A harsh wind blew across the Western Sea, whipping the water into a seething tumult. In the middle of the storm sat a large fishing trawler, the Livelier. The ship rolled violently from side to side, reeling with the waves like a drunken troll.
Night had fallen, but the elven crew still scrambled about the deck, hauling lines and dropping anchors to keep the ship steady in the waves.
In the middle of it all, from a bait tank on the aft deck, a young merman watched the chaos unfold. On his boyish face was a permanent scowl, sneering at the sailors with contempt.
I hope the storm sinks this rotten ship, Samu'el thought darkly. It would serve them all right.
Sam was not aboard the vessel by choice. The tank he was trapped in was barely seven foot square, and it served as his prison, a steel grate atop blocking his escape.
Two weeks earlier, he had been snagged in one of the Livelier’s nets and hauled aboard. Instead of killing him, as most elves would, the fishermen had made him their prisoner, locking him in the empty bait tank and sailing off with him as they traveled up the coast.
Weeks later, he was a thousand miles from home. Worse, he was seasick from being constantly sloshed around in the bait tank. It was like being inside a washing machine. The last thing Sam wanted was to foul up the water by throwing up. It would take the tank filter much too long to make it clean again.
As the ship lurched to one side, a wave washed over the deck. Cold seawater sloshed into the bait tank, splashing him in the face and chilling him to the bone.
Shivering, he dived to the bottom of the tank, and curled up on the floor of the tank where the water still felt warm. He wrapped his body around the heater bolted to the floor, holding on to keep from being thrown off. The heater was his only relief. It radiated just enough warmth to stave off the constant chill he felt.
Hours past and slowly the sea began to calm. The waves still rocked the trawler, but water no longer splashed over the gunwales. The sky began to clear and the stars shone between the clouds.
Though it was late, Sam lay awake in the bottom of the tank, unable to sleep. His stomach growled. He hadn’t eaten since noon. In the thick of the storm, his captors had forgotten all about feeding him supper.
Not that he would have been able to stomach anything with how sick he’d felt, especially not what the sailors fed him.
Why is this happening to me? Sam thought for the hundredth time as he lay in silence and darkness. He was scared. He’d always feared the land dwellers, or lohroh as his people called them. He had good reason to.
Elves were the mortal enemies of merfolk. They plundered and polluted the seas, decimating the fish his people hunted to survive and dumping their trash in the sea grass beds where their herds of hippocampi grazed. They sailed their boats through the hippocamp birthing grounds, scattering mothers and calves, their keels plowing in half those that didn’t swim out of the way fast enough.
But that was nothing compared to what they did to the merpeople themselves. Mermen were usually killed on sight. So were elder merfolk. The sailors had a soft spot for mermaids, though. The pretty ones were spared, at least until the sailors had had their fun with them. But one thing was consistent. Once someone had been taken by the elves, they were never heard from again.
Sam was worried. The fishermen hadn’t killed him yet. They were keeping him alive for some reason. He just couldn’t figure out what. He tried not to imagine what they had planned for him. It couldn’t have been anything good.
Out on the deck, Sam heard some of the crew gather, talking amongst themselves. The crew of the Livelier was diverse, composed of elves of varying backgrounds. They even had a troll aboard. With so many different mother tongues on deck, they mostly used Basic Elvish to communicate with each other.
Sam’s native tongue was a dialect of ahe Merohi, the language of the merpeople known as Merroh, but since an early age, he’d also learned Basic Elvish, the universal trading language spoken by nearly all sentient creatures. It was something he put to good use to eavesdrop on the crew.
They didn’t seem to realize that he understood them. It made sense. Sam hadn’t spoken a word since they’d dragged him aboard. The net had lacerated his throat, leaving a painful wound. Even after all this time, it still felt red and raw, and burned like fire at the slightest whisper.
No, the elves had no idea their merman prisoner understood every word they said. And he meant to keep it that way. Feigning stupidity was one of the only things he had to give him even the slightest upper hand.
Poking his head just above water, Sam strained his ears against the howling winds to hear what the crew had to say.
The first mate Stearn was doing most of the talking. “Even with the storm’s delay, we should still make it to Bridgeport by morning. Good thing, too. We’re running low on firestones.”
Firestones were the primary source of fuel and energy used by elves. Or any other sentient species for that matter.
They formed in the ground, and looked just like ordinary stones until they were exposed to a spark or a chemical bath. Once they were lit, they glowed with a radiant energy that could last from hours to years, depending on the size and quality of the stone.
