We were starving, and the prey was too easy to resist. In our haste we swam right into their trap.
My sisters dragged a few men into the water, the scent of blood filled my nostrils, I was so hungry, and there, above me, a man. I grabbed him, sunk my teeth into his flesh, and dragged him down with me. When I was finished, I swan further up, there were plenty to go around, and I intended to have seconds.
Above me I saw one of my sisters sliced open, and I was about to finish the man who had committed the act, but then I saw him slice open another. He was unafraid, dangerous, I respect the dangerous. So I followed him, I wanted him alone when we fought, I wanted him to know I had earned my victory before he died.
I swam silently into the rock pool, watched him take rest on the shore. Fool. He stood, for a moment he looked up, as though he was watching the stars, and I watched him. Then I saw something he didn't, falling debris, wreathed in flame, my prize was not going to die by such ordinary means, I reached out and grabbed his leg, pulling him out of the way just in time. I had mistimed though, and found myself caught beneath heavy wood, and the jagged rocks of the shoreline.
I thrashed, my tail smacking against water in a powerful but useless motion. Then I felt the weight being lifted, I knew better than to expect my sisters, those who fall behind, are left behind. As soon as I was free enough, I started swimming away, trying to find open sea, but a searing pain in my tail prevented me moving any further. When I looked up, I saw my prey, now a predator in his own right, his cutlass stuck deep, pinning me in place. We looked at each other, I tried not to panic, though my situation seemed dire.
Then he did something I could not understand, he wrenched his blade from my tail, freeing me.
I would have escaped then, but more pirates had come up behind me, a net in hand. I screamed and hissed as they bundled me into a tank, a tank like a coffin, which locked tight. Had I been able to get some momentum up, maybe I could have shattered the glass, but my tail was too large to work in the confined space, and the strength of my arms was little, too little to break out, though I tried.
~ ~ ~
The water of the sea moves constantly, and is constantly filled with air because of this, the water in the tank, though it sloshed and churned, had no fresh air to feed from, and soon I found myself weak and oxygen starved. I tried to draw their attention, but to no avail. Until he saw me, my strange ally, and he stood immediately, calling for them to help me. When they refused, he made a daring lunge for the cutlass, to jimmy the lock, and it worked. I gasped for the air I had been so deprived of.
When the pirate removed his cutlass, the one they called Missionary replaced it quickly with a book. A daring man, a brave man, but he had a weakness for weakness; what humans called pity. I imagined that would be his undoing. He was no friend to these hard people, he hated them in fact, and I would use that. Divide and conquer. All I had to do was play the damsel a little longer.
It became a lot easier when they dropped me, the tank finally smashed, and I panicked, thrashing, until I remembered that I was not in danger, just in open air. Of course, that had it's own sort of danger.
My tail fell away, the scales covering my torso with it, and I was left with weak, human, legs, exposed breasts, and more... My breath came quickly, partly as it adjusted to the pure air, no longer filtered through water, and partly as I recognised the hungry looks of the men around me. My arms covered as much as they could, and for a moment I just waited, unsure of myself, as a fish out of water would be.
I jumped when he wrapped me in his shirt, expecting an assault of some kind, but it was gentle, a comforting touch, as he covered me. I pulled the linen around myself, and he stayed there, arms keeping me in a protected circle. My confusion was doubled by this, I had meant to kill this man, and now he was my saviour?
“You will walk.” The man with the black beard, the black magic, and the black heart, spoke in his deceptively gentle voice. I had killed the bravest men, visited the deepest depths, fought with the Squid, and escaped the Orca, but he struck a fear into me, and I did not fully understand why. There was darkness there, in his very soul, a darkness that did not exist, even in the smallest ounce, in the soul of the man who helped me to stand.
My skinny, unused legs failed, and I fell into the dirt. I hated this, I hated my weakness, my tail could crush a man's skull, but when in it's human form, my body was pathetic. “I cannot.”
“Walk or die.” He meant it. But I could not walk, perhaps a cut throat was the best outcome, who knew what evils they had planned for me, when they had extracted this tear?
My would-be saviour dropped to my side once again, “Put your arms around me.”
