Morgana loved the weeks following a big storm. Without fail, after a particularly nasty day or two of thunder, heavy rain, and seething tides, the weather calmed down into day after day of clear skies and gentle tides. She liked to think of it as Mother Nature blowing off steam.
The young scylla flips herself over as she slides gracefully through the water, letting the dappled sunglight filtering down from the ocean’s surface play across her slim belly, hoping against hope to add some color to her deep-sea whitened skin. Though she has her eyes closed as she basks in the sunlight, she can tell she’s getting close to the latest atoll on her list of places to visit. The water in the shallows that surround the islands in her domain smells of life, of vibrant algae and corals, of sea greens and fat, buttery fish. Of wealth. Not in money but in never wanting for anything.
She takes a deep breath of the clean, cool water as she propels herself over the seabed, trying to calm her racing heart. She lived for exploring her territory after a storm; with every tempest something new seemed to be dragged up from the depths. Last year she’d salvaged a mirror and a diamond necklace to admire in it, this year she was hoping some loose-gripped surface dweller would lose some earrings or a ring to go with it.
Her pace slows as the first of the great rock formations that surround this particular island resolves itself out of the aquatic haze. It’s a craggy, hole-filled affair, a hollow mountain almost, like most of the formations that make up the vast plain of tidepools and jetties that surround the island proper. Something of a chore to navigate, but a good place to stop for a snack; the rocky pools provided a smorgasbord of crabs and small fish that ensured she was never hungry for long. Indeed, it wasn’t long before she spotted a potential meal: a rather sumptuous looking fish caught in a mess of ragged netting stretched out over a cluster of rocks. She whispered some sarcastic thanks to whatever fisherman the gear originally belonged to before propelling herself toward her lunch. She smiles as she pokes her head over the surface to get a closer look at the wrecked net. The currents have stretched it over the rocks in a neat little sheet, as if they were deliberately setting a trap. All she has to do is reach over the top and pluck out her lunch…
Morgana gasps and snatches her hand away defensively as a rock whizzes past her head and hits the water behind her with a splash. She whirls round to face the direction it came from, then freezes in shock at what she sees. A young human, stripped to the waist, feet carefully planted on two gravelly patches of sand that just barely poke out of the surface. His sunburnt skin looks rather tightly drawn, as if he hasn’t eaten his fill in a long time.
He fits another rock into his sling with the practiced hand of someone who’s had to learn quickly or starve.
“I’m not sharing.”
Morgana stares numbly at the boy as the seconds tick by. When was the last time she actually saw a human? She’s been scooping up their lost valuables since she was a child, but when was that last time she actually got a good look at a human who wasn’t standing on the deck of a ship a hundred yards away?
“I-S-sorry, I didn’t-I wasn’t-“
The shocked scylla stumbles over her words; apologies, assurances that she didn’t know it was his, and a smattering of questions ranging from his name to his marital status vying to be the first out of her mouth. She feels her skin crawling, and the human’s aggressive stance loosens as his eyes widen in shock. Looking down at herself she realizes that she’s lost control of her camouflage reflex. Her skin’s turned pink and taken on the texture of the gravel on a beach three islands over. Humiliating.
The human bolts forward before she can think of a good way to excuse her abrupt change in appearance. He seizes the net and attempts to run back toward the island, but it snags on one of the rocks, and his forward momentum is just enough to tear a hole in it. The fish it held drops into the water and disappears, prompting the human to shout a word she’d never heard before and abandon his net.
Morgana watches in stunned silence as the human flees. He’s trying to move with expediency, but even the easiest route back to shore involves a lot of jumping and scrambling, and he’s clearly not moving as fast as he wants to. She could catch him if she swam after him, quite easily in fact, but she holds herself back. He’s terrified of her, and she has no idea what she’d say to him if she caught him, so she just sits and watches him fade into a speck on the shore.