They were used to power just about everything, including the Livelier’s boilers, which were needed to run the supplemental engines and the machinery used to process the fish.
Although it was their main purpose for going ashore, the sailors had far more elegant plans for their stop in Bridgeport than merely stocking up on firestones.
“When we get into port, I’m heading straight to the nearest pub,” the ship’s greenhorn said with a Cheshire grin on his face, “I’m dying to get my teeth on some real food.”
You and me both, Sam thought bitterly, his stomach growling and turning at the same time.
Whatever the crew thought of their rations, they had it a thousand times better than their merman prisoner. The troll brought him meals three times a day, leftover baitfish, head and skin still attached, which Sam found utterly disgusting.
Merfolk always cleaned and boiled their fish before they ate them, cooking them over a bed of firestones. But the land-dwellers didn’t know that. They simply assumed merfolk were the same as non-sapient sea-life, consuming their prey whole and raw.
Normally, that would be unthinkable to any self-respecting merperson. Sam found the very idea humiliating. The first day, he refused to eat the baitfish he was served. Over time, however, his hunger got the better of him, and dignity gave way to desperation.
Before he ate, Sam would always hold the fish he was given close to the heater, hoping that maybe warming them up a bit would make the raw capelin and mackerel more palatable. He wasn’t sure if it actually helped, or if he’d just gotten too hungry to mind the taste any more. Either way, he still felt queasy most of the time.
“I’m going to order me some pot roast and glazed potatoes,” the greenhorn continued, “Or maybe the lamb. Definitely a tankard of their best beer.”
Sam rolled his eyes. He wished the greenhorn would shut up.
“Don’t get your hopes up, lad,” the first mate warned. “Trawlermen aren’t exactly welcome in Bridgeport. Whatever you do, don’t tell anyone you work on the Livelier. Your more likely to get shown the door than a menu.”
“It’ll be even worse if they learn what we’ve got aboard,” scowled the tallest deckhand, a burly fellow by the appropriate name of Thornn. “The coastal folk won’t take too kindly to us showin’ up with a live merman. You know how they feel about those fishy bastards.”
Stearn nodded. “Especially Bridgeport. I daresay no one there will ever forget what they did to the Edifice.”
The Edifice, Sam thought, his lip curling with disgust. I wish I had never heard that name.
The Edifice had been an elven merchant vessel that used to travel the Western Coast carrying goods from port to port. It was built in the Bridgeport shipyard, and the town had served as its homeport.
Several years ago, it was sailing south with a load of cargo when a group of mermen warriors ambushed it and attacked the crew. One of those warriors was Sam’s older brother, Ezeki'el. The ship had sunk and lives were lost all around. Including Zeke’s.
Sam gritted his teeth as he thought about that fateful day. Zeke had called it their chance to strike a blow for vengeance. To get even with the land-dwellers for all the harm they’d done to merpeople. To make a difference. Some difference he had made.
Zeke is dead, and nothing has changed, Sam thought, despondent. If anything, it has gotten worse. The elves still kidnap any merperson they can get their hands on. And now they have gotten me.
As the crew talked amongst themselves, the captain strolled up. He was a balding, wiry man, missing his left eye. His ever-present tobacco pipe was clutched firmly between his teeth.
“Evenin’ gents,” he said cheerfully as he stepped into the circle, “Two more stops until we reach Fairfield. And then it’s bonuses all around.”
A cheer went up from everyone gathered. Everyone but the first mate.
“You sure the buyer won’t fall through on us?” Stearn questioned the captain.
The captain took a long puff of his pipe. “Who else d’ya know who’s managed to capture a merperson live? Trust me, Stearn. We got the market cornered on this one.”
Buyer? Merperson? They are talking about me, Sam realized. He shuddered.
Stearn shook his head and sighed, running his hand tenderly over his bandaged wrist. “We’re just lucky this one was small enough to handle."
His fear vanishing momentarily, Sam smirked. He was the reason the first mate wore those bandages. He may have been just a little merman, but he was a lot more dangerous than he looked.
On either side of the tip of his tail, Sam was armed with a pair of razor-sharp spines. When the fisherman hauled him aboard, Stearn had made the mistake of cutting his tail loose from the net. For his trouble, Sam had clopped him with his spines, tearing a deep gash in the first mate’s wrist. There had been blood everywhere.
