There once was a village on the edge of ruin.
What had led to the founding of the village was lost in the mists of time. Whatever had attracted the settlers there was certainly lost on the current inhabitants. It was sandwiched between a hardpacked desert and the sea. The few farmers had to constantly haul water out of the communal well to keep the few plants that would grow watered and fed. The rest of the town lived on the sea. The pier of the village was long but crumbling, stretching into the ocean like an arm that was slowly losing hope. There were shoals of fish so the villagers never went hungry but neither did they prosper. They were able to trade with the occasional passing ship but those seldom came past due to the cruel currents.
Living there was hard but it was home and the villagers didn’t want to give it up. Where else would they go that they could still be a community? Could they leave the bones of their ancestors lying forgotten? But at the same time they knew that something had to change or else their existence would fade into nothing. So they called a town meeting to discuss it.
“We need something to attract people here,” the headwoman said. She was old and wrinkled, weathered by time and the sea, with skin like leather but a voice that rang clear and loud. “Something that we can make money from. Some way to survive.”
There were mutterings from the rest of the village. They all knew this was true, this hadn’t been the first meeting on this subject, but none of them could see a way to improve their situation. The murmur was growing defeated when someone spoke up.
“What about salt?”
They turned and looked as Malvina Lux walked into the room. Malvina was born in the village the same as everyone else but unlike them she’d left, wanderlust claiming her and calling her to the sea. She had returned after a while but everyone agreed that the time away had changed her. With hair that had been long and black when she left and shorn short and turquoise when she returned and tattoos that seemed to shift places when people weren’t watching she unsettled the villagers and many parents would warn their children to stay away from her. “She has sea salt in her veins and curses under her fingernails,” they would tell them. But for all her oddity she was still one of them and important in the community. All listened as she spoke.
“Salt sells,” she said. “It’s not glamorous but with it we could salt our fish so make them more attractive to trade and to last longer. We could sell the excess at profit. It’s a good investment.”
“That it may be,” the headwoman said. “But there’s no salt here.”
“There’s the sea. It has all the salt we need.”
“But there’s no way of getting it.”
“I have heard,” Malvina replied, “of a blacksmith that can imbue objects with heat. If we get him to make a pan then every day we could fill it with sea water. It would evaporate, leaving the salt behind for us to collect. We could use it night and day, for as long as the magic lasts, and amas a fortune.”
The village liked this idea. But the headwoman was not yet convinced. “Magic costs money, and money is something we don’t have.”
“We might not have money, but we all have something. If we pull together as a village then we can afford it.”
“Yeah, right,” came a shout from the back of the room. “You’ll just take it and disappear.”
There was a general agreement before Malvina silenced it with four words.
“I’ll give the vow.”
Though much of the history of that village was lost, among what remained was the vow. It was old magic and it bound the oath taker to their word. Or so it was said, for none had dared to go against it in living memory. To invoke it was to be trusted. And, with a voice like the crashing waves, that is what Malvina Lux did.
“I swear on the wind and the water, on the sand and the sea, on my blood and my bones that I will get and bring back that pan. Or may I wander forever as the oath breaker I am.”
There was magic in vows such as that and besides, the villagers were desperate. So they gathered together a crate of silks and linen, sealed with oil to protect against the ocean and gave it to Malvina. She got in her fishing boat and started sailing up the coast. Getting into the port of Glimmeredge a week later she left the boat in the care of a friend and headed inland.
The blacksmith’s village was in the middle of the Greatwoods, a kingdom of trees and greenery. After a bit of asking around she knocked on the door she was assured was his. The blacksmith answered, his apprentice leaning around him to see who was at the door. He was a tall man, with a bushy black beard and the thick shoulders of his profession. His apprentice was a girl in her early teens, though the definition of her arms showed how dedicated she was to her work. Her long hair was a bright bronze that shone even in the dim interior of the house.
“I heard that you were the blacksmith with magic metal,” Malvina said, looking him up and down. She heaved the crate off the handcart she had rented and dropped it at their feet. “I need some work done.”
“You’ve misheard,” the blacksmith said. “There’s no magic here.”
Malvina had found the dwelling by asking where the magic blacksmith lived so she knew he was lying. Instead she levered off the top of the crate. She’d carefully packed it so that the silks were at the top and the soft gleam of them filled the air. “I don’t want anything complicated. Just a pan.” She leaned over the open crate and showed them the diagram of what she was wanting.
