Scythia sped across the plain and up the slope of the highest hill. On top she turned around until she could see the Big Blue in the distance. Tomorrow she would be allowed to join the hunting party! Tomorrow she would finally see the Big Blue up close! Tomorrow she could finally prove her skill.
She reared a little in excitement, danced around on her hind legs and then cantered down the hill towards the camp.
* * *
Her dam looked at her with a smile.
“It won't get any sharper, you know. Put it away and go to sleep. You'll need to be alert tomorrow. Hunting sea monsters is dangerous, you know that.”
Scythia nodded but gave the harpoon a final rub. She touched the tip... nice and sharp. The barbs glittered wickedly in the light of the fire. Yes... the harpoon would surely do its job... now only Scythia would have to prove that she would be able to spear a sea monster with it. She coiled the tough rope at the end of the harpoon carefully up - for the seventh time. Her dam gave her a slap on the rump. Scythia grinned and then settled down to sleep.
* * *
The Big Blue. It was much bigger than Scythia could have imagined, extending as far as she could see, looking wider than the endless plains of the hinterland even.
Khonos scanned the bay at the foot of the cliff. After a moment he gave a signal. The hunting party began the careful descent down, making use of every cover that offered, trying to stay undetected. They spread along the bay, the less experienced hunters keeping to the edges where the deeper water reached right up to the cliffs. The footing was treacherous there, but it was easier to spear a sea monster as they came closer. Scythia was assigned a position on the right wing where big boulders had crashed down from the cliffs above, creating cover. She eased her way across the slippery pebbles taking care not to create too much noise. The waters were high, covering almost the whole beach, perfect conditions as the sea monsters tended to move in close to the beach to allow their young to play in the surf.
Further along Scythia knew that a flat rock protruded out into the water. Khonos had told her that this was a favourite place for the bigger monsters. She was shown great trust to be allowed to go to such a good place. She also knew how much depended on her really making a catch. The thought alone caused her to break out into a nervous sweat and already her flanks were lathered.
She reached her position without any mishap, and slowly unslung the harpoon from her shoulder. It was important to move slowly now. Below, in the clear water several dark shapes glided through the water. She looked along the beach. From her position she couldn't see any other hunter, but she knew where they were positioned. They would all try to move at the same time, for once the alarm was raised the sea monsters would flee towards the open sea... or attack.
Khonos emerged slowly from the bushes that grew scattered along the bay. Once he gave the signal they had little time to spear the chosen prey. Scythia concentrated on the shape that seemed to prefer to swim closest to the surface.
There was the signal, a high piercing whistle. Scythia raised her harpoon and hurled it hard down into the water. She had calculated correctly. The chosen prey jerked around as the harpoon hit it but then it didn't rush away as Khonos had predicted... it turned and shot towards Scythia. Startled she shied back. The sea monster shot past her and then there was the jerk on the line Khonos had warned her about... but instead of bracing it out Scythia's startled reaction had unbalanced her footing. The sudden jerk pulled her forwards... her front hooves slid across the rock and over the edge. She toppled over. Scythia cried out then fought desperately as the foaming waters of the Big Blue closed over her. She could feel another jerk on the line which was attached to her waist. Finally her head broke the surface. She looked around. The sea was pulling on her, as much as the beast at the other end of the line. She struggled against the drag but was swept out to sea.. Her fingers fumbled with the belt to untie the line which threatened to drag her to her doom but the leather had become too slippery. She started sawing at the line with her knife but the line was extremely tough. Then the knife slipped from her grasp and was soon lost in the depth. She was inseparably tied to the monster.
Scythia's flailing hooves suddenly caught ground again. She shook the water from her eyes as she surged out of the water for a moment, catching sight of a small inlet, between the thrusting rocks. She struggled towards it. Her hooves struck ground again, giving her the necessary resistance to fight the drag from the monster. It was now thrashing close by. Scythia fought her way up onto dry land, then turned to rope in the creature. She could only free herself by cutting the harpoon out of it.
Further back Scythia could see two triangular fins slice through the water and head towards the monster. The water foamed then the monster surged towards the inlet and threw itself up onto the beach. The two triangular fins turned away and headed back out into the Big Blue.
