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Chapter One of Mermaid Steel

December 3, 2011 Leave a comment

And now for something completely different. Chapter One of my new novel – a romance!

MERMAID STEEL

Chapter One

Sten Holdsmith did not see it coming.
He braced a heavy boot against the sailboat’s wood foot rail and grabbed the rope net with his strong hands, focused on unraveling the tangled mass. He had thrown the net out but didn’t get it to spread in the water. So he hauled it up for another try, only to find it now tangled and heavy. His pleasant little excursion was rapidly turning into a lot of work. The sea was thankfully calm, the sky was clear, the sun was warm and the breeze steady, so he could stay out as long as he wanted to. He was just waiting for this to become the fun time he had hoped for.
He barely heard the wind snap the sail full. Not being an experienced sailor, he didn’t connect that the snap meant the sail had come untied, and was coming his way. He caught the movement out of the corner of his eye just in time to twist his head out of the yardarm’s path, but it still caught him square in the chest, toppling him over backward. As he went over, he flailed to grab any hand hold but only got the net which was wrapped around his feet and sliding over the short rail, following him into the warm ocean.
As heavy as it was on deck, he was alarmed at how much heavier the net felt in the water, especially with it on top of him pushing him down. He fought to keep focus and not panic. He had to free his feet. Stroking with his arms was useless with his feet bound to the net. His lungs were only half full, having been struck by the sail. He kicked and pulled his legs in directions that seemed logical, but felt no loosening. He started pulling with his hands, but couldn’t find a rope that didn’t tighten the mass. Calm didn’t stand a chance as fear and anger fought to take him over.
One rational thought managed to form. What had possessed him to think he could go fishing, with no experience and no teacher? So what if he lived in a fishing village. He was a blacksmith, and should be in his shop wielding a hammer, not dying, caught like a fish. Not a helpful thought.
Maybe if he let the net roll over and fall below him, maybe he could see an opening. He pushed the rope mass with one hand and tried to row himself in the opposite direction with his other arm, and started to feel movement. Encouraged, he pushed harder. Once he got on top of the bulk of the net, though, he saw how far he had sunk below the surface. His chest was going to burst. As soothing as the tropical warm ocean water usually was, this was going to be his tomb. His courage dissolved.
A flash of silver streaking by caught his eye and his heart skipped a beat. Great, now he would be eaten. Maybe he could use the net to defend himself from the shark. He searched and searched but couldn’t focus well enough to see past his tangled prison.
Something tugged on the net hard. He braced himself for the sensation of teeth ripping flesh, but it didn’t come. Another powerful tug, and he felt one leg come free. He squirmed around to see what was happening, and came face to face with a mermaid.
She smiled at him with her overbroad mouth, flashing a full array of sharp teeth. She had a carved bone knife in her hand and she was cutting him free. He smiled back in utter relief. One more tug and his other leg slipped loose. As happy as he was to be free, he looked up and was not sure he would make it to the surface. She must have seen the desperation on his face, because she did something completely unheard of for merfolk. She seized him under the armpits and started kicking. The water rushing past his face was so forceful it roared in his ears. He marveled at how her muscular tail shot them through the water. He clearly outweighed her, yet she dragged him like a toy. She swam so fast they breached the surface and arched up into the air. All he could think of was that first delicious breath.
When they splashed down, she kept a hand on him. He was exhausted and shaking and glad for her steady grip, despite the social taboo. He was so relieved and so grateful, he decided his gratitude was too important to keep to himself. He reached up and squeezed her hand on his shoulder. He looked her in her large, glassy eyes. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” said with an understanding nod.
He had never seen a mermaid this close before. Her gills, which had been expanded in flowery ruffles underwater, now lay closed and smooth on the sides of her head and neck. She looked quite a bit more human this way, like a teenaged girl with short, curly, albeit oddly silver colored hair. With her full lips closed, he almost forgot about all those pointed carnivore teeth behind. What really caught him were her eyes. Maybe it was the shine of her silvery skin, but the deep aqua color of those eyes that seemed just a little too big for her head — something about that color just wouldn’t let him go. He caught himself staring and looked away.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Now that you saved my stupid hide.”
She turned and looked at his boat. “I assume you did not throw yourself overboard in a fishing net on purpose.”
“Not on purpose.”
