Welcome to Tuesday. This story came about after input from Beth over at Writer B is Me. Thanks, Beth, for the feedback. I promise, there’re mermaids=)
Since I’ve changed the posting schedule, the posts this week are a little longer to accommodate the same story length that I was posting in three days. Let me know if it seems too long.
Otherwise, thanks for stopping by and hope you enjoy.
Washing Up Free
“You don’t have a choice,” her father said. “The boy ran off. That leaves you in my care until I find a new suitable match.” He spun on his heel and stalked away, slamming his bedroom door at the end of the hall.
Liz swallowed the familiar lump in her throat. There was no “new” suitable match. Even if she liked someone her father chose, no one would have her. Not after the first boy ran instead of marrying her.
Gah! She didn’t want a suitable match. Liz stomped down the hall and entered her room. She stared at her bed while she leaned back against the door, and then made her decision.
Dropping to her knees, she dug beneath her bed until she found her flowered duffle bag.
“I won’t be property.” She threw several pairs of clothes in and pulled open the drawer next to her bed for a tie for her hair. Her hand paused over a folded letter. His letter. Her hand crept up to the ruby necklace she wore. Growling, she pinched the hair tie and slammed the drawer shut. He’d rejected her. Left town.
Peeking into the hall, she made sure her father was still hiding out in his room. He was. No big surprise.
The docks weren’t far and she had enough, barely, for passage. It was time to try life on her own.
The ship swayed and creaked beneath her feet. Waddling across the dark deck, Liz caught herself on the outside rail.
She’d never get used to the motion. At least it didn’t make her sick like some of the other passengers. The woman she bunked next to was positively green since they left port.
That’d been two days ago and still the woman moaned and retched. Liz didn’t blame her but neither could she stand the smell.
“Hey, Chap!” Hollered the heavily bearded man at the helm.
A sailor paused before going below. “Yeah?”
“Tell the Captain something’s caught in the rudder. Can’t keep course and we’re heading into the islands.”
“Capt’n’s sleeping, Easley. He’ll skin me for waken ‘im.”
“Chap, I’ll skin ya for disobeying!”
Easley’s bellow made Liz cower against the side. Like he sensed her watching, his head swung around to stare at her.
“What’re you looking at, girl?” he asked.
Chap took the opportunity to disappear below deck.
Liz shook her head and scampered away. She didn’t like Easley, he’d stared at her when she boarded like he was considering how easy it’d be to rob her. She’d tucked her necklace away but he’d still seen it.
Reaching the nose of the ship, Liz leaned out and breathed deeply of the salt air. It spoke to her of adventure and of a second chance.
Closing her eyes, she listened to the beat of the waves against the hull. The rhythm thudded evenly like a drum. Thud, thud—thud, thud. After Easley’s shouting, the rhythm was soothing. As she listened, the deep tones were joined by a lighter patter, like hands beating against the thick wood.
Liz’s eyes snapped open as she realized the waves couldn’t be making the sound. Leaning farther out, she came face to face with liquid green eyes surrounded by blue specks. The eyelashes were white. They blinked.
Sucking in a breath, Liz held it, mesmerized by the intelligence and beauty in the face. Wow. She pulled back, overwhelmed, and then leaned forward again, hoping her imagination wasn’t running away with her.
In a silvery flash, the creature disappeared.
Leaning out farther, Liz tried to spot the creature again but only waves rolled below.
The ship lurched forward and Liz lost her balance, slid farther over the rail, and latched onto the side at the last moment as the ship lurched again and her feet swung into the air.
Her voice was lost in the shouting of the sailors above. She’d never been known for her strength. Even hauling a wash bucket stretched her abilities. Her fingers let go without her mind’s permission, leaving nail marks in the wood of the railing.
Screaming, Liz hit the water with her mouth open. Salty, freezing ocean bombarded her. She was pushed one way, then the other until, miraculously, her head popped out of the water.
Liz sucked in air to scream but the sound died in her throat.
The ship canted on its side and, now that her equilibrium was back, she could hear the screaming on board. Several figures plunged over the deck and splashed into the water. They were the lucky ones. With a rending crack of splintering wood, the ship buckled and sank like something pulled it down.
Liz swiped at her eyes. This isn’t real. But even as the waves tossed her around, she still saw the lines. Something was attached to the ship. She could see the rock the ship had run into. Splinters and debris floated around it, but she could also see the last bit of the hull.
With an unnatural jerk, the last part disappeared, giving off a sucking sound.
Liz cried out. So many people were on board but there was nothing she could do. She could barely swim herself, much less go diving for people.
A head popped out of the water, spluttering through a large beard. Liz hesitated. Easley. She didn’t really like the man but there wasn’t much of a choice. It was either face the ocean or face the man. She’d rather face the man. At least she kind of understood him.
