A short story set in The Six Kingdoms. Adult Fantasy. Yes, Adult. Ye have been warned 😉
Entered into Writers of the Future Short Story Contest, June 2020. Copyright June 2020
Along the Dergal coast, right before the place where the Cliffs of Mer rise to fight the tide of the western sea, the family of Lord Kelton sat on the pebble beach to picnic and enjoy the summer sun. Lady Ferya lounged on her wicker recliner beneath a large umbrella, fanning herself and nibbling at cucumber sandwiches. Lord Kelton sat on a cushion beside his wife and read a medical pamphlet about setting bones. Four-year-old Arelia danced at the tide’s edge, throwing hands-full of pebbles into the receding waves and then dashing away, giggling, before the water could rush back in and cover her toes. Eleven-year-old Serin could barely be seen out in the water, bobbing up and down in the waves and waving to her parents every time she rose high enough to see them.
Ferya shook her husband and Kelton looked up from his reading. “Kelly, should Serin be swimming out so far?”
Kelton looked out at the waves. He stood up at once, rushed to the edge of the beach, and called out to his daughter. “Serin! Come back to shore!” He waved his arms to indicate his meaning.
Serin shouted back, but her words were unclear. She must have understood, however, for she began crawling back toward the shore. Satisfied, Kelton returned to his cushion and was about to sit back down when he heard a scream. Ferya jumped up at the sound; Kelton’s heart threatened to leap out of his chest.
Kelton had already removed his shoes and overshirt and worked on his belt, preparing to swim should the need arise. “Get Arelia,” he told his wife. He picked up his rifle and ran to the edge of the water again, but he could not see his daughter. He climbed up onto a large boulder, peered out, and his heart nearly stopped. His daughter still remained afloat and alert, but all around her something dark circled– or rather, several dark somethings. Occasionally, a glistening silver tail broke through the surface of the water, sending up a fine spray before disappearing back underneath the waves.
Sharks, was Kelton’s first thought. But he had never heard of any sharks traveling this far north; it had to be something else.
The circle of creatures began to close in around Serin, and she looked up at her father, crying out for help. Kelton raised his loaded rifle and aimed. His first shot hit true, and one of the creatures drifted away from the others. Kelton shot at the group again, but missed. Before he could finish reloading, Serin screamed, but the sound cut off abruptly. The scream rang in Kelton’s ears, however, and he watched in horror as the remaining creatures grabbed hold of his daughter and dragged her struggling body down into the depths of the sea. Kelton let off his third and fourth shots in rapid succession, but no new bodies emerged. His daughter was gone.
The body of the creature he had shot continued bobbing in the waves, taunting Kelton and piquing his desire to know what he had been dealing with, despite his grief. He jumped down from his boulder and swam out to the creature. Without looking too close, he hauled the creature back to the shore, working with the natural tide. A trail of blood streamed out behind the creature, but it was more purple than red which puzzled Kelton.
Ferya stood at the water’s edge, holding their younger daughter tight and waiting anxiously for her husband’s and Serin’s return. When Kelton appeared without their daughter, Ferya sank to her knees and sobbed into Arelia’s hair as Arelia squirmed in her mother’s embrace. Ferya did not point out the creature Kelton had dragged in until several minutes later, after the family had all huddled awhile together in their shared grief.
“What in the Six Kingdoms is that?”
All three of them wandered over to get a closer look. Arelia declared it a “big fish!” and lost interest after that; she resumed her former activity while her parents examined the creature more closely.
They studied it with equal parts amazement and revulsion. It was certainly like no other creature they had ever seen. Its entire body was silver, with a large silver tail and an elongated body covered in smooth scales. At the base of the creature’s torso, two appendages extended out on either side like the legs of a lizard– for walking on land, maybe? Kelton studied the lower torso for several seconds, seeking some clue as to whether this creature might be male or female, but it did not seem to possess either of the typical external genitalia. He followed the torso upward and noticed what appeared to be a navel, indicative of a species which nurtured its offspring in the womb. Its two forward legs were quite a bit longer than the hind legs, and Lord Kelton startled at the thought that they looked rather more like arms than legs; but the hands only had three “fingers,” connected by webbed skin, with short, sharp claws extending from the fingertips. Out of the creature’s head grew a tuft of weedy-looking hair, but Kelton quickly dismissed that way of thinking– it couldn’t really be hair. A pair of double-lidded eyes stared blankly into the sky, and Kelton was surprised to realize that other than the eyes, the creature had no other facial features.
But then he rolled the creature over and realized his mistake. There, on the other side of its head, was another face with two more eyes, a mouth full of jagged teeth, and what appeared to be three underdeveloped buds resembling a nose and ears. Kelton stepped back, horrified, and nearly tripped in his haste to get away. The face looked entirely too human, and the sight unnerved him so that he hardly dared look at it again. As head of his family’s expansive estate, he had been instructed thoroughly on what to do in such an encounter, but he had never imagined it possible that he would actually be faced with such an event. “Ferya, your shawl,” he said, reaching out to his wife who still examined the tail with its intricate scales.
“What?” Ferya said.
“Give me your shawl.”
