Authors: Kimberly Frost
Tags: #Paranormal, #Literature & Fiction, #Romance
Bryn grinned. “It’s a miracle drug.”
Bryn took the plastic bag.
“You’re going to do a spell to lure the fish?”
“That’s the plan,” Bryn said, raising his arm above the water. He whispered a few words and his magic hummed.
A trickle of unease raised gooseflesh on my arms. Something wasn’t right. “Wait,” I said, grabbing his hand. “Maybe there are snakes in there. Or piranhas. You said it yourself, ghosts aren’t always trustworthy.”
“What do you suggest?”
I held out my arm. “Magic me instead. I’ll do the fishing.”
He didn’t move.
“Come on. It’s my messed-up magic that turned Jenna and Lucy small. I should be the one getting the fish for Sullied Sal.”
“It’s all right,” he said, lowering a hand.
“No,” I said, stopping him.
“For God’s sake, get on with it!” Sal hissed.
Bryn and I both spun around and found Sally standing a few feet from us. She glowed a faint pink color, her large bosoms jiggling as she snapped at us.
“You’d have made a good model for the prow of a ship,” I murmured, giving the full-figured wooden woman a glance.
“I was the inspiration for more than one. I had my share of sailors and sea captains. In my day, we had thirty ships a day in port, full of men anxious for company. Me and my girls were the most popular on the row.”
I smiled politely.
“You’d best hurry if you’re going to fish. On Dickens weekend, you won’t be the only ones visiting this tub,” she said.
“Why?” Bryn asked, giving the fountain a sideways glance.
“Here,” I said, plucking the bag from Bryn’s hands. We each shoved a hand underwater at the same time. A faint white glow appeared under the brackish water and then something stung me.
“Ow!” I snapped, jerking my hand out. A pair of tiny merrows—sharp-teethed mermen—hung by their mouths from my hand. “What the Sam Houston?” I mumbled, staring at them.
“Put them in the bag!” Sally shouted, bouncing up and down.
Bryn raised the water-filled plastic bag and I shook my arm. They held tight like little leeches. I grabbed one by his slimy-haired head, giving it a firm squeeze until he opened his mouth to screech. I dropped him in the bag and did the same with his companion.
“One more. There’s just one more. In you go,” Sally said, her phantom hand trying to give my arm a push.
Dots of blood welled on my hand. Dang it! At least they’d probably heal clean. The tail scales of full-sized merrows have healing properties, so bites from small merrows probably wouldn’t be a problem. I hoped.
“If you want the spell to undo your little dollies, you’ll get me the last of those merrows,” she said with a tight-lipped expression.
I sucked in a bracing breath and ducked my hand back under the water. Bryn held the bag in one hand and swirled his other hand in the water, whispering magic. A sharp pinch made my breath catch. I whipped my arm up and grabbed the silver-haired lady merrow’s head. I pinched her. She dug her needle teeth in deeper. I cursed and gave my hand a hard shake, causing her body to whip back and forth. Her glimmering tail dropped tiny crystalline scales into the water.
I grasped her small face and pinched until she opened her mouth. A quick maneuver freed her splintery teeth from my hand and I dropped her into the bag.
“Is that all of them?” Bryn asked.
“Yes! Finally! Let’s go,” Sally said.
“Not so fast,” a throaty voice said. The house’s back door stood open, and a voluptuous bleach-blond woman in a white terry-cloth robe stalked toward us with a pistol pointed in our direction. “Drop that bag back in the fountain. Careful now,” she said, brandishing the gun. “I’ve got a twitchy trigger finger. I don’t want to have to explain to the police why I’ve shot an intruder in my yard for the third time in twelve years.”
Bryn drew in a slow breath. “No one has the right to keep supernatural creatures prisoner.”
“The fish come with the fountain. My mother willed it to me when she died sixty years ago.”
Sixty years ago?
The woman only looked about forty-five. “Sal’s been trying to steal them for years.”
“They’re not fish and they don’t belong to your mam and never did,” Sal snapped. “I brought them from the sea and your mam stole them from a bowl in my room on the night of the great storm.”
“Drop that bag in the fountain,” the woman ordered.
Bryn stared her down. “How did they get to be this size?” he asked Sally. “There are sea nymphs and other small water creatures, but merrows are human-sized.”
Sally plucked at one of her overteased curls. “So they are. Unless they’re the victims of a spell.”
“If you cast the spell that shrank them, your magic should’ve dissipated when you died. Why didn’t they return to their normal size?”
