The village appeared to be deserted when we arrived. It was possible that the entire fishing community was at sea, but it seemed unlikely that there would be no one tending to nets and that even those not of fishing age would have taken to the water. I and my assistants – to you that’s Nebrous Charl, ably accompanied by Lost Ninch and Natched Hax – had been dispatched by the Guild to investigate strange tales of a lost fishing village and other, stranger rumours. Twenty-three days’ ride down the coast to find an empty village didn’t greatly please me, but since we’d taken the trouble it behooved us to fully investigate before we departed with nothing.
It had been a harsh year of storms and vicious waves which had battered the coast from Velch to Norham. Not a good year for those who lived their lives by the water’s edge. Shipwrecks, empty nets and countless lives lost to the sea. No doubt the people of Gock’s Throat had faced a challenging year of loss and disappointment. Even in the capital there had been much moaning about not having fresh fish, though those tongues of course had precious little concern for those on the watery coalface of that problem. Stories had been passed up the coast of villages lost to the sea entirely, and it was reassuring to see that the “throat” of this hamlet’s name had done much to protect its inhabitants. That said, the waters looked especially brutal, pounding the rocks beyond the inlet’s gullet. One good thing about traveling on the Guild’s behalf is that I see a thousand lives I don’t want to live, which makes me feel rather better about this one. I sent Ninch and Hax off to scout around the various huts and homes, while I made my way down to the shore.
Low tide revealed the usual detritus of fish bones, shells, shreds of net, glinting and glistening smoothness and tiny pools of water. I rather like beaches, one never knows what one might find. I pocketed a handful of sea-worn glass, pebbles and shells while musing on the village’s fate. As I walked back to the cluster of huts and outstepped the sea’s high point I noted a curious series of wide shallow trenches leading from the village out to sea. They’d been erased in the damp sand further out, but here they were clearer, if much trampled and disrupted. I sat on a barrel to await my assistants and shook out my favourite pipe. I’d barely begun to fill it when a discerned a thick croaking. At first I thought it could be one of the odder sea birds, but we’d seen none here. Perhaps such failed sea harvests had put the little demons off – I’d never seen a fishing settlement that wasn’t besieged by them. Some kind of crab… As I turned in a slow circle, trying to place the sound I saw a flash of movement in one of the huts. Perhaps a windchime caught by the sea breeze, or perhaps something more.
The hut, or home I should say, to give greater respect to those who suffered a harsh life here on the edges of civilisation, was of a typically solid construction. Sea-rescued planks and rock bound together to form a surprisingly resolute presence against the elements. The door split into two, the top half open, and it was over its edge that I’d spotted movement. I approached warily. Normally I’d send Lost or Natched into the more precarious situations (one learns by doing), but they were still out circling and I’d spent far too long in the saddle to put off an opportunity to do anything that wasn’t being bounced off a horse’s spine. That croak came again, and a hand splayed out in a gesture of “halt.”
“Hello,” I called out, “my name is Nebrous Charl. I’ve been sent by the Guild to check on your village. Can you tell me what happened here?”
A thick cough turned into a chuckle and back into a racking choke. When it passed, an arm draped itself over the lower half of the door and the eyes and nose of what I took to be an old woman rose into view.
“Depart now, and leave us to our shame,” she rasped out, “return in a week and raze Gock’s Throat to the ground.”
“What manner of corruption has despoiled this place?”
“Greed, desperation, stupidity.”
Ah, the usual.
“Please, tell me of your village’s fall, elder,” I requested, setting yet another barrel upright and making a renewed attempt on my pipe.
Seeing that I was making myself comfortable, the woman relented and shared her story in harsh, choking eructations that sounded painful.
“Three weeks ago this all came to pass. The sea had turned upon us, no fish, scarcely a scrapling to be found for miles, all fled the terror of the storms that took our fisherboys and smashed our boats. We were starving, hunting gulls and molluscs till they all fled too. The storm grew too frightful to take the boats out and we’d scrabble up the throat in high tide for whatever the storms had thrust towards us. Precious little, and what there was tasted muddled and wrong.
“One night the waves were brutal, hammering the throat – naught but white foam by the time it reached the shore. When the water drew back, beneath the battered scum lay a creature we’d only dreamed of. Merfolk might be myth but this one was as real as you or I. Near-death, choking on that foamy seawater, bruised and worn by the sea. There was much talk of the right course of action. Drag em back to the sea, nurse them to health and the like. While we debated, the merfolk died. Hard to make one omen more ominous than the last in a season of ill tidings, yet the merman’s lifeless eyes spoke accusingly at us. Have I told you we were starving? A handful of cockles a day, seaweed broth. It wears a soul down to nothing. While some of us claimed we would not allow it, we did.
“The merman was sliced and butchered. Half fish, half man, who’s to say what meat we tasted? We feasted that night, and the next, our poor withered stomachs barely able to take what we gave it. I’ve never tasted the like before, the rich peppery taste of it… All was well, the village fed for the first time in weeks, and even the storm’s wrath abated and we could fish once more. Saved by the sea, we thought.
“Days later came the changes. We’d wake to find the skin between fingers and toes thicker, growing webbed. Even if you cut it back it’d just grow the more that night. The skin of the legs and hips grew rough, split. The legs themselves bound closer and closer together, no matter how one slept spreadeagled. Toes lengthened next, teeth sharpened. All this took a matter of weeks. And then at the last, we woke up choking in our beds, unable to breathe this thin air. They dragged themselves out of bed, crawled, hauling their twisted legs behind them all down to the sea. There lay breath. And once in, there was no coming back out.
“I watched them swimming in the throat, growing used to their new bodies and the sea in a way we never could as fisherfolk. And then one day they were gone.”
I regarded the old woman with some scepticism, though I took note of the troughs in the beach which aligned with her tale. “And what of you, elder? Why do you remain?”
“An accident some years before broke my spine; I can no more swim than I can walk. No, I have waited here to warn whoever came of our shame and fall.”
The lower door that she clung to shook and gave way, swinging open outwards. I gasped as she fell forward into the sunlight. Her skin was crisped as if burned, thin and translucent. And where her legs ought to be… a tail. Dry and cracked, yet a tail nonetheless. My assistants chose that moment to complete their rounds.
“Fuck me, it’s a fish woman,” Lost Ninch choked out as Natched Hax gawped and drew his axe.
“A moment, gentlemen,” I waved them back and knelt to the elder’s side. “And what would you have us do with you now, now that we’ve heard your tale?”
“Will you take me to the sea? I cannot live there, but I’ll die here alone anyway. Would you do that for me, Guildsman?”
We carried her between us, though she weighed almost nothing, all down the empty low tide shore and to the end of the inlet itself, where the waves smashed down on the rocks that had long protected the village of Gock’s Throat. There we waited for a lull in the pounding sea and slipped her down into the water. Her eyes caught mine as she dipped below the surface and was suddenly able to breathe once more. In the roar of the sea she vanished almost immediately, but I’d swear I caught sight of some other tailed creature like a man further out in the waves, there and gone in a second.
We returned to Gock’s Throat and burned it to the ground. We returned to the Guild with our strange tale. We’d be back before long with men better equipped for hunting and capturing these elusive merfolk, and then we’d learn some more.