For seven and seventy days and nights, a weird, wild man had been crouching on the shore.

For seven and seventy days and nights, a weird, wild man had been seen crouching on the shore.

All the people in the village atop the cliff avoided him and said that he was mad. The dogs would not go near him. The children refrained from pelting him with stones. Even the local priest refused to have anything to do with him, claiming that he was not of the parish and therefore it was not the responsibility of the parish priest to attempt to rid him of his demons.

One look from those stormy gray eyes had sent the good Father scurrying back up the path.

The few men who had gone with the priest on that first Sunday knew the truth of the affair – that one look from those stormy gray eyes had sent the good Father scurrying back up the path – but none of them would tell the tale, for they had been scurrying right behind.

However, never had the party concerned believed himself mad until this night.

He was seeing an impossible vision.

He was seeing an impossible vision. A beautiful, radiant, pointed-​​eared woman had come strolling up from the depths of the sea, and yet she was dryer than he, who had been squatting on the sand.

He shook his head grimly. “This is some sort of waking nightmare.”

“Oh, no,” she smiled. “It is I. But what are you supposed to be?”

“A madman.”

She held out a hand to help him rise, but he lifted himself up unaided and brushed the sand from his tattered clothes.

“A wonderfully tall and ruggedly handsome madman,” she corrected. “That is so like you and your vanity.”

'That is so like you and your vanity.'

“How dare you come here?” He waved a hand at the sky behind her head. “Are you not afraid? The moon is not even full.”

“Only because I had to come so far to find you. I’ve been wanting to speak to you for so long, but I have waited in vain for you to come and piss in my lake as you like to do.”

He laughed louder than the roaring waves. “You know about that?”

'You know about that?'

“I know everything that happens within and beside my lake, my dear Duke.”

“Then it was worth the trouble! But if you know about that, you ought to know it was not worth the trouble to come here to see me. Nor the danger to your shining head.” He clucked at her and shook his own.

“Perhaps I merely missed you terribly,” she smiled. “What are you doing here on this – dare I say – godforsaken island?”

He folded his arms across his chest and rolled his eyes.

He folded his arms across his chest and rolled his eyes.

“Myrddin!” she gasped and giggled.

“That steaming pustule on my otherwise pristine behind! Look what he has me doing!” He bent to scoop up two handfuls of sand and tossed them in the air. “And now I shall have to start again!” he howled.

'And now I shall have to start again!'

Nimea flicked a few stray grains of sand from the back of her arm. “With what madman’s labor has he tasked you?”

“He wants the saltiest grain of sand on the shore of the island! And to be certain it is the saltiest, I must taste every one. Personally!” he panted.


“That will take…”

“Until the end of time!” His deep voice had risen in pitch until it threatened to crack. “And I must be in Rome in four days!”

“Oh, dear.” She clucked at him and shook her head.

“Nimea!” he whimpered. “Can’t you help me?”

'Can't you help me?'

“And to think I came to ask you the same question.”

The madman suddenly lifted his head and straightened his shoulders. His voice boomed again like the sea. “I help you?” he asked, majestically disdainful in spite of his ragged appearance. “I suggest you ask Myrddin to help you. I believe he would still do anything for you.”

'I believe he would still do anything for you.'

“Ah, but then I would be in his debt.”

She hooked her arm around his and began walking. His dignity obliged him to follow.

“Suppose you were to help me,” she mused. “Then I would be in your debt. A debt which I could repay… perhaps… by finding for you the saltiest grain of sand on this shore.”

'Perhaps... by finding for you the saltiest grain of sand on this shore.'

“Could you do that?” he asked dubiously.

She patted his arm and then slipped hers free. “Let us see.”

She walked out to where the waves met the sand and dug a little trench with her sandaled foot. Just before the next wave submerged it, Nimea flicked a grain of sand from the back of her hand into the hole.

“I said the saltiest, not the cleanest,” he grumbled as the wave rushed in.

'I said the saltiest, not the cleanest.'

When the wave withdrew, a part of it resisted the call of the sea and broke away. The water whirled into the hole, spinning a little white orb that grew as quickly as the water vanished, until there remained only a dry trench in the sand and a lustrous lump of salt as fat as a cherry.

Nimea scooped it up just before the next wave rolled over it.

The madman lifted a slanted eyebrow. “The saltiest grain on the shore?”

“It is now,” she smiled. “A pretty sort of pearl.” She nestled it carefully in the shadowed cleft between her breasts.

