Chapter 1: The Siren's Song
New England, May 1776
A heavy storm shakes the "Winter Rose", a British- flagged ship off the coast of New England. It is a light corvette, which had accompanied the much bigger warship under the command of the famous admiral Samuel Graves to New York, and had then been on the way to its destination, a small fishing village named Setauket, when the sudden fallen darkness of a storm had forced it to cast anchor in the open sea and delay anchorig until the morning.
Now and again a flash of lightning breaks through the nightly sky and illuminates the raging waves, the staggering ship, and on its railing, the single figure of a tall, young man in rain- soaked British scarlet with newly achieved lieutenant insignias on it. One of his hands clutches the railing, the other the top of the tricorne on his head, which threatens to get blown away by the relentless wind, along with his impeccable, white horsehair wig.
His face is of a pallor, which emphazises the impression of nobility and hauteur he likes to present to the world, alas, his hair does not- it is a mass of unruly, auburn curls he rather keeps to himself. He keeps his arctic- blue eyes watchfully on the darkness around him- as if any smuggler or rebel pirat would be stupid enough to head out in a night like this, but you never knew- and he is not a man who takes his duties lightly.
Another gust of wind splashes cold, salty rain into his face and he grimaces. His black-gloved fingers beat an indignant drum roll against the railing. He is the impatient type and doesn't like procrastinations. He doesn't like ships much either, for that matter. Not that he is very keen on being stationed in a backwater place, he is certainly aiming for higher duties. His godfather, said famous admiral Graves, had done his best to nourish the seed of ambition, that had grown inside him since he was a young boy and his real father died in the Canadian war, but sometimes it produces strange- and unfortunate effects. In his 25 years he looks back on a dubious career of several expulsions from schools and colleges- due to disrespect for his teachers and violent fights with his fellow students, a dozen illegal duels ( all won, and only one of it lethal after all) and a good deal of minor disagreements with superiors, since he had joined the King's army.
No, violent- tempered and unruly as he is, he should be humbly grateful for the chance on a military career, which he knows, he completely owes his godfather. He is lucky- the army is the place for him, fighting is in his nature - gratitude, however, is not. Humbleness even less. And a small fishing village is of course far beneath him.
After a while, his nightwatch half over- he had made his round across the deck, where everything is quiet and returned to his observation point at the bow- he suddenly thinks he hears a strange sound carried along with the wind, very softly and hardly audible against the raging sea and cries of seagulls. He strains his ears and listens out and there it is again, calling out to him from across the waves. It is - a tune.
He lifts his oil lamp and tries hard to make out something in the darkness but there is nothing but the sea and the dark sky above it. He shakes his head. Has the small flask of madeira he had sipped at from time to time to fight the cold and boredom of his lonely nightwatch made him drunk? He doesn't feel drunk. But evidently, his mind is playing tricks on him.
The storm takes a short break and he can hear it again, nearer now, but still far out from the sea. A woman's voice is singing a strange tune, or rather a melody, for he cannot make out any words, but the mere sound of it is bewitching. It is the loveliest voice he has ever heard, pure and clean, sad and yearning and promising all at once and only by listening to it he feels his eyes fill with tears and his heart clench in a delicate pain he has never felt before. The pull of the wondrous tune, and the promise of heavenly pleasures from the person who sings it, is so strong, that for a moment he feels just like Ulysses, who had his men tie him to the ship's mast to keep him from following the siren's song to his cold, wet grave in the ocean.
Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, it is gone. He looks out once more, then he swallows and takes a deep gulp of madeira. This is really not a good time to go mad.
He hears footsteps behind him and turns around with a questioning frown. This could not yet be the time for a changing of the guard. The men who approach him turn out to be the unpleasant threesome of Appleton, McMurray and the weasle- faced Easton, the ones of his brothers in arms he despises the most, if fortunately all beneath him in rank. They come staggering towards him over the planks , and only partly by the storm, for he can smell the heavy scent of liquor waving them ahead like a flag. His eyes narrow in disapproval.
"What do you want?" he asks. " It's not time for replacement yet and surely our Captain would not like to rely on the protection of useless drunkards like you are."
Appleton, a beanpole of a man, makes as if to lunge at him, but his comrades hold him back. "But we volunteered," says Easton with a greasy smile and watches him from his devious, black, beady eyes. "Your nightwatch will be over sooner than you thought, aren't you glad, lieutenant?" They are circling him now like a pack of ugly, bloodthirsty hyenas. He feels his spirits lift. This night turns out to be anything but boring after all.
He raises one of his pale brows and twists his lips into a sneer. "You want to attack a superior officer? Really now?" he says incredulously. "Not even a bunch of brainless scums as you are could surely be that stupid." "Superior officer at daddy's mercy" Appleton hisses angrily. "Don't think yourself too good for kissing his ass by turning a mate in, do you?"
He shrugs."If my mates are dumb enough to forage the admiral's personal rum supply and end up so drunk on their night watch they almost go overboard? Most definitely. With idiots like you, the enemy won't have much to fear."
Really, this is getting annoying. Of course he had told his godfather about the incident, and of course, the three of them had gotten what they deserved. A public lashing on deck, a total of 20 salty lashes, and the threat of further disciplinary enquiry had been far too merciful. He would have ordered at least 50 and immediate dishonorable discharge. After all, this is war and not a pleasure trip.
"Well, you can't run to him now." An ugly smile appears on Easton's ratlike features. "He's no longer here. Nobody here who will miss you. No one likes a traitor in our own ranks. You're going to regret what you did, you smug bastard." It is clear by the way they dare to speak to him, that they are actually planning to kill him. They must haven given themselves quite a bit of liquid courage to do such a thing. He sighs and reaches up to bare his head. "The only thing I do regret," he says cheerfully. "is that I wasn't allowed to lash you myself."
Then everything seems to happen all at once. Easton pulls a wicked, little dagger from his belt and charges at him, while the other two rush to his side to grab both his arms, in order to keep him from pulling his bayonet. He pulls out his elbow and kicks at Appleton's face to his right, before he lunges forward and smashes his forehead into Easton's face. He hears the breaking of bones and a muffled cry, but the rolling ship prevented him from putting all his strength in the blow and Easton, though blood is quickly flooding his face down from his broken nose, manages to stay on his feet.
He lets out a howl of pain."You broke my nose, you bloody son of a bitch!" Appleton and McMurray struggle to hold his arms down and press their combined weight on him to hold the much taller and heavier man against the railing. "Stop whining and finish him off!" McMurray gasps. "Can't hold him forever!" His words turn into a moan of pain, when his victim manages to kick one of his boots against his shinbone, but the movement makes him lose balance and he slides sideways across the wet planks and pulls his attackers with him.
He feels a dull pain, when his head crashes against the railing and for a second his sight blurs and his body goes limp, and this is the moment when Easton jumps at him and thrusts his dagger into his chest. The dagger hits one of his lower ribs and slides downwards into his belly. The pain is beyond words, then his world goes black. "You killed him?" he hears Appleton's anxious whisper and then McMurray: "Buck up! Before he comes to again." He hears their strained gasping and breathing and feels himself lifted up and pushed over the railing, head first. Now, this is ridiculous, is this last thought, before he hits the water surface and is quickly pulled under by the merciless waves.
Exit: John Graves Simcoe, the hero of our story.
Chapter 2: The Highest Precept
Mariel, the mermaid princess, saves an unconscious Simcoe from drowning and gets herself into trouble...
Mariel, oldest daughter of his glorious Majesty under the sea, Poseidonius, third of his name, Lord of the Atlantic Realm, gasps in dismay when she watches the body slump down the railing of the warship and hit the surface of the sea.
She had been watching the man for quite a while now. Not on purpose, of course, she had just been doing her singing exercise on a rock near the coast and well, yes- she isn't allowed to be seen above the water surface, but her voice sounds so much richer in the open air and besides, it is dark.
And wouldn't her father want her to perform at her very best at tonight's underwater ball? After all, she is to be presented as the future bride of Aquitanus, the young heir of the Pacific Realm and from all she knows, he is very picky. Mariel would be the first to admit, that she isn't the prettiest of her sisters and even worse, not quite an appropriate catch by mermaid standards, but she has a beautiful voice and she knows it. Not even a spoiled prig like Prince Aquitanus could deny that.
But then, there had been this warship, and her curiosity- or rather her fatal obsession with anything human- had been victorious over her reason again. She had swom closer, very carefully of course, and detected the tall figure of a man at the bow of the ship. It was too dark, and she was too far away, to make out much more than his shape, but somehow, something in the way he had been standing there, so tall and defiantly upright despite the heavy storm, had touched something deep inside her. He had seemed so lonely and oddly out of place, a feeling she knows all to well.
And then suddenly, those other men had come and there had been a fight and they had thrown his limp body over the railing. Now, at the latest, would be the perfect moment to retreat, but Mariel just can't force herself to do it. She never knows when it is time to stop. This- as her parents never grow tired of telling her- is her biggest flaw and the reason, why she, a king's daughter at the age of 20, is still unmarried.
She quickly swims closer to the ship and sees the tall man, who had regained consciousness at the contact with the cold water, struggle fiercely against the waves like they were some grim enemy. He is wounded, the water around him turns red where he frantically pedals with his arms and legs, apparently unable to swim. And his heavy clothes and weapons quickly pull him under the raging waves.
Mariel fights a - very brief - battle against everything she had been told since she was hardly more than a little baby mermaid in a seashell, and dives after him.
The body floats towards the ground of the sea, passing atolls and its inhabitants, who watch it with the detached curiosity about something they might have for dinner, when Mariel approaches him with quick flaps of her fishtail and grasps him under his arms. "This one's not for you" she hisses at a couple of greedy looking morays and they retreat to their holes in the atoll with a regretful, sulking gaze after her from cold, black eyes.
"Mariel !" an excited- and all too familiar voice calls from behind her. "What, by Medusa's tentacles, do you think you're doing there?" She presses her lips to a defiant line and clutches the lifeless body in her arms tighter without stopping her swimming. "What does it look like?" Paracelsus, a longnose- surgeonfish, and her annoying, inevitable shadow, nanny and chaperone alike, paddles around her face in a flustered swirl. "What it looks like? It looks like someone disobeys the Highest Precept, that's what it looks like!" he gasps out. "Then go and tell my father, if you can't help it. Since you're evidently his spy any way." The long forehead bump of the surgeon fish changes his colour to deep red, if out of embarassment or anger, she can't tell, but he doesn't leave her side. "That's...that's not fair!" he complains. "I am your friend! Your father told me to watch over you, true, but I am not going to tell him anything. I'm telling you, that whatever you think you're doing there, is a big, big mistake!"
Mariel, who tends to only hear what she wants to and thus, hears that he wouldn't inform her father of her actions, sighs in relief. "Good. Come with me, then. I'll need your help. And stop puffing up like this. You look like a blowfish." " "But...!" Paracelsus sighs as well, before he hurries to keep in pace with her and follows her to her secret lair.
It is a small grotto, its entrance concealed by a thick curtain of algae and seaweed. Mariel floats inside and heaves the limp body of the man- much heavier now without the water to carry it- on a makeshift bed of seaweed and rotten sailcloth. The grotto is stuffed with sunken treasures like a marauder's cave, the result of many years of laborious gathering. There are boxes full of glistening jewelry, golden coins and silverware, a large, brazen- framed mirror, diverse jugs and goblets and artfully painted porcellain dishes, a miniature portrait of George the third of England, and in the back of it, her greatest catch- a small harpsichord, fully functional. Mariel had taught herself to play the unfamiliar instrument and is very proud of it- her father's court chapel with all its flutes and drums and harps has nothing like this -and she would have loved to perform in front of an amazed audience, but the thing is very heavy, it had taken her days to drag it in here, and there is no way to get it to the court without revealing her lair.
She slides behind the man on the bed and holds his head, when he coughs up half an ocean of cold sea water. He turns his head and gives her a look from deep blue eyes, as blind and unfocused as a new born baby's. His eyes grow wide at her sight and he opens his pale, blueish lips. "Cold," he laments in a whiny voice and shivers all over. His eyelids flutter and his head falls back on the sheets when he loses consciousness again.
Mariel frowns and bites her lip. His skin is indeed cold, and ghostly pale, and blood from his stab wound keeps spilling through his white shirt beneath his coat. She struggles to free him from his clothes in order to take a look at the injury. He shivers and moans in pain, but doesn't wake up. Paracelsus watches her from the waterhole at the entrance, his long forehead bump wrinkled in disapproval, when she removes his heavy boots and pulls the wet pants from his legs. "Not only must you bring a human in here, no you must completely undress him, too," he mutters in a sarcastic tone. "What's next? Stuff him up like a ragdoll and add him to your cabinet of curiosities?"
Mariel darts him an indignant look. "Don't be stupid. He's not dead. His clothes are wet. And I need to see where he's wounded, don't I ?" "See you need, that's for sure" the annoying fish sneers, but he watches with some curiosity himself. "Sure, he's not dead? My belly is not as pale as he- and I thought they were all tanned up there from running around in the sun all day." Mariel looks at her catch. Pale he is, true, from his waxen face down to his broad chest, and long, strong arms and legs. And hairy. His body is covered all over with a thick fur of the same colour as the damp curls on his skull, a flaming copper like the waves in the sunset. There is less of it on his face, hands and feet and on his muscly upper arms, while it clusters on his head and under his armpits and between his legs...flushing, Mariel averts her fascinated gaze and inspects the wound in his belly. It is an ugly cut from a mean, jagged knife and keeps pumping blood with every ragged breath he takes.
"It won't stop bleeding, " she says, concerned. "What should I do?" She looks at Paracelsus, who makes big pop eyes at her. "Are you asking me ?" Mariel furrows her brow. "You're a surgeon fish , aren't you?" she hisses. She takes a deep breath and softens her tone. "And you are my friend, right? Friends help each other. And I need your help now. So please-" she says, her voice smooth as silk. Paracelsus seems mollified. He cocks his head to the side. "Bandages," he announces. "You need to wrap up the wound to stop the bleeding. With some...cloth or something. And I will make you some of my famous algae balm to prevent it from infection. But Mariel..." Paracelsus gives her a stern look. "If he survives, you must bring him back to the surface before he wakes up. Promise me!"
"Of course, I know." Mariel mirrors his serious expression. "The highest precept. They must not know about us." She twists her lips into a sad smile. "I know I cannot keep him."
The surgeon fish nods his long-nosed head. "Good.Try to keep him warm. I'll be right back." He disappears under the water surface with a splash.
When he has left, Mariel searches her boxes for a piece of cloth, but finds nothing. There isn't much need for fabrics under the sea and those she captures, always start to rot quickly in the damp air of her grotto. She sighs and makes do with a piece of dry rot, which she presses to the stab wound on her patient's belly. He is still shivering from cold and she hurries to wrap him up in pieces of the tatty canvas, she had bedded him on, but it isn't enough to cover his large body and way too thin to actually warm him.
In her despair-unconsciously but instinctively- Mariel does the only right thing. She slides on the makeshift bed and covers the body on it with her own, in order to share her warmth with him.
It is a strange sensation- she is naked from her fishtail up, there is no need for clothing down here and the seashell bras she and her sisters wear at social events are rather decorative than comfortable- and as she wraps her arms around him and her torso against his, careful not to put too much weight on his wound, she feels the hair on his chest brush her breasts in a way that makes her tremble as well.
But it works. She can feel his skin grow warmer beneath her own, and there is even a slight touch of pink rising up in his pale cheeks. His breath, shallow just now, becomes more agitated and to her utter surprise, she notices a tentative movement against her fishtail right beneath her waist. Mariel feels her face flush, when she realizes what exactly that must be, but a suspicious look at his face confirms, he is still senseless. Well, that couldn't be helped. And the feeling, odd as it is, is not completely unpleasant.
She lets her hands roam his arms up and down, feeling the slight twitching of his muscles under the skin with an odd delight. His skin is soft, but all steel underneath, and his body so different compared to the mermen she knows- but then, under the sea, there is not much need for body hair, or impressive height and broad shoulders- let alone every part of his anatomy from the waist down.
To soothe him- or herself, who could tell?- she begins to sing softly against his ear, while she inhales the unfamiliar scent in his neck and absently strokes her fingers through the curls of burning copper on his head. Her own hair, hip-length and unruly, is of a disappointing ash blonde- quite unspectacular compared to all the colorful cyan and violet and emerald of her sister's- unless the sun touches it and bathes it in a golden shine...but of course, she would have to cross the water surface for that.
By the sound of her voice, her patient's ragged breathing begins to calm down and a tiny smile curls his pale lips. Mariel finds herself smiling back in helpless admiration. He is so beautiful !
A lump comes to her throat. A king's daughter, priviledged and fortunate, once to reign her own realm beside a powerful, royal lord, she is cursed double all the same. For not only had some evil fate given her that strange obsession for humanity and everything about it, no, even worse, she wants to be one of them herself. It is her deepest desire and her most shameful secret- the human race is considered nothing more than an annoying plague to her people, stupid yet terrifying monsters, who sail the seas on their big, dirty ships as if they belonged to them and catch their fish in huge nets in order to actually eat them- and in any case, it is impossible.
Mariel would never be human. And thus, she would never be happy.
The surgeon fish returns at last and quickly begins to live up to the name of his species, when he gives her harsh instructions on how to tend to the wound of her guest, most likely eager to see him vanish from their lives as soon as possible. Mariel had just applied the balm on the wound and remade a tight bandage of canvas and dried seaweed around it, when her grotto is suddenly shaken by a voice like rumbling thunder.
"WHAT'S GOING ON HERE ?!"
She spins around in panic to the sight of her father, King Poseidonius himself, who just emerges from the water hole at the grotto's entrance like a huge, and very angry avenging angel. Paracelsus stares up to his king with big eyes before he quickly dives under in the attempt of an ungraceful exit, but Poseidonius grasps him by his tailfin and holds him up before his wide, rolling eyes. Mariel, initial shock fading, narrows her eyes at the surgeon fish. "You-!" she hisses incredulously.
Paracelsus' panicking pop eyes dart from his father to her. "What...? No ! I- I didn't breathe a word- I mean, forgive me your Majesty, for not telling you-" Poseidonis drops the fish with an angry snarl. "Begone ! I'll deal with you later." The surgeon fish doesn't have to be told twice.
The king's eyes fly across the grotto in disgust and then widen at the sight of the still unconscious- and still naked- man on Mariel's bed. His face reddens with rage. "You !" he rumbles and moves towards his daughter, looking down on her from his threatening height. His eyebrows, silvery as his hair and his long, flowing beard, form an angry line. "Not only did you not show up before the court to welcome our honoured guests- and you know quite well, they have been coming a long way and for you- no, you-" "I'm sorry father," Mariel rushes forwards and grabs his arm in a soothing gesture. "It wasn't on purpose, I swear! I- I completely forgot about it. Please, let me explain-"
Her father shakes off her arm and raised his trident, as if to strike her down. "Explain what? This?" He waves his trident around her lair, then points it on the man on the bed. "Or this ? Not much to explain there, is it? You broke the highest precept ! Not to mention, you crossed our guests, including your fiancé, who have already threatened to leave empty- handed-"
Mariel crosses her arms in front of her chest and meets her father's angry stare with defiant eyes. "Fine, let them leave, then." she spits back at him." I don't want to marry Aquitanus any way. He is a vain, cocky prig and I do not love him at all !" Her father's face seems to redden even more. "Love him ?" he coughs. "He is the heir of the second biggest realm after my own! You couldn't be better off, you stupid girl! Who cares if you love him? I have four more daughters to marry off and you know quite well, that the eldest must advance!"
He puts his trident down to lean onto it, puffing like a grampus. "What have I done to deserve such an ungrateful, twisted daughter?" Mariel bites her lip."Please, father, don't be upset. Your heart..." Poseidonius takes a deep breath and straightens himself with a determined sigh. "Either way, you know what I'll have to do. The rules are clear about this." He raises his arm again, the trident in it seared with flashing light.
"NO !" Mariel makes a jump at her bed and covers the man on it with her body once more. "You can't kill him! He has seen nothing! I saved him and I'll bring him back, I promise..." She buries her head against the man's chest, when her father emits a thundering roar and then she hears the noise of splintering wood and glass when he swings his weapon across her grotto and razes its content to the ground in a destructive rampage. Splinters of wood and pieces of broken glass and porcellain rain down on her and she presses her face into the fur on the man's chest and soaks it with angry tears. Who, still unconscious, notices nothing about the raging thunderstorm he is responsible for.
When it is quiet at last, Mariel looks up and sees the scale of devastation. There is nothing left of her laborious gathered treasures but a pathetic, smoldering pile of debris. "So, " her father says, panting but severe. "So much for your deranged love for earthly frills." His voice drips with content and his dark eyes bore into hers with a hard stare. "But I am a merciful ruler. I will grant you your wish. I allow you to bring this...human back to where he belongs and after that, you will come straight back home and we will never talk about the incident again. You will- very humbly and genuinely- apologize to Prince Aquitanus and his parents for your absence tonight, and tomorrow morning- provided, he still wants you- we will set up the marriage contract. This is my order and if you don't follow it word for word, then I promise you, I will not have a daughter named Mariel any longer."
Mariel, her precious capture in tow, reaches the land, when a tentative dawn is just about to shimmer at the horizon behind her. The storm has ceased, and the coast line is a scene of destruction, the beach littered with broken branches, dead seaweed and washed up fish. She looks around in the dim light of the new morning. The beach is empty, but soon the first fishermen would launch their boats and thereby hopefully detect her patient and get him into safety.
She drags the limp body of the man on the beach, lays him down onto the sand and covers him with his wet uniform. When she is done, she bends over him and strokes the wet, auburn curls from his pale face. "I must leave you now," she murmurs softly against his ear, her voice quiet but determined. "But I'll come back for you, I promise." She lowers her head to brush his cold lips with her own, before she turns around and slides back into the water, her eyes burning in tears and grim determination. She has no intentions to further follow her father's instructions from this point on, and he for his part had made clear that she would no longer have a home in his realm if she didn't. Everything she had ever called her own is gone, her lair destroyed. There is only one thing left for her to do now.
Only one place to go.
Chapter 3: The Pact
Mariel makes a fatal pact with an evil sea witch who, of course, is out to look for her personal agenda...
Mariel had been swimming quite a few miles towards her destination, before the unmistakable, unnerving voice of her stalker reappears behind her.
"Mariel! Where are you going?"
It is Paracelsus again, of course, panting from the effort to keep in her tracks. He paddles in front of her head and looks at her pop-eyed, his long bump glowing in a nervous red. "This is not the way to your father's court!"
"You don't say." Mariel reaches out and waves him away with a fretful gesture. She doesn't need him to tell her, it is obvious enough: the waters she travels are becoming colder and darker by the moment, and more than a little eerie.
Where the ocean she knows is all bright colours and swarming life, this part of it is more of an underwater wasteland, dim and murky, with corals and algae glowing in sickly lurid colours. The muddy ground is littered with whalebones and rotten ship wrecks. Its inhabitants are few- and blessedly shy- but now and then Mariel catches a terrified glimpse on a translucent giant spider's leg, sharp- toothed viperfishes and fat, languid nightcrawlers, who watch them with detached curiosity before quickly withdrawing to their holes.
"The Abyssal Depths," Paracelsus whispers against her ear in a frightened, little voice. "That's not good, not good at all! Mariel, what are we doing here? I'm quite sure, you're not allowed..."
Mariel ignores him and continues her path. The surgeon fish keeps driving jittery circles around her head. "Don't you listen? This is dangerous territory, Mariel! Do you not know who rules here?"
Mariel darts him an irritated sideglance. "Of course I know." she says, trying to sound more confident than she really feels. "And I can't remember having asked you to follow me."
"But I always..." Paracelsus words turn into a terrified shriek, when his tailfin happens to brush a translucent tentacle in his path. Its owner, a giant jellyfish, glowing in a somber violet tone, floats by in majestic ignorance.
There are more creatures like this around now, in all kinds of forms and sizes and silimar, vaguely ominous colours, looking fragile and scary alike. Mariel nods her head, a look of grim determination on her face. "We're close now." she murmurs. "Watch your path. Or better- swim back home. I have to do this, but you don't have to accompany me."
The surgeon fish emits a deep sigh. He looks very troubled, but- to her secret relief- doesn't leave her side. This is a dangerous place, no doubt about that, and it would be even more scary alone. But then, everything will be dangerous from now on. Mariel conjures up the memory of her destroyed grotto, followed by pompous Prince Aquitanus with his conceited smile and presses her lips to a grim line. She has no choice.
As they move on, the jellyfish around them recede at their approach, and in seemingly random directions, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left, as if to guide them the way, until at least they reach the dark, ominous entrance of a big underwater cave. Dead seaweed and algae curtain the gloomy doorway and exhale a foul smell of death and decay.
Paracelsus, his dorsal fin ruffled, shivers all over. "That's the l-l-lair of the sea w-w-witch," he stutters. "You don't want to go in there surely, do you, Mariel? It's a b-b-bad place, can't you feel it? No g-g-good can come from it!"
Mariel furrows her brow and gives him an indignant look. "I told you, you don't have to come with me and I meant it." she says sharply. "So come along or retreat, as you please, but stop bothering me!" And with that, she brushes the curtain aside and slides into the foul smelling darkness.
Paracelsus mumbles something inaudible about the stubbornness and ungratefulness of women in general and spoiled princesses in particular and follows in her tracks.
The overall darkness is probably a blessing, for the vague movements of shadowy things in the corners of the long, winding hallway they cross and the eerie, whimpering sounds coming from them are bad enough, no need to take a closer look, thank you very much.
The aisle ends at a huge portal made of what looks like an artful carving of several unfortunate creature's bones and is guarded by a single, male shape. The gatekeeper is precariously thin and quite tall, although the crouched posture of his sagging shoulders makes him look smaller. He holds a kind of spear in one of his long, bony arms and his fleshtone is of a sickly greenish grey, as well as the spooky gleam of his dead lizard eyes. A thin tuft of matted black hair covers his long skull like a cap of rotten, slimy seaweed.
He opens his pout and hisses in a creepy, high- pitched, yet solemn voice: "Welcome Princessss. My missstresss,the sssensational, matchlesss, Madame Medusa is waiting for you."
Mariel seems a little taken aback by this greeting. "She does?" she asks tentatively. The ugly pout grin widens. "Of courssse. She seesss everything in her magic marble. Very excsssited to meet you, she isss..."
"Lizardo!" a querulous voice yells from behind the door. "Stop that chit-chat and let my guests in! They've come to see me, not you, stupid fool!"
The rebuked creature cringes and ducks his ugly head and, with another hateful glance at his visitors, hurries to open the door and lead them into the Holy of Holies.
Other than the damp dimness of the cave they had passed before, the parlor of the sea witch itself glows in a luminous light and is stuffed with splendorous carpets and colourful shawls and pillows in various states of decay like the long abandoned serail of some degenerate Turk sultan. The rich, overly sweet smell of incense and perfume fights a desperate, yet hopeless battle against the overall odor of rot. Dim lampions spread their red glow in every corner.
The mistress of the house herself is a large, shadowy figure in the dark back of the room, lolling languidly about a plushy throne of countless pillows like an old Roman after an excessive banquet.
"Bow to the mighty and gorgeousss mistresss Madame Medusa!" Lizardo hisses and eagerly follows his own order and throws himself to the feet of the pile of pillows. His mistress snorts in derision. A fat, black tentacle appears and hits Lizardo's back with a loud smack.