“Cap, the merman could be trouble when we get to port,” Stearn continued, “The Edifice was built there if you recall.”
The captain nodded thoughtfully, “Jus’ keep ‘im outta sight when we get there. Cover the tank with tarps and don’t let anyone else aboard.”
“Trouble, he says,” Thornn muttered, “I’ll show the water-rat trouble.”
The captain turned sharply. “What was that, sailor?”
“Nothing, Cap,” Thornn mumbled quietly. The captain was a small man, but the burly deckhand seemed to cower in his presence.
The captain turned sharply on his heel and marched straight up to Thornn. “Let me make one thing clear,” the captain growled, his single eye narrowed in fury. “That critter is worth a bloomin’ fortune and yer not going to harm one scale on his hide. D'ya have any idea how much the inlanders will pay for a live merman?”
Thornn glared at the captain. “There’s not enough money in the world that can replace what those monsters have taken from me.”
“Call me heartless, Thornn,” the captain grunted, leaning casually against the mast, “But that “water-rat” is our meal ticket. So keep yer vengeance to yerself and yer hands off the boy, ya’ here me?”
Fury burned in Thornn’s eyes, but he nodded in silence all the same.
“Good,” the captain nodded curtly, turning back towards the bridge. He walked a few paces before stopping abruptly.
“One more thing, Thornn,” he called over his shoulder, pipe clenched between his teeth, “If I find so much as a scratch on the boy, ya' can kiss yer paycheck goodbye.”
Tension hung heavy over the crew as the captain stormed off the aft deck. When he was out of earshot, Thornn let loose a string of the foulest curse words Sam had ever heard. After spending two weeks aboard a fishing boat, that was saying quite a lot.
“Take it easy, Thornn,” the first-mate soothed, placing his hand on the deckhand’s shoulder. “The boy isn’t the same one who hurt her. He’s too young.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Thornn growled, “If it was up to me, I’d off the little savage and have done. Blasted merfolk. To hell with the lot of them. I’ll make them pay for what they did to my Aisling.”
Aisling? Who was she? Thornn’s wife, perhaps. Maybe a lover. It didn’t really matter. Whoever she was, she must have been the source of the anger that seethed in every word Thornn spoke.
“What’s better?” Stearn reasoned with him. “If you kill him, it’ll be three months of Sundays before you see another cent from Cap. Or we can sell the boy and we all profit off his misfortune. That’s the best revenge, I say.”
Thornn grunted, shooting the first mate a sour look. “The sooner we get rid of him, the better,” he growled, before stalking off sullenly.
The first mate was left standing with one of the other deckhands. They both turned to look at the bait tank and caught Sam peering out at them.
Instead of ducking back underneath the water, Sam stared back, glaring angrily at the first mate. Threatening silently to slit his other wrist if he came too close.
“What do you think of our merman warrior, Rorsch?” Stearn chuckled in a mocking tone. “Not much to look at is he?”
Sam’s lip curled and he bared his teeth in a snarl. The first mate only laughed harder.
“You know how city folk are,” the deckhand replied, “They’re so naïve, you could glue feathers on a snake, call it a cockatrice, put it on display and they’d still pay to look at it.”
“True enough!” the first mate roared. The two elves slapped each other and walked away laughing, leaving Sam by himself. Shivers ran down his spine as he realized what they meant.
On display? Suddenly, he understood. The fishermen planned to sell him to the inlanders as part of some kind of exhibition hall or traveling freak show. He wasn’t certain what, but it didn’t matter. Whatever it was, his fate would be the same.
The inlanders would trap him in a tank like this one, but with glass walls on all sides for curious elves to come and gawk at. A “real live merman warrior” caught and captured for “civilized” folk to marvel at.
The idea left Sam’s scales crawling. Two-leggeds everywhere. Watching him on all sides. Staring at him. Day in, day out, without a moment's rest. No water for miles around but whatever precious little was in his tank. Just the thought of it was enough to drive him mad.
Shaken, Sam curled up on the bottom of the bait tank, burying his face in his tail. When you cry underwater, you can’t see your tears. The sorrow, though, feels just the same.
I wish I was anywhere else, Sam sobbed, I wish I was home.
Suddenly, a shadow appeared over the top of the bait tank, snapping Sam out of his mood. He stiffened instinctively until he recognized the shaggy form outlined against the stars. It was the troll, and he carried a galvanized bucket under his arm.
