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Gone to Wrack and Ruin

Yeva's grand-daughter tugged at her arm, as excited as a child, though Lusine was a grown woman of seventeen now. Yeva allowed herself to be pulled through the crowd toward the high sea wall. Bodies pressed in from all sides, well-dressed merchant families, artisans in bright guild colours, shopkeepers and even the wealthy from the inner city with their attendant guards and slaves. And between them slid the Wallers, like herself, in drab homespun with their wrack collecting baskets on their arms.

Lusine's efforts with elbow and shoulder gained them a coveted place on the edge of the crowd, although Lusine's high and swollen belly may have helped. Yeva wrapped her arm around the girl's shoulder. The edge of the wall was higher than her waist, but still there was a long drop on the other side down to the sand and the rocks.

"Gran," she chided, laughing. "Stop fussing and look. Look!"

Yeva did look, across the rocks to the harbour where the bunting had been hung from every surface that would take a nail, snapping in the sharp breeze. The fishing boats that were the wealth and heart of the city rose and dipped and rose beside the docks. On another day they would all have been at sea by now, harvesting the ocean to feed not only the city but the world that stretched out behind them, across the plains to the distant mountains where the Patrician himself was said to dine on fresh fish twice a week, rushed to his table straight from the boats as they came in.

But today the boats clustered around the dock like forgotten toys. Yeva craned her neck, trying to see around the curve of the wall to the drydock where the new ship waited.

"I can't see it," she grumbled. "We should have tried for the other side." A distant cheer rose, spreading through the crowd like a tide. They joined in, shouting until their throats were raw. Those wealthy enough to afford them waved little red flags with the axe and wheel in the centre.

A thump echoed up through Yeva’s feet and her voice faltered. In the harbour a wave roared out from the drydock, picking up the fishing boats and slamming them against their moorings. Distant timbers cracked, but no one paid any attention to the little boats. All eyes were on the dark shape that slid out onto the water. A hush fell over the crowd, one and all, as the Ruchamkin took his first taste of the sea. His deck towered above the waters, above the other boats, almost to the top of the sea wall. His sides were of iron, more iron than Yeva thought could possibly exist in the world. And instead of sails, two long funnels jutted from his deck like jeering fingers, mocking the little wooden boats below.

Yeva tightened her arm around Lusine's waist, feeling the flutter of the girl's heart. Or maybe it was Yeva's own heart, hammering against her ribs, half in admiration, half in fear of this dark giant.

"Can you see him? Gran?" Lusine leaned out over the edge of the wall, searching among the scurrying sailors on deck.

"No, and don't lean so far." She hauled the girl back, grunting with the effort.

"There!" Lusine squealed and waved. "There he is! Look!"

But without the benefit of love to sharpen her eyes, Yeva could not pick Lusine's promised from the other sailors, though Gevorg was surely there.

Smoke curled out of the stacks. The Ruchamkin coughed once, faltered, coughed again and then rumbled to life. The thunder of the engine rippled the water around the hull, trembled through the sand and the rock and into the soles of Yeva's feet.

The crowd burst into shrieking delight as smoke and steam belched from the stacks. Yeva alone stood silent in the crowd, her mouth dry, her arm around the shrieking, dancing Lusine.

They watched the bustle and pomp of the dignitaries picking their way off the ship down the heaving gangplank. Then the Ruchamkin's engine changed note and he dug into the waters, foam churning from behind. The thunder and roar increased, battering at the world. Faster than any other ship, he slid between the headlands.

Yeva took Lusine's arm. "Come on. The day is half over and we've not collected even a handful."

"Just a little longer," Lusine pleaded. "You can still see it."

Lusine hung over the wall until the ship was only a dot on the horizon. Yeva waited, hands working the worn wicker of her basket. She could still feel the rumble of the ship beneath her feet. Or maybe that was her imagination. But surely that thunder was enough to wake the world. Or other things. Hand hidden against the wall, she made the sign of the eye, turned its gaze away from her.

Finally, Yeva coaxed Lusine away. They followed the wall between the city and the beach. On the sand below, women stooped to pluck the clinging wrack off the rocks. So many women. So many more since the years that Yeva had been a child, collecting by her mother's side. Yeva's hands clenched on the handle of the basket. They would have to go far today to gather enough wrack to supplement their meagre stores.

Lusine chattered on as they made their way along the wall, but Yeva only half-listened. On their right the beach, yellow sand liberally peppered with rocks, sloped down steeply to the ocean. On her left, the city swept back from the harbour, curving around the shallow cliff. She squinted at the sun, well over halfway to zenith, and caught the light reflecting off the white stone mansions in the central city. Nowhere that she had been, or that her descendants would ever go.