"Quite the creeper, aren't you?" she sneers. "But just because I like to see you crawl before me, this doesn't go for my guests of honour, of course not."
Her voice, thick and greasy with an unsettling metallic undertone, sounds like something scraped out from the deep muddy sea ground with a rusty spoon.
Another slap of her tentacle hits her servant's head and he emits a muffled howl of pain. "Mind your manners. You're talking to a princess, after all." She groans and slides from her cushioned throne, floating into the light.
Mariel holds her breath in shock and hears Paracelsus next to her do the same. The sea witch is a grotesque sight, especially by merfolk standards, who are overall a slender and delicately built race. Madame Medusa, however, is phenomenally fat, from her female torso with its enormous sagging breasts down to the mass of black tentacles down her waist, half octopus, half jellyfish- and phenomenally ugly. The black hair on her head curls like fat, living snakes, her skin has the same sickly green fleshtone like her servant's and her face is bloated and wasted like an old tavern slut far beyond her prosperous times.
The monstrous woman notices the look on their guests' faces and twists her lips, painted in a dark red tone, into a crooked smile. "I know" she sighs, looking down at herself. "I'm a bit out of shape lately. Should do more riding. I have a whole stable of sea horses, but the wicked little creatures never last long...and I don't need to go out much these days. My magic marble tells me everything I need to know...anyway,"
She waves one of her fat, short arms and a bed of pillows appears in front of her. "Have a seat, if you please." She waves her other arm and a small, silvery plate appears in her hand. "Sweets?" Mariel ventures a tentative gaze at the tray of treats in lurid colours. When she looks closer, the sweets seem to move, and she realizes with horror that there are small, living snails and crabs under the icing. She forces herself to a polite smile. "No thanks. I'm not very hungry."
The sea witch shrugs her massive shoulders and quickly throws some of the disgusting snacks into her mouth. "More for me, then," she grins, and extends a long, black tongue to lick her lips. Paracelsus looks as if he is going to be sick.
Madame Medusa burps and quickly holds an oddly tiny hand to her mouth. "Excuse me. Can't do business when I'm hungry. And business is what you're here for, am I not right, princess?"
Mariel nods. "Yes."
The sea witch smiles and waves her hand again and produces a decanter, filled with a dark red liquid and two goblets."A drink then, perhaps?" She fills one of the goblets and presents it to a hesitant Mariel. "Don't worry, I have no intentions to poison my business partners," she says with a raised eyebrow. "Drink. You'll like it. It's human. They call it madeira. Good to calm the nerves."
Mariel decides that she could indeed use something to calm down the nervous excitement in her stomach, takes the glass and empties it. The taste of it is bittersweet and strange, but not unpleasantly so, and immediately fills her insides with a warm glow.
Madame Medusa nods her multiple chins with a knowing grin. "Yes, I thought you'd like that," she says. She empties her own glass and munches the remaining treats except for one...and after a quick moment of consideration, she takes the last piece and throws it in the directon of her servant. Lizardo straightens himself and extends his split tongue to catch it, waving his fishtail like a well-trained, grateful puppy.
"Very well then," The sea witch sighs and wrinkles her brow in fake sympathy. "I know why you're here, Princess. I've seen what your father has done to you."
She waves her hand and a huge crystal ball appears on the pillow in front of her. "I've seen it all, oh yes. That cruel, cruel man. That's a king! Destroys your lovely little hideout just because you broke this stupid law of his- and only to save the life of a handsome man. But I shouldn't wonder..." she adds with a bitter smile. "For that's exactly what he did to me."
Mariel looks surprised. "He did ?" "Indeed. I haven't always been like- this, you know. Once I was young and beautiful, just like you. The most beautiful of all the court beauties. A true queen in everything but in name," She sighs, indulging in glamorous memories. "I know it's hard to believe now," she adds, when she notices Mariel's incredulous look. "But it's true. I was the sparkling star at every ball, elegant, alluring, all the gentlemen were madly in love with me...a splendid dancer and my voice...oh my voice was the best of it all. Like an angel's, everyone told me so. A great future was lying ahead of me, if not as a queen, then certainly as the court's celebrated opera singer, but then..."
Her face darkens and she shoots a hateful glance at Lizardo, who had been listening to her remarks with a rapt smile on his reptile features. "But then," she continues in a grim voice and points her fat little forefinger at her servant. "He happened to come into my life. A human man he was, just like your darling, oh yes. Oh what a man! A spanish pirate, tall and proud, with a smile fearing neither death nor devil. I spotted him aboard his pirate ship, he was playing his guitar and the sound of it made my heart sing with joy. When I first saw him, I knew he had to be mine. His ship got into a storm and I saved him, just like you did. I wanted nothing but to be with him, forever, his sweet guitar play backing my singing, his strong, young body beside me in my bed-"
Despite herself, Mariel had gotten carried away by the enthusiasm of Madame Medusa's story. "What happened?" she whispers breathlessly. The sea witch snorts out a mirthless laugh. "What do you think?" she spits. "He found out about it, of course. Your father, mighty king Poseidonius himself. He told me to abandon him. I refused. I was banned from court and his realm and droven to exile here in the Abyssal Depths, along with my fierce spanish lover. And look at him now..."
She waves her hand at her servant in a disgusted gesture. "And look at me. That's what became of us. That's what your father did to us, the great, merciful Poseidonius."
Lizardo had listened to the end of her story with growing anxiety. "But you're ssstill beautiful!" he hastens to assure his mistress. "And I'm ssstill crazzzy for you. If only you'd let me..."
"Ha!" The sea witch shuts him up with another indignant slashing of her tentacle. She reaches for a small box next to her. "I have his balls locked up in a box," she says with a malicious grin. "Just to remind him who's the source of all my misfortune." With a rattling sound, she shakes the box in Lizardo's direction.
"Mercy! My jewels!! " she cries out in a high- pitched squeak, followed by a roaring, spiteful laughter when she sees her servant cringe in evident pain.
She stops laughing and looks back at Mariel with a solemn face. "Now you know, what happened to me," she says. "But unlike you, I had no one to help me. It was wise of you to come to me, King's daughter. I can make your wish come true and guarantee a happy ending to your love story. You couldn't keep your lover and he can never be with you here, but you... you can become one of them. And has that not been your secret desire all along?"
Mariel stares back at her, her eyes wide with excitement. "Yes," she whispers. "Can you do that ? Make me...make me human?"
Paracelsus, who had been listening with growing disapproval, can't hold back any longer. " What ??" he gasps out. "Mariel! What are you talking about? You don't mean that surely! You don't know that- that human at all! He's been unconscious all the time, remember? How could you love him? He could be the most evil creature in the world, how would you know?"
Mariel glares at him."But he's not," she says stubbornly. "Impossible. There is a...connection between us, I clearly felt it,"
The surgeon fish throws his fins up in horror. "Felt it? Nonsense! You know nothing about men! Human men, above all! He will break your heart and leave you to despair, that's what he'll do! And you would give up your family for such a thing?"
The sea witch frowns and one of her tentacles lashes out and hurls the surgeon fish into the back corner of the room. She turns to Mariel with a knowing grin. "Fish," she spits out in disgust. "What do they know about love, true love ? Their blood is cold, not hot and longing like that of a woman. I've seen your gentleman in my magic marble and I assure you, he's craving love as much as you do," she continues in a silky voice. "And he'll never find it unless with you. He'll be lonely forever, unless you save him."
She produces a contract paper from the depths of her pillow pile. "Just sign here, princess, and save him- and yourself- from the bitter fate of a life without love."
Paracelsus struggles to get back to her side. "Mariel, no !" he screams. "Are you insane ? Think about it! A human? You know nothing about humanity apart from the things you captured from their sunken ships! A race of murderers, all of them! Imagine, they make you wear their ridiculous dresses and serve you tuna sandwiches for breakfast! Do you know, what tuna is? It's fish ! That's an abomination!"
Mariel swallows while she tries hard to ignore him. She looks at the contract and frowns. "I can't read" she admits at last. Madame Medusa gives her a pitiful smile. "Oh my, your father did everything to keep you from making up a mind of your own, didn't he?" she clicks her tongue in fake compassion. "Look here- it says, I'll turn you into a human- as it is your wish- and send you right to the place where your beloved is, let me see- ah yes, a fishing village named Se-tau-ket- and then you'll have time until the next full moon- which is a full month- to make him fall in love with you- child's play for a pretty, young girl at good health like you are, right? And men aren't so picky after all when it comes down to it, trust me-"
Mariel looks up to her, suddenly uncertain. "But what...what if he won't...fall in love with me ?" she asks softly. The sea witch furrows her brow. "What, do you have so little trust in his feelings?" she says in a mocking tone. "Or yours? Then perhaps, that annoying fish is right and you shouldn't do it. Run back to your father and beg his forgiveness and become the wife of Prince Aquitanus, it's not too late..."
Mariel closes her eyes and recalls the moment when her body was entangled with his, the sensation of his skin against hers, his face, his smell, the deep attachment she had felt for him at first sight- and presses her lips to a determined line. "No," she says. "I'm sure of it."
The sea witch grins, showing too much of her rotten teeth. "That's a good girl," she says. "Alright then. To the conditions." She raises her eyebrow at Mariel's uncomprehending look. "I'm doing this for you...and for love, true," she says dryly. "But I'm still a businesswoman, not the social service. And everything has its price."
Paracelsus gasps. "Don't do it !" he yells. "She's a witch, remember? And she's out for revenge, that's as clear as mud ! She will trick you into something horrible, that can't be reversed! Mariel, please...!" "Now that's enough!" Madame Medusa hisses, lashes out and kicks the fish into an empty box, before she wraps one of her tentacles around it to keep it closed. "Very well, where were we...ah yes, the payment,"
Mariel hangs her head. "I have nothing to give to you- all my treasures were kept in my grotto and my father destroyed it-"
The sea witch bears her teeth in another fake smile. "Oh, it's just a trifle, really" she purrs. "Something you won't even miss." She bends forward and bores her tiny, black eyes which are wrapped in rolls of fat, into hers. "Your voice !"
Mariel swallows and stares at her in disbelief."My... my voice?" she repeats.
The sea witch's smile doesn't waver. "In deed. As I said, you won't miss it at all. Women don't have much of a voice in the human world, they are supposed to be seen rather than heard. Trust me, most men prefer their darlings as mute as a fish- no pun intended," she winks in the direction of Paracelsus trapped in his box.
"It will be more of an advantage than a harm, believe me. And once you've won your darling's heart, you'll get it back immediately, of course." She holds up the contract before Mariel's eyes once more. "One month," she repeats. " To make him fall in love with you. A kiss, that's all it takes, not any kiss of course, a true love's kiss. Be successful and the two of you will live happily ever after. If you fail...well, then you will be mine to do whatever I wish, but worry not, that is extremely unlikely. Make up your mind, princess. Seal the contract or run back to your father, it's all the same to me. I have other things to do, as you can imagine. Put your cross here..." she taps her fat forefinger on the contract, "Or go on and live your life at your father's design. It's up to you."
Suddenly, Mariel has the brief flash of insight, that she is about to do something terribly wrong. But stubborn as she is, she can't bring herself to pack-pedal now. Any new challenge would be better than returning to the life she knows, a life, as the sea witch had so remarkably pointed out, would completely be formed by the wishes of her father. It is too late to turn back now. She's not the same mermaid she was and she has never really felt like one of them anyway.
She closes her eyes and seals the contract.
Next thing she notices, is the triumphant laughter of the sea witch, followed by a pain beyond description, when her fishtail is cut in two and transformed into human legs. Something is dragged out of her through her throat and she realizes, it must be her voice. She feels herself ripped to pieces and roughly set together again and then lifted up and pushed upwards through the waves, washed ashore like a piece of wreckage.
The feeling of sunlight, bathing her in its warm embrace. The sweet taste of sea air filling her lungs. Then nothing.
Deep in thoughts, Madame Medusa sits in front of her magic marble, absently patting the shimmering crystal. The marble starts to glow and clear and finally shows her the picture she had been searching for- a curious scene which had happened earlier this morning-a tall man in a tattered uniform, limping towards the village with the support of the two fishermen who had picked him up on the beach.
He grits his teeth as he walks, his face is pale and contorted with pain, his hair standing on edge and of a loud and unflattering red, his eyes hard and cold as glass splinters.
Despite his disheveled looks he has an aura of tragedy and darkness about him- a prince, indeed, albeit the cursed sort.
She giggles and casts a glance at his thoughts behind that pale, furrowed brow.
Admittedly, he is not as cold and unfeeling as his icy-blue stare implies; as for emotions he rather has too many than too little- but most of them have precious little to do with love.
There is a touch of a desperate longing, true, and a vague memory of a girl with long, blonde hair and a sweet voice, but this is hardly more than a dream that is already beginning to fade.
First and foremost, however, she sees stubborn pride, arrogance, cruelty even, a burning desire for future fame and glory on a battlefield- and in the nearer future, for terrible revenge on the men who had caused his almost-death.
"Really now, this is almost too good to be true," the sea witch chuckles and rubs her fat, tiny hands. "A fine specimen you have chosen there, princess, I couldn't have found a better one myself, much fun with that! This will be a piece of cake for me-"
Speaking of, she notices she could use a little snack and looks out for her servant. Lizardo, who had cautiously crept closer like a shy animal used to the whip, smiles his frog grin, happy to see his mistress in a good mood. He moves a little closer and tries to peer past her into the marble.
"That'sss niccce, sssweetheart, really niccce-"
"Don't call me that," the sea witch spits at him and deals him a quick blow with her tentacle. "That's disrespectful!"
Lizardo recoils with a frightened grimace."But we're alone now- and I jussst thhhought maybe- we could- cccelebrate?"
Madame Medusa throws a blanket over her magic marble, reaches out and slowly opens the small box in which she keeps his crown jewels. She sees his ugly face brighten with a tentative, hopeful smile, darts him an evil grin and lets the box snap shut with a loud crack.
"Not now," she says. "It's too early to celebrate. And I'm not in the mood anyway. I've got a migraine. Get me something tasty, will you?"
She watches him retreat with slouched shoulders and twists her thin, blood red lips into a derisive smile. "My poor little Lizardo," she whispers and thinks in malicious glee of the silly little princess and the sheer impossible task that lies ahead of her, "What shall I say- life is full of of disappointments."
Madame Medusa- name originally coming from Disney's " The Rescuers" but I found it more fitting here, is of course, Ursula or rather a hybrid of Ursula and the Gorgon from ancient Greek mythology.
Lizardo- inspired by LotR's Grima Wormtongue and the pair as such by an aquainted couple, where she- to put it mildly- is wearing the trousers.
"Mercy! My jewels!" borrowed from Tintin's Bianca Castafiore.
The tuna sandwich: Disney's Lilo& Stitch.
Hope you enjoy!
Chapter 4: Bitter Knowledge
Mariel is accommodated by a - beaten by life-Anna Strong, ( literally ) takes her first steps in the human world, experiences strange human customs and the first working day of her life and finally meets her beloved again, who turns out to be quite a different man than she had expected...
Anna Strong paces the beach, wrapped in a woollen cape, a large basket in her arms.
After a heavy storm like this there is always a good chance to gather washed up fish and oysters in the tidal waves which means free food to be served in her tavern.
Anna strides out resolutely, her lips pressed to a hard line. Her tavern. But for how long?
Only last week, after that disastrous fight in the tavern parlor which had led to an injured British officer, her husband Selah and Abe had both been arrested and put in the stocks. The whole thing had been merely an accident, but what did that mean to their occupants ? There had been enough witnesses to testify Selah had attacked the Captain with malicious intent; the redcoats always covered up for each other and the townsfolk was too cowed to object.
And now Selah had been sentenced to a year on the Jersey, an ill- famed prison ship, which hardly anyone ever left alive or unharmed, and Abe was God- knows- where, which loaded the responsibility for their business on her own shoulders.
A business which, as an unprotected woman, and wife of a convicted traitor even worse, most likely wouldn't be hers for much longer.
Anna breathes the brisk, fresh sea air in and suppresses the bitter thoughts of hatred and frustration which threaten to overwhelm her.
It is no good. She has to pull herself together, show them no weakness, give them no reason for further sanctions.
But it is hard, if it means to keep smiling and serve drinks every day to the very men who had ruined her whole life with hardly more than a snap of their black- gloved fingers.
Work is good, it keeps her busy, keeps her distracted, her thoughts from wandering onto dark paths.
And so is the walk in the fresh morning air. Not that she had found much worth gathering so far, but then she had merely been in need for a moment for herself.
Suddenly, she detects something unusual in front of her, a sudden gleam of gold in the sun, and as she walks closer, it turns out as a human figure, crouched against a rock on the beach.
Anna gulps and approaches it carefully.
Fish are not the only things that could be found washed up after a storm. There is always the possibility to make the way more dreadful discovery of some unfortunate fisherman, whose boat had been shattered and left him to drown in the merciless waves.
The body to her feet however, is clearly not a fisherman but a woman, half covered with seaweed but apart from that, completely naked, and the golden glimmer she had seen, comes from a long, matted mane of blonde hair, which covers her face and torso like a curtain.
And she is not dead either.
When Anna puts down her basket and bends over the woman to inspect her, she can see the curtain of blonde hair move slightly in front of her face from her breathing and the exposed skin is covered with goose flesh and trembles in the cool wind.
Anna lets out a startled gasp and quickly takes off her cape to wrap it around the quivering figure. She brushes the hair from the woman's face- she is young, hardly more than a girl- and sees her eyelids flutter open before she gives her a confused look from big, bright eyes of the colour of the sea.
Anna relaxes her mouth into a relieved smile. "It's all good," she says softly. "You're alive. Have you been out on a boat and caught by the storm?"
This would be the most likely explanation- had not a ship with British reinforcements almost sunk in the storm yesterday night ? ( And unfortunately only almost, as Anna can't help think by herself. ) Had not an unfortunate soldier on his nightwatch been blown overboard and found half- alive at the beach this morning? It had been talk of the town all day.
"Where are you from?" she insists. Because it is clear, she is not from here; Anna knows everyone in Setauket, it is a small town after all and she is sure, she has never seen this girl before. She has to be a fisherman's daughter, or maybe a visitor from New York or Oyster Bay, who had been on the way here. Truth be told, she looks like neither, naked and with that long, fair hair down around her, she looks more like a creature from a fairytale than anything else. But her clothes and further belongings must have been lost at sea. Anna surveys the beach around her but finds no trace of wreckage or other castaways - neither dead or alive.
The girl had not replied, she's obviously still in shock. Anna looks at her, her eyes big with concern. "Have you been with your family?" she asks softly. "Are they...have you lost them?"
The girl opens her mouth as if to say something but no sound escapes her lips. She frowns, looks at Anna with an explanatory gesture at her throat and another vague gesture over the sea behind her.
"You cannot speak?" The girl nods then shakes her head.
So she is mute? But then, it had looked like she was trying to say something. Maybe her voice got lost by the shock of the events.
But be that as it may, Anna had found her, so it is on her, to bring her to a safe- and warm- place to begin with. Another responsibility loaded on her shoulders.
She forces herself to an encouraging smile. "Let's get you off this beach first," she says in a resolute tone and reaches out to help the girl get up. "Come with me. We'll see to everything else later, alright?"
Now, that went well enough, Mariel thinks a few hours later, secretly relieved. Her father was wrong. Humanity isn't so bad after all.
This woman who had found her, for example, hadn't been anything but friendly so far. She had invited her, a sheer stranger after all, to stay at her own home, and without a second thought.
And Mariel is glad about that. She had not thought as far as to where she was to stay, once she had reached her destination, nor what to live on until she would be reunited with her lover- who would of course provide for her from then on. But then, she hadn't really had time for profane thoughts like that.
Anna, her generous host, seems to be an overall nice and kindhearted person, although it is clear enough by the sad look in her big, dark eyes and a certain bitterness in her tone at times, that she is in the grip of some hidden grief. The house she lives in is far too big to be for her alone and yet her husband seems to be absent as of lately. She doesn't talk about him, but Mariel is sure he has to be the reason for her distress.
Nevertheless, Anna had offered her a heartily welcome, starting with a quick meal in her kitchen, and it had not been tuna sandwiches, but a huge bowl of porridge with lots of butter and honey in it, which in fact tasted a lot better than it looked.
Afterwards she had come up with the idea, that Mariel, if unable to speak, could just as well write her story down. Mariel had stared at the blank page and the quill in front of her and felt her face blush with embarassment. She could, of course, no more write than she could read. If she'd had any idea that she would ever be in a situation like this, she would have probably taken some effort to learn it, just like she had taught herself to play the foreign instrument. But unlike music, written words are not much appreciated in her father's kingdom, and books are hard to preserve under water.
So she had just shaken her head and heard Anna sigh and nod thoughtfully, before she had promised to discuss the matter with "the Major", who, as Mariel assumes, has to be something like their king here.
It had occured to her, that her involuntary muteness, although unaccustomed for someone who would usually talk quite a lot and sing along all the time, was indeed only part curse, for she wouldn't have been able to come up with reliable explanations concerning her whereabouts and the mysterious circumstandings of her discovery. And as it seems, it is much more important for those humans who you are and where you come from than it would have been in her world.
In my old world, Mariel corrects herself inwardly. I do not belong there any longer. This is my world now.
And it is way more complicated than she would have imagined. For example- clothing.
When she had finished her breakfast, Anna had first ordered a maid to fetch her a bath. Mariel had no idea why she would need one, since she had visibly just come out of the water, but a bath in the human world turned out to be an entirely different thing. She was asked to step into a tub full of hot, bubbling water, which made her skin all red and shrivelled and smell like some unknown flower. They even insisted to wash and comb out her hair, which took quite some effort and was rather painful. When left alone, Mariel spent delightful minutes in the tub just stretching and touching her new legs, which were ever so beautiful and covered with tiny golden hair, as were her armpits and the most exciting, new triangle between her thighs.
After that, Anna had laid out a gown for her to wear, a voluminous robe, long, white and lace-trimmed and surprisingly comfortable. Mariel had watched herself in the mirror, with a patronising smile at the memory of Paracelsus and his warnings of uncomfortable, tightly laced women's garderobe- he didn't know so much about those things after all- until she found out, that this was merely a nightshirt, not meant to be worn anywhere outside one's bed.
In which Anna had brought her then, claiming that she must be over- exhausted and need rest, while she herself had work to do and would look after her later.
Mariel had been about to protest- she wasn't tired and would much rather walk around the place ( there was so much to explore and she had still to get used to using those new legs of hers ) but Anna had, gently, yet resolutely, insisted. And once Mariel lies in the bed, covered in sheets and pillows of cloth, softer and more dry than anything she had ever wrapped herself in before, she realizes that she is very tired, in deed.
And after all, there is no need for haste.
She has a full month, more than enough time to enjoy every part of her new life to the fullest, until her task had to be fulfilled, something of which she has no doubts.
She snuggles herself up in her blankets and conjures up the picture of her beloved before her mind's eye. He wa s here, somewhere, and she would inevitably find him, and once he saw her, he would know at once...he would smile like he had smiled when she had sung to him, and take her in his strong arms and then he would lower his head to hers and their lips would touch and whatever devious plans that evil sea witch might have had would dissolve like foam on the crest of a wave...all would be well.
Even her father would have to admit his error and wish her well when he saw how happy she was...Mariel smiles contently and slowly drifts into the arms of sleeps.
When Anna wakes her again, the light of the day is already beginning to fade.
Now it turns out that the annoying Paracelsus had not been so wrong after all, for Anna had brought her new clothes and this time, comfort is visibly not their main purpose. Anna apologizes for not having a gown of the proper size- she is a good deal shorter and more- curvy than her guest, still Mariel finds the rather plain, light- brown linen gown incredibly stiff and suffocating.
When Anna and her maid lace the corsage, she is sure she is going to faint. How could women even breathe in clothes like that, let alone walk and- do things?
Sure, she knows, humans don't run around naked, but the dress is long enough to cover the full length of her pretty new legs- or would be, if she was smaller- and what is the use in covering her breasts, when that corsage pushes them up so that they threaten to pop out of it at every hasty movement?
Mariel feels more exposed in that dress than she would have without it, and then Anna even insists on shoes, when she is hardly able to use her feet as of yet.
To-literally- cap it all, her hair is then combed again and curled and pinned up upon her head with needles, only to hide the result of all the effort under a cap afterwards.
The whole procedure of dressing and combing takes at least a full hour and it occurs to a horrified Mariel, that it would be like this every day now and for the rest of her days.
Warily, she peers at herself in the huge bedroom mirror and declares the effect definitely not worth the strain. But if that's what humanity is about, she would, for better or worse, have to learn to endure it.
For now, she reassures herself. I'm sure my lover will like me just as much in a nightshirt and with my hair down.
Then it is time to eat again, a dinner of bread, cheese, smoked ham and wine is served in the parlor, and Mariel, who is afraid to make the tight corset burst and stab herself with one of the stays in the process ( and furthermore doesn't trust herself with the cutlery ) settles for some tiny bread crusts and the wine. It is generously mixed with water and not at all the strong drink she had tasted in Madame Medusa's parlor, but after two glasses, she feels like she can at least breathe a little easier.
Anna watches her strange guest, who had just emptied her second glass of wine, with a curious little frown. She can't seem to figure her out, practically everything about her is contradictory.
When she had first found her, she had hardly been able to walk, staggering about shaky-legged like a new born fawn, and yet her movements have a certain touch of floating, sylphlike elegance, almost like a dancer's.
And even if she had lost her memories along with her speech at the shock of the events, could she possibly have forgotten, what shoes were? Or cutlery? For surely she had looked at it like she had never seen such a thing before. Which would confirm the assumption, that she was some poor fisherman's daughter- after all, she couldn't even write, but then she is clearly not used to get dressed on her own either.
And when Anna looks at her teint and hands, which are as white and soft as a lady's who never goes anywhere without her sunshade or her gloves...it is obvious, she has never seen a day of hard work in all her life.
Her guest is grateful and friendly enough, judging by her shy smiles and gestures, although overall in a way of someone who is used to being served.
Anna shakes her head and turns back to her plate. It is no use to speculate. She has to find a way to find out...well, Major Hewlett had not been of much help so far, she thinks with a bitter smile.
In fact, he had not even seen her. He was busy, a dismissive Judge Woodhull had told her icily, when she had taken the time- time she didn't have to waste by the way- to appear in person at Whitehall, before he had resolutely shut the door in her face.
Anna had tried hard to apologize his rude behaviour towards her with understandable concern about the whereabouts of his son- she is worried about Abe, too, after all- but the look on his face had told her clearly, that he blamed no one but her for Abe's disappearance- as he did for practically everything.
Anna frowns and resolutely wipes away the thought of the stubborn old snob. There is nothing she can do about the matter right now.
First things first, she thinks.
She has to go back to the tavern, which she had left to two potboys, of which one is only eleven and not supposed to spend the whole night there.
When she tells her guest, she has to go back to work, the girl rises and makes clear with meaningful gestures that she wishes to accompany her. To help her.
Anna hesitates. She could use help, she would be alone, once she had sent Cicero home to his mother and one of the kitchen servants had fallen ill in the morning, to make matters worse. If only Selah was here...
She sighs and looks over her guest with a suspicious look. "Have you ever worked in a tavern before?" she asks. The girl hesitates, then she eagerly nods her head, albeit in a way which indicates she doesn't even know what a tavern is.
But what can Anna do? She can't just lock her up inside the house. After all, she is no child, however in a state, in which she wouldn't have liked to let her roam the streets of Setauket without company. No, it is better to take her with her, where she could have an eye on her. And with some luck, she wouldn't prove so useless after all. Anna forces herself to a smile and nods at last.
