Authors: Kay Berrisford
Table of Contents
Raef, a lonely merman, spends his days watching the dashing Lord Haverford from afar and dreaming of love. When Haverford is robbed by a pirate, Raef vows to reclaim the stolen goods, hoping his victory will buy him the happiness he yearns for with Haverford.
But Jon Kemp does not match what Raef knows about pirates, and the simple quest Raef anticipated turns out to be an epic journey. For while Jon might be a nobler man than Raef believed, he's still a pirate. Love and loyalty are not on Jon's agenda, and he certainly has no plans to love someone not entirely human...
The Merman and the Barbarian Pirate
By Kay Berrisford
Published by Less Than Three Press LLC
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission of the publisher, except for the purpose of reviews.
Edited by Amanda Jean
Cover designed by Julie Wright
This book is a work of fiction and all names, characters, places, and incidents are fictional or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is coincidental.
First Edition July 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Kay Berrisford
Printed in the United States of America
Digital ISBN 9781620043981
Print ISBN 9781620043998
The verse quoted is from THE AFFECTIONATE SHEPHERD by RICHARD BARNFIELD (1574-1627).
With thanks to my betas, Elin Gregory, Melanie Tushmore, and Becky Black, and to Liz and Abigail for inspiration.
"The little mermaid fell in love the instant she laid her eyes on the handsome prince, who strolled along the seashore."
"But how does she know she loves him, Mama?" asked Raef, and he twitched his little fishtail with happiness.
The spark of first love was his favorite part of the traditional merfolk tales his mother would share at bedtime. Still, his question
to be asked. All the lovers seemed to fall head over tail for each other within the flutter of a heartbeat.
"Because the prince was beautiful, darling. He wore a crown encrusted with diamonds, and his fine face told of a magnificent soul." She leaned forward and brushed his golden hair—the same shade as hers—from where it had floated across his eyes. "And the mermaid was very pretty, naturally, so when she revealed herself to him, he adored her, too."
"I see." Raef nodded, trying to appear wise beyond his tender years. He supposed that made sense. It must be how things happened in the world of humans, who breathed thin air and walked on dry lands, far above the oceans. Such realms seemed distant and exotic compared to this nest in a tiny cave where Raef had passed his formative days. The home was part of a labyrinth of halls, chambers, and tunnels carved into the slopes of the submerged volcano around which their mertribe dwelled.
One thing Raef knew for sure: merfolk were an attractive race to look at. His mother's features were delicately carved, her complexion pale, and her eyes large and blue. She wore anthracite jewels on her earlobes and one on a chain about her throat. Though she was so skinny these days, the weight of the gems seemed to tug her forward like a wilting sea-grass. "So did they get their happy-ever-after?" he asked.
"Not yet." She pulled some of the bedding woven from thick seaweeds up around Raef's bare shoulders. Two lines creased between her brows, informing Raef the story was going to get serious. "Just as the prince was about to leap into the ocean and the outstretched arms of his chosen one, a bunch of foul-faced kluggites leaped from a hidden cavern and carried him away."
Raef shuddered. Kluggites—known in the world of humans as pirates. They were always the villains in the stories he adored, ugly as lumpy fish, hungry for treasure, and rotten to the core. He swallowed a lump from his throat. "Did they eat the poor prince?"
"Oh, no. They sent a message to the prince's father, the king, demanding a hundred chests of pure gold in exchange for his safe return. Sadly, the king was a gnarled old miser who had many sons and loved his fortune more than any of them. He refused to pay, and the pirates sailed off with the prince still a prisoner in their ship's fetid belly. He might've withered there, if it hadn't been for—"
"The little mermaid!" Raef jerked bolt upright, excited. He'd not heard this exact narrative before, but all mer tales shared similar plots. He sensed this was when the heroine would dive to the rescue. "What did she do?"
"Ah, she was very brave, my love." His mama eased him back down into the folds of the nest and tickled the frilly gills behind his ears. He giggled and squirmed. "She followed the ship, and squeezed through the tiniest porthole and inside the stinking hull. Then she hid 'til sunset. Do you know why?"
