“Sing, my little sereine! Sing!”
King Elred’s command boomed across the noisy hall, magnified by the thick stone walls. Shouts and laughter subsided and heads turned in his direction.
“Let your soothing songs calm these raucous dogs, Mera.”
Another ripple of laughter faded into murmurs as Mera rose from her low wooden stool beside the great fire. She glanced at the king, then stepped up onto the stool, her bare feet relishing the fleeting warmth of the wood. She didn’t wait for silence; it never came. Instead, she looked up to the circle of torches suspended above the middle of the great hall and began to softly sing her favourite song.
Across the hall, three of the king’s soldiers were still tormenting their latest prisoner. Injured from that day’s battle, he’d been dragged into the hall as the food arrived, receiving as great a cheer as the two roast boars that preceded him. Soldiers had pushed him around for a while, yanking the chains that bound his wrists and ankles, thumping and kicking him when he tried to defend himself. He’d taken a severe beating by the time the king had intervened, and was now being subjected to merciless tugs on his long red hair.
Mera concentrated on her song. Singing in her native tongue calmed her and took her mind away from the coarse and brutal behaviour of the castle’s inhabitants. At seventeen, she could now sing the entire song without shedding tears of loss and longing, but she knew the tremble in her voice added a melancholic tone that still discomfited the king. There was no applause; the king simply nodded for her to sing something else and she continued until he decided it was time to eat.
As the feasting began, Mera slipped out of the hall and hurried to the kitchen. Flushed and grim-faced, the cook wiped her forehead with the back of her plump hand, then ladled steaming liquid into a battered metal dish and handed it to Mera. Mera curtseyed quickly before devouring the scraps of undercooked or burnt flesh that swam in a puddle of hot brine, watching as the cook divided what little was left between four small bowls. Mera and one of the kitchen girls picked up two bowls each and reluctantly left the heat of the kitchen.
“See you bring them back,” the cook grumbled as they turned into the narrow passageway that led towards the steps down to the dungeons.
It was an unspoken rule that Mera would take food, such as it was, to any new prisoners. Elin, the kitchen girl, was terrified of them all and would wait to see how Mera fared with new arrivals before venturing anywhere near their cells, even though all prisoners were restrained by chains beyond the heavily locked cell gates.
Mera stooped to put one bowl through a lower gap in the iron gate, laying it on the damp soil beyond. A shadowed shape grunted, and she moved to the next cell. The red-haired prisoner stood in the centre of his cell, head bowed. In the dim light from the passageway torches, Mera could see that he was trembling. She placed the second bowl on the soil just inside the gate and turned to follow Elin back to the steps, where they would wait before collecting the empty bowls.
“Your songs are too beautiful for such a place.”
The whisper barely reached her ears, but it left a smile on her lips.
* * *
Night after night, soldiers dragged Thalo up to the great hall and tormented him with kicks, stabs and beatings. They roared victoriously when he snarled in anger and stepped back momentarily when fire flickered in his eyes, then pounced with harsher violence than before. They pulled mercilessly at his long red hair, set it alight several times, and revelled in Thalo’s growls of pain, frustration and anger. Each night he savoured a short reprieve while Mera sang her songs, before being grudgingly dumped back in his cell. Each night, when she brought him food, he complimented her songs but received no reply.
On the sixth night, a small shaking hand clumsily placed the bowl inside his cell. Thalo recognized the skinny child who accompanied Mera, but she scurried away before the bowl had settled. On the seventh and eighth nights, he asked where the singer had gone; Elin said nothing.
“Please tell me,” he said softly on the ninth night; his face was so swollen he could barely speak.
“She is at the water,” Elin whispered, fearfully scuttling away.
Thalo slept fitfully, troubled by pain and the mystery of Mera’s disappearance, and was ill-prepared for the pre-dawn arrival of his persecutors. He was once more dragged up the winding stone steps but this time they took him outside, where the weak flicker of dawn stung his eyes. Exhausted, he gave little thought to where they were going until they entered the jousting field just beyond the castle gate. The chains at his ankles were secured to the ground with iron stakes, and the five soldiers walked away. Thalo watched them go, then nodded with resigned acceptance as they returned on horseback, galloping towards him with jousting poles aimed at his chest.
