Doubt slithered into the sea-hag’s brain. The farther they hiked into the coastal forest the deeper it wormed. But a scent lingered among the trees and Gar followed it like a shark. It dug into her lungs and twisted inside her; Gar was hooked. The fjording reeled her in and she let it pull her amidst the trees, crashing through the undergrowth faster than her old body had moved in years. The lovers followed in her wake like storm-tossed minnows. Trees enveloped the group in thick moss and dripping leaves. The farther they got from the sea the harder it became to move. But they could not stop; the Sealers were almost upon them.
Gar wrapped gnarled fingers around her staff and hauled herself over a green-furred boulder. She hadn’t been this close to a fjording — a rift between their world and the godsrealm — since she was not much older than the girl. Now, Gar’s body resembled the twisted driftwood branch she carried. Braids of dried kelp fastened a whorl of seaglass atop the staff like a glittering crown. Gar wore no such embellishment, but the old woman was more than she seemed. The staff marked her for a sea-hag — an herbalist and a reader of winds — and, until today, it had hidden her true calling from the Sealers.
Now, they ran.
Elivia stumbled, crying out like a gull. Silvar murmured encouragement and slowed his pace to help the girl. Heavily pregnant and as stubborn as a bull shark, she pushed him away. The brackish flavor of Silvar’s frustration was almost as strong as the pull of the fjording. The sea-hag fought to ignore it; she couldn’t afford any distraction now. In a brief fit of petulance, she considered whacking him with the staff.
Silvar couldn’t run any faster than Gar; there would be no point. The Sealers didn’t want him. The High Queen’s magicians were bound to exterminate Valelings, and to seal the fjordings to prevent any more of the godsblood from entering the human realm. It was the soldiers that accompanied the Sealers on these missions who took care of the messier details; details like Gar who, as one of the last Majat priestesses, had the power to call down a fjording and open a rift between Trevelyan and the Vale of the gods.
Details like Elivia and her unborn half-breed child…
The girl crashed to her knees with a yelp and the staff burst into a foamy green glow. It was as if the stone were illuminated by a beam of morning light. Gar stopped dead in her tracks and stared. The sea-hag had only seen the seaglass glimmer once before.
“Stop!” Silvar didn’t understand half of what was at stake, but he knew enough to be afraid. His panic crested, now, threatening to smash against Gar and toss them all into the flotsam of the forest. “She can’t go on like this.”
The light in the glass went out.
“She’ll have to if she wants to live.” Impatience honed the sea-hag’s voice with a cruel edge. “You saw who the Sealers brought with them. Those blades weren’t there to impress the islanders.”
Gar wasn’t thinking about the Sealers and their boats full of soldiers, though. The light of the seaglass flickered in her brain. Was it a trick of the setting sun that made it glow, or something else? She didn’t dare to hope…
“I’m fine, Silvar.” Elivia pushed him away irritably and got back to her feet. “I’d rather face the gods and goddesses of the Vale than the Sealers and their mercenaries. At least I stand a chance with my own blood.”
“Maja Gar doesn’t like your chances with them any better than with the Sealers,” the boy pleaded. “I say we find another place to hide. We can wait them out in the forest. Their horses can’t follow us here.”
“They’ll be on foot now,” Gar said. She shook the staff and held it up to the darkening sky, scrutinizing it through narrowed eyes. The seaglass hummed gently. “We won’t be safe for long.”
“We only need a few more days,” Silvar pressed. “Once she has the baby they’ll leave us alone, won’t they?”
“We don’t have days, boy.” Gar peered at the gloom gathering behind them. The rocky path wound through the trees and out of sight. She closed her eyes and let her senses travel along the mist and back down the cliff side they had climbed. A sour bite of perspiration and metal tainted the briny tang of sea spray. “We’ll be lucky to have hours.”
“But the baby isn’t ready yet!”
“You still don’t believe us, do you?” Elivia pushed Silvar’s hands away in disgust. “I’m not some merry little fishwife and my baby is no human child.”
“It’s my baby too, Liv.” Silvar worked his jaw against words that seemed too old for his young face. “Stay here. I could protect you.”
“The seed of that child is older than any of us, boy.” The sea-hag braced herself against the staff and pulled her spine straight. Her joints crackled like lightning. Gar glared at Silvar through the seaglass. “Queen Melanthar’s Sealers have torn through better folk than you or I to get their hands on this baby. Our only hope is to get Elivia through the fjording before they find us.”
“But if the child is born here, it will just be a normal baby.” He set his jaw firmly and dug his heels into the forest floor. “It won’t be able to cross over like a Valeling and the Sealers won’t have to fear any more meddling from the gods.”