"Of course I do." Raef proudly recited something he'd recently learned. "If on land at sunrise or sundown, merfolk can harbor the power of the changing orbs to shift into human form. To return to their mer bodies, they must be back in the sea at the same enchanted moments." Raef looked forward to trying this when he was older, although he'd been told it could be painful and must be timed carefully.
"Well remembered," said his mother, and Raef grinned. "So at sunset, the little mermaid shifted. Once her gills had vanished and her tail had split to become long, graceful legs, she tiptoed through the ship and rescued her prince. Of course, by this late hour, the vile kluggites were intoxicated with rum and most of them had passed out. Together, she and the prince tied them all up with rope so they couldn't escape. Then the mermaid and her love sailed the ship back to the nearest port, where cheers greeted them. The kluggites had been menacing the coast for years. They had stolen much gold and silver from the noble lords and ladies who lived near, so the mermaid and the prince were hailed as saviors."
"Hurrah!" Raef pumped his fist, setting the waters in the cave undulating.
"Even the old king was pleased, because the kluggites had sunk several of his ships. He gave the little mermaid a gift of some clothes spun from pure silver thread. Humans are a strange breed and like to veil even the loveliest bodies with cloth."
Raef frowned. Merfolk enjoyed wearing colored stones and jewelry, but he didn't comprehend clothes. He'd only once stuck his head above the surface of the ocean—where the air felt too light and made him giddy—and hadn't seen any humans yet, let alone this strange custom. He wouldn't let the weirdness spoil the story. "So they lived in happiness forevermore?"
"Ah, the course of true love never flows quite so easily." She sighed wistfully, the gentle sound mingling with the chatty pips and clicks of some dolphins swimming nearby. "You see, even clad in her new finery, the little mermaid couldn't stay in her human form for long. We need the water, Raef—it's vital to our blood. The magic that sustains our shift into human forms only lasts a little while. We must go back to the sea regularly, breathe the salt waters in our gills, or we will wither and fade like old, dried seaweed. But now, the prince was a hero, and the king begged him to come back to court, tempting him with many titles and riches. And the court was far, far away from the sea."
Raef bit his lip. It was late, and weariness crept through him, making him desperate for his happy ending. "Did he leave the little mermaid?"
"For a while, he did. But he pined for her 'til he could perform his courtly duties no more. He gave up all ambition at court and returned to the sea. He built a beautiful castle on the edge of the beach, so he and his love could always be together."
"Was the castle built of gold?" asked Raef.
"Pure gold, my love. It glittered in the sunshine, which shone on them every day."
"I'm glad," said Raef, but his joy at the happy ending proved short-lived. While his mother offered a tremulous smile, he sensed pain beneath it, and that made him sad too.
She lay down beside him in their nest and pulled him tight against her breast, stroking his back. He didn't like to ask why she was melancholy, but he guessed. When Mama was sad, she usually was remembering his father, who Raef had never known. He'd died before Raef was born, the victim of an unfortunate encounter with a giant squid.
"Mama," he said quietly. He wound his baby fishtail, which was still translucent, about her grown-up silvery one, hoping to offer some comfort. "Why don't you go seek a handsome prince to make you happy?"
"Because I gave my heart to a fellow mer," she whispered, her caresses growing fretful. "And I'll never give it twice. But you… you must seek your heart's desire, Raef. You must find the one who makes you happy and be with them always… for me."
"All right," murmured Raef, determination swelling. He fantasized of such an adventure every day. "I will go seek my handsome prince as soon as I can, I swear it."
"Oh, darling!" Raef was surprised to hear his mother giggle. "You mean your beautiful princess?"
"No," said Raef, bewildered. "I want to rescue a handsome prince like the little mermaid did in the story. I
it's a handsome prince I want. I'm sure princesses can be feisty and fun, but they're not for me."
