Home > Mermaid Steel, Writing > Chapter Four of Mermaid Steel

Chapter Four of Mermaid Steel

Sten was focused on beating the iron sheet metal into a uniform dome and did not notice much of anything beyond the noisy, careful job in front of him. He had known it would take a lot of up close pounding, and he had stuffed cotton in his ears. So he was a bit surprised when Jacio waved his hand in front of him. He pulled the cotton out and was further surprised by the sound of the tolling town bell. “Is that an alarm?”

“No, the alarm is a really fast ringing,” the boy explained. “This is the calling-in bell. Something must be happening in the square.”

Sten looked around the shop at the various jobs they had on work benches. “This can wait. Let’s go have a look.”

As they stepped off the wooden planking of the wharf, they joined a growing crowd of folks walking up the gravel main road. Sten noticed a lot of water on the ground, leading down onto the beach alongside the wharf. He spotted cart tracks in the sand too.

Jacio met his gaze with a shrug.

Just as he was about to turn back up the road, Sten noticed several wedge shaped impressions in the wet sand. He knew that shape. That was the heel mark of a Merrow fluke.

About fifty people, most of the men in town and a lot of the women, were gathered in the large open space in the middle of town that was the square. Parked in the center was a grand black four-horse coach, surrounded by six mounted soldiers. The soldiers’ brass fittings shined in the midday sun, while the grey horses were all covered in sweaty salt. Sten recalled his trip on Flash three days before. They must have been running all morning.

People were milling about, some craning their necks to see over the high sides of the coach at the occupants. Constable Arum Blaine was standing up on a sideboard talking to someone inside.

Blaine turned to the crowd. “Good people of Saint Rachel. I am honored to introduce you to High Lord Jesery Clune, who has come all the way from Silverton to visit us.”

Clune, wearing the same tall hat he had worn in court stood up and waved to the crowd.

Sten tried unsuccessfully to restrain his dubious frown.

“Please join me in welcoming our honored guest.”

The assembled townspeople applauded appropriately.

“High Lord Clune has also invited Jeljing, the Shaman Leader of our sister village of Celidan, to join him here today.”

A tall, thin Merrow in an obviously regal mantle and headdress stood up beside Clune. The crowd took in a collective shocked breath. Sten rolled his eyes in embarrassment.

“The High Lord and the Shaman will be conducting an inquest about the recent violence between the two villages. They will be in the Atlan Lodge, and they will be calling witnesses throughout the afternoon. Please keep yourselves available, as any one of you may be called to testify.”

“Well, well, well,” Sten muttered to himself.

Jacio gave him a curious look. He had not told the boy the nature of his trip to Silverton.

Sten suddenly felt like someone was watching him, and he glanced around. He and Jacio were in the back of the crowd, having arrived last. He didn’t see anyone looking at him, but he couldn’t shake the feeling. As he looked around, he spotted a wedge-shaped wet spot on the ground. He looked further and found several of them, all around the outside of the square. He looked back at the coach and saw there were maybe four people inside. No doubt at least one would be a Merrow soldier escorting their leader, probably more than one. But there were no Merrow guarding him outside the coach, at least that Sten could see.

Arum concluded his speech. “Thank you for your cooperation.” The High Lord and the Merrow Shaman sat down, Arum jumped off the sideboard, and the coach pulled away.

Sten bent down, picked up a pebble, and threw it through the space above the nearest wet spot. The stone flew straight and hit the wall of the building behind.

“What are you doing?” Jacio had caught him.

He smiled crookedly. “Just bored. Let’s go.”

As they walked away from the square, Sten spotted several more of the mysterious shapes. The townspeople had been surprised when they first saw the Merrow Shaman. So clearly they had not seen any Merrow soldiers escort the coach into town. Yet there were these wet heel prints all along the path from the beach to the square.

By the time they got back to the wharf, there were no more to be found.

“Did you have anything to do with the High Lord coming here?”

“Jacio, I am often confused by life in general, but if there is one thing I can be sure of, it’s that I carry no weight to move important people to do anything they weren’t going to do anyway.”

“So…you did go to see the High Lord in Silverton, about the shooting. I know you were pretty upset about it.”

“I assure you, my words had no impact.”

“Are you glad he came?”

“I’ll be glad if he can help us regain peace.”

****

For the second time that day, Jacio interrupted Sten’s cotton-deafened working reverie with a wave of his hand in Sten’s face. He pulled the wads out of his ears and waited, but no bell was ringing. “What’s going on?”

