A Short Story
The fog had grown thicker around Hand and his boat until he felt as though he were wrapped in a cocoon of it. His lantern only lit a small sphere around him, the moisture in the air capturing and containing the flickering light as it sought to escape. Sounds travelled in strange ways; the noise of the oars as he dipped them into the briny water seemed to die as soon as it was created. His breathing, try as he might to control it, was amplified louder than he would have believed, and strange, deep rumbles passed through the hull of the boat from the black depths far below. Those rumbles conjured images of massive creatures moving below him. Creatures who would think less of him and his tiny boat than he would of a spider on the deck of the ship. Out here, beyond the Rim, there could be anything gliding through the depths. Hand remembered being told only the night before by Old Stormy, an ageless, toothless and probably insane member of the crew, of the loss of the Luciana. Its distress calls telling frantic stories of terrible, coiling tentacles, a gaping maw of death and the madness that consumed the crew in its presence. Only debris was ever found of that ill fated liner. Stormy had said that out here, the favourite Monsters of childhood bedtime stories, were not only irrelevant, they were prey. There were the great Leviathans, Serpents with dogs’ heads, clutching, clawed hands that reached over the sides of ships and plucked unwitting sailors off theirs ship's deck and insane piping which came from the stars themselves. Another rumble passed through the boat, sending a wave of hot and cold fear up Hand’s body. In his mind’s eye he saw a gigantic shadow passing underneath him, it’s colossal mass dwarfing the boat and him into insignificance. He shivered and brought his arms around his skinny body, his grey eyes darting around the edges of the dingy to check that his wards of woven Silverkelp were still in place. They were. So long as they remained, the monsters of the oceans would not notice him. After a moment the rumble faded and he forced himself to take hold of the oars and continue paddling, with all his concentration on keeping the oars from making too much noise.
singing, when it started, was so quiet that for a while Hand couldn't
be sure that it wasn't just his fear driven imagination. He found
himself continually reaching up to dig a nail into his ears to clear
what had to be an errant piece of wax. Then the voice became a little
louder and he knew it to be real. The notes were smooth, warm liquid
in his head; they spoke to him of distant sunlit shores, of a warm
bed and a full belly, his mother and her love... He could have them
all if he would just climb into the water. Hand felt a deep, wrench
of emotion inside him that made his eyes prickle and his throat burn;
it took all of his willpower not to follow the voice over the side of
the boat. Instead he did as the Captain had told him, pulling a small
knife from his belt and drawing it across his thumb. A bloom of
crimson followed the blade and the burn and sting of the cut cleaved
through the fuzziness in his head. The song was still there,
searching, probing, but he could keep it out by pressing on the cut.
So long as he was in real pain, it could not affect him. He continued
to row towards the song, his rowing more insistent, and soon began to
hear the sounds of waves breaking on rock. Hand turned to look, and
through the gloom, he could see the dark spit of stone rising above
the waves. On top of the stone sat a figure. He felt his heartbeat
quicken as he spied the object of the Hunt. The Maidens of the water
were said to be the most beautiful thing a man could lay eyes upon.
It happened suddenly, as though she were wearing a veil of fog that she decided to cast off. One moment she was merely a figure in the haze, the next, she was there for him to see. Perched just above the lapping water, her knees curled up, long blonde hair the shade of sun bleached sand flowed from her head and down to her waist. Hand’s eyes drank in her face, delicate, innocent, her pearl pale skin and the small breasts that gently rose and fell with her breath as she continued to sing. Hand felt a swell in his chest, a flutter in his stomach, she really was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Her eyes were closed, her face relaxed, beatific and her song gentle. He found himself imaging her and him running down a beach together, playing games, lying together in the water looking up at the stars... As if she had heard his thoughts, the singing stopped and her eyes opened. She turned to look at him with eyes the colour of the deepest blue ocean. Hand froze, at once ashamed and terrified. The Water Maiden smiled gently at him,
'Do not be afraid, I shall not hurt you.' she said in a voice as smooth as still water, her face friendly. 'Come closer, please? I cannot see you fully, alas this fog obscures even our vision.'
'Beggin’ your pardon m’lady but I’d rather not…' replied Hand, shifting nervously under her gaze.
Her face fell, disappointment and sadness welling in her eyes,
'Whyever is that?' she asked.
Lying to the Merfolk is harder than to any human, you must believe it in your very soul!, the Captain's words echoed in Hand’s head as he began to answer,
'Because I am not worthy m’lady. I’m a poor orphan boy, far from home, with nothin’ to my name, I am not worthy to sit with such beauty as you.' he could feel his heart beating like a caged bird in his chest as he mixed lies and truth into one. He knew that if she didn’t believe him, the consequences could be terrible. Her response was to laugh delicately, her hands coming up to hide her face. Hand felt some of the tension in him bleed away as she did so.
'You flatter me, human.' she said, looking at him over her hands.
'Indeed I do m’lady.' replied Hand, starting to become comfortable in his lie, 'It is a great honour to merely be able to see your beauty in real life rather than in the stories I've been told. I only wish I were worthy to see you closer so that I may know your beauty more fully.' Hand hated the way he was lowering himself to her, but the same stories he had been told did not end well for those mortals whom the fair folk felt had insulted them.
Her smile widened, her eyes becoming bright, filled with childish happiness,
'You need not worry about worth, flattering one! Shall I come aboard? We can see each other better then.'
