Chapter 5: New Friends
The sun has risen high overhead by the time they made it to
the shore. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for Averil to figure out how humans
swam with legs. The frantic kicking that caused forward motion used far more
energy than swimming with a tail, but at least it kept him afloat.
When at last the struggling threesome reached the shoreline, they were all panting with effort. Averil dragged himself into the shallows with his arms, breathing heavily, but with a rugged sense of triumph. It no longer mattered what he’d left behind. As far as anyone was concerned right now, he was human. It was more than he’d ever even dreamed of, right here in his hands.
Even now, as he lifted his new legs out of the water to stare at them, Averil almost couldn’t believe it.
A familiar cawing sound from above interrupted his awe, and a grin spread across Averil’s face. He looked up and waved at Scuttle, who was circling overhead.
“Well look at what the catfish dragged in!” Scuttle crowed, coming to land (as ungracefully as ever) on one of Averil’s new legs. He was hopping about excitedly, pointing at Averil.
“Look at you!” he said brightly. “There’s something different about you. It’s the hair, right?”
Averil almost snickered at the completely shocked look on Sebastien’s face. He’d forgotten that the little crab had never met Scuttle before. He was definitely an acquired taste, especially for someone as uptight as Sebastien.
Scuttle was looking pretty proud of himself, thinking he’d guessed it. It clearly hadn’t occurred to him that his usually-tailed friend suddenly looked like a human. Averil took the opportunity to show off his good mood and flicked his leg, dumping the seagull on his behind in the shallow water.
Sputtering, Scuttle’s eyes were big as saucers when he came up for air. He twitched uncontrollably, water droplets scattering everywhere. Averil’s shoulders shook with silent laughter.
“Where’d you get those?” Scuttle asked, staring in shock at Averil’s legs.
Sebastien’s face was buried in his claws as he answered.
“He traded his voice to the sea-witch and got legs,” the crab explained glumly. From his overdramatic tone, you’d think the world was ending.
“Now Averil’s a human,” Flounder added. He was considerably more excited than Sebastien, which was good. “And he’s gotta find that princess, and then he’s gotta kiss her!”
Averil braced his hands on one of the large rocks that littered the shoreline. Using primarily his arms, he lifted himself out of the water, using the rock to support himself. With bated breath, he tested out the new legs. They were weak and wobbly, but after some work, they would take his weight. Averil frowned. He was heavy now. Standing up was like murder. Did all humans constantly feel this heavy?
“In three days!” Sebastien reminded them all, his gloomy voice practically echoing with drama. He indicated Averil, who was still struggling to stand straight. Scuttle pulled himself out of the water, and clumsily fluttered up to perch atop the rock Averil leaned on.
“Just look at him,” Sebastien whined. “On legs. Human legs.”
He gestured wildly, like a terrible actor on a stage.
“My nerves are shot,” the crab moaned. “What would his father say?”
“I’ll tell you what his father’d say,” Sebastien answered himself, now on a full-scale monologue. “He’s gonna kill himself a crab, that’s what his father’d say! I’m gonna march meself right back home and tell him just like I shoulda done the minute-”
In one clumsy motion, Averil reached down and snatched the little crab up in one hand, dangling him over the water by his shell. He glared menacingly.
“Don’t you look at me like that young man!” Sebastien shouted, struggling to free himself from Averil’s grip. “You will go back to that witch right this minute and ask for your voice back, do you hear me?”
Averil was about to drop the crab mercilessly into the water (which from this height would not have been fun), when Scuttle whistled loudly. Averil’s head snapped up, just in time to get hit in the face with a large piece of thick fabric, which the seagull had just thrown at him.
“You’re going to want to wrap up in that, quick, kid,” Scuttle said. He was staring up the beach at something. When Averil raised an eyebrow at him in confusion, Scuttle just flapped a wing at him.
“Just trust me on this,” he said. Averil heard a faint, slightly familiar barking sound in the distance. He remembered it, the barking that he’d heard the day he rescued the princess.
