Aellie Niuf stood on the ridge overlooking her cabin. She clutched the walking stick with one hand as she tugged on the back of her parka for a better look. A blast of frigid air swept across her forehead. The sweet embrace of winter’s sting would normally have caused her to move on, but a brief glance at Ayata changed her mind.
The dog’s ears stood straight up and her dark silver fur ruffled at the base of her neck– a sure sign to Aellie that someone, be it beast or human, was either nearby or had recently crossed their path. She brushed her overly long bangs out of her sea-green eyes and ignored the chill of winter on her exposed face and cheeks. She searched the snow-covered landscape for anything out of place.
Soon she spotted a small silver car parked on the far side of her old Ford truck. She tried to recall how long it had been since her last visitor-- a few months at the very least. Slipping the hood back, Aellie slapped her thigh to alert Ayata that it was now time to go. Slowly the team made their way down the snowy slope. By the time they reached the bottom, Aellei’s breathing was loud and discordant, and beads of chilly sweat dotted her forehead. Curiosity thrummed in her veins as they passed the visitor’s car.
She gave it a complete once-over. It was sleek and silver, the type of vehicle that always reminded Aellie of the belly of a whale, seen from deep below the surface. Tags around the license plate announced it was a rental car from Anchorage and fresh tracks led towards her front door. As Aellie approached the cabin, she stripped off her parka and wrinkled her nose against the vinegary smell of her own sweat.
She gripped her walking stick, aware that Ayata still pranced at her side. She peeked in through the open living-room curtains for a brief look at her visitor. Stunned, she stopped in her tracks, heart beating loudly in her ears.
How had he found her? Bewildered, Aellie drank in the sight of him.
He was taller than she remembered; shoulders wider, arms more muscular. His long, blonde hair neatly tied back with a leather strap, in the manner of his people. He no longer wore the grayish-blue whale-skin garment or the eel-skin belt with its handy knife. Throughout the years, Aellie had often wondered how Saefon would look in Dry Lander clothes. Dark gray jeans and shirt suited him well.
With hands that visibly trembled, Aellie opened the door.
“Something terrifying must have happened, Saefon, for you to have braved the world of the Dry Landers. Once you swore you would never leave the home-land of our ancestors.”
With reflexes honed from decades of spearing fish, Saefon spun quickly and his deep blue eyes flashed with an indiscernible emotion. “I am no longer with the clan. I may live where I choose.”
A soft whine at the door alerted Aellie to the fact that Ayata was forcing her way in. Ignoring the confusion that swirled away inside her head, Aellie opened the door wide enough to let the dog in.
Cold air swirled in behind her, stinging hands and neck. She shut the door, vaguely aware that Ayata was now nuzzling Saefon’s outstretched hand. After allowing a cursory pet, Ayata made her way towards her bed, where, with a grunting sigh, the malamute settled down, content to people watch.
“I do not understand? What would make them drive you out?” Confusion whirled inside her head, and Aellie found herself hanging up her parka and kicking off her boots by reflex. Something catastrophic must have happened for Saefon to leave the clan.
A male Triton, at the very prime of his life, strong, strapping, and virile, with his looks and connections, Saefon could easily have ruled their underwater caves for decades with a ferocity and vigor seldom seen in others. As their eyes met, Aellie had the distinct impression that Saefon was holding his anger back, when he spoke, his words pierced the air between them. “Why did you leave me? I told you I would protect you. I have always protected you.”
Saefon’s low and melodic voice grew stronger with heavy accents on each word, until it became a mixture of both languages. After twelve years on land, Air Breathers’ speech came naturally to Aellie. Now she recalled how hard it had been to understand the burst of staccato sounds preferred by their human cousins, instead of the low, melodic phrases of their people. As comprehension came to Aellie, a surge of anger spread through her body followed by a searing pain to her temples.
“You would have protected me from the entire clan?” The sarcasm in Aellie’s voice took them both by surprise. “They sent you away, Saefon, so they couldkill me.
“They used the teeth of the Great Shark, as well as my father’s own Trident.” Aellie threw up her hands in dismay. “My own mother spearheaded the attack. To this day I still do not know how I survived…”
Tears obscured her vision and Aellie turned away from Saefon, half stumbling, into the kitchen. She fumbled for the old-fashioned teakettle before adding a handful of sea salt to the water. Slamming it onto the stove, Aellie watched as water and salt spilled onto the counter, congealing into a salty mess. Frustrated, Aellie reached for a towel to clean it, all too aware of her shaking hands.
Her mother’s voice, harsh and discordant, rang in her thoughts. You saved the life of a dry Lander? Have I taught you nothing? They steal our food. They put their poison into our seas so as to murder us in our sleep. You are not worthy of being a Fye.