“I do not ask for help!” I forgot to act the damsel in my anger, impulsivity was what had gotten me into this mess, but I could not seem to overcome it. “But you need it.” He lifted me like a child, easily, that should have frightened me, I did not want a reminder of the strength I faced out here, on land. But it did not, because he only meant to help me, and I trusted him. I was losing my mind, so far from the sea.
“Do not fall behind.” Those ominous words commenced our journey, and the missionary set off, holding me securely in his arms. I found myself shivering, but not from cold, the world around me was too hot, I missed the cool depths of the ocean; it was just my body adjusting to this alien environment. My new muscles trembled and, and my lungs burned as I dragged in pure air. “Are you in pain?” His voice was low, he asked me gently.
“Everything! I don't belong out here!”
“Don't worry, I'm sure you'll adjust to it in time.”
“I don't want to adjust, I want to go home.” One hand rubbed my arm, in what I assumed was a comforting motion in the human world. “All they want is a tear, then you can.”
“They will kill me the moment they get it.” Not that they would get it, we were charged with keeping the forbidden pool safe, I would never give them that tear. “I will not let that happen.” He sounded like he meant it. Why?
He put me down when we were told to stop, by the woman who seemed to be second to the black heart man. She must be his woman, none of the rough men dared to look at her like they did me. He knelt in front of me, pulling my shirt back up over my shoulder, only his glance was not filled with lust. Kindness was not something I had experience of, and yet I recognised it in this man. I still did not trust it, he was human, other, enemy.
“Such beauty, surely you are one of God's own creations, and not a descendant of those dark creatures who found no refuge on the ark. Such beauty... yet deadly.” It was imperative he did not believe that, “Deadly, no,”
“You attacked me.”
“No, you are different,”
“Are you not? You protect.” Now I knew that to be true, but only since meeting him. I was glad I had not had time to kill him, “You pushed me down out of the way.” Yes, but it felt like a lie.
I had never felt guilt before, when you kill to survive you can't afford to. I felt it when those lies came out of my mouth, assaults on all the misplaced kindness he had shown me. But I could not afford to let them make me weep. I needed him to trust me, to want to protect me, to choose me over them. It was cruel, but it was necessary.
The black heart's woman called to him as he returned from his scout, “Is it the fountain?”
“No, but we are close. Bring the creature, cover it's head.”
“She has a name!” I was caught up in surprise at his anger on my behalf, and again I recognised his strength. “Pray tell.” He looked to me, but I could not help him, we did not bother with names, down there in the deep, where sound did not travel. We spoke only above the water, but even then it was more often singing to lure our sailors in, and they never lived long enough to need a name to call us by. “She's Syrena.” It was a beautiful sound, I took to it immediately. The power of simple kindness was beginning to overwhelm me, I must remain tough. I may look like a human woman, but the mer are made of a far stronger steel.
When he lifted me again into the safety of his arms, I asked him a question I had been burning to know. “You have given me a name, but I do not know yours.”
“My name's Philip.”
“Philip. It is a good name.” A good name for a good man. I noticed the woman staring at us, and turned my face against Philip's chest, not wanting to let on any more than she had guessed.
~ ~ ~
They tied me to a stake in a pool, surrounded by the corpses of my sisters. “Careful, these pools run deep. If she escapes all is lost. Quartermaster,” He ripped off my hood, and I hissed in rage, “Look.” It was not the trial he seemed to think it would be. We were not like humans, we did not mourn for our dead in the same way. “Look! Staked out to die, to dry in the sun. Only half in the water, not enough to live, but just enough to make the dying slow. Think on it, your people murdered, harvested for their tears. Syrena... won't you cry?”
“All die, even you, soon I hear.” That enraged him, and I felt a hard kind of pleasure.
“Listen, listen, can you not hear your sisters scream? Do you not hear them? We need but one tear.” I would not give it to him. He struck me hard, and from the corner of my I saw Philip lunge forward, restrained by the pirates. “Vile creature!”
“Chop off her fingers one by one.
“Cut out the tears from behind the eyes.” I ignored the calls, I would take whatever they decided to give.
“Where's your voice in this?” Poor Philip, he was trying to find some goodness in those devoid of it. “Maybe she'll have a change of heart when the sun rises.”
