A Country-boy x Merman love story set in 1929 Galvestone, Texas. I’m still nailing down some of the terminology and the symbolic references. Welsh is not my strong suite, but a lot of the mythology within this is going to based between the Welsh and Celtic stories and Thai legends.
*If you like what you read, check out my Sushi button. If I would like to be able to hire a proper editor when I take this to paperback and that will go a long way to affording one. Thank you!*
A corn muffin with honey on top? Good idea. A corn muffin with maple syrup on top? A great idea, though pricey. A corn muffin in my coffee thermos? I should have known better.
I sat down at my desk to contemplate one of my less industrious decisions in life and to wait for the teacher. Dodging thrown wads of paper while trying to down the brown chunky liquid, not successful. The thermos upended and landed square on Mr. Kantor’s freshly mended shirt. Mrs. Bernstein was going to flay my hide when she found out what happened. She’d also flay Aharon Bernstein’s hide for having thrown a wad of paper with a stone in it at the girl sitting on the other side of me, thereby causing my now corn muffin chunky coffee to seep down Mr. Kantor’s wardrobe.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Kantor!” I rushed to pull my handkerchief from my pocket, hoping forgiveness was in order if I helped out. Red built up around his hair line as I swatted off corn muffin crumbs and he glared at every other person in our one room school house. If he kept it up, he’d be the same shade of red as the smith’s forge down the street. That wouldn’t be good. Mr. Weinberg had already dealt with one heart attack this New Year, he would not be pleased to treat a second one.
“Ian Cimet, what is the meaning of throwing your offending breakfast at me this early in the morning! And the rest of you! What is all this paper all over my floors? Eliza, grab a broom and dust pan. Menachem, I saw you making your group’s bits of ammo. You’ll be writing on the board when school lets out. One hundred times. ‘I am better than to follow my friends into delusional persuasions.’ Aharon, I saw your paper hit Ian. Don’t think I didn’t. Go, run home to your mother, tell her what you did, and come back here with a full set of clothes for me. We will be continuing lessons today!” Mr. Kantor sighed heavily in exasperation, snatched my handkerchief and proceeded to try cleaning himself while he got the first graders to the high schoolers all in on a full early spring cleaning of the school house.
I did not pity Aharon Bernstein, neither the blistering cold mile walk to his parent’s farmhouse on the other side of the hill, or the blistered butt and the sideways walk he possessed when he returned with a suitcase and luncheon for Mr. Kantor. I was sent to fetch firewood for the school stove and restock our rack in the classroom though, and that was cold enough work for me. I still had no coffee.
On my last trip, while others in the room were mopping and dusting, Eliza Ackerman stepped over to my side, her roll as sweeper over and whispered, “I-I wanted to say thank you, Ian, for keeping me from getting coffee all over me. Sorry you had to deal with Mr. Kantor yelling.”
“No worries, Eliza. Honest, I wasn’t paying much attention to what was going on,” I admitted, dropping the split wood in its holder. Shoving a few more sticks into the stove for good measure, I found Eliza still standing near me, chewing on the edge of her lower lip, her hands clasped behind her back as she watched the rest of the room get into the flow of cleaning while Mr. Kantor reviewed lessons with the younger children.
“What is it?” I whispered behind the woodstove. It wasn’t that Mr. Kantor was deaf to our murmurings, but with all the foot traffic, we could talk more than usual.
“Would you care to have dinner with my family tonight? As thanks? I mean, I would need to talk to mama about it first, but I can run back, your house is only a few miles from mine.” She rolled on the balls of her feet, causing the hem of her dress to swing back and forth over her boots.
“Really, Eliza, you don’t need to. It gets dark so soon out here, and I’m left to putting up Gertrude and Omah for my evening chores. If I were late getting back, they’d raise a racket to make the neighbors complain.” I had found blaming our family dairy cows for my inability to attend dinners an easy way to evade Eliza, Puah, and Devorah’s enamored efforts in introducing me to their families. I knew where that road went and I wasn’t interested. Not with any of the girls in my town.
Gideon Horowitz was the only one in my class that seemed to catch my fancy, and that was not a natural predilection to have, as was expressed vehemently in every church pulpit on Sunday that I had been subjected to. That being one in this town. Almost the entire rest of the class belonged to the synagogue. My feelings for Gideon was not something I would admit to anyone.
He occupied much of my scribbled charcoal drawings though. He had his eyes for Devorah and often talked of her while he sat as a model for me to practice. He had been the one to tell me to take my art and see if I could attend the University four towns over. With what money? I had asked him when he floated this idea one summer afternoon. He never faulted, instead encouraging me to go work with Mr. Walter’s at the chemist’s to make up posters for the town. Mr. Walter’s introduced me to lithography, and I found myself readily putting away funds for my University adventures well before I knew how to apply for admittance.
It wasn’t to say that I found all women unattractive in the same sense as I found Gideon attractive. I had seen the Sears catalogue at Christmas that my mother would spread out on the kitchen table for my older brother and younger sister and brother to admire with my father and I. This was the one time of year we would save much of the farm’s earnings for. Most of my classmates did not understand this infatuation with the holiday and I did not understand theirs, but we all understood the excitement of the Sears catalogue arriving at the post office.
There were a number of drawings of women in the catalogue that I did not find objectionable in the least. There were more men in them though that I found better to my taste and no one said a word if I pointed out the suit jacket or the tools associated with said individual for items that would be nice for father’s wardrobe or useful to our farm equipment.
“Will you two stop flirting with each other and return to your seats? Everyone else is finished!” Mr. Kantor reprimanded, driving Eliza and my attention from our argument of who was supposed to come to dinner and who was supposed to see to the family dairy cows.
“Sorry, Mr. Kantor,” Eliza and I said in hurried unison as I tugged the latch shut on the wood stove and we both slipped back onto our bench. Drawing out our drills from within our desks, the high schoolers began recitations. I was left to study my empty coffee cup, and contemplate last year’s catalogue, wondering where I would be this time next year to be reading it. This being my last year of school before applying to the University Gideon had pointed out to me.
Lunch was brief and at our seats as the driving sleet pelted our windows. Mr. Kantor’s attention had left him some time after we had finished with our questions on the subjective nature of Latin. He loved the language. We, as a whole, did not. He kept flicking questioning glances at the window the wind drove most prevalently against, watching the slick gloss of ice creep it’s way up the sash to see the window.
He had much to continue teaching us that afternoon, as he kept grumblings. I hoped he would push his way through, so that I could avoid a midafternoon walk ringed by Eliza, Puah, and Devorah, and receiving threatening glares from the rest of the boys in my grade level who all had eyes for the girls. University was sounding better by the minute.
“All right class, I am going to release you early.” Mr. Kantor’s pronouncement was buried under a torrid of thrilled yelling and the scratch and clump of feet and lunch baskets and slate tablets all being jostled about. He stared around in frustration while I waited patiently. How no one else had ever noticed that he would continue talking after this announcement after his three years of teaching here was beyond me, and him, obviously. “Silence!” he bellowed, drawing everyone into the chill threat of death their parents would bear down upon them if they heard word from Mr. Kantor about their misbehavings. “Thank you. As I was saying. You all have your chores at home to do. Due to the snow, I will also have you study the words you can find within your house and document it, bring it in to class in the morning for us to review your findings.”
He had to come up with some kind of pig manure assignment to look like he was trying. We all knew it. So did he. Half of us who had access to paper and grease pencils would help out the other half who might not even have access to a proper wash basin. Some of us would advance our lives and go on to make something of ourselves in academia. Some of us were here until we could sign our names on documents so we could order fertilizer for our fields.
The sleet stung my ears. My empty thermos, tucked in my sack, clanked against the silverware at my back. Instead of heading home, I tracked around the back of the school house to the fire rick and brought in one more stack of wood while everyone else left. Eliza and Arahan ended up paired off, to her displeasure and his exuberant joy. I dragged in my load and deposited it in the school room, watching carefully for the others to find it too cold to hang around and stalk me.
“Avoiding your fellow school mates, Cimet?” Mr. Kantor asked from his podium.
“I thought you’d like to have some more firewood for tomorrow morning and with it being early and all,” I deflected.
“You don’t get on well with the group here do you?” He persisted in this conversation.
“It’s not that I don’t get one with them, sir. It’s more that they’re families and mine aren’t quite the same, and that makes it difficult. I do wish that they would see that. Especially Eliza, sir. She’s persistent, but I can only imagine what her father would say if he found she was interested in a gentile.” I knocked the remainders of the paper and dust from the bin into a larger sheet of brown butcher paper and crimped it into a firestarter for the morning.
“It’s not that you are uninterested, it’s that you would keep them from that pain?” he mused. I shrugged. Let him think that. It was safer for me that way. To admit to who I was, that was not within me to do.
“I need to get home, probably. That or see if Mr. Walter’s has something I can do for him early. He had mentioned a new shipment needing new posters come next month. I could get ahead on that,” I mused, deflected, shut out the conversation that I’d rather not get trapped in. Easing back to the door I pulled on my hat and scarf. Touching the brim, I nodded to Mr. Kantor. “Have a good evening, sir. Arahon should be back to walk with you soon. Hopefully.” I pulled the door closed behind me to face the village in the valley of our mountains.
Black fins flashed in deep water. A low voice echoed in the cave, a lecture to an audience of one. “There are moments in time when humans can slip the Antumnos Veil. When they see things they aren’t supposed to see. Those moments are when we find those that were lost to us. Babes that had been carried away in the night. The products of love from our side and their’s.” Bubbles slipped past the cracks as a shrp green tail slid into the shadows, away from the voluminous black.
“Hard to tell, the little ones,” The low voice followed the green tail. “Rare too. Not many humans swim in our waters. Some do. The ones that live along the edge of the warm waters learn. The ones near cold rivers are often in danger.
“Ships crossing our oceans are fraught with danger. Beware getting to close lest you are injured. They are the ones where we meet those humans that will be dragged down into the cold depths. Glassy eyes lose their focus beyond the sunlight zone. Hard to tell when most of the wrecks happen during storms and at night. Some of us can see them more clearly than others, but more often than not, they didn’t come into range of the nesting grounds. Something about pressures and temperatures.
“Others of Llyr refused to help with cleaning up after the wrecks, saying the humans deserve it. Some of the children of Llyr fear the humans and their large nets. We have seen too many of our friends caught up in the long lines of hooks. Others twisted in the massive ropes until they lost their breath, killed on their migrations.
“It used to be the men above would see us. They used to call to us. They swam with us and knew of us. They trusted us to show them safe ways through the coral barricades. They used to draw our likeness on the edge of maps. They changed though.
“The maps no longer show where we are. Where to seek refuge. Where to seek help. How to gain our attention. Soon, with the advent of their peculiar superstitions, the edges of the maps were no longer us. They are warnings to the humans. There be monsters.
“And that was when we drifted from the thoughts of man. The cautions. The conversations. They lost their trust of the waves. They commanded, they battled it, willed it to bow to their form. Yet, they lost the touch of the water. The feel of it in their bones. The sensation of it bouying their hearts as the moon rose over stillness, massive and unyielding in a reflected blanket of stars.
“With fear, mankind lost their ability to slip the Antumnos. Now, we keep to ourselves. We pick up the pieces, trying to steer the wrecks from damaging our nesting grounds, distribute the leftovers.
The black fins stilled at the edge of the cave to watch the individual with the green caudal fin flit about a mirror in irritation. “They’ve not lost their imagination. With every season and every wreck, we find they have learned how to manipulate their world more. How to transport more. How to make life easier. How to make life more difficult.”
A younger voice, a soft tenor retorted to the older, “Father’s halls are covered in their odd curiosities. The effigies of us from the bows of their wrecked ships hold up algae covered curtains. Plateware and silver occupies rotting slabs of timber furniture. Jewels tumble from oyster shells. The reflection of the human mirrors brings light deeper into our alcoves, spotlighting glimmering hints to the world above. I’m not keen on the distortions. The shadows that lurk in the corners and flick across the edges of the frames. I’d rather watch you in the arena.”
“Captured spirits from the world above our waves.” The older voice conceded. “Taigre, we’ve moved away from our traditions to scavenge their deaths. It’s not that it makes our lives any better. It only leads to jealousy and war within our factions. We would do better to steer the wrecks from our grounds and leave the debri to the humans.”
“You do go on, Seran. Keris leaves you to mind me, and instead of teaching me how to fight like you, you’re off on some high thought speech. You’re a combatant, not an orator.” Taigre bemoaned his lecture, drawn from a study of one of the newly acquired mirrors my father had seen hung. A massive storm raged far above the nesting grounds. What humans had named a hurricane. These seasonal events always yielded more of the human effluence of more and better.
The dark figure bowed modestly. “He left strict instructions with me to keep you from making your mother mad, and usually that entails keeping you from getting injured. I might be your father’s gladiator, but between both their ire, I might not survive.”
“A Bet-tah versus a Dynllyr. I’ve seen you take apart participants. Teach me something useful!” The youth bemoaned as he slipped through the crowded passageways.
“When your father decides you’re ready for your own trident, he may grant permission for you to see the training houses.” Seran mused in the shadows.
Taigre sighed in disgust, a stream of bubbles brushing the dark ceilings. “I’ll be well into my second century before he thinks I’ll be safe around more than a flint knife.”
“I am well into my second century and don’t feel safe with a flint knife.” Seran shrugged.
“You don’t need weapons. I’ve watched you work,” Taigre stalled in a room filled with gold and silver ingots, all covered in algae and barnacles.
“That’s what it is, Taigre. Work. It’s not something for a territory overseer’s son to handle.” Seran pressed at the bridge of his nose where a headache was taking root.
“How can it be work when it is entertainment?” Taigre left the cave to another passage.
“For you on the outside it might be entertainment.” Seran let the rest of his protest drop from his lips. It would do no good trying to explain to the starry eyed bull calf that a gladiator was no more than an executioner.
“I am amazed, with father’s amassment of currency, that he does not walk amongst mankind yet in order to fulfill all of his watery desires. I am sorry, Seran. Well, no. I’m not, honestly enough. I’m frustrated with him. He’s gone off once more to add to this ungainly hoard and I’ve had enough of it. It is time that I move from his burrow, I should think.” Taigre wiped away algae growth on one of the silvered mirrors to study his reflection, flicking his green tail this way and that.
Seran slipped through the maze of oddities to look over the mirror Taigre had cleaned. He regarded his reflection in distaste. What little reflection there was for a spotless white bodied black finned Bet-tah in the dark cave. He was not sleek and brightly spotted like his young charge.
The overseer of the nesting grounds had asked him to keep the bull-calf out of trouble. At every turn, Seran found Taigre to be more and more a handful. He sagged along a wall, his ruffled fins billowing in the soft current. Regarding his charge, he fought between what was worse, being his keeper’s death sentence or his keeper’s babysitter. Neither in the end had an advantage.
“That is between Keris and yourself. Though, you are of an age that would make sense that you should seek your own cave or crevice within the nesting ground. There are many available as you learn what it is to leave your calf years,” Seran suggested. At least discussion of growing up was safer than having the bull calf turning moon struck on him again about the arena. Taigre flicked his tail in irritation and shifted from the mirrors to leave the nest. He pulled himself out onto the reef where he could watch his many other neighbors busily farming algae and protecting their own crevices.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying. I pushed. I fought. I wrote letters. I showed up. I begged. I did what I could. Yet, my desire for a fine arts degree fell apart. I worked for the pharmacist during the days when I wasn’t working over dad’s farm to save up for the impossible. The economy collapsed. Men were flinging themselves from windows on Wall Street. Dad lost his farm. We lost everything. My two younger siblings were placed with my aunt and uncle who ran a mercantile, something that couldn’t go under in the little town. It was the only place that we could trust they would be fed.
At the end of the mountains was the ocean, or so I was told. At the end of the mountains, we found desert. A short jog east and we came to the oceans, the Gulf Coast. There, dad told my brother and me that he was out of options. He pointed us to a series of shrimpers and told us to find our own way. He walked away with mom and disappeared from our lives.
Talk about hard. The old man expected two farm boys to automatically find their sea legs. Let alone thought we would gain employment immediately on a boat. Who was buying shrimp at this point? No one, that’s who.
I ended up on a troller while Jarl took up keeping books for a number of the captains that docked at our port of call. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. So much wrong. I am an artist, not a boat person. Tell me the difference between a dinghy and a rudder one more time and I will stab something with a pencil. Jarl was more coordinated than I could ever hope to be. He was also smarter and figured out a way from having to set foot on one of those bobbing hurl monsters.
The ship I was working on had been out long enough to figure we had missed the shole. Turned back and half a day from port, and after the fourth time breakfast left my stomach for over the side of the deck, I was up for hooking the ropes and twisting them on massive spools while my shipmates removed the fish. The hold was only a fourth full of salt pack. We were running behind season, having caught the edge of a late storm. It dragged in cold currants, running our cash crop away. We were supposedly chasing them. I didn’t get it. All I knew was if I got the ropes up in a neat twist, I could expect dinner of some of the left over catch that wouldn’t get put in the hold. There are some fish that are tasty but ugly as mud, and thus, not profitable. I had hoped to get paid for my work this month. Maybe I’d get lucky and have something to take home for dinner at least. With the hold so low, I wasn’t going to hold my breath hoping to see coin in my palm.
The day trudged. We had a few runs of good catch, putting our hold a little under half full before Captain called it quits and aimed us back for the docks. A dark storm was rolling back, causing the waves to go choppy beneath us. He had no desire to go into the deep, or lose his one source of income. I understood that desire more clearly than some of the other deck hands who had worked with him all through the Crash.
Docked and tied off, I helped the crew unload our catch and transfer it to the warehouse. There, a line of factory girls would process them to either be salted and tinned or smoked. Some of the local restaurants would get shipments to sell to big wigs who had bought while all was burning to rubble around them.
I had a fish and a storm was coming in. That was all I really cared about though. I rolled with the steady land, waiting for the road to stop swaying. I had put together a camp shack along the cliff face that bordered the west side of the docks. Easy enough to get to work. Wasn’t odd for quite a lot of us to have shanty village set ups in the town. I had perched mine on land owned by one of my shipmates, with his permission, so I could have a bit of privacy. I took on odd jobs around his property to barter my way out of having to pay rent. Made for pretty views in the morning. The tide meeting dawn and the ships bobbing around the wood planking. Would be great if I could enjoy it one of these days. I tended to be loading myself onto the ship about the time the world turned beautiful and missed it. I couldn’t complain much though. At least I found a job that sent me home with food if I couldn’t get paid.
The problem with my shelter was that it leaked heavily in the rain. With looming clouds hanging low in a dark grey sky, I expected to not feel dry for the next several days. I’d need to make a quick meal of the creature captain had given me if I wanted to have any meal at all.
The wind picked up the cold late autumn air and bustled it about the sands and sedges. Grit would add seasoning to the glass eyed fish. That’s what I’d keep telling myself. Didn’t make it any more bearable. At least Jarl had found himself a room to rent in town. I sent him my monthly pay so that he would keep it stashed in a lockbox for me. My shack was nothing to write home about, wherever home was now. It wasn’t safe from looters. I kept the minimum in it that would get me by from leave to work. Some days my clothes would get up and walk off by themself, as the saying goes. I’d see my shirt on someone else’s back. I guess that’s one of the benefits of the storm and the damp. People didn’t ransack my stuff as often when everything had the disgusting texture of slime and the smell of mildew. Not like there wasn’t about two-thirds of the workers around the docks who didn’t smell like that all the time anyway.
I settled into my little shack. Lighting the paraffin stove, I got a slab of tin heating to cook. A pat of margarine would put a nice char on dinner. The roof rattled overhead as the winds picked up rock on the cliffside and pelleted my walls. The temperature plummeted and the humidity drifted in waves. This was no normal storm.
“Oye! Ian! Get your ass off the cliff face, mountain boy! This here’s a hurricane!” Stephan shouted over the howling wind as rain drops threatened to obliterate my shack.
“Stephan?” I called, ducking my head under the tarp that was my door.
“Get yourself to high ground somewhere safe! This is gonna be bad! I’m heading down to the guys bunked down in the grove and make sure they find solid shelter!” He told me, his rain slicker wrapping around him such that it made it difficult to tell his true form.
“What’s a hurricane? Stephan!” I called back as the wind picked up and sheared the roof off my shack, pelting me with rock and rain. Terror. That’s what a hurricane was. I scuttled out of the door frame and slipped as the rock crumbled around me. A roar, different from that of the winds rattled my bones. I couldn’t see anything in the whipping white and grey. The dirt beneath my fingers was turning liquid. “Stephan!” He had disappeared. The world fell away under me.
Coming to, I found myself half buried in mud and debris. My arm was sore and the driving rain was threatening to drown me. Looking up through the wind and rain, my cliff side was gone. Gone all the way back. It had to reach clear to the other side and the grove Stephan let out to a pack of other transients. Stephan’s house would be gone.
