“Sealed” by Noeleen Kavanagh is an evocative fantasy tale about Mara who lives alone and friendless in her coastal village. However, one day, an act of kindness on her part forces her to grasp her own powers and in doing so she realises that her life is her own to change. Noeleen’s story “The Pivot” appeared in the first issue of Fantasy Short Stories.
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Free Extract from “Sealed” by Noeleen Kavanagh
The ship was there, a mile or so out to sea, driven onto the Banford Sands by the storm last night. She listed in the water at an unnatural angle, broken-backed, accepting the blows of the sea, for she could no longer fly before it.
A pile of ragged clothes lay near my feet, flung by the sea past the high tide mark. No boots, feet poking white and water-sodden from his clothes. The body of a drowned sailor had nothing to do with the likes of me. It was for Lord Dwyer and the priest to see that it was given a fit burial.
I first saw the Banford Sands when I was a child. Far out to sea, the water trembled, the tide receded and islands of sand rose up from the depths like a sea monster. Hours later, the tide changed and they slid beneath the sea once more. But they were still there, restless and shifting, an arm’s length beneath the surface, ready to grasp at any ship that missed the safe channels through. And many did.
As I sat looking out to sea, the pile of rags by my feet coughed and retched, forcing seawater from his lungs. I was well within my rights to leave him there to die on the beach. The sea is jealous of those she claims, and so a stranger cast from the waves is not due hospitality.
But I have never been able to walk past a weak or injured creature. They pull and pull at me, dig claws in my mind. I’d have no peace otherwise, so I rose up, dusted the sand off my skirts and went back along the beach till I found Ruch Clyne.
“Ruch, Ruch,” I called to him, louder and louder till he peeled away from the men hauling their boat up the sands, loaded with bolts of cloth from the wrecked ship.
“Aye?” Outcast, freak, cursed. His contempt for me flicked and recoiled.
“I’ve found a sailor. Back there,” I said, gesturing, my chin raised. Aye, Ruch Clyne, remember your fine, tall son who walks without a limp, thanks to me.
“Past the tide mark. The sea changed her mind about him and spat him back.” If that wasn’t so, he would’ve been left there for the sea to reclaim at her leisure. “He’s still alive.”
“So what do you want?”
“A loan of your cart and pony to take him home.” Outcast, cursed, whore. Another word to join the others makes no difference to me.
“On your own head it is then. Bring them back when you’re done.” And he turned and walked away.
He was not born to die in the sea, my stranger, but I feared he’d die in my bed instead. I stripped him of his sodden clothes, save a small pouch tied about his waist. I built the fire up, sending it roaring up the chimney even though it was spring, and heaped all my blankets on the bed. But still he shivered and shook, his skin cold and clammy to the touch.
I laid my hand on his forehead. I felt the cold devouring him from within, his blood moving slower and slower, pooling and thickening, till the life in him’d be stilled.
Heat. He needed heat to warm his bones and still the shivering, heat in heart and head and belly and lungs, spreading out through his body. I don’t know how long I stayed there, fingertips to his forehead, till the trembling ceased and I stood up, drained and weary.
He muttered, his eyes flicking open and looking at me. We stared at each other, till I looked away.
For a moment I saw myself reflected in his eyes. A small, fair woman, well past youth; ill-looking, with a birthmark the colour of an over-ripe strawberry smeared down one side of her face. I know what I am, but that doesn’t mean I like to be reminded of it.
But no matter, the first step was stopping them from dying, and the second was keeping them alive. Or so Granny always said.
He stood swaying by the bed, awake for the first time in nigh on three days. He must have woken when I was milking the goats, pulled on some clothes and climbed out. “What is this place?”
“Sit down before you fall down,” I said, gesturing at the chair as I set the bucket of milk carefully on the table. “This is my house. In Banford.” He looked blank at that, but sat down at the table anyway.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Binder Mara, you have my gratitude.” I did not know what a binder was, but had no chance to ask. “I am Carraig Ni Feall.”
His accent was strange, but understandable. I had seen and heard Ardlanders like him before, from one time when Granny took me to the Great Fair in Gurtnaree. Wild Ardlanders, with their long, outlandish names, down from their mountain tops and bogs, with their bossy women and wolfhounds that followed you with their eyes.
“How’d I come here?”
“Can you not remember?” He had a bang on his head that I’d cleaned and stitched, but it was common enough for a blow like that to addle someone’s thinking. I moved across the room to shift the turf on the fire. One of the black hens was old and had not laid an egg in over a month, so she was in the three-legged pot now.
As I stirred the pot, it came back to him. “Lazium. I was coming from Lazium. Going home.”
He was a master stonemason despite his youth and had spent the last three years working on a great heathen temple of marble and white limestone in Lazium, the City of Gold, far to the south. By now the tools of his trade were either at the bottom of the sea, or claimed as flotsam. He was downcast about that, but all was not lost. For fear of thieves he’d kept his wages in the form of bright stones in the pouch around his waist.
Over the next few days he gradually regained his strength, striding back from near death as the young and strong often do. I’d lived alone ever since Granny died, with callers far and few, and he was company for me.
“Banford is a healthy place, no doubt.”
I cocked my head at that. “Healthy? Why do you think that?” Though the One God only knew what plagues and murrains they had in the bogs and mountains of the wild Ardlands.
“For three days now you’ve had no callers. At home, any binder or healer is as busy as a swallow of a high summer evening. At everyone’s beck and call.”
