Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Homecoming

by K. A. Masters


At night Larissa Macsterna crept away from her ancestral home to the shore in order to pray for guidance. Knowing that there was a pier not too far away, she trudged towards it to seek her destiny.

As she passed by the tidal pools she watched the sea life struggle in the moonlight. Among the minnows swimming in circles was a skate; it, too, sought escape that it could not find. The skate was as trapped as Larissa felt.

Determined to help it, she picked up the creature in the apron of her black dress and hastened to the shore. As she picked it up, it had shocked her, but she did not begrudge it for her wounding. She sympathized with the creature, as she knew that like her, it did not have a way out. She congratulated herself for the rescue, then continued on her quest to the pier and her destiny.

Ten paces later she discovered the stranded merman.

At first she thought that she had stumbled upon an accident. Seeing his sleek black tailfins and shiny teeth at his waist, and the blood pouring from the pale skin of his back and shoulders, she initially thought that she had seen the double corpse of a shark choked upon the body of a man. As she realized that the two forms were one, she ran to the wounded creature's aid.

The merman was unconscious, and Larissa surmised that like the skate, he too would die when his tidal pool dried out. Torn with indecision, she thought of how far it was from her home, and the savagery of the ocean. After a few moments' pause she made up her mind on the safest course for the poor creature. She cursed with a grunt as she lifted the merman by the armpits and began the laborious trek back home. Pace by pace she groaned in sympathetic pain of the merman's tailfin as it dragged in tow behind her. She hoped that the water-soaked cloak that she had wrapped around the gill-slits at his hips would be enough to keep him alive until they reached safety.

As she dumped him into her farmstead's carp pond, the merman roused himself long enough to snap at her, "Don't touch me!"

"Sir, you need help," she replied, rubbing his shoulder in comfort.

Her dark-finned guest remained unconscious while she massaged unguents into his wounds and sealed them with wax. As she worked, she felt unable to resist running her fingers down the black shark flesh of his tailfin, reveling in its texture. She saw the odd protrusion of his stomach and smiled knowingly. "A seahorse!" she murmured in awe, "He is a seahorse!"

Larissa squeezed his shoulder one last time and settled down beside the pond to wait, watching her guest. She tried to sleep, but her eyes remained fixed on his dark hair flowing in the water, rippling with each breath.

####

At dawn the merman woke with a groan in the stagnant water of the artificial pond. Raising himself on his least wounded arm, he used the other to protect his middle. The splashes of his movement woke Larissa.

"Good morning," she yawned, "Can I fetch you anything?"

"No. I cannot stay." He struggled to lift himself out of the water and onto the ground opposite her.

She watched as he dragged himself inch by painful inch away from the fishpond towards some unknown goal. "Where are you going?" she asked, but he did not respond.

"Please," she begged, grasping his tailfin, "return to the water. You'll die, else."

Assuming that she voiced a threat, he reached for the dagger at his shark-tooth belt, but found its sheath empty. He sighed in frustration, unable to defend himself. Deflated but still somewhat defiant, he voiced, "Water is comfortable, but not wholly necessary for me. I can breathe air as you can, lass."

"You might not need water to live, but you do need safety. You can't leave yet; it's too dangerous. If other humans find you -- well," she admitted, "I've been to market. I know how much elf-blood cures are worth."

"And?" he boomed.

"And you should at least wait until nightfall to travel, sir," she said, daring to place a hand on his shoulder.

He sighed, then as he eased back into the water, snorted, "Captivity!"

"You're not a captive, sir," she smiled sadly, "You're my guest. My name's Larissa, by the way. What's yours?"

He ignored her question.

"If you are hungry, I have some soup in the kitchen. Or, uh, there's plenty of Christmas carp in the pond. They're still young, but they're tasty when they're buttered up and fried. Do your kind feed on fish?" she asked, ignorant of merfolk ways.

"No," he growled, watching the fish that lazily swam circles around him. "You know, if you let me go, I'll grant you three wishes," he tempted her with bitter words.