The two women draw some some conspicious looks as they walk through the town. Anna presses her lips to a thin line and exchanges brief, frosty greetings with Setauket's inhabitants. As the wife of a sentenced traitor, she would have to get used to looks like this.
The girl however, doesn't seem to mind the curious looks, she is too busy watching everything around her with barely hidden fascination, as if she had never seen anything so interesting as a dull fishing village before, and especially, as Anna notices, the patrolling redcoats, almost as if she was searching for someone she knows. Could her father be one of the soldiers, by any chance? Or, else, her husband? She is old enough to be married, after all. Anna tells herself once more, that she would have to try and talk to Major Hewlett again the next day.
This night, however, a great pile of work awaits her.
At this hour, the tavern is crowded with the usual evening guests and british soldiers off duty . The air is thick with the smell of ale and tobacco, the woodsmoke from the fireplace and the vapors of food coming from the kitchen.
Anna sighs and settles to work.
"Cicero!" she calls out to one of the potboys, a small, skinny black boy in a waiter's apron. "Everything alright? I'm sorry I had to leave you alone so long. You can run home to your mother now."
The boy smiles at her and shows a mouthful of bright, white teeth. "No problem, Mrs Strong. All quiet so far. No fights. But-"
He darts a hesitant glance at her company and bends forwards to mumble into her ear. "Captain Joyce is here. Over there in the officer's mess. Just so you know..."
Anna nods grimly. "It's alright. Thanks for telling me." She pats his shoulder with a smile. "Now off you go! Your mother is waiting for you with dinner."
The boy grins, gives Mariel a shy smile and hurries to do as he was told.
Mariel, for her part, is utterly amazed. Not only had she never seen a human like him before- he must have spent quite some time in the sun, as Paracelsus would say- she is also startled by the fact, that such a young boy already had a job. She had heard about that strange human obsession for work and money, but never imagined they even let their children work.
Anna leads her through the large parlor of the tavern, which is obviously nothing else but a place, where people meet to eat and drink together, and shows her the barrels of ale, and how to tap it.
"It's mostly ale for the steady customers," she explains, gesturing at the crowd of local farmers and fishermen at the wooden tables. She points at a set of bottles behind the counter. "This is the harder stuff. More expensive, too. Gin, Brandy, Madeira, although the latter is reserved for the officers. Not quite the price range of a hard working local." she adds with a sour smile.
Mariel looks at the shimmering, red liquid in the bottles behind her. It's called Madeira, the sea witch's voice echoes in her head. No wonder it is upper price range. She had liked it too.
"They'll call for you, when they want a drink, don't worry," Anna says, while she ties an apron around Mariel's waist. "Fetching ales, clearing and wiping the tables, that's practically all this is about. Oh, and make sure they pay straightaway. No credit in my tavern," she grits her teeth. "Except for the lobsters, of course."
Mariel looks surprised at that. What had lobsters to do with this ?
Anna flushes. "The- redcoats I mean. Officers hardly ever pay. Can't help it. I don't like it, but I meant, of course, no disrespect." Be careful, she reminds herself inwardly. You don't know who she really is.
But Mariel, once she had understood the pun, seems rather amused. Anna smiles back at her. "Very well, then. I shall go have a look at the kitchen." She cocks her head in the direction of an old man on a bench with a floppy hat on his gaunt head, who holds his empty jug up towards her. "I think, Mr Brewster there wants a fresh ale. I'll be right back." She pats Mariel's shoulder and vanishes towards the kitchen in the back.
The job is easy enough, once she gets into it, but Mariel can't help but wonder what her father, the mighty king, would think if he could see his daughter run around and fetch drinks for these humans like the lowest servant. She suppresses a sad smile. He would of course be beside himself with rage. But that is no longer a concern of hers. And after all, she is doing this for a higher purpose.
She lets her eyes wander carefully about the dim parlor, but can't find the one, she' s looking for. He doesn't seem to be here. Mariel suppresses a tinge of disappointment. I'm doing this for Anna as well, she reminds herself. Least I can do after all she's done for me...
When Anna returns, she had fetched at least ten jugs of ale, holding the palm of her hand out firmly after each one, and no one had tried and refused to pay. She hands the money over to Anna and the two women exchange a brief smile. "Thanks for your help,"Anna says in a friendly tone. "Fetch yourself one, if you're thirsty..."
"Mrs Strong !" a loud, querolous voice interrupts her from the back parlor. "Where are our drinks? And I don't mean the horse piss you serve here..."
Anna straightens herself and presses her lips to a thin line. Mariel follows her hostile gaze towards the officer's mess in the back of the room.
A bulky figure of a man, dressed in British scarlet, his face almost as red as his uniform jacket, returns her look with an expectant wave with his empty bottle.
"More madeira !" he yells. "Tonight, if you please !"
Anna's face has gone white. Two angry, red spots are glowing on her cheeks. "Captain Joyce." she mutters angrily under her breath. "And apparently fully recovered..."
She reaches for a bottle of madeira, but her hands are shaking so, that she almost drops it.
Mariel quickly reaches out, grabs the bottle and offers to deliver it for her. Anna exhales sharply and darts her a grateful look, but Mariel hardly notices it, as she starts walking towards the officer's mess like in a trance.
The man, who sits across Captain Joyce, had briefly turned his head towards them, and her heart missed a beat and the breath caught in her throat.
It is him. The man she had saved from drowning. The one she is here for. The man she loves. She had found him at last.
Mariel moves closer, her eyes fixated on his profile in the dim light of the candle before him. Compared to the man from the picture in her memory, he surely looks different.
All of his body, from his knee-high boots up to the starch linen collar of his shirt is neatly covered in shiny cloth and leather, black, white, crimson. Even his hands are in gloves.
His beautiful hair is completely tucked up under a white wig and without it, his face looks very pale and oddly naked; with lashes and eyebrows barely visible, the only colour seems to come from his eyes, which are of the same deep blue she remembers, albeit hard and cold as ice crystals.
Look at me, Mariel implores him wordlessly and in deed, as if he had heard her, he turns his head in her direction, his lips still pinched from the unpleasant conversation with his superior before.
Their eyes lock.
And then, the lifeless statue of a man in front of her suddenly seems to melt like ice in the sun. A tentative blush begins to creep up his cheekbones. His eyes widen and take on a warm glow, he opens his mouth, as if to say something, but there comes no sound. The gloved fingers around his wine glass quiver.
Mariel feels her lips curl into a smile. Much better. This is almost the man she remembers. Her heart is pounding against her chest like a trapped bird.
"What' ya waiting for ??" the fat drunkard across her beloved bellows and glares at her from tiny, puffy eyes. His bloated, red face glistens with sweat. He slams his empty glass on the wooden table. "Pour the wine or leave the damn bottle, for God's sake!"
Mariel flinches slightly at this rude tone. She uncorks the bottle and starts to refill his glass, her eyes still locked with the ones of her beloved, as they are drinking each other's sight in like they, too, were dying of thirst.
"Bloody hell !" Captain Joyce bursts out with rage, jumps off his seat and cruelly tears her out of her rapturous trance. "This is the second ruined uniform in one week! Do only imbeciles work at this goddamn shithole?"
Mariel looks at him and notices to her horror, that she had not only poured his glass brimfull but also spilled a good deal of the liquid on his uniform jacket and the white shirt beneath.
Her beloved shakes his head slightly at the rant of his Captain, like waking from a dream. His face turns back into the blank, arrogant mask from before, one of the corners of his mouth raised into a tiny,sarcastic smile.
"What a mess," he states gleefully and Mariel freezes at the sound of his cool, high-pitched voice.
She quickly grabs a towel and offers it to the Captain with an apologetic little smile. "Ha!" Captain Joyce trumpets through his bright- red bulbous nose. "That won't do, will it? You owe me the costs of a new uniform, girl, if only the tiniest spot remains!"
"My apologies, Captain!" Anna had rushed to her side, her face forced into a smile. "I'm going to wash your uniform straight away. It will be as good as new tomorrow, my word on it." She glances over the half empty bottle. "And I'll bring you a new bottle, on the house, of course."
Captain Joyce snorts, only half mollified. "Least you can do," he mutters sulkily. "A pettier man might take offence in getting attacked twice in a row in this house. Are you doing this on purpose or are your employes all halfwits?"
Anna's smile grows even more strained."Of course not," she squeezes out between clenched teeth. "And I'm really sorry, but you must know, this lady here is not one of my servants. She's a poor castaway, I only found her this morning at the beach, washed ashore with nothing left but her life. Just think what she must have been through..."
Mariel nods and does her best to look the worse for wear.
Her beloved curls his lips into a tiny smile. "Aphrodite, risen from the foam of the sea," he says thoughtfully.
"Castaway?" Joyce raises his eyebrows in surprise, before he looks at his lieutenant. "Ha ! Just like you, eh Simcoe? Seems you're not the only dork who managed to go overboard in the storm yesterday!" He bursts out into a derisive laughter, his good mood obviously restored.
The addressed man freezes at the taunt. His smile vanishes and his face turns blank again. "So it seems," he replies woodenly.
"Well, that's unfortunate," Joyce goes on, suddenly compassionate, or pretending to be. "Where you from, then? New York?"
"We don't know yet," Anna says quickly."She seems to have lost her memory. And she cannot speak."
"Oh. She's mute, then?" her beloved, whom Joyce had called "Simcoe" asks. He looks back at Mariel, but without expression, his interest in her suddenly defunct.
Mariel feels her heart sink in despair. What's wrong with you ? she thinks frantically. I may be mute but you are blind! How can you look at me and not know me ?
"Tssk tssk" Captain Joyce clicks his tongue in fake sympathy. "Poor girl," he says and looks her over, taxing her skinny figure beneath the simple, too short and too wide gown. "Not exactly Aphrodite I'd say, eh lieutenant?"
The addressed man raises one of his pale eyebrows and shrugs, before he brings the glass to his lips and takes a sip. "In deed not" he confirms languidly.
Mariel gapes at him, stunned with shock and fury.
To prevent herself from slamming the madeira bottle in his stupid, arrogant face, she turns on her heels and stomps back towards the counter.
She doesn't see any more how he presses his lips together in a vaguely shameful way.
Blind and deaf for the sound of chatting and laughter in the tavern parlor around her, she grabs the counter for balance and lets out a mirthless, incredulous snort. The blood is pounding in her ears, as the full understanding starts to sink in. She shakes her head, unable to believe, that this should be the same man she had covered with her own body in her grotto. It couldn't be. This cool, haughty, pale-faced cartoon of a gentleman is a complete stranger, and moreover, a stranger whose aquaintance she by no means wishes to deepen.
Paracelsus had been right. She doesn't know him at all. She could just as well have married Aquitanus, who is at least a prince.
Suddenly Anna is at her side again, patting her arm in a compassionate gesture. "Dear Lord...officers... "she spits out in disgust. "That Joyce is a monster and the other one...ugh..." She shudders.
She opens the half empty bottle of madeira and pours Mariel a glass. "Drink," she commands resolutely. "And don't take it to heart. No damage has been done, don't worry."
She watches Mariel empty her glass and gives her a reassuring smile. "Don't worry," she repeats in a soothing voice. "Not all the people in Setauket are as vile as these two, you'll see. I'm really sorry you'd have to meet the worst ones first."
Mariel feels a bubble of hysteric laughter rise up in her throat. Anna can of course not know that, but her words, doubtlessly meant to console her, have quite the opposite effect. Mariel can't imagine to fulfil her task any more, nor does she want it. She could just as well accept her fate and go back to the lair of the sea witch rightaway. She suppresses a violent sob.
Nothing would be good. She had been so stupid. And now, she is doomed.
Chapter 5: Dark Intrigues
Simcoe reflects on his future domain as well as on his unforgivably rude behaviour towards Mariel.
Madame Medusa decides not to take risks and raise the stakes.
Warnings for this chapter: Minor character death and graphic desprictions of violence.
Madame Medusa lounges on her throne of piled-up pillows.
One of her hands strokes the magic marble in her lap and the other, absently the head of her loyal servant, who crouches next to her with his eyes closed, enraptured by the rare caress.
His mistress is in a good mood tonight, she had an opulent dinner of lobster bisquits, fried sea rays' wings and candied nautiluses for dessert, and is now enjoying the evening programme on her looking glass, which is pretty much "Boy meets girl- how to mess up everything on the first date".
Madame Medusa smiles gleefully at the sight of the silly, little- and now visibly devastated- princess and her, not much happier looking Prince Uncharming. She gives a derisive, little giggle. Oh well. One swallow doesn't make a summer and two dorks not necessarily a perfect match.
Lizardo, eager to preserve her cheerfulness, joins in with his hissing laughter. When his mistress was content, she would forget for a while that he is the actuator of all her misery and how much she hates him and not treat him like the lowest servant- which he is- but like a good, devoted pet and her only friend in the world- which he also is.
"Humansss" he hisses snidely. "Ssso ssstupid," before he remembers, that he is, or had once been, one of them.
"In deed," his mistress agrees, but then she frowns and her hand on his head stops mid-caress. "But still," she adds , biting her lower lip. "It was a close call. If that old drunkard hadn't interfered-"
Lizardo feels her good mood slip away and with it, any chance on possible carnal pleasures in the near future. He darts her a cautious, quizzical glance. "Did you not notice how he looked at her?" she asks. "Like a lovesick mooncalf. Aphrodite, pffff...he's more desperate than I thought. No, that won't work. Too high a risk. If I leave it to them, he will sooner or later throw himself at her, mute or not-" Thoughtfully, she scratches the greasy nest of serpents on her skull.
"But...but you can't...I mean," Lizardo thinks frantically on the least offending way to put it. "You mussst not interfere, right ? Even the evil hasss itsss law, isss that not true?"
His mistress darts him an indignant glance from her tiny black eyes. "Are you trying to lecture me in my own area of expertise, now ?" she asks in a dangerous, low undertone.
Lizardo flinches. "Of courssse not," he squeals and ducks his head, awaiting a blow. But Madame Medusa smiles again, if rather deviously.
"Fear not, my little Lizardo," she purrs and resumes the caress of his head. "I won't do anything. I can't, you're quite right about that. Whereas- you-"
Lizardo freezes and peers up to her, an anxious flicker in his green lizard eyes. "Me ?" he croaks. Madame Medusa's grin widens. "I'll send you on a secret mission," she whispers. "It seems to me, our brave lieutenant Simcoe could need some...distraction. Something that will occupy his mind...a mysterious murder case could do the trick, I think...and a shifting of his attention to a more...suitable object of passion, yes that's it."
She nods her multiple chins and her eyes shine with delight at her own wicked genius. She pulls her servant close by his hair to whisper her plans into his ear.
"Understood everything? " Lizardo nods hesitantly. "Then off with you!" He stares at her, his pout half open. "...now ?"
The sea witch snorts. "No, next month. Of course, now. As long as it's still dark." She grins maliciously. "A dark night breeds dark thoughts or so they say-"
She looks back at her servant, a threatening glow in her eyes. "What? Did you have other plans ?"
"Well I..." Lizardo's eyes flicker to his corner in the parlor. "In fact, yesss- I wasss going to play with my collection of shellsss..." The brows of the sea witch furrow to an angry line. She extents one of her tentacles and smashes it right into his toys with a resolute, indignant slam. Lizardo gives a howl of dismay when he sees his beautiful gatherings broken and scattered all over the floor.
"So much for that," Madame Medusa sneers. "May they rest in pieces. Now,now, stop crying" her voice grows soft as silk again and she resumes the caress of his head once more. "As I said, this is a very important task," she coaxes. "I would trust no one but you with it. "
Lizardo looks up to her, his lips curled into a cautious smile. "No one but me?" he repeats.
"In deed." The sea witch doesn't bother to point out, that no one but him is available. "And if you succeed-" she brings one of her tentacles to the bulge in the front of his pants and gives it a promising stroke. "I shall be very grateful." Lizardo closes his eyes and whimpers in delight.
The sea witch looks down on him, her smile turning into a doubtful little frown. "I'm araid, all my powers can't make you handsome again, " she mumbles thoughtfully. "But I should at least try to give you a somewhat more... convenient appearance." She reaches out and lets her hands run up and down his frame and murmurs incantations. Lizardo's body twitches and distorts, then is reassembled again. Madame Medusa raises an eyebrow and sighs at the result.
"Well...best I can manage. Must do. Try to stay in the shadows whenever possible...and now, hurry up. You've got work to do tonight." She gives him a last goodbye- slap with one of her tentacles.
"Make mama proud."
The next morning in Setauket brings lovely early summer weather, a glow of warm, golden sunlight on the riping corn in the fields, the cheerfull twitter of birds in the trees of the forest and beneath them- the gruesome find of a dead Captain Joyce, one side of his head smashed into a bloody, pulpy mass.
And, as a consequence thereof, a few hours later, a freshly promoted Captain Simcoe, charged with the hunt of his precedessor's killer.
One would assume that he must be content with the course of events so far. A promotion in only a day's time is more than unexpected- although, of course, well deserved. And now he has to find a killer, which is actually an interesting task, especially for a natural-born hound dog like him.
However, the expression on his pale face, when he exites Major Hewlett's office, is not that of a happy man.
First of all, the place where he's stationed, has so far proven every bit as wretched as he had expected.
The military quarters are beneath contempt, starting with the former church which now serves both as Hewlett's office and stables for his several horses, through to the less than clever placed defence installations, and the maximum acts of war which are to be expected here are tavern fights and crushing smuggler's nests-
But no, now they do have a murder case.
Not that he would shed a single tear over the lately deceased Captain Joyce. From all he knows, the man was a displeasing enough fellow, a drunkard and a windbag, not worth the uniform he wore. No wonder, he made a lot of enemies.
Truth be told, he wouldn't have minded to kill him himself, after he made him look silly yesterday night at that tavern- and in front of ladies- to make things worse. As if he was stupid enough to go overboard during a storm like a landlubber-
Joyce couldn't have known this, but his taunts cut even deeper as the incident brought back his worst childhood trauma- the death of his little brother Percy, drowned in the river of his hometown at the age of only four.
After that horrible tragedy, his mother, who had already buried three children and furthermore, had to suffer the loss of her husband only a year ago, had strictly and overanxiously forbidden her only remaining child to go anywhere near the water, and thus, he had never learnt to swim and lives with the constant fear of drowning, since he had first set foot on a ship.
And finally, the whole thing had not been an accident or negligence on his part, but attempted murder, and he had of course told his superior this, demanding immediate punishment of the culprits.
But Major Hewlett hesitated to take action. He seems to be a hesistant man overall. More a pale theorethician than a soldier, unwilling to get his hands dirty. Eager to avoid trouble. A man he has come to despise right from the start.
Hewlett told him rather dismissively, that he could of course try to bring the matter to court martial, but had no big chance of success since there were no witnesses, and it would be the words of three men against one's. The word of an officer, after all but apparently that is not enough.
Which means, he himself has to deal with the matter one way or another. Could he somehow manage to pin the blame for Joyce's murder on Easton, Appleton and McMurray? They weren't so clever after all- shouldn't be hard to fake evidence for their account-
But there are other possible suspects to consider as well. Joyce had been a rampant drinker and gambler and was indebted to several of the lower ranks.
And just recently, before his arrival, there had been this fight at the tavern, which had resulted in the arrest of two alleged supporters of the patriot cause- one of them, the husband of the tavern keeper, who is now prisoner on the Jersey, and the other, a local cabbage farmer named Woodhull, who had just reappeared this morning after a mysterious, three days' absence-
Woodhull claimed, he had tried to smuggle cabbage and been captured and robbed by rebels. A story, he has not bought for a second, but Major Hewlett wasn't hard to convince- most likely because the guy is the son of his buddy, the town's magistrate-
He frowns. He has been here for a mere day and it's already hate at first sight with three men- let alone the three who had tried to kill him before...
Well, one of them is dead now. The cabbage farmer, however, remains the lead suspect on his current list of Captain Joyce's potential murderers.
Of course, Mrs Strong has also reason to hold a grudge against the Captain. Judge Woodhull, for his part, seems to be convinced of it. Even the mysterious, mute servant girl has a motive, considering the derogatory way in which Joyce had treated her... but they are only women, certainly not able to commit such a violent act of murder as smashing a man's head in with a club or a heavy stone. No, impossible.
His thoughts wander back to yesterday's night at the tavern, to the mute blonde girl with those big bright eyes.The thought of her is uncomfortable, a touch of longing mixed with a painful twinge of guilt. He cannot say what he thought he had seen in her for a moment. She seemed so -familiar, but how could that be? He has never seen her before. Perhaps it is just the coincidence, that they share the same fate, both of them castaways, washed on these shores at the very same day, which had created some kind of strange, supernatural connection-
Not that he would believe in those things.
What is beyond debate though, is that he has been unforgivably rude to her and he has no other apology for this but his own hurt pride, which made him forget his gentleman's manners and take out his anger on her, a completely innocent stranger.
A poor girl, who has gone through a lot already.
What must she think of him now? She must loathe him, no doubt of it. And first impressions count.
The more he thinks of it, the more he loathes himself. Captain Joyce be damned, he thinks gloomily. Lucky for him, he's already dead.
I will apologize to her, he tells himself firmly. Today. Or even better- find a way to make amends. Shouldn't be so hard. After all, he's a Captain now, and she is no one and has nothing. He could be her protector from now on.
His spirits lift at the thought of his future charity work and her inevitable, endlessly grateful reaction.
Yes, he would prove to her, that first impressions could be reversed.
My mistress can be proud of me, Lizardo thinks contently. Killing this fat drunkard of an officer had been child's play.
He had waited patiently in the dark near the deserted tavern stables, until the old tippler had come out and then followed him unseen. Fortunately, Joyce had not been heading straight to the garrison, but towards the nightly woods, presumably for a secret rendezvous.
The captain was completely wasted and it had been a matter of seconds to attack him from behind and knock him upside the head, before he even had the time to do so much as pull his sword.
Lizardo had not stopped to smash his head in, not even when it had been clear that the man on the ground was obviously long dead, but continued until the left side of his head was nothing but a bloody, pulpy mass.
It had felt so good, so -satisfactory not to be the victim for once.
And once he would have completed his second task- a really easy one in fact- he could return to his mistress and receive the promised reward.
Lizardo might have once been a human with plenty of desires, but now he has but one: to please his mistress.
And when the next full moon rises, and the stupid little princess would have to face the consequences of her failure, he would no longer be the lowest servant in Madame Medusa's lair. He, too, would be a master then. She could take out all her anger and sour moods on her new scapegoat then, while he would sit by her side- not to her feet, but next to her as it should be- the equivalent and esteemed partner he had always wanted to be.
But first, he has to make his way inside that tavern.
Lizardo crouches behind the stables and chews on his lower lip, thinking. Madame Medusa had not told him to stay in the shadows for no reason, but that isn't so easy in the middle of a busy village, and on a bright and sunny day as this.
He doesn't need a mirror to imagine what he must look like, the furtive glances of passers- by tell him clearly enough that he is by no means a beautiful sight to behold.
Inside a tavern, however, it is always dim. He could just sit in a far corner and drink his ale, until the man would show up.
But even then- a lone stranger might still arouse suspicion amongst the steady customers. He has fake papers that identify him as Master Lizardo, pedlar of buttons and haberdashery, should he be forced to prove his identity, but anyone who took a closer look would notice, that something about him wasn't quite right-
A waiter, however, a mere servant is practically invisible. No one, and particularly not the habitual drinkers would pay much notice to the face belonging to the hand that served their ale. And fortunately, as his observations have confirmed, the tavern is currently understaffed.
Lizardo pulls the brim of his hat deeper into his face and lurks towards the tavern door. The lady of the house is busy fetching ales at the counter of the bar when he approaches her carefully. As luck has it, her house guest as of lately, is nowhere to be seen- probably still licking her wounds.
Lizardo puts on a winning smile- or so he hopes. "Mrsss Ssstrong," he hisses, silently cursing the inevitable lisping sound of his split tongue, which even Madame Medusa's strongest spells could not completely erase.
She starts at the sound of his voice, but looks up to him without flinching. "Can I help you, sir?" she asks tersely, before she turns her attention back to her ale.
His pout grin widens. "I hope, you can," he says smoothly, digs into his coat's pockets and presents her his papers. "Massster Lizzzardo at your ssservice, Madam," Anna darts a brief glance at it then back at him with a questioning frown. "Thanks, but I don't need anything at the moment, Master...Lizardo ?" " It's Ssspanisssh," he clarifies. "And in fact, I don't want to sssell you anything, I can't-" Lizardo puts on a miserable tone. "I've been robbed by banditsss on my way here," he explains. "They ssstole all my goodsss..."
Anna raises a brow and takes a closer look at his sickly grey face and the disturbing, yellowish gleaming, slitted eyes. She suppresses a shudder.
"You'd better talk with the Major then," she suggests. "You should find him in the garrison or up at Whitehall."
Lizardo fidgets and waves his ugly head in unease. "I don't wisssh to bother the officersss with my misssfortune," he says and then, remembering that she is the wife of an alleged rebel's sympathiser, he adds in a conspiratorial whisper. "In truthhh, furthhher experienccce with hisss Majesssty'sss army have tought me that I wouldn't have much help to exxxpect from them eithhher, if you understand...no...I wasss merely hoping for an employment at your tavern...board and lodge, no more, my talentsss are many and my needsss are few..."
Anna darts him a suspicious gaze. "I don't want trouble in my tavern," she says firmly. Not more than I already have. "If you are on bad terms with the King's law..."
"No,no, nothhhing like thhhat," he hastens to assure her. "I'm a good, hard working cccitizzzen, and I don't want trouble eithhher. Jussst a placcce to ssstay for a few weeksss-"
Anna bites her lip, thinking. It is clear, she is about to decline. Good heart or not, her hospitality has already cost her a bottle of her finest madeira and that strange new applicant for a waiter's job doesn't exactly look like a jackpot either. And if he too, tended to start fights with the officers-God forbid...
But then, she really does need someone else here. She can't impose all the work on little Cicero and the other waiter came down with a fever which means he would be absent for another week at the least, and she herself needs time for another petition at Whitehall. Let alone that she has to look after her guest- the girl had refused to even leave her bed this morning and Anna is quite concerned, yet also more than a little irritable; the incident at the tavern yesterday night had been unpleasant, to be sure- but the girl acts as if it was the end of the world. Anna is more and more convinced, that she has to be some oversensible, delicate little city girl.
"Very well," she sighs at last."I'll give it a try. Board and lodge, as you say. And there's an empty, small chamber upstairs, in case you don't expect much comfort..."
The ugly toad of a man in front of her bears his sharp little teeth into an unsettling smile. "Oh I don't, I don't" he assures her quickly. "Thhhankyou very much, Mrsss Ssstrong. You won't be disssappointed, that I guarantee..."
Anna is anything but convinced about that. "Gratuity is of course yours to keep," she says with a forced smile, unable to imagine he would get any. "I take it, you know what you have to do?"
And that Lizardo does. He has been a servant for many years after all.
Madame Medusa watches her loyal lapdog hurrying through the tavern parlor and fetching ale for Setauket's evening customers. Clever little Lizardo, she thinks with a touch of pride of ownership. Nobody gives him a second look, just as he had hoped.
She leans closer so that her excited breath clouds the shining glass of the marble, when she sees the tall, rigid shape of a certain freshly promoted Captain enter the tavern door. He shoots a quick, observing glance around the parlor, before he walks determinedly towards the officers mess and seats himself at the very table he had been sitting with Captain Joyce yesterday, God rest his soul.
