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There was a saying in the land of the dawn that the mermaid was to be feared. Children trembled at the bedtime tales of the creature's savage claws, of the way its hair could ensnare a hapless fisherman's leg and drag him down to the unforgiving depths. Though few had ever seen them in person, and far fewer lived to tell the tale, the stories that survived were enough. Every fisherman worth his salt kept in his boat a spear, and every careful mother ensured that her children did not wander too close to the ocean's edge, let alone dip a toe in its treacherous waves.
It was, however, not through the means of a careless parent that found a young boy walking along the water's edge, occasionally putting one foot into the lapping tide, the water fringed with the white foam that usually accompanies a wave. Children whose parents have perished too early have no means of such protection, and perhaps this boy had not heard the stories of the mermaids, of their fearsome and dangerous magic, of which he should have been afraid.
Or perhaps if he had heard the tales, he had disregarded them. The childish naivety of innocence had not vanished from his eyes, a pretty shade that reflected the very tint of the ocean as the blue waves stretched to a mellow turquoise under the evening sun.
There was a little cove not too far ahead, that was rocky enough to deter many a passing wanderer, and it was to this that he ventured, his nimble feet, bare and caked with dirt, clambering determinedly over the stone. There was sand in his hair, amongst the golden curls, but he paid it no heed, stopping only to pick up a particularly pretty seashell and drop it carefully into his wooden bucket.
It was only as he finally stood safely upon the sand again that he looked inward, where the beach stretched out before him like a ribbon of yellow silk, that he saw the creature a dozen feet away. Even from that distance the shape and nature was unmistakable; there were the long and tendril-like locks of what could be called hair, the humanoid upper body and most of all the long and muscular tail, tipped at the end with a gloriously dazzling caudal fin. Only this fin was beautiful, for the rest of the mermaid – for that was undoubtedly what it was – was almost cruel in appearance, down to the curved black claw on the end of each slender finger.
However, no matter the amount of muscle there was in that powerful tail, it was clear that the creature was stranded. Frantic marks in the sand bore testimony to the scraping of tail and claws, but the sun had been hot that day and the tide had been slow. Now, the mermaid lay as though dead, perhaps already there. How had it washed up upon the beach? How long had it been stuck upon a treacherous ground so foreign to it, reaching out for the safety of the sea with ever-weakening hands?
The boy stood and stared, his eyes wide and curious, and it seemed that perhaps the wind carried his scent to the being prone upon the ground, for after a long moment she lifted her head, with much difficulty, and her lips curved into a snarl, fingers flexing, every muscle tensed as much as it could, poised perhaps to flee, or at least attempt to, at the very first opportunity.
There was a clatter upon the sand, as the boy tipped his bucket over, the slew of seashells tumbling down upon the sand. He ran then, to the water's edge, and dipped the receptacle into the ocean. Oh, the power of innocence! In that action there was no hesitance, no forethought. The bucket was filled, without a moment's pause, and he ran towards the fallen creature, stopping a safe distance away, out of reach of the claws, before throwing the water over her body.
As the coolness of the briny sea washed over the mermaid, she gave a shudder, her tail twitching. The fierce gleam in her eyes subsided, and this, perhaps, was an encouragement, however small, to the boy, for off he ran again, and filled the bucket once more. The sun was setting, and the shadows on the sand were lengthening, but all this seemed lost on the cherub bent upon his path of salvation.
Again and again he ran to the water's edge, and with each bucketful of water the mermaid stirred more and more, her tail moving impatiently now. It seemed as though she could taste, finally, the hope of freedom, almost as though it had become tangible. The tide was coming in, so agonizingly slowly! Once or twice she made a harsh gutteral noise in her throat, almost as though she would have liked to speak, had the circumstance been more favourable.
Finally, the boy threw aside the bucket, and knelt by the being's side, his gaze nervous, but filled at the same time with a bravery well beyond his years. His hand reached out, almost touching at her tail, covered with scales that glimmered in the dim light of the evening.
"Will you let me?"
His voice was soft, shaky with the breath he had exerted in his efforts. He stared at her, and it seemed as though for a brief moment understanding passed between them. Two individuals, of such different race and breed! Yet for that instant, an instant that came so rarely and was so hard to see, there was understanding.
And it was all that was needed. The mermaid nodded.
The strength of a child is, of course, inadequate when matched against an adult. Both of them must have known. The mermaid was at least twice the boy's size, and her tail was pure muscle and sinew. But he placed both hands against that powerful bulk, and pushed; she struggled her upper body against the sand, her glare once again vibrant, alive.
The ocean could not have been more than twenty feet away, if that, but to them both it was longer than a pilgrimage. Twice the boy stopped, and ran to fill the bucket again, for the water dripped off the mermaid's body far too quickly, and when it did her strength wavered noticeably. There was sweat upon his brow, and his arms shook, but if his body faltered, his determination did not.
Finally the cool water lapped around his ankles, and around her body; she gave a strong twist of her body in the surf, and her tail rose into the air, beating down upon the water with a triumphant splash, which broke over the boy's head in an arc of droplets. There was a smile upon his face, and he sat down in the shallow water, watching in delighted exhaustion as she swam a little way out, majestic and strangely, inhumanly beautiful.
He was about to stand up and leave, when she swam back, and rose up in the shallow water, her hands, so fearsome with those long claws, gently reaching up to cup either side of his face, her golden gaze shining even in the darkness. It was a look that a mermaid had possibly never worn before; it was gratitude, and there was none of the menace that was usually present when a mermaid looked upon the face of a mortal.
Then she leaned forward, and her lips lightly brushed his forehead, a gesture that seemed so simple. He closed his eyes, the wind cold upon his damp hair, and when he had reopened them she had vanished beneath the waves.
At the sound of his name, he stood up, and turned towards the far end of the beach, where the moving light from a lamp heralded the arrival of a woman, portly and ruddy-cheeked. Her other hand clutched another young child by the shoulder, a girl whose footsteps upon the uneven ground were unsure and tentative.
This woman did not see the mermaid, who had long disappeared beneath the water. Perhaps it was thankful that this was so. The boy picked up his bucket, forgetting the seashells scattered where he'd dropped them, and ran towards his nanny, the silver bracelet on his wrist jingling as he did.
Above them the moon rose high, softly glowing behind the grey clouds drifting lazily past. The ocean was calm, the waves lapping against the sand undisturbed once again. Had a mortal glanced out to sea, and had his eyes been blest with inhuman vision, he might have seen, for a fleeting brief second, the flip of a tail in the waves. And then all was, once again, still.