Kelila barely managed to stop when she reached the road, but there were no lights coming. She dashed across and slid down the slight hill, onto the sand. The insides of her shoes became filled with the coarse grains as she drove herself toward the shore. She fell to her knees in the waves that flowed restlessly along the beach. Plunging her hands into the water, she said, “Great Triton, I need to speak with you. The matter is urgent.”
Around her, the water glowed again, brighter this time. His voice was edged with dismay, amplifying the ripples. “You’ve found the Mer, have you not, daughter?”
She hesitated. “I have, but are you sure we don’t need one of undiluted blood?”
There was a long silence and she wondered if he already knew what she really wanted to ask somehow. Her father had always known her mind. “The ritual will only require that their blood be present. His will suffice for our purpose. You must move, Kelila. Take him with you to Stonehenge at once. The ritual is tomorrow. There isn’t time to delay.”
It was her turn to be silent. Her father said, “Something troubles you.”
“Isn’t there another way, Father? Someone else we could use?”
The sea exploded around her with his anger, the waves pounding the shore everywhere but on top of her, and the glow grew mottled, patterns of darkness and light racing across the surface. His voice made her cringe when he spoke. “This is the time, daughter. The alliance was difficult enough to form and now we must fulfill our side of the bargain. Do you imagine for even a second that any of the Mers would hesitate to offer you or your family up for what we are about to gain?”
“They’re our family too! The Mers-”
Water crashed over her, cutting her off and when it had passed, the glow formed into a pattern in front of her. The darkness and light took on the hard planes of her father’s face. The rage in his voice shook her down to her bones and she flinched back. “I don’t care if they are my brother’s children! They’re our enemy, Kelila. For us to complete this, we require a child of the sea. It must either be a Mer or one of your own brothers and sisters, your nieces and nephews. Will you sacrifice one of them to save a single merman?”
“But he’s not like them.”
The silence that followed this was heavy with disbelief and disgust. The waves stilled, but the glow intensified and arcs of light raced around the face on the surface of the water. “This cannot be possible. You would choose him over us. You care for him more. Do you understand what you’re choosing, Kelila? A life marooned on land. I swear, if you betray me like this, you will never again be allowed the embrace of the sea.”
She stared at her father’s face in horror. She couldn’t deny she cared about Isaac, but banishment from the sea would mean her death. “Father, you can’t-”
“I can and I will. Do as you’ve agreed, as you must, and you may return. Until then, the sea will be closed to you.”
Another wave rushed toward her, bigger than the others and she was flung back onto the beach, where she lay crying until there were no more tears in her. She hardly registered her father’s continued presence.
She had no idea how long she lay there before hearing Isaac’s voice. She didn’t move, didn’t know how to choose, and then he was kneeling in the sand next to her. He pulled her into a sitting position and held her shoulders, his face full of concern.
“Why did you run off like that? What happened?”
She threw her arms around him and started weeping again. He couldn’t die, not when she had just met him. She wanted to get to know him, to share the sea with him. He began stroking her hair. “Kelila, tell me what’s wrong. Why are you crying? Are you hurt? Did I say something, or do something?”
She shook her head, unable to stop sobbing. Even if she chose him and tried to make a life for herself on land, it would never be what she wanted. There was no way for her to explain to him why she couldn’t go in the sea and share that with him, and she’d never be willing to risk telling him the truth of his own heritage. More than that, how would she explain away the trail of dead humans that would, by necessity, follow her?
“Please, talk to me. If something’s bothering you, let me help.”
She heard the plea in his voice, and the fear. He was right to be afraid. She was going to have to take him to the ritual, where he might die.
Raising her head, she stared into Isaac’s face. Her tears finally ceased. Might die? She ran through the ritual her father had taught her so she could perform her part. Of course. She’d been focusing so much on the fact that someone would die as part of it that she’d forgotten the most important part. Only one of those blooded in the ritual would be killed. It was still a risk, one she wasn’t happy about, but this chance was better than the alternative.
“Do you trust me,” she whispered to him, her arms still wrapped around his chest.
Surprised and confused, he said, “Yes. It’s stupid, I know. We just met, but… I feel like I know you already and I don’t know why.”