I had fallen between what was the mudslide and a massive column of rock that had failed to collapse, protecting me from the storm edge. I dug myself out, my slicker caked in mud and punctured full of holes from rocks. A whaling scream caught my attention. Turning, I lost track of the sound. I thought it to be part of the winds, until it echoed out again once more. Battling the breath-stealing wind, I pushed toward the utterance. In the protected alcove of the rock and the mudslide I found a thrashed wallow. Much of Stephan’s house had come down in it. A massive rounded caudal fin at least the length of a holstein caught my attention. Colored like that of a bull dolphin, it was nothing like I had seen pulled up in the troller nets. I scrambled around the creature to see the size of this fish on the other side of the collapsed house walls. A pipe punctured out of it at the thin section past the tail. Hands. Webbed fingers and small sharp nails. I waited, trying to understand what I was seeing. The creature flailed, massive eyes meeting mine in the driving rain. Another crack of rock above us. I dived, protecting the part human part fish as rocks chipped from the cliff face and a new waterfall burst. The creature buffeted against me as I pulled my slicker over it and hauled most of its upper body onto my back and drug it from the devastation. To my relief, it held on, nails clutching into my shirt as I tried to find a grip behind me for the thing’s tail. I don’t know how heavy it was, but it had to be more than me. I was doing good to drag most of it away, the bulk of its tail following along after us. The scratch of the pipe against rock had me cringing.
“Jarl, I need a room!” I demanded as the door pulled open beneath my fist.
“Ian, what is with banging on my door in the middle of-” my brother’s eyes settled on what was draped on my back.
“No time, let me in!” I pushed past him and into the little bathroom attached to his one room apartment. Quickly pulling my slicker off the creature, I dropped it into the claw foot tub, it’s tail taking up most of the tile floor. Brilliant patterns speckled in iridescent rainbows across the breadth of the body.
“Did anyone see you?” Jarl squeaked, looking over me as I settled the mercreature in.
“If they did, most they’ll think is I caught a damn big catch and wanted to share it with my brother. Stop yelling!” I hissed.
“This is a fish story to beat all.” His eyes were going as glassy as my last dinner.
“Yeah, and there won’t be much left if I don’t get it to stop bleeding. Help me!” I tore off my shirt and yanked Jarl down in the crowded room to have him hold hard to the base of the creature’s tale to staunch the flow of blood while I contemplated the massive rusted pipe embedded there. “Got a kit?” I glanced around at the basin stand and peaked out the door.
“Most I’ve got is a sewing kit for buttons.” Jarl shook his head.
“Damn it. Should I get a doctor? I don’t think I can make this stop!” I pulled the tourniquet from my shirt tight on the tail. The creature grunted at my effort, the tail flipping limply. A crack had me looking up. The enamel beneath it’s grip had cracked on the cast iron tub.
“If it doesn’t die, it’d fetch an awful handsome coin for a sideshow,” Jarl nodded.
“Hell no, I’m not letting some yahoo put this guy in a traveling tub.” I dislodged myself from the nest of slick scales and rooted out the sewing kit and a couple sticks from near the wood stove.
“I don’t think splinting it’ll fix this, Ian,” Jarl hedged at the reprimand.
“Not splinting.” I shoved the stick between the creature’s teeth. It spat it out. I put the other sticks in its hands as it went to strangle me and shoved the first stick back in it’s snarling trap. “Don’t fucking break the tub before I get water in it, shark bait!” I pointed to the crack in the enamel. “‘Bout to drown you in several gallons of gin you keep this up ‘n I’m not partial to pickled herring.”
It threw the sticks, one impaled in the wall next to the basin stand mirror. “Why did you bring this thing here?” Jarl demanded as he helped me hold the squirming mess down.
“Because you’re the only person I knew who had a tub and I could count on to not dissect the beast in two second flat. You want to wrestle it while I pull the pipe or do you want me to keep the creature of the deep down. One or the other!” I hissed as I grabbed for wrists that could have rivaled a black smith’s.
“You won more prizes riding bucks at the fairs every summer. Keep it from going for my throat and I’ll see about mending!” Jarl shoved me in the tub with the writhing disaster while he dove to straddle the thing’s tail.
“ ‘ll do my best. This ain’t no eight second ride.” I got the beast’s arms crossed, pinning the wrists to what I would qualify as a chest. Massive grey eyes stared up, incredulous. It thrashed out, escaping the hold.
“You gotta do better than that, Ian. It’ll bleed to death on the floor if it keeps that wiggle up!” Jarl warned from behind my back. Thunder crackled, shaking the floorboards and windows.
“Damn it!” I tackled the thing, getting it’s webbed hands back down to its chest, putting it in a bear hug if only to hold it still. Lightning had me gasping as my right hand shot through with hellfire, followed by numbness.
“Ian! Ian! What happened!” Jarl yelled as I heard the metal pipe hit the tile with a clank.
“Got its fangs sunk into my shoulder. Get it done. It’s entertained for the moment,” I hissed as tears crowded and I buried my forehead into the thing’s clavicle, breathing through the pain as best I could.
“You’ve gotta be joking. This thing ain’t worth you getting some infection. You’ll get just as dead as it’ll be!” Jarl turned, his hand grasping at the waistband of my trousers.
“Get it done, Jarl! I’ve got this!” I gasped, clamping down hard around the beast. It moaned low in my ear, whimpering when I heard a pair of scissors snipping. One hand snaked across it’s chest to grasp onto my left shoulder, the grip sending stars into the back of my eyes. “Let up, let up, shark bait,” I breathed the command. I could take the teeth or the hands, but not both. I loosened my grip and shoved the initial stick I had back into its hand to get it to let go. It hunted out the other stick when it got its fangs out of my shoulder.
“You’re bleeding!” Jarl’s voice cracked.
“Of course I am. I’d be more worried if I was dripping glitter!” I clamped down on my shoulder to stauch the flow of blue-black blood. The creature beneath me whimpered more as it tried to push it’s back against the tub, working to raise itself up. “Don’t freaking eat me and I’ll help you.’ I settled a hand at the arch in it’s back and behind it’s arm to lift it. It wanted to see what Jarl was doing to it’s tail. Now able to see what was going on, it willingly shoved the stick between it’s teeth and grabbed onto my arm. Jarl nodded at it as he poured out the pitcher of water over the fist sized hole in its tail. The stick snapped. Thank the morning tide it hadn’t been my arm that snapped.
I pushed another bit of kindling into its mouth and dislodged myself from the tub to kneel next to Jarl to quickly start patching what we could by the lamplight in the deluge of the backside of the hurricane.
“What the hell am I looking at here, Ian? It’s all freaking dark red. That’s not natural!” Jarl demanded as he got deeper into the wound.
“The thing in the tub ain’t natural!” I hissed back. Jarl wasn’t wrong though. It had the same flesh patterning as some of the marine mammals we had caught in our nets before. “It has to be part dolphin or something. It can breathe air just fine or else it would have already died by this point.”
“With this color show under it’s skin?” Jarl demanded, pointing to the starbursts of circles radiating across it’s skin.
“Fish fairy?” I suggested, heating needles through lamp fire as Jarl meticulously found every tendon and ligament he could. The poor beast in the tub whimpered like a beaten dog up until my brother found a spot and all the sticks clattered to the tile floor. It had passed out. Probably for the best that it finally succumbed. It would take us another hour to finish the gruesome task.
Exhausted and in pain, I sat back against the bathroom wall, Jarl on the other side of the great beast’s tail. “Need to get everything cleaned up,” he muttered, his glance calculating damages. “Take it out of my lock box. I’m the one who’s putting you out doing this.” I pulled myself off the ground.
“The hell do you think you’re going? You’re in no shape to be moving with that bite. Creature might be venomous!” Jarl pushed to have me sit back down.
“It needs water or else the skin and scales will dry out and get infected.” My head was spinning though.
Coming to was like that morning after I was welcomed on board ship by Captain and the crew. Homegrown hooch with anchovies. Unstable, my stomach wanted to live outside of my body and my brain was wrapped around an anchor. The storm threw buckets at the windows of Jarl’s apartment. He had rolled towels and bed clothes at the seams to keep the seeping to a minimum. First time I had slept on a mattress in five months.
“Ian!” Jarl jumped from his little dining table and newspaper to lay his hand on my forehead.
“What happened? I was going to get water.” I blinked, the deep yellow of the kerosene lamp cathartic in a nostalgic way.
“Fell flat on your face is what you did. Just as bad as mudkip in there.” Jarl thumbed over his shoulder toward the bathroom where the creature’s fin was escaping the threshold.
“It wake up after that?” I pushed to have his hand off my head. I didn’t feel feverish. Maybe I did. An itch ran the length of my shoulder and down my sternum. Type you’d get dealing with saw dust in a wool sweater.
“Not yet. Got that tub filled to almost overflowing. Weird creature you found there, Ian. Where’d you come up with it?” Jarl left me to dig out a pair of coffee cups from his cupboard. Setting up a percolator to boil, he took down his beans and started grinding. Nervous ritual of his.
The rag on my shoulder fell off as I shifted to lean against the plaster wall. I grabbed for it before it could stain the sheets. A massive bite mark had left behind an off colored print on the cloth. Blue black. I swallowed and pulled myself off the bed. The floor swayed beneath my feet as I fought my way to the bathroom to look in on our unexpected guest.
“What are you doing, Ian? Shouldn’t be up yet,” Jarl chastised as he got his grounds and water put together and set the pot on the heater.
“I’ll lay back down in a minute, just checking something.” I waved him off. “Stephan Goodman’s house came down off the cliff. Know how I had that shack up on the face? Yeah, came down with me in it. Anyway, I wake up in a giant mud wallor and around a corner of rock I see this massive tail and heard this screech. Bad as when Omah’d cry about her calves when they’d be stillborn. Cliff came down a second time and figured it was time to skat.” I approached the creature, finally giving it a good once over. The fireworks had stopped, leaving it a pale grey color dusted in dark red speckles of varying sizes. Poking it with a stick was an option.
It had sunk deeper into the tub, it’s head resting on the rim. I had taken the humanoid form for grant it, a massive swath of navy blue almost green hair swirled around it in a cascade, drifting in the water and across the body. Hands wrapped around its stomach. It looked like my little brother when he’d fall asleep curled up in mom’s arms. “It has ears, weird ears, but something like ears, Jarl,” I called back.
Papers rustled from the other room. “You just now noticed? Flip them a bit, there are gills behind them.”
The thing’s ears were larger than mine or Jarl’s by a long stretch. Rather pretty to be honest. A bit of a see through grey, they were at least the size of my hand with little outbursts of spines, similar to the thin skin on fish fins. Like Jarl said, pulling the one I could get to up, there were deep red gills. The things I was calling ears didn’t have a canal though, like human ears. The gills ruffled at the disturbance and the thing’s chest cavity enlarged. At least it was still breathing.
“Why would it need a nose?” I pointed out the protrusion so reminiscent of our own.
“To smell things?” Jarl asked, papers flipped again. The pot was pinging from the other room.
“I thought that’s what the gills were for.” I traced what I could only qualify as a nose. The profile reminded me a bit of Gideon. The nostrils flared at my touch, opening and closing like some of the sharks I’d seen come up in our nets. I snatched my hand from the water, not keen on getting my hand chomped.
“You look at it’s teeth?” I called over my shoulder.
“Looks like ours, just a might bit sharper.” Jarl’s chair slid back as a clap of thunder shook the building.
“Figured out what it is?” I asked, poking at the cheek. It was boney, not cartilaginous. Not sure what I was expecting there, but the skin was soft across rather than the more scale like feeling down it’s tail.
“There’s some fairytale from a guy named Anson or Parkerson or something about some seafoam beast. Might be one of those?” He shuffled through his papers again.
“A mermaid? Seriously? Where’s the…the…you know?” I asked, bringing my hands up to my chest in emphasis, before realizing that was stupid and Jarl couldn’t see me anyways. I rubbed my hands on my trousers and stood up, slipping on the sopping wet floor. A hand caught my wrist, keeping me from impaling myself on the chunk of wood still in the plasterboard near the basin mirror. Could it have let me impale myself? I could have dealt with death better rather than face it, I think. I swallowed, following the hand back to the creature in the tub.
Double eyelids. And they blinked in two different directions. I had brought a monster into my brother’s apartment. That realization wrapped around me like a wet flannel blanket. I was not going to scream. I did, however, squeak like a trapped rat. The pupils were massive as they traveled across my shoulders and back to my face. A sound emanated from it. Haunting, something like a smoothed out note from a trumpet on the other side of this hills back home. If there was such a thing as heartstrings, it was playing mine like a well tuned banjo. That was damn well uncomfortable and it made my skin prickle.
“The what?” Jarl asked, getting up to take the percolator off.
“Um the maid part of the whole mermaid bit?” I gulped as it pulled me closer, the slash of it’s lips moving. Was Jarl not hearing the sound it was making? Not sure how it harmonized three pitches at once, but it ranged the baritone, bass, and tenor melody enough to overwhelm my senses.
“Maid part? What maid part? It’s a fish, not a housekeep.” Jarl’s tone was grating on my nerves. The ceramic grated too and the sound of coffee pouring into the mugs. I could feel that sound down my shoulders.
“Woman bits. Where’s the top?” I continued, both curious and petrified as it pulled me back toward the edge of the tub and touched the tender spot below the bite mark, it’s eyes flicking back to mine as it continued making noises. It was talking. It had to be. No, that was ridiculous. Dogs could do the concerned look too. Just because it looked humanish, didn’t mean it could have the same intelligence. Right?
It tugged gently. Don’t ask. I got in the tub. I was not keen on getting bit again, but it was either get in the tub or have the enamel coated cast iron jam into the lower section of my thigh right above my knee and no thanks, that hurts. The thing took up the whole space. That weird fixation with getting into a single tub with a woman that I heard whispered behind barn doors. That’s a sick joke. My knee cap rolled and my other leg got pinned. Not comfortable and this was the worst part of sitting on a horse walking in a flooded gorge wither high.
“Woman bits? Really, Ian? What are you, twelve? Have some class.” Jarl tugged his chair back out, wood on wood screeching. He set the mugs down with a clunk. “Fifteen and it should be drinkable. Probably should stop staring at it. Most likely won’t be happy with you if it wakes up.”
Wakes up? It was already awake and conducting an inspection of my shoulder in a close contact way I wasn’t sure how to handle.
“Ian?” Jarl popped in, scaring the hell out of me and making the creature in the tub hiss. “Oh, it can make noise, neat. Are you having coffee or am I drinking your share?”
“I’m sort of stuck in your bathtub with a mermaid, Jarl. And it has hold of my shoulder. It could put the smith’s fist to shame, which is scaring the hell out of me. What do you think?” I demanded.
“I’m drinking your coffee then. Get out sometime tonight. Don’t need to repeat bath night like back home, kid. We could never get you out of the thing.” Jarl turned back to his room.
“What do you mean ‘all night’? I didn’t stay in it all night. I got out when the fire ran low,” I justified.
“You realize that the rest of us had a separate bath night because you wouldn’t get out of the tub, right Ian?” Jarl dumped coffee from one container into another. Probably my coffee into his mug.
“It was nice. I’m not sure about sharing it with a slitherman thing. This isn’t like those fairytales, Jarl. I thought they were supposed to be, you know, like pretty ethereal women or something?”
“Pretty women, Ian? Really? You’re horrible at this act.” Jarl blew on his coffee. The creature holding onto me was still carrying on it’s melody and tracing patterns around the bite mark and the bruise on my other shoulder. This was not a conversation I needed to be having with my brother. Wait.
“What do you mean by act?” I demanded. Probably a bit too loudly.
“You. Guys. You and that kid back during high school. It was as obvious as when we’d bring a bull in for Omah.” Jarl’s cup made that grating sound on the wood again.
“Nope. Not having this conversation right -” the creatures prodding digits found my rising memories of Gideon. “What the? No, don’t touch that!” I demanded, pushed it’s fingers away from me, and tried to get out of the tub.
“Touch what?” Jarl returned to the doorframe of the bathroom as I slid out of the tub and ended up upside down with my butt in the air.
“Nothing. Not the conversation, and not whatever curiosity that seamonkey has going for it. I’d rather go sleep in the storm!” I dragged myself out of the nest of it’s coiled tail and tripped out of the bathroom.
“Deny it all you want, Ian. It’s as plain as the nose on your face.” He handed me the half filled cup of coffee in his hands. “Cooled it down for you, twinkle toes.”
I snatched the cup and downed the slog of brown burnt bean water. “I’d like my dignity back, thanks.”
“You were the one just sitting in a tub with a merman.” He raised an amused eyebrow.
“Mer -” my glance swiveled from the rain running down the windows in rivers back to the tiled bathroom where the distance was enough for my conscious to not be swamped by the sheer size of the creature, but instead to see its anatomical lines and the bulge against a segmentation of the tail not fitting within the tub. That, and the fact the thing had started flashing a myriad of reds and oranges as it tried to fold itself over to reach that section and cover it. “Man?” I quipped indignantly.
“Not like having it all hang out would make for good evolution. Would not be ideal to have it chomped by a curious fish looking for a worm.”
I lunged into the apartment and found a hand towel in the kitchen and tossed it through the door at the creature. It – he stared at the material for a moment, the whirling colors flashing in blues and greens before it shook the material out and settled it on the area all three of us were now immodestly fixated on. “Fish. It is a fish, Jarl.”
“Now. About you and Gabriel.” Jarl returned to the topic I did not want to play party too.
“Let’s not talk Gideon,” I requested.
“Wanna talk why the thing in the tub has the same problem you have?” he cornered me.
“Mom said it was a disfigurement from birth and there’s nothing wrong with me!” I hissed.
“Yeah, and Anna and Victor and I never bled blue.” Jarl handed me back the rag I had dropped when I had gone into the bathroom.
“Mom said that was because people are just different.” Heat rose in my face. I hated being different. “She said it was a gentile thing and why I should avoid dating within the village. Better to avoid the matchmaker.”
“However deep in the Nile do you swim, boy? You’re in your twenties, think! That’s not a Gentile or a Jew thing. That’s a you’re part whatever that thing is thing” Jarl laughed, startling the creature into a series of clicked notes.
“Clearly not deep enough.” I did not like being stuffed into a bell jar. “I am not a mer-mer-merman. Not that thing! I don’t have webbed hands or feet, see.” I wiggled my fingers in my brother’s face.
“You never needed lessons at the watering hole. Anna and Victor had to be reminded almost every summer for years how to not drown themselves.”
“Anyone can get better at swimming if they just remember to float!”
“It’s not natural to everyone, Ian.”
“You’re not going to turn me into a sideshow attraction, are you?” I growled.
“You’re far less interesting than mudkip here,” he deflected.
I regarded his ponderment of the merperson in his bathroom. The creature was still making the murmured song notes, flicking attention between my brother and me. “Do you not hear him doing that?” I asked.
Jarl frowned, staring off into the middle of nowhere before rolling his shoulder. “No? You hit your head?”
“I swear, the thing is singing.”
“He’s not a thing. He’s a merman, Ian.”
“It’s a singing fish, and I am in no way related to that thing just because my junk doesn’t look like yours or Victors.”
“Trust me. It doesn’t look like anyone else’s either, kid,” Jarl sipped at his coffee.
“Like you’ve seen more than me to know.” I pulled over one of the kitchen table chairs to the doorframe and scootched the merman’s tail out of the way. Checking the bandaging, I adjusted the tightness around the swelling, relieving pressure. Jarl slid a glance my way before sliding it back to the merman watching us. “No. You’re not! You’ve had a woman up here before. I’ve seen her!”
“And you keep claiming you also like women.” Jarl returned.
“I’m not sure how I feel knowing you aren’t a virgin,” I lamented.
“I’m not sure how I feel knowing that you are.” He went and grabbed his own chair and pulled it up to the table.
“I never said I was,” I bluffed.
“Please, by all means, explain, with that structure of yours, how that works?” Jarl leaned back, crossing his ankles and tucked his arms behind his head to regard me in a superior way.
Heat blossomed up my face and across my ears as I struggled to not stutter. It was different from my brothers. Dad never talked about it. Not like we covered how any of this was supposed to work in school and my folks were fairly mum on the topic. All I know is Jarl and Victor’s hung outside of their bodies, penis and testies both. Mine was more like the other livestock on the farm. Withdrawn within my body, running up the lower abdominal muscles. Prodding, I could pinpoint long ovals running on either side of my personal shame. Outhouses and chamberpots were a source of eternal frustration that I had, over many years, figured out how to navigate.
Painful tears rimmed my eyes as I fought past the muteness wrangling my communication. I ducked at the luck, wrapping my hands over my stomach protectively. Turning back to our bathroom guest, I watched the myriad colors swirling across it’s skin as it continued musical notes. It held out one of the kindling sticks to me and made a sound. Several times he pointed at it and repeated the sound.
“Stick. It’s a stick.” I enunciated flatly.
“Sk,” he mimicked back.
“Stick,” I tried again numbly.
“Sk. Sk. Ssskkk.” He was growing frustrated at his inability to enunciate the ti sound. He ducked below the surface of the tub, sending water splashing out and tried again. “Steek.” It attempted again, searching my face and then Jarl’s. I shrugged and nodded.
“I’m sorry, Ian. That – that wasn’t nice of me,” Jarl apologized.
