A Thousand Souls

by Marie Brennan

Content Note: This story contains drowning, intentional harm, and emotional manipulation

This story was originally published in Aberrant Dreams in 2007


The ships always hurry away when they see me.  Or rather, they try to; I try to make sure they can’t.  I wish I could call out to them and explain.  I’m not some horrible thing, luring men to their deaths simply for the pleasure of it.  Killing them is just something I have to do.  You see, they have something I need.

No doubt they’d laugh to hear me say that.  What could I possibly need?  Not food or water; I neither eat nor drink.  Not rescue from the rock on which I sit, for the water is as comfortable to me as the air.  I have beauty already, with my long golden hair and my perfect pale skin.  I have a voice that makes the waves themselves sing harmony.  I have immortality; the seas rise and fall, the moon waxes and wanes, the seasons roll endlessly by, but I do not age a day.

They do not have such fortune.  They are not so beautiful, and they must eat and drink and age.  But I imagine hardly a one of them gives a thought to the precious treasure he carries with him every day: his soul.

I had a soul once.  I didn’t think of it much, although occasionally a priest would remind me to have a care for its state.  They did not approve of my lighthearted ways.  But oh, how I wish I had listened to them; those ways brought me to the interest of the sorcerer, and now my soul languishes in a jeweled box, far inland where my lovely finned tail cannot take me.

If only I could have my soul back, I would take such good care of it!  I would dress it in the finest silks and sing it sweet melodies.  Those men on the ships do not treat their souls nearly so well.  They do not know the value of them.

They curse me for taking their souls from them, for drawing their ships in toward the rocks and drowning their bodies in the cold salt waves.  I don’t know why they complain, though.  If it were not me, it would be a storm, or rough surf, or a dozen other things, and then all those beautiful souls would go to waste.  They all die, soon enough; do a few days less truly matter?

Just last week, on the dark of the moon, I got thirty-four new souls.  It would have been thirty-six, but two swam strongly and made it to shore.  I don’t begrudge those two.  The thirty-four brought my count up to nine hundred eighty-seven, and now another ship is drawing near.  It has three masts and a wealth of shining white sails, and I can feel the bright, flickering souls even from here.  It’s hard to count them exactly, but there’s more than thirteen, and that’s all I need.

For thirteen will bring me up to a thousand, and a thousand will get me one.  The sorcerer for whom I gather these souls has promised it; once I have harvested a thousand for him, from the depths of the sea, then he will return my own soul to me.

I lift my voice in song, and clouds blacken the sky.  The waves surge higher, the ship draws closer, and soon it strikes the rocks.  In through the cracks floods the cold salt sea, and one by one those bright, flickering souls flutter loose from their bodies.  They struggle like little birds as I catch them, for they want to go to the sky, but I cannot let them.  They must go to the sorcerer, so that I may be free.

One, two — a few have reached the shore, but it is no matter — six, seven — plenty yet left on the ship — ten, eleven, twelve —

Thirteen.

Fourteen.

Fifteen.

My harvest of souls grows ever larger, and yet my own has not returned to me.

The dying has ended; there are no more souls to capture.  I wait, and wait, until the last of the wreckage has washed ashore, and yet the sorcerer does not come.

Could it be I have miscounted?  Perhaps it was not nine hundred eighty-seven.  It might have been fifty-seven, which would put me now at . . . nine hundred eighty-three?  Eighty-four?  Eighty-two?  I did not count so closely as I might have.  But regardless, I will be free soon.

Unless . . . .

It might not have been nine hundred eighty-seven, or even fifty-seven.  It might have been eight hundred.

Or less?

It’s so hard to keep count.  The days roll by and I do not age; one ship looks much like another, to my eyes.  In the beginning I remembered every one, but now it is so hard.

But that does not matter.  I know what I must do.  I must keep collecting souls for the sorcerer, until one day I have a thousand, and the thousand will get me one.  My very own soul, returned to my keeping.

The sorcerer promised.


© Copyright Marie Brennan


Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to The Night Parade of 100 Demons and the short novel Driftwood. The first book of her Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent, A Natural History of Dragons, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Her other works include the Doppelganger duology, the urban fantasy Wilders series, the Onyx Court historical fantasies, the Varekai novellas, and over sixty short stories, as well as the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides. Together with Alyc Helms as M.A. Carrick, she is the author of the Rook and Rose epic fantasy trilogy, beginning with The Mask of Mirrors. For more information, visit swantower.com, her Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon at www.patreon.com/swan_tower


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