“Aye, she will burn, but I cannot wait for the sun. Perhaps we should build a fire.”
“Do not contest me cleric.”
“You will not torture her!”
“We need only one tear.” The woman was trying to mediate, but to no avail.
“I will tear every scale from her body if I see fit. If that displeases you, go pray.” He waved him away. “I was wrong, not every soul can be saved, yours cannot.”
“Behold gentleman, a man formerly of faith.”
“That vile creature as you call her is worth a hundred of you!”
“Do you care for her? You fancy her. Do not deny what is clear to my eyes. The question is, does she fancy you?” Fancy... no. Respect, yes. But I could not fancy a human. And yet, in my eyes he saw the opposite.
“My God she does! We are in luck. Bring forth a tear, or witness the death of this poor soul.”
“Syrena, if you could manage a tear I would be grateful.” Oh Philip... I have a duty, a charge to protect the pool of life. I cannot... I must not... “Sadness yes, but no sorrow... yet.” He drew his knife, and the woman accosted him. “Not by your hand father!” Father?
“Time and tide wait for none. Quartermaster.” He slit his throat in one fell move. And though I felt my heart rip to shreds, when it came together again it was icy. No tear would fall from my eyes. “Oo' aye, mermaids are tough, the lot of them. Tie her up like the others, and get rid of this.” They removed Philip's body, and again my heart tore, but I did not allow the agony to show on my face.
~ ~ ~
I was resting fitfully when he came back. His hands working the knots in the rope, with nervous desperation, woke me, “I'm sorry Syrena.”
“Philip, you're alive.”
“You came for me,” My hands slipped the rope and I sunk back into the water, gazing up at him, he who could so easily have escaped this place and left for dead the creature who refused to shed a tear to save his life. “Why?”
“You are different, are you not?” He must have been able to see that I did not understand. “Do you know not of kindness? Compassion?” Now, I believed I did.
Their hands startled me, and I did not have time to fight them before I was pinned, a vial at the corner of my eye, and the magic of a mermaid's tear in their grasp. “Tears of sorrow never, mermaids be too tough for that. Tears of joy... they say these be the more potent anyway.”
“Syrena on my word I had no part in this!” How could I know? Kindness, compassion... what did it mean when a man had his own life to look out for?
“Let her go, you don't need her now.”
“Let her go? No. Secure her bonds, we leave her with her own.” Our eyes met as they lashed me back to stake, and as I saw the sorrow in his gaze, suddenly I did not doubt he had no part in it. He looked like a man who would lay down his life for a helpless, dark, creature.
~ ~ ~
I was burning, as they had said I would, my body, in it's mermaid form, was meant for the water, and the sunlight and air slowly dried me out. I drifted in and out of consciousness, my only reprieve coming when I dreamt of his face. I waited for death, and wondered if I would see the God he had spoken of.
At some point my eyes closed for the last time, and then all was blackness, until his face, close, tangible, filled my vision. I assumed I had died, and somehow found Heaven, but the pain, the burning in my lungs, corrected me. He had come back for me, again. I was saved. Without a word I threw myself back into the depths, letting the water heal my wounds, letting oxygen enter my body in the proper way, through cool water, instead of hot air. I swam through the pools, finding my way out, finding the blackness of the ocean, then I thought about Philip. I remembered the scent of blood, the bite of iron in the air as he had cupped my face in his hands. He had been hurt, he had used his last strength to come and save me. I could not leave him to die alone, I owed him more than that. So I swam back up through the pools and tunnels, finding my way back to his side, where I belonged.
He was washing out the wound in water from the pool when I surfaced, “You're hurt.”
“In body only. My mind is at peace, because of you.”
“Yes, I was lost. The winds, the tides, they ought to renew a man's faith; for me only you.”
“Philip, I can save you. You need only ask.”
“I seek but one thing,”
“What is that?”
“Forgiveness. If not for me you would never have been captured.”
“Forgive me.” I reached up for him, a kiss from a mermaid is more potent than a tear. A kiss from a mermaid can save a man from drowning. I wrapped my arms around him and dragged him down with me, pulling him into the safety of the ocean, where I could heal his wounds with the magic of the sea.