hasn’t been right since Trezka died.

” “Why should he be? They knew each other as children and married when they weren’t much older than that.” “But hearing her voice? Maybe she’s haunting him.” Several of the trawlers paused in their tasks to sketch a ward in front of themselves. Zigana glanced at Odon who rolled his eyes and tossed a crab up to a hovering gull. “I didn’t hear anything,” one woman said. “But I dreamed. Gold coins floating in the water like trails of seaweed.” She sighed. “All I had to do was swim through them and gather their treasure in my skirts.” “Wish I could have dreamed that myself,” another woman replied.

The dreamer shook her head, her face pale and set. “No you don’t. The coins dragged me down. Even when I tried to dump them out of my skirt, they stuck. I drowned.” A noticeable shudder rippled through the small group. Drownings happened. They lived by the sea, and even the best swimmers succumbed sometimes. Still, the acknowledgement of that reality didn’t lessen the horror of it. Silence reigned then as the trawlers sorted and sieved or checked the harnesses on their horses.

One man finally spoke, thrusting his chin toward Odon. “How about you, Odon? Dreams of gold or the voice of your wife whispering sweet nothings in your ear?” Odon snorted. “Unless you want to count Frishi’s snores as sweet nothings, I didn’t hear a thing,” he lied. “Slept like a babe.” The laughter his remark inspired lightened the mood on the beach, and they soon mounted again to lead the horses back into the water. Zigana paused before climbing the trace to the saddle when Odon drew near, his features somber. “Do you believe them?” he asked She shrugged, recalling the oily touch of tainted water on her palms and the memory of a softly sung dirge in the small hours of the night. “That it’s just a dream? I want to.” “So do I.” He patted Gitta’s muscled shoulder.

“Come on then. The day is wasting.” They finished the day’s trawl by mid afternoon and packed up to return home with their catch. Zigana helped her father hitch Voreg to his cart before doing the same with Gitta. She followed the line of his arm as he pointed toward the bluff and the formidable castle perched atop, overlooking the Gray. A caravan of wagons wheeled slowly up the road toward the barbican, people, no bigger than fireflies from that distance, walking beside them. “Looks like the castle has occupants again,” Odon said. “I didn’t think the old lord would ever return.” He glanced at the sea and again at the bluff. “Strange doings in Ancilar these days.

” Zigana’s heart fluttered in her chest. For a moment, she forgot her unease at the feel of the sea or the memory of an unearthly song crooned in an inhuman voice. Had her sister returned to Ancilar? Left the court of Pricid and its king, Sangur the Lame, to return to her birthplace? “Don’t raise your hopes too high, Ziga.” Odon gazed at her with pitying eyes. “Even if it is Jolen up there instead of her father…” “There’s no guarantee she’ll seek me out.” The words hurt to say them, even after these many years and the sensible assumption that a woman of high birth like Jolen would turn a blind gaze on the bastard half sister raised as a fisherman’s daughter. Still, Zigana hoped it was Jolen and that she might remember a shared childhood of days playing in the surf and chasing fireflies across the fields at twilight. Odon picked up the length of rein tied at one end to Voreg’s hame and perched on his cart’s side edge. “Your mother will be itching to know who’s moving in.” He clucked and snapped the rein, and the mare began her trek home.

“She’ll be quick to find out and tell us,” Zigana called after him as she mimicked his actions and set Gitta on the path to follow. She watched the castle road and its travelers until the cart trundled behind a wall of salt grass, and she lost sight of them. The pungent odor of livestock and manure replaced the briny scent of the sea as they pulled into the barnyard and unhitched the horses from the carts. Odon unloaded their nets and catch while Zigana unharnessed both Gitta and Voreg and led them to their stalls for a good brushing. When she finished, she fed and watered both mares and left the barn. She met her mother at their cottage door, recently returned from a trip to the castle hill. Frishi’s eyes were bright with curiosity and her mouth turned down in a frustrated frown. “Well, that was a waste of my time,” she snapped and marched inside where she whipped an apron off the hook by the dry sink and tied it around her waist. Zigana padded after her, knowing she’d regret asking the question but compelled to do so anyway out of sympathy. “What’s wrong, Mama?” Frishi handed her a bucket before crouching at the hearth to start a fire.