"No. That's just a fairytale," she laughed easily, "I know that you can't grant wishes. You're just a man. With a fish tail." She reached yet again to comfort him.

"Then why are you so desperate to touch me?" he growled at her, inching away from her.

"There are many reasons for that. May I?" she asked, then repeated. "May I have your tail?"

"May I touch your leg?" he barked back hotly, annoyed by her schoolgirl petulance.

"I suppose that's fair," she replied demurely, but as she lifted the hem of her long black gown to reveal her ankle, he rolled his eyes and huffed, "Never mind." He lifted his tail out of the water and laid it on her lap. She held the joint where his caudal fins met with his tail, at a place she reckoned was the equivalent of his ankles, and murmured, "Your skin is so lovely."

"You can tan it," he replied, not nearly as bitterly as before, "and make a nice rug out of me."

"No," she laughed, "I prefer you whole."

"A lovely couch, then," he quipped.

"Or an ottoman!" she shot back, massaging the joint. "But that isn't why I'm holding your fin. I hear that the elves and other Fey creatures can hear the thoughts of others through touch. If that's true, then you'll be able to sense that my motives are pure. You'll be more apt to trust me. And..."

"And?" he prompted.

"And I've been told that elves draw energy from the earth (or, I'm assuming, water elves draw energy from the water?). This water isn't fresh -- I hope that you can draw energy from my life force instead...and... "

"And...?" he continued.

"It means a lot to me that you exist. You're the first elfin creature I've ever seen," she admitted, unabashedly starry-eyed. "There are legends that my adoptive family has, uh, a merman or two in its family tree. Your existence confirms that the legends and family stories that I grew up with here are true. And that means a lot to me."

"You are a friend of the Fey?" he asked incredulously.

"Of course. You might be family. If not, I am still at your service." She curtsied with a sad smile. "Consider me a cousin -- a very distant cousin, with legs instead of fins."

"Then can you help me get to the Macsterna manor? They are not too far..."

She laughed, again. "You're already here. I've told you, I'm Larissa Macsterna. Is it widely known that this is a sanctuary for merfolk?"

He nodded. "Something like that. Where is Millie, the Lady of the house?"

She smiled, amused. "Camilla is long dead. I am the adopted child of her great-granddaughter."

He swallowed with difficulty.

"Did you come to seek sanctuary, sir?" she asked, and under her breath, whispered, "Opportune timing."

"Yes, but..."

"Do you wish to heal in the safety of my house? Who hurt you? Was it another merperson, or was it a human?"

"My own kind," he huffed bitterly, then sighed, lovesick, "Both."

"Then you'll need to stay here for a little bit, until you've healed enough to brave the seas again. The seas? Oh, dear!" Larissa cried anxiously. "You were in salt water when I found you, and I dumped you in my fresh water pond! Did I harm you?! I swear, I didn't even think about it...!"

He listened to her curse herself and replied, "It takes a day or two for me to adjust, but I'll be fine. It wasn't a very costly mistake." He smiled to see her take a sigh of relief.

"Did you want to stay here until the child is born?" she asked, boldly revealing her insights on the merman's condition.

His instant blanching confirmed her guess. "I don't know what you're talking about," he lied, not quickly enough.

"You're pregnant, I can tell. Come now, sir, isn't that the reason you were seeking the Macsterna manor? For a safe place to birth your child?"

"How did you know?" he asked, still unsettled by her knowledge.

"Because among humans, females are accustomed to bear their young. Merfolk, I suppose, rather resemble seahorses? Male seahorses bear young, too, you know. I must confess I didn't know that particular aspect of merfolk living, but I suppose it's not all too uncommon in myths and legends. I mean, Zeus carried Dionysus in the old tales..." she spluttered, unable to stop rambling.

He nodded then replied, "I would appreciate sanctuary until the birth of my firstborn."

"Of course, and you shall have it, sir. But, sir, may I ask how do mermen...?"

"Mermen don't, usually," he huffed, uncomfortable by the question, "My human wife died pregnant. I carry my son so that he wouldn't die, too."

