Home > Mermaid Steel, Writing > Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen of Mermaid Steel

Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen of Mermaid Steel

Y’all have been patient while I worked out this critical turn in the story. Thank you. For your reward, here are the next two chapters. This brings us to page 200, with about 50 pages left in the book. This is pretty much your last chance to give me any feedback for this draft. From here out I am just finishing the tale I have started. I would love to hear from you with any comment, short or long, good or bad. I am considering whether I should publish the last few chapters online or whether I should save them for the printed book. There are not that many of you reading along, so I’m not worried about giving anything away to a wide audience. This has been a fun experiment. It would have been a lot more fun if we had all played together. What can I say, I have very reserved fans. I can only hope you are enjoying the story. Here is the next 5200 word installment.

Chapter Thirteen

Sten was bored, sitting alone with his thoughts in the cave, staying out of sight of any passing boats. None came by. He looked around and considered trying again to find a way around the mouth of the alcove up onto the land behind it. His explorations had not found a way other than swimming out and around. He was enjoying dry clothes too much for that.

He saw a shape rising in the swells and was pleased at how quickly Chielle had returned with food. It wasn’t one shape, though, that emerged, but six mermen. He recognized the front three as Aalto, Pinngot, and Raggeck Blauoon, the builders who ordered tools. He also recognized the three very large mermen who followed from their red church guard tunics. This did not look good.

Sten walked down to the beach to meet them. “Aalto! What brings you to my little piece of paradise?”

“Mister Sten, I have come to apologize. I think I gave you the wrong impression yesterday about needing tools from you.”

The Merrow hunched up on his tail at the water’s edge with his brothers close behind. He nervously averted eye contact as he spoke. Sten watched the red guards standing straight with their tails planted in the shallows, looking on sternly.

Sten saw the right thing to do. “No need to apologize. We were just talking. I understand Merrow don’t need anything from humans. I certainly did not think we were trading for anything.”

Aalto and his brothers sighed a little breath of relief.

Sten spoke loudly enough for the guards to hear. “I hope someday our peoples will come to trust each other enough that you can use my tools to make a better life for yourself. In the meantime, I know you will do just fine.”

“Thank you, Mister Sten. I doubt we will ever speak again. Have a pleasant life.”

“You’re welcome. May Rorra watch over you.”

One of the guards bristled at his comment, but they then all turned back to the sea.

Sten was really glad Chielle had missed this. Sten had feared this would happen. He was even more disappointed that it was the temple guards that enforced it. That meant the disapproval was official, possibly even form the Shaman himself. This was a huge setback.

Sten was pondering this when Chielle swam up, a bag slung over her shoulder.

“Hello, Sweetheart.” He stepped up and kissed her.

“Sweetheart,” she pondered playfully. “I like the sound of that.”

“Well, you’re not going to like the sound of this. The Blauoon brothers came by, escorted by three of the red temple guards. They withdrew their order for tools.”

“Oh no, that’s very bad.”

“Means the Shaman ordered it, right?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“I brought this on myself. I did invade your town unannounced.”

Chielle was distracted in thought. “I’ll have to find out how far this goes.”

“So now I’ve got both villages up in arms. For a man who set out to make peace, I seem to be stirring up a lot of anger.”

“Speaking of your village, that’s where I went to get breakfast.” She reached into her shoulder bag and handed him a sealed pot that was made of some kind of pink stone, but it was much too light to be stone.

“Is this coral?”

“Yes,” she said opening it to reveal rice cooked with flecks of fish and egg. “Jacio had a funny name for it that he said he couldn’t pronounce. His mother made some for him and he gave it to me to give to you.”

“Kedgeree. Good lad. This will be an excellent breakfast.”

“While I was there, I learned that indeed your constable has arrested Captain Boole and is holding him until your High Lord can decide his fate.”

“So the High Lord is still in town?”

“It would seem so, yes.”

“May I ask how you found all this out?”

She hesitated, but only for a moment. “I spoke with some friends of mine who keep an eye on things in Saint Rachel.”

“I take it they are well practiced in the art of staying undetected.”

“Yes,” she said with a coy smile. “Yes, they are.”

