Several months after the end of Drede's high kingship, and the confused scattering of the forces of Sirle, Sybel and Coren journeyed north. They eschewed the swifter speed of the Liralen — the great, white bird would have consented to carry them, but they felt that the purpose of their journey deserved a slower, more earthbound form of travel — and instead rode horses, revelling in the mud, and rain of the road. The pair were unaccompanied by retainers, choosing instead to present themselves as humble, purposeless wanderers. They did not hide their identities, but it suited their intentions to appear as unimportant and aimless: the youngest lord of Sirle, unburdened by duty, roaming Eldwold with his wife, motivated by nothing but the sheer joy of the journey.
The lords of Sirle might have given up their ambitions for the high kingship after their final, disastrous attempt ended in confusion and chaos, but they had not given up political manoeuvring entirely. Instead, they attached their considerable military, diplomatic, and tactical might to Tamlorn's cause, weaving his peace and shoring up his power. Sybel did not believe that Rok's actions in this regard were entirely altruistic — he knew how to play the long game — but she trusted that he had no desire to undermine Tamlorn, and was thus content to go where he sent her.
And so she found herself, along with Coren, spending the short, chilly winter days being entertained by Cian, one of the minor lords under Lord Derth of Niccon, and his silent, dark-haired wife Mara. Rok had not sent them to Cian's house with many instructions, although they were able to read between his words a request to wait, and watch, and listen. The lords of Niccon were always the most restless under the rule of the high kingship, furthest from the centre of things, and without the might and threat of Drede to contend with, Rok — and, Sybel assumed, Tamlorn — feared the worst. Showing up unannounced at Derth's hall would make their suspicions too obvious, and so it had been decided that they must take a more subtle approach: visit one of Derth's vassals on a pretext, and try to detect whispers of war in this slantwise manner. It had been felt that she and Coren were best placed to detect such buried threats, and hear the words unspoken, and she couldn't find it in herself to be insulted by such an assumption.
They had been there for three days, and things had fallen into a familiar pattern. During the daylight hours, they drifted from room to room, on the pretext of keeping out of the way of the everyday work of Cian's household. In reality, they were listening for undercurrents, for whispers, for signs of danger from Niccon. Neither Sybel nor Coren expected to see plans for mobilisation for war stated plainly in their hearing, but both knew that there were ways to detect hints of such things, particularly in the actions of members of a lord's household who were normally overlooked.
In the evenings, after the clamour and cacophony of the feasts their hosts provided, when the fires burnt low, Coren entertained everyone with his hoard of stories. He had a tale for every occasion, and he chose each with care. Sybel, who knew what he was doing, found his selection of stories shockingly pointed: accounts of betrayal and treachery, and knives in the dark, and fire, and fury. But it seemed that Coren's audience read no intent in his words. He had a reputation across Eldwold for strange, uncanny knowledge, and as a weaver of words, and Cian's household listened, enraptured. And, as Coren spoke, Sybel watched, to see how her husband's words landed. So far, at least in those first three nights, Coren's audience gave nothing away. But that wasn't enough to prove anything, and so they remained, and the pattern of their days repeated.
At dawn, and at dusk, in those strange, uncertain, in-between times, Sybel found herself drawn to the sea.
She had travelled far, in her short life — from the halls of kings and the libraries of wizards to the firesides of witches and the hoards of dragons beneath the mountains — but she had never before seen the ocean. The pitiless power of it — foam-flecked waves crashing indifferently against the grey stone shore, the occasional burst of sunlight splitting the slate-coloured sky and piercing the green depths of the water — left her without words. Everything was wind-wracked, and salt-washed. She felt as if she were perched on the edge of the world. She took to walking the shoreline, her boots stumbling over shells, and kelp, and the occasional piece of tide-blunted green glass — treasures thrown up from the depths, washed up, discarded.
