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The Magic Three of Solatia
BOOK ISianna of the SongBook I is for HeidiBeforeFor more years than anyone can remember, the fisherfolk of Solatia have told this tale of Dread Mary. They tell it late at night before the hearth fires to warn their eager sons and daughters of the dangers that await them on the sea:Once upon a maritime, when the world was filled with wishes the way the sea is filled with fishes, a witch named Dread Mary lived at the bottom of the ocean.As she grew in size, she grew in wickedness. So fearsome did she become that no oneman or fishdared oppose her will. And at last she was called ruler of the whole wide sea.Even now no one dares go near the Outermost Isle, and especially Dread Mary's Cove. It is there that she dwells to this very day, beneath the tumbling waves.Her home is a sunken galleon ringed with the bones of fishermen lost in storms. Dread Mary loves to rise on the midnight tides and sing the sailors down to the deeps in the windless, sunless sea.She does not cry for the poor drowned men or their widows alone on the land. Such sorrows do not touch her sea-cold heart. She has but one passion, that witchof the deep: for the buttons that shine on the dead men's coats. And she carries the coats away to her ship and cuts the buttons off one by one. And she keeps the buttons in a barnacled box on the forecastle of her home."Then why not wear buttonless jackets?" inquires some quick-witted lad at the hearth fire each year."Tush, lad, and show our fear?" answers the storyteller with a frown, and continues:
Every night Dread Mary runs her hands through the buttons and sings this song:No silver and jewels, but buttons for me, No silver and jewels, but buttons. Silver and jewels Are fine for fools, But buttons, oh buttons, oh buttons!So no one ventures to the Outermost Isle, though it is less than a morning's sail from shore. And no one casts his nets close to the liver-colored rock island, though the largest fish shoal there.And whenever a Solatian fishing boat sets sail, the fishermen carry with them shell buttons in a leather pouch. When they are well out to sea, each fisherman throws a handful of the buttons overboard and whispers Dread Mary's name. It is called "buying the sea," for each man hopes that the witch will take these tokens and leave him and his alone.So it has been for more years than any Solatian can remember.1. Dread MaryIn the days when Solatia was a kingdom to be visited, the world was young. Mountains were newly green, having been thrust from the earth within the memory of the great-grandfathers of grandfathers.In those days, the seawitch had been younger too. Her name had been Melinna then, a name compounded of beauty and song. The beauty was her own face, pale white with black eyes and hair. She loved to rise on the crest of waves and listen to the singers upon the shore, for she was the last of her kind, and lonely.One of the singers was Solatia's young Prince Anggard, and for him Melinna had sloughed off her mermaid's tail and walked painfully upon the land. She had followed him up the hundred stone steps to his father's hall. There she had pressed upon him a jacket of woven seaweed. It was a jacket with three silver buttons that had come from the deeps of the sea."The buttons are magic," said Melinna. "Each can grant you a wish." "I wish only that you leave me alone," replied Prince Anggard, and closed the castle door. But he took the jacket with him and never heard the rest."If twisted in just a special way," called Melinna through the heavy oak door, "each button will grant a wish. But only once, and only with consequences, and only if twisted in a special way."The prince never opened the door to Melinna again. He had been too much in love with himself to return her love, or anyone's love. So when he ascended the throne, he grew old there with no queen beside him, nor children to carry on his line. At last he died and left his kingdom to innumerable cousins who fought incessantly for the throne. And the jacket with the magic buttons did not one of them any good, for no one knew the real secret of the Magic Three, as they were named and sung of in the kingdom. And at last the seaweed jacket was worn by one of the cousin-kings who was slain in yet another war for the throne. Years passed, and the jacket had rotted like its wearer in the field. Only the buttons and the bones of that king remained, the silver no longer bright but crusted and lined with dirt and debris.When Melinna had been rejected by the prince, she retraced her way painfully down the stone steps to the strand. There she found her mermaid tail and put it on again. Then she dove back into the sea and swam beneath the waves to the Outermost Isle, the last of the small islands that lay off the Solatian shore, close but not too close to her lost love.There, beyond the liver-colored rocks, in a cove that held waves as gently as a cradle holds a child, she stayed, never again venturing ashore. So she never knew that Prince Anggard remained unwed.As the years went by in her watery home, Melinna grew old, even for a mermaid, and a bit forgetful. She did not remember how she had loved the prince with his beautiful voice and his icy heart, and remembered only her gift of love to himthe jacket with the three magic buttons.After a few more years went by, she even forgot the jacket and remembered only the silver buttons.Till at last all she remembered was how she loved buttons. It was then that she started to sing the sailors down to theirdeaths in the cold, sunless sea. And soon the Solatians gave her a name that was as different from her old, lost, forgotten name as she herself was from the girl she once had been. The people called her Dread Mary, for they feared her more than they feared the sea. And they put up two fingers in front of their faces whenever her name was mentioned, to keep away "Dread Mary's Eye."Now that kingdom by the sea, which had once been a place of laughter and love, was full of sorrow and fear. The wars of succession had raged for three hundred years, and no less than 113 different cousin-kings had claimed and lost the throne.The kingdom had been called Solatia, after the sun, which always seemed to shine there with such power. Between the New Mountains to the south and the Northern Sea, Solatia had been long and low and flat, with crops green in the spring and gold in the fall. And prayers of thanksgiving had been sung there from one end of harvest to the other.But the wars had ended all that. And many now called the kingdom Desolatia. Most farmers had become fisherfolk, reaping the hard-earned harvest of the sea. They remembered the peace of the farmland with longing every time a wave broke over their boats.But