“You had to bring it up. Do you know how hard it’s been growing up with this not being right? You got to be normal apparently. You just had the one weird disfigured brother and the normal brother. I had two brothers that didn’t look like me and I didn’t know what to do with this thing. I can’t fix it. What more do you want from me?” My voice cracked. The merman in the tub elicited a series of curious notes. “You’re not helping, shark bait.”
Jarl pushed back his chair from the merman’s caudal fin and went to pace his apartment. Silence, awkward and damp, crept into the space, the only sound that of the merman’s gills flipping back and forth at the water tension and the constant melody that Jarl couldn’t hear. Time stretched on as the storm slammed the boarding house.
“Do other guys really not have this problem? Was what Mom said, about it being a Gentile thing, a lie?” I looked up in time for him to slip a mandolin and buffalo horn pick into my hands. The smooth texture of the lacquer pulled my heated anxiety from my fingers. I caressed the neck, running the frets below the double strings while I waited for him to answer me.
“Mom lied, Ian. She didn’t want you feeling hurt, because at the end of the day, you were still brilliant, talented, and going to go farther than the rest of us ever would. Between pissing in a bucket and being able to draw like Michelangelo and play like Bach, she thought to encourage you in what actually mattered. Your brain. What you’ve got, it’s not a Chinese thing, or an African thing, or a Jewish thing, or an Austro-Hungarian thing. Been around a bit since we got here.” He sipped at his coffee as he finally turned a shade of red. “I guess mom and dad aren’t from Austro-Hungary anymore huh? It changed recently to some new providence thing. I wish dad had taught us the language.” Jarl sighed in frustration.
“We were all born here. He wanted us to be American. To live the American dream. Whatever that is now.” I plucked a pair of strings and tightened the lugs to tune. The merman perked up, his colores going vibrant rainbows up and down his sides. “So, he never spoke it around us. He didn’t want us to be discriminated against after The Great War.”
“Could he have given me a common name?” Jarl bemoaned.
“I guess we all got saddled with something we didn’t want?” I goaded.
“The number of jobs I’ve been refused without even getting a chance to say more past my name,” he groaned, exasperated.
“I’m not dad’s son then, am I?” The realization was a cruel brick to the skull and I plucked a clear C. Jarl went silent at the question, his eyes going round. He stared fixedly at one of the tiles below the merman’s tail before looking up at it’s shifting. The creature’s fingers clung to the side of the tub, his wide grey eyes watching over knuckles while the rest of him was tucked below the water surface. “He seems keen on the music at least,” I pointed out the obvious.
“Try another note,” Jarl encouraged. I plucked a couple of notes up the scale and down and the colors on his skin changed with the vibration. It returned a couple of the notes, what I could only think of as a question.
“I know you’re mom’s son. I was there when you were born. Grant it, I was 5 and my memory of you fresh is pretty fuzzy. But you’ve been with the family since you were born. Dad always loved you, the way dad knew how to show. If you weren’t his son, and he knew, I don’t think he ever cared,” my brother offered.
I shifted at that knowledge. It was neither reassuring nor devastating. “Do you think they brought us here because mom knew? They knew I wouldn’t be able to find my own way and left you to babysit me?”
“Mom did say she always enjoyed visiting this beach. They never went back after you were born, but before that, I remember going to Nana’s once when they took time for themselves to travel by train out to here.” He poured himself another cup of coffee and returned to lean against the doorframe while I mimicked the melody the merman was giving me. “What are you playing? It’s pretty, but it’s not consistent.”
“He’s making the noises. I’m just playing what I’m hearing,” I continued to pluck away at the strings, watching the creature’s colors continue to radiate across him.
“I’m still not hearing what you’re hearing. Wonder if you’ve got an organ in your head that can pick it up.”
The merman picked up the stick. “Skk.” It pronounced outside of the water and then hummed a series of low notes. I thought for a minute before turning to Jarl.
He raised an eyebrow at the question on my face. “What’d it say?” he asked.
“My guitar still here?” I asked.
“It’s under the bed. Probably way out of tune. You play your mandolin more often when you come over.” He went and rooted out the battered instrument and returned. I took it and switched him the mandolin. He set it on a side table outside the door to keep it from getting wet while I tuned the strings. The merman stared at my fingers. The rotating rose pink and lime green I was beginning to pinpoint as his curious mood. Once my guitar was back to tune I pointed at the stick in the merman’s hand and asked, “stick?” and waved my hand for the tune again.
“Skk,” followed by a set of low G and e flats. I corresponded and the creature’s eyes went wider, the greens in it’s skin going large before it snuffed at the water, blowing bubbles and made the set of notes again.
“I think he just laughed at you,” Jarl pointed out.
“It doesn’t help that he’s harmonizing with himself and I can’t span that full tone with one hand.” I quipped, trying to add a slide on a chord instead of individual plucked notes this time.
Seran was going to be pissed. That’s if Taigre ever saw him again. Or his father. Or the nesting ground. Mostly though, he was concerned with the part that his father’s top gladiator was going to be pissed.
The young dynllyr came to screaming. The sky was too close and the sand beneath him stung. The pressure of the land and air was wrong. Blinking against the rain, he thrashed in an effort to escape the beach back to the ocean. He couldn’t remember how he had ended up stranded. He had thought to check the rollers, the big waves getting stirred up by the raging storm above. It had been an easy excuse to escape the nesting grounds and Seran’s concern. Often the disturbance would send down creatures of both sides of the Antumnos who would need help getting out of the storm. That’s what he had been told.
His tail burned with spikes and numb patches. He had no control over it and twisting to free himself of the mud only made it worse. A garbled yelp pulled the dynllyr from his terror. A large upright creature, a human stood over him. A roar behind it sent shards of clear terror through the child of Llyr’s heart. The human dashed for the mercreature as the land behind it crumbled, threatening to bury them both.
The creature drifted between the waking and the darkness. Taigre tensed nervously. The human had picked him up. Rescued one of the Gweryn Llŷr. It had been too many years since Taigre had heard word from the older dynion of a human caring for one of Antumnos, or even seeing them. Some of the menywod would mention being seen once in a while, but Taigre thought it wishful thinking.
The human dragged the creature out of that mud pit and through the beach. Up into the town and deep into tall buildings they went, battered by the wind and the rain. Why did it not put him back in the water, the creature wondered. The human had wrapped him in one of it’s coverings. The slick material kept the rain off of Taigre, giving him a space to draw in hasty breaths as the wind fought to dash the air away.
It banged on a massive plank of wood and another human greeted his captor. Into a cavernous space, what looked like the shaped caves in the human ships, his captor dragged Taigre. The two humans exchanged words. He found himself deposited into a massive white trough. His captor pulled another of it’s cloth coverings off and had the new human tackle Taigre’s tail where shooting pain was radiating.
The dynllyr swim in water. He bemoaned his physical inability to supporting himself on dry land. He couldn’t see what they were doing, but it made the spiking hot pain in Taigre’s tail worse. The trough the human had tossed him in made a sharp sound when he grabbed onto it to try and see what was going on and make them stop. This startled the humans.
He tried to signal to them with his colors that what they were doing hurt, but they did not return any comprehensive signal that they understood. Greeting them in the ancient way yielded no results either. Had they quit being able to hear the call? Was this why humans no longer sought out the children of the Antumnos?
The human who had brought the dynllyr left the small cave for the larger cave before returning to shove a piece of wood into his hand. Taigre didn’t need a piece of wood. He needed them to quit making his tail hurt. If he could get back to the nesting ground, he could have Seran heal him. Taigre hissed at the pain. The other human was tugging at something in his tail and he cried out at the foul treatment, throwing the stick. His captor shoved a different stick in the dynllyr’s mouth and set another stick in his hand. They were torturing him! Taigre thrashed, trying to get a hold of the human assaulting him.
The human fell back to holding down his tail before scurrying out of the room and bringing back a small box and a fire glass to the other human. To add insult to injury, the second human pushed Taigre’s captor into the trough with him.
“No, stop!” Taigre yelled, pushing at the human crowding him. It was a yellowish pink shade now that it occupied all of the dynllyr’s visual space. Large algae colored eyes stared back at him, concern and fear tangible in them. Short haired, the color was similar to that of sunsets. That was the momentary impression Taigre had while it fought to pin his hands to his chest. The other human was messing with his tail and it was sending shell shards through his backbone and behind his eyes. Taigre got free of his captor for a moment before it returned with more ferocity, pinning him to the cold trough. “Let go!” the dynllyr demanded, biting into it as a warning.
Squid. The human tasted like squid. “Still.” The word echoed in the human’s chest, not from it’s lips. Why had it not used Antumnos words before? Taigre wiggled one arm free and got hold of the opposing shoulder, squeezing down on it while the other human left the dynllyr feeling like he had swam over an open tube vent. A clang of metal startled Taigre. “Pain.” The human holding onto the creature said, tapping on his back. Taigre snorted at the comment. His tail hurt worse than the time he had escaped from Seran’s watchful eye and left the nesting ground, and ended up getting rammed by a great white who broke a set of his ribs. “Help.” Images of blood and sutures filled the dynllyr’s head momentarily, the tang of squid pungent on his tongue. He let go of the human.
The prickly pain in his tail reduced significantly. He took up the piece of wood the human had shoved in his mouth, now that he understood the humans were trying to fix the pain in his tail. Taigre shifted, needing to know what the humans were seeing. His captor shifted him such that he could see what was going on. He had a hole in his tail. Sweeping his glance across the floor, there was a metal pipe coated in his blood. That’s what had been hurting. His captor kept hold of him while the other took a large pitcher of water and waited for a signal. Bearing down on the wood, Taigre took his captor’s arm and the other stick and watched in anticipated horror as it flushed out his wound. His captor, satisfied with him for some reason, left and took up needles to pass through the fire glass while the other human quickly started sewing. Sharp, stinging pain jittered across all of his nerve endings.
Squid. Kraken child. The smell brought the dynllyr into a partial water world. Blinking, Taigre woke to the trough, now filled with unsalted water. It stung his gills. The Kraken child was looking at him with fascination.
“Where am I? What are you doing here with a human? Thank you for fixing my tail, though you could have told me what was happening. I am sorry for taking a bite out of you.” Taigre apologized.
The Kraken child baulked, turning to the human to continue conversing with it and slipped. The dynllyr reached for it, catching it before it could go into the wall. “Watch out!”
“Scared.” Taigre recoiled at the reply from the Kraken child. It could communicate, but it was giving him emotion words. Kraken child had to be one of the lost babes of the Antumnos Seran had been lecturing about. He had never seen one that was so convincingly human in physical proportions. Rare as Kraken children were, this one was strange in its differences.
“I’m not going to hurt you. Let’s see what I did to your shoulder. I am sorry about that. You do bruise easily. Seran taught me a charm that will help. If I could get out of this trough I can put one on my tail,” Taigre told the Kraken child, pulling it close to see the wound. Deep blue and black scabs and flecked blood accumulated on the one shoulder. A sickly green in the shape of the dynllyr’s hand was almost as large on the other.
“Come on, get closer. I won’t eat you, Kraken child. You taste nasty. Fool me once.” A bit of coaxing encouraged the creature into the trough. Investigating the mark, Taigre was able to twist a set of charms onto it’s skin, reducing the swelling. Subtle in the land light, the half-Kraken had a marbled pattern of whites and oranges beneath it’s skin. Underwater, he could picture what the camouflage probably looked like.
“Monster. Human like.” The lost creature’s fingers were light on his skin, distracting for a moment from his current predicament.
“Monster? I am dynllyr, Kraken child. I’ll take the compliment, though. You have not met those of the Antumnos before, have you? You’re a little too human for me. I won’t complain for the moment, seeing as you’ve got me stuck in a trough and my tail hurts. I’d rather you take me home before Seran worries. Maybe I should try to get you to teach me a couple of words in the human language. That will keep him off my back when I do get home.”
The human who had done the bulk of the mending on Taigre’s tail popped into the small cave he occupied. “Danger!” the Kraken child’s hands grasped down on his ribs momentarily, startling him. “Leave the Kraken child alone!” Taigre hissed at the offending human before slinking back to duck below the surface of the water. The human and the Kraken child conversed however. Taigre was getting mixed signals from the Kraken child. It was uncomfortable at what was being discussed. A different smell caught his attention within the jumble of emotions and a hardened pressure pushed against his chest. Prodding at the short waist of the Kraken child he reassessed it as male. Yelling something in human, the Kraken child scurried away from him, tumbled out of the trough, and landed haphazardly in his coiled tail length.
“Watch it! That hurt!” Taigre flashed all of his colors at the Kraken child to warn him from repeating the experience. The half-human took a container from the human and drank it as he left the room, not before turning to look at Taigre in confusion. “Male?”
Well, that was a question Taigre wasn’t prepared to be asked by a son of a sea king. The Kraken child threw a cloth at the dynllyr. “Cover.” His rhythm demanded. Taigre caught tones within the sensation. Those of mutual embarrassment.
The two moved around their furnishings while a conversation between them took place, leaving the marbled patterns under the Kraken child’s skin radiating subtle hues. “Help. Escape. Leave. Bad talk.” All the signs flashed while he continued talking to the human. A distraction! If a sea king’s child was asking a dynllyr for help, Taigre was obligated to help as the son of one of the great territory holders. He sought out one of the sticks still in the bottom of the tub.
Holding it up, “what is this called?” He gave the Kraken child the Gweryn Llŷr word for it.
The feel of a question came back to the dynllyr. Dark, and flat. Had he been wrong in the type of help he needed? Taigre attempted the human word he provided. The middle bit was tricky. He couldn’t enunciate that throat sound in the middle unless he was under water. How could a Kraken child do so on land?
“Was that not the type of distraction you needed? I am sorry. I can’t save you from here. I am useless. Run. Get away!” Taigre demanded of the Kraken child while he continued to converse with the human that was making him uncomfortable.
“What do you mean by cold?” Taigre asked, while the human left the edge of the cave and returned with a strange contraption and handed it to the Kraken child.
“It is good? You were scared and uncomfortable. How can a present from a human-” Taigre pressed.
The note silenced the dynllyr. He ducked back at the pure tune. It seeped into his skin, lodging into his bones. The humans had not forgotten. They still knew the ancient language.
“Love is sweet and calm and warm and-” The Kraken child cut off when the human pointed the dynllyr out. Taigre was staring. That is true. It would be stupid of him not to focus on the weird furnishing in the Kraken child’s hand.
“You speak our language with that? No one ever taught you how to talk like those of the Antumnos?” Taigre asked.
“Speak, with that? Taught you, those, Antumnos?” the Kraken child repeated back, watching with fascination.
“You don’t speak it, do you? You’re mimicking. Are you trying to learn? Here, here, stick. Tell me stick.” Taigre tried to pronounce it the way the human word was said.
His brows furrowed at the demand before turning back to the human. The person left and returned with a larger contraption and traded it for the smaller.
“Waters deep, clear sky, precious, the eddies,” he played, turning nobs at the end of the instrument and repitching the accents. He pointed to the stick again. He was trying to learn!
Taigre gave him the word. If he could make so many words already, this would have to be simple.
The dynllyr laughed. Taigre laughed at a Kraken child. “Keris, Father, please don’t murder me when you find this out. That was not what I had expected.”
The Kraken child muttered at the human before trying a different finger position. “Drift wood.” That wasn’t as bad. A bit more repetition and Taigre figured he might get the Kraken child to pronounce stick correctly.
Late into the night, or maybe early into the morning, I put away my guitar and set my mandolin back in it’s cradle. The winds continued to slam the boarding house, but I could not keep my eyes open any longer. My shoulders were feeling better, for one having been bit a few hours ago by a merman. He had slowly drifted off after a time of me playing through a multitude of songs stored in my head. Not since we had moved to Galveston had I actually sung anything. Fiddled a bit with chords, but this was the first time I had really felt the weight of my heart. It had been interesting to watch his colors shift in response to the tunes. Some seemed to distress him, others turned him brilliant shades of crimson or sometimes thoroughly green.
Jarl gave me a pair of spare blankets and I made myself a bed near the fireplace. What was I to do in the morning? Would the ship be there? What about Captain? Stephan? Had he made it out of the mudslide? Questions busied themselves around my head as I tried to settle down. What about the merman? How would I get him back out of town without someone noticing? Could I convince him to play dead, make it look like I was just cleaning up the refuse left over from the storm?
What about my injury, now that I knew I was not quite human. I had to make sure I would be careful not to get myself cut on the boat now. It would do me no favor to have my crewmates decide to make me a profit in these difficult times. I had gotten myself down on the floor, one of the blankets rolled to make a passable pillow when my brother tamped the lamplight. The room danced with a thousand blue lights.
“What on the Lord’s green earth is that?” Jarl demanded, shooting upright in bed to study the high ceilings and the rest of the room before turning to me. “Devil’s talk. You’re glowing like a flock of fireflies, Ian!”
I blinked, trying to bring the sparkles into focus. Pushing the blanket from me, my chest patterned in a myriad of tiny little glowing spots in circles and spirals. I swatted at them. No good. I was a dead man. The next sideshow freak. The next register in an asylum. They were in my skin. “Jarl?” I asked, my voice rising in terror.
“You’ve never done that before. Not that I’ve ever been privy to.” He backed up in his bed.
“I’ve never seen me do this either,” I returned the mutual panic and got up. Sliding to the caudal fin on the creature, I dove into the bathroom and grabbed him about the shoulders, shaking him awake. “What did you do to me?” I demanded.
Massive orbs of black, the barest line of grey, stared back at me in fascination. The songs again. The melodies echoed in my head, swamping me, sinking me to my knees. Exhaustion I couldn’t fathom begged for me to sleep, but terror commanded my attention. The merman traced the patterns on my face and down my arms. His melody was soft, stead, a refrain like a lullaby. Slowly, slowly the glowing eased, but the spots continued the flashing with every fear that speared me as I thought of what was wrong. I was not human. I was not this thing in the tub. I was nothing but adrift in a sea of questions and impossibilities.
I looked up at the creature tracing lines along the flashing spots. It was no impression this time. I had heard it. No. That wasn’t it. He had not spoken as Jarl or Captain or Mom would speak to me. The word was a swirl of color and intent. The open sea on a calm morning. My stomach hurt at the suddenness.
“What do I do? Make it stop. Please. Whatever you did to me, make it stop,” I begged. I would not last long with the life of someone always watched.
More songs. More sensations. No resolutions. My brain tripped out and I found myself slipping the edge of the tub to curl on the cold tile in the creature’s nest of a tail.
The silence was deafening. I pushed into cold scale and ceramic, trying to keep the back of my eyes from imploding. Fish. I couldn’t escape the smell, even in my sleep. The texture of fins under my hands. I had only been here for five months and I was already dreading work.
A melody. “Hey, wake up.”
I blinked, fighting the building nausea. Why was I surrounded by fish and my brother’s bathroom? I pushed myself up to survey the mess. Large grey eyes blinked down at me from over the tub edge. “Oh holy mother!” I gasped, scooting back until I pushed up against the plasterboard.
“I am no mother, but I do have a hole in my tail. If you’d be so kind as to remove your hand from it, that would feel a lot better.” The merman watched me, it’s colors shimmering. Last night’s adventures came back with all too much clarity.
“Alright. Why do I understand you?” I asked.
“Oh, you do talk? I thought you only said emotion words and used those human furnishings for communication.” The merman wasn’t opening it’s mouth and my brain was fracturing at this thought.
“Jarl, you aren’t goofing me are you?” I called to the next room. A grunt greeted me. The one that told me he was asleep and would not appreciate me waking him up.
“Jarl? Is that the name of the human?” The voice was a mid-tenor with a lilting laugh in the back.
“Yes. Wait. You’re in my head?” I demanded.
“No. I speak normally, you’re just listening finally,” the merman shrugged.
“You don’t speak normally at all. You’re lips aren’t moving, sharkbait.” I pointed out.
“I am one of the Gweryn Llŷr, a Dynllyr to be exact, thank you, not left overs for shark. What a horrid description to escape a Kraken child’s lips,” the creature hissed.
“I hope you don’t expect me to try pronouncing that. Your name is what, Durshur?” I estimated, though that didn’t sound right at all.
“No, no, my name is Taigre. I am, in human terms, a man of Llyr, god of the sea. We are a clan of those of the Antumnos. You have been separated from us for quite a long time, Kraken child, if you have forgotten us.” The merman flicked the edge of it’s tail in a similar manner to what I had seen of housecats when comfortably interested in something outside the window.
“Taigre. That’s a bit easier. I don’t know anything of this Antumnos you’re talking about and why are you calling me Kraken child? My name’s Ian Cimet. I’m from Vail up in the Rockies. There is no way I’m whatever you are,” I adamantly clarified.
“You honor me with your name, Ian Cimet Kraken child.” He bowed a little, for what he could in a bathtub.
“Again with the Kraken child. That’s not my name.” I bristled.
“It is a title of honor for those who are born to a Kraken parentage. You are a son of a sea king,” he defended his position.
“My parents were from Austro-Hungary. They lived in the mountains when they got here. There is no way I am this Kraken thing,” I waved the notion away.