“Can you make it back onto your boat?”
“I think I can manage.”
Without another word or gesture, she disappeared back under the surface. He looked around and waited, but she was gone. Merfolk had a reputation for not being socialized. He shrugged and swam back to his boat.
Once he got back on board, he took the sails down to stop the boat from being blown around randomly. He shook his linen clothes so they could dry hanging loose on his body in the hot tropical sunshine. He was just deciding his next move when the mermaid popped up alongside, holding his net. “I thought you might need this.”
He reached over the rail and took the end she handed up to him. “Thank you, again. I would need it more if I knew what I was doing with it.”
She gave him a curious look, but then moved on. “I cut it up pretty badly getting you out. It will have to be mended before you can use it again.”
“I’m sure I’ll have no trouble finding someone who can fix it, for a price.”
“I would be happy to mend it for you.”
“No, you don’t have to do that.”
“Please let me repair the damage I made. I have some talent with weaving rope.”
He regarded her, bobbing in the water, with her earnest expression. “If I let you fix the net, you will have to let me pay you back somehow. Some metal fixtures or something.”
“Metal is always a welcome gift.” Then she frowned. “I do not understand what you mean by ‘pay me back.’ I just want to do what is right.”
“I appreciate that, but I should pay you for your work.”
Her frown became almost comical as she twisted her lips to the side and rolled her large, glassy eyes trying to comprehend what he was saying. “I will accept whatever gift you want to give me as thanks for doing you this favor. Is that what you mean?”
He blinked and rubbed his short, rough beard with his hand as he thought over her offer. “Yes, that works for me.”
She waved her hand in a shooing motion. “Then please step back from the edge.”
He did, and she dove beneath the surface. A second later she flew up out of the water, twisted around and landed smoothly on her bottom with her tail hanging over the edge. Her strength and agility again surprised him.
She pulled her thin bone knife out of a belt she wore over one shoulder and went to work on the net straight away. Now that he could see all of her, he realized she was clothed in a woven tunic that clung to her shape, covering her down to what would have been her hips. He caught himself staring at her long, bare, dolphin-like tail, the fluke of which she flipped in the air in nervous boredom. As she dried off in the sun, he realized her skin wasn’t silver, but shades of gray and white with her front white and her back dark grey. She was really quite beautiful. He surprised himself with that thought.
However fascinating she was to look at, what she was doing was just as amazing. He knelt down next to her to get a closer look. She glanced up and smiled at him. “You look like you’ve never seen anyone mend rope.”
“I guess I’ve never watched it done.” She unraveled a length of both ends of a cut piece, then twisted sets of pairs together, holding each pair as she twisted the next. Once she had four pairs, she twisted the pairs together in the opposite direction to form a healed rope. What made this bit of workmanship all the more magical was watching her do it with her long, thin fingers that were webbed together up to the last joint. “You’re really good at this.”
She lowered her head modestly and said, “This is what I do in my village. I am a weaver.”
“So you made this, um, shirt you’re wearing too?”
She smiled. “Yes.”
“Doesn’t the fabric slow you down in the water? I didn’t know mermaids wore clothes.”
“This garment serves its purpose. This fabric does not drag in the water. We weave it so all the fibers run longways and don’t hold onto water.” She pinched the cords. “See, it’s almost dry already. Unlike yours,” she added, indicating his white shirt which still clung to his broad chest, showing the hair underneath.
He stood up and stepped to the back of the boat. “Well, if I am going to get you an appropriate thank you gift, I’m going to need to sail back to my shop. Will that be all right with you, going back to the human village with me?” He started pulling up the sails.
“I should be done with this before we get there. I can always hop in and swim alongside to stay out of sight.”
“Oh, I don’t care if anyone sees you on the boat.”
“I wouldn’t want to make any trouble for you.”
“Don’t worry about me. The villagers all think I’m crazy anyway. I just don’t want anyone giving you a hard time. We’ll see if there is anyone around. My shop is on its own pier, so we may not run into anyone anyway.”
“Your shop? What do you make?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t say. I’m a blacksmith. You probably figured out I am not a fisherman.” He tied down the rudder, stepped up to her and held out his hand. “My name is Sten. Sten Holdsmith.”
She shook his hand. “My name is Chielle Mmava.” She pronounced her first name in a high pitch and her second in a low deep breath. It was not like anything he had ever heard before.
