Another week, another horrible cold. This chapter is about wanting to drown, but not being able to. This is apposite, because currently I feel like I'm drowning in life - there's so much going on and I can't quite get a handle on any of it. Then again, that's not surprising, because that's exactly how I felt back when I wrote this, so there you go.
Scylla in Black
Just as she was about to hit the water, Nina lost her nerve and began to turn so that instead of a clean dive she burst into the murky underworld shoulder-blade first. She speared down backwards, hair streaming out before her face and eyes trained upwards at the shadow of the boat on the twilight-bright surface. Her breath was forced out in a stream of bubbles that mixed with those of the impact, her limbs were pulled firmly upwards, and with these streamers trailing Nina fought herself for control. For right then, it seemed quite right to be sinking, to keep sinking and to bid farewell to the sun and the sky forever.
She didn’t. She twisted round in the cold brine and struck out away and up. The water filled out her clothing into a dragging, baggy skin that held her back but Nina pushed anyway. Her lungs began to strain and she saw the wave chopped surface again, this time not as a romance of otherworldly shadows but as a final, fading hope. Her legs kicked harder and harder but for all the progress that she seemed to be making forward she could not counter the speed at which she sunk. She began to panic, to try to struggle free from the weight of fabric that was dragging her down, but the straps that where designed to keep her weapons on her person were too secure. Worse, the dried blood seemed to have attached the shirt she wore to her arm again, and in the horror of sinking and with the heavy force of the current that was dragging her she didn’t even have the strength to pull off the scab. She floundered.
Her limbs swept outwards, the jerking panic smoothed out by the sea’s fluidity, the burning became too much and at long last, descending gently, her mouth burst open and the salt water came streaming in. And then something strange happened. Nina was surprised to find that she could summersault in the water with ease, that she could move with a sudden assurance to her being. As long as she kept diving – this information came unbidden to her mind, a realisation as strange and encompassing as the taste of salt on her blood and skin – ignoring the sun and the light, then, in the darkness, she would be sustained. The sea filled her lungs and held her soul, and it did not let her die.
As long as she ignored the light then she was fine.
Nina dove further. She did not feel that her body was changing, she didn’t know if it was. She wasn’t sure that she cared. Some fish swam past her in a great silvery shoal and left her behind, flashing glimpses of an oily rainbow of disturbing colour in the murk. They were far freer in their element than she was. She did not belong there; she was just enclosed by it. She swam as best she could, and it was still better than she would have ever believed that she could have.
Above the surface a grey squall was lashing the crews of the two ships as they stood upon the merchant’s deck and spoke.
‘She just upped and dived, right into the sea,’ one of the sailors explained patiently to the black-cloaked crewmen of the imperial vessel as if it was a perfectly obvious fact of navy life that was nothing to do with him or with anyone else on board. He might have added: ‘huh, what are you going to do about a thing like that. Might as well try to stop the wind from blowing, the luck you’d have,’ but he didn’t, because he could clearly tell that the black-cloaked crewmen of the imperial vessel were already not very happy and were not taking the same, sensible, line of reasoning that he had taken regarding the events that he was describing. Their leader was pacing menacingly in front of the corpse of the merchant captain, which had been left in an embarrassing heap just where it had fallen, his cloak and those of his crew twitched restlessly upon their backs, itching and fidgety upon the rolling waves.
‘She was heading west,’ the sailor said more sensibly. ‘But we haven’t seen her come up for air. We, ah... we would have stopped her.’ He paused, gauging his position in the grand scheme of things. ‘But we didn’t know that she was the one you were after.’
The leader of the black-cloaked crewmen stopped his pacing. He shifted his shoulders irritably and a look of pain crossed his face although it was swiftly replaced with one of cold annoyance.
‘She’s probably been eaten by a whale,’ one of the other sailors added unhelpfully. He looked around for some support for this statement, but there was nothing coming. He almost continued talking, just to fill the gap, but then thought better of it. This probably saved his life, but then who really knows about these things.
The leader of the black-cloaked figures spoke at last, his pale face peering sternly from beneath the black hood. ‘You should know,’ he said, ‘that my name is Maliq.’
There was a sudden, sharp intake of breath from all of the silent sailors.
‘And no,’ Maliq continued. ‘She was not swallowed by the Leviathan, as in the stories that you tell each other in your bunks at night. Nor did she drown, that much is certain.’ Maliq shook his shoulders again. The rain damp cloak was sticking to the curves and folds of his back, a heavy and crushing presence. He did not like being upon the waves either, and nor did his followers, but that only made them deadlier.
‘Take the captain, lash him to the wheel and tie it so that the ship cannot change course. Our own ship cannot be sacrificed to these waters. We head west.’
West was where the archipelago curved its intermittent way towards the mainland, green isles like a ringworm on the blue sea. Most ships did not bother with island hopping when there was no need to do so, however, for reasons other than the directness of the route between the Phoenix Isle and Teufelhaven. Because to the west was where there were monsters.
At the bottom of the sea, past the wreck of the Peaquod and the broken sailors that cling to her rigging, below the coral snowline of those underwater mountains on whose summits seaweed grows, amid the leafy kelp beds and the hidden caves there is a rock whose position is not marked on the surface in any way except for the terrible, inescapable knowledge of its existence that is held in the mind of every sailor that has sailed these wretched seas.
Guided by currents and a fleeting figure beforehand, and the feeling that the water did not hold her at all but only contained her away from everything else. The rush of bubbles have surprised her, but nothing is that surprising when you are going through what Nina was going through then.
