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Merry

Merry

 

Published by Lisa Thompson at Shakespir

 

Copyright 2017 Lisa Thompson

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Part One

 

Chapter one

“Merry, I need to speak to you,” my father called to me as I entered the room.

I hesitantly approached his side, his tone worrying me.

“I have arranged for you to marry Lord Gregory Fitch.  Have you heard of him?”

He gave me no chance to answer.  He barely glanced at my mortified face before continuing quickly.

“Lord Gregory Fitch stands as the richest man in the kingdom, and we made an agreement.  In exchange for including me in his business affairs at the harbor, he requires your hand in marriage.  You make the ideal match!”

He kept his eyes trained on the antique goblet he turned nervously on the table.

“But Father!” I sputtered.  “Did it never cross your mind to ask me about this?”

“You drove off the last two men I brought If you get any older it is likely you will never find a husband. All the other girls your age have long been married, and I would be a fool to pass up this opportunity.  Surely you do not think I will live forever to support you!”

“No, but Joseph would take care of me!”  I referred to my brother, my father’s heir.

“Merry, my telling you serves merely as a necessary formality.  My decision is made.”  He stood.  “Lord Fitch arrives in a little while for the evening meal, and I expect you to greet him kindly and make him welcome.  I want you to wear your green dress, the one that belonged to your mother.”

I bowed my head in obedience, but clenched my fists angrily as I hurried from the room.

I trudged upstairs to my chamber to find the dress my father had specified.  I worked hard to keep from hurling things around the room.  Could he not have given me a little more warning?  ‘Oh, by the way, you are getting married and you meet the man tonight!’  I slumped against the wall told myself to wait to pass judgment; I might end up liking Lord Fitch.  Unfortunately, I failed to convince myself.  I had not had very good experiences with suitors.  One of the men that Father had arranged for me to meet was around fifty and missing most of his teeth.  At fifteen it did not matter to me that he was rich, I just wanted somebody closer to my age and a little more attractive—preferably with all teeth intact. The other suitor, though young, was a gambler and belched at the table.  I had managed to run them off but with this Lord Fitch I did not even have a chance.  Father had seen to that.

I donned the dress Father told me to wear.  Once upon a better time it belonged to my mother, and after her death one of our only two remaining servants, Ada, tailored it to fit me.  I looked at myself in the mirror after Ada finished lacing up the back, and she folded her hands with a smile.

“You always have been the most beautiful thing in the kingdom,” Ada said fondly.

As former handmaiden to my mother, Ada, in her old age, often imagined that Mother lived again in my place.  Though I tried, I saw not a trace of my mother in me.  I observed only a scrawny girl with watery eyes and freckles, whereas my mother once stood tall and graceful with porcelain skin.  Or, at least Father and Joseph described her that way; the painting in the dining parlor agreed with their account.  Red hair, unfortunately, seemed the only trait Mother and I shared.

I turned around and gave Ada a hug.  She would be crushed when I left.

I headed downstairs to greet Lord Fitch with my father and Joseph.  Lord Fitch was a tall, good-looking man, but sported a cruel smile.  He wore his black hair slicked into a ponytail, and his beard braided tightly.  His white teeth shone blindingly against his brown skin, and his clothes were fine and looked to be tailored specially for him.  Gaudy rings sparkled on his fingers.  Something told me that I would feel extremely out of place in his household.  Suddenly, I wondered why such a rich man wanted to marry me, a simple girl whose father could barely manage his estate.  I had no time to consider this, for he spoke.

“Mr. Blame,” Lord Fitch addressed my father, “It is a pleasure to meet you again.”  He turned to me, bowed prettily, and kissed my hand.  “Merry, I am pleased to meet you after all your father has told me of you,” he said, his voice slick.

“Thank you.  I only hope I may live up to his boastings,” I said politely.

I glanced at Father, and he nodded his approval.  I inclined my head toward Lord Fitch and gave him a half-hearted smile.  Ada escorted us to the dining parlor.  Father and Lord Fitch talked on the subject of business for a while.  I could tell by glancing at Joseph that he held not a very high opinion of the lord.  After the first course lay served on the table, Lord Fitch brought up the topic of our impending marriage.

“I trust your father told you about the terms of our agreement?” he inquired.

“Yes, my lord,” I answered him with my eyes on my plate, wanting to distract myself. So much food rarely made an appearance in our household.  My father worked very hard to give Lord Fitch a good impression of us.

“We failed to discuss the date of the wedding,” Father said.  “We need to—” Lord Fitch interrupted him.

“Business keeps me away more than I desire, and unfortunately, I leave for some rather pressing business in two weeks.  This sort of thing takes around a month to clear up, but after that, the lass should be ready and we will marry within a few days of my return.”  He looked haughtily at my attire.  “I insist on providing clothing for the wedding, and for her life with me.”

I looked down, anger surging within me.  Father kicked my leg under the table to prompt my speech.

