Merilyce sat on her own at the damp wooden table. It wasn’t unusual for her to be alone, at least not in that tavern. In most others, she would be swamped by suitors spewing drunken promises of love, offering a simple trade of a few drinks or coins for a night of passion, or occasionally threatening to take her right there on the table.
Of course, those men usually left very soon after their approach. It was the smell. Only a certain type of man could put up with that smell; the same type of man that put up with the foul odour every day of their lives; the very same select group that crowded The Perfumed Fisherman that evening, as they always did.
Merilyce had never figured out what had drawn her to the profession. It certainly wasn’t the unpleasant odours that came guaranteed with a successful expedition. Nor was it the fine class of gentlemen that tended towards the occupation. There was no great financial reward to it, or even a half-decent sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. All she did was row out into the bay, cast some nets, and come back when she’d caught enough fish to eat, and to pay for a few drinks in the tavern.
And yet there she sat, alone, subjected to constant exclusion from society, waiting patiently for Mr. Absolutely-anyone-will-do-except-for-anyone-that-happened-to-fish-for-a-living to come along. In a tavern filled with fisherman – who refused to speak to her.
“To hell with you all!” she suddenly yelled as she got up and marched towards the bar.
General laughter broke out, along with a few cheers and impolite words – the typical fare expected in such a tavern. She waved off the patrons with a rude gesture, and promptly indicated to the barman that she wasn’t pleased with the state of her mug, given that it was empty.
She glanced around the room, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Two dozen filthy fishermen, twice that in empty mugs and half eaten stews. Nothing out of place. Except, at the far end of the room, a man wearing a dark cloak sat with his back against the wall, his eyes fixed on Merilyce. She presented him with the same gesture she had to the room, and turned her back on him to collect her drink.
“Thanks, Deklow,” she said to the barman, giving him a lame wink.
“Last one for tonight, Lyce,” he said. “Any more and I’m going to have to carry you home again.”
“I’m really not that drunk, see,” she protested, and tried unsuccessfully to take a few steps in a straight line to prove her innocence.
Many of the patrons burst out laughing, and even the barman was chuckling. She realised she probably was that drunk. But of course, she wouldn’t admit it.
“Put the drink down girl, before you hurt yourself!”
She turned to the crowd of fishermen to try to find the source of the voice, but she couldn’t guess who it was.
“I can handle my drink!” she insisted, though she realised she was only encouraging the laughter.
“You’re barely five foot tall and half a foot wide. I’m surprised you can even carry the drink!”
“I can carry more than you can!”
“Can you carry a hundred pound browntail?”
She spotted the antagonist then. He’d taken the name Browntail a few years back after catching a spectacular browntail on a hook and line, the biggest fish ever caught in Helen’s Bay; it weighed nearly a hundred pounds. Nearly.
“Ninety-nine, Browntail. You claim it was a hundred pounds one more time and I’ll put ninety-nine bruises on your face to help you count in the mirror.”
The room erupted into raucous laughter, at her lame threats or at Browntail she couldn’t quite tell, nor did she particularly care.
“Think you can do better than that?” challenged the champion fisherman.
“Of course I can.”
“As if you could catch a hundred pound browntail!”
“You saying I can’t?”
“Fine. I’ll prove it.”
“Will you now?”
She stormed away, rushing for the door, trying to figure out how the hell she had managed to get herself into this mess. Must be the ale. Deklow had served her some dodgy ale.
“That was silly, wasn’t it?”
She turned and found the odd-man-out sitting next to the door, his back still against the wall in a casual pose. He had a parchment in front of him, and he was writing something down. His cloak was clean, she noticed. Very odd.
“I was remarking on how silly that was.”
“I heard you. I meant…” she barked, and then couldn’t quite figure out exactly what she had meant.
“For someone who questions whether or not you are in control of your own destiny,” said the man, “you do seem to step right where a puppeteer would guide you.”
“Er, what? Question my… puppeteer… what?“
“Excuse me,” he said. “Where are my manners? Allow me to introduce myself. I am The Scribe.”