“Meddling?” Elivia rounded on her lover. Her black eyes flashed like fish scales. “You call trying to save the realms — your realm — meddling? Whose side are you on?”
“I just don’t want to lose you.” Silvar had the look of a man who’d swallowed too much seawater. “That’s all.”
“The Sealers fear nothing, boy.” Gar softened in spite of herself. She didn’t want to lose Elivia either. “It is the Queen’s fear that drives them and I’m afraid she is beyond reason. Elivia is not safe here any longer. If they see me calling the fjording, I’m as good as dead, too.”
“Then we should hide!”
“I know you are scared.” Elivia took Silvar’s hand and coaxed him forward again. “I am too. But this is bigger than any of us. If the baby is born on this side of the fjording, Trevelyan is lost. The Vale is lost. Humans and gods alike are doomed. We have to try.”
“But why does Queen Melanthar hate you so much? If it weren’t for the Valelings, Trevelyan wouldn’t exist!”
“Precisely, boy.” Gar hobbled along the path as quickly as she could. “What is a Queen compared to the gods and goddesses who made the world? The very existence of the Vale threatens Melanthar’s delusions of grandeur. Better to rid the world of godsblood, close the doors to the Vale, and pretend none of it ever existed.”
“And destroy us all in the process.” Bitterness dripped from Elivia’s voice like seasnake venom.
“Absolute power is a dangerous thing,” Gar said. “Queen Melanthar and the Vale gods are guilty of believing themselves invulnerable. The goddess Maja tried to warn us of this weakness.”
“Maja Gar explained the prophecy to you months ago,” Elivia said. Moonlight cast an otherworldly pallor over the girl as she bobbed along behind the sea-hag. Elivia still bore the fine bones and dusky hue that marked her for a Valeling; several generations removed, but of the godsblood nonetheless. “Weren’t you paying attention?”
“He was too busy mooning over the idea of going to bed with you!” Gar cackled. “Don’t feel bad, boy. When Maja first foretold of the prophecy, neither human nor god listened to her. As one of her priestesses, I am used to being ignored. It is a curse we have borne for centuries.”
“I remember,” Silvar sulked. He trailed behind Elivia reluctantly, unable to resist the current of power surrounding the girl. “She saw that a half-breed child, conceived in Trevelyan and born in the Vale, will save the realms. Its birth will bridge our worlds permanently.”
“So you remember,” Elivia said. “But you don’t believe.”
“I want to…”
“Whether you believe it or not makes little difference, boy.” The sea-hag paused and sniffed the air. A tangle of ropey vines obscured their path. She prodded at them with the staff and the seaglass glittered like starlight reflected on waves. She lifted the veil. “When I took Mother Maja’s name, I dedicated my life to fulfilling her prophecy. I never knew if it would happen in my lifetime. I never knew if it would happen at all. But here we are, and the time for doubt is long past.”
“It’s not that I don’t believe, exactly.” Silvar cast the sea-hag a wary glance and ducked under the staff as if waiting for it to crack him on the skull like a fisherman’s club. She let the vines fall down behind him. “But our child? Why should we succeed where all others have failed? It seems impossible.”
“It is impossible.” Gar crashed through another wall of foliage. A clearing opened up before her and the sky spilled through the treetops. She held the staff up to the heavens. Light from the moon and stars filled the seaglass with promises made in another lifetime. “Mother Maja was banished from the Vale and bound to the spirit realm for daring to speak her prophecy. She is trapped in Gaillea, with only ghosts to hear her warning.”
Silvar frowned. “And sea-hags, apparently.”
“People have been known to visit the ocean between worlds to converse with spirits now and then.” A wry smile turned Gar’s mouth. “Even world-weary young sailors, I’m told.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“Well, I do. The first Majat priestesses carried the goddess’s warning into this world hundreds of years ago.” The sea-hag spun and stared at the young man. “And all these years we have been waiting for you.”
“For Elivia, you mean.”
Gar looked fondly at the girl she had raised from infancy. A mewling babe had been placed in her arms, along with the seaglass staff, by a Majat priestess shortly after Gar’s initiation. The priestess had told Gar that this would be the one. The babe would grow into a woman, and that woman would bear the savior of the realms. “Oh yes, it’s always been her.”
Yet Silvar was right; it was an impossible thing. Even as Elivia came of age and prepared herself for the Majat fertility ceremony, misgivings twisted in Gar’s heart. In Trevelyan, Maja was known only as the goddess of the sea. Of death. Sailors — probably Silvar himself — prayed to her to keep them safe on unruly ocean waters. Maybe that’s all she was now. Maybe when Maja Gar took the goddess’s name, all she got was a twisted wooden stick and a strange looking child. Ugly, fish-bellied doubts surfaced in the sea-hag’s mind.
