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The Blue Salt Road

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The Blue Salt Road

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Author: Joanne M. Harris
Publisher: Gollancz, 2018
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

An earthly nourris sits and sings
And aye she sings, "Ba lilly wean,
Little ken I my bairn's father,
Far less the land that he staps in.
(Child Ballad, no. 113)

So begins a stunning tale of love, loss and revenge, against a powerful backdrop of adventure on the high seas, and drama on the land. The Blue Salt Road balances passion and loss, love and violence and draws on nature and folklore to weave a stunning modern mythology around a nameless, wild young man.

Passion drew him to a new world, and trickery has kept him there - without his memories, separated from his own people. But as he finds his way in this dangerous new way of life, so he learns that his notions of home, and your people, might not be as fixed as he believed.

Beautifully illustrated by Bonnie Helen Hawkins, this is a stunning and original modern fairytale.


Excerpt

Prologue

The ocean has many voices. It sings in the voice of the pilot whale; the voice of the dolphin; the waves on the beach. It sings in the voice of a thousand birds; it cries in the wind that howls through the rocks upon the distant skerries. But most of all, it sings in the voice of the selkie; those people of the ocean clans that hunt with the seal, and dance with the waves, and, nameless, go on forever.

The voice of the selkie is soft and low. At first you may not hear it. At first you may mistake it for the cry of a bird, or the bark of a seal, or the sound of the tide on the pebbles. But listen, and you will realize that each of those sounds is a story. The crunch of pebbles underfoot; the splash of a leaping mackerel; the cry of a sea-eagle hunting above the white rocky shores of the islands. Stories, like the travelling folk, never die, but always move on. There are stories every- where; in the air; the food you eat; in the embers of the fire. And when you go to bed at night, and listen to the wind in the eaves, there are stories under the bed and hiding in the shadows. Stories of the Kraken, who comes from the deepest oceans; stories of sirens whose song can lure unwary travellers to their death; stories of mermaids, lighthouses, ships - and stories of the selkie.

This is such a story. Taken from a song of the Folk, taught to me by a gunnerman; which makes it just as true - or false - as those sweet siren promises. The Folk have a complex relationship with the clan of the selkie: hunting them for their hides and flesh; fearing them for their savagery. And yet they have always dreamed of them from the safety of their homes; and, loving them for their wildness, have always sought to cap- ture and tame the people of the ocean. Thus are they both sickened and drawn; bewitched and repelled; at war and in love. They weave their stories from the thinnest and most fragile of threads, thistledown by moonlight; like gleaming skeins of spider silk. This is such a story, as true or as false as the sound of the wind, or the flight of the herring-gull over the white-crested waves. This is my story; the story of the land-folk and the seal-folk, a story of love, and of treachery, and of the call of the ocean. Take from it what you most need, and pass it on to someone else, for this is how stories - and selkie - move on; changing, unchanging, like the tides, taking with them what they can and scattering tales to the four winds, like seeds upon the ocean.

Chapter One

There was a young man of the Grey Seal clan, the most playful of the selkie. He lived by a circle of skerries to the west of the islands of the Folk, where the winds blow harsh and, every year, the ice creeps ever closer. His people were fierce and wild and razor-toothed; and he was the wildest of them all, diving from the tallest rocks, tumbling in the whitest surf, roaming further than any of his people dared venture.

His mother was the matriarch of the clan: proud and powerful and strong, sheathed in muscle and robed in fat to keep her through the winters, and her son was just as handsome; with powerful shoulders, dappled flanks and eyes as dark as the ocean.

But the young man was wilful. He loved to listen to tales of the Folk; those people so like, yet so unlike the selkie. He loved to swim close to their shores, and play in the surf of their beaches. He loved to follow their fishing-boats and watch them take in their catches of fish. And he loved to hear their voices, singing from the decks of their ships; voices that reached him on the wind in snippets and snatches of story.

His mother said: "Beware the Folk. Their race is bloodthirsty and cruel. They do not shed their skins, as we do, to walk upon the land, but hunt the grey seal and the walrus with spears and harpoons, and flay their skins, and wear them against the winter cold, for they are thin, pale, shivering things, helpless as new-born chicks in the snow."

But the young man of the selkie did not heed her warnings. Nor did he heed the words of his friends, the carefree companions of his childhood. He knew of the wars between the clans of the selkie and that of the Folk. He had even watched from afar as the whaling-ships set off out from the coast, hunting the regal lords of the sea. He had seen bloody battles fought among the outermost skerries, and he knew of the courage of the Folk, and longed to know more of their customs. And so he swam out to the nearest of the neighbouring islands, and set out to learn everything he could about its mysterious inhabitants.

He would swim close to their homesteads, and watch the light from their windows, and bask in the shallows by their shores, and listen to their women singing lullabies to their children. He would sit out alone on a rock by the harbour mouth, and watch the tall ships. And as he grew, so grew his desire for the land and its people, until one summer's night he swam right to the shore of an island, and, beaching himself on the cool dark sand, he shed his bulky sealskin, with its protective layer of fat, and stood naked on the shoreline; dark-skinned, sleek and glossy-haired, and handsome in the moonlight.