"How...?"

"I am a healer. I found a way to make him survive."

"Is that why you were beaten? Because you are carrying a child?"

He nodded. "There are many who do not understand what I did or why I did it." His hand covered the scar along his swollen abdomen.

"Will you have to cut him free?" she asked, equally horrified and fascinated.

He nodded. "If I could only find a knife. And a few healing potions."

"Of course. Whatever you need, sir."

"Arnath. My name is Arnath," he finally admitted, and listed for her the items that he would need for his surgery. "And I need time, and strength to heal from my injuries first," he added.

She gulped anxiously. "How long? No more than two or three days, I hope?"

He nodded. "I know. As much as I appreciate the hospitality, I do not feel safe here. I should leave as quickly as possible. But I still need a few hours of rest."

"You should wait until nightfall, then. I will need time, too, cousin, to acquire all that you need." She bowed and left, allowing him to rest while she completed his errands for him.

####

Larissa returned at nightfall, laden with a large leather sack of supplies. Just as she handed him a knife, she hesitated, and asked the question: "Are merfolk affected by Cold Iron, like the elves of the forest are?"

He shook his head, proving his immunity to metal by holding the knife without injury. "Thank you for asking that, though. Your concern is appreciated."

With a gulp she asked "Will you need help?"

"I don't think so. It will be painful, but I must bear it. It must be quick, or it will endanger my child." He applied a numbing potion to the scar. While he waited for it to take effect, he added, "Would you mind holding my tail again? I will need your strength," he dared to admit.

"Of course, Arnath," Larissa replied, taking his caudal fin in her lap again. Then she watched in utter awe as he placed a leather belt between his teeth, bracing for the pain. She blanched as she watched him make a long incision; her fingernails dug deep into his dark flesh as she watched the purple blood flowing from the wound. Larissa had to turn away as he removed the tiny merchild from his stomach; she wiped the sympathetic tears from her eyes as she heard its wail, likening it to a dolphin's song. Overcome with emotion, her attention divided between the child nestled in the merman's lap and his hands as they removed the human womb from his flesh and repaired the blood vessels of his own circulatory system.

As soon as he finished stitching up his own flesh, Arnath fell back with an anguished groan. Uncomfortable lying on his dorsal fin, he instinctively turned to his side, cradling his sore and bloody stomach in sleep. Larissa reached to place the child in its parent's arms and watched them slumber, resuming her grasp of Arnath's fin.

At dawn the merman woke to an odd, rhythmic sound. "What are you doing?" he asked his hostess, keeping one hand on his child, the other over his sore, scabbing abdomen.

"I'm replacing the water," she said with a grunt, pumping fresh water into the pond to the point of overflow, "So that you two are not swimming in your own blood."

Arnath held his child in wonder, checking him for injury or illness.

"The child looks healthy," she smiled sadly, "He's adorable."

"Happy Birthday, son," he smiled at his child. As he looked up at his hostess, he recalled the precarious situation and spoke his concerns: "He needs to get to safety. Quickly."

Larissa nodded. "I have a wheelbarrow in my garden; I can use it to carry you to the shore. There is still an hour or so before the townsfolk wake; we can make it to the shore in time, I'm sure."

"No," he said, "I need to get him to freshwater. There is a lake in the forest nearby; I have to get him there as soon as possible."

"But you said that merfolk can live in either fresh or saltwater," she asked, feeling guilty of how near the ocean was, and the distance from the nearest freshwater source.

"Adult merfolk can. Children cannot. My son was born in fresh water, so he'll need to stay in fresh water until his gills stabilize."

She sighed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to inconvenience you. I have a horse, but I cannot drag you many miles to the nearest lake or river."

He smiled, clutching the vial at his throat. "I know where I need to go. But may I ask another favor, Larissa? There are a few more items that I will need to borrow."

"Anything. Remember, cousin, you are welcome to anything that I own."

"I need something waterproof to carry the child in. And some clothes."

She nodded and left.