The blacksmith shook his head again. “We can’t make that,” but the apprentice reached past him and grabbed the diagram. With a quick look at the sailor the blacksmith slammed the door.
She could hear a fierce argument coming from behind the wood and she patiently waited. Later he came back out, looking unsettled. “It should be ready in a week,” he told her. She thanked him and took herself off to the inn, where she spent the week drinking ale, flirting with the barmaid and telling wild stories to everyone and no one who would listen. When the messenger came to let her know that it was done she finished her drink, bid a reluctant farewell to her transient companions and made her way back to the blacksmith’s home. Her knock was answered as it was back then, the blacksmith filling the door and his apprentice lurking behind him. Both looked tired, with bags under their eyes and the apprentice’s former tidy hair was messy and deformed. But Malvina didn’t pay them much attention because before her was the pan.
It was tall, coming up to the height of her knee and so wide that she could stretch both arms around it and they would not meet. The handles were of wood and a sea theme had been carved into it with no little skill, waves and shells littering the sides. But the pot itself was what caught her eye. It seemed filled with heat, the air wavering inside it and causing the bronze to look twisted and warped. But when she picked it up by the handles and swung it onto the handcart it was cool. It was perfect.
She thanked the blacksmith and his apprentice profusely and set off again for the coast. She got her boat and sailed home. But there was a reason that few ships came to the village and she was three days into the voyage, navigating the treacherous waters when the storm hit.
The mind blocks out trauma so when she awoke on the beach all Malvina could remember was an impression rushing water, of waves taller than any mountain, of St Elmo’s fire cackling along the froth. Of the world, and her boat, shattering around her. None of that was important. All that mattered was that she was alive and that her arms were wrapped around the Bronze Pan. Once those two facts became apparent she struggled to sit up, sand sliding off her, and find out where she was.
There was only two colours in the world when she looked around, the deep blue of the sea and the sky and the copper of the beach and desert. The sun had only just risen and already the heat was rising. She was already getting thirsty and knew that it would only get worse.
It was then that the Djinn appeared.
It began as a wind, a handful of grains of sand that swirled about one another, twisting, turning, picking up more until a dust devil whirled in front of her. The top of it blossomed out and a man’s upper body grew there, thick arms as muscular as Malvina’s folded across his chest, a broad nose, long wild hair that tossed in their own wind. From the shadow of his face gleamed two eyes, the piercing blue of sapphires.
Malvina knew what it was immediately. The Djinn were the focus of countless numbers of her childhood bedtime stories and she had heard more grown-up versions while travelling. No matter their content though they all agreed on one point.
Do not make deals with the Djinn.
“You’re in a bad place, Mortal,” it intoned, in a voice that was as deep as a lion’s growl.
“My name is Malvina,” she replied. Then, because the stories had warned her to be courteous, added, “How do I address you?”
“I have many names, in many places. But here and now, you may refer to me as Dhaafir.”
“Oh great Dhaafir.” Malvina bowed her head to him, still seated on the ground. “How may I help you?”
“It is not I that need help, Mortal.” An arm detached for its companion and swept forward in a great arc. “You have landed in desolation. But I can help you survive.”
“Malvina, not mortal,” the sailor replied. “And while I appreciate your concern, I am perfectly fine.”
“Perfectly fine? You have no transport, no water. All you have is a pot of bronze that you do not need. It is heavy and will only weigh you down. Give it to me and I will take you wherever you desire, and with sustenance to survive the journey.”
Malvina swallowed, her throat even dryer at the mention of water. But the Djinn wanted the pot and that was the one thing she would never give up. Her village needed it and so it wasn’t possible.
“Again, I thank you,” she said carefully. “But I have my own two feet for transport and my mind for supplying everything else. I shall be fine.”
Dhaafir seemed to find her statement funny. “We will see,” he said and then his sand collapsed in on itself and he was gone.
Malvina staggered to her feet and looked around. She needed water. She needed to work out where she was. And she needed to get to her village with the Bronze Pan. She looked at the wreckage of her boat, strewn along the coastline. And sighed.
She got to work.
The sun was at its highest point in the sky when the Djinn reappeared. He looked at her standing shirtless before the sledge of wood that she had built, the pan, with her top laid over it, resting in the centre. “Mortal, what are you doing?” he asked.
Malvina turned to him, tattoos sliding across her skin. Her worn hands continued to knot and tie the scavenged rope as she spoke. “Ah, great Dhaafir. The pot was hard to carry on its own so I had to make this. I was about to set off.”