“Your kindness overwhelms me, Lord Fitch,” I said quietly, and with a hint of sarcasm. Regardless, Father agreed heartily with me.

Lord Fitch nodded with a smile that sent shivers down my spine.  He and Father continued to talk, and I focused on my food, determined to make the most of this feast.  Lord Fitch soon commented on my silence.

“The lass does well to hold her tongue.  When you informed me of her age, I was concerned about her behavior.

He looked at me, a pleased look in his eyes.  I kept my head down, though I ached to show him the opposite of the submissive behavior I knew he desired.

“However, she lacks much in beauty.  I must say she is one of the most unbecoming young ladies I have ever seen,” Lord Fitch added matter-of-factly.

“Her mother was beautiful,” Father hastened to say as he gestured toward the painting on the wall.  “Her portrait there accurately portrays her beauty.  I guarantee the lass will grow up to look just like her.”

I bit my lip to keep from smiling at Father’s attempt to impress a man whose mind was already made.  I made eye contact with Joseph, and I knew he had the same idea.

Father hurried to change the subject.  Lord Fitch intimidated him, and from the level of disgust I detected from Lord Fitch, my betrothed would not encourage family visits after we were married.

After dinner, Lord Fitch joined me in the parlor with a book in his hand.  I looked up from my drawing as he sat in the armchair by the fire.

“I thought I might read to you,” he said.  “We can get to know each other.”

He left little room for me to argue, so I settled in to listen.  The story he had chosen was a popular play.  I supposed he read well enough, but did his voice never tire?  I certainly tired of listening to him.  He paused after a while and looked up at me.

 “What do you think of the story thus far?” he asked.

I looked up.  “Oh, it—” I caught myself before I said something critical of it.  “I find it very interesting,” I lied.

As not often exposed to ‘fine literature,’ I found that the stories told by the sailors in town held much more appeal than this dry, boring piece of work.

“I find the story lacking in poetic grace,” Lord Fitch said.  “The characters kill, and that is the end of the matter.  The rich, those with the means, should find other ways in which to dispose of those whom they wish to kill.  If the rich but spare them, the wrongdoers could prove useful to their cause.”

“You disapprove of killing, even for criminals?” I asked, curious, but at the same time appalled.

“Oh, I find it acceptable to dispose of criminals of the state in that way—but for the enemies of an individual? One gains so much more gratification by dragging out another’s death and pain.  Of course, if the offender becomes useless to the individual, or it turns out to be dangerous for the individual to utilize the offender, then I find it tolerable to dispose of the offender.  In this story, however, the author failed to take these scenarios into account.”

I stared at him, for in that moment I saw more than the proud, shallow man I knew him to be from the moment I met him.  I saw something lurking beneath his cold exterior—something terrifying.

Lord Fitch sat with me every day until he left for his business trip.  I wanted nothing to do with him, but to follow my wishes required directly disobeying my father’s.  Lord Fitch seemed unlikely to release me from my role in his agreement with Father.  Even if he consented, Father would disown me, leaving me with no place to call home.

Two weeks passed with Lord Fitch at my side, and then came the month of his absence.  The finest tailors in the country were dispatched to make my wedding gown and clothes for my new life in wealth.When Lord Fitch returned from his business trip, he came bearing gifts and an overly warm welcome.  The day after his arrival, he conveyed my family and me to his mansion to prepare for the wedding.  As the servants took our things, I noticed that none of them spoke or smiled.  They seemed like ghosts.

I explored the house, thinking that since it as good as belonged to me, I ought to know my way around.  I started near the top floor and made my way to the bottom.  Nobody bothered me.  When I came to the bottom floor I found an open door.  As most of the other doors were locked, I felt compelled to see what lay behind this rarity.  I ventured down a walkway bordered by tall bushes, curious where the path led.  I heard the cawing of birds, and looked up to see vultures.  I guessed that an animal lay dead nearby, but when I rounded a corner I stopped, unable to move at the gruesome sight that lay before me.  The courtyard must have been stone, but it was stained brown with dried blood.  Standing in the courtyard was every manner of torture device I had ever heard of.  The vultures picked at the flesh of the dead prisoners in human-sized around the edges of the yard.  I stood, staring for a moment before my stomach began to heave.  I stumbled away from this undeniable proof of Lord Fitch’s cruelty.

The stormy sky stretched all around and the aisle seemed to merge with the choppy waters of the ocean and go on for infinity.  The dress felt stifling despite the stark wind blowing, and Father held my arm tightly, as though he feared the possibility of my running away.  I knew not what expression I wore, though I knew that my face usually reflected what I was feeling.  My fear probably stood on display for all to see.

We arrived at the altar where Lord Fitch stood in all his wedding glory.  He sneered at me.

“We gather here on this day for the union of Lord Gregory Fitch and Miss Merry Blame in holy matrimony,” the priest said.  “Do you take this woman to live as your wife?” he asked Lord Fitch.

“Yes,” Lord Fitch answered.

The wind became stronger.  The ocean smashed the wall that held the waters back, spraying us with freezing droplets.  Lightning flashed.