"Whatever makes you happy, my sweet," she whispered, and they snuggled closer together. Only the distant, sonorous moans of the whales broke the quiet of a calm night beneath the sea. It took Raef a little longer than usual to submit to the tug of slumber. When he did, his dreams were clear as rock crystal: he fought evil pirates for the hand of his prince, striving to win true love.
Seventeen years later
The human wading across the pool toward Raef was naked. Moonlight silvered his long limbs and the firm muscles of his torso, while ripples of water kissed his taut belly and the lickable lines of his hips. Raef desired this tall, dark vision of loveliness to come ravish him, tail and all. He'd hold the man tightly and never let him go.
This man was perfect. He was Raef's love—Raef's prince. At least, he was this afternoon. Raef hadn't thought of a name for the fellow yet and wished he could conjure that handsome face more distinctly. While he'd no experience of the act humans performed to reach the highest peaks of euphoria, which he must shift into human form to achieve, his body ached for that intimacy. He ran his tongue around his lips, craving to receive his fantasy man's kiss, yearning to feel those strong arms around him, the press of flesh against flesh…
The shout tore Raef from his happy daydream. He opened his eyes with a startled bat of his lashes, and reality splashed back. Far from basking under the open stars with a beauty of his choosing, he was in his least favorite place: his tribe's meeting hall, which was a vast chamber of black rock that filled the main crater of the underwater volcano. And one of his least favorite fellow mermen was calling him.
"Last item on the agenda for the day—I summon Raef!" The deep voice of Galyna, chieftain of the mer elders, reverberated around the space into which the whole tribe had crammed for their once-a-moon-cycle meeting. Galyna raised his great trident, in which his power as tribe leader was vested, and his beard trembled like froth whipped in the breeze. "My third cousin's nephew, Raef. Where is he?"
Dozens of silvery-tailed, pearly-fleshed merfolk spun about looking for Raef. Their luscious hair swirled in a spectrum of reds, golds, and browns. Raef lurked under the shadows of the crater's walls, wishing he could scuttle into the nearest crevice like a lobster. He'd never spoken at a tribe gathering, let alone been summoned before the elders. He wasn't interested in the many rules and regulations Galyna had imposed on the tribe in recent years, other than in pretending they weren't for him.
"Say something," hissed Ali, Raef's brunet friend, who floated beside him. Ali twitched the feathered tips of his tailfins, a sure sign he was stressed. "Go forward, or you'll get into trouble."
If Galyna was summoning Raef, he feared he was already in trouble. While he waved his hand and called falteringly, "I'm here," he couldn't fathom why. He'd not done anything rash lately. At least, nothing anybody knew about. His tail felt heavy as granite as he propelled himself through the parting merfolk, over the hot gaseous springs that bubbled at the center of the round hall. If Raef could've sweated underwater, he would have. On the far side, Galyna sat in a throne encrusted with shells. He was flanked by the rest of the elders; an array of brawny mer warriors who carried pikes. Some wore jeweled rings in their nipples. As Raef swam closer, Galyna's bushy brows knitted so tightly they formed a single white bar of hair.
"Ah, there you are," said Galyna. "Since you left the schoolroom, you've hardly made a ripple in these waters. You have not volunteered to become a warrior, nor have you consulted any of the elders about seeking a position of power in the tribe. What have you been doing this past year?"
To tell the full truth was impossible. Raef had passed too many an hour hankering after the kind of life that Galyna condemned. He adored paddling on the ocean's surface and watching the sailing ships navigating near the treacherous reefs that surrounded the territories of the mer. He'd not even told Ali about the time he'd watched a great vessel moor near the harbor of one of nearby islands, which were known collectively as the Isles of Scilly. He'd followed the sailors onto land and waited 'til the sun dipped beyond the horizon, so he could shift into his fully human form. Crouching naked and bare-footed beneath the windows of a dockside alehouse, he'd ogled the fellows while they made merry and sang. He'd even envied the barmaids, who had sat upon on their knees.
