Smuggler

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Smuggler

The work’s not usually difficult and, with your brother, Ian, in mind, you don’t mind putting in the extra hours. The swing of the axe no longer produces an ache in your shoulders and the calluses on your hands keep you from blistering while cleaning.

When it does hurt, you remind yourself of Ian back on the island. You picture the dirt floor he has to sleep on and the rough clothes he has to wear. All the work’s worth it if you can pay for his passage to the mainland soon.

You’re reminding yourself of this as you walk. This new task’s adding blisters to a new part of you… namely your feet. When Simon, your boss, told you to head to the coast to pick up a shipment for him, you welcomed the chance of a few days away. Then he informed you his horse wasn’t available for the trip and your excitement waned a bit.

It disappeared altogether when he filled you in on the details of the shipment.

the-lighthouse-1445739-2-m“You’ll head to the coast and meet Eli at the old lighthouse to the north of the docks,” he said.

The old lighthouse? What was Simon into now?

“Eli will provide the wagon,” he continued. “All you have to do is drive it back, and don’t touch the cargo.” At this point he laid his hands on the counter of his shop and leaned toward you. “You’ll have three days to get the cargo back here after pickup, or the cargo’s ruined.”

“What kind of payment am I getting?” you asked even though you knew it’d make him go red in the face. Eli and the old lighthouse were sending warnings off in your mind.

Simon didn’t, in fact, go red in the face. Instead, he straightened up and flashed a toothy grin. “Arrangements for your brother to join you here.”

Simon knew you’d been working tirelessly to raise the money for Ian’s passage. It was the perfect bait.

The lighthouse’s tall spire materializes ahead when you crest the last small hill. The top of the building gaps like a toothless grin with half the windows broken out. No longer in use, the aging structure suffers the abuse of time and pillage.

wagon-wheel-343204-mEli’s slim form appears once you’re close enough to pick him out against the backdrop of the ocean and sky. Behind him and to his right, the wagon’s end peeks out from behind the lighthouse.

“’Bout time,” he grumbles. “Want this thing done.”

You toss him the payment Simon sent and Eli leaves without another word. You round the lighthouse to look at the wagon. The cargo’s a long box bolted into the open bed. This isn’t so strange, Simon bolts cargo down all the time since he trades in anything he can find, including pottery and fine china. But this box is coated in tar, like the sealing you’d find on the bottom of a ship.

Several small holes poke through the lid, too small to see inside, but definitely big enough for air flow.

You shrug and climb up front. Simon said to not touch the cargo and you plan to follow his instructions exactly.

The wagon tilts over the uneven ground you have to traverse to get back on the road. There’s a soft sloshing from the box, then a long ‘ohhhh’ sound and a pattering like small wings beating against the inside.

Chills run over your skin. Is the cargo talking to you? Is Simon smuggling a person? But no, there’s water inside the box. You can see little bits of it where it’s spattered out the holes in the lid.

You drive on but your ears seem hypersensitive to any sound coming from the bed of the wagon. You stop for the night just as the sun sinks past the horizon.

There’s another pattering sound and you jump. Climbing stiffly down, you round the end of the wagon and put your ear close to the wooden box.

The ‘ohhh’ that comes from it is loud enough to make you jump back several feet.

There’s something alive inside. Simon said after three days the cargo would be ruined. Does that mean dead?

You reach for your bag to pull out your knife, thinking to pry the lid open, but then hesitate. Ian. You open the cargo and Simon won’t pay for Ian’s passage.

Do you…

A. Open the Cargo?

or

Leave It?

Smuggler Option A: Open the Cargo

You think of Ian and realize you’ll never be able to face him if you let someone die in order to get him passage.

Another long sigh comes from the box and that decides you further. You can’t smuggle something alive.

You slide the tip of your knife in between the lid and the box. It groans as you pry but doesn’t give. You put more of your weight wooden-case-1034497-minto it and your knife starts to bend. Whoever closed the box really didn’t want it opened without a heavy bar. Like whatever’s inside realizes what you’re doing, there come several resounding thuds in rapid succession.

You stumble back and catch yourself on the side of the wagon. The thudding continues, growing to the point that the motion inside the box rattles the boards under your feet.

It stops as suddenly as it began and, in the following silence, there issues a long sigh so light it reminds you of the wind that blew across your face all day.

You lean close and whisper “hello?”

Silence like a long, indrawn breath of surprise and then, “hello.”

A woman? But that doesn’t make any sense. Little specks of water sparkle in the fading light where they escaped the air holes in the lid. From all indications, the box is full of water.

“What are you?” you ask even as a lump forms in your throat at feeling foolish.

A weak chuckle answers. “Smart human. I’m the current in the ocean and the salt in the water’s spray.”

You frown. “Why are you here if you belong in the ocean?”

“Captured for human’s curiosity, but not held for long.”

At this you sit back and take a look around. “Someone’s coming for you?”

“Yes, and they’ll kill whoever holds me.”

This was more than you bargained for when Simon sent you on this trip. You sit next to the box to think.

“I can’t get the box open,” you confess to whoever’s inside and then, on impulse perhaps, you explain about Ian and why you took the job.