"So this is how it feels," he thought, "to be a man of the Folk." He looked down at his new skin with curious eyes, noting the graceful length of his limbs; the shape of his ribs and torso; the markings on his dark skin, so like those of a Grey Seal, and yet remade into something new; and the collarbones that stood out sharply beneath the column of his neck. In the form of a Grey Seal, he was strong and powerful; but as a man he was reborn into something lithe and beautiful; and walking on the forbidden ground, with the gritty sand beneath his feet, he felt a surge of surprise and joy.

The ocean's many voices now called to him in warn- ing. "Beware!" cried a herring gull, riding the wind.

"Betrayal!" said the voice of the wave as it crashed against a rock.

"Come home!" came the cry of the Grey Seal clan from the distant skerry; a cry that came from every man or woman of the selkie clan: his playmates, his brothers, his sisters.

But the selkie did not listen to them. "All I want to do is walk along the shore awhile," he told himself, folding his sealskin carefully and hiding it under a standing rock. "No-one will see me here, on the shore. The Folk are all asleep in their beds."

And he was right: nobody saw. The Folk slept, and if any dreamed of a young man naked by the shore, with long hair like a horse's mane and skin as dark as a stormy sea, they wisely did not speak of it, for such dreams are dangerous. But when the young man of the selkie put on his sealskin to return to the people of the sea, he was conscious of a sensation almost of disappointment.

It was true that his human form was in many ways inferior to his seal Aspect. As a man he could only swim in a slow and clumsy style. It was true that, as a man, he was cold without his sealskin. It was true that as a man, his hearing and vision were both reduced, and his reflexes were slower - although they were still far keener than those of a common man of the Folk. But the thrill of walking on enemy soil - the thrill of taking the enemy's skin - was more than enough to compensate for any of these failings. He began to visit the Folk every night, spending longer and longer on land, and taking more risks as he became more secure in his new form, and in his new surroundings. He grew ever more daring, moving further away from the beach, and visiting the harbourside, or the settlements of the Folk, with their low-roofed houses; thick stone walls, windows facing out to sea.

He learnt that, at night, there was no-one about to question his presence or sound the alarm. His selkie senses were sharp enough to hear into the homes of the Folk. Through the walls of a fisherman's hut, he could hear the sound of a man's breathing shift from the low growl of deep sleep to the shallow murmur of wakefulness. Through the walls of a family home, he could hear the sound of an ivory comb moving through a girl's long hair, and smell the tallow candle burning at her bedside. He moved with the speed of a hunting seal; with the silence of the turning tide. And little by little, the young man of the selkie grew bolder, and more reckless.

Back at the skerry ring, the clan of the Grey Seal watched their son's movements with concern and disapproval. His mother spoke out with displeasure, saying: "This game of yours is dangerous. No good can possibly come of it. One day you will be chief of this clan, and lead our people in my place. But for that you need to learn caution, son, and to know the ways of the enemy."

"I learn far more from watching the Folk than you ever did by hiding," replied the selkie to his mother. "This game of mine, as you put it, has given me the chance to see them in their natural habitat. I have looked into their homes. I have watched them with their young. I have seen that they are not the monsters that you think them to be. I think, in time, our people could even maybe become friends--"

The matriarch gave an angry bark, showing her pointed teeth. "Young fool! Do you think you are the first of our people to have thought of this? Our history is full of young fools who thought they could befriend the Folk. And their story always ends the same way. Entrapment; enslavement; exile."

She went on to tell him many tales of selkie, robbed of their skins and sold into slavery by the Folk; unable to return to their clan; or remember their true nature; their children given human names, and thereby for- ever denied the chance to hear the voice of the sea, or to be with their own people.

"Even your own father," she said, "fell victim to the slavers. One of the kings of the blue salt road, lured from his people, stripped of his skin and his memories; tricked into murdering his own and damned beyond redemption. He broke my heart: and so will you, if you follow this perilous path."

But the young man was too arrogant to listen to her warnings. He knew himself to be faster, stronger, more capable than any man of the Folk. There would be time for caution when he was old, like his mother. Meanwhile, he was enjoying himself; and as time passed, and his recklessness grew, his mother's voice fell silent. His friends, too, learnt not to interfere, or risk arousing his anger. Except for one girl of the selkie, who had been his dearest friend, and who was outspoken and fearless.

"Why waste your time with the Folk?" she said. "They are poor things, paltry and pale. Their strength is only in their ships, and in their guns, and their steel harpoons. Why take their form, when in selkie skin you are strong, and lithe, and fleet, and so much more handsome than any of them?"

But the selkie said: "You are a child. When you are grown, you will understand."

The girl of the selkie said nothing, but her dark eyes flashed as she swam away. She was only a twelve-month younger than the young man of the selkie, and she was almost as fast and as strong. Angered by his arrogance, she fled to warmer waters, to play with the folk of the other clans; the Common Seals, and the Harp Seals, and the Hooded Seals, and the Bearded Seals.

The young man of the selkie watched her go with secret regret. "She will return," he told himself. "Girls are so stubborn and volatile. One day, perhaps, she will understand the ways and customs of the Folk. One day, perhaps, we will leave our skins and walk together on the shore." But he was too proud to call her back, or admit that he missed her: and so he too began to seek company elsewhere.

Copyright © 2018 by Joanne M. Harris


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