I: Rook

You stand on the rock above the lake, tall and proud, hands clutching the rosary to your chest. It is all you have left in this world, all you have to look forward to in the next world. Damnation waits for you, you are sure of this, as sure as you have ever been, but perhaps you could take it with you. Even now, they have not been able to part you from it; the little beads on the string have imprinted into your palms, above a line of crescent moons.

The wind screams past you, pulling at your hair and the tattered rags your clothes have become; you imagine that it is laughing at you, licking the tears off your face with a mocking, hollow chuckle. It seems cold and knowing and you shiver and turn your head away.

Wit is wonderful, but a little wisdom would have been better suited then.

In the corner of your eye, something glitters in the sun, metallic and dark. When you look, there is nothing there, save a cascade of ripples along the surface of the water.

Then, it comes again. The water stirs from underneath, you see the faint outline of something dark and slender, moving quickly towards you. Fear has you frozen in place; curiosity keeps you there, wondering and excited.

A dark green head, distorted and waxy, breaks the surface of the water, followed shortly by a lean, muscled torso, then a long, powerful tail. As the merman throws himself up, back arching, flying high above the lake, almost level with you, his tail slams into the water, sending a wave crashing against the rocks, showering you in the process. At the apex of the loop, he lets out a loud screech. Then, as soon as it had begun, it is over: he slides into the water gracefully and vanishes from view.

You stay there, rigid, for a moment longer. It is… a miracle. There are mermaids living in the lake. You can hardly believe it, but how could you possibly deny it now?

Scrambling on the rock, you kneel down, peering into the water, reaching out a hand to brush the surface of it. You are disappointed, though, not to see a single dark shape in the water, other than shoals of fish – salmon, you think. A thought flashes into your mind, reckless and idiotic and so utterly, completely appealing.

Standing up again, you shrug off your clothes until you are left in a white, thin slip, and jump straight into the water.

The lake is cold, the grey of the sky above reflected in the water, murky and devoid of colour. A shoal of fish, reflecting silver and white, flee from before you, and seaweed catches at your legs, wrapping round and round to try and keep you there. Slowly, unsurely, kicking hard, you begin to swim, water stinging at your eyes as you search.

You do not have to swim very far. Called by your splash into the lake, a merman approaches you fast, trident clutched in one hand. From this close, he looks more human than you had thought – his eyes are a clear, light brown, and his fingers are longer and thinner, webbing peeking out from between them, but otherwise identical.

Hanging in the water, holding your breath, it is all you can do to keep yourself there and not head immediately for the shore. You wonder if he means to kill you for trespassing, for invading his home. Merpeople are not something you know anything about – you have only heard of them in fables and legends, drowning sailors – and you close your eyes, hoping it will end quickly.

Everything turns still, then you feel the water beneath your feet be disturbed, rippling around you, and something scaly flicks over your feet.

Your eyes flash open, and you nearly forget not to open your mouth and scream when you see the merman, less than two feet away from you, staring at you with a kind of insatiable hunger you recognise instantly. How many times have you seen that look on your own face? How many times have you felt it curl around your heart, pushing against the restraints society demands you wear?

It is familiar and yet strange, a combination which makes tears sting your eyes.

Slowly, carefully so as not to appear threatening, you raise a hand towards him, and then stay there, your lungs emptying of oxygen, but desperate for this one, single moment. You have never believed in predestined fate, not in the way you should; but now, here, you do.

He watches you, expression contorted in a frown and then, hesitantly, he raises his hand and touches it to yours – palm to palm, fingertip to fingertip. His skin is cool, but smooth, edges worn down by the constant motion of the water, and when his fingers curl around yours to grip them, the webbing is delicate. You try not to grip to hard, afraid you will break them.

You smile, certain you are crying now, and then he is smiling too and the light breaking through the clouds above turns the water into a million and one rainbows.

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