“Merry,” Lord Fitch hissed.

“Hm?” I asked.

“Do you take this man to live as your husband?” the priest repeated.

I hesitated.  Lord Fitch looked pointedly to the back of the empty crowd of chairs.  Joseph and my father, bound and gagged, struggled against guards who held swords at their throats.  My heart began hammering in my chest.

“Say it,” Lord Fitch whispered.

“I—I—”

“Say it,” his voice rose menacingly.

I caught the gleam of a dagger in his hand.

“N—“ I gasped.  I looked down.  The hilt of his knife protruded from my stomach.  Blood spilled out, staining the white bodice red.  I felt a cold, sharp, breezy pain, and a sudden weakness.  I looked up to see his face, but it was not longer his.  He bore the face of a demon.

I woke up.

I remained in my chambers for the of the day, hoping to avoid Lord Fitch.  The wedding was scheduled to take place the next morning, and I needed this time to collect my thoughts.  My plan to avoid my betrothed worked until late that evening. The tailors were placing the final touches on the wedding gown as Lord Fitch entered the room to see me.  He dismissed them, and turned his attention to unfortunate me.  “I thought we might finish the play,” he said, sitting down in front of the fire with the book he had begun reading on the night we met.  I listened to him read the end of the story, recounting how the villain committed terrible crimes and came out on top, in the end.  I wished somebody else accompanied us in the room, because the more he read about the villain, the more I imagined he revealed secrets about himself.

Chapter two

That night sleep evaded me.  Lord Fitch contained an evil inside of him, of that much I felt sure. I could not get out of my mind the bloody sight I had seen behind the mansion. I crept out from under the covers to go on a walk to calm my nerves.  I started down a staircase and heard voices.  I froze.

“…And if you do it again I will send you to the back of the house and feed you to the birds.”

I peeked down to see that the speaker was Lord Fitch, and he threatened a servant.  I knew that his threat was not idle, for I had seen the proof for myself.

“Yes sir.”

I hid behind drapery at the top of the stairs until I heard footsteps leaving.  I hurried up to my room and leaned against the door, breathing hard.  I went to my trunk in the corner and started packing a bag.  Once I made up my mind to run, I found that I knew exactly what to do.  I ventured downstairs on silent feet, hoping no one would prevent my escape.  Two servants stood in front of the door leading outside and made no move to let me pass when I approached.

“We have orders not to let anyone leave after dark,” one said.

“I just need to get some air,” I said, my heart pounding.

They looked at each other dubiously, but hesitantly moved to open the door.  I nodded in thanks, and passed through.  The door closed, and the light disappeared.  I walked briskly through the gates with little trouble, surprised at how easy I found it to leave, considering Lord Fitch’s mansion was built like a fortress. Having not thought about what to do after leaving the home of my betrothed, I found myself at a loss.  I thought the hard part was over when I escaped, but clearly I erred; I possessed little money, and no way to acquire more, short of stealing.

I trekked to the closest town, Hangman’s Harbor, arriving in the early hours of the morning. As I entered the city I wondered if the stories I heard about it were true.  Unfortunately, I found that they were.  The inhabitants of Hangman’s Harbor hanged their criminals beside the city gates to serve as a warning to those passing through. Lord Fitch would surely come after me, for I served as the pawn with which his deal with my father was to be sealed.  I wondered to what lengths I would go to get away from him.

 Under the docks I found a place where the water failed to reach even at high tide.  I hid my few possessions there and went out to buy some food.  By the time I made it to the marketplace, horsemen wearing Lord Fitch’s crest swarmed the city, asking questions and searching any place I might hide.  I retreated back under the dock, and there I stayed for another day until forced by hunger to leave.  Before I departed, I took some precautions.  I cut my hair with some shears I had brought along, and bound my chest with a length of cloth.  With my gown I made a shirt and trousers in the boy’s fashion. Now maybe I would not be noticed.

At an inn I ordered a bowl of soup and reluctantly placed my coin on the table for the serving woman to take.  I ate hungrily and listened to the conversation of some men at the table next to me.

“Lord Fitch’s bride ran off, I hear,” a barrel-chested man said.

“Everyone has,” a long-nosed man said.  “His men have been asking everybody all day.  He only lives a few miles up the road.”

“Why would they just let ‘er go?” Barrel-chest asked.

The long-nosed man shrugged.  “Fitch is angry, and he’s threatened to put the girl’s father away for good.  It won’t take too long for him to find her.”

“She must be a real catch for him to care at all.  She certainly wasn’t rich.  Her father offered her to pay a gamblin’ debt, though why Fitch would take her instead of wringin’ the life outta her father, I don’t know.”

I choked upon hearing this and started coughing, accidentally drawing unwanted attention.  Rage built up inside me.  Father sold me off for a debt and then had the nerve to act like it was all for me?

