The sand is warm beneath him, its coarse grains push up into his skin. The sun is dying in a fit of yellows, orange, and purple on this late July night; David feels like he could reach out and grab it, paint the colors into his skin. The ocean is calm and its sharp, salty scent fills the air around him. The wind brushes against his bare skin and tousles the hair of the boy next to him as they lay in a hidden cove.
"I thought Mermaids had tails."
It's not the right thing to say. David's companion sits up, sand flying around them at the sudden movement. Anger flashes in his eyes and it reminds David of the sudden storms that crash against the shores. The young man bares his teeth, sharper than human teeth, and growls at David. Grabbing the brown fur beside him, the man stalks back into the surf and David watches as he disappears.
David knows these islands are different, that the small human population hasn't managed to drive off the magical one yet. The rest of his night is spent flipping through old books on monsters, myths, and magical creatures. He is still young and water creatures aren't his forte- to him anything that looks human and lives in the water is a mermaid. There's a picture of a beautiful woman in one box and a seal in the next. He reads of a race that are seals in the water and have the ability to turn into humans on land. It's only a paragraph, barely any information, but David knows he's seen something rare.
Seven years. The locals tell him he has to wait seven years before a Selkie can return to land. No one believes he's seen one as Selkies are shy and rarely take their furs off. David spends his nights staring at the ocean and trying to forget the way the Selkie felt against him. He refuses to look at the ocean, and spends his time in the mountains away from the crashing waves hoping time will dull his memory. It doesn't work- he can't forget the touch of the Selkie whose name he doesn't know.
At night he dreams of freckles on sun-drenched skin, of hair that feels like silk under his fingertips, of the boy who stole his heart and drowned it in the ocean.
Once upon a time he called the hills of Asturias home. He spent his childhood running errands for the men in the mines or in the apple orchards during the harvest season. It was a hard place where people were often as cold and dark as the coal they mined. He remembers catching canaries to put in cages for the miners- the air in the tunnels was safe if the canaries stayed alive- and how they would emerge at the end of the day covered in black coal dust. If a cave in didn't kill them, the harmful dust eventually did.
When he is eight he falls off a ladder and breaks his leg. The bone doesn't set correctly and now he walks with a slight limp. It is enough of a limp to be unable to work in the coal mines, both a blessing and a curse. He works the apple orchards with the women and children. David quickly learns he is an embarrassment to his family; a son who isn't strong enough to be a miner. People start ignoring him, children aren't allowed to play with him, and soon his grandmother is the only one who cares for him. Evenings are spent in front of her fireplace, David tending the fire as she cooks.
Through her David learns of the peoples who used to inhabit these lands. She tells him of dwarves, witches, fairies, goblins, and all sorts of creatures who have largely passed on as myths in this part of the world. They fascinate him, magical creatures, and he devours every story his grandmother tells him. She tells him they're still there, hidden from human eyes; his parents tell him she's crazy, that anything with magic was driven away because of its pact with the Devil. David wants so badly to believe her; he sneaks away and spends hours roaming the hillsides looking for these creatures. He never finds them.
His grandmother grows ill as she ages and much like she cared for him when no one else would, David finds her well-being is his responsibility. He is useless to everyone but her, but she refuses to allow him to believe his infirmity makes him any less valuable. She fills his mind with stories of ancient heroes, each with their own flaws. Because of her, David learns to read and more important, she teaches him to write. His grandmother wants him to be properly educated at one of the private schools in town and then to go to the university in Salamanca where she knows he can escape, but his parents tell him his place is here. To David, here is suffocating.
David's door to the outside world closes when she dies. He fears a life of isolation under his father's iron grip, of becoming gray like the rest of the people in town. It's a macabre miracle to David when his father's health takes a turn for the worse and he moves them to the Islands, far away from the crippling coal dust, trading the danger of the mines for the ever changing temperament of the ocean. It's almost the same at first; his family keeps him on their property minding the house and their small farm. He's allowed into town to run errands when everyone else is busy, but people treat him like he is simple. It's alienating, being cut off from humanity. David has only his books to keep him company.
Whenever he feels alone, he thinks of his grandmother and her stories. All heroes must face solitude or banishment of some sort; heroes defeat their trials through perseverance and always come out stronger.
As he walks at night on the wild side of the island or sneaks away during the day to explore, he begins to see signs that the creatures his grandmother told him about exist here. It makes sense; humans haven't been here long enough to drive them away. He doesn't have proof until that one night when he stumbles across a dark eyed boy who puts him under a spell with a smile and a simple 'hello'.
There's a water spirit who talks to David from time to time when he happens upon him. Raul becomes the first friend David has had since he broke his leg. The water spirit's nickname is Heartless, but Raul is mild mannered, easy and gentle like the stream he's the guardian of. David is unsure of where the nickname of Heartless comes from as Raul is caring and goes out of his way to help others. David helps him keep his stream and pools free of litter and clear of any large branches that might impede its flow. In exchange Raul teaches him about the non-human inhabitants of the islands, both the ones David can and can't see.
David quickly comes to learn Raul is respected and the one creatures go to when help is required or disputes need to be settled. With the other three Elementals, he protects the island and its inhabitants. Raul introduces him to Merpeople, to Sylphs who rarely make themselves visible but who are always watching, and to the other magical creatures who often shy away from humans. When David asks about Selkies, Raul laughs and tells David that they are nothing but trouble makers and to stay away from them unless he wants a broken heart. David thinks it might already be too late for that.
In July, when David is twenty-two, he returns to the cove he met the Selkie in. He doesn't expect the Selkie to be waiting for him, but there he is, the dying sun framing his human body. The young man hasn't aged a day whereas David has outgrown his awkward teenage frame. A long moment passes as they stare at eachother waiting for the other to say something.
"I'm sorry," David speaks first, mumbling his words as he looks down at his feet and digs the toe of his shoe into the sand. "I didn't know you were a Selkie."
"It's okay," the Selkie shrugs, "I didn't know you were stupid."
David raises an eyebrow as the Selkie laughs, the wind blowing his hair around him. The silence returns, and David fiddles his thumbs. The Selkie continues to stare at him, apparently finding amusement in David's discomfort. He's standing in the surf, water pooling at his ankles as if unsure if he wants to come fully on to land. Eventually he extends a hand to David and David reaches out, but stops himself before taking it.
"Everyone tells me that Selkies are trouble," he says.
"Funny, everyone tells me the same thing about humans," the Selkie grins at him.
David takes his hand.
There's a strand of shells next to him in the sand when he wakes up. He's never seen half of them; he wonders from what part of the world they are from and if the Selkie travels often. As he runs his fingers over them, he hears a splash in the water. Sitting up, he sees a pair of dark eyes watching him from the water. They're gone seconds later, the seal retreating back into the open ocean.
He escapes his family to live alone in a small cottage on the dunes overlooking the cove. He builds it himself over the course of a year; its large windows face the ocean. The people in town think he's a bit touched in the head, David the crazy man who keeps company with Heartless Raul and speaks to spirits and monsters. He's not crazy, he's curious. His family stops talking to him. Volumes of books filled with his writings and observations are stacked on every surface around the room. He documents every encounter, every story he is told, and soon the words on the pages begin to take a life of their own.
David lives surrounded by words, magic, and the need to understand and explain the world around him. The only concept of time he has is a date scribbled on his walls, years from now when he'll be twenty nine.
Sometimes the ocean calls to him on lonely nights and he finds himself walking along the shore. He only returns to the cove in July, hoping for a glimpse of his Selkie. He's never there; a string of shells is in his place. David hangs them from the ceiling boards in front of the window. When the wind blows in through the cracks of his cottage, the shells clink together and together with the waves they form a primal melody.
David's latest study involves the underground earth dwellers who live inland on the islands. He's been following a gnome around, and while Xavi is interesting to talk to when he's speaking on Gnome history and his responsibilities as the island's Earth Elemental, most of the time he complains about the correct moisture levels needed to grow mushrooms.
"It can't be dry," Xavi tells him for what seems like the hundredth time as he plucks a toadstool up and hands it to David to carry. "Mushrooms need almost one hundred percent humidity to grow."
"Do all Gnomes like mushrooms, or is it just you?" David asks him as they sit by the creek and he sketches Xavi.
"Do all humans ask stupid questions?" Xavi is barely to David's knee and David thinks about seeing how far he can kick the little monster. "Why are you always making marks in there?"
"So people who don't live here can read about the different races that live here," David mutters, making sure he draws Xavi's eyebrows thick enough.
"Who doesn't know about Gnomes?" Xavi looks outraged. "We created the Earth."
David rolls his eyes.
David sketches Raul when he's not looking. The water spirit is busy coaxing some birds to move their nest to a less windy area and doesn't see David pull out his sketch pad. As the small birds chirp at him, Raul speaks in a calming, hushed voice, a smile on his lips.