Jacio stepped to the window that faced down the dock into town. “You gotta come see this.”

Sten peered out and was very disappointed at what he saw. Half a dozen men were up on ladders with ropes repainting the weathered wood banner sign that was mounted across the main entrance of the wharf. It had once greeted fishermen returning from their labors with, “Welcome Home.” Now the new paint announced, “Fin Go Home.”

Sten took a deep breath and sighed. “Things must have gone badly at the inquest. I’ll go find out what happened.”

Before Jacio could ask to come along, Sten was out of his gloves and apron and walking toward town.

He only had to go as far as the painters. “What’s this all about?” Sten asked them.

One of the men holding a ladder steady asked Sten, “You heard about the trial?”

“I know the High Lord from Silverton was here to find out what’s going on.”

“Yeah, well, they tried Roff Collum for shooting the fin who chucked a spear at him. Sentenced him to three lashes.”

Sten held back the flinch he felt coming on at the mention of lashes.

The man up on the ladder chimed in. “You know how many lashes they gave that damn fin for attacking Roff? Fucking zero, that’s how many.”

“How did that go down?” Sten asked innocently.

“Some shit about defending his turf. He told Roff he shouldn’t have let himself get caught up in mob rule.”

“I see.” Sten considered speaking with Roff, since those lashes were going to be largely Sten’s fault. “When are they going to punish Roff?”

“Already did it. Right after the trial. Roff took it like a man. Showed them damn fin how it’s done.”

“Oh. Well, I’m glad he kept his dignity. So that’s the end of it?”

“Hell no,” the man up the ladder spat. “The High Lord said he’d be back if there’s another scuffle, and he’ll really start handing out the lashes.”

“Really? So he said we’re supposed to get along better. Did he tell us how we’re supposed to do that?”

“Nope. He said just work it out.”

The man next to Sten commented, “Fat lot of help he was. It was kind of insulting, like he was treating us like kids. When my kids fight I tell them to work it out amongst themselves, and if they can’t, then I’ll beat the lot of them. The fisherman did not take kindly to being treated like that.”

“Are the High Lord and the Shaman still here, or did they leave yet?”

“They’re leaving this afternoon. Which is why we’re here giving the old fish a proper send off.”

“Right.” Sten looked up at the repainted sign and his heart sank. “Makes sense. Thanks for filling me in.” As he walked back to his shop, disappointment slid into despair. He asked the High Lord to come up with a plan to either enforce or change the treaty, a solution they could move forward with, but he had not. He just slapped them down, as the angry painters said, like disobedient children. He went to the capitol looking for a solution, but only succeeded in worsening tensions between the villages.

****

The next day, the sky was overcast and a cold wind blew off the sea. The weather perfectly reflected Sten’s mood. He gave Jacio the afternoon off and let the hearth cool down. He took a chair out to the end of his wharf, out where in happier times he had hung iron and copper wind chimes. Now he sat, wrapped up in his wool coat, staring out at the grey sky and the dark sea, listening to the sad tinkling sounds, nursing a very large bottle of beer.

Chielle’s sweet voice called up from the water below. “You don’t look very happy for a man who succeeded after hard work.”

The sight of her made him smile despite his mood. “Hello. How long have you been there?”

“A little while. I like watching you. I hope you don’t mind. Aren’t you pleased with how things worked out? I’m very proud of you.”

“It didn’t work. All the High Lord did was punish the man who fired his rifle, and now the humans hate your kind more than ever.”

“Wasn’t justice served?”

“Chielle, it’s like I said the other night. It’s not about justice, it’s about finding a way back to peace. I hoped the crown would have a solution, but they don’t, and now I’ve made things worse.”

“About the other night, I owe you a huge apology for treating you so poorly. I know you have a good heart, and I should have trusted you. I am sorry I yelled at you.”

“I forgive you the outburst. I understand how upset you were. You know, I normally would not have the nerve to go to the capitol and seek an audience with the High Lord, and make demands that he intervene. I mean, what gall! But you and your outspoken high standards inspired me.”

She shrugged. “My big mouth has gotten me in to a lot of trouble. Most of my village sees me as a troublemaker. My parents wish I was more like my brother and sister, hardworking and accepting of the way things are. Although my brother has been driven by anger to drastic measures lately. That’s really so not like him. Being outspoken definitely has its disadvantages. It’s why I can’t seem to hold onto any men in my life.”