Lizardo hurries to serve him his favourite drink and Simcoe grabs him by the sleeve and asks him something, she can't hear- presumably, where his sweetheart is.
Tough luck! Madame Medusa murmurs to herself with a gleeful giggle. You've had your chance- and you've blown it. Life is bitter. Live with it. But then, poor Captain Simcoe wouldn't have to be heartbroken much longer, would he?
She watches Lizardo secretly emptying the liquid content of a tiny vial into his wine glass- a love potion she had created herself and which had never failed its effect before- before he serves it to his customer.
"No, a lady anssswering to that dessscription isss not here," she hears the familiar hissing voice. "I sssuggessst, you asssk Mrsss Ssstrong about it bessst."
The Captain nods, his expression torn between disappointment and relief. He had likely planned to apologize for his rude manners- and even more likely- this isn't something he does alot- or loves to do. She watches her servant leading a reluctant Mrs Strong to the officer's mess and applauds him from her seat in the audience as if he were a trained monkey who had just managed to perform a complicated trick.
Captain Simcoe lifts the glass and takes a sip, his forefinger tapping nervously against the glass.
The tavern owner approaches him and stands before his table now, her arms defiantly crossed over her apron. He looks up to her and his blue eyes widen and for a split second take on an unnatural, poisonous green glow.
"Mrs Strong," he murmurs stupefied, as if he just saw her for the very first time, his voice an exstatic whisper. " Anna -"
The addressed woman frowns. "You wanted to speak with me, sir?" she asks in a tone that implies because I sure have other things to do. And when he doesn't reply but keeps staring at her like a moonstruck fool, she adds impatiently, "What's the matter ?"
But he has forgotten about it.
Chapter 6: Private Lessons
Mariel learns how to read and write and more about the man she has given up her life under the sea for in the process...
Anna Strong does laundry in the courtyard of her house.
She crouches over a basin filled with hot, bubbling water and swings a wooden club at a British uniform jacket, as if she could beat up the man in it.
Her house guest, the mute and still nameless girl, has finally deigned to get out of her bed and help her. She puts the washing on the line to dry, albeit rather absently, a mournful expression on her pale face.
"Mrs Strong." Anna looks up and the corners of her mouth drop downcast. It is Simcoe again, towering in front of her, all bright and shiny in scarlet, his lips twitched into one of his disturbing half-smiles. He holds his tricorne in his hand and his long, pale forefinger beats a nervous drumroll against the brim.
At his sight the mute girl ostentatiously drops her gaze and studies the wet linen in the laundry basket. Anna finds herself wishing she could just do the same.
"Lieutenant," she says woodenly. His smile widens."Captain," he corrects her quickly. As if she cared for ranks. She has a feeling, he waits for her to applaud him for his promotion. He is acting strange as of lately, to be sure. Whenever he sees her on the street now, he's suddenly all smiles and 'Let me carry this for you' etc.
Anna is concerned. His former arrogant and rather condescending manner had been irritating enough as it was, but it had not made her half as uneasy as this sudden, mysterious palsy-walsy behaviour. Whatever could he want now?
"Congratulations," she replies flatly and he beams at her. "Thankyou." He watches her laundry with an ironic little raising of his pale eyebrow. "Is that Captain Joyce's uniform you're washing?" he asks. "There's no need for that any longer, I should say."
Anna frowns. "Whatever do you mean- ?" He watches her attentively. "He's dead, didn't you know? Murdered. In the night after he left your tavern."
Anna freezes, and so does the girl and promptly drops a white apron she was just about to put on the line. They both look up at him in shock.
Anna is the first to regain her composure. "Well," she says slowly. "I-I didn't know that. Do they-do they already know, who did it ?"
"Not yet," Captain Simcoe replies airily. "But I'm in charge with the case." 'And thus, it will be solved soon enough.' his smug tone implies.
Anna thinks fast. Is he suspecting her ? Is that the reason he has practically been stalking her all day? It is not hard for her to imagine what Judge Woodhull must have said to the matter. Likely blamed everything on her, in order to protect his son. Abe was back since yesterday and he had not yet tried to talk to her- would he really go so far as to kill a British officer? She can't quite believe him capable of that-
She presses her lips to a thin line. As if she didn't have enough problems already. Firmly, she grabs the clothes basket. "You'll find the culprit, I'm sure of it," she forces herself to a brief smile. "If you'll excuse me now, I have to go back inside." She gestures at the girl to follow her, turns around and makes her way towards the house.
"Wait!" Simcoe's voice commands in her back. He walks after her, takes her by the arm and lowers his head to her, his pale face close to hers, way too close for Anna's liking. The touch of his hand on her arm is warm, yet it makes her shiver with fear and unease. "This is my house now, too." he announces. "I've already chosen my room."
He leans even closer and it takes all the strength Anna has not to flinch and run. "I know, how you must feel, yes I know that quite well" he says softly. "All alone in this house, with your husband gone. You need someone to protect you-both of you, actually." he adds with a brief sideglance at the mute girl, as if he had noticed her presence only now.
He lets go of Anna's arm and she releases her breath. "Have you already been able to find out who she is?" he asks. "No," Anna replies, relieved about a shifting of the conversation to less dangerous waters. "She can neither speak nor write- so I see no other way than to wait until she remembers by herself-and I have yet to ask Major Hewlet for advice about the matter."
Simcoe scowls at the reference to his disliked superior. "I would teach her myself, but as you can imagine, I'm quite short of time as of lately," Anna adds. The Captain darts a brief glance at the mute girl, than back to Anna, his pale eyes flashing in a sudden moment of enlightenment. "Well, I could do it," he offers airily. "Teach her, I mean."
Anna gives him a suspicious look. "Aren't you busy enough with the murder case?" she asks flippantly.
He shrugs. "Oh, certainly. But even I have some spare time now and then. An hour or two a day could be arranged. And if it means, I could do you a favour-not behind closed doors, of course," he adds quickly to forestall potential doubts about his motives. "In your garden perhaps? Let's say, this afternoon, at four? I don't expect dinner before six, so it should be enough time-"
Anna suppresses an incredulous snort. So he expected dinner, too, after he had practically occupied her house, yes? But then, any distraction from her- or Abe- in connection with Captain Joyce's death would definitely be a good thing- she is still anything but convinced about the apparent innocuousness of his suggestion but she could brief Abigail to always have an eye on them, just to make sure-
Anna sighs. "That's very generous of you, Captain" she starts and he smiles contently, evidently not aware of the sarcastic undertone in her voice. "But it's not my decision to make." She turns to her guest and the Captain follows her gaze. The mute girl looks at them, then shrugs her slender shoulders as if it was all the same to her which Simcoe in his newly acquired unshakable optimism takes for approval.
"Good," he says with a cheerful smile and a quick little bow at the two women. "See you at four, then. Good day!"
And so it happens, that every afternoon at four, Mariel and Captain Simcoe come to sit, in a civilized manner across from each other at a table in Anna's garden behind the house, cautiously guarded by Abigail, between them a tray with sweets and tea, a pile of books and a small slate with chalk pens- his present to her, so she can write down everything she learns.
Beyond hopes or expectations concerning potential romantic intentions of her recently selected teacher towards herself, Mariel finds - and with a touch of defiant fatalism- that if she were to suffer a doubtlessly gruesome fate in only four weeks time, she could just as well learn how to read and write first.
He doesn't do this for her, that much is clear, but to endear himself to Anna- and why wouldn't he, Mariel thinks gloomily, she is beautiful and clever, let alone able to speak. Abigails discreet, yet unmistakable chaperone's service is completely unnecessary, he never says or does anything inappropriate but treats her with perfect, unaffected politeness. But even if all this is just a pretext to ingratiate himself with Anna, she has to admit that he approaches his task with a distinctive eagerness, as he most likely does with everything.
However, he is clearly a military man, not a qualified teacher, and it doesn't really make things easier that he tries to teach her the letters of the alphabet by means of words she doesn't even know : 'A as in artillery, B as in bayonet, C as in cannon' and so on.
When they arrive at "J" she first learns his first name: ( 'J" as in John,- J-o-h-n' ) and she can't help thinking how she would have imagined to whisper it in his ear in a passionate embrace. When they reach "M", it is time to reveal her own name, and he repeats it, tastes the syllables on his tongue like a sip of good wine and smiles.
"A beautiful name," he says, but then he frowns: "French, perhaps?" Mariel doesn't know what "French" means, but the way he says it, it doesn't seem to be a good thing, so she shakes her head.
They work through the whole alphabet in their first lesson, until it's time for dinner and he ignores her for the rest of the night in favour of making mooneyes at Anna, who pretends not to notice it.
In addition to the slate and pens, John has lent her two of his own books to read for practice- one apparently a book of military strategy which makes absolutely no sense to her- at least at this early stage of learning how to read- and the other, a collection of Greek mythology, which she likes a lot better, especially because it is full of colourful illustrations.
She makes quite good progress- it isn't like she has anything better to do with her time than pondering about her star-crossed life, and so she is able to repeat all the letters of the alphabet the next day, only her writing is a rather poor, illegable scribbling, until she finds out that it works a lot better, whe she uses her left hand instead of her right one.
"You're left-handed," Simcoe points out, somewhat thrilled. "So am I. Well, my teachers in Oxford used to say that's a devil's gift and stands for an unruly character- but most of them were fools anyway, " He gives her a genuine smile. "I must say, you're learning quite fast. But then- I'm a good teacher, after all, am I not?"
He is, first of all, a very impatient teacher- remorseless towards mistakes, irritable and uncomprehending whenever his student is too slow to follow his rapid explanations or mental leaps. Which goes so far that he could suddenly throw down his chalk, affronted, or even reach out as if to slap the hand which isn't able to write down a word correctly, before he starts and flushes and murmurs: "Forgive me, I forgot-"
What he tends to forget is that she is a woman. He doesn't see her as a woman in the first place, Mariel has no illusions about that.
But as time goes by, he no longer sees the mysterious- even suspicious- stranger in her either, but begins to act more naturally in her presence, trusting even, almost like towards a friend.
He talks to her inbetween his lecturings, confides things to her, which- and much to his own surprise- he has never told anyone else before.
Thus, she learns one day- when it crosses his mind, that he still owes her an apology- why his near-drowning-experience had shattered him so, when he tells her about the death of his little brother and, induced by that horrible experience, his general phobia of ships and the sea.
He also tells her about the frustrating fact, that he isn't able to hold his offenders accountable, since he had no witness for their despicable deed.
Mariel looks down at her tablet and bites her lip. He does have a witness, alas, one who could impossibly testify for his account without revealing her true identity- let alone that no one, including the victim himself, would likely believe her story.
Mariel assumes, he entrusts her with things like that because he knows, she isn't able to pass on anything, or- even more likely- because he has no one else to talk to.
From what he tells her- and from what she is able to read between the lines of their conversation- neither his childhood nor his early adult life seem to have been particularly happy, but she doesn't quite understand why he hadn't liked school in the first place despite his obvious devotion for poetry and ancient history ( He particularly worships two men called Homer and Cathullus and often recites long monologues from his favourite works, some of them exciting, some of them maddeningly boring ) and so she picks up her slate and voices her bewilderment about the fact that he had not been his teachers' favourite student.
"Oh but I was," he admits with a frown. "And much to the distress of my classmates, as you can imgaine, who already glanced down at me due to my- uncertain social standings, let alone my- visual appearance- well, I have not always been like- this," he clarifies with a vague gesture over his impressive physique when he sees her incomprehending look. "In fact, I wasn't even exceptionally tall until I was fifteen or so- but I always had that hair," he looks around quickly for possible witnesses and then lifts his wig to grant her a brief look at the copper curls on his skull she remembers all to well.
"And you know what they say about redheads-" he adds with a sour grimace. Mariel has no idea- the hair of the seafolk contains all the colours of the rainbow - and thus, shakes her head. "Well," he says reluctantly. " Redheads are considered to have a fiery temper and a sharp tongue. Worse even, it has long time been thought a mark of-well- moral degeneration. When you look at illustrations in old books, every devil or otherwise considered evil creature always has red hair- stupid, I know."
"But I did nothing to prove them wrong," he continues. "Although inferior in every way- bodily as well as in numbers- I never backed down from a fight." he says in a dreamy voice. "And they gave me many times a good whipping, I assure you that, ambushed me on my way to school, or back home after class. I never tried to run. And unlike them- I never cared about the consequences, never cared about my condition or what my parents or teachers might say. I could have told on them but I never did, and sometimes my godfather or my teachers would add to the beating then."
He pauses, obviously lost in memories. When Mariel starts to believe he had forgotten about her presence entirely, he looks up at her again and his pale blue eyes have taken on a feverish glow. "And then, one day," he says softly. "Something was- different. They suddenly seemed to- shy away from me. There was no reason for that, I was still as weak as I used to be, and I stood there, all bloodied and screaming, screaming from the top of my lungs-and somehow- something about me filled them with terror."
He lowers his voice to a whisper. "It was not that they thought they couldn't beat me, they knew they could. It was more that they knew that no matter how often they beat me up, no matter what they did to me, I would never stop. That I was able to endure any pain they might cause me, welcomed it even. And that I would win in the end. Because I was willing to do things, they were not."
Mariel gulps. It is obvious, his life had been no bed of roses. The more she learns about him, the more she begins to understand him, to see him for what he really is. No hero- and certainly no prince from a fairytale- but no bad man either. No wonder he is so full of anger and resentment, no wonder he prefers to appear so cold and arrogant and acidly sarcastic. It is nothing but a protective barrier, to shield himself from a world in which practically everyone is considered a potential enemy.
And at last, during his tales about ancient Greek mythology, she learns who Aphrodite is- a goddess of beauty and love and sensual pleasures- which convinces her more than ever, that he must have been ironic from the start, when he had compared her to her.
But she is speechless with amazement at the story of Perseus, a Greek hero, who had fought and defeated the Medusa- once a bewitching beauty, then turned into a gruesome monster by an angry Athena who had caught her seducing her husband Poseidon, the sea god.
The description of the transmuted Medusa- snakes for hair, pig fangs, scale armour, glowing eyes and a lolling tongue- so ugly, that she would turn anyone to stone who looked her in the face- is frighteningly fitting to a sea witch she knows all too well.
And there are more things she recognizes. The myths of the old Greeks, a people of sailors who lived much on and from the sea, are full of sea monsters and mermaids and sirens, and the descriptions are way too accurate to be accidental.
Was it possible, she wonders, that, although long ago, there really had been a time, when humans and mermen had not only co-existed but even interacted ? When and why had that changed? And was this process by any chance reversible?
Captain Simcoe, for his part, regards his student's interest in Greek mythology with favour, although he can of course not know the reason for it. And even though he seems happy enough to have found a kindred spirit, all of his romantic intentions remain exclusively reserved for Anna Strong.
He even goes so far ( after making sure Abigail isn't in earshot ) to ask his student, if the lady of the house ever talked about him in his absence. Mariel watches him, the barely hidden tension on his pale features when he asks the question clearly visible by a tentative flush rising up his cheekbones, although he tries hard to maintain straightfaced.
She could tell him, what is obvious for anyone except himself, that Mrs Strong is not interested in him- neither romantically nor otherwise- but instead considers his constant presence at her house as an unwanted and annoying intrusion.
Mariel sighs and picks up her tablet. "She is concurned about her husband." she writes.
Simcoe reads it and furrows his brows as he looks up at her again. "Why would she be ? A convicted traitor?" he asks incredulously, unable to empathize with anything contrary to his own, clearly defined worldview. "She should be glad to be rid of him? And by the way, concerned is written with an 'e', not a 'u'."
Mariel bites her lip and corrects the word, before she wipes the slate clean and walks backto the house without a further word.
She is tired of lessons for today, and she is tired of the look of raw desire on his face, whenever he speaks Anna's name.
How could he be so blind? Couldn't he see, she would never reciprocate his feelings? God, it is almost, as if he was under some kind of spell-
Well, if Mariel still visited the Strong tavern- which she doesn't- she would have known about the miscreant by now. Lizardo is still there- his mistress had insisted that he stayed until the expiration of Mariel's deadline- and after some sulking he had settled to spend his free time drinking and playing cards with his customers and could now be seen most often at Easton's, Appleton's and McMurray's table.
But Mariel doesn't know. She is content to help Anna with her household and go on errands for her from time to time, armed with her slate tablet. Now that the first glamour of newness has worn off, she finds daily life in a fishing village rather dull and boring, not to be compared with the freedom and comforts she once had.
Anna was right, most people here are rather friendly. But none of them could prevent her from a fate of spending the rest of her days as Madame Medusa's lowest slave. None but one.
Mariel sighs. One week has passed already. Only three weeks left. Shouldn't this blinded, one-sided passion wear off in time?
And that is something Madame Medusa fears also. The spell is intact, fair enough, but the man fails to make any progress with his object of desire. Unrequited love is certainly very romantic and all, but it can become quite frustrating in the long run. And a- way more approachable- woman, one he sees on a far too regular base and whom he, despite himself, grows to like more and more each day, is still a danger. Good thing, the little princess is too naive and uptight to go all out. But still, the danger is there. In the last resort, she might have to instruct Lizardo to commit a second murder- although the captain would certainly not be such an easy target as the fat old drunkard- problems upon problems.
But then, coincidence happens to come to Madame Medusa's help, and his name is Abraham Woodhull.
In Greek mythology, Medusa is the one of the Sisters of Gorgon who wasn't immortal and could be slain by Perseus, a demigod and son of Zeus. In the Odyssey she also appears as a monster of the underworld. She is said to be so ugly that men turned to stone at her mere sight.
Chapter 7: An Old Acquaintance
Mariel gets unexpected help but the difficulties are far from over...
Madame Medusa is in a gloomy mood.
Nothing runs properly since she sent Lizardo away. Her dinners are overcooked, or oversalted- or not salted at all- her parlor looks a mess and no one feels obliged to tidy up and no one's there to listen to her and reassure and flatter her the way she's used to.
She would of course never admit it- not even to herself- but she misses her submissive slave. She is lonely. While Lizardo, as she can clearly observe in her magic marble, is beginning to enjoy human life more and more each day, hanging out with a crowd of fellow drunkards and idiots and playing stupid games in the parlor of the tavern he works at.
A continuing, annoying, rattling sound tears her out of her thoughts of self pity.
By the sisters of Gorgo, she has all forgotten about the fish. The one, she had locked inside one of her boxes, before she'd turned the princess into a human. Her inevitable companion, Poseidonius' spy. How much does he know by now?
Madame Medusa wrinkles her brow. And why is he still alive in the first place? He has been inside that box for a full week- and without food. Now, that could be changed. And she could use some entertainment as it is.
She slides off her throne and opens the box to the sight of a clearly thinner- but apart from that very lively and quite angry Paracelsus. The surgeon fish gives a deep groan and struggles to crawl out of his prison.
"Thank god," he yelps. "I thought only humans were disgusting enough to bury their own people in boxes."
Madame Medusa twitches her thin lips into a sarcastic smile. "Only their dead as far as I know," she replies dryly. "And speaking of, how are you not dead? Did Lizardo hide any leftovers in that box?"
Paracelsus looks piqued. "Ha! My species can survive a full month without food if necessary-" he replies smugly. "Is that so," the sea witch- not of a species with that special ability-mumbles and helps herself to the little snack of a sea cucumber sandwich on the tray next to her. "Then perhaps I should put you right back in there and see if have just been boasting, eh?"
She bursts into derisive laughter, when she sees the surgeon fish quiver and flinch in panic. "Never fear," she sneers. "I'm just making fun of you." To demonstrate her goodwill, she throws a small bread crust at him. "Lunch is served!" Paracelsus eyes the morsel suspiciously and, after he had made sure, no living creatures were involved, swallows it with a gulp.
"Now, what am I going to do with you?" Madame Medusa pouts and cups her multiple chins in the palm of her tiny hand. "I think I'll just keep you until your little princess returns, so you can witness the punishment I chose for her, wouldn't that be nice? Besides, I have use of a new servant-"
Paracelsus, his courage restored by the meal, ruffles his fins in indignation. "And why is that, hm?" he gripes. "Where is your ugly lapdog eh? You've sent him to sabotage Mariel and we both know that's foul play, is it not?"
Madame Medusa shrugs her shoulders. "So what? What will you do, swim to Poseidonius and tell him? The contract is signed and binding, it can't be reversed, not even by him. And besides, nowhere is it written that either of the parties has to go without external help- not my problem the silly thing can't read."
"Fine," Paracelsus snaps back. "So am I right in assuming that I can tell anyone, the mighty Madame Medusa plays false? Doesn't abide by her own rules? How many more poor fools will you be able to rip off once word gets around, I wonder ?"
The sea witch snarls and extents one of her tentacles to silence him, but unlike Lizardo the surgeon fish sees it coming and manages a qick sidestep. He gives her a contemptious look.
"You're old, fat and slow," he states. "And once the merfolk knows that you're also a cheater, you will be all alone, too. For if it wasn't for your witchcraft, who would still come and bring you gifts ?"
Madame Medusa's features redden with anger. How dare he talk to her like that? Lack of oxygen, most likely. But enough is enough. The sea witch is no longer amused.
"What do you want then?" she asks, dangerously softly. "Because your blubbering is beginning to give me a headache. What's done cannot be undone. End of story. So I suggest you shut your fishhole and leave me alone or else you'll end up fried on my dinner plate."
"What, to add murder to the betrayal, is it?" the relentless fish interjects. He flounders closer and looks her in the eye, unblinking. "Quid pro quo," he says."You will send me there, too.This way, each side will have a helper and we're even."
Madame Medusa snorts. "Don't be daft. You're a fish."
Paracelsus gives her a wide grin and his forehead bump glows ironically. "And you're a sorceress, are you not? "he replies, unperturbed. " I have utmost confidence in your abilities."
Mariel trudges through the village once more, about to deliver things for Anna- fresh vegetables from the market, a bale of linen from the tailor and some antifebriles and cough mixture from the apothecary- one of the waiters is still ill and only this morning little Cicero had started to complain about a sore throat as well.
If Anna might have appreciated Captain Simcoe's efforts in teaching her at first- after all, she could now call her by her name and send her to do shopping for her- the effect had quickly worn off by his constant advances, and completely vanished when she found out that he had gone so far as to secretly search her bedroom when she wasn't home.
Mariel shakes her head and sighs. The man was so stupid. Nothing had changed that.
Besides, she had learned all he could teach her by now, so there is no longer use for lessons in the garden. And still he lingers around the house like a tall, pale, lovesick ghost, haunting an- increasingly exasperated- Anna with his unnerving smiles and cheesy poems and offers of assistance- and no success at all.
When Mariel reaches the apothecary's house, she suddenly thinks she hears a familiar voice coming from inside.
"Vials, mortar and pestle, dressing material, a brazen bowl, hmmm, a catch basin-" the list goes on and on, as Mariel ventures closer, unbelieving. "And a bottle of strong liquor- brandy should do, for medical purposes, of course." the customer at the counter finishes, while the apothecary hurries to gather the demanded things, thrilled at what must be his business of the year.
The doorbell rings, when Mariel passes the doorstep and the man in front of the counter turns. For a long moment they both stare at each other wide-eyed, before the slender figure of the girl starts to writhe and shake uncontrollably.The customer watches her with a frown.
He is a tiny little thing of a man, five feet at the very least, but what he is lacking in height he more than compensates in body mass, for his belly is as round and plump as an ale barrel, whereas his extremities, tiny, spindly arms and crooked legs look hardly fit for use. He wears a tight, black tailcoat which makes him look like a dwarf undertaker and a matching cylinder on his bald head. His face is as round as his belly and very pale except for the tip of his ridiculously long, sharp nose. His watery blue pop eyes and his tiny pout give him an always vaguely sulking look, but then again, perhaps he is sulking right now.
The apothecary stows his goods in a box and darts a suspicious glance at the tall, blonde girl behind him, who is still squirming and quivering in a soundless laughing fit, her eyes in tears. "You alright, Missy?" he asks tentatively.
"Poor girl. Seems she has some kind of fit-" the curious little man answers for her. "Don't worry, good sir, I'll take care of it." He curls his lips into a smile. "Seems, I've found my first patient of the day."
They are a curious sight as they walk the streets of Setauket- the tiny barrel of a man and behind him, the staggering tall girl, hardly able to walk due to the soundless laughter that shakes her. "Now, now," Paracelsus says at last. "I'm glad to see you as well, thank you. But could you stop that now? People are beginning to look at us." The girl stops and tries hard to catch her breath. She manages to produce a small slate from her bag and scribbles something on it. "And you think that's because of me ? "
Her companion looks her up and down, her shabby dress, the ugly cap that hides all of her hair, her face red from laughter which doesn't hide the dark shadows beneath her eyes. "You're not such a stunning beauty yourself right now, I daresay." he states, a little piqued. "Running errands for your tavern keeper like a maid, is it? We have much work ahead of us, I see that- and show some respect- you're talking to Setauket's newly appointed doctor after all." he adds and straightens himself to his full five feet.
By the time they reach his interim doctor's office, Mariel has regained enough self control to help him unpack his things. Then she reaches for her slate again. "Forgive me," she writes. "I'm so happy to see you, I really am-it's just-" She puts the slate down and makes a meaningful gesture at the comical figure in front of her. Paracelsus shrugs his shoulders . "The old witch did what she could, I assume" he said. "But then, she's probably no longer at her best-" Mariel shakes her head in disbelief. "What are you doing here in the first place ?" she writes.
"What do you think I'm doing?" Paracelsus winks. "Help you, of course. Looks like you could need help, wouldn't you agree?"
Mariel slouches her shoulders. "It's no use," she writes on her blackboard. "I see him every day but he doesn't really see me at all."
Paracelsus purses his lips and looks her over. "Not as long as you wear these, to be sure" he notes. "You're a princess, are you not? You should be all dressed up in silk and jewels!" Mariel scowls. "First, I don't have any money for a new dress," she writes. "And even if I would dress up like the Queen of England, he would still see no other woman than Anna Strong."
Paracelsus' pop eyes grow even bigger. "Why, of course," he says. "That's because of the spell he's under. The old witch sent Lizardo to give him a love potion, didn't you know-?"
Mariel's eyes go wide with shock. "Lizardo is here ?" she writes and the hand that holds the chalk pen begins to shake with rage. "Why yes, he is. Haven't you seen him? He works at the tavern and that's how he did it- put it in his glass when he served it to him. That's why I'm here- because she tried to cheat ! But I've given her hell, you should have seen me, Mariel, I didn't stand back until I had her send me here too, not even when she threatened to kill me and have me for -Mariel ? Mariel, wait, where are you going?"
But the girl is already out the door and hurries towards the Strong tavern, a frantic Fury, determined to fight. Paracelsus sighs and follows in her tracks as he always does.
Captain Simcoe sits bent over his afternoon ale, a bundle of paper, an ink jar and a pen in front of him- his arsenal in the battle for Anna Strong's heart- racking his brain over a new euphemism for her eyes ( a raven's feathers, glowing embers, blackberry wine, dusky as the night sky- ) when he suddenly sees the familiar shape of his student enter the tavern from the corner of his eye. She darts a quick glance around and rushes him by without a greeting- which is actually quite rude- before she disappears towards the inner courtyard.
He frowns. She looked troubled, to be sure. He tries to go back to his poetry but it is no use. His streak of poetic inspiration disturbed by her unexpected appearance, he sighs and puts the pen down. He'd better check what's wrong with her.