It took only four vicious jabs, in quick succession, to unlock Thalo’s control and the soldiers’ triumphant cheers switched to cries of disbelief and horror. From hunched shoulders, Thalo spread his arms as wide as the chains would allow and surrendered to the fiery power within. Bruised arms transformed into scaled wings, rupturing the iron shackles at his wrists. Thalo, the battered warrior, raised his head and shifted into his true form, snarling fire at the terrified men and horses.
The nearest horse and rider were instantly scorched, both screaming into a blistering death. The others, startled and afraid, turned to flee but Thalo, bursting free from the chains at his ankles, unleashed a furious firestorm as he flew above them. Swooping to pursue his tormentors, Thalo neither saw nor heard the king, who led a stream of soldiers into the jousting field. A volley of arrows pierced Thalo’s wings and body, and a large net of heavy rope brought him crashing to the dusty ground; he’d fallen this way before. As the king and his men approached, Thalo painfully shed his dragon form and hoped for a quick death.
* * *
Mera wept as she slowly stepped onto the shore, looking back at the moon’s reflection on the calm surface of the lake. Leaving the water always filled her with sorrow and frustration. Her guard watched her shamelessly, giving her no hiding place as she fumbled into her clothes. He’d watched her every movement during the last five days, even though she was unable to undo the thin chain that had tethered her to his boat. When he finally unleashed her, they were too near the castle for her to escape. Besides, she had never been allowed to swim far enough to discover the way from lake to sea, and this kept her trapped as much as the constant watch on her. The guard escorted Mera in silence to the great hall, where he joined his colleagues at one of the long tables while Mera took her place beside the fire.
“Ah, Mera,” King Elred greeted her loudly, a cruel smile on his lips. “How sad your songs will be tonight!”
At his nod, Mera rose and stepped up onto her stool to sing.
She noticed that some of the king’s soldiers were missing, and wondered if they were engaged in another battle. She overheard talk of a monster, and a terrible fight, but paid little attention until entering the kitchen where Elin and two other kitchen girls were engaged in similar chatter and arguing over who would feed the long-haired prisoner.
“Did you not feed him while I was gone?” Mera asked, puzzled.
“We did not dare,” Elin answered, the gray circles around her large brown eyes darker than ever.
“The King will know of it,” cook warned, although she seemed unperturbed as she ladled slop into four small bowls. “Monster or not, he must be kept alive for some sport or other.”
“Only one feeding was missed,” Elin assured her. “We put it back in the pot.”
“He speaks so softly,” Mera said. “How can you think him a monster?”
“He breathes fire and has wings,” Elin told her, clearly horrified. “He killed three soldiers, and others are maimed.”
Mera knew that Elin was only nine, but she had never known the girl to make up stories.
“Get down there!”
At the cook’s bark, Mera and Elin took two bowls each and headed for the dungeons.
The soft voice sounded different, and the prisoner remained hunched in the shadows as Mera placed the bowl just inside the gate.
“I have … missed … your songs.”
Mera peered into the gloomy cell but could see only shades of darkness.
“The girls talk of a fight, and a winged monster,” she said quietly. “Were you -”
“I am not a monster.”
“Mera!” Elin hissed from the far end of the passage. “Take care! He breathes fire!”
Mera smiled, peering again into the cell.
“Our elders would warn us of fire-breathing monsters,” she said, half to herself. “My parents said that would be my fate, if I strayed too far on the shore.”
“Did you believe –?”
“I was six. They should have told me to fear men.”
“Your songs … the words are strange. You sing of the sea, and creatures –”
“No-one knows my words!” Mera stepped back. “How do you – ?”
“I knew someone, once, who spoke –”
“Mera! Elin!” The cook’s voice echoed down the stone stairwell and along the passage.
Mera frowned into the darkness, then hurried away.
* * *
Thalo listened as the songstress retreated, then carefully edged forward to pick up the bowl. The contents had cooled and congealed but were still salty enough to sting his split lips. He closed his eyes and saw the strange girl standing in the faint light beyond his cell, her straight flaxen hair and pale blue eyes marking her as so very different from everyone at the castle. And her songs: Thalo knew that Mera spoke a language that was foreign to the castle dwellers, yet he could not place its origin. A friend had spoken, long ago, of a young woman who sang similar songs; the friend had been enamoured, and knew nothing of the woman’s tribe or dwelling, but Thalo felt sure that Mera was the same kind.
“Our elders warned us of fire-breathing monsters.”