Under the High Queen, humans were coming into their own powerful magic, destroying themselves and the rest of the realm as they went. If Mother Maja was right, they were running out of time to fulfill the prophecy. It was only when Silvar washed up on the shore outside her hut last winter that Gar felt hope stir, amongst the darker fears. That was the first moment she had seen the seaglass flicker. It was like Mother Maja had whispered to her from the spirit realm. Do not despair…
“When we performed the ritual, we made a promise, Silvar.” Elivia’s voice trembled, the exertion of the climb caught in her throat. Elivia looked at the boy with a mixture of fondness and frustration that told Gar she was more than tired. “I intend to keep it.”
“We must hurry then,” Gar said. The staff pulsed with light again and tears stung the sea-hag’s ancient eyes. A faint glow lingered in the seaglass. The darkness between the trees rippled gently, like the depths of the ocean floor revealed by weak wave-broken sunlight. The scent of the fjording flooded the clearing and the sea-hag breathed deeply of the familiar, but near forgotten, scent. “The fjording is close. But the Sealers are getting closer, too.”
Elivia cried out and fell to her knees. She clutched her belly with both hands. Silvar dropped down beside the girl, trying to get her back on her feet. The seaglass blazed with pale green light and Gar’s pulse quivered. Shame at her lack of faith burned through her like eel-sting.
Gar tore her eyes from the staff and searched the air above the clearing. There. The hag’s guts writhed like seasnakes in her belly and she pointed. Up, up, up. Eddies of air swirled against the night sky, thick and shimmering, the way fresh water pours into a salty sea.
“Something is wrong,” Silvar said. He crouched next to Elivia looking, if possible, even smaller and more child-like than the girl. Blood ran in dark rivulets down Elivia’s thighs. A rusty old fishhook smell slithered over the clearing and up to where the fjording hid above the trees. The girl rocked on hands and knees against an onslaught of invisible waves. Her keen birdlike cries transformed into a low guttural moan. Silvar rubbed her back, at a loss for what to do if they couldn’t run anymore.
A child would be born tonight. And if it happened on the right side of the fjording, Gar could die knowing she had helped to fulfill the promise she made to Maja when she took the goddess’s name all those years ago. The sea-hag smiled. “No, Silvar. At last, something is going right.”
Silvar followed her gnarled brown finger with his gaze. His dark eyes widened so that Gar could see stars reflected there, and the subtle twisting light of the fjording. A transformation swept over the boy with the light of the portal.
“It’s really there.” Awe rippled through Silvar’s voice and tears filled his eyes like tide pools. “The Vale. The gods. So close.”
Folds of sun-kissed skin collapsed around his mouth; Silvar wept. The staff poured light over the clearing in cool waves. The glittering air around the fjording glowed with it. Elivia and Silvar’s eyes shone with it. The seaglass was alive.
“Mother Maja spared you for a reason, boy,” Gar said. “We were waiting for you, too.”
“What now?” Elivia’s thin face turned up toward them, her eyes like black pearls against her blue-gray skin. A sheen of sweat glimmered against her flesh in the starlight. “We don’t have much time.”
“I’ll have to call it,” Gar said. “We should have time enough. First babies come slowly.”
Elivia roared and rocked back on her heels, her body stiffened against the waves of pain. After it passed, she panted for a moment and said, “Tell that to this one.”
“Slowly,” Gar said. She bared her toothless gums in a mirthless grin. “Not painlessly.”
“Can you do that?” Silvar eyed Gar warily. He was willing to accept that the fjording existed. He didn’t seem ready to accept Gar, in her crippled old body, as a powerful priestess. “Call it down?”
“It has been a long time.” Excitement coursed through Gar as the seaglass pulsed and the snakes in her belly danced. A different kind of doubt wriggled into her brain now. Elivia might be the last Valeling left in Trevelyan. If Gar failed, their realm and the Vale would both be doomed. She gripped the staff tightly. “I am not young anymore.”
“What do you need?” The girl breathed heavily. She slid a bag off her shoulder and dug her hands inside. Her swollen belly bulged between her knees. “I’ll start a fire.”
“You should rest, Liv.” The young man took the kit from her hands. “I’ll start the fire.”
Elivia’s lips tightened, but she allowed Silvar to help her up and lead her to a patch of mossy ground between the surrounding evergreens. “I could manage.”
“You don’t need to while I’m here,” he said. “It’s my child, too.”