“Chee-el?” he attempted.
“Very close,” she nodded. “Certainly good enough, given how different our throats are. So how lucky for me to have rescued a blacksmith. I don’t have to tell you how important your craft is to us.”
“Important enough to have given your race a bad name from the thefts. I have never understood why we can’t sell you the metal you need. Or exchange gifts, or whatever you want to call it. Merfolk shouldn’t be reduced to stealing. It destroys any chance of our peoples ever patching things up.”
“Merrow.”
“Pardon?”
“We call ourselves Merrow, not Merfolk.”
“Really? I’ve never heard that. I wonder why not.” He returned to steering the boat.
“You are a trusting person, Sten Holdsmith, to take a Merrow to a blacksmith shop.”
“Oh, I didn’t say I thought your people are thieves. In fact, I would say most humans don’t really believe that. Unfortunately, reputations and suspicions are easy to spread and hard to dissuade. I’ve tried to sell hardware to Merrow, but human law forbids direct commerce.”
“Merrow law also forbids it. It is an ancient law that must be respected.”
“Well, I don’t mean any disrespect, but it doesn’t make any sense. It leaves your people at a disadvantage.”
“The only disadvantage my people feel is not being able to make steel ourselves. It can’t be done underwater. So we are left working with your cast offs.”
“That’s the problem. Enough humans have seen Merrow scavenging for metal that rumors spread of theft. The fact that you can disappear under the surface and reappear unexpectedly makes some humans nervous to begin with.” He interrupted himself. “Wait a minute. I was going to give you some turnbuckles, stakes and jump rings to take back with you. I figure those are pretty useful. There’s a problem, though. If you show up with such a bounty of stuff that is obviously not found, aren’t you going to be accused of doing business with a human?”
“But it is a gift.”
“I have a feeling there are just as many suspicious people on your side of the surface as on my side. These animosities run deep, not to make a pun. Maybe I can give you something useful that won’t get you in trouble.”
The palm trees that lined the beach grew to become distinct and soon gave way to the wharfs of the harbor of Saint Rachel. They made good time with the steady onshore afternoon wind. “How is that coming? We’re going to be there in a few minutes.”
“Just finishing up.” She held the net up to show him.
“Very nice. You saved me a pretty penny and an embarrassing story. Thank you.”
She swung her tail up onto the deck and did something Sten did not expect. She walked to the aft. Or rather she wriggled. She extended a set of long flippers from what would have been her thighs and bent her tail into a hump shape that placed the flat of her tail fluke against the deck. She then scooted in a rolling motion between the flippers and her tail.
She caught his amazed expression. “You can’t tell me you’ve never seen a Merrow walk.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare. I didn’t realize your tail is so flexible.”
She pulled up next to him and cocked her head playfully. “I can do all kinds of things.”
He cleared his throat and took half a step back.
More frankly, she offered, “Can I help with any of the rigging when we pull into the dock?”
He looked around at all that needed to be done. “Sure. My pier is on the inside of the outer wharfs, so I’m going to tack against the wind once we round the corner of the harbor. That means we’ll need to swing the sail around as change direction. Do you know what I mean by that?”
She smiled and nodded. “Yes, I am familiar with how sailing works.”
“You’ve sailed before?”
“No, but I watch humans sailing all the time. I like to watch and learn whenever I can.”
“That’s good, because my gift to you will be to teach you something.”
Indeed, Chielle’s sailing skills were handy as they navigated around the piers and pulled up to Sten’s berth. They both were watchful of anyone on the piers that might see her, but there was no one. She had some difficulty ascending the eight foot ladder up to the pier platform.
“Why did you set up your shop on a pier?”
“Most of my work is making and repairing hardware the fisherman use on their boats. It just made sense to have the shop next to my customers.”
As he led her into his shop, she stopped and her wide eyes went ever wider as she looked at all the tools and metal fixtures around the hearth, hanging on hooks and stacked in piles. He watched her for a moment as she took it all in. “The tools of my trade.”
“So these are what you use to form things from metal?”
He pointed to items as he spoke. “Yes. I hold the item with one of these tongs and beat them with these hammers, around these forms to make shapes. The key is the heat.” He turned a wheel on the side of a box next to the stone pit and the sound of air rushing flooded the hearth with the red glow of embers coming back to life.