Sten took a moment for that revelation to sink in. “Really? I rather like a woman who knows what she wants. It’s less guesswork for me.”

She smiled broadly, in fact as broadly as only a mermaid can. The light from her expression warmed him like a roaring fire.

“May I invite you up? I’ll stoke the hearth and make you something warm to drink.” He held up his bottle. “This is not holding my interest.”

“Thank you,” she said demurely, and vanished beneath the surface.

He got up and walked to the ramp top to greet her. She was halfway up when he got there. He was still utterly fascinated watching her writhing steps. When she got to the wharf, he pointed down at the newly painted banner. “They did that after the High Lord and your Shaman held court.”

She pursed her lips and blinked. “Oh, dear.”

As soon as she entered his shack, he draped a blanket around her shoulders. “You must be cold getting out of the warm water into wind like this.”

She just smiled back at him and pulled the blanket around herself.

He opened the grate on the hearth and threw in a couple of logs, then reset the grate and turned the bellows wheel. She held her hands up to the warmth as the glow brightened.

He filled and set a kettle on the grate. While he busied himself finding and chopping a block of cocoa, he noticed she had moved to the seaward facing window.

“As many times as I have swum past this wharf, I’ve never stopped to really listen to your wind chimes. They make beautiful sounds.”

“I find them soothing.”

“Sound is really important to us underwater. We use it to detect danger, to locate where we are, to speak. It has such a big influence on us. I guess that’s why we picked up your language so easily. One thing I’ve found that’s different is how you push your words out of your mouth with air, and we keep the air in and push the sound with whistles and hums.”

“Whistles and hums?”

“What’s a good example? Oh, my family name, Mmava.”

The way she pronounced it made him stop and stare. “How did you do that?”

She giggled with a whistling sound that came from somewhere inside her head and not out of her mouth.

“And that too!”

“We’re built differently. I’ve got lungs and gills and spaces up behind my nose where I can move air. Humming and whistles and hard clicking sounds travel well through water. Whales talk to each other with these sounds over miles of distance.”

He stepped over to her. “Okay, let me try.”

She looked up straight at him to show him how she was moving her mouth and throat. He was completely distracted looking her in the eyes. Those amazing eyes, the color of white sand under blue green surf. He had to blink to break the spell.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine. Show me how you say it.”

She hummed an M sound, starting with a higher note and then dropping to a lower note, then it softened into an A sound even though she did not open her lips. This them rolled into a V sound which went low again and then ended in a soft A.

“I’m going to have to open my mouth to get some of those sounds out.”

“That’s fine.” She pointed at her forehead. “Like I said, I can move air around in here all day long.”

He gave it his best try, concentrating as well as he could in his still very distracted state. “mmmMMMaVVVa.”

“Very good! Did you feel how the sound rattles your bones?”

“Yeah, it did.”

“That’s what makes the sound move through water. If you feel the vibration, then the water picks that up and carries it.”

“Aren’t you teaching me one of the great mermaid secrets, your enchanting siren voice?”

“My what?”

“You know. Aren’t mermaids supposed to be able to enchant men with their singing and lure them to crash their ships into rocks?”

“Why in Rorra would we want to do that?”

“I don’t know. It’s a legend. Are there any other mermaid secrets you want to share with me? Any magical abilities?” He considered asking her directly about how Merrow seemed to walk into town yesterday invisible, but thought better of putting her on the spot. Better to let her share what she wanted to.

“No, not that I know of,” she said with a smile.

“Are you saying you don’t have magic in your voice?”

“My voice is considered rather weak. It’s too high to get down to some of the lower tones that really communicate heartfelt emotion, especially in song.”

“May I ask you to sing me something? I don’t want to embarrass you. I just want to hear how your amazing underwater voice sounds in a song.”

“I’d be happy to. This is a lullaby pretty much every Merrow child learns.” In spite of the occasional impossible combination of sounds, the song was instantly soothing and made Sten want to sway to its rhythm. She clapped her hands softly to keep the beat, while her voice soared up and down scales. She stopped and smiled at him.

He was breathless. “My goodness.” He had to blink back a tear. “That was…that was beautiful. Thank you. I think I’m starting to understand how important sound is to you. Do you have musical instruments?”

She looked a little puzzled. “We have bells that we shake to keep rhythm.”

“Okay. I guess since human voices are by comparison so limited, we’ve built all sorts of things that vibrate strings, or cut air to whistle, or bang on them to make hollow sounds. Wait, I’ve got a penny whistle over here somewhere.” He stepped into his room in the back and returned with it. He held it up for her to see.

