Authors: Meaghan Rauscher
We skimmed the bottom of the harbor and moved into the openness of the ocean. It was as though I could feel the complete boundlessness of the water on either side of me stretching for miles of unknown possibilities.
Even though danger certainly loomed up ahead, my heart soared at the feeling of the water caressing each curve of my body, rushing past the flick of my powerful fins. In some ways, it felt as though I was coming home.
Voon asked, his voice floating on a wave as we kicked miles out from the shore.
, Daggin replied and Voon grunted disapprovingly.
The rest will be on our tails soon
His words tightened the knot in my stomach. I focused on keeping up with my clearly faster escorts. They swam on either side of me, the green fins of Daggin contrasting the flashing red scales of Voon’s tail. Combined with my lavender, I wondered how the Hyven hadn’t already come upon us.
, Voon said and I felt the powerful surge he put into his kick which knocked me slightly to the side.
Gritting my teeth, I put more energy into each flick of my fins as we fled across the deepening ocean floor and beneath the murmur of boat motors returning home from a long day’s work; I wondered if any of those we heard carried my brothers and father.
Before long, a rhythmic sound of a far off tail pushing the water up and down reached us. I almost gasped but held my breath, as I waited for the intruder to make its presence known. Both Daggin and Voon’s blades stood out sharply from their arms, ready for a battle which might come upon us at any moment. I terribly wanted to pull my dagger out of its sheath to provide myself some protection, but all my concentration was focused on keeping up with the mermen. It wouldn’t be possible to pull out the small weapon without slowing our pace. For now, I would have to place my trust in their competency to keep me safe.
Whoever was following us was not catching up, and my heart rate accelerated as I waited for them to move closer. By glancing to my sides, I could tell I wasn’t the only one annoyed by our pursuer’s actions. If anything, Daggin looked a little relieved, while Voon’s anger was growing by the minute. It didn’t surprise me he desired confrontation rather than cunning.
Miles passed and the distance between us and the pursuer didn’t change. I wanted to think about what it meant, but all my brain could focus on was the exhaustion beginning to stream into the muscles beneath my scales.
Do you think?
Daggin’s voice murmured, barely audible over the rushing water.
was all Voon said in reply to his counterpart. I ignored the issue unsure of just what they were talking about. Their shoulders were stiff, blades still flashing with each slight tilt of their body as we kicked our way along the depths of the ocean floor.
It wasn’t until the beat of two other tails joining the original sounded through the water, that their shoulders relaxed. Confused, I followed them, uncertain of why they would be less worried with three than with one.
If there was any one creature to make the Lathmorians nervous, it would be the one who had cut down so many of them on their island.
Swallowing hard, the idea of just what I was heading into began to wash over me. The words Zale had written on the piece of paper, now lying in my dresser, took on a whole new meaning.
A storm is coming. Hang onto what you know. To what you told me when I left. Keep your dagger close.
For the rest of the journey, I repeated the words as though they were a mantra and a stronghold to grasp on to. He told me to hold onto what I said the night we parted; the night I had told him I loved him. With our feelings at the forefront of my mind, I surged into the darkness between the rippling scales of green and red toward the shores of Lathmor.
We swam through the night and daylight broke high above the surface. What little glimpses I caught of the world beyond the water, showed a dark sky covered in stormy clouds. We pressed on hour after hour, minute after minute, all the while our pursuers kept pace. I was being pushed to the point of almost breaking, but I refused to give into the exhaustion in my body. With each inhalation of water, the oxygen swept into my lungs and refreshed the last efforts of my muscles straining in the drive to reach Lathmor.
I was just beginning to recognize our surroundings when the sound of approaching fins reached my ears. I tensed slightly when I realized they were coming from up ahead, but Daggin and Voon only pushed on harder. I fell back behind slightly, and almost gasped when Voon grabbed my wrist in his large palm to pull me with him. Only then did I notice the strain on his face; they were as tired as I was.
Four shadows loomed up ahead in the murkiness, Voon jerked his head in the direction behind us and the two mermen and accompanying mermaids shot by in a streak of color and stirred water. Voon’s grasp on my wrist loosened and then left my arm. I glanced toward him. His face betrayed nothing, as my tired mind tried to understand what had just happened.
Somewhere behind us a sound like a battle cry reached my ears and I shivered. Clashing blades and painful cries rang through the water. Unconsciously, I sidled a little closer to Daggin as the ocean floor began to rise. He gave me a look which was at once friendly, but solemn, making me fearful for just what I would meet in the palace.
Like shooting stars streaking across a clear swept sky, we hurtled out of the water and landed on the rocky bank fully transformed and clothed. I noted we were entering directly from the front of the island and not through the water cave as usual. The change was odd.