When Larissa returned a while later, he struggled to stand out of the water to greet her. He nearly stumbled on his unsteady legs; she caught his shoulders both to stabilize him, as well as to ensure the child did not fall from his arms.

"I did not know that merfolk could walk on land as humans," she said, noting his transformed shape.

He pulled on the clothes while she placed the child into a metal washbasin. "There is a pill that can give me human shape for a day," Arnath explained.

"Then why didn't you use it to get here?" she wondered aloud.

"It would have killed the child. Young merfolk have very delicate systems, and cannot handle such potions."

"Oh," she sighed, then continued, "I brought you a horse, to help you ride to safety, and I want you to keep the knife. But I also wish to travel with you, to help protect you while you are still on land."

He smiled at her, placing a hand on her shoulder. "I owe you so much already, and you have yet to ask anything in return."

"You'll grant me three wishes?" she jibed. "No, I..." she saw a shape emerge from the darkness and her eyes widened. "I need you to leave. Quickly."

"What's wrong?" he asked, turning to find a man approach. "Who...?"

"Oh, God," she cursed, "It's Mentiri."

"Who?"

"You have to leave. Now," she said, in a pained voice, tossing a blanket over the covering of the metal washbasin that held his child. She tried to physically turn him away from the stranger, but it was too late. An overbearing man loomed before them, eyeing them with a menacing glare.

"What is the meaning of this, beloved?" the man huffed angrily.

"This is my cousin, Mister Mentiri. He visited me for the day," she improvised quickly, "but he must leave now. Dear cousin," she whispered to Arnath, "take the horse and go. Take the, um," she pointed to the child's washbasin bassinette and added, "picnic supplies with you. I will catch up with you on the road, as quickly as I may."

"But..." both men spluttered.

"Just get on the horse and leave. Go," she mouthed. "Please."

Arnath's instincts growled at him to stay and protect his hostess, but concern for his child overpowered him. He nodded but stated simply, "I cannot ride."

"But...!" she began, but Arnath interrupted her.

"...but I will walk. Take the horse -- you will catch me more quickly on the road that way." He gave a quick bow to his rival and began his cumbersome escape.

Each pace that Arnath took further away from his ancestral home tore at his heart. He walked as quickly as his strength could carry him down the path that led not towards the City, but into the forest. He did not breathe a sigh of relief until he passed under the shadow of the forest canopy, knowing that he could rely on the hospitality of the elves if danger had followed him.

After an hour of walking, Arnath found an underground stream beneath his bare feet. Deciding to stop to rest, he summoned a shallow pool to form on the ground to let his child bask in its fresh waters. He sat, waiting and deciding what his next action should be. Three times he rose, intending to return to aid Larissa; three times he stopped, unwilling to place his hostess' safety over his son's.

Soon he heard the sound of a rider approaching. Arnath tensed, dagger in hand as each hoofbeat drew closer, but relaxed as he recognized its rider. He reached for her as Larissa clambered off of the horse with difficulty, nearly falling into his arms.

"Larissa!" he shouted, horrified, "You're bleeding!"

She smiled sadly, looking from beneath a swollen eye and split lip. "I'm fine."

"Why did that man beat you?! Oh, I'll kill him!" he vowed, clenching his fists in rage.

"My fiancÚ is a very jealous man. Will you use your healing talent to help me?" she asked as she revealed a blade still lodged in her shoulder.

Arnath cursed as he gently pulled the instrument out of her flesh and recognized its purpose. "A scalpel? Your betrothed is a surgeon?"

She nodded, then cried in pain as the merman salved and bandaged her shoulder.

Moments of silence passed between them. Arnath brooded, binding and healing her wounded flesh. Finally his rage boiled up and he could no longer hold his tongue. He spat, "How can you love a snake like him?"

She laughed at his outburst. "I don't love him, Arnath!"

"Then why would he be your Intended?"

