Authors: Nicole MacDonald
‘What’s that mean?’ she asked the goblin that stood beside her, broom clutched tight in his narrow hands.
‘Mernoyds,’ snapped a Draoth from behind. She twisted to see the sailor standing by a mast, the ropes of the expansive concertinaed sail in his hands while he tugged and released, creating the same pattern. The sound of loud horns brought everyone up on deck.
‘What’d you do this time, Kass?’ Aswaran soldier Oomoth said loudly, making everyone twist to look.
‘This time? I didn’t do anything!’
‘She tried to pick up a mernoyd baby,’ the goblin with the broom helpfully put in.
‘Are you mad?’ The centaur grinned when she glowered at him.
‘No! I haven’t seen them before.’
Oomoth tsked and beckoned to her.
‘Come have a look then.’
On the way to the handrail Kassie spotted Cat and Leseach making their way over and stopped to greet them both first, then they joined Oomoth and the others who watched the water below with grim eyes.
‘Have you seen them before?’ Cat asked Leseach.
‘No,’ the Northerner replied, staring at the waves. ‘We don’t often get them in our waters.’
Kassie listened while watching the waters breaking away from the ship, the motion quite mesmerizing and she forgot for a moment, until the sleek bodies rose up with the bow wave. A sudden hush came over all those watching.
Perhaps something like these had inspired the legends of mermaids but the reality was far more creepy. The large black eyes appeared devoid of emotion but the mouths weren’t and with sharp jagged teeth they snarled at those watching above. The sleek body shape with a partially split tail allowed them to easily keep speed with the ship.
A touch to the back made Kassie look up. Rumal, still shirtless but far less potent, stood looking over her head at the mernoyds and she grinned.
A smile hovered on his lips and he glanced down, gold eyes swirling.
‘Better. Thanks for the water.’
She chuckled and deliberately wriggled back into his embrace when he stretched both arms around her, to hold the handrail.
‘You smell lots better,’ she said conversationally, flashing Cat an impish smile while those around laughed.
‘Thanks, Kass,’ Rumal said dryly.
A loud shout caught everyone’s attention. One of the Draoths leaned precariously over the handrail, boathook extended and ready, poised to stab a mernoyd that determinedly climbed the side of the ship, its clawed forearms easily gripping the wood. The creature snarled at the Draoth and swung at the boathook with a heavy arm, trying to knock it from the sailor’s grasp. The Draoth drew the hook back and jabbed again and again at the snarling creature. Far below the other mernoyds shrieked, an awful hair-raising sound and several more started to climb the ship’s side.
Kassie shrank back against Rumal while staring down. The nasty looking creatures grinned, black eyes sadistically evil while they neared the handrail.
‘This is what they do,’ Rumal explained in an unconcerned manner. ‘They seek out ships so to feed on those aboard.’
‘Feed?!’ exclaimed Kassie.
‘Yes,’ said Oomoth in the same casual tone as Rumal. The centaur worked at winding the cable back on a crossbow, the heavy tension of the weapon took a concerted effort on Oomoth’s part, but he managed it, and slotted a bolt into place, lifting the bow and sighted the closest creature. Kassie jumped at the loud piercing CRACK and the creature Oomoth aimed for was forcibly shot off the side of the ship into the water below. The instant the body hit the water the other mernoyds shrieked and leaped forward, ripping chunks of flesh from the dead mernoyd. The water churned red while more and more surged forward, fighting for a mouthful.
‘That’s revolting, they eat their own?’ Kassie stared at the bloody scene in horror.
‘Dead meat is dead meat to them, Kass.’
‘Vicious bastards,’ snarled a Draoth near Rumal. ‘They’ll track a ship from Nalauth for days, waiting for a sailor to slip up in their need for water.’
Oh right, Kassie realized with shock and she looked around, seeing quite a few unhealthy sand-colored Draoths. She then noticed stealthy movements on the opposite side of the deck and with a pointed glance at Rumal she stepped away from the crowd and walked quietly across the deck.
The small cluster of men, goblins, Draoths, and centaurs, glanced at her then back again, focused on the line they drew up the side of the ship. A centaur held a boathook out over the rail, its blunted head keeping the rope from touching the side of the ship. Once the bucket reached the top they emptied it into a large washtub and lowered it again. A particularly chalky-looking Draoth stepped into the tub with a sigh of relief and Kassie watched in fascination while the sailor’s calves and ankles turned a dark glossy green. It only took the sailor moments to douse himself in the tub then another sailor switched places with him. All the while the others drew buckets of fresh water up and added them to the tub.
The Nyjens paced from one part of the deck to the next, hanging over the rails, discussing things amongst themselves. In a flurry of activity the dark skinned men moved quickly around the deck, gathering short spears. I watched as Leseach stopped one of them and they conversed briefly, then she too hurried off. The Nyjens spread along the length of the ship, straddling the rails, with a pile of spears and throwing blades resting by their boots. Leseach returned with weapons in hand and I shielded my eyes when she walked my way, the sun on her back.
What a sight, I thought, staring in admiration. Her long blond hair in a fierce quasi Mohawk plait made her face look lean and strong, the illusion emphasized by the shaved sides and I noticed for the first time that her ears pointed slightly, adding to the angles of her face. Her large eyes gleamed with the forthcoming challenge and she reached a muscular arm up to adjust the strap of her top which crisscrossed her breasts and back. The cold air didn’t appear to bother her any more than the others aboard and I hunched against the icy breeze, muttering under my breath.