My hair was already dry, floating in the stormy air beneath an angry sky and churning clouds. My shaky legs carried me forward across the dry grass and up the sloping hill toward the white-washed city, looming up ahead. I couldn’t help but remember the last time I had been on the island as we walked directly past the place where Zale and Bolrock stood silhouetted in the darkness, arguing about what move to make first.
We rounded a curve in the road which I knew would give me a view of the city, but what met my eyes made me gasp. This was not the city I remembered.
The white washed buildings no longer shone. They had grown dull in color, as though covered in a thick layer of dust and dirt. They were pale, and desolate, the cracks in the walls standing out with a defined sharpness as though begging for me to see how far they had fallen. Columns, which at one time stood resolute, were splintered with fissures from blows and splatters of red stood out among the gray. The further we walked, the more blood-stained walls met my eyes and I tried to fight off the memories of what had happened here. I was succeeding at holding them back, but only just.
Voon led the way up the hill and we wove through the homes, where some mermaids and merfolk looked out to watch my passing with little regard for me. Black curtains hung from the windows. In their faces I could see the loss of their king and their anger. I shrunk away from their accusing stares; the varying bright and dark eyes glaring at me, as though I was the one who had killed their king.
Keeping my eyes focused on Voon’s strong shoulders, I felt the rhythm of my feet as they slid over the grime covered stones leading toward the palace. We cut across a pathway, and as Voon slowly shifted out of the way a sight like I had never seen met my eyes. I stopped in my tracks.
The wind blew my hair around my face, but all I could look at was the wide circle of blood stained stones and splattered walls.
And then I knew.
I had been standing not far from here the night of the attack, watching him cut down each Lathmorian who dared to come near. The image of his sharp glaring eyes and the anger reverberating through him, as he took down each opponent with the slashes of his blood-dripping blades, was one I would never forget.
Standing at the sight of it all forced me to face the reality of what he was, and could be again, if he let the anger consume him once more.
There was more to seeing the aftermath of the battle than a warning for my mind. Deep within my gut, the terrible guilt began to take hold. These were the merfolk who had taken me in when I needed a place to be safe from Morven. Although some had been barely less than hostile, they had kept me alive and risked their own life’s blood to rescue me from Hyvar. That rescue alone was enough to make me realize how deep my betrayal ran, when before my eyes was the remains of a massacre by the tormented man I loved.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as I looked at the place, and I almost jumped when Daggin spoke. “We left it as a memorial,” he said. I didn’t respond.
I thought it odd to leave such a gruesome sight as a memorial to the dead.
His cold fingers grasped my shoulders and turned me away from it all, to reach the waiting form of Voon farther up the hill. I avoided his eyes and watched my feet as they gripped the dusty stones with each step and pushed me up the long walk to the palace. The closer we got, the stronger the image of what I had just seen grew. There was something about it which didn’t fit; a sort of mismatch I couldn’t put my finger on, even though my mind was trying to put all of the pieces together.
The palace loomed above us, its dullness matching the surrounding houses. Long black curtains hung from every window and they snapped in the breeze with a clarifying realness to what had happened here. It wasn’t until we had almost reached the entrance of the palace, that I realized what was so odd about the bloody circle where Zale had fought during the attack. All the blood from that night had long since dried and been covered in dust. Yet, I slowly began to realize there was a patch of brighter red, right where Zale had stood.
With an oncoming feeling of dread, I entered the throne room. The once crystal clean palace hall had dimmed in its vibrancy, dark curtains cascaded down from the high vaulted windows and the statues were draped in black veils. I could just make out the ornate marble faces looking toward the throne, beneath the gauzy fabric.
A gathering of merfolk huddled about the room and turned their heads in our direction. Their faces were expressionless and avoided my gaze as I searched for familiar faces. I couldn’t help but realize the group was smaller than any I had seen gathered in the room. The bloodied ground outside took on a whole new meaning.
Like a wake, the room parted as we made our way across the marble floor and closer to the throne where Tunder and Elik stood, ready to receive us. Beside them were the three princesses and I immediately looked to Kryssa. Her brow rested in a grim line, her eyes red-rimmed, but she showed no other sign of grief. One side of her mouth lifted when she met my gaze, and I wordlessly tried to communicate how sorry I was for the loss of her father. Nixie had eyes only for her husband, while her oldest sister stood back from the group, her hands resting around the swollen bump of her belly.
The patter of our steps on the marble floor came to a stop as we reached the end of the room, about fifteen feet from where Tunder stood. It wasn’t lost upon me, the throne remained empty.
“Welcome back, Lissie,” Tunder said quietly and I nodded my head in thanks. For some reason it felt as though my heart was in my throat and I was afraid of what sound my voice would make if I tried to speak. “Any troubles?” He lifted his eyebrows to my left, where Voon stood.
“We were pursued, but the guards went after them,” Voon’s voice echoed in the high chamber.