Oh, great, Sam thought sarcastically. Mealtime.
“Sorry, I’m late, lad,” the troll muttered as he leaned over the tank.
Sam lay quietly on the floor of the tank like he always did when he was fed. He didn’t move as the old troll hovered above him, the bucket full of fish in his hand. He waited for him to grab a handful of the little silvery nasties and drop them through the bars of the grate.
Instead, to his surprise, the troll produced a key and inserted it into one of the three steel locks that held the grate in place.
Now Sam was intrigued. Why was he unlocking the grate? Since throwing him in the bait tank, not once had anyone removed the grate. The grate was what kept him from crawling out of the tank and escaping. It also kept him from flicking any passing sailors with his tail spines.
Sam watched, suspicious, as the troll undid all three locks with the key. He opened the locks but didn’t remove them, leaving the grate in place.
Slipping the key back into his pocket, the troll looked at Sam, staring him right in the eye. Sam shied back. Wary, he thumped his tail against the side of the tank as a warning.
The old troll held a gnarled finger to his lips. “Shhh,” he warned, “I’m not gunna hurt ya’, lad.”
Though he spoke calmly, the troll’s eyes were wide with fear and he kept looking around nervously. “Come closer,” he whispered, “I need ta tell ya’ somethin’.”
Come closer? Sam wasn’t about to do that. Wanting as much distance between himself and his captor as possible, he retreated to the back of the tank.
“Quick, lad, we ain’t got much time,” the troll hissed in earnest, casting a fearful glance over his shoulder. “I know ya’ve got no reason to trust me, but I promise I mean ya’ no harm.”
Sam wasn’t sure whether to trust him. What was he after? What did he want?
Sam had seen the abuses the old troll suffered at the hands of the rest of the crew. He wasn’t treated equally by them, even though he walked on two legs like they did. Maybe the troll was sympathetic towards his plight. Maybe, just maybe, he could be trusted.
Slowly, Sam edged forward, moving to the surface of the tank.
“Good lad,” the troll replied, “Now listen close. At eight bells, the entire crew will be up on the foredeck. If ya’ plan on escaping, ya’ must take yer chance then.”
He reached into his coat and removed an object wrapped in a strip of sailcloth. “Here,” he said, reaching through the bars and pressing it into Sam’s hand. “Ya’ may need this.”
As Sam took the object, he suddenly sensed that he and the troll weren’t alone. A third presence was nearby. They were being watched.
The troll sensed it, too. Suddenly, he lunged forward, falling against the bars and letting out a yelp. The bucket toppled over and a hail of fish rained down on the tank.
Startled, Sam darted to the back of the tank, cowering in the corner. Overhead, the first mate appeared.
“What is going on?” he demanded.
“The ungrateful little mongrel! He bit me hand!” the old troll gasped, clutching his hand tightly as he stumbled back against a stack of crates.
“Well of course he did, you obtuse flea bag!” Stearn mocked as he helped the troll roughly to his feet, “You stuck your hand in the water, dimwit!”
As the first mate shuffled off, shouldering his “injured” shipmate, the troll continued to fuss.
“Bite the hand that feeds him, he does! The nerve!” he groused, glancing over his shoulder just long enough to give Sam a wink.
Sam nodded before submerging back into the water.
Clutching the sailcloth package close, he unwrapped the edges, revealing a long, thin metal object inside. A prybar. It was useful as a tool. Or as a weapon. Especially for a would-be escapee.
All around him on the floor of the tank lay the fish that had spilled from the bucket. With a sweep of his tail, Sam pushed them aside. He wasn’t hungry. He had too much on his mind.
Escape? At eight bells? Was it even possible?
Since being taken aboard, Sam had learned that the ship was ruled by the regular ringing of a special brass bell. It sounded every thirty minutes to alert the crew to the time. Eight bells signaled midnight, the end of one watch and the start of another. That was two and a half-hours from now.
If the troll was telling the truth, in two and a half hours, he could be a free merman. But did he have the courage to risk an escape?
Sam wasn’t sure that he did, as one major obstacle stood between him and his freedom. The temperature.
It had been several days since they passed into the northern latitudes. Trapped in the bait tank, Sam found it hard to keep track of the ship’s course, but the glimpses he’d seen of the night sky and the stars told him they were more than a thousand miles from where the trawler’s nets first snagged him.
