Our Dead Drink the Sea [1x1]


Stoneborn Cannibal

Once back up on the cliffs, I loosen my hold on Falcon. He’s more trustworthy on grass than he is on sand. As the guards move their horses into a trot, my aughisky picks up his pace as well, moving smoothly alongside Neora’s smaller palomino mare. Most of them don’t view horses as prey but it isn’t uncommon for some to attack a horse. However, Falcon doesn’t care. He had sniffed at the mare earlier, but otherwise he has not reacted in the way I have known other aughisky to.

Her next question catches me by surprise. I’ve been asked at least a hundred times by riders, young lords, buyers and the like, but hearing it from a girl’s mouth throws me off. She must be truly interested in them to be so curious. “You have to convince them that you are a part of the ocean, that you belong with them. It is not an easy process. I have spent my entire life trying to learn to sing to them the way the ocean does.”

Or at least that is the way it should be done. Every man has his own method but nearly all of them completely ineffective. Magic is so far beyond mere human understanding, yet sideshow oddities would have men believe otherwise. Books wrote about concoctions and special brews that would calm the aughisky. I’d also seen others talk of how bells or iron or certain herbs would somehow bring them to heel. It was all false. Yet, every year without fail riders would use these lies. And every year riders would die.


Resident Fruit Tree
A part of the ocean. Sing to them the way it does. Callaghans words resonate inside me in a way little in my life ever has. Up here on the cliff I can’t see the beach any more, but I can still hear the crash and swell of the surf. It sounds as though it wants to pull me back.

I have a decent singing voice, but somehow I don’t think his words were meant quite that way. Even so, if the Salt Temple has any truth to its teachings, I belong to the sea more than any rider in history, simply because of my sex. I do not want to peg my hope on the words of the Temple, but I am willing to take what help I can get.

There are 5 days left till dark night, the deadline for potential riders to capture an aughisky and officially register for the race. The fanciful idea that has been swirling around my head since my father’s official proclamation has only strengthened after the time spent with Callaghan and Falcon and strengthens still more with each sigh of the waves below us.

I am so lost in thought I only realise we are back at the castle as we clatter into the courtyard. My guards mill around me, more confident now they are back in their domain, rather than Callaghan’s watery one. They somehow manage to get between my Willow and Falcon, a living wall between me and the water horse, which I think is rather rude, even if it is sort of their job.

I have to raise my voice a little to talk around them as a groom comes to take my reins. “Thank you for taking the time for me today Lord Callaghan. It was a wonderfully enlightening experience.”

I slide off Willows back into the waiting arms of my guard, who sets me gently on my feet. I nod my thanks and turn to recapture Willow from the groom. “Thank you. I will see to my horse myself.”
I take a moment to stroke the mares soft snuffling nose as my posse starts to move towards the stable, watching Callaghan from under my lashes. He looks a little lonely, slightly apart from the rest of us, still atop Falcon. They make quite the imposing figure, both in greyscale, backlit against the pale sky.


Stoneborn Cannibal

I try to ignore her guards for the most part. They have no reason to protect her from me or Falcon. I’d never hurt her and I like to think her father trusts me in that aspect else he wouldn’t have let her come ride with me. But it is their job, quite possibly a habit for them at this point, so I try not to let the slight irritation root too deeply inside.

“The pleasure was all mine, your highness.” I dip my head to her then, it’s all I can offer as a bow from my water horse’s back.

I nudge one heel against him gently and Falcon turns from the group, setting off towards the opposite end of the stable. Darkness has fallen around the world now, the moon gone from view with stars beginning to spread across the black sky. The cold from earlier has turned into something completely bitter. At least here though the torches keep the worst of the frozen air at bay.

The walk back to Gradlon’s castle feels different this night. I have grown comfortable being alone and I have made this trek more times than I can count, but something is off now. There is an emptiness weighing heavily on my chest, one I haven’t felt since I was sixteen when I had to ride here without my father. His loss hurt more than I let on though by now I have learned to keep those feelings buried. The feeling plagues me still as I lie awake in bed, listening to the waves. For the first time in my life, they can’t carry me away into sleep.


Resident Fruit Tree
Only when Callaghan has disappeared around the corner to the aughisky stables do I lead Willow towards her own stall. I take my time stowing away her tack and grooming her till her coat shines even in the dim light of the stables. It is a welcome task, my hands kept busy as my mind whirls in circles.