“Master Easley!” A wave smashed into her, shoving her under with her mouth open again. Flailing for the surface, her hand smacked something, and then she was grabbed and pulled upward.
“Of all the—“
Liz cringed at the bellow. She tried to push away but Easley wouldn’t let go.
“Stop thrashing or I’ll dunk you.”
Liz stilled. Looking up through her lashes, she gauged his face. His eyes bulged in a face so red, Liz wondered if he’d been burned. His lips were rolled inward to the point that all she could see was beard.
“No ship goes down like that,” he said. “What happened? How’d you end up out here?’
“I…I don’t’ know,” Liz stuttered, partially from fear and partially from cold. She couldn’t feel her toes anymore and her fingers ached with a bone deep pain.
“You had to see something!”
“Som…something pulled it down.” Liz finally managed to free herself by suddenly pulling away. She put several feet between them before stopping.
“Pulled it down?” Easley glanced around but even the others who fell from the deck didn’t make it. Nothing moved but debris.
Grabbing a broken board, Easley shoved it at Liz. She dodged just in time before it hit her chest. Finding one for himself, he hugged it against his chest.
“Get kicking,” he ordered. Then, to himself, “fates hate me. Leave me with a useless girl and…” he continued muttering.
Liz didn’t protest. Men didn’t like to be contradicted. She kicked to follow the sailor, hoping he knew where he was going.
He did, in fact, know where he was going but kicking to the first island took until the wee hours of the morning. It was a spot of land so small Liz could walk around it in a matter of a few minutes. She didn’t care. It was land and that’s all that mattered. She crawled onto the gritty sand and collapsed. She’d lost feeling not only in her feet, but her legs and hands and arms. That only made the burning in her shoulders worse.
Easley didn’t let her sleep, however. Kicking her legs, he said “get up.”
Liz cried out. Where his boot connected felt like thousands of needles stabbing her. He stepped back with a hand resting on the knife in his belt.
“Why?” she asked as she sat up.
Easley assumed she was asking about getting up. Really she was asking about everything. Why’d he kick her? Why’d she have to move? Why’d the ship sink on the eve of what was supposed to be her new life?
“Something sunk the ship,” he said. “Trust me, there’s only a few creatures strong enough and they’re not pleasant. Now walk around the island, see how big it is.”
Groaning as she pushed off the sand, Liz asked “what about you?” It was a mistake. She knew it as the words left her lips.
“Get moving!” He stepped toward her but Liz scrambled to her feet and started walking before he could deliver another kick.
“I should know better.” She kept the words low so Easley didn’t overhear. He was a smaller man than her father but that didn’t matter. The temperament was the same, and he’d demand obedience.
Liz just wanted her own choice, the freedom to work her own farm or own her own shop. The village would never allow such a thing, though. She was her father’s until he married her off. Period.
But they said in Verdon, a woman was her own person. Could own property and have a say in who she married. Liz wanted it so badly she ached with the thought.
Sitting down out of sight of Easley, Liz pulled her hair off the neck and stared out at the ocean that now sat between her and Verdon. She was no sailor. Easley was her only chance now. Put up with him until then. In Verdon I never have to see him again.
Pushing to her feet, Liz continued on until she rounded the island and Easley came back into sight. He sat against a downed tree holding a small coconut. Spotting her, he held it out.
Liz couldn’t help herself. She glanced at his knife.
“Ain’t getting my knife,” he said, seeing her look. “I won’t have it dulled.”
“But—“ she cut off as he stood up in a rush.
“Figure it out.”
Backing away, Liz turned only when she was far enough from him to be sure he couldn’t hit her.
“And I’m worthless?” she went back to a small cove she’d seen on her short walk. One side harbored an outcropping of rocks. Finding one with a sharp edge, Liz smacked the coconut on it. “Lazy, worthless, deman—“
“You don’t have to put up with him.”
Liz stilled with the coconut above her head. Looking over her shoulder, she met blue-speckled, green eyes. The woman’s hair hung in waves around her face and was the color of seaweed.
Liz gaped. She wanted to step forward to see the rest of the woman but she was afraid to, and the rocks obscured everything but her shoulders and head.
Resting her arms across a rock, the woman placed her chin on her arms and grinned at Liz.
“Name’s Vivian,” she said, “and you don’t have to put up with the bearded man.”
Liz glanced up the beach before stepping closer.
“What do you mean?”
“He’s not your only way off this island.”
Vivian held her hand out. Silvery, almost translucent scales covered her fingers.
Liz stared, fascinated, and then gave a start, realizing she was being rude. With an apologetic smile, she handed over the coconut.
Bringing the shell down on a rock, Vivian cracked it open with a loud thunk. When she turned it, a hole the size of a walnut was revealed. Rubbing her fingers together, Vivian held up a silvery scale and dropped it into the coconut. Then she held it out for Liz to take.