“Not unless it opens its eyes in Trevelyan.” Elivia drew up her spine and pushed out her breasts like a fertility statue. “Until then, it is mine alone.”
Silvar’s eyebrows knit together as if Elivia had stitched them with bait line. He busied himself with collecting fish bone-sized twigs from the forest floor.
Gar felt sorry for the boy. She said, “Once it is born, it will belong to all of us, gods and humans alike.”
The sea-hag gave Elivia the staff. The girl sat on her haunches and wrapped her hands around the driftwood. She rocked her weight against it, eyes closed, waiting for the next contraction. In her hands the seaglass flickered with all the greens and blues and grays of the ocean. Elivia’s deep-sea skin glowed with its magic.
“Gods willing,” Silvar said and his eyes lingered upon the fjording. Fear and faith snarled together like fishing line in his voice.
“It is not the gods that we need right now, boy,” Gar said. “Build me that fire. I will gather the stones.”
Elivia sat in silence while Gar and Silvar worked. The girl rubbed her belly in large circular motions and rocked on her hipbones with the rhythm of a woman whose time was near. The pains weren’t regular yet, the sea-hag noted with relief. They might indeed have time.
“Maja Gar,” the girl said, her voice a bare whisper. “Have you ever done this before?”
“I’m no amateur.” The old hag gripped a stone the size of her head with puff-jointed fingers. Pain seared her tendons, but she rolled it awkwardly into the clearing.
Silvar’s face flickered orange as tiny flames licked at his kindling. His eyes remained dark, though, the corners pulled tight by a frown that got eaten up at his cheekbones and never made it to his mouth. “For someone like her?”
Gar dropped the stone and let it settle next to another of similar size, enclosing the summoning circle around Silvar and the fire. “I have not had the fortune to know many Valelings.”
The sea-hag stretched her crooked back and relished the fluid rushing and popping between her bones. She had started down this path forty years earlier and each year hung off her body like the weights on a fishnet, dragging her down. She stood beneath the fjording and closed her eyes. The cool fresh air of the godsrealm flowed like a tributary through her, bringing new life and new hope with it.
“You know what I mean,” Silvar said and crouched next to Elivia. The girl clenched her jaw so hard the tendons on her neck stuck out like anchor ropes. Beads of sweat glistened on her forehead. Silvar placed a protective hand on the girl’s belly and looked at the sea-hag with more than reflected fire in his gaze. “Is it safe in her condition?”
“She is not safe here.”
“Is this what my love has condemned us to?” Silvar’s features hardened into golden stone in the firelight, carved by shadows. “What have we done?”
“We made a promise to the old gods.” Elivia panted through gritted teeth. The black pools of her eyes deepened the longer she stared at the fjording. “We joined the flesh of our worlds to make a bridge.”
“To the old gods.” Silvar pulled away from her with difficulty, struggling against the undertow of her growing power. He stared at the girl as if he no longer recognized her. Rising horror lined his young face. “And what of the High Queen? We will pay for this treachery.”
“Undoubtedly.” The sea-hag cackled. “Time to say your prayers. Just remember who it was that kept you alive on the water.”
Maja Gar tossed an herbal braid into the fire. The flames hissed and flickered green and blue before settling back into their warmer hues. But the smoke that issued from the pyre stayed blue. Its sweetness fell heavily over the clearing. Elivia closed her eyes and moaned.
A roost of birds took to the night skies in a black mist against the darkness. Something big and many-limbed crashed through the forest toward them. Elivia and Silvar glared at one another with the singular absorption of young lovers, oblivious to the encroaching army.
Elivia rode the waves that tore through her body, eyes closed and jaw clenched. “You weren’t concerned about which gods I served when I was spreading my legs for you.”
“You always planned to leave.” The icy breaker of realization crashed over Silvar. He blinked frantically, trying to clear his eyes. “You never loved me. I was just a means to an end.”
“I told you the truth, Silvar.” Elivia flushed as pain, black and liquid, oozed from her pores. “You refused to believe. What more do you want from me?”
“I want you to stay!”
“I can’t, Silvar.” Elivia breathed into another contraction. Her calm visage belied the storm-tossed shores inside her body. “I don’t belong here.”
“Hush now,” Gar warned. The spoor of their enemies burned her nostrils, a fug of sweat and steel. It twisted through the trees like an eel, snaking ahead of the ranks of marching soldiers. It danced among the whorls of blue smoke like a premonition. In the midst of it all, the odor of Sealers pooled and thickened and sucked at the sea-hag like a bog. She took the staff from the girl and the seaglass resumed a muted glow. “Help her into the summoning circle, Silvar.”
