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

Chapter Eight of Mermaid Steel

Today would be a day of rest, Sten decided. He managed to stagger home after Arum released him and Boole. Boole seemed to have finally lost the fighting spirit and went on this way peacefully. Not too many people stared at Sten as he made his way through the streets and down to the wharf. He must have looked a sight. He felt crushed inside and nothing worked without effort. That was enough work for today.

He got home mid-morning and gave Jacio the day off. He deserved it too. Poor Jacio was horrified when he saw Sten. The boy got him out of his blood soaked shirt and into a clean one. Good lad.

He dragged the wind chimes down the ramp with a chair and a wineskin. Now he was set. The chimes were hanging into the water on a rope that he would pull between sips of wine and naps.

He knew he owed Chielle an apology for not being there the night before as he had promised. He hoped she would hear the chimes. He had no other way to reach her. It would be lovely to see her. He started to smile at the thought of her smile, until his face spasmed.

The morning clouds burned off, a gentle warm breeze caressed him, and the sun felt good. This would do just fine, he thought as he drifted off again.

He was awoken by the sound of his wind chimes being laid down on the landing deck. He blinked his eyes open to see a merman sitting on his hunched up tail looking down at Sten. “Are you Sten Holdsmith?”the visitor asked.

Sten lifted himself up from his slouch and sat straight. “Yes, and who are you?”

“I’m Thymon Mmava, Chielle’s brother. What happened to you?”

“I had a disagreement with someone.”

“I’ll say. Chielle said you were kind, not violent.”

“Did she? I didn’t start it.” He paused and chuckled weakly. “I finished it.” Then he considered who he was talking to. “I apologize for my appearance. I would have liked to make a better impression on her family.”

“Well, I’m the only one in her family who knows about you. I heard your chimes and I assumed they were to call my sister, so I thought I’d come meet you myself.”

Sten tried to stand up and his legs did not want to move. He forced himself up, walked over to Thymon and held his hand out in welcome. “Please let me try this again. Welcome to my home.”

The merman sat up straight and shook it while continuing to size him up. Sten took a good look at him too, with his square jaw and his broad shoulders standing out from his long black tunic. Sten had only ever seen Chielle wear shades of tan and gray.

“May I offer you something to drink? I have some excellent red wine here. I can get you a glass.”

“Thank you for the hospitality, but I have never tried wine. I’ve heard that it makes humans act like fools.”

“It can if you drink too much, or if you’re angry when you start drinking. It relaxes us, and makes it easier for us to show how we feel. So if we’re mad or feeling mean, then it comes out more. If you’re feeling happy, then that comes out more too. We also drink it because wine will never make you sick the way tainted water will.”

“So it’s purified water?”

“No, it’s mostly grape juice. But the alcohol in it kills any sickness.”

Thymon did not look convinced. “We don’t drink liquids underwater.”

“I understand. Chielle said it felt odd to drink for pleasure.”

“You fed my sister wine?” he spat, not trying to hide his angered concern.

“No, no. I’ve never given her wine. I gave her a warm, sweet drink called cocoa on a cold night. Cocoa doesn’t change your mood at all like wine.”

“So you have different drinks for different weather?”

“Yes, and different situations. Sitting here being social on a hot day would call for wine or maybe beer.”

“All right, I will accept your offer of this wine. Let no one say I don’t know how to be a good guest.”

Sten was taken by Thymon’s manners. Chielle had said they lived in a tight social order. He hadn’t thought about it in terms of manners. “Shall I get you a glass?”

Thymon looked at how Sten was not moving freely and then glanced up the ramp to his shack. “No, this will be fine.” Sten was glad his guest had figured out how much trouble a glass would have been. Thymon took the wine skin and examined the mouth.

“Just sip from the opening.”

He did so and blinked his enormous merman eyes several times. “It is sour and sweet at the same time. It makes me salivate.” He took another sip. “I can see why you would find this refreshing if you were parched.” He handed the skin back.

“Welcome to the fine human art of wine.”

“It is an art to make this?”

“Yes, the grapes are squeezed and then juice is fermented for just the right length of time to make the alcohol. Then it’s put in bottles and aged for months or even years.”

“Fermented? You mean rotten?”

“It’s a controlled rotting. I think there is yeast involved. People figured out how to make it ages ago.”