He couldn't confess that, so half the story would have to suffice. Plucking up courage, he found his voice. "I-I spend my days seeking sunken human artifacts for Ali to sell on his stall in the bazaar. Last week, I found the most fabulous chest of patterned china, and only half of it was brok—"
"Enough!" Galyna shook his head. "You lie to me, boy. You've been spotted day after day chasing humans in their boats, disappearing for hours. There can only be one explanation. Your poor late mother was a very bad influence on you. After years of education, after everything I've told you—you, my boy, still hanker after the old ways of the mer. The unwise ways."
"I don't," said Raef. "Not exactly. I'm very careful not to be seen."
"Ah, but if you saw the right human maid, you would reveal yourself to her, wouldn't you?"
"I swear I would not." Raef's cheeks heated. It wasn't a lie; he'd no interest in pretty women. However, he would reveal himself to the right man.
Galyna tugged his beard crossly. "Mer should never mix with humans. Yes, we can assume their form, but that is strictly for breeding purposes, mer on mer. Up close, humans are never as beautiful as us mer, and neither are they to be trusted. Too many of our kind have swam off to chase love, never to be seen again. And remember my poor sister Lucinda, who fell for a kluggite and followed her foolish heart? No sooner had the rogue taken her aboard his vessel, the Navy captured them, and dragged them back to England. She was hanged beside him on Plymouth Hoe."
Raef shuddered, though Lucinda's tragedy couldn't overwrite the traditional stories he treasured. He'd made a promise to his poor mother, who'd given up on life far too young, that he'd seek love—preferably with a handsome noble who owned a castle wrought of pure gold. Since Galyna came to power, such happy narratives had been banned, which was horribly unfair. It wasn't as if Raef wanted to throw in his lot with an ugly kluggite.
"When I rose to be chieftain of this tribe," continued Galyna, "I vowed to preserve our race, and specifically this tribe, by curbing the reckless tendencies among our young. You, Raef, are foolhardy. You will throw yourself at a human sooner or later and get yourself killed. Therefore, I have decided you should marry my ward, Henna. A wife and half a dozen mouths to feed should stop you wandering."
"No! I can't!" Raef's cry was born of horror. He'd expected some penalty—perhaps to be forced to train as a warrior, as he'd demonstrated a little skill in combat at school. Marriage he dreaded far more, though catching sight of Henna—waiting, head bowed, behind the throne with her dark hair floating across her pale face—he regretted the violence of his tone. Poor Henna. She was a shy girl who crafted exquisite necklaces made from rock and colored quartz. She deserved somebody who'd adore her.
"What do you mean by this defiance?" Galyna surged forward from his throne, raising his trident as if to strike Raef down with a thunderbolt.
"I'm sorry." Raef trembled, not least because Galyna could wield the magical power of that trident if he chose. "Henna is a very lovely maid, but I don't believe she loves me, and—"
"Love?" bellowed Galyna. "Marriage in this tribe is no longer anything to do with your outmoded ideas of love. They bring nothing but grief. Now go." Galyna sank back down into his seat, as if despairing of Raef. "Get out of my sight, boy. You will apologize to Henna, and we will begin the preparations for your wedding forthwith."
Arguing would be fruitless. Raef turned and swam, slicing straight up and out of the simmering crater, not daring look anyone in the eye. He rushed onward almost blindly, nearly colliding with a group of hunting seals. One of them bellowed, and he was too upset to apologize. He burst through the surface into the summer sunshine. Fresh air struck his skin, and after the pressure of deep water, its lightness momentarily disoriented him. He shook himself, sending droplets sprinkling from his long hair as the horrible truth seeped through him.
Raef supposed Galyna meant well, but because so many mer swam away to pursue love with humans—and especially because of his sister, who'd met her sad end—the chieftain had banned all contact with land-dwellers. Raef knew that couldn't be right. Galyna’s rules were an overreaction. After all, not all humans were kluggites. Merfolk were passionate and instinctual beings, and it wasn't surprising they were drawn to humans. That was the form that mer assumed to procreate… and to seek the bodily union between males that Raef craved.
