The Fae of the Sea

Submitted into Contest #83 in response to: Write a fantasy story about water gods or spirits.... view prompt

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Fantasy

People have always known about the fae. Lessons are taught from birth on how to keep safe, to keep the only freedoms that are certain. There are common lists in every town. 

Never stray from the paths, or venture into the forest after dark. The faeries know better than to visit the beaten paths, where they are at risk from hunters and mages, looking to use their inborn magic for their own gain, but off of common paths and trails, the fae host constant revels, and no one is safe from the celebrations. After dark is the same story, but more frightening. They slip through the shadows cast from lamps; disguise their voices from their usual cacophonous melodies into something more human; convince foolish travelers off of their stoney roads and into the merciless caress of the woods.

Be wary of strangers. Beauty means many things, and while the fae never seem to fit the qualifications of mortals, they always hold some glamour about them that draws young merchants to them, convincing them only to stay the night, a night that often ends up their last. Seductive smiles of crooked teeth and haughty eyes of dull brown are their deaths. 

One of the most terrifying things about the fae is their ability to look almost normal, to blend in just enough that no one thinks twice about introducing themselves. Parents make certain that their growing children remember to count teeth, check the position of their new friend’s shadow, if they even have one, to observe the length of their fingers. It’s not uncommon for strangers to check one another’s hands for calluses before exchanging pleasantries. 

Never accept food or an invitation to dance without all the information. The rules of the fae apply to everyone, and to accept one’s food without knowing whether it is a gift, is a contract of ownership. To join in on the haunting jigs of the fae without knowing when the revels will end could result in a manic dance to the death. 

Your name is your most precious commodity; trade in it wisely. Loved ones can go their entire courting period calling each other “woman in blue silks,” or “sir of the guild clan,” and only ever discover their true names during their wedding. It’s not uncommon for people to assign their children a secret name, never be told to anyone. Others are less cautious, telling anyone their name, their only contingency being, “I shall not give you my name, but I will tell you what it is.” It’s a dangerous game to play, for the fae of the higher courts don’t need to know whether the name is freely given; just knowing the name gives them power over all of their faculties. 

Avoid perfect circles of mushrooms and symmetrical arches made from trees. Anything that seems too good to be true, just like the fae, must not be. They often turn out to be passages to the realm of the court. A flower with exactly five identical petals should never be plucked; a perfect feather that lands right in front of one’s foot should never be disturbed, lest a person wish to be controlled by the fae. 

Many people choose never to leave their hometown, never to risk meeting a stranger, never to tell anyone their name. Others still try to escape to the sea, for one of the sparse weaknesses of the fae is salt water. Dozens flock to the docks, joining merchant ships and the navy. These are misguided attempts; no place is safe from the spirits of nature. 

And there is no list that can prepare someone for the spirits of the sea.

They don’t desire pets or playthings, not that humans would survive long submerged in the freezing blue. No, the mer-folk want the warmth of blood; the pointed texture of splintered wood; the orchestra of screams. The mer don’t want parties, like their earthen cousins. The mer wish only to feast.

So separated from humanity, their foil, their prey, the immortal beings grow more and more monstrous the further they stray from the docks. Some are enormous, all gaping mouths and gnashing teeth. Some are more humanoid, but one doesn’t need to know how to count to see the needle-like qualities of the mer-folk’s teeth. 

Regardless, there is a beauty in their danger, in the crooked talons and pointed fins. Men fall just as easily to the mer as to the fae, and they find themselves unprepared to defend themselves. 

There is no safe haven from their magic; once in their waters, sailors have already strayed too far from the path to avoid what hides in the churning depths. There are no signs of what may or may not be the sea; be wary, though, of places ships commonly wreck. The mer are as merciless as their domain, but they at least tend to wreak havoc in one place. 

Luckily, there is no tiptoeing with their devious advances. This makes it arguably easier both to avoid, and to succumb to, their attacks. A blindfold, or earplugs are all it takes to rebuff a siren; a common mer can easily be bested in a fight if one has his wits about him. Simultaneously, more lives are lost to the whims of the mer than to the fae each year; men wish to glean knowledge from the song, believing the ropes are strong enough; the sharp beauty of the mer disarms men faster than any blow. The ones that aren’t humanoid are the worst of all. 

Leviathans, they call them, Krakens. The oceanic equivalent of the highest court of fae, able to circumvent the restrictions of their kin. Where the royal fae can control a being easier than the peasantry of faeries, Krakens can sink a ship and kill a man without the strenuous effort of their human-passing sisters. 