“I said drop that bag!” the blonde screeched. Bryn murmured a phrase in Gaelic and thrust out a hand. The gun popped free of her grasp, fell to the ground, and skidded a few feet. “I’ll kill you!” she screamed, darting for the weapon.
I barreled forward and dove on top of her. We rolled over and over. She had at least fifty pounds on me, but I’m scrappy. A punch square to her nose made a crunching sound that was followed by a spray of blood and a wail of curses.
I grabbed the gun and struggled to my feet with my costume tangled around my legs. “Quiet down!” I snapped as she shouted. The area directly around us was industrial, but the streets full of tourists were only a few blocks away. You never knew when someone might wander by.
The woman pinched her nose and then scooped up a handful of fountain water and splashed it on her face. Her swollen nose stopped bleeding, and over the next few moments, its swelling went down.
“You’re not taking them. They’re mine! I need them,” she said.
“They’re not pets! They’re like people.” I jerked my gaze to Bryn. “They’re like people, right? They know if they’re being kept prisoner?”
Bryn nodded. “They’re sentient.”
“See,” I told her. “They may bite like eels but they think like people. You can’t keep anyone who thinks like a person as a pet. It’s not right.”
“Oh sure, like you’re planning to set them free! I know what you want! You’ll keep them for yourself. Look at the pair of you. As pretty as models. You must have a whole poolful at home. You are not taking mine!” She launched herself forward. I thumped her on the noggin with the butt of the gun and she crumpled to a heap at my feet. My skirt ripped, leaving several inches of calf showing.
“Oh no!” I clucked. “I promised Johnny I would take care of this dress.”
“He’ll understand,” Bryn said. “Let’s go.”
“Yes, dearies, let’s be off,” Sal said, her fingers closing into fists, as if she was catching mosquitoes.
“Sally, where did these merrows come from? Galveston Bay?” I asked.
“More or less,” she said.
“Because I hope what you have in mind is for us to return them to their families in the ocean. That’s what we’re going to do,” I said.
“Exactly the thing. You’re going to restore them to normal size as well if you’ve got the juice to do it. Which you might,” she said, looking us over. “The pair of you aren’t only witch and wizard, that’s certain. Merrows don’t flock to witch magic unless there’s a taste of faery to spice it up.”
Bryn and I exchanged looks. “Is that what you were? Part witch and part fae?” I asked. We knew that witches couldn’t usually change matter. No shrinking or enlarging people. A witch or wizard might produce an illusion or a distraction, but they couldn’t actually disappear and reappear. Witches and wizards were part of the natural world and governed by most of its laws. Shifting energy, using heat, wind, water, or earth for a variety of purposes, yes, but not to change the essence of matter itself. That still belonged to the fae, who were not of our world, but only resided under it.
Bryn wasn’t trained in fae magic, and I wasn’t trained in any kind of magic. We’d suspected that was why his restoration spells hadn’t worked on Jenna and Lucy. To shrink them I’d tapped some deep faery magic that I didn’t even know I’d had and certainly couldn’t consciously control.
“Very good,” Sal said in answer to my question. “Most clever. My father was a water wizard, but me mam, she was one of the folk. Merrows killed my da. They sank his ship by stirring the sea and left us with no man to provide for us. Me mam had to do many unspeakable things to keep us fed, but she was a beauty. She knew how to survive and how to get even with the ones who done us wrong. She was the first I knew to shrink and keep merrows.”
“These,” I said pointing to the plastic bag of merrows, “didn’t come from England, did they?” Sally certainly had an old-timey accent that wasn’t American.
“No,” she said. “First we left Ireland for England. Then we left England for here. Too many nosy faeries on the first isle. Too many bloody witches on the second. We came to this new island, Galveston, on a pretty sailing ship and settled in America. My sister married and me mam, too. We moved west, but my husband was as mean as a snake. I did him in and came back here. Always loved the water. And the men who sailed it. Couldn’t stand to be away from either.” She gave us a cheeky smile. “Come on. Let’s be off.”
I gave Bryn a quick look. He sealed the bag and handed it to me. I put it inside my purse, arranging Lucy and Jenna so they sat on top of it like a watery beanbag. “Whatever you do, don’t open the bag. The occupants have sharp teeth,” I warned Jenna.
Bryn and I fell in behind Sally, who was as cheerful as a cream puff. She bustled along, a glow of orange edging her skirts. “I suppose you want to know what I did to that lot and why. It was their fault. Some of the lads, good and steady customers, took me out for a sea cruise. The merrow tribe didn’t care for that.”
