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The Mer Girl - Selkie Tales Short Stories by Ophelia Sikes

I dove hard through the roiling surf, desperate to stay away from the battering force of those sharp rocks in the reef. Lightning flashed in blinding staccato overhead, as if some deranged god were playing drums at a boisterous May Day festival. But this was no night of rich passion to steal away a land-lad and stir up his musky heat. This was the worst storm I’d seen in my entire twenty-two years of life – and I was caught in its teeth.
The Mer Girl - Selkie Tales Short Stories
The Mer Girl - Selkie Tales Short Stories by Ophelia Sikes
A thick wave swept up from beneath me and I thrummed hard with my tail, twisting so I stayed in line with its direction. Trying to cross its force would be sheer madness. That was how mer-folk ended up broken on the rocks, their bodies fading to seal, dolphin, or whatever their totem was when their soul was shattered out of its living cage. But I would not let that happen. I cursed my sister for the twentieth time as the surf rolled me in a loop. She had known this storm-of-the-ages was descending on us. Everyone in our pod had known. And yet she had insisted I personally take a message to our elder sisters to the far north. Alone. The message was tucked in a clam-shell pouch, tied to my waist by the sturdiest of seaweed belts. But if I was pummeled into a bloody pulp against the rocks that wouldn’t matter much. And I had not even one land-gift in the nursery to show I had existed. Not one child to carry on my name, my waist-long dark hair, or my glimmering green eyes. Thunder shook the very water around me and I swept in a circle, straining to see in the pitch darkness. Were the rocks behind me now? If I misjudged I could break every bone in my body – some twice. I had roughened my skin to the thickest I had ever made it, but even that might not save me from the tempest. A desperate voice inside my head pleaded with me to fully go seal – to lose the arms and long tail which could be easily shattered. I could see why so much time was spent on training mer-children to resist. For if I changed now I would lose the advantage of my mental acuity. I would drop into a lower, instinctive level, and while it might seem an escape, it was a sure route to destruction. Countless mer-folk had found that out the brutally hard way. I drew in a long gulp of water, my tail driving hard against the current. Just one minute. All I needed was one minute of calm, to get my bearings, and then I would know – Lightning flashed, long, hard, bringing the sky into full summer’s day. A monstrous wave towered high above me. Higher than the highest fence around the clustered Welsh shore-towns. Higher, seeming, than the mountains which gathered clouds in those far reaches of the too-dry inland. My mouth fell open – A clang of metal sounded from behind me, and I spun in shock. A sleek currach skin boat was powering through the water. The man was about my age, perhaps a year or two older, with rippled muscles of iron clearly visible through his soaked linen shirt. His dark hair was plastered to his head. But it was his eyes which caught me. They were the rich blue of the sea, and they were focused ahead, always ahead. The wave could have been a feather drifting in the breeze, for all the mind he paid it. I turned and followed his gaze. There was a boy there, perhaps ten, in a smaller currach caught in the rocks. The lad was hauling with all his strength on the oars but his slim arms were no match for the strength of the surf. He looked up and saw the man coming for him. He screamed in desperation, “Conor! Conor! Help!” Conor’s muscles bulged with effort, his arms pumping in fierce rhythm, but I knew. There was no way Conor would reach him in time. The surf had the power of a grey whale and the humans simply could not stand up against it. No one could, save the Kraken himself. It was folly. Conor turned his head toward the scream, his eyes desperately searching the source. “I’m coming! I’ll save you, Ryan. I’ll save you! I swear!” I should have dove deep into the depths. Left the humans and their egotistical ways to suffer their fates. Why were they out in this maelstrom to begin with? This Conor seemed to be the older brother of Ryan. If Conor truly cared for his younger sibling, then why had he let the lad head out in this nightmare? They deserved what they got. That was my older sister talking. I tensed my skin to the thickest it had ever been. To a level which made me feel as if I were coated in leather several inches thick. And then I drove. I came up behind Conor’s currach and grasped onto the edges of the hull. I thrashed with my tail, driving it