As happy and peaceful as Raul is, David senses a sadness lingering around the spirit. When Raul is thinking he stands with his hand curled against his chest, and melancholy seems to permeate each movement he makes. David draws him in that pose, hand curled and sadness in his eyes while a small, hopeful smile is on his lips as he speaks to the bird in his other hand.
There are Imps who live on the northern parts of the island. When he is done with his Gnome study he moves on to an Imp family Raul introduces him to. The reluctant grimace on Raul's face should have been hint enough that Imps are the type of trouble that should be avoided at all cost. David doesn't have a day go by when his papers aren't shuffled out of order or either his quill or inkpot goes missing.
The children of one particular group take a liking to David and he finds himself keeping an eye out for them while their parents are gone. He's some sort of supernatural, faerie folk governess who is more exasperated than in control of the situation. Imps are small to begin with, their children are the size of kittens and they run David ragged. There are three in particular- Iker, Javi, and Thiago- who take delight in hiding David's items and disappearing when he's supposed to be watching them. With his limp, they are impossible to catch and so he hopes for the best and takes to sketching them instead.
"Is that Javi?" Iker is sitting on his shoulder one day as his two brothers wrestle.
"Yes," David finishes his sketch of Javi before flipping to a drawing of the three brothers. "And there's all three of you little brats."
Iker shrieks with delight and his two brothers peer at the sketch of them. When they ask him what he's doing and why people read, David slowly explains what a story is to them and they ask him to tell him one. They are fascinated by ogres and David makes up a story about a misunderstood ogre named Wayne and his talking donkey Gerard. The boys falls asleep after ten minutes and David is relieved he's finally figured out how to make them behave and fall asleep. The ordeal makes him think of his grandmother, and he hopes his research would have made her proud.
No one can tell him anything about Selkies except for the few things he already knows. David asks everyone both human and magical, but Selkies keep to themselves. It's beyond frustrating; he sees them sometimes from him cottage but they are gone before he can speak to them. He thinks of what his grandmother would tell him and he is reminded that everyone must face trials to gain knowledge and that patience is part of that process. If patience is a virtue, David thinks he must be the most virtuous man on the island.
Raul tells him not to speak to mermaids without him there, but David is headstrong and does so anyway. He knows a few of the mermen from earlier visits with Raul and, as is polite, he brings them a gift. They are abrupt and standoffish, but David understands why they aren't fond of humans. Mermaids tend to ignore him or leave when he's there, but there are two lying on the shore having a laugh over one thing or another. They smile widely at him, and wave their tail fins at him.
"Those two are trouble," Joe tells him, sea eyes sparkling in the sun. "Ignore them or they'll eat you."
"We don't eat humans," Adam sniffs reproachfully at Joe's comment and accepts the shells David has brought them.
"We don't," Joe agrees, "but they would."
Adam shrugs and David writes in his journal it's possible mermaids eat humans whereas mermen don't. He writes a question mark after it because he can never tell if Joe is telling him the truth or not.
He learns the islands are shared between two merpeople tribes who are constantly fighting for territory. Adam and Joe both have tails the same color as the sky; the other tribe has red tails. When David steals a glance at the two mermaids on the shore, he sees their tails are green and purple.
"Mermaids don't belong to tribes," Adam tells him when David asks why their tail colors are different. "They don't swear allegiances, only Mermen do." And when David asks him why, Adam shrugs. "I don't know. Probably because they think fighting is stupid."
David snorts. Adam rolls over and returns to sunning himself while Joe is more than happy to pose for David's sketches. David has enough sketches of Merpeople to fill a book, but his writing is filled with conflicting stories and histories that don't match up. He's not sure if they're vague and contradictory on purpose to waste his time or if they don't actually know their history. The only thing he knows for sure is they are vain creatures.
"Aren't you kind of pale for mermen?" David asks them when he finishes his sketch.
He's happy he's put his sketch aside because he receives a tail-full of water in response. David sputters as Joe laughs and Adam glares at him. The two Mermen turn and push off of their rocks, returning to the ocean as if David is no longer worth their time. The giggling he's heard the entire time he's been there grows louder, and when he finishes wiping the water out of his eyes, he sees the two Mermaids are laying in the surf right in front of him.
"Will you pick us some flowers for our hair?" The one with the longer hair asks.
"We promise we don't bite," the other adds and as they giggle he sees sharp teeth and dark eyes.
David complies, finding some blue and yellow wildflowers growing among the dunegrass. As he bends over to pick them up, they stop giggling and when he turns back around he sees them making suggestive gestures. They stop when they see him looking and smile at him innocently. Holding the flowers out to them, he gasps in surprise as they grab his hands and being unable to step back fast enough, they pull him into the water. It's not the cold of the water but rather the surprise shock of it that makes him flail about. He expects them to pull him under or take him further out in the water, but when he opens his eyes he sees they are keeping their distance.
"Who has a claim on you, pretty one?" They ask him, circling him as he returns to shore. "I'm sure we're much more beautiful than they are."
He doesn't know what the Mermaids are talking about. His chest tingles with the sensation of a hundred pinpricks and when he looks down to see what is causing it, he sees one of the seashell necklaces the Selkie gave him.
"Leave him alone." Raul appears out of nowhere as he often does and the two Mermaids grin at him.
"We just wanted to play with him- where's your heart," one says as the other adds, "We were only going to drown him."
"Leave him alone," the Water Spirit repeats, "or I'll tell the Selkies you've been messing with one of theirs."
They don't look bashful at the slightest, simply collapsing on the rocks right where they are and continuing to stare at David as if he's a lavish meal. Raul ignores them as they proposition him and heckle him asking him how he can be so heartless. David makes a note in his mind to mention in his study that while Mermen are approachable, Mermaids should be treated with the utmost caution.
The cove is empty when David arrives. The sun has not yet started to dip below the horizon. He's brought his sketch pad with him; the cove is the only place on the island he hasn't added to his maps and illustrations. David has never been more uncertain than he is now as he waits and hopes for his Selkie to show up. Starting with the rocks on the edge of the cove, he begins to draw the lines that make up his hidden retreat. Soon the shoreline is added and the details begin- the shading on the rocky walls, the plants, the texture of the sand. When he's finished, he looks up and the sun is halfway set; the Selkie is watching him from the water.
"They tell me you're writing a book about non-humans," the Selkie says, water crashing around him as he stands in the surf. "Do you know the difference between Merpeople and Selkies now?"
"I'd like to know more," David tells him. "You're the only Selkie I know."
There's a liquid smile on the Selkie's lips and his dark eyes twinkle like moon when caught on the sea at night. "And you want to spend tonight asking me questions?"
"I only have one." The Selkie raises an eyebrow. "I don't know your name."
"That's not a question."
The Selkie reaches for David and presses their lips together. His skin is soft under David's fingers, smooth like skin that hasn't been lined and toughened with time. All of David's questions fall from his mind.
David is warm when he wakes up and is surprised to see the Selkie is still there watching him sleep. There's a strand of shells in his hands, shells that don't wash up on the shores of the islands, shells David has never seen before. He's humming a song David has never heard before, reminiscent of a lullaby, and its silver notes float into the air and disappear like a dream. The Selkie stops humming when he sees David is awake and his eyes shift to where his fur is laying in the sand a few feet away, before looking back at David. There's hope in his eyes for a moment before it dies away into a lingering sadness.
Leaning down, the Selkie ties the strand of shells around David's neck before pressing a soft kiss to his lips. He grabs his fur and is gone before David remembers to ask his name.
"Selkies are more trouble than they're worth," Raul tells David with a frown on his face when he sees him a few weeks later, shells visible over his shirt. "Didn't I tell you that already?"
David shrugs. Other than his Selkie, he's never met one so he doesn't know if Raul is telling him the truth or not. Magical water creatures tend to bend the truth he's noticed. He does want to meet another Selkie, but they don't approach humans and Raul is reluctant to introduce him to any after the Mermaid incident.
"Why didn't you steal his fur?" Raul asks him after a long silence. "He must be a sadist if he keeps coming back to you and you don't take it."
"What?" David blinks at him.
"His fur, so he can't change back into a seal," Raul sighs at David's blank expression. "If you hide a Selkie's fur they can't change back. It's how humans get them to stay." He frowns again. "Stealing something that belongs to a magical creature is pretty much the only way to get them to stay."
"You couldn't have told me this any time in the fourteen years we've known each other, right?" David scowls.
Raul shrugs. "You never asked"
David has seven years to sit on that thought.
Imps age at a slower pace than the rest of the world, but that's true of most magical creatures as David is coming to find out. Javi, Thiago, and Iker show up at his cottage unannounced at least once a week and wreak havoc as they comb through his possessions. They move his books but don't ruin them as they know David won't tell them stories if they do. The only items they don't touch are the strands of shells hanging from the rafters and window sills.
"Once upon a time, in a land far to the west, there lived a grumpy gargoyle named Landon," David's latest story begins.
He commits his stories to paper now, and the stack is growing in size. He thinks of nights in front of the fire listening to stories his grandmother told him. On a piece of paper he has the outline of story about a selkie and the human hero he falls in love with, but he can't bring himself to write it. The boys call the stories Fairy Tales even though he's not written one about an actually fairy yet. Fairies are invisible to humans unless they show themselves; David's not sure he'll ever see one.
