Syrena could smell they had arrived before the Captain called for a halt. The air was heavy, still, dank. It smelled of death.
The quartermaster halted, and dropped her to the ground. She sank onto her knees, but the quartermaster held a firm grip on her upper arms.
There was silence in the air as the pirates gazed around at their destination. She felt someone approach, and her blindfold was removed. She blinked in the darkness, offset by multiple torches. The first thing she noticed clearly was that Philip was nearby, standing with a group of pirates and a look of pure horror on his face as he took in the place they were standing. He looked like he might be sick. He hadn't known where they were going. But she had.
Slowly, she too, looked around. They were at the Jungle Pools. The Merfolk knew they existed, and they knew that the worst fate one could suffer would be to be taken there by pirates.
The Jungle Pools were in a wide open glade, many miles from the coast. A myriad of small circular pools surrounded by low, craggy rock formations made up the landscape they could see by the light of the torches. The only signs of life were the tiny, lightly humming bugs that flocked to the torches, and the short, misshapen trees that managed to break through the rocks and feed on the pool water for life. Their very branches dipped out off the trunks to reach into the water.
And from those twisted branches hung skeletons, silently telling the twisted tale of this terrible place. The skeletons were bound by the wrist to overhanging branches, and submerged waist deep into the pools. Where their rotting fishlike tales revealed that they were not human.
She breathed in, and her stomach turned at the rank air.
The Captain reached down into the nearest pool and let a cupful of water fall from his hands. "It's saltwater, you know." He said, without looking at her. "Deep underground tunnels connect these pools to the sea."
Pulling the flask from his side, he filled it with water, then brought it to the mermaid. With her arms still pinned to her side, he held it to her lips. She held them closed, but as the water ran down her chin and over her parched, drying skin, she couldn't help but gulp down the rest of the flask.
"Does it taste like freedom, mermaid?"
She felt the life returning to her veins, and did not deign to respond.
"Take her away from the pools, Quartermaster, and keep a close eye on her while we prepare the camp."
The quartermaster picked her up by her shoulders, and half dragged her away from the pool.
"Rest now, if you can, Mermaid." Called the Captain, stopping them both. "It may be a long night for you."
Turning to his crew he directed them to start lighting the fires and making camp.
The Quartermaster and Mermaid stopped against a large rock, where he let go of her for the first time in hours. Calling over two more seamen they surrounded her so she couldn't move.
She cowered against the rock, shivering in the light shirt that Philip had given her.
Philip brought a small fish for her, and another flask of sea water. Hungrily, she devoured both, but Philip was called away.
The men warmed up and began to chat as they went about their normal camping routine. But the Captain remained silent and distant as usual. She tried to relax against the rock and get some sleep; she was exhausted. She warily kept her eye on the Captain, waiting for his next move.
He spent an hour or so calmly gazing out over the pools. Then, he took a torch from the fire, and slowly walked around inspecting different pools. He shook tree trunks to test their stability, and inspected branches that were hanging over the water. After careful inspection at one point, he carefully drove his torch into the ground, illuminating a knotty branch that had twisted with a nearby tree as it sank into the pool below.
"Bring the creature here."
She was hauled roughly to her feet and half stumbled, was half dragged to the waiting Captain at the side of a pool. Naturally, the rest of the crew slowly gathered around, keeping a safe distance from the Captain. Except for Philip who pushed forward, trying to not believe what was about to happen.
The Quartermaster set her down at the edge of the pool, and she dropped her feet into the water. It lapped it's velvety touch against her parched skin. She briefly gauged her weight against the man holding her upper arms so firmly, and knew that an attempt to jump in would be futile.
"I'll lay it out for you clearly, Mermaid," said the Captain, dropping to one knee to be level with her. "I am an old man whose bones grow more weary every day. I only want to live a little longer and see my grandchildren. But a single thing stands between me and that which I have spent my life searching for, the Fountain of Youth. You are in the unique position to grant me my one desire, all I need is a single tear. You give that to me, and I will let you jump into these pools and make your way back to the sea."
He held out a tiny glass vial wrapped in a leather case, and held it against her cheek. Tilting her face towards him, she looked into his dark eyes. The Fountain of Youth was a lie. He would not gain what he seeked there. Those who drank from the water received a thirst that could never be quenched. While the years of their life were extended, those extra years were spent pillaging and harming innocent lives. In a time long ago, the mermaids had willingly offered their tears to those who had found the fabled well, but over the centuries, their gift had been betrayed. And they now guarded their tears as more precious than life, as attested by the many of her sisters who had still remained in this open grave.