They kept walking to the end of the beach, where the stone wall curved around into the next bay. A steep, narrow stair, slick with salt and moisture hugged the wall, leading them down onto the sand. There were fewer women gathering at this end of the beach, where the candlers and the perfumers worked their stinking industry on whale fat and fish oil.

Yeva poked Lusine. "Gather. We're late today. Should have gone out early instead of wasting our time looking at a boat." Lusine laughed, used to her grumbling ways, and bent to her work.

It was hard work, hot work, which bent the mothers and the grandmothers of the Wall before their time. Yeva reached and plucked, reached and plucked at the clumping wrack, green and brown, clinging to the rocks. This end of the beach was less populated. Her gaze strayed once to the iron rings embedded in the wall, under the curving sign of the eye, testament to a time when the city had fed the sea in return for their bounty. But that practice, thankfully, had died a long time ago. Still, people avoided the area, where the wind would sometimes cry like a grieving mother, or scream like a dying girl.

They worked past noon, the sun hot on the back of necks already burnt brown. There was no bread for lunch, but they dined well enough on cockles and oysters that they prised from the rocks.

"Gevorg says there are more nets on the ship than he's ever seen. Lengths and lengths of them. They wove them in factories." Lusine pushed her hair out of her eyes and scanned the rolling swell as if she could see across to Gevorg, fishing on the Ruchamkin. "They say they can hold a week's worth of catch in one day."

Yeva grunted. "Just because they can, ain't to say they should."

Lusine smiled and popped fresh cockle meat into her mouth. "It means they can earn a week's wage in one day. Imagine, Gran!" Lusine's eyes shone. "If he works only three days, he'll still be three times as rich!"

"So he will." That was the dream. Gevorg was as good a man as any of the Wallers. Hard working but uneducated, for who could afford a scholar for their children on a fish-gutters wage? Fishing offered a chance for more money, a share of the catch, respectability, and Gevorg had been apprenticed since he was twelve. It was a chance for Lusine to leave the life of the Wallers, the life that had been her family's for all the generations Yeva knew. She couldn't blame Lusine for her dream. Indeed she had encouraged it, even turning a deaf ear to their lovemaking when Gevorg had started to sneak into the house at night. Let him be bound to her by a child.

They threw the empty cockle shells into the sea and bent again to their gathering. Yeva told herself she only imagined the trembling of the sand beneath her toes.

Gevorg's mother Voska banged on their door the next morning as they ate their meagre breakfast of laverbread and cockles.

"Yeva! The ship is coming in!"

Lusine jumped up, sending her wooden fork clattering to the floor.

"Sit down," said Yeva to Lusine. "Come in, Voska."

The woman stepped through the door into their tiny two room shack, one of hundreds pressed against the cliff with only a narrow laneway between their front door and the sea wall. Gevorg's mother had one hand curled in against her body from a childhood disease that Yeva had been unable to cure, though she had saved the girl's life. Her hair was frizzled and grey compared to Yeva's white, but still they looked the same, poor Wallers in dull clothes, faces red from the sea wind, hands worn and marked by tooth and fin and knife.

Voska sat down, reaching across with a grin to rub Lusine's swelling belly. "They were spotted just after dawn. One of the boys came running down to tell me. Apparently buyers have been coming in from the plains. The docks are crowded already. If we want to get work, we should leave."

Yeva nodded, pushing the laverbread toward her. "Have you eaten?"

"Keep your bread to feed my grandchild." She pushed the plate toward Lusine. "No word yet on whether it's a boy or a girl?"

"Not yet. The moon isn't full." Yeva glanced to the little alcove with the dark eye carved into a piece of driftwood. No one wished for a boy or a girl, in case it drew the eye of the sea god and he stole them away.

They put their plates away and hurried through the streets, joining a stream of women heading for the docks in the hope of a day's pay. More often than not, most of the women would be turned away, but the community pulled together when needed to make sure the most needy of their neighbours had a chance to work when times were lean. Yeva at least could supplement their income with healing work, and more often stayed at the back of the group, taking fish work only when there was plenty to go around.

She felt the rumble before she heard it, and could not see the ship at all from where she was in the crowd. The fishmongers stood on crates, calling for workers, ticking them off and herding them in groups into the warehouses. Yeva and Lusine edged closer, exchanging greetings with their neighbours. Then they were at the front, Yeva clutching Lusine's arm so they wouldn't be separated.