The water receded around the monster and Scythia started back. The monster raised itself on its arms, heaved a moment and managed to drag itself further onto the beach. It turned on its side and groaned. The harpoon protruded grotesquely from its side. Red blood welled out of the wound. Scytha looked in shock at the wounded creature at her feet. It looked exactly like a centaur from the waist up! She had been told the sea monsters had claw equipped forelegs, horribly sharp teeth and bristly dog like faces! This wasn't what she had expected. But this must be one of the sea monsters because it was adorned with pearls and the rare sea shells the centaurs traded and for which the sea monsters were their only source.
Scythia took a step back. She knew that she was supposed to kill the monster now but she had lost her knife in her desperate struggle. The creature at her feet raised its head and looked at her. Scythia felt another shock go through her. There was so much intelligence and pain in the eyes of the beast that she felt a sudden rush of guilt to have cause this pain. She involuntarily blurted: “I'm sorry!”
The mo... the ... fish... the... thing pushed itself up a little further. “Much good that does now,” it muttered.
“You can talk!” It gave her a look which made her feel like the worst of fools, then twisted to inspect the damage of the harpoon. It winced and again Scythia was shocked at how its face conveyed emotions like a centaur's. It looked at her again.
“Get it over with!” Scythia took a step back when she understood the meaning. She suddenly knew that no matter what, she would be unable to kill it... him. She shook her head. “I'll help you.”
He laughed and then clenched his teeth in pain. Scythia eyed the position of the harpoon. She hadn't really done such a good job, piercing the sea... the... the fishman at the waist just two, three fingers from the side. That meant she probably had just ripped through a muscle.
“I can help you... but I will have to push the harpoon all the way through.” He looked at the harpoon in his side, then closed his eyes and nodded, muttering, “What choice do I have.”
Scythia knelt down awkwardly to be close enough to him. She unhooked the line from the end of the harpoon then bit her lips. “You've got to lie on your belly. I will push the harpoon through into the sand.” He turned his head, gave her a look that seemed to be somewhere between desperation and irony then rolled on his belly. His hands grabbed hold of two round stones. For a moment Scythia hesitated, then she put her whole weight onto the end of the harpoon. He threw his head up, groaned and his hands clenched around the rocks then he collapsed.
“Oh no, I killed him!” Scythia whinnied but then she saw him give a shuddering breath.
“Pull ... it ... out!” he gritted and rolled a little to the side. The harpoon had gone through and only a bit of the shaft was still in the wound. Scythia took hold and pulled, cutting her own hands on the sharp edges of the harpoon. She looked a moment at the horrible thing and then threw it far out into the Big Blue.
Blood pooled from under the fishman's body, now that the harpoon no longer close the wound. He pressed down on the wound but blood kept welling out between his fingers. For a moment Scythia almost lost her head but then she remembered her dam's instructions. She fumbled a little as she opened the little poach on the belt around her waist. Her questing fingers sorted through the now slimy contents of the pouch and finally found what she was looking for.
She bent down and discovered that he had fainted. She bit her lips, then pushed his bloody hand away. Her fingers probed for the deep wound and then pushed the bloodstone deep inside, thinking to herself that it was lucky he had already lost conscience. She watched anxiously... would the bloodstone work for the fishman too? For a moment the dark blood continued welling out but then the flow lessened and finally stopped. Scythia heaved a relieved sigh. Now just something to dress the wound.
She looked proudly at her work. The long green, stripy things from the sea worked well as a bandage. Now the bloodstone could do its work. She got up and looked around, for the first time able to consider her situation.
The Big Blue had swept her into a small inlet, with a tiny pebble beach. One glance at the towering cliffs told her that the only way out was the way she had come in... swimming. And that was out of question for the moment. She still remembered the strong drag of the water and was loath to venture in again. Besides... there was still the fishman. She couldn't leave him here alone.
She studied him more closely. The water had withdrawn, leaving his body fully exposed. Again it struck her how much he looked like a centaur from the waist up but his lower body was that of a fish. She recognized the skin... tanned by the centaurs it was greatly sought after in the east for its exotic quality and the sheen of the large scales. She felt a sudden sense of sickness in the pit of her stomach at the thought that somebody might turn a centaur's hide into leather. Not only that... the meat... she forbade herself to think further. What had her people been doing?!
She looked up at the sun. Left high and dry the scales on the fishtail began to dull. The fishman was breathing shallow and his skin radiated heat. For a moment Scythia hesitated, then she knelt down beside him. It wasn't easy to manoeuvre him onto her back but finally she had him hang like a limp rag across her barrel. She carefully got up and walked into the water. Soon he floated there for a moment and then sank slowly. Scythia placed herself so that he was drifting between her and the beach, watching, waiting.
