The ship rocked in the predawn calm, like a bird resting on a branch nodding in the light breeze. The one on watch stood silently at the bow, staring out at a circle of iron grey sea and sky.
Amidships, lay a boy, bound in heavy ship’s line.
Line gradually parting under his sharp teeth, teeth that had cracked clamshells and bone. His hair, pale as wave foam, was nearly the only thing most folk would have seen in the shadows” that, and the dim eyeshine, like a cat’s. His skin, a shade of deep blue-grey meant to camouflage him six hundred feet down, made him another vague shadow among the things on deck.
They wouldn’t notice him shredding the last bit of line.
The heavy boots of the night watch clumped on the deck. The boy froze, rolling enough to hide the parting rope. Closing his eyes, pretending sleep. The boots clumped down the deck toward him. Paused. A snort, a sound like an annoyed walrus. Clump clump clump, back to the bow.
The boy opened his eyes. Not much use here, above water; plenty of light, but everything above water was a blur for eyes designed to see in the depths. He freed the last bit of rope, laid it carefully aside, curled his long swordfish tail under him and shoved himself across the deck to where the dolphin lay in her narrow tank. He raised himself up on its edge, studied it with his hands. He laid a hand on the dolphin’s round forehead, we can get out of this...together...I have an idea...
Two sea tails, powerful enough to propel bodies at lightning speed through water, lashed out as one. The dolphin lurched over the side of her prison tank, and together they slithered across the deck to the railing.
A shout came from the night watch on the bow. The sound of running feet. Chaos erupted belowdecks. Thunder of feet on the gangway up to the weather deck.
The boy grabbed the dolphin in a desperate hug, her eyes seeing far more clearly than his. Their tails lashed out, and they heaved themselves over the side and into the cold clear sea.
He fled, blasting through the grey seas with all the power his torn fins could muster. The dolphin paced him, holding back just enough for him to keep up. Far behind, in the dim, predawn light, the boy could hear the shouted orders and sharp clatter of a ship in crisis mode. Through the water, he could feel the distant cough and sputter of a small, fast boat starting up, then the scream of the engines, like the rip of shark teeth. Instinctively he dove, slicing down through clear, greygreen water, darker, deeper. He was seventy feet down in the flick of a fin, in three heartbeats; opening his mouth for the first breath of clean cold sea when he remembered.
Remembered what they had taken from him. Remembered what he could no longer do. He choked, spat out the mouthful of water, turned his face toward the dim light of the surface, so far away. Did something he’d never done before.
He held his breath. Not well and not long, for in uncounted turns of the seasons he had never had to hold his breath; not in the sea, nor in the ocean of air above it.
The surface was so far...so far!
Impossible. He was not a whale. Darkness flickered before his eyes, the water pressed on him as it had never done before, holding him down, caving in his air-filled lungs. He bent his fins, shoved against the water that had always held him like a mother, faced toward the alien world of air and light and color.
So far... too far.
The grey sea blackened. Then something shoved him from below, a hard insistent push toward the surface. He erupted in a spray of silver, gasping, gulping in the cool clean air, the dolphin leaping beside him. He raised a hand, brushed a seaweed tangle of pale hair out of his eyes, staring back at the eastern horizon, all the glowing colors of the inside of a whelk shell. He couldn’t see the ship, or the small fast boat, but he could still feel the distant thrum of the engines, sounds carried far and fast by the sea, and his heart sank. He knew by the lay of the bottom, by the direction of the swells, by the way the seabirds soared overhead, that shore was not far away.
Not far. The dolphin agreed. She shoved him gently toward land.
My people do not go that way. It is dangerous he told her.
What lies to the east is more dangerous. She shoved him again, landward. My pod hunts those shores often, we swim behind the islands, in the shallows. It is safe there. No one hunts us there.
There are humans there...
Only in a few places, much of it is empty. It is Assateague, the Outrider.
Assateague. Assateague. Outrider. The Place Across. A thin, lonely line of sand at the very edge of the great land to the west. He knew of it from his clan’s stories, though none of them had ever been there. He turned his face to the grey west and swam.
