Throughout the year I’ll be writing short bits of fiction to explore more about the world of Death of Magic, the people who live there, and what their lives are like. Some will be letters, entries from history books, or journal entries. Others, like the story below, will be vignettes from the point of view of characters from the game. This first story gives an insight into life in the mer community in the outer city.
He made his way down the lane, crutches tapping on the cobbles. Tap, swing, drag. Tap, swing, drag. Once he’d been able to afford a chair for this, one that was powered. It had still rattled painfully on the cobbles, but at least he hadn’t had to drag the full weight of himself over those same rough stones.
There used to be places to leave a chair, at one canal entrance or another. Then they had to be locked, and the cost of a key was high. And then, despite renting the key (and the three days’ worth of food it had cost him) the lock had been broken and his chair was gone.
The worst part of that was that he couldn’t really be angry at the thieves. If he’d been just a little more hungry, he might have done the same. He too had family to care for, had friends in need. His education and his contacts ensured he could always put fish on the table, but for those without his opportunities…
Frowning to himself, he thought of the pamphlets in his satchel. There had to be a better way to live, without the Dragon keeping a stranglehold on magic, keeping them all begging for enough to cook their food or light their homes. There had to be a way that didn’t force starving people to steal a wheelchair from a merman.
He reached the gate at the edge of the canal and stopped, threading his arm out of one crutch and taking hold of the guard rail before removing the other. He’d heard there were snake like races, somewhere in the barely explored jungles of the continent, that could hold up their full weight balanced on their tails alone. But his people had evolved for the water.
It was a complicated manoeuvre to loop his crutches into the harness at his back while supporting himself on the canal railing, but long habit had made it automatic – if no less painful. Leaning on one elbow he double checked the oiled canvas bag at his side, making sure the top was rolled down and belted securely. It wouldn’t do to get the pamphlets wet. Twisting his body he slung the length of his tail over the edge of the canal and let the momentum pull him into the water.
The buoyancy was, as always, a profound relief. Submerged fully, his kilt drifting a little in the subtle current, he stretched out the full length of his body, just over three metres from his hands stretched over his head to the tip of his tail. Several joints popped, the sound amplified underwater. He shivered and turned, lifting his head above the brackish water, and read the street sign again. Tailors lane, so home was… oceanward.
He turned and dove down in one motion, reaching and pulling through the water with joyful ease, arcing through the turns. With a twist of his shoulders he swerved around another mer, with a flick of his tail he dodged an oar plunged into the canal from above, and with another flick he was rewarded by the splash of the oarsman getting a lesson.
This, this was how his people were meant to move. Centaur architecture favoured wide roads, single storied buildings, and if needs must, ramps instead of stairs, but in the congestion of the outer districts horizontal space was at a premium.
He’d never seen Jackin’s room. It was on the fourth floor. And she’d only visited his home twice – saltwater put her arm at risk of rusting, and she didn’t like leaving it at home.
Coming up for air, he caught a glimpse of stars between the looming buildings before a familiar stone archway blocked them out. Inside the tunnel system the water lapped against the walls with a strange echo, close and crisp yet distant all at once. He ducked his head under, dark eyes huge to drink in any source of light. Nearly there.
Home, for Garros, was a reclaimed warehouse, partially submerged. In the age of Avaliel the Courageous the capital had undergone massive changes – the river widened to submerge whole districts, canals built alongside all major roadways and rising wells sunk into hills and cliffsides, making the higher elevations of the city accessible to merfolk for the first time in the city’s history. Of course, none of this had been done until the Dragon had a mermaid Knight. Probably none of the previous ones had realised it was a problem.
Now, of course, walking races took advantage of the canals, ferrying cargo and passengers on long, narrow boats. Even the rising wells made it easier for them, they could hire young mermen to haul backbreaking loads of oilcloth wrapped parcels straight up or down a cliff that would take a centaur carter an hour to traverse by road.