"Two," called the man, ticked them off and jerked his thumb to the left. They were herded down into the warehouse and stood shivering on the slatted wooden floor while the sea slapped the sand beneath them.

The rumble of carts announced the catch coming in and the women moved forward, gutting knives ready. The cart blocked the doorway for a moment then it was inside, men on the back shovelling the catch off onto the floor, fish and squid and porpoise and turtle. The women were pushed back by the sheer weight of fish slithering across the floor, the glassy, unseeing eyes winking in the light of the lamps along the walls.

And still more came. The cart emptied and left and another took its place. And in the other warehouses, was this happening too? Yeva felt the world roll out from under her. So many fish.

Men came to sort the larger fish, hooks digging into smooth flesh as they dragged the porpoises to one side for the perfumers and the candlers to collect the rich fat. Turtles went into another pile, sharks in a third. The fishmongers walked through the silvery mountain, picking out the big, showy fish to be sold to noble tables.

And while the men bargained and sorted and shouted, the women worked. A basket of fish over to the table, then scale, slice, tear out the guts, push them into the centre of the table to fall through into the sea. Bend, lift, slice, tear. The hours wore on and the smell washed over them until their noses shut down.

And still the catch came. Yeva's arms ached, her hands stinging from a hundred tiny cuts. Conversation, which had been bright and loud at the beginning fell away into grim silence as the day wore on with no end in sight.

Finally the floor was clear, save for the tiny silver fish too small to waste on a customer. Boys darted across the floor, collecting them in baskets to bring home for their family. Yeva knew she should do the same, but she couldn't bear to bend down one more time.

Then Lusine was there with her strong young arm. "Come on, Gran. We've earned enough today that we'll be buying wheat bread tomorrow."

Yeva smiled at her, though of course they would do no such thing. The money would be saved for when it was needed. Still, today's work must have earned them good coin. The sun was edging down to the water when they came out of the warehouse to gather round the fishmonger on his crate.

But when the pay came it was fish, not coin. Yeva stared at the basket that was thrust at her.

"But we worked all day!" said Lusine beside her. Other voices joined in the complaint. "You owe us coin!"

The fishmonger launched into a speech about the price of fish now, and his profits, and if he went broke then where would the fish come from? It was a long, rambling spiel and all Yeva could understand was that the massive catch had not resulted in more coppers in the fishmonger’s pocket, and so he could pay them only in fish, a commodity of which he had plenty, now.

Grumbling, the crowd edged away. "At least we have dinner," said Lusine. But they had more than dinner's worth, and the fish would have to be dried and salted, which meant money for salt, or dried and smoked, which meant money for wood. Might as well throw it back to the sea.

As they came closer to home they saw light and heard laughter and singing. Someone had lit a fire in the lee of the Wall. Voices called to them in greeting. Yeva pasted a smile on her face.

Then Gevorg was there, sweeping Lusine up into a hug, regardless of her bulk, and kissing her on both cheeks. He showed her the little strip of wood with the marks on it, representing money to come, so many marks, and Lusine squealed in delight and gave him a kiss laden with promises.

So at least the sailors had been paid. A tightness eased between Yeva's shoulder blades. There was money there now for Lusine and her child. Yeva joined the celebration with a lighter heart, giving away as much of her fish as she could, keeping only what she and Lusine could manage themselves.

Yeva avoided the warehouses over the next few days, though Lusine left early every morning to join the flock of women heading to the docks. Yeva spent her mornings on the beach collecting wrack, and her afternoons treating infections and fevers with her meagre skills. Her supplies were limited, but none of the Wallers could afford a physic, so they did the best they could with her experience.

Lusine returned every evening full of wonder at the riches coming from the sea.

"He's earning so much, Yeva!" Her eyes shone. Yeva bit back her words, not wanting to dampen the girl's dreams. Hadn't she had dreams of her own, once?

"I thought they only had to go out once to earn as much as a week."

"But why not go out every day, and earn five week's pay in one?"

"Why not," she murmured in response. "I'm going out to tend to Garen's boy. I may be out late."

Lusine kissed her on the cheek, warm young lips on her ravaged skin. "I'll leave breakfast in the pan when I go."

During the long night, sitting beside the boy who tossed in feverish dreams, she looked up. The eye on the wall caught the candlelight, the spiral of tentacles seemed to move. Hurriedly she looked away. It was only a trick of the light. But why then did her palms itch? Why this feeling of dread in her belly?

The sun was just touching the horizon when she pulled the door closed behind her and headed home. A cold, salt-laden wind rushed against the houses, driving through her thin shawl. Yeva glanced out to sea, at the waves tossing gently in the still morning. When the sun was up, it would be a warm, pretty sight, but here in the early morning it reminded them all that the sea was unforgiving.