“But it don’t make sense; he could have any girl in the country and he goes for a poor girl just to collect on a debt.  He’s spendin’ a lot more tryin’ to get her back than she’s worth.  Why do you think that is?” the last one asked.

“Embarrassment.  He invited half the kingdom and now he done gotta tell them that the girl’s run off,” Long Nose said.

“What are you doing here?” a new voice—my brother’s—said in front of me.  I jumped.

“Joseph!  What are you doing here?!” I hissed.

“You first,” he said.

“Obviously I’m eating.”

“Besides that,” he pursued.  “You ran away in the night, and suddenly you’ve lost all your hair and are dressed like a boy.”

“Joseph, I refuse to marry him.”

“Why?” he demanded.  “Father may go to prison, and if you do not pay off his debt by marrying Fitch, I will have to work on a ship the rest of my life to pay it off!”

“So you want to put that burden on me instead?”

“No.  Just give me one good reason, Merry.  One.”

“He’s a bad man,” I stammered.

“Define bad.”

I told him first about what Lord Fitch told me about his ideas of pain and death, and then I relayed to him the conversation I heard the night I left.

“Couldn’t it be possible he was threatening with no intention of carrying out the threat?”

I did not want to tell him what I had seen behind Lord Fitch’s house.  I just wanted to forget about it, but I had failed to convince him that I stood in the right by leaving Lord Fitch, so I pulled out my last card.

“Joseph…I saw people.”

“Okay,” he paused.  “Would you care to elaborate?”

“I was exploring the house because—well it doesn’t really matter why.  But I came to a door going outside, and Joseph, he had torture equipment everywhere.  Dead people were in these cages, there for the birds to eat.”

Joseph’s eyes grew large.  “Oh,” he said soberly.  He sat back and surveyed the room, musing over this development.  “What do you plan to do?”

“I decided I wanted to leave just last night.  I don’t have any plans.”

Joseph scanned the faces of those in the room.  “Fitch’s men are searching everywhere for you—you won’t last long.”

“Do you have any suggestions or more cynicism?”

“More cynicism.”

“Come on, Joseph!  I need some help!”

“Merry, I really don’t know what to tell you.  I’ve never even imagined someone would be in this situation, much less my—my sister,” he finished quietly.

Joseph saw something behind me.  “Head down,” he said.

I obeyed.  “What is it?” I whispered.

“Fitch’s men just came in.  Here, put this on.”

“You want me to put on your smelly old cap?”

“Just do it.”

I put it on with a sigh.  Lord Fitch’s men ordered some ale at the bar.  I noticed their master’s crest tattooed into their necks.  After finishing their drinks, they stood around for a little while and then left.  Joseph leaned over the table.  “I have to go back to meet the others.  I won’t be able to come back to help you.”  He handed me a purse under the table.  I heard the faint clink of coins.  “Be careful,” he said.

Chapter three

As fate would have it, the decision of what to do or where to go did not fall to me.

Having resided under the dock longer for so long, I felt I was going to go mad if I did not get a change of scenery.  I walked through the crowded marketplace for a short while before noticing two of Fitch’s men watching me.  Immediately I turned and walked the other way, toward the shipyard.  Weaving through the crowd to avoid people, I chanced a look over my shoulder to see them following me at a steady pace.  I realized they were waiting until we reached a place where there would be fewer people around while they captured me, and I was leading them to the perfect place.  By the time I realized this, I was on the pier, and I had no way to go back without running straight into my pursuers.  I dashed ahead and tried to lose them in the maze of ships and docks, but they stayed close behind me.  The only thing keeping them from catching me was their bulk; I was smaller and faster.  With only the ocean in front of me, I ran onto a ship that appeared to have no one on board, and dove behind some barrels.  I heard my pursuers pound by.  I thought I had made it to safety, but then I heard people moving across the ship deck.  Peeking out of my hiding place, I saw sailors preparing for launch, and I shrank further into the shadows.  If they found me, they would throw me off of the ship for Lord Fitch’s men to find me.  When the ship gave a jolt and began moving, my heart started pounding.  What would they do with me when they found me?  A girl on her own on a ship full of men?  The possibilities were not good.  Would they buy my disguise?  I hid there until nightfall, cramped in the small space.  I heard some of the crew begin talking.

 “The captain’s foolin’ himself.  We’re on a fool’s errand, and everyone knows it.”

“You talkin’ about the fountain?”

“We been searchin’ two years!  There ain’t no way we gonna find it!”

“Shut your pie-hole ‘fore Capt’n hears you gripin’.”

“We’re goin’ farther than we gone before, this time.  Capt’n heard rumor of an island over there that has the water.”

“But how many rumors has he heard ‘fore now?  They ain’t come to nothin’.”

“There ain’t no point grumblin’.  We ain’t goin’ nowhere till we find the water.”

 “Can’t we just fill a canteen of ocean water?”

 “You know that won’t work.”

Footsteps approached my hiding place and suddenly a lantern shone in my face, causing me to shrink back.  I heard an exclamation of surprise.

 “What’re you doin’ back there?!”