The most famous of these beasts would be Scylla and Charybdis, twin murderers of a well-known ocean cove. Charybdis inhales when ships pass overhead, sucking the comparatively miniscule ships into its gaping maw to feast on the boat’s crew and cargo. No one escapes from its whirlpool, which might be preferable to the moral torture that Scylla forces upon its prey. 

All who pass Scylla's waters know of its habits. It plucks unsuspecting crewmen from the decks, sometimes one, other times up to twelve, and allows the rest to pass, shaken, but otherwise unharmed. Many have tried to sail past with all of the crew hidden below decks, but fall prey instead to Scylla's tantrum, and all of the sailors die, crushed by the rocks Scylla drops upon the fruitless boat. The same happens if Scylla finds the number of offered sailors to be too little; it's better to have all available crewmen on board for Scylla to pick and choose from. 

People like to joke about how rare an old merchant is, how wise they must be; after all, there are only so many people who can outsmart the fae at every turn. No one thinks twice about a wizened sailor; so scarcely does one manage to survive to tell people what a miracle it is that they lived to seniority, what a horror it is out on the often romanticized open ocean. Miles and miles of nothing but fellow ship men, and the lurking creatures beneath the foam. So more and more naive men and women “escape” to the sea, jokingly asking the three old men for advice. 

“Should I get a gold tooth?” Yes. The mer are weak to gold, to beauty. A name is worth nothing to them, but something that glitters like the crest of a wave? That might just be worth sparing someone.

“What about a tattoo?” Yes. Tattoos confuse the mer; the images painted on their scales are sacred and have cultural meaning to them. Having an easily shown tattoo will give them pause before they dig their spiralled teeth into flesh. They will freeze to observe the images, and become agitated when they cannot understand what the pictures symbolize. Those few seconds before the enraged attack is all a sailor has to either lunge away or for the mer’s throat. And if they hesitate before doing either? A tattoo is good for identifying a corpse. 

“If I have a kid on the sea, they’ll be called a ‘son of a gun,’ right?” No. Any child born on a boat belongs to the sea, and the sea alone. Like the fae, mer find themselves drawn to children, and will try at any cost to take the babe for their own, replacing the infant with a conch shell that, when brought to the ear, will sound with the coos and cries of the missing child. Until then, the boat is safe, and occasionally afterwards too; as long as the ship flies under the same flag, the pod is indebted to it and sailors might even catch a glimpse of a tiny mer that has eyes far less malicious than that of the rest of its pod. 

“And that whole, ‘no whistling’ thing? That can’t seriously be true, can it?” Yes. The mer communicate through whistles. The clink of glasses and a steady snap will also garner attention from the sea people. 

“I heard that if dolphins follow a ship, it’s good luck and sharks are bad luck. Is that actually true?” No. Sharks are an enemy to the mer. Their rough skin and dull minds are repulsive to the mer, and many tend to avoid sharks if they can. Having a blade embedded with shark teeth is a powerful weapon in a mermaid ambush. Dolphins, on the other hand, are intelligent and devious, the hunting hounds of prowling mer. Some ships murmur that dolphins are mer-folk themselves, taking on a more trustworthy form to lure sailors into a false sense of safety. 

All these questions and more are brought to the three haggard sailors, who still twist their beards into tentacle formations to ward off deep sea mer, but they don’t answer. Unlike the old merchants, who got by on their clever tongues and quick wit, sailors survive by being unremarkable in every way, unnoticeable except by their watching eyes, cataloging every nightmare to relieve into old age. Nightmares that wire their mouths shut, so that they can’t warn starry-eyed teens to run back to their little towns and leave the open sea alone. 

Merchants find solace in audiences who can marvel over their tall tales of bravery and slyness. They serve the prideful fae in this way; making them out to be legendary and mythical beings of power, and yet still so human. Human enough that their prey risks stepping a few inches closer, inches that doom them. Living sailors seek out living sailors, even navy men and pirates gravitate to one another, despite the animosity from their youth because only someone who survived the horrors they lived through can understand the superstition, the nightmares. They too, serve the mer; the horror sustains them, the terrified surprise that freezes all movement makes for an easy meal. 

The pride of the fae can keep a man safe. Pride is the most dangerous thing a man can be in the face of the fae of the sea.

March 03, 2021 20:34

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