It had been an unwritten law in the island city of Insucium, that no watercraft both big and small shall leave the island's shores from the 16th hour of the day of Frige*, up to the 5th hour the next day. It was an ancient law, so old and so obeyed that it had garnered questions from the younger generations yet it was still followed all the same.
Such a law was made for the humans that lived in the island. To protect them from whatever horrors the sea provided them during those long seventeen hours where sea travel was prohibited. Every resident of Insucium knew what exactly lurked in the depths of the sea water that surrounded them and no one dared to face them.
Twenty-three year old Alfriida paced back and forth inside his small stone house as the grunts and groans of his weakening mother mixed with the gentle taps of the falling rain, with the footsteps he created and the mewling of his cat, Urda. He had been doing that for the past hour ever since his mother's medicine had run out and the time for her to take another dose was fast approaching.
Alfriida rarely panicked, but that was because he rarely had to face such uncertainties where his terminally ill mother was concerned.
"Curse this island. Curse these men. Curse those wretched beasts. Curse all of them." he swore under his breath as his hold on his ragged and mangled sleeves tightened considerably. In his pockets were the last of his savings, ready to be spent on his mother's medicine, if only today wasn't Friday. In accordance to the unwritten law, leaving the island was prohibited until Saturday morning, but it was uncertain if Alfriida's mother would even survive until midnight without the prescribed drugs that were only available in the mainland. The thought made his stomps louder and his breathing go erratic. No, he had to find a way to get the medicine, Friday night or not.
Because he was so absorbed in his own thoughts, he failed to notice his mother's groans go quiet. The frail old woman, lovely despite her sickness and age, had sat up from her thin bed and pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders, if only to lessen the cold wind that managed to slip inside and danced around their tattered house. When she cleared her throat to speak, only then did Alfriida stop pacing around to look at his mother who was smiling rather tiredly at him.
"Dearest Al, why don't you stop pacing around? You will grow old with worry if you keep that up." the old woman laughed. It was a gentle laugh, a motherly one, one of the many great attributes she had not lost throughout the years. Alfriida often wondered bitterly if the woman his father had left them for was the same.
"Mother, you can't blame me for worrying. Your medicine--"
"Is bitter and a waste of money. I do not like them very much." the old woman interrupted even before her son could finish. Alfriida merely gave his mother a displeased frown and walked over to her, to sit by the edge of her bed. The young man took his mother's hand in his and massaged her rough, calloused palm, the same one that soothed him in time of a fever that left him burning. To him, it was a gentle assurance.
"Mother it will make you better." he said in a gentle, reprimanding voice that made her feel as if she was a child that needed to be reminded. "It keeps me alive Al, it doesn't make me feel better." the old woman said tiredly after a moment of silence. It was an answer that she knew Alfriida didn't like hearing but she knew that it needed to be said despite her son's disapproval.
"It makes you feel better. The doctor said so." her son countered and he clutched his mother's hand tightly, if only to assure himself that his mother was there and not leaning towards the realm of Death.
It keeps me alive, son. The woman wanted to say, but the look of desperation in her son's bright blue eyes urged her to speak no more of it.
"I suppose it does help. I have been feeling stronger these days." she smiled gently once more, a gesture that lightened her son's spirits. It was an obvious lie and she knew Alfriida knew as well, but the poor boy was so desperate to hold on to any assurance that he was willing to turn a blind eye to such a blatant one.
"Al, go rest. I will too. One night without medicine will not kill me." she said as she tugged her hand back to pull on the cloak tighter. She ruffled her son's blond hair before she laid back down on her bed. He didn't move until his mother's labored breathing became gentle snores brought by sleep. Occasionally, she would cough and hack and that brought Alfriida into a panic.
He tried not to pace around the room, afraid that it would wake his mother again. Instead, he dragged his eyes around the sparsely decorated room his mother slept in. There was hardly anything worth another look in his mother's room. In fact, there was hardly anything in the shack they call their house. The old table just across his mother's bed was bare, devoid of the usual medicine that sat there in case of emergencies. A lone, tattered book was sitting precariously near the edge and Alfriida had to lean over and push farther away from the edge to keep it from falling off. Every time the wind blew, he felt his mother shivering under the cloak around her shoulders and the thin blanket that covered her. He stood up and walked over to the other side of the room and took a thicker blanket that was folded up neatly by the door. He draped it over his mother gently and he watched as his mother buried further under it, as if to relish the extra warmth. A soft sigh escaped from her lips.