He grabbed my arm and pulled me out roughly.  Some of the crew came to see the cause of the disturbance.

 “Fetch the Capt’n,” the man holding my arm said.  “We got a stowaway.”

Before anyone moved, the captain appeared, towering over everybody.  He looked about three times as thick as me, and his eyebrows came low over his eyes, fixing his face into permanent scowl.

 “Where did you find him?” he asked.

 “He was ‘hind those barrels there,” said the man who held me.

 “And what are you doing on my ship?” he addressed me.

 “I—I was hiding,” I stammered.

 “I can see that!” he shouted.  “My question is why?”

I just shook my head, and he scoffed.  “Put him in a cell below.  I will decide what to do with him later.”

My captor marched me downstairs, threw me into a cell, and slammed the door behind me.  I sat against the wall and waited.  Would they turn the ship around and take me back to port, or would they wait until the next one?  Would they kill me?  My questions were not answered that sleepless night, and I wondered if things might have gone better for me if I had simply done what my father expected of me.  Then I remembered the bodies I saw behind Lord Fitch’s house and shuddered.  No.  Dying here was better than being bound to a man who treated people like that.

I jumped when I heard footsteps on the stairs.  I scrambled to my feet as one of the crew unlocked the door.  “Cap wants to see you,” he said.

He took me up to the deck and toward the captain’s quarters.  The captain stood outside with a boy as young as me.

“As payment for trespassing on my ship you will serve as cabin boy until I see fit to release you from my service,” the captain said.

Not sure whether to feel relief or dread, I waited for him to continue.

“You will serve alongside Tanner,” he motioned to the boy beside him.  “You are expected to follow orders, and respect the officers.  Remember, you are a trespasser, and nothing more to us.  We hold your life in our hands.”

“Yes sir,” I said.

“Now get to work.”

“Come on,” Tanner said.  “You got a lot to learn.”

The first day we did a variety of things for the maintenance of the ship.  By that I mean Tanner basically dumped everything on me and stood back to criticize.  He enjoyed his elevated status a bit too much, in my opinion.  I was relieved to find that my disguise worked.  Nobody seemed to suspect that I was a girl, but I was still worried.  What if I slipped up?

A few days after my employment began, I went to the kitchen on my own on an errand.  When I entered, Cook crossed his arms over his belly.

“Now, what’s your name?” he asked.

“Uh…Cole,” I up with a name on the spot.

“No, your real name.”

“That is my name.”

“Sweetheart, I got a wife and three daughters.  I know a girl when I see one.”

I felt my face go pale.  “Are you going to tell the captain?” I asked.

 “What?  Hell no.  I know what’d happen if he found out.  But you’d better give me a darned good reason.”

I was not sure if I could trust him, but I did not like the alternative.  I told him that I was running away from my ‘master,’ who I did not name.  He did not say much about my tale, but promised not to give me away.  Later, he even helped keep anyone else from finding out.

Chapter four

After a few weeks on board the ship, I asked a sailor named Drake where we were heading.

He looked at me sharply.  “If nobody’s told you then I sure ain’t gonna be the first.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“It ain’t for me to tell, Pretty Boy.  Now get back to work.”

When I asked some of the others for our destination, I received the same answer.  This piqued my curiosity.  What was so bad or so secret that they could not tell me?  Did they not tell me because I was an outsider, or because of something else?

One of the crew, Phillip, took it upon himself to teach me swordplay.  He seemed to have a father’s heart despite his youth; he had taken Tanner under his wing, and now he did the same for me.  Tanner, of course, became jealous and acted more awful than usual. I did not want to put up with his behavior, but I preferred spending time with Tanner to sitting alone at meals and free time.  The swordplay helped me build some more muscle.  This I liked because I was skinny for a boy and it helped me get rid of my dainty appearance—the reason they called me ‘Pretty Boy’.

“More force, Pretty Boy, hit me hard!” Phillip shouted.

“But I—”

“No buts I know they’re sharp, but you hit like a girl!”

“Land in sight!” somebody called.

Phillip lowered his sword.

“Where are we going?” I asked nonchalantly hoping he would slip up and tell me.

He gave me a sharp look.  “What, you mean nobody’s told you?”

I shook my head.  He looked around to make sure nobody stood in proximity to us.

“I didn’t tell you this, got it?”

I nodded solemnly.

“We’re lookin’ for the Fountain of Youth.”

I blinked.  “But…I thought that was only a legend.”

He shrugged.  “Apparently it ain’t.”

“Why is that so bad nobody would tell me?”

He looked around uncomfortably as if he had said too much.  However, taking everybody else’s behavior on the subject into consideration, he probably had.

“We’re lookin’ for it for someone.”

“Who?”

“Now that I can’t tell you.  Capt’n would have my head.”