Not far. Not far. The roar of the engine behind them was louder, closing fast, faster than the chugging boats that brought deep sea sport fishermen and wreck divers out here, where the water was clear and the sand bottom rolled like a desert ninety feet below. The dolphin could vanish into the sea, but he could not outrun the small boat, or the larger one it came from, not even with the good start he’d had. Not even hanging onto the dolphin’s fin. And he could no longer dive to the safety of the bottom.
But maybe he could fool them.
He porpoised, flying just under the surface, using the waves’ energy to propel him forward, breathing in great ragged gasps as he hit air. Flick of the tail, breathe...tail flick, breathe...tail flick, breathe. The dolphin didn’t vanish, she paced him. He mirrored her movements, the movements of the master of wave riding. He glanced back. He still couldn’t see them, but he knew they must have some way of spotting him from afar. they had been ready for him when he came to rescue the dolphin caught in their trap. He changed his course slightly, and wove an illusion.
Now they would see two dolphins, no more.
If he could keep this up.
He was slowing. More heartbeats for each finbeat now. More time on the surface trying to gulp in the air.
He could dive again, confuse the pursuers, vanish and resurface somewhere unexpected, out of sight. He dove, the dolphin pacing him down, down down. His muscles screamed for oxygen, his chest and throat spasmed like a fish out of water, blackness crept in around the edges of his world.
Impossible. In his entire life, there had never been a reason to hold his breath, for he could breathe both air and water.
Impossible. A Merrow could not drown.
He thrashed back to the light, to the air, gulped it in, the dolphin shoving him skyward, chirping that he shouldn’t have wasted time going down when he should have been going west. He shifted course again and heard the boat veer off.
The dolphin slid by him, offering a dorsal fin. He hung on, and they both slowed.
They’ll catch us both, he told her.
No. they won’t.
He was too exhausted to do anything but hang on, then he couldn’t hang on anymore.
The dolphin sent out a long warbling call.
Minutes passed, the roar of engines grew louder.
Fins sliced the water around him, rolling up out of the depths like a wheel.
Wheel, whale. Little whales. Dolphins, a whole pod. They flowed around him and his first dolphin friend. These newcomerswere a different species, the common dolphins of the offshore realm, brightly patterned in black, white and grey, not like the pale grey bottlenose he’d saved. They whistled and sang in a different tongue, but one he knew. They surrounded him, pushing, shoving (a bit roughly perhaps) offering fins to hang onto. Taking him shoreward...
The boatwhine receded away to the north. Then he heard it shift, return south. He lifted his head for another breath, and there was a long green line on the horizon. The sound, the feel of the sandy bottom below him shifted. Then he heard the roar of breakers.
The dolphins left him, just beyond the last breaker, where the water changed from luminescent dawn-green to murky with silt. He surfed in, just the way he’d seen humans playing in the surf do it. The water tasted of sand and the air tasted of green, growing things, and the earthy smell of some large herbivore. The low waves crashed on him, rolling him over, filling his ears and nose with sand and grinding bits of shell into his wounds. He struggled, floundered with the last of his energy, and managed to pull himself onto dry sand. With his last bit of strength he wove one more illusion.
The pinto stallion raised his head in surprise. Behind him, in a loose circle with their heads hanging relaxed in the early morning sun, stood his small band of mares, in all the colors of the island. The sea crashed in front of him, the wind off it blew the biting flies and mosquitoes inland. The stallion watched the waves roll up, and out of them stepped a black mare. Not really that odd, his band stood in the waves all the time, washing away the biting insects and their itches. He breathed deep, trying to recognize her scent. He didn’t.
She trotted out of the surf, trailing seawater. She stood a hand taller than him, solid black, a color almost never seen in the island ponies. He trotted around her, showing off, one eye scanning for her stallion (and finding none). He lowered his head, snaking it, thinking to drive her into his herd.
She turned, delivered a pair of hind feet directly into his muscled chest and trotted down the beach.
He snorted, turned, disappointed, to his mares.
She broke into an easy canter, a motion like the rolling sea. A quarter mile south she saw what she’d come for; a long low shape, sprawled at the edge of the high tide line. She slowed, walked to it, stepped over it, her legs like fenceposts, guarding.