Elivia allowed her lover to lift her into the center of the stones. Silvar cradled the girl against his chest for a moment and she nestled her face against the warm flesh of his neck. Tears ran in rivers down each of their faces. Hurt and fear dissolved in salty pools in the tight crevasse between their bodies.
“Ready your blade, boy.” Maja Gar thrust the staff into the earth next to the fire. She reached toward the stars, which winked at her from the blackness above, and inhaled deeply of the herbal fumes to cleanse her mind of their enemies. Like an ancient lover, she stroked the sky with her arthritic hands. “You will soon have your chance to protect her.”
“I love you, Elivia.” Silvar placed her on the ground like a precious stone set in the center of a diadem. He drew a long, slender blade from a scabbard on his back and faced the skeletal shadows looming around the glade.
Gar almost missed the catch. Her fingers snagged upon the scalloped edge between worlds. The sea-hag closed her eyes and felt for the snag once more. A tiny nub hardened in the air at her caress. The old hag stroked downward, tugging the invisible flesh, warming the core of the Vale with her gnarled hands.
She pulled, and —
Silvar shouted a warning. Men burst into the clearing with a clatter of swords and curses. The sea-hag spread open the fjording with her palms and felt warmth sluice over her arms like a gush of pleasure. She drew the opening downward, closer. Elivia would never get through with it up there.
“The old woman.” A voice penetrated her concentration. “Stop her!”
Maja Gar held the fjording tight. She wound it into herself, hauling it down from the sky like an anchor from the depths. Pain seared her side. Silvar’s cry rippled in the darkness and Gar felt him place his body between her and the oncoming soldiers. She gripped the doorway in her hands. Its energy coursed through her. The seaglass staff burned with a blinding light and the mercenaries staggered. The air within the summoning circle wavered like a swarm of jellyfish. The next soldier to breach the stones exploded backward in an arc of silver electricity.
Elivia screamed. Her body convulsed at the sea-hag’s feet as the muscles inside pushed the godchild toward the Vale. The doorway into her birthplace dragged Elivia into the transition stage of labor. Gar’s ancient muscles quaked in the flow of energy. She struggled to maintain her grip on both worlds.
“She’s bleeding!” Panic coursed through Silvar’s voice. “Maja Gar, help her!”
The boy knew Elivia would bleed. The priestess had done her best to prepare him for the birth. His terror jarred her. Gar glanced down, her concentration broken. An arrow protruded from Elivia’s thigh like a barb of spiny coral, black and venomous. Through the shimmering mist surrounding the summoning circle, Gar watched more archers, emboldened by this success, raise their weapons.
“Pick her up, Silvar. Lift her!”
Tremors shook the sea-hag’s very bones as she fought to pull the fjording closer. Silvar lifted the girl and pushed her toward the slippery air rippling above their heads. She kissed him as their faces passed one another.
“Go,” he said through gritted teeth. “Save yourself. Take care of the baby.”
Silvar’s body shuddered and his grip slipped. Elivia cried out as his fingers dug into her arms. A black spine erupted from the boy’s chest. He forced the girl up, up, up. Maja Gar pulled the fjording down.
“Our baby,” Elivia said. Gar tugged the fjording toward them until the opening enveloped the girl in a glittering wave of lightning. Her voice lingered in the air after the rift closed around her. “I love you, Silvar.”
Silvar collapsed when the weight of Elivia’s body was lifted from his shoulders. Three more black spikes burst from his torso. Blood trickled from the corner of the boy’s mouth and his eyes stared blindly at the shimmering air between them and the stars. Gar bent to close them and took the sword from Silvar’s hand. She gripped the staff and stood, straight as a swordfish, with the blade at her side.
“I will see you both in Gaillea,” she whispered and let the last cords of power unravel from her ancient limbs.
The jelly-fish air cascaded down and crashed against the summoning stones when Gar let go of the fjording. The last currents of electricity dissipated at the feet of the soldiers. A single Sealer faced the priestess. The old woman smiled her gap-toothed grin, lifted her sword, and prepared to meet Mother Maja.
The Sealer’s mouth began to move in a mumbled incantation. The soldiers closed in, blades ready. But something was wrong. The magician’s muttering became fevered and he gestured frantically. The soldiers leapt forward.
In a briny burst of ocean spray, the seaglass exploded. Shock bugged the Sealer’s eyes like a deflated pufferfish. The sea-hag was gone, and the fjording still shimmered in the air above the clearing, like fresh water pouring into the sea.
S. C. Jensen is a Canadian writer and speculative fiction enthusiast. Between the seasonal threats of frostbite and mosquitoes she doesn’t get out much. As a result she’s had to resort to inventing her own worlds to explore.