Lusine had already left, but there was laverbread, still warm, and a porridge of fish and oats. Yeva ate quickly then sat down in the chair.

When she woke with a start the day was up, light filtering through the cracks around the shutters. The noise of running feet and shouts came from outside. Yeva hauled herself out of the chair and poked her nose out of the door.

"What is it?" she shouted, but no one stopped to answer her. Yeva followed her neighbours as they ran up beside the Wall to the harbour. There was already a crowd of people lining the wall, staring out to sea.

The Ruchamkin was coming in, but this time he wasn't cutting through the waves as if he owned them. He lumbered, wallowing low in the water. A little flock of boats edged out of the harbour toward him, the remains of the fishing fleet that had survived the launch.

At first Yeva thought something was leaking from the Ruchamkin's underside. But no, the shadow spread before the ship, streaking across the sea bed. The clear blue water darkened as if under a storm, though the sky was bright and clear.

The fishing boats closed with the Ruchamkin. The stacks gave a great belch, shooting smoke and sparks into the sky.

And then he jerked to a halt, as if he had run onto a reef, not been in deep, clear water. Screams came across the water. Figures jumped from his side into the dark ocean. The Ruchamkin rolled onto his side. Steam rose in a great cloud as the deck reached the water. The waves rushed up to swallow him, tossing the fishing boats aside.

And then he was gone. Yeva found she couldn't breathe. Horrified silence spread through the crowd. The fishing boats came to where he had sunk, and moved back and forth. But there was not a trace left of the ship or the men aboard him.

And below them, the darkness spread across the bay, shrouding the sea grass beds, staining the water, lapping at the beach.

Yeva turned away, shuddering, pushing her way through the crowds, heading for the warehouses where Lusine would have been waiting for Gevorg. Waiting for a boy taken by the sea. The world blurred and she rubbed at her streaming eyes.

The horror of it all hit her and she doubled over, leaning on the wall for support. She closed her eyes, feeling the rough stone beneath her fingers. How many lost on that gargantuan? The young, the fit. All gone now. No one paid her any heed, an old Waller woman, bent over and weeping.

At the docks the women made a great, wailing mob, clutching each other and crying. Yeva struggled through, looking for Lusine, wanting to fold her arms around the girl to keep the hurt away.

She found her sitting on the ground, her back against the wall. Tears streaked her face. When she saw Yeva she reached up her arms, a girl looking for comfort from a mother long gone. Yeva bent down and wrapped her arms around Lusine.

"He's gone," she whispered. "He's gone."

"I know." Yeva throat closed again, her words harsh. "Get off the stone, you'll get a chill. Home."

But she couldn't lift her, and Lusine would not help. Not until Voska found them and helped her could she get the girl up. Together they half-guided, half-carried the weeping girl home, sharing their grief between them in exchanged glances over Lusine's bowed head.

A cry went up around them and they were buffeted by bodies streaming toward the wall. Yeva tightened her grip and glanced across to Voska. "What now?"

They were close enough to the wall to see out to the ocean, over the now dark sea bed. The waves parted, foaming as dark backs broke through.

"Oh no." A pod of whales, close to the shore. Too close. They came in with the tide, driving themselves up onto the rocky beach until the water ran red with their blood.

"Another!" cried a voice. Another pod came in behind the first.

"Get her away. Get her away!" cried Yeva, shielding Lusine with her body. They hurried away into the Waller's neighbourhood while behind them the crowd cried out at the spectacle.

They ducked under an archway. Carved into the stone was a dark eye with a spiral in the centre. Yeva turned away from its gaze.

Yeva sat with Lusine all through the day as she lay in their bed, alternately sobbing and staring into space. Yeva forced broth down her throat, or just sat and mended. Voska came in late in the afternoon, and the stink of her filled the small shack, her clothes and bare legs bloody from butchering the whales.

"At least the candlers pay," she said, showing Yeva a handful of copper. "But there aren't enough people willing to do the work. They'll rot before we get to them." She wiped a hand across a forehead already streaked with red. "Four pods in all came in. I've never seen anything like it." Voska glanced to the side, to the little stone tablet with the eye. She lowered her voice. "The waters are dark, Yeva. One of the men waded out to see what was on the bottom. But there's nothing there. Just a shadow."

"A shadow of what?" But they had no answers.

"How is she?" Voska jerked her chin at Lusine, lying in a restless light doze.

"She grieves. How are you?"