"If we introduce you to a fairy, will you write a story about him?" Javi asks, positioning himself so he's squishing his two smaller brothers underneath him as they lay in a pile on a makeshift Imp-size bed (really a pillow) that he's made just for them.
"Yes. And if you stop messing my house up." David tells them. "Otherwise I'll have to write a story about three Imp brothers who get eaten by trolls."
They look at him with large eyes, half excited and half terrified, and David turns his face so they don't see his grin. On the front porch, the wind chimes sing in the ocean breeze.
In a simple world he would have fallen in love with a female human and enchanted her with stories, drawings, and little trinkets. He remembers the story of the Trojan war, being infinitely more interested in Paris than in Helen when his grandmother showed him pictures; David's world is not simple and with his bad leg, he doubts anyone would want to marry him.There is nothing David can give to his Selkie in return for the shells. In all likelihood the Selkie cannot read nor take anything paper based into the water without destroying it. A necklace or ring made for a human would not fit on a seal nor does a seal have a bag for carrying around human possessions.
The day before his Selkie leaves his yearly strand of shells, David picks three flowers and places them on the rock he finds his shells on. In the morning when he returns, the flowers are gone and a new strand of shells are in their place. Entwined around the shells are various bits of ribbon and David smiles at their color- a bright orange, a red and blue striped piece, and one as blue as the sky. The longest is a solid red and it is that piece on which the shells are strung. He hangs this strand over his bed and when he drifts off to sleep at night he hears the distant notes of his Selkie's lullaby.
The human village doesn't grow in numbers. It stays about the same size as children are born, but families leave. They move back to the bigger islands, away from this smaller one that escapes notice. It's a wild island, supernatural some say, and David's studies seem to emphasis that. He stumbles on the line separating magic from mundane, myth from reality. Sometimes he wonders if this is what Orpheus felt like wandering through the Underworld. David feels like he lives in a dream, on an island filled with creatures the rest of the world has forgotten.
Fairy is an overarching term that encompasses many different races of small, winged people. David learns this when the Imp brothers make good on their promise and bring him Santi the Pixie. Pixies are the smallest of fairies, and Santi fits on the palm of David's hand. He has to shout for David to hear him, but it doesn't stop him from speaking quickly and giggling after almost every sentence. At one point he reaches for the new necklace David has and to his surprise Santi is able to touch it without any repercussions.
"Because I'm not causing you trouble," Santi tells him when David asks why he's able to touch them when the Imps and Mermaids aren't. "You're not in danger when around me." Santi pokes at it some more. "Where'd you get it?"
"A Selkie." David tells him.
"Selkie's don't have magic," Santi giggles at David like it's the most obvious thing in the world. "A Selkie might have made it, but only a witch could have charmed it." Santi smiles up at him. "There aren't very many witches left; there's only two out here but I don't know where they live. You should ask Raul to take you; one of them used to come and visit him. Oh! It would be like a quest! A quest for love, a quest for danger!" Santi sits on the strand of shells like they're a swing, his legs dangling down. "I like it here, can I come visit you when I'm bored? You're strange. I like you. Why do you walk funny? Did something happen to your leg?"
David is sure he's signing himself up for more trouble, but he nods.
Raul refuses to take him to see the Witch. When David presses as to why, Raul tells him Witches are dangerous for anyone and he's not willing to put David in harm's way. David feels that there is something Raul isn't telling him, like how he won't say the Witch's name and looks almost upset when David asks about him. He thinks there's a private history there; he knows the look on Raul's face well as it's the same one he has when thinking of his Selkie.
"Those charms won't work against him if you anger him," Raul deflects all of David's questions with claims of the Witch's temper. "There's a reason humans killed them and drove them away. For every good Witch you have three bad ones." He grumbles. "Besides don't you have Kelpies and Goblins and Dwarves and whatnot to write about?"
"Kelpies kill humans." David scowls at Raul. "And there aren't any on the island. Sergio was the last one and he left six years ago. You're not telling me something."
Raul sighs. "Leave it David. I'm not taking you to see him- find out about selkies some other way."
"Is this why they call you Heartless?"
The Water Spirit looks like David has struck him and seems to melt into the water, disappearing from David's world into the natural one as if he was never there. David knows Raul is still there, ignoring him for the solitude his stream provides for him. His glance into their world is fleeting, a mere second in the eternity of forever; over a decade among them and he still doesn't understand them. Human mortality will always mark him.
There's a decaying log sticking halfway out of the stream, and David sees a few large mushrooms growing on it. Picking them, gently as not to bruise them, he heads up into the mountains. It doesn't take him more than a half an hour to find Xavi poking around the underbrush and he's not alone; a pale Sylph is with him. David takes his sketch pad out of his bag and quickly brings their interaction to life on the page. Xavi is pointing to the long strands of reed grass with a frown on his face. The Sylph is listening to the Gnome with an understanding, albeit bored, expression.
"I know you're there, human," Xavi shouts over to him. "You don't have to hide."
David finishes his sketch before he joins them, presenting Xavi with the mushrooms. Xavi thanks him and introduces the Sylph as Andres. Andres' voice is the wind and it's hard for David to understand him over Xavi's complaints of how long the reed grass has grown.
"I didn't create this part of the island so other people could mess it up," Xavi snaps when Andres laughs at him when he becomes tangled in a large clump and David has to pull him out. "Elementals have jobs to do so our homes stay balanced. Lazy Salamanders never do what they're supposed to do. Where's the justice? Not here I tell you."
Andres tells Xavi he's seen some chanterelles growing on the next hill over and the Gnome excuses himself for a few minutes. The forest is growing old and it needs a good burn, Andres explains to him when Xavi disappears and David can finally hear the Sylph. The Elementals work together to keep the forest healthy, but the Salamanders haven't provided the fire to destroy the underbrush. David scribbles Andres' words down as quick as possible, drawing lines between the Elementals and their jobs.
"I think they're doing it just to make Xavi angry," Andres' laugh reminds him of the wind whistling through the leaves.
The fourth summer comes and David sits with another strand of shells in his hands. He runs his fingers over them until every dip, ridge, chip, and flaw is worn into his mind. The cove shelters him from the strong winds bearing down on the island; the waves are gray with white caps as they crash against the shore. In the distance he sees a pod of seals heading out to sea, away from the dangerous rocks the waves threaten to throw them against.
A head pops out of the water in the small bay in front of him and it startles him. Dark eyes study him playfully and the seal barks at him. David stands and brushes the sand off of him. He steps out into the ocean, fighting against the wind and the waves until he is in past his waist and the seal is right in front of him. Reaching a tentative hand out he waits for the seal to approach him. It circles around him a few times before it nuzzles its head against his hand. The seal dips below the water again, but this time when it comes up its fur is gone. It's not David's Selkie, but a female with long hair the same color as her fur.
"My brother said you would be here," she smiles at him. "He talks about you sometimes. I wanted to see for myself."
"Where is he?" David can barely string words together.
She presses her lips together and shakes her head. "You know it doesn't work that way."
"I don't know anything about Selkies."
"We're fond of the number seven." Her laugh is lost in the thundering waves. "We like secrets and riddles, and it is rare that a human catches our eye." She leans forward and presses a kiss against his cheek and slips something into his hand. "You are something though, aren't you."
She is gone in an instant and David is staring numbly at the open ocean alone. When he makes it back to shore, stumbling out of the waves that seek to drag him back, he opens his hand. There's a leaf, a yellow flower, and a pink flower in the palm of his hand. Biting back a wistful smile, he thinks of the flowers he leaves for his Selkie and wonders if this is his way of saying thank you.
"Once upon a time there lived a kind Prince named Fernando."
The mid afternoon sun is beating down on the island and they've taken refuge under a leafy tree. The Imp brothers listen with rapt attention as David tells them the story of a Prince who has his powers taken away from him. Their small group has grown in size as more children come to listen. They call him a word weaver, tell him there is magic in the way he strings stories together and brings them to life. David takes it to mean they are beginning to accept him as one of them, that they no longer view him as just human.
His first five volumes of histories and catalogues of the magical inhabitants of this island are complete. Once upon a time he would have sent them to a publisher, but he doesn't. Instead he sends a book filled with his Fairy Tales and little fables with illustrations. He doesn't really expect to hear back from any of the publishing houses he sends a copy to, but he does and soon his books are in print for children. They send him money he has no use for and requests for more stories. His fingers are stained black with ink and the sleeves of all of his shirts have stains and smudge marks. David takes his time; his stories are for the magical children of his island, for his grandmother, and the ticking clock of the outside world does not chain him.
