It was a rough assembly of lumber called the Mermaids’ Dock, that reached into the shallow waters near the Selk domain. The water wasn’t deep enough for most large craft this late in the season, so the dock had fallen into disuse. I could hear the rotting timbers creek under my feet as I went out to the end and sat down.
I’d heard that during the day people went out here hoping to see Mermaids. It was considered lucky by some to spot one, and luckier still to speak to one. I’d never given the matter much thought, but I wanted a quiet place, and I wanted to think. So here I was.
Adjusting mismatched pieces of leather and bronze armour, I made myself comfortable, dangling my feet over the edge of the dock. It was surprisingly peaceful out there, watching the water in its restless motion, the moonlight spilling over it. The Selk domains were just low, dark masses against the night sky.
I gradually became aware of splashing far out in the river mouth. The Mermaids? I couldn’t be sure. There were small stones scattered about on the dock. Perhaps they had been left by pilgrims. I had no way of knowing. I just threw a few out, one after another, in the direction of the splashes. Maybe I was trying to get their attention, maybe I was just restless.
There was a splash right in front of me. A male reared up out of the water and fell back. Hurriedly, I pulled my legs in, afraid that if I let them dangle over the edge they would be pulled in and I would be drowned.
It surfaced again, this time more casually.
“Hi,” he said.
From the waist up, at least, he looked like a Selk. He had shiny smooth olive skin that glistened in the moonlight and looked like it would be slick to the touch. It covered a heavy torso and powerful arms. A thin even layer of fat covered what I could see of him, obscuring muscle and bone. Below the waist, I couldn’t tell.
“Hi yourself,” I told him.
He came closer to me. I stared at him, fascinated. His round head rested on a short neck. He had a wide mouth, thin lips and a pug nose, the nostrils opening and closing as he breathed. He had no hair, except for a stiff slick mane growing back from his head. His eyes were large, barely sunken at all. His face was flat, like humans. But where humans look childlike, he seemed different.
“You are a woman,” he decided, finally.
I grinned at him, heavy brow wrinkling, and showed him large heavy canines.
AFemale. If it matters.@
“You have very big teeth,” he said.
I bit back a reply, waiting to see what he would do next.
“I’ve never seen you here,” he told me, “I’ve never seen a woman like you.”
He was holding his place in the water just a few feet from me, bobbing slightly in a mannerly rhythm. His lank, flat mane was cut short. It covered his scalp and ran down the back of his neck to his spine. His wide mouth grinned up at me, showing flat teeth. His eyes, large and set wide, twinkled.
“Who comes here?” I asked it. I grinned back, not friendly, just showing him my sharp teeth.
“Humans mostly. Dwarves. Gnomes. Sometimes a few goblins. Once a giant walked right out into the water. He had legs like timbers.” He swam in a circle beneath me.
“Have you ever seen anything like me? Smaller perhaps? A male?”
“I’ve never seen anything like you,” he replied.
“You are ugly. What are you?”
“I am Arukh.”
It appeared to consider this.
“Is that your name?”
“What’s your name?”
“I have no name. I am Arukh.”
“Your name is Arukh?”
“Arukh is what I am,” I said patiently. “We have no names.”
“What’s an Arukh?” it asked.
“A mixed breed. A cross between a Vampire and a Goblin,” I told it.
“That’s why you have big teeth.”
“You don’t look like a Goblin. You’re too big and heavy,” he said. “Do you look like a vampire?”
I thought about the Vampires, tall and thin, ethereally graceful, with their long fingers and spidery limbs. Compared to them I was squat and massive. Ugly in their eyes. Vampires have no use for squat, ugly children.
“Are you a Mermaid or a Selk wasting my time?” I asked irritably.
Without replying, he dived. For a brief moment his tail waved in the air, the fishlike flukes slapping the water. A few drops splashed on me. That was an answer, I supposed.