“When things rot in the sea, the water carries everything away.”

“Oh, so you wouldn’t be able to capture the alcohol. That’s unfortunate.” Sten took a sip.

“You know I did not come here to talk about making wine.”

“I understand. You wanted to meet this human your sister is spending so much time with.”

“May I ask what your intentions are with Chielle?”

Manners? Mostly. Direct? Absolutely. “I will not lie to you, Thymon. I am falling in love with her. She makes me happy like I have not been happy in years. I want to protect her and care for her. She has shown me just how wrong the folks in Saint Rachel are about the Merrow. That was what my disagreement was about that left me looking like this.”

“You fought for my sister?”

Sten weighed that. “Yes.”

Thymon regarded him for a long moment. “Let me have some more of that wine.”

Sten handed him the skin. Of all the reactions her protective older brother could have had, Sten was happy with that one.

The merman took a big drink and handed it back. “Do you have family here?”

So this was going to be that conversation. “No. I used to have a younger sister, but she’s gone.”

“Oh, so you know how I feel about Chielle?”

“Yes, I was a protective older brother too. Only I…well, she passed away.” Sten took a big drink too.

“I’m sorry.”

“It was a long time ago. To answer your question, no, I don’t have any other family.”

“There is a boy who helps you with your work. Is he related to you?”

“No, he just works for me. That’s funny, Chielle asked the same question. I guess family members work together a lot in your village.”

“Yes, everyone works together.”

“Chielle explained that. I think that’s great. Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course.”

“Were you were part of the group that attacked the fishing boats in Parker’s Meadow?”

“Yes, I was their leader.”

He didn’t sound proud. He just stated the fact. Sten knew he had to tread lightly here. “Our judge punished the man who shot your comrade. The fishermen weren’t supposed to be there according to the treaty. But the man was punished for using too much force. Your men threw spears that could have killed someone. Did your village judges have anything to say about that?”

Thymon rolled off his tail and straightened it out. A large rounded stone was bound to the base of his tail just above the fluke fins.

“Doesn’t that make it really hard to swim?”

“That’s why it’s done. I and my fellows are nearly housebound. We can’t do our jobs, and we are ridiculed whenever we are seen. It took me tiresome hours to get here today.” Thymon took the wine skin back and took another drink.

Sten worked this through in his head. It took a little while with the wine. “Being a part of the working village is really important to you. Being shackled like that cuts you out of that?”

“Yes.”

“Humans value their freedom more than anything, so we hold our criminals captive for long periods. I can see where this is just as bad for you.” He held out his hand for Thymon to give him the wine.

When the merman handed it over, he blinked and shook his head. “Oh, now I’m feeling this relaxation you spoke of. I know this feeling. We get this way to be social too.”

“Really? What do you drink?”

“It’s not a drink.” Thymon fingered through the pockets of the sash belt he wore over one shoulder. “Ah, here it is. I couldn’t remember if I had one with me.” He held up between two webbed fingers a thin pointed object about as long as a finger, with stripes of black and orange down its length. “It’s a quill.”

“From what?” Sten asked as he squinted to see it better.

“It’s from a fish with fins all striped like this. These spines are along its back. They are filled with a venom that keeps predators away.”

“So the predators know to stay away from the stripes?”

“That’s a good general rule in the ocean, that striped or brightly colored things are usually poisonous.”

“So what do you do with this quill? Surely you don’t poison yourself with it.”

“Why, yes. The poison only harms other fish. We’re not fish. We’re mammals like whales and you. The venom only makes us high, like your wine.”

Sten suddenly realized Chielle’s straight-laced older brother was in fact like any other bored, thrill seeking young man. “Let me guess, you get high on this venom with your friends, as opposed to when you are courting a mermaid.”

“That’s true. Would you like to try it?”

Sten very nearly blurted out no, but checked himself. Here was his lady love’s older brother offering to share his own personal stash. Thymon had been game enough to drink his wine despite having heard bad things about it. Mammals, he said, like whales and humans. How bad could it be? Think of the trust it could build with her family. “Sure. How do you do it?”

“It has a point. You just prick your skin and a drop goes in.”

“That’s all it takes?”

“Yeah. It takes a few minutes to take effect, a lot like your wine.” He handed Sten the quill.