A few more months pass and Raul is still ignoring him. David knows he must have struck a chord and truly offended or upset the normally easy going Water Spirit. Guilt pulls at him, but Raul has not yet reappeared for him to apologize. His only contact with the human world is the one time a week he goes into town for supplies and the occasional letter that arrives from the publisher or his family, who have long since left for the large islands and find it permissible to speak with him now that he is a published writer. Without Raul to speak to David spends more time split between Xavi and Santi, who introduces him to Pepe, one of the Salamanders. To his knowledge, David is the first human to see a Salamander in his humanoid form, and Pepe is more than happy to tell David whatever he wants to know. David dreams that someday his work on Elementals and magical creatures will rival Pliny the Elder's.
Salamanders can change their size when they transform and it's nice to speak to someone that is his size. Pepe nicks ale from the Dwarves, none of which are ever willing to leave their caves to speak with David and David is too large for their tunnels, whenever he comes to see David. The interruption from his normal schedule of writing, researching, and occasionally brooding while staring out at the ocean is nice.
"You should be burning the hill instead of drinking," Xavi eyes Pepe's glass distastefully as the two of them bicker again.
Santi giggles nonstop when they fight, his wings moving in time with his little bell-like laughs and spreading white pixie dust all over David's table, and David admits it is entertaining. In his mind stories form, most of the time about Xavi though he doesn't think the Gnome would want stories written about him true or other. David thinks of Xavi hugging his rocks and surrounded by mushrooms, and wonders if he has a wife or children. Santi has a son, an impossibly small, bright eyed child who always brings a smile to his face. He's never met Pepe's children because they've not yet gained human forms nor control over using fire. It's too dangerous to allow them to leave their nest yet. If he asked, David is sure Xavi would tell him that the rocks are his children.
"Did you find those on this island?" Xavi's sharp fingers poke into David's side as he points to the dry leaf and two flowers his Selkie's sister gave to him.
"Why?" David's had enough alcohol that his world is a little fuzzy on the edges and he remembers every time Xavi would not give him a straight answer.
"I didn't plant them here." Xavi points to the two flowers. "Sticky witch broom and Tower of Jewels only grow in Macizo de Anaga on the biggest island. I don't like them, I'd never let them grow here." He frowns at the leaf. "That's a Laurisilva leaf, there are forests of it on the big island as well."
The female Selkie's words about riddles float into his mind and he grasps at the tiny seed of hope. He files the thought away as Xavi begins to complain about flora he didn't approve infiltrating the island. David smiles at the grumpy little Gnome, knowing full well that he would have never put the Selkie's clues together if it weren't for the ornery little creature.
"I know the Witch lives on the big Island."
David is standing in one of the pools of water in the stream by the waterfall Raul calls home. It doesn't take more than a minute for the Water Spirit to materialize in front of him, a frown on his face.
"I'm going to see him." David continues. "If anyone has the answers for what I want to know, it will be him."
"Do you ever think it's not worth it?" Raul asks him, his voice sharp. "That you should marry a human and forget about your Selkie or is your brain slow like the rest of you?" Raul has never said anything cruel to him and David isn't sure if he's more hurt or shocked. "If the Witch kills you, you'll die for someone you've spent three nights with and twenty-one years waiting for."
"Is that what happened to you?" David snaps and Raul presses his lips tightly together. "What did he do to you?"
Raul moves across the space between them faster than David can blink, snatches David's hand, and presses it flat against his chest. Raul is wet and cold, and David is unsure as what purpose this serves. He focuses on the feeling under his hand and realizes Raul doesn't have a heartbeat.
"I gave it to him and he never came back," Raul tells David as he releases his hand. "That's why they call me Heartless, that's why they call me stupid. Without a heart I can't fall in love with someone else; he will always have it. I might as well be dead but I cannot die."
David sees there are more ways to kill someone besides taking their life.
"Come with me and take it back."
Raul shakes his head and gives David a sad smile. David wonders how long Raul has lived without his heart and if the Water Spirit still hopes for the Witch to return. The look on Raul's face, regret that has been dulled with the passage of time, gives him the answers he needs.
There's a boat every week that runs between his small island and Tenerife. Before he goes, the four Elementals arrive at his cottage and give him an amulet. Andres explains it is Earth melted by Fire, cooled in Water, and shaped by the Air. It shows he is a friend to be trusted and their protection extends to him. David is humbled by their gift, that they trust him enough to bestow it upon him. He feels like a child leaving his family for the first time, and as he watches his island disappear into the distance until it's nothing more than a ribbon on the water and then gone, he feels like he's lost something vital.
He hasn't had to step into the hustle of the human world since he was a child, and now at thirty five he finds the crowded streets of Santa Cruz de Tenerife too much. Finding the local apothecary, he shows the flowers to him and asks where he would find them. He learns the pink flower is only found in the Laurisilva on this side of the island. The apothecary points to the mountains north of town and tells him to watch out for witches. David explains he is a writer who is looking for a Witch. The apothecary says he searches for death, but tells him of a place where witches dance called El Bailadero. Giving him directions to a tiny village called San Andres a few miles up the coast line, the man makes the sign of the cross in David's direction before bidding him goodbye.
There's not a soul on the footpath to the village, but he knows he is being watched. The amulet is hot against his skin and he knows the power in it draws notice. It's not a very long distance, but his leg slows him. In the heat of the day and up and down the sides of the mountains and hills he must cross, it takes him four hours to cross five miles. The sun is kissing the horizon when he reaches San Andres and he collapses in the village square, exhausted and hungry. He does not travel without his notebooks and sketch pad and even though he is tired, he slowly brings the Castillo de San Andres to life on paper. When he looks up, there are a few children behind him watching him draw, curious about this strange outsider with the limping gait. David's never really spoken to a human child before and reasons it can't be much different than the Imps.
As he tells them a story he stands up to imitate the movements of the creatures he's telling them about. There is wonder in their eyes as he tells them of the mermaids who tried to eat him and of the grumpy Gnome who roams the hills searching for mushrooms. As the sun begins to set lower, their mothers come and collect them and he sheepishly apologizes for keeping their children out and away from their chores. The women smile at him and thank him for entertaining them; David sees a village completely different than the one he grew up in. The grandmother of one of the children offers him a bed for the night in her small farm on the outskirts of town and he accepts, glad he won't be camping out in the forest. Something about her smile reminds David vaguely of his own grandmother, and he feels like the reluctant hero in one of her stories.
"You're looking for the Witch," she guesses as she places a plate of food in front of him. "You won't find him unless he wants you to." When David shrugs, she waggles her finger at him. "It's your necklace, it's for protection. You wouldn't be up here with it on if you weren't looking for the Witch."
"I have questions he might have answers to."
"He might kill you."
"There are worse fates."
David thinks of Raul, of life in constant heartbreak. He thinks of himself and whether or not he can live like he does for much longer. David wonders if he already is living in constant heartbreak. His heart and mind are a map of uncertainty connected by faded lines.
The sun hasn't begun to peek over the horizon when David wakes up. In his sleep addled state it takes him a few minutes to remember where he is and when he hears his name being called, he frowns. Like a dream, his movements are slow and unbalanced as he stands and stumbles out of the house. The fibers of his pants soak up the morning dew as the dirt path gives way to the forest and he is surrounded the Laurel trees. Drops of water from the waxy leaves fall on him in a nonsensical pattern as the sound of his name being called grows louder. The voice floats through the forest, cutting through the early morning fog that begins to accumulate as the sun hits the trees. David doesn't know this type of magic, but the shells against his skin clink together softly and whisper that everything is going to be alright.
The forest canopy blocks much of the sun, but it grows lighter and the fog lifts off the ground as David enters a clearing. A circle of rocks is on the other end of the clearing and there in the middle in front of a fire is a man. The sound of David's name fades and the man nods to him. David approaches warily, the amulet around his neck is glowing a soft white. The man's eyes focus on the amulet for a moment and the light fades away.
"I've been expecting you David," the Witch's voice is gentle, soothing, and not at all what David imagined.
"I'm not here for just myself," David is glad his voice doesn't waver. "You have something that belongs to a friend of mine."
The Witch's smile is soft and sad as he sits at a chair David is sure wasn't there a moment ago. The Witch points to the ground next to him and another chair comes into existence as if made from the earth itself. From the fire he grabs a kettle and pours himself a drink; David declines when offered but sits.
"When they started the Tribunal back on the mainland the few witches that were left had to leave." The Witch tells him, extinguishing the fire with a wave of his hand. "If we wanted our ways to live on we had to survive; we took an oath to not fight among ourselves. Our magic doesn't work on other witches." He pauses as he takes a sip of his tea. David is not sure why the Witch is telling him this and for a long time, neither of them says anything. "I know you have questions for me, but if you want answers I need you to do something for me."
David stares at him. His years of study have taught him to never agree to anything without knowing in full what he is agreeing to. The Witch wants something from David and David knows that magical beings never do anything for free. David must pay a price for the knowledge he seeks. He rubs one of the shells on his neck in between his fingers.
"I am not agreeing yet," David says firmly and motions for the Witch to explain what he wants from David.