“Why not?” Bryn asked. “How would they have even known that you had magic if you were on the deck of a boat?”
“I set off a few fireworks. I used to entertain the lads with magic tricks. Well, they thought they were tricks,” she said with a laugh. “When the water danced with bits of flame on its surface though, it drew the merrows, nasty bastards. Merrows are magic, too. When they swim in circles around a ship, they can pull it off course and send waves sloshing onto the deck. They’re like a rainless storm, they are. I lost my temper.”
“And shrunk them?”
“I plucked them from the sea with magic and shrunk them to the size of goldfish. I had to do a sleight of hand to get them into a bucket unbeknownst to the fellows. At the end of the night, I took the merrows back to my room in the ladies’ boarding house.”
“They must’ve been tricky to conceal in a boarding house with visitors coming and going constantly and the women living in close quarters. There can’t have been much privacy,” Bryn said.
Sally smiled. “You’re a bright one, aren’t you? And quite right, you are. There were some who knew I kept a trio of special fish. But no one in that house would’ve crossed me. They needed me.”
Bryn raised a brow.
“Merrow scales. I brewed a tea with the scales and poured it into the bath of any who came down with a pox on her privates. Or any who got taken with fever after visiting the abortionist. Back then it wasn’t like it is now. Today there’s medicine that works. A girl can get it at any clinic or hospital. If she’s taken with fever or bleeding and doesn’t have money to pay a doctor, she’s not turned away. But in those days, there wasn’t much to be done that really worked. I clutched a girl and pulled her back from the jaws of death more than once.” She smiled. “They were grateful to me, but feared me, too.”
“Did you charge for your cures?” Bryn asked.
Sally’s grin widened. “No, but the girls gave me bits and bobs. Pretty new combs for my hair, bolts of lace for a new dress. They could afford it. We took in the richest customers because our place was the cleanest, and by that I don’t just mean we did the washing up regular.”
“So everyone was happy,” Bryn said. “Except the merrows.”
I cast a glance at Bryn. I thought he was being a little hard on Sal, considering his own daddy had caught and kept a merrow once for its healing properties.
“I didn’t give a bob for the cares of merrows, so for me it was all grand for a time, true enough. But I’ve my vices, too. Sailors loved to lie with me, not just because I was a woman with all the parts in pretty proportion, but also because in bed I move like a sea nymph riding the waves. I’m part water witch. No naval bloke could resist me. I had my pick of rich merchants and powerful politicians, but I passed plenty of hours with sailors and at my whim, they rowed me out to sea and snuck me onto their ships.”
“The merrows must have wanted their kinsmen back. And revenge upon the witch who’d abducted them?” I said, my dress rustling as I moved.
“They surely did, and since I had no intention of returning anyone, I was careful not to raise their attention. I cloaked my magic when on the water.”
“But?” Bryn asked, brows rising.
Sally let out a heavy phantom sigh. “I had a bit of ale one night and let some magic slip while walking on the docks near sunup. A bogle grabbed me.”
“What’s a bogle?” I asked.
“Fae, halfway between spirit and flesh. This one was beholden to the Unseelie court and came from north Texas, where the dark court had settled after losing the war on the isles. I was abducted into a carriage that smelled of smoke and onions and taken far from Galveston. A secret circle in a cornfield put us on a faery path. In a wisp of time, I stood before the dark queen. They forced me to kneel, pinned up my hair, and pressed an axe against the back of my neck, ready to strike.”
“The merrows are Unseelie fae?” I asked.
“No, but the merrows off the Texas coast are allied with the Unseelie. They’d complained to the queen about me and cut off her supply of kelp and other saltwater delicacies to prompt her to intervene on their behalf.”
“The merrows wanted you dead, but she didn’t kill you?”
“They wanted their folk back first. I negotiated with the queen to spare my life. I told her I’d pledge my loyalty to the Unseelie and tithe a prize from the Seelie court. The dark fae are terribly jealous of the light. Anything stolen from the Seelie fae is more valuable than a pile of gold to them. Do you know what the rarest pearls in the world are? Conch pearls. It’s said that only one in ten thousand conch shells contains a pearl. My mother had a cuff bracelet of gold with ten pink conch pearls. Its magic allows any fae to shift into a water creature. Shark or seal, dolphin or whale, eel, starfish, whatever your heart desires. Unseelie fae who are not water signs fear falling into the sea, where many of their talents don’t work. They’re at the mercy of the tide and magical creatures like merrows. With the bracelet, the Unseelie queen could send an agent to the bottom of the sea to recover lost treasures and find new ones.”