“You speak our tongue. You taste like squid and bleed his colors. You luminesce at night and in distress. You are Kraken child. Specifically his highness Púca Kraken. This would also explain why you are so small for a Kraken child -”
“I did no such thing as luminesce until you bit me!” I interrupted, agitated at this one sided information dump that made no sense to me.
“I am sorry for biting you. I did not realize that you were trying to help me. I thought you were a human trying to torture me. Your servant seems to be of good use though. I should thank you for having him see to my tail. If I could reach the spot, I could set a couple charms on it to make the pain stop. Would it be too much to ask?” the merman sloshed water in the tub as he pushed to raise himself from his slump.
“Won’t that be bad for your breathing, your gills and all?” I asked, scuttling up to steady him, pulling him so he could rest more upright.
“I can breathe air as much as I can breathe water. My lungs process in the same manner. This however, is fresh water and hurts to breath for too long. If you had put me back in the ocean, I could have returned home and had someone else mend my tail. Why did you bring me here?” Tiagre asked.
“You were hurt. There was a big storm. And I didn’t exactly want you coming back up in the tide dead. My brother’s place seemed to be the safest place,” I explained.
“Brother? Surely not. He is completely and wholly human,” The merman tried to flip his tail toward himself with irritating frustration. He grasped for it, but the length of his body after his trunk to the tip of his caudal fin had to be two-thirds the rest of his body length.
“He said I came out of mom and have been around since then.” I shrugged. “Do you want help?” I offered after watching him reach for his fin a couple more times in futility.
“If you would be so kind, Kraken child, that would be of some benefit in getting me healthy enough to return to my nest and announce that a sea king’s spawn has been located.”
“I am not spawn,” I hissed at the word.
“That is insulting to you?” he asked in surprise as I helped pull the brilliant greenish yellow hued fin up carefully and worked the kink in the body so it would curl to the merman’s hands without causing more pain.
“It is not said nicely. Usually associated with devils and demons. I am not demon,” I growled.
“Oh, no, the devil Kraken keeps close track of her own spawn. You do not possess the deep red color or spines that would give that away -”
“Back up there, merman. There’s a satan in your Antumnos?” I rubbed at the throb at the base of my skull.
“No, by all means no. Devil Kraken is not satan, not by man’s tradition. She is just bright red and has hooks. She took a liking to the description from your books and commandered the title. I no longer remember what her original name was,” he mused. “As it is, what is this word you call me, merman?”
“It’s what you are, just not a mermaid. Right? You’re male, yes?” I shifted, suddenly wondering if last night’s understandings were in fact misunderstandings.
“As much as you are male, so am I.” He traced patterns around his tail, colors swirling across his body in mimic. “Why would you think me different?”
“You don’t have breasts,” I whispered in hushed tones, my face going warm.
“Breasts? Whatever would be the use in having the human addition to us? No. Definitely not. The amount of water drag alone. Not to mention the need to keep milk at a proper body temperature in water. Some of the clans are more like the sea lines, the ones that live more towards the ice caps. Within my clan, we have mammarian slits. Think whales.” He explained.
“Whales? Whales drink with slits?” I tried to picture this and came up empty. I had always considered whales to be cows of the sea and realizing that they did not have an utter by which to feed their calves when that time came made no rational sense in my head.
“Of course. This is common information within the Antumnos. I do not possess such features, being male. Neither do you by the look of your trunk. Not that females of the Kraken children possess such structures either, commonly. Your coverings protect you from sight but I was able to determine you to be in possession of male genitalia. I may have assumed wrongly though. Do you identify with being called male or something else? Not all who have a particular genitalia identify as such, and I am sorry if I have misjudged.” He checked the bandaging of his tail, unwrapping it to inspect the hole. The wound looked ragged, but it refused to bleed, which was relieving to see.
“Male. Definitely male. Has anyone ever told you that you are long winded?” I asked.
“Seran, my father’s right hand and my overseer, often tells me I do go on,” he freely admitted. “It is a common trait within the children of Llyr. In the old days, we were often compared to your humpback whales for the length of our songs. A beautiful comparison if I must say so. As there are Kraken, Kraken children, and squid, as there are to Cirein-croin, Gweryn Llyr, and whales, dolphins and porpoise.”
“You’re a whale?” I was fighting to process this information and make understandable connections.
“I am not full-sized yet. Gweryn Llyr grow slowly. I have another one hundred and fifty years to reach my complete length.” He carefully eased his tail so it would not flop. I caught it and set it on the tile.
“A hundred and fifty years? That’s all? How old are you now?”
“Twenty-one.” He rolled his shoulders.
“Huh. Not what I expected. I’m twenty-three.” I couldn’t take the cold floor anymore. I got up and carefully navigated around the tail. Nabbing the kitchen chair, I noted Jarl still peacefully trying to sound like the storm last night. I settled my seat into the bathroom and sat back down.
“Twenty-three? That is quite old for a Kraken child. Often they last only three or four years,” Tiagre brushed back his hair and plaited it out of the way.
“You mean I’m going to die soon?” I swallowed.
“You are half-human. I do not know? It would be something to ask the sea king.”
“Are Kraken long lived?” I was grasping at straws.
“Ancient. They have lived longer than any of the Antumnos I am aware of. Your father must be a thousand if not more quite easily, though you would not know it by looking at him.” Tiagre drew in an exasperated breath.
“Are Kraken children often half-human? Are you half-human?” I asked.
“Half-human is uncommon for Kraken children. Often they are what human’s call sea-monsters. The offspring of a match between another creature of the ocean. Kraken spread their seed far and wide every few hundred years. It is in the same manner as most octopus and squid do. Quite different from Cirein-croin, though none have fathered young since the Gweryn Llyr were established millenia ago. It is said with the end of the ice-age, that there was no longer reason to continue creating more offspring of their own and would leave it to their children to continue the legends. I have never met any of my great ancestors. You on the other hand, can meet your father who is one of the great sea kings. I must say I am rather jealous of that birthright.”
“You do not know your father?” I asked carefully.
“Oh I know my father all right. He is not a Cirein-croin. He’s like any other child of Llyr. He’s just obsessed with all things human world, which is not benefitting our region or our nesting grounds.” Tiagre flicked his small black nails in the water in agitation.
“Summarise for me. You aren’t a whale. You are half-human though, right?”
“I am dynllyr, a male of the children of Llyr, who descended from the Cirein-croin, what could best be thought of as the great monster whales of the prehistory. You are a Kraken child, a direct descendent of a Kraken. I am not half human. I was born to my mother, as were my other siblings. She has left my father to his devices and taken up residence within another territory. I do not blame her for that decision, though it must have been difficult. Often Gweryn Llyr mate for life and she had been with my father for three hundred years before leaving three-four years ago now has it been? He hoards human trinkets and it has taken over the cave. Trifles and knicknacks would not be so bad, but one does not require fourteen tin bathing troughs as a dynllyr. We live in water!” Taigre’s colors were turning an agitated swirl of yellows and oranges.
“If you are part whale, why do you go all color spotted?” Sounded like his father was having a mental breakdown.
Taigre sighed. I was being a little slow, I know, but the throbbing in the back of my skull was fracturing his information and he tended to get distracted off of short answers. “Not whale. Descendent of an ancient line that can be thought of as whale. We have spots because we have spots. It’s part of how we communicate.”
“Yeah, I got the communicate part. You turn all sorts of colors, though you turn a kind of pallad grey when you pass out or are asleep,” I pointed out.
“Camouflage. We live in and around rocks and great crevices that are a dark grey. It helps us hide if larger things come out to try and eat us.”
“Larger things? Like what larger things?”
“Like Kraken, Leviathan, Charybdis, and Jormungandr.”
“Kraken eat you people?” My voice cracked.
“It is not uncommon. The Great Kraken and her children along with Bigfin are some that have decimated parts of our nesting grounds.”
“And the Púca Kraken?” My hands had gone prickly.
“You’ve turned spotty again, Kraken child. I did not mean for this to alarm you,” Tiagre apologized.
“How am I sitting here not alarming you if Kraken eat your people?” I squeaked. My brother rolled in his bed, the springs squealing a protest.
“The Púca Kraken is the smallest Kraken, not much larger than my father. He and his children have never harmed our kind. They tend to pack hunt and eat other Kraken children more often than not. Do you care for the taste of squid?” Tiagre asked.
“I’ve only had it once since coming to the seaside. It’s better than fish?” I shrugged.
“Have you had whale or dolphin?” He continued.
“No? Not that I’m aware of. Usually the catch coming in on Captain’s boat were red snapper. Sometimes we’d get swordfish.” I shook my head.
“You are a sea hunter?” Taigre hissed at the announcement, his colors sparking. The bathroom glowed in response as all of my spots flashed at the predatory sound.
“It was a job that paid or fed me. Mom and dad kinda abandoned Jarl and me here and pretty much said good luck and left. What was I supposed to do, starve?” My teeth clicked in reply.
“The boats and nets have killed many of those in the Antumnos and have taken away many of our hunting grounds. They are destroying us!” Taigre pushed at the tub.
“Don’t break the tub! I don’t have enough money to replace the thing. What do you want from me, an apology? I’ve been here for five months. I’ve barely learned more than how to keep myself from getting tangled in the dang nets when they get pulled in. I don’t even pack fish yet! I didn’t even know y’all existed before I met you.” I rose, towering over the dynllyr. He swallowed, sinking back at the reprimand. He dropped his gaze, stilling until he had reached a smooth shade of grey almost to the tip of his tail.
“You do realize I can still see you right?” I snipped.
“Yeah. It’s just…it’s a reflex. Can’t help it.” He crossed his arms.
“Not like much will be left of the harbor after that storm last night. You shouldn’t have to worry about trollers for a few weeks. I should get myself down to the docks and see if Captain’s ship made it. You’re tail good enough for me to dump you back in the water, or are you going to need a few days in here?” My voice had gone flat and cold.
“I’ve set charms. I can get home, probably. They won’t heal it, but they’ll numb the pain for a while,” he answered quietly.
“Sun’s just about out. Let’s get you out of here then before someone sees us.” I grabbed down my rain slicker from a hook on the wall.
“That would probably be for the best.” Taigre let me heft his weight onto my back after I had wrapped the slicker around him.
“My employer might be contributing to your hunting grounds, doesn’t mean I don’t sympathise with your problems.” I muttered at him as I gingerly wormed my way around the length of his tail and got most of it precariously balanced between his arms and mine. The caudal fin though was ridiculous in its proportions.
“Getting the creature down to the beach, Ian?” Jarl rubbed at his eyes and yawned.
“Good a time as any.” I nodded, my chest compressing under Taigre’s weight.
“I don’t know what the deal is with you and him, but I think… Yeah. I think mom brought you here for a reason, and I think they’re it. That boat was never good for you, but the water always has been.” My brother rose and walked over to open the door.
I thought quietly for a moment at that. “My key’s in the right coat pocket. Grab it for me would you?” I asked him.
He raised an eyebrow at Taigre and reached for his pocket warily.
“What is he doing? Why is he getting close? What did you tell him?” Taigre whispered in my ear, clutching closer to me until I swore I wouldn’t breath again.
Jarl pulled the small silver key out of the rain slicker pocket and held it out for me. “It’s yours. Take whatever’s left of my earnings and fix the damages. Send mom a note saying I found an adventure. Thanks. Thanks for everything, Jarl.”
“You’re leaving?” He asked, dropping the key on the floor.
“I can’t very well stay here and become a sideshow freak.”
“I mean, you could. Probably make good money doing it too.”
“It’s not me and you know it. I don’t have the stomach for people staring.”
“Be safe, kid. I’ll keep your mandolin and guitar for you. I promise, I won’t sell them off. So, if and when you do come back, you’ll have that much.”
“I’ll still have you. Distance might be had, but you’ve always been a good brother. So, a brother you always will be.”
“Don’t drown.” He opened the door.
Jarl wasn’t joking about the don’t drown bit. At the front steps of the boarding house a floor down, I encountered a world turned on its head. The water level lapped three steps up. Murk and gunk drifted in the high water.
“What is this?” I asked myself while Taigre tried to keep hold of me. His nails dug into my skin, leaving behind welts.
“Looks like a flood,” he whispered back, his tail winding about me tightly.
“What are you getting nervous about? I was going to take you down to the dock anyways, we just got there a lot faster,” I grouched. “Ease up on the nails. Keep digging and you’ll find my heart of gold.”
“This type of water tends to hurt.” He shifted, an ear flipping against mine. Sliding a glance over, I caught his grey eyes, an aerie luminescent almost white in the rising sunlight. He searched the waters, swallowing nervously.
“All the drift and dirt turned up in it?” I guessed as my heart beat hard in my chest at my small selection of decisions.
“The particulate. It’s not comfortable to breathe. That, and man’s construction. The metal and splintered boarding.” His tail flicked, raising the hairs on my arms.
“You can breathe air like me. Let me get us into deeper water and we’ll see what we can do.” I drew in a breath and set one foot into the frigid water.
“You can’t breath like me and you’re short. Deep isn’t going to be very deep,” he grumbled as I continued down the steps and out into the street, now hip high with water.
“Tell me that after I get you somewhere safe and away from other humans.” I took us along the east-west road instead of heading south directly to the docks.
“Where are you going?” He buried his chin into my shoulder. His hood kept his breath warm against me.
“A couple blocks over, there’s a creek that leads down to the beach. Owned by some well off gent that I’ve delivered fish to for Captain a couple times. He keeps the land pristine. If the water came up this high, I can hope the trash’ll be less so over there.” I fought to not lose my footing in the roads-turned-mud. His caudal fin was proving to be difficult with it’s drag. “Tell me that thing is useful in deep water and not just some kind of peacock decoration.” I grouched as I tried to catch the slick surface and get some control of it.
“What is a peacock?” he asked, his colors going brilliant.
“Big pretty bird that has this massive green tail that it spreads out to attract a mate. Mom told me of one she saw at a zoo once when she and father were back in Europe.” I finally got the caudal fin pinched between fingers, my arms already busy trying to support the rest of his size.
“Oh. Yes. It is for attracting a mate. It also works very well in water, but we take pride in the size and color of our tails. I am a peacock. I like this idea.” Taigre pressed closer, this time less so to get away from the dangerous water and more so at finding something amusing. He had turned his yellows and greens that indicated him being fascinated. “Not that it matters too much really. You proposed anyway, so it must have been the right color.”
I slipped, barely catching myself on a submerged cart. “Hold up. Wait. Proposed. I didn’t propose. When did this happen?”
“Last night, when you were talking to the human. You asked me if I would be your mate when you were using emotion words and not all of your words.” He shrugged.
“Mate? Mate? Like cows mate type mate? I did not proposition you!” I hissed, pushing myself away from the cart and launched into deeper water.
“Cows. These are unfamiliar to me. You’ve mentioned them before when trying to understand whales.” He continued, oblivious to my problem as we pushed into what I knew was the nice property that had the creek at the far end. The water had cleared up from debri and was less murky. The grit had settled out. “You are a Kraken child rather than a dynllyr, so maybe you did not mean it in such a long term form as I am used to within my own clan. Were you not looking for a longer relationship when you asked?”
“I don’t remember asking at all for anything on this path of thinking.” I lost my footing. The ice water slammed into my lungs. I lost hold of Taigre, his body falling away from me. His nails bit into my chest, pulling me down into the darkness. I pushed against the force, every sense screaming for me to find the light.
My boots kept sliding on the mud and flooded grass. I kicked at them, dislodging their weight holding me down. Pulling at the water I gasped, breaking the surface. “Taigre! Taigre! Talk to me, where are you?” I demanded, searching above the water before dragging in a deep breath and diving. Twisting, a shadow shifted around me. A form brushed against me, sending my heart racing. Knowing there was more than fish in the sea was not reassuring. I pushed for the surface once more. This time I found a pair of eyes under thick dark blue hair staring up at me. I shivered as his hand found my arm in the cold water.
“I’m right here, Kraken child. You do scream quite loudly when you are underwater, you know that, right?” Taigre asked, ducking below the surface and popping back up with the little waves.
“I can’t yell underwater, Taigre. I can’t even breathe underwater,” I explained.
“You have gills,” he defended.
“No I don’t. None that I’ve ever seen.” I denied, still trying to find somewhere to stand. A slim, tensile strength caught me about the legs and backside. “Wait, what are you doing?” I slipped, falling back into the cradle Taigre had made of his tail. “That’s really disorienting.”
“You have a proper mantel. You just have to actually use it.” He tapped on my chest.
“That’s my skin, Taigre. No gills there. I’m part human. I know where your gills are. I can see them.” I settled a finger under them.
“Different structure. You’ve seen the inside of a squid, I’d assume, if you’ve eaten one.” He grimaced.
“No. Someone gave me a piece after cooking it on ship. I’m not a gutter for the hold. I’ve butchered deer back home, and lamb. I’ve caught trout in the lake in the bottom of the valley, but the creatures out here are different.” I pushed at his closeness.
“Your gills aren’t like mine. Yours are inside of you.”
“Those are my lungs, Taigre.”
“Do you trust me?” He clenched his jaw at the question, his colors summersaulting.
“No.” I admitted honestly.
“You can breathe.” He pulled me under.
My heart launched for my ribs, begging for escape. I fought, clawing at his skin, digging furrows into his chest. “Breathe, Ian. You are a child of the Antumnos. This is your home.” He held on, keeping me under. I could touch the surface and yet I couldn’t escape to it. The world was turning to darkness speckled with stars. The last lights were the grey white of his eyes and my glowing spots. “Breathe! Stop fighting it, squid spawn!”
How was I not supposed to fight it. I got hold of one of his arms. He pulled me around to control my thrashing. My head pounded, demanding oxygen. The back of my eyes throbbed and my lungs cried for air. “Stop screaming and breathe, Ian Cimet.”
Last resort. I bit into the joint of his thumb, drawing the warm iron flavor of blood. He grunted a protest, tightening down around me and the last of my air strangled from my lungs. The next breath in burned. Close to swallowing a coal. The whole of the inside of my skull prickled at the sensation. My lungs turned into mortar. The tips of my fingers numbed.
“Let it out. You have to breathe out too, Ian. In and out.” Taigre loosened his grip. I was dying. How could he not see that? My flashing spots dimmed and the world turned into black rings. “Come on, Kraken child. You’ve got gills inside this cavity of yours. You can’t hold the water still in it or else you’ll die. Breathe out!” He encompassed me, pressing until there was nothing left that could be air or water. I drew in as he loosened and blew out again. A Drinker respirator, he kept the flow of water constant for several minutes as I worked through the shock and struggled with helping to pull water in and out. “Come on, I’ll take you up to the surface. You’ll need to clear your gills so your lungs will work again. You’re not physically capable of using them yet.” He sighed in disappointment.
He ushered me to a set of sandstone boulders where I dragged myself halfway onto the shore and dealt with the next blow of fire to my chest as I spat up liters of water. He stared at me from the surface of the water, his ears shifting nervously.
I laid against the cold rock, stunned tears mixing with salt water. I wasn’t dead. I thought I was going to die. I felt like I had died. I wasn’t dead. “I have gills.”
“You do.” Taigre agreed gently, his tone having quieted.
“I didn’t die.” I whispered. I said it over and over again. Tairgre shrank under the mantra while my brain slowly shattered. “I don’t want to die.”
“I need to speak with my father’s advisor. It does no good to leave a Kraken child in the human world, but if you cannot breathe on your own in the Antumnos? There is no solution.” Taigre explained.
“Father’s advisor?” I was half listening, fixated on the shift of light through the tree leaves.
“Would you wait for me here? I will bring someone who can help. You need a healer.”
“Swim. Your tail?” My thoughts were fragmenting.
“I’ve set charms that have reduced the pain. I need someone better than myself to see to why you can’t use your gills properly.”
“I am human, Taigre.” My throat closed off at the thought of the water around me. My limbs were too sluggish though to pull me away from the lapping edge. I whimpered at the sensation sweeping my skin, the horror of being under the water twisting in knots inside my chest.
“You are not dead. You are Kraken.” Taigre tried to reassure.
“If you had been wrong?” I hissed in agitation. He ducked below the water at my accusation.
I drifted in and out of the light and the water. I had never had problems with swimming before now. I had never been afraid of it. Now though. I couldn’t go back in. I couldn’t drag myself out either.
I woke where I had been left. The shore was back lit, casting long afternoon shadows. The water had receded to my feet, leaving me covered in mud and leaves.
“Ian?” A soft tenor called to me from the water. No. I curled into myself at the octave. No. It meant the water. That note meant the suffocating. Meant dying. Claws wrenched through my skin as I curled tighter against the rock and wrapped my arm around my head protectively.
“Seran? I do not understand what is wrong with the Kraken child. He is Kraken. Púca’s child. Half-human like I told you.” Taigre explained.
“I see that, Taigre. Patience. You’ve scared him badly. Let’s see what we can do.” A different voice, lower, chastised the dynllyr.
“No more than he did in trapping me and having a human operate on my tail,” he hissed at the comment. I turned numbly to the sound. At a logical level I could accept that accusation. I probably had scared him. Finding the broad expanse of water at sunset did nothing to set the stutter in my chest at ease. Awareness of the baser needs prickled. I scurried away from the creek edge and clambered up the gully away from the pair of dynllyr. I had spent the day numb to my need for a bathroom. The woods would suffice.