Puzzled, Ferya removed her shawl from her shoulders and handed it to her husband. Kelton took it and draped it over the creature’s head while keeping his face turned away. Only after doing this did he allow himself to relax enough to look upon the rest of the body again. But when he spoke, his voice was grave. “Ferya, we never saw this creature,” he said.
“But what do you mean? It’s right here!”
“I tell you, we never saw it. No one must know of this…thing’s existence. We can never speak of it to anyone, not even to Arelia, nor to each other.”
Ferya’s eyes widened, and new tears glistened upon her upturned face. “But how will we explain how Serin–“
“Serin swam too far out to sea, grew tired, and drowned. That is all we can say.”
“Kelton. What really happened out there? Please tell me what you saw!”
But Kelton remained reticent on the subject as he pulled out his fishing knife and began cutting into the creature’s tail, hurling the pieces as far out into the waves as his arm could manage. It was a small knife for such a large creature, but he reasoned it would be better that way; no one would recognize the creature’s remains if they managed to find their way back to shore.
Ferya turned away from this grisly sight and picked up Arelia. “You’ve gone mad, Kelly,” she said, so softly he almost didn’t hear her.
“Have I?” Kelton rose up from his bloody work; the exertion was already bringing a sweat to his brow and a heat to his face. He pointed with his knife to the creature’s head covered by the shawl. “Take a peek if you like, but be forewarned.”
Ferya set Arelia down behind her and then bent down and lifted a corner of the shawl to glance at the face hiding beneath. She quickly dropped the shawl again, the color draining from her face. “Kelly,” she breathed. “Surely that’s not a– It can’t be!”
“I’m afraid it can,” Kelton replied in the same grim tone he’d used earlier.
“But– but they’re not supposed to be real! The stories–“
“–are more than just stories, it would seem.”
“Lords help us…” Ferya murmured.
“We are lords, Ferya, and I’m afraid no other lord or lady is going to be able to help with this.”
Ferya nodded her understanding. “We’d be branded as heretics if we told anyone.”
“Just so.” Kelton raised his knife again. “Take Arelia home now,” he said. “She doesn’t need to see all this.”
Ferya nodded numbly and scooped up their daughter again. When they had disappeared over the ridge to where their carriage waited, Kelton resumed his gruesome task. When one of his guards– no doubt sent by Ferya– arrived to help, he snapped at the man to stay away. “I am sorry, Birgam,” he apologized straightaway. “This is a task I must undertake alone. But would you please watch the water?” So Birgam climbed upon the same boulder Kelton had mounted earlier and scanned the ocean waves.
Satisfied, Kelton resumed his cutting and flinging, and soon enough he was covered in so much sweat and purple blood that it became pointless to try and wipe his brow. Desperate for drink, he unscrewed the lid of his hip flask and took several swigs of watered-down ale until the flask was dry. He finished butchering the tail and moved onto the hind legs, which he sawed off at their bases and then snapped the bones before cutting through the flesh and cartilage. He kept expecting to feel some vengeful satisfaction from the act, but all he felt was a grim numbness at the job he had to do. He treated the arms in a similar fashion, then sliced into the creature’s torso, which gushed out what blood still remained; its internal organs spilled out onto the wet rocks, including the heart through which his bullet had torn. A new wave of putrid scent assailed Kelton’s nose as intestinal excrement oozed over the viscera. Bile rose in his throat but he swallowed it back down.
He had butchered fish and wild game before, but never had he pitied those creatures. He pushed back his emotions, and reminded himself that this was only another dumb creature after all, and a savage one for having participated in the assault and death of his sweet Serin. But when he at last removed his wife’s shawl and came face-to-face once again with those human eyes, his nerve nearly failed him. Don’t look at the eyes, he told himself. He looked at the nose instead: that was no human nose, he told himself; it was far too small and flat. And the ears– they weren’t really ears, just squiggly little flaps of skin that happened to be positioned where one would expect a person’s ears to be. With these thoughts firmly planted in his mind, he drew his rifle, stepped back several paces, aimed, and pulled the trigger. Birgam turned only for a moment to ensure his employer still lived, then resumed his scanning of the ocean.
At such short range, Kelton’s shot had assured that no trace of the human face would remain to be recognized. He picked up the mangled head by the tufts of hair, spun around, and flung the head as far out to sea as his strong arms could manage; he watched it fall and disappear into the foam. Then he looked down at where the creature had laid, and nothing but his wife’s shawl and the creature’s entrails remained. He scooped the organs into the shawl and flung those out to sea as well.
As long as Birgam watched, Kelton decided he would be safe enough to take a quick dip in the water to wash the worst of the grime off of his clothing and body. When he had finished, he squelched back onto the beach and stood a while, wringing out his clothing and then drip-drying in the hot sun. He could barely stand and his body ached from his labor, but he dared not defile his wife’s favorite lounger by laying on it. He felt the heat upon his skin, indicative of a ghastly sunburn. He almost welcomed the physical pain, as it helped to distract him from the grief of losing his eldest child. He felt in no hurry to return home for the slew of questions which he knew he would have to face– and which he would not be able to answer to anyone’s satisfaction.
Every child raised in Dergal had heard the eerie tales of the Mer-folk, living somewhere around the Cliffs of Mer, perhaps in the underwater caves. Sailors told of sighting these creatures swimming in groups far from shore, waving their arms and splashing with their tails, even speaking or singing with human-like voices in some unintelligible language in their attempts to draw the sailors’ attention. Occasionally, a man might jump overboard in a frenzy, and be dragged down by the creatures before his rescue could be mounted. Still, no one ever professed to believe these tales, brushing off the stories as the hallucinations of sun-addled minds.
