[Author’s note: So, it’s May. Which, on the internet, seems to mean mermaids, merrow, and all manner of aquatic finfolk. Separately, I’ve been running on empty for a while and needed to get my brain back in gear – which, for me, means allowing myself space to play with my writing and not care overmuch about plot, quality, or anything other than just putting words on the page and rediscovering my joy in my craft. Given one of my favourite ways of playing is writing AUs… well, this was always going to happen]
In the shadows under the hull of the Arrow, something moved.
At first, Archer almost didn’t realise what he was looking at. The dark shape was too deep in the water for him to make out details, and what he could see of it might just as easily have been a porpoise or a young orca – white patched sides, a white belly, a shadowy wide-fluked tail. In fact, he’d realise some days later that if it had stayed that deep, he might have come away never having realised he’d seen anything other than one of the more ordinary denizens of that part of the ocean.
Fortunately, however, it didn’t.
As the creature slowly emerged from the darkness, his first thought was that it must be injured in some way. The whole front of its body seemed distorted and misshapen, with dark tendrils of something trailing from where its head should be, and, as it climbed towards the light, it moved like no orca or porpoise that he’d ever seen. But it was moving fast, and with purpose and, as he watched, it lifted its head and the tendrils streamed back behind it, and-
And Archer very nearly fell over backwards in shock. Because what he was seeing wasn’t – couldn’t be real.
The merrow cut through the water like a knife, its body slicing through the waves as he easily kept pace with the ship. It didn’t look up – though, Archer supposed, it probably didn’t need to given how large the vessel it was pacing was – nor did it break the surface, which implied either that its lung capacity was many times that of any surface-dweller or, equally as likely, it was somehow able to breathe underwater.
The lower half of its body was patterned like an orca – he’d been right about that, at least – but the upper half was something very very different. What he’d at first taken for a mass of tendrils or weeds trailing from its head was now revealed as long, thick hair, as black as Archer’s own, streaming back from a scarred, brown-skinned face. The merrow’s torso was bare of any clothing or ornamentation, the muscles of its back and shoulders standing stark as it powered through the water, and its skin was marked all over with lines of scarring, some so thin as to be almost invisible, others raised welts the width of a finger or more.
Somehow, the scars made it real. Without them, it might have been a hallucination, a sea-dream brought on by too many hours on deck and too many days away from shore. But the scars – this was a creature which had seen its fair share of fights, a creature which had bled and been wounded and healed, a creature that lived.
He rested his forearms on the rail, leaning over further to keep the sleek, graceful figure in his sights as it raced alongside the Arrow’s hull. It felt wrong to think of the merrow as an ‘it’, he was realising – they might be a creature he had never seen before, but they looked as much like a person as any other vampire, human, or werewolf (at least, above the waist).
They were also beautiful. Not attractive, not handsome or pretty or anything of that nature, but beautiful in the same way that a tidal wave or a summer storm was beautiful, all terrifying power and awesome might.
How many of you are there, I wonder? Do you gather down there in the dark, watching us go about our business on the other side of the water’s surface? Do you sing to each other, like the whales and the porpoises and the orcas do? Do you sing to them? You must communicate somehow, if there are more of you – do you sign? Or do you-
“Oi! -th’fuck’re you lookin’ at?”
This time, he did fall over backwards, landing hard on the deck with a half-swallowed yelp of surprise.
“I said, th’fuck’re you lookin’ at?”
The voice didn’t belong to anyone on the Arrow, he knew that much. And they were far enough into the voyage that they’d have discovered any stowaways. Which meant…
He looked up.
The merrow, leaning on the other side of the rail, glared back at him.
“I didn’t hear you move! How did you-?”
“Ain’t hard.” They rolled their eyes – light grey, he noticed, almost mirror-silver – and curled the corner of one lip in a sneer that exposed several shark-sharp teeth. “Y’know how fuckin’ clumsy you lot are in the water compared t’us?”