Averil panicked. Hastily he dragged the rough fabric around his wiry frame, not wanting to appear unclothed before any other humans. From what little he knew, that was seriously frowned upon. Sebastien found a pocket and swiftly buried himself inside. Averil dove up onto the sand, and was surprised to feel how it slid and stuck around his feet like dry mud, making it much harder to keep his balance. The barking became louder and louder.
In an explosion of sound and sand, the creature that made the barking noise appeared. It was a large creature, covered in white and gray hair, that ran on four legs. Startled beyond belief, Averil found himself racing for a large rock that protruded from the sand. The barking animal gave chase, and soon, Averil was stuck on top of the rock with it barking and jumping, trying to reach him.
That sound, too, was familiar. Averil’s face immediately heated up at the lovely voice of the girl he wanted to see more than anyone else....just not like this.
When the princess came dashing into sight, Averil thought her as beautiful as the night he had first met her. Her long black hair had been tied back in an elegant half-ponytail, but a few wisps had escaped into the wind. She wore a plain white shirt, with a simple blue skirt and red sash. Her feet were encased in sensible black boots.
Princess Erryn stopped short when she saw the young man trapped at the mercy of her wayward hound. Her hand went to her mouth instantly.
“Oh my goodness,” she gasped. “Max! Heel! I mean, I- I’m so sorry, Max!”
She lunged forward and frantically wrapped her thin arms around the animal, pulling him forcefully away from the rock.
“I hope he wasn’t bothering you,” she said apologetically, holding the dog down by the back of his neck. “He’s harmless, really. I’m so sorry. You can come down now.”
Carefully, with one eye on the princess, Averil slid down from the rock. He stayed close, though. His heart was about to beat its way out of his chest.
Erryn looked up to apologize once more, but paused. She stared unabashedly into Averil’s sea-blue eyes. Her brow furrowed in thought.
“You look....” she said softly. “I mean, you’re very, um, familiar. Have we met before?”
She couldn’t possibly have held onto that hazy memory of a shipwreck, Averil had thought. Now, his heart leapt. If she remembered him, than this might not be as hard as he had originally thought. As long as she didn’t think she’d dreamed him.
He nodded, smiling.
A dazzling smile appeared on Erryn’s face.
“I knew it!” she breathed. “It was you.”
Her cheeks were flushed with color, darkening her already slightly-tanned skin.
“All this time, and I never thought to come back here,” she said with a giggle. Her eyes never left Averil’s. “Who are you?”
Only then did Averil remember that he had no voice to speak to her with. That was going to be a problem. He looked away, eyes downcast, trying to figure out what to do about it.
The princess looked at him quizzically.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, her sweet voice concerned. “Don’t you talk?”
Slowly, Averil shook his head. He couldn’t bring himself to look up just yet, he couldn’t face what he knew was a disappointed look on her face.
“Oh,” she said quietly. “I guess- well, I don’t think you’re who I thought you were.”
It was like listening to her nail a hammer into his coffin. He hadn’t been a human for three hours and already his cause was lost.
The princess did not appear to share his sentiment, apparently.
“It’s lovely to meet you anyway,” she said kindly. Averil found a delicate hand thrust into his field of vision, catching his attention. When he looked up, the princess was smiling at him.
“I’m Princess Erryn,” she said, taking his hand and shaking it. She was so forward, Averil couldn’t help but smile. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Scuttle and Flounder had vanished, but he figured they were just out of sight, watching. He could still feel Sebastien’s hard shell in the pocket of his makeshift cloth covering.
Erryn frowned and put a finger to the corner of her mouth, pensive.
“I don’t suppose we can just get on without me knowing your name,” she said thoughtfully. Then her smile returned. She was so lovely when she smiled, Averil imagined he could stare at that smile forever.
“Why don’t you write it down for me?” Erryn asked.
Averil nodded enthusiastically. He hadn’t even thought of that, but it was the perfect solution. He couldn’t exactly write her a novel, and he was beginning to think that she might not even believe the truth if he told her. But he could tell her the little things, like his name.