all that remained in the once-green fields now were rusty swords, broken plowshares, and an occasional straying child.2. SiannaSianna was such an occasional child. She was the daughter of Sian the button maker, a man of no faith but much talent. Golden-haired Sianna sang like a lark. Her childish voice was so sweet and clear and innocent that all the neighbors lovingly called her Sianna of the Song.Young mothers begged her to sing their fretful babes to sleep. Old men taught her songs of their youth. And in the chapel, it was her voice that soared above all the rest when the Seven Psalms of Waking were sung.But Sianna always went to the chapel alone, for her father would not go. He had lost his faith when he lost his wife, just six years after Sianna was born. She had gone down to her beloved seaside to gather the shells from which Sian made buttons. A wave as tall as a wall swept onto the shore. And before the eyes of all the men tending their nets and mending their lines, Sian's black-haired wife had been borne out to sea. "Gone to her kinfolk, gone to her rest," said the fishermen, for she had been one of their own, and they knew the power of the sea.But Sian would not believe the worst. He was sure his wife, his lithe-limbed wife, would swim home to him at last.Weeks later, her blue vest, with its three silver buttons, was washed ashore. Only then did Sian accept her death as true. The jacket was stiff with salt, the buttons blackened by the water's touch. But Sian knew the jacket was hers. No oneelse in the kingdom had had silver buttons like those, for his wife had found them in the field behind their house.The buttons were all that Sian and Sianna had to remind them of wife and mother. So when a neighbor woman offered to take the buttons and sew them on a jacket for the child, Sian gratefully accepted.Every year, the buttons were sewn on a larger jacket for the growing girl. But they were never polished again. "Let me remember the cruel sea when I see them," said Sian, for he had been born of old farming stock and had never trusted the waves.His daughter, in her innocent wisdom, begged him to let her shine the buttons like new. "So we can renew our own lives," she said.But Sian was firm. The black buttons, crusted with salt, remained the mute reminders of his wife's fate.Sian was firm about one other thing. "You must promise me never to go down to the shore again," he told Sianna every day. He catechized her with the dangers of the deep. He tried to make her swear on the memory of her mother that she would not set foot on the strand.But Sianna never swore such to him. Indeed she could not. Though she got her bright beauty from Sian, she belonged in her soul to her mother's fisherfolk kin. She could swim before she could walk, she could dive before she could talk. The sea fascinated her, it called to her, she felt it singing in her bones.Still, as she would not hurt her father, she never spoke of her passion for the sea. And if he remembered her early ease in the water, he conveniently forgot it now.But often Sianna would stop by the shore on her way from school or run there when Sian was busy at work. She never told him, so he never really knew.Sianna waded in the tidal pools for periwinkles and starfish,which she dried in the sun and set on a shelf in a sea-hollowed cave. She knew every sea creature by name, every sea stone by sight, and every seaweed by its color and taste. But she did not dare to bring any of her treasures or her knowledge home.If any of the village folk noticed Sianna at her sea play, they did not tell Sian. For they loved both the man and the girl more especially because of their loss. To betray the girl's secret or hurt the button maker would have seemed cruel to them.And so it happened when she was twelve years old that Sianna was down by the seashore gathering cockleshells and sand tokens for her cave when a dark, ominous, twisting cloud appeared far out at sea. It swirled around and about, driving a giant wave before it as a shark drives a school of pout.As the wave ran before the twisting cloud, it grew in height until it was taller than a wall and twice as thick. Fingerlings were troubled to swim in its water and were carried along by the force of the storm. And strangely, the wave was silentsilent as the ocean's bottom, silent as death in the sea.One fisherman by chance looked up from his nets to see the wave bearing down upon the village cove. He had time for a single scream before the giant wave washed over them all. Five fishermen and Sianna were carried out to sea by the retreating wave.The five strong fishermen managed to swim to shore, heaving and panting and crying and touching the sand with their lips in thanks.But Sianna was seen no more.The grieving fisherfolk went to Sian's cottage to tell him of his newest loss. One widow woman, seeking to comfort him, brought the shells and sea blossoms that Sianna had kept in her cave.But Sian threw the villagers out of his home, cast the shellsout after them, and ripped the brittle petals from the blooms.And in the year that followed, though Sian still went to the village to purchase flour and corn and wine, he never again ate a single thing that came out of the sea. He would stand on the shore and gaze out past the island chain for long moments without saying a word. Indeed, he never spoke to his neighbors again.For Sian had taken a vow by the chapel door that he would never utter a sound until his daughter was returned to him from the seaor until some real proof of her drowning was given to him. And so Sian the Silent became his name.3. The WaveBut Sianna was not drowned. She floated like a sea creature on the crest of the wave. The spray crowned her head with jewellike bubbles that sparkled in the sun.Except for the jacket with the three buttons that she still held in her hand, Sianna was naked. The sea had snatched away all her clothesher sandals, her dress, even the petticoats she had patched with careand sent them below.But Sianna did not feel any shame. For as she floated it came to her that she was a natural part of the wave. And no one had ever thought to clothe the creatures of the sea. She felt she was being reborn in the sea, reborn as a mermaid, reborn as a sister to the anemones and starfish that lived below the waves.Sianna raised her face to the sky and droplets of water ran down her cheeks. She began to sing a song. She made up thewords, though the tune was old. She could not think of any song that seemed quite right for the way she felt thenboth old and new. She wanted a new song with an old tune to go with her special feeling. And she sang as she rocked on the top of the wave.I am the mighty wave, I flow Where others do not dare, I go. And all that's in the sea I know. I am the wave.