Morgana found herself in an increasingly foul mood. Everything had been going along perfectly for her. She’d had everything she could ever conceive of wanting. And then that human brat came along and spoiled it for her. Knowing he was up there and knowing that she couldn’t get close to him drove her crazy. The crystalline water she bobbed in didn’t seem so pretty anymore. The kelp forests and the fish that fill them don’t whet her appetite the way they had this morning. All she’s been able to think of since then is the human that slipped through her grasp. She swore, if she ever got her hands on him she’d, she’d…
Oh gods the things she’d do to him if she could just close enough. She could almost see him: tired, hungry, desperate for a touch of comfort from any source. Then she’d ease up to him nice and slow and wrap him in a big comforting hug. She’d hook her arms around his neck and wrap her tentacles around him from head to toe. She’d snuggle up real tight and bask in the warmth emanating from that beautifully tanned body. He’d squirm a little bit sure, innocent little thing that he was, but the thought of him wriggling in her grasp made her heart leap into her throat, and he’d settle down once she had her lips up against his.
“Damn it what am I doing?!”
Morgana chastises herself. Sitting here on the seabottom pining over something she “couldn’t” have was stupid. She’s smart. She’s tough. She hasn’t seen another scylla in a while but she’s pretty sure she’s good looking. She’ll have him. One way or another.
She puts her hand to her chin and begins recounting everything she knows about humans that doesn’t have to do with mating. Let’s see…they can’t breathe water at all, but they need to have water regularly, but it couldn’t be seawater because it made them sick. Damn they were complicated. How did any of that even make sense? Water was water, and it was a hell of a lot easier to breath than air. She furrows her brow in concentration. If she remembered all of that correctly, that meant he’d have to stay close to some source of fresh water. She’s certain there’s a stream or two that run out to sea from inland, she’ll start there.
Morgana takes yet another deep breath, searching for the scent of salt-less water. Her nose is starting to hurt her, but she takes it all the same, stubborn refusal to admit defeat now her primary driving force. She was going to find the stream that stupid little human was drinking out of even if it killed her.
A change in the current makes such a sacrifice unnecessary. At long last she catches a whiff of fresh water, being pushed her way from the north by the shifting tide. Her frustration forgotten, she propels herself toward the shore, heart fluttering with excitement. The scent rapidly grows stronger as she nears land, and before long she’s peering through a tangled net of mangrove roots at the mouth of a small creek.
Steeling her resolve, she begins making her way upstream. The wooden web choking the mouth of the stream would be a serious obstacle for anyone else, but she’s flexible even by scylla standards, and twisting and wriggling through the root-choked stream proves to be no problem. Proceeding toward the waterway’s source, she struggles to think of something good to say to him when she sees him. She’d never given much thought to men before now; she had no smooth introductions in her repertoire, no clever innuendos to bring a blush to his face. So lost in thought is she that she doesn’t realize she’s come to the stream’s head until the waterfall that feeds it is pushing her down toward the riverbottom. She thanks the gods that no one was around to see her clumsiness and takes in her surroundings.
The waterfall overhead pours into a large pool, perhaps 10 feet deep at its lowest, which in turn feeds the stream that she just swam up. The pool is quite calm for the most part and shallow around its edges; the perfect place for a human, poor swimmers that they were, to bathe or drink from. If she were a human, she’d definitely pick this place as her water source. Now it was merely a waiting game.
A long waiting game.
A long, boring waiting game.
That was going into overtime.
She stifles a yawn and lets herself sink down to the bottom of the pool. She’ll just rest her eyes for a few minutes. So she’ll be ready when he shows up. She’s earned it with how hectic her day’s been. Just a few minutes…
Morgana is jarred awake by a splash from the surface of the water. Overhead she can see a sun-darkened arm holding a flat leather bottle beneath the surface, refilling it. She curses at the realization that she’s overslept and lost the chance to greet the human on her own terms. A jolt of panic hits her as she puzzles over what to do now: if she spends too long down here fretting over her next move, he’ll leave and she’ll be stuck waiting her for another whole day. Impatience ultimately overrides her desire to be more tactful this time around, and she kicks herself towards the surface as quickly as she can.
The sight of the human reeling back in shock greets her when she breaks the surface. Not exactly the start she’d hoped for. She forces herself to smile. Surely he won’t find her so threatening if she smiles, right? She tries to formulate a suitably non-threatening greeting, but the human speaks first.
“Why the hell are you following me?! What do you want?!”
Morgana pauses, her smile faltering. What DOES she want? She’d had nothing but mating on her mind until now, but she can’t possibly say that to him
“I…I just want to talk.”