* * *
“Scythia! We feared the sea monsters had eaten you like Niblis!” Scythia's dam cantered towards her, giving her a tight hug. Her sire, more reluctant to show his emotions nevertheless patted her awkwardly on the shoulder.
“You're back, that's good. But what happened... where have you been all this time?” Scythia looked at her sire then down. She couldn't yet tell everything so she restricted herself to the short version.
“I fell into the water and the Big Blue dragged me far away. I finally managed to save myself but I've needed all this time to return home.”
Other centaurs trotted up to her, expressing their relief at her safe return. The herd was happy to have her back and Scythia was happy to be back... until she arrived at the centre of the camp.
She looked in dismay at the silvery skins drying on a rack. Then her eyes were drawn against her will towards a fire where wood smoke curled around pieces of meat. She looked in shock at her sire.
“Sea monsters? How many...?” She couldn't go on. Shekkar was oblivious to her distress and smiled proudly.
“The hunt was good. We caught about fifteen sea monsters this time. The hides alone will bring in a tidy profit, especially the hides of the young ones.”
“Fifteen...” Scythia whispered. Her eyes fell on a group of foals cantering past, playing tag. An older mare chided them for their wild chase through the camp. They laughed but then bolted for the wide open space outside the camp when the the mare set after them. Scythia watched them for a moment then turned to Shekkar.
“Sire... I've spoken to one of the sea monsters.” Shekkar frowned a little. “Spoken to it? What for did you speak to it?”
Scythia looked at her sire. “You don't sound surprised.”
Shekkar looked at the filly. “Surprised? I don't understand.”
“Did you know that the sea monsters can speak?”
“Oh... that. Sure. It would be hard not to know that when they plead for their lives.”
Scythia trotted around to stop in front of her sire.
“Plead for their lives? You knew that?... and you still kill them? Cure their skins as if they are wild beasts? Eat them?!”
Shekkar frowned a little. “What's the matter with you, Scythia? They are fish. Our people have always eaten fish. Their jewellery and their skins provide us with precious trading goods. It's not as if we preyed on them all the time. We hunt once a year that's all. And don't forget... if one of ours happens to be careless when hunting they will kill him too and eat him. Like Niblis this year. ”
“But sire... this isn't right! They are like us... they laugh and cry, they feel pain and love. They care for their young. How would you feel if somebody prayed on our young ones to cure their hides because their skins are so fine? Or ate them?” Shekkar frowned a moment
“They aren't like us. They are no more but fish... we are the People.”
Scythia tried to respond but Shekkar held up his hand. “Enough of it. I do not wish to talk about it further. And I forbid you to upset your dam with such talk.” Scythia looked rebelliously at her sire. Shekkar caught her hard by the shoulder.
“Scythia. No more about this. Things are the way they are. Understood?!” He gave her a rough shake. Scythia lowered her head, whispered: “I understand, sire.” He smiled at her. “You are a good daughter and your concerns speak for you... but now forget about it and go. Chaddar has been been very worried about you.” Shekkar gave his offspring another pat on the shoulder and then trotted away. Scythia sighed.
“Scythia! I've heard about your adventure. Glad the worries were unfounded.”
Scythia turned a little and smiled weakly. “Hello Chaddar.”
* * *
Scythia picked her way carefully down the steep cliff side. She turned around for a time or two to make sure that nobody was following her. Chaddar had started to show a rather possessive attitude towards her after her failed hunt and it was becoming increasingly difficult to get away from the herd. But this time she had finally managed.
The slope was covered with loose rocks and several times her hind legs almost overtook her forelegs as the scree began to slide but finally she trotted onto the pebbly beach. She looked around but the small beach was empty. She shuddered a moment as she remembered the desperate fight to gain land again after she had left the little inlet. She had barely made it, even with help.
Scythia trotted a little closer to the water's edge. The waves swirled around her fetlocks and she felt the salt sting as it cleaned out a few surface cuts she had gotten on the way down. She waded further in, until the water washed across her body.
“Why have you come here?.”
Scythia turned. He had emerged silently, keeping his own body with easy beats of his tail waist high out of the water. Scythia looked at him. The water made them equal, showing what was the same, instead of emphasizing what was different. Scythia gave him a long look. “Well... why are YOU here?”