"When I was young I fell in love with an Undine." Undine is the old word for Water Spirit and David wonders if all witches use the old language. "I had to leave and he gave me his heart to take until I could come back. I traveled long and very far, and somewhere along the way I dropped his heart into the ocean."
"Why didn't you tell Raul?"
The Witch sets the cup down and clasps his hands together to keep from fiddling them. "How do you tell someone that you've been careless with something as precious as a heart?" Another silence falls between them; the birds cry to each other as they search for food in the early morning. "There's a Sea Witch who lives on El Hierro. He has it in his possession, but refuses to give it back. I cannot fight him for it or steal it from him."
David feels a protest rise to his lips- he does not possess the power to fight a witch and he is more likely to die than anything else. "If I do this for you, what will you give me in return?"
"The power to call your Selkie to be with you at anytime." The Witch sighs. "I know you are friends with Raul; don't do this for me, do this for him."
"After what you've done to him, I can't trust you."
The Witch looks at him for a few seconds before flicking his hand through the air. The shells on David's neck disappear and reappear in the Witch's hand where they give off a golden light.
"I'm the one who put the spells on these." The Witch waves his hand and the necklace reappears around David's neck. "It was my payment to your Selkie for helping me find Raul's heart. He must care a great deal for you to ask only for simple charms in exchange for all he has done for me. I am indebted to him and would give him anything. He only thinks of you; I would never betray his trust."
David looks at the Witch and doesn't see evil or malice. He sees a broken hearted lover who seeks redemption and needs help, a tragic character like in the stories he writes.
Sometimes David thinks God is laughing at him. His broken leg was only the first sign of a life that would be anything but easy. He wonders why, twenty years ago, he took a walk on a beach and let himself be seduced by a Selkie. A random fight with his sister over something inconsequential, chores he thinks, has led to where he is now. There's a saying that when a butterfly flaps its wings, somewhere else a storm forms. The storm is in front of him and now he must face the consequences a simple walk can bring.
The shells against his body have been humming non-stop since he's set foot on the coast of El Hierro, the island furthest out in the Canaries. When he was a child he thought the islands were named after the birds he caught for the mines. It wasn't until his grandmother taught him the old languages that he learned Canarias was Latin for dog and the original settlers had named it after the barking seals that surrounded the island. There are seals on the beach now, eyeing him warily as he approaches the causeway to the small, rocky outcrops. He wonders if his Selkie is among them or if he is anywhere near the Islands. There's a note he left for his Selkie with the Witch, in case he doesn't return. In his chest, his heart beats wildly, crashing like the waves do against the shore; it's painful but he is grateful he has a heart to be hurt.
The locals live on the other end of the island and do not venture down this way. They speak of evil doings, of magical creatures who seek to kill humans. There's a sword at his side, an ancient looking rapier Marchena, the Witch, had dragged out of the bottom of a chest. David's never used a sword and aside from pretending to be a pirate or a knight a few times when he was a child, has never fought anyone. Part of the blade is made of gold and David hopes it's enchanted so it won't break. He can't fight, he has no magical power, he doesn't have anything aside from an amulet, seashells, and a rusty sword. It doesn't inspire much confidence.
Already he's had to evade a few of the small dragons inhabiting the island. They aren't much bigger than a house cat or a small dog, but they are dangerous none the less. Marchena warned him about Satyrs and armed him with enough pixiedust to bribe anything that might happen across his path. Sure enough, a fat little hairy Satyr named Diego won't leave him alone and follows him cackling and talking about anything and everything. If David had the time, or patience, he would sit down and listen to Diego gossip and write about the first Satyr he's had the unfortunate chance of meeting, but such as it is, he wants the creature to leave him alone.
"I was the best pipe player on the islands when I was young so it only makes sense that my daughter should marry the best." The Satyr prattles on. "You should see the boy play- he makes me weep and if he were a nymph..." Diego wiggles his eyebrows suggestively and David wants to howl in frustration. "So I say to the girl 'look, Leo is everything you could ever want- he's like me just not as good looking or as smooth with the ladies' and you know what she does? She runs off with Leo's best friend."
"Tragic," David mutters as he climbs over another rock, wincing at the jolt of numbing pain which shoots up his leg. "You wouldn't happen to know where the Sea Witch lives, do you?"
The sound of Diego's hooves hitting the rocks stops, and David turns around to see the small man is staring at him like he's crazy. The wind whips against the rocks, carrying the spray of the thundering waves into the air and onto David. When the drops catch the sun, small rainbows form and they look as if they are surrounded by dozens of multi-colored crystals.
"Why are you looking for the Sea Witch?" Diego's beady eyes look at David in a new light. "It's better to stay far away from him."
David doesn't offer a response. Turning back around, he starts to walk again toward the group of small rocky pieces of land.
"It's not just the Witch out there you know," Diego calls to him. "There are other things."
"What other things?" David asks and when Diego doesn't say anything, David pulls one of the pixiedust vials out of his pocket and flashes it in front of him. "Tell me and you can have this."
Diego attempts to jump up and grab the vial, but he's not tall enough and his girth weighs him down.
"There's a monster of some sort that guards the entrance to the Sea Witch's cave," the satyr tells him, winded by the efforts to snatch the pixiedust. "It's red, with a forked tail and three heads. If you cut its head off, two more grow back in its place."
"Can it be killed?"
Diego shrugs and holds his palm out for the vial. David places it there and watches as the grubby creature canters back toward the hills above the shoreline. The only sounds are of the ocean and the barking seals in the distance. He feels a strange sense of tranquility settle in his body as the amulet warms reassuringly and the hum of the shells seem to take on that of the Selkie's lullaby. As he turns and stares out at the gray islands, he knows this moment of peace will be short lived.
There are trees bent and twisted in a way only magic could create. Rocks float in the air, sometimes in a sort of dance and twirl and other times they hover in one spot. The other small rocky outcrops have algae and a few other plants growing on them; this is desolate except for the tortured trees. David knows he's found the home of the Sea Witch.
David knows the Sea Witch is alerted to his presence as soon as he sets foot on the island. A large white bird looks at him before crying out loudly enough to awaken anything on the small mass of land. He stands still for a moment and takes in his surroundings as he tries to gain his bearings. The entrance to the cave is shadowed in the afternoon sun; the marks on the rocks around it are in an alphabet David has never seen and glow an ethereal blue.
A growl comes from inside the cave, a deep sound like the very earth is being moved. He hears talons on rock as something large moves close to the opening. David's imagination had run wild with what the monster could have looked like, but in reality and right in front of him, the creature is more terrifying than anything his mind could create. Three heads, each different but equally nightmarish, sway on the ends of long, serpentine necks. Deep crimson scales cover a body the size of a large boulder, and sharp claws sit on the end of four strong limbs. Its forked tail is spiked and as it roars at David, he feels the cold bite of fear in his heart.
For a long minute after the echo of its roar dies off in the distance the three heads weave back and forth while sizing up David. The teeth of all three are bared and David sees rows of razor sharp points sticking out in all directions. Drawing his sword, the gold catches the sun and warms in his hand as if coming to life. He hears the barking of the seals from far away and he thinks of warm brown eyes and the chance of holding onto his Selkie for longer than just a night. Emboldened, he takes a step forward and holds the sword out in front of him, pointing the tip toward the monster.
The monster moves first, charging and snapping at him with its teeth. He swings the sword with enough force to injure without decapitating one of the heads. It swings its tail, nothing more than a red blur, and David ducks as it misses him and slices the tree behind him into two pieces. It's more luck than anything else that David manages to cut a few spikes off its tail as he slashes wildly through the air. It roars, a few drops of blood staining the rocks as one of the heads turns to look at the damage but the other two keep their eyes on David.
It charges, he ducks. It roars, he stands his ground. It swipes at him, he swings his sword at it. There's a pattern to this and after a while David feels fatigue gnawing at him. He doesn't know how to defeat it without stabbing it through the chest or cutting its heads off but neither of those options is available to him right now.
As the sun hits the water, the ocean reflects its dying light. A ray catches the gold in the sword and David feels something pulse through him, starting at the amulet and ending at the hand he holds the sword with. It resonates through him, shaking him to his bones, and he soon comes to realize the blade of the sword is on fire. The monster's heads look at the flaming blade in terror and it begins to back away. David moves toward it, whipping the blade through the air in front of him. It takes a swipe at him and he swings the sword to meet it. The forelimb is severed and goes flying through the air, fingers and talons twitching where it lands.
The monster's heads scream in pain and David grits his teeth as it pierces his ears and they ring. Its tail flicks out as it tries to regain its balance and catches David in the shoulder. He goes flying through the air until he hits one of the trees, his bones crunching against each other on impact and the air is knocked out of his lungs. The gash on his shoulder is bleeding and throbs, but it's not deep enough to be of immediate concern and he pushes away from the tree before the monster can try to kill him.