“Now that your red guard knows where I am, I’m feeling vulnerable stuck here on this beach. Maybe it’s time to borrow Norn’s boat. Let’s have breakfast, and then can I ask you to take me out there?”

“Of course.”

“We’ll have Jacio go tell Norn what I’m up to. Norn won’t tell anyone. That way I can go into town when the time is right.”

“That would be when?”

“Give it one more day. I want the villagers united in thought that Boole and his approach is the wrong way to go.”

“All right. After I get you to the boat, I want to go check with my family and see what’s been said since your visit. It’s really rare for me to spend this much time away from my home. I’ll spend the night there.”

“Of course. Your mother knows about us. Does your father?”

“I don’t know if my mother would wait for me to tell him myself. She had to tell him something with me gone for three days and two nights.”

“I wish I had met him before now.”

“What, to show him your feelings for me are genuine?”

He looked her in the eyes and grinned. “Well, yes. I would also hope my fighting for Merrow justice would sway his opinion.”

“My father is in a tough spot over that. He’s old enough to remember when we all got along, but as the head of our family, he has to uphold the official doctrine of separation. He had a hard time balancing that when Thymon armed his friends and went into battle. I’m afraid he might feel he needs to be strict with me. I’m really going to have to move carefully.”

“You know your folks better than anyone. I’m sure you’ll work it out.”

****

Thymon followed his sister up the anchor chain to the surface. “Back Forty?” he read on the prow.

“It’s a ranching term. The owner raises cattle.”

“Still doesn’t make sense,” he muttered to himself as they kicked up out of the water, over the low rail to scoot, behind-first, onto the deck.

“Sten? Sweetheart?” Her voice wavered.”Are you up yet?”

Thymon thought the gray, overcast sky less than an hour after dawn was sadly fitting for their mission.

He stepped up from below decks wiping his face with a towel. “Yes, I was just shaving. Thought you’d appreciate that. Oh, hi Thymon.”

She got up and hunched over to him. Even from behind, with her shoulders slumped, Thymon could see how dejected she was.

“Whoa,” Sten said. “That bad?”

She just nodded.

“Your father…banned you from seeing me. Which is why the escort.”

She flung her arms around him and buried her face in his shoulder.

Sten looked up to Thymon. The usual ruddy color of his face blanched. “I’ve been living in a fool’s paradise, thinking I could just do whatever I wanted and people would come around to my way of thinking.”

“She argued brilliantly.” Thymon got up while he spoke. “She said you were our only hope of making peace with the villagers. She even told Father about her dreams of walking in the snow.”

Sten pulled her back. “What dreams?”

She looked up at him with the saddest eyes her brother had ever seen on her. “When I sleep in your arms, I dream of having legs and walking through snow in the mountains. At first it felt so strange, but then I started really enjoying it.”

“You never told me about this.”

“I wasn’t sure what it meant, or if it meant anything. It does mean we have a special bond. It didn’t convince my father, though.”

“This is amazing. I’ve been dreaming of having a tail and swimming through your village. I thought it was just my imagination, but then when I went there, my dream was right, down to the details.”

She looked at him for a long moment. “Have you ever heard of a town called Nathanson?”

His face it up. “That’s…wow…yes, I grew up in Nathanson. I spent many an hour stomping around in the snow, in fur boots, all bundled up. Is that what you dreamt?”

“Yes.” She smiled weakly.

“Then we really do have a bond. I don’t just mean you and I, but your kind and my kind. We couldn’t be sharing memories in our dreams unless there was something much deeper connecting us. This didn’t sway your father?”

“It kind of terrified him, actually,” Thymon added. “Our father has always been strongly isolationist. My going to war didn’t help matters. This time he was acting on our shaman’s orders, but after hearing about the dreams, he was even more convinced.”

“On the shaman’s orders? Your religious leader can just order people around?”

“He isn’t just our religious leader,” she explained patiently, though it clearly pained her to talk about it. “He is our protector, our wisdom guide, our decision maker. He talks directly with Rorra, and everything we have flows from Rorra. His word is law, and his law has always been for our best.”