“He’s terrified of me.” Taigre sounded dejected as I scuttled for somewhere out of sight.
“I don’t exactly blame him. At the moment, he is seeking relief, though, not running away from us outright. Now, tell me why you forced him to use his gills when he was not even aware of them. You are no calf, Taigre,” the new voice, Seran bit back at Taigre.
I found myself a place far enough for privacy, and yet close enough that I could catched their conversation.
“I need to bring him to the Antumnos so he can meet his father. He can’t be left in the night. He glows like Púca Kraken. The other humans would hunt him. He needs to be safe.” Taigre explained.
“You should have left him and come got me before trying that, not after. What if his gills were not fully developed? Kraken children born to land creatures do not always have mature gills for our waters.” Seran chastised.
“Will they mature?” A note of terror inched into Taigre’s voice.
“That entirely depends on the creature. For his sake, if he is a Kraken child of Púca, I would hope so. He will be noticeable more so than many of the others,” Seran answered.
Finished, and put back together, I returned to the creekside, wary. Taigre blended into the dark colors of the water. The dynllyr next to him was a different coloration all together from Taigre’s chalk grey and navy blue. Seran was broader in the shoulder and thicker banded with muscle. He was a midnight black from his long hair to his fins. Stark white, his skin could have been titanium powder.
“I see what you mean by him using emotion words. He is neither calf nor fry though. Not by way of the humans I have seen. He’s full grown at least by height and appearance. He has not been taught how to Antumnos talk properly is all.” Seran flicked his fingers in emphasis.
“You’re not going to drag me back in, are you?” I called down to them.
“It would do you no good, Kraken child,” Seran returned my call. “I do appreciate the compliments, but it would be good to restrain yourself a bit with the admiration.”
“What compliments?” I slipped on one of the slick rocks and scattered stone on my way down to the edge of the creek.
“You speak with both the human tongue and the Antumnos tongue. If you keep your mouth shut, we hear your emotion words. If you speak with your human tongue, your emotion words weave into your speech.” Seran explained.
“Antumnos tongue?” I sat down on the rock, tucking my feet away from the lapping water.
“It is how Taigre and I are speaking to you,” Seran explained.
“And what is it that I’m saying that I seem to not realize,” I ventured.
Seran snorted at the water. “He really doesn’t know what he says, does he?”
“You should have heard him last night. Siren’s Voice,” Taigre returned.
“My music? I played melodies I learned because you seemed to like them,” I defended.
“He plays the human’s instruments to communicate?” Seran turned to Taigre.
“What is an instrument?” Taigre asked.
“My mandolin and guitar. I did sing, but they were just little folk songs everyone knows.” I brushed away shards of sandstone from my rocky platform.
“Sing for me, Kraken child. Let’s see what this Siren’s Voice is that Taigre has been bubbling about for the last few hours.” Seran demanded. My cheeks burned red at the demand, sending all of my spots glowing. Seran dropped his head into his hand and rubbed at his eyes. “We are going to need to fix that before we bring him anywhere near your father or anyone else in the Antumnos.”
I was embarrassed and done with feeling insulted. I’d take the long way around and head back for my brother’s apartment and tell him that the adventure was not worth the time of day.
“Calm down, Kraken child. I am not dismissing your advances or meant to make you angry.”
“What advances, sharkbait? I haven’t said a damn word!” I hissed, walking away. If I kept my pace, I would reach a section where their larger bodies would not be able to follow.
“Your emotion words. You’ve asked both Taigre and me if we would be your mate and described me as handsome. I appreciate the compliment, I do, but I think you are not aware of this. I would save you from more embarrassment if we were to take you into the Antumnos by having you address this now rather than then where it might be misconstrued,” Seran explained.
“I’ve said no such thing!” I squeaked back, mortified.
“Are you aware of telling me you are scared, or that this is uncomfortable, a bad conversation?
“It’s not what’s coming out of my mouth.” I crossed my arms.
“No, it’s the tone of your skin, your stance, where your eyes fall, the way your face moves. It all wraps into the lais in the front of your skull. We of the Antumnos each have one. Come down here. I promise on the infinity that is the water in the sea I will not make you drown.” Seran swore. I stared at him, wary. “You have every right to be scared. I will not tell you otherwise. The screaming can come down a note or two though. If you don’t want to come down here, that’s acceptable.” Seran pressed his fingers to the front of his head and settled back into the water to study me under lowered lashes.
I shifted on my perch as they waited. Flicking a glance to the fading light, I knew I needed to make a decision. My skin was glowing in bursts of blue and white light that I would not be able to hide easily. I dragged in a deep breath and ruffled my hair, scratching at my two day stubble.
“You won’t make me try to breathe the water again?” I demanded.
“Promise. It would do you no good to try it again. Your musculature is not strong enough to handle that right now.” Seran soothed.
“Why do you know this?” I took a tentative step forward.
“I have encountered a few other land children before like you. It has been well over two centuries since the last I saw. Often raised outside of the water, it takes time to develop the ability to breathe properly because of the weight of the water compared to the air. Often, as children of the Antumnos grow, they are introduced to breathing small amounts of air at a time until they are able to sustain themselves in and out of the water for emergencies such as the one Taigre found himself in. Thank you for seeing to his tail. You have my greatest appreciation.” Seran ducked a bow.
“Why were you so sure I had gills?” I demanded of Taigre.
“I can see them,” he justified.
I looked down at my chest, still bare from having given Taigre my shirt for a tourniquet. Nothing. Just my skin, and the strange lights. Resting a hand on my chest I breathed in and out. It felt no different then it had in the past.
“Linguistic discrepancies I see are going to get in our way. This would be so much easier if we had time on our hands. Did you really introduce him to breathing in this sweet water mix?” Seran demanded of Taigre.
“As soon as I realized he had gills, proper gills. I didn’t see them until I got under the water.” Taigre ducked.
“May your oysters produce pearls rather than rocks one day, Taigre.” Seran rubbed at his eyes before pushing his hair off his face. “My charge has probably done you more harm than good. I am sorry for that. We are able to return back to the delta and out to the ocean. Are you capable of walking the creek edge to there?” Seran asked from the quickly receding waters.
“Probably.” I started toward the beach, the sand stone gritty and sharp on the pads of my feet. As long as I stayed out of range of their grasp, whatever their plans were for me, they couldn’t reach me on the land. Taigre and Seran disappeared under the water. Within seconds, Taigre’s brilliant green tail had disappeared.
Washed up driftwood and felled trees hindered some of my passage. In those moments, I back tracked further inland before going out to the creek edge more than I would have liked. There was no way I was getting the five feet into the water where the Llyr creatures could nab me though.
An hour later and sunset approaching, I was greeted by the waisted shoreline. Dead fish, birds, troller netting, anchors, busted buoys, glass bottles littered what had been a clean beach just the day before. Overturned ship hulls loomed, casting cold shadows.
“Kraken child!” I heard the call before I saw the shapes. Startled, I slipped amongst the debri, slicing my foot open and fell, puncturing my calf and hands. Cursing, I looked around for Taigre while I quickly pulled glass and shell from my cuts. “Get your fish butt over here. I’m not coming to you.” I growled.
“You are injured?” Seran called back. I still couldn’t see them.
“Fell in the trash heap. Give me a minute.” I flicked detritus into the netting.
“He smells of Kraken,” Seran whispered to Taigre.
“I bleed blue if that helps.” I grumbled.
“You have cut yourself?” Seran called back, trepidation dripping in his tone.
“Yep. Got my foot and my hands. You keep saying I’m Kraken and need to live in this Join place. I don’t have a fin like y’all do. My skin won’t do well in the water like that. Taigre said he put charms on his tail to make the pain stop. Can you make the bleeding stop?” I asked, pain flashing up through my nerve endings.
“A simple fix. It means coming into the water though. It would do neither of us any good if I beached myself and you had to strain to get me back into the water.” Seran cautioned.
“I think I’d rather sit in the trash heap.” I mumbled to myself.
“You’re well within your right to do that,” Seran returned.
The sun slipped past the horizon, leaving the beach in dusk blue. My skin lit up the little nest of the trash heap I found myself in. “Is there a way to turn the lights off?” I sighed, realizing that my fear of drowning was going to have to deal with my fear of someone getting hold of me on land.
“Not really. You can minimize it, depending on your emotions and thoughts, but from what I have known of Púca, his never turns off,” Seran admitted.
“Why did this start after Taigre bit me?” I asked.
“You did what?” Seran yelled at Taigre.
“I thought he and the human were trying to kill me!” Taigre protested.
“Human? What human?” he demanded.
“My brother Jarl. I lugged him up from the shore and took him to Jarl’s apartment because he had a tub. Taigre had a pipe stuck in his tail. Figured, if he was a fish, he’d need water and somewhere to heal. It was a hurricane. I couldn’t just push him back into the water!” I justified.
“Kraken child, come down to the shore and let’s get your wounds dealt with, then the two of you are explaining exactly what happened since Taigre went missing from the nesting grounds.
“In the dark?” I strangled at the thought.
“Screaming, Kraken child. Again with the screaming. You pierce worse than a mast bell. You smell of Kraken and that will call in Leviathan. I’d rather not dash hiding from them at the moment. If you would, please.” Seran kept his tone level.
I swallowed at that threat. I was not keen on meeting something that could eat something the size of the dynllyr. Gingerly, I pulled myself out of the trash trap. Hobbling, I crept around the looming body of a capsized sailboat and tripped into a pair of oars. Cursing, I jammed my shin against a wooden board and tumbled into shell littered sand. “Where are you?” I hissed, the sand cold under my chest. I was close to the tide edge.
“Deeper in from you. Are you going to make it or do I need to bring myself out?” Seran ventured.
“You bigger than Taigre?” I pushed myself up to sit, waiting for my nerves to stop splintering fire through my limbs.
“By a couple arm spans.”
I caught the splash along the wave line where they were waiting. My stomach dropped. They were a lot deeper than I initially thought. “So, probably heavier. Yeah. I wouldn’t be able to push you back in without help. This is going to hurt.” I grumbled to myself, watching the salt water lap and remembering the times I had gotten salt into my blisters. I shivered at the waves so close to my head. I told myself I wasn’t going to cry. That was a lie. I inched into the water, my heart in my throat. My wounds burned in the salt water. Swallowing a curse, I hobbled through the jarring waves until I was chest deep, all the hairs on my arms rising in the darkness. I whimpered at the shaft of ice running through my spine when warmth brushed against my fingers.
“Right here, Kraken child.” Seran captured my fingers. My spots illuminated his head and chest in the shallow water. I still didn’t have a firm grasp as to how much longer he was than Taigre. “I’m going to pull you out further from shore. The waves here are difficult to handle.” He explained quietly. I swallowed, my stomach twisting in knots at the idea of going deeper. “I apologize for startling you. Take your time. I can wait.”
“Is he coming in or not?” Taigre called from deeper out in the waves.
“Bull calf has no patients at all, I tell you. Taigre has left his mother’s side only recently, but he is not quite an adult yet. Not by our long-lived means. You must have something equivalent within the humans.” Seran muttered to me as I took another step forward.
“How much do you know of human age?” I asked.
“Your babes age quickly compared to us. Short lived, humans die well before we have reached full size.”
“Baby, toddler, child, teenager, young adult, adult, middle age, old age.” I rattled off the list. “He said he was twenty-one. He is a bit younger than me, what we would call an adult, maybe a young adult.”
“He is more like between child and teenager, if age was scaled to fit with a human.”
“Oh god, and he thinks I propositioned him.” I blanched at the horror. This was like having the twelve-year olds suddenly giving all the boys in class flowers back during my high school years. Weird. Prickly. Unnerving. I hated having to fake a nice smile when they did that because I didn’t want to make them cry and then their parents yell at me, but could their parents have talked to them about not doing that?
“Not thinks. You did use the word mate. Now he’s enamored.” Seran explained. “You’re yelling again.”
“I am not,” I hissed. “You keep using that word. Stop. No. Nope.”
“Your Antumnos voice is screaming and he can hear you.” Seran cautioned. “You used handsome for both of us.”
“You keep putting words in my mouth!”
“Wait! Why is he saying he’s a monster and disgusting? Why is he no longer my mate? What did you tell him, Seran?” Taigre demanded from the deep end.
“What the hell. Oh jeez, where’s the soap, get it off my tongue. Ew. Ew. Ew. Nope.” I cringed, my gut twisting at the bottom of my throat.
“What are you equivalent to, half-human?” Seran asked. “You are not calf. I have seen human young and you appear to be adult.”
“I’m twenty-three. I’ll be twenty-four in a couple more months. Old enough to have my own land and house. I put it all on hold to save to cover the cost of a university degree.” I cringed, losing my footing as he wrapped me in his tail and pulled me out toward the calmer water. “I don’t feel old enough to be dealing with so many responsibilities.” I admitted as his fingers started drawing patterns across my lights. The salted sting on my hands stopped.
“Even with age, no one ever feels like they are ready for the responsibilities they face. To you, with Taigre saying he was the same numbers of your adult age, the match made sense?” Seran pressed down on my foot.
I gulped at the stars shooting up my leg. “I never said a match. I never said mate. I still don’t know where you two are getting these words.”
“You have Siren’s Voice. You play human instruments. Taigre said you can make it sing, that you thought it was good when you were dealing with your brother about a difficult topic. Think about that.” Seran commanded as he worked multiple patterns, sending my spots throbbing.
I wanted to protest, but this was getting out of hand. I sucked in a breath and paused.Closing my eyes I waited to slip the feeling of the cold water from my skin. Waited, filling my hands with the weight of my mandolin. The slick wood. The tensile strength of the strings. Home. Years of sitting in front of the fire when the snow packed against the door. Warm cider and hot cakes from mom’s griddle. Dad sitting in a rocking chair whittling.
“That. Name it. Tell me what that word is.” Seran pressed.
“Comfort. Warm. Home.” I named off a couple words that came to mind.
“You said Good in Antumnos. That is the emotion word you thought of.” Seran explained.
“That’s such a complicated experience for one single word. That doesn’t encompass everything I just thought of,” I protested.
“What about the concept of male and female? What is that to you?” he asked.
Neutral. Indifferent. Interested. Conflicted. Memories of those in the village, the pictures from the Sears magazine, those I had met in the village. Attractive. Unattractive. Different. Old, young, my age.
“Ah, I’m seeing where the confusion is coming from, Kraken child,” Seran chuckled.
“Explain, because I’m not.”
“You use it as a yes no when thinking of the concept in relation to yourself. You are trying to understand what a human is to you. Does an individual fit within a category?”
“Still not following.”
“Maybe not so much a category as an assignment of your concept of acceptable. I got mate as a word from you as you flipped through other description words, but also beautiful and handsome as scary nervous, like you would be displeasing to the individual. Old is nervous like you would disappoint or need to help. Young like you should protect but is someone else’s responsibility. You see them in relation to how you occupy space. You weren’t looking at Taigre and me as handsome in the way of mate as we understand the word. You were trying to formulate what relation we were to you as you exist. Here, let’s try something more specific than just male and female. What is your kin, your brother to you?” Seran persisted.
Memories flooded as I unlocked that reservoir. Fights. Agitation. Protection in my younger years at school. Brave. Cornered in conversations I didn’t want to have. Conflict. Asking for help when mom and dad had left me at the shore. Last line of help. Tears crowded again. When would I see him again? I was no longer safe. Who could I go to?
“Slow down, Kraken child. Tell me what you are thinking. You have said several words already in Antumnos.” Seran commanded quietly, bringing my attention back to pitch black eyes and the white stripe down his nose.
“Everything was fine until now. I can’t go home, can I? Not glowing like a jar of fireflies the way I am?” I hiccupped.
“I am sorry. That was a tender topic, was it not?” he softened.
“Everything is a tender topic right now,” I whispered. “This is what you meant by emotions. The inside of me, the feelings of disgust, sadness, anger, these sensations, my internal dialogue. The people of the Antumnos can hear that?”
“Depending on how loudly you are thinking, if thinking is the correct use of the word in this case, yes. We can see it in your skin, the way you look at us, your lais.” He pushed a thumb against my skull. Pain shot through the back of my eyes at the touch. Images, a scattering of fish, whale, large disproportionate creatures, brilliantly colored odd forests beneath the waves filled my mind for a moment at the pressure. I grabbed hold of Seran’s shoulders as a flood of nausea made me light headed.
“What did you just do?” I gasped for air, my ears ringing.
“I checked to see if your lais was underdeveloped for your size,” Seran muttered, his brow furrowing at my reaction. “It is honestly quite large though.”
“Why did I see pictures when you did that?” I swallowed against the roil in my stomach.
“Pictures? Like the paintings from your ships?” Seran guessed.
“I saw fish. Whales. Strange places I’ve never seen.” I explained, my head splitting.
“That’s not right. You shouldn’t be able to do that. Here,” he took my hand and pushed my palm to the dead center of his forehead. I pulled away and carefully prodded at the spot. It was boney like my skull, but with precision, I found a slight bump, and outline of an oblong rise, like when my lymph nodes had swollen during a particularly bad sickness in my youth. “What do you feel?” he asked.
The sound twitched along the pads of my fingers and up my arms. “Oh. That’s your voice? Your sound is like listening to humming if I’m not paying attention.”
“Taigre said he put you to sleep when you startled him the first time your lights glowed. The dynllyr can do this with their lais. Large whale can stun fish with a sound like what we do. Kraken cannot. I have to wonder if this did something to you?” Seran floated the idea.
“Is he going to be alright?” Taigre circled with concern.
“Maybe. What are we to do with him for the evening? The charms have stopped the bleeding, but you cannot sleep below the water safely, and leaving you to the elements on land would be dangerous.” Seran turned our topic now that we had been interrupted.
The solution for the moment, was a long abandoned dock a few miles from the bay. It had belonged to a private property. From the water edge, appearances were that the roof of the mansion had collapsed years ago. The beach receded into a cobbled together mass of sandstone boulder and shrub brush before the boards and old tree trunks jutted out to make a slapdash deck. Hauling myself up over a particularly large boulder under the dock, I sat down to regard Seran and Taigre. “You guys going home?”
“I should see Taigre back to the nesting grounds and inform his father of what has happened. He will be worried.” Seran dipped under the water.
“Like he would notice I was gone. He can’t get out of the cave.” Tigre slapped his fin on the water surface and disappeared.
“Would his dad really not notice he was missing for the last day?” I ventured to Seran. I could be upset that my parents had left Jarl and me at the edge of the sea when the farm collapsed, but I had, when we left Vail, enough in my pocket to see me to the East coast and gotten a job at any pharmacist or print studio. Would the young dynllyr’s father truly not notice his absence. I’m not sure that was possible.
“Karis has been worried. He traded several of his shells of gems to send out searchers across the breadth of the gulf. He himself left out towards the Yucatan to see if he had been swept out there. I will escort him back to the nesting grounds and send a diver to fetch his father back.” Seran explained.
“And I guess I’ll just curl up here?” I ventured, pushing a few rocks from the flat top of the bounder and established a place to lounge.
“I will find you again come sunrise. I will seek conference with Karis to see if he can contact Puca. I must be off.” Seran backed farther into the depths.
“Seran!” I called out.
“Kraken child?” he returned the question.
“Thank you,” I told him as he ducked under a wave and disappeared.
“Get some sleep, Ian Cimet.” Came the reply back, though it was as though yelled from fields away.
Sleep? I had spent most of my day asleep on the creek shore. No, that wasn’t quite accurate. I had laid about the creek shore in shock and terror and watched the water. Irritated at the thought of sleeping under a dock the evening I had left my brother’s apartment I brushed sand from my damp trousers. They would never dry at this rate and my legs were chafing at the texture. I shed them and my underpants. Setting them on top of one of the dock boards, I hoped they would dry in the night.
No such luck. The rocks were cold. The breeze was misty. Every creak of the boards around me and the splash of the water sent my heart racing. What kind of adventure had I been hoping for when I had left Jarl telling him to write mom? A fairy tale? One involving pirates and princesses? Maybe buried treasure?
The stars blinked along the horizon, what I could see of it under the dock. The moon rotated across the sky to light up the water’s undulation. Over the hours huddling for warmth, my eyesight attuned itself to the dark. Not that there was much to see from my vantage other than more rocks and brush.
“Ian Cimet?” a low voice pulled me into the early morning dawn. I was drooling and had finally warmed up from the night in the sea spray.
“Seran?” I blinked, rubbing at the crust in my eyes.
“You are still here?” Seran asked with disbelief. Blinking, I forced my focus to see beyond double vision. Seran’s black hair and eyes bobbed in the water. He would have made for a believable clump of algae in the murk of sunrise.
“Not like I have many other options available to me.” I pushed myself to sit up. Grabbing my trousers, I grimaced. They were still wet from the night before. Same with my undergarments.
“It is difficult separating yourself from the comfortable and familiar.” Seran pushed closer to the dock side.
