Arambil’s Shell

“Careful,” the captain warned, “there are merfolk in these waters.”

I couldn’t tell if he was serious.  It was clear that Captain Igru was a good man, despite the part he took in our abduction.  His loyalty to Axbelis felt tenuous, though, and I harbored hope that the captain could be inclined to help us escape Axbelis, given the right circumstances.  For now, he watched over us while we sailed east around the southern spit, describing what his many maps told him about our journey.

Mirna pulled away from the porthole in surprise.  “Could they hurt us through such a small window?” she asked.

The captain gave her an indulgent smile, which was lost on my blind friend.

“I think he’s teasing us,” I said, leading her back to the love seat that served as her bed.

“Not so,” insisted the captain, but his smile was mischievous.

“Where are we now?” I asked, crossing to his map table.  The continent was a great deal larger than I’d thought.  It would take us a full week just to navigate the islands of the southern coast, before we’d be able to swing north up the western coast toward the city of Azminan, our final destination.  Even without the obstacle of islands, that part of the trip would be a good solid three days.  The captain pointed to a stretch of sea between small scattered islands, near the southernmost tip of the spit.

“Merfolk country,” he said, his finger indicating a fin drawn onto the map.

“Igru,” greeted Axbelis, entering the cabin without knocking, “Mirna, Shevus, good morning.”

I bristled.  The name Axbelis had assigned to me was an insult, I now knew.  I didn’t say anything; just glared at our captor.  He was a man of many appearances and today he was playing the part of the sea-faring gentleman, with his hair slicked back and a smart suit.  He looked younger this way, almost a teenager.  I knew better, though.  He was probably as old as time itself.

“Did I hear you mention merfolk?” asked Axbelis.

“No sir,” said Captain Igru.  “I was pointing out the island of Verspoke here.”

I fought to keep my expression neutral as Axbelis followed the captain’s finger on the map.  Why would the captain keep that from him?

“I hope you’re not planning on swinging that far south,” said Axbelis, frowning at the man.

“No sir,” said Captain Igru, “quite the opposite.  It’s best to stay clear of those waters.  The people of Verspoke can be inhospitable toward unknown ships.”

“See that you keep us clear of them, by all means,” agreed Axbelis.  “Now then, Mirna, I’d like a word.”

Instinctively, I stepped between Axbelis and Mirna.  Axbelis’s gaze turned sharp.

“Valiant, Shevus, but I wonder what it is you think you’re going to do to stop me?” he snapped.

I suddenly found myself unable to move as he maneuvered around me and led my friend from the cabin.  For hours I stood in that spot, immobile.  Captain Igru grew uncomfortable and drifted out the door after only a few minutes, leaving me to hours of silent frustration and fear.  When Mirna returned she was alone, feeling her way through the door.  She looked exhausted.  She jumped when her arm brushed against me on her way past.

“What’s wrong with you?” she asked, feeling my face.  “What did he do to you?”

She frowned.  Fishing around in her pockets, she came up with something metallic, though I couldn’t make out what it was in her palm.  She pressed it against my forehead and counted out a minute under her breath.  My rigid muscles relaxed.

“What is that?” I asked, stretching.

“A little gift from my daddy,” she said, tucking it back into a pocket.

“What does it do?” I asked.  For the amount of time Mirna and I had been traveling together, and after all we’d been through in those travels, I found it hard to believe that she had an item on her person that I hadn’t yet seen.  “And how long have you had it?”

“It undoes,” she said.  “It’s powerful, and dangerous in the wrong circumstances, so I try not to use it if possible.”

I could think of several intense moments in our journey when things could have been ‘undone’ yet she hadn’t reached for it.  Biting my tongue, I decided to let it go.  My best friend was still full of surprises.

“What did Axbelis want?” I asked.

Her face paled.  “My father,” she said, shrugging in an effort to seem undisturbed.  She was clearly shaken, though.

“You haven’t seen him in months,” I said.  “We have no idea where he is.”

“He’s in Hodpuck,” she said flatly.  “It’s a coastal village not far north of here.  He’s been tracking our progress along the coast.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

Again, she shrugged.  “Axbelis knows.  He thinks I’m still communicating with daddy, but I’m not.  I don’t know how he’s following us.”

She looked ready to cry, and I suspected that she’d made that assertion many times to disbelieving ears.

“Hey,” I said, rubbing her arm, “I believe you.  I’m just glad that he is following us.”

Knowing that Anuaxi was coming after us; world-shaper and the scariest guy I’d met, including Axbelis, was reassuring.  Mirna was shaking her head, though, and tears filled her eyes.

“Not for long,” she said, her voice thick with grief.  “Axbelis has an army of myir and wolves and thugs for hire, and they’re closing in on him.”

“We’re talking about Anuaxi,” I said, pulling her to her love seat and getting her a glass of water.  “I don’t care how many armies come down on him.  I have a feeling he can handle himself.”

She took a long drink, and nodded after a while.