Before he knew it, the princess had taken his hand and dragged him down closer to the water, where the damper sand was. Following her lead, Averil knelt down in the sand and carefully drew out his name.
“Averil?” she said asked. “That’s your name?”
He nodded. The princess giggled, tucking her jet-black hair behind her ears to keep it from being blown into her face in the wind.
“That’s an unusual name,” she said. He simply shrugged in response. It wasn’t really unusual where he came from, but she wouldn’t know that.
When she went to stand, Averil caught Erryn’s hand. He drew a second figure in the sand, under his name. It wasn’t the best art in the world, but it was a clearly visible ship. He drew waves around it, just in case she didn’t know.
“A ship?” Erryn asked. He nodded again. Then, he added some stripes of lightning in the sky, and sliced the ship in half.
“A shipwreck,” the princess guessed shrewdly. “You were in a shipwreck, weren’t you? That’s how you wound up here, isn’t it?”
Well, actually, that wasn’t quite what he meant...Averil had been trying to explain that he really was the person who had saved her, but he didn’t have the skill to draw a person in the sand. It wasn’t the most precise medium.
He felt her tug at his hand once again.
“Come on,” Erryn said, her eyes soft. “You should come with me, up to the castle. We can help you.”
Slowly, Averil nodded. He very, very carefully got to his feet, and was pleased to find that his wobbles were getting much better. Still, he wasn’t sure how well he was going to do walking over a distance.
A warm, furry weight pressed against his side. Averil glanced down, and saw Max the dog staring up at him. His tongue lolled out of his mouth and he panted in the heat, but Averil would have sworn he was grinning. He nosed Averil’s hand, and the young man just had to pet him.
“Let’s go get you cleaned up,” Erryn said. She took Averil’s hand, leading him down the beach the way she had come. Max pushed his head against Averil’s knee, shoving him forward, but stayed at his side as they set off. Each time Averil wobbled a bit, Max leaned comfortingly against him, keeping him standing straight. Awed, the former merman had to wonder if the dog didn’t remember him. It wouldn’t have been the craziest thing to happen all day.
With the dog on his left and the princess on his right, Averil grinned. He tilted his head back, letting the wind blow through his crimson hair. He breathed in deeply, savoring the moment. For the first time in sixteen years, he really felt free.
Averil stared uncomfortably at the tub full of warm water and soap that had been placed in his room. Not that he had anything against bathing, but honestly, he’d just left the water that morning. The last thing he wanted to do was get back in it. However, he had a feeling that the impressively single-minded servant Grimsby would not appreciate a bath boycott.
He was right.
“Don’t just stand there, lad, get on with it!”
Averil felt a hand at his back as he was unceremoniously pushed. He staggered, then fell into the bath in a mess of soapy water. The scowl on his face was impossible to miss, but Grimsby didn’t seem concerned with it. In fact, he gingerly picked up Averil’s makeshift clothing from the beach and wrinkled his nose at it.
“The princess wishes you to dine with her this evening, so we can’t have you looking like an orphan from a bad novel, can we?” the old servant said with a chuckle. He handed the tattered fabric off to one of the several other servants who bustled about the room, preparing it for the princess’ guest.
Averil was busy scrubbing the dirt off him as quickly as possible. His skin was pink and raw by the time he was done, but he didn’t care. Averil scrambled out of the bath, snatching a fluffy white towel from Grimsby’s hand. To his credit, the serving man made no jokes, but Averil got the impression that he was hiding a small smile.
When the somewhat grumpy young man was dry, Grimsby presented him with his clothes for the evening. Averil tried to conceal his confusion, he’d figure out how all of it worked after Grimsby was gone. All he could tell was that it was a pile of blue and white fabric.
“They’re not quite up to right standard,” the elder man said with an imperious sniff, “But they should fit you well enough. Now, dinner is served in the great hall promptly at seven o’clock, but until then, you may do as you please.”