However, the flooding of certain districts had ensured plenty of living space that could only be traversed and inhabited by merfolk. This building, of heavy, plant covered stone and reinforced brick, had once been a riverside warehouse for some export or other, with huge doors at multiple levels and wide ramps from one floor to another. What had once made it possible for cartloads of grain to be hauled from the roadside to the loft now made it possible for young pups to leap out of the water into a slippery mass, sliding and skidding on mossy stone as they chased each other up into the higher levels.
This warehouse was home to six different families, each headed by a strong male who guarded and protected his harem of women, and his many children, most of them daughters. Sons tended to be rare, among mer.
As Garros swam lazily along he listened to the voices and activity around him. A harem of wives clustered on a floating wooden platform above him, their tails trailing in the water and their chattering muffled. Several pups were playing in an underwater obstacle course made of partly fallen walls and doorways, watched over by an older sister – or aunt? – who was weaving something out of shells and green cord while she drifted above them. As he crested the water, hauling himself up onto the decking that bordered his uncle’s territory, he saw two adolescents wrestling and shoving on an adjacent deck. The larger was a cousin, the smaller his niece, and Garros was about to call out an admonition for the boy to leave the girl alone when an elderly merwoman came loping up to them.
She reached out and caught the boy by the collar of his shirt, dragging him around to face her. The snarl on his face fell away as he saw who had grabbed him.
Shaith lowered her greying head until her forehead almost touched the boy’s. Her voice was quiet, but dangerous. “Do you know what happens to mermen who don’t look after their females?”
“I wasn’t – ”
She growled, low in her throat, and from several metres away Garros shivered. The boy was even stupider than he looked to try talking back to the patriarch’s mother. Garros’ niece, seeing the storm brewing, wisely took her leave.
“They end up alone,” Shaith shook the boy for emphasis, “without a mother, sister, or daughter to love them. They end up alone, do you understand? Your job is to protect – ”
“She wasn’t doing what I was telling her.” The boy’s voice was sullen, but insistent. Kalak, that was his name.
Shaith smiled, her eyes narrowing. “And what were you telling her?”
“I – I needed her help with my chores – ”
“You? Need help?” Without any apparent effort, the old woman lifted the boy higher, glaring into his face. “A big, strong male like you?”
Finally catching on, the boy shut his mouth. Garros, smiling to himself, turned away. When he heard the boy’s cry of surprise and the splash, his smile widened.
His niece, Ilossa, peered over the edge of the deck with large, dark eyes. “Is it over, uncle?”
He reached out a hand to help her out of the water. “Yes, little one. Shaith seems to have reminded him of his responsibilities.”
Ilossa frowned, the two dark spots above her eyes furrowing. “He may need reminding again, uncle. Kalak’s not very good at hearing ‘no’.”
“Don’t worry, child,” Shaith, moving slower now, moved up beside Garros. “I’ll have a talk with his father. Kalak is almost old enough to start building his own harem – if he forgets to hear ‘no’ again, he’ll be sent off to do just that – and I don’t believe he has any sisters willing to go with him.”
Garros closed his eyes briefly. He considered himself well versed in the ways of the walking races, and he knew that each of them had their own customs when it came to families. Centaur herds were also close-knit, but ‘family’ didn’t always coincide with blood relation. Orc twins stayed in close connection their whole lives, even if they moved away from each other to marry. Elves seemed the strangest to him; elf men were generally transient, never staying in one place long, never collecting a family around them. He couldn’t fathom living like that, with no one to look after and no one to look after him.
He opened his eyes and found Shaith watching him closely, a knowing smile lurking on her mouth.
Garros coughed. “With any luck he’ll come to his senses.”
“With luck,” Shaith nodded. “And a few more dunkings.”
Ilossa covered her mouth with one hand to hide her giggling.
Garros smiled at her. He thought again of the pamphlets in his satchel, of the call to action they contained. There had to be a better way to run this city, there had to be a way to protect his friends and family, a way to build a future for them free of the spectres of poverty and ignorance. That was a hope worth fighting for.
He put a hand on Ilossa’s shoulder and she grinned up at him.
This was worth fighting for. Whatever the cost.