Balanced Scales is an urban fantasy fairy tale retelling based on the Little Mermaid. Copyright 2019, Laura Greenwood.
A creaking sound took over the sea and I looked around frantically, trying to find the source. I needed to get further below the surface. I'd only just turned eighteen today and it was too soon for me to be this near the surface. No mermaid came this close until the day after their birthday. Not that I had any idea why. I just didn't want to make my Dad angry by staying here for too long.
I turned to start swimming back home and deep enough that it could be called safety.
Something fell past me and I flicked my tail, sending myself back through the water and away from the perceived danger.
A moment later, things came into focus. A large piece of wood falling past me. I glanced back at the surface but wasn't able to make out what was going on through the bubbles churning through the waters. It was almost as if there was a struggle going on. Men versus the ocean. I knew which one would win. The same as always.
A scream reached my ears, surprisingly clear despite the water. I had to admit my hearing was better than a human's, but that didn't mean it was easy to hear through so much space.
Without thinking, I changed directions and headed back to the surface only to be pushed back by Shelbie's cold nose on my shoulder.
"I'm sorry, I can't stop," I told her. "Now isn't play time."
She shook her head, the dark beady eyes somehow telling me what I already knew, the surface was too dangerous for me. And yet, even now I wanted to help. Something was encouraging me, wanting me to reach out and touch the shipwreck happening in front of my eyes. It must be one of the tourist boats I'd seen from a distance. Most of the newer ones were a lot sturdier and made of metal. The biggest threat to them was barnacles.
Which meant there were probably children on board. "I need to check everyone is okay," I told Shelbie.
The seal sighed. Or at least, she did the closest thing to sighing I could imagine a seal doing. It was hard to tell what she was thinking or feeling a lot of the time. But now, she'd let me go. More than that, she'd swim by my side too. I knew Shelbie well enough to know she'd never abandon me. We'd been inseparable since we were born.
The water grew lighter as I approached the surface, the sun warming it in a way we didn't experience down at the bottom. Though we also didn't need it, we'd evolved to be well insulated against the cold sea.
Water cascaded down my face as I broke the surface, leaving my long hair lying in clumps around me. One of the disadvantages of living underwater was that my hair never got to look good. I'd seen plenty of pictures of humans that made me jealous of that.
I looked over at the shipwreck, noticing a lifeboat full of humans already heading for the shore. I sighed in relief, that was something at least. I didn't want anyone to get hurt, especially not children. "It looks like they're all safe," I said to Shelbie as she popped above the waves with me.
She squeaked and pointed her head in another direction. I followed her gaze, trying to find what she was looking at and hoping it wasn't anything serious.
"Oh no." I dived back under the water and headed towards the man floating on debris. He needed help and everyone else already seemed to be gone. I was his only chance and there was no escaping that.
I powered through the ocean, my tail was good for that. Checking on my progress, my head broke above the waves to check where he was. Straight ahead. A few more swishes of my tail should do it.
I reached the piece of driftwood he was clinging to and steeled my courage. Now I was here, I wasn't too sure about the whole saving-someone thing. If I dared to admit it, I was almost nervous. What if I was too late? Or what if I wasn't and he didn't want help? It was a strange position to be in, knowing someone was between life and death.
"Hi." I leaned on the driftwood too, hoping I didn't startle him too much and send him falling back into the water to drown. That would be counterproductive to my plan.
"Hey." He coughed, water falling from his mouth.
"Oh no, are you okay?" I had no idea what to do with a human near the brink of death. It was pretty frowned upon in mermaid society to even help a human.
"I've been better. Were you on the boat? I don't recognise you?" His voice sounded smooth, almost like he hadn't just had a lungful of water. I pushed that thought away. I still needed to save him. It didn't matter if he was a good man or a bad one. I had a duty of care to him.
"No, I wasn't on the boat. They've left already," I responded.
"Oh." He glanced away and my heart went out for him. It couldn't be nice to have been left behind like that.
"But I can help you."
"You can?" His eyes lit up, giving his face a more youthful edge than previously. It was interesting, I'd judged him as five or six years older than me but now I wasn't so sure.
"Yes, but I need you to promise never to tell anyone how."
He nodded. "Anything, if you can help me."
"I can. I'm going to swim around to your side and then I need you to grab hold of me and not let go."
He nodded again.
Letting go of the driftwood, I dived back below the water and swam underneath, eager to get to the other side and help him.
The man flinched slightly when I popped back up but that didn't stop him from putting his arms around me. Certain he wasn't going to fall off, I set off for a hidden cove I'd heard about from my sister. I'd never visited before. I'd never even been above the surface this close to the city before, but I knew where it was and that it was hidden from view. There wasn't any safer place to leave an abandoned human and hope he managed to find his way back.
He didn't say a word as we swam. I didn't blame him. Even if he hadn't worked out what I was yet, the whole situation was a little bit messed up. He'd been abandoned by his own kind and saved by a woman he didn't know and had never seen before. A beautiful one at that. I wasn't going to deny how I looked. It was impossible to when my entire race was created to be beautiful and alluring for no apparent reason. The old tales suggested we used to trap humans with our charms, but I found that unlikely. We weren't a violent race.
The man grew heavier as we approached the shore, his weight threatening to drag me down. That wouldn't be a problem for me, but I suspected things would go very wrong if he spent too long beneath the surface. A weight lifted and I smiled to myself, realising Shelbie must be giving me a helping hand. Or head more like. I didn't look down, it would be too dangerous too, but I'd make sure I thanked her properly later.
With the shore just feet away, I flicked my tail a little harder, moving the two of us through the water with ease. I'd been careful up until now, not wanting to wear myself out before he was in sight of safety. But even as weak as he was, he should be able to make it to the shore without me if he needed to.
My free hand landed on the soft stone and I sighed with relief. We'd made it. He was safe. I hoisted him out of the water, grateful when he grabbed hold of one of the boulders and pulled himself up. The man got to his feet a little shakily. He held out his hand and I shook my head.
"I can't come with you," I whispered, unsure how much I wanted to admit to him. I might have just saved his life but I wasn't an idiot. I didn't know how much the people on land knew about mermaids, and on the off chance it wasn't much, I didn't want to get caught.
"The sea is my home," I replied.
"That's not possible."
Realising there wasn't any other way to convince him, I did the only thing I could think of and flicked my tail above the waves.
He gasped. "You're a mermaid."
"Yes." The moment the whispered word left my lips a sharp pain engulfed me. It ripped through my tail and up to where my heart was. Black spots swam across my eyes, blinding me from what was going on. All I knew was pain. I clutched at my chest, trying to stop whatever was happening. Something warm slipped through my fingers just as everything went black.