In the morning some of the men took boats out to explore the island spotted the day before, and they took me with them.  They searched for the Fountain of Youth, though they failed to tell me that—on purpose, of course.  The island, despite its tropical beauty, was rather unnerving because of the birds and animals constantly screaming bloody murder within the trees.  We split into four groups and entered the jungle, marking trees with slashes in the bark so we would not lose our way.  The men hacked the foliage ahead of us with their swords to clear a path.  Everywhere we trampled we startled animals from their hiding places and barely escaped venomous snakes.

We walked through the jungle for two days.  The bugs that bit us left itchy red welts and presented a great nuisance.  We were obligated to carry one of our number who sprained his ankle the first day, and on top of all else, one of the water gourds we carried leaked.  We noticed no signs of inhabitation until the second day, when we walked straight into a snare.  I suppose we stepped on some sort of trip wire or something because suddenly we rose into the trees, trapped in a net.  We were all stacked on top of each other, everyone screaming expletives insulting each other’s body parts, and I was way at the bottom, crushed under their body weight.  I couldn’t breath, and I might have suffocated, except for at the very next moment the net holding us gave out and we free fell to the ground.  I blacked out.

When I woke it was a splitting headache, and I was so dizzy it took me a moment for my eyes to focus.  Why were my arms hurting so bad?  Why was I not able to move them?  It took me a few panicked moments, but I managed to get my bearings.  I was tied up with the five men in my crew, all of us back to back in a circle with our bonds tied to a stake in center of our unhappy circle.

“What’s goin’ on back there?” Drake, who sat next to me, asked as he strained his neck to see behind our backs.

I faced a wall made of cut saplings lashed together, but from what I understood from the jumbled conversation behind me, on the other side the natives who had taken us captive were preparing a meal.  A meal which apparently had human on the menu.  

 “We’re next,” Scar whimpered on the other side.  “Is that Ed?”

 “I think that’s Ed,” his brother, Bluejay said.

They all let loose some of the choicest words they contained in their vocabulary.  I craned my neck to see behind me, but I couldn’t see anything.  I smelled cooking meat.

 “Hey!  I still have my knife!” Hammy said excitedly.

They started talking all at the same time and yanking on the ropes that connected us all.

 “Shut your mouths for a stinkin’ second!” Scar bellowed over them.  “There are too many of them for us to get away right now.”

 “Well, what do you want us to do, wait till we’re cooked?!”

They started bickering again.  

 “Just cut the ropes,” Drake said.  “Don’t let them see that you’re doin’ it, and don’t any of you dare get up until I say.”

Hammy’s aim left room for improvement, so we all had bloody wrists by the time he finished.  We remained where we sat, as Drake ordered.  When the natives approached to take us to the fire, we stood up, still back-to-back, as they wanted.  We scooted toward the fire, but then one of the natives noticed the severed bonds.  He started to shout, and we ran.

My group and I made ran through the jungle all night.  We had not gone long when the man who had sprained his foot was overcome by the natives, but the rest of us made it to the beach before the sun rose.  Those of us remaining shoved off in the rowboat before the natives caught up with us, and began paddling out toward the ship.  The tribe came out onto the beach soon after we got into the water.  They started shooting arrows at us.  I thought we made it too far away for their projectiles to reach us, but I heard Hammy cry out in pain from the back of the boat.  I looked back in time to see him topple over the edge, an arrow in his back.

 “No!” I shouted, leaning over to catch his arm, but already he was too far down.

 “Leave him!” Scar snapped.  “Help us paddle unless you want to be next.”

I hesitated, but it was too late for Hammy anyway, so I did as he said.  After we had made it out of the tribe’s range and to the ship, the crew on board pulled us up.

 “Did you find it?” Captain demanded.

 “No, we nearly got eaten!” Bluejay snapped.

 “Know your place, sailor.  You will not speak to me in that tone.  What of the other groups dispatched—did you meet them?” Captain asked.

 “Dunno,” Scar answered.  “We were too busy runnin’ for our lives,” he said pointedly.

 “We saw Ed, though,” Bluejay said.  “He was cooking.”

 “Cooking?” Captain asked.

 “Cooking meaning he was the meal,” I said.

Captain raised a bushy eyebrow but made no comment to that.  “We gave the groups a time by which they had to be back or we would leave.  As of today they have four more days.  Did you notice anything about these natives?  Were they all young, or were they especially strong?”

There was nothing special to report about them, and the captain let the matter drop.

Over the next four days only one of the other parties returned.  They failed to find the water, and received no trouble from the natives.  I was angry that the captain was so ready to abandon his men without even a fight.  It seemed like he should at least search the natives’ village for the water, but I guessed our answer about the natives being nothing special answered that question.

I was not the only one upset about abandoning the other search groups, and many of the sailors made vocal their desire to send an armed rescue team after them, but it was to no avail.  Tanner was included in one of the two groups that failed to return, leaving me to take over all the responsibilities that we had (somewhat) shared.

We set sail to continue our search.