When he opens the door to the courtyard, he finds her in close quarter combat with the weird new waiter, who frantically tries to keep her from scratching his ugly yellow eyes out while at the same time he hisses in a spiteful tone: "Ssstop that nonsssessse, it'sss too late, not much longer and you're ssscrewed-!"
One glance is all it takes to know that freak is after her. Probably tried it before. No wonder she doesn't come to the tavern any longer-
Captain Simcoe feels his blood run cold. Any kind of abuse is abhorrent to him. And here is clearly a maiden in need. He lunges forwards, grabs the violator by the collar of his jacket and pulls the struggling creature off his feet- and with no effort at all, for the man is as skinny and light as a bird's skeleton.
His victim hisses and coughs and rolls his eyes to peer behind him in order to see his new attacker. Whose grip is hard as steel and whose voice as cold as ice, when he asks. "Am I right in assuming that this- man is bothering you, madam?"
Mariel looks up at her unexpected knight in shiny scarlet armor, notices the bloodlust in his eyes and slowly, her lips curl into a grim smile. She nods.
Simcoe turns to the flouncing, miserable wretch in his grip and smiles at him almost tenderly, before he clenches his jaw and with a predatory snarl smashes him hard against the stone wall behind him. Mariel hears the satisfactory sound of cracking bones and a shrill cry of pure agony. Her hero takes a step towards his victim, who buries his head in his arms in a defensive gesture, his eyes wide with horror. "No," he squeals. "Pleassse sssir, you're mistaken! It wasss her who-"
His words turn into another cry of pain when Simcoe's clenched fist hits him squarely in the face. The creature's skin feels cool and slimy and he wipes his blood off his fist in disgust."How pathetic," he spits acidly. "She attacked you first, is that what you were going to say? A girl ? Really, you're not only a despicable rapist but also a coward of the worst sort-" He raises his fist to hit him again and Lizardo squirms and howls in anticipation of another violent blow.
At this moment, the tavern's back door swings open and the panting figure of a very small- and very fat- man in a ridiculous frock storms into the backyard. "I'm coming, Mariel ! " he crows. "Do you-" he starts, then gulps, looks around and takes in the battle scene. "-do you need help?" he finishes rather unnessessarily.
Simcoe tears his stare from his whining victim to the newcomer. He blinks in disbelief. If these two aren't clearly the two ugliest specimen of men he had ever seen- and he had seen quite a lot. What has Mariel to do with vermin like this?
He darts her a quizzical look, as if to ask permission to attack this newly arrived enemy as well, and she quickly shakes her head and moves towards the tiny man to protect him with her own body.
"I'm the town's new doctor!" the dwarf announces and throws his ridiculously short arms up in a defensive gesture. "And Miss-Mariel here has offered to assist me on my first day. I sent her to deliver a bottle of brandy from the tavern, you understand?"
His pop eyes fly to the crouched creature against the wall who is still whrithing and moaning in pain." Did that -bastard dare to bother her?" "Don't lisssten to him," Lizardo hisses in panic. "He'sss a liar, bothhh of them are!" Simcoe wrinkles his brow and gives him another blow with his fist. Lizardo howls and spits out a mouthful of blood and some of his sharp little front teeth.
"Bull's eye!" Paracelsus cheers, but he looks rather concerned. He takes Mariel by the arm. "Thankyou, Captain. It's good to know there are still men of honour serving in his majesty's army, who don't consider themselves too good to raise a hand, or well...a fist ...to help a lady in distress. I think, we'll manage by now-" He shoves Mariel firmly towards the back door. "Let's get a move on before he finishes him," he whispers. "We don't want trouble, do we?"
"Now, that was- exciting," Paracelsus sighs, once they are back at his office. He produces a tissue from his frock and wipes the sweat off his brow. "Quite a more- lively fellow then when we first met him, eh ?" He emits a hysteric little giggle, pours himself a small glass of his "brandy for medical purposes" and empties it in one go. Mariel gestures at him to pour her one, too.
"Poor Lizardo," Paracelsus shudders. "Not that he didn't deserve it, but that was ugly, to be sure." He ventures a small, reassuring smile at Mariel. "But overall- we're advancing. Good thing I'm here, right? Now he fought for you, next thing is he'll fall for you, that's how it always goes-"
Mariel grimaces in doubt, pulls out her slate and writes: "This means nothing. He would have done that for anyone." She hesitates, chalk pen in hand. "He liked it."
Paracelsus purses his lips and nods his round head. "Seemed that way, yes..." He gives her a little wink from his pop eyes. "Well, so much for my plans to make him jelous-" he says. Mariel stares at him incredulously, before she explodes with silent laughter once more. The idea of Paracelsus in all his beauty acting as her ardent admirer is funny beyond belief. He attempts to play the offended for a moment, then joins in her laughter.
"Thank you, Paracelsus," Mariel writes before she pulls him into a tight hug. "I'm so, so glad you're here." The new surgeon of Setauket flushes with joy when she places a soft kiss on the tip of his long, red nose. "And I'd love to be the object of your- fake admiration- any time- " she writes. "Besides, I haven't had so much fun in ages."
With the burning liquid warm and soothing in her belly, and in the comforting company of her best friend in the world, Mariel suddenly feels a tentative flicker of new hope rising up inside her. Perhaps Paracelsus is right and all would be good in the end after all. Perhaps they were advancing. It wasn't much, but it is a start. Mariel smiles and pours herself another sip of brandy. Yes, overall, it had been the best day in her new life as a human so far.
But alas, the day isn't over yet.
When she finally makes her way back to Anna's house- feeling quite bad for letting her wait so long- the daylight is already beginning to fade. She crosses the courtyard, when she suddenly thinks she hears strange, muffled sounds coming from the barn.
Mariel tiptoes closer to venture a curious glance through a gap in the wooden planks, and holds her breath.
It is Anna, and she is not alone, but lost in a fierce embrace with a man Mariel has never seen before. It is clearly not her husband- Mariel knows by now that he is serving a year of penal servitude on a prison ship- but a rather small, young man- a farmer, judging by his clothes, his head covered with a woolen beanie.
Mariel turns around in order to slip off unseen- after all, it isn't her business if Anna wants to console herself with another man- but then she hears Anna sigh and whisper: "Thank God, Abe. For a moment I thought you were Simcoe."
Mariel stops dead in her tracks, then she walks back and presses her head against the planks once more to peer inside.
"Simcoe?" the man with the beanie whispers furiously. "Is he here? Has he tried anything with you?" Anna shakes her head. "No, no. But I hardly have a minute for myself since he made himself at home in my house. He follows me everywhere-first I thought he suspects me of Captain Joyce's murder, but now-"
She sighs. "He even searches my room when I'm not home, I'm sure of it. Abe, I don't know what to do-"
"But I do," the man replies fiercely. "Don't worry, Anna. You won't have to endure Captain Simcoe's presence for much longer."
"What do you mean?" her host asks, her voice wavering between hope and concern.
The man takes her face in his hands and looks her in the eyes. "Tomorrow night," he says. "The regiment will send a patrol on a night raid, in order to burn out a rebels' safe house. I found a secret message about it in Hewlett's office. Listen: You hang out a black petticoat on the washing line in the morning. This will be the sign for Caleb to know I want a secret meeting. He will inform Ben and then- the redcoats will walk right into their own trap. He will await them there. And I assure you, none of them will return."
Mariel listens to his words and feels her blood freeze in shock when the full understanding starts to sink in. This man is obviously a rebel spy, a traitor, and so, as it seems, is Anna.
She tries to recall every muttered word, every ill-concealed resentment against the men in scarlet she had heard from her before. She had thought nothing of it, and why would she? Sure, she knows, there's a war going on here but she had been too busy with her own distress to think much about it.
But now the terrible truth begins to unfold before her eyes: it isn't only that Anna sees Captain Simcoe as an inevitable nuisance, as she had thought, no, she considers him an enemy. She wants him dead. Mariel shudders and suppresses a desperate sob that threatens to escape her mouth.
This must not happen. If John dies, there is no way she could ever complete her mission. Not that there was much of a chance anyway but-a sudden terror grips her to the marrow, when she realizes- even if he would never love her, even if her fate is already sealed, she just can't let him get killed.
The mere thought of it is unbearable. She has to prevent this. But how?
If you should have any difficulties to picture Paracelsus in his human form, I had Gru of "Despicable Me" in mind when I wrote this. Hope you enjoy!
Chapter 8: Fever
Captain Simcoe catches a fever-or so he thinks- and events overturn in the process...
For Mariel, the morning at Strong Manor passes in a numb haze.
She sits at the breakfast table and picks absently at her porridge, her mind- frantically yet hopelessly- spinning over with possible ways to keep Captain Simcoe from leading his unit to the death trap the rebels laid out for him, without revealing Anna's involvement in the matter.
Fortunately, everyone in the house seems to be as distracted as herself and therefore fails to notice her distress.
Abigail is worried for her sick boy and excuses herself from her duties in order to rush back to his sickbed as soon as she can, while Anna is unusually cheerful, her movements sweeping, her eyes wide open and sparkling with barely hidden excitement.
She is even especially attentive towards Simcoe and serves him his breakfast in a way that makes clear she is hoping to never have to do it again.
Who, for his part, doesn't notice it for once, likewise indulging in joyful anticipation of the upcoming fight- even though obviously for other reasons than the lady of the house.
He finishes his meal rather hastily and gets up to leave for his daily duties, mentioning he wouldn't be able to be here for dinner tonight because of "important tasks in the crown's service" lying ahead of him.
Anna nods with a smile and wishes him the best of luck without blinking an eye.
But Mariel secretly follows him when he walks out the door, grabs him by the sleeve of his coat and gestures him to wait. He stands and waits for her to take out her slate and write her concern down, albeit rather impatiently.
"I just wanted to thank you for your help yesterday," Mariel writes . "You're welcome," he replies and slightly bows his head in a polite, gentleman-like manner. "But you needn't thank me. The pleasure was all mine."
And literally so, as the gleeful gleam of his bright blue eyes implies. He turns to leave, but Mariel clings to his sleeve. "Forgive my curiosity," she scribbles hastily. "But you had me worried. Important task you said? Is it going to be- dangerous ?"
Simcoe's smile takes on a patronizing note. Women. So anxious, so fragile. But her concern touches him. He bends his head towards her."I know I can trust you, so I tell you this," he says softly- and quite pridefully. "It's a secret mission. The regiment will send a unit for a rebel's safe house this night." Mariel swallows. "And you're going, too?" she writes. He looks a little piqued. "I am the highest ranked officer in Setauket- after Hewlett, that is." he replies coolly. "It will of course be my command."
His expression softens at the troubled look on her face. "You needn't worry, Mariel," he adds with a reassuring smile. "There's no risk. Those rebels have no idea we're coming for them. They will be dead before they even know what hit them."
Mariel watches him leave- his determined, long strided walk, his large, upright shape, the glistening scarlet of his uniform in the morning sun- a man with no fears and worries in the world, blind for the deadly abyss opening up right in front of him. And all the while, the black petticoat on the clothesline flutters in the wind.
In the afternoon, Anna informs Mariel that she has to leave for the tavern "since Cicero is still sick- and now the new waiter has vanished as well, I should have never hired that weird guy in the first place," she mutters angrily. "Let's hope he didn't get away with my daily takings-"
She sighs and Mariel fears for a moment that she would ask her to accompany her, but she doesn't. "So this means, I probably won't be back before late at night. Please be good enough to help Abigail with dinner, she won't leave her son's bed for long, will you? " Mariel nods, relieved, and Anna gives her a grateful smile. "Thankyou. I guess, I'll see you tomorrow morning then." Her features light up for a moment. "Tomorrow," she repeats with big, shiny eyes. "tomorrow will be an entirely new day-"
Once she has left, Mariel waits a few minutes, before she hurries towards Setauket's new surgeon's office. Paracelsus welcomes her with a bright, cheerful grin. "Mariel! " he yells. "There you are, good, good! Look," he gestures around his surgery, which is by now tidied up, with all his doctor's equipment neatly arranged. "I've made myself at home, haven't I? Even had my first patient today, a considerably nice guy even- for a human, that is- he has the palsy, the poor fellow. And I even found the time to work on our problem-"
He rummages about his desk and produces a small vial, filled with an amber liquid. "An antidote!" he announces, his pop eyes beaming at her. "To disable the effects of Madame Medusa's love potion!" He pauses and frowns. "Or so I hope. It has yet to be proved, but I am confident that- Mariel?"
It is only then, that he notices, she hadn't even listened but scribbled frantically on her blackboard. He reads and his round face grows all pale and wrinkled with concern. "An ambush?" he gasps out.
"Oh my, that's bad. You must go tell him- or tell his superiors, whatsoever-"
"But I can't," Mariel writes. "Not without getting Anna in trouble. And who will believe me, if I can't say how I know about it?"
Paracelus sighs and cradles his bald head in his tiny hands."No, that won't work," he muses. "You would only make yourself suspicious." He looks up at her. "What about that secret meeting with the rebel messenger? If we prevent that-if we send them there-"
Mariel shakes her head. "No," she writes. "I've thought about that, too. But I have no idea, where they meet. And I can't give away this guy either. He- I think, he is her - secret lover."
She pauses and finishes with a desperate sigh. "And anyways, I guess, it's all been done by now."
Paracelsus scratches his head, thinking. "Well," he says at last. "If we can't prevent the hunters from laying out the trap, we must try and prevent the victim from tapping into it."
Mariel gives him a desperate look. "But how?" she writes.
"I told you we can't tell him. And we-we can't just capture him and keep him locked up somewhere until the danger is over, can we?"
The surgeon fish purses his lips. "I guess not," he admits. "He's quite large-"
His features light up when a sudden idea hits him. He slams his tiny hands on his desk. "Listen, Mariel," he says. "Just leave it up to me. All you have to do is- bring him here on some pretext. I think, I know what to do."
And so it happens that an hour later, a rather indignant Captain Simcoe knocks on the door of Setauket's new surgeon. While he had been instructing his men at the garrison for tonight's mission, he had suddenly received an urgent message from Anna Strong, pleading him to deliver an important medicine from the doctor's office. Now, any other man would have wondered, why Mrs Strong would have asked him of all people, but not Captain Simcoe. His queen of hearts needed his help, that was all it took. Had she, which God forbid, fallen ill too? If so, she had clearly chosen quite an unfortunate moment for it, but it would take a more hard-hearted man than he is not to rush to her aid.
However, when he enters the surgery, the ridiculous little doctor assures him, no, Mrs Strong is not ill herself, she had only needed someone to deliver a medicine for the sick boy, Cicero.
Captain Simcoe is relieved, but- at the same time- a little irritable. Why send him like he was one of her servants? Didn't she know he had very important things to do? All he can hope for is, that she will at least be adequately grateful, after all he had dropped everything just to be at her service-
"Give it to me, then," he demands and holds out his hand towards the ugly dwarf of a doctor. Who, for his part, inspects him with an oddly troubled expression. Simcoe blinks, irritated. "Now-? "
The doctor sighs and hands him a tiny vial. "There," he says. "But Captain-if I may-I suggest you take some of it yourself first."
Simcoe raises a pale eyebrow. "Myself," he replies blankly.
"Why, yes- " The doctor takes a step closer and looks up to him- which he has to, his head is barely at the height of Simcoe's navel. "It's a wicked thing, summer fever," he says gravely."Higly contagious. I'm afraid to tell you so, Captain, but it seems quite clear to me- you caught it, too"
Simcoe gives a derisive snort. "Nonsense. I am perfectly fine." He turns to leave, but Paracelsus grabs him by the sleeve of his coat. "But that's exactly what I mean," he insists. "You may feel perfectly fine, but that's only the first stage of the disease. In fact, in this early stage, you even feel extraordinarily full of life. Like you could- uproot trees."
He leads a confused looking, clearly irritated Captain firmly to the chair across his desk and makes him sit down. "And there's the danger!" he continues in an agitated voice. "You will undertake too much, when in fact, all you need is rest. And next thing you know is- you'll be bedridden for weeks. If you survive, that is."
His -involuntary-patient gives him a look from bright blue eyes burning with rage and rebellion. "Bullshit," he spits. "I'm not feverish. My condition is perfect and I've never been prone to diseases-"
"All the worse!" the tiny man explains. "There's plagues which take the weak ones out first- the old ones, the little children. This one, however- is quite the opposite- it runs a rather harmless course on children but a rather serious one on a grown man-"
He quickly produces a looking glass from his desk and holds it in front of the Captain's face. "But pray,see for yourself!" he urges. "Is that a healthy man you see there, tell me this!"
What Captain Simcoe sees when he looks at the mirror, is indeed not the expressionless mask he sees evry morning at his daily shave. There are angry spots of red burning on his cheekbones, his eyes are dilated with rage and overly bright, his lips pale.
He swallows and puts the mirror down. "I'm not ill," he repeats, albeit less confident then before. "I can't be. But since you insist- " He uncorks the vial and empties its content with one determined gulp.
Once he has swallowed the medicine, he feels a sudden dizziness; shivers, hot and cold, running all over his body. He clings to the arms of the chair. Good heavens, is the ridiculous cartoon of a doctor right after all?
He utters an angry snarl and shakes his head in disbelief. It can't be fever, not now, the regiment needs him, he has to- "You have to rest," Paracelsus says firmly, tentatively reaching out and patting his shoulder. "Trust me. All will be fine in a day's time or two, I assure you." He shrugs. "Or else you risk a long time malady-contagion of all the regiment, not to mention-"
Simcoe manages to get up at last. He leaves the doctor's office without a further word and makes his way back to Anna's house. He sways a little as he walks. He feels dizzy. And suddenly very tired. Perhaps he should take a nap after all-
The house is quiet and empty, when he returns. He tumbles into his room and lets himself slump onto his bed, where he sleeps for four hours straight. When he comes to again, it is already dark and he feels a lot better. He checks his face in the mirror at the wall and finds no signs of fever or any other illness there. That surgeon is a fool, he had known it from the start. Quickly he arranges his crumpled uniform, leaves the house and hurries back to the garrison only to find the regiment already gone- and without him. A- quite gleeful - Lt Wakefield tells him, that a very strange looking small man had come here earlier, introduced himself as Setauket's new surgeon and informed Major Hewlett, that his Captain wouldn't be able to return to his duties today, due to a blaze of summer fever. Hewlett had then ordered Easton to lead the unit to the rebel safehouse.
Easton, of all men. Simcoe clenches his jaw. He turns on his heels and leaves without a word. Despite the bitter disappointment that rages inside him, he is suddenly very hungry. And he needs a drink. No, lots of drinks. But he can't risk to be seen at the tavern, when he is considered ill. The other men would likely think he has been shirking away from his duties like a coward- no, impossible. He slouches his shoulders and trudges back to Strong Manor, his head bowed in shame, defeated.
Mariel is unable to find sleep that night. After her consultation with Paracelsus, she had gone to the tavern to help Anna, until it was time to return for dinner. She was unaware of Simcoe snoring away the whole afternoon in his room, until she caught a quick glimpse of him hurrying out of the house, when it was already dark. She didn't know what Paracelsus had achieved to prevent him from going on that night raid, if anything. There was nothing she could do but go to bed and bide the next morning, tossing and turning in her sheets, sick with worries and fear.
When she has just managed to sink into an exhausted doze, she suddenly hears a loud, rattling noise from downstairs. Mariel sits up in her bed and rubs her eyes. She has no idea what time it is. Has Anna returned yet? And would she have heard anything about the ambush? None of them will return, the small man's sinister words in the barn echoe in her head. But he might have been wrong. She has to know.
Mariel gets up from her bed. She doesn't bother with dressing- or even shoes, but only takes her slate and a cape to wrap it around her nightgown. She lights a candle and tiptoes down the stairs. The parlor is dark and empty, but there is the small flicker of another candle coming from the kitchen.
She moves closer and releases her breath in utter relief, when she sees an unmistakable large frame bent over the kitchen table and the remains of a late, makeshift dinner of bread and cheese.
Captain Simcoe seems to slouch rather than sit in his chair. He looks quite dishevelled- without his jacket, the collar of his shirt loose, his head bare, revealing an unruly shock of red curls standing on end. His face is pale and miserable, except for a tentative flush on his cheeks- due to the two bottles of madeira in front of him, one empty, the other half empty.
He looks up when she approaches him. His eyes are a flash of crystal blue in the dim candle light, when he looks her over, her loose hair, her nightgown under the cape, her bare feet. "Mariel," he says in a low, breathy voice, thick with drink. "Did I wake you? I'm sorry."
He gestures at the remains of his meal: "I was hungry," he expains, and then at the half emptied bottle with a grim smile. "And thirsty."
He then seems to remember his manners and stands up shakily to pull a chair for her. His movements are rather jittery. "Sit with me for a moment, will you?"
He looks around in search for another glass, fills it and shoves it towards her across the table. "Want a drink? It's quite good. I found it in the storeroom."
Mariel darts a quick glance to the open storeroom door and realizes where the rattling noises had come from. Evidently he had been rummaging around quite a bit, before he had "found" Anna's liquor stocks. He follows her gaze and makes a dismissive gesture with his hand, almost knocking over the glasses on the table in the process. "I'll pay for that," he slurrs. "Mrs Strong will understand it was a case of need."
Mariel blinks. There is no trace of the usual longing in his tone or in his eyes whenever he says Anna's name. He must be quite upset, indeed. Or else, quite drunk.
She sits down, lifts the glass he poured her and takes a tentative sip. It is in deed good, sweet and strong, tasting of ripe grapes in the warm sun, with just a faint aftertaste of something dark and bitter underneath. It is the drink she had tasted before, in Madame Medusa's parlor. Madeira. Her favourite, and apparently- his as well.
She empties the glass and feels the familiar feeling of warmth and comfort filling her belly. Simcoe nods, satisfied, and fills their glasses anew. "Good, is it? And there's more of it." His smile takes on a bitter edge. "Enough at least to make a man forget about his shame for a while-"
Mariel pulls her slate from beneath her cape. "What happened?" she writes. Simcoe gives a deep sigh and runs his fingers through his hair, ruffling it up even more. "I missed the night raid, that's what happened," he replies gloomily. "That stupid- surgeon says I caught a fever-gave me some dubious medicine and told me to rest, but- I could swear, I was feeling perfectly well until I swallowed that poison he gave me- and now I'll be the joke of the whole regiment- they will think me a malingerer, a coward- shirking from a riskless mission-and now they will take all the credit- Easton and the rest of the wretched gang-"
He pauses to empty his glass. "It's a conspiracy," he whispers fiercely with dilated, bright eyes. "They're all in league with each other- they must have paid that surgeon to give me something," He clenches his fists on the table and Mariel has a terrifying vision of an unleashed Simcoe, mad with rage, beating up Paracelsus half-dead like he had done it with Lizardo.
Hastily she scribbles on her slate: "The good doctor has nothing to do with it, I'm sure of it." Simcoe darts her a pitying look. "You don't know the ways of the world as I do," he replies in a bitter tone. "There's nothing men wouldn't do for money. Tell me, do I look feverish to you, by any chance?"
He quite does, Mariel finds, with that tousled hair and that mad, burning stare of his overly bright eyes. The shiny facade of the smooth gentleman worn off by anger and the liquor, revealing the true nature underneath, something savage and predatory, a desperate, cornered thing from the wild, ready to bear his fangs and bite. He looks dangerous. No, he is dangerous, she reminds herself. Mariel feels a shiver run down her spine.
But then his stare breaks and he buries his head in his hands again with a groan. "I have enemies everywhere," he laments. "Everybody hates me."
Mariel swallows. He isn't exactly wrong, although not in the way he thinks. "Not everywhere," she writes on her blackboard. "Not everyone. Not- me."
He reads and his haunted features soften. "Not you, true enough," he says softly, his voice slurred but warm. His gaze flies over her, her long, loose blonde hair falling in soft waves around her shoulders, the lace- trimmed line of her nightgown under the cape, her small, heart-shaped face with those large, bright eyes. Her lips are red from the madeira, her face flushed, bathed in a rosy shimmer in the candle light.
"You look quite pretty tonight, I must say" he states, surprised by his own words. "If I may say that, that is-" He pauses and shakes his head. "I mean- of course, I know, I shouldn' t say that- but well, I suppose, I just said it."
Mariel holds a hand to her mouth to suppress a giggle.
"There, now I made you laugh. No need to hide it! You should smile more often-and since I am the town's new jester as of today it is my job to make you laugh-and drink," he adds, bending over to refill their glasses, but finds the bottle empty except for a few last drops of red.
"Oh damnit," he grimaces. "Excuse me- I mean- that is- well-we'll need a new one."
Mariel nods in agreement and rises from her chair, gesturing at him that she would get it.
But once she stands, she notices to her utter surprise, that she has somehow forgotten how to walk. She sways, her sight blurring, and reaches for the table for balance. The glasses and bottles on it rattle and seem to dance in the flickering light of the candle.
"Easy," Simcoe rises from his chair in order to help her, but he seems to have some difficulties to keep balance himself. He reaches out and grabs her arm to steady her- only to pull her with him when he tumbles back into his chair, unraveling her cape in the process.
Mariel feels more laughter bubbling up inside of her. It is the strangest thing, this sudden feeling of dizziness- as if she had been doing too many somersaults underwater, as if her body was somehow detached from her mind and moving by a will of its own- for she can feel herself leaning closer against the man who holds her without remembering to do so.
How did that happen ? She looks up and finds his face only an inch away.He too, looks surprised. His breath,heavy and sweet with madeira, brushes her face like a warm breeze.
"You shouldn't come- this close," he murmurs in a throaty voice. "It might be contagious after all."
But instead of pushing her away, he draws her closer to him even as he says it. His skin beneath the shirt is very warm, and exhales a strong- vaguely feral- smell, thrilling and narcotic alike.
Instantly, she feels transported back to her grotto when she had cradled his unconscious body in her arms, but this time he is - if not fully, so at least considerably- sound of mind enough to react to her touch in the same way as she does to his-
It feels so good to hold her. It feels- right. After all, is she not-as she had so remarkably put it- his only true friend in this world? The only one who does not loathe him? And is she not- in her own way- as lost as he is? It is only natural that they should feel attracted to each other, isn't it? And she is beautiful, and desirable, how was it possible, he had never noticed this before?
And most of all, she is here with him now, in his darkest hour, to provide him comfort when no one else does- this cannot be accidental, this is fate- and with this thought, he lowers his lips to her lips, which are slightly parted and oh-so-ready to meet his- the fever that rages inside him turning out to be contagious after all-
And that is the moment Anna Strong chooses to come crashing through the door. It takes her only one look at her ravaged storeroom and then at the two people at the kitchen table to grasp the situation. Her lips form a tight, bitter line and at the sight of her, the two prospective lovers seperate from each other, the spell broken.
Forced back into disenchanting reality, Captain Simcoe is the first to react. "I- I apologize," he stammers, his grip around Mariel in his arms slackening.
Anna stares at the two of them, unbelieving, speechless. "Leave," she says at last, her voice oddly flat. And when he doesn't react right away, she puts her hands on her hips and screams: "Leave! Out of my house- now!! " Finally he moves, gets up, gently releasing Mariel from his hold, grabs his coat and walks by an infuriated Anna with his head bowed, and out of the house, dismissed and defeated once more.
Chapter 9: The Heart is a Traitor
While Mariel and John both struggle with their feelings for each other, Madame Medusa once again succeeds in putting obstacles in the way of their growing romance...
As soon as the door falls shut behind the impeded ravisher, Anna turns around to face Mariel, whose flushed face is a clear picture of barely hidden disappointment and accusation.