forward. His arms lifted in surprise as the boat plowed ahead, and then he redoubled his efforts, driving toward his brother. The wave hit. Conor flung himself flat within the currach. Good man, he had some sense after all. I twisted hard, letting the water drive alongside the hull rather than broadside. It was several long moments as the wave cascaded over us, but then we popped up on the other side. I gave a last heft and the currach drew alongside Ryan’s. Ryan flew into his brother’s currach and twined himself around his older brother like a piece of seaweed around a well-seasoned driftwood. His voice was a high babble. “You came! You came for me! I was so scared!” Connor didn’t bother to try to unwind his panicked brother. He grabbed up the oars and hauled with all his strength. I thrashed with my tail, turning the craft, and between the two of us we pulled off of the rocks. And then there was that awful groaning noise that I knew too well. I turned. The massive wave reached toward the very stars. It blotted out the sky. It was a force of nature that could not be undone. I cried, “Get down!” Connor flung himself over his younger brother, shielding him with his own body. His hands firmly latched on to the struts in the boat. I spun the boat so it was aligned. Then I prayed to every god of the sea I had ever heard of, great or small. Crash. Chapter 2 Pain. Searing pain. I wearily blinked my eyes open. I was lying on a rocky beach, my head mercifully nestled in a pocket of soft sand. My left arm was daggered in agony. I was sprawled on my long hair; it had become a knotted mess in the maelstrom. It took a moment to wriggle myself free so that I could lift my head and take a look. It was dawn, if I had to guess. Gentle fogs rolled along the beach, shielding much of it from view. I was surrounded by shards of wood and scraps of animal skin which seemed to be the remnants of the currach. And my arm – I groaned. There was an unnatural jag between my left elbow and my wrist. Living in the sea with rambunctious family members meant I had seen more than my fair share of injuries over the years. But usually they happened within reach of our home. The healers were well stocked for whatever we might manage to do to ourselves. But here? On land? There was no telling what these heathens might do. For all I knew, they could feel that chopping off the limb was the best remedy. Maybe I could set the arm myself and try to swim home again. With my right hand I pushed to sitting – Staggering agony seared through me, taking my breath clean from my lungs. I could not inhale. I could not think. There was the pain and nothing else. A soft voice said at my side, “Here. Bite on this.” A waterlogged piece of wood was gently inserted in my mouth and I bit. Gods, that felt good. Somehow the action let the pain flow through me and I could breathe again. I could make sense of the world around me. I turned and looked – Ryan’s eyes were the same sea-blue as his older brother’s, but his face was young, even younger than I had thought before. Was the lad even ten years old? And pale, so pale, as if the freckles on his skin were black squid ink marks on the whitest of oyster. His breath came out in a huff. “I didn’t tell anyone. You’re safe. I know you saved our lives. You just tell me what to do, and I’ll help you.” His eyes went, wide with wonder, to my tail. My instinct was to roll, to hide it from the human’s view, but what good would that be? Clearly the lad had been examining me while I was unconscious. He had seen the full four-foot length of it, delicately scaled in turquoise and seafoam white. He saw how it melded smoothly into my human-like torso and my bare breasts. A part of me reminded me that humans were shy about these sorts of things, for who knew what reason, but I was beyond caring. If he thought I would go scurrying for a piece of cloth, he was woefully mistaken. He could avert his eyes. But the lad didn’t seem shy at all. He held my gaze with his own, the color returning to his cheeks. “You’re a mer-folk, aren’t you? And you saved us! Me and my brother. I knew all those tales they told about you were wrong. How could someone so beautiful be a danger?” I chuckled with amusement. Clearly the lad hadn’t encountered the many dazzling jellyfish found in warmer climes. Then a shooting pain seared through my arm, and all thought of mirth fled. He dropped to a knee at my side. “What can I do? Tell me what to do.” I wanted to swim away. I wanted to slip into the water, get far from shore, and head … Where? Scanning up and down the coastline, I had to admit that it was wholly unknown to me. There was not even the smallest sense of recognition. I could be hundreds of miles from home. And in the