On the fourth morning, she realised she was not alone. A pack of grey-skinned seals gamboled in the water, their movements so lithe and graceful it was as if they were dancing. And, at the far end of little bay, stood Mara, Cian's silent wife, so intent in watching the darting seals that the waves covered her feet and lapped at her cloak. Sybel drew near to Mara, and the other woman nodded at her in acknowledgement, before turning her gaze back out to the restless waves, and the tumbling, diving seals. There was a bitter yearning in her expression that Sybel found hard to interpret. In her younger years she would have sought the answer in Mara's own mind, listening out for any wordless cries the other woman called from within, or detangling any invisible, painful threads that bound Mara to another against her will. But now, such actions felt like an intrusion, like taking a name not freely given. And so instead Sybel stood beside Mara in silence, watching the sun rise, wondering.
Inevitably, it was Coren who figured out the mystery, and recognised Mara for what she was, after Sybel told him what she had witnessed on the bay. When he revealed this truth to Sybel, she was appalled, her heart hardening to ice at the horror of what Cian had done. Only Coren's restraining hand on her arm stopped her from storming from the room in a rage, to confront their host in a blaze of fury. But the weight of Coren's presence beside her reminded Sybel of their larger purpose, and her anger cooled, and she listened to her husband as he explained what he was going to do. A soft attack, Sybel felt, but likely more effective.
And so, that evening, after their empty plates were cleared away, and Cian drained the last of his cup of barley wine, requesting a fresh tale from Coren's bardic store of memories, Sybel sat back against her chair, and watched, and waited. Coren — with a pretense of spontaneity — laid his trap well.
He launched into a story of women transformed: seals in the briny ocean, women of luminous, unearthly beauty the instant their feet touched the rocky shore, shifting and flowing between these two forms like the movement of water. He spoke of their fierce joy in swimming freely through the sea, boundless in an unbounded world. And he spoke of the man, a hidden witness to these selkies' revels, who learnt the secret of their change from seal to woman, and the trick to trapping the most beautiful seal-maiden in her human form.
Sybel watched Coren's audience, and saw that Cian's face was a mask of horror. And still, their host kept silent.
'It was the selkie's youngest son who at last broke the binding,' said Coren, his voice ringing out across the silent hall. 'One day, in his innocence and curiosity, he asked his father, the fisherman, why he kept an old sealskin in the eaves of their house. And the young boy's mother let out a great cry of relief, and retrieved her skin, and was free.'
He let his words fall, and waited for the silence to be broken.
'There's an old sealskin like that up in the beams in the roof of my room,' said Cian and Mara's little daughter, Fand.
Her mother's reaction was immediate. Tears of relief filled Mara's eyes — relief, and some other darker, more complicated emotion. She bent down to embrace her youngest child.'
'Thank you,' she said, and it was as if her heart was breaking. 'Thank you, thank you.'
She drew Fand more tightly into her arms. 'Never doubt that I love you,' she said. 'I will be back, later, to visit you. Look for me on the bay, at dusk and at dawn, and wait for me on the shore.'
And then Mara was up, and out of her seat, and away. Cian, realising at last what was about to happen, made an attempt to reach for his wife and stop her, but she flowed like water through his arms, and left the room. Sybel and Coren regarded their host, their judgement plain. Cian couldn't meet their eyes.
After several moments, Mara returned. She carried a bundle over her arm. It was a grey sealskin. Cian looked at it, and looked at her, and made one last attempt to avert the inevitable.
'Please, Mara, my love. Please, stay.' His voice was that of a man drowning.
Mara spoke, and her voice was heavy with grief, and bitterness, and regret.
'I would have stayed if you'd asked me, before. But you didn't ask. You wooed me when you encountered me on the beach in my human form, and I fell in love with you, and would happily have lived a halfway life with you, a woman in your hall, on land, a seal every time I slipped into the sea. But you never asked. You took my sealskin, and you took away my choice. You say you love me, but it is a greedy, selfish kind of love. I would have stayed, if you'd asked me, and let me swim with my sisters when I wanted, and trusted that I'd return. But you didn't trust me.'