For a moment the woman's face crumpled, then she pushed it away. Like all of them, Voska was no stranger to loss. "I have his tally, at least." She nodded to Lusine. "Half of it will go to her, and his child, of course."

Yeva protested at the amount, but Voska would not be swayed. She leaned forward to lay a hand on Yeva's knee. "It's all I have now of Gevorg. Tell me, Yeva. Tonight is the full moon. Is it a boy or a girl?" She fumbled under her skirts and brought up a skin of water. "I took it from the sea."

Yeva nodded and put down her mending. She took the water and poured it into a shallow bowl of stone, half expecting the water to come out dark. But it was the same, and smelled the same. She cut off a few strands of Lusine's hair and tied them into a knot.

"Should we wake her?"

"No. Better she sleeps." Yeva placed the knot in the water and took the bowl outside. The moon, high and bright, made pools of silvery light between the houses. She found a patch of moonlight and stood there, the bowl in her hands. Slowly she swirled the water, careful not to spill it. The two women watched the bowl and the little knot of hair. Three times to the right, three times to the left. The knot washed around in the bottom of the bowl. At the last moment the knot uncurled, the strands floating free.

"A girl." Voska let out a sigh. "Well, what will be will be. Maybe Gevorg's money can buy her a better life." She rested a hand on Yeva's shoulder. "Thank you. I'd better go home and clean off. More work tomorrow."

Yeva tossed the water onto the ground. The wind came in off the sea, carrying with it the stench of sour whale meat. She prayed it would be cooler tomorrow, and slow the rotting.

But the sun rose high and hot, and the smell of decomposition hung heavy in the air. The Wallers went about with wet cloths across their face. The wealthy kept away from the beaches, though Yeva was sure the smell would drift up to the high city as well.

As the days passed sickness pervaded the city. Yeva was kept busy tending to the sick, going from house to house with her meagre supplies of healing herbs, doing what she could, though it wasn't much. She came home each night to find Lusine where she had left her, lying on the bed, staring into nothing. She tried to coax the girl up, but she would only retreat into herself, arms curled around her belly.

One morning Yeva woke and hurried out, and slipped on the slick ground. Startled, she looked down to find the stones wet, a patch of wrack under her foot. She reached down to pick it up, thinking someone must have dropped it, though she couldn’t imagine who would be picking wrack from the stinking beach. But the wrack was firmly rooted to the rock, and tore as she pulled. Frowning, she fingered the rubbery fronds. It could not have grown there overnight.

As she hurried from house to house she saw more, and down near the wall itself a family was sweeping water out of their house.

"It came in during the night," said the woman, leaning on her broom. "Straight in under the door."

"But how?"

"I don't know. The sea is normal this morning. But," here she lowered her voice and looked around. "I heard that two men did not come home from the candlers, last night. No one has seen them."

Yeva hurried down to the sea wall, cloth pressed tight over her mouth. The stones atop the wall were wet, and the wrack climbed the wall almost to the top.

How could this be? Below on the rocks and sand, the bones of the whales thrust up into the sky, shreds of meat hanging from them, a feast for the gulls and skuas that shrieked and scrabbled around the carcasses. No one was down on the beach today, and the half-stripped bodies bloated in the sun.

And beyond them, the water that should have been clear, shining blue, was dark and still.

Yeva hurried home through the evening, her basket tucked close to her body. The wrack made dark patches on the stone, trodden flat on the road but waving where it climbed the stone and wooden walls. She passed lit windows, and some that were unlit. Where the families had gone no one knew; fled in the night, or taken. None had seen them go.

She made it to her door and closed it behind her. The fire in the hearth burned low. Lusine lay still on the bed. Yeva wrapped a blanket over her and sat down in the chair before the fire. She lit a candle and pulled out the last of her herbs, working them into a powder in her old stone mortar.

Dark fell, and with it the wind rose, whistling between the houses. Hurried footsteps passed, and then there was silence. Yeva ground the herbs without thinking, and listened to the night. The hair on the back of her neck stood up. All she could hear was the sighing of the tide, the sound she had grown up with all her life.

She ground on, lighting a candle when it became too dark. When the herbs were all powder, she put the mortar beside the hearth and stood to get some cloth to make bags for steeping in hot water.

Her foot came down with a splash and she froze. The floor was awash with sea water, only a finger width deep, but spread across the house. Chills rose up her spine.

Slow, laboured footsteps splashed up to her door. Yeva picked up the candle, gripping the saucer with shaking hands. The footsteps stopped.

"Who's there?" she called, softly, so as not to wake Lusine. No one answered. She slipped over to the door, pressed her ear against it and listened.