shape I was in, trailing blood, I would quickly draw in sharks. I was in no shape to fend them off. I looked at the young boy waiting so loyally by my side. My heart went out to him, and I gave him a tender smile. “I have to fix my arm. I don’t suppose you know anything about that?” His eyes grew wide and his breath came out in a long sigh. “You really do sound like music.” The pain eased a moment as I took in his astonishment. To me I was simply talking, but I knew well the effect a mer-folk’s speech had on humans. It was how we held the upper hand, after all. How we lured sailors or sent them away. How, during Samhain or Beltane or the other mystical junctures of the world, we drew in the menfolk and joined with them in a moment of joyous union. To return home with the seed which would ensure the next generation. My hand slid to my stomach which had never risen in that beautiful bounty. My shoulders fell. My sister had said something was wrong with me, and I had come to believe she must be right. For by now, at this age, I should be the proud mother of several mer-kids. And instead I had none. My brow creased - The boy jumped up to standing. “You’re injured and in pain. I’ll get the Widow Humphrey. She handles all the injuries for our village. And she’s as loyal as they come. She loved her husband dearly. My ma always said there was never a woman who loved a man the way Widow Humphrey loved her husband. But he died five years ago and now she takes care of the rest of us.” I looked up and down the fog-rolling beach. Shapes flitted in the shadows, sending nervous fear through me. “Where is your brother?” He nudged his head back inland. “We landed in pitch black and made our way back to the village. Once dawn broke, Connor began helping with repairs. He’s at Sarah’s house, mending the roof. I came down to the beach to see what could be salvaged of the currach – and I found you here.” He nodded in determination. “The state of chaos the village is in, it’d be easy. I could bring the Widow Humphrey out here without anybody else knowing.” I looked up and down the beach with trepidation. I didn’t like being on the solid sand to begin with, and sitting out in the open like this sent shafts of nervous fear through me. It was like inviting a predator to come and attack. Ryan patted my shoulder. “Don’t worry. There’s a cave up around this corner that the seals stay in. It’s big enough to hold you comfortably but small enough to remain unnoticed. I think it’ll be all right until Widow Humphrey makes you better again.” He looked carefully at my slender arms and then my tail. His brow creased. “Can you move? With only one arm? Or should I find some wood to try to drag you?” The thought of the young boy hauling me along like a sack of grain brought a smile to my lips. I shook my head. “That’s all right, Ryan. You just bring the healing woman to me. I will manage to get into the cave.” Ryan’s brow creased with concern. “Are you sure? You will be all right?” I gave him a reassuring nod. “I’m fine. You go fetch the widow. I’ll get to the cave.” He eagerly nodded. “I shall, Lady … Ummm …. I don’t know your name.” I smiled up at him. “You can call me Lea.” His eyes shone. “Lea.” And then he was scampering off, lost in the fogs. I looked around me, at the broken shards of wood which had once been a sturdy currach. I had to count my blessings that I was not in as many pieces. A gentle smile came to my lips. I was equally blessed that I had somehow found the one male in all of Wales who would not want to either destroy me or make me his eternal slave. Chapter 3 The cave was cool, damp, and shadowed. It reminded me of the undersea grottos where I would retreat when the clamor of my home became too much. I wondered if the humans felt this way at times. After all, in the ocean we could move up and down within the water column at whim. We could skim along the sandy bottom, in the soft purples and lavenders, where light barely reached. Or we could soar to the surface, the meeting point with the puffins and seagulls, and be transfixed by the sun’s golden glory. Humans, on the other hand, were tragically trapped in one narrow horizontal plane. They could only move along the surface of the earth. They could neither easily burrow within or soar above. How could they live with such limitations? There was a noise at the mouth of the cave, and I curled back into the shadows. There was no guarantee that this was a friend. After all, Vikings could easily have been driven off-course by the storm and taken shelter along this stretch of rock and driftwood. If they came across me in my injured state, there might not be any piece of me left by the time true help arrived. A woman’s croaking voice sounded by the