I am the mighty wave, I grow Encompassing all things below Into my restless undertow I am the wave.
While other things move to and fro, It seems that I must ceaseless flow In just one wayit is not so. I am the wave.
For like all life, my motions go In all directions as I grow, And like all life, I ceaseless flow. I am the wave.Sianna felt so totally new and at one with the sea that she almost tossed the jacket with the buttons into the trough of the wave. But a sudden painful memory of her father, weak and dry on the shore, stayed her hand. And because she cherished the jacket for his sake and not her own, she kept it.The wave continued to roll on, past the Inner Islands, the Mean Isles, the group of three called the Triades, till it cameclose to the Outermost Isle. But Sianna felt only elation. It was not in her then to feel fear. And she sat on top of the wave like a queen upon a throne.Thus feeling her new power, Sianna decided to lie face down in the water and watch the sea creatures that were caught in the tow. But she underestimated the strength of the mighty wave. Before she could even struggle, it had sucked her down, down, down into the deeps. With her eyes wide open and her mouth in a bubbly scream, Sianna was drawn down to the ocean floor. Her long golden hair streamed out behind her as she fell, and she looked like some exotic mer-creature in a dive.She landed by the side of a sunken galleon. She lay there white as bleached bone, her hair spread around her like rare cloth. Little spotted fish circled her where she lay, still and unbreathing, water within and water without, the jacket clutched in her hand.From the forecastle of the sunken ship, Dread Mary had watched Sianna's descent. And when the girl had cascaded to the ocean floor, Mary swam over, her fishtail making scant murmurs in the sea. She seized the jacket with its three blackened prizes and started back. But the gleam of Sianna's hair, golden even under the sea, made her pause.Some instinct, which she afterward could not have explained, made Dread Mary turn back. Lifting the girl in her arms, skin against skin, she rose up on the tide. When the two broke through the surface, the girl gave a frothy gasp and began to cough. She half-turned in Dread Mary's arms and reached out for her."Mother?" she asked, for it seemed to her that she was a child again in her dark-haired mother's arms."Tush, child," said the witch of the sea as she swam with her precious burden toward the cove.4. The Outermost IsleSianna did not wake again during the ride to the shore. And when the seawitch put the girl down on the beach, she knelt on her fishtail, half in and half out of the sea, and sucked the rest of the water from the girl's lungs. Then casting a backward glance at the sleeping Sianna, the seawitch dove back into the sea.Sianna slept all through the afternoon, through moonrise and moonset, and into the dawn. The soft winds dried her and kept her warm. But in the morning she awoke, stiff with sleep, and looked about.Then she noticed she was naked and nearly wept with shame. She glanced around quickly and saw no one either up the beach or down. So she rose cautiously to her knees, then stood and stretched her arms and legs. As no one was about, the feeling of shame left her. She began to spin around and around. Her hair in bright tangles spun out from her head like a golden web.She gave a mighty shout that echoed from the grove of trees encroaching on the beach. It was a shout of thanksgiving, of being alive.There was no answer but a bird song.Sianna whistled in return and a strange golden lark flew out of the wood. It circled three times around her head, then settled down in the sand quite near her feet."Why," said Sianna, so surprised she spoke aloud, "it isthe Gard-lann, the king-lark. I thought they were no more."As if answering, the lark whistled."Well, little golden bird, here we are," said Sianna. "But where are we?"The golden lark cocked its head to one side as if considering the question. "Sia, sia, sia," it said.Sianna turned and stood on tiptoe, peering out to the nearest islands. "Those three must be the Triades," she said, partly to herself, partly to the bird. "And further on, those ridges that stretch out in a line must be the Mean Isles. Don't you think so?"The bird whistled again as if in encouragement."Which means," said Sianna, and she lay down and with her finger drew a strange configuration in the sand, "Triades thus, Means thus, and I am ..." Here she plunged her thumb deeply into the sand. "On the Outermost Isle!"It seemed that once she said it, it was suddenly true. What she had guessed at before took on a horrifying reality as soon as it was named. Unbidden, tears came to her eyes and began to trickle down the sides of her nose."I wonder if Dread Mary does live hereabouts?" she asked herself. "I wonder if she really does collect buttons?" And then she shouted, "Buttons!"Sianna twisted around violently, but she could not find her jacket. She jumped to her feet and ran up and down the beach, peering out toward the sea as if to discover the jacket snagged on a piece of driftwood.For fully half the day she ran around the beach of the Outermost Isle, circling it many times in her search. It was a small islet, with a wood grove that held no beasts but a few golden butterflies and the golden lark. The cove was little more than a groove in the otherwise oval of the isle. And nowhere was the jacket to be seen.By the time she was fully convinced the jacket was gone forever, Sianna was ravenous. Her next trip around the island was more for food than for the jacket with her mother's treasured buttons. But she did not recognize the seaweeds that grew in the tidal pools. They were as strange and different as if they had been transported from another world. She was afraid that to eat them might mean her deathand equally afraid of death from not eating at all. She even tried to grub beneath a rock for worms or bugs, like a little beast of the field. But the three small crawlers she found were so unappetizing that she threw herself down in a fit of tears and for the first time