He reappeared, blowing water. “I’ve never seen a Vampire. Why is that?”
“They don’t like water. They can’t swim.”
He laughed and blew bubbles in the water.
“That’s silly. Swimming is the easiest thing there is.”
Demonstrating, it began to swim in powerful strokes, twisting and curling through the water. In spite of myself, I had to admire its grace.
“I’ve heard they drink blood. Is that true?”
I nodded, and then, not sure if it could see my nod or understand it, I spoke. “Yes, it’s true.”
“Do you drink blood?” it asked.
But it had evidently decided to turn to more interesting topics.
“Do you think I’m beautiful?” he asked. He briefly rose out of the water to preen.
“Why do you care?”
“Did you come to see me because I’m beautiful?” Then it sobered for a moment. “I bet you are here for Mira.”
“I’m here for Mira.”
“I knew it. I knew Mira, I found her body. I heard that the Elders called upon a terrible, awful woman with sharp teeth to catch her killers. A killer herself. An Urisha. Is that you?”
He made it a soft sibilant sound.
“Arukh,” I corrected. “It’s me. Tell me about Mira.”
“First, tell me how beautiful I am.”
I briefly considered pelting it with stones. But somehow, I was charmed in spite of myself. There was something so open, so free about it’s manner, that I couldn’t help liking it for the shallow, empty thing it was.
“You’re beautiful,” I said, “Tell me about Mira.”
He disappeared beneath the water then. He didn’t reappear for fifteen seconds. Then he burst through, splashing.
“Would you like to make love with me?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “Where did you find her body?”
“I don’t believe you,” he said. He swam on his back, his erection breaking through the water as if it were pursuing him. “I have a beautiful cock. I will give you much pleasure… Upriver.”
“We found her body upriver.” He stopped, sinking into the water momentarily as he turned to face me. “Show me your nipples.”
“No. I want you to tell me all about how you found her body.”
“I won’t tell you anything more until you show me your nipples.”
“Please,” it almost appeared to be pouting, “I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
In answer, I pulled at my tunic with my left hand, exposing one breast and a hard, dark nipple for an instant. He leaped in the water, splashing.
“I knew it. I knew it,” he laughed. “You do want me. Come into the water, I’ll bring you to meet the others and then we can make love.”
“I can’t swim,” I told him.
He stopped dead in the water, looking up at me with childish wonder.
“Really. Now tell me.”
“Cara found her.”
“You said you found her.”
He made a face. “We all found her. She came and got me and Venn and we brought her to the Elders. I think you should come out and talk to us all.”
“I told you I can’t swim. Can you bring them here?”
“No, we’re at the gull rock tonight.” His brow knit, as if he was thinking. “I can take you in a boat.”
“No,” I answered. “I told you, I can’t swim and there is no boat.”
He disappeared. I wasn’t sure that he heard me.
I sat for a few moments, staring at the silent lapping waters. Waiting for him, or for another one to return.
He reappeared from around the side of the dock towing a small coracle. It was an oval woven boat, very small, very light. It looked very flimsy.
“Get in,” he urged me.
He appeared to notice my expression. “Don’t be afraid,” he
told me, “I won’t let anything happen. I won’t let you drown.”
He spoke with absolute sincerity.
“I promise,” he told me.
“Arukh aren’t afraid of anything,” I snarled.
I would have to step into the boat. Death by drowning. There was something treacherous about water. I was suddenly nervous about these people that made it their home.
“Stay low,” he cautioned me as I slid into it. The boat shifted inanimately under my weight. “The higher you are the easier it tips.”
I grunted in response, and got as low as I could.
“Hey,” his head and shoulders reappeared above the coracle and it lurched sickeningly, “you won’t drink my blood, will you?”
“I promise.” I told him. Satisfied, his head sank beneath the waves and the coracle began to move.