Her smile was almost too much to bear, and despite himself Hand felt a rush of excitement that she would be coming closer to him, that she would chose him.
'I would be honoured, m'lady.' he replied, no longer knowing how much was a lie.
She stood up and walked to the edge of the water, her legs beginning to take on a dappled green colour as they touched the cool liquid. He watched her slip under the surface, then a moment later rise up again at the opposite end of the boat. She smiled up at him as he removed the Silverkelp wards to allow her aboard. She extended a hand and he aided her into the boat. Up close she was even more beautiful and Hand could feel himself physically aching with a powerful longing to reach out and touch her. The Maiden began to move slowly towards him,
'Flattering human,' she said, looking at him with wide, searching eyes, 'You need not worry about worth, have such beauty about you...'
She leant closer to him, reached out and touched his face.
'Such beauty inside, but such sadness.'
He could see her own sadness reflected in her face, as though she could see into his soul. Her hand moved behind his head and drew him into a gentle embrace. He could smell the sea on her skin, feel the warmth of her body, and for a moment, he wanted to give in to the tugging, insistent feeling inside of him. To put his arms around her and let himself feel safe... loved.
Instead he reached behind himself, found the heavy flare gun from under the seat he had stashed there.
'I'm sorry.' he whispered in her ear, then fired the flare.
The Maiden’s eyes snapped open at the noise, she pushed away from him, confused, scared. She took a breath to say something, but at that moment the net that had been carefully, painstakingly, disguised and integrated into the bottom of the boat snapped up and whipped the Maiden overboard and away through the fog. Hand let out a long breath and let the gun drop to the bottom of the boat, a pang of guilt already twinging in his belly.
the fog came the deep drone of a ship’s horn and the sound of
moving water. Hand looked up to see the Nefarious's
loom up through the fog. She was an old iron steamer, her armoured
hull battered and full of patchwork repairs, her engines belching
black smoke from her single funnel, and yet she was home. Home to him
and a crew of runaways, mercenaries, criminals and those who had
nowhere else to go. The Nefarious
swept alongside him, his tiny boat bobbing in her wake. Ropes dropped
down from above him and he secured the dingy before scaling one of
them up to the deck. A large, calloused hand reached over the side of
guardrail to pull him over and he found himself face to face with
Captain Grey. He was a giant, burly man with a thick, salt and pepper
beard and thicker muscles. His hard, dark eyes stared out of a
heavily scarred face that, like the ship he captained, had seen too
many storms and too many battles with the beasts that lurked in the
darkest reaches of the oceans. Hand had only known him a year, but he
knew enough to respect, and even fear the man. There were tales,
rumours, amongst the crew of things he had done and been through that
didn't seem human. The captain clapped a heavy hand on Hand's
shoulder and said,
'Good work lad, we’ll make a Hunter of you yet.' he flashed Hand a brief toothy smile. 'Now, let’s go inspect your prize.'
They walked to the prow of the ship where a large crowd of crew had gathered. The net containing the Maiden was hanging from the bow crane, swinging limply as she struggled against the net. Some of the crew, mostly the men, were jeering and whooping at her. Most just looked on with a grim resignation, they had a job to do. The Captain pushed through to the front of the crowd, with Hand following close behind. Grey looked at the Maiden with a critical eye,
'She's a beautiful one alright.' he said, nodding thoughtfully, 'Will fetch a good price at the market.'
He approached the net. The Maiden stopped her weak struggling at looked at the man with fearful, yet defiant eyes. Whatever she saw in there made her baulk and retreat from the man.
'You... you are cursed. Doomed to wander the mists until it finds you, the Old One...' she said to the Captain, her words making the crew mumble uneasily. A deep vibration passed through the boat, as if in response to her words. He looked at her a moment then snorted with laughter,
'If that's the best you can do to scare me, the least you could do is be original, Monster.' he said, folding his arms and drawing himself up to his full, intimidating height. 'You will grant the three wishes owed to us, an' you know as well as I the laws of your people should you refuse.'
She looked at him, her blue eyes wide and sad, then nodded in defeat.
'Take the catch below and make it ready for the journey back to port.' the Captain said to the crew, turning and making his way back to Hand. A group stepped forward to open the forward hatches and the pulley team began to lower the Maiden into the hold, her eyes never left Hand’s until she passed below the deck. He felt as though he was watching the love of his life being taken away, a deep, aching sadness filling his chest.
'Don't let her get to you, lad.' said the Captain, noticing his look. 'That's their power, the Maidens... They'll make you love them, whether you want to or not.'
There was a note of bitterness in his voice, and a sadness. Hand didn't ask, merely nodded in agreement.
“What will happen to her?” he asked, watching
'We'll take her back to Southampton and sell those wishes of hers to the highest bidder. Only, the wishes are about as useful as a ship made of paper. Never work out the way you want them too and never as powerful as you want either. We know that, any sailor worth his salt knows that. But the rich folk back at port sure as shit don’t, and you can bet there are some rich ladies just dyin’ to wish themselves younger.' Captain Grey smirked to himself at the thought, then clapped a heavy hand on Hand's shoulder. 'Good work today again lad, but remember hunting Merfolk is easy. Next time we’ll find out how much of a man you really are.'
The ship's horn droned once again and with a cough of sooty black smoke, the Neferious began to move. The Captain turned and began to walk away, Hand turned after him,
'What are we hunting next time?' he asked.
'Why, a Kraken of course!' replied the Captain over his shoulder.