“They’re all as close-mouthed as clams up there. No one admitting who’s moving in. The house has been empty for years, ever since Jolen married that inland lord.” She dug for a piece of charcloth from the box set near the hearth and busied herself with building up the coals. “They can’t keep it secret for long,” she said, as if vowing to suss out the mystery of the castle’s new occupants no matter what it took. She gestured to the pitcher Zigana held. “I’ll need that filled to the brim and make it quick. Your da will be ready to chew on the table if I don’t get this soup ready soon enough.” Zigana left the cottage for the well, passing Odon on the way as he built his own fire outside under a large cauldron in preparation of boiling their catch, with some to keep and the rest to sell. “What did she say?” he called out.

Zigana shook her head. “She’s put out. No one is telling her who’s moving in.” Odon laughed and sorted through the pile of shrimp on the table beside him. “They will. No one keeps anything from your mother for very long.” That was true. Frishi had a reputation for being an unapologetic gossip, but the same villagers who complained of her nosiness went to her first for any news, and Zigana predicted by the time she finished pumping water into her bucket there would be a crowd of Frishi’s friends crammed into their tiny parlor hoping to hear any information she managed to glean from her foray to the castle. She straightened from bending at the pump and shielded her eyes from the sun with her hand as she gazed at the castle perched on the bluff. Castle Banat had sat unoccupied for seven years now.

Once called Castle Nemes, Lord Boda had changed its name after his wife had died in childbirth. Castle Noble or Castle Sorrow, whatever name it took, Zigana had been drawn to it all her life. Her sister Jolen was born there, and she and Zigana had often raced through its labyrinthine corridors together as children: the lord’s legitimate daughter and his bastard one. Had he returned to oversee his abandoned demesne, drawn inexorably back to the Gray as everyone who ever lived within the sound of her surf was? Or did someone else come to Castle Banat, some visitor with a wish to enjoy the flat beaches and placid shallows that stretched below the bluff? Had Jolen returned? The thought made Zigana’s heart flutter. Her half sister lived and moved in a world so different from her own. Zigana’s brush with aristocratic life was limited to the hazy memories of childhood when Jolen had been given permission by her father and her nurses to play with Zigana in the surf or the kitchen gardens that took up one side of the castle bailey. She had no concept of court life where rumor had reached even this far that Jolen was renowned as one of the jewels in the Pricidian court. Or had been at least— until the rebellion. Rumor had also spread to Ancilar of her disgrace and that of her husband. “Ziga! Where’s my water?” Frishi’s shrill command broke through her musings, and she lugged the full bucket back to the cottage.

True to form, it seemed as if half the village’s women had wedged themselves into the parlor, batting questions back and forth between them as they conjectured over who was moving into the castle. She plunked the bucket on the table and fled outside to help Odon package cooked shrimp for the villagers who stopped by to buy enough for their evening supper. “Coward,” he said with a grin. “Prudent,” she replied as she counted coin and passed two packages of shrimp to one of the few women not squeezed into Frishi’s parlor. “And I don’t see you in there answering questions.” “A lone man in a house packed to the rafters with women is either dead or begging to die. I’m neither.” “As the gods will it,” a customer chimed in, nodding his head sagely and with an expression that told of sheer terror at the thought of being trapped in the scenario Odon described. Next to him, his wife snorted her disdain and bashed his elbow with hers. “Don’t think you’re safe even if it’s just one woman in the house, you old cark.