They were speaking Sacaask, Archer realised, numbly. The possible-messenger-of-the-gods was speaking Sacaask – and, more than that, speaking it with an accent that had the dark alleyways and towering tenements of Old Town in every syllable.
Which somehow made both absolutely no sense and all the sense in the world.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said, scrambling to his feet and bowing politely (mostly for want of anything else to do). “William Julius Archer, at your service.”
“Sabbat,” said the merrow. They flexed their tail, sending droplets of seawater flying across the deck. “An’ I ain’t at your service, nor anyone else’s.”
Archer couldn’t help it. He laughed.
The merrow – Sabbat – laughed too, throwing back their head and opening their mouth wide enough that it became very apparent that all their teeth were as pointed as the few Archer had seen. “Least y’got a sense o’ humour. Better’n th’last o’your lot I met.”
“You’ve met others like me?” Archer asked, before he could stop himself.
“Aye. Couple o’ hunters out after our whale-kin.” They grinned mirthlessly. “Din’t taste as good as fish, but fair eatin’ in a lean season.”
The implications of that probably should have worried him. On the other hand, anyone out hunting orcas deserved everything they got – the whales were sacred to Ocean Brother, and killing them was a crime punishable by death in any territory Sacaan controlled. And…well, he’d be lying if he said he didn’t know that the werewolf clans out on the steppe had a tendency not to leave bodies behind.
“Have you met any of my kind that you didn’t eat?”
“A few. Smugglers, mostly.” They looked him up and down with interest. “You don’t look much like a smuggler. Fuck’re you lot doin’ in these waters?”
“Hunting,” Archer said, before catching sight of the look on the merrow’s face and adding hastily, “For merchant vessels.”
“Of a sort. We’re very technically privateers, though I own the distinction doesn’t mean much out here.”
Sabbat shrugged dismissively. “Ain’t my business whether y’got a fancy letter or no. Far as I see it, you’re pirates.”
“Is that going to be a problem?”
“Y’goin’ t’make it one?” They flexed their tail again – then, in one fluid motion, swung themselves up and over the rail like a gymnast vaulting a pommel horse, dropping down to land in what amounted to a sitting position on the deck. “I ain’t about t’start anythin’ wi’ you, if that’s what you’re askin’. Leastwise, assumin’ you’re tellin’ the truth.”
“I’ve no reason to lie. Especially not to something- someone I thought was a myth until a few moments ago.” He crouched down, returning to eye level with the merrow, and sighed. “To be honest, I’m not sure I’m not dreaming. That, or hallucinating.”
Sabbat stared at him blankly for a moment. Then, very deliberately, they reached out, took hold of Archer’s forearm with surprising gentleness, placed two cold fingers on the underside of his wrist – and pinched him, hard.
“You ain’t fuckin’ dreamin’, drysider. An’ you ain’t hallucinatin’ either.” They pulled away, eyeing him curiously. “You’re a vampire, ain’t you?”
“I am. And you’re a- well, the books I’ve read would call you a merrow, but I don’t know whether that’s a name you use for yourselves.”
“Merrow does well enough. Better’n fuckin’ mermaid.” They spat. “Ain’t a fuckin’ girl, for one.”
Well, that answered one of the questions he’d been trying to work out a polite way to ask. Though it didn’t get him all that much closer to knowing what the merrow’s gender actually was, assuming they even had a concept of gender that mapped to anything on the surface world.
I could just ask, I suppose. Though the gods know that’s awkward enough when you’re not dealing with someone from a species you’ve never encountered before.
“You a girl?”
What? But the question made sense – if he didn’t know how merrow genders worked, it stood to reason that Sabbat probably had similar questions about vampires. “No. I’m male.”
“You an’ me both, then.”
There was an edge to that statement that Archer couldn’t quite place, but it didn’t seem the time to try and untangle whatever it was the merrow was implying. “I- Forgive me, but you’re the first of your kind I’ve ever met, and I’ll admit to being more than a little curious about you. Would you mind answering some questions for me?”
Sabbat shrugged a shoulder, leaning back against the rail. “Depends on what you’re askin’.”