She sighs, takes the girl by the arm and makes her sit down. She looks down on her and shakes her head in disbelief.
"How did this happen? How is he here anyway? Wasn't he supposed to go with the others?" she says in a fierce whisper, almost as if to herself.
Then she bores her eyes into Mariel's. "Did he-did he made you drunk? Force you? Was that it?"
Mariel shakes her head. Tiny, black spots are dancing around her eyes. Although somewhat disenchanted by the unfortunate turn of events, she is still anything but sober.
"Mariel, you must tell me," Anna urges on. "Don't think you have to protect him! It's not your fault. I'm going to tell the major-"
Mariel looks up at her, terrified. "Please don't" she scribbles hastily on her slate."It wasn't like that."
Anna furrows her brows. "He made you drunk so he could have his way with you, that's how they always do it," she spits in a bitter tone. "And in my house. With my madeira.That's- intolerable."
She pauses and lifts her hand as if to forestall possible contradiction. "Trust me, I know men like him. Think they can do anything to us, get away with anything-but not this time, I swear-"
Mariel wishes, she would just stop talking. Her head has begun to ache terribly. She sighs and picks up her blackboard and chalk again. "You're wrong, Anna," she writes. "We have been drinking, yes. But he didn't force me. I wanted it, too."
Anna lets herself slump on the chair across her."Oh Mariel," She gives an incredolous snort. "How could you? she hisses. "I mean-what have you been thinking ?" Mariel grimaces. "Thinking was no big issue in this" she writes in response. "And with a willful line around her mouth she adds. "And I'm not sorry."
Anna returns her defiant stare. "You cannot love him, surely," she says blankly, more a statement than a question. Mariel grimaces again, more uneasily this time. "It's not so simple as that." she writes at last. Anna raises an eyebrow at her. "Is it ever?" she says with a sigh.
It's not that she wants to play the part of a moralizer here. After all, she is having an affair with a married man. But this is not just about any man, this is about Simcoe. The enemy. She had set all her hopes in that ambush, had expected she never had to see him again. But he had survived- by some ill fate-and returned to terrorize her again. Watch her every step, search her personal things, bother her with his fake chivalry and tasteless poetry. And since she had rejected him, his interests had now shifted to an easier target, a poor, confused girl who probably sees her knight in shiny armour in him. She should never have allowed them to spend time together...
Anna takes a determined breath. Major Hewlett- whatever he might otherwise be- is known as a man of the strictest morals. He wouldn't consider the debauchment of an innocent young lady a mere trivial offence. She presses her lips to a thin, determined line. Court martial, that is the least a vile creature like Simcoe deserves. If she can't kill him, she can at least get him out of the way.
"Go back to bed, Mariel" she says. "Sleep off your intoxication. I'm sure, you will see things in a different light tomorrow. And don't worry. I'll take care of everything."
Mariel is about to protest but then she makes up her mind and gives a reluctant nod. She is tired- and confused- and, to make things worse, the room won't stop spinning around her. Any kind of argument is pointless in a state like this-and especially when you aren't able to talk and have to write everything down.
But once she has made it back to her room and her bed she finds to her chagrin that sleep won't come. Instead her thoughts are driving mad circles like the dark room before her eyes.
Is Anna right? Has John just tried to benefit from her intoxicated state and seduce her? Use her as a welcome distraction from his own misery, just because she was available? A poor substitute for the woman he really loves, a helpless victim?
No. If of nothing else, Mariel is sure about one thing: at that particular moment- and no matter how drunk they had both been- he had seen her, not Anna or anyone else. He had wanted her. And she- had wanted him. She still does. She still loves him! And he seems to reciprocate the feeling, now that the effect of Madame Medusa's love potion has visibly worn off.
He loves her and she loves him. Anna may have prevented the kiss of true love that would deliver her for now, but she cannot stop the inevitable course of events. Everything is not lost. And with that reassuring thought, Mariel finally manages to fall asleep, a small, hopeful smile lingering on her lips.
The next morning, after a restless night without much sleep ( he had secretly sneaked back to the barracks like a thief, carefully avoiding to meet anyone of the regiment ) Captain Simcoe stands before his superior like a naughty schoolboy awaiting a lecture.
At first sight, he looks fully his old, shiny self, as he stands there as upright and motionless as a statue, only his face, even paler than usual and with a faint greenish line around the mouth and a slight tremor in his long fingers bespeak his nightly activities.
Hewlett looks up at him from behind his desk, his face a stony mask of barely hidden disgust. "I just had a very unpleasant conversation with Mrs Strong," he starts icily. "Concerning you and the young lady who lives under her roof as of lately. She told me, you had- taken liberties with that lady- and in a very inapprobiate way-"
Simcoe clenches his jaw, but says nothing. His superior glares at him. "The regiment is here to protect the people of Setauket not to-to molest their women," he spits. "I expected better of you, Captain."
The addressed man remains silent. Only two angry spots of red on his cheeks reveal his agitation. His fingers are tapping against the brim of his tricorne.
Hewlett loses his patience. "Answer, when I'm talking to you, man! This is a serious accusation. Are you going to deny it?"
Simcoe presses his lips to a thin line. "No, sir," he replies softly. His superior gives him a look of outmost disapproval. "How could you?" Hewlett hisses indignantly. "An innocent young lady under your protection? That's intolerable! What do you have to say in your defence?"
He raises his eyes and watches his superiour's face, his hateful features pinched into a paragon of moral outrage. "I assure you, Sir, the virtue of the lady is fully intact," he says icily. "And if anything, the- encounter has been consensual-" Hewlett gives a derisive snort. "Consensual? Mrs Strong claims otherwise."
Simcoe bores his icy blue stare in his. "Mrs Strong was not present, so she can hardly know" he says sharply. The major's eyes narrow. "She claims liquor as a factor." he states. Simcoe shrugs uneasily."A glass or two, perhaps, yes. One thing lead to another. You know how it goes-"
"No, I do not," Hewlett cuts him off sharply. Simcoe bites his lip when he realizes his mistake. Of course, stiff Major Hewlett with a stick up his ass, does not know what it is like to be carried away by passion. He is a virgin at best, if not even attracted to young boys. Or horses, he thinks with a disdainful glance at Bucephalus, Hewlett's favourite stallion behind the gutter.
He releases his breath with a sigh. "I made a mistake." he admits in a low voice. "But I can only repeat myself, I have never-I would never- the mere thought of abusal is abhorrent to me-"
"You were reported sick with fever yesterday." Hewlett says suddenly. "It seems you have recovered quite quickly."
His words give him the gratification of seeing his Captain blush deeply. "A false diagnosis." Simcoe says through clenched teeth. "I returned to the garrison as soon as possible, but found my unit already gone."
"And how fortunate for you that you missed them." Hewlett says dryly, and watches him attentively. And then, after a meaningful pause: "They're all dead."
Simcoe's eyes widen. "Dead?" he gasps.
"In deed. It was a trap. An ambush. The rebels knew we were coming for them. We have a traitor in our midst, Captain."
Simcoe's face goes white as a sheet. "Surely you're not trying to imply-" he stammers.
Hewlett snorts. "No, Captain. You may be many things, but I don't take you for a rebel spy. Yet you have been regrettably- inefficient since you've been reporting for duty here, wouldn't you agree? The case of Captain Joyce's murder is still unresolved, and now we have to deal with a rebel spy as well-there must be a connection." He sighs. "You see, Captain, as much as I would like to see you court martialed for your intolerable misconduct, I can hardly afford to lose another officer right now."
His Captain straightens his posture. "Trust me, I'm going to find that traitor, major. " he says fiercely. "I may have been acting too lightly thus far- out of respect for the people in Setauket, as it was your wish- but you will agree with me that it is time now to take off the gloves, so to speak."
He pauses and clears his throat. "And as for my lapse-I promise, I will make amends to Miss Mariel-"
Hewlett gives him a sardonic smile. "Will you now?" he asks slyly. "Are you going to marry her, then ?"
Simcoe blinks. "Excuse me, sir?"
His superior doesn't make much efforts to hide his pleasure about his evident discomfort." I apologize if I misunderstood, but isn't marriage the usual way to make amends for what you did?"
"Marriage," Simcoe repeats blankly. He looks stunned. It is obvious, that the thought of marriage had never crossed his mind. He gulps.
"But sir-" he starts. "I'm quite sure, my godfather will never give his consent to this-I mean, no one knows who she really is-or where she's from- she lost her memory, has Mrs Strong not told you this? Heavens, she doesn't even have a family name-"
"You'll find a way," his superior says conclusively, unperturbed by his stammered objections. "I told you, I would never tolerate loose morals in my regiment. Marriage or court martial, it's up to you. And for the family name-" He shrugs his shoulders with an ironic little smile. "She will have one then, won't she?" he says drily. "Yours."
Madame Medusa sits in her parlor, her hands clutching the magic marble, which shows her her servant. Lizardo lies crouched on a poor plank bed in his little chamber of the tavern, his destroyed face covered in makeshift bandages which make him look like some creepy, mummified, undead monster from a horror story. Her puffy features redden with anger. "My poor baby," she moans and tears her hair. "What have these brutes done to you?"
But of course she knows who she has to thank for this. Deep inside her pitch black heart, hatred is seething like bitter acid. She has even lost her appetite- her breakfast of sugared, cinnamon abalones is still untouched.
That shameless little slut of a princess, she had evidently underestimated her. Acted the blessed virgin all the time when it took really only a few drinks to turn her from reluctant into willing- but oh well, lust is not love. There is a difference, she knows it all too well. But the day may come- and now he thinks he has to marry her ? How many more nights until he would realize he loved her?
Good thing, the man was so stupid. And so easily to distract. She watches him walk out of his superior's office, all pale-faced and confused, his thoughts driving helpless circles in the narrow mind beneath his pale brow. Madame Medusa twists her thin lips into a venomous smile.
You want a traitor ? she whispers. I'll give you a traitor.
I'll avenge you, my poor little Lizardo. They will pay for this, just you wait. But you must get up now. I need you one last time.
Captain Simcoe walks towards Strong Manor, blind for the beautiful, sunny day around him and people rushing by him in their busy morning activities. He has quite a headache, which is getting worse by the moment from pondering over the two missions that lay ahead of him. Firstly , he has to find a traitor. Someone had known about their planned ambush yesterday night and informed the rebels about it, most likely the same man who had murdered Captain Joyce. A whole british unit- slaughtered by continentals. A disaster. His conscience pricks him when he thinks about it. It should have been him to lead the men there. All this would have never happened if it had been him- instead of that sottish retard Easton.
Well- Easton was dead now. And so were Appleton and McMurray. The men who had tried to murder him. Fate moved in mysterious ways, no doubt about that. But even if those rebels had done him an- involuntary- favour, treason is treason and cannot go unpunished. And Hewlett had made quite clear that he expected results from him this time.
As he had made quite clear that he expected him to propose to the woman he had seduced- almost. His pangs of remorse concerning Mariel are even worse. Hewlett is right, of course, what he had done was sordid, unforgivable. He would be the first to condemn such behaviour from any other man. A lady under his protection, and he had almost used her, disgraced her. He is no better than the villains he is supposed to protect her from.
And now Hewlett expects him to marry her. As if this were the most natural thing in the world- and maybe it is, in the backward Scottish wilderness where he comes from, where things are obviously still regulated according to medieval law. Here, however, in the civilized world, those things follow a strict code. His godfather, the famous Admiral Graves would never allow it. Cut him off with a shilling at worst. Impossible.
He imagines a life with Mariel- along with a swarm of children, for he could hardly be supposed to keep his fingers off her once she were his- living in poor circumstances, their hungry mouths eating up every bit of his expectably low wages, once he'd lost his godfather's protection, and bites his lip in despair. This is certainly not the kind of life fate has chosen for him. And all just because of a single moment of weakness, a desperate need for comfort, a failure to resist the temptations of the flesh-one night, which already appeares to him like a dream, now. A sweet dream, oh yes, but still- a dream. And one cannot build one's life on a dream.
But even when he thinks about it now, he knows for sure, that this dream had felt more real than anything before in his whole life. And that he would do it again- and without hesitation- if he had the chance, no matter the consequences. Despite everything, he cannot force himself to feel sorry for what he had-almost- done, if anything, he is angry at Mrs Strong's intervention. And neither- and somehow he is convinced of it- can Mariel.
Is that what love is? How could he tell?
Love has always been something sublime and sacred for him, some kind of virtous worship from a knight of courtly love to an unattainable goddess. He likes Mariel, to be sure, and strange as it is, she seems to be the only one who likes him, too. And yesterday night, she had reminded him so much of the vision of the girl that haunted him since his near drowning experience. The one with the sweet, angelic voice...
But that is a poor excuse. The bitter truth is, he doesn't know what love is. He had believed he loved Anna Strong, had he not? And now he can't even remember why.
It is no use. He has to see her again, speak to her again. Perhaps then he will know. That traitor, however, is the immediate danger now.
"Mrs Strong!" Anna freezes, when she hears the detested, commanding voice in her back. Captain Simcoe notices her barely disguised grimace of disgust and presses his lips to a thin line. "Fear not, I have come only to gather my personal belongings. I'm going to rent a room in your tavern and no longer strain your hospitality here." he says flatly. It is obvious, she takes him for a ravisher of the worst kind, an unprincipled monster. And only yesterday he would have done anything to try and reverse that impression. But now, he finds to his surprise, that he doesn't care any longer.
"I don't wish to cause you trouble," he hears himself say. "And I apologize if I ever did. "
Anna returns his words with a doubtful look from her big, dark eyes. "However, there is something I need to ask you," he goes on. "Mrs Strong, did you send a messenger to the garrison yesterday, asking me to deliver a medicine from the doctor's office for you?" Anna's look grows even more incredolous. "Of course not," she says sharply. "Why on earth would I do such a thing?"
He releases his breath and nods. "I thought not," he says softly, as if to himself. Then he looks up at her again. His deep blue eyes focus on her and he wonders briefly what he had ever thought he had seen in her. "Thankyou Mrs Strong," he says flatly. "I shall not keep you from your work any longer.Good day."
Anna's eyes follow him, confused, as he strides past her and towards Setauket's town-centre.
He kicks the door to the doctor's office open with his boot, his gun loaded and ready. "In the King's name, you are arrested," he yells and points his gun at the starled little creature before him, before he notices the slender figure standing next to him. He presses his lips to a thin, disapproving line. What the hell is she doing here again?
Paracelsus stares at him with huge,anxious pop eyes. "Arrest me?" he yelps. "Fo what ?"
Simcoe gives him a threatening wide-eyed stare. "For luring me into your office under false pretense, in order to poison me," he hisses. "Mrs Strong never sent for me and I never had a fever. It was all a conspiracy to immobilize me so was unable to lead my men against the rebel's nest. Do you deny it?"
"Well, I- "Paracelsus gulps, evidently conscience-stricken. He nods with a bitter smile. "I knew from the start, something was fishy about you," he spits. "This, sir, is treason. You'll hang for this. Get out of the way, Mariel," he adds angrily, for she had flaunted herself in front of the accused again. She holds up her hands and gestures at him to wait until she had picked up her slate to write.
Simcoe fumes. What does she think she had to do here? What was it that made women think they always had to stand up for the weak? Something in their soft-hearted nature, to be sure. But it just doesn't look good if his wife-to-be tries to hinder him in doing his duty.
Mariel is done scribbling and holds the blackboard up for him to read. It is only three short words and still he fails to understand their meaning. "It was me."
He looks at her and blinks in disbelief. She looks exhausted and pale, there are blue shadows beneath her eyes but she returns his stare in a defiant way from bright eyes."Don't be absurd," he says harshly without lowering his gun."I don't know why you think you have to protect this-vermin, but trust me, it won't work. And now, please- get out of the way."
The doctor struggles past her with an agitated wheeze. "Don't believe her," he pants. "She has nothing to do with this!" "Of course, I don't believe that," Simcoe murmurs scornfully.
"But you shhhould !"
The Captain turns his head, when the door suddenly creaks open and reveals the ghastly sight of a newcomer. It is Lizardo, limping and moaning in pain as he moves. His face, covered in dirty, bloodsoaked bandages had clearly not become more attractive by his violent treatment, and neither had his lisp improved by the loss of his front teeth. But his wicked yellow eyes gleam in a malicious glee, when he goes on: "Shhhe isss the traitor, she alwaysss wasss, I tried to tell you but you wouldn't lisssten to me" he hisses.
Mariel had gone pale by the sight of Lizardo, but she presses her lips together and bends over her slate to write: "It's true. It was me who sent the letter. Arrest me, Captain." She offers him her wrists, as if expecting him to shackle her.
Simcoe looks from her to Lizardo, lost, unable to follow this new, unfortunate course of events. He clenches his jaw and points his gun from her to Lizardo."Alright," he stammers, stunned. "You two will accompany me to the garrison." He darts a threatening gaze at Paracelsus. "And you better stay right where you are, if you know what's good for you, doctor," he spits. "I'm not done with you yet."
He leads his two prisoners towards the garrison, Lizardo at gunpoint limping in front of him, Mariel beside him, his iron grip clutching her shoulder. The mere touch of his hand makes her shudder, the angry heat coming from him seems to burn right through her dress, inevitably reminding her of the fire they had started together last night. Her almost- lover, or now-her captor -clenches his jaw, as if he feels it, too. "I don't know what this madness is about," he lowers his head and whispers fiercely against her ear, as they walk. "But we'll figure it out, won't we?" Mariel has of course no chance to reply, since she can't write on her slate, while he pushes her forwards.
Simcoe locks her in a room which seems to be his private office at the garrison, before he leads Lizardo into a cell. When he returns, he looks so confused and troubled that her heart breaks for him. He sits down across her and gives a deep sigh. "So," he says in a low voice, his gaze flickering around the room, avoiding to look at her directly. "You claim you have written that letter in the name of Mrs Strong to send me to the doctor's office. Why would you do that?"
Mariel picks up her slate. "I told him you had a fever," she writes. "In hopes that he would keep you away from your mission." Simcoe snorts. "Which he did," he replies dryly. "But that doesn't answer my question. Why did you do it?"
He still refuses to look at her. Mariel gulps and writes: "Because I was scared. I didn't want anything to happen to you." He reads and looks at her at last. "And why would you think something might happen to me?" he asks softly. "I told you it was a sure, riskless thing. But you knew better, didn't you? How?"
Now it is Mariel, who can't withstand his questioning look and drops her gaze. "That I cannot say." she writes.
He reaches out and takes her cold hand into his warm ones. "Mariel," he pleads. "You must tell me. Don't you understand? I cannot help you if you don't. Who are you trying to protect? I need names." Mariel withdraws her hand, crosses her arms and shakes her head.
He looks at her, the mouth he had so wanted to devour last night, now pressed to a thin, defiant line, the arms crossed defiantly in front of her chest. Despite himself, he feels his body reacting to her even now, thinking of how sweet and devoted she had seemed last night and what he so much had wanted to do to her- and still does. Had he been tricked into falling in love with a vile traitor? Had she been playing some wicked game with him all the time?
He sits back with a deep sigh. "Just to think I was going to propose to you," he murmurs in a bitter tone. Mariel's eyes widen in surprise. "Why?" she writes on her slate. He blinks, irritated that she forces him to express the obvious. He clears his throat. "Why, indeed?" he says in a low undertone. "Do you expect me to pretend last night has never happened? Expect me to abdicate my responsibility? You wrong me, madam. I am not that kind of man."
Mariel watches him for a long moment, her expression unreadable. "Responsibility," she writes at last and he can practically see the sarcasm drop from the letters on the blackboard."That's not quite what we call it where I come from."
"Where you come from? And where exactly would that be?" he returns sharply.
She bites her lip and refuses an answer again. He watches her and nods slowly. "I understand," he says coolly. He stands up and turns towards the door. "How am I supposed to trust you if you apparently don't trust me?" he asks in a bitter tone. He leaves and slams the door behind him.
When he returns a few minutes later, his face is turned into a stony mask. "You may go," he says blankly. "And don't worry, no one will testify against you."
Mariel stands up and makes a move as if to touch him, but he dodges her touch and gestures at the door. "Leave," he says in a hoarse voice. "Now. Before I make up my mind."
It is this moment, Major Hewlett chooses to open the door to his office. "Lieutenant Wakefield told me you had someone arrested, Captain? May I ask who-" he starts, before he notices Mariel. "Oh. Pardon me, madam."
He walks towards her, makes a quick, courteous little bow, before he takes her hand and places a kiss on it. "Miss-Mariel, I assume?" She nods and forces herself to a smile. Hewlett looks from her to his Captain. If it occurs to him that neither of them looks exactly happy, he deliberately choses to ignore it.
"Well," he says cheerily. "You really waste no time, don't you Captain? I must say I appreciate the zeal with which you approach the two tasks we talked about earlier-" He raises an eyebrow. "Even though I wouldn't have expected you to accomplish both at the same time. Or in the same place." he adds dryly.
"Well, I-" Simcoe stammers and blushes to the roots of his ginger curls beneath his wig. He clears his throat. "You will agree with me, sir, that some things admit no delay." he says woodenly. "Indeed," Hewlett smiles. "Well, my congratulations, Captain." He turns to Mariel. "You are outmost charming, madam- if you allow the compliment. You'll be a ravishing bride, no doubt about that."
Although you do have a- special taste in men, he adds in his mind.
"About the traitor," Simcoe barges in quickly. "Ah yes, where is he?" His Captain returns his gaze, unblinking. "Dead, I'm afraid," he says. "He had a hidden knife with him and turned it on himself after I locked him in his cell. Bad conscience- or fear of his deserved punishment, who can say? "
"Hmpf" Hewlett darts him a discontented look. "How unfortunate. How could that happen? You should have searched the man." "I know, sir," Simcoe replies blankly. "And I apologize. However, he confessed everything to me before I left him. He was the traitor we've been looking for. And he also murdered Captain Joyce."
"I see. Well then," Hewlett casts a sideglance at an evidently shocked Mariel and clears his throat. "But this is certainly not the right kind of talk in the presence of a lady." He gives her a reassuring smile. "Please, madam, pay me the compliment of being my guest tonight at Whitehall. We shall have a dinner in celebration of your- betrothal."
His Captain opens his mouth as if to object, but then closes it again without a word and presses it to a thin line. Mariel gives him an unhappy look before she takes up her slate and writes. "Thankyou, sir. I feel honoured." "Fine, then," Hewlett smiles. "I will ask one of the men to accompany you home, so Captain Simcoe can keep me up to date with the rather-distasteful details here." He kisses her hand again. " I'm looking forward to seeing you two tonight, then."
He gives her a mischievous little wink. "We'll have oysters!"
Sorry for the -somewhat depressing- chapter, I will make up for this in the next one, I promise! As always, thanks so much for reading!
Chapter 10: Major Hewlett's Dinner Table
Or: Of Oysters, Cabbages and Kings
Or: When you realize too late that you have invited the wrong combination of people to a dinner party...
"Good evening, Mrs Strong."
Captain Simcoe, in full uniform, bares his head and gives her a brief, courteous bow. "I'm here to accompany Mariel to Whitehall."
His eyes wander from her face, which shows the familiar mix of rejection and vigilance ( how could he have ever believed to see something else there? ) to her fine cotton gown, which is visibly unsuited for working at the tavern. "I take it, you're going out, too?" he asks.
Anna gives him a short nod. "Major Hewlett invited me as well." she informs him tersely.
"I see. How splendid." So either Hewlett seems to believe, Mariel has need of a chaperone or else he just doesn't want to do all the talking of the evening with him alone...
He clears his throat. "May I have a moment with my-fiancée alone?" he asks. The word still sounds strange in his own ears. Anna, already up-to-date as it seems, looks rather reluctant at that but then she seems to come to the conclusion that the damage is already done. "She's upstairs in her room," she says flatly, before she makes way for him to step through the door.
He knocks at her door before he walks in and closes it behind him. Mariel is standing in front of the mirror and looks up at him when he enters the room. "You look quite lovely," he says after an awkward pause. Mariel looks back at her reflection in the mirror and raises a doubtful eyebrow. Without the effect of love potions,his stock of compliments seems to be rather limited.
Anna, torn between disapproval of her marriage plans and relief to hear that Captain Joyce's murder case was closed, had generously offered her own wedding dress for her to wear. It is a beautiful gown of ruby silk, which had become too tight for herself, along with fitting gloves and shoes and hair ornaments. Mariel had thanked her and, rather absently, endured the procedure of dressing her up and subdue her hair into shiny, pinned-up curls. She doesn't really fancy dresses with tight-laced bodices more than she did in the beginning and besides, she finds the colour makes her look pale.
She picks up her slate and writes: "You killed him."
Simcoe reads it, then he takes the dry rot and carefully wipes the words from the board. "What else could I have done?" he whispers. Mariel gives him an anxious, questioning look. "What about Paracelsus?" she writes. Simcoe pressed his lips to a thin line. "I didn't see the need to mention his name, since you so evidently care for his wellbeing," he says stiffly. "The case is closed. I think it's best if we both forget about it, wouldn't you agree?"
Mariel bows her head and nods. In her mind, she had passed yesterday's events in review over and over. Why had he killed Lizardo in the first place ? To save her, yes- but not because he loves her but because he feels some kind of moral obligation towards her- for something that had not even really happened and which had been consensual in any case...Humans are so strange, and human men all the more.
And now he would even go so far to marry her. But what would be won by that? He still takes her for a traitor and marrying her would be nothing but an unpleasant duty for him-it wouldn't save her and only make him unhappy as well.
For a moment, Mariel in her desperation had even considered to tell him about Anna and her circle of spy friends, but had discarded the idea almost instantly, ashamed about herself. Some prices are too high to pay.
Unaware of her inner struggles, her future husband had begun to pace about the room and nervously pick up random objects on the dresser. "Just consider it a betrothal gift," he says lightly. "Since I won't be able to provide you with many other riches. But fear not. A Captain's pay may not be grand, but we won't go hungry."
Mariel looks at him from sad eyes, but he doesn't see it while he absently inspects a porcellain powder tin.
She gives a deep sigh and makes her decision. "I'm grateful," she writes in response. "And I am going to return the favour."
He reads it and his face softens a tone as he looks down on her from warm blue eyes. "Will you now?" he asks very softly. "Yes." Mariel writes, determinedly bent over her slate, not noticing the change on his features and in his tone. "I know you don't want to marry me. And you don't have to."
Simcoe hesitates and raises an eyebrow."Oh but I do," he replies. "Marriage or court martial, Major Hewlett was very clear about it. But it's fine," he shrugs. "We'll make the best of it won't we?"
Mariel presses her lips to a thin line. "You can tell Hewlett that I declined the proposal," she writes.
Simcoe looks seriously amazed. "Nonsense. Why would you do that?" he asks incredolously. "He cannot blame you if I refuse to marry you," Mariel writes. She pauses and shrugs her shoulders. "He may consider me a person of loose morals but I don't care what he or anyone thinks. I 'm not going to stay here much longer anyway."
Now she could have added, that she doesn't want him to marry a woman he doesn't love, but she can't bring herself to write that. Even mermaids have their pride. And thus, she deprives him of the chance to object and set the record straight. Madame Medusa has been quite right, they are both equally stupid. And two wrongs just don't make a right.
"I understand," he says coolly and turns towards the door. "Well, whenever you're ready madam, I'll be waiting downstairs."
He walks down the stairs, unable to comprehend what had just happened, but then, that is nothing new. The only thing he does understand is that she, too, doesn't want him. That she obviously favours her uncertain living conditions and social standing over a life with him. If out of aversion for his person or because she aims higher than to become the wife of a mere Captain, he can't tell.