“Life happens and sometimes you don’t get much of a choice in the matter, huh?” I shrugged. “Probably don’t need clothes in the deep blue sea, do I?” I stared at what would be the last of my mother’s handiwork that I would probably ever see.
“It is not that those of the Antumnos do not decorate themselves with the occasional piece of shell or brightly colored rock, but human textiles would mark you as different.” Seran beached himself on a low rock, much closer than I anticipated.
“You gonna get yourself stuck?” I frowned at his action.
“High tide is rolling in, I won’t be here too long.” He laid his arms and head up along the ledge the rock made.
“You have a back fin!” I gasped in surprise, now that he was out of the water.
“Three to be exact,” he snorted.
“You do that. It is your type of laugh?” I asked after the action. I had seen Taigre blow bubbles when he did it.
“It is. I cannot execute it as well out of the water.” His eyelids descended and my fascination continued with his differences compared to the other dynllyr.
“You have double eyelids too, but yours close in the same direction!”
Seran snorted again. “You are comparing me with Taigre. We are the first of the Antumnos for you to meet, yes?”
“Well, yeah. I mean, what else am I supposed to compare you with. Though, Taigre said that his spots were from descending from some colossal whale creature. I don’t remember what he called it. You don’t have spots-spots,” I stuttered with my observations. Tracing the line of his back and further to where I would have expected hips on a human I stalled with confusion. An array of voluminous black fins bobbed with the tide. Following the circuit of him, I found he had latched himself along the line of the rock he had perched on. A couple of arm lengths longer than Taigre? He had to be twice his length entirely.
“What are you compared to my age?” I ventured, swallowing, and tugged down my damp trousers if only to hold them against myself to keep me decent.
Seran regarded me, his eyes thinning at the question to study me. “You are saying things in Antumnos tongue again, Kraken child.” He cautioned.
“Give me an approximation and I will reassess what I will admit to in Antumnos.” I pulled down my undergarments from the dock edge too.
“Karis would be past middle age in human years. Taigre is not quite beyond calf, not quite responsible for a mate of his own.”
“And you? Are you well into your middle years? You said you haven’t seen Kraken children from the land in two hundred years?” I pressed that number into my skull.
“I was no more than a newborn, not past nursing when I saw them.” Seran shrugged.
“And Taigre said that he would be full grown at one hundred and fifty? Is that length or is that maturity?” I asked.
“Would you say that your size is relative to your maturity?” Seran returned.
“No. There are enough people I know who are full sized and still can’t keep themselves together and they would have children by now,” I posited.
“I am by no means middle aged. I am not so young as to be viewed as a bull-calf though,” he hedged.
“How long did the Kraken’s land children last?” I asked the question dripping acid in my stomach.
“I could not say. They were of Great Kraken’s heritage. Mother said they were around when she was a calf.” Seran shrugged.
“Long lived then.” This was not as reassuring as I first thought it would be. The concept of a long life was, on the surface, a pleasant thought, until I realized, if my life progressed as the other half-humans, I would live well past my brothers and sister.
“You find this news troubling, but you were troubled at the thought that you would die soon also?” Seran asked after the change in emotions.
“Dichotomy in a trench coat are humans passing off their emotions as one singularity,” I grinned at mom’s old saying.
“About what you were saying in Antumnos before you demanded my age relative to yours?” Seran glanced away from me.
“Are mates important in the Antumnos?” I asked, a shiver running up my back.
“They are,” Seran’s voice pitched lower.
“Then you should ignore the rovings of a Kraken child who can’t even speak your tongue properly, shouldn’t you?” I turned and scuttled behind a bush at the edge of the docking to pull on my clothes, damp as they were.
“And yet you admire?” Seran contrasted.
“And yet I admire,” I admitted from behind the brush.
“What were you, before you were a sea hunter?” Seran asked when I returned to my rock beneath the dock.
“I farmed with my father. I had dreamed of becoming an artist, put away all of my money to go to school for it.” I folded my hands such that I could rest my cheek to study Seran against the lightening sky.
“Art. These are pictures?” Seran put his finger on the concept.
“You’ve probably encountered oils if you dealt with art from ships. I had fallen in love with lithography, though a handy set of charcoals would also make me happy.” I shrugged.
Seran perked up to the comment, his back fins rising in interest. “Siren’s Voice.” The words were a mere whisper.
“I’m not singing, Seran, just being nostalgic and wistful,” I admitted.
“You don’t hear yourself? That is Siren’s Voice if I’ve been privileged to encounter it in my two centuries of life,” he informed me.
“Siren’s Voice. Antumnos Tongue. I was raised on what I could see, what I could hear, what I could play. You are the embodiment of a charcoal sketch. So, I admire. My heart sings, it seems, in letting myself do so.” I slid off the rock and emerged from beneath the dock to the edge of the water. “I wish I had pad and pencil. You would have made Leonardo Bistolfi wealthy beyond measure just by your pose alone. Is that what Siren’s Voice is? My heart singing?” I pressed.
He swallowed, turning away from me to push himself from his roost to disappear into the deeper waters. Had I scared him off? My stomach growled in protest at having not eaten since the last time I had stood on Captain’s ship eating left over fish Stephan had cooked up on the paraffin stove. A minute, two, I waited at the edge of the water for Seran to return. When I saw no sign of him, I climbed up from the rock and into the Texas forest at the edge of the ocean to see if I could find any wild edibles I could snack on. Black walnut, persimmon, and beautyberry came to hand after a bit of sorting through the briar behind the collapsed mansion.
Sated, I returned to the edge of the forest and the outcrop of rock to watch the water and contemplate what I was to do with my life. In the bright light of day, my spots were less noticeable. I had a spattering of white freckles in the sun, but the subtle blue in the shadow was not trustworthy around normal humans.
Noon approached and left before Seran returned to the dock. “Ian Cimet?” He called, anxiety thick in the question.
“Oh, you’re back? I had wondered if I had said something. I’m sorry.” I scrambled down the rock to the water edge.
From a satchel of canvas, Seran pulled a large clam tied together with seaweed. “Please.” He offered me the bivalve.
Raising an eyebrow, I stepped into the water, fighting the initial horror of the sensation flitting across my back. “What is this?” I sucked in my breath and descended further into the water to swim to Seran’s rock.
“This is what the humans did near where I grew up, did when – when-” Seran swallowed, all his fins fluffing suddenly, catching me by surprise.
“When what?” I asked, climbing onto the rock to sit out of the water. Taking the offered foot long abalone shell, I unwrapped the seaweed from it and opened it. I gulped. Closed the lid. Opened it again. Closed it. “Lord’s green earth, what are you asking for, Seran?” I gasped. A few thousand pearls easily fit within the box.
“What is the word you humans use? Dairy. Denial. Dessert. Dairy. I think it’s dairy. This is a dairy, for you. Would you be my mate?” he asked.
“Dairy?” I stuttered, confused. “Oh. Wait. Dowry. You mean dowry? Wait, a bride price?”
“This is why you wouldn’t admit to saying mate in Antumnos tongue, because you can’t agree unless there’s a dowry, yes?” He asked, anxious. I took the seaweed and quickly wrapped it around the abalone shell afraid to accidentally knock the small fortune into the water. All of his fins slicked back as his glance fell.
“Isn’t this a bit sudden? You don’t even know anything about me,” I pushed the shell back into his hands.
“I’m confused?” he admitted.
“So am I! Take these, I don’t want to drop them. That’s a scary thought!” I yelped.
“This is not what I am supposed to do for your customs?” He slipped the shell back into his satchel.
I ran shaky hands across my face while my heart stuttered at what I had been handling. “Most of my customs pretty much taught me I had to go marry some woman and have a bunch of kids and then the market fell out and I’m just some poor country boy from the back side of the mountains.”
“I thought-”Seran paused, his fingers twisting the eddies around his rock as he tried to qualify. “But, you liked what you saw of me?”
“I like a lot of what I see of you, I’m just explaining the customs I grew up with.” I waived that remark down.
“Then I am an acceptable candidate?” he perked up, his fins spreading again.
“Don’t we need time, like getting to know each other first? Wouldn’t you want to know what you are getting into in a relationship with me? Like what if we don’t like the same food? That would make dinners quite uncomfortable, wouldn’t it?” I asked. “Let alone, is there no problem with dynllyr and kraken, or even half-human and…and…?” I trailed off, my face going warm.
“I saw no issues with you this morning.” He blinked. My face went hotter still and all I could hear was my heart thumping in my ears. “You went silent, Ian Cimet? You’ve been bubbling all this time and now all your colors are flashing.” He pointed out.
“You-you-you…I-” I pushed myself off the rock into the cold water if only to escape my own thoughts.
Seran slid from the rock to approach where I was paddling in horrified embarrassment. “You are saying a lot of words now, Ian Cimet?” Seran ventured.
“I’m surprised you’re not telling me I’m screaming,” I whispered, unable to pull my fixation from the middle distance.
“Did I offend you?” Seran asked.
“No, why would you think that?” I gulped, tearing my gaze from the water to his midnight black eyes.
“Is asking another to be a mate so quickly so strange?” he asked.
“For humans, we tend to court for a couple of years, learn more about each other, find out if we’re compatible before agreeing to marriage,” I answered back in a small voice.
“In the Antumnos, if we are of age and find each other acceptable with our displays, it’s not uncommon for mates to pair off within a few hours of meeting. So strange. Yours is such a short lived species and mine is so long and yet we do things completely opposite of each other.”
“And I’m caught in between.” I leaned against the rock, kicking my feet to keep myself above water. A slide along my feet and calves and Seran pulled me into the cradle of his tail. I grabbed for his arm to steady myself. “Is there a rush to claiming a mate?”
“For the sake of Siren’s Voice, you would be claimed in the Antumnos by one of the sea king, whoever of the giants got to you first,” Seran hedged, keeping me steady as he helped me get back to the land side of the dock outcropping.
“I would not have a choice in the matter?” I ventured.
Seran wouldn’t meet my eyes at that question, all of his fins laying flat.“This is unfair to you, with your culture, is it not? You would be given a choice, a pick of many, and yet all you have met from the Antumnos is a bull calf and a spotless guard.” Seran pushed his hair from his face.
“In my culture, I wouldn’t have much of a choice at all, have not had a choice,” I bit back.
Seran twisted his head in question at the statement.
“You said you found my appearance acceptable. My appearance is a deformity to humans. No one would have me the way I am, and those I find attractive, it’s not safe to admit.” My fingers were going cold at the decisions being made for me.
“I mean, you have no fin, but there are those of the Antumnos who are finless too,” Seran hedged.
“Legs and feet are normal for humans,” I explained.
“I do not understand, Ian Cimet. You are perfect? Well proportioned. As a child of Puca, your coloration and spots are consistently patterned. You might not speak Antumnos well now, but you are learning. Your Siren’s Voice makes you unique, true. You would be the pride of any of the sea giants to have at their side?” Seran looked me up and down in confusion. “Any human should be proud to call you mate.”
I paused at the compliments. They were genuine and yet felt hollow for the many years I had lived different from what the other men around me looked like. I knew nothing of Seran. I knew nothing of the Antumnos. What the culture was. I knew nothing but that the world was not what I thought it to be and I was no longer human enough to pass as acceptable. “If you would be proud of a half-human as a mate, then I accept your dowry, Seran.”
“The problem remains, though, even in accepting your dowry, that I don’t speak Antumnos and I can’t use my gills. What is there for us if I have an aversion to the water?” I motioned to the horizon behind Seran.
He pulled up a shoulder and twisted his head at the question. “I am not without understanding or as crass as to demand anything of my partner which they do not wish to give freely. You have time, Ian Cimet, to find if the water or the land will be home.”
“My name is Ian,” I tacked into the conversation.
“You are not Ian Cimet? That was the name I was given?” Seran cocked his head in the opposing direction.
“Some humans have multiple names. Ian is my first, Cimet is my last. I just go by Ian.” I ducked my head to rub at the back of my neck.
“If it will not offend you?” Seran ventured.
“Do you-” I cleared my throat, “do you go by Seran, or do you also have multiple names like humans?” Seran stalled at the question, his fins telling his mood of nervous and relaxed. I scrunched in on myself at the action. “Is that something I’m not supposed to ask?”
“It is not that, necessarily. It is that…” he trailed off, still at a loss for words. I waited, letting him determine what he was willing to talk about. “I am spotless.” His tone warbled, the type of note I would expect before Anna or Viktor would start crying because of bullies at school.
“Are spots common amongst the children of Llyr?” I asked.
“The clans of the large Llyr have them and many of the small Llyr folk. The nesting grounds to which I see, and Keris, the territory’s overseer are of one of the large Llyr clans,” he explained in a round about way.
“You are not from Taigre’s clan?” I summarized. “You are from somewhere else than the gulf, then?”
Seran’s fins eased at the questions.
“I am half-human Seran, and you and Taigre are all that I have seen. I have seen prejudice within the human world. I will not deny that. Is that what is happening to you?”
“Prejudice. It is an interesting articulation for Disgust and Hate.” Seran deflected.
“Those are the Antumnos words for it, I take it?” I flicked a pebble into the surf.
“My mother fled with me from the nesting grounds in the three channeled river of Ayutthaya when the Burmese burned the human settlement to the ground. So much of the destruction polluted the nesting grounds, decimating entire stock of our people.” He slid off his perch to return back to the water. In a way, he reminded me of my father pacing the floor in front of the fireplace the night he told us the farm would be foreclosed on. “It is not that we died out. It is that my father died in helping save some of the humans that were forced into our waters by other humans.”
“You were forced out because your father tried to protect who he could?” I demanded, rising in frustration.
“My mother fled with me from the other bet-tah when I was not yet old enough to protect myself. Overseer is passed down within the bet-tah from father to son. With my father dead, and me too young, the seat turned over to the rule of the Council until I came of age. She died of stress shortly after reaching the Gathering Grounds where the Antumnos Council meets. She had hoped that one of the Council would place me with a clan. Keris knew nothing of what happened in Ayutthaya. The Council placed me with him to distance me.”
I frowned at the procession of events. “Then, if you are mature, why have you not returned to overseer your nesting ground?”
“With no mate, I would still be seen as unable to oversee.” He sank back into the water, eyelids cast low at the admission. “It is not that I asked you to be my mate so as to take back my grounds.”
“It’s a bonus, though?” I guessed. “How does this tie into your names and spots though? I’m still lost on the importance?”
“I have lived more years with the deep Llyr than my own clan. They pride themselves on their spots, on their colors to find a mate. I remember very little of my own clan. Mother did not have spots though. She was a slim grey with black flecking. I do not believe my people can vary their colors like Keris’s people,” he tried to explain.
“And kids can be right dicks when they get it in their mind that someone else is different,” I assumed of his life. I had suffered my own share of issues, it was easy to relate.
“Yes, calves can be. So can their parents.” Tension eased from his shoulders and his fins relaxed.
“I am sorry that you’ve had to deal with that. Spots or not, I like your fins,” I smiled. He ducked at that, going below where all his fins had fluffled out, making him into a black and white cloud. Stalled beneath the waves, he covered his face with his hands as he curled his tail around him, using the largest of his fin to cover himself. “Are you coming back? Did I say something wrong?” I called. No response. “Seran?” I tried again.
A snap of sticks from behind startled me. “Hey, boys, look what the storm dragged in!” A man called into the forest. I tripped back from the voice, trying to see between the rotting dock boards. A pair of blue eyes stared down at me through them from the edge of the forest. A shot gun cocked behind him.
My gut tightened at the sound. No time to figure out Antumnos. I needed Seran to leave, to get away from the calm water where he would be seen. If he thought his people were cruel, there was no time for him to discover the depravity of humans. Picturing every instance of danger I could, which, with a gun so close by, that wasn’t difficult, I tried my internal screaming. I could only imagine that was what he had been referring to when he had told me I was screaming when I wasn’t last night. I didn’t dare take my eyes off the one man who was descending down the rock to the beach edge where I was hiding under the dock.
My spots were glowing in the fading light.
“I thought you said he was some homeless guy you saw in your woods today! He’s glowing like a radium dial!” A different, high pitched voice called back to the man approaching my lair.
“He’s been talking and humming to himself all day in a weird language. Thought he hit his head,” the man called back.
“I-I can explain!” I scuttled for the water’s edge, getting myself away from getting caught in the brush around the dock.
“Oh, there’s no need to explain, lightning bug,” the man reassured. His voice scalded, sending shivers down my skin.
“I’ll just be leaving. Thought the dock was abandoned and figured I’d be safe out of the wind a couple days. Didn’t mean to encroach.” I slipped on a rock as I backed up, finally finding the guy with the gun up in the woods, and three more men.
“Don’t leave, we were just getting to know each other. You know there’s talk of Hag and Wally looking for some additions to their show.” The man jumped the rocks, knowing which were solid and which would shift.
“I know how it felt having trespassers on dad’s farm. Meant no harm. I’ll be getting.” I swallowed, hoping for escape.
“Randal!” One of the men up in the treeline yelled at the one pursuing me.
“I hear ya! We’re gonna be rich, boys.” The man launched himself across the rocks and up over the dock while I tripped, turning to make a run for it in encroaching dusk.
“Get him!” Another of the men followed suit. Clattering footfall echoed behind me as I pulled myself over boulders and skittering along the sharp flakes of sandstone. Prickle shrub jabbed into my skin, tearing at my hands and arms. The shotgun was a pump action. Each click raised the hair on my head. Three clicks. I dove for the deeper water where I knew the boulders were thinnest from when Seran had brought me ashore. A flash of shearing pain and fire blew threw my shoulder blade and upper arm. Shot. I’d been shot.
Limb useless, shot through with numb fire, I pushed myself into the darkening water, hoping they would lose sight of me. My spots were bright though and easy target. Another loud blast. Fingers grabbed onto my good hand beneath the water and tugged me lower, out of range of the buck shot. Seran’s face came into view, concern creasing the edge of his eyes as he pulled me into the cold until we were sitting at least twenty feet from the surface. I clutched at him as he engulfed me in his wrap of fins, keeping my spots hidden to only us.
“I hate to say this after your experience from yesterday, Ian, but you’re going to need to breathe,” he told me. I knew it. I knew it, but I really didn’t want to. The burn from the water yesterday was worse than the buckshot today. He put his hands to my chest, quickly tracing my spots to form glowing rings and lines. “A couple more seconds, Ian. Hold on a couple more seconds.” He said that, but my temples were throbbing, my wound was turning our hiding nest murky, and rings were forming in my eyes.
“Now! All of it. Push all the air out entirely. Don’t hold out on me.” He twisted his tail against my back and pushed against my chest in an effort to help me. I held onto his sides, fear taking hold as I did what I was told. That next breath in was hell. Worse than before. My ears rang with it and my stomach twisted. I willed myself to not kick for the surface like I so badly wanted to. “You’re doing good. You got it in. Now out. Your mantel doesn’t just go in your mouth and out through your gills. Like humans breath air, you have to get it out.” He twisted, helping me as I started going light headed. This time, though it burned, I found I was able to more easily draw the water in and out.
“Yes, I curled a charm into your mantel to strengthen it. It won’t last more than a couple of minutes though. We need to get you away from this shoreline, and I can’t cast any more charms. You’re bleeding, Ian!” He noticed in horror, clamping his hands down on my shoulder.
“And it smells of Kraken child,” a low voice echoed through the waters, a massive head emerging from the darkness. Long wide, it looked like an albino rattlesnake with massive red eyes.
“Leviathan!” Seran hissed.
“I heard Siren Voice so far out, I had to come investigate, Bet-tah,” Leviathan chuckled to itself. “And here I find you hiding a Kraken child. Who’s do you have? Cuttle? Lineolata, Mestus? Typica’s mayhaps?”
Bet-tah? Who was Bet-tah? The creature must be referring to Seran. I thought Seran’s people were Bet-tah, not himself.
Seran swallowed, his chest rising beneath my fingers as I concentrated on trying to pull water in and out. “Sh, sh, just breath, Ian. That’s all you’re doing,” he whispered, arms tightening around me.
Quiet. I needed to silence myself. Make all of it go away. A Kraken child was a Kraken child, nothing more without Siren Voice other than a child of a sea king. I still was unsure of what powers one could hold with that type of position.
What had I done to make myself silent by Seran’s definition? I had been embarrassed. I couldn’t pull that emotion out right now. Not with my shoulder screaming at me and trying to remember to get water into my gills. My ribs hurt with the effort. Seran’s fins settled around me carefully. The frilled edging tickled along my arms and the back of my neck.
Even in the midst of this intrusion, he continued to help me regulate. It was either Leviathan or the men on shore with the shotguns. I knew what that last option felt like. I would rather deal with drowning at the moment. The saltwater was less painful after a few breaths than the freshwater. At least the sensation of it coating the bizarre organ inside my chest. The pressure density was something else to contend with though.
“My mate, Leviathan. He is mine, regardless of parentage.” Seran tightened closer around me, his fins blanketing me protectively.
“It is unmarked. I would have smelled that as much as its Kraken.” The creature’s voice slid across me, an uneasy, manipulative slither. The timbre vibrated through my skin into my bones. It made me nauseous.
“You interrupted our courtship is all,” Seran bluffed, trying to pull me to his side, putting himself between me and the creature. My right hand was going numb. Rings flashed in my eyes. I gasped, fighting with the next breath of water.