Even worse, Galyna had condemned romantic love altogether. He expected mermen and maids to pair up on his command. If Raef obeyed him, he'd never find his heart's desire, so only one solution presented itself to him. If he wanted to keep his promise to his mother, he must leave his home.
He blinked toward horizon, clearing the water from his eyes and lashes. A couple of rocky outcrops defied the ocean's rolling surface, and he discerned the hazy shore of the island in the distance. No ships for him to chase today, and it would take a long swim to reach any mainland coast.
"Out there somewhere," he whispered, "there is a man I can love and who will love me in return. Whether he is human or mer, I must seek him."
He was about to squeeze his eyes shut and pray to the gods of the oceans to bless his voyage, when Ali emerged a yard off, arms flailing and splashing water everywhere. "There you are," panted Ali. He came to the surface less often than Raef, and so was unused to breathing through the mouth instead of his gills. "What on earth are you going to do about your wedding?"
"You know the truth of me and my love of men," murmured Raef. A salty wind cleaved through them, stinging his cheeks and whipping up his hair. "You're the only one who does. But not only is lying with other men uncommon in this tribe, I'm forbidden to choose my love at all, mer or human. I have to go."
A dark shadow seemed to flit across Ali's boyish countenance, a depth of sorrow that startled Raef. It vanished soon enough. Ali nodded his acceptance.
"Don't do anything silly, Raef." He quirked a rueful smile, indicating he knew his friend's nature—impetuous even by mer standards—all too well. "Be careful around land folk, and don't get stranded too far from the sea. Even a mer as strong as you can't remain long in human form without suffering. Remember, there's only one of Galyna's laws you actually need to heed, because it’s the most sensible one—don't get tangled with kluggites. And I wouldn't recommend falling for anyone at first sight. Watch them a little first."
"I'll never get embroiled with kluggites." Raef's stomach roiled at the prospect. He couldn't think of anything more distant from the fair nobleman he sought than a gruesome pirate. "But otherwise, I must seek my destiny."
"Yes, I know," replied Ali. "You don't belong here. You're too… free. I'm not sure you'd belong in any single boring place, even without all these new laws. I'll never forget you, though."
"You're so kind." Raef flung his arms around Ali's neck and buried his face in Ali's narrow shoulder. He snatched a last moment of comfort before he made his plans to flee. The gentle waves lapped them, a sweet liquid caress, and Ali hugged him harder.
"Farewell," whispered Raef, as emotion clogged his throat. He was sad to leave Ali and hoped they'd meet again in happier climes. "I must go very soon, while the weather remains fair. But I'll miss you. Live well, my friend."
Three days later, Raef crawled up a shingle beach, bruised from head to tailfins by the battering of wind and waves. His hands and elbows tore as they grazed over the shingle, and he'd not the energy left to flinch. His hair was plastered over his face and eyes. He didn't give a damn where he was, so long as he could rest a while.
He'd started his journey with what seemed like a solid plan: to swim northeast to seek the southern coast of the great land of England, where he'd heard many fine nobles dwelled. The weather had proven treacherous. A few hours into his journey, the sky had transformed from azure blue to a brooding gray. The wind had lashed up a tempest that had sent him diving deep, losing track of sun, moon, and stars, as well as any chance to navigate. He'd struggled on with little respite, swept by powerful currents and snatching spells of sleep in murky, submerged caverns, which never felt safe. When finally he'd surfaced, he'd been so drained of strength that the swell had tossed him like driftwood onto this stony strip between two jagged headlands.
After a few minutes, Raef gathered the wherewithal to swipe his sodden hair from his brow and lift his head. He licked his cracked lips, scanned the vista before him, and wondered if he'd landed in one of his wildest dreams.
Beyond the beach, a track meandered up a grassy slope dotted with a few lone trees and some white animals that walked on four legs. A castle—a
castle!—stood at the top of the incline, fronted with sweeping steps and topped with crenellations and turrets. A dozen large windows stared down at him, opaque as fish eyes. Nobody appeared to be about, but hearth light glowed from one of a cluster of fishermen's cottages that skirted the shingle. A short distance to his left, a wooden jetty extended out into the waves with a single rowing boat moored alongside. A couple more small ships had been pulled up on the beach, their masts creaking in the wind.