“He’ll want to drink first. You know he will. Might even drink it all.” Vivian flashed a smile that was all teeth. “Let him.” She turned with a splash and swam away.
Liz watched as Vivian’s tail hit the water. She shook her head. This was the same creature from the ship.
Did she sink the ship?
Cradling the coconut in her hand, she headed back up the beach. Did she care if Vivian sunk the ship? The screaming she heard the night before played in her memory. Yes, she cared.
Coming into view of Easley, Liz paused. He stood with his back to her, hands on hips. Kicking a piece of driftwood, he swung around and saw her.
“Took you long enough.” He held his hand out. For a moment, Liz didn’t see the sailor, she saw her father, hand out, waiting for her wages. She blinked and saw Easley, his lips rolled in with impatience.
You don’t have to put up with him. It was like Vivian whispered in her ear. She walked forward and handed the coconut to him. Turning away from her, he went back to whatever he’d been viewing before she returned, and downed the water from the nut. He tossed it aside when done.
Liz watched and refrained from licking her lips. They were cracked from the salt of the ocean.
“That way,” Easley pointed, “lies a string of islands that’ll get us close to the shipping lanes in and out of Verdon. Might take us five days if we swim to an island a day.”
Five days. Liz eyed Easley, waiting to see what Vivian’s scale would do.
“No ships before then?” she asked.
The answer came out final, like she’d asked something obvious. Easley strode toward the only strand of trees and picked up the two boards they’d used to paddle to the island. He’d attached driftwood to each piece to make them wider.
Liz frowned. “Where’d you get the cord?”
He pointed at his feed. His boots were gone.
“Time to head out.” He held one small raft toward her but then dropped it as he keeled over with a groan. Thudding to his knees, he tilted onto his side.
Liz ran forward and shook him but he only moaned. This close to him, she saw a shiny cast to his skin.
“Easy as that.”
Liz spun to find Vivian laid out on the sand with her tail in the water.
“What now?” Liz asked.
“Now you leave him.”
Liz glanced at the prone sailor. His brows pinched inward while his lips moved in a silent mutter.
“Will he die?” she asked.
“Probably. It’s what he would’ve done to you. Notice he didn’t share what little food he found.”
“How will I get to Verdon without him?”
Vivian chuckled. “We’ll take you.” She gestured behind her where more mermaids broke the surface. Every color under the sun was reflected in their wild hair.
Easley groaned and rolled onto his back. Liz jumped but then realized he was still out. Something fell from his pocket, hitting the sand with a soft, tinkling plop.
Curiosity flared in Liz’s mind, and she knelt to retrieve the object. It was a silver pendant with a ruby the size of her thumb nail in the center.
Her hand crept up to her own neck. She grasped her pendant, and stared at the man.
“It can’t be.” But it was. Turning the piece to check the back, sure enough, her father’s stamp etched the silver.
This was the man she’d been contracted to marry. The man who’d run away as soon as he was old enough to crew a ship. Her father cursed the ‘boy,’ calling him a coward for running out on his responsibilities.
“Did you just want freedom?” That’s what his note said but, without ever meeting him before, she couldn’t really know. “I hate men,” she told his still form. “They either own me or abandon me. You included. Why shouldn’t I leave you?”
But could she blame him for wanting his own choice? Was she any better than him if she left him?
Hitting the sand with a growl, Liz stood and turned away.
Vivian cleared her throat. “I didn’t think you’d hesitate to leave him behind.”
“I—“ Liz snapped her lips closed. She wanted to leave him and that terrified her. She was no better than he. “I can’t. Not knowing he’ll probably die.”
Vivian rested her chin on her folded arms. “I understand.”
Liz’s head swung up. “How can you? You sunk a ship full of people.”
Vivian’s chin came off her arms, and her eyes hardened. “False. We tried to warn the ship but the captain did not hear. He sailed into the islands where the sea serpent lives. It suffers no ship in its waters.”
“The captain was sleeping…” Liz hung her head, ashamed. “I’m sorry. I saw you that night.”
“We kept you alive while you swam to the island.” Vivian met her eyes and Liz looked away from her piercing stare.
“Since you are not willing to leave him behind, what do you propose to do?” Vivian asked.
Snapping her fingers, Vivian said, “Hurry. The serpent hunts at night. You should have a plan before then.”
“Without you to guard us, the sea serpent will kill us?”
Vivian nodded as she picked up a shell. “The serpent will spin itself around you and squeeze.” She tightened her grip and the white shell shattered.
Liz cringed. She hated that she was always dependant on someone else. Her father, Easley, and now the mermaids, but she stood no chance on her own against a sea serpent.