Well, fine then, he thinks grimly, when he leads the two women in frosty silence to Whitehall. She does him a favour, indeed. He should be happy, but he is not. He wonders briefly, if he would ever be.
As it turns out, Major Hewlett had not just planned an informal little dinner.
First he had thought it only proper to invite Mrs Strong as well- since she is the person who comes nearest to a guardian of the bride-to-be and besides (not that he would admit that to himself ) he finds her quite appealing.
But then he had feared that it might look suspicious if he invited only a married woman and had asked his friend, Judge Woodhull, too as well as his son and wife.
And since seven is an uneven number- and he is a man who attaches great value to order, even in small matters-he had then decided that he might as well take the opportunity to meet the town's new doctor and sent an invitation to Paracelsus' office.
The evening starts out quite unpleasantly when his Captain informs him upon his arrival that Miss Mariel had declined his proposal-which practically took the whole event ad absurdum. How had Simcoe managed to mess this up again? Not that he could blame the girl- but he had even prepared a speech and he just hates to be confronted with unexpected events...
Now he could of course have canceled the dinner, but firstly, the other guests are already there and secondly Aberdeen had spent the whole day in the kitchen and taken great efforts for the preparations of the food.
No. Major Hewlett grits his teeth, determined to put up a brave front. The dinner would take place and perhaps it could still be a splendid evening.
He should be horribly mistaken.
To call the atmosphere at the dinner table tense and uncomfortable, would have been a great understatement.
The host pays the ladies courteous compliments and does his best to engage a polite conversation, but his efforts prove little successful when everyone apart from Mariel- who is mute and therefore excused- answers rather reticently.
He had placed his Captain and his -no-longer-bride-to-be across from each other, but they manage to eat the first course- a delicious vegetable soup- practically without looking at each other. Even more conspicious is the way in which Mrs Strong and the young Mr Woodhull try hard to avoid any kind of eye contact, while Mrs Woodhull and the Judge dart hateful glances at the tavern keeper every other moment.
Mariel couldn't have been more surprised when she recognizes the young Mr Woodhull as the exact same man who she had seen with Anna in the barn in the night before the ambush. It is beyond her comprehension why a man with a pretty young wife- and Mary Woodhull with her porcellain teint, big blue eyes and soft, strawberry blonde curls is a paragon of beauty- and a new born child should have an affair with another woman and even more, why the son of the town's well-respected magistrate should be a secret supporter of the enemy. Humans are complicated, to be sure.
Hewlett himself finds the barely hidden hostility against Mrs Strong exceptionally rude and inappropriate and tries to be particularly attentive towards her in compensation. However, he finds it hard to avoid difficult subjects such as her husband's sentence and when he expresses his regret about it, Mary Woodhull suddenly turns very pale and her spoon hits her bowl with a clattering noise.
The arrival of the second course saves him from his discomfort. He looks down at his plate with an appreciative sigh. "Little oysters," he smiles, picks up a slice of lemon and presses the juice over the raw flesh inside the shells, before he swallows the first one with apparent relish.
Simcoe grimaces in evident disgust and notices Mariel across him doing the same. They share a brief, conspiratorial smile before they both seem to remember that they are no longer friends and simultanously look away and raise their glasses instead. The wine, Hewlett is serving is red and exquisite.
Aberdeen clears away the plates- Hewlett, Judge Woodhull, Abraham and Anna had eaten with good appetite while Mary had hardly touched her plate and Simcoe, Mariel and the curious little doctor not at all.
The third course is rump steak, peas and potatoes, along with more wine. "I'm glad to hear you were able to find Captain Joyce's murderer," Anna says airily while she cuts her steak into neat, little pieces. Judge Woodhull gives a snorting sound and Hewlett answers it with a disapproving sideglance. "Indeed," he turns back to Anna with a smile. "But honour to whom honour is due- Captain Simcoe was in charge of the murder case and he succeeded -at last."
"Oh yes, " Anna replies. "I'm curious, who was he?" Hewlett shrugs. "Some travelling merchant, as it seems, and a shady figure, to be sure, only recently arrived in Setauket,"
"To work in your tavern, if I'm not mistaken," Richard Woodhull barges in sharply. Hewlett frowns. "Richard, please. Mind your manners. Mrs Strong is not on trial here." The grumpy old man bows his head and mutters an inaudible apology, before he starts to squash the potatoes on his plate.
"Well, that's great," the young Mr Woodhull says cheerily. "Good job, Captain. I knew, a man of your- competences would have no difficulties at all to find a traitor." There is just a tiny hint of irony in his voice but enough to make Simcoe shoot him an attentive glare from bright blue eyes. "Thankyou, Mr Woodhull," he replies coolly. His hand unconsciously clutches his steak knife as if he considered to use it as a weapon."However, the man might have had accomplices. Be sure, I will remain attentive."
The addressed man smiles. "I'm glad to hear that. Surely you know what's best." He shrugs. "I' m just a cabbage farmer after all," "Indeed," Simcoe cuts him off before he glances at the peas on his plate. "But I'm surprised." he adds with a kind smile. " No cabbage today? Is the season not going well? Perhaps you should follow the lead of your father and stick to pigs?"
"We've had our problems," Mary Woodhull intervenes with a somewhat forced smile. "But it will all be well soon. And after all- we all do our duties to our King and country in the way God has placed them on us." "Well said, Mrs Woodhull," Hewlett agrees with an approving nod.
"Speaking of duties, Doctor...Paracelsus, is it? I hear, there has been quite an epidemic of summer fever lately. Have you been able to find an effective remedy yet?"
The small figure of the doctor freezes in his attempts to cut his steak- which is not easy, for his arms are hardly long enough to reach around his impressive belly for his plate. If only I had known, how tiny he is, I would have asked Mrs Woodhull to bring Thomas' high chair, Hewlett thinks briefly.
The doctor lays down his fork and knife and reaches for his wine glass. "Well- reports of an epidemic may have been a little exaggerated," he starts. "In fact, this kind of fever is not really dangerous-" "Although highly contagious," Simcoe barges in in a sarcastic tone. "Oh, indeed." Paracelsus darts him an uneasy sideglance, takes a deep gulp of his wine and clears his throat. "But the process is rather innocuous. A healthy amount of rest is the best medicine- along with sufficient intake of fluids," he takes another draught. "Cold compresses- the usual-"
"I didn't know there was an epidemic," Mary Woodhull says anxiously. "Should I keep my little Thomas to the house, just to make sure?" "Oh you needn't worry, Mrs Woodhull," Simcoe turns to her with a reassuring smile. "This is a plague which afflicts mainly strong, adult men- isn't that right, doctor?" Paracelsus almost chokes on his wine. "Well, I-yes, it seems like-"
Anna frowns. "You must be wrong, doctor," she says. "Little Cicero has it, too." "Oh, he should try the medicine the good doctor has created," Simcoe flutes, evidently enjoying himself more by the moment. "I cannot recommend it enough." He empties his glass. "I tried it and never before have I felt better than last night." Mariel stares at him and he gives her a malicious grin. She looks away and empties her glass as well.
Aberdeen walks in to serve the dessert- apple pie and cream along with a huge bowl of hot- and quite strong- rum punch. The heavy, alcoholic smell coming from it alone seems enough to eliminate a whole enemy bataillon.
The strong liqor soon proves successful at easing the tense atmosphere at the dinner table to a certain degree- especially due to a visibly tipsy Paracelsus, who has proceeded to entertain the dinner party with curious doctor's anecdotes and is just now explaining the fatal effects of seafood consumption.
"And oystersin particular," he crows and waves his spindly arms to emphazise the importance of his argument, his moon face up to the top of his sharp nose flushed from the liquor. "If you eat them at the wrong time- in the summer for example-" he shoots a meaningful glance at his audience- "there is a high risk of poisoning yourself! And the symptoms are nothing to jest about- a muscle paralysis of the face, arms and legs up to the airways- very similar to those of toxic mushrooms!" He nods, somewhat satisfied at the suspicious glances around him and helps himself to another glass of punch. Captain Simcoe casts a sarcastic glance at his superior. "I could never understand the preference some people seem to have for those slimy, nasty little things," he says contemptously.
"Nasty ? Ah, but can you blame them?" Paracelsus lifts a lecturing forefinger. "You cast your nets and fish the oceans dry like they belonged to you-" "You ?" Simcoe interrupts him with a mockingly risen eyebrow. Paracelsus boggles and clears his throat. " Us, I mean, of course. We. We humans. Although some of us are clearly more ignorant than others,"
He shakes his head in order to clear it, yet unsuccessfully. "So you think, just because the sea's creatures cannot cry out in pain, they don't feel it?" he continues his rant. " NO !" Hickuping, he struggles to climb onto his chair, holds a tiny hand to his heart and proclaims:" If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die ? "His audience is clearly torn between shock and amusement. "And if you wrong us," Anna Strong finishes the quote with an unreadable expression on her face, " shall we not revenge ? "
Judge Woodhull gives her a wary sideglance and snorts. "Doctor, please," with a pinched smile, Hewlett steps to Paracelsus and helps him climb off his chair. "With all due respect to your -dedication, but this is hardly the right subject-"
Paracelsus sinks back into his chair with a panting noise. "Forgive me, Major, I got carried away," He raises his glass and takes a deep draught. "I really* hicks* didn't mean to decry your dishes- and the drinks*hicks*- are excellent!" "Well, I'm glad to hear that," Hewlett forces himself to a smile. "How about a little-musical entertainment for a change?"
He walks over to the window and seats himself at an instrument, that Mariel had not noticed until now. The breath catches in her throat, when Hewlett starts to stroke the keys and intones a clarion "Rule Britannia," in which, after a moment, everyone falls in, except of course, for Mariel who is mute, and Paracelsus, who doesn't know the lyrics.
"Is the anthem of our glorious empire not to your liking, doctor?" Captain Simcoe asks dangerously calmly when they are finished and watches him with one of his unsettling stares. Paracelsus gulps. "I'm not much of a singer myself, Captain," he stammers and shoots a glance at Mariel, as if seeking for help, but she doesn't even notice. She had raised from her chair and walks towards Hewlett at his harpsichord, like in a trance.
The major looks up at her when she approaches him. "Miss Mariel," he smiles. "Do you play the harpsichord as well?" The expression on her face is strange, bemused. Has she remembered something, by any chance? He stands up and gestures politely for her to sit at the instrument and she does. She reaches out her hands and her fingers tremble slightly before she, tentatively at first, strokes a key.
The dinner guests fall silent when she starts to play, perhaps in anticipation of another popular song to sing along with, but soon it becomes clear, that the tune the mute girl plays sounds not in the least familiar. It seems to be some kind of elegy, sad and longing, a melody which is too alien and disturbing to be really agreeable, yet strangely bewitching. A song like a distant dream, which needs no words but speaks directly to the heart; of places you had never seen but, in a mysterious way, always longed for.
In a word- and especially concerning the occasion- Major Hewlett finds her performance rather inapprobiate.
And even more so is the reaction of his Captain. When Mariel had begun to play, Simcoe went white as sheet and now he stares wide-eyed into nowhere- as if he had just seen a ghost. His hands shake so violently that he drops his glass and spills its content all over the fine, white tablecloth, but instead of apologizing, he stands up so abruptly that he makes his chair collapse behind him and leaves the room without a word.
Hewlett presses his lips to a thin, disapproving line. Is the man drunk again? Such kind of behaviour is simply intolerable.
Mariel for her part remains lost in her play, neither noticing nor caring what an odd impression her performance had made. What a strange girl, Hewlett thinks. Would they ever get to know who she really was?
But then his musing is rudely interrupted by a loud clank, followed by a startled cry of Mrs Woodhull when Doctor Paracelsus, apparently drunk out of his wits, collapses head first onto the cake plate,the bald back of his skull jutting out of the flattened apple pie like a particularly ugly ornamentation.
Enough is enough. The major hastens to declare the dinner party closed, in the secure knowledge that he wouldn't host another any time soon and Mariel and Anna Strong volunteer to help the barely conscious doctor back to his office, who, despite his claims to be "not much of a singer" blares the whole way the- hitherto unknown in Setauket- classic "Under the Sea".
He doesn't talk to his Captain until the next morning, where he tells him briefly that he orders him to travel to New York and report to Major Andre about the recent events in Setauket. And while he is there, he could inspect and accompany new recruits for the regiment here, since this is damageably decimated since the disastrous counter raid at the rebel's nest.
For once, Simcoe doesn't object. He looks pale and battered, but neither does he apologize for his terrible behaviour at the dinner party nor does he bother to explain it, and to be honest, Hewlett couldn't care less. His orders would keep him in New York for two weeks at least and he is glad if he doesn't have to see his face again until then.
And Captain Simcoe is equally relieved to leave Setauket.
He is shattered, broken, a nervous wreck who can only hope to seek his refuge in flight. There is only one thought echoing again and again in the numb hollowness of his head, tormenting him until he thinks he will lose his mind.
It has always been her!
Mariel. His no-longer- friend and no-longer bethrothed. His soulmate, his ideal woman, his only love.
It had been her all the time.
He had not known it and it doesn't matter that he does now, because the feeling is apparantly not mutual. She doesn't want him.
He leaves for New York in the desperate hope to never have to see her face again.
References to "The Walrus and the Carpenter" by Lewis Carrol from "Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there "
Here's the whole song:
The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright--
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.
The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done--
"It's very rude of him," she said,
"To come and spoil the fun!"
The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead--
There were no birds to fly.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
"If this were only cleared away,"
They said, "it would be grand!"
"If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year.
Do you suppose," the Walrus said,
"That they could get it clear?"
"I doubt it," said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.
"O Oysters, come and walk with us!"
The Walrus did beseech.
"A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each."
The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head--
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.
But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat--
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn't any feet.
Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more--
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.
"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."
"But wait a bit," the Oysters cried,
"Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!"
"No hurry!" said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.
"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
"Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed--
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed."
"But not on us!" the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
"After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!"
"The night is fine," the Walrus said.
"Do you admire the view?
"It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf--
I've had to ask you twice!"
"It seems a shame," the Walrus said,
"To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"The butter's spread too thick!"
"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.
"O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
"You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
But answer came there none--
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.
It is highly recommended not to eat oysters or other shells in the summer months, due to possible toxic enrichment from sea algae.
The Shakespeare quote is, of course, taken from "The Merchant of Venice".
Also, I want to apologize for my characters always being drunk, tbh, I dunno why that is- or do I ? ^^
Hope you enjoy!
Chapter 11: Time Is Running Out
While Mariel ( in Setauket ) and Simcoe ( in New York ) are respectively wallowing in self pity, their time is running out. Will he make it back in time?
Setauket, two weeks later, the day of the expiry of the ultimatum
Mariel sits on a rock at the seashore and waits for the flood.
She has her arms wrapped around the legs under her dress- legs, she will no longer have, once the sun drowns in the sea before her.
The last two weeks after the departure of her no-longer friend and now never-to-be-lover had passed her by in a numb, apathetic haze.
Now that she knows her time is running out, she finds it hard to take much interest in anything.
She read books without remembering what they were about, helped Anna in the house and sometimes at the tavern, deliberately ignoring the concerned sideglances she darted at her ever so often.
One day she saw the black petticoat on the clothesline again, announcing another secret meeting of the rebels. She no longer cared about it.
The day after Hewlett's dinner party she visited a- considerably hungover- Paracelsus at his office and they had their first dispute and yelled at each other. Or rather, he yelled and she replied with angry scratches of her pen at the slate.
Paracelus was unable to understand why she had refused Simcoe's proposal in the first place. Wasn't this as close as she could get to reach her goal?
Mariel bit her lip. "No," she wrote in return. "He doesn't love me. He told me, the major had practically forced him to propose to me and surely he was happy enough when I refused."
"Happy?" the doctor echoed incredolously and his round and still somewhat greenish face took on an angry red up to the top of his ridiculously long nose. "He didn't look exactly happy last night if you ask me-"
"But I don't," Mariel scribbled. "And I wonder how you would have noticed since you were visibly drunk as a fish."
"Very funny." Paracelsus retorted drily. "I'm sure, your sense of humour will cheer me up when we're both in the claws of Madame Medusa- and I'm equally sure, she will feel like laughing, too, now that her precious Lizardo is dead."
He shuddered involuntarily. "Mariel," he urged and grabbed the sleeve of her dress. "Have you forgotten about that? Is this stupid pride of yours worth eternal doom in the sea witch's lair? You need to travel to New York and talk to him!"
Mariel shook her head. Couldn't he see it was hopeless? Simcoe had ridden out of town in the early morning. He had not bothered to say farewell and neither had he left a note to tell her when he would be back.
Paracelsus glared at her from narrowed eyes and put his tiny hands on his potruding hips. "Fine," he snapped. "If you won't do it, then I will!"
Mariel's eyes widened and she grasped her slate. "Don't!" she wrote. "What good would that do? It has to be a true love's kiss, remember? Nothing will be gained if he comes back for me out of pity- you would only add insult to injury. I forbid you to talk to him, you hear me?"
"At your command, your Grace," the doctor murmured ironically. Not that he had a great desire to talk to the Captain- who was apparently very irritable and tended to have choleric fits- but he would do what was necessary if Mariel didn't change her mind. Someone had to.
Paracelsus meant well and he had only ever tried to help her, Mariel thinks gloomily, it is not his fault they had failed in the end. It is hers, and hers alone, has been hers right from the start. And now the unfortunate excursion of the stupid, stubborn little princess to the human world would come to its deserved end at last. There was nothing more to say.
On the rare occasions she had helped Anna at the tavern, she heard the men talk about the latest events of the war. It meant nothing to her. Only one time, a random scrap of conversation momentarily caught her attention: as it seemed, the body of the traitor had vanished from the garrison's prison cell under mysterious circumstances. So, Madame Medusa had somehow managed to take Lizardo home- presumably to be buried somewhere in the dark, cold, moldy sands of her realm. Where she would likely soon join him.
Anna, as well as Major Hewlett had offered her further lodging for as long as she wished. She had accepted to stay at Strong Manor, knowing she wouldn't strain Anna's hospitality for much longer. She had begun to talk- or rather write- of vague plans to leave for the city, in case her host should be worried when one day she found her gone.
At night, in the dark, silent privacy of her room, she had cried until no more tears would come.
But now that the moment is near, she feels nothing but a deep, numb weariness. She wishes it all to end.
The day is slowly fading and a cold breeze blows from the sea and dishevels her mane of light hair. She has not bothered with pinning it up today. There is no need for it where she is going. Mariel slips off her shoes and sets them neatly aside next to the rock she sits on. She will no longer need those either.
In her mind, she lists all the things she has experienced during her short trip into humanity over and over again.
She has learned how to walk, and how to dress and use cutlery at dinner.
She has learned how to read and write and fetch ale.
She has tasted human food and human drinks and liked it.
She has met- and almost made friends- with people on both sides of the war they are fighting here. ( She still isn't quite sure, what all of this is about in the first place. Not that it would matter now.)
And she has come to realize that humans are often complicated and hard to understand, that they tend to say things they don't mean and do things that make no sense.
All in all- they are not so different from herself.
And yes, she has even found love, but love, as well as many other things, turned out to be quite different from what she had expected. Not the warm, comforting feeling she had always dreamed of but something deceitful, brittle and sharp-edged; made to hurt rather than to heal.
All in all, it is not a bad output for only four weeks time. Considering to be sufficient for the rest of her life, it is not nearly enough.
She thinks of all the things she has not done and now never would.
Dance at a ball.Take a journey on a ship. Ride a horse. Watch a stage play. Run barefoot across a meadow, still wet from dew, in an early summer morning. See the leaves of the trees colour and fall in autumn. And then- snow.
The list is depressingly endless.
And she didn't have the time to teach John how to swim. How can she leave before that ?
Mariel feels a sudden wave of sorrow and regret wash over her, so strong and heavy it threatens to suffocate her.
She blinks and swallows down her tears as she tries to focus on the shadows that slowly grow longer around her until she is able to breathe again.
If anything, she is grateful she didn't have to see him again, grateful he can't see her like this. She does not want his compassion.
She hopes, he will be able to find a more appropriate bride in due time, one of a more - suitable kind, from a more suitable family who is able to provide her with a rich dowry.
The sun is slowly sinking on the horizon at the far end of the ocean,spreading a colourful glow across the waves beneath it. Mariel sucks in a deep breath of sweet, salty sea air. It will soon be over.
She startles and looks around for the voice that just called her name, but the beach is deserted except for herself and a bunch of seagulls who fight noisily over the remains of a dead fish.
"Here," a faint whisper comes again from the waves before her and now she can see the heads of two of her younger sisters, Marina and Eviana, arise on the water surface. Mariel has to look twice to make sure- where once their hair had been- long, silky manes of shiny magenta and aquamarine- there are now only close cropped stubbles on their skulls.
"We sold it," Eviana explains. "We talked to the sea witch, Mariel. She told us everything and- and she is willing to replace your agreement with a new one. Forget the kiss of true love. Forget humanity. The human world is not for us."
"I don't understand-"
"Madame Medusa says you may return to us,"Marina says with an encouraging smile. She swims closer and presents the object she had hidden in her hands- a small, antique looking dagger.
"All you have to do is- take this dagger and thrust it into his heart-"
"She is mad with rage about Lizardo's death," Eviana adds. "So much so, that she promises to annul the pact you made if you agree to kill his murderer in return. Say you will do it, Mariel! Come back home! Father is numb with grief since you left-"
"Kill him? " Unbelieving, Mariel shakes her head. "Never. I made my choice and I am ready to face the consequences of my failure. Go tell her that."
"Make up your mind, I beg you," Marina urges, her voice choked with tears. "What has this man ever brought you but sorrow and heartache? Madame Medusa grants you a delay. Just kill him and you can come back to us- be with your family again-"
"But I can't," Mariel says with a sad smile. "I love him."
And when she says it, she knows it's true. She may have been wrong in everything, but not in this. Painful as the thought is, it is also oddly consoling. She would not die for nothing in the end.
"Oh sister," echoes a distressed whisper across the waves, as her sisters retreat empty-handed to their realm in the ocean.
"Then all is lost."
Earlier the same day, Major André sits at his desk in his office and clings to the glass in his hand- sherry, his third drink in a row in order to calm his jangled nerves.
He shakes his head when he reviews the last two weeks and the unpleasant aquaintance he was forced to make.
What on earth had Hewlett been thinking to put such a pest onto him ? A despicable man. How had he even become a Captain in the first place? Had all the other officers been killed in that failed counter-raid on the rebel safehouse ?
John André, Head of British intelligence, is usually not one who is easily flustered, but this man had managed to strain his tolerance to a limit.
Not only must he have touched practically every single item in his office during their conversations- and despite his repeatedly pleedings to refrain from doing that.
No, when he invited him for dinner- as politeness demands, although he'd much rather spent the night in the arms of that promising new actress he had just met- he drank too much and insulted all the other guests. Too subtly to rebuke him for it or even throw him out, but enough to create an atmosphere of tense hostility, he then seemed to enjoy.
Just as he picked all his prospective recruits to pieces. As far as Simcoe was concerned, each and every one of them was inadequate for the task of protecting a strategically crucial backwater place like Setauket and André has no doubts that they, for their part, are terrified at the thought of doing duty under him in the future.
And when he was done bullying them to his satisfaction, he would then spend each night in shady taverns, drinking heavily and bothering everyone who wasn't fast enough to escape with drunk laments over the lost love of his life- before he would flip at the slightest provocation and start fights with soldiers and locals alike.
André sighs heavily,empties his sherry and instantly pours himself another. He must have a serious word with the Oyster Major about the selection requirements for his officers eventually, but for now he is just glad Simcoe is going to return to his fishing village the next day.
Whatever happened to the British army? Not that he would spend much time on the battlefield ( his remit rather requiring working behind the scenes ) but he usually prides himself on his diplomatic skills, and now only two weeks with Captain Simcoe had provided him with a potential for aggression he would have never thought himself capable of.
Unaware of the Major's resentments towards him, and likely not much interested in it either, Simcoe already found a tavern he has not yet been banned of-good thing, York City is such a big place and has so many of those-and started his regular evening drinking orgy.
It runs the same course every time: first he would sit alone at his table and wallow in self-pity before he would find a- more or less voluntary- audience to moan at, then eventually, after a few drinks, misery would inevitably turn into anger and someone would say the wrong thing and provoque him to a fight which he would either win or lose, depending on how drunk he already is and how many adversaries he has, and then he would either continue drinking or get knocked down and thrown out and either way it would end with inconsciousness and merciful oblivion.
That is always the best part.
One day- or so he hopes- he would wake up the next morning and find that he has forgotten about her entirely.
It is early in the day, the tavern almost empty and he still in the first stage, brooding over his ale and a new attempt to write his pain and grief off his chest, to trap her in verse where she can no longer bother him.
So far, this has not worked especially well and countless pages of good parchment have been burned in the fireplace.
The tavern door swings open and he looks up and sees to his surprise the unmistakable figure of the ridiculous doctor pushing his barrel-shaped form through it.
He frowns. What shady business may bring the odd fish to York City now? Why, this is no concern of his. And after all, one listener to his mourning monologues is as good as the other-
"Captain!" Paracelsus pants and approaches him as fast as his spindly legs allow." I've been looking for you everywhere-"
Simcoe looks at him from bleary eyes and raised his glass at him. "And now you've found me," he says flatly and empties it. "Have a seat, man and drink with me."
"Drink?" Paracelsus looks him over, from his pale face and red eyes to his unusually dishevelled appearance- wig askew, uniform crumpled, boots covered in mud- and gives a disapproving snort. "No time for that! You must come back to Setauket with me. Now."
"What are you babbling about? I'm going to return to Setauket tomorrow and not a day sooner, now sit," he commands." Grab yourself a drink and let's tell each other stories of the falsity of women and the futility of love-"
The doctor rolls his pop eyes then he reaches out his tiny hand and grabs him by the sleeve. "Captain, you don't understand! It's a case of outmost emergency-"
"What, another outbreak of an epidemic ?" Simcoe retorts scornfully. "Why, I'm sure you'll manage without my help there, Doctor-" He stops and turns pale as a horrible thought crosses his mind.
"Mariel," he gasps out. "Don't tell me she's sick-"
"If she is, it's no sickness I am able to cure," Paracelus replies drily. "Only you are."
He can see the man's jaw drop before he shuts his mouth and twists it into a bitter line."How so? She doesn't want me, does she? Never did. But I don't blame her. I wouldn't want myself either-"
Paracelsus snorts. "You broke her heart, you-you big, stubborn donkey !" he rants.
"I did?" Simcoe looks utterly aghast.
"In deed. And instead of trying to get it right, you prefer to just sit here and drink and- whatever nonsense you may be writing there-"
He bends forward, grabs the piece of paper on the table and skims through it. "shipwrecked by the Siren call, hmpf, how apt-"
Simcoe reaches out, snatches the paper from his hands and crumples it up in his fist. "Then why has she refused my proposal?" he asks in an insulted tone.
"Ah yes, the proposal." Paracelsus sighs. "Have you even proposed to her? Wasn't it rather presented with a fait accompli? And didn't you let on it was against your wishes anyway?"
"But- given the circumstances-" Simcoe stammers, then his shoulders slump and he buries his head in his large hands. Is it possible, that the doctor is right? Had he broken Mariel's heart whilst he had been thinking it was the other way around?
"Perhaps I did," he admits in a feeble voice. "I didn't know my own heart until it was too late- I am a fool."