Raef pushed himself up, supporting himself on his palms and straining for a better view. He'd succeeded. This must be England. Caution nagged, vying with his excitement. He should get away from this exposed spot and find a submerged sandbank to recuperate on, but he couldn't rip his gaze from the castle. It was wrought from white stone rather than gold, but was larger and grander than he'd imagined any building could be. He longed to look inside. He was tempted to remain out of the water 'til sundown, to shift into human form and go exploring… but no. That
be reckless. Apart from that trip into the harbor of one of the Scilly Isles, this was his first real sortie into the realm of land dwellers.
With an effort, Raef rolled back into the bubbling surf, though he didn't swim far. After splashing a few yards, he pulled himself up onto a clump of uneven rock padded with seaweed. He could peep at the castle from a concealed position to the rear while he lay on his belly and recovered.
He relaxed, his body molding into the damp blanket of seaweed, and the clouds above thinned into white wisps. The writhing ocean around him calmed. A late afternoon sun warmed his back, his fins, and the flopping length of his tail, which dangled above lazily-lapping waves. The bay remained quiet, though from time to time he was able to enjoy his favorite activity—watching humans. One or two figures strolled on the lawns in front of the castle, and a fishing boat crewed by five men sailed into harbor. The womenfolk from the cottages hurried out to help drag the boat up the beach, grinding across the shingle. Together, they hauled in their daily catch, setting the gulls wheeling and screaming as the bay filled with the brackish scent of dead fish.
All of this fascinated Raef, though he felt no urge to interact with these people. They seemed pleasant enough, and one of the seamen was a straight-backed young fellow with a shock of red hair and a noisy laugh. While Raef admired him, he wasn't the handsome prince Raef came here for. Presently, the sky deepened to the color of a roasted lobster, and Raef realized he must climb back into the waters soon. Already his blood rushed, anticipating the magical energy that would gather at his core and rid him of his tail in favor of legs if he remained out of the sea much longer.
He verged on slipping back into the sea, when he spied more movement in the vicinity of the castle. A tall man strode down the path toward the beach. His fine, emerald-green coat and confident strut suggested he was of aristocratic birth. Raef's breaths quickened. Was
a prince? He didn't wear a crown, so Raef suspected not. Perhaps he was a young lord or duke.
Irresistibly drawn, Raef levered himself as high onto the rocks as he dared, dragging his tail over his seaweed bed, which was now dried and scratchy. To Raef's dismay, the noble was not alone. A blond servant boy followed behind, cradling a large wicker hamper and running to keep up. The noble strode down the wooden jetty, a mere stone's toss away from Raef. He climbed into a small boat moored alongside the jetty and reclined against the prow, waiting for his servant to join him.
Raef's heart fluttered toward frenzy. The noble's features were even and perfect, his strong chin raised at a proud angle. He was beautiful—another blow to Galyna's claims that humans were less good-looking than merfolk. The chieftain was wrong. And unless everything Raef had learned from birth was equally incorrect, such a faultless face revealed a good soul.
"Hurry up, Stephen," called the nobleman, his deep voice smooth as a gliding eel.
"I'm sorry, my lord Haverford. I'm here."
So Raef observed a lord indeed. The servant boy, Stephen, clambered into the boat, placed down the hamper, and proceeded to cast off. Haverford lounged in the hull, while Stephen, a much slighter figure, sculled through the surf. The breeze agitated Haverford's sandy hair, teasing strands from a ribbon used to style it. He didn't glance once at Stephen, instead gazing thoughtfully out to sea, and Raef let his hopes elevate.
Haverford looked like a romantic sort of fellow. Could he be the one Raef would set his heart on? He gasped with pleasure at the prospect… and his breath jammed in his lungs. The crown of the sun's head was dipping over the horizon; the moon shone bright above the craggy line of the cliffs. He was seized by a fiery pain, which wracked him from head to toe before focusing its agony on his lower portions.
