14: The Fountain and the Fallacy

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Aren watched from the edge of the tree line. She knew well what this temple was and despised the humans for their mockery of her people's beliefs. She was aware of what had happened to the priest so many years before and had seen him mixing the strange concoction. She had even helped him.

He was a friend of hers, as much as the two races could be friends. They had surprised each other one day, neither seeing the other at the water's edge until it was too late. It was early in the princess's days of kidnap and murder so it didn't immediately occur to her that she might slaughter him. They had laughed and they had chatted, each keen to discover what they could about the other's world. It was genuine interest too, rather than the chance to discover weaknesses. His name was Geoffrey and the pair devised a scheme for him to experience life beneath the ocean.

It was nothing as drastic as cutting off his legs and attaching a tail.

Merfolk are able to breath both above and below the water. Geoffrey and Aren believed they could create a potion which would enable the priest to do the same.

They were wrong.

After many failed attempts, they were sure they had the correct mixture. Excitedly, they added the various ingredients. Aren cut her hand, allowing some of the blood to drip into the bowl. Geoffrey, in a hushed, gravelly voice, as if the words were reluctant to be spoken and had to be forced out, recited an incantation they had written. The words, they thought, were not as important as the confidence and faith they had in their actions.

The liquid in the bowl was dark, yet it suddenly turned darker, the light evaporating in the faint steam which began to rise. Aren and Geoffrey looked at each other. The princess was apprehensive, the priest anxious, but they had agreed and neither wanted to stop the other. Geoffrey took a deep breath and, in one long mouthful, downed the concoction.

At first, nothing happened. They had almost given up waiting, in fact, as the seconds crowded together to become minutes. The Geoffrey's eyes bulged. The whites shimmered and filled with a light red as if all the blood vessels had burst. His hands went to his throat and a milky froth leaked from the side of his contorted mouth. Aren reached out, with no real idea of what to do. She gripped his hand, concern lining her face, her forked tongue flicking in agitation.

Geoffrey spasmed. His back arched and his limbs locked out straight. He uttered what sounded like word, which may have been his friends name but could easily have been a cry of pain. A cough, quiet, not even a clearing of the throat, preceded the torrent which came next. The priest's mouth was agape as a flood of water erupted, soaking the ground pouring into the sea around Aren. His arms and legs suddenly relaxed and he pushed himself up, the water continuing to be a deluge. He staggered backwards and collapsed, twitching. It was only a mere few metres but it was too far for Aren to reach. She could only look on as the water surged, his body settling into a constant tremor and his eyes staring at her in terror.

Aren heard shouts as a group of men ran to the fallen priest, crowding around him. She slid back quickly, moving down to just below the surface so she was hidden but could still see what was happening. There was shouting and Geoffrey was picked up carefully, each of the men taking hold of a separate part of his body to support him. Their legs and feet were being drenched by the flow and one slipped as he walked, the priest's head barely missing hitting the ground before being grabbed and lifted again. Hurriedly, he was carried away.

The temple was erected on the spot Geoffrey was found. For Aren, it was an insult not only to her people but also to the memory of her friend. A century later, she was spying on another man, this one also soaked through and collapsed. This one had come from the sea however, whereas her friend had wished to enter it. It was for this reason she didn't turn and leave. She didn't run to him and slam her blade into his heart. It was for this reason she approached slowly, cautiously. The stabbing with every step wasn't fading and nor was it becoming more bearable, but Aren found she could push it away, holding it at bay with gritted teeth and clenched fists.

The chair was massive, the man partially obscured by the structure. As Aren moved around to the front so she could see him properly, she was shocked at his appearance. She found him handsome, though she couldn't say why. Humans were abominations, bizarre deformities with their toes and lack of scales. Why would she be attracted to one? How could she? Where was the urge to kill? Why did she not immediately think to decapitate him? Was it, as she had previously thought, the effect of Briony's legs? Was it the resurgent feelings from her time with Geoffrey? He had been a friend, nothing more, but they had been close, even if only for a short time.

No, again it was her realism. It would not help her cause to harm this man. If anything, it could bring her plans crashing about her. This time, however, she didn't need his clothes, nor did she find herself having to go against her instincts and end his life as she had with the woman. She had another idea. She could help him. It would be a way to ingratiate herself into the new world she'd entered. He'd be grateful. Any family he had would be too. They would owe her. It was a doorway she would walk through, blistering feet aside, and reap the rewards on the other side - her reward being the destruction of the humans.

Aren walked to the water's edge. She paused, gazing down, swaying in time to the waves. It was something she'd often do when the sun had set and the moon was high and the wind was softly singing to her. She blinked, shaking her head. There was no point in missing such times. They were gone, now. She would very likely never be able to return home or see her father or even Edris again. Once her task was complete... well, she didn't know. It was a swirl of darkness in her mind's eye which sucked any attempts to see past it in like a whirlpool. The future was completely unknown and unknowable. She had to deal with the now. With the present.

Kneeling, something she was aware she was doing for the very first time and hated how awkward the movement felt, the princess went to scoop some water into her hands. She stopped, remembering. Beneath the chair. Look beneath the chair!

With her focus on the human, Aren had completely forgotten the small fountain which bubbled under the seat. It had been built to symbolise the cleansing of the brine which had been brought forth by the merfolk's sorcery. It was a simple hole in the stone, worn at the edges from the decades of contact with the falling water from the fountain. But, it was pure, a conduit bringing it in from a nearby river which was fed from a spring high in the mountains. For merfolk, water was water. Pure or salty, it didn't matter to them. The liquid was their life and they didn't differentiate between its various forms - much like a human would not prefer the air from one location over another.

Aren knew, however, humans did have preferences when it came to water. They liked it 'clean'. It had to be free from what they would see as contamination. River rather than ocean. Rain instead of sea.

Humans were bizarre.

Aren hurried to the fountain and scooped some into her hand, letting it drip into the man's mouth. She massaged his throat, the twinge of temptation to squeeze or rip it out going ignored, to make him swallow. She repeated this twice more before the man's eyes fluttered open and he looked at her.

He coughed and tried to raise his head and speak. Aren hushed him, stroking his forehead. She thought the skin would feel greasy or odd. Merfolk had scales on their tales, but their skin was smooth and without blemish. Humans seemed to have all sorts of spots and stains on their bodies. It didn't feel that much different, though. It was almost as smooth as hers. The odd discoloration only added to the character of the face.

She shook her head. Don't move, she was saying without speaking. Take your time.

She gave him more water, being careful to load her cupped palm with as much as she could. Then she had an idea. Bending down, she put her head over the cascade, letting her mouth fill. She stood and leaned into the human until their mouths were almost touching, then let the water pour into his. He swallowed gratefully, the closing of his mouth causing their lips to touch. Without thinking, he pushed forward. For a moment, Aren didn't move, surprise and sensations she had never felt before paralysing her. She snapped her head back, wiping her mouth.

What?

"I'm sorry," said Rick, surprised with himself. "I don't know... I didn't mean..."

He pushed himself up, the strain causing his arms to tremble. Aren stared at him, then turned and ran.



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