In other words, sailors could get away with telling such stories; but Kelton was one of the nobility– respected, influential, and expected to uphold the basic tenets of his society. And one of those foremost tenets was that magic did not exist. Mer-folk did not exist; and even if they did, they could not in fact have been gifted with the kind of human likeness and perhaps even human intelligence claimed by any seafarer or coastal explorer who ever got close enough to the creatures and lived to tell about it. Such was the official stance of the Six Kingdoms, though Kelton had sometimes heard whispers among the Peership of a troubling nature: that while within the Six Kingdoms all was orderly and ordinary, without the Kingdoms’ boundaries chaotic magic surrounded them on all sides– an ever-present threat to the peace and prosperity for which his forefathers had labored to maintain. Only once had his own father spoken plainly to him of such a possibility, and only to say, “If you should ever encounter one of these strange creatures, you must kill it and dispose of it in such a way that it can never be discovered by anyone else. The prosperity and progress of our way of life depend upon it.”
But such instruction had only ever been spoken, never written. Although this coastal land had belonged to his family for at least a dozen generations, nothing he had ever heard or read about in the family tomes had ever mentioned sightings of these creatures so close to shore. But perhaps that ought not surprise him, Kelton realized, since even he himself had decided to keep his own knowledge out of the permanent record, per official protocol. But was this protocol wise? If Kelton had known of the potential danger lurking in the waves, he never would have allowed his daughter to swim out so far; if he had known for sure of the creatures’ existence, he would have stationed guards closer to the shore so that they might have been more useful in Serin’s desperate time of need.
As Birgam accompanied him back home (Ferya had sent the carriage back for them), Kelton’s thoughts warred within him as to what he ought to do. He could not jeopardize his position nor the security of his House’s reputation. But he had to protect his family somehow; he had to prevent little Arelia from suffering the same fate as her sister. He could not frighten Arelia with the truth, but one way or another she would be made to understand that to come anywhere near this beach, or even to dip her toes in the waves again, was a dangerous risk which she could never afford to take. And the first mistake he had made with Serin, he realized, was that he had allowed his daughter to become such an excellent swimmer. Arelia, then, must never learn to swim…
Years passed, and Arelia grew up into the near-exact replica (so she was told) of her elder sister. So much did she resemble Serin that sometimes Arelia would catch one of her parents staring at her as if they were looking at a ghost. But of course ghosts did not exist, and Arelia wondered where the idea of a ghost had first been thought of? She had read many fantastical stories throughout her childhood, all so strange and wonderful, and she envied the minds of those writers who could invent such miraculous magics and magical beings just by thinking them into existence. They must live far more exciting lives than Arelia did; the only exciting thing that ever happened to Arelia was when her father would agree to take her hiking up to the top of the Cliffs, and then they would sit or stand at the edge and look down into the crashing ocean waves far below.
One afternoon, they sat in this manner, enjoying a lunch of bread, cheese, and apples which Cook had packed for them. Arelia noticed something dark moving in the water and she pointed it out to her father. As her father peered below to where she pointed, squinting against the sunlight, more dark figures emerged, and suddenly Father arose and pulled Arelia away from the cliff’s edge until she could no longer see into the watery depth. Arelia objected to this and moved forward again as soon as her father released her, but he reached out and grabbed her again.
“That is enough,” he said, his voice soft but firm. “We will climb down and go home now.”
“But what were those things?” Arelia asked, as she reluctantly obeyed her father.
Father shrugged and waved dismissively. “Sharks, perhaps.”
“Sharks! All the way up here? I thought sharks lived near Galadron.”
“Maybe they live here, too.”
“If they do, why haven’t I learned about it in school?” Arelia asked.
“Maybe your teacher hasn’t gotten to them yet.”
“But we studied ocean creatures for two whole weeks last month!”
“Stop asking questions I cannot answer!” Father shouted, and Arelia shrank into reticence for a while. But as they neared the bottom of their downward climb, she asked another question which she had often asked before, hoping that one of these times might result in the answer she hoped for.
“It’s getting hot. Might we take a dip at the beach? And you could teach me how to swim…”
Father raised his face to the sky and clamped his hands into fists. “What has been my answer to that question every single time you have asked it?”
Arelia lowered her eyes. “The answer was no…”
“And what makes you think I will answer any differently now?”
Arelia’s stubborn streak took over and she raised her eyes again, looking defiantly into her father’s equally-stubborn face. “I’m fourteen years old now!” she cried. “Serin was swimming in the ocean when she was eleven! That was three years younger than I am! And I’ve never even been allowed to swim in a lake!”
“Serin drowned because I let her swim in the ocean!”
“Funny…” Arelia said, looking past her father to their manor house in the distance. “That’s not how I remember it.” Never before had Arelia brought up her memories of that fateful event to either of her parents; but she had spent countless solitary hours, especially at night, thinking about that day and trying to piece together the fragments of recollection which had been retained by her four-year-old mind. “I remember you shot at something,” she said. “And you came back and said Serin was gone. And then this big fish washed ashore and you started to cut it up… Mother took me home then. But I thought you would bring the big fish home for dinner, and I waited for hours, but when you finally came home there was no fish…”
“No, there was no fish…” Her father’s voice trailed and he walked again; Arelia sighed and followed, her mind now wandering into those past memories.