She couldn't hear anything but the sighing of the wind, but still she felt a presence. Her heart in her mouth, she pulled open the door.

Gevorg stood there. Her breath caught in her throat. She thrust the candle up. Light shone on his grey flesh, on his staring, white eyes. He swayed as if buffeted by the ocean swell. Water swirled around his feet, tangled with seaweed. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out.

Yeva stood before him, trembling. "Go back to the sea. There is nothing for you here." When he didn't move, she held her hand up, thumb and forefinger pressed together, other fingers curled in the sign of the eye. "Go."

Gevorg shambled away, to join other shapes making their way up the street. In the moonlight she saw crabs and other sea creatures climbing the walls. The water swirled, now around her ankles.

She closed the door softly and pushed a blanket against the gap to slow the water. Then she blew out her candle and went to huddle beside Lusine as the sailors taken by the sea roamed the night.

Sometime before dawn the water ebbed away under her door, back to the sea. She rose and picked up a broom, sweeping the remains out the door, glad that Lusine had slept through and not seen the boy. Taken by the water, he'd come back for some unfinished business, no doubt. Her broom caught seaweed and dead crabs. All of them. Taken before their time. But the sea was always hungry. Sailors didn't normally return.

Unless they had been sent back. Yeva shivered. Sent back with the wrack and the crabs to crawl through the city.

Yeva made her way up the winding stair to a higher part of the city where she knew a herbalist whose prices she could afford. Her fingers kept going to the meagre funds in her pocket. Her patients could barely pay in food, let alone coin. Still, she would get what she could.

The stink pervaded the whole city now. She didn't see anyone passing without a mask of cloth, some lucky enough to afford scent. She glanced back over her shoulder at the dark bay. The stain stretched around the city on all sides. Sometimes she fancied it moved over the sea bed, undulating in the current.

As she turned into the road, her gaze caught fresh marks on the stone. An old sign of the eye had been scratched out, leaving white gouges stark against the grey. Yeva shook her head at the futile attempt to divert the attention of the sea gods. Too late for that.

The herbalist shook her head at Yeva's offered coin. "I'm sorry. Even if I had the stocks left, you'll not buy much with that now. I've had all comers for my tinctures. The whole city is sick." The woman sighed at Yeva's distraught expression. "All right. I can give you a little wormwood, and a pinch of cinnamon." Yeva tucked them into her basket with shaking hands. Barely enough for a few tinctures, and she needed so many.

Outside she found herself caught up in the swelling crowd, carried along down toward the sea. "What's going on?" she asked the sturdy goodwife beside her.

"Sacrifice," said the woman with ghoulish relish. Yeva stopped in shock, only to have someone slam into her from behind. The crowd swept her along, down toward the point of the bay and the shackles on the rocks. More people joined the crowd. Yeva clutched her basket and concentrated on keeping her feet. As they passed the neighbourhood where the Wallers lived she saw some of her neighbours join the crowd. Finally the group came to a halt. Pressed between bodies, Yeva could catch only a glimpse of the sand below. The tide was almost in, and lapped against the rocky point.

Murmurs rose in the crowd, and some pointed. A figure in white was dragged across the sand, her hair whipped and twisted across her face by the wind. Yeva was glad not to see her face. She closed her eyes, pressing her lips together in sorrow for the poor girl.

Up on the city behind them she heard the sonorous voice of a priest. He stood on the level above, looking down on the beach, and offered the girl to the sea gods. "Take this pure life and come no more into our city."

Yeva shuddered and pushed her way out from the crowd, away from the wall and the girl and her long, terrifying wait for death, not wanting to see the girl's final moments. In the laneway outside her home she met Voska.

"Did you hear? They're going to sacrifice a girl." Voska's eyes were wide with horror.

"They have already," said Yeva.

Voska shook her head. "That we should go back to the bad old days. A hundred years or more since someone was last shackled to the rock."

"It did no good then, and it will do no good now." Yeva felt her stomach turn. "It will only draw them nearer."

"What can we do?" Voska gripped her arm. "What can we do, Yeva?"

"I don't know."

She went home and made her tinctures. Passing through the lanes, she saw more eyes scratched out, and passed a group of guards busy with tools on the stone.

That night she sat in the dark beside Lusine's sleeping form and listened to the rising tide. She didn't light a candle.

More girls were fed to the hungry sea. Yeva avoided the wall, but couldn't help hearing the stories of the tides coming in, the girls’ final struggles before the water washed over them and the sea creatures tore their flesh. She shuddered.