The monster cannot walk, its gait is uneven as it tries to catch David. He knows an animal is at its most dangerous when wounded and he treads lightly. As the sun dips lower, the fire on the blade begins to weaken and he knows he only has minutes before both disappear. Steeling himself, he knows if he doesn't kill the monster now it will kill him. His thoughts flicker to the Selkie, to the way his lips curve when he smiles and the freckles dusted across bridge of his nose. He thinks of how his heart beats against his chest when his Selkie kisses him, when they lay on the beach in their cove, their limbs tangled. The shells against his skin tremble.
Striding forward, he stares down the monster. Rivers of blood are drying on his arm as he grasps the sword tightly. It swings at him and he dodges. The blade singing through the air, crystal from the metal and a roar from the fire.
The heads fall to the ground, the stumps of neck are burnt over. No new heads can grow in their place. Its body falls to the ground, twitching as life bleeds from its body. David falls to his knees, his breathing ragged. Beside him, the fire on the sword fades.
"That was impressive."
David is back on his feet with the sword in his hand faster than he can ever remember moving. A man is standing there, tall, strong, and looking like he was carved from the very rocks they are standing on. He is handsome, this witch, and as he stares at him, David perceives an air of smugness about him. Crafty eyes stray to the golden sword and the Sea Witch purses his lips.
"I knew Marchena had it," he mutters to himself before stating louder. "So the good Marchena won't come to speak to me and sends you in his place. I doubt this is a social call. What do you want?"
A smile twists its way onto the Sea Witch's face, his laugh is condescending. He claps his hands and the rocks that float in the air flash brightly, momentarily blinding David. When he is able to see again, he sees they've changed from rocks to what look like roughly hewn gemstones, spinning in the air in an unchoreographed dance only the Sea Witch understands the meaning of. One floats close to him and inside of it he sees a heart. As they spin around and around he sees dozens, maybe even hundreds, of hearts encased in gemstones.
"You'll have to be more specific. As you can see, I have quite the collection."
"A heart that was dropped in the ocean."
"A carelessly cared for one. Why should I return it if the person who had it before me was foolish enough to drop it?"
"Love makes fools of us all."
The Sea Witch chuckles and raises a hand. A blue stone appears in his hand, a light from within glowing just enough to illuminate it. Around David's neck the amulet pulses.
"A strong heart, a magical heart," he kisses the stone. "This heart is heavy with love. It's very valuable. What could you possibly trade me for this?"
"I am only a writer; I have nothing to trade but words."
"A broken man who crusades for a witch and is capable of killing a hydra is more than a writer." The amulet continues to pulse around David's neck, the light within it begins to shine and the Sea Witch notices it for the first time. "And that is no trinket a simple human would possess."
David clutches the sword tighter, drags the tip of it through the dirt. His limbs feel like lead and he moves slowly, as if carrying a great weight. The Sea Witch narrows his eyes at him, the leer on his face growing.
"You will not win if you fight me," the Sea Witch says. "Go back to Marchena and tell him to fight me for it."
"No," David raises the sword. "I'm not here for him."
The Sea Witch laughs and flicks his hand. For the second time that day, David goes flying through the air. This time the Sea Witch lifts him past the rocks and off a small ledge into the ocean. David thrashes around in the water, pulling air into his lungs as the Sea Witch saunters up to the ledge and stares down at him. Holding his hand out and pressing down, David feels himself being pushed under water and held there. Above him the Sea Witch grins at him as David's lungs burns for air and he struggles against the Sea Witch's spell. Lowering his hand, the spell fades and David gasps for air that tastes heavy with salt.
David is barely able to breathe when the Sea Witch pushes him under again. The ocean water stings his eyes and even though there is no air in them, he feels as if his lungs are about to burst. His limbs seize up, freezing and no longer able to move and a distant thought floats into the back of David's mind as he wonders if this is how he is going to die.
The shells against his chest vibrate and what feels like a gust of wind explodes from them. It's strong enough to knock the Sea Witch back off his feet and stops the hold he has on David. David's not strong enough to swim to the surface; his legs aren't listening to his brain and he floats listlessly for a few seconds until he feels arms around his waist pulling him to the surface.
He chokes on the water he expels from his lungs before taking a deep gasp of air. It burns his throat, but he ignores it as he regains feelings in his arms and legs. The salt is stinging his eyes and he can't see as he is held up in the water. His head is lolled back, resting on someone's shoulders, and a firm hand rubs circles on his back, encouraging him to breathe. Over the waves David hears the familiar silver notes of a lullaby; opening his eyes and turning he sees the worried eyes of his Selkie. The Selkie doesn't say anything, but puts a hand over David's heart and the shells tremble. Swimming over to the ledge, he helps David climb back onto the rocky island where he sees the Sea Witch is still knocked down. The Selkie holds his hand for a minute and places David's hand on his face. David runs his thumb over the Selkie's lower lip, and tells himself this is why he needs to be strong.
"He can't hurt you in the water," the Selkie whispers; the shells thrum under the Selkie's fingers as he traces over them.
David grabs the sword from where it has fallen and standing, he turns around to face the Sea Witch once again. The Sea Witch isn't looking at him, but rather at his Selkie. His stomach churns, unease settles in his chest, and he feels fear for the first time not for himself but for his Selkie. David snarls and steps in between the Sea Witch and the Selkie.
"How incredibly quaint," his voice is sickly sweet. "A human and a Selkie." He looks up at David. "When I'm through with you, I'm adding his heart to my collection. An aquamarine I think."
David lifts the sword and the Sea Witch pulls a sword from what seems to be thin air. David strikes first and the Sea Witch parries each thrust and blow. In the back of his mind David knows that the Sea Witch is humoring him, but arrogance can be a fatal flaw. He pushes David down, taunting him by allowing him time to stand; he is nothing more than prey a predator is fooling with. The Sea Witch looks at the Selkie from time to time with a little smile on his lips, and it infuriates David. He knows the Selkie is far from defenseless, but this is David's task and he will not see harm come to his Selkie. When the Sea Witch knocks him down again, and insults him further by blowing a kiss to the Selkie, David's anger boils over. He swings the sword as hard as he can.
The reverberation of metal against metal jolts up his arms. A screech echoes across the rocks; there's a clattering of metal on rock as half of David's blade flies through the air, broken from the hilt, and lands by the hydra's body. The Sea Witch smirks and his sword disappears. Snapping his fingers, he sends David flying through the air. Hitting the rocks, he grits his teeth to prevent himself from crying out. His injured shoulder throbs and the rest of his body feels like it's turning to lead. Before he can sit up, he is flying through air again as the Sea Witch starts to throw him back and forth. The rocks are sharp and soon his clothing is ripped, and his skin stings from the small cuts and bruises.
The Sea Witch sends him through the air one last time and David feels a crunch in his chest. He's sure a few of his ribs are cracked if not broken, and he grimaces as he staggers to his feet. A blow comes to his back and he grunts in pain as he crumbles forward to the ground. The Sea Witch nudges David in the shoulder with his foot, and David curls away, trying to shield himself as the Sea Witch's derisive laugh bears down on him. His fingers dig into the rocks beneath him, nails breaking on the sharp edges. David's pinkie finger brushes against something smooth and as he moves his hand against it, he realizes he's landed on top of the broken tip of the golden blade. He moves his hand so that he grabs it, wincing as it cuts into his palm.
"Why haven't you killed me yet?" David mutters into the ground, unable to move.
"Broken hearts are of no use to me," the Sea Witch tells him. "You can watch your Selkie's heart be taken for your impudence. Then I'll kill you."
David closes his eyes. The shells have stopped moving against him and the amulet has gone cold. As he clutches the broken blade against his chest, he tells himself this is his only chance to defeat the Sea Witch. The Sea Witch's fingers dig into his shoulder, into the wound the hydra made, and he hisses in pain. As the Sea Witch turns him over, David's hand flies and he catches the Sea Witch across his chest with the blade. It's not a deep cut and the Sea Witch cries out more in surprise than in pain, but the fury in his eyes makes the rocks of the island begin to tremble.
Reaching down the Sea Witch grabs David by his hair and drags him to his feet. He punches David hard in the chest; David knows his ribs are broken from the way the bones grind against each other. David doubles over and stumbles back. He finds himself falling and the air is knocked from his lungs as he hits the water. The arms of his Selkie are around him once again, holding him up as he struggles to breathe.
"Leave," David tries to push the Selkie away from him, but the Selkie won't loosen his hold. "He'll kill you."
"There are worse fates," his Selkie whispers in his ear.
There's a growl from the rocks when the Sea Witch realizes his magic isn't working. Raising his arms above his head, he mutters something in a language David doesn't understand. The waves still for a moment and the Selkie hooks their arms together. There comes a rumbling and a large wave lifts them and smashes them against the rocks. The Selkie takes the brunt of the hit, and he snarls at the Sea Witch. As the Sea Witch leans down to grab David, the Selkie darts forward and bites his hand.
The Sea Witch cries out in pain and shakes the Selkie off. His mouth is stained red with blood as he keeps his teeth bared at the Sea Witch. The Sea Witch summons another wave and in the confusion, manages to grab David. David's fingers reach for the Selkie, but the waters pull them apart. He finds himself lifted from the water and he groans as his abused body is dropped half on the rocks, half in the water.