“I am not a binder or a healer.” Yes, if the priest with his red robes and his prayers did not help, and Lord Dwyer’s healer up at the manse could do no good, then the poor, desperate and foolhardy might sometimes overcome their contempt and make their way to my door. Sometimes pay in kind if good came of it, but more often to curse me afterwards if it all came to naught. Outcast, unwanted, freak.
“For all that my mother’s eldest aunt was a binder, I know little of healing.” He fell silent then, worrying at a splinter in the table with his thumbnail. “Why d’you never use that jug?” he asked pointing at the brown, earthenware jug above the fireplace. “Is it too good to be used?”
“No, that’s not it.” I went over and took it down. It was a handsome reddish-brown colour with a finely curved handle. “It’s cracked. The water leaks out. See,” I said, showing him the hairline crack at the base. “But it’s old and I’m fond of it. I don’t have the heart to throw it away,” I said, setting it down on the table in front of him. And Granny loved it, but I kept that to myself.
He picked it up, running his thumb along the fracture. “Aye, cracked, all right. No more than my head was when you found me, and you fixed that easy enough.” He laughed up at me and I smiled in response.
“Healers work with living things. All a moving, watery mush to me. For all that there are healers in my family.” He held the jug in both hands, gazing at it at arm’s length and then close up. “But things that are not alive, that’s a different story.” He turned the jug, peering closely at its base, frowning as he did so. “It’s the movement of living things that confuses me. But this my mind’s eye can grasp easy enough.”
He set the jug between his knees and hummed to himself as his thumbs moved over the crack, rubbing and smoothing, as if it were not hard, fired clay beneath his hands. I could hear a single clear high note behind his humming, one that echoed in my head.
“That’s that, so,” he said, replacing the jug on the table. “Your jug’s fixed. Well, till you hit it again.”
“It wasn’t me that hit it in the first place. It was Granny.” I kept talking though I felt fear and panic rising up in my chest. “How’d you mend it?”
“That’s always been my knack. All types of stone: flags, granite, limestone, marble. Fractures, weak points, flaws. Pottery less so.” He smiled up in my face, trusting as a child that’s never been beaten. Touched. He was surely touched.
I should rise up and make my way to the priest’s house, tell him that the stranger spat from the sea was touched. Then it would be up to Lord Dwyer and the priest to decide what to do. But it usually ended the same way: crowds gathering to gawk, the red flames leaping, smoke rising, people withering and blackening in the fire. A conflagration of the touched. And like a fire set in dry autumn furze, not one that burned out quickly.
I picked the jug up off the table and put it away, sat back down once more.
“Listen, Carraig Ni Feall, listen to me now.” He looked up, puzzled. “Speak to no one here of your knack. No one. If you do it will lead to grief.”
“The great evil, the priests call it. Communing with animals, looking at things that the One True God has decreed hidden. An inner eye that eats away at the minds of men and makes them turn their faces from God. Touched.”
“Your lowland ways are strange, Binder Mara. Touched,” he repeated, shaking his head. “Are knacks forbidden here then?”
“To be touched is forbidden. Men, and women, and children too have burned for less.”
“The Ardlands are high and cold and harsh. Mountains, bogs thick with rushes, and the limestone bones of the land revealed. I did not understand how harsh my home was till I first saw these soft southern lands, green fields rolling under the sun.” He looked up, met my eyes, smiled sadly at me. “But what harshness is that compared to this? Gifts rejected and denied.” He shook his head. “And what of you, Binder Mara? How do you live in this place, where your gift must be hidden?”
“Aye. You are a healer. How else can you heal if you’re not gifted, touched as you call it here?”
Outcast, cursed, touched. Touched. I rose up, pushed myself away from the table, knocking the stool to the ground in my anger.
“Enough. No more of this.”
He was tall, handsome, whole, surely well loved up in his Ardlands. I could see the sympathy in his face and that angered me even more. Alone, friendless, ill-looking, birthmarked, unlucky. Surely that was enough. “You know nothing. Understand nothing.” But all the while his words rang in my head—gifted, healer, binder.
Touched. Another stone to throw at me. But this one might be the death of me. Was that why Ruch Clyne looked at me with fear and contempt, why women smirked behind their hands at me, why the priest twitched his robes as he walked past, for fear of brushing against my skirts? Was I touched?
The cat climbed in the window, stretched and sat in his usual place on the windowsill, then, perhaps feeling the tension still hanging in the air, slipped back out again.
“I too, am touched, Mara. There’s no harm in it. In Lazium no one thought twice of it. It’s a gift like any other.”
I too. Had I ever heard those words before? I too. But I hardened my heart. “Don’t be a fool. Lord and priest and the emperor himself have declared it the great evil.”
“Your lowlander ways are strange,” he said and then he fell silent.
He had to be gone, gone before his foolish innocence pulled grief down on my head. “You must go. As soon as you can. Back to your Ardlands.”
“As you say, Binder,” he said with bowed head.
I felt ashamed, but hardened my heart. It was easier done now that he was almost fully healed. “It’s safer that way. Safer for you.” And for me too, though I didn’t say that. “Less than a day’s walking inland’ll bring you to Gurtnaree. I’ll put you on the right road. There’ll surely be merchants in Gurtnaree who could buy a coloured stone or two from you. Enough to get you home.”
“As you say.”
END OF FREE EXTRACT
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