And she took the skin, and raced away, towards the bay, beneath a darkening sky. Cian fled after her, his face bleak with hopeless desperation, and Coren and Sybel followed. But by the time they'd made their way down to the water, Mara had flung the sealskin around her shoulders, and there was no longer a woman before them, but rather a grey-skinned seal, with eyes round and dark. Cian's legs buckled, and he crumpled to the stony ground with a howl. Mara, in her seal form, paid him no attention, and within minutes she had slipped into the water, and the sea swallowed her.
The next morning, Sybel and Coren made their farewells. They had not determined — at least to the degree of certainty that would satisfy Rok — whether Niccon looked towards Tamlorn's high kingship with ill intent, but they had most certainly overstayed their welcome, and it felt prudent to leave. Cian looked as if he had aged ten years, but despite his grief, he could not overcome his own rigid adherence to the rules of hospitality. He pressed parcels of food and skins of water into their hands, for the road, and wished them safe travels.
'I knew what you were doing, and why you were here,' he said, looking up at Sybel and Coren on their horses. 'I might bitterly regret that you were the instigators of the series of events that lost me my wife — like a stone dropped in still water, whose ripples reverberate — but I will not start a war over it. Lord Derth would not allow it. You have no concerns on Niccon's score. My lord is quite happy with the current state of affairs: he chafed under Drede's erratic rule, and the fear which led that king to bind everyone close. He prefers Tamlorn's lighter touch. My lord would like one of his daughters to be tied to the high-kingship in marriage, but will settle for an alliance with one of the sons of Sirle. Rok's oldest boy, perhaps, or Arn, Ceneth's son. If that meets with the approval of the Six of Sirle, he'll send some of his councillors to you, to start negotiations. You can tell Rok that's all we want, for now: the ties that come with marriage.'
Sybel was speechless with shock. All their deft subtlety, pierced in an instant by Cian's clear perception. She glanced at her husband, but Coren did not appear to share her surprise. His expression warned her to be quiet, and cautious, and he reacted to Cian's revelations with nothing other than polite pleasantries. He made no mention of Mara.
And so, after a message to be relayed to Lord Derth, inviting him to meet with Rok and begin discussions of a marriage alliance, they were on their way. The road was empty, at that time of day, and the only sounds were the press of their horses' hooves into the mud, and the roar of the sea behind them, interspersed with the occasional harsh cry of seabirds. Sybel's thoughts were troubled.
'Do you worry that we were too gentle, too diplomatic with Cian?' she asked, her horse level with Coren's. 'What he did to Mara was monstrous. It was as bad, in its way, as what Drede asked the wizard Mithran to do to me, and what Mithran planned to do, when he set aside Drede's orders. I persuaded myself to be restrained — that we had to keep the peace, to guard the fragile thing that Tam is building — when what I really wanted was rage and violence. Vengeance.'
'It was a terrible thing that we witnessed here,' Coren said at last. 'I shared your immediate reaction of horror. But what restrained me was less Eldwold politics, but rather my knowledge of the old stories. It does not end well for men who make unwilling wives of selkies, or of swan-maidens, or of the spirits of trees and rivers. Nothing we could do would have been worse than the punishment that is coming Cian's way. The sea has a way of looking after its own. I am sure that justice is coming for Cian, as merciless as the ninth wave crashing against the shore, and sweeping all away.'
'And of course,' said Sybel, the sun flashing against her icy hair, 'the most important thing is that Mara was able to get away. To reclaim her skin, and her control over her name with it. And to think my first impression of Cian's hall was that it was a pleasant home, comfortable with the warmth of a loving family! I suppose that shows how much I have still to learn about home, and family.'
'We are learning together,' said Coren, reaching across to twine his fingers briefly in Sybel's own.
'Home is where names are given freely,' said Sybel, her voice a whisper against the sigh of the sea, like the beat of white wings in the wind. 'It's where our hearts might call — not the call of command, but a question. And, in freely choosing, that question is answered.'
'Exactly so,' said Coren. 'Exactly so.' His smile, when he turned to Sybel, was like a door opening, and she returned it, revelling.
Above them the seabirds wheeled and cried, and were carried upwards by the wind. And then they were alone, the ocean raging against the cliffs at their backs, and, unfurling beneath them, the road home.