Here, unlike the tropic waters were merfolk spent their winters, the sea was inhospitably cold. Masters of the sea though they were, even merfolk had their limits, and low mercury was a merman’s Achilles heel.
Their bodies, though lithe and muscular, lacked the fat deposits that insulated animals like dolphins and seals. Get too cold, and a merperson would die of hypothermia. It was the reason they migrated south each autumn, wintering in warmer waters before returning in the spring.
Spring was a long way off. Already they were well into autumn, with winter just around the corner. The sea was cold enough to kill a merperson in a matter of hours, and with nothing but the loincloth around his waist and the tattered remains of his sea grass vest, Sam was in no shape to brave in the unforgiving chill of the Western Sea.
Escaping overboard would be suicidal. But it might be better then being trapped in a fishbowl for the rest of his life.
What else can I do? Sam thought helplessly.
His euphoria gone, he curled up around the heater once more, downcast and disheartened. If he was going to swim to his death of cold, the least thing he could do was spend his last night alive getting as warm as possible.
As he lay there, Sam fingered the pry bar the troll had given him. Since he had left the grate unlocked, there wasn’t much he could do with it. Mindlessly, he tapped it against the heater’s metal cover.
Suddenly, Sam’s thoughts came into focus all at once. He realized what the pry bar was good for. A plan formed in his mind. He knew how he would escape. And how he would survive.
Getting up, Sam hovered above the heater, circling it until he located its weakest point. Gripping the pry bar, he wedged it under the cover of the heater and levered it open. Inside was a mess of mechanical parts, gears and cams to turn the propellers that flushed water through the heater’s core.
And what was at the core of the heater? Levering the mechanisms out of the way, Sam reached inside and pulled out a firestone the size of his fist. As the glow of the stone lit the inside of the tank with its soft light, Sam’s face split into an ear-to-ear grin.
Here was the missing piece to his puzzle, the key to his escape. So long as I have this, I just might be able to make it home.
As the hours ticked by, Sam waited, biding his time.
Four bells had passed.
He’d forced himself to eat as many of the disgustingly slimy baitfish as he could. He would need the strength for the ordeal that lay ahead. Fortunately, having pried the firestone free from the heater, he could warm them up much faster than before.
Five bells rang.
Sam had fastened the piece of sailcloth into a sash around his chest. He also managed to snatch a sailor’s oilskin jacket that had been left hanging on a hook a little too close to his tank. He slipped it on over his vest, an extra layer of insulation against the cold.
Six bells chimed as the moon rose into view.
Sam lay on top of the firestone and the smashed heater, in case anyone who walked by saw the glowing light and grew suspicious.
Seven bells tolled and the ship grew ghostly quiet.
Many of the hands had gone below and turned in for the night. Those on watch sat around in small circles, playing dice or cards.
As the minutes flowed by in what seemed like slow motion, Sam crouched tensely on the bottom of the tank, waiting, straining, for the sound of eight bells.
Then it came. The brass bell pealed loudly eight times. Midnight had come. The time for his escape was at hand.
Slowly, cautiously, Sam stirred from his position at the bottom of the tank. Tucking the firestone into the sailcloth sash, he poked his head out of the water, scanning the deck. The sailors had mysteriously disappeared. Where had they all gone?
Suddenly, a disturbance rose over the ship, coming from the bow. People shouting. Cursing. And then a unified chant.
Sam recognized the hubbub. He’d heard it several times before, especially on this ship. A fight had broken out on the foredeck. And from the sound of it, the troll was right in the center of things. And he was winning.
Bless that troll, Sam thought. He kept his word.
Seizing his chance, Sam slipped his hand through the bars and twisted the locks free, tossing them aside. Bracing his tail against the floor of the tank, he pushed up on the grate. It pivoted on its hinges, opening like a hatch. Sam swished his tail, rising out of the water far enough to throw the grate open all the way.
The grate fell over, clattering dully as it slammed against the side of the tank. Sam cringed. It was quite a loud noise. But the fight on the foredeck had gotten so rowdy that no one else noticed or even heard.
There was nothing keeping him trapped in the tank any longer. The only obstacle remaining was the dozen or so feet of deck between him and the gunwale. The bait tank was smack in the center of the ship, so it didn’t matter whether Sam tried to escape over the starboard side or the port side. Either way was just as far. And just as difficult.
Sam couldn’t swim the distance, or walk it. He had come up with another, far more preposterous solution. Over his head dangled several loose lines tied to the mast. If he could grab onto one of the ropes, maybe he could swing out far enough to drop over the side of the ship.