“Then I can still Claim.” Leviathan’s head came closer to us. I caught the red irises between the frills of Seran’s tail.
Seran shivered beneath me. “You would push Claim on another’s mate. For what right?”
“That the kings of the sea shall secure Siren’s Voice. None have been born to the Antumnos in well over five centuries at this point. Siren’s Voice shall be mine. I will become the leader of the council! We shall no longer suffer under humans’ thumb.” The creature lunged. My chest contracted at the movement, my heart stuttering. All of my spots radiated, blinding both me and Seran in our enclosed space.
Leviathan recoiled in surprise, hissing in fear, “Puca Kraken.”
“You would risk Puca’s anger, claiming one of his sons against his will?” Seran laughed at the situation, pushing a hand to my chest to help me expel the water still stuck in the bottom of my chest cavity without Leviathan seeing.
“Puca has not had children in centuries. He is not Puca’s child!” The creature weaved to look closer at me.
Seran leaned into my forehead. “If he gets too close to you, bite him. Bite him like you are going to die.” I nodded, fighting with the driving fear permeating my limbs. “You have seen his lights and know him to be Kraken child and yet persist in saying he is not Puca’s? You would tempt a Blue Hole’s depth?”
“What is wrong with him, that he cannot answer for himself who his father is?” Leviathan pressed closer, invading our space. “It is of no matter. It has Siren’s Voice. Puca’s child or any other, I will rule the council.”
Seran loosened his hold on me as I sucked in a deep gulp of water. The white nose bumped into us, sending us summersaulting far away from the bottom of the Texas shoreline. It’s head kept up with us, it’s neck disappearing well into the darkness even my lights couldn’t reach. The creature’s nose was the length of Seran’s body easily. I twisted in the blanket of fins and latched onto the massive creature, biting down like Seran said. My gut seized on the flavor, that of something akin to honeysuckle and sea spray. Were the creature not beneath the water and looking me in the eye, I would have believed myself to have taken a large bite of saltwater taffy.
Leviathan shreaked, thrashing to have me dislodge. “You would destroy me upon a simple inquest on the validity of Mate Claim? You shall be tamed!” The creature shook viciously. “Release me. It hurts!”
Large hands grasped around my chest to pull me from the creature. “Woah. Easy, Ian. Let go!” Seran demanded. “You’re not going to be able to eat him and breathe at the same time yet!”
I didn’t want to let go. The creature had scared me. I wanted my shoulder to stop hurting. At this exact moment in time, I felt justified in the method, and it tasted like the sweets counter back home. The walnuts and persimmons had not done much for me and I was famished.
“No. No. I understand that Puca’s children like the taste of other Kraken and the sea gods, but you’re going to stop being able to breathe if you don’t let go. Eyes are too big for your stomach, Ian. You need the rest of your siblings to take down Leviathan. Argue all you want. Not dinner! Let go. You only needed to warn him off. No, you can’t have more right now. If he comes near you again, you can then, but that’s more than enough for a meal. Let go.” Seran commanded. I chomped down once more for good measure before releasing my grip to curl back into my bet-tah’s arms. He was not wrong either. Swallowing was difficult against the water compressing my organs.
The massive snake headed creature withdrew, honeysuckle blood gushing into the dark. “Puca’s child!” It screeched, angry and scared. “A Siren’s Voice from a Kraken child of Puca. The Antumnos Council will hear of this!”
“Are you to tell them, Leviathan? By what means will you tell them? That you tried to Claim another’s mate in the midst of courtship? That you antagonized Puca’s child into biting you? You will have no sympathy, Leviathan. Neither you, nor the scar on your nose if and when it heals,” Seran hissed.
I had a million and one questions running through my head. The most pressing though was the fading rings from Seran’s charm. Leviathan retracted, leaving behind a wash of cold water that buoyed us to the surface. Seran turned over on his back to hold me out of the water while I cleared my gills for sweet air.
I could not see the land for the water, the sun having dipped below the horizon to leave us in a blanket of stars. “Do I-” I almost hacked up my lung, “do I want to know why that snake tasted like candy?”
“About that,” Seran started nervously.
“Actually. Hold off. Is there a way to get my arm to stop hurting?” I switched topics when cold air hit my wounds.
“Here, turn, let’s see what we’re working – oh great Llyr!” Seran hissed at whatever he found. By the way my skin felt, I could only guess the glancing blow from the buckshot had probably left a pretty ragged looking wound. “Every sea god will be coming for you with that!”
“Is that what I just met, a sea god?” I coughed the last of the water out.
“Leviathan. Ghastly creature. I’m going to need to get you to a better healer than myself. I know tricks and charms, but I can’t handle something this complex.” Seran explained.
“When Taigre and you left to the nesting grounds, it took you a long time to get there and back,” I let on, my anxiety of having to go back in the water to breath rising.
“I do not need the nesting grounds. There are reefs closer. I can find you someone there,” he reassured.
“Are you able to set another charm for me to breath again?” I asked.
“No. That took everything I had for charms for at least the next day. For the moment, rest, you might get a bit wet, but I can swim us towards our destination. I’m sorry about that. Your mantle is going to be tender for days at this rate.” He encouraged me to lay against his chest.
“You are much larger than Taigre,” I mumbled, curling so that I could keep my right shoulder above water.
“Wait until you meet Keris,” he whispered back to me with a chuckle as I drifted into blackout.
“You will need to tell him, Seran. It will do him no good to learn you are Fomorii, a child of Domnu and not a child of Llyr,” a low voice said over me in the dark. I had been asleep on Seran, heading out to sea. Now, I found myself stationary.
“He has met very few of any of the Antumnos, Nuada. Are the politics necessary?” Seran quipped.
“Not politics, Seran. Not in this regard. He should know the separation between the children of the sea and the children of the river. A kraken child mated to a Fomorii will suffer,” the low voice continued.
“I can live in the salt,” Seran protested.
“And it does you no good. It is stressing on your body. The white lines have grown since last I saw you.” Bubbles, a swirling sound of water echoed in my skull. I was numb though to my sensations, floating in a quiet abyss.
“I am getting older. Age happens,” Seran defended.
“You are still quite young, Bet-tah, for your kind. You have centuries before your colors should change as drastically as they have,” Nuada placated.
“What would you have me do, Council Leader?” Seran yielded. “Leviathan has already threatened Mate Claim in favor of using him to take your position. He is after a rebellion.”
“You haven’t claimed the Kraken Child as a mate. Everyone would know it,” Nuada bit.
“He was raised human and Antumnos customs intimidate him. I have given him a dowry and he agreed to it,” Seran tried to explain.
“Of pearls? Cast offs from meals, Seran? That is nothing more than an insult!” Nuada reprimanded. “Are you after a mate, or are you too trying to take my position like Leviathan?”
“Pearls were meaningful to the humans of my homewaters,” Seran hissed. “Do not disregard his heritage so easily.”
Peeling my eyes open to the low light blue water, I sucked in a deep gasp. It didn’t hurt. That caught me off guard, along with Seran, and two other individuals of a bizarre shape to my predispositions of normal. “Pearls,” I coughed, coming to Seran’s defense, “are actually quite valuable to humans. What he offered me, I could buy back my dad’s farm, and more land on top of that, livestock, and never suffer a shortage of food,” I coughed again, wheezing this time, “sorry, sir.” Seran reached for my hand as I tried to turn off the stone I was laying belly flat on.
“Careful, Dian Cecht is seeing to your shoulder. She said it will take a few more hours to pull the rest of the shrapnel and mend the bone,” Seran cautioned as he helped position me so I could sit upright.
“He does have Puca’s lights. You are a son of Puca. He has never held a human farm such that you speak of.” A massive creature, well over eight times Seran’s size and a deep blood red peered down at me from over a ledge. Not as large as Leviathan, he still set all of my spots pulsing. A lantern hung from the top of his head and abominably massive fangs curled up near his eyes. “And I am not sir, I am ma’am. My mates have been well apart of me for eons, they were all sirs.” Nuada motioned irreverently long arms towards the length of her body where lumps rose along her. “Stop flashing. I will not eat you.”
Rendered mute, I could do no more than turn from Nuada to Seran and back. Out of terrified curiosity, I turned to see who was behind me working on my shoulder. A smaller creature of similar build to a dynllyr but of my size stood on a series of multiple thin tube like legs, a short, thick, lobed tail jutted from the back. Compound eyes glittered in a myriad of rainbow colors. “I am Dian Cecht, Kraken child, it is an honor to meet the progeny of Puca,” Dian Cecht bowed. Multiple sets of arms, one on the right possessing a massive claw was enough to set my spots going all over again.
“You may wish to lower your stress, Kraken Child. You will wear through the charm allowing you to breathe comfortably,” Nuada cautioned. That did nothing for my rising level of anxiety.
“Ian?” Seran tried to draw my attention. I turned to him as he slipped his fingers beneath mine. I latched on, desperate that I not be in this seventh layer of hell.
“I can’t do this.” I gulped. The lights under my skin had not had a sensation up to this point. The brighter I got in the blue depression, the more my skin prickled. “I want to go home. I want my little plot of land on dad’s farm. I want to feed Omah. I want my mandolin. I want my pencils. I can’t do this.”
“I hear you. I know this is scary. I remember being scared when I first came to the Antumnos Council. Let’s get your shoulder fixed first, okay?” Seran bobbed to keep my attention focused on him.
“How am I talking proper?” I asked.
“Cainte, another of the Antumnos Council, put a charm between your throat and your iase, where you seem most attached to communicate so that you weren’t left dependent on me,” he explained. I nodded as Dian Cecht prodded into my flesh.
“And Siren’s Voice?” I gulped as fire shot through my nerves and Dian Cecht dropped a piece of metal on my rock slab.
Nuada pulled closer to me, her lantern illuminating the bowl shaped crevice we were hiding within to keep from being swept by the currents. “Do you have Siren’s Voice, like Seran claims?”
Swallowing, I shifted from the monstrous visage in my face. “I could not tell you. It is what your people have claimed since the moment one of yours bit me and I started glowing in the dark.”
“Then it is probably nothing more than the wishful thinking of errant upstarts and calves who have not been exposed to the sound in their years,” Nuada assumed. “You need not fear others coming after you, Kraken child. I highly doubt Leviathan was who you saw. You’ve been in Keris’s nesting grounds too long, Bet-tah.”
“I am unsure of it’s tone, unaware in the moments they have claimed me to have used it,” I conceded.
“He sings. Your heart breaks in listening to it. Craves hearing it again. Do not insinuate I am outside of my depths because I am Fomorii,” Seran hissed darkly at the creature.
“Many of our people sing, Bet-tah. It is not an uncommon phenomenon,” Nuada admonished.
“You’re telling me this when I have lived as foster child and now guard of Keris’s nesting grounds?” Seran’s fins were twitching, laying flat in agitation.
“Others do too, Bet-tah. It is for being stuck in Keris’s nesting grounds that you may not have experienced others of the Antumnos singing and just been confused by it,” Nuada tried to placate.
“Tell me of a Kraken that sings, Nuada. Who. Puca communicates through his lights to warn others. He does not sing. Neither he, or others like him. Does Lamhfada, being half-human and Great Kraken child?” Seran seethed.
“He is ancient. Of course he does not sing,” Nuada rationalized.
“He still occupies the land near my old nesting grounds?” Seran asked.
“I know not. He has slipped from the waters into the human realms and no one has heard from him in over a century,” Nuada conceded.
“Then you are not sure if he can sing or not.” Seran judged.
“He does not have Siren’s Voice. That much I can guarantee,” Nuada leaned her massive head on her hand to regard Seran with one of her massive brown and black eyes.
“And you would leave Ian to his own safety by stating he does not possess Siren’s Voice upon seeing him. You would risk a Siren in the Antumnos by dismissing him? You would not ask of him anything? Leviathan imposed on Mate Claim!” Seran’s fins went as flat as I had seen him achieve.
“Singing. Music? That is Siren’s Voice? My heart singing? And you would make me do it on command?” I muttered at the concept, agitated at the merfolk. Dian Cecht patted me on the shoulder, finished with pulling the buckshot out of my wounds. “I had always hoped it would be my art that was admired through the world. I wanted to be famous, escape my parents’ farm, go to the city, become something. Now, my world has turned inside out and you want me to shred my soul for you so I can claim a spot in this food chain?” I growled at Nuada, fingers tightening on Seran’s wrists.
“I meant no ill-will, Kraken child. I do not trust the lack of evidence. You are clearly of Puca’s lineage. I will not dismiss that. However, you are not of Siren’s Voice. I have met several in passing and I would know it.” Nuada dismissed with a flick of her wrist.
“Then pearls and rivers will make no nevermind to you.” I pushed myself from the stone slab. My shoulder blazed, but I was done.
“Where do you think you are off to, Kraken child, to leave a Council Leader who has not dismissed you?” Nuada reprimanded.
Numb terror had turned to boiling anger. My spots changed, toning down, dimming the space around us. I slipped my fingers from Seran’s, using a kink in his tail to launch myself up out of the sheltered bowl. The only light, the red orange glow of Nuada’s lamp. I had hold of Nuada’s enormous jaw before she realized I had moved. “Call me Kraken child again, mudskipper and I will become your Kraken. Do you taste like Leviathan?”
“You wouldn’t.” Nuada shivered under my hold, her massive eyes swiveling to my location.
“Strip me of my name. Strip me of my humanity. You do not rule me, mudskipper. I have not acknowledged you as any leader of mine. Shall I leave you the way I left Leviathan?” I barred my teeth.
“You really maimed him? You left your mark on him to be hunted by your siblings? For questioning the legitimacy -”
“If it is the one power I hold in this place, I will protect myself. I don’t trust you. You’ll be letting me pass now,” I interrupted her. She kept quiet at the threat. “Seran, stay here or come with or do whatever you choose to do. Just point me in the direction of land. Rather take pot shots from bb guns than deal with entitled eels.”
“Ian!” Seran called behind me as I broke the surface of the ocean. We were surprisingly closer than I thought to land. The crevice had been part of a deep section off a long shallow shelf. Instead of wasting the charm, I used it to push myself towards the soft sand beach. “Ian!” Seran called again. I ignored the call, intent on putting feet to earth.
At the beach edge I cleared out my gills and drew in fresh, humid air. The type like Galviston in summer when the wind had settled. Suffocating, when the sea turned into the heavens and you sweated like you’d been swimming. The trees were strange compared to my pine and birch I had grown up. Wide overarching palm fronds and thick staggered trunks.
I couldn’t survive in the human world the way I was. Going back now was chancing my freedom and my life. Going in the ocean unclaimed meant dealing with Leviathan, and others of the Antumnos. Nuada gave me the creeps. Leviathan I understood. That motivation was almost tangible and bluntly honest.
People from the village had a saying. “Come to a crossroads and count the stars above you. Make a pact with the first person to intersect with you, if you wish to leave.” An easier way of saying it: “When no other choice is available, make a pact with the devil that lets you sleep at night.”
“Ian Cimet?” Seran called from several feet out in the surf. If he came in much closer he would beach himself and get stuck.
“Where’s a freshwater source?” I asked, digging a foot into the sand to get myself upright. The world protested, slipping sideways on me. The sun was shifting past midday and I was famished.
“South.” He pointed along the beach edge.
“How far?” I called back, starting on my trudge.
“Not more than fifty spans.” He followed me in the surf.
“Your length?” I asked.
“Not my length, no. I’m not sure how to relate it to you. You saw Nuada’s length. Twenty of her, at least,” he answered.
The beach ran up against a set of dark cliffs, interspersed with broad foliage. Birds flitted in and out of the trees. He had brought me to paradise and I was lost. Set my sail and let the rudder list, I was floating to the whims of the gods.
“I don’t like her,” I grouched at him.
“She takes time to warm up to,” he hedged.
“Thank you for getting me to someone who could help with my shoulder.” I still couldn’t lift it and rotate it properly, but it was better.
“Of course! You were wounded and you warned me of danger with those humans. Why did they injure you?” Seran asked.
“I was camped on their territory, so they wanted me to leave, until they realized I was different. Ever heard of a circus?” I scrambled over a jut of volcanic rock.
“No, it is a new word for me,” Seran admitted.
“Companies collect odd and strange creatures and employ people who can do tricks or look strange. They travel, acting and performing for money from crowds of other people. There’s something called a sideshow, and they are usually part of the circus. That’s where bearded ladies and strongmen and short people exhibit themselves. The men, once they saw my spots, changed from wanting me off their land, to wanting to put me in a sideshow,” I explained.
“But they shot you? You said no?” Seran asked, confused.
“They would have gained a finders fee for me. I may or may not have actually gotten paid. I can’t stomach that kind of attention. It was something Jarl had initially wanted to do with Taigre, send him to the sideshow. I couldn’t fathom seeing him stuck in a tank. That wouldn’t have been good for him.” I ended up having to backtrack at an impassable rock and get into the water.
“Thank you for not sending him to this sideshow place. A finder’s fee. I am not sure I understand.” Seran shimmied over low rocks in the water rather than go far out to get around.
“You know how humans value pearls?” I splashed through the tide around the rock.
“Yes.” He pulled closer in as the shallowness of the beach dipped on the other side of the rocks.
“Does the Antumnos deal in money, currency, taxes, barter?” I lifted away deep lobed leaves to search for the absentee shore line.
“We will barter, yes, but I am not familiar with the use of the other terms.” Seran shrugged. “We’re almost to the freshwater, around that next outcrop and you’ll be at the delta.”
“Essentially they would have bartered my life for pearls.” I gave him the blunt version, finding the edge of the shore again.
“But you are not theirs to give.” His tail slapped the surface of the water in frustrated incredulity.
“You’re not wrong there. If I had been one of them and come across Taigre, you would not have gotten him back. Humans, some are good, some are not, and it’s not always easy to tell who is who.
“Met some old timers who came out of the Civil War and went through emancipation. Met some of their kids on the docks. Met enough sharecroppers on my way down from Vale to Galveston. Some of them who lived through the 1900 flood. People take advantage of others when it benefits them.
“We’re parasitic by nature.” I turned at his rock, the smell of the water changing noticeably. The temperature dropped and the delta merged between a clear soft green and a murky algae green. Seran dashed into the deep river. I followed him along the bank while he rolled in the current in ecstasy.
“You are not parasitic. I’ve seen enough parasites, and you do not do what they do,” Seran defended.
“In the general sense of the term, humans are parasitic. We may not latch on and feed like your lamp rays or snot worms, but we take and take and take. You would make me the wealthiest man in the world.” I tried to elaborate.
“But I am not yours, not to give away.” Seran picked leaf shed out of his tresses, flicking detritus back into the water where he would gather it all over again.
“No. You know that. I know that. There are people out there that do not see the situation that way. Don’t trust humans, Seran. Learn them, but don’t trust any individual you just run into. They won’t have your best interests in mind. Right now, most of the nation’s people, the country I live in, are looking for the easiest way to fill their stomachs. If they found out about the Antumnos and decided to set value to it, your world would collapse right alongside mine.” I paced with him as he enjoyed his bath.
“You are a river creature, aren’t you?” I called out to him, putting my feet in the water. It was soft, compared to the ocean. Cooler, calming, it was easy to slip into the stream and walk along the edge as he fluffed his fins and cleaned the algae from his tail.
“Yes. It feels better. The water doesn’t burn my gills like it does out there,” he admitted, finding himself a large rock to bask on, his eyes and back fins above the waterline. His tail and side fins flicked in and out of the rocking tree light.
“Can I really not breath this?” I waded farther in to sit on a rock close to his.
“If I find the sea to burn, you will think you have died. Reason why I chastised Taigre when he dragged you into the sweetwater mix. It can take a long time getting used to waters that are not natural to you. That could have killed you, being honest. Nuada is not wrong. A Kraken child and a Fomorii would not make a good match.” His gaze slid from me to regard the canopy shading our spot.
“Explain the names. Fomorii, child of Domnu, Bet-tah. I know you are Seran. Also, what are charms? They help a lot, but humans can’t do what you do.” I slipped deeper into the water to enjoy floating.
“You do not fear the river?” Seran pushed himself from his rock to circle me warily. I rolled my shoulders in response.
“Charms are a manipulation of energy. Those of the Antumnos, and those with blood from the Antumnos have varying capacity for them. You could learn to cast them with time. Llyr is higher than the saltwater gods. Domnu is higher than the sweetwater gods. Fomorii is an old name for us from when Nuada fought on the side of Llyr against Domnu. The Fomorii, underrepresented in the Antumnos Council for millenia, had thought to take the seat and transfer the council. A revolution broke out and a lot of both sides were killed, more so from the children of Domnu than the children of Llyr. This was well before my time, or my mother’s. Are you really okay to be in this?”
“I grew up hunting crawdads in the creek, swimming in lakes in summer. I’ve waded flooded pastures. These waters, they aren’t something as broad and deep as that out there.” I pointed back the way we came.
“But rivers can be deep. There are those of the Antumnos who are the same as Nuada in size. Do not think it safer,” he cautioned.