It flowed over the water with frightening speed, jerking and twisting on the waves. He seemed to pull and push constantly in different directions, as if it kept sliding from his grip. Behind me, the dock fell away rapidly. The roiling plane of the river expanding to become my world. It went on and on, and soon, from my low vantage, clinging to the bottom of the boat, I couldn’t see any shape of land. My heart started to pound, my fingers scrabbled at the woven slats beneath me. Part of me wanted to leap up in panic, to run, to bolt. But I knew that if I did, the waters would have me and I would drown. I snarled involuntarily, the sound low and rasping in my throat.
The boat lurched again, rock bumping against its bottom. I heard musical voices piping. First a female one, then another. The boat pitched and a shadow fell across me. I snarled and tightened my grip.
“Is it dead?” someone called.
“It’s frightened,” a male voice, a different one said, “poor thing.”
Water splashed over me, making me cringe involuntarily. I writhed and spat quiet fury, my hands gripping the wooden frame so tight it creaked against its lashings.
Suddenly I felt a scrape, as the coracle landed. For a moment, I refused to move. Then carefully, I raised my head above its rim. We had ridden up a reef. Flat stone slopes rose out of the water. I climbed out, sliding over the edge of the coracle, grateful for the feel of anything solid. I looked around, I couldn’t see land anywhere. Panic surged up, what if they left me here to die. I forced it down. Shapes bobbed in the water.
“This is a Vampire.” My friend introduced me, “She is here to learn about Mira.”
“Does it drink blood?” a female voice asked.
* * * * *
I had seen my first Mermaid earlier that day.
Its eyes had been gouged out, its mouth a pulped ruin with only a stump for a tongue. One of its breasts had been slashed so that it was now just an empty sack of skin. Someone had shoved a knife deep into its sex and torn it open, and then cut down, stabbing and slashing until its tail had been cut into two uneven legs.
It had begun to bloat under the blistering sunlight, the flesh acquiring the puffy, indistinct look of decomposition. The flesh around its wounds was beginning to turn colour. Only its hair had retained traces of life, full and lustrous with stray hairs that waved in the breezes, like trapped refugees seeking rescue.
“We found her today,” the first Elder had told me. “She was drifting down the reed marshes.”
He was a little Selk, standing around the height of my shoulders. He was smooth the way they all are, dressed in paints and ornaments. Only thinning white hair betrayed his age. He hadn’t looked happy. There were two other Elders with him, and a handful of Ublul guards. The Elders stood away, but the squat heavy Ublul surrounded me, weapons ready. They didn’t look happy. But then who could tell with Selk? Their smooth placid faces betrayed nothing.
I noticed that they all kept their nostrils shut tight, it gave their faces a pinched look, full of displeasure.
They’d come in the middle of the day, the whole squad of them, marching into the Iron Pant’s Lodge. Terrified to be there, but driven nevertheless.
They’d been looking for an Arukh. A clever Arukh. A particular clever Arukh. Those of us who were awake had gathered around, crouching and listening as they argued with the Troll. We’d waited to see if they would all die when the Troll tired of them.
Instead, he’d sent them away, and sent me with them.
It seems I was the one they wanted.
It is not a good thing to be Arukh and wanted. That is why we keep no names. They’d taken me to the corpse, where it lay on a rough wooden platform on the beach near a fishing dock.
Selk were clustered all about, dozens of them, but kept their distance. They seemed nervous and uncertain. The Ublul guards shooed them off.
I stared at the body.
“Her name is Mira,” the Elder said.
“It was Mira,” I shrugged, “now it’s just meat.”
It irritated me that he kept talking about meat as if it was a person.
“I did not do this,” I told them.
I didn’t think that they blamed me for it, but you never know. Perhaps they wanted me to face an accuser.
“Look at the body,” the Elder commanded. “Tell us what you see.”
I bent down to look at the corpse. I pulled the shades off my eyes. The sunlight stung, but I wanted a clear look at the wounds.
I slipped my finger into one of her wounds. There was a soft squishing sound as the flesh gave way.