But it was a waste, such a waste. She put on her cleanest dress, shook out her shawl, wrapped a cloth over her mouth and headed into the inner city. There was a councillor there who had guardianship over the docks and the warehouses, including the little neighbourhood of the Wallers, though he was never seen there.

Outside his offices, men and women waited for admittance. Too many were turned away. Finally her turn came. The clerk gestured her inside the office.

"Yes?" he said, head down over his books.

"You have to stop the sacrifices."

He looked up at her then, took in her drab clothing, the white hair, the bent frame. "It was not my decision."

"But you have a voice in the city. You must stop. Their deaths will not sate the hunger. There is not enough death in the world to sate the hungry sea."

He narrowed his eyes. "What do you know about it?"

"My great grandmother was a priestess of the old religion. One of the last." She breathed in, and out, to give herself courage. "They used to feed girls to the sea to bring in a good harvest. To pay for what we have taken from the sea. But we have taken too much. The sea has eaten our men, and will eat more. We cannot repay the debt."

He sat back and folded his arms over an ample belly. "Then what would you have us do?"

"We have to leave."

She was unprepared for his roar of laughter. "I see. And you leading us away, like a prophet from the old gods, I suppose?"

His words stung. "I don't plan on leading anyone. I'm asking you to tell the Patrician that the only way is to empty the city. The sea climbs higher each night. Men and women disappear. And you think the sacrifice of a few girls will stop the advance?"

"It is all we can do. It can't last forever. The water cannot go much higher."

Yeva shook her head. "You are wrong. There are shells in the sands at the top of the cliff. Once the sea went there. And where the sea has been, it can come again. Stop the sacrifices. Empty the city."

But he would not hear anymore, and dismissed her with a wave.

Yeva made her way back to the Wallers. If he would not listen, she must spread the word herself.

As she passed the last of her tinctures to desperate mothers, she told them to leave. As she chatted to neighbours in the street, she told them to go. Some looked thoughtful, catching her gaze. But most looked away, shaking their heads. When all you had was one little shack, you clung to it like the limpet to the rock in the face of the oncoming tide.

The only light in Yeva's dark days was that Lusine was up. She walked behind Yeva, carrying her basket, her eyes downcast. Occasionally a tear would run down her face. Yeva kept her eyes turned away from the tears. They would pass, in time.

Now the wrack reached to the highest point of the city. Crabs scuttled across the lanes in broad daylight. Too many houses were empty.

At one house she found something different than fever and sickness. A man had cut himself on the rocks, and the wound festered. She sent Lusine home for bandages and astringent while she washed the wound with boiled sea water.

Lusine took a long time coming. She wasn't back by the time Yeva had finished. The afternoon wore on. Yeva wrapped the wound and said she would come back the next day.

At home the house was empty. Yeva's basket lay on the floor beside the table. Frowning, she bent down to retrieve it, wondering where the girl had gone.

When she straightened, her gaze fell on a pile of stone shards on the floor. She shuffled over, picked them up and turned them over. The broken eye stared back at her. Dread welled in her chest.

She felt, rather than heard, movement behind her and swung around, shards raised.

"Yeva." Voska stood in the doorway, her face white. "Yeva, they've taken Lusine. They're going to feed her to the sea."

They gathered in Voska's house, all the neighbours clustered in the tiny room, voices high and fearful. Even so, they left a wide berth around Yeva. She sat and stared into the fire. The tide would come up tonight and wash Lusine away, and her baby. The girl. She clenched her fists in her skirts. She hadn't even told Lusine it was to be a girl.

Someone pushed a cup of water into her hand. She looked up at Voska. "Why? She's not a virgin. Why would they take her?"

Voska grimaced and glanced to the side. Maral, older than Yeva, leaned forward. "They came into our houses. All of us. Looking for the eye. None of us have one, save you. They spoke of turning the sea god's gaze away. That we were drawing him in with our superstition."

Yeva felt a bitter anger. "We have kept him at bay all these years. They were the ones that woke him. Let them pay." She flung her cup at the ground, smashing it into pieces. When she rose they backed away from her.

"Go. All of you. The city cannot be saved. Take what you can and flee." There was silence at her words. "Go!" she shouted.

One by one they nodded, some of them reaching out to touch her before leaving, until she was alone in the room with Voska and her children.

"I need an axe. Or a hammer."

Voska put a hand on her oldest son, a boy of only thirteen. "Run down to the candler’s and see what you can find."

When the boy had gone and the girls were clutching their mother's skirts, she spoke. "What will you do?"

"Get back what's mine."

"I can help you."

Lusine looked down at the wide, dark eyes of her girls. "You take your girls and go. Go with the rest of them."