It was a crazy idea, but it would be a lot faster and easier than trying to crawl across the deck and climb over the gunwale. Merpeople weren’t exactly known for their crawling prowess.
Crouching down in the bottom of the tank, Sam arched his tail, coiled and ready to spring. He paused, breathing in through his fore gills and out through his hind gills. He clenched his fists, ready.
Pumping his tail in a powerful arc, Sam shot upward, exploding from the water. He flew into the air, leaping several feet out of the water and snagging one of the lines with both hands. Gripping with all of his strength, Sam held on tight to keep from slipping back down.
His muscular tail weighed quite a lot. It was great for swimming but useless for climbing. He struggled to pull his weigh up on just his arms. Jumping had launched him high enough to reach the lines, but his tail still hung down in the water. After much effort, though, he managed to drag his body completely clear of the tank.
Climbing up the rope as best he could, he made his way up, foot by foot. The higher he got, the more his vantage point gave him a view of nearly the entire ship.
Eventually he was able to see all the way to the fore deck, where the troll, despite being advanced in age, was soundly thrashing two much younger elves. Trolls were not renown for their strength for no reason.
Unfortunately, as clearly as he could see the sailors, they could also see him. And the strange sight of a fish-tailed boy hanging from the Livelier’s rigging did not escape the more observant crew members.
Stearn, the first mate, was the first to notice. He pointed, shouting for the others to look. Sam’s heart dropped in horror.
“The merman’s escaping!” the captain raged furiously, “Somebody get him!”
Sam watched as the crew rushed from the foredeck like a single organism, one deadly intent on swallowing him alive.
Adrenaline surging through his body, he clambered up the line, arm over arm, but he wasn’t fast enough. Soon the elves were upon him.
Thornn lead the charge, a cutlass brandished in his right hand. Grabbing another line, he climbed up after the fleeing merman, swinging his cutlass about madly.
His heart racing, Sam scrambled to get higher, but the cutlass struck him in the tail. The blade cleaved deep into his flesh. He cried out in agony and the scream made his hoarse throat burn like fire.
As blood poured from the wound, Sam lashed out with his tail, slicing Thornn across the cheek with one of his spines. The burly elf recoiled in pain, but Sam knew it would only stop him for a moment. He had seen the murderous hate in Thornn’s eyes. The elf would not stop until Sam was dead.
Suddenly, he had an idea. Twirling around, he flicked his tail at the line Thornn was hanging from. His tail spine sliced clean through it. With nothing to hold him up, Thornn dropped like a stone, the cutlass flying from his hand and clattering to the deck. The Livelier rolled to port side and Thornn sailed over the gunwale and into the water.
“Man overboard!” a voice cried, and suddenly half the crew switched from pursuing Sam to fishing their fallen comrade from the water.
This is my chance, Sam thought. Quickly studying the rigging, he spotted the line he was looking for. It was the one that held the mainsail closed. With a flick of his tail, he twirled around, severing the rope and holding tight to his own line.
As the sail fell open, Sam flew into the air, his line yanked upward by the billowing sail. He dangled from the yardarm like a spider. He’d never been so high up in his life.
As the sail unfurled completely, he jerked to a stop. The jolt was enough to send the firestone flying loose from his sash. It flew through the air and Sam watched in horror as it fell to the deck below.
Now what? He thought desperately. There went his only hope of survival.
Glancing around, he noticed a lantern dangling from the yardarm. Inside, a firestone glowed brightly, casting its light across the deck. That will do.
Whipping his tail against the mast, Sam swung over to the lantern. He smashed the glass housing with the pry bar, reached inside, and snatched the firestone that glowed within. Shards of glass sliced at his wrists and fins. He gritted his teeth. The pain was worth it.
Removing the firestone from the lantern, he tucked his prize into the folds of his loincloth where it wouldn’t fall out. The firestone from the lantern was bright, but it wasn’t as big or as warm as the one from the heater. It was all he had, though, and it would have to do.
Below him, the fisherman clawed at the ropes, climbing up to reach him. When one of them came dangerously close, Sam hurled the pry bar at him, striking him in the eye. Crying out in pain, he grabbed his face with both hands and plummeted down to the deck.
As the waves rolled beneath the trawler, the ship leaned sharply to starboard. Hanging onto the line with a desperate grip, Sam swung out over the water. Beneath him, the moonlight glinted on the foamy crests of the waves.
