Swim we did, through rolling seas until we finally reached the unwillingly abandoned ship. One by one we climbed aboard and fell, exhausted, to the deck. I wanted to remain, to rest as the adrenaline seeped from my body, but Gavin urged me forward. He led me below deck to a hold full of crates and barrels. I recognized the containers as the same kind we’d found inside the castle.
“Food!” I cried as I rushed toward the nearest crate.
Gavin joined me with a tool much like the one Taya had found before.
“Step back,” Gavin directed as he wedged the metal bar under the wooden slats which formed the lid.
I complied, wringing my hands in anticipation.
As the lid fell off I grabbed a fist full of dried salted fish. I wanted to shove the whole lot of it in my mouth, but I forced myself to take small, careful bites. My stomach began to protest within minutes.
We each scooped several more pieces from the crate and carried them up to the deck where my friends and our new allies waited. They swooped in like a flock of seagulls after a storm.
With full bellies and free limbs came a renewed sense of hope.
Gavin began shouting orders and our eager crew set to work on the rigging and sails. We were soon underway.
* * *
For four days we sailed, making a wide berth around the shore where our journey had begun. We did not wish to be seen by the castle watch.
Gavin steered the ship past our reef and into a narrow cove of rock a good distance down the shore, where we could rest assured that our coming and going would not be monitored.
Taya, Imalia, and Leilani said a quick farewell and dove from the railing. I had chosen to wait with the ship, still unsure of how the queen would receive me.
Keeping both eyes on the sea, I paced the deck until I’d worn a visible path. Gavin and the crew watched the sea as well, but for a different reason. They were all still in awe of the discovery of what we were. The stared out to sea as if waiting to wake up from a dream.
The sun passed its zenith before the agonizing wait finally ended.
Gavin had eventually convinced me to sit and have something to eat. I nearly choked on my first morsel of fish when a familiar face appeared suddenly above the railing.
I rose and began to run in one fluid movement. My father vaulted over the railing and caught me in a wet embrace.
“Elisande,” he breathed my name out in a sigh of relief and then pushed me out and held me at arm’s length.
The stern set of his features could not hide the joy in his eyes.
“What you did was forbidden, and beyond dangerous. What would I do if I lost you?”
He hugged me to him again and I grinned against his chest.
“Imalia said you found us a new home.” I said when he released me again.
“It is true. She also said you had a way to get us there.” He raised one eyebrow as eh took in the strange vessel on which we stood.
“All things happen for a reason,” I replied.
“And you know how to operate this…boat?”
My friends had not told him everything.
I moved to the side so that my father had a clear view of the man behind me.
“No, but Gavin does.” I beckoned Gavin forward with one hand. “Father, this is Gavin. Gavin, this is my father.”
Gavin bowed his head slightly and greeted my father, “Sir.”
My father glanced from Gavin to me and back again. A heavy breath filled his chest and escaped with an audible sigh.
“Now I’ll never keep you in the water.” One corner of his mouth quirked and I grinned in response.
The three of us moved to the railing as voices sounded from below.
Taya, Imalia, and Leilani led the boarding of the rest of our people.
They climbed slowly and shifted awkwardly once on deck. Many were uncertain of their footing on the rocking vessel, not having changed in years, if ever.
I introduced Gavin and the rest of the crew to my people. One by one they bowed or extended hands in greeting until we finally came to the Queen.
Protruding ribs and hollow cheeks made her no less imposing a figure.
Tentatively I approached, and bowed.
“Rise Elisande,” she met my gaze as I obeyed and I saw her eyes soften. “We are indebted to you.”
* * * *
Nearly a moon passed before we reached our destination. My father would swim ahead to navigate by the underwater landmarks he had memorized. Gavin and the crew followed at a steady clip.
As the sun rose on twenty fifth day of our journey, I saw a white sand beach which stretched the length of a remote island. The deck began to clear and people cheered and dove overboard. By the time we dropped anchor, I was the only one of my people left on the ship.
I thanked the crew as they took their leave and headed for land. Soon only Gavin and I remained.
“What will you do now?” I asked, looking out to sea to avoid his eyes.
“Well, that depends,” he said slowly.
I lifted my face to look at him.
“Depends on what?”
“There’s one last question that has to be answered.”
My brow knit in an unspoken question.
“I’ve heard if a man is kissed by a mermaid, he can live beneath the waves and never drown.”
A slow grim spread across my face.
“I guess there’s only one way to find out.”