surrendered herself to despair and exhaustion. She remained on the beach alternately weeping and napping till the moon rose over the horizon.She went to sleep then, in the moon's light. She was beginning to feel the cold.5. The Coral HouseWhen Sianna awoke she was lying on a cold floor in a darkened house. Light barely peeked through a window that was hung with a seaweed curtain. A small shaft of the light had passed over her eyes, and it was that which had awakened her.Sianna looked around in terror. It was like no house she had ever seen. She remembered the wave. She remembered her many trips around the Island. She remembered herdespairing search for food. But somehow this was the most terrifying of all.She got up and ran to the door. It was made from two pieces of wood that looked as though they might have been hatch covers that had long lain under the sea. They weren't locked, she noted gratefully.Cautiously, Sianna opened the top part of the door. There was no one there. But the smell of food was in the air."Food?" she asked herself. Then, "Food!" she shouted. Without another thought for caution or fear, she flung open the bottom part of the door. There in front of the house was a large mollusk shell filled with cooked sea plants and the speckled eggs of some seabird. A coral cup was filled with what was certainly berry wine.Sianna threw herself down on the sand and ate the food with her fingers. After she finished the last drop of drink and the last morsel of food, she remembered to say grace. She changed it to suit the occasion."For these gifts which I have just received," she said with great fervor, "I thank thee."But she was not sure who it was she was really thanking. There were dainty human footprints that led up to the dish from the sea, and the same footprints all around the coral house. But they all led back to a strange depression at the edge of the sea. It was as if some great sea creature had lain on the beach and disgorged a good fairy to care for her.Was it magic? Or was itand she could not believe it to be trueDread Mary? For if it had been Dread Mary's doings, surely Sianna would now be dead, drowned, and bleached to the bone, a decoration for the witch's galleon. At least that was how the story went. Sianna remembered the old storyteller saying just a few days past, "The galleonis ringed with the bones of fishermen lost in storms."It was surely a puzzle. But try as she might, Sianna could not put an answer to it. So she went instead to investigate the coral house.It was not entirely coral, that she saw at once. Tiger cowries outlined the single window. An arch of scallops was over the door. At least, she thought with grim satisfaction, she recognized the shells. The roof was slanted and spiked at each corner with some kind of giant conch. And the floor was a mosaic of the sea, fishes and eels, sharks and seals, and even a mermaid drifting along in one corner. Sianna had to lift the strands of seaweed on the window and open wide both parts of the door to let in enough light to see it. And when she looked even more carefully, she saw that it was all done with pieces of clam shells."It must be magic," Sianna said. "Or else a miracle."But believing in magic and miracles did not mean she should not also help herself. She had been well used to that at home since she had had to be a mother to herself.Home! The word caught strangely in her mind. She had almost forgotten home. She knelt down in the sand and in a trembling voice sang a song of thanksgiving for her safe arrival and another, a prayer, for her safe return home. Her pure voice rang out over the tiny isle, echoing in the stillness. Out in the cove the water trembled ever so slightly as if sea ears were listening under the waves.Sianna finished her song and stood up. She picked up the mollusk plate and coral cup and carried them down to the water's edge, where she washed them with care. She placed them beside the little house and set out again around the isle.This time she went slowly and with deliberation, not anxiously and with fear. She began to see familiar places: there a path through the wood, there the rock she had overturnedlooking for worms, there a bird's nest that must belong to the golden lark. And there again, the coral house.Coming on the house from the other side, she was struck by its simplicity. And what had at first seemed magic now seemed reasonable when viewed with calm. Such a house might be set up in a single night. Why, she herself could do it, except perhaps for the marvelous floor.On the way around the second time, Sianna discovered a large piece of driftwood she had not noticed before. It was heavy, but she was able to drag it slowly behind her all the way to the house. Above her head, the golden lark circled and scolded as if to show the way.Sianna thought the wood might do as a table. Though it was low, it had three stubby legs, and if she sat in the sand, it was just the right height. She moved it next to the house and set the cup and plate upon it. Then she sat down and began to wait for her unknown friend."At least," she thought, "I can thank whomeveror whatevermyself."But the sun moved slowly across the sky and no one came. Only a few fish leaped far out at sea. And once Sianna thought she saw the spouting of a whale.She was beginning to get hungry again. But she was sleepier still. And so, head on hands, hands on the table, Sianna at last fell into a sleep. She dreamed she was home making silver buttons out of the bones of fish she had caught swimming about in her father's shop.6. A Night of WatchingWhen Sianna woke up on her second day on Outermost Isle, she was warm. Then she realized that she was again in the little coral house."Most strange," she thought, for she distinctly remembered falling asleep outside.As she stretched herself more fully awake, her feet touched some stiff cloth. She sat up quickly and peered in the dimness. There, lying on the floor near her, were a long skirt woven from seaweed and rushes and her own little jacket.She put them on. The skirt came down to her ankles and was surprisingly soft. But the jacket felt