Now or never, Sam thought, letting go of the rope. Falling through the air, he plunged into the sea below, hitting the water with a terrific splash.
Sam landed on his side as he hit the water. The impact left him stunned and he sank slowly into the waves. Somehow, in spite of the walloping impact, the firestone stayed within his folded pocket.
Seconds later, coming to, Sam opened his eyes. A trail of bubbles rose around him, water swirling in all directions as far as he could see. He had done it. He was back in the water.
Back in the sea for the first time in weeks, Sam was overcome by just how cold it was. He’d never felt cold like this before. He shivered uncontrollably, his muscles twitching in spasms.
Hugging his arms tight to his chest, he drifted slowly down through the water column. After a minute or so, his insides felt like bursting. He became lightheaded. The breath of air he had taken before diving into the water was just about used up. He needed oxygen. Fortunately for him, merfolk had gills.
Lifting his gill covers, Sam drew in a draft of water, flushing it over the delicate blood-filled, oxygen absorbing tissues within. Instantly he regretted it. The icy water swirling through his neck sent sharp pains up into his skull. Thirty feet below the surface, the added water pressure made the pain unbearable. He couldn’t stay down anymore. Squeezing his temples in a splitting headache, Sam shot back up to the surface.
He broke through the water and drew a breath. The sea air was brisk and salty but it didn’t sting like the icy water in his gills. At the surface, though, he was sitting in plain sight. The sailors could spot him at any moment. Maybe they already had.
Bobbing up and down in the tossing sea, Sam jerked his head around, searching for the boat. How close were the sailors? Were they right on top of him?
Turning left, he spotted the ship in the distance. The trawler lay more than a hundred yards beyond him. The crew scrambled about on deck, waving lanterns, the lights dancing across the waves. Their angry shouts carried across the water.
They were looking for him. They hadn’t spotted him, though. And he wasn’t going to give them a chance. Turning tail, he swam away from the trawler as fast as he could, leaving his captors far behind.
Sam’s heart leapt at his victory. He’d made his escape. The only trouble was he had no idea what to do next.
The water was every bit as cold as he’d imagined it would be, and more. It seemed to suck the heat right out of him. He pulled the jacket close around him, but it offered only minimal protection from the cold.
Thankfully, he still had the firestone he had managed to swipe from the lantern housing. It was old and well used, but it still had a little energy left. Removing it from his pocket, he squeezed it in his fist and it glowed softly, releasing a burst of heat. He tucked it against his chest, held in place by the sailcloth sash.
The stone’s warmth helped take the edge off the cold. For now. But one little firestone wasn’t enough to stave off the frigid waters forever. It was nearly used up, and when the stone finally burnt out and died, Sam knew he would as well.
He couldn’t stay where he was. But surrounded by hundreds of miles of chilled ocean, where could he go?
The water north would only be colder, and he hadn’t the strength nor the time to swim far south enough before the cold did him in. Swimming out to sea would do nothing but tire him even quicker. With a shudder, Sam realized there was only one direction left.
He had to head towards shore.
At any other time, such an idea would have been suicide. But faced with freezing to death, it suddenly seemed like a reasonable alternative.
If he could get out of the water, he could get warm again. The night air was cold, but it wouldn’t rob him of heat as fast as the water, which sucked the warmth from his body like a ravenous sponge.
Venturing ashore would be incredibly dangerous. Elves made their home on land, and they lived all along the coast. Their hatred of merpeople was matched only by their thirst for revenge.
They were vicious. Brutal. If he was found by elves, they wouldn’t hesitate to kill him. Or worse.
But other creatures lived on land as well. As many kinds of creatures as swam in the sea, even more walked on land. And dozens of them were sentient. And there was one species he knew might help him.
In the Merohi language they were called “clam-foots.” They had an upper body similar to an elf but instead of two legs they had four deer-like hooves to run on, the two parts of which Sam had been told looked like the two halves of a clam shell. The large, fearsome creatures inhabited the old-growth woods that lined the coast of the Western Sea. They were known for their agility, speed, and their skill with a bow, but also for their fairness and hospitality.
Unlike elves, cervitaurs were generally tolerant of merfolk. Sometimes the two races even engaged in trade. And they were always quick to help another creature in need. If anyone would help him, the cervitaurs would and that hope was just enough to spur him on.
I have just got to get to shore, Sam thought, gritting his teeth and turning inland.
