by Kat Ellis
Rhiannon placed the berries on the table in front of her little brother, ordering them from most deadly to least. The boy followed the movement of her gloved fingers, but kept his own clasped in his lap. Even the least potent would putrefy the gizzards of an average grown man, and Mabon had quickly learned never to touch when Rhiannon delivered her lessons.
She stilled and looked at him expectantly. “This one?”
The berry was a middling green, with a single red dot at its base. “Worm claw?” Mabon said.
Rhiannon frowned at him. “Is it, or is it not? You must be certain, Mab.”
The boy looked at it again, longer this time, then nodded. “It is. Worm claw.”
“Aye. What does it do, then?”
Mabon smiled, showing teeth spaced wide like pegs. “Makes them bleed inside ‘til their eyes turn red.”
Rhiannon did not return the smile, though she was quite pleased with him. She pointed to another berry, this one black with a waxen sheen. “And this?”
“Coblyn’s breath. Raises great big welts in the armpits while the brain rots to soup, isn’t it.”
“Good. And this…”
Rhiannon swept the berries into her cloth bag as their mother gusted in through the back door of the cottage, making the fire crackle and spit in the grate before it resettled. Modron had been gone all morning, and now her basket was piled with seaweed and cockles, camffor root, and white gull feathers.
Not taking her eyes from her mother’s windswept form, Rhiannon tucked her woollen gloves inside the bag of berries before concealing both in the folds of her skirt.
“Ah, my children! I have been to sing our sorrows to the sea—would you look at how she has blessed us!” Modron gathered up her small son. Her wild hair obscured him completely until she released him, then touched her fingertips to Rhiannon’s burning cheek.
“Daughter,” Modron said, eyes glinting. “What have the pair of you been up to while I was out gathering, then?”
“Lessons,” Rhiannon said simply.
Modron turned to her son, the pink tip of her tongue protruding, showing her ready to scent any deception.
“Lessons,” Mabon confirmed, but said no more.
Modron tutted, but swung her heavily-laden basket onto the table. “Up to mischief and meddling, no doubt,” she said, taking out her wares and putting each item away carefully. These goods were not difficult to come by, but any blessings granted by the sea were to be treated with the proper reverence. “Well, you shall have to take your lessons outside for the afternoon. I’ve a visitor due any moment, and we can’t have you two loitering around, can we?”
Rhiannon scowled. Modron took a visitor at the cottage at least once a fortnight; more, when the moon season was upon them. Though Rhiannon understood the need for grain and cloth and whatever else Modron’s visitors bestowed, Rhiannon did not like to leave her mother alone with them. Too often she returned home to find the cottage in disarray, her mother taken to her bed lest Mabon see the evidence of what had occurred.
To him now, Rhiannon said, “Come. We can comb the shore for urchins like ourselves.”
Modron swatted her daughter’s cheek as she passed. “Too bold, Rhiannon.”
As they ambled across the dunes, cloaks pulled tight and eyes squinted against the bite of sand, Rhiannon saw the visitor’s horse already tethered behind the cottage.
“If you sing to Morian,” Rhiannon said, naming the spirit of the sea, “she may grant you a boon.” Mabon’s eyes widened, and he began singing at once.
They walked down onto sand left glutted by the recent tide, their shoes sucking with each step, stopping occasionally to pluck stones for Modron to mark with her runes later.
A red glint caught Rhiannon’s eye. Something was half-buried in the sand near her shoe. She picked it up, rubbing away the grit with numb fingertips. It was a blood whelk; rare enough on this shore, only known to rise to the sand’s surface when death blanched the air. The crack threatening to split it lengthways was no good portent.
Rhiannon looked up, but it was far too early for the moon season to have taken hold, was it not? How long had it been? How long?
“What have you there?” Mabon tugged at Rhiannon’s sleeve to catch a glimpse of the shell. She allowed him to take it, again peering up the path toward the tethered horse. The gelding whinnied, stamping its hooves and pulling against its harness as an ice-charged wind swept in from the sea.
Rhiannon snatched the shell from her brother and ran—not back toward the cottage, but away, into the sea. Water filled her shoes, biting and sharp, reaching her ankles, her knees. Rhiannon’s cloak dragged behind her, the sail of a scuppered ship, and she released the clasp at her throat.
Mabon’s frightened voice reached her from the water’s edge, but Rhiannon didn’t turn back. She gripped the blood whelk tight until it bit into her palm, then plunged it into the water.
“Morian, aid us, I beg of you!”
Rhiannon opened her palm beneath the still surface, waiting for the offering to be taken. Her blood threaded the water, yet the offering remained.
A scream tore the wind apart, no human thing, yet unmistakable in its terror. Rhiannon turned, saw the horse tugging at its bonds in the distance. It fought to free itself, desperate to escape. Black smoke curled like ivy over the cottage roof, through cracks in the walls and under the door. It writhed and squirmed, and Rhiannon saw in it the darkest of hungers.
The gelding shrieked once more, crumpled, and was silent.
“Mother?” Mabon’s voice was but a whisper, yet Rhiannon heard it. The wind had been consumed by something greater, something more wicked.
Rhiannon waded back to him, skirt clinging to her legs as though the sea would keep her. She took Mabon’s hand in her own, though both were too cold to take comfort from the gesture.
“This moon season comes early,” Rhiannon said. “Mother’s hunger must have been very great."
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