“What, he’s never wrong?”

“There simply is no arguing with him,” Thymon stated. “More than that, this goes right to the basic doctrine, that if Merrow started trading with humans, and using human tools, and doing things the human way, then Merrow will become selfish, corrupt, and evil like humans. We were all raised with that message. Our people are not ready to argue with that.”

Chielle wrapped her arms around his torso and put her head on his chest. Thymon’s heart broke seeing her usually shining confidence faded like this.

Sten put his arms around her while he talked with Thymon. “So the law that was written a hundred years ago prohibiting commerce, that was a Merrow idea as much as human?”

“Oh, yes,” he explained. “Our ancestors chose that path. Did you think that was forced on us by the villagers?”

“I wasn’t sure. I haven’t been able to get a straight answer from anyone. It must have been to prevent another war. Can’t they see how being separated is driving us into war now?”

“They don’t see it that way.”

“Well I know you’re worried about losing the last of your fisheries. You took up spears to defend yourself. If you pull back into isolation now, the fishermen are going to take everything and force you to leave your homes. You will have to abandon Celidan.”

“Believe me, I agree with you. My people would rather do anything but fight again.”

Sten blinked and gritted his teeth. “Boole and his ilk are going to think themselves justified. They got away with labeling you thieves, and now they’re going to label you cowards, unworthy of those fisheries the treaty is supposed to protect for you.” He took a deep breath and blew it out. “I just can’t help feeling I’ve made things worse. I drew this all out into the open to try to bridge the gap, and now I’ve forced the Shaman’s hand into shutting you off.”

Chielle looked up at him. “You did the right thing. You did what Atlan would have done. You seized the moment, you gave it your best try. Don’t beat yourself up for that.”

“There has got to be some way to convince your elders to stand up for themselves. Now is exactly the wrong time to go into hiding.”

She beamed at him and stroked his cheek. “That beautiful tinker’s mind of yours, always looking for a solution. If anyone can think of it, it will be you.”

He met her gaze and held her with his massive arms. Thymon still wasn’t comfortable seeing his hairy skin around his sister’s waist, even if he was only touching her tan tunic. “What’s to become of us? I’m not giving you up. If my people drive you away, I’ll come with you. Or we can both run away together.”

“Our father would come after her,” Thymon interjected. “It would be ugly.”

Sten looked into her eyes and the anger in him seemed to melt into sadness. It was at that moment that Thymon saw just how much Sten loved his sister. “I can’t believe it. They’re taking you away and there is nothing I can do about it. Your mother…”

“No. My mother knows how much you mean to me. She used to have great love for her human friends when she was young. This is now. She will not go against my father.”

“I promise I will not give up the fight above the surface. I will do whatever I can to show your people that most humans welcome the Merrow as neighbors. Somehow I’ve got to show them, or I’ll never get you back.”

“And I promise I will wait for you, no matter how long. I have faith in you. For now, though, my love this is good bye.”

He hugged her tightly and she hugged him back. “Pray to Rorra for a miracle. Rorra abides and provides, right?”

When she pulled away, tears were running down his smooth cheeks. She touched them. “I wish I had tears too, to show you how much I am going to miss you.”

Chapter Fourteen

Sten tied the Back Forty to his landing dock and looked around to see that no one had noticed his arrival. The village would be bustling by now with morning errands. No point in wasting time with social niceties, he thought. He marched up the ramp and met Jacio who was coming out to the shop.

“Hey, welcome back!”

Sten did not slow down. “Thanks. I’ll be back later.”

Gerb the sailmaker looked genuinely shocked in his shop window as Sten marched by. “Sten, you’re alive!”

“So it would seem,” he said with a smile but without breaking his stride.

It was the same with most folks he passed. They either lit up when they realized the Merrow had saved him, or double-took as if they were seeing a ghost. Both reactions meant people had taken Boole’s crime seriously which greatly buoyed Sten’s spirits. By the time he got to the constable’s office, he was sure his plan would work.

“Well, well,” Blaine greeted him as he entered. “If it isn’t the ghost of our long dead blacksmith.”

“Good morning, Arum.”