Wiping away tears with the back of her hand, Aellie placed the wet towel on top of the faucet to dry. She left unspoken the fact that while writhing in pain, she had endured the Unbirth--the pain and humiliation of feeling her tail mold into human legs. Neither did she speak that, while dying of her wounds, Aellie was found by a Dry Lander, who took her to a place of healing where she healed slowly, so far away from the warm, salty water of her birth.
A glance at Saefon revealed that he was now taking in the multitude of scars that remained from her forced eviction. As she met his eyes, she knew a moment of panic. The sharp whistle of a teakettle pierced the air between them.
The mundane act of pouring hot salty water into cups solidified Aellie’s realization of her Dry Lander status. She would never again feel the blessed relief of salt-water on her skin, nor feel her tail sink deep into the ocean. The softness of waves lapping over her body as she floated beneath a clear blue sky, and the exaltation of swimming deep into the darkest depths before piking straight into the air above –all was lost to her.
Reaching for the sugar, Aellie bumped against the counter and felt the jackknife still in her jeans pocket. The thought came to her that Saefon could be here for a different reason. Ritual quests were not unknown to the males of her clan. Saefon himself claimed he was no longer with the people. Perhaps he meant that he must complete his quest before he could rejoin them.
A quest to find and kill a Fye out of water would be an acceptable quest for the Clan Chief’s son. She took out the pocketknife to stare at it, deep in thought. After a moment of careful consideration, she placed it onto the table in front of his cup. If her life was required for Saefon's ritual, then so be it. Her life had always been Saefon’s to do with as he pleased. She may now be posing as a Dry Lander, but inside, Aellie knew she would always be his Fye.
From the corner of her eye, Aellie watched Saefon prowl around her small cabin. He stopped at a painting hung on the wall in the kitchen. In the painting, a small mermaid sat on a large rock that emerged from the sea. Her delicate face turned towards the sun and she played on a flute, tail half-submerged in the crystal-clear water of their birth. The painting was the first one that Aellie had attempted after leaving the healing place. The Fye in the image resembled her sister Aidi, down to the discolored freckles on her tail.Her sister was only a handful of years when Aellie left, full of life and joy. They had been inseparable. Today, at fifteen, Aidi would have no recollection of her.
“I have searched for you for many years.” Saefon spoke conversationally.
Aellie said nothing as she twisted the spoon back and forth inside her cup. Surely, no Air Breather could have replicated a mermaid so exactly. From scale to scale and gills to gills, unless they had lived as one. She touched the gills at the back of her neck with soft fingers. The unyielding pink ridges seemed out of place in this new world. In a practiced move of many years, Aellie flipped her long brown hair forward to cover them up. She was an Air Breather now. She had been told over and over again, at the healing place, that she could not go back. Looking away from his penetrating gaze, Aellie thought again about the knife.
She tried to ignore it as she clutched the cup of salty warm water in hands that were becoming white from the pain of her grip. Avoiding his gaze, Aellie looked again at the painting, trying to see it from his eyes. As always, the painting reminded Aellie of her instructor, and the weathered face of Mr. Fillus came to mind. The elderly instructor, a frequent visitor to the hospital, had taught Aellie how to create art using pen and pencil instead of shells, water and sand. It was then, that Aellie was able to shed the severe depression she had been immersed in.
“You found me through that didn’t you?” Aellie spoke the first words that came to her mind, and knew she was correct. She had been so new to the world of the Dry Landers, she had not thought to conceal or change her name. Her only thought had been to put as much time and distance as she could between herself, the sea and their people.
“Google helped.” Saefon replied.
Aellie nodded. Computers were not only unknown to her people, but unrealistic as well. Saefon had always been very detail-orientated. He would have not missed her tightly painted name in the lower left-hand corner of the panting.
Saefon’s unique scent wafted over to her. She felt the familiar stir as her body reacted to it. With every breath, Aellie inhaled Saefon’s masculine scent where it lingered on her taste buds. Aellie fought wave after wave of desire.
Overwhelmed by the yearning to touch the muscles of his arms, or the feel his thigh or legs next to hers, Aellie turned away. She fled into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator to lean her head against the cool ice in the freezer, fighting wave after wave of desire. It had never been this bad in the ocean of their birth, with currents to take away the yearning for him. Here in this landlocked house, Aellie felt as if Saefon’s very presence beat against her will, leaving her defenseless.
She felt his footsteps behind her. After a moment, Aellie felt long, slim fingers slide down her shoulders in a caress. “Do you not want me here?”
They were the Mating words, the ritual words a Triton asked a Fye when he wished to mate with her, to keep her as a life-partner and not just a casual mate. The formal reply came swiftly to her lips and Aellie ached to respond. Instead, she forced the words back. Too long, she had tasted the air of the Dry Landers. She could no more go back to being one of a multitude of wives, than she could stop breathing.
“Don’t, Saefon, please.”