Averil perked up a bit. He hadn’t thought to expect such a strict environment here, but he supposed that castles on land worked about like castles under the sea. A few hours of free time was nothing to scoff at.
With that, Grimsby turned and left, the other servants in his wake. They took the bathtub with them, leaving the ex-merman alone with his thoughts.
As soon as the old man was out of sight, Averil sighed with relief.
It wasn’t until he went to look for him that Averil realized that Sebastien was still in his pocket. The pocket that Grimsby had just taken off to who knew where.
Averil growled and dropped onto the large bed. There went his free afternoon.
When the princess found her new friend on the floor of the entrance hall peering awkwardly under a decorative table, she politely managed not to laugh. Instead, she just leaned forward and tapped on his shoulder.
Not expecting her, Averil jumped a mile. At that, Erryn couldn’t contain her slight giggle. Still, she smiled as he scrambled to his feet.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” she said apologetically. “I just wondered what you were doing.”
Averil’s heart rate dropped back to normal as he just grinned and shrugged. He couldn’t very well tell her he was searching for a rogue crab loose in her house. He gestured to her and cocked his head to the side, returning the question.
“Oh, I was just going outside to practice before dinner,” she said gaily. She held up a small silver flute.
“The servants don’t like it when I practice inside,” she explained. “They say it echoes too much. So I go outside and play in the sun instead.”
Averil nodded, and repeated his gesture at her.
“You want to come with me?”
She was a good guesser. Perhaps communicating with the princess with no voice wasn’t the worst thing to ever happen. Averil sort of felt like she was getting a better look at him. With him unable to tell her the complicated part of who he was and how he came to be there, she was seeing the real Averil, with no distractions.
That was either going to be his salvation or his downfall.
Erryn smiled and held out her hand. She seemed very contact-oriented, but Averil wasn’t complaining. He took her hand in his, pleased by how well it fit.
She led him outside, to a large circular balcony which was set upon a sheer cliff overlooking the sea. There was a slatted awning that protruded from the castle wall, to provide shade from the sun. It covered half of the balcony- the outer half was left in open air. Clinging ivy had twined its way around the awning, it’s small leaves fluttering in the sea breeze.
“I love it out here,” Erryn murmured. “The view is wonderful.”
She wasn’t lying. Averil didn’t currently have the best feelings about living under the sea, but seeing the broad expanse of the ocean from above was the most amazing feeling. It went on forever, disappearing into the horizon. It was endless.
Excited beyond belief, Averil raced to the balcony’s edge, leaning out to catch as much of the breeze as possible. It ruffled his hair. Briefly, he thought he caught that familiar scent of what he didn’t know were roses.
Averil was so caught up that he almost didn’t notice when Erryn joined him at the railing. Without a word, she raised the flute to her lips and began to play.
The tune was not particularly difficult, and only about eight measures long. She started out slowly, just playing the tune (he assumed) the way it was written. When she reached the end of the eighth measure, she went back to the beginning and played it again. This time, she added a few flourishes, making the song her own.
What really surprised Averil was that he actually knew the song. According to the merfolk, it was a song sung by human sailors as they rowed their boats in days of old. It told a sad tale, of a man who returned from voyaging across the seas to find that his true love had married another. Angered, the man tricked his love into coming to sea with him, leaving her husband and child behind. When she discovered his trickery, the woman cursed him for stealing her life away from her. In the end, the ship sank, neither man nor woman to rise from the depths again.
It wasn’t a song or tale that a proper young merman was supposed to know. As it was a human song, it was considered by most merfolk to be lewd and inappropriate. It was more frequently heard by border guards and other such ruffians. King Triton would have been furious to think that his youngest son had heard such a thing. Averil sighed into the breeze as he remembered that it was Alec who had taught him the song.
Averil remembered the words to the song, sincerely wishing he had the voice to sing them.
Well met, well met
said an old true love
Well met, well met said he
I’ve just returned from the salt, salt sea
And it’s all for the love of thee
Averil wondered why the princess had picked that particular song to play. The sad story didn’t really fit the day, but maybe she just found it beautiful, like he did.