She pulled back in surprise.
“That’s what you’re missing underwater. But,” he held his hand aloft, “but, you can still do a lot with metal that is cold. That is what I want to show you today.”
She pried her gaze up from the red glow and smiled at him. “Really?”
He looked her square in the eyes. “Yes. I don’t like it when life is unfair. You saved my life. This is the least I can do.” He picked up a short length of steel bar and handed it to her. “Try to bend that. Feel how stiff it is. Metal is stiff like that because it is actually made up of crystals. When you bend metal you are shifting the crystals over one another. You can help that shifting by using force and vibration to loosen the crystals as you go. He took the rod from her and picked up a hammer. He held the bar with a pair of tongs and positioned it on an anvil.
When he struck the bar, she jumped at the ringing sound and covered not only her ears, but the whole sides of her face with her webbed hands.
“Sorry. I should have warned you. This gets pretty loud. I’ll go softly. Even light tapping will show you what I mean.” He smacked the bar repeatedly as he turned the ends up with the tongs. “See, the beating is actually stretching the metal, like clay.” In just a minute he beat the bar into a circle and handed it to her.
“Now you can feel it is a little bit warmer from the beating. That energy has shifted the crystals around and it will stay like that.”
“All that beating doesn’t break anything?”
“No, it’s almost as strong as when it was straight. Now if I really shaped it a lot, and I needed it very strong, I would heat it up to a glow in the hearth and beat it into its final shape while red hot. That sets the shape to a rigid strength. That’s not necessary for making small fixtures like rings or stakes.” He picked up another bar and handed it to her. “Here, you try.”
She took a hunching step over to the anvil, then stood up on her tail fluke. Sten looked down at how she did this and saw she rested her weight on the bend in her tail. Her dorsal fin, which he had not noticed before, stuck out from what on a woman would be the backs of her thighs, and now pointed straight out behind her with the curvature. This posture brought her up to his same height. She picked up the hammer and started to put the bar on the anvil holding it with her other hand.
“No, you can’t hold it with your bare hand. I can’t even do that with my grizzled old paws. The vibration is way too much. Hold the bar with the tongs. See how the handles are wrapped? It saves your hand.” He helped get her set up. “Bring the hammer down in the middle until you see a bent.”
She smacked it but made no mark. She tried again harder and made a mark, but winced at the sharp sound. “It’s too loud for me,” she said, disappointed.
“I plug my ears with cotton when it gets too loud for me. Let me get you some.” He pulled a couple of tufts from a bag on a shelf and handed them to her. She stuffed them in her ears, which were in front of the rows of her dark grey curly gill edges, and bravely tried again. Again the ringing made her wince.
“It’s hurting my face as much as my ears. Merrow use the whole side of our head to hear vibrations in the water. I’m afraid that makes me pretty sensitive to this banging.”
“Hold on a second,” he suggested, undeterred. He stepped into his living quarters and returned with a long thin bolster pillow and a knit cap. “Now, this is going to look funny. Obviously you will have to find some other way to do this on your own. If we bend this under your chin and up to cover your cheeks and temples,” he demonstrated in the air, “then we can pull the hat down to hold it in place.”
She looked at the items doubtfully. “Go ahead and try.”
He stepped up but then hesitated when he realized this meant handling her face. His first up-close look at her face had been in the midst of his net ordeal, but here it was just him and her. Her aqua eyes, the smooth white skin of her face, her little flat nose over those broad full lips. He was taken with her all over again. He proceeded as gently as he could. “Sure. Um, I’ll bend this up. Can you hold the ends up to cover what you need? Then I’ll pull the hat down and tuck these up here.”
All the while he fussed, she smirked at him like this was some silly game. “You have a funny way of getting close to a girl.”
He ignored the comment. “There, see if that works.”
She assessed the makeshift headgear. “Why not.” She picked up the bar with the tongs and hefted the hammer. She brought it down with gusto and made a significant dent. “Look at that!”
“Excellent. Now keep doing that until you get a feel for how the metal responds to the hammer. Keep repositioning the bar as you go, so your strike is always straight down on the anvil.”
She made several more strikes and smiled at the results. “The pillow and the cotton are working too!” she said too loudly.

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Categories: Mermaid Steel, Writing
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