It hadn’t been until the following morning, when Arelia had awoken in the nursery and dashed to her sister’s empty bed, that she realized what “gone” had meant, and that she would never see Serin again. She had cried bitterly all that day and much of the next, and slowly she’d cried out her grief until just a hole remained somewhere deep in her belly. Over the years, the hole had grown smaller– or maybe Arelia was just used to it now. Mother had given birth to two more children– twin boys– when Arelia was eight years old. Harpin and Kestor were alright, but Arelia dreamed of what it would be like to have her sister back.
As they continued home, Arelia’s mind drew itself back to the dark, swimming shapes she had seen in the water. What were they? Were they sharks like Father said? Why had Father worked so desperately to keep her from looking at them? Were they monsters?
But no… Monsters were just another of those fantastical creatures born out of some storyteller’s imagination. Whatever else these mysterious creatures were, they were just regular fish– big fish, but otherwise nothing special.
So why did Father fear them so much? And what had really happened to Serin that day at the beach?
The next morning, after breakfast, Arelia snuck into the kitchen and packed herself a small loaf of bread and a few apples. She tied them in a sackcloth and slung the package over her shoulder. Cook almost caught her, but she slipped through the back door just in time, and made her way stealthily down to the beach without the guards noticing.
It took her nearly an hour to reach the spot where her sister had disappeared ten years before. Her mother’s chair and umbrella and her father’s cushion still laid on the beach, forgotten and left to fade and tatter and rot in the wet and salty air. Indeed they were barely recognizable anymore, only Arelia knew what they had once been and so she could still picture them in her mind.
Arelia pulled an apple out of her sack and gazed out over the waves as she ate. Somewhere at the bottom of that great expanse laid what remained of her sister after she had drowned. Just as she had finished her apple and reeled her arm back to throw the core out to sea, Arelia paused and lowered her arm. Something was out there, growing nearer by the second. Arelia strained to get a closer look, but she didn’t need to strain for very long.
Out of the waves crawled the strangest creature Arelia had ever seen, and glancing at its tail Arelia immediately thought of the big fish from her childhood memory ten years ago. But it couldn’t be the same, Arelia realized, as the creature raised itself to an almost upright position, supported by its lower legs. Its arms looked more like human arms than any creature’s she’d ever seen before; its eyes looked very much like human eyes as well. Sounds came from its mouth that might have been attempts at speech, though it was like no human speech Arelia had ever heard, and she had been educated in every major dialect of the Six Kingdoms including the odd-sounding Gantin tongue.
Arelia brandished her stick, but the creature did not move any closer. Arelia scanned the scene around the creature, but saw no others of its kind.
The creature ceased its noisemaking after a while, though it continued to move its arms and look at Arelia. Arelia dared to move a little closer; the creature did not seem to be immediately dangerous. “Hello,” she said. The creature followed her movement with its uncanny eyes. “I’m Arelia. Can you understand what I’m saying?”
The creature garbled something unintelligible.
“Close enough.” Arelia put down her stick and spread her arms as she stepped forward several more paces. The face was becoming clearer to her now, and the closer she got the less human it appeared to her. But still, there was something about those eyes, and the shape of the face that nagged at her, like she’d seen them somewhere before. “Do I know you?” she said.
The creature’s body began to sway slightly, side-to-side; it opened its mouth and started to sing– at least, Arelia thought it must be singing, though it sounded rather tuneless to her ears, and of course she still could not make any sense out of a single syllable. But the song seemed to draw her in, and soon Arelia stood so close to the creature that she could feel its cold breath upon her neck. The creature stopped singing and stood still, tilting its head to lock eyes with Arelia’s. And in that moment, Arelia realized what was so familiar about the creature’s face. “You look like me!” Arelia cried. “No, not me,” she corrected herself. “You look like Serin!”
The creature-that-looked-like-Serin hopped from foot to foot and smiled wide, showing its pointy teeth. Arelia, who had been about to embrace what she imagined to be her sister, noticed the teeth and stepped back in sudden fright. She yelped, and the creature fell down onto all-fours, its arms becoming legs and its hands feet, and its human-looking face turned downward to reveal a more reptilian set of eyes upon the top of its head. Shocked at the transformation, Arelia picked up her stick again and yelled at the creature to “stay back!”
The creature turned around and ran back towards the water. Arelia’s courage and curiosity returned to her; she dashed forward and shouted, “No, wait! Come back!” The creature turned and stood up again. Arelia motioned to it to return. “I’m sorry,” Arelia said. “I frightened you.”
The creature lowered its body again and crawled forward, but this time Arelia did not recoil. She reached out a hand and gently touched the creature’s scaly neck. The creature seemed to like this, and shifted itself so Arelia’s hand rested upon the top of its head, and its hair felt surprisingly soft. To save her back from having to stoop, Arelia sat down upon the ground so that now the middle of her torso was level with the creature’s shoulders. She moved her hand again so that it rested on the creature’s back; the creature gave under the gentle pressure until it laid on its belly and placed its head upon Arelia’s legs, its human-looking face turned towards her.