By the time you’re done, night fully surrounds you and a chill wind blows across the wagon.

Your companion doesn’t immediately respond but you can hear soft tapping on the wood. You imagine the woman inside drumming her fingers while she thinks.

“Perhaps we can help each other,” she says. “You get me back to the ocean and I’ll get your Ian to you.”

It sounds good and you open your mouth immediately to accept but then you hesitate. How would she get Ian to you? And if you don’t deliver her to Simon, you’ll be out of a job. What then? How will you provide for Ian and yourself without work?

Do you trust in someone you can’t even see? So many questions plague you that, for a moment, you don’t realize someone’s approaching.

ride-through-farytale-forest-1407139-mWhen you do catch the sound of their horses, you look up to see two of Simon’s men riding toward you. You know them because of their bright-red coats. Even in the near dark, they shimmer just a touch.

If they reach you, your decision will be made for you. Simon’s men will make sure you keep moving back toward the shop with the cargo.

“Someone’s coming,” the woman inside the box says. “If you don’t help me, I’ll make sure to hunt you down later.” The words grate harshly but you can’t tell if it’s from desperation or anger.

You climb up onto the seat of the wagon.

Do you…

Aa. Race Away?

Or

Ab. Meet Simon’s Men?

Smuggler Option Aa. Race Away

As Simon’s men approach, you can’t get the woman’s voice out of your head. And then you think of what Ian would say if you told him you smuggled a woman in a box to get him passage to join you.

His light eyes would widen, not in awe at your bravery, but in horror, and he’d back away from you like you’d just said his birthday was cancelled…for life. He had a fine sense of right and wrong and this was just too far over the line.

You’ve no desire to see that look on your brother’s face.

Pulling the wagon around, you smack the reigns and grit your teeth as the horses take off over the rough ground.

Behind you the men shout but you can’t make out their words with the rumbling of the wagon. Your mind races.

A wagon’s too slow to outrun two men on horseback, so how do you lose the men chasing you? The trees are tight but weaving a Old wagonwagon through them in hopes of losing your chasers sounds like a bit of insanity.

You’re contemplating taking a hard turn to the left and heading for a different road when the wagon hits something in the dark. The right side bounces clear of the ground and crashes down with a hard crunch. The wagon lurches with the next rotation of the wheels and then the entire right side tilts to drag on the ground even as the horses continue to race forward.

You slide to the right and catch yourself just before you tumble off the bench. You hold on so tightly the wood digs into your skin.

The wagon hits a tree with a crunching, splintering crash followed immediately by the gush of salt water. In the dark you see a shape fall from the broken box. Slender and shimmery, almost like scales, but definitely humanoid.

The woman screams softly.

You scramble out of the wreckage of the wagon to get to her and find when you roll her over that she’s half human, and half fish. A mermaid.

She gasps and grasps at your arms. “Water,” she begs.

You look back to the box that contained her but the water’s gone, drained onto the ground like sand.

“I’m sorry,” you say. “I tried.”

But she’s definitely dying as you hold her and you know trying wasn’t enough.

The thunder of hooves fill the air and you bend over her, trying instinctively to protect her from Simon’s men even though she probably can’t hear them over her harsh breathing.

But when you catch movement in the dark, you don’t see the red coats of Simon’s men. You see feathers and long hair, you see high leather boots and ringed hands clutching a variety of swords.

“Chase ‘em off, boys!” shouts one as he brandishes his sword.

“Yours?” you ask the mermaid softly.

Before she can answer, the lead man, no pirate, gestures at you and then back the way they came from. “Get ‘er in the box before she’s gone.”

water-drops-782811-mIt’s then you see a horse with poles running along its sides to drag behind it. On the litter is what looks like a tub, sealed with tar. One of the pirates pulls the lid from the tub and you see the sparkle of water inside.

Relief washes through you and you lift the mermaid over your shoulder, glad for your months of swinging an axe and the muscles you now have.

Within moments of lowering the mermaid into the water, her eyes open, bright green and piercing.

She grabs your arm, “Only trust the one with green feathers.”

The what? You open your mouth to ask but one of the pirates lowers the lid back over her and starts nailing it into place.

The lead pirate swings an arm around your shoulders. “Well done, mate, that was quite the thing you did. Now head back with us and we’ll show you this mermaid’s ability to swim.”

Your job with Simon’s done. He’ll never trust you again. You take in this pirate and blow a feather from his hair away from your face. He’s got a collection of them tied into his braids but the majority are green. Was this what the mermaid meant?

You start walking with them back toward the ocean mostly because you haven’t decided what to do next.

Another man sidles up to you. He’s also got feathers but they’re woven together like a tail down the back of his neck. They alternate between blue and green.

“Take this,” he passes you a small bottle and you slide it up your sleeve before anyone notices. “Before you release the mermaid, make her drink it.” Then he fades back into the group behind you before you can ask him why. The tiny bottle weights heavy in your hand. Whatever’s inside it looks dark and thick. Will it help her or kill her?

The man could be the green-feathered one the mermaid spoke of. But then the captain also has green feathers, so that’s a bit ambiguous.

