I discovered the Mist Mad body the day I lost my favorite ball.
The ball sailed over the edge of the cliff and I watched it plummet to the beach below. I stood at the edge, my bare toes clinging to the rough rocks, icy air chilling my lungs. My red ball lay against a dark bundle of cloth. From that distance, I didn’t know what it was.
At the shoreline, the ocean boiled and frothed against the pebbles. The White Mist rose in stark contrast to the iron gray water, a distant wall of fog that reached right up to the clouds. Ships dragged too close to the Mist vanished beyond, never seen again.
My Dad told me those stories.
The closer I walked toward the bundle, the heavier my steps grew. I’d never seen one before, but I recognized the size and shape. A man-sized bundle, wrapped in strips of dark linen. Dad described to me many times how they buried fallen sailors at sea. My eyes darted to either end of the bundle, seeking the ropes that would have tied it to weights.
They must have slipped off. A part of me urged my legs to run home, abandon my ball, and tell Mama. But another part held sway, and pulled me closer, eyes fixed on my ball. My Dad’s last gift to me.
Closer, a chill tightened my spine. Thunder rumbled overhead. I reached for my ball.
The body flopped over. I stifled a scream, and leapt backward. My foot slipped, and sent me sprawling, smacking my backside on the wet rocks. I started into flat gray eyes. And they stared at me.
Mist Madness, the fate of a sailor that breathed in the White Mist. I imagined the panic of the other sailors. A Mist Mad would do all they could to turn the other sailors, sabotage the ship and sail it straight into the fog.
The body, I could not tell if it was a man or woman, writhed, tied arms straining for freedom. The mouth opened, and let out a wet, strangled sound.
My heart pounded. My fingers clenched around a rock. The body flexed, freed one arm. Fingers reached for me.
I flung the rock with strength born of terror.
It struck the Mist Mad square in the forehead. The glassy eyes sparked with emotion, fear, pain, sorrow, before the light died again.
I turned and scrabbled back up to the top of the cliff and ran all the way home, leaving my ball behind.
Tears poured down my cheeks when I reached our cottage.
Marten, my step-father, stood outside chopping firewood. He frowned and dropped his ax when he saw my face. “What happened?”
Sorrow clogged my throat.
Marten grasped my shoulders and shook me. “Out with it, boy. You’re pale as a sea wench.”
“A Mist Mad washed up on shore.” I swallowed back another bout of tears. “I lost my ball. The one Dad gave me.”
Marten’s eyes darkened. “Greta!” He went into the house. Seconds later he emerged, tucking his knife into his belt.
Mama followed him out, and wrapped her arms around me. We watched Marten walk the road toward the village.
“What will he do?” Panic seized me at the thought of Marten facing the Mist Mad.
Mama squeezed my shoulder. Her normally ruddy skin pale. “Don’t you worry about Marten. He took care of himself long before we came along.” She gave me a brief smile, though her eyes flicked toward the cliff. “Help me get dinner ready.”
An hour’s worth of candle burned down before Marten came home. He hung his knife on the wall, and sat down at the table. He stared into his bowl of fish stew, then reached into his pocket.
He placed my ball next to my plate, and patted my shoulder.
“What of the creature?” Mama tore a loaf of bread into three chunks and passed one to each of us.
Marten shook his head. “Jed Smithson’s hammer rusted away to nothing when he brought it within four feet of the thing.” He bit off a hunk of bread, chewed and swallowed. “It has a strong will, this one. Seemed physically weak, but that might have been an act.”
“What can be done?” Mama glanced at me. “Burn it? Push it back out to sea?”
Marten sighed. “Too wet and windy for a fire. Getting close is risky.” He dipped his spoon in his stew, but didn’t eat. “It was trying to breathe on us. We hammered stakes around it, to keep it contained. Sy’s riding out to Lyrecrest, to fetch a mage-priest.” He made a face. “I doubt they’ll come before winter’s end.”
I watched them both, but they said nothing more.
“When will it die?”
Mama shuddered, and wiped her eyes.
Marten wrapped his fingers around her wrist, and looked at me. “It won’t die unless the Mist lets it go.”
A sour taste hit the back of my throat. “I saw his eyes. The man was still in there. Will it keep him alive forever?” Fresh new terror seized me. “Is that what happened to Dad?” Frantic, I jerked away from the table. My hand struck the ball. It fell with a thump, and rolled across the floor.
Mama seized my arm. “Enough, Lyas.”
“Listen to your mother.” Marten gripped the edge of the table, as if he wanted to flip it over. “Sit down, and eat.”