Tunder nodded, “That was to be expected.”
“I eliminated two, just as we left,” Daggin said suddenly, and the new leader’s gaze turned to him.
There was the flicker of a question in Tunder’s eyes when he looked back at Voon. Beside me, the large soldier startled as though just now remembering the events of long ago. I too had forgotten when Daggin had swum ahead, to provide us with a means of escape.
“I forgot,” Voon said when Tunder turned his full gaze upon him.
“Now is not the time for forgetfulness,” Tunder’s words were much sharper than I remembered them in the past. “What else have you forgotten to tell me? Are you absolutely sure you got rid of your followers?”
The words rolled off his tongue with ease and Voon’s shoulders slumped. Low murmurs passed around the room, bouncing off the ceiling to capture the silence.
Glancing between Tunder and Voon, I opened my mouth not sure if I should butt into the conversation. Whatever Voon was—and I had had my doubts in the past—he was loyal to Lathmor. After what he had done in getting me here, I would be eternally grateful.
“We’re exhausted,” I blurted out ungracefully and tried not to shrink back when Tunder turned his eyes on me. I swallowed around the lump in my throat, “We’ve swum all night and day at full speed, all while being pursued. Voon had to drag me for part of the way to keep up.” I was stretching the truth at the end, but if it would ease Tunder’s frustration, it would be worth it.
“As we presumed,” Tunder said as though he was uncertain of my level of intelligence, and I wondered at the change in him. “Regardless,” he looked back at Voon again, “you will report back to me in three hours after you’ve rested. I need a recount of what happened, and who was killed.” At the end of his speech, he looked to Daggin.
Both of the soldiers by my sides nodded and turned on their heels to leave, but not before I met Voon’s gaze. He gave me an odd look that wasn’t laced with accusation; just maybe my words had won him over.
Probably took him by surprise
, I thought.
Nixie left after her husband and I noted the change in her walk. She used to move as though tiptoeing on clouds, now the ground beneath her was solid and resistant beneath her feet.
The disappearance of my two companions left me feeling more vulnerable than I had in a long time. All eyes were on me. I felt the many unfriendly gazes as though they were hands grabbing onto my arms and legs. I wanted to still the tremor of my heart, but had no way of doing it without outwardly showing my fear. Unsure of what else to do, I tilted my chin upward and met Tunder’s cool eyes with my own.
The Captain cleared his throat and began to speak in a tone which reminded me of a judge following through procedures. “Lissie, you have been brought here today from your home due to the death of King Oberon.” There was a twitch in his mouth when he said the king’s name. I wondered if the harshness in his eyes was a result of the grief they all so clearly suffered from. “Before his death, the king told his advisors if anything should happen to him, you were to be brought back to Lathmor. Even if it was before your impending birthday.”
I shifted under his gaze for a moment and caught myself. I rubbed my forehead and flicked my hair behind my shoulder, the strands settling moments later.
“For the duration of your stay, you will be accompanied by either Kryssa or Elik, until we deem it appropriate for you to move about on your own.”
He finished his well-rehearsed speech and a hardness formed in my chest as the reality of what he was saying hit me. This was one step above being put in a dungeon; to be watched at all times was Tunder’s way of saying he didn’t trust me and wouldn’t at any point in the near future.
With a coldness of my own, I lifted my chin and nodded in his direction. “If you believe it’s necessary, Captain,” I said, making sure to keep my voice calm. The muscles around his jaw flexed in response, but it was the only inclination he gave as to having heard my words.
“For the duration of Lissie’s stay,” he said, to the surrounding Lathmorians, “she is not to be harmed in any way or questioned for her actions.” Grumbles met his command, but it appeared to be in acceptance if not annoyance.
Questioned for my actions?
“You are dismissed,” the leader’s eyes met mine and I nodded in his direction, as the Lathmorians dispersed out the main entrance. Through the murmuring voices and shuffling feet, Kryssa made her way toward me and as much as I wanted to smile, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
“Come on,” she said and grasped my arm with chilled fingers, only to let go as soon as we were out of the throne room. I followed her without question, as we made our way down the many halls and sloping staircases into the deeper recesses of the palace.
The large structure had at one time been confusing to me, but I now knew the pathways and twisted passages as well as my home in Coveside. There was a familiarity here which I at once treasured, and tried to forget.
It was during my stay on Lathmor, in preparation for the rescue attempts of Patrick, when I had come to know this place. To me, the hallways cried out the desperation and fear I had felt during those weeks as I waited for each rescue party to come home with Patrick in their midst, only to have those hopes shattered every time Tunder returned.
Kryssa’s bedroom loomed up ahead and we entered the small space without ceremony. The room, similar to the rest of the palace, was covered in black veils and dark curtains draped from the one window which stood across from the door; the window I had crawled through on the night the Hyven attacked Lathmor.