“Will you get us to Verdon?” she asked, finally meeting Vivian’s eyes.
The mermaid glanced at the horizon and then at her sisters. “Yes, but we must go now.” She pointed at Easley. “Drag him to the water.”
Liz swallowed. Drag Easley? He was twice her size. Kneeling next to him, she tucked his necklace into a buttoned pocket of his pants to keep it safe. Her hand brushed his knife. He’d been very possessive of the weapon but he wasn’t awake to use it if they ran into trouble. Making her decision, she unlaced the knife from his belt and attached it to her own. Then she slid her hands under his arms and heaved. He groaned and Liz cried out in frustration as she pulled him barely an inch.
“How long will he sleep?” she asked as she tried again and fell on her backside.
As Liz crouched and pulled on Easley again, Vivian pushed farther onto the sand to help her. She grasped his hand and pulled while Liz fell backward.
“Useless womanly muscles,” she groused and fell over again.
“Strength is not everything,” Vivian commented. “We did not protect you last night with strength.”
Liz was about to ask how the mermaids had protected them but then she had Easley’s head and shoulders to the water and she was surrounded by hands that pulled him completely in.
“Come, girl,” Vivian appeared again after four of her sisters took over keeping Easley afloat. She turned for Liz to hold her shoulder. “Hand on tight. We must move quickly.”
Vivian wasn’t lying. The mermaids took off like they too were hunted by the sea serpent. They hadn’t showed it during the day but as night fell over the water, their fear became evident in their speed and the way they looked beneath them into the depths.
“Why are you helping us?” Liz asked. Why would the mermaids help them when they themselves feared the serpent so much?
“The serpent took our home when it moved into the islands,” Vivian shouted over the waves. “If we can limit its food and drive it out, we can recl…”
A tail slapped the water. Liz gasped as Vivian dove beneath the surface. Salty water bombarded her and she let go of the mermaid.
Thrashing for air, Liz came up just long enough for one painful gasp and then something circled her waist and pulled her under. The serpent’s body covered her entire torso.
In the murky water, she could make out hands trying to pull the coil off of her but the serpent continued to tighten its hold until her vision blurred.
She tried to push outward against it but, as always, her strength wasn’t enough. Strength is not everything. Vivian’s voice whispered in her ear.
Her arms were pinned against her sides. Easley’s knife dug into the inside of her arm and her hip. She couldn’t get her fingers to the hilt.
The serpent’s body spasmed just as Liz tried for the knife one last time. Her hand slid up and her fingers closed around the handle. With one quick jerk, she pulled it free of the sheath and pointed it outward.
Moments later the serpent squeezed in on her again and Liz thought the knife wasn’t enough to phase the creature. Pain radiated from her ribs and the little bit of air she had left rushed from her lungs. Her vision narrowed.
Then the serpent’s coils loosened and fell away.
Liz sank farther into the water. She tried to move her arms, tried to get her legs to kick, but nothing happened and darkness closed in. She lost all sense of motion.
Sucking cold air in, Liz whimpered as her lungs expanded painfully.
“There, now relax and let us get you home.”
The voice was Vivian’s. All Liz knew was there were stars above as she lay on her back and her body hurt everywhere. But she was alive.
Liz sat drinking tea while looking out of the one window in her home. The view wasn’t much, just the stables of the Merliona estate, but she loved it. She sat in the home she’d paid for. When the wooden floors creaked, she imagined the house was trying to speak to her.
Someone knocked at the door. It was probably Master Merliona. Liz paid for her home by sowing for the elderly man.
Opening the door, she froze.
Easley’s lips rolled inward in what she guessed was frustration. She almost cringed back but then squared her shoulders and lifted her chin.
He pulled a flower from behind his back. It wilted like a violet bell.
Liz’s hand shook as she reached for it. When Easley woke after the mermaids left them in Verdon, he’d been angry. Spitting, shouting angry. But then he’d realized they were in an inn, and he was dry and warm…and he had no idea how he’d gotten there.
Liz wouldn’t tell him. It wasn’t her place and Vivian made her promise not to tell. She didn’t want humans hunting the mermaids.
Perhaps that created intrigue for Easley, perhaps he just liked her. She wasn’t sure but ever since that morning in the inn, he’d brought her a flower randomly each week.
She hadn’t accepted one yet.
Closing her fingers around the delicate stem of the violet bell, Liz smiled. Easley sighed, and smiled back.
“Walk?” he asked, offering his arm.
As Liz stepped out the door, she noticed he wore her father’s necklace. It didn’t bother her like it used to. This outing, and any other interaction with Easley, was her choice.
P.S. I love feedback, so if anyone has suggestions, questions, or comments on what they like or what doesn’t seem to work, please let me know. Just be gentle to my poor thin skinned feelings. Thanks.