We finished dinner in silence. Afterward, I escaped to the loft. Stripping down to my long woolens, I crawled to the upper window. My view faced the village. The scattered lights mirrored the stars overhead. I watched them, and thought about the Mist Mad. Then I thought about my Dad.
Three years gone, his body buried at sea. Riddin by the Mist.
What if it never let him go?
Before day break the next morning, I climbed out of bed. Shivering in the dewy dark, I threw on breeches and a shirt. Ugly dreams had plagued me through the night, and in the wee hours, I had made a decision.
On tiptoes, I slipped out of the house.
I fed and watered the chickens and goats, milked the nannies and built up the fire in the barn stove. I took a few swallows of warm milk to settle my stomach. Freed from chores, and with the memory of the fire crackling, I ran back to the beach.
The Mist Mad lay trapped in a makeshift fence, wooden stakes hammered deep into the pebbled ground. Its free hand lay by its head. Face turned to the side, its eyes watched me. With a shudder, I ran to a nearby cache of trees, and went to work.
I dragged branches to a dry hillock overlooking the ocean. Half the morning I worked. Afraid to go in for breakfast, I fed myself on discarded apples from the village orchard.
By midmorning, I’d built a serviceable pyre. Heart hammering against my ribs, I made my way down to the beach.
With a coil of rope slung over my shoulder, I imagined myself a sailor. Just going about my everyday chores, no fear or hesitation.
While I worked, the creature moved. It lay belly down, closer to the edge of its cage, the green gray face pressed into the rocks. As I drew closer, the head shifted. It gasped, like a fish pulled from water.
I tied the end of my rope to the creature’s ankles, coiled the other end over my shoulder, and began to pull.
The body fought me. It twisted and writhed, determined to break free from my rope. Its free hand clawed at the rocks. I slipped and stumbled often. Bruises and scrapes mottled my shins. Between the clatter of the rocks and my own exertions, it took me a while to notice the singing.
The Mist Mad hummed a quiet song. Sad, and painfully beautiful.
The familiar melody pressing against my memory. A sailor’s song, of the rolling sea, storms and ships. Of loving the ocean, but missing home. A song my Dad had once sung me.
Sweat poured down my back, and the heat from the sun steamed it away. I reached my pyre just before noon. Mama would holler soon, for me to come for lunch.
With a grunt, I hauled the legs up on top of the wood. Then I lifted the shoulders. The head flopped to the side, and the flat gray eyes found me.
I stiffened. Fear and pain. Life shown from those eyes, for just a moment. A vague smile bowed lips gone black.
I struck my fire starter. Once … twice … the third time, the spark caught the kindling. I fed it, blew on it, willed it to burn. The bigger branches caught and the flames swallowed them up hungrily.
“Lyas! Lyas, lunch time. You’ve chores to do, young man.”
I turned to go, but a sound stopped me. A thin, cackling laugh.
“Lyas. Lyas, you’ve chores to do.” The creature spoke in a reedy voice. “You’ve done quite a bit already.”
I faced the body again, though rising flames obscured my view. The wet clothes smoldered in the fire. Thick, black smoke clogged the air. Through the wavering orange and yellow tendrils of flame, I spotted the face. The black smile, and dead eyes. The lips moved. “So warm.”
The stink of burning flesh stung my nose. Smoke billowed into the sky. The creature’s skin bubbled, blackened and peeled.
It still smiled. “I think I will leave this one. Perhaps I shall see you again, Lyas.” The body stiffened then went limp.
I jumped back, then stood frozen in horror.
A wrenching, horrible wail, like no sound I’d ever heard. The sailor failed on the pyre, sending plumes of ash flying. His eyes, sightless and wild with pain and fear caught mine. He did not see me. But I would forever see him.
In all, it was likely only one minute. But each agonizing second dragged on like an eternity.
“Lyas. Lyas, what in the Devil’s Claw are you doing.” Strong hands grabbed me up, pulled me away from the fire. Marten took in my raw hands. He stared for a moment at the pyre, then held me tight against his chest. He said nothing. He offered no words of comfort. None would have comforted me.
When others learned what I did and the result, they grew quiet, and stared at me. An elder at the village tavern, a long retired sailor, tried to ease my mind.
“Twas a trick, boy. The Mist is clever and cruel. It mimicked the sailor’s voice to frighten you.”
I did not believe him. I had met the sailor’s eyes. It was him. But at least I knew I’d saved him from weeks if not months of misery.
It helped, knowing what I had done, when I thought about my Dad. Wondered if the Mist held him, still alive, deep beneath the sea.