Do you…

Aa1. Discard the Bottle?

Or

Aa2. Give the Bottle to the Mermaid?

Smuggler Option Aa: Discard the Bottle 

The pirate’s ship happens to be anchored in the harbor just below the lighthouse. Dawn turns the surface of the water a soft gray as you follow the men loading the tub with the mermaid on board the ship.

As you walk up the gangway, you stumble and throw your hands wide to catch yourself. This puts you right next to the edge ofshipwreck-1442444-m the gangway and from there, it’s a simple matter to let the bottle drop from your sleeve into the water of the harbor below. You don’t even look to make sure it doesn’t hit anything on the way down. Instead, you laugh nervously while pushing yourself back up.

“Clumsy me,” you mutter.

Then you’re on the ship and the bottle’s gone. The dark, thick liquid just gave you the willies. You decided to go with your gut instinct and have nothing to do with it.

“Sit with the tub,” says the captain, “that’ll keep you from under foot for now.”

You pick your way across the deck to the tub. On the left side is a smaller wooden box. You sit and draw your feet up.

“You awake?” you ask the box beside you, low enough no one should hear.

There’s no answer.

You drum your fingers across the lid, debating what to do now. The captain’s said nothing about what he plans next and you’re sure the other man will show up sooner or later to make sure you follow through on his instructions. You’d like to have a plan in place before he confronts you.

All you’ve really decided by the time the ship’s out of the harbor and the captain approaches is that you’re not going to leave the mermaid alone. You don’t trust anyone’s intentions.

“No one believes in the mermaids,” says the captain as he leans against the side of the ship. “I plan on keeping it that way. No one believes, then they leave the creatures alone. They believe, and the luck of the sea becomes the hunted of the sea. That’s unacceptable.”

You nod, wondering where he’s taking this.

“To that end, you’re a lose end.” Someone grabs you from behind and pulls your arms around behind your back. You cry out but the man already has your wrists tied together. When you get a glimpse of who has you, you see it’s the blue and green feather man.

Where the captain can’t see, he feels your arms and you realize he’s looking for the bottle. Panic climbs your throat but instead of the anger you expect, he actually looks pleased not to find the bottle.

“Over board,” the captain gestures at the side. You’re far enough out from the harbor that there’s no chance you’ll be able to swim back.

The blue-and green-feathered man shoves you toward the side and the crew cheers. You fight, trying to shove against the side with your feet but the man’s strong and you only manage to drive some air from his lungs when you hit his stomach.

He lifts you into the air and holds you out over the water like you’re no bigger than a ten year old.

As the crew cheers at his torment of you, he leans close and you smell fish on his breath.

“You passed,” he whispers quickly. “You’ll find a knife in your sleeve. Help’ll be by soon to get you.” Then he backs away and saber-knife-1067468-mshouts, “away with you!” He lets go.

Wind rushes past your ears with a high-pitched keening that reminds you of a lonely dog. But then there’s cold water in your mouth and nose and you forget about the keening.

Your chest burns. You fumble around the ropes holding your hands until your fingertips encounter something sharp. You’re sure you cut your ring and pinky fingers but you don’t release the feel of the knife.

The water’s dark and freezing. You kick, hoping to move upward toward the surface but somehow you seem to continue to sink. It’s then you realize you’re not sure what’s up and what’s down.

With a little twisting, the knife’s handle slides into the palm of your hand. You start cutting.

The outside edges of your vision sparkle and fuzz. Your chest aches like it might explode but you keep cutting.

Something touches you. Something gasps your shoulders and then touches your lips. The burning in your chest explodes and your vision sparks brightly before clearing to a brief moment of clarity.

That moment’s all you need. You see bright green, piercing eyes right in front of you and you relax in the mermaid’s grip as she forces more air into your lungs. With the second breath, the air tastes sweet and your vision clears completely. By the time you break the surface of the water, you’re major discomfort lies in the cold, not the lack of air. Feeling’s gone completely from your fingers and toes.

The mermaid seems to know this is a problem. She takes off for the distant land on the horizon while holding your hands, then your feet in a circular process until you feel sand touch your body.

***

You’re laying on a vacant part of the shoreline, absorbing the warmth from the sun as the mermaid explains to you what happened.

“Finnigan’s bottle was a test,” she says, “if you’d kept it, he wouldn’t have given you the knife. If you didn’t have the knife, I’d have let you drown.”

You frown, seeing multiple problems with their plan. “What if I’d dropped the knife? Or what if I hadn’t found a spot to discard the bottle?”

She shrugs. “It’s not foolproof but then, the whole situation’s fraught with dangers. I almost died last night.”

“And what’s with green feathers? None of them have only green feathers.”

She flashes a grin. “That’s the point. We were testing your instinct, not your ability to follow instructions.”

You sigh, seeing you won’t change her mind about the way they handle things. You’ve more pressing matters anyway. “My brother?”

Her grin returns. “Of course.”

She’ll follow through on getting your brother to you. Now all you have to do is figure out how to support the two of you. But that seems like a small matter at the moment. You stretch, enjoying the sun on your skin.

The End

Blessings and have a wonderful weekend,

Jennifer