cave mouth. “Ryan, you stand here and keep guard. It’s very important that we not be disturbed. Are you sure you’re up for the task? Good. I am trusting you with our lives.” A wrinkled woman with a waist-long grey braid of hair turned the corner. She was wearing a rough dress in green-grey over thick leather boots. She carefully stepped into the cave, her arms holding a large leather pouch against her ample breast. Her eyes scanned – She held her breath. I stared at her in shock. It couldn’t be. At last I found my voice. “Moa?” She paled, but stepped forward. “I’m surprised you remember me, lass. You were but a mere hatchling when I left. Maybe six or seven? Do you really still remember old Moa?” Tears welled in my eyes and I nodded. “Of everyone who raised me, those early years, it was you I loved the most. You who were the kindest and most patient with me. When they told me you had been drowned by a storm, I couldn’t believe it! Nothing could take you down.” She gave a low laugh as she came to my side. “It’s hard for the mer-folk to admit they are not the shining pinnacle of life. When a mer-woman goes on land to create a child, it is expected that of course she will return. Why would she choose to remain in the dirt and grime? Where one’s body weighs heavily on one’s bones?” The corners of her mouth turned up in a smile. “But things are not always that simple.” I looked to her hand, where a simple gold band shone on her finger. Wonder lit me. “You fell in love.” She nodded, running a finger along the band. “He brought a lightness to my heart. Somehow, being around him made the world take on a glow of color. One I’d never seen before.” Her eyes dropped to the ground. “When he died, it was as if the sun stopped shining.” I took her hand. “I’m so sorry.” She shook her head. “Don’t be. I wouldn’t trade my time with him for anything on this Earth. What we had was precious. The memory of that time will live with me forever.” My brow creased. “But if he is dead, why not come back home? Back to your family?” She waved a hand inland. “This is my home now. These people are my family. They rely on my herbs and potions. They treat me with kind respect. And everything around me reminds me of Nate. The carvings he made which sit on our mantle. The musky smell of his pillow. I can almost see him sitting in the chair opposite me at dinner, smiling with fondness.” She gave a wry smile. “I could never leave; not now. I am content.” She eased down to a knee. “But you, my lass, we have to get you back to where you belong. Once your arm is healed up, of course. Your sisters will be worried sick!” I barked a laugh. “Those sisters are the reason I’m out here. Meredith’s land-father must have been a ripe old bastard. It seems her moods get fouler each passing year. She’s the reason I was out in that storm. Claimed we had to get urgent news up to our four sisters in the north.” “Oh? What news?” She carefully prodded at my arm. Pain shot up its length, and I bit back the shriek. She examined my arm more closely. “I’m sorry about that. But I’m afraid it’s going to get worse for a moment. She handed me a strip of cloth. “Here, bite on this.” I bit. She held my gaze for another beat. And then she took my arm in both hands and gave it a sharp tug. The pain was excruciating, searing through me from head to tail. I arched against it, desperately throttling my need to scream. The last thing either of us could handle right now was curious eyes. Finally the waves of pain receded and I found breath. She wiped down the injury with a clean rag and then reached into a pottery jar to dab on a mud poultice. That done, she laid a stick against the arm for support and wrapped the area with fresh cloth. She smiled reassuringly down at me. “There you go. A few days, and you’ll be able to head on your way up to your elder sisters in the north. I assume you didn’t get the message to them?” I shook my head. “The storm hit before I could reach them.” Her brow creased in curiosity. “What could be so urgent that your sister would send you out in such a storm? Meredith always did have a temper, even as a young tyke, but this would seem even beyond her lack of empathy.” I gave a shrug, petulance creeping over me. “They don’t tell me anything. I’m the baby. The last child born before Mother was killed by that Viking raiding party. I’m a full twenty-two years old and they still treat me like a minnow.” “Ah, but the minnow is all grown up, isn’t she,” smiled Moa. “Your sisters can’t rule your life forever.” Somehow, I had a feeling that they would certainly try. I reached down to my hip. “Well, the message is right –” My hand swept empty space. I looked down, and my mouth rounded in shock. The clam and its seaweed belt were