“Oh, Nimea,” the madman sighed and rolled his eyes. “How like you and your depravity. Now I must dive in after it, I suppose.”

'Now I must dive in after it, I suppose.'

She laughed merrily. “You shall have it as soon as you have done what I asked.”

“And what do you ask?”

She slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow and began walking with him again.

“I want you to lead the elf Iylaina to the water.”

'I want you to lead the elf Iylaina to the water.'

“To the lake?”

“No, to any water. I only wish her to drown. Any still, dark water will do.”

“To kill her?” he scowled.

“She must die peacefully,” Nimea sighed. “It almost seems a kindness so. It’s the closest thing to ecstasy she will ever know.”

“This, because you want the elf Vash?”

“Oh, my dear Dantalion,” she sighed and hugged his arm. “If you had ever been in love, you would understand.”

'If you had ever been in love, you would understand.'

“I love no one but myself, my dear Nimea, for I am wiser than you. But you should know better than anyone how foolish it is to fall in love with one’s pupil.”

“He is magnificent! But his love for the elf Iylaina is debasing him, and his longing for her is destroying him. He will return to me if she is gone.”

“Is she not expecting a child?” he asked.

She shrugged her arm against his. “Does it matter?”

'He lifted his eyes heavenward and sighed.'

He lifted his eyes heavenward and sighed. “If I have to explain, you wouldn’t understand.”

Her thoughts were already elsewhere. “She will come if you go as the elf Vash.”

“And the mark on my face?”

'And the mark on my face?'

“Does she know of it?”

He pinched his lower lip thoughtfully between the finger and thumb of his free hand. “I… don’t know…” he mumbled.

“Go in the night and stay just out of sight,” she advised. “And it must be on a night of the full moon so that my sister cannot interfere.”

He would have been troubled by the mention of her sister, but he had stopped listening the moment she had mentioned the full moon. He halted and looked up. The moon was fat, but it was still a crescent.

'I must be in Rome in four days.'

“I must be in Rome in four days. I cannot wait that long.”

“No!” She stamped her foot in the sand. “So your Pope dies a few days late! Will that change anything?”

“It could change everything, Nimea. This chaos is quite amusing on the scale of one valley, but I shall not be the one responsible for the entire world spinning off its axis.”

'I shall not be the one responsible for the entire world spinning off its axis.'

“It will anyway, sooner or later. And you don’t have much choice.” She patted her breast.

“Nimea!” he pleaded. “Have mercy! I can’t step off this shore until I have that pretty pearl in my hand.”

“Then take the shore with you,” she shrugged. “Can’t you taste sand on the way?”

'Can't you taste sand on the way?'

“I tried that,” he grumbled. “As soon as I leave the island, it’s not the sand on the shore any longer.”

“Take the island with you. What is the island? Not the sand, but the rock. Take a piece of the rock, put it in your charming little madman boot there, and you will be ‘on the island’, will you not?”

He frowned skeptically.

He frowned skeptically.

“It’s just the sort of trick Myrddin would play on you. You ought to trick him the same way once in a while.”

“I am above such mean trickery,” he muttered.

“Then you will be late for your meeting with future history.”

'Then you will be late for your meeting with future history.'

“But it wouldn’t help anyway!” he moaned, relieved at least to have an excuse to refuse. “I must be in Rome in four days. I can’t carry sand and stones without a body.”

“Then go with a body. Use your wings. How long would it take you to fly to Rome?”

“Four days, I suppose,” he grumbled.

'Four days, I suppose.'

“Perfect! And how long will you be there?”

“One night.”

“Then you may return to the valley in time for the full moon. And I shall deliver this pearl to you as soon as you have delivered Iylaina to her meeting with dark water.”

'I shall deliver this pearl to you.'

“Haven’t you done enough to her?” he sighed.

“Evidently not.”

He shook his head. “Ugly, imperfect mortal creatures that they are, your people have a certain savage nobility that you lack. I wonder whence it came, if not from you?”

'I wonder whence it came, if not from you?'

“They would kill her too, if they could.”

“Not for the same reasons. And they are only ugly, imperfect mortal creatures. This is beneath one such as you. I cannot understand.”

“You have never been in love.”

'You have never been in love.'

“No, Nimea,” he agreed. “My pride prevents me. Just as I believe your selfishness prevents you.”

“You know nothing about it. You said yourself you cannot understand love.”

“No. I said I cannot understand you.”

'I said I cannot understand you.'