Finally, when I can stall no longer, I make my way outside where two of my guards are still more or less patiently waiting. If I had any capacity to spare, I would feel guilty for keeping them out so long, but I am far too preoccupied. With my silent companions I make my way back to my rooms, only just remembering my manners to wish them a good night as they leave me outside my door.
Laila is waiting for me with a warm bath, which I sink gratefully into. The sea breeze had chilled me more than I realised. My maid seems to pick up on my quiet mood and talks only a little, not even asking me about my ride, though I am sure she saw me all but run away with Callaghan. I’m not even sure what I would tell her if she asked anything.

In the stables I had debated inducting Laila into my plans, but ultimately decided against it. She could be a formidable ally, but just as formidable an opponent if she thought it was a bad idea, as she probably would. It was also for her safety. A servant is much more easily punished for something than a princess, and far more severely too.

Once in bed, I lie awake for a long time, listening to the sound of the ocean through the cracked window, trying to ingrain the sound into my very being. I don’t even notice falling asleep.


The next day I fidget even worse than the day before, distracted by anything and everything. Laila quickly gives up trying to recapture my attention when I stare blankly at her instead of answering her. Finally deciding I must have caught a cold or something while outside, she carts me off to bed, which is even worse. I feel smothered by the sheets and by her watchful eye from the chair by my bedside. I manage a fitful nap, which speeds time along just a little.

After what seems an eternity the light outside the window starts to fade. After what feels like a thousand reassurances that I am fine and just need some more rest (a difficult fib to tell considering the fact that I feel ready to bounce around the room any second) Laila heads to her own room. I listen to her moving around, then wait even longer after she has fallen silent, just to be safe, despite it almost killing me.

When I can stand it no longer, I quietly creep out of bed and into my dressing room, pulling out warm and sturdy clothes as quickly as possible. The clock in my sitting room tells me it is not half as late as I thought it was, but I decide to still risk it. Boots in hand and cloak over one arm I slip out the door and down the stairs. Only a whole two floors down do I slip on cloak and boots, pulling up my hood to conceal my bright hair and continue on my way, trying to walk as though I have business being there.


Stoneborn Cannibal

The following morning finds me with William Grady and his new bay mare. I do not train during the day, things are far too chaotic and noisy, but that’s just what William needs. Though he rode terribly last year, his heart is in the right place when it comes to respect for the aughisky and somehow he managed to talk me into helping him.

We go far down the beach until all the other riders are blurs in the distance. His mare is focused on the ocean but she is not overly aggressive; a good thing to have in a naturally predatory animal. I watch them work in circles for most of the session, making him exercise her mind rather than her body. She’s light on her feet already with more than enough power, but if she only thinks of the sea then she will get the boy killed when February comes. To end the day, I let the pair sprint a few furlongs. She’s fast but it will take a lot more before she can keep her track in front of her instead of for the water.

Evening falls and Falcon trots eagerly ahead, feeding off my own excitement. We hardly trained at all last night so I aim to push him tonight. The beach is mostly silent except for the tide as it rolls in and out. Falcon screams, throwing his head with joy. I make him trot a few different patterns on the sand closer to the cliffs to warm his muscles, but also to bring his mind back to me. Once I feel he is with me instead of the ocean, I take him to where the sand becomes damp from saltwater and send him ahead in a bold gallop.

He runs as straight and strong as he always has. I’ve been on many aughisky but Falcon’s speed is something truly insurmountable. After a few sprints I bring him down to a walk to let him cool down before we cover some real distance.


Resident Fruit Tree
By some miracle I manage to make my way out of the castle, across the courtyard and through the gates without being stopped by anybody. I don’t set off down the trail to the beach immediately, but climb to the point where the castle wall stops at the cliff edge. The wall blocks any homely sounds from the castle, leaving me free to experience the ocean below.

If someone were to see me standing there, toes almost over the edge, arms spread wide into the wind, they would probably think I was going to jump, but that is the furthest thought in my mind. The salty breeze whips the fire inside me to a whirling inferno, burning away any doubts I may have still had. Somewhere below an aughisky screams.

The path down to the beach is treacherous in the dark. Clouds race through the sky, periodically blocking the moonlight, before retreating to let the light almost blind me in comparison to the dark. Somehow I manage to get down without turning an ankle and stare out at the glittering water for a moment. My jaw sets stubbornly and I march forwards, pausing only to remove my shoes and stockings and place them on a rock out of reach of the surf.