She nodded and stood up, using his hands to draw him up to his feet with her. She led him out into the surf until the water reached her chest. Though she could feel her father all around her, he didn’t try to stop her. She thought he was waiting to see what she would do.
Kelila turned back to Isaac, who looked even more perplexed and slipped her arms around his neck. She leaned in until her lips were right by his ear.
“I know why you love the sea so much. I can tell you why your hands are different, why you can dive so much deeper than others. You can hold your breathe under water longer than anyone you know, and swim faster and further and I know why.”
He tried to pull back, but she held him fast. His voice was hoarse. “How do you know any of that? How can you explain things my own father couldn’t?”
Drawing her courage up, she whispered back, “Because I know what you are, Isaac. I know what your father was, and his father, going back to a young man who left the sea for his love of a human woman.”
“This isn’t possible. I’ve never shared the old story my father told me, not with anyone. It’s ancient family history and I’ve never really believed it. How could you know-”
“Because it’s my family history too. You’re different from humans because you’re descended from a merman. The sea is part of you, and it’s where you belong. That’s why you love it so much, why you feel at home there.”
She waited, holding her breath. When he spoke, she could hardly hear him. “It’s just a myth. There’s no such thing. Science has never found-”
“Some of the things humans name legend are real, Isaac. Science doesn’t know all the secrets of the world. Your people are no more legend than I am. Water nymphs are real too. You’re holding one now.”
He pulled back gently then and stared into her eyes, the skepticism she’d expected absent. “You came looking for me.”
She nodded and stretched onto her toes to kiss him. Surrounded by the sea, there was no thirst to ignore, so she savored the feel of his lips and the way he kissed her back hungrily. His arms tightened around her, holding her close. When she broke the kiss, she knew she’d never be able to let him die. There was hope, and she was going to do everything in her power to keep him safe. She prayed it would be enough. The water around them grew more violent, and she knew it was her father’s fury as he tried to pull them apart. He must have realized her intent, or at least enough of it to be worried.
“Think of the water becoming calm, Isaac. It will happen. Trust me,” she whispered, even though she knew this would enrage her father more.
Though he looked confused, he closed his eyes rather than question her. He frowned in concentration, and the waves calmed. She pulled him into another kiss and drew him under the surface with her lips.
For a few minutes, he only kissed her and his trust excited her in a way she’d never felt before. When he tried to pull back, she let his lips part from hers just far enough to speak. “Breathe, Isaac. I know you can.”
His eyes widened in shock and it was enough to distract him. She felt water pass into his lungs as his body took over such an unconscious thing as breathing. He panicked, a reaction she’d expected, but she held him there with her arms around his neck and her eyes on his. Another breath of water and he calmed down, wonder flooding his expression as he stared at her. “How is this-” He stopped, surprised at the sound of his own voice, the clarity of it in the water. “This shouldn’t be possible.”
She smiled. “And yet it is. I told you, you’re a merman, Isaac.”
He held up one of his hands, staring at the webbing that had expanded almost to the second joint of his fingers. Then he looked down at himself and she felt the arm he had around her waist stiffen. She knew the cause without needing to see, though she did look. His legs were fusing and lengthening. The diving suit he’d been wearing split and drifted to the sandy bottom. Scales in rippling shades of green rapidly formed over the fish-like tale his legs were becoming. For the first time in her life, the sight was beautiful, and the scent of a Mer in the water made her smile.
“We have to go now. There’s something we need to do and you have to trust me.”
He looked back up at her with such faith that she knew she’d do anything to protect him. Once the ritual was over, once he came through it alive, then they could roam the ocean together. All the places and things she wanted to show him raced through her mind. She wondered if his father would realize where Isaac had gone when he never came back. She was sure Isaac wouldn’t want to return to the land, that he’d never wish to leave the sea. And her, she hoped. Her own father’s rage at this would be enough to deal with after the ritual. She just had to get them both through that, and prayed she wasn’t making a mistake to put him so at risk. Kelila grasped his hand, then tapped the current of the ocean to spirit them away toward Stonehenge.
***Thank you very much for joining me. I hope you’ve enjoyed this short story