When she finished the song, Averil softly applauded. Her face went bright red, but she nodded her thanks.
“I’ve always liked that song,” she commented lightly. “It’s sad, but it’s just too pretty not to play.”
Curiously, Averil held out his hand. He indicated her flute, then beckoned for her to let him see it. She did so without hesitation, but watched him intensely. The crimson-haired young man turned the flute over in his hands, inspecting every inch of it. It was beautifully crafted, made of some shiny material he didn’t quite understand. Still, many of his human treasures were made with it, like the dinglehopper for one.
“Do you play?” Erryn asked, intrigued by his interest.
Averil held out his hand flat, then tilted it from side to side. Sort of. Not really.
He returned the flute to her, pleased by his findings. Then he got an idea. Again he used his hands to speak, with one held flat, and the other miming a hammering motion.
As usual, the princess was very quick on the uptake.
“You make things?” she inferred. He nodded, then pointed to the flute.
She squeaked in surprise.
“You make things like this?” she asked incredulously. “Like, musical instruments?”
Again, Averil nodded, a mischievous smile on his face. He enjoyed how funny she was when she was surprised. He made a mental note to try to think of other things that would make her squeak.
Erryn brushed her long hair off her shoulder, then propped one hand on her hip.
“You are certainly a mystery, Averil,” she said. “I have a feeling getting to know you will be an adventure.”
Averil grinned broadly.
They spent the next few hours getting a head start on that adventure. Erryn played a few more songs, none of which Averil recognized. Still, they were all very beautiful. Averil was suitably occupied listening to her songs, with the wondrous ocean view to look at. When the princess wearied of practicing her music, they retreated under the awning to relax in the shade and talk (or mime, in Averil’s case).
Erryn told Averil all about her life as a princess. Her parents had been the King and Queen here, but the Queen had never been very healthy. She had died in childbirth when Erryn was nine, along with Erryn’s baby brother. The King was devastated, but had taken solace in his remaining daughter. He turned all of his attention to Erryn.
“I guess that’s why I’m so different from a normal princess,” Erryn said with a shrug. “My father never had a son he could take out riding, or teach to shoot a bow, so he did all of that with me instead. We were vey close.”
Her eyes glazed over, as her thoughts drifted into a distant place in her mind.
“Papa and I were all each other had. It was like the two of us against the world. He was even going to teach me how to sail.”
Erryn’s eyes were sad, even as a smile appeared on her face. A happy idea in a sad memory.
“But he never got the chance,” she finished sadly. “There was a sickness that came through, about two years ago. Papa just couldn’t make it, I suppose.”
Averil hesitantly put an arm around her shoulders. He didn’t know if it was appropriate or not, but he wasn’t going to let a girl cry alone if he could do something about it.
“I’m okay,” she said softly, turning to smile up at him. “It’s just a bad memory is all. I’m fine now, and Mama and Papa are both in a better place.”
Erryn swiped at her eyes to brush away the brimming tears, and shook her head to clear it. One more deep breath, and she seemed like she really would be okay. Her eyes had that little bit of sparkle back.
“What about you?” she asked. “Are you close with your parents?”
Averil shook his head.
“What about siblings?” Erryn pressed on, unafraid of his silence. “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
Nodding, Averil held up six fingers. Erryn gasped in surprise.
“Six siblings?” she asked. “So many! How on earth do you keep everyone straight?”
Thinking of how many times he had been called by one of his brothers’ names, Averil just grinned and shrugged.
“Are they girls, or boys?” Erryn asked. “Or some of both?”
Averil shook his head, then pointed to himself. Again, he held up the six fingers.
“Six more boys like you,” Erryn guessed. He nodded, smile bright as the sun overhead. He was starting to really like this guessing game. She was very good at it, and learning to speak without his voice was like a new language. Each question was a challenge just waiting for him.