The big lawman got up from his desk and shook Sten’s hand. “Welcome back. Don’t tell me I’m supposed to be surprised your friends under the sea saved you, because I never had a doubt.”

“Just because I was saved does not mean he didn’t try to kill me.”

“Oh, absolutely.” He pointed his thumb over his shoulder at the jail in the back. “Captain Boole will stand trial for attempted murder, especially now that I have all the witnesses.”

“You also have the High Lord to preside.”

“That’s true. He decided to stick around for a few days.” He absently rubbed his short cropped blond hair. “I think he wants to make sure we don’t go to war with the merfolk.”

“I hope that’s why he stayed. I have to talk with him about what happens next.”

Arum squinted. “You sound like something has changed.”

“It has, and not for the better. Do you want to come along? I hope to catch him before he gets busy with other business.”

Arum glanced around, then nodded. “Sure. Nothing here that can’t wait.” They left and the constable locked the door behind them. ‘The High Lord is staying at the Saint Rachel Arms.”

“That makes sense,” Sten said heading in that direction. “It is our only real hotel.”

“Did you really build a pipe and helmet rig to breathe underwater?”

“Yes, I did.”

“So you saw Celidan first hand?”

“That is true.”

“I bet that was amazing. Obviously you’ve been spending a lot of time with that mermaid lady friend of yours.”

Sten stopped walking and turned to face Arum. “Her name is Chielle. Is there something you want to get off your chest?”

“Don’t take offense, and tell me to drop it if you want to, but they are so mysterious, I have to ask. What are they like in conversation?”

Sten was relieved Arum did not go where he thought he might. “In conversation? They talk just like you and me. What do you mean?”

“Well, do they speak their mind openly, or do they hide their feelings? Are they kind to their women? Do they make jokes? You know, are they really different than us?”

Sten was dismayed. “Holy Atlan in the grave, are you kidding me? Do people really not understand the Merrow are exactly like us except they live underwater? Do you really think they are so different that you can’t even have a normal conversation with them? Have you never spoken with one?”

“Well, no, not casually.”

“Of course they speak their minds. Of course they are kind to their women. And yes they make jokes. They hold some things more dearly than we do, like sharing and community. Their culture is geared to their life in the sea. But they love and get angry and get drunk and laugh and cry just like humans. How in the world did you come to think otherwise?”

The townspeople walking nearby heard Sten laying into Arum and slowed down to listen.

“They’ve been here alongside you for the whole hundred years you’ve been here. I happen to know that thirty years ago you used to get along with them as neighbors. Humans had Merrow as best friends.” Sten noticed the crowd growing around them. He didn’t try to hide the desperation in his eyes. “I thought I was just up against greedy fishermen. Does everyone harbor these same suspicions? Have things gotten that bad?”

“I don’t know, Sten. I haven’t asked a lot of people, and people don’t speak up if they don’t have to. I just thought, since you’ve been around them so much, I should get the facts from someone who knows.”

Sten looked up at the tall blond and caught his gaze squarely. “I’m glad you did. I wish I could tell this to everyone in Saint Rachel.” He turned to the onlookers. “They are just folk like you and me. I knew this was bad. I’ve been here over a year, how could I not know it? But to think you can’t even talk with them? Lord, have I got my work cut out for me. Starting with the High Lord,” he said as he began walking again.

On the rest of the way to the hotel, the surprised looks at Sten’s reappearance were accompanied by a spreading wave of chatter about what he had said. Sten saw that Arum noticed it too. Sten hoped this was the sound of good news.

Sten marched into the hotel straight to the front desk with Arum close behind.

“Good morning,” the young man clerk in the jaunty pillbox hat greeted them.

“Good morning. Who can I speak with about seeing the High Lord?”

Footfalls from the stairs behind them were followed by a man’s voice. “That would be me.”

Sten and Arum turned around and faced Jesery Clune himself. Sten almost didn’t recognize the judge without his official headgear. With his large bald spot and his unassuming street clothes, he looked positively normal.

“Your Lordship, how good to see you again.”