This was the moment when she must fade to weakness. Keeping eye contact with the Captain, she tilted her head as far away from the bottle as she was able.
The Captain dropped the vial and stood.
"Perhaps I did not make myself clear enough. Look around you, at the fate that will be yours. Staked out to die, to dry in the sun. Only half in the water, not enough to live, but just enough to make the dying slow. Is that what you wish? What will that sacrifice accomplish? Does that very thought not bring a tear to your eye?"
"All die." She muttered. "Even you. Soon I hear."
Grabbing the hair at the back of her neck, her jerked her head up to face him. "Listen. LISTEN. Can you not hear sister's screams? Do you not hear them? We need but one tear."
She kept her eyes averted from his and remained silent. He smacked her face with his other hand. "Vile creature."
Philip jumped forward, but the other seamen hold him back. "Stop. What good will this accomplish?"
"Silence, Missionary, I have not even begun. I will tear every scale off her body if that is what it takes. Tie her up like the others."
He turned to go, but then turned back. Drawing his sword he lightly touched the tip of it to her cheek.
"NO!" Cried Philip, lunging forward but easily caught by his fellow pirates.
"Take him out of my sight."
The Captain dropped the sword down her cheek, and flicked open the collar of the oversized shirt she was wearing. "Remove this."
The quartermaster grabbed her neck, momentarily choking her as two other pirates tore the shirt off of her. Then, they grabbed her wrists, yanking them over her head and suspending her over the pool as they positioned her over a large branch that dipped down. They lowered her into the water until it was nearly at her hips. It felt glorious against her parched human skin, and her whole body tingled as her legs transformed back into her proper tail. They wrenched her arms behind the branch, pulling her up tight against it. She wriggled in their grasp, trying to support her weight. They worked a thick rope around her slender wrists, binding them tightly together. Then they wrapped it multiple times around the branch weaving it over and under her wrists, finally knotting it when they were satisfied it wouldn't move.
She twisted against her bonds, but they held firm. And she struggled to support her weight, suspended as she was. Her upper back had the advantage of the the tangled branch to support her, but it was rounded and knobby, digging painfully into her upper back before dropping off and leaving her lower back hanging. She squirmed, her tail lapping in the familiar feel of water. She relished that feeling as much as she could, but with so little of her body weight below the water, it did little to help her support herself.
The crew backed away from her, and reached for the torch that was illuminating the little scene.
"Leave it." Said the Captain.
The crew left to get comfortable for the night. But the Captain stood still, his dark eyes watching his catch.
She struggled still, her chest rising and falling at her shallow breathing. Unbidden, her eyes swam with tears, but she frantically blinked them away.
The Captain smiled. Then left.
It was her own weakness that had gotten her here in the first place. She would not further betray her people by weakness again. How hard could it be? It wouldn't take too long to die, would it? But she could already feel the life flowing back into her veins through the seawater seeping into her scales, giving her a strange strength in this hopeless situation. But she didn't want strength. She wanted death to be swift. It was probably still 6 hours until sunrise. She could feel slow waves of heat emanating from the fiery torch a few feet away. It was drying out the air around her, and not helping her tender skin.
She might as well try to get some sleep while she could.
She adjusted herself as well she could throughout the night, watching as each three hour shift turned over. She dozed a little, but never deeply or long as the pain in her arms would wake her.
At the faintest touch of dawn, she noticed the Captain stirring the fire. He lit a torch and ambled over to her. He sat on a large rock and said nothing for a while. Just watched the sky as the blackness turned into a grey.
She shifted, a small sigh escaping her throat.
"You have only to say the word and I will let you slip into these waters before anyone else is even up." He turned to look down at her. "Surely you can summon up a single tear?"
"I will not betray my people."
He leaned down towards her. "But consider, in a very short time, the sun will be up." He lowered the torch until the flaming end was within inches of her face.
Her eyes wide with terror, she squirmed her head away. But he pushed it closer, lowering it down the length of chest and exposed stomach. The heat and smoke billowed up around her and surrounded her face. Her breaths came in small, shallow gasps.
"It's heat will shine down on every inch of you. And the water below will not be enough. It will be slow. Suspended between heaven and hell. Three days, if you're lucky. I'll make sure it's longer. You could end this now."
He lifted the torch. She gulped in large breaths of air, sweat dripping down her neck and abdomen.
"I will not… cry for you." She looked straight at him.
"Very well." He drove the torch into the ground, burning end first, putting it out. "Enjoy the sunrise."