“There is only one scribe?”
“Is there only one fish?”
“What about the hundred pound fish?”
“Well, no. Yes. What? What the hell are you on about? And what about this puppeteer and destiny?”
Merilyce glanced around her; the merry fishermen had returned to the task at hand, ensuring that mugs returned to their natural state of emptiness whenever burdened with ale. None of them appeared to notice that she was still in the tavern, or talking to the odd man beside the door.
“Ah, the puppeteer. Yes,” said the scribe, nodding as if considering. “Allow to me explain. As a scribe, I tell tales, yes? No, I weave tales. The characters of my stories have no free will of their own. They are the puppets, and I am the puppeteer.”
The man made a show of controlling the imaginary puppets hanging from his hands, before his fingers returned to his chin, rubbing it as he resumed his explanation.
“Now,” he continued, “were I to weave a tale of a girl that sailed out to sea for some unrelated purpose, I may begin such a tale in a tavern, where experienced fishermen ridiculed her, wounding her pride, forcing her hand, and tricking her into sailing alone into dangerous waters.”
“What? What are you trying to say?”
“Nothing really,” admitted The Scribe before gesturing around the whole room. “Just that this whole opening scene seems rather pointless really.”
* * *
Merilyce awoke with a horrible taste in her mouth, a throbbing headache, yesterday’s clothes stretching uncomfortably, and a sinking feeling she had said something incredibly silly the night before. She also discovered she was about four feet away from her bed, frustratingly close, yet far enough away to suggest she might have had at least one drink more than she should have.
She rolled over, struggling to get up on her knees, then continued rolling, managing only to get into a sitting position.
“Good morning,” said a cheerful voice.
She started, blinking as she tried to focus, searching the room and spotting a well-dressed man in front of her, sitting in her only chair with a parchment and feather pen, scribbling away.
“What the hell are you doing in my house?”
“The question, really, is what are you doing in your house? You made a commitment last night, remember? The hundred pound fish?”
Dammit. It all came back to her then. She sighed as she dropped her head in her hands, shaking it gently as the events of the night replayed in her mind.
“I remember,” she acknowledged. “But you didn’t answer my question. What are you doing here?”
“Just ignore me. I will try to keep out of your way as I write your tale.”
Was she losing it? Probably. But it was light outside already, and she had a fish to catch. She jumped up as fast as her aching body could carry her, washed her face, rinsed out her mouth to try to combat the foul taste, then jogged down to the docks. She found her fishing canoe just where she had left it, and launched into the bay. She paddled hard, trying to reach the deeper water before the day caught up with her.
Feeling wretched, she eventually stopped paddling, and dropped an anchor overboard. She began to prepare a fishing line. She inspected it for flaws; it looked okay, strong enough to hold a hundred pound browntail, she hoped. At the end she attached the largest hook in her tackle, more of an ornament really. She slid a dead fish from yesterday’s catch over the hook, and wrapped it up with more fishing line until it was well secured. She fastened the other end around her arm, tying it over a thick layer of cloth. If she caught anything even half as big as she hoped, she wasn’t going to let it get away.
Finally she sat back and pulled a hat across her face, allowing the sun to warm her as she tried to relax. It was about time her hangover received some attention.
She leapt up, slipping on the water sloshing in the hull as she tried to grab hold of the boat. Once she’d found her feet, she looked forward and spotted the man in the canoe with her. The Scribe.
“What the hell are you doing here? Are you…”
Had he been there all along? She had paddled all the way out into the deepest waters of the bay, and then cast her line without noticing the man three foot in front of her. Fine, she was losing it.
“Are you a godsdamned hallucination? Are you a madness in my head?”
“I am nothing of the sort!” he insisted.
“How did you get here?”
“What do you mean? I’ve been here all along.”
She was definitely losing it. And about bloody time; she needed an excuse for being the crazy loner. And hell, she could do with the company.
“What do you want?” she asked.
The Scribe was penning something on his parchment.
“I was just considering. You obviously are not here to catch a hundred pound fish, are you? That would make no sense. Or rather, it would make for a boring tale.”