Upon the surface the storm sang on. Sirens wailed in the distance but it was too far and the captain remained steadfast, lashed to the wheel and the westward way. The last of the islands slid past in the distance beyond the port side rail, and a great frothing and bubbling appeared in the sea ahead. And then, in turmoil, a massive shape burst forth and passed across the bow and five sailors were snatched from the deck of the boat. Their screams were taken with them down to the lightless deep.
‘Before she comes back,’ the man said, ‘I need to talk to you.’ He wasn’t really a man, more like a fish or a god. He was the one who Nina had seen in the folds of water before her as she sank further into the blue depths.
‘Who are you?’ Nina asked. ‘What do you want with me?’ She felt like adding, ‘why aren’t I dead,’ and ‘how come I can talk,’ but the first was a question that she had long dispensed with, because the complexity and the self reflection that the answer would have entailed was too much for her to go into and the second just seemed like the least surprising thing that had happened today and so was a banal thing to say in the situation. She was burdened with a lot of things, but the lack of imagination implied in that question was not one that she would admit too, and she felt that it was in her calling to take the stranger things that she encountered in her stride – otherwise she might as well have just been her sister.
‘I have offered you my protection,’ the fish-man said. It was an unhelpfully vague thing to say because it implied a lot of things but answered none of her questions. The questions she had actually asked, that is. He was slippery and evasive, far more man than fish, Nina thought. ‘I have afforded you the protection of all of the sea,’ he finished, his quick, hard body darting in silver loops through the brine before her, his arms out expansively. Watching him, Nina felt like she was made of clay.
‘I can see that,’ Nina said. ‘But why have you done so?’
‘I had to ask you a favour,’ he said. As if it was simple. There was something in the way that he hesitated, right then, that made Nina think that he was getting ready to do something that he wasn’t used to doing. Telling the truth, probably. She didn’t want to break his confessional mood before he had even got underway, so she held her tongue. And she was very aware that the difference between being under someone’s protection and being in their power was a very small one indeed. She let him know that she was listening, and no more.
‘I did a great disservice, once,’ the fish man said, wringing it out. ‘To the creature who lives below that rock, and I have only know come to know what it was that I did. It’s... complicated. I want to apologise to her, but I cannot get near enough. For a number of reasons.’
‘But why me?’ Nina asked. The fish-man continued.
‘You are a woman,’ he said. ‘You share that in common with Scylla. You are also a remorseless killer, as is she. And you are the enemy of the enemies of my lord. All of these make me think that I might be able to trust you, and that you might be able to do what I need you to do. To get close to her, and survive.’
Nina wondered who the enemy of the fish-man’s master might be, but she didn’t ask because she didn’t want to drown, like an animal or a baby that was too useless to pay its own way and so wasn’t worth supporting. Instead she said, ‘what did you do?’ like she hadn’t already guessed.
‘I loved her,’ the fish-man replied. A very slippery answer indeed. He had got that in early, because it would help him to seem sympathetic, but it was a phrase that could mean a few things if it needed to. ‘But she didn’t know who I was.’
Nina nodded, treading water now.
‘She was beautiful,’ the fish-man said, wistfully. ‘A nereid, a sea nymph. There was no way that she was going to notice me – a humble fisherman transformed into a merman – so I did something stupid.’
‘How do you define stupid?’
‘I asked a witch for help. I know. She gave me a potion to pour into the bay where Scylla bathed, she told me that it would make Scylla fall in love with me. Apparently it did something else.’
‘Apparently? When did you do this?’
The fish-man at least had the decency to look sheepish. ‘Maybe a century ago,’ he said. ‘When she never came for me I thought that it just hadn’t worked, that I was beyond hope. So I went away, I got on with my life and I tried to forget. I honestly didn’t know that this was what she had become.’
‘And now you want me to smooth your way back in?’ Nina was surprised by how little hatred she felt. Already she was seeing this a chore, a conversation that she would normally have put off until it went away, except that because there was no way that she could ignore it she could file it under unwanted necessity and get on with it. At least she was certain that Scylla was going to be as unhappy about it as she was, and would be equally as uninterested in making friends with her as she was with Scylla. Strictly business.
‘They say that she has no control over the dogs that are her body and legs,’ the fish-man offered by way of an answer. He seemed like the type to whom dissembling came as naturally er... breathing wasn’t really the right word. So that was what you did to her, Nina thought, but he continued: ‘that they tear apart any living thing that comes near her. But I don’t think, I can’t believe that that’s true.’
‘And you want me to test your theory for you?’ Nina asked. ‘You know, if it’s not the dogs that are in control then you may be in for even more of a disappointment.’
‘I’m a god,’ the fish-man said. ‘I am not worried about the bloodlust. And you? You dived into the sea over twenty miles from habitable land. You can’t tell me that you fear death.’
‘Oh, I have a healthy fear of death,’ Nina said. ‘It just has a lot of other, more pressing worries to contend with. I also don’t like being used.’
‘You were already being used by the time you leapt from that boat,’ he said. ‘I’m offering you a way out. Help me here and I’ll set you down on a distant shore, a secluded bay far from those who would manipulate you and those who are chasing you down. Just remember, when you are there, don’t eat the reeds.’
‘But I don’t want to go far,’ Nina said. ‘I was heading to Teufel to visit my sister,’ but the sea god didn’t hear her as he was engulfed in remembering his own transformation, on a beach in the far distant past.
‘So you’ll do it then?’ he said. ‘That’s grand.’