strange and stiff, for it had been too long under the sea. When she tried to button it, she discovered that the silver buttons had been replaced by shells.Sianna gasped and put her hand to her mouth. There was no longer any question about it. She was being cared for by Dread Mary herself.Somehow, knowing that made everything reasonable. And so Sianna determined to stay awake that night in order to meet the seawitch."First I shall thank her," she decided, "and then I shall demand my mother's buttons back. For surely, since she has so many, three less will not matter."Sianna spent the day tidying her home and collecting shells for decorations. She smoothed a path to the sea andlined it with hundreds of scallops, for they lay about the beach in profusion. She found half an old barrel washed up on the far side of the island, and thought she could use it for a chair, but it needed a cushion. So she puzzled out the weaving in her skirt and spent the rest of the daylight gathering sturdy seaweeds to use as threads. She stretched the weed threads between the legs of the table, knotted the threads to the legs, and thus laid out her warp. By then it was sundown and she could see no more to weave.She stretched and made a great pretense at yawning, for she was certain Dread Mary watched from somewhere in the sea. In a loud voice she announcedrather louder than she had intended"I think I shall go inside to sleep."Laying the remaining weaving threads beside the empty plate and cup, Sianna walked slowly into the house. But once inside, she stealthily parted the curtain at the window and peered out into the night.A full moon was rising, and the strand sparkled with a thousand little lights. These were shells reflecting back the moon's rays. And though it was night, the shingle was as bright as morn.A strange hush settled over the isle. All at once even the constant drumming of the waves on the shore seemed stilled. Sianna felt sleepy. She reached into her jacket pocket and drew out two sharp shells she had hidden there. These she placed on the floor and then stood upon them with her bare feet. The shells pricked her soles, and the pain would keep her awake.It was near midnight when a splash near the shore startled her. Somethingsomeonewas approaching.In the moonlight everything appeared larger than in the day. It seemed to Sianna that a great monstrous fish was rising up out of the water. Yet it was no fish, she saw at last, buta mer-creature, part woman and part fish. The creature heaved itself onto the shore with its hands and wriggled farther up the beach.While Sianna watched from behind the seaweed curtains of the coral house, the mermaid's tail sloughed off and two perfect legs appeared in its place. Then the seawitch, for it was indeed she, flexed and wriggled her feet slowly as if it hurt to move them. She bent her knees and moved cautiously at first. Then she came toward the hut.In the moonlight she gleamed white as the belly of a fish. Her hair covered her back and breasts as she moved. And the only things she wore were strands of anemones she had braided through her long black hair.7. Sianna's TradeDread Mary did not look so dreadful then, for her face was quite lovely and soft in the moonlight. She moved with the grace of a creature still in the sea, her motions slow and majestic. She seemed to float in the air as she would in a wave.The moment she saw the seawitch, Sianna knew what she would have to do. All thoughts of thanking her fled. The girl crawled out the window, though the shells scraped her legs. She ran down to the sea where the mermaid had shed her tail.Grabbing up the slippery, wet tail in her hands, Sianna called out to the startled witch in a voice that quivered with fear, "Dread Mary, I conjure you, take care. You shall not return to the sea till I have what is rightfully mine."At the sound of the girl's voice, Dread Mary turned. She came slowly over to where Sianna stood and held out her hand to the girl. In the moon's light Sianna could see the delicate pulsing membranes stretched taut between each finger and on the witch's neck, close up under each ear, were faint red gill lines that beat in her heart's rhythm."Give me my tail, child, and I will not harm you," came Dread Mary's voice. It was liquid and low and full of the sounds of the sea."You shall not harm me anyhow, mother from the sea." Sianna's words were braver than her voice. "I am not afraid." "Take care, child, for there is much to fear.""Give me my buttons and you shall have your tail."The seawitch kept her hand stretched toward the girl, but a smile formed on her face. It was perhaps the first time in almost three hundred years that she had smiled that kind of smile. It was a fond smile, a smile of liking, a smile of respect."I will make you such a trade," said the witch. "Give me my tail." "First swear," said Sianna, who could not read that smile in the moonlight and feared a trick. "Swear by all you hold sacred and true." "I swear by the constant sea," said Dread Mary. "I swear by the tides that turn again each day. By the infinite grains of salt in the ocean and the multitude of grains of sand on the strand. I swear by the scales on each fish in the water and by the seaweed rosaries that sway in the sea. By all these I swear that I shall return to you what is yours if you but give me back my tail."Sianna smiled then. "It is yours. I cannot hold it." And she gave the fishtail to the witch.Dread Mary moved closer then and took the tail from Sianna. Their hands touched briefly, the girl's warm and soft,the mermaid's cold and rough. Sianna looked deeply into the mermaid's black eyes. They were fathomless, they were ageless. The mermaid smiled again as she slipped into the tail. Then she dove back into the sea.8. A Strange PactIn the morning when Sianna woke, though it was nearer noon according to the sun, she ate and drank what Mary had left. It was then she found the three small buttons at the bottom of her cup."Thank you," she called out to the sea. "Thank you for everything."There was no sign that she had been heard, so Sianna rose and went down to the water's