It was the 20th hour of the day of Frige. Alfriida didn't have to look out of a window to know that it was raining hard outside and he also didn't have to stare at his mother to know that she was creeping closer and closer towards death every minute she spent without medicine.
"Damn it all!" He swore as he hurriedly left his mother's room and headed straight to the door with his heavy wool-laden cloak in his arms. It was the only item he treasured, a gift from his mother and he slung it over his shoulders to shield him from the rain.
Alfriida ran with an urgency that he had never experienced before. After he had made sure that the house was properly bolted shut (not that there was anything worth stealing inside anyway), he took the old, worn out torch that leaned against the side of the house and lit it after a few tries.
Against the slowing rain, he ran off, torch in hand.
Insucium's docks were nothing special, nor fancy, unlike those in the mainland. It was, for the lack of a better word, dingy. The docks were old, having seen better days and haven't been repaired for almost twenty years. It was rat infested and smelled heavily of fish and trash, the odor never disappearing, no matter how hard anyone tried to wash it away.
Pubs and alehouses littered around the west part of the docks, along with numerous boats that either needed repairs or were beyond salvation. On the right side were the graveyards for the boats, as the unusable and irreparable ones were just left there to rot, along with scraps of lumber, cloth and rope. Sometimes, thieves would come to take whatever they could still find usable. Not that anyone minded.
On the east side is where the passenger or fishing boats would reside, guarded by a few drunk officers hired for a few gold coins. Otherwise, a rope and an anchor could do the job just as well. This part of the docks was slightly more maintained, in a sense that it had a slightly orderly sense to it despite its catastrophic look.
On other days, Alfriida would stop by the west side of the dock, to a small pub that knew him well, if only to have a taste of their famous early evening food. This night, however, the young man went straight for the east side with a straight face and a torch in one hand.
In the silence of the night, Alfriida had already expected the docks to be heavily guarded by officers. For an old, unwritten law, it was definitely taken seriously by the inhabitants of Insucium. It was never lost, passed on to generations. Usually, the docks would be bustling with people, drunks and annoying urchins however, the place was devoid of people, except for the officers in their noticeable red uniforms. Security doubled on Friday nights and business dwindled as expected, but no one really did complain all that much, considering the other horrors and troubles they would face otherwise.
As Alfriida had been ten meters away from the docks, he was quickly spotted by guards. If it was because of the torch he held or it was because of the tight security, he didn't know. It must have been both.
The officer, a lean young man with neatly combed blonde hair and dead, blue eyes** stopped him, looking displeased to find someone loitering about near the docks.
"What can I do fer ya boy?" the officer asked, tipping his hat to shield his eyes from the rain, which had been reduced into a gentle drizzle. Alfriida did not like how he was referred to as "boy" since they looked roughly around the same age.
"I'm er--- just looking around the docks sir. My ma, she... she lost her pendant in one of the boats see. It's a great big pearl. It's a memento from my pa before he died. She'd die if she were to lose it." Alfriida lied, making sure to stare right into the officer's eyes as he said it. It was a technique that never worked on his mother, but it worked splendidly towards others, this officer included.
The guard seemed hesitant between shooing him away and letting him look around. In the end, he scrunched his eyebrows and crossed his arms. "Sorry boy, no can do. Best return tomorrow morni'n when all's a'right. Fer now, just carry on along back to yer Mama 'an tell 'er you'll find it tomorrow." the officer said, shooing him with matching hand gestures.
Alfriida had already expected such a response. Either way, if he had been telling the truth and there really was a pendant somewhere in the docks, Alfriida doubted that the man would let him look around regardless of the time. He knew the guards well enough to know that their greed came first and they blatantly robbed people who were too gullible for their own good. After giving the man a disappointed glare, Alfriida turned around and walked away and not far from them, a soft swishing could be heard from the distance, and he knew that it wasn't just the waves rolling. He shivered.