She feels a pang of guilt as she gets a better look at the emaciated human on the ground in front of her. He looks like hell: rail thin, dirty, exhausted. While she’s been dreaming up rosy fantasies about coming to his rescue and receiving his steamy, erotic gratitude in return, he’s been up here actually struggling to survive. Actually going hungry, having nowhere to sleep, and being worlds away from everything he’s ever known.
“So, uh, how are you?”
The human’s jaw drops in shock, then sets in anger.
“Oh I’m just dandy.” He retorts, voice thick with sarcasm, “My ship sank, I washed up on an island with nothing to eat on it, and, best of all, I now have a crazed monster stalking me!”
Morgana winces. She probably had that coming; monsters don’t have the best reputation among humans.
“Look,” she says, sliding through the water toward him “I know we didn’t get off to the best start, but if you could just sit down with me for a moment…”
She’s quite close to him now and she extends a single tentacle along the ground toward him. Not her wisest decision. The human jumps as if stung the moment her tentacle chances upon his leg, scrambling to his feet and running full tilt through the trees.
“Wait!” she cries at his receding form, reaching out with another pair of tentacles before realizing that she’s just adding to his distrust of her. She lets the over-eager limbs drop in numb disappointment as she watches him flee, a wasted declaration of her good intentions on the tip of her tongue.
She slaps the surface of the water in frustration, her skin briefly turning into an angry patchwork of black and red. That’s the second time she’s blown it. She slumps down into the water, already contemplating a new course of action. What was needed was a trap, to lure him to some dead-end where he couldn’t run from her, where he’d have no choice but to acce-
The young scylla’s macabre machinations are put on hold by a faint brushing against one of her rearward tentacles. Turning around, she spots the leather bottle the human had been filling bobbing in the water beside her. Curious, she loops one of her slender appendages around the drinking vessel and brings it up to eye level.Her nose wrinkles at its tannic scent. How could humans stand to drink out of these things?
A troubling thought enters her mind as she contemplates the bottle. If the human had more bottles than this, he surely would have brought them with him to the stream. Her stomach sinks at the realization that she just scared him away from his only water supply. Turning around to scan the shore, she spots the human’s footprints in the soft soil.
She lets out a long groan of exasperation. She’s going to have to drag herself up on land and give the human back his bottle. She has to; with his footprints right in front of her and the knowledge that he most likely lacks a spare, she has no choice.
“I am not looking forward to this.” She gripes to no one in particular as she braces herself to leave the pool.
Dry land is not her favorite place to be. Being out of water makes her feel several orders of magnitude heavier and clumsier. Then there was the way sand and dirt always stick to her tentacles. And of course, rationing the little jar of water she carried on her sash to keep her gills wet on overland trips tends to distract her from any pleasure she might find in exploring the surface.
She checks the latch of the jar to make sure it won’t leak, savors one more breath of the cool water, and pulls herself onto the shore, cursing her own good nature all the while. The human’s footprints lead west, toward a rocky hill in the center of the island. Tilting her head back, she gets one last groan of annoyance out of her system, then checks her jar again, and, at last out of reasons to procrastinate, starts trudging inland.
The forest is almost silent. The hill is far enough from the beach that even the steady rhythm of the surf has faded to inaudibility, and the only noise that breaks the silence is the occasional birdcall. That, and the exhausted panting of the Scylla dragging herself through it. Morgana knows she hasn’t travelled particularly far, but it feels as if she’s been struggling overland for hours.
“Okay,” she huffs to herself, “let’s take a break.”
Settling to the ground in the shade of a palm tree, she opens her water jar and splashes a bit of water over her neck, wetting her gills down. The fleeting feeling of refreshment leaves her wanting more, but she tamps the desire down. There’s no telling how much farther she has to go, and a small part of her is terrified of drying out and suffocating. She shakes her head. Best not to dwell on such thoughts. Lurching back onto her tentacles, she takes a fresh look at the human’s trail and continues on.
A curious scent reaches her as she enters the shadow of the hill. Acrid, and hot somehow. Almost like the water around a volcanic vent. Another tidbit of half-forgotten information on humans springs to the forefront of her consciousness: Humans were big users of fire. They needed it to “cook” their food, whatever that meant, and to light their way at night. She was smelling smoke, which meant he had to be close now. With renewed vigor, she begins pulling herself along the trail at the double, her aching muscles forgotten.