"You're more trouble than you're worth," the Sea Witch tells him, pressing down hard on David's shoulder with his bleeding hand. "I hope you said goodbye."
David's head falls to the side as the Sea Witch puts a hand over David's heart. A melody of words fall from his lips and a red light comes from his palm. The Selkie is watching from the water struggling against the magic keeping him from coming onto land and trying to reach out for David. One by one the sounds around him fade out until he can only hear the tide coming in and water splashing against the rocks. A noise he has never heard before, a mix between a shriek and a cry, flitters into his ears and he wonders if that's the sound a man makes as he dies. The red light explodes outward and the Sea Witch seems to freeze and turn gray. A wave washes over his face. David closes his eyes and all his senses fade to black.
Darkness surrounds him and for a while he stays where he is, hoping the sun will come up or some other light will appear. He's not sure what happened or how he came to be in this place. Time stays still here in the darkness and when no light comes, he begins to walk. He wanders for what seems like an eternity to him before he hears muffled voices in the distance. David tries to follow them, but every time he approaches the voices fade or disappear. All of his senses are blurred to the point of not existing. The only thing David has is his mind, and he's terrified he will be lost in this darkness for eternity.
His hand feels different at times, like someone is holding it even though no one is there. These are the times he hears the voices, and after a while it feels like someone is pulling on his hand in a certain direction. The voices grow more distinct. Images begin to float in his mind as he remembers life outside of the darkness. When he stops to rest he sees his cottage, the cove, and for some reason, a statue. The Selkie is ever present in his mind and he wonders if he is in this darkness too or if he managed to escape the Sea Witch. David knows he still has his heart; there's a dull throb in his chest when he thinks of his Selkie.
A light appears. He stumbles toward it, but it never seems to come any closer. The voices are clear now and he recognizes Xavi's grumbles, the infectious giggling of Santi and the Imp brothers, and Raul's soothing murmurs. From time to time he hears familiar voices he can't place, but he runs toward them anyway, hoping he will be delivered from the darkness. David never gives up hope, because it is the only thing he can grasp onto.
Nothing changes until he trips and finds himself falling.
The first thing that registers in his mind is a voice mumbling about something and a scraping sound. Everything is dark and hazy, that moment in between sleep and awake where you float between worlds until you remember to open your eyes. It's a struggle to open his eyes both because his eyelids feels weighed down and because it's so bright they automatically shut when he does open them. When he finally is able to keep them open, he stares up at the assortment of seashells, plants, rocks, and other odds and ends hanging by strings over his head. He moves his fingers and then his toes as his eyes slowly move around the room, and he sees he is in his cottage.
"I didn't know you were stupid enough to pick a fight with a Sea Witch."
Xavi is by his side, perched on the end of his bed with two rocks in his hand. The gnome hops down off the bed and places the rocks on the floor; they zoom across the floor and out of the open door. David's not sure if he's still dreaming or not, his eyes are clouded with confusion.
"You've never seen a pet rock before?" Xavi grumbles, climbing back onto the bed. "I sent Tiqui and Taka to find Carlos."
David opens his mouth to ask a question, but no words come out. His throat is too dry for his voice to be anything more than a rasping noise. Xavi tells him not to move and fetches him a small glass of water. David tries to sit up, but his body is heavy with disuse and it's a struggle he is unable to defeat. He takes a few sips of water, whispers a thank you, and finds himself falling back into the darkness.
This time he's not alone. Someone is there in the darkness with him, holding his hand and leading him toward a light. His senses begin to filter back one by one. First he feels sand beneath his feet, a soft breeze caresses his skin. The breeze carries the unmistakable briny scent of the ocean, and it surrounds him, carries him as if he were weightless. The waves as they splash up against the shore enters his ears, and in the distance he hears birds and the rustle of the dunegrass. The notes of the Selkie's song urges him onward at a quicker pace. The darkness begins to disintegrate as if he were in a cloud of smoke, and when the darkness finally clears, he finds himself in the cove staring out to the ocean at sunset. An explosion of reds and purples paint the sky.
Someone squeezes his hand; the Selkie has been the one leading him out into the sun. He smiles at David, more breathtaking than the sunset and the ocean combined, and David feels like his heart is trying to beat its way out of his chest. The Selkie leans forward and presses their lips together. David knows he never wants to go another day without waking up and falling asleep to these sweet kisses.
The charms and trinkets hanging above the bed are swaying with the wind when David opens his eyes. Moving slowly, he is able to sit up and lean back against the pillows on the headboard. The noise he makes draws the attention of Carlos, who is sitting at his desk and flipping through one of David's countless notebooks. The Witch seems to sigh in relief when he sees David sitting up on his own and brings him a cup of water which David gratefully takes. David tries to ask him questions, but Carlos hushes him and says he won't answer anything until he makes sure David is healing. Carlos instructs him to sit up as straight as possible and takes a few minutes to poke and prod at him, asking questions about what is sore and if anything hurts. Everything hurts.
"I thought I died," David tells Carlos when he's done and goes to pull something out of one of the trunks on the other side of the room.
"It's a miracle you didn't." He begins to mix various plants and liquids together and when he's done, Carlos holds his hand over the bowl for a moment, silent words pouring from his lips. "Drink this," he hands the bowl to David, who eyes the concoction warily. Carlos rolls his eyes, "Honestly, if I was going to kill you I would have done so already."
David downs the liquid in one gulp, coughing at the bitter taste as it slides down his throat. Carlos smirks and takes the bowl back from David. It feels cold as it goes down and soon the sensation spreads. It's not unpleasant, if anything it's a pleasant cold reminiscent of sitting in the shade of a tree on a hot summer day. The feeling fades after a few minutes and David finds his body does not hurt as much. He makes to move the blankets back and step out of bed, but Carlos stops him.
"You've been unconscious for two weeks. Your body is not strong enough right now. You must rest." David frowns, but he allows Carlos to arrange the pillows, so it is easier for him to sit up.
"Where's my Selkie?"
"With Raul, running a few errands," Carlos smiles as he sits on the chair next to David's bed. "Many of the hearts in John's possession have living owners. They are returning them. And no, your Selkie was not hurt beyond a few cuts and bruises."
David sighs and leans back. Some of the tension in his body bleeds away with the knowledge that his Selkie is safe. He looks at his own body, sees the silver scars from healed cuts and the bandages that linger on the deeper ones. His ribs are wrapped in cloth, a small compression to keep his ribs splinted but not tight enough to prevent him from breathing easily. There's some sort of herbal mixture on his shoulder where the Hydra injured him and he wrinkles his nose at its smell.
One of his books is laying open on the small table next to his bed and he's surprised to see writing other than his own it it. Picking it up, he sees some words and sentences are crossed out, others have been expanded, and new paragraphs and information have been added.
"Your collection is one of the best I've seen," Carlos tells him, shifting in his seat and grabbing another book. "I've made changes where they were needed. I think you'll find this one of particular interest."
David takes the book from Carlos and flips through it. It's his volume on the types of water creatures who live on or visit the island. His page on selkies is barely more than a few paragraphs of loosely tied together hearsay and words inherited from other books. Now there is a whole page written in Carlos' elegant script. David devours every word as if they were the air.
To the Selkies, a name implies a bond and permanence. It is not uncommon for only immediate family members to know their name. Humans often name their Selkies because they never learn their real names.
A selkie can return to land if their lover cries a certain number of tears into the ocean. The number is different from pod to pod or perhaps even from selkie to selkie.
David's recovery is slow, but he is never alone. When Carlos isn't with him, one of the Elementals is. Santi brings Enzo by for visits and the Imp brothers are frequent visitors. They ask him for the story of his adventure, but David cannot tell it to them as he doesn't know the ending. David only knows he is dead.
Raul comes by when Carlos is out. With his heart returned to him, David sees a profound change; Raul smiles more often and is somehow warmer than before. It's interesting to watch Carlos and Raul bumble around each other, avoiding conversation while stealing glances. Neither is sure what to say, and David finds the awkwardness of the situation quite entertaining. It's obvious to him, to everyone really, they are still in love, but do not know how to convey the sentiment. David is confident Xavi will become fed up with them and be the icebreaker in his own grumpy, blunt little way.
"The story of your fight is spreading you know," Pepe tells him one day when he and Xavi are keeping him company. "There's this satyr named Diego who says he saw the whole thing and has written a song about you. Do you want to hear it?"
"No," David shakes his head and Xavi looks relieved he won't have to hear Pepe sing. "Interesting creatures satyrs are."
"You're pretty much a hero if a satyr takes the time to compose a song about you," Pepe laughs. "David the Hydra Slayer! David, defeater of dark witches and champion of true love!"
"Pepe the lazy Salamander who still hasn't burned the fields," Xavi grumbles under his breath.
"Xavi, lover of precisely measured fields and correct moisture levels," Pepe tells him cheerfully and Xavi stares at him. "No? Xavi the rock maker and mushroom king?"