As he trudged the moist walkways of the just farther away from the docks, Alfriida lowered his torch into the wet stone to extinguish it as the flames met with the surface and the small amount of water that coated it.
He wasn't bothered by the sudden darkness that surrounded him because by the time light left his sight, he was already in the part of town that he knew well: the Keating. It was the part closest to the docks and the waters from where he lived. It was a place no one visited frequently, what with all the dangers surrounding it, and it wasn't just because of the sea monsters that threatened to jump out any moment. As it was just past the boat graveyard, there where sharps stones that jutted dangerously around the shores and mixed with the sand, remains of old, broken boats and ships. There were trash littered around and broken glass decorating the sand along with shells and bundles of seaweed.
Despite that, Alfriida had frequently visited the place as a child. It was where he played. It was where he waited for his father to return. He knew the place like the back of his own hand.
Like the docks, it had a foul smell, but it was devoid of the rats that had a tendency to stick around everywhere. It had a paved walkway that ended up on the edge of the island. From there, it had crumbled badly and dangerously, seeming like a cliff that led to the ocean.
The moment Alfriida reached the end of the paved walkway, he went down on his knees to let his hands search carefully for a small set of stairs in the side. It was hidden by a bunch of bushes and thorns and by the time he had found it, his hands were badly scratched.
The set of stairs were steep and could fit only one person, however, it led down to the safer shores where the sea met land. For years, he had worked hard to clear and hide that part of the shore from anyone else and he had succeeded, for on both sides, it looked like it was a dead end, hidden by large boulders of stone that he had painstakingly stacked up on each other when he was younger.
Slowly, Alfriida climbed down the walkway with caution. It would be foolish to slip down the steps and injure himself. He kept his hands on the stone walls as he climbed down, carefully watching his footing. When he finally reached the bottom, he could feel the sand taking his shoes in, the crunch of a thousand particles under his feet. He reached his hands out as he counted as he walked, missing the sharp, jagged stones with practiced ease. At the twenty-seventh step, he turned right and his hands met an overgrown bush that was twice his own height.
Thrusting his hands inside, he searched and searched until his hand felt the familiar texture of wood. It was his boat. Small and rather drab, it was one he made himself and it was something he was proud of.
Just as he was about to pull it out of the bush, he heard something being dragged out of the waters. He stopped and froze, looking at the dark sea and squinting his eyes as if that would help him see better.
For a moment, all sound of movemenst stopped and it was nearly a minute later when the dragging continued. This time, it seemed as if it was returning back to the water.
It's just the waves. Just the waves. Alfriida muttered to himself as he worked his way into pulling the boat out. It took him about twenty more minutes to pull out the boat and push it into the water. Despite the cool night air, he was already sweating madly. He was in a hurry and he had wasted so much time already. Alfriida readily jumped on the boat not caring if he was setting sail despite the law. Not caring if he was looking at the darkness, blind as a bat. What was important to him was the pack of gold coins in his pocket, his cloak and the oars beside him.
And so, in the dead of night, he rowed and rowed, not caring about anything but getting to the mainland for his mother's medicine. If he was more conscious of his surroundings, he would have heard the loud splashes that surrounded his boat as he rowed. It came from his side, occasionally moving around, from his left to his right, from his right to his left. The only time he noticed these strange sounds was when he heard a loud slam on the side of his boat that caused it to rock sideways. Surprised and suddenly afraid, Alfriida stopped rowing and dropped his oars to his sides. He sat still as he listened, the splashing stopping for a moment before once again reappearing, this time staying on the left side of the boat before suddenly disappearing again.
It was silent for a minute before soft knocks were heard from the side of the boat. Despite his anxiety, Alfriida crept towards the side and peeked out into the water. He found dark eyes staring back at him, a face of a woman smiling shyly. Webbed fingers spread open and waved at the surprised young man. That was the first time Alfriida had seen a mermaid.
* Day of Frige; best known today as Friday
** Everyone in Insucium held those traits. Alfriida's father had brown hair and green eyes, but the common gene was too strong to submit to a foreign one.