She stared down at the black scales covering his bare feet that belied his original form. As they sat together, she moved the hem of her black gown to cover them. "We both match. Widowed both," she sighed sadly. "But I cannot remain widowed forever, Arnath. I am forced to marry -- I am forced to marry the doctor that poisoned my husband and caused his death." She gulped back a sob. "Damn that Mentiri."

"Don't marry him!" he said hotly.

"It's not that simple, Arnath," she replied.

Silence passed between them. Finally, Arnath tensed and asked, "Are you still willing to escort me home?"

"Of course, Arnath! What would you think, I'd rather be with him?! Besides, you need help. And we are like family."

"Like family," he echoed. "Come with me through the forest. My home is not too far. Travel with me in the forest. Please?"

"Yes," Larissa replied, taking his hand, "I will help you get home. I wish to help you, and I need a distraction from this morning's events." She did not add that she had defended herself against Mentiri and that he now lay facedown at the bottom of the fishpond, unconscious. She feared that she could no longer go home.

As they walked, taking turns holding the watertight bassinette, Arnath prodded her, "What do you know of your family?"

"I was raised with the tale," she replied. "I am the adopted great-granddaughter of Camilla Macsterna. She lived on the manor with her brother Cazort, before he joined, uh, your kind under the waves as a merman. He and his water nymph mate lived quite happily, visiting home every summer until..."

"Until?" he grunted, shifting the weight in his arms.

"Until a dragon came, and hurt his son. Enraged, he put on an iron breastplate and fought to bring him to safety. It is said that he put the boy in his mate's care and promised to return home alive, one last time. And he fought the dragon." She paused in respect.

Arnath smiled, "...and he slew the beast, returned home, and lived happily ever after with his mate and children?"

"No," she said quietly, closing her eyes as the story came alive in her mind. "He returned home to die. His water nymph mate burned her hands freeing him from his Cold Iron armor, and he kissed her burned fingertips in reverence. He looked at her for the last time," she snuffled. "And that night his son slept in a cradle -- the hollow of his iron breastplate. The child," she smiled down at the slumbering infant in Arnath's arms, "lived in the shadow of his father's great name. But it turns out well for him, for in his father's death, he gained a brother..."

"Oh?" he huffed, piqued.

"His widowed mother was lonely, as well as the child. As time went by -- the merman child gained a friend. It's Alec, Krozer's son. The two children worked together to recapture Krozer, the killer kobold king, and they locked him away in a tree on an island shore where he could no longer hurt another soul again. But the merman's widowed mother fell in love with him -- she bathed the base of the tree in kisses. And the kobold and the water nymph spent the remainder of their days raising their children in common -- the elf boy Alec and the merman child..."

"What?!" Arnath roared, outraged that his parentage had been questioned. "I have never been more insulted by such baseless lies than that tripe--!"

"It's true," she huffed back, equally annoyed that he denied her genealogy, "Every word of it. Cazort Macsterna was real, as real as you. And his adventures were real. He died a hero."

"No, he didn't," Arnath shot back. "And Caerula and Krozer did not become mates!"

"How do you know?" she sneered, still upset.

"Because I'm his son," he spat, "And I know that my father is still alive."

She laughed bitterly in his face.

"Larissa, where do you think we're going? You know where this path leads. This is the forest where Camilla was widowed, where Cazort fell in love, where Krozer lived and reigned. You're escorting me through this forest back home. Back to my home. And my parents -- Cazort and Caerula -- are waiting for me there."

"No. He's dead. He has to be dead -- he wouldn't have abandoned his sister like that. The family broke apart after that. Camilla killed herself because she knew in her heart that her brother had died."

Arnath thought a moment, then added: "You're right. Papa stopped visiting because of the dragon. But he lived. The dragon bites crippled him. He could no longer walk on land, but he did survive." He sighed. "It's true, then, my aunt is dead? That she killed herself?"

She nodded. "I never met her, but I was raised on the stories. Widowed, like me -- like both of us." She pointed to her long black gown and the dorsal fin at the small of his back. "She vowed that she wouldn't remarry, either. But men own property in this land. After she was widowed, Larissa signed the manor over to her brother so that she wouldn't have to remarry. And while Cazort still came ashore every year to sign the tax roster, she didn't have to. But when he stopped coming -- when she reckoned that he had died -- she bound herself in ropes and threw herself off of a pier, to join her brother in death. Pearl divers found her body four days later."