” She took the package Zigana handed her and pushed her hapless spouse down the road. “I thank the gods every night that I married Frishi and not Klotild,” Odon said and wiped his brow in obvious relief. Zigana watched the couple as they disappeared into an alleyway off the main path, Klotild haranguing her spouse the entire way. “I thank them too,” she said. Her gratitude didn’t spring from the same reason Odon’s did. Frishi had been heavy with Lord Boda’s child when Odon married her. He was a good husband to Frishi and treated Zigana as his own. Boda might have sired her, but Odon was her father in every way save blood. They even shared the gift of water-sight, though Odon’s could be traced back to his mother while no one knew from whom Zigana had inherited hers. She knew nothing of Boda or his family except what Jolen had told her, and that had been precious little and told from the perspective of a young child.

Frishi, unlike her usual verbose nature, was singularly tight-lipped about Lord Boda, even when Zigana had grown to womanhood and questioned her about their relationship. The water-sight had been a fortuitous gift, one that made Zigana’s illegitimacy a thing of little import by comparison. She was accepted in the community and valued for her gift, just as Odon was. Bastards weren’t usually so fortunate. Supper that evening consisted of soup and Frishi’s unending speculations over who was moving into the castle. They ranged from the mayor of the neighboring village of Nodaski to King Sangur the Lame himself. Odon sopped his bread in his soup and ate in silence as he usually did. Zigana made one valiant effort to steer her mother’s train of thought away from the castle. “Did you hear anything strange last night, Mama?” Frishi’s raised eyebrows assured Zigana she hadn’t. “I don’t think so.

Strange as in how?” She glanced at Odon who stared into his bowl as if divining the future from the swirl of the broth. “Singing? Humming? The sound of a woman’s voice talking?” Zigana flinched at hearing herself say the last. Frishi’s short huff of laughter confirmed how ridiculous it sounded. “A woman singing or talking to herself? In the middle of the night?” She snorted. “Did you filch the wine before you went to bed last night?” Odon interrupted. “Solyom’s been telling folks he heard Trezka calling to him from the sea, and Zigana and I both heard singing from that way in the small hours.” Frishi shuddered. “Trezka is dead,” she said, stating the obvious and widely known. “Maybe she’s haunting Solyom.” Zigana sighed, and Odon went back to divining his soup.

Her mother brightened. “Maybe there was a late-night party at the castle! A welcoming celebration for the tenants. Solyom might have heard that.” Zigana rose and took her empty bowl to the give it a quick dip and rinse in the wash bucket. She loved her mother, but Frishi, once latched onto an idea, pursued it with singular purpose to the exclusion of all else. Until she discovered who had moved into Castle Banat, every supposition regarding anything in the village would lead back there, even eerie dirges resonating from the Gray in the middle of the night. As she readied for bed that evening, she peered out the sliver of window in her attic room. The view faced the bluff and the blacker silhouette of the castle cast against a moonlit sky. The golden glow of light filled a solitary window in one of the upper stories. The shadow of a figure suddenly blocked some of the light, and she wondered who looked out at the night tide and if they saw something there that didn’t belong.

She left the window to crawl into bed. The sheets were chilly on her skin, and Zigana huddled under the blankets, shivering. It was late summer, and while the days were balmy, the nights had grown decidedly colder. She slipped into sleep, lulled by the far-off rhythm of the surf and something else. Ancient, inhuman and beckoning. She dreamed. Sunlit days and Jolen running ahead of her on the beach, beautiful as a sea sprite and just as elusive. She turned and waved to Zigana, long blonde hair snapping in the wind like strips of a tattered flag. “Come catch me, Ziga!” she called out before sprinting away, laughing. Zigana raced to catch up, her joy of the chase turning to panic as Jolen plunged into the sea, falling under the crush of tall waves that pounded her into the sea floor.

Zigana screamed, the scream of a panicked child instead of a woman. “Jolen! Jolen!” But only the Gray replied, as the Gray always did, in an endless tumble of waves.

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