"Why, I do not dispute that," Paracelsus says softly. He reaches out and awkwardly pats his back. "But if you are, so is she. And now we must leave-"
He grabs his sleeve again and to his utter relief, Simcoe rises from his chair. But as he stands, his eyes narrow, he stares down at the doctor and his voice turns into a threatening snarl. "I swear, if this turns out to be some sick joke at my expense, you will regret the day you have met me." "That I do already, believe me," Paracelsus mumbles as he shoves him firmly towards the tavern's door.
He follows the panting figure in front of him, who turns around every other moment to make him hurry up. Simcoe can't suppress a flicker of ironic amusement. Even when he's running, Paracelsus' legs are so short that they would be a lot faster if he just carried him. He shakes his head at the sight of the doctor scuttling in front of him, constantly murmuring to himself "Quick! Quick! Before the moon is up ! " The man is clearly mad as a hatter.
Still he managed to pass his nervous tension on to him. Women are sensitive enough to die from a broken heart, this is well known. And he would never forgive himself if anything happened to Mariel...
As they have reached the stables and he has readied his horse, the doctor lifts his short arms in a child-like gesture for him to help him into the saddle.
He raises a pale eyebrow."No."
Paracelsus rolls his eyes. "Captain, you might need me. And a carriage would take too long..."
After a hell of a ride which left Paracelsus more dead than alive ( he had clung to the animal's mane for dear life and sworn all over again that no force in heaven or hell would ever make him mount a horse again ) they reach Setauket when a red sun is just about to sink into the sea.
Simcoe avoids the town center in order not to draw Hewlett's attention to his premature return and heads straight for the beach as the doctor has told him to.
It doesn't take long before Paracelsus gives a thriumphant cry and gestures at a lonely figure sitting on a rock while the tide slowly rises around her.
"There she is," he pants. "Thank God!"
Simcoe dismounts and helps the doctor out of the saddle. Paracelsus moans in pain, wipes the sweat off his brow and pushes his companion forwards. "Go to her!" he insists. "Hurry !"
Simcoe watches the figure on the rock. It is in deed Mariel, her fair hair all loose and waving around her. She sits there with her back to them, her hands across her knees, staring out to the waves.
Now that he has found her, he suddenly hesitates. "And then what?" he asks feebly.
Paracelsus rolls his eyes as if this was the dumbest question ever. "Then you tell her that you love her, of course" he says like he was speaking to a retarded child.
"Of course," Simcoe repeats blankly. "Simple as that."
"And then you must kiss her," the doctor goes on.
"Kiss her. Of course. What else."
He shakes his head but begins to walk towards the figure on the rock. This is ridiculous. It can hardly be this easy. It never is. But then, what does he have to lose?
When he comes closer, Mariel hears his footsteps on the damp sand and she turns her head and her eyes grow wide. She doesn't have her slate with her but that isn't necessary. She waves her arms in a clearly defensive gesture and mouthes a silent "No," while her gaze flickers helplessly from him to Paracelus and back. So much for that.
But then, he couldn't stop himself from walking towards her, she looks so utterly lost and desperate. Because of him ?
He swallows hard and stops in front of her, his eyes searching hers for understanding. Could it be ?
And then, something in his face must have gotten through to her. She rises, awkwardly, incredulously.
For a moment, her beloved features are illuminated in the warm, red glow of the sunset, ever so beautiful.
The breath catches in his throat and he feels his heart miss a beat when he realizes that he sees his own feelings reflected in her eyes.
He steps closer to take her in his arms, and at the moment he does this, the sun drowns in the sea behind them and gives way to a dull, eerie twilight.
A sudden cold, harsh squall blows from the sea and throws him back from the arms she has outstretched for him.
He sees Mariel's pale face as she makes a move as if to run to him, but then it seems as if she can no longer control her legs because she stumbles and sinks back against the rock with a silent moan.
A full moon rises at the horizon and bathes the scenery in a ghostly light.
Mariel holds on to the rock for another moment, the angry waves raging around her, and then, with a sudden lightning flash and another heavy gust of storm, her hands slip off the wet stone and she is dragged towards the open sea like by an invisible force.
He hears Paracelsus' desperate screams and a deafening roll of thunder that sounds like laughter.
One last time he can see the shape of his beloved as she struggles against the waves which carry her away, and then a huge surging billow crashes over her head and the sea swallows her.
Horrified as he is- and well aware that he cannot swim-Captain Simcoe does not hesitate for a second.
He tears off his boots and uniform jacket, drops his weapons, jumps into the sea and and dives after her.
Uff, long chapter.
The good news is, we're almost there. Only one more chapter to go! I'm sure, my heroes are as happy about it as I am.
Anyways- Merry Christmas everyone and as always, thanks so much for reading!
Chapter 12: Clash of the Titans
A proper fairytale ending with everything you need: a dramatic final fight with a terrifying monster, the victory of true love over everything, an- unconditionally- happily ever after and- a zombie.
There is nothing left for him to do. The ocean is an enemy too powerful to defeat and he should have known better than to try.
The fierce waves, lashed by the sudden thunderstorm and the strong current drag him mercilessly out to the open sea that swallowed his beloved. Already the coast is too far away for making it back ashore and before him and all around him is nothing but dark, wind-churned water.
It is hopeless.
He is going to leave Setauket in the same way he had set foot on it- flotsam and jetsam, one of many victims of the war, not worth a footnote. He wouldn't be missed.
Under the surface of the raging sea it is perfectly still. The water is dark and cold and he opens his mouth and drinks like it was exquisite wine. Who would have thought that such a peaceful death would be granted him? Would this final, heroic and selfless act outweigh his countless misdeeds when it came to the last judgement? Probably not, but you could always hope.
The last image that comes to his mind is of his brother. He could not save Mariel just as he could not save Percy but there's a strange comfort in the thought to die like him, now. Somehow, he had always known it would come to this.
When he comes to again, it is to the damp cold and bleak dimness of an unknown place. A tomb, judging by the rotten smell of it. The air is mouldy but it is air, and he sucks it in greedily.
He is not dead! Or is he?
The place is dark and eerie enough and he can hear faint whimpering sounds in the distance like the cries of lost souls in the forecourt of hell. But then, isn't it supposed to be hot in hell?
He struggles to sit up and peers out into the dank darkness. He can't make out more than shadowy outlines but he knows, he is not alone in here. Clearly can he feel another presence near him, lurking in the shadows like the proverbial monster under the bed.
He takes a shivering breath. "Where...where am I?"
His voice echos eerily back at him from what must be high walls. And then, tentatively: "Who are you?"
There is a shuffling sound as if something very large and heavy is being dragged towards him across the muddy floor. He hears the snapping of fingers and suddenly, a variety of lampions and torches light up and illuminate the face of the mysterious lady of the house in all its beauty, hovering above him like an apocalyptic vision.
Madame Medusa bares her rotten teeth into a malicious grin.
"Your worst nightmare."
And that is certainly no exaggeration. It is all he can do not to scream. And only because he is literally frozen in horror just by the look at her face. Not just because it is incredibly ugly- which it is- but also because he is stupefied to find himself looking at a legendary figure from an old myth.
With her enormous breasts and potruding belly she reminds him of the scary statue of a goddess of fertility his Godfather had brought with him from one of his former military expeditions to the dark continent, but from the waist down she is a giant octopus with fat, black tentacles.
Her face, framed with living, coiling snakes for hair, has the same sickly greenish grey tone as the rest of her torso and is heavily made- up like a bordello queen's.
But it is the eyes, which are the most terrifying feature about her, a vicious, inhuman, yellow glare, which makes the blood freeze in his veins and turns his flesh to stone.
Captain Simcoe( who usually prides himself on his own death stare ) wants nothing more than to escape the look from those terrible eyes, and yet he is unable to drop his gaze or even blink.
The creature curls her blood- red lips and smiles, apparently used to such a reaction at her sight.
"Welcome to my realm, Captain," she says. "Do you know who I am?"
He swallows hard, his tongue feeling like stuck to his gums." The Gorgon," he replies in a frightful whisper and as he says it, a sudden surge of relief washes over him. If this monster in front of him is truly a thing from an old story, all this is just a dream. It must be one.
Madame Medusa's smile broadens. "Not quite." She shrugs her shoulders which makes her massive breasts wobble like flour bags. "But close enough."
The smile leaves her face and she lowers her head to him so that her foul breath brushes his face. "You killed him!" she hisses in a hateful voice. "My baby, my poor little Lizardo! You cannot imagine how happy I am that you decided to follow your little hussy to my place. Your suffering will be endless, I promise you that much."
She withdraws and once she turns around and her gaze leaves him, he feels to his boundless relief that he is able to move his limbs again. He has no idea what his crazy captor is talking about, nor does he want to know, and when he sees her slowly crawling deeper into the dimness of her realm- doubtlessly in order to prepare her instruments of torture- he quickly rises to his feet and searches the room for an escape route in panic. There is a high door made of bones at the far end of the room. If he could reach it before she notices, if he would just run...
And then an icy fist clenches his heart when he realizes what the monster said.
She has Mariel !
Captain Simcoe takes a deep breath in order to overcome his fear, suddenly ashamed.
What kind of man would think of escape when his beloved is in danger? What kind of soldier would he be to run in the face of an enemy- however gruesome?
Had not Perseus slayed the Gorgon? Cut her ugly head off? Admittedly, he had been the son of a demi-god. And also had the help from other gods and mythical creatures. He doesn't even have a weapon.
And still, he has to try. There is no other way.
A giant tentacle lashes back his way and rudely interrupts his musings. It grasps his ankle and tears him off his feet again, then another follows to wrap itself tightly around his waist. With a derisive laughter his captor drags him with her, helpless like a rag doll. He digs his fingers into the skin of her tentacles to free himself, but although slimy and squashy, their grip is firm and unyielding.
"Mariel," he cries out. "Where is she? What have you done to her, you monster?"
"Me? Oh, nothing," Madame Medusa turns around, her ugly face a study of incredulous indignation. "Nothing that wasn't otherwise agreed, that is."
She burns her freezing stare into his and he feels his body turn to stone once more. "The more relevant question, Captain, is, what have you done to her?"
She nods her multiple chins at his unbelieving stare. "Oh yes. All I do is abide by our contract." She sighs. "Of course, it is very sad and all that it has to end like this - but that's hardly my fault. I do like love stories and let's be honest- the best ones always end tragically- and now come," she adds, as if he had a choice and trails him behind her. "Time to reunite the unfortunate lovers for the last time."
She stops at the far end of her parlor and lights another torch with a snap of her fat, little fingers. As the flame flares up, Captain Simcoe catches his breath at the sight of Mariel who is tied against one of the high stalactite columns of the grotto like a captive on a savage stake, her hands tied behind her back and her whole body covered all over with chains which attach her to the pillar, from her naked upper body and her small breasts, only scarcely covered by her long hair, down to her feet.
Only that there are no feet. Or legs.
What he sees instead, are the shiny scales of a fishtail from her waist down.
He blinks in disbelief at this new- terrifying but, at the same time, strangely fitting-addition to his nightmare.
And Mariel is clearly as shocked to see him as he is. Her eyes grow wide with horror, before they well up with tears and she bows her head like in shame.
Madame Medusa's thundering, dirty laughter echos from the walls of the grotto. "Isn't she beautiful, Captain? " she chuckles. "You thought her not good enough to be your wife, her bloodline not noble enough, didn't you? Why, she is a princess, oh yes. Although, admittedly- not of a realm you would have heard of. Now tell me, do you still want her now that she's missing the anatomic parts you liked the most?"
He doesn't bother to answer this-neither would he have known what to say in the first place, nor does he have the time. Only just recovering from the initial shock at the transformed sight of his beloved, his eyes are already confronted with the next nightmare.
By the sound of his mistress's voice, another creature stumbles into the torchlight and he can only stare in horror when he recognizes the man he killed with his own hands.
If even possible, in death he is an even more unpleasant sight than in life. Lizardo looks every bit like a corpse in a progressed stage of decay, his dead skin swollen and burst open in several places, not to speak of the deep, ugly cut in his belly which had caused his death and from which his bowels and viscerals hang out and exhale a heavy, nauseating smell.
And still, the gruesome thing moves, in a jerky, horribly wrong looking way. He stumbles forward as fast as the rusty chain around his neck allows, which shackles him to the wall behind him.
"Oh God, dear God, no," Simcoe whispers, utterly shaken. "He's alive."
Madame Medusa raises a thin-plucked eyebrow. "Why, somewhat," she confirms drily.
With a jerky movement, Lizardo's head shoots out as he snarls and snaps at Mariel on her stake. She gives a whimpering sound, when Lizardo's jaw snaps shut only inches away from her face, spitting foul slobber on it before the chain tears him back.
The undead thing howls with frustration. "Brainsss" he roars in a horrifying parody of his former lisp.
His mistress frowns. "I did what I could," she says by way of explanation. "But he's completely useless as it is. All he wants to do is eat. Maybe I should let him feed on you, since you're the one who killed him, eh? Although I doubt that birdbrain of yours would keep him sated for long," she adds with a malicious grin.
"No," She turns back to him and one of her tentacles shoots out and coils around his neck and she pulls him to her. "No, I think I will keep you," she purrs in a voice that makes every hair on his body stand on end. "It would only be fair, wouldn't it? You robbed me of my loyal servant, so you can as well take his place. Wouldn't that be nice?"
She pulls him closer to her and he finds himself unable to even flinch once he is hypnotized by the gaze of her horrible eyes again.
She purses her thin, blood-red lips in a gruesome imitation of coquetry. "You're not quite my type," she pouts." Tall and well-built, I'll give you that- broad shoulders and all- but I'm more into the Latin type, you know?" She sighs. "Beggars can't be choosers, is that not what they say? And if you do well-"
He can't help himself. Despite his horror, despite the undeniable hopelessness of his situation, let alone the suffocating tentacle around his neck he feels himself shaken by a violent laughing fit.
The mere thought that this monstrous travesty of a woman could be so much as picky about a companion, is more than his overstrained mind can bear.
He laughs until tears run down his cheeks and every bone in his body hurts- and at the sight of her angry, insulted features he laughs even more.
"Well. Maybe not," the sea witch snarls, releases him from her death grip and throws him back against the wall, where he escapes Lizardo's snapping teeth just barely with a quick somersault.
"I'll have hundreds of servants soon anyway," an indignant Madame Medusa spits. "Once I trade your little whore to her father for his kingdom. You see, I have no need for you. I will have my poor Lizardo feast on you, that's the least he deserves."
She catches her breath and her features turn slowly into a malicious smile. "But first things first. No need to rush it. Where are my manners ? We're having a party here, don't we? A happy family reunion. We need drinks."
She turns and sets her body masses in motion.
Once she has turned her back on them, Captain Simcoe struggles to his feet and towards the tied up figure of his beloved where he desperately tries to tear her shackles loose with his bare hands.
"I don't know what this is all about, Mariel," he wheezes. " It's a goddamn nightmare, all of this, and I will most likely wake up any moment, but I won't leave you to this fate, I will get you out of here, I promise you this,"
He tugs and tears at her bonds, his fingertips soon bleeding at the effort to cut her loose and stops only to place random, fervent kisses on her face. "I will save you, believe me, my love," he pants. "You do believe me, don't you?"
Through her tears, she smiles and gives him a look that says as clear as words would that she does, no matter the undeniable facts which prove them wrong.
"Captain!" an urgent voice interrupts his desperate efforts.
He turns his head but can't make out the speaker. There is no one here but him, his mute love and some fish, splashing about in a waterhole near them.
And the fish talks.
"Captain," he pants again. "You will need a weapon. Check those boxes."
He spins around and searches the area but sees nothing. " NO, not here! Over there." The fish cocks his head towards a pile of boxes to his left corner.
As if it wasn't strange enough to talk to a fish, he realizes that this fish speaks with the voice of doctor Paracelsus. More than that, he even looks like him, from his huge, bloated belly up to his long forehead bump.
"Yes, yes, it's me!" the fish confirms in an impatient tone. "Hurry now. Before she returns!"
He doesn't need to be told twice. He spurts towards the boxes and rummages through them until he brings something to light which looks like a heavy, mediaval broadsword, tarnished and rusted, but a weapon nonetheless. And once he holds it, he feels whole.
Admittedly, the sword is much heavier than the bayonet he is used to but as he wields it by way of trial he is delighted at the way it cuts through the air, and he hurries back to Mariel to cut her bonds, but too late.
Madame Medusa is back already, a tray with glasses in her hand, her massive torso blocking the way to his beloved. "Now, now, Captain," she sneers in a mocking voice. "Have you found yourself a little toy to play with? "
She sighs like a benevolent mother. "Boys- all the same."
"Get out of the way, you monster" he snarls. "Or I swear, I will cut my way through you."
"Don't look her in the eyes," the urgent voice of the fish, who looks and sounds like Paracelsus, implores. "Avoid her gaze at all costs!" Remembering the old myth, he nods.
"Enough," the sea witch hisses and drops the tray.
From the corner of his eye, he sees one of her tentacles lash out for him and he strikes out and is rewarded with the clash of metal on flesh and a shrill shriek of pain.
But before he even has the time to enjoy his triumph, another of her tentacles shoots out in a flash, grabs his ankle and throws him to the ground, where his head hits the floor hard and to a pain which makes him almost lose consciousness and he barely manages to cling to the sword as he falls.
"You're a wild one, aren't you?" the sea witch hisses in an angry tone. "I think, I will keep you after all. It will be fun to break you, oh yes,"
She slashes out once more and her tentacle hits his face with a hard blow, splitting his lip and the skin of his cheek. The searing pain and the taste of his own blood in his mouth fills him with rage, stronger than his exhaustion.
Staggering, he rises to his feet, sword still in his hands, closing in for the kill.
The sea witch laughs at him. "Cute, really. You're such a warrior. My little toy soldier. Oh, how much fun we will have together-"
And in a sudden flash of inspiration, he knows what he has to do.
He cannot defeat her. She is too strong, too mighty and he is no demi-god, he's only a man.
His arms shaking with the effort of it, he lifts the sword over his head once more, and just when he sees her furious tentacle shoot out at him , he turns around to smash the chain which holds Lizardo to the wall.
The tentacle hits his face and he hits the ground.
For a moment the undead creature seems to be dumbfounded at his sudden freedom, but then he stumbles forward and instinctively concentrates his attention on the fattest booty available.
"Brainsss" he roars again, staggering towards his mistress, his bony arms outstretched as if to hug her, and then he is upon her, buries his teeth deep into the soft, flabby flesh of her belly, finally able to eat his fill.
Madame Medusa gives a deafening cry of pain and frantically tries to shake off her former servant, who is burrowing deep into her flesh, smacking and grunting in delight.
Captain Simcoe, his face smeared in blood, every bone in his body feeling broken, rises to his feet one last time and with a blood curdling cry he wields the sword over his head once more and decapitates the monster.
A fountain of acid, pitch- black blood bathes his face, when her head is cut off her neck and he takes a second to wipe his eyes before he lunges out again, still screaming, and does the same to Lizardo who is too busy with eating to offer resistance.
"And now stay dead!"
The hero of the hour sinks down on his knees, drops the sword and picks up the two disembodied heads to present them to his beloved like the most distasteful marriage gift imaginable.
"I did it, Mariel," he gasps out. "I told you I would, didn't I?. Just- please- don't let me do that again.-"
Then his eyes roll backwards and he collapses on the floor when he loses consciousness in earnest.
He doesn't even wake up when the grotto is shaken by a heavy thunder and the embodiment of another ancient God rises up at its entrance, nor to the deafening, thundering voice who asks once more: "What's going on in here?"
Poseidonius, King of the Atlantic Realm, his imposing sight hidden from eventual blasphemic views, crouches behind a cliff near Setauket's coastline. The storm has ceased and he watches the beach, and on it, the particular piece of jetsam he had placed there with his own hands- the outstretched figure of a tall, broad- shouldered man, his crown of unruly auburn curls half covering his pale, long-boned face, apparently unconsious.
Poseidonius frowns and turns to his companion who paddles next to him in the water. "Is he dead?"
Paracelsus shakes his head. "I don't think so, your Majesty. He's a tough one."
The king deigns to a nod of reluctant respect. "He must be to slay the sea witch. A human, who would have thought...? Almost like in the old stories. At any rate, I'm glad to be rid of this unbearable, devious woman."
"And he saved Mariel." Paracelsus ventures to add. The king nods again. "Indeed. I should reward him for that."
He thinks for a moment. "My treasury is full of gold and diamonds from their sunken ships. All humans crave gold, don't they? Choose some and fill a box or two for him, will you?"
The surgeon fish doesn't reply but turns his long-nosed head towards the other figure, who is watching the unconscious man on the beach from her cover of a rock near them.
Mariel- although in possession of her voice again, since Madame Medusa died and her spell had been broken- had hardly uttered more than a dozen of words after the incident.
Poseidonius follows the gaze of his subject and sighs. "She's sad, isn't she?"
"She'll get over him in time- presumably-hopefully-" Paracelsus tries to convince his King as well as himself but his thin, doubtful voice gives him away.
About to shrug shoulders he no longer has, he sighs as well. "But as for the reward," he says at last, "Wouldn't the hand of the king's daughter be the more- appropriate gift? Very traditional, too. For the man who slayed the monster-"
The king snorts and slams his palm against the rock. "A human man! And it is his fault it came to this in the first place!" he growls.
"But he didn't know, so you can hardly blame him" Paracelsus says softly. "And still he risked his life to save hers."
His ruler looks back at the unmoving figure before him, then to his daughter, who is too far away to make out the expression on her face, except that her eyes never leave the man on the beach.
He sighs again. "So you say, he's a good man then?"
Paracelsus grimaces in evident discomfort.
"He tries," he says at last. "He is a human, after all, a warrior, yes, but not a monster. I think, at this point in his life he can turn out either good or bad, depending on who's with him."
He peers up expectantly to his king from the corner of his pop eyes.
"And you think, Mariel will make him a better man?" Poseidonius snorts. "She's not really the soft and gentle type herself, wouldn't you agree?"
Paracelsus suppresses an amused smile. "So you might as well say, they deserve one another" he replies.
Poseidonius watches him attentively for a moment. "Very well," he says it last. "I guess you wouldn't say all this if you weren't positive about the matter."
He shrugs his broad shoulders. "I love my daughter but I have seven more to care for-and may the abyss swallow me if I want to see that long face of hers for the rest of my life-"
He rises from the water to his full height and aims his trident in the direction of his daughter, but then he pauses.
"She will need someone to look after her," he announces in a cunning tone. "I'm not entirely convinced that human can do it."
"A splendid idea, your Majesty," the surgeon fish agrees. "Do you have someone-specific in mind already-?"
But the king gives no answer, instead he wields his trident and slams it at the water's surface next to him.
A flash of silvery lightning travels across the waves towards the figure on the rock, wraps itsef around her fishtail and transforms it into its human form once more.
Mariel stares in disbelief, before she lets out a cry of joy and darts her father a look of utter gratefulness and love. Then she is in the water and quickly approaches the unmoving figure on the beach with vibrant swimming strokes.
Captain Simcoe opens his eyes to the sight of his beloved, who cradles his head in her lap and looks back at him from bright, tearful eyes and sighs in utter relief. He feels awful, beaten up and shivering with cold, but he manages a blissful smile.
"Thank God, Mariel," he says through shattering teeth. "Hold me. I had a terrible dream."
Mariel holds him closer and shares her bodily warmth with him until he stops shaking.
He sits up, moans in pain and blinks at his surroundings in the early light of dawn. "What - what happened?" He shakes his head. "I'm sorry, I-I cannot remember how we got here."
Mariel smiles at him, gently brushing the damp curls off his pale brow. "There was a storm," she says softly. "I fell into the water and you jumped after me. You saved me, John."
She can clearly see valid doubts on his furrowed brow fighting against male vanity, until, unsurprisingly, the latter wins.
He smiles but then his face goes white and he stares at her wide-eyed. "You talked !" he whispers and clutches her shoulders. "You're no longer mute!"
Mariel nods, smiling. "And you're no longer blind. Quid pro quo."
"I think, the shock of the incident must have somehow-somehow restored my ability to speak, " she explains.
Simcoe returns her smile and pulls her close to cover her face with fervent kisses. "So I saved you," he says, pleased.
He withdraws and looks her over, with her long mane barely covering her nakedness. He raises an ironic eyebrow. "But, as it seems, I didn't save your clothes."
He looks around, finds his uniform jacket lying on the ground next to his boots and weapons and gathers it up to wrap it around her.
"Well, madam," he says in a mocking parody of his usual gentleman manners. "It seems, I brought yourself into a quite indecent situation once more. And I would heartily beg your pardon, had it not been necessary to- well, save your life. But as matters now stand," he lowers his head to her and his crystal blue eyes sparkle in amusement. "I think I must strongly encourage you to reconsider my proposal."
Marielle sighs and shrugs her shoulders. "I'm afraid, I'll have to," she replies, imitating his feigned formal tone. "And since I have nothing else to offer to repay your kindness-"
His smile turns into a grin. "Oh, I can think of quite a few things to start with," he murmurs in a throaty voice.
He pulls her close to him and into a deep kiss, which could not be misinterpreted by any force, natural or otherwise.
Then he lifts her up in a swift motion, ignoring the pain in his muscles in favour of a way more urgent feeling that grows inside him and makes it suddenly very necessary to get back to his room in the tavern and out of reach of eventual prying eyes.
Mariel ( who retrieved her voice, but apparently not the memory of her former life ) becomes Mrs John Graves Simcoe in July 1776.
Judge Woodhull himself marries the couple- and in rather indecent haste, for a child, as rumour has it, is already on the way.
Major Hewlett and Anna Strong serve as witnesses, a favour which they would return one year later when Hewlett and a by then divorced Anna walk down the aisle themselves.
Mariel's unknown heritage turns out to be less of an issue than John would have feared- not only is Admiral Graves surprisingly happy about the marriage, but also the lack of a dowry is solved in a mysterious way, when just in time, on the date of their wedding day, two huge wooden boxes full of coins and fine jewelry happen to be washed ashore on Setauket's beach, her name written on it and a true- to- life miniature portrait of her amongst the treasures, which clearly confirms her as their owner.
In a first, official marital act, Mariel teaches her reluctant husband how to swim, which ends in furtive lessons at the pond in warm summer nights- and takes much longer than intended, due to the fact, that he constantly insists on extended breaks during which he would teach her lessons of a different kind in reverse.
On the occasion of Simcoe's promotion to commander of the Queen's Rangers they soon move to a big house in New York.
Their first child, a son who bears his father's name, is born on a cold February morning. A very indignant doctor Paracelsus, who wouldn't understand why it is considered indecent for him to assist at a childbirth, at last settles to heavy drinking with the prospective father all night long, so that the same in the next morning, his face bathed in tears of pride and joy, is hardly able to stand up and hold his son and heir.
Just like he had feared, little John is the first of seven children, following in annual sequence, all of them- and to their mother's secret delight- cursed with his unruly shock of auburn curls.
Doctor Paracelsus ( who would later come to a certain fame for his -not undisputed, yet much-noticed in medical circles- publication of a work upon the harmful effects of seafood ) takes over the godparentship for each of them and tends to them throughout various childhood ailments.
None of them ever suffers from summer fever.
--- The End ---
Chapter title borrowed from the 2010 movie of the same name.
"Brains" - Plants vs Zombies.
So, this is it. I can't believe I actually finished something. Thank you so much for the company and all the support ! It's been a blast!