Sten looked at the quill, looked at Thymon, then looked back at the quill. He didn’t have much choice now. His heart started pounding faster. He was tough. Of course, he thought he was tough enough to take on Boole head on and look what that got him. “Is my forearm a good place?”

“Yes.”

He unbuttoned his cuff and pushed up his loose white shirt sleeve. He scratched his skin with the point but nothing seemed to come out. He was actually relieved. “I think I did it wrong.”

Thymon stepped over and took it from him. “It’s more of a puncture,” he said as he poked it straight into his arm. “There.”

Sten looked on, trying his hardest to hide his terror and regret at going along with this. “Ow, it’s burning.” He rubbed the spot, but that did not make it feel any better. “Is it supposed to burn?”

Thymon frowned. “No. It doesn’t feel like anything more than a prick.”

“Hey, it’s getting worse. It’s spreading too. Man, it’s getting really painful. I think I’m having a bad reaction. What can I take to stop this? Is there an antidote?”

“Not that I know of. I’m sorry, Sten. I don’t know what to do.”

Sten grabbed his arm at the elbow with his other hand and squeezed to slow the blood flow. I need to find something to keep this in my arm. Here, squeeze my arm like I have it here.”

Thymon did as he was told. Sten undid his belt and wrapped it around his arm and pulled it tight.”

“I am so sorry. I had no idea this would hurt you.”

“I know, it’s not your fault. I should’ve been more careful too. Oh, man! This is really hurting.” He was suddenly lightheaded and nauseous. “Oh no.” He ran to the edge of the deck and vomited into the sea. Dizziness overtook him and he rolled onto his back, looking up at the sky. He couldn’t concentrate to keep the tension on his belt, and he let it slip. He went limp and everything blurred to a fog.

He saw Chielle fly up out of the water and start screaming at her brother in their underwater language of squeals and ratting clicks. The last thing Sten thought before he blacked out was how good their language was at conveying anger.

“How could you be so stupid?! He doesn’t have a blubber layer like us!” Chielle wanted to throttle her brother but was more focused on what to do for poor Sten. ‘Ugh! The both of you stink of wine. Let me guess, you two were drinking and decided to go the next step higher. Reckless, idiot men! Why is he so bruised? Were you two fighting?”

“No, he got in a fight yesterday with someone in town. He was fighting in your defense.”

She shook her head. “More male stupidity.” She whipped her knife out of its shoulder belt. “Here, hold still.” She slashed the ropes that held the weight on Thymon’s tail. “Go get Mama.”

“What? I’ll be branded if I’m seen without the tetherweight.”

“Risk it. We need Mama here now. Drunk or not, you’re fast enough, so get going.”

“What do I tell her?”

She bit back and made a hard decision. “Tell her the truth. The time for secrets is over.”

He paused meaningfully. “Really?”

“Yes, we have to tell her so she can decide what’s best.”

“All right.” He leapt into the sea and was gone.

Chielle felt Sten’s forehead and it was hotter than it should be. She hunched up her tail and grabbed him under the armpits. The last time she grabbed him like this he was underwater and she could move him effortlessly. Now she was saving him again, but he was a whole lot harder to move on land. She pushed as hard as she could and managed to lift his torso up and drag his legs behind him. She had to get him to his shack and into bed with blankets. She pushed again and gained another few feet. Thankfully it was high tide with the landing platform up and the ramp was not steep. Half a dozen more heaving pulls and she had him to the top.

Jacio was walking out the wharf. “Jacio, thank goodness! I need your help getting Sten inside.”

He ran up but hesitated when he saw his boss unconscious. “What happened?”

“He got drunk and fell. He may have accidentally poisoned himself too. I’ve got help coming. Can you help me get him into bed?”

“Sure.” He grabbed one shoulder and Chielle grabbed the other and between them they dragged him into the shack and up into bed.

Chielle turned to thank him , but Jacio ran out and up the wharf without saying a word. She wondered what he was doing, but couldn’t take time to go after him. She pulled the blankets up around Sten and tucked them around him. He checked his breathing and found it steady. He was still way too hot. She laid her head on his chest and prayed. “Rorra, please watch over this good man. Please bring him back to health so I can tell him what a fool he is and how much I love him.”

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