A shiver runs through my body as the first wavelet spills over my toes, caused more by excitement than cold. Ankle deep in sea water, I trus up my skirts as high as I can to give me more freedom of movement. In the same movement, I check to make sure that the things I had tucked into my pockets are still there and in easy reach.

Preparations complete, I wade forwards until the retreating water pulls at my knees and the swell of the waves reaches almost to my waist at times. Here I plant my feet in the sand and prepare to wait, breath falling into sink with the rhythm of the waves.


Stoneborn Cannibal

Falcon’s breathing slows after several minutes and I am ready to let him truly stretch his legs, but then he shifts underneath me. His body becomes stiff, as still as I have ever seen him. His ears point toward the black ocean a good hundred yards ahead of us. The noise that escapes from his lips is one I never want to hear again. It is so shrill, but long and deep, a warning sound that nearly qualifies as a roar. I’m reminded that he is a predator, a meat-eater, not the mostly docile horse he can sometimes be farther up on land.

I search frantically for what could have made him so upset, but my eyes are useless in the darkness. Instead I wait, trying to keep calm. Falcon lets loose another one of those terrible cries. And finally, after an agonizingly slow minute, I hear the aughisky breaking from the water to the beach. He’s too far off for me to really see, but I know Falcon can. He screams yet again and throws himself up into a rear this time, catching me off balance to the point where I lose my seat, landing on my back on the sand.

Everything happens in only a matter of minutes after his hooves touch the ground again though it feels like an eternity. Another aughisky finds its’ way out of the ocean. There are two on the beach now though I can’t see either up until one of them is feet away. It charges for my gray stallion, mouth wide with all its’ sharp white teeth on display. Falcon rears again, his hooves striking the other water horse’s chest. There are several bone-chilling screams, flashes of teeth, but their movements throw sand that burns my vision into blurs.

All I can think to do is scramble backwards as far as I can. Some may call it cowardice, but stopping an aughisky fight is nothing but a death wish. When the crying finally dies I have cleared my eyes enough to see Falcon standing over an aughisky corpse. Black blood falls from his lips, coats his face and legs. He doesn’t look at me. Rather, he tears into the body. I watch him as he eats a portion of the water horse. If I have ever been afraid of him, it is now.


Resident Fruit Tree
My feet and calves are so cold they have gone past the point of pain. I thought I have felt numbness before, but never like this. It creeps into my bones and up my legs so slowly I hardly notice, only when my knees start having problems adjusting to the push and pull of the water. Still, as cold as my lower half becomes, it cannot reach higher, held at bay by the fire still flaring inside me.

In hindsight, the best way I can describe the state I fell into as a sort of trance. Not the creepy act fortune-tellers put on at fairs, nor the quiet serenity that monks try to reach by meditation. Everything that was not experiencing the ocean simply fell away. My ears heard nothing but the rush of the waves, my eyes saw nothing but the dim sparkle of reflections on the water, I could taste nothing but salt and seaweed, smell only brine. While I stood there, I became the ocean in a way I don’t think most people are aware is possible. If I could share the experience with others I am not sure I would. It was beautiful and terrible at the same time. I know now that there was a distinct possibility of my being dissolving in the water and never returning.

I do not know why the wild aughisky went for Falcon rather than me, the easy prey standing stationary on the shore. The fight from which Callaghans horse arose victorious took place only a few hundred yards away from my position, close enough to be heard and probably seen, had I been in the right mind to do so. All I know is that that aughisky was obviously not the right one for me.

It could have been seconds or hours after I took my position in the water when she finally appears. A dark shape moving fluidly through the water, speeding towards me, all but invisible until her sleek head breaks the surface. We stare at each other unblinkingly as she moves closer, still predatory but also curious. Still in my trance I don’t even twitch as she surges out of the water, all power and grace propelled towards me at frightening speed despite the drag of the water.
The swell of water caused by her sudden stop right in front of me drenches every part of me that was still dry. It is this, or perhaps her snorting breath on my hair that brings a little of myself back to my body. Even in the dark, I can see the dark red tinge to her nostrils as she lowers her head to sniff at my face. I don’t dare move, forcing myself to keep breathing evenly. There is no way I can escape her now anyway, even if I tried.


Stoneborn Cannibal

He doesn’t make an entire meal of the other aughisky, just samples a few bites. It’s grotesque in every way but I can’t stop watching. He lifts his head, looks at me as I move to stand up. Strips of flesh hang from his sharp teeth. The blood is drying but still runs down his body like tiny streams. We do nothing besides stare at one another for an agonizing eternity then, at last, Falcon blinks. Subtle but enough to reassure me that I am not next on his lift of things to kill.