Shakhan smiled a little lopsidedly. Almost childishly he insisted: “I asked first.” Scythia sighed. Stallions. Or... whatever males were called with his people... heaven help them if they had to admit to emotions. She admitted. “I wanted to see whether you were here.”
Shakhan didn't quite manage to hide that he felt pleased. But he nodded and heroically admitted: “Me too. I just ... had to. When you went back, I felt... I hoped this wasn't the end.”
Scythia studied her fingers for a moment, the looked at Shakhan. “That's stupid.”
He nodded. “It's impossible.” Scythia made a small step forward. Shakhan drifted a little closer. The filly looked into his eyes. “We shouldn't be here.” The merman held her look. “Yes. We should go back home.”
He stretched out his hand and ran a finger along her cheek. “So beautiful.”
* * *
“I told my sire about your people... that you are like us, that you speak like us. He knew.”
Scythia lay on her side on the beach, her head propped up on her palm.
Shakhan, across from her in a similar pose, nodded. “I'm not surprised. It has always been like this.”
“But how can two people know about each other, know that they could talk to each other, understand each other, even profit from each other through trade... but treat each other as dumb animals instead?” Scythia turned away. “I can't believe I've eaten...” She swallowed hard. Shakhan bit his lips.
“There is no wrong about it. Had I been less wounded or the others not needed to save the young ones... we would have drowned you and then we too would have feasted. This hunt is never only a one-sided thing.”
Scythia looked at Shakhan. “Have you....?” He smiled a little lopsidedly. “Yes... land flesh is greatly appreciated amongst our people. For this we even risk being speared.” His eyes darkened a little. “But this year too many of us have died. It is Sidon's fault.”
Scythia remembered a moment the silvery skins. That was something she wouldn't tell Shakhan. They fell silent, looked at each other. Finally Scythia sighed. “I must get back.” She rolled her feet under and heaved herself up. Shakhan nodded and robbed back into the water. They looked at each other, smiled then he dived and she trotted, then cantered across the beach to gain the necessary impetus to reach the top of the cliff. Once there she looked down, then reared and galloped away.
* * *
“What are you standing out here, looking up into the sky?” Scythia's dam came out of the tent and looked at her daughter. “The stars are particularly beautiful tonight. I wonder whether the dance of the squid looks like this.”
Nerisa frowned. “What are you talking about? What are squid?” Scythia turned to her mother. “Squid are... just something I heard about.” She trotted into the tent. Nerisa looked a moment after her daughter then went to find Scythia's sire.
“Shekkar...I'm worried about Scythia. She's... not herself. Half of the time I can't find her and when I do she is absent-minded. She talks about things I never heard about. She has become unsociable, eschewing the presence of fillies and colts.”
Shekkar looked at Nerisa and nodded. “The bowmaster has told me that Scythia is lacking concentration at training. She is growing up. I think it's time to consider a first mating. That should take her mind off whatever is bothering her.”
Nerissa looked uneasy. “Do you really think she is old enough? I don't think...”
“Nerisa. Scythia is already older than most fillies to get a foal. Don't worry. Scythia has always looked over the horizon. A foal of her own will ground her.”
* * *
“Mate? I don't want to mate! I don't want a foal yet!” Scythia reared a little in rebellious denial.
“Your sire thinks it's time! So do a lot of the young stallions of the camp! Shekkar has already organised the contest.” Scythia looked in shock at Nerisa. “Without asking me?”
Nerisa gave an impatient swish with her tail. Faced with her offspring's angry protest she had to admit that Shekkar was right. It was high time that Scythia took over some responsibilities.
“We've already waited longer than is custom. The contest will be held day after tomorrow.” She turned and trotted away.
* * *
“Shakhan! SHAKHAN!” Scythia trotted anxiously along the water's edge. From time to time she reared to look over the bay... but there was no tell tale sign of water splashing. She kicked angrily at a piece of driftwood. It flew across the beach and shattered satisfyingly against a rock. But Scythia's tension wasn't really relieved. What if she went to the big bay? If Shakhan saw her he would know that something was up. Scythia turned to climb back up the cliff when she heard the splash.
“Shakhan! I'm glad you're here!” Scythia splashed into the water and threw her arms around him. He held her for a moment, then pushed her gently away.
“What's the matter?”
Scythia blurted out her news. Shakhan listened silently, his eyes expressionless. “What shall I do?”
Shakhan sighed and looked down for a moment then shook his head. “Nothing.”
Scythia frowned, unable to believe what she had just heard. “But I've got to do something!”