How is it that I, the fire elemental, felt the cold?
It seemed ridiculous but watching Leseach muck around in those tiny shorts and top made me shiver. Rashid didn’t appear to object, however. I noticed the Lieutenant from the corner of my eye and twisted, watching him take a long quick stride to reach the Northerner’s side. I wish Gredel was here. He took great delight in ribbing Rashid at his attempts in courting Leseach. Watching Gredel’s face when Leseach graciously passed a couple of daggers to Rashid would have amused me. The awful screaming from the mernoyds grew louder and I glanced at Ignatius who stood a few meters away watching the water.
Ignatius turned to find Catherine watching him, an eyebrow arched in question.
‘The mernoyds are gathering in greater numbers. The blood is attracting them,’ he explained loudly. She stood from her seat and joined him, peering down at the creatures her upper lip curling in distaste.
‘What are the Nyjens and Leseach doing? And Rashid,’ she added as an afterthought.
Ignatius glanced over then turned to grin at the Princess.
‘Looks like a competition, want to practice with your sleeve?’
Her eyes lit up then she squinted, lips twisting in concern.
‘What if I lose the blades?’
‘Not to worry, there’s extra if you do. Elena had another few sets charmed.’
With an encouraging smile at her he turned and hurried off, climbing down to the lower decks and pushed his way through the crowded corridor, making his way to the armory along with most onboard. Two Rodhite centaurs kept track of the comings and goings in the armory, calling it out to a General Guard soldier who noted it down. Throwing weapons of all types vanished out the door.
‘Ignatius,’ one of the centaurs yelled. ‘Are you here for your crossbow?’
‘Yes, and the Princess’ throwing sleeve,’ he hollered back, jostling through the doorway while a couple of goblins pushed out, their hands full of weighted ropes. The centaur waded through the crowd to the back of the room and found the weapons, reaching to the upper shelves for a second quiver of bolts. He pushed back to Ignatius and passed them over.
‘That should see you well, losers have to do kitchen and deck chores for the next three days. You better get up there.’
With a nod of thanks Ignatius made his way back to the upper decks.
The rumble from the soldiers and allies and the screams of the creatures filled the air. No one had yet made a shot and from the excited, impatient glances I kept getting I gathered that they wouldn’t start before me. Feeling anxious I twisted, looking for Ignatius and breathed a sigh of relief when his head appeared through the hatch.
‘Are they waiting for me?’ I asked when he reached my side, passing the sleeve over. I buckled the clasps tight while Ignatius focused on winding the cable back on his unusual crossbow.
‘Yes,’ he replied without looking at me, slotting bolts into the weapon. ‘It’s a competition, the losers are on deck and kitchen duty for three days.’
He glanced up when done and grinned at me.
‘So aim true and throw fast.’
I nodded, feeling a rush of excitement and at the same time a bit of discomfort. Should I feel excited about killing things? They’d eat you in a heartbeat, observed my rational voice and I nodded in agreement. With an easy motion I swept the blades up in my right hand and flicked my wrist out, aiming at three mernoyds climbing the side.
The Princess’ throw took two of the mernoyds down and those watching roared in approval then joined in. The original group of seven creatures Ignatius counted this morning had swelled in numbers to a couple of hundred and the ship swayed roughly on the smooth ocean when the creatures launched themselves up the sides. The mass of bodies churned the water and their furious screams increased when most aboard worked at reducing their numbers. The Nyjens kept up a loud and jovial tally, competing amongst themselves and against everyone else. Ignatius reloaded his crossbow, locking eight bolts into the revolving barrel and took aim, ducking just in time when the Princess’ blades whizzed past his ear, back to her sleeve.
He paused to tsk when she reddened then flashed him a grin. Gone so quick but that brief expression of humor lightened his heart and he smiled.
‘Hurry up, Ignatius! We’ll lose at this rate.’
What a bizarrely fun day I thought later while we ate dinner on the deck. The gruesome results of the competition meant lots of work for the losers, us unfortunately, but the blood splattered sides of the ship attracted all manner of sea creatures that cleaned up the mess. Kassie and I bugged all those around us for the names of the different creatures we kept spotting. Freaky looking serpent dragons called menx’s and schools of shimmering green bronze fish with pointed noses.
‘Dagger fish,’ said Rashid through a mouthful of food. ‘The reason why we couldn’t travel south any later. It’s getting close to their spawning, which involves schools of them leaping out the water. Bloody dangerous things.’
I stayed out late watching all those creatures. When it grew darker luminescent creatures ventured out and the ocean turned into the most incredible light show.
‘I had no idea it looked like this,’ I said in awe. Beside me, waiting patiently, Ignatius gestured at the shimmering lights.
‘It doesn’t always. They show off as spawning nears.’
He didn’t mind waiting, pleased that she wasn’t weeping in her room like normal. After another hour or so she finally conceded a need to sleep and Ignatius smiled, offering an arm. She took it like she always did at night for as soon as she tired her sense of balance appeared to vanish. At the castle Ignatius often observed her bouncing off door jambs in the evenings, much to the hilarity of her friends and that wasn’t a safe practice here. Last thing he needed would be for her to tumble down the hatch. Seeing her to the room, Ignatius ducked to the kitchen. The cook met him at the door with the prepared nellor and Leseach waited at her door too, when he rounded the corner. By the time he reached the Princess’ room she waited in bed, studying her disk map which she put away when he entered, reaching for the offered cup. A short time later and he made to climb into his own bed, the Princess sleeping soundly in hers. A tap at the door made him pause.