“You’re right, of course,” she said, though I could tell I hadn’t done much to sooth her.  After a few minutes she frowned, tilting her head.  “Do you hear singing?”

I listened, but couldn’t make out anything.  There was an odd noise, I noticed, but I wouldn’t have described it as singing.  The more I listened, though, the more I thought she might be right.  It was getting louder, or closer.

“It’s so beautiful,” she breathed.

I still wasn’t convinced it was singing.  Mirna rose and drifted past me, walking across the floor to the door as if she could see her way.  I followed after her.  No one had come by to lock the door so she was able to open it and drift down the narrow corridor.  We met no resistance on our way up to the deck.  In fact, the crewmen we did encounter walked with us as if in a trance.  On the deck, the whole crew leaned over the rails, reaching toward the water.

“I thought I saw an elephant,” said one man, staring into the water.

“No, a beautiful girl,” said another.  “I saw her.  Just under the surface.  She needs my help!”  With that, the man jumped in.  No one threw him a rope.

Captain Igru emerged then with coils of rope looped over his arms and neck.  He dropped them on the deck, and picking up the end of one, set to work tying ropes around the wrists and ankles of his crew.  I noticed that he had something stuck in his ears.

“Their song isn’t for us,” Mirna whispered to me.

Several men leaped overboard, the ropes attached to them going taut.  I rushed to the rail and saw them dangling, reaching toward moving shapes in the water.  Merfolk.  The singing was beautiful.  Looking back at Captain Igru, it seemed that the man was motioning with his head for us to go overboard.  A moment later, Axbelis surfaced from his cabin, looking fierce.  I didn’t hesitate.  Grabbing Mirna, I hurled us over the rail, into the water.

It was colder than I expected.  My breath left me.  Hands pulled us apart from each other, and down, and my scream finished off what air I’d had left.  Not thinking, I gasped in.  The water felt thick in my lungs, but after a few deep breaths, I realized I hadn’t drowned.  I was breathing water, and still alive.

Down we went, into darker water.  I couldn’t see much beyond the occasional glint off a long tail at my side.  I hadn’t had a good look at the mermaid whose hand grasped my wrist, except that she was fair, with large eyes and pale hair.  After a while I began to see light.  Not sunlight, but strange flashing lights.  It was just glimpses here and there in the darkness.  Then more often.  Finally, we rounded some last corner and the world erupted with light.  A city glowed beneath us in the depths.  I could see the mermaid now, and a merman following behind us towing Mirna.  We were brought into a bright coral palace and deposited before a giant of a merman.  He had a great long beard that swayed before him.

“Anuaxi called to us,” he said.  “We owed him a favor of many years ago, and that favor is satisfied.”

“Thank you, great one,” said Mirna.

“I am Arambil,” said the merman.  “You are now guests in my city.”

“Thank you, Arambil,” said Mirna.  “We need to get to Anuaxi, to warn him of a coming fight.  Can you lead us to him?”

“The favor to Anuaxi was to remove you from that vessel,” said Arambil.  “I owe no more favors.  You stay.”

A shiver traveled through my nerves.  “But we don’t belong here,” I said.  “We belong on land.”

Mirna shook her head to silence me, but my folly was already done.

“Not a problem,” said Arambil, pointing a shell toward Mirna.  The next moment, Mirna disappeared.  A large fish swam out of her dress.

“What did you do?” I gasped.

The shell was aiming at me.  I panicked.  I grabbed the shell out of Arambil’s hand.  The merman roared in indignation grabbed for me, but I kicked him away.  Reaching into the pocket of Mirna’s dress, where I’d seen her deposit that trinket, I yanked it free.

It was a strange shape, like a teardrop with a funny curve to it.  I pressed the trinket against the shell, and shouted, “Undo!”

Many things happened at once.  Mirna appeared, her eyes wide in alarm.  The shell vibrated out of my hand.  People began to appear all around in states of bewilderment, which quickly turned to anger toward Arambil.  As they descended on the merman, Mirna crawled back into her dress and we made our hasty escape.  Across the city there was chaos and confusion as bright coral buildings turned to dark reefs and streets turned to sand.

Mirna and I swam through the endless dark until light filtered above our heads.  We swam though our muscles complained, with the howls of merfolk shrieking through the water behind us.  Finally, we lay gasping on the sand of an island, utterly spent.  The water churned with the angry cries of merfolk, but they didn’t pursue us onto the shore.

“My father was right,” Mirna said at last.  “You’re going to make a fine world-shaper.”

I gave her a hollow chuckle.  “You think?”

“Yes,” she said.  “You just reshaped the fabled city of Ambar, and by their howls, I’m guessing you did a thorough job of it.  They’re saying you stole the sacred shell of Arambil, King of the merfolk, as well.”

I realized that I still held Arambil’s shell in my hand.  “I guess I did,” I said, handing it to her along with her trinket.

Mirna’s laughter bounced out across the angry waves.  She laughed, and laughed, and after a while, I laughed, too.

Written by W. C. McClure  This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure.  Comments are welcome at Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends about this short story blog – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure.  Thanks!