She looked with some doubt at the brass tube with holes down its length. “This makes music?”

He stood up proudly and played her a rapid trilling jig of a tune.

Her eyes went wider than usual and her mouth curled into a highly amused grin. “That’s so much fun. There are so many notes. You couldn’t dance to that, could you?”

“Actually, there are dances for songs like that, with lots of quick little bouncing steps. I’m not a very good dancer, so I’m a lousy example.” He stepped back, took off his coat and threw it over a chair. The hearth had driven out chill in the shack. He stood looking at his feet for a minute trying to remember the steps before attempted a jig. “You see, lots of little steps.”

“That looks like fun. But you couldn’t do that underwater. Underwater we have dances where you stay in place, like your stepping dance, but you move against the water back and forth. She handed him her blanket, unhunched her tail and stood up on her fluke. She clapped her hands and sang a part of her song again, while flexing and swaying to the beat.

“I see. I get it.”

They were interrupted by the kettle whistling.

“Your pot sings?”

He pulled it off the grate and poured two mugs. It’s got a whistle in the lid, like my penny whistle. When the water boils…”

“It makes steam which blows the whistle. I know about steam from the lava vent up the coast. What are you making?”

“You’ve probably never had this, but I’m hoping you’ll like it. It’s called cocoa.”

“Is it from the coconut tree?”

“No, it’s made from a bean, I think. I actually don’t know how it’s made. I know it’s a complicated process involving drying and roasting and grinding and mixing. Anyway, to humans it’s a little piece of heaven.”

“Sten, are you all right? You seem kind of, I don’t know, nervous.”

“Oh, am I talking too much? I don’t entertain much. I guess I’m out of practice. And this is new for you. Oh, it’s really hot, so blow across the surface to cool it down so it doesn’t burn your mouth.” He demonstrated and she followed. “Then sip just a little until it cools.”

She tried some and blinked furiously. After a little frown, she gamely tried some more. “You’re right. I’ve never had anything like this before. The hot takes some getting used to. I like the warmth it brings. The taste itself is kind of invigorating as well. It’s sweet and bitter at the same time. It’s kind of confusing.”

“Do you like it?”

She took another bigger sip. “Yes. It’s not unpleasant. It’s actually rather good. It’s just really different. You like it a lot, don’t you?”

Sten smiled. “Yes. It’s great for a cold day.”

The wind outside kicked up and the wind chimes at the end of the wharf clanged in protest.

“We use bells underwater. I bet wind chimes would work there too. The hollow pipes you’ve got hanging should make pretty much the same sounds in water.”

“Isn’t sound a lot louder underwater? When I’ve been head under, everything sounds muffled but at the same time louder. If you clanged on chimes underwater the way those are banging away in the wind, wouldn’t that make a terrible racket?”

“Yes, of course, if you struck them hard. It would certainly scare away all the fish. But you could play them softly and it would be musical, like up here.”

“You can take those and try it out.”

She hesitated and frowned. “Wait a minute. Played loudly, they would scare away the fish.” Her eyes widened and she nodded. “The fish.”

Sten frowned too until he also figured it out. “Oh, the fish! In Harper’s Meadow!”

“Yes! We can herd the fish out of the meadow when the boats come, they’ll catch nothing and leave, then we’ll let the fish come back home.”

“That’s brilliant! The fishermen won’t know it’s you. They’ll think the fish have moved on. At some point they will just stop coming. This could be the solution we’ve been hoping for. Chielle, you’ve got to go test this. I’ll take down the chimes now.”

She set her mug down and caught his hands in hers. He was taken by how soft they were, especially the webbing between her fingers. She squeezed his and looked up into his face. “Thank you.”

“For what? You figured it out.”

“For being there for me. For believing in me. For fighting for what’s important to me.”

His heart was pounding, but he managed keep his composure. “You’re welcome.”

She slipped her hands around his shoulders and hugged him.

He hugged her back, pressing her thin taut body against his. Through her tunic the skin on her back was harder than he expected. He felt her take a deep breath when he wrapped his arms around her waist. As he pulled her tight, his hand bumped into her dorsal fin.

As they separated, she lifted her head and rubbed her cheek against his. She tilted her head and looked like she was about to wink at him. “You ‘d look a lot more like Merrow without the scruffy beard.”

He smirked back at her. “Let’s go get those chimes.”

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