edge. She slipped out of her skirt and jacket and left them lying neatly folded on the shore. Then she waded into the water and swam with strong strokes out to the middle of the cove. The Gard-lann, the golden king-lark, circled her head as she swam. Playfully she splashed water up at it, and it turned indignantly and flew back to shore.Sianna took a deep breath and dived. As she went down, down, down to the bottom of the sea, she began to feel the wonder of it again. Little spotted fish and big bloated groupers swam by. A many-legged squid pulsed along near the bottom. And ahead Sianna saw the galleon which Dread Mary called home.She circled around the galleon half looking for the bones of the fishermen and half fearful lest she find them. But bonesand dead fishermen were as much part of the storyteller's art as was Mary's wickedness. At least that was how it seemed under the sea to Sianna. She rose for a quick breath, then dove again.This time Sianna swam directly to the ship and, pulling herself along the rail, came to the forecastle. Hoping that at least that part of the legend was true, she knocked three times upon the wood. But there was no answering knock. The last bits of air in her chest were aching for release, and so Sianna swam quickly to the top. Gasping for breath, she was just deciding whether she was strong enough to go down again when there was a loud splash behind her. Sianna turned and there was the seawitch smiling at her and holding out her webbed hands.Without a word, Sianna took the hands in hers. Then Dread Mary drew her down under the waves and together they searched out the hidden caves and grottos of the deep, played with schools of flying fish, rode on rays, and even straddled porpoises for a race across the cove. Whenever the girl tired, the mermaid would hold her up. Whenever the girl grew short of breath, the mermaid would bring her to the surface.Later, when they were both exhausted from the swim, they came ashore. The mermaid doffed her tail, and the two played a game of tosses with an ivory shell.While they were resting, Sianna made up a song for the seawitch that went like this:My mother is the sea, And from her I have come. She feeds and comforts me. Her water is my home. She rocks me when I sleep, She holds me when I ail.She's big and wide and deep And never shall she failTo comfort me, to come to me,Drifting down, derry derry down.My mother is the sea, And to her I shall go When aught shall trouble me, Seamother she will know. She holds me when I drift, And cushions every fall. For giving is her gift, Forgiving is her all.She comforts me, she comes to me,Drifting down, derry derry down.When Sianna had finished, the mermaid clapped her hands with delight. "Another trade, dear child."Sianna was silent for a moment. She feared the witch might want the buttons back.But Mary, sensing her fear, said, "No, no. Here is my trade. You will teach me the songs of the shore, and I will teach you the spells of the sea. For ever, it seems to me, I have loved singing."Sianna said, "But how long shall such an exchange take? I fear that my father's poor heart is breaking while he waits for me on the land."The seawitch looked away. "Let the man be unhappy then. For it is not only women who are born to weep."Sianna answered, "How can you say that? I do not want him to worry. Oh, sea mother, he is but a poor button maker. But if you take me home, he will make you buttons enough to fill the entire sea."Mary reached out for the girl's hand and held it to herbreast. "Little songbird," she said, "do you know what it is like to be lonely? I do not think I knew until you came how empty my life has been. You are here and here you shall stay."Sianna began to weep. Till that very moment she had thought of Mary as her friend. She saw now that she was not the witch's friend but her prisoner, for true friendshiplike true lovedoes not seek to bind.The mermaid was upset by the tears and wanted to stop them. She said slyly, "When you know as much about magic as I do, then perhaps you will be able to find your own way home." "Do you believe so?" asked the girl, hope in her heart again."Oh, yes," replied Dread Mary, "though it may take a long long time." And only she knew that she lied."Then it is a pact," said Sianna. "And you will see, I will be a most apt pupil." "Here is your first lesson. And it is the most important lesson of all," said the witch. "Magic has consequences.""Consequences?" asked Sianna."Yes," said the mermaid. "All of nature is in a delicate balance, the good with the evil, the soft with the hard, the weak with the strong. If through magic you create an imbalance, nature itself will right the scales. So whatever you dofor good or evilit will be counterpoised. If you forget all else, forget not this."Sianna nodded.The witch smiled. "Come then, little bird. Teach me that seamother song."9. A Year of SpellsThus a year moved slowly for Sian, far away on the Solatian shore. Never a word passed his lips, for never did a sign from Sianna come from the sea. And his eyes were as salty with tears as an ocean wave.On the Outermost Isle, the year moved swiftly for the girl and the witch. They traded song for spell and spell for song. And no one could say which had the best of the bargain. For each bit of magic that Sianna learned, she gave a song of love or sorrow in return.Sianna learned the language of seals and which weeds of the sea took away pain. She was taught how to make a poultice of sea mustard and how to draw out poison with a fishbone lance. She discovered that every living thing has two names, one it is called by the people and one it is called in a spell, and that the spell name is so powerful it could command even the sharp-toothed shark. The only thing she could not learn was to breathe under the sea.But mostly Sianna learned that magic has consequences. That every strong action leads to a strong reaction, that every up has its down, that there is no evil that does not have a balancing good, nor a good that does not sow some evil in its turn. And finally, what Sianna learned about magic was that it was best not to use it