A Medieval Little Mermaid
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The ocean sang in harmony with the oncoming storm. Though she stood on deck, Margareta could hear the song so clearly she wanted to join in. Three times the captain had tried to persuade her to go below decks, or into his cabin at the very least, but she hadn't budged. As long as a single man stood on deck, so would she.
Besides, the cabin was crowded enough with the young prince, his entourage and the cloying reek of seasickness.
She smelled it first, before the fine down on her bare forearms stood on end. Then blinding light erupted from the deck, consuming the mast before splashing across the sky. She clapped her hands over her ears, but it did little to quiet the thunderclap when it came.
After that, silence descended on the ship, for the thunderclap had deafened them all.
When the smoking mast cracked into pieces, smashing through the cabin and all those within, no one heard their screams, or the horrible ripping squeal as the ship's beams broke asunder, surrendering to the sea.
While panicked sailors raced around, trying to put out the fires or save themselves, Margareta sat on the deck and calmly removed her shoes and stockings. There wasn't time for more, as the deck was already awash. The ocean licked at her bare toes, enticing her in.
Margareta climbed over the railing, until there was nothing between her and the waves below. She closed her eyes and dropped, feeling the ocean's cold embrace welcoming her home.
It would be so easy to change into a more suitable form for swimming, and let her mermaid instincts take her to depths where no human could follow, but Margareta resisted. She was supposed to be on the surface, not in the sea. She was the daughter of the Master of Beacon Isle, and Beacon Isle was where she belonged right now.
The island was miles away, and it would be a much easier journey in a boat than relying on her own fins. Maybe one of the lighters had survived intact.
Margareta surfaced to survey the wreckage floating amid the waves. A hatch cover, what looked like a cabin door, barrels, corpses, the curve of an overturned boat…
Smiling, Margareta swam for the boat. A well-placed wave set it right way up. All she had to do was climb in and the ocean would take her home.
She had one hand on the gunwale when she clearly heard someone shout, "For God's sake, help me!" before the words ended in a gurgle.
Among the floating corpses was someone who wasn't dead yet, though he would be soon, if no one helped him. He clung to a splintered chunk of mast that rolled in the waves like a drunken sailor. As Margareta watched, it rolled him under the water before bringing him to the surface again, coughing and spluttering.
Margareta did. Guiding the boat to his side, she reached out to haul him in. He was heavier than she expected, though he was the same size as she, and the boat nearly capsized, but water was her element, so Margareta won him from the ocean.
He flopped into the bottom of the boat, the most unlikely catch ever landed. His fine clothes marked him as one of the prince's entourage, but his gasping mouth made him look more like a fish.
"You're just a girl!" he said.
She was far more than just a girl, but Margareta had more important matters to attend to than educating one of the prince's servants. "I'm the girl who saved your life, and I'd have thought you'd have learned better manners as the prince's pageboy."
"Squire," the boy corrected. "I am…I mean, I was…Prince Philip's squire." He was silent for a moment. "They're all dead now, aren't they? He asked me to fetch them some wine, so I was on deck when the mast crashed into the cabin. It must have crushed them instantly."
Margareta surveyed the corpses, then closed her eyes. "Yes, they are all dead. We are the only ones left, and to survive, we must reach the shore. Do you think you can – "
She should have kept her eyes on the ocean, for she knew how treacherous it could be. One moment they were in the boat, the next a wave sent them tumbling back into the water.
Margareta came up cursing. She'd bitten her lip, so it was with blood on her tongue that she commanded the ocean to do her bidding. The waves brought the boat to her, but the boy was nowhere to be seen. "Find him," she said tersely, ducking under the surface to search for herself.
A glint caught her eye – metal reflecting the lightning above – and she dived, shifting to her tail to give her the power to drag the boy back to the surface. This time, she made the waves lift him into the boat as she hauled herself aboard.
"Take us home," she ordered, and the waves obeyed, parting to form a path before her as a powerful surface current pushed the boat along it.
Satisfied that the ocean would continue to do her bidding without her watching, Margareta turned her attention to the boy. There was no gasping now, nor breathing, either.
"Don't you die on me, squire, or I'll throw you back over the side," she threatened.
"I saved your life, so it belongs to me, not the ocean. You hear me? No dying on me, now!"
She pounded his chest and back until he coughed up the water he'd swallowed and began to breathe again.
"Who are you?" he croaked out.
"I’m the girl who saved your life," she said again. "So what's your name, squire?"
He mumbled something that Margareta couldn't quite make out, but before she could ask him to repeat it, he fell back against the boards, unconscious. At least he was alive.
Leaving the stormy ocean in her wake, Margareta's vessel sailed for home.
* * *
The journey took so long, Margareta stretched out along the bottom of the boat with the boy to get some sleep. She didn't wake until she felt the keel scrape along the sand, and then it was to the bewildering sight of the boy's arms wrapped around her, as she embraced him. She only had a moment to reflect on it, before a wave tipped the boat over on its side and they both tumbled out onto the wet sand.
The wave retreated faster than it had advanced, taking the boat with it.
Margareta considered for a moment, then let the sea have its fun. She had no further need of the boat, for she was back at Beacon Isle. She felt refreshed by her swim and short voyage, but the boy looked the worse for wear. That he was still unconscious worried her. She dragged him further up the beach, out of reach of the playful waves, but still he didn't rouse. Perhaps he had been injured. The surgeon in Harbour Town would know what to do.
She rose, straightened her salt-dampened gown, and marched up to her father's house. Pausing only to ask a maid to have some water sent up to her chamber so that she might wash, Margareta headed for her father's chamber, where she was certain he would be at this time of the morning.
"Good morning, Father," she greeted the Master of Beacon Isle. "We have a man on the beach in need of medical attention. A boy, really, but he claimed to be the prince's squire before he nearly drowned."