“Too dry,” I said reflectively, feeling the texture inside the wound. It was wet and sticky of course, slick with decomposition, but it was just meat feel. It didn’t have that slipperiness that comes with being in the water.
“Whoever did this took her from the water, and left her on land.”
The old Selk made a noise of disgust but did not stop me. Encouraged, I slid my finger all the way into the corpse. I slipped it around, feeling cool corpse flesh.
“Deep wound. Stabbing. A point knife, rather than a cutter,” I said aloud.
I picked up a piece of wood and carved a long splinter from it. Gingerly, I began to probe the injuries. There were thirty-three wounds. Most of them were stabs.
“Let her be. Must you violate her any further?” an Elder asked me as I used the splinter to explore the stab wounds.
I chuckled, and didn’t bother to reply. They’d brought me here and let me do this.
“Probably,” I told him, “only one weapon was used. A knife with a blade about this long, this wide.”
I showed him a six inch length along the twig, and an inch width with my fingers. That was a short blade. Most knives were heavier and averaged about a foot in the blade. I indicated a stab wound along the thigh.
“You see here? The blade went all the way in.”
I pulled at ripped flesh at the top of the wound.
“This is the mark of the grip, where the blade stops and the handle starts. As it entered it, tore and stretched rather than cut.
“The wounds are cut on both sides. It is unusual to find a knife sharp on both sides. Also, you see here,” I indicated a stab wound just above the intact breast, “the back side of the knife is nicked. It tears the flesh a little. This is the clearest, but you can find it in most of the other wounds.”
The Elder blanched, but held his ground.
“What else can you divine?” he asked.
“The knife was greased, animal fat.” I pointed to two punctures up by her collarbone. “See these marks here. These
were the first wounds. Greasing knives is common enough among fighters, is to allow knife to be pulled quickly.”
I turned her body on its side.
“Few wounds in back, and those only punctures that went all the way through from the front. She was attacked from the front,
probably on land or in a boat, lying on her back.”
ANo bruises,@ I said thoughtfully, examining her shoulders, her biceps. I grabbed a handful of hair and tugged it, it was firm. AShe was not pulled from the water. She was found out of it, or lured. The attack did not come until later.@
I held up a limp arm.
“She struggled. See the marks on her hands as she tried to stop the knife?”
I bent the wrist back for them, so they could see the hole. There was a slight cracking as the bones moved.
“Here the knife went right through the wrist, but was trapped by the bones. It had to be pulled back out. Must have been terribly painful. She must have screamed a lot.”
I paused for a second. Waited. No one ventured anything. So, she had been killed someplace where her screams would not have been heard. Or taken someplace. I went on.
“It was a very strong knife for its size, to go into the wrist like that. It should have snapped or bent. Not flint or stone. Those would have been short short blades, snap easily. Or inserted into a groove, it would have been jagged. Not copper either, too weak. Bronze, or something strong.”
Iron, I decided. Someone had an iron knife. I kept that to myself. Iron was rare.
“It takes a lot of strength to drive a knife between bones like this and then pull it back out,” I told them.
“Who did this?” the Elder asked.
Now we were getting down to the soft meat of the matter.
I let the meat fall onto its back, and waved my arm from the uppermost injury, to the lowest stab wound.
“Probably only one being. Just one weapon, no sign of any other person. Not Goblin,” I told him. “Not enough strength. Hobgoblins, Dwarves, Kobolds, might have strength, don’t have reach, the stab wounds are all over. Giants or Trolls: Too much reach, too small a knife.”
I grinned up at him.
“Humans perhaps. Could be Selks. You know Selks that do work like this?”
They did not respond.
“Probably not Selks. Selks probably do it in water.@ My teeth bared with pleasure as they shuddered. AThis was dry work. What do you think?”
“No Selks,” one of the guards said. The Elders glanced at him. He bowed his head.