at all.True to her word, Sianna taught Dread Mary the old songs like "In the Meadow Green and Early" and "My Love Is anApple of Sweet Delight." Sianna's young mind held the memory of every song she had ever heard. And though sometimes she added new words or whole verses to a tune, such was her kinship with each song that no one could tell where the old words left off and the new ones began.The seawitch and the girl sang the Seven Psalms of Waking with great gusto each morn. All the bold gypsies' songs and devil-defeated songs were the mermaid's special delight. But the seawitch learned more than just the songs, though she could not have said what.To learn all of Sianna's songs, the witch taught her more than she had meant. Usually they sat side by side at the water's edge, for it was easier for Dread Mary to stay in her fishtail. One day, as they sang by the water's edge, the witch said, in exchange for a particularly lovely tune called "A Morning in May," "I will tell you my button lore." It was all she had left to teach.So she told Sianna of the Magic Three, the silver buttons that each gave a wish to the wearer. And she talked of other buttons known of oldthe Button of the Great Magus, which granted the bearer the gift of invisibility; the Button of Delight, which, when consumed, lent reality to dreams; and the Button of the Sisters Drear, which, when dissolved in sweet wine, caused painful death."But are they just tales to frighten children?" asked Sianna, for she had learned from the witch that much of magic is merely that. "Or are they real? You yourself have told me that truth and tales are ofttimes mixed." "Well, as to the others, I cannot say for sure," said the witch. "But I seem to recall that I once knew a prince who had the Magic Three." "How could you forget something as important as that?" asked Sianna."Some things you forget because you cannot help it," said the witch. "And other things you forget because they cannot help you." "I remember a song about the Magic Three," said Sianna, almost to herself. "But I am not sure I recall all the words." "Sing it," commanded Dread Mary. Then in a softer tone she added, "For as you remember, I shall remember. One helps the other limp along."So Sianna began the song of the Magic Three.Sad news there came to the king's own son, Sad news to his father's throne, For Madame the Queen had sickened and died And left them all alone.
And did she leave them gifts of gold, All from her dowry, Nay she has left them naught for love Except the Magic Three.
And One is for a mighty wish, And so be Two and Three, And she has left them to her son And dived below the sea."But I never knew it meant buttons," said Sianna. "Isn't that strange."As the witch sang the words back to her, Sianna put her hand in the pocket of her jacket and fondled the buttons she kept there. They were her only past, for with Dread Mary there was but the present day. And without thinking what she was doing, Sianna brought out one of the buttons and beganto rub it with her finger. A bit of the black rubbed off. Below it the button gleamed dully.As if in a dream, Sianna recalled her father saying, "Let me remember the cruel sea when I see them." She knew that she could answer him now, "The sea is not cruel." For cruelty and compassion were on either side of the scale and the one would balance the other.So as the witch continued to sing back her song, and as she absently corrected the tune or the words, Sianna took up a handful of sand and water and scrubbed at the button some more.Finally she polished it with the sleeve of her jacket till it gleamed. It had a design on ita single fish. When she held it up to the sun, the silver button caught the light."What do you have there?" asked the witch, breaking the song in the middle."It is one of my buttons," said Sianna. "See, I have polished it. It has a fish on it. Isn't it pretty?"The witch moved closer to the girl. "Give me," she cried, and snatched it out of Sianna's hand."But it is mine," said Sianna, her voice shocked and full of tears. "It was the first bargain we made." "Little fool, it is one of the Three," said the witch. "I remember it all. It is mine." And with a mighty splash, she dove back into the sea.10. The WishSianna stood by the water's edge and called over and over for the witch to return. But she did not. And when the moon began to rise, Sianna walked slowly back to the coral house. She went inside and sat down to think.She thought about all the witch had taught her, the spells and the simples, the language and lore of the sea. But mostly she thought about consequences. For she knew that, though the witch had one button, she still had two. But she did not know what she should do.She did know, however, that she would have to guard the remaining two buttons from the witch. "They are my mother's, after all," she thought, for she needed a reason for her vigilance. "Isn't it strange that all this time I had the power to return home close to my hand." But she also knew that she did not yet really know how to use that power.Then Sianna fell asleep and dreamed that the witch was standing by the door of the coral house gazing down at her with her lost memories found.The witch remembered Melinna of beauty and song. She remembered Prince Anggard, who must surely now be king. (The one memory she did not have was of any time passing). She remembered how well she had loved, how much she had given, and how much she had hated. Her bitterness welled up inside her like a salt spring."Magic has consequences," Dread Mary mumbled toherself. But, she wondered, what consequences should she fear? If all she planned took place on the far shore of Solatia, then how could it disturb what she loved on the isle? She wondered this but did not see that merely by snatching the button from Sianna she had already begun the wreckage of all she loved.So she twisted the button in that certain way, left, then right, then right again. As she twisted it she said out loud, "Magic One of Magic Three, grant the boon I ask of thee." And the button twisted by itself under her fingers.Remove the king upon the