Arnath poked her middle with a sudden jab, feeling her waist thickened by ropes. "Is that why you went to the shore that night? Were you going to jump, too?"

She looked away, not daring to answer.

Arnath let out a long sigh. "I guess it wasn't safe for either of us that night on the shore. Larissa, you can't marry that man. And you can't destroy your problems by destroying yourself." He whispered, "You would be welcome among us, if you wanted to stay."

"What?!" she spluttered.

"There is a potion that can transform humans into merfolk permanently. It is the same potion that transformed Papa -- I mean, Cazort. You could join us. Then you wouldn't have to marry the man who abuses you."

"What?" she repeated, dumbfounded by the sudden offer.

"I will need help raising my son. You would be welcome among us, you are family! And you could find a mate among the elves of the forest, one of your choosing. And," he added playfully, trying to counteract the seriousness of the situation, "of course Papa will need to hear what a great hero he is."

She sighed. "What do I choose? The doctor who killed my husband, or the son of the ancestor that I worship? No, Arnath," she shook her head, baffled, "This is too much to think on all at once."

She fell silent and they continued their quest without speaking.

At dusk, they approached a small inlet to a serene lake. Arnath gave a happy yelp, recognizing the form of his parents approaching. They waved and he smiled, hopping into the water with his son. He pulled off his clothes and resumed shape as a merman, swimming forward to greet his parents. They took up the child in wonder and embraced their son welcomingly.

Larissa watched her guest's homecoming with bittersweet tears. She saw the jagged scars that ran down the elder merman's back and flanks, knowing that it was, indeed, the mark of a dragon that she saw. Her eyes caught Cazort's gaze and he waved at her, beckoning her to join them. She watched them, torn between her past, present, and future; her husband, her betrothed, and her fantastical distant family; the fantasy of her childhood tales and the reality of scars wrought by Mentiri. She remained mute and unmoving, locked in an internal debate.

Sensing Larissa's reluctance, Arnath placed his child in the care of his water nymph mother and approached her. He sat upon the bank of the shore beside her and spoke, "Well, Larissa, will you join us? Let me repay you for your kindness with kindness of my own."

She knelt by his side, placing an arm around his waist. His sharktooth belt scratched against the tender flesh of her wrist, causing her to smile. "You can repay me. I want your belt."

"Really? All of the help you have given me, all of that for an accessory?" he asked, dumbfounded. "But it's nothing -- it's just something that my father made for me when I was a teenager..." he said, removing the belt and placing it in her hands.

"The great Cazort made this?" she laughed, "Now I really must have it. It's proof that my finny family is real."

She squeezed his shoulder, then began to rise. Arnath's jovial nature quickly vanished into concern. "You were serious? You're going back to him?"

"No," she replied. "I will not marry Mentiri. But I will not live in the shadow of this family, either. I will not rely on the kindness of those I worship so blindly that I don't even know if they're alive or dead -- I don't know what's real, what's legend. And I have to find my own way. But I would like to visit, though."

He nodded, his concern for her still carved on his face.

"It was a blessing meeting you, cousin. Thank you for your friendship."

"Thank you for yours, Larissa. Please, be well." He kissed her fingertips in reverence.

"You as well. Take good care of your son. Keep him away from dragons." She embraced him with a tearful smile.

Larissa slowly rose, smiling at the merfolk couple in the distance. Waving at the three generations of the Macsterna family, she turned aside and left to forge a new destiny.

THE END


© 2009 K. A. Masters

Bio: K. A. Masters is currently a Latin teacher in New Jersey, but she spends her free time writing. Her stories (some featuring characters and themes featured in "The Homecoming") have appeared in Bewildering Stories, Gryphonwood, and here in Aphelion (The Changeling, November, 2008).

E-mail: K. A. Masters

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