The guards weren’t supposed to talk. I laughed.
“Vampires,” I speculated. “But they kill different. And they wouldn’t come near enough water to fish a Mermaid out.”
“Who did this?” I asked rhetorically. “Hard to say. Probably Arukh. One Arukh with a funny knife.”
“Arash are known for madness,” the Speaker of the Elders said, pronouncing it oddly. Every race said our name differently. It didn=t matter. It always meant the same thing.
I nodded. This was certainly the work of madness. Long after she had died her attacker had gone on stabbing. He had made a point of gouging out her eyes, and cutting out her tongue, and then he had gone through the effort of mutilating her sex and cutting her legs apart. Transforming her from a person into badly butchered meat. All unnecessary, pointless. It smelled of a particular kind of insanity.
My kind: We are mad, bad and dangerous to be around.
And whatever one of us did this was madder and badder still.
“Arukh,” I said. “Orc. But you knew that?”
“It has the stink of madness, there is no mistaking the odour.”
That was why they kept their nostrils shut. I reached down to the corpse and spread its ragged legs apart, the red and torn meat between its thighs an awful parody of a woman=s sex. An Ublul moaned, behind me, voicing his disgust. I could feel them shifting around. I paid no attention.
An Arukh had done it. All you had to do was look at the mess it had made of the body, and you could tell. They could tell.
They didn’t need me to come and probe a ruined body to tell them what they knew. What did they want then?
I shoved my fist up the torn raw meat, probed in its ruined abdomen until I came to a familiar slickness. A male Arukh then. I rubbed my finger in the trace, but did not bring it to my nose to smell. Decay would mask it.
No bones broken, I noted with surprise. A small male then. We like to break bones whenever we can.
They watched me for as long as they could stand it.
“Can you find the one who did this?” the Elder blurted. “Make sure it is never done again?”
“Arrah,” I said, grinning, rising into a crouch. My heavy sharp teeth flashed at them as I bobbed my head at the Elders.
“You want me to hunt and kill my own people?” I asked him.
“Look upon their work!”
I glanced at the corpse.
“Plenty of good meat there still,” I told them. “Good eating.”
An Ublul, the one who’d spoken, stepped towards me, his weapon half raised. I bobbed my head submissively at him, ranging him.
He was bigger than the others. Bigger than other Ublul the way Ublul were bigger than most Selk. They were some northern swamp breed. The thin fat layer that made Selk seem sleek was thick with them, heavy rolls of it hanging from their bodies. The slickness of Selk skin that made it shine in the light was a soapy oil on them. The Ublul were slow and strong, patient defensive fighters. This one had thick white scars on his body, with clumsy stitch marks.
Easy to hurt, hard to stop. Let him move, I thought. Let him move and see what an Arukh can do.
“Slal,” the Elder commanded. The big Ublul backed up.
I turned back to the Elders.
“Do you know which of you did this?”
“I can find him,” I told them, thinking myself clever for my answer.
“We pay in gold. Three pieces now. Twelve pieces later.”
“Pay me all now.”
I shrugged and waited.
AForget it then,@ I said, Aall the world cheat an Arukh.@
I watched them.
“We’ll pay to the Troll, Iron Pants, he can hold between us.”
I thought about that. Trolls often acted as go betweens, holding money. They were big enough nobody would take it from them, and honest enough not to cheat.
“I’ll bring you his head,” I told them finally.
“Then we are finished here,” the Elder said.
“Wait,” I said.
They looked at me.
They looked at each other.
“There are stories,” the Elder said finally, “of an Arukh. An Arukh that gambles with High Gnomes.”
A chill ran up my spine.
“There are many stories,” I said, trying to grin. ANothing to stories, just wind and farts.@
I watched them, trying to look stupid, teeth barred in a half grin.
“You will do what will be done.”
Without a further word they gathered up the corpse and carried it away. I watched with mild disappointment.
There was still good meat on that body.