“I’m sorry I yelled,” Arelia apologized again. “I was just– surprised. Okay, maybe a little scared, too. But, I figure if you’d wanted to hurt me you would have done it already. So, since you haven’t done that, then maybe we can be friends? I know, if we are to be friends, then you need a name. And since you look so much like my sister, I will call you Serin.”
The creature-called-Serin made no sound, but basked in Arelia’s company. It struck Arelia how quickly Serin had become comfortable around her; it did not seem characteristic of wild creatures to take to human company so readily.
“Have you been on this beach before?” Arelia wondered aloud.
Serin raised her head. “Se-in…wash…A-lei-a.”
“Wash… Oh, you mean watch?”
Serin rose and pointed up toward the top of the Cliffs where Arelia and her father had often hiked. “Wash…” she said again. “Follow…”
“You’ve followed me home?”
But Serin did not reply; she lowered her head again into Arelia’s lap. If she had truly been watching Arelia all this time, how had Arelia never noticed her before?
Arelia began talking to the creature, confiding her many thoughts about missing her sister, frustrations with her father, and wishing she could learn how to swim. She didn’t figure Serin would understand everything, but it felt good to talk. When she mentioned swimming, however, Serin raised her body and reached out a webbed hand; Arelia immediately reached out in spite of the long claws which clicked together noisily. Their hands clasped tightly, and they arose together. Serin stalked off toward the water, pausing every few steps to see if Arelia followed.
Arelia waded after her new friend until the water lapped over her ankles. She reached down and unlatched her shoes, then removed them one by one and threw them back onto the pebbles behind her. Next she removed her stockings and then her overdress and training girdle. These she folded and laid on a nearby flat boulder. She waded out a ways further, wincing each time her body lowered itself a few inches more into the cold water. When the waves lapped across her breasts, she experienced a moment of panic and froze, aware of her own mortality. Serin rounded back to join her, and Arelia said, “I never learned how to swim.”
Serin took Arelia by both hands, and pulled her further out into the water; Arelia decided to trust Serin and slowly her body began to relax as she felt the buoyancy of the salt water helping to keep her body afloat. She slowly released her death grip on Serin’s arms and laid back in the water until her torso floated and her face peered up into the sunny blue sky. “This feels incredible!” she cried. Serin swam laps around her, sometimes sinking deep underwater, only to come up and break the surface again accompanied by a magnificent glistening spray. Arelia laughed every time the water cascaded down onto her face.
She grew tired of floating and started watching Serin swim over the surface of the water. Arelia observed how Serin swished her tail to propel herself forward and pushed her webbed hands through the water, beginning at the top of her head and then sweeping through the water until the hands rested by her sides. Arelia did not have a tail to swish, but she knew enough about swimming (she had read books on the subject, away from her father’s notice) to know that humans usually kicked their legs. So she did this, and then did her best to imitate with her arms the strokes she had seen the creature create. Her body began to move through the water, but not nearly as quickly as Serin moved.
After a while, Arelia grew tired again and flipped onto her back to float some more. Serin joined her, floating alongside. “Thank you,” Arelia said.
Serin opened her mouth and said, “Ankoo.”
Arelia started and for a moment found herself underwater, struggling for breath. But Serin took her by the elbow and pulled her back up. Arelia coughed up a little water and caught her breath again, treading water to keep herself afloat. “You can talk!” she said. “Or at least, you can repeat what you hear.”
”A-lei-a,” Serin said. “Ankoo.”
“You’re thanking me? What for?”
“You mean friend?”
Serin’s eyes lit up and she splashed her tail.
“Are you lonely, then? Don’t you have a family?”
“Fa-lee,” Serin repeated.
“Where is your family? Can you take me to them?”
But at this Serin grew agitated and began spinning in tight circles.
“It’s okay!” Arelia tried to soothe her friend. “You don’t have to take me. I can’t blame you, anyway; I wouldn’t want to show you to my family, either. Especially my father– he’d be so angry if he knew where I am right now.”
Serin disappeared under the water and Arelia waited for her to re-emerge; after waiting for several minutes, however, she began to worry. Perhaps she had frightened Serin away with her talk. She turned and glanced toward the shore, only just realizing how far away she had drifted. Was this how it had started for her sister? Her parents had narrated to Arelia what had happened that day– that Serin had gone out too far, and then had been too exhausted to swim back.
Don’t panic, Arelia told herself. Surely her new friend would return soon; she just needed to wait, and float on her back if she grew too tired to tread water or swim.
But then a new realization hit her, and she had to run again through the rapid succession of thoughts that had sprung unbidden to her mind: the first being the “big fish” that had washed ashore that day on the beach; the second being the shots her father had fired into the water shortly before that. How had she not made the connection before? Clearly, her father had shot the fish for a reason, and clearly it had not been with the intention of feeding the fish to his family.
But no, it wasn’t a fish. Arelia could see it now in her mind, far more clearly than she’d ever seen before. She tried to brush off her mounting suspicion at first, but the more she compared that creature with the one currently lurking beneath the water somewhere nearby, the more her panic welled inside her.