wholly missing. Chapter 4 Panic coursed through me as I frantically looked around the shadowed cave. Had I somehow pulled the belt loose while working my way along the damp sand? But, no, the clam was nowhere to be seen. And now, come to think of it, I hadn’t remembered seeing it since I woke up on shore. Had I lost it? Moa gave me a reassuring pat on the arm. “Calm yourself, child. If it is anywhere on the beach, Ryan and I will find it. And if it was lost in the depths, that is the will of the Kraken.” Her face tightened. “Your sister should be grateful you are in one piece, thinking to send you out on a night like that. She was always a rash child.” I nodded, my eyes still scouring the sandy floor hoping against hope that the clam would spring into being. “With my four older sisters up north, Meredith has the final voice. And she uses it every chance she gets.” Moa turned toward the mouth of the cave. “Ryan? Could you come in here for a moment? Bring that dress I left with you.” Ryan dutifully trotted in, a translucent white dress draped across his arms. His eyes fixed on me as he approached. His voice was a reverent hush. “You’re even more beautiful than I remembered!” Moa chuckled and took the dress from him. “You’re a good lad.” She turned and handed me the dress. “It’s the one I wore when I first met my Nate. I kept it for memory’s sake – I certainly can’t fit into it any more, myself. But it should suit you well.” I looked doubtfully at the cloth which I was sure would scratch and tug. “Why can’t I just stay natural?” She smiled. “I know, I used to feel just as you do. But we have to be practical. You are injured, and our search might take us a while. You should put this on – and transform - just in case anyone stops by while we are out looking.” She gave a soft shrug. “I can’t imagine they will. Everyone in the village is busy making repairs. But it’s best to be prepared.” I sighed. Not only did I have to get stuck on shore, but now I’d do it with the awkward legs? And stuck in this clinging net of plant and animal parts? Moa’s gaze was kind but firm. At last I took up the dress and wriggled it over my torso. It was as bad as I imagined it to be. It gripped and held in unnatural ways. Then came the worst part. I closed my eyes and clenched my hands. I breathed in deeply, held my breath, and … My beautiful tail lost its glossy scales. The two halves split, separated, and narrowed down into bony, spindly juts of flesh ending in wriggling worms of knobs. Ryan gasped. I opened my eyes and looked down at my legs. “I know. Aren’t they awful?” Moa chuckled in amusement. She took Ryan’s small hand in her own. “All right, young one. Come on, now, we’re on a treasure hunt. Let’s see which of us can find a clam shell first.” His eyes lit up in excitement. “Is this Lea’s treasure?” She nodded with a smile. “Shall we find it for her?” He nodded and practically dragged Moa out into the shimmering sunshine. The cave faded into the soft whoosh of waves and the distant cry of gulls. The throbbing my arm eased; there must have been some medicine in the mud Moa had used to coat my arm. I leaned back against the cool rock and closed my eyes. It was odd, resting on land like this. The sea was my home – the twisting currents and shimmering minnows. The easy weightlessness of moving wherever I wished, in any direction at all. Land was only for brief ventures on long, coltish legs, in the dark of a music-filled celebration. The clinging of rough fabrics, the sharp laughter of humans, and then the grab of a hand which told you a man had fallen for the bait. He would be evaluated, of course. Strong enough to spawn healthy children? Young, muscular, tough? And then the rest was simple. Follow where he took you. When he was done, get back to the shore as quickly as possible – and sweet freedom. My friends had talked about the excitement of it – the passion and heat – but I found it smelly and dull. The men were clumsy and rough. The activity usually involved me getting pushed onto poky hay bales or pressed into gravelly rocks. Hardly something to be looked forward to. I had been performing my duties for a full six years now, but each time I returned a failure. I had no land-child to show for my efforts. And if I were not to be rewarded, what really was the point? I had to put up with the heaviness of land-life, the uncomfortable clothes, the grunting and sweatiness, the smell of – A tantalizing odor wafted toward me, and my eyes sprang open. Was that … fresh mackerel? My mouth watered and I realized I hadn’t eaten in a full day. I leaned toward the cave mouth, sucking in a deep inhale. Yes, definitely mackerel. Moa had caught some for me. I would thank her a thousand times for the gift. I