“Constable Blaine. Mr. Holdsmith, it is so good to see you recovered from your watery grave. I usually don’t hear petitions before breakfast. As I am headed to breakfast now, and you have managed to catch me, I will make an exception. Why did you want to see me?”

“I have disheartening news from Celidan. With all this conflict, the Merrow have decided to retreat from all contact with us. If left unchecked, the fishermen are going to take advantage of that and seize the rest of the fishing grounds. The Merrow have given up all the fisheries they can afford to lose and still sustain themselves. If our fishermen harvest Harper’s Meadow, the Merrow will have to abandon their village and migrate away. They were here first. We will have taken unfair advantage of their good nature and driven them from their ancestral home.”

“I agree that would be a great injustice. What are you asking me to do?”

“Start by enforcing the treaty. It sets Harper’s Meadow aside for the Merrow. Forbid the fishermen from going there.”

“I understand the Merrow have arranged that the fishermen cannot find any fish there anymore. So they seem to be enforcing the treaty themselves.”

“We can only hope they continue to do that. Then ask the Merrow Shaman to alter the treaty to allow commerce. The ban has driven a wedge to where our people think of them as brute savages that can’t even communicate. You know that’s not true as well as I. We have to open up the chance for healthy contact.”

Clune raised his eyebrows and sighed. “The Merrow leaders wrote that treaty to keep their people away from our influence. If they have decided to withdraw, that is their choice. It has worked for them for a hundred years. My asking for a change would just convince them how right they are to withdraw. I understand you have visited with them extensively.”

“He went to their village using a breathing device,” Arum interjected.

“Indeed? Impressive. Does your coming to me now mean your efforts at building rapport have failed?”

“They saw me as an invader.”

“There you have it. They would see me the same if I asked to change the treaty.”

Sten wanted to argue with him, but he knew when all was said and done, the High Lord was right. Even if Boole was discredited and his hatred rejected, even if the people of Saint Rachel opened their arms to the Merrow, nothing would convince the Shaman or his followers that humans could be trusted. Sten found himself just standing there in the hotel lobby staring at the red carpeted floor between himself and the judge, with nothing to say. He felt like something vital had leaked out of his body onto that worn carpet and left him empty.

“I am sorry. I know you wanted to fix this now. I appreciate your efforts to bring these two villages together. By forcing the fishermen to overreach the law, you have probably helped avert any further open combat. Your message of peace and goodwill will likely grow here in Saint Rachel. In time the Merrow may see that and open their borders again. These things take time, and you are doing the hard work that needs to be done. I hope you continue.” He paused and waited. “If there is nothing further, I bid you good day.” He turned away toward the hotel’s café.

“Thank you for your time, Sir,” Arum said.

The walk back to his shop took forever. Though he was greeted with smiles by everyone downtown he passed, he felt utterly alone. Having Arum walking alongside him gave him no comfort.

“Are you noticing how happy everyone is to have you back and alive?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Sten agreed glumly. “So?”

“So now that they have seen where Boole’s hatred leads, they’re more likely to listen to your message of peace with the Merrow.”

Sten glanced over at Arum. Arum used the word “Merrow” for the first time. “That’s true. It’s a start. It’s not going to convince the Merrow to open their borders.”

“You know,” the tall blond said confidentially, “I’m not as thick as I look. I know your real loss is your girlfriend. I understand that taints everything else, but don’t miss the good you’ve done for the town – for both towns.”

They arrived in front of the jail. Sten held out his hand. “Thank you for backing me up with the High Lord. Let me know when you want me to testify against Boole.”

Arum shook his hand. “I will.”

By the time he got to his shack, he had thought over what Clune and Blaine had said about what good he had done. He was able to manage a smile for Jacio when the boy greeted him enthusiastically with a bowl of warm porridge.

He tried to keep himself busy and distracted. He taught Jacio how to cut fine gears out of brass to repair a mantle clock. He pounded out two hundred nails for the carpenters’ cooperative. In fact he was so productive, he finished all the orders he had in the shop with two hours of sunlight left. He let Jacio go home and then swept the soot out all the corners of his living quarters.