The Djinn examined the sled as the sailor tied the rope around her waist and got ready to walk. It was a part of her ship’s keel, smoothed by years on the sea so that it would glide across the sand. “Ingenious,” he admitted. “But what about water? You still have nothing to drink.”
Malvina smiled at him and then pulled her shirt from the pan. Inside it was filled with seawater, bubbling away as it boiled. Her shirt was damp from the steam and she lifted it to her lips and sucked. The water should have tasted foul but to her cracked lips it was sweet as honey.
Once she’d sucked it dry she replaced it to start collecting more water. “I wish you a good day, Dhaafir,” she said and started for home.
The Djinn stood and watched her as she walked out of sight. Then, swift and invisible, he followed.
The sun sank slowly towards the horizon as Malvina walked onwards, the landscape undulating in front of her. One by one the stars crept from their beds, peaking down at the land below them, watching as she collapsed to the ground, tired and spent. She gazed back, taking their measure and her place in the world, for she had long ago learned to navigate by them. What she saw wasn’t reassuring. She was still three days away from the village by sea and she didn’t know how long by walking. She could chance going across the desert instead of along the shoreline that meandered like a dropped string. But that would mean leaving the coast, which was her only supply of water and she didn’t know the desert at all. There was a high risk of getting lost.
All in all, there were no good options. All that was to be done was to keep walking until she reached the village and hope that she made it. She sucked all the moisture out of her shirt, refilled the pot from the sea and settled down to sleep.
The temperature dropped fast once the sun had gone down and soon Malvina found herself shivering. The twilight painted the air violet and though the brown sand sent out the heat it had absorbed during the day it wouldn’t last long. Mist flowed from the pot where hot met cold, an invisible witches’ brew.
Which was when the Djinn appeared again.
“Are you cold, Mortal?” The words were the first Malvina knew of his coming. She sat up, trying to hide her trembling.
“Dhaafir,” she said, trying to sound excited. “Welcome to my campfire.”
He looked down at her, aquamarine eyes flashing in the starlight. “There is no fire here. But there could be. Give me the pot and you will be warm and well fed all night through.”
Malvina put an arm around the pot defensively and paused. The pot was hot beneath her skin and the numbness that had been creeping up from her fingers slunk away. She wasn’t comfortable but it was survivable. Turning to the Djinn she flashed a smile.
“Thank you for your generous offer, great Djinn, but I am well.”
“I don’t believe you,” he said bluntly. “As the night goes on it’ll get colder. I will wait until your answer changes.”
Malvina flexed her fingers, unconsciously wishing for a sword. Worse she was worried that the Djinn might be right. She needed something to distract her from the cold.
“As you wish,” she said. “But the night is long and I don’t wish for you to get bored. May I tell you some stories while you wait?”
Dhaafir eyed her suspiciously but then seemed to settle down, the cloud of his lower body condensing into legs, which he crossed as he sat before her. “Very well,” he said.
Malvina hugged the pot to her and closed her eyes and she tried to remember a story. “Far to the west, there is an island where nothing grows but a single tree,’ she began. As she spoke her voice grew in strength and confidence for, although the circumstances were a little different, she was an enthusiastic storyteller. The Djinn sat watching her rapt for most of the night as the tales flowed between them. Just before dawn Malvina drifted off to sleep and Dhaafir watched over her until the moment before she awoke.
The sun found her still shivering around the pot, hungry and tired. Her skin hurt where the sun had scorched it raw and her lips were cracked. But there was nothing she could do about it so she got up, sucked what moisture she could from the cloth, bound herself in ropes once again and start walked.
The second day passed much as the first had, though she was weaker and had to take more frequent breaks. The water didn’t taste as sweet and salt crystals covered the bottom of the pan, a painfully blinding flash of reflected light. The sunset came again and with it the Djinn.
“Malvina, I have come again.”
Malvina hadn’t so much stopped walking for the day as fallen on her face. But at his words she struggled up and planted herself around the pot.
“Welcome back to my campfire, Dhaafir. Once again I can offer you nothing for your time but stories.”
The Djinn looked at her for a moment then once again sat. “That is acceptable.”
The sailor got comfortable and, after wetting her throat, stated talking again. She’d known that the Djinn would visit and had spent the day distracting herself by thinking up stories. “Up north, where the world ends and the seas freeze there stands a fountain…”
Once again she talked through most of the night. Though in her weakness she fell asleep earlier than before. Dhaafir sat watching over her as the stars wheeled overhead and the mist flowed from the pot until she woke. Then, in the moment of her consciousness, he was gone.