Part Two

(Six years later)

Chapter five

We raced about, tying barrels and crates down, and making everything ready.  A storm had taken us by surprise, and the waves and winds battered us mercilessly. The storm was so bad that more than one hardened man was crying out for the Lord to save them.  I could not swim, but neither could most of the men on board.  All hands were needed on deck, so I was out with the rest of the sailors.  The deck was slick, and I was nearly taken out by someone sliding so hard that when he hit the rail he flew out into the raging waters.  I clung to the mast desperately when the ship keeled almost vertically.  When we struck something hard, everyone went flying and I lost my grip, falling overboard.  The water felt like gravel when I hit it, but when I began to sink everything was soft.  I was too dazed to do anything more than watch the light from above disappear as I sank into the depths.  I blacked out.

I woke up to someone pounding on my chest.  I rolled over and retched into the sand.  I wiped my mouth and looked up to see Caspian, one of the newer sailors that we picked up a few years ago, standing over me.  

 “You okay?” he asked.

I sucked air as fast as I could, and my throat hurt, but I nodded.  He extended a hand and helped me to my feet.

“Is there anyone else?” I asked, holding my stomach.

“Yeah, they’re down there,” he pointed down the beach.

Several hundred leagues away gathered the survivors.  Out in the water I spotted the ship, still sitting where it ran aground.  We went to where everyone had congregated, and where Captain stood trying to get everyone’s attention.

“It appears that this island will be our residence until we repair the ship.  We must prepare for our time here,” he said.  When the sailors began shouting again Captain continued, “Yes, the ship will sail again once we get her repaired.  Unfortunately, take time, so we need to prepare for now.  Drake, you take a few of the men out to search for water.  Red, take some out to hunt.  The rest of you, stay here with me so that we can work on cutting lumber and repairing the ship.”

I looked around at what remained of the crew.  Our number had dropped by almost half since our last port.  I hoped our luck would not continue this way.

Assigned to chopping down trees, I smirked to imagine my father’s reaction if he could see me.  A lot had happened in six years.  I performed a man’s job with ease.  I still masqueraded as a man as I worked to pay off my debt to the captain, and fortunately nobody beside Cook had found out about me. When Captain let me leave his service, I wondered what I would do.  I did not believe Lord Fitch had continued search for me for so long, so perhaps I did not have to continue the ruse of being a man after leaving the ship.  Father was probably in a debtors’ prison by now.  As a woman I could not earn money to get him out without disgracing myself or getting married, but I had lived on a ship for six years to avoid.  I did not go through all that hardship to run back into that sort of life.  I had to stay as a man until I earned enough money to get him out, but when could I give up the game?  I did not wish for this life of tricks and lies.  I wanted to be Merry again, but who was she at this point?

My hands are in shackles, and I walk down the aisle alone.  Lord Fitch stands at the other end.  Lightning sets fire to the sky and thunder roars its fury.  My bodice is stained brown with dried blood.  I glance at the empty chairs.  Ghosts are the only guests to this wedding.  They watch my silent walk to the end of the aisle.

I have made it.

“Say it,” he growls.

I stare at him defiantly.  “No.”

“I will gain this victory before I kill you.”

“You won’t.”

He grins, his teeth sharpened to points.

“Say it.”

“No.”

He lunges for me.

I shot up with a gasp and looked around to get my bearings.  Several campfires burned, and the exhausted sailors lay sprawled out in the sand.  A few watchmen sat guard against any wild animals that might appear and take advantage of the easy prey.  They paid little attention to me when I got up to get a drink from the barrel.   Only Caspian, who sat next to it, noticed me.

“Hello,” he greeted me.

I nodded at him and gulped the water down.  The cold sweat running down my back made me shiver.  Not ready to return to sleep for fear of more dreams, I .

“Do you have a name?” Caspian asked.

“What, do you mean the name they’ve got for me isn’t fittin’?”  I gave an unenthusiastic attempt at humor.

He shrugged.

“You said you lived on a farm?” I asked, in a half-hearted attempt to start a conversation.

“Yeah, I did.  Me fool of a brother got himself into debt with a lord.  I came here to pay it off instead of him.  Me sisters would’ve been sent off if someone didn’t come.”

I had pieced together this much: the ship acted as a penal colony, and when people came into debt with a mysterious lord, he sent them here.  Their debt would not be paid off until they returned to the lord with the water from the Fountain of Youth.

“Why didn’t your brother come?” I inquired.  “Seems like something he should be responsible for himself.”

“Well, Father needed Henry more than me.  He’s in business with me father.”

“Ah.  So who’s the lord your brother got into debt with?” I asked, trying to get the information out of him that I had failed to get out of the other sailors.  I wondered why the lord’s name inflicted so much dread on these people that they dared not to even say it.

“It doesn’t really matter who.  I’m stuck on this ship until the debt is paid.  Which may be never.”

“What’s so bad about him?  The lord?  I mean, beside what he’s done to you all,” I tried a different approach.

“What’s so bad?  Well, besides his obvious lust for eternal life, he threatens to kill our families if we don’t act like his puppets.  And then there are all the rumors the townspeople have—me father says they’re not rumors, but truth.”