Someone stood on the shore– too far away to make out more than a silhouette, but Arelia still thought she recognized the figure. “Daddy!” she cried. She raised her arms to wave at him, but immediately began to sink and had to lower her arms again until her face broke the surface. She spluttered and coughed, the water having surged up into her nose. Something large brushed against her, and she screamed as something tore at her leg and blood rose up into the water around her.
She found herself surrounded by creatures just like the one she had dared to call Serin. They closed in around her and bared their sharp teeth. Had Serin led them here? Where had she gone? One of the creatures darted toward Arelia and bit deep into her shoulder. Fainting from the shock and loss of blood, the last thing Arelia was aware of as she drifted into unconsciousness was the bang of a rifle…
Kelton had rushed to the beach as soon as he’d realized his daughter was missing. Perhaps it had been their conversation the previous day that had led him to his conclusion, or perhaps it had simply been fatherly instinct. As soon as he spied the shoes, and the neat pile of clothing upon the large flat rock, he knew his instinct had been correct, though it did not comfort him.
He had known Arelia was desperate to learn to swim, but never would he have expected her to come out and try it on her own; surely she must have realized the foolishness of the attempt– the danger she would be putting herself in. He sank to his knees and hung his head in his hands. How would he ever break the news to Ferya? Two daughters lost to the ocean…
He forced himself to rise again, and looked out over the waves. Perhaps there was still some hope; maybe she had not been out for too long. And the waves were much calmer today than they had been the day Serin had drowned… Kelton shook his head. No, not drowned. Had he nearly fooled himself into believing the lie he had insisted on telling everyone else?
Someone screamed and his eyes darted to follow the sound. Red blood pooled on the surface of the water, and there was Arelia in the midst of it.
Kelton had learned his lesson after his failure to save Serin, and this time he did not bother to waste precious time fumbling with his boots or his belt. He raised his rifle, glad that he had thought to bring it along pre-loaded (following another instinct), and as soon as the expected creatures rose up out of the water, he fired. His first shot missed, but his second hit the creature clamping down on Arelia’s shoulder. He re-loaded, but when he looked up again Arelia had disappeared. “No!” Kelton cried. Just as he had ten years before, he shot desperately into the water twice more as the rest of the creatures sank away out of sight. Tears stung his eyes, and he roared a great roar of rage and grief.
How long he stood there, staring at his daughter’s blood as it drifted slowly outward and faded away, he could not have guessed. But as he watched, something began to rise up out of the water and move toward him. He raised his rifle, forgetting to load it in his panic; but it did not matter, for he quickly recognized his daughter’s body, borne to him by one of those creatures, and he dropped the rifle in his haste to get to Arelia.
Kelton tried to take his daughter, but the creature bared its teeth and walked right past him onto the beach, where it laid Arelia’s body gently to the ground. The creature turned its back to Kelton, and for several moments Kelton’s urge to strangle the creature warred with the shock he felt that one of its kind would rescue his daughter’s body. But to what end could the creature be doing such a thing? Logic forced him to consider that the creature meant him no harm and might even be trying to help his daughter. He circled around until he and the creature stood face-to-face with Arelia between them. Kelton stared at his daughter’s lifeless form and he sobbed as he spoke her name.
The creature looked up at him with its bright green eyes and Kelton reared back, stunned by the creature’s resemblance to Arelia and to–
“Serin?” he breathed. “No, it can’t be…”
The creature opened its mouth and spoke. “Se-in… fix… A-lei-a.”
Kelton watched with an equal measure of curiosity and horror as something long and thin began to extend from the creature’s wrist. Then, before Kelton could stop it, the creature stabbed the needle-like extension straight into his daughter’s breast where her heart would be. Kelton lunged toward the creature, but it hastily retreated and disappeared into the waves. Kelton roared after it, stung by the creature’s betrayal of his trust.
But behind him, his daughter began to gasp and cough, and Kelton whirled around at the sound. Then his eyes widened as a miracle occurred before his eyes: Arelia’s wounds on her leg and shoulder began to heal somehow, the flesh joining back together until no trace of injury remained. Kelton rushed to his daughter and scooped her up into his arms. Arelia’s eyes fluttered open. When she recognized her father, she wrapped her arms around his neck and allowed herself to be carried off the beach and placed on her father’s steed, Rouan. Kelton observed his daughter’s convalescence on the slow walk home– how the color gradually rose to her face and animation returned to her limbs. She told him of her adventure with the Mer-creature (“They must be Mer-folk, Father, just like in the sailors’ stories.”), and Kelton listened without saying much, though his thoughts ran deep. When she got to the part where she’d lost consciousness, though, she faltered and asked her father what had happened next?
Kelton shook his head. “Not here,” he said. “Not now…”
Arelia seemed to understand for the time being, but Kelton knew his daughter and guessed she would not remain silent on the subject for long. And the next time she asked, Kelton knew he would have to tell her the truth.
That night at dinner, after the twins had been taken away for bed, Kelton and Arelia recounted their experience to Ferya. His wife listened with her mouth agape as Kelton tried to explain to her and to Arelia the miracle he had witnessed.
“But, how is it possible?” Ferya wondered. “What does it mean?”
Kelton shook his head and puffed on his pipe.
“Well I know what it means,” Arelia said. “It means everyone is wrong. The Mer-folk do exist, and Ser– I mean, this one helped me today. She– it– healed me somehow.”
