The jungle stank of dirt and sweat and rotting pineapples. Ahead of him, the captain plodded through the brambles without showing any sign of fatigue. No birdsongs broke the stifling silence, their music suffocated by the jealous heat. The island was a veritable hell on earth. But we choose our hells, Philip reminded himself. Only Calvinist heretics felt otherwise.
Behind him, he could hear the slish-sloshing of the unlucky mergirl as her glass cage swung roughly over the ground, and he wondered if it was possible for a creature born in the water to feel seasick. Her four bearers did not seem to be deliberately rocking the makeshift aquarium, but neither did they act as though anything fragile or sensitive - or alive - was inside. He wondered when they would stop, and if he would ever have a chance to talk to her.
He had told the captain once that every soul could be saved, and he believed it. He could not help thinking perhaps this girl had been sent to prove him right. If he could save her, this lost demon-child of the underworld, it might be enough to thaw the captain's cold heart. At the very least it would give some meaning to all the non sequiturs that seemed to be following him around lately. So while the back of his skull still throbbed where she had dashed it against the rocks, he found it surprisingly easy to forgive her for attacking him.
He noticed she stared at him more often than the others, as though attacking him had created a bond between them. He supposed that at least gave him something to work with. Making a connection was half the job of a missionary. It was more than he had accomplished with Blackbeard at any rate, he thought as he wiped the side of his face with his sleeve. He found it difficult to look into her eyes, though, full of sadness and anger and disappointment. She never hissed at him, but he found this silent assault harder to bear.
She is a savage raised by savage creatures, and you overpowered her. She does not know any better. It made sense in his head, but when he looked back at her again, he could not meet her hazel irises, staring into his as one betrayed.
Dawn passed into morning, and morning trudged listlessly towards noon. The back of his shirt clung to his shoulders. They passed the carcass of a dead boar wreathed in flies, and the stench of decay threatened to overpower him. Being an educated man, he had read about the exact biological processes by which nature disposed of its dead, and the knowledge made the odor significantly worse. He began to envy the mergirl in her glass litter, blissfully ignorant of what she was missing.
Turning back to her, he felt relieved that she was no longer staring at him with her wordless bitterness, until he realized she was not staring at anything at all. She had plastered the side of her face against the glass. Her nose and mouth just barely broke the surface, and she was drinking the air in short, agonized gasps. He knelt down beside her and pressed his fingers against the glass. To his surprise, her hand rose to meet his, though her eyes remained somewhere else.
"She needs air," he called out, to no one in particular.
"She's got water," Blackbeard answered without turning around. Philip had very little patience for people who ignored the obvious.
"She's suffocating. She needs air," he repeated.
A few of the crew glanced nervously at the cage, at Blackbeard, and at the ground. A good half of them probably would do something if they dared, but they didn't. Philip looked back at the aquarium. By then, her breath had fogged up the glass so much that he could no longer see her face. "You're killing her."
Blackbeard continued walking. Without thinking much about the repercussions, Philip grabbed the nearest sharp object he could find, which happened to be the quartermaster's sword. The quartermaster grunted in shock, but Philip had already shattered the lock and shoved his weather-beaten Bible underneath the glass lid. Possibly an act of blasphemy, but it had not done much good in his bag, as no one besides himself showed any interest in reading it. Stepping back, he waited for the captain's outburst. However, Blackbeard seemed intent on ignoring him. Like most of Philip's holy antics, he apparently regarded this latest act of defiance as not worth his attention. Philip glanced back down at the mergirl, whose face showed surprise and relief but very little else.
"Here," Philip said, handing the quartermaster back his sword.
"Don't tell me you were expecting her to thank you."
Philip favored the quartermaster with a half-hearted shrug. He supposed he had not expected much gratitude. She was still a captive, and a wild thing who might not even speak a word of English for all he knew.
"You'll be standing on the mast all the way back to London for that," the quartermaster reminded him.
"Standing or swinging?" Philip asked, not really caring if he got an answer. He glanced over his shoulder at the mergirl again, but she was not looking at him. She had closed her eyes, savoring the fragrance of the same jungle air he had found repellent. An almost childlike smile had blossomed on her sea-kissed mouth. In that moment of unvarnished delight, he knew that neither he nor Blackbeard nor any of the other men existed in her world. Do all girls look that intoxicating when they smile? Moving closer to the front, he tried to dismiss the thought before it could carry him away any further.
The sound of shattering glass smashed the silence, and the mergirl spilled out of her cage in a rush of water and crystal shards. He did not see who or what had caused the cage to break. One of the bearers swore, and then all four dropped their now useless burden on the ground, sending another shower of broken glass onto her unprotected back.
Gracelessly, she pulled herself into a sitting position. No one bothered to explain how she had suddenly sprouted legs. While he knew staring at them made him just as crude as the other sailors, it was equally hard not to stare at them. Her fingers grasped at the soil. Her drenched brown hair hung conveniently over her breasts, but she made no further effort to cover herself. It occurred to Philip that she had no idea she was supposed to care that she was completely naked.
Acting on instinct – he was not sure whether it was one of honor or jealousy – he peeled off his shirt.
"Here, you look…" He trailed off awkwardly as he draped it over her shoulders. "Cold," he finished. She eyed him with bewilderment. The expression unsettled him, her dark crinkled eyebrows, the half-smile threatening her lips, and the confused light in her golden-green eyes. Either she has no idea what I said, or she knows exactly what I said and exactly how ridiculous it sounded.
Blackbeard strode over from the front. He cast a wintery gaze on the cage-bearers, but decided to direct his wrath instead at the mergirl and, by association, him.
"Walk," he said tersely. She tried. Grasping his shoulder with a painfully tight grip, she pulled herself to her feet. One of the crewmen nearby offered her an extra hand, which she momentarily accepted. But while her legs had all the muscle of a girl almost-grown, they had all the memory of a newborn colt. Her knees shook and dumped her back on the ground. Blackbeard regarded her coldly. "Walk or die."
"Can you put your arms around my neck?" Philip asked quietly.
She glared at him across her dirt-stained nose, her eyes now full of pain and wounded pride. "I do not ask for help," she said coldly.
"I know," he conceded. "But you need it."
She looked at the ground. Pressing her lips together, she complied. This left Philip with another dilemma. While she knew where to put her hands, he did not know where to put his. He had never carried a girl before, but somehow he had always imagined them being fully clothed. Awkwardly, he slid his right arm under her knees, then realized this would leave her hanging in a very uncomfortable and compromising position. He shifted his arm closer to her hips, until it was a little more than halfway up her thighs. Her skin felt cool and clammy. Carrying her was an unexpected relief from the suffocating heat. Accidentally, his fingers brushed against something rough. A strip of remnant scales peeled off her skin, and he felt her body stiffen in his arms.
"Sorry," he said quickly. "I didn't mean to hurt you." She did not reply, but rested her head against his neck. Her hair smelled of salt tinged with seagrapes, and it filled him with an odd sense of loss, like a man drifting on open waves far away from home.
Disclaimer: Not mine