The man took a deep breath as he considered his words, his eyes gazing upwards for moment.
“So, I wonder… why are you out here?” he asked, then continued without waiting for an answer. “What could you possibly find out here that would make the story interesting? The boat you are in… well, if there was something interesting in the boat, then you could have found it while still at the docks. But there is nothing else out here. At least, nothing above the water.”
The Scribe gestured to the fishing line wrapped around her arm, tied securely. Too securely.
“If I was writing this tale,” he said while scribbling on his parchment, “then the next thing to happen, would be you getting dragged overboard by something rather large caught on the end of the line. A fish too big, perhaps?”
Merilyce looked at The Scribe. Looked at her arm. Looked at the water. Looked at the line hanging gently in the small waves. It tightened suddenly, tugging at her arm. She sighed, thought better of it, and took a deep breath instead, just in time, just before she was yanked overboard.
A cold rush engulfed her, a moment of panic as she tried to orientate herself.
“You bastard!” she yelled, but only the sea could hear her.
Her arm was being dragged forcefully but steadily downwards, and she felt the pressure building on her ears. She managed to open her eyes and take a quick look around her. No tailsharks. That was one thing she could be thankful for; the tailsharks would finish her long before she would have the opportunity to drown.
Still holding her breath, she tried to see what was pulling her, but the water was too hazy. She struggled to release the line, trying desperately to free her arm. She was concentrating so hard, she didn’t notice a shape form in front of her.
A hand gripped her arm. A human hand. She struggled to break free, but the grip was tough. It was trying to get her attention. She paused, well aware of how her breath was failing her, and looked at the person, deep below the surface of the water.
It was a middle-aged man. Looked healthy enough. There was a heavy lock fastened to a chain around his ankle, the other end disappearing into the deep. The man pointed to the lock, then put his hands in his pockets and pulled out some gold coins. He put all but one back into his pocket, pushed the last coin into her hand, and pointed to the lock fixed around his ankle. He then loosened the fishing line, allowing her enough slack to swim frantically upwards.
She burst through the waves and gasped for fresh air as she surfaced, her lungs aching, every muscle tense and sore. She paddled back to the boat, throwing her arms over the side. Still struggling to breathe, she clung on for a moment while The Scribe continued scribbling on his parchment.
“Find anything interesting?” he asked casually.
“Oh, shut up!”
Still hanging onto the side of the boat, she opened her tackle box and searched for tools she might use to break a lock. She soon found a heavy steel file, some nails, and some light hooks. She realised she didn’t have a clue how to break a lock.
Tools in hand, she dived back down to the mysterious man below. She swam as deep as she could, struggling with the pressure; it wasn’t so easy without somebody dragging her down. Soon she found the man, and passed him the steel tools. He took them excitedly, and released her to swim back up.
She climbed back into the boat, rolling over into the hull, panting as she fought to catch her breath. Moments passed with little happening. The surface of the water remained unbroken as Merilyce scanned for any sign of the man emerging. There were no bubbles. Of course there were no bubbles, he couldn’t have been breathing down there underwater. Of course not.
She sat back and considered once again whether she was going crazy. Before her, The Scribe kept writing, glancing at her occasionally, as if in thought, then returning to his parchment. All of a sudden, the water broke a few yards away from the boat, and the man from the deep swam towards her.
She helped him into the boat, and he sat down, dropping a sack next to him, showing little more than a very pleased expression. He wasn’t even out of breath.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Better than okay,” he said, grinning madly.
“How long have you been down there?”
The man shrugged, looked up as if in thought.
“Not that long I suppose. Maybe a week.”
“A week? You didn’t run out of breath?”
“Evidently not. Though, I agree, that does seem odd.”
“Didn’t get eaten by the tailsharks either.”
“No, didn’t get eaten. But the tailsharks have always liked me. I have a way with animals, you see. Since I was a kid, I remember swimming with them. My mother had a fit, of course.”
“Of course,” she said nodding lightly. The day had been crazy enough – she wasn’t going to question his skill with animals.