“Do I know that feeling. Viktor, my younger brother, got too far out once and I had a fun moment of running into a massive catfish getting him out of the water. Creeped on my memories for weeks,” I chuckled.
“You were angry out there, and now you are singing? All the sea gods will hear you,” Seran whispered, stuck between trying to hold me above water and leaving me to my floating.
“Maybe I’m a solitary creature, one that finds a person, or two and after that, it’s too much to handle?” I offered, catching onto one of his wrists. He startled at my audacity. “I’m probably not what you need here, just a problem to navigate around. Mate claim isn’t something you’d want with me.
“Bet-tah is what you are, isn’t it? Your group in the Antumnos, like Nuada and Dian Cecht are different from Taigre’s family? Fomorii refers to the separation between the fresh and saltwater factions, not your clan or tribe or people, yes?” I guessed, pulling closer to him and his wavering uncertainty at my motivations.
“Yes, those are what the names mean” he conceded, his voice catching, his fins flattening at the assessment. He fluffed back out and looked up at me, “but I would argue with you on the validity of Mate Claim. Siren’s Voice. You’re singing now. Can you not feel it?”
I closed my eyes to listen to the trickle of water over boulders. The sound of home. The drip of humidity off the leaves. The coating of the freshwater spray on my skin. Seran swallowed. I opened my eyes to regard his expression. He was watching my spots intently, all of his fins feathered out into clouds. “What?” I fought a smile wavering at the corner of my lip.
“I – um -” His fingers slipped along my waist, but his focus was across my chest and arms.
“I’m doing weird patterns again, aren’t I?” I asked after his closeness. He dipped below the water and came back up, flicking his eyes between mine and the rest of me. I snorted at the surface of the water, ducking below the surface to run fingers along a stripe on one of the side fins along his tail. He stilled, fixating. “Is ducking your way of showing yes? Like I nod?” The charm had to still be active between my throat and iase.
“You know what you’re doing?” He joined me under the water.
“Admiring you?” I traced the edges of his fin before bobbing for the surface to grab another breath of air and diving back to him.
“I mean, well, you see,” he stuttered as I traced the feathered edges of his fins in fascination. Delicate, they tickled my fingertips, my lights playing in tight patterns up my arms. He twisted, all of his fins flashing in the river light. I pushed for the surface and sucked in more air and let it go, this time diving on empty lungs. I reached for him. He grabbed for my wrist pulling me so I could curl around him. I kissed him, taking a breathe of hellfire. He held on until I had fought past that first flash of pain. His fins wrapped around me protectively. Returning the kiss, he pressed his charm into my chest, helping me draw in and out on the burn.
“The sea gods, Nuada, they’ll recognize us, yes?” I asked.
“Are you sure? Weren’t you the one who said yesterday that humans need time?” Seran asked.
“Maybe we’ll find love, if those in the Antumnos even understand the concept. For now, can we seek protection in each other?” I twisted with his movements, slipping along his ridges.
“You’ve never seen this,” Seran whispered in startled awe. “Kraken or Fomorii, and you can’t hear yourself.”
“No. I’m not sure I ever will. Someday, I’ll play you songs on my mandolin or guitar,” I slipped my hands behind his neck.
“You’re dancing,” he hedged.
“How does this work with you?” I trailed fingers down his chest.
“Work?” he swallowed.
“Maybe I missed the concept of Mate Claim?” I offered. “You said you’d seen it. That often there was a pairing off after only a couple hours?”
He settled timid fingers over mine. “You seem to know what you’re about.”
“Is this the time to ask if Bet-tah approach this like Taigre and Keris, or is this more of a trout thing? You’re quite literally three times longer than me, so I’m trying to, uh, you know?” I hesitated.
“Like Keris.” Seran’s fins were shimmering. I paused, calculating. “Your spots have gone dim, Ian?”
“I’ve seen enough livestock in my life. I’m trying to work out how this isn’t going to hurt.” I admitted.
Seran got the concept of where my problem lay, all of his fins going slick as his fingers traced across my skin absentmindedly. “You um, well, I thought, see you’re Kraken. I thought you were going to…” he trailed off.
A miniature jack and a clydesdale came to mind at that admission. I was insignificantly small around the others of the Antumnos I had met up to now. The world turned vastly more intimidating all at once. “I’m not going to say no, but am I assuming you designated this off of some hierarchy thing in the Antumnos that I’m not familiar with, or? Again, three times my size, I have some doubts, size wise, that I’ll please you in much of any way?”
Seran ducked at the question, his way of nodding yes. “You’re not wrong. There is hierarchy in the Antumnos.”
I shifted from teasing and admiring to tug him toward some of the low rocks where I could more easily perch. “Would there still be this problem if I were capable of bearing children? Would that impact how this went?”
“Paired like that, I would still be secondary to you because you are Kraken child, but I would be provider.” He let me pull him to rest between my knees.
“Okay. Let’s just clear this one up now. Antumnos hierarchy is bullshit,” I told him.
He shifted in protest, like I had said something taboo. “I’m not sure you understand, Ian. You’re – you’re up there being Puca’s child. You guarantee someone will die if you mark them.”
“A grim reaper?” I clarified.
“That is an unfamiliar term, but the sensation feels right. If you’re down here long enough, you’ll come across more of your siblings. I told you, Puca’s children pack hunt other Kraken and sea gods. You bite someone, the rest will come,” he explained.
“I bit Taigre.” Horror flashed all of my spots bright at that realization.
Seran’s eyes went wide at that as I pushed him off me and launched myself into the river current. “Bit him? When?”
“When he dragged me under that first time. I got scared and he wasn’t letting go. I got one of his fingers. Where are we going?” I demanded as I let the headwater carry me to the delta.
“Pull out and clear your gills before you smack into the ocean, Ian! You think riverwater hurts, that mix is going to make you pass out!” Seran cautioned, catching my foot before I could make it into the murky swirl. I did as I was told and clambered into the swampy mud and spat out the water.
“Who’s more likely to have others like me come after them, Leviathan or Taigre, right now?” I demanded, the water taking its sweet time clearing.
“Leviathan. You took a full chunk out of that massive snout. Tigre had all his fingers when I saw him.” Seran answered from the ocean side.
“Do we have time to get there? Is there a way to let the Antumnos know there’s been a mistake?” I asked, wading into the water and dived in. Saltwater, I had to admit, felt significantly better on my gills.
Seran reached for my hand as I struggled against the current we turned into off the island. “Hold tight and let me know when that charm goes. Dian Cecht said your ribs will eventually soften to passing water through your gills, but to not push it, lest they crack from strain. You’re fast, but I can cover the distance with less effort. I’ll get there faster.”
“What can I do when I get there? Is there a way to undo a mark?” I asked as water rushed past me. Holding onto his back fin, I could not be improving Seran’s aerodynamics, but it was easier to hold on this way and freed up his arms for propulsion.
“I don’t know. I don’t know how your talent works. The best I have are the cautions we’re taught growing up. There are a few top tiers you just don’t mess with in the Antumnos. The Sea Gods tend to be one of them. They’re monstrous, massive, strange, singular phenomenon that can devore an entire nursery ground in one bite. Kraken fall into that line of Sea Gods. Most children of the Sea Gods are just offspring. Some of talents, but most tend to be the crossed offspring of average creatures. They lack intelligence and have a short lifespan because of compatibility issues.” Seran caught a current that sent us hurtling through the darker water. Swarms of flashing silverfish brushed alongside us in swathes for more than a mile. A deep scent, one that left my stomach cramping, fascinated me as I watched smaller grey creatures dash in and out of the sholes.
“But those born to intelligence?” I fixated on the grey creatures, my focus drawing in until I recognized the small squids flicking in and out of the schools, hunting.
“Tend to be longer lived. It is not unheard of for a Sea God and one of the Antumnos producing spawn, and they are abnormally long lived. A human cross is infrequent in the best of times,” Seran’s voice had turned into that of a philosophical school teacher.
“And Puca’s children?” My hands cramped with the desire to get hold of one of the squid. “You said the pack hunt. There must be more. No children have been found in a couple centuries. These are the intelligent Antumnos cross?”
Seran neglected to reply, twisting with the current. We passed out from the shelf and down through a series of jutting cliffs and valleys. The landscape reminded me of New Mexico. The canyons and desert drifted beneath the refraction of light and particle density.
“At least, before we lose anymore food opportunities…” I alluded, taking interest in a set of marlin following our movement.
Seran’s speed at getting us back to the nesting grounds slackened. “They will not be happy being singled out.”
“They are intelligent?” I sized up what could make for good bits of grilled fish steaks.
Seran snorted, a burst of tiny bubbles telling me he was laughing at me. “They are Antumnos. Do you not see them?”
I waited for their form to coalesce into something closer to Seran or Taigre’s. It wasn’t coming to me. I was hungry and they looked like food.
Seran glanced back at me, an edge of worry slicking his fins. “How often do you eat?”
“Three, four times a day preferred. I’ve had maybe two meals in the last three days, and there wasn’t much on Captain’s ship before.” I desperately wanted to let go of Seran and take after one of the marlin. It was smaller, a bit slower than the rest of the school. Black fins with stressed white stripes curled around me, blocking out my fascination. “What?”
Seran’s features were that of worry, though he did not frown like a human. It was the set of his shoulders and the method by which his fingers and fins worked to redirect me back toward the shole of silverfish. “I made an error in seeing to your health, Kraken child. Let’s see to your hunting before taking you to nesting grounds.”
His tone had gone cold and he was handling me like a china doll. Furrowing my brow, I went along with him, confused at the action. “Did I do something wrong?” I asked.
“Not necessarily wrong. You are adhering to your instincts, and sometimes they are dangerous to others. It is not bad, but it does need to be dealt with.” Seran fought the current back a quarter of a mile to the edge of the school.
“Are these Antumnos too?” I asked, now wary to let go of him.
“Most are fish, easily hunted and frequently eaten,” Seran regarded me warily.
“Why do you still look like you then, if I couldn’t see the marlin as Antumnos? If I let go of you, will I recognize you and not try to eat you?” I dragged in salt water, tasting that pungent spice now that we were closer to the squid diverting edges of the schools.
The marlin shot into the sholes, breaking up the pattern, startling Seran and me. “No! Get out of here!” He yelled at the larger beasts. No matter how I looked at them they looked like regular fish.
“Squid. Just a squid Seran,” I whispered, homing in on a little grey creature jetting in our direction. He stilled under my admittance, his fins going static. Using his immense size like I did with Nuada I launched after the slippery beast, getting my hands around the pliable thing. I had never noticed them to have a smell. Everything out of the ocean smelled of ocean. Now though, with salt water rather than air, the creature smelled pungent, spicy, close to woody mushrooms. I glanced back to Seran. “It’s okay, right?”
His protection between marlin and me was a resolute shadow splitting off the school of silverfish into two distinct patterns. The larger fish were interested in him, circling close. He glanced back at me, his tail twitching in irritation. My heart sank with guilt. That type that sinks in whenever I had to realize I was different from everyone else. The creature wrapped it’s tentacles around my hands, desperately seeking escape. I kept my grip on the slippery thing, but gentle so as not to damage it.
“No. He’s Antumnos. Hold on.” He motioned for me to wait and turned back to the marlin. “Stay out of the way if you don’t want to get eaten.” Hissing, he revealed a mouth of sharp teeth at them before nudging back my way to look over the squid I had caught.
“Is it Kraken child, like me?” I asked, frustrated with my inabilities.
“No, no, he is a member of the Nautili clans though. He would very much like to not be consumed at the moment. Would you mind releasing him?” Seran asked carefully.
I released my grip, the grey tentacled beast shifting to put distance between us. “I would have you know I am the leader of my nesting ground in the Soft Southern Ridge!” The creature’s voice squeaked at me. Squid. It still looked like squid.
“Are there any here that a child of Puca may hunt?” Seran asked.
The creature froze at the question, all of its blinking spots going sallow. “Puca child?”
“I’m sorry. I-I can see some of you proper. Right now you just look like a squid and I’m hungry. I didn’t mean no harm for your people.” I waived off, putting Seran in front of me. “I’m sort of new to this whole thing.”
The marlin had stilled at this admittance. The sholes drifted, some still moving mindlessly while others had froze at this announcement. “There are others here in this school of fish aren’t there?” I asked Seran, taking account of those who moved and those who watched.
“Your human sight is interfering with your Antumnos sight because you are hungry,” Seran hedged as we waited for a reply from the creatures.
“I really need to eat and get going. I’ve made a mistake and need to fix it before others like me come,” I tried to explain.
“The Pack!” The call went up through the school and silver fish and squid dashed from the area, fleeing in droves. Left behind, the mindless wanderers and the marlin.
I flicked a glance from Seran to the marlin and back to the one squid that had been identified as part of the Antumnos. “I’m sorry. Really, I am. I don’t know. I didn’t mean for that to sound like a threat.”
“They’ll help you.” The little squid’s tentacles flicked to the marlin who were herding fish my way. It wasn’t the fish though that interested me, it was the few squid in the pack that had my focus. This time, with nothing to push against, I tried to press through the waters for one of the darting beasties. Three times I missed before one of the marlin charged and I got a nice sized one that I could easily share with my entire family. I returned with my catch to Seran and the squid waiting at the outskirts of the school. The marlin, finding their fill, circled back to us.
“This one’s edible, yes?” I presented my catch.
The Antumnos squid recoiled at the question. “To the children of Puca, who isn’t edible?”
“I mean, I shouldn’t eat you, right?” I held my wiggling meal to my chest, waiting. If I had been on land, I would have been salivating.
“I would prefer not to be eaten, or marked for death, no,” the squid replied.
“Can I eat this then?” I asked once more. “It was on your hunting grounds, I think?” I turned to Seran.
“Our hunting grounds are migratorial, but ask them.” The squid motioned and the largest of the marlin entered our circle.
“I’m sorry, um, is it alright with you if I eat this?” I panicked at the sword-like nose so close to me.
“They say yes.” Seran ducked his gratitude.
I copied the movement. “I can’t eat all of it. Would it offend them if I ate what I could and gave them what was left? I think marlin eat squid?”
Seran blew a set of bubbles and one of the marlin twisted in a summersault. “They say that is one of the most respectable deals they’ve heard from a Kraken child.”
“I mean, I’m kind of eating off their hunting grounds. Not sure if it’s a deal.” I bit into the soft spot of the mantle that led to a crunch and the squid in my hands stopped twitching. The world situated itself in order as I dragged in the flavor, that of understory and the soft bits in bacon. I made short work of half of the mantle and internals and a pair of tentacles before the Antumnos resolved itself and the little squid and marlin took on resemblance more closely to that of Seran. Staring, I forgot about the meal to analyse the small Antumnos squid. It’s mantle looked more like a long hat and the tentacles were many long thin arms. Spirals of red lines circled around its mantle, different from its spots. It’s face was closer to that of Taigre and Seran, however lacking a nose entirely.
“My table manners are atrocious, forgive me.” I ducked, looking at the mess floating around me.
“You haven’t eaten me, but you were…” the little grey Antumnos creature twisted with worry as all his spots flickered.
“Siren Voice,” a female marlin whispered, coming closer. She, like the other marlin, was a long, blue creature with a single narrow fin down her back and protruding crescent moon tail. Her mouth was sharpened, her nose merging to the long point, though the length had shrunk comparably now that I saw her for what she was.
“Seran?” I trembled, all of my spots glowing at the analysis. The group pushed back to give me distance.
The Antumnos marlin, the female, fidgeted before shifting closer. She fluttered, her fins catching the sunlight filtering through the calm surface. I floated out of her reach, twisting to watch her dance, unsure of her motivations. Slowly I backpedaled my way towards Seran until I pushed into his chest. His arms encircled me as his fins came up to protect me and the other half of my meal. “He’s taken.”
“There’s been no mate claim, Bet-tah,” the female marlin hissed.
“He’s claimed me,” Seran bit back.
“There’s no proof,” the largest of the male marlin clipped back.
I stared down at my meal. I had put us in another dangerous situation. My spots glowed in my little nest, illuminating Seran’s features harshly. “We need to get to Taigre before the others reach him.”
The marlin stilled. “Others?” one of the smaller males asked.
“I bit someone. My siblings will be coming.” I looked up to Seran’s stolid features. He glared down the marlin at my admittance.
“You were not joking when you said that earlier?” The little squid creature squeaked before rocketing off to the darker depths.
“I said I would leave you with the other portion of my meal.” I glanced to the marlin, not willing to leave the safety of Seran’s fins.
“Take it. It’s your’s, child of Puca. Siren’s Voice isn’t worth getting eaten over.” The marlin turned to join the little squid creature.
With their departure, Seran and I were left to ourselves. “Do you eat squid?” I asked him.
His edgy mood dissolved when the marlin were lost to the dark waters. “The little ones similar to me eat grubs and insects. The Bet-tah of the Antumnos though enjoy snakes and sweetwater eel. I tend to hunt saltwater eel.”
“So, no to squid?” I ventured, unsure of what to do with the carcass if I wasn’t going to consume it immediately.
“More to the point, offering food like this, it’s, well…” Seran trailed off, all his fins fluffing again.
“Courtship ritual?” I assumed, numb after the mishap I had almost had with the other Antumnos creatures.
“For some. From what I’ve been told, it is within my clan. Is it with your kind?” Seran took the offered meal, watching my reaction.
“Usually the married couple will share honey cakes and wine as their first meal after the ceremony, but I don’t think there is one before it. I mean, guys courting their girls will usually join her parents and her for dinners, so maybe, if you think of it like that?” I ventured. “The female marlin, she tried to mate claim me, didn’t she?”
“She did,” his voice was soft, a quiet echo under the current.
“I had control of myself, right? I didn’t say yes or anything, did I?”
“No, the most you did was sing when you were eating. If not for the audience, you were…” he twisted at his inability to form the words and took a bite of the squid.
“I don’t want to lead someone on accidentally.” I studied the ragged cliffs jutting out below us.
“You’re cute when you eat.” Seran swallowed, refusing to meet my eyes.
I strangled at the compliment, water refusing to go in or out of my gills. “Why did you stay the same when I couldn’t recognize the others as different?” I pressed as he downed the rest of the squid. He shrugged, licking a finger clean. The action rippled up my shoulder. I shuddered.
He turned his focus to me. “You’re singing again.”
“I’m a bit horney is what I am.” I muttered to myself. “What proof is there to mate claim? Leviathan said it could be smelled. The marlin said there was no proof. Did any of them have mate claim that I could see?”
“Nuada is an acception, not a rule. The nautili, he had mate claim. You saw the long red mark across his mantle?” Seran moved to unfold me from his protection. I shifted to take hold of his back fin as we pushed into the colder depths of the Gulf waters.
“The long spiral?” I checked.
“That was his mate claim. Each of the Antumnos leaves behind a mark of some type. It’s dependent upon the clan claim what it looks like. To Leviathan and some of the Sea Gods, the line has a smell of the creature who imprinted.”
“Dian Cect?” I asked after the shrimp like creature.
“Abstains from mate claim. Has no interest in it. So she has no signs. I really can’t think of anyone you’ve met up to now who has mate claim sign, other than the Nautili. This has to be confusing to you.”
“It is. I think I overreacted to Nuada,” I admitted.
“Why did you take such a disliking of her?”
“Leviathan, they’re more like a snake. We leave snakes alone back home unless they’re disturbing the chickens or particularly poisonous. Cut their heads off with a shovel so we don’t get dead. I understood that. Leviathan is a snake. Nuada. She has a massive ball of light hanging off her head and these massive teeth which are creepy on their own but the fact that she absorbs her mates like that. Nope. Not going there. That was too many shades of weird for me. To say the least of it, she is what nightmares are in my world. Leviathan is a snake, that’s handleable. Nuada, I’ve got nothing.”
A burst of champagne tiny bubbles brushed over Seran’s shoulders. He was laughing. “You didn’t like her because of her type of mate claim?”
“Honestly, being completely upfront here, she just rubbed me wrong. I didn’t like her tone with you when I was waking up. Everything else just set up the rest of my opinion.” I shrugged. The rush of the current pulled us deeper into the gulf, the land below us flashing past in massive swaths of rock and desert.
“Her tone?” Seran asked.
“Had some of those nosey little old bitties back home who’d get in everyone’s business playing matchmaker. They weren’t hard to deal with. It was the matriarch. She ran the quilting ring with the rest. She’d get them all riled and have them break up matches that didn’t suit her taste. Couldn’t stand the woman. She couldn’t stand my family either. We were outsiders. Didn’t really fit in and she’d make sure we knew it. Made sure everyone else knew it too. Nuada reminded me of her. Reminded me of when Anna took a fancying to a boy in class and that crone straight up boxed both their ears and reminded him he was already pledged to someone else chosen by his father. I don’t like matchmakers,” I vented that buried frustration that had been eating me for years.
“Matchmaker? What an odd concept.” Seran bounced off an incoming spire and sent us hurtling into a new current system. It twisted us down into the darker waters where my eyes took their time adjusting and my spots lit up myriads of strange darting fish.
“Common thing in Europe from what mom told me when I asked her to explain.” I ducked as flecks of algae and sandstone came loose in the current.
“Humans are strange.”