The palms and shrubberies that surround the trail give way to a small clearing at the base of the hill. On the far side is the mouth of a cave. The source of the smoke, a small fire, lies just outside of it. Sitting beside it, with her back to her, is the human she’s been looking for. She stumbles to a halt when she sees him, hesitating. She desperately wants to be sure he won’t run from her this time, but every time she’s caught him off-guard she’s only succeeded in terrifying him. Against her own instincts, she calls out to him from where she is rather than try sneak any closer.
“Hello?” she says softly, afraid that even speaking too loudly would send him running.
The human starts at the sound of her voice. He turns slowly to face her, disbelief etched onto his features. To her credit, he doesn’t run this time, just stares at her in shock. She pulls his water bottle from her sash and holds it out.
“You, uh, dropped this.”
She runs her free hand over her head fretfully, suddenly realizing that she must look like almost as bad as he does: caked with sand, out of breath, hair matted to her skin. If only he could see how she looked in the water; graceful, agile, and above all, clean. She curls her tentacles closer to herself, hoping he won’t notice the sand stuck all over her.
“Don’t you want it back?” she asks, desperately hoping he’ll say something, anything, to put an end to the tension she feels.
He doesn’t, of course. She isn’t lucky enough for things to go that nicely. He does stand up however, and, for the first time ever, moves toward her rather than away. He crosses the clearing warily, palm leaves crunching beneath his feet, until he’s within arm’s reach. Wry suspicion is plastered on his face, as if he expects to be told any second that this was all some kind of elaborate joke.
“Well, I, eh, I have to get back in the water now, so…”,she pushes the bottle into his outstretched hand clumsily turns back toward the stream.
“Wait.” he says.
She spins back around, hoping that the elation she feels at that single word doesn’t manifest as another camouflage malfunction. He hangs the bottle around his wrist by its lanyard and brings himself breath-takingly close to her.
“Let me help you. You look like I feel.”
Oh gods, is he going to princess carry her? Please let him princess carry her. She’ll never ask for anything ever again if just once she can get princess carried…
He doesn’t princess carry her. She’s not lucky enough for that either. He just drapes her arm over his shoulders and wraps his around her waist, his fingers agonizingly close to her breast, but not quite touching.
“Damn,” she curses under her breath.
“What was that?”
“Thank you for your help.”
The human doesn’t say another word until they get back to the stream. He lets her slide back into the water under her own power, then settles down on his haunches at the edge of the pool, watching with mild interest as she rinses herself. She steals an occasional glance at him as she shakes her limbs free of sand, casting her eyes back down every time she meets his unflinching gaze.
“Well?” he says after a while.
She looks up at him in confusion, forcing herself to look him in the eye this time.
“You said you wanted to talk, didn’t you? Let’s talk.”
Crap. What did she want to talk to him about again? Was he married? No that would just creep him out. The weather? No, that was boring. Scavenging? Like he’d give a damn about that.
The flustered girl nearly slaps herself in annoyance. She’s acting stupid again. There’s a very simple and obvious way to push the conversation forward.
“My name is Morgana,” she declares, extending her hand, “These islands are my home.”
“Thomas,” he replies, leaning forward to grip her delicate hand in his own calloused claw, “I suppose I can say the same.”
Morgana retreats a few steps into the shallows, until the water reaches her shoulders, before she continues.
“How did you get here, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Thomas’ shoulders sag almost imperceptibly.
“My ship was heading south toward the spice ports. A big storm hit us en route, split the main brace and smashed the whole thing to splinters. I washed up here and I’ve been eating seagull and sleeping in the dirt ever since.
He shrugs sadly.
“I always knew something like this could happen, sailing on a merchant ship, but that doesn’t make it any better.”
Morgana finds herself at a loss for how to respond, until his stomach growls, providing her with the perfect thing to say.
“Are you hungry?”
For the first time since they met, he smiles.
“Like you wouldn’t believe.”
She smiles back, excited at the opportunity to make a good impression on him.
“I’m a good hunter. I could catch you something.”
“ ‘Something’ would be good. Anything would be good.”
“Promise you’ll still be here when I come back?”
He chuckles and spreads his arms, looking side to side.
“Where the hell am I gonna go?”
Morgana smiles and slinks down into the pool. Her head safely beneath the water, she lets out a squeal of delight that can be heard by every fish in the lagoon before propelling herself down the stream and back out to the sea.