could imagine its rich, raw flesh in my mouth, and my stomach grumbled. A silhouette came around the corner, carrying a string high. On it were hooked three fish. I looked up – It was Conor. Chapter 5 Conor’s voice carried high, light with amusement. “Ryan, are you in here? I told you, we’ll have to start fresh and build a new currach. For there’s no way that anything survived –” His eyes swung to mine. I had remembered they were sea-blue, but not this rich, not the deepest depths of the ocean where one’s soul sang with the beauty of life. I didn’t remember the flecks of gold which glowed with awe as his eyes widened. I didn’t remember just how rippled his arms were; how lean those legs which, on him, seemed exactly right. He wore a fresh linen shirt and dark leggings – and all I could do was wonder what he might look like without anything at all. He stood there, flanked by the glow of the sun, and suddenly I knew. I knew the warmth that my friends had spoken of. The warmth that filled my entire body and spilled out to wash over me. The need which was liquid heat. A matching flare lit his gaze as his fish fell, forgotten, onto the sandy floor. I knew, with every beat of my heart, that this was what I had been waiting for, all my life. This one moment. I opened my mouth – A blonde woman, perhaps my age, came striding up to his side, her eyes sharp. “Connor, we have to get back to finishing up the roof repairs. That brother of yours can find his own food. He’d old enough to stop babying. And, besides, after the roof there’s still –” Her eyes swung to me and her mouth turned down in sharp disapproval. She enunciated every word as if it held the worst of flavor. “What. Is. This?” Chapter 6 There was a flurry of motion behind the two, and Moa pushed her way between them, coming over to my side. “I apologize that I was away for so long, Lea. I checked the shore for other survivors. I’m so sorry, my dear. It seems you are the only one from your boat who made it to shore.” Conor’s voice was low, strong, the way ocean surf sounded in a steady wind. “So you were caught up by the storm as well?” Moa nodded her head, answering for me. “That she was, poor lass. She’s so worn out that she can barely speak, and I’m mending her arm. In a few days I was hoping –” Conor’s brow creased. “You were going to keep her in this cave for a few days?” The blonde crossed her arms. “Well, we can hardly take her into our village, can we? Who knows where she comes from!” He rounded on her. “She hardly looks like a marauding Viking, Sarah. And, besides, her arm is broken.” Sarah scoffed. “Her left arm. She could plunge a dagger into our back with that right.” Ryan’s voice was high with disbelief. “Lea would never do that to us!” Conor turned in surprise. “You knew this woman was down in the cave?” Ryan raised his head, standing his ground. “I fetched the widow for her, didn’t I? Lea needed help.” Conor’s voice was firm. “She should be brought back to the village.” Sarah pointed a finger at me. “She can barely walk. She’ll be fine right here –” Conor strode past her to kneel at my side. His eyes came to mine – I could barely breathe, so strong was the connection between us. It was as if he could see deep inside me. As if he understood my silent fears and secret longings. As if, with the gentle touch of a hand – Sarah’s shriek echoed off the cave walls. “I’m telling you –” Conor motioned his hands toward me “I’m going to lift you up. Is that all right?” I could only nod. The feel of his hands around my body sent waves of flame throughout me; I had never felt anything like it before. Other men’s hands had been clammy or rough. Slick with sweat or tight with selfish need. But Conor’s grip was strong and sure. He lifted me without effort, and he smelled of earth and fire, of the eternal rock and steady horizon. I melded into him. Moa gathered up her supplies. “We’ll take her to my house, then. It’ll be good to have someone there to keep me company, at least for a little while. Until we can get her back to where she belongs.” The wild, stray thought came to me that this was where I belonged. In this man’s arms. Under his watchful gaze. For to be away from him, to swim away and never look back, would be torture. Sarah watched my approach as one would watch the slithering of a lightning eel. Her eyes became cold marbles. “If she is staying, then I will make it my mission to help nurse her back to health – and ensure she depart the moment she is able.” Moa gave a low laugh. “Not to worry, Sarah. When the time comes, I’m sure Lea will be as eager to get back home as you are for her to leave.” I no longer knew anything at all. Save one thing. I was home.

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