None of it helped. The hole he felt in his chest grew deeper by the hour. He considered sitting out in his wharf chair and drinking, but it was such a beautiful sunny day, it just didn’t feel right. Drinking the blues worked so much better in foul weather.

He did not feel social, but he did feel like being waited on, so he ended up in the Pied Cock for dinner. Paulbert Caron made an excellent shepherd’s pie, just the kind of comfort food Sten needed.

“Oh thank Atlan, you are alive!” Vanda Rymerand rushed up to his table like a ship with full blue sails billowing in a strong wind. She grabbed a chair and sat down, her hand clutching his forearm.

“Hello Vanda. Please have a seat.”

“I was horrified when I heard that crazy fishing captain tied you up and threw you in the sea. How awful for you that you had to be saved by a Fin. It feels wrong to say it, but thank goodness that Fin was there to help.”

Sten was too tired to try to find a gentle way of breaking the news to her. “Vanda, that mermaid, who saved me, is my girlfriend. She was there to save me because she had just jumped off the wharf when Boole and his goons marched out to lynch me.”

Vanda blinked in several short but fast bursts as she digested his words. “Girlfriend. This was what, three maybe four weeks after you turned me down? So you were seeing her…oh no. You threw me over for a mermaid?”

“Vanda, please keep your voice down. We agreed to stay friends. Let’s act like friends now.”

Her face flushing red did not bode well for quiet conversation. “What? You were joking in the market about trying new things. Holy shit, Sten!”

“Vanda, don’t impugn yourself with foul language.”

“I have every right to swear.” She sniffed at him. “What’s that smell? Cocoa butter? Cocoa butter?! You’re sleeping with her? Do you realize that’s bestiality?!”

“All right, now you’ve gone too far.” He looked around and not surprisingly, everyone was watching. Most weren’t even trying to disguise their watching. “Fine, yes. I love Chielle more than anyone I have ever loved. She is brave and kind and selfless in ways you will never understand. By the way, how do you know they use cocoa butter to protect their skin?”

“My mother always hated Fin, and now I can see why.”

“You and I were over last year when you left town. I made that clear last month when we talked. You have no reason to be jealous.”

“Jealous? You think I would stoop to be jealous of a Fin?” She stood up abruptly and let her chair fall to the floor. “This isn’t jealously. This is disgust.” She turned and walked straight out the door, her bustle jerking side to side as she marched.

He surveyed the collection of rolled eyes around the room. “Show’s over folks.” He took one last bite of his pie and decided he should leave too.

On the way back to his shop he realized he had publicly declared his love for a woman he might never see again. He certainly had driven Vanda away once and for all. Better to be with no one than with a bigot like her.

He was so riled up from his fight with Vanda that despite his being bone tired, sleep just wasn’t an option. He tidied up around the shop, trying to calm himself, when he came across his sketch of the wheeled chair for Chielle. The drawing ripped open the hole in his heart he had been trying to ignore all day. His chest hurt worse than after Boole had broken his ribs. He felt weak in the knees and had to steady himself on the bench. She was gone. All the hopes and dreams he had let himself grow around her were shattered, the shards too small to even grasp.

He clenched his fists and gritted his teeth and let all his anger and frustration and confusion and torment boil over. He grabbed an ingot and threw it into the hearth. He spun the bellows wheel furiously and drove the embers to spewing white. Pausing only out of habit, he donned his apron before he grabbed the glowing block with tongs and seized a hammer. He brought it down on the metal bar with all his fury. “Damn the Shaman!” Clang! The ring pierced the night like a death scream. “Damn the treaty!” Clang! “Damn the old ways!” Clang! “Damn the greedy bastards that started this!” Clang! Tears welled up in his eyes and poured down his cheeks as rage overtook him. Sweat beaded up all over his face from the exertion. “Damn them all!” His aim slipped and a corner of the deformed block cracked off, spun up, and sliced him across the jaw. He ignored it and just kept crying and cursing and slamming the hammer down as hard as he could.

The blood from the cut mixed with the tears and the sweat that covered his face, formed a fat droplet on his chin, and fell cleanly through a space between the floorboards into the sea.

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Categories: Mermaid Steel, Writing
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