Fair, if unhelpful. “Nothing too personal, and you’re more than welcome not to answer.”
“Ha!” He bared his teeth. “If I don’t like what you’re askin’, I’ll do more’n that.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” He wasn’t sure exactly how fast the merrow could move on land but he was still a powerful predator and, vampiric healing or no, Archer didn’t particularly relish the idea of having his throat torn out. “Something simple, then – can you breathe underwater? You didn’t seem to need to surface when you were following the ship.”
By way of an answer, Sabbat reached up and pushed a thick, dripping swathe of hair away from his neck, revealing three thin lines running diagonally below his ear. At first, Archer thought they might be scars – but, as he watched, they split bloodlessly open, sending a trickle of seawater spilling down the side of the merrow’s neck.
Gills? That’s- I don’t know what I was expecting, but that certainly makes sense. “I’m assuming that you’re not breathing through those now, which suggests you have two separate respiratory systems. That’s fascinating.”
“Hands t’yourself,” Sabbat growled, his shoulders tensing. “I ain’t a fuckin’ natural philosophy experiment, drysider.”
“And I’ve no intention of letting you become one, I assure you.” Though I’m starting to wish I’d brought one of my notebooks out on deck with me. That and some sketching materials. “How do you communicate underwater?”
“Signs. An’ I ain’t teachin’ you.”
“And how did you learn to speak Sacaask of all things?”
“Same way you did. Y’think you’re the only fuckin’ species t’speak more’n one language?”
“That’s not what I- My apologies. What I meant was that Sacaask’s not widely spoken on the continent as a whole, not compared to something like Aventrian or Adakari. Unless you come from-” He paused. “Gods dammit, I’m an idiot. You’re from the sea caves, aren’t you?”
There was a long, dangerous pause.
Then Sabbat said, quiet enough that Archer had to lean in to hear him, “What’s it t’you?”
“Curiosity. Nothing more.”
“Y’sure about that?”
“On my honour.” The two of them were close enough now that he could feel the heat of Sabbat’s breath on his cheek – more than close enough for the merrow to lunge forward and rip his throat out if he chose. Careful. He’s wary for a reason. “There have been stories about merrow in the caves for thousands of years, but almost everyone I’ve ever met has assumed they were folktales, nothing more. I don’t intend to tell anyone anything that’d change that, even if they’d believe me to begin with.”
“Y’can’t tell anyone anythin’ if I tear your fuckin’ throat out.”
“Wouldn’t even need t’do it on deck. Grab you, pull y’down over the rail, kill you in the water. Nobody on your ship’d know where you went.”
“That’s also true.”
“Ain’t anyone in earshot t’stop me.”
Another pause, longer than the last.
Archer held his breath, keeping his eye fixed on the merrow’s face. If Sabbat lunged for him, he might – might – be able to get his knife free in time. If he couldn’t… well, he’d resorted to fangs before, but this time around he was almost certainly outmatched in that department.
Twilight Sister, Lady of Knowledge, if you’re listening… would you mind putting in a good word for me with your brother? I think I might be about to need it.
Then, all of a sudden, Sabbat let out a bark of laughter and fell back against the rail, flicking more water into Archer’s face with his flukes as he did so. “Ha! Y’should see the look on your face, drysider!”
Archer blinked the spray out of his eyes, stared at the merrow in bewildered relief, and, after a few moments, ventured “…I assume you’re not about to try and eat me, then?”
“You’re assumin’ a fuck of a lot, but no, I ain’t goin’ t’eat you. Leastwise, not at the moment.” He grinned. “Too fuckin’ stringy-lookin’, for one.”
“I think I’m insulted,” Archer said, before he could stop himself.
“Why? You lot’re predators, ain’t you? Stands t’reason y’don’t want t’go around lookin’ like prey.”
“You have a point.”
“Course I do,” the merrow said. Then he leant back, folded his arms behind his head, and said, companionably, “Alright. What d’you want t’know about the caves?”
Copyright © 2021 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.