Still, I don’t go towards him. The ocean is so close to him, her freezing tide nearly washing up to touch his hooves. I am afraid he might run towards his salty mother if I try to take hold of him. So I wait for him to make his own choice.

The minutes drag past. He takes another bite from the dead water horse, chews, swallows. The blood dries on his gray hide. His ears flicker towards the sounds of the sea behind him and then towards me. Our eyes stay locked. When he takes a step, it is towards me. Relief coats me like a blanket as he comes up next to me, lets me climb back into the saddle.

I walk him down the beach a short ways before guiding him back to the cliffs. There is another aughisky somewhere and I don’t think my heart can handle dealing with more than Falcon just now.


Resident Fruit Tree
Done with her inspection of my face the aughisky moves lower. Soft lips pull back and sharp teeth scrape over my collarbone, but the jaws capable of snapping my bones like twigs don’t even twitch. Instead her head lowers further till it is pressed against my chest, her breath wuffling against the tops of my thighs, noticeable even through my layers of sodden skirts.

It is only now that I start to move. Still caught in the rhythm of the tides, I move in tandem with the waves. One hand dips into the pocket of my skirt and pulls out a length of ribbon. Originally a light green, it now has a salt edging that almost sparkles. Gently, I raise my hand and let the ribbon fall lightly over the aughiskys neck, a pale stripe over wet dark hide. She pulls back slightly to watch me, shaking her head just once but not dislodging the ribbon.

Not taking my eyes off hers, I reach for the trailing ends and somehow manage to tie them together to form a loose lead rope despite my frozen fingers. The other end is already tied to my slender wrist, a flimsy bond between us. With a great deal of effort, I breathe against the currents and by sheer willpower, start to inch my way backwards. It is a miracle that my legs even comply, and even more miraculous that the aughisky hesitates for only a moment before following me. She never lets the ribbon pull taught, daintily stepping through the surf until all four hooves stand on more or less dry sand.

At this point my body strikes and I crumple against the rock where I had left my boots, unable to move a muscle. For now everything is numb, but I am already dreading the moment any part of me starts to thaw enough for my nerves to send messages back to my brain. The aughisky I already consider mine peers at me, then looks around to peer back at the gleaming ocean behind her. Will she have the patience to stay until I find the ability to move again?

My ocean trance is finally fading and in its stead problems and worry resurface. If I don’t manage to get back up to the castle by daybreak, the riders will be coming down to the beach for training and spot me. If my aughisky is still here at that point, they will misunderstand and chase her away in a heartbeat, or try to capture her for themselves. I don’t know which I find worse. I just know I cannot let that happen, let alone face the consequences if I am brought back up to the castle by the riders.

Right now however, I am about as alive and mobile as the rock I am half draped over, only a few feet from the path up the cliffs.


Stoneborn Cannibal

Falcon grows restless, more irritated as the sand beneath us becomes dry again and the grass upon the cliffs edges closer. His body is hot enough that I can feel it through my boots that are not even touching his sides. He tosses his head on multiple occasions, snorts loudly and stomps his front hooves. He keeps his voice silent but remains anxious. I don’t understand why until we are mere yards from them.

There not far from the normal footpath is the other aughisky… tethered to a girl’s wrist. I don’t need to see to know her. Neora. I am suddenly angry, terrified, and impressed all at once. What was she thinking coming out here at night and alone? How in the seven hells was she not dead? Was this some kind of queer illusion? Surely she would never try something so dangerous on her own? Gods, this was certainly my own doing. I’d let her meet Falcon. Let her ride him for fuck’s sake.

My first instinct is to approach, cut the water horse free, and return the princess to her castle before someone finds her in bleeding chunks. But I do not. Instead, we are still. Quiet. If I interrupt now she’ll die. Falcon doesn’t seem to agree. He tosses his head once, cries softly towards the other aughisky. The last time he made such a gentle noise was the first time Neora touched him.

I remember the dried blood decorating Falcon’s body. The fresh smell of salt and iron and death cling to both of us. If anything could mimic the ocean, it is us. A hundred prayers fly towards the gods as I hope the other equine buys into our unintentional disguise. This way she might stay soft, curious, and spare the princess. Maybe… maybe even enough so she will follow us back up the cliffs before daylight. If she will go that far, I can lead her to Gradlon’s stable without getting anyone hurt.