Raef was free of the water at sunset, which meant the shift between his merman and human forms was happening. As his tail ripped in two and his gills healed over, he flopped prostrate on the rock. A searing heat consumed him. He pounded his fists and wanted to scream. Instead, he bit his lip so hard he tasted blood and surrendered to a paroxysm of shivers. His emerging human body felt helpless as a newborn babe's.
After a short while trembling and panting, Raef wiped tears from his cheeks and sat up, gazing across the bay. Haverford and Stephen had disappeared. Stephen must have rowed around the headland.
With a groan of disappointment, Raef dragged himself to his feet, steadying himself with a hand on the highest part of the crag. His human legs, though sturdy enough, looked pale under the glare of the rising moon. The nest of golden curls above his prick, so soft and vulnerable, glistened. This body still felt new and strange to him, having only occupied it half a dozen times. After rolling his shoulders, he flexed his powerful back and arm muscles and raked his fingers through his cascading hair. Though feeling stronger by the moment, he shivered.
Shifting had been a mistake. Now he'd have to find somewhere dry to shelter and keep his human body warm 'til he could get his tail and gills back at sunrise. Thank goodness it was a balmy night, for he'd no notion how to build a fire. He still didn't feel brave enough to venture onto land to find some of those strange clothes.
Or should I go after Lord Haverford and throw myself on his mercy?
The idea set his blood rushing, but he mustn't be hasty. Ali had warned him not to fall for anybody at first glance. He'd heed that advice for now. Beyond those irresistible looks, he knew nothing about Haverford, or whether there were already lovers in his life, male or female. Raef would have to bide his time.
As the long summer drifted by, Raef kept a watch on Lord Haverford. In the mornings, he explored the nearby coastline. Each afternoon, he returned to the bay to wait for Haverford, who regularly came down to the jetty and voyaged to an otherwise inaccessible cave around the headland. Haverford would take wine and enjoy a picnic, then often, he’d disappear inside. Raef saw Stephen with Haverford again, as well as other servants, male and female. From time to time, Haverford sculled himself out there alone. These occasions set Raef imagining what rapturous acts of coupling they could indulge in together. He wished to surrender himself to Haverford, body and soul.
His longing burgeoned in unison with his loneliness, a gnawing pain that grew and grew. It swelled inside his chest, 'til one bright day, he could endure it no more. He'd gifted his heart to Haverford, and there was only one way forward. He must reveal himself the next time Haverford came to his cave—to fulfil his promise to his mother and let his lifelong dream come true.
So he swam out to the middle of the cove in front of the castle and he waited.
Pink evening light was rippling the waters, when Raef spotted a ship coming around the promontory to the south of the bay. He shaded his eyes and squinted into the glare, bobbing low among the waves. The prow cut between the foaming white horses, its gray sails billowing in the breeze. The ship's figurehead depicted one of Raef's kind: a female mermaid with hair as golden as his, though her wooden breasts and face were painted bright blue.
The sailors on board knew the waters well, for they were giving the treacherous hidden rocks a wide berth. One of them leaned over the railings, shading his eyes from the glare of the sun. He shouted instructions to his companions, who hurried among the masts and rigging. Even from a hundred yards afar, Raef could tell he was a tall man with long, windswept hair and a smudge of dark stubble across his chin.
Raef plunged under the water and headed in the direction of the ship. He splashed between the waves at such a furious pace he set a flock of feeding gulls flapping and squawking.
Why, why, why? Why tonight?
He hoped the vessel wouldn't moor nearby and spoil his plans. Oh, how he ached for Haverford.
When Raef surfaced, relief skittered through him. The vessel wasn't heading for the castle jetty after all. It navigated the mouth of the bay and into strong currents that would sweep it around the northern headland.