It took longer for Malvina to struggle up this morning, and every step felt like the last one. The water wasn’t as thirst quenching has it had been and she could barely wrestle the pot into the water to refill it. The darkness fell and with it the end of her strength. She knew she could go no further.
And at the end a spark of fury flared within her.
“I did my best!” she screamed into the uncaring darkness. “I went out into the world, to try and help my village! I got close and, if I die now, let the world know that it was despite everything I could do! I did not lose!” Then she collapsed into a darkness she thought never to wake from.
But awake she did, to the sound of a crackling fire and the smell of roasting meat. Looking around she saw the Djinn beside a banked fire on which a spit turned slowly and she trembled, for this was a temptation that she did not think she could resist. But before she could flee the spirit spoke.
“Greetings, Malvina, and welcome to my campfire. Please, warm yourself and enjoy some food.”
“What will it cost?” she asked, for with spirits there was always a cost.
He smiled at her, weak and uncertain. “You have been kind enough to share your stories with me the last few nights. This is the least I can do to repay you. But though fire and food are cheap here water is not and you must supply that yourself.”
Malvina nodded, for that was more than fair and threw herself on the meat that was turning on the spit over the fire. It was mutton, hot and greasy and she gorged herself on it. Finally she settled back, lifting the rag that used to be her shirt to her lips and drinking as deeply as she could. Once she was sated she turned to the Djinn.
“What sort of story would you like?” she asked.
“Why are you out here, just yourself and a magical pot?”
This was a good question and a good story so Malvina began. “There was once a village on the edge of ruin…”
She fell asleep before she could finish but that was fine for it was a story that had yet to end. Dhaafir again kept watch until dawn’s arrival and then left.
The next day Malvina couldn’t travel far, still worn out by pushing herself to the edge of her endurance and beyond but when night fell Dhaafir returned to set up a campfire and cook her some food. The next day she got further and then further again the next. Every night Dhaafir was there with something to eat. Sometimes it was lizard, sometimes a bowl of figs and sometimes it was goat but it was always filling and to Malvina it was always delicious, filling her with energy as she told stories in return.
And bit by bit, day by day, she grew closer to home.
Finally the stars told Malvina that she was almost to the village and would arrive the next day. That night Dhaafir threw her a great feast, with pork and dates. She repaid him with exuberance, telling tales of high adventure and low cunning. But no matter how striking her words the Djinn seemed despondent.
“What’s wrong?” she asked finally. “Are tonight’s stories not to your liking?”
“No, no, they are fine indeed,” Dhaafir was quick to assure her. “But by tomorrow night you will be home and I’ll be alone in the desert again.”
He seemed so upset that Malvina reached across to give his arm a quick squeeze. This was the first time either had touched the other and she half expected her hand to go through him. But he was hard and warm beneath her fingers.
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” she said. “You know…”
He pulled himself to his feet, up and away from her, green eyes flashing.
“Do not give me your pity,” he said, half desperately. “I cannot afford it.”
Then he turned to wind and vanished. She stayed awake half the night but he did not return and eventually she went to sleep, the fire poor company without its creator.
The next day she rose alone and tied the ropes around her middle for the last time. Her skin was baked brown and no longer hurt but she knew that she would carry scars of this journey for all her life. Leaving the fireside she struck out into the desert.
The beach had been long and smooth but in the desert dunes rose and fell like waves on the sea. She struggled up them and ran down the other side, the Bronze Pot and it’s sledge surfing on the slopes. The sun crested overhead, fell to night and the moon rose and took it’s place and still she walked.
Then she topped the last rise and there it was. Before her lay the village, light shining in welcome from the windows, the sea murmuring behind it. Her legs longed to run down to it, the pan bouncing along behind her but instead she turned and looked over along the desert, where her footsteps where the only disturbance in the landscape. And she called out his name.
He was there in a moment. “Is there something wrong, Malvina?”
She turned and pointed into the village. “That house down there, with the blue door and the green shutters, is mine. You are always welcome there, to stay for a while and swap stories or just to rest. Would you like to come with me now to see it?”
“What will it cost?” he asked. She grinned.
“I’ll trade my friendship for yours and we’ll both make out on this deal.”
Dhaafir returned her grin, they clasped hands and, together, they walked into the village.
The Bronze Pan is still used today. The village prospered under it’s usage and rebuilt the long pier, where ships would stop and rest. The years of salt water have changed it, painting the inside in blues and greens. The same colour as a sparkling sea and a desert spirit’s eyes.