“No! No, Scythia!” The filly looked at Shakhan wide-eyed, utter disbelieve on her face.
“What are you saying there!”
He withdrew a little into the deeper water and sighed. “Don't you see? It's right. There had to come the moment when we needed to face reality. Look at you! At me! We can be together only on a stretch of beach a few meters wide... the moment we leave that zone one of us risks to die. Scythia! This... this is just a beautiful dream. And dreams ... have to end one day.”
“NO!” Scythia held out her hand to him. He raised out of the water, dancing on his strong tail, towering over her.
“Be sensible!” He sank back down. “One day you will want to have an offspring... and I will want to have a child too. Don't shake your head! You know it's true. All the love we have for each other cannot provide us with that! We can overcome everything... the hate of our people for each other, the impossibility of living together... but nature cannot be overcome.”
Scythia shook her head, tears falling down into the sea.
“Whichever Power is responsible for our meeting ... I am grateful to her for letting me love you. I will always remember you... and I will tell my children about you. You will tell your children about me. And who knows... maybe one day... our people will meet without any enmity.”
He came a little closer. Scythia shook her head and another tear fell. He stretched out his hand, caught the tear and closed his hand over it. When he opened it again a tear shaped pearl of impeccable lustre lay in his palm. He turned and pulled a scale from his tail.
“The pearl will always be with me... will you remember me by wearing this?” He gave her the scale. Scythia took it, sobbing and dropped it into her medicine pouch.
Suddenly the water behind Shakhan foamed. Two mermen rose high, tridents in their hands. They aimed them at Scythia.
Shakhan reacted immediately, throwing himself forward, covering Scythia with his own body. The two mermen hesitated and Scythia withdrew, out of the water. At the water's edge Shakhan let go of her landing high and dry on the beach. He twisted around to get back into the sea.
There was a clattering of rocks from the cliff. Scythia looked up to see the silhouette of a centaur aiming a bow outlined against the sky. She screamed and swung her barrel around, covering Shakhan, beached on the pebbles.
After a moment the centaur on the cliff lowered his bow and began the steep descent. He stopped in a cascade of scree in front of Scythia.
Out at sea the two mermen watched closely. Shekkar gave them a cursory glance, trying to decide if they posed a threat. They were hesitant to come closer and their tridents weren't of much use at that distance.
“Scythia. Step aside.”
The filly shifted enough to stand right above Shakhan. The mermen looked alarmed and swam closer. As Shekkar raised his bow they moved apart, still drawing closer.
“Sire. This is Shakhan. I saved his life... and he saved mine. Without him I would have drowned.”
Shakhan managed to drag himself closer to the water, Scythia shifting with him. Shekkar frowned. “That is no reason to associate with such as him!”
“Sire. We are... friends.”
Shekkar reared a little at that. “Scythia! Centaurs cannot be friends with fish!”
“And yet we are. Your refusal do acknowledge that Merpeople are people like us does not change the truth!” Scythia clenched her fists.
Shakhan finally reached the waterline. A final push and he slide away into the deeper water. He twisted and then faced Shakkar. “My father holds that centaurs are nothing but beasts... worse than sharks. Their utterances are just meaningless gabble. And yet I understand you but what you say does not make sense. So tell me...is my father right?”
Shekkar looked shocked then he flushed angrily. “How dare you speak to me!”
“There is no daring involved. Scythia is my friend. I cannot believe that her own sire is anything less than an intelligent and reasonable creature who will recognize when he talks to another intelligent and reasonable creature.”
Shekkar's mighty neck muscles bunched as he roared with anger. The two mermen raised threateningly out of the water but a wave from Shakhan caused them to withdraw. Scythia suddenly turned around and kicked back at her sire. She reared and wheeled around to face him again, screaming.
“Tomorrow I will bond with the future sire of my foals. I hope to God that he will be more bighearted than you and admit when he is wrong!” Scythia wiped an angry tear away then she turned to Shakhan and knelt down at the water's edge.
“Goodbye, my... friend. Maybe when I have a foal and you have a merbaby I will bring him down to the sea to play with your child. Next year... when your people return.”
“Next year.” Shakhan nodded
Scythia got up, turned and sped past her sire without giving him another look. Shakhan watched the two centaurs scramble up the cliff side until they had passed out of view then he shot out of the water, twisted in the air and dived.
Merpeople don't cry. Pearls are an eternal memory of their pain. The pearls found in the bay that year were of particular size and beauty.