throne, And turn his living heart to stone. Another king put in his place To be the last one of that race.As she said the words, Dread Mary smiled. She did not know that the king she cursed was not the king she remembered but a descendant of his cousin many times removed. But so great was her vengeful passion that she might not have cared had she been told. Dread Mary's face at that moment was indeed dreadful to see as she laughed with the knowledge of what was to come.There was a loud clap of thunder round the isle, though the sky was clear of thunderheads. A clap of thunder as the button twisted in her hand once again. And then the button ran like quicksilver through her fingers and was gone.Dread Mary smiled again in Sianna's dream and turned back toward the water.But it was no dream. The thunder wakened Sianna fully, and she watched in the rising sun as the witch pulled on her fishtail and plunged into the sea.11. The Great WaveDown to the seashore Sianna raced, hoping to stop the witch. She called to her but there was no answer. Then Sianna heard a horrifying rush of noise as if the ocean were sending its greatest monsters ashore. Bearing down on her was a great wall of a wave. She had no time to call or scream before it swept over Outermost Isle and carried her once again into the sea.This time she kept her skirt and jacket on, though the fingers of foam tried to snatch them away. She fought against the motion of the wave as it bore her from the isle.Even as she fought, she was aware that the wave was rolling on past the Triades, past the Mean Isles, past the Inner Isles, toward the Solatian strand. She struggled to reach into her pocket so that she might twist one of the buttons and thus assure her safety. But the weight of the water kept her arms at her sides, and so she rode at last like a sea-wrapped cocoon on the crest of the mighty wave.
The witch had heard the boom of the wave as it heaved itself up out of the deeps. She had smiled to herself as she saw in her inner eye the wave sweeping over Solatia's shore. For she knew this must be a tide called up by the magic to remove the king from his throne.But as the foot of the wave churned the deeps and sent muddy reminders into her cove, Dread Mary, who had been Melinna, remembered the rest. The consequences.A sudden cold fear struck her. She rose to the surface and looked around and saw the wave as it moved toward the Solatian shore. Then, turning slowly, she looked behind her to the isle.The little coral house and Sianna were no more.Melinna, who had been Dread Mary, swam quickly to the beach. She heaved herself slowly onto the shore like an aged and brittle thing. She sloughed off her tail and on two weakened legs wandered about the isle. The strand was scoured clean of life, many trees broken in two. The golden lark circled disconsolately looking for its nest. Slowly the seawitch returned to the seaside and knelt by her fishtail. And for the first time in three hundred years, she began to weep.She did not weep salt tears as humans do, but tears of purest water. And she wept until she had wept a crystal pool. Then she dove into it without her tail and never came up again.
The wave was hasting toward the Solatian shore, breaking fleets and fish with its foam. It flung itself onto the castle on the cliff, covering king and courtiers and all.And when the wave had retreated, it left many injured, the king and all his cousins broken on the stone steps down to the sea, and Sianna at her father's door."A life for a life," said Sian when he heard his daughter's tale. Except for her name, which he had cried into her hair over and over again, these were the first words he had spoken in a year."But it was not the life she sought," said Sianna."Still, he was not a particularly good king," said her father with finality. "Perhaps his son Blaggard will be better." "Perhaps," said Sianna, gazing out the window as she sewed the remaining two brightly polished silver buttons tothe underside of her petticoat. "Certainly all our lives will be better." "And how say you that?" asked Sian."It is the consequences of the magic," said Sianna. "Good balancing bad." "I do not see how that will affect our lives," said Sian."But it has already, dearest Father," said Sianna with a fond smile. "The very first thing that Mary promised was that she would give me back what was mine. And you and Solatia are mine. I do not think she truly meant to keep that promise. But she loved me, and so this good balances her act of snatching away the button." She did not mention the power of the other two or that she knew how to use them."And I can help renew the lives of all who still live," she continued, "with the things that the witch herself taught me. The sea has many riches, and I can show all Solatians how to share them." "And can you explain how the evil of the wave has been balanced in the kingdom?" asked Sian, though he thought he already knew."Because the wave has taken away the rusted relics of the war. Because the people can return to the land. And because there is but one heir to the throne, so there need be no more disputes over who shall be king." "But how can the evil of killing the king and his courtiers be balanced?" asked Sian."Perhaps his son, Blaggard, will be a better king," said Sianna. "Or perhaps, if he is indeed the last of his race, what comes after will be better for us all. I do not know. For knowledge of what is yet to come is never granted to any man or woman alive. And the dead surely have no need of it. But this I was taught and this I believesuch evil will certainly be balanced." "Well," said Sian with a strange catch in his voice, "my life will be the better for this magical balancing." "How so, darling Father?" asked Sianna. She turned her face to him and smiled a sweet smile."Little songbird, it is simple. I have my daughter back. As if it had to be said. I have my daughter back as wise as she is beautiful, to lighten my days with her knowledge and her songs."And Sianna's voice followed him out with a song as he went back to work in his shop.
Here ends Book ICopyright © 1974, 1999 by Jane Yolen