She meant, don’t touch me. Or did she? Perhaps she meant don’t come near me, or even, don’t kill me.
After a long moment, Aellie felt his arms surrounding hers and her traitorous body leaned against his.
“I ask only to be sure…”
With hands that were surprisingly gentle, Saefon turned towards him; his deep blue eyes sparkled with tears. Before Aellie knew it, her head lay on his chest and she was crying so hard that her water of life stained his shirt. “You were gone and I was here and I had no one.”
The words Aellie had kept inside for so long came tumbling out. “I kept telling myself that at least you were part of the clan. I hoped that in time, Aidi would become one of your wives, and that would be as if part of me was also, but Saefon…I … I missed you so much!”
“I am here.” Saefon held her gently as his large hands lightly patted her back. “I wish I had known in time to stop them.”
He whispered into her hair. “Aellie my beautiful Fye, please don’t cry.”
~ ~ ~
Several hours later, they lay on the couch wrapped in each other’s arms. Aellie’s head lay against his chest, where she listened to his reassuring heartbeat. “How did you know where to find me? I thought I would never see you again.”
Saefon stroked her hair gently, watching the individual strands change color as they shimmered in the firelight. “Several years ago, a ground shake shook the ocean floor by our caves. Destruction was everywhere. Many of my father’s wives were lost. A host of Great Tooth’s came and I busied myself defending the burial scouts.”
Aellie knew the area well. The burial grounds were near the clan’s home base, next to the clam beds, so prized by their people.
“It was then that I found the Air Breather.”
“Was this after the tsunami? She asked, using the Land Dweller’s word. “The large tidal waves that kill the Land and Water Dwellers alike?” Aellie caught the look on his face and realized she had interrupted him. Impatiently, she scolded herself for breaking his train of thought. The old habit of disrupting a Triton speaking died hard, even for a Fye long out of water.
“I should have left her to die.”
Saefon’s voice grew quiet as he became lost in memory. “Her hair was like yours in color and appearance. It floated in the waves as yours used to. For a moment, I thought...”
Aellie looked up as Saefon’s voice trailed off. “You thought it was I?”
Saefon said as he gave her a brief hug. “For a brief moment I thought you had come back to me.
“But it was too late; the Air Breather was already with the dead.”
In the dim firelight, a strand of Aellie’s hair twisted its way around his arm. She watched as Saefon playfully moved it back and forth, charmed by the effect electricity had on it.
“One of my father’s Wives, Caella, watched me place her near the shore where her people could find her.
“It was then I knew I was no longer clan.”
At one time, Aellie had been positive by the way Saefon looked at Caella that he might take her for a second or even third wife. She recalled that Caella’s eyes were a striking shade of green and her tail a becoming shade of reddish brown. Comprehension came slowly as it did a look of horror appeared on Aellie’s face. “They kicked you out? You, a fully fledged Triton?!”
A look of distaste briefly flashed across Saefon’s face.
“No, I was pardoned...”
With swiftness, that only memory can bring. Aellie recalled the searing pain in her side, an answering ache echoed in wrists, arms, and legs. She recalled the many months in the healing place; the anger, the confusion. Sadness briefly overwhelmed her. Of course, the clan would pardon Saefon. After all, Aellie told herself. It was the clan’s right to drive her out of family and home-- she was but a woman.
"If they pardoned you, then how came you to be here?” Aellies’ voice was a mere shadow of its normally rich contralto.
“I refused their pardon.” Saefon’s face was aflame with righteous anger. “Many times in the past I had argued that all rules must be the same the Wyes as they are for the Tritons.”
Aellie remembered now that even as a child, Saefon’s overpowering sense of fair play had settled many disagreements. When the dispute between Arvon and Seldi, both chiefs of distant lands, erupted and threatened clan war between all the tribes, it was a twelve-year-old Saefon who stood up to the two men. It was Saefon, who recalled the laws that eventually settled the dispute for the good of all clans.
“You left them!?”
Comprehension came to her and she tried to sit up, but Saefon’s grip was firm. Gently he kissed her eyelids as he had done so long ago, when Aellie had come to him so shyly and told him of her love.
“I missed you, my beautiful Fye.”
Tears again streaked down her face and Aellie wiped them away with the back of a hand. Saefon kissed her and then spoke with a hint of laughter in his voice. “We won’t need an ocean to swim in if you keep this up.”
And for the first time in years, they laughed together.
“I was told I could return at any time and be welcomed, but I will not.” Saefon hugged Aellie to his chest.
Years later, she could not recall if he said the words, or if she only imagined them but they remained true, nonetheless.
“Not without you.”
- - - I enjoy writing science fiction and fantasy stories. I live in a small town in Alaska, with my husband and our three cats and two dogs. I’m short, have brown hair and hazel eyes and can be reached at email@example.com.