"Good morning, Margareta. I – " Father broke off to peer at her. "I thought the Golden Eagle wasn't due back in port until tomorrow. I didn't hear it return."
"And you won't," Margareta said bluntly. "It was more of a wallowing duck than any kind of eagle. The stupid captain sailed her into a storm and she sank."
Father sighed. "Margareta, what have I said about sinking ships? I realise it is your nature, but – "
"It wasn't me!" she protested. "I haven't sunk a ship in my life! I told the captain about the storm, but he didn't listen. Lightning struck the mast and it exploded into flaming pieces. There was little I could do but return home."
"What of the prince? The captain and his crew?"
Margareta sighed with genuine regret. "Dead. All dead. Except for the boy I left on the beach, of course. If he survives. Can you send a surgeon down there, please, and some strong men to carry him to the house?"
"What, aren't you going to carry him up here yourself? You've played the knight in shining armour, rescuing him and all. Let him play the swooning princess while you carry him up to your chambers to seduce him." Father grinned as though he'd made the best joke.
Margareta frowned. "I don't intend to seduce him. The boy nearly died. You must think me a monster, Father, if you believe I would do such a thing. I…I'm going to wash, and change into fresh things that aren't encrusted in salt. Please have someone see to the boy." Not waiting for her father's response, she swept out of the solar.
* * *
When she was dry and dressed, Margareta returned to the beach where she'd left the boy. She was surprised to find no one but a few fishermen mending their nets, like they normally did in the afternoon. Her father had heard her, after all, she marvelled.
But when she asked the servants which guest quarters he'd been given, no one could tell her anything. It was as though none of them had yet seen him. Her father would know, she was sure of it, so Margareta marched back to her father's solar to ask him.
She found him bowed over the desk, with his head in his hands.
"What's wrong, Father?" she asked. "Is he dead?"
He glanced up. "Who?"
"The boy on the beach." Margareta wished she'd thought to ask the squire's name.
"I know nothing of any boy, except my own. And they have flown." He sighed heavily. "Something terrible has happened to your brothers."
Margareta clutched the table so hard her knuckles went white. "What happened? They're not dead, are they?"
He shook his head. "No, but they may as well be. While they were hunting, they met a witch, who took offence at some imagined slight. Before they could stop her, she cursed them. All of them. She turned them into birds and made them fly far away."
Knowing her brothers, the slight was probably not imagined, Margareta knew, but she didn't say. For all her reputation for seduction as a siren, even the most chaste of her brothers could boast more romantic conquests than she. Most likely one of them had made a coarse comment, and the others had joined in, until she cursed them all.
"Is there a way the curse can be broken? Did you speak to the witch? Perhaps – " she began.
Father silenced her with a wave of his hand. "She presented herself right here in my solar, and told me she would never lift the curse. But the curse could be lifted by a maiden who loved my boys enough to make a huge sacrifice for them." He reached for her hand. "Margareta, I know you like to save people. Here is your chance. Do you love your brothers?"
She might not like them at times, but… "Yes, I love them," she said steadily.
"Are you willing to make sacrifices to save them?"
Margareta hesitated, before she finally said, "What kind of sacrifices?"
"She said they could be saved in one of two ways. If each of them could persuade one woman to declare her love and dedicate her life to one of your brothers, a dozen girls in the same night, they might break the curse themselves."
Margareta burst out laughing. "If my brothers – all twelve of them – agreed to get married at all, let alone on the same night, to women who truly loved them…Father, that would be a greater miracle than raising a man from the dead. If that is their only chance, then my brothers are truly lost."
"There is another way."
She managed to stop laughing. "There had better be, or they shall be birds forever."
His grip tightened around her fingers. "If one maiden is willing to sacrifice her voice for as long as it takes to break the curse, they will be set free. She cannot speak or laugh or even whisper."
"One maiden. That would be me, I imagine? You wish me to be silent for…how long, exactly?"
He shook his head. "I do not know. Weeks. Months. Maybe even years. Until the witch believes you have sacrificed enough to make her lift the curse and restore my sons to me."
"Father, find someone else. I must find the boy. He was unconscious, and needed help. I can't find him if I can't ask anyone about him."
Father captured her other hand, squeezing both in a desperate entreaty. "Margareta, my darling Meg, there is no one else. If you love me, as you love your brothers, you will do this. Save them. I will find a place for you in the priory, and tell them you have taken a vow of silence. You can roam through the rose garden, or spend all day in the library, or do whatever you please, as long as you do it in silence. I beg you to save your brothers."
The library and the rose garden were her two favourite places on the island, as her father knew well. It would mean staying longer on land, too, without returning to the ocean where instinct might take over and make a monster of her as it had so many of her mother's kind. She needed very little persuasion when he offered her such things. But… "What of the boy?" she asked sharply. She needed to know he was safe.
"I will find him, and make sure he is safe. If you will save my sons, my heirs."
Margareta took a deep breath. "All right, Father. I will do it. Silence my voice to save my brothers."
"Thank you!" He threw his arms around her, hugging her as he hadn't since she was a child.And from that moment, not a sound passed her lips. For her father was right about one thing. If she chose to save someone – be it her brothers from some folly or some nameless squire from a shipwreck – she would not rest until she had succeeded.
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A little mermaid. A prince to save. Only silence can break the spell.
Once upon a time…
The mermaid Margareta saved Prince Erik from a shipwreck. Wanting to see the prince again, Margareta strikes a bargain with the Master of Beacon Isle. If she saves his sons from a terrible curse, he will reunite her with Prince Erik. All she has to do is stay silent until the curse is broken.
Silence is a virtue…until Prince Erik arrives early, searching for the mermaid who saved his life.
Can two hearts speak louder than words?
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