Thalo sighed. The girl was beautiful and seemed out of place. An air of sadness surrounded her, although she was rarely without a smile. If they had met elsewhere, under different circumstances, he would have entertained the notion of wooing her. He shook his head, catching a whiff of charred hair. She had been brought up to fear dragons; even if he were to escape, he could never reveal his true identity to her, for fear of frightening her away. Thalo threw the empty bowl out into the passageway, where it bounced and rattled out of sight.
He remained in the shadows the following evening. Mera brought his food and told him she’d remembered picking flowers with her sister and wishing she could have taken them home. His silence unnerved or upset her, if he interpreted her expression correctly, but he could not risk allowing himself to become any more attracted to her. After a third night of silence, Mera stared for a long time into the dark cell. She could not know that they were looking directly at each other, but Thalo drank in the sight of her and held his resolve.
The following night, Thalo was once more dragged up to the great hall. His wounds were not healed, and all movement was agony, but he held his head high as he was pulled towards the king and a large bearded man in fine robes. Mera was seated by the fire, and he saw her gasp at the sight of him as he was pushed to his knees, but he did not acknowledge her presence.
“Nolan of Enskland, this is the mighty warrior Thalo.”
King Elred regarded Thalo with what looked like admiration and disgust. Thalo stared defiantly at him. The bearded man, Nolan, walked around Thalo as if appraising a horse.
“I see nothing mighty here,” Nolan sniffed.
“You know his true form,” the king reminded him. “A beast such as this is surely worth -”
“It is not the one I seek,” Nolan cut in, waving a hand dismissively. “This creature is of weak stock. I captured its mother six days ago. She lasted less than three hours.”
Thalo roared. As his transformation began, he saw Mera’s eyes widen and for a moment his heart hesitated. Then fire and fury were all he knew.
* * *
Mera was trapped between the fireplace and a wall of weapon-wielding soldiers who were turning over tables in their attempts to surround the dragon. The king and Nolan had run from the hall at the first hint of fire and scales, and now Thalo towered over sixty or more ill-equipped soldiers. As the men inched forward, Mera took the opportunity to edge towards the door, watching the dragon with awe as it snorted flames and stamped its clawed feet to keep the soldiers at bay. The soldiers lurched forward as one, their cries drowned out by the dragon’s enraged roar, and Mera fled with the sounds of battle bouncing off the walls behind her.
More soldiers ran towards and past her as she hurried through the dark passages, surrounded by panic-stricken servants, courtiers and nobles who were instinctively heading for the tower – it was their main stronghold, the place of safety when under attack. It was also adjacent to the castle gate.
A child wailed, and the agitated throng stopped abruptly; someone had fallen, blocking the way into the tower. Glad of the distraction, Mera slipped into the empty guards’ chamber. She waited a moment to ensure no-one had seen or followed her, then nimbly crossed the room and let herself into the gatehouse. She had no idea how to operate the drawbridge, but she knew that a smaller door opened onto the moat-side of the castle; she had seen it many times on her monthly return from the lake. She struggled to lift the heavy oak latch, her anxious hands unable to find purchase. A discarded rag provided the necessary grip, and she stepped out into the warm night air.
A short swim took her across the moat, and Mera followed the track towards the lake, her sanctuary. A sudden gust of wind whipped at her hair as the dragon swooped above the trees to her right.
She dared not shout too loudly, in case her voice carried back to the castle, and she did not break stride but kept her eyes on the dragon as she neared the water’s edge. She called his name again as the cool water caressed her feet, but he was flying away from her now. Disheartened, she shed her clothes and stepped further into the lake, ready to plunge into its welcoming depths.
The dragon had turned, and now swept low in front of her, rippling the water’s still surface.
“I am not afraid,” Mera called out to him. “Not of you. But I must leave.”
She dived into the water, thrilling at the familiar sensation of legs merging into tail, then surfaced several yards from the shore.
She turned at a sound behind her; Thalo stood at the water’s edge.
“Can you see the sea from up there?” she asked.
“No,” Thalo answered, his breath ragged. “But I know where it is.”
Shouts from the path startled them both.
“Will you come with me?” Thalo asked, hunching his shoulders and stretching out his arms.
Mera plunged into the water, her iridescent tail flicking a small splash behind her, then rose and walked naked to the shore. She gently touched the claws that were replacing Thalo’s hand, then stepped back as he changed once more. Arrows fell inches away as Mera gracefully climbed onto the dragon’s back, and she soared into the night with him, towards the sea.