Minutes passed and hours ticked by as Sam pressed on towards the shore. The firestone’s energy was burning up and slowly its heat was giving out. And so was his stamina.
He was exhausted. Spending so long in the gelid waters had taken its toll. He’d never been so cold before in his life. The water was frigid. Like liquid ice. It stung his body like a thousand stabbing needles.
The feeble heat from the dying firestone wasn’t helping anymore. He could hardly feel it now. If he didn’t get warm soon, death would no longer bejust a possibility. It would be certain.
I wonder what it is like to freeze to death, Sam thought somberly as he clutched the sputtering embers of the firestone closer.
I feel so tired. Is that what happens? You fall asleep and just never wake up? The thought filled him with terror. He fought back the exhaustion, his eyes flying open in startled resolve.
I must not fall asleep, he lectured himself. I have to keep going.
Every so often, he’d check the horizon, scanning to see if he had neared land yet. By checking the position of the stars, he was sure he was headed in the right direction, but still all he saw ahead was open water. He began to worry he’d never reach land.
Just when he was about to give in to failure, a faint smudge appeared in the distance at the edge where water and sky met. Sam’s heart leapt. There was the land.
His body aching, he plunged ahead. He felt weak as he paddled feebly through the water, stroke after stroke, moving forward on will power alone. He tried to rest, to pace himself, knowing the most difficult part still lay ahead.
To get ashore, Sam would have to contend with the currents. In some places, they would work with him. In others, he would have to fight against them. He could take the long way around them, but it would sap his energy either way.
Not to mention that along the beach, the wild waves churned the shallow water into a tempest. He’d have to be careful the waves didn’t slam him into a reef and tear him to pieces. Sam tried not to think too much about that.
As he neared land, he felt the resistance of the water pushing back against him. It was a rip tide, pushing him back out to sea. Too tired to challenge it, he swam parallel to the shore searching for an inlet.
He finally reached a spot where the riptide wasn’t pressing against him. By that time, he was so tired, it was all he could do just to keep swimming.
Caught in the undertow, the current pushed against him, dragging him down and back out to sea. He pumped his tail, fighting it, but the cold had sapped his strength. His muscles were cramped. The gash in his tail throbbed with every stroke. He was so close, too close to give up, but all his strength was gone. Even his will to make it was wavering.
Just when he thought he couldn’t go any further, he felt a wave pushing him from behind, rising up beneath him and carrying him towards shore. He surfed over the swells, the water lifting him and carrying him effortlessly forward. Soon he had reached the shallows, where the water was only as deep as he was thick. His fins skimmed the surface of the sand.
Another swell thrust him forward. His belly scraped solid ground, his fingers clawing at the sand to keep from being pulled backwards as the water reversed and rushed out to sea. The wave retreated, dropping Sam onto the shore. It was only at that moment did he realize how truly exhausted he was.
He tried to crawl forward, but without the water holding him up, his body felt like lead. He could barely lift a fin, let alone move anywhere. A few seconds later, another wave rolled in, lifting him up and moving him forward. He dug his fingers in once more, holding on as he sank back down onto the sand.
When the next wave came, he was ready to repeat the process. This time though, the water didn’t move him. It merely lapped around his tail before sliding back out to sea. A few minutes later, the water only gently puddled around him. A little more and it barely tickled his fins. The tide had reached its peak. And now it was going back out.
Sam gulped, the realization of what he had done suddenly sinking in, hitting him like a breaker in the face.
He was stranded. Beached. Too tired to move at all. Completely at the mercy of the next person who came along the shore. All he could do was hope that it wasn’t an elf.
Sam’s teeth chattered together as he hugged the dying firestone close. His whole body shuddered violently. With the jacket spread over him like a blanket, doing precious little to keep him warm, he tried not to think about how cold he felt.
Overhead, the stars were in completely different places than when he’d abandoned the ship. While he was making his trip ashore, the constellations had completed their journey across the sky. It had been quite a long night. And it was nearly over.
It is almost morning, Sam told himself. I just have to stay awake until then.
When the sun rises, the land dwellers will wake up. The cervitaurs will come down to the beach to dig for clams in the low tide. Someone will come. Someone will find me. Soon. Very soon. I just… have to stay… awake…
His eyes drooping closed, Sam dropped his head, drifting off into oblivion. The last thing he remembered was a loud popping crack as the firestone finally fizzled out.