“Shhhh!” Kelton set down his pipe and turned to his daughter. “Do not speak so loudly.”
Arelia lowered her voice but persisted. “Magic clearly exists, Father. Why does everyone insist otherwise?”
“Because they are frightened, Arelia.”
“Frightened of what? Of all the good it could do?”
Kelton rose from his chair. “There will be no more talk of that nonsense.”
“It is not nonsense!”
“Go to bed, Arelia.” Kelton turned his back on his daughter, and Arelia ran from the room, pushing the doors wide and leaving them to swing shut loudly behind her.
Kelton sat and resumed his smoking. The servants arrived to clear the table and Kelton watched his wife as she spoke with one of the maids about the next morning’s breakfast. But as soon as the room had emptied again, Kelton cleared his throat and Ferya turned to listen.
“Am I wrong, Ferya?” he asked, with uncharacteristic humility.
Ferya pulled up a chair beside her husband and put a comforting hand upon his shoulder. “I think a better question at this point would be, is Arelia right? And if she’s right, then it’s society that’s wrong, not you…”
“But I have always upheld societal traditions, so if they’re wrong, then… I’m wrong, too.”
“You mustn’t think like that, Kelly.”
“I must think about what is right for this family.”
“Yes! And what’s right for this family might not be the same as what is right for society.”
“But what if society doesn’t recognize the difference?”
Ferya sighed and placed her hands in her lap. “I don’t know what to say about society right now, Kelly. Society can take care of itself anyway. But right now, you have a daughter– your own flesh and blood– who has just been through a traumatizing ordeal; she is confused, and scared, and she needs her father right now– not a… pillar of tradition.”
Kelton sighed and put out his pipe, placing it in the tray left for him upon the table. “I am afraid, Ferya,” he confessed. Ferya said nothing, but gazed into his eyes. “I know what I saw out there today, and I know that creature saved our daughter, but that doesn’t change what the others did. We have lost one daughter already to those creatures. But if I tell Arelia not to visit her new ‘friend’ anymore, she’ll just sneak out and do it anyway.”
“So don’t tell her that,” Ferya said.
“And what would you suggest? That I march out there with her myself and invite the creature to come and live with us?”
“No… But maybe it’s time you told her the whole truth about what happened to Serin.”
“Do you really think she’s old enough?” Kelton asked.
Ferya laughed lightly at this. “In case you haven’t noticed, Kelly, our daughter isn’t exactly a little girl anymore. She could even be married in just a few years.”
Kelton groaned dramatically. “Don’t remind me…” But he got up and smiled at his wife. “I will go and talk to her,” he said. “Maybe there’s an arrangement where we can both be happy.”
Kelton rapped on his daughter’s door and Arelia invited him in. She sat up in bed, looking very pretty in her lacy nightdress and her light hair let down and flowing around her shoulders and across her breast. Her window curtains stood open and she had been reading by the moonlight, but she set down her book upon the covers as Kelton approached and sat on the edge of the bed. “I’m sorry, Father,” she began, but Kelton raised a palm to stop her from saying more.
“I didn’t come for an apology, Arelia. I came to tell you the truth.”
“The truth?” Arelia repeated, mildly, but the fervency in her eyes belied her attempt to appear calm.
“Yes,” said Kelton. “The truth about what happened to you sister…” And so he recounted to his daughter his own memories of that fateful day, when Serin had fallen victim to the Mer-folk. “They killed your sister, Arelia. They are cold-blooded murderers who care nothing for human life.”
Arelia was silent for some time before she said, “I know what they did to Serin, and what they almost did to me. But why did Ser– why did that one help me today? She must have had to fight off the others to save me, and then she risked bringing me back to you when she must have known you’d be angry.”
“Twice now you’ve stumbled in your speech,” Kelton said. “You’ve given that creature a name.”
“Yes.” Arelia lowered her gaze. “I named her Serin…”
“Because she looked like her.”
Kelton arose and began pacing the room. He could not pretend that he had not had the same thought, but it still bothered him.
Kelton stopped pacing and turned to his daughter, the intensity growing in his eyes. “Serin is dead, Arelia.”
“I know that.”
“Father, I don’t know everything!”
“No…” Kelton deflated a little and sat back down on the bed, reaching for his daughter’s hand. “No, I suppose you don’t…”
“I do know the Mer-folk aren’t just creatures, though,” Arelia asserted. “They can talk– at least, that one could. She knew some human words.”
“Imitation is not the same as intelligence.”
“She taught me how to swim.”
“A goldfish can swim.”
“She healed me! Completely! She saved my life! What animal do you know that could do that?”
Kelton sighed. “I confess I cannot say…”
“She has a heart, Father. She has a soul. I just know it! And, maybe Serin as we knew her is dead, but… What if she’s what’s left?”
Kelton shook his head. “It just makes no sense…”
Arelia snorted. “What part of all of this does?”
Startled, Kelton stared at his daughter, and finally saw her as the free-thinking, independent young woman she had become rather than the little girl whom he had tried so hard to protect. He was just about to say something about the unsolved mysteries of the world, when he chanced to glace up and out the window. Pressed to the glass was the same face which had been floating before his mind’s eye for most of the afternoon and evening. When it realized it had been spotted, however, it ducked away.