"Xavi, creator of this island, exterminator of irritating salamanders," Xavi forces from his grit teeth, and David laughs at the two bickering Elementals.
When he is able to walk, Raul helps him out to a chair on his small porch. From there David can stare at the ocean, unread book in his hands as he waits for his Selkie. From what he understands, his Selkie has taken hearts back to the mainland. The Sea Witch, John as he learns the man was named, had been taking hearts for hundreds of years before he set foot on El Hierro. Gifts start arriving for David from those who've had their hearts returned to them. Jewelry picked up from shipwrecks, enchanted water in glass vials, rare gemstones, and other items he has no real use for, but he accepts them anyway. He is their champion, their hero who overcame the evil shadow they had dwelt in. David is surprised he's helped so many creatures when he started this quest solely for himself; each new gift is a humbling experience.
"Magic doesn't always work in the way we intend it to," Carlos hands him a gemstone that once contained a heart. "We don't create it; we tap into it and attempt to form it to our will. Somehow you turned him into stone. I'm not sure we'll ever know how or why it happened. Sometimes it's just the will of magic."
David thinks on this for a while. He wonders if John was always wicked, or if something happened to him. David doesn't believe in pure evil, but knows evil can come from those with even the purest intent.
"He found a lamp when he was young and fell in love with its genie," Carlos tells him when he asks about the Sea Witch's past. "The genie gave John his power, control over the hydra plaguing his village, and John freed him with his last wish."
Carlos is quiet for a while. Raul is on the shoreline in front of where David's cottage overlooks the ocean. The water spirit is speaking with a mermaid who glances up at them and waves. She places her hand over her heart and nods her head at David before turning back to speak with Raul. Carlos' eyes are sad as he stares at Raul.
"He died." Carlos' voice is barely audible over the wind in the dunegrass.
"His heart turned to stone." David mumbles to himself, before saying. "But Raul's still alive."
Carlos looks up sharply. "And?"
"You're just sitting here."
Carlos stands and storms away; David finds a wry smile coming onto his face at the sight of the witch's retreating back. He looks down at the beach and sees Raul is watching Carlos. David thinks Pepe should light a fire under their ass, preferably on the hill so Xavi stops complaining about the grass being too long. He smirks.
When he looks back down, Raul is gone. The mermaid is still standing there staring at him. She motions to him and he gingerly stands. The sand shifts beneath his feet as he makes his way down to the beach, threatening to swallow him for leaving in the first place. He hasn't walked this far yet, and he has to stop a few times to catch his breath. The mermaid waits patiently for him, her seafoam colored tail drawing lines in the sand; the encroaching waves smooth them out as the tide comes in as if they were never there.
"Hail Stoneheart Wordweaver," she calls to him as he approaches and comes to stand close to her. Weary of the last time he spoke to mermaids, he stays just out of arm reach. "You're wise to fear me," she grins and his eyes focus on her sharp teeth.
There's a box in her hand and she puts it on the sand between them. She moves away to allow David to come forward and pick it up, wincing as the movement jars his ribs. The box is made of rotting wood and pieces break apart on his hands; he's sure it's from a shipwreck. Opening it, he pulls out a scale the same color as the mermaid's tail.
"If you wear it, it shows you are a friend and cannot be harmed." She tells him. "You've done us a great service."
"My motivations were selfish," he tells her, putting the scale back in the box. "I haven't earned this."
"Every action has consequence." She smiles as she turns, the shells in her hair click together and somehow sound like bells. "A minnow can bring about the same wave a shark can. Farewell Stoneheart."
She slips back into the water, the sunlight glinting off of her scales as she glides under the waves. David watches until he can no longer see her. When she's faded into the distance, he finds a log, long bleached white from the sun, and sits for a minute to gather his strength for the climb up the dunes. As he stands, someone takes his arm to support him, and he sees Raul by his side.
"Carlos will be angry if he sees you down here," Raul mutters, half supporting David as they walk up the sandy dunes. "You should be resting."
"You should stop pretending to be angry," David tells him and laughs when Raul storms off in the same direction Carlos went.
Andres appears the next morning when Xavi and Pepe are sitting with him. He tells them of an interesting scene he stumbled across this morning at the waterfall where a naked witch was pleading for the return of his clothes from a trio of imps.
"Why did he have his clothes off in the first place?" Xavi grumbles and the three others look at him. "... Oh."
Pepe grins lewdly, Xavi looks horrified, and David laughs. The shells hanging above him tap together and dance a song in the morning breeze.
The spring comes with an explosion of flowers across the dunes and along the banks of the stream. David suspects Carlos has something to do with it, but the witch gives him an oblivious smile when he asks about it. The flowers are tall and growth is dense enough for the Imps to hide among them; their giggles give them away before they can sneak up on David. They keep him company as he writes the tale of a sea witch who falls in love with a genie, only to lose him. It's not a fairytale, nor is it meant for children; David finds the only stories he can write these days are based on those he's encountered.
Not all of the stories are sad. The tale of the Undine and the Witch has a happy ending, and the fable of the Silly Satyr is a new favorite of the magical children of the island. The story of the selkie and his human is still unfinished, lingering in the back of his mind.
Spring gives way to summer and the Selkie has still not returned.
July comes, heat clinging to David like a second skin, sticky and unrelentless. The breeze from the ocean comes and goes, violent with storms when it comes and dead for days afterward when it goes; there's rarely an in between. The storms keep him up at night, putting pots and bowls under leaking holes in the ceiling and staring out at the ocean hoping his Selkie is safe. Lightning gives him glimpses onto the ocean, but there's never anything to see except turbulent black waves.
It's only the the fifth year, but David drags himself down to the cove. His ribs have healed as have the rest of his injuries. While still there, David's limp is less pronounced; he assumes it's a side effect of Carlos' brews, trinkets, and spells. There's a warm rain falling lightly from the gray sky. Drops of water collect on his face, shoulders, and in his hair. He takes him time walking down, stopping a few times to gather flowers. The sand is only beginning to clump together and grow gray from the rain when he enters the cove.
A seal is waiting in the waves offshore. The flowers fall from David's hand, their petals break off from the stems and the scatter with the wind on the sand. He doesn't move for a moment, frozen like a statue as he watches the seal bobbing up and down. When he does move, it feels like his body is moving without his mind telling him to. His legs take him into the ocean, as far in as he can go and still stand. A storm is coming and the waves batter against him, the wind whips his face. From his eyes, seven tears fall into the ocean.
The tears float on top for a moment, an opalescent white, before they begin to swirl together. A small whirlpool forms and David steps back alarmed. The seal is pulled under and the whirlpool disappears in a flash of light. The Selkie breaks the surface of the water in his human form, sputtering and wiping water from his face as David reaches for him. He wraps his arms around David, presses his face in the crook of his neck and shoulder. David clutches him close; he feels the Selkie's heart beating against his chest.
Carlos gives him a small trunk to keep the Selkie's fur in. David feels like he's keeping the Selkie prisoner on land, but both Carlos and the Selkie assure him it's the only way the Selkie can stay on land without destroying the fur.
"You're not the first you know," the Selkie tells him as they lay in bed one night, limbs tangled. "I've had my fur locked away before."
David doesn't know how to respond to that except with a frown. The Selkie grins, nips at David's jaw before kissing him.
"I always got it back," he whispers. "You're the only one who didn't have to steal it; you're the only one I gave it to."
David's never smiled as hard as he smiles then. He pulls the Selkie to him, determined to map and memorize every inch of his body with his lips.
"Would you let me go if I asked?"
The sand in the cove is soft underneath them, embracing them in its warmth as if they are her children. Large clouds reflect the ocean and land as the sun dies in a warm orange shot through with pinks and yellows. David's fingers trace circles into the Selkie's skin.
"If that's what you wanted," David leans over and brushes a kiss onto his lips.
The Selkie sits up and stares out at the ocean. David knows about this, he's been warned Selkies change their mind, that they're nothing but trouble. His Selkie's expression is troubled; David's heart feels heavy.
The key to the trunk hangs around his neck and he pulls it off with a tug. Kissing the Selkie again, he presses the key into his hand. The Selkie stares at it and slowly, he begins to stand. David watches as he wanders to the waters edge, the wind blowing his hair back, the sun highlighting his freckles.
Taking a step back, the Selkie throws the key into the ocean and falls back onto the sand next to David.
"My name is Silva," he tells David, "and you're kind of stuck with me."
"That's okay," David has to bite his lip to keep the smile threatening to overtake his face from popping up, "someone told me I was stupid once."
Silva laughs and covers David's mouth with his. Threading his fingers through Silva's hair he pulls him close. When the sun disappears, they wander back up to their cottage and Silva falls asleep. In the light of the moon, David watches him as he burrows under the blankets, smile on his face. Overhead, the shells swing in the wind, and their shadows dance on the floor and walls. Lighting a candle, David grabs an empty notebook and a quill.
Once upon a time on an island humans forgot, lived a boy who fell in love with a Selkie...