"My granddaughter—"

"If I can save one, I will save both. If I can save neither, I will also go to the sea."

She helped Voska pack while they waited for the boy. He came running back with a hammer. "It's all I could find, Mama."

"It will do," said Yeva, taking it from him. "Now go."

She left them and made her way through the evening toward the sea wall, where she had not been for some time. She heard the tramp of feet and ducked into the shadow of a doorway. There were guards along the sea wall, looking down onto the beach. Looking down on her granddaughter. Yeva clutched the hammer. She would have no hope of rescuing Lusine with them there.

But the encroaching dark drove them away. She heard one exclaim, pointing down toward the beach and her heart lurched in her chest. Please let her get there before the tide.

When the last of them had fled with haste up towards the city, she hurried out to the wall, looking down, afraid of what she would see.

Lusine lay on the rock, a motionless bundle. Was she unconscious? Was she hurt? Then Yeva's tongue clamped to the roof of her mouth. The tide was coming in, creeping up the sand toward the rocks, and she saw what had driven the soldiers away. With the incoming tide, heads rose above the foam. The dead were coming in.

Yeva hurried down the steps, slipping in her haste and flung herself across the sand, racing the incoming water. She fell to her knees beside Lusine, feeling the sharp rocks bite through her skirts.

Lusine raised her head. "Gran?"

"Hold on girl. I'm here."

She raised the hammer and brought it down, over and over, on the rusted shackles, glad of their age and the work of salt water over the decades. With a crack they came free. Lusine pulled the chains away, sobbing, then let out a little scream.

Out of the sea the sailors came, lumbering up the beach toward them. The water lapped up to the sea wall.

"Come," said Yeva. "We have to hurry."

The women struggled through the water, now up to their knees, slipping on the wrack which lay in great lumps. The water followed them up the stairs. They ran through the streets with the tide at their heels.

No time to go home and fetch anything. They went where the water drove them, up and up. They must make it to the causeway. That was the only way out.

But when they got there, the water was already over the bridge, foaming against the railing.

"What do we do, Yeva?"

Yeva looked around, spotted a little punt. She waded out to it and dragged it over.

"In," she commanded.

"No, Yeva—"

"In!" She pushed the girl in, then pointed the punt at the causeway. At first it was easy, the water only up to her knees. But the further out they got, the higher it came, until it swirled around her waist.

"Yeva!" cried Lusine, pointing over her shoulder. Yeva looked back at the city. In the moonlight, dark fingers reached up the stone, tentacles of water. There was a crack, and a great chunk of wall fell away, to tumble down and smash into the sea below. The darkness spread, like a great body climbing out of the water. Moonlight shone on an eye larger than a man is tall.

Yeva turned her gaze quickly, lest they be seen.


"Be silent," she said. She pushed on as the water rose, to her chest, then under her chin. And then the ground went out from under her and she slipped under the water. Lusine's hand grabbed her wrist, pulling her back up.

"Climb in."

"I can't. The boat will drift out to sea if I do." She didn't need to add that the sea was not the place they wanted to be, tonight.

The boat jerked, nearly tearing it from her grasp. A head rose beside her, turning sightless white eyes in her direction.

"Gevorg?" whispered Lusine.

"Don't touch him—" said Yeva, but it was too late. Lusine leaned out and lay her hand along his jaw. "You came back for me."

Gevorg gazed at her with sightless eyes.

The boat swung, and Yeva lost her footing again, spluttering as she came up. "Push," she snapped at the thing that was Gevorg. "If you've come back for her, then push. Or we're all for the sea.”

Gevorg put his head down. The punt moved swiftly through the water. Yeva clung on for dear life, Lusine's hand a lifeline, gripping her wrist so hard it hurt. The water foamed past them. The far shore advanced.

Then Yeva felt the ground under her feet again, and pushed. The punt grounded on the shore.

Gevorg looked up into Lusine's eyes. Slowly she leaned down and kissed his cold mouth. Yeva raised her hand, finger and thumb together in the sign of the eye. "Go now to your rest." Gevorg sank beneath the water.

Lusine wept salty tears. "He came back for me. For us." She put her hand under her belly.

"For you, and for his daughter," said Yeva. She wrapped her arm around Lusine. With their back to the foundering city, they started up the road. Behind them came the thunder and splash of stone falling into water, as the city paid its debts to the sea.

About the Author
Meryl Stenhouse lives in subtropical Queensland where she curates an extensive notebook collection and fights a running battle with the Lego models trying to take over the house. When not dodging stealth bricks she can be found at the computer, avoiding writing. You can find her online at merylstenhouse.com.