“Stop!” Kelton cried, dashing to the bedroom door as Arelia called after him with alarm. But Kelton did not answer; he bolted across the hall, down the stairs, through the grand entry, and out the front door. He ran around to the side of the house, and by the light of the moon he made out the trail of something which looked akin to a fat snake with footprints running along either side of its great body. He followed after the trail until he encountered a large bush. Was the creature inside?
“Come out, please,” he said. “I won’t hurt you.” Then he hoped that the creature would not hurt him, for he had not thought to grab his gun or a knife.
Slowly, the creature crawled out from under the bush. Kelton recoiled at first, but when at last the creature stood with its human-like face shining in the moonlight, Kelton had managed to lose enough of his initial distaste to look the creature squarely in the eyes and say, “My daughter tells me you have been a…good friend to her.”
“A-lei-a…fend,” said the creature.
“You saved her life today, with that–” Kelton faltered, not knowing how to phrase what he wanted to say.
The creature seemed to understand, however. It raised its wrist as it had done on the beach and slowly the needle-like protrusion extended out of her arm. Kelton watched in fascination, trying to determine how it was done. He had read enough scientific and medical pamphlets to know that there were people out there who would devote their entire careers– and their children’s careers– to discover a way to do what this creature had done for Arelia with one simple injection of…whatever she had stored inside that needle. It was nothing short of miraculous.
It was nothing short of magical.
Arelia’s earlier words echoed in Kelton’s head, and he asked himself a question which would never before have occurred to him: What if magic was good? What if it could be used to help people?
“Heresy!” Kelton said aloud, making the creature before him wince; he had forgotten for a moment where he was and whom he was with. Just like his daughter before him, Kelton found himself dissatisfied to think of his present company as just a “creature” any longer. At last he understood why, in all the tales about them, sailors insisted on calling them Mer-folk. And since Arelia had insisted on referring to the creature as “she”, the name “Mer-maid” was the next logical step in the appellation process.
“Listen,” he said to the Mer-maid. “I don’t know how much you can understand, but maybe you can just nod ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
The Mer-maid nodded.
“How old are you?”
The Mer-maid stared blankly and Kelton realized his mistake. He tried again: “Are you considered young?” Yes. “Do your people know you’re here?” No. “Would they approve of you being here?” No, no. “Are you welcome among your people?” No… The Mer-maid drooped. “I am sorry,” Kelton replied.
Someone moved in behind him, and Kelton turned with a start. “Arelia.”
Arelia walked past her father and approached the Mer-maid. “You saved me,” she said. “I didn’t get to thank you before…”
Before the Mer-maid could move away, Arelia caught her up in an embrace. The Mer-maid’s eyes opened wide in surprise, but promptly imitated the gesture and wrapped her arms around Arelia. One webbed hand stroked the girl’s long hair, until Arelia pulled back and they stood facing each other again.
Arelia turned to her father. “She is an outcast from her own people,” she said. “I know it’s dangerous, but…I want to offer her a home here.”
Kelton wanted to refuse, but somehow the Mer-maid had managed to soften his heart toward it, and he could not bring himself to follow through with the rejection. Still, he couldn’t just say yes without overcoming some obstacles first. “What if her people follow her here?”
“They are intelligent; we can communicate with them, and work things out so we can be friends.”
Kelton wasn’t so sure about this, but he decided to trust his daughter– he decided to hope. “She cannot be discovered,” he said. “It would be dangerous for her, and for us.”
“She’s studied us for years without us noticing; she obviously knows how to avoid detection when she wants to.”
“Where would she live?”
Arelia turned to the Mer-maid. “Do you have a place to stay?”
The Mer-maid nodded. “Yes… But…visit A-lei-a?”
“You may visit me every day!” Arelia assured her. “And I’ll introduce you to my brothers.”
“No,” said Kelton. “We cannot trust them with this secret yet.”
“Father,” Arelia said, with the air of one explaining things to a stubborn child. “Your generation might not accept magic, but I know there are a lot of young people like me who are ready to believe. We have to start believing, if we hope to make a change…”
“You would shake the very foundations of our society?”
“They have been shifting for years and years already,” Arelia replied.
“But,” Kelton flustered. “But– science!”
“I’ve been thinking about that…” Arelia mused. “How can we be so sure that science and magic aren’t really the same thing, when you get close enough? What if magic is just another kind of science, waiting to be discovered and accepted, and used for good?”
Kelton shook his head slowly, absorbing his daughter’s wise words. He wanted to believe in what she said, but he couldn’t just shake off a lifetime of rigid thinking. “I don’t know…” he said. “I wouldn’t even know where to start…”
“You don’t have to,” Arelia said. “Just trust me. Trust us. Let us spread our own legacy.”
“The next generation, you mean?”
“I just…step aside and let you…work your magic, and watch the whole world change around me.”
Arelia stood upon her tiptoes and kissed her father lightly on the cheek; the gesture melted Kelton’s heart, as it had done when his little girl was so much younger than she was now. “I love you, Daddy,” she said.
“I love you, too, Little ‘Lia.” He hugged his daughter and his eyes fell upon the Mer-maid, who watched for a while, then slowly crawled away toward the Cliffs until she receded into the shadows and left only a feeling behind her.
A feeling of love, and hope for a more magical future…