“I’m Tailfin, by the way,” he said, holding his hand out to shake. “Thank you for rescuing me.”
“Merilyce,” she answered, shaking his hand. “Think nothing of it. Nothing beyond those gold coins, of course.”
Tailfin smiled and turned around.
“And you are?”
“I’m The Scribe. Just ignore me.”
“Wait? What? You can see him?”
“Who? The Scribe?”
“Yes, The Scribe,” she said. “Wait, no, not The Scribe. I am talking about the imaginary man sitting in the boat.”
“Imaginary?” said The Scribe, while Tailfin turned to look back at him.
“Oh, shut up. Dammit, what the hell? You appear out of nowhere and tell me you are writing my tale, and he spends a week swimming around twenty feet under, at the end of a chain. Stop looking at me like I’m crazy.”
“I never said I’m writing your story.”
“Fine. Write whatever you want. Shall we just go back to port?”
“Yes, please! I have business to attend to,” said Tailfin, and then, almost muttering to himself, “The bastard upstart thinks he can get the better of me! I am Tailfin!”
“Fine,” said Merilyce, looking at the single paddle in the boat. “Let’s go then.”
Tailfin also looked at the paddle. Then looked at her. She looked back at him, and then at The Scribe. The Scribe looked at her, then looked at the paddle. Then looked at her.
“Dammit,” she yelled, taking the paddle and dipping it into the water. “I am half the size of both of you. But don’t worry, I’ll bring us back in.”
She began paddling, and suddenly realised she was still attached to the fishing line. She had forgotten about the damn fish. She was supposed to bring in a hundred pound browntail to show off, not a two hundred pound human. No one would believe she had caught him.
Sighing, she left it dragging in the water, just in case, and paddled back to port. When they arrived, she pulled in the line, and found nothing on the end of it. Not even an empty hook. They climbed onto the docks just as the sun began to set, and Merilyce could already hear the fishermen laughing at her foolishness.
Tailfin stared at her for some time, a curious look on his face.
“You alright?” he asked.
“Forget it. It’s just been a long day. Never caught the fish I was after, and now I need to face the rest of them ridiculing me.”
“You seem to have forgotten your reward,” he said lifting the sack, weighing it in his arms. “This is, what, around a hundred pounds of gold? A just reward for my life.”
Tailfin handed her the sack as he departed, and she nearly dropped it for its weight. A hundred pounds of gold! Enough to buy The Perfumed Fisherman, and drink till her skin began to sag. She could make do with that.
The Scribe stood before her, studying her. After a long moment of silence, he spoke.
“Well, it seems the tale is over; near enough. Though it occurs to me that your role in the tale was of little importance.”
“Well, if the purpose of the tale was to bring Tailfin back from the dead, then you were only secondary, really. The tale was about him, not you.”
“Look, this is the real world. Not some… well, you know, fantasy.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Okay, if you say so.”
“Look, just leave me alone will you?”
“Fine. For one gold coin.”
Merilyce looked at her sack of coins. It was a hundred pounds, wasn’t it? She needed a hundred pounds. Then she remembered the coin in her pocket, the one that Tailfin had pushed into her hand under the water. She pulled it out and handed it to him without even looking at it.
“Fine, here you go. Take it, and get out of my sight.”
“A fine gold coin it is,” said The Scribe, holding it up in the evening light to study it. “A great ship, its sails unfurled. And on the reverse, seven stars, a beautiful, if erratic constellation. Just as Arynlock requested.”
“You really are a throw-away character, aren’t you?”
She watched in silence, stunned, as The Scribe strolled away from her, his single gold coin in his hand, glinting in the starlight.
Above him, movement caught her eye. A shooting star, diving for Renryre Island. It was quickly followed by another, and then another. Three stars falling at once, what could it mean?
She looked at her sack of coins.
“Dammit, I have a hundred pounds of gold!” she yelled. “I want nothing to do with your godsdammed story!”
I hope you enjoyed reading Renryre Island Chapter XII: A Fish Too Big
Next, Chapter XIII: Everlasting Drought
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