Next, Averil held a hand to the top of his head. Then he moved it over, as though someone were standing next to him, then gestured upward.
“Taller?” Erryn tried. When he shook his head, she had to think for a moment.
“No, older,” she said. He nodded, and she grinned triumphantly. She seemed to enjoy the game as much as he did.
“So all of them are older than you, is that right?” she asked. Averil confirmed it.
“That must be hard, being the youngest of seven,” she commented. She giggled when he nodded so hard it made him dizzy. “No wonder you’re not that close with your parents, with six brothers.”
She had no idea just how right she was.
They lapsed into silence for a moment, the pair of them simply enjoying the wind. The sun was beginning to lower in the distance, the horizon gaining a pink and red tint. Soon it would be a full-fledged sunset. It had to be nearly time for dinner, but neither merman nor princess made even the slightest move to go inside.
The princess’ voice was so quiet he barely heard it, but he turned to listen regardless.
Erryn’s smile had disappeared, replaced by a self-conscious biting of the lip. She looked almost nervous, if it were possible for such a confident girl to be nervous.
“Why don’t you talk?” she asked softly. “Is it...do you just not like it? Or did something happen, like an accident when you were small?”
Averil took a deep breath. He had feared she would ask that question eventually, any normal person would have asked it long before now. He imagined it was out of respect that she hadn’t said anything so far. He didn’t want to lie to her, but there was really no good way to tell the whole story, even if he thought she would believe it.
Hesitantly, Averil held up one finger and spun it around, asking her to repeat her question. They had done this a few times, so she understood.
“Do you not like it?” she asked. He shook his head, no.
“Something happened,” she guessed. Slowly, he nodded.
“The shipwreck?” Erryn asked.
The mythical shipwreck had saved him once, there was no reason why it shouldn’t do so again. Averil fought to nod and answer her question for good, but his neck wouldn’t move. It was like he wanted to tell her the truth so badly that lies would not suffice, but his fear of losing her was paralyzing.
Why was it so hard to lie to her? It wasn’t as if he’d never done it before, lying or telling half-truths was almost the entire basis for Averil’s relationship with his father. He just kept imagining the look on her face if, in the end, she discovered that he had been lying to her all along. She wouldn’t want him then. There was such a slim possibility that she would want him when she found out that he was supposed to have fins, he couldn’t endanger the small chance he had by being a liar as well as a merman.
That sad look in her eyes hurt enough to see. He didn’t think he could stand to see her angry. His hand curled itself into a fist as he fought with his frustration.
Her soft hand covered his fist, almost willing him to let it go.
“It’s okay,” Erryn said softly. “You don’t have to tell me.”
When he met her gaze, Averil was surprised to find that she was smiling.
“I was just making sure it wasn’t something about me,” she admitted, her cheeks flushed pink. “I’d hate to think I’d done or said something to keep you from talking to me.”
The awkward snorting noise that came from a mute boy trying to laugh was truly a unique sound. Still, from the wild grin on his face and the inability of his torso to stop shaking, the princess was able to infer his feelings on the matter.
“It’s not that funny!” she complained, though half-laughing herself. When Averil raised a brow at her, she turned the bright crimson shade of a tomato.
Still snickering a bit, Averil reached for her hand, claiming it back. He didn’t know a hand gesture that meant ‘thank you’, but he hoped that she would understand.
She turned on him a grin as wicked as Averil’s own.
“It’s not polite to laugh at a lady, you know,” she told him airily. “Especially not a princess. Anyway, it’s nearly time for dinner.”
She got to her feet, moving carefully so as not to step on her skirt. Averil, too, sighed and stood up. He took one last look at the endless ocean, wondering briefly what his father and brothers were doing. As no one knew where Averil had gone, he supposed they were worried about him. Though, if Alec had told them what happened at the grotto, they might consider him gone for good.
“Aren’t you coming?” Erryn asked from the doorway.
Averil shook off the unpleasant thoughts, and turned his attention back to the beautiful girl who stood waiting for him. Three days didn’t seem so impossible now.