Good. It must be a merchant vessel passing by, not important enough to disturb a lord. Hearing a chorus of honks, Raef glanced up. A dozen geese swept overhead in a
formation, the leader dropping back to allow another to take the brunt of the wind on its beak. Not even a squad of fire-breathing dragons could have captured Raef's attentions for long. Haverford's castle still transfixed him. It had never looked more stunning than it did now, white stone silhouetted against a mottled pink sky. He swept his dripping hair from his eyes, cast aside his irritation, and pulled himself up onto his favorite rocky outcrop to continue his vigil.
By the hour Haverford emerged, the sun had set and Raef had shifted into his human form. Haverford descended the steps of the castle and paced down the track, bound for the sea. Raef's heart fluttered more frantically than the birds heading to roost. No servant followed. Raef's beautiful lord was alone. Raef was naked and defenseless, and he set his determination like iron. This was his moment.
After Haverford cast off, Raef slipped into the water and followed the boat at distance, doing a breast stroke and kicking with his human legs. He craved to be the salty spray that brushed Haverford's firm lips and licked the line of that chiseled jaw. Adoration swelled at his core.
Haverford's soul, Raef had reason to believe, was indeed as beautiful as his face. During lazy summer days when Raef couldn't be bothered to explore too far afield, he had observed Haverford walking his lawns with an elderly lady or driving her about in a gig. Paddling through the surf, Raef smiled at the memory of such sweetness.
Haverford soon reached the small beach near the mouth of the cave and waded ashore, dragging the boat up onto the shingle. To access the cave, which was tucked beneath a precariously perched stone ruin, he had to clamber over some rocks, and tiptoe along a ledge while clinging to the cliff face. Raef enjoyed observing this activity, peeping from behind a seaweed-clad outcrop. Foam spattered Haverford's stockings and tight knee breeches, making the fabric stick to his shapely rear.
With a leap, Haverford alighted on the natural shelf in front of the cave, stretched his arms, and gazed into the dusk. Raef's heart started to hammer. Now was his chance, but what would Raef say to his lord? It had been a long while since he'd conversed with another, save one-sided chats with porpoises. He'd planned various speeches in his head, but they suddenly seemed inadequate. None of the accounts of mermaids revealing themselves to their princes detailed exactly how the business should be executed. Should he give himself silently, falling at Haverford's feet? Would that be best, or would Haverford think him a fool?
Moonlight gilded Haverford's profile, placid as a mask. Raef's misgivings faded. Fate had brought them together, conjured this moment under the starlight, where two solitary souls could meet, then their bodies entwine. It was perfect. Raef firmed his palms on the rock and prepared to rise up and reveal himself.
Before Raef had shown more than the top half of his head, Haverford swiveled on the spot, crying out in alarm. Raef crouched back down, terrified. They were not alone after all. Three men had emerged from the blackness of the cave, all of them rough-looking and armed with glinting blades. Raef recognized the fellow among them who stepped to the fore. He towered a head's worth of height above the followers, and was built sturdier even than Haverford. It was the man who'd leaned over the prow of the boat, his sleek hair swept back in a headscarf, and he was no merchant or fisherman. This scoundrel brandished a cutlass, and a gold hoop gleamed at one ear. His sleeves were rolled up as high as his bulging biceps, revealing tattoos covering his thick arms.
Sweet heavens, will he kill my lord?
"What the devil?" shouted Lord Haverford.
"Poetic indeed," said the tall kluggite in a lilting brogue. "The fiend calls upon his own for deliverance." He laughed, echoed by the titters of his companions. One of them had a face as bloated as a jellyfish, and the other, a skinny wretch, sported a scar that sliced across his face. "Hand over that ruby ring to pay a little of your dues, and I might neglect to slash your throat."
"You wouldn't dare, you fiend. I'll fillet you alive." Lord Haverford clasped the bejeweled hilt of a dagger at his belt, and Raef whispered a prayer to whichever deity of the oceans would listen. In merfolk stories, kluggites were often slow and stupid and easily outwitted. Surely his lord was skilled enough to best these ruffians, to cut all three down as if they were less than one? How glorious that would be.