“What’re the rumors?”

“They say that he killed all his family.  I don’t know if there’s any proof about it, though.  The elders say he’s married over fifteen women in his lifetime, and after the weddin’ they’re never seen again.  They think he’s a demon.”

“It seems he hasn’t kept a low profile if he’s got anything to hide.”

Caspian shrugged. “He’s too rich for them to say anythin’.  Then there was another girl a few years ago.  He planned a big celebration and invited half the kingdom.  Then the night before the weddin’, she ran away.  What could make a young girl run away from the richest man in the kingdom?  That’s what I wanna know.  He’s still lookin’.  No one’s ever thwarted him, and he’s become obsessed with findin’ her.”

My insides froze.

“What was his name?” I asked.

“Are you okay?  You look—”

“Caspian, what was his name?” I demanded.

“It’s Lord Fitch.  What’s wrong?”

Chapter six

I felt my heart pounding and hoped I wouldn’t pass out.  Lord Fitch still searched for me?  I pushed the terror down and got ahold of my facial expressions, but the fear was still there.   

“What’s goin’ on?” Caspian repeated.

“He’s still looking?” I wanted to be sure.

“Yes, why does it matter?”

 “Well—it doesn’t,” I stammered.  “I just hadn’t heard about that in a while.”

 “You’re a poor liar,” Caspian commented.

Despite the situation, I couldn’t hold back a smirk.  Little did he know.  At first I tried to think up a way to explain myself to him, and I was about to say that I knew Lord Fitch’s betrothed from my village, but then I realised that I did not owe him an answer.  He had no reason to suspect me of anything, so why suggest that I had anything at all to do with the case?

 “Yeah, it’s hard to be a liar when you’re telling the truth,” I shot back.

 “Whatever you say,” he assented.

I left Caspian to go back to my spot in the sand, hoping I had not made things worse by my lies.  Had I no way to escape Lord Fitch?  I had thought I had found safety from Lord Fitch on the ship, but it turned out that my refuge was owned by Lord Fitch.  He was the one forced all these people into service.  I remembered his words when he read the play to me.

“The rich, those with the means, should find other ways in which to dispose of those whom they wish to kill.  If the rich but spare them, the wrongdoers could prove useful to their cause.”

Lord Fitch disposed of those who owed him in this way.  He put them to work on his ships, to search for his key to eternal life that they would never find.

He still searched for me.  If he really had been married multiple times, what happened to his wives?  What had he intended to do to me?

I did not get any sleep after my conversation with Caspian.  In the morning after making several major mistakes cutting wood for the ship, my supervisor sent me to help with those injured from the shipwreck.  I cut new bandages and did my best to redress the wounds that had been hastily covered.  After being cursed by the wounded sailors more than I had ever wanted, I took refuge next to the old man, Tommy, who had been watching them.   He was not injured, but the events of the last few days had done much to claim his health, so he had been placed in charge of the wounded.  I was curious about the Fountain of Youth, and since he was very knowledgable on the tales of the seas, and I had done as much as I could for the petulant sailors, I decided to ask.

 “Why do you wanna hear about that?” Tommy asked me upon hearing my question.

I shrugged.  “That’s what we’re looking for.  I thought it might be helpful to know a little about it.”

“Tell you what, lad.  If you can sneak me some rum from Patrick over there, I’ll tell you everything I know.”

Patrick was one of the injured, and thankfully he was asleep, because if he was conscious there would be no way in hell I would have gotten that canteen from him.  As it was, I got the bottle and watched nervously as Tommy took several gulp of the drink.  I had hoped to return the bottle with an unnoticeable amount of liquid gone, but I should have known a sailor would not show restraint.  Finally I took the canteen from him, placed the cap back on, and put it back with its owner.

 “Now the story,” I urged.

He glared at me a moment for taking the drink, but began.  “They say the Fountain of Youth was a gift from the river goddess to the people of the wood who found her favor.  The people who drank the water found themselves young again, and the young became strong.

“After they found out about the immortality, they exploited the water by making mortals pay a large sum to drink it.  Many of those that came to drink the water held evil in their hearts.  The immortality they gained prolonged the misery they inflicted on others.  The goddess saw this happenin’ and hid the fountain on an uncharted island where no man could find it.

“Since then people have searched in vain for this fountain, hopin’ for the key to their immortality. And because of the idea that it will be found again, here we stay, trapped on an uninhabited island until the ship gets repaired.  And after that, we’re doomed to sail the seas until we find the fountain or fall off the edge of the earth in the pursuit.”

A few days later, I went diving for clams.  I had taught myself how to swim in the little free time I had after the shipwreck.  After my near death experience in the water, I did not want to be taken by surprise again.  Though not a strong swimmer, I did my practicing by helping with food.  The meat inside the clams tasted good, and as we were all pretty sick of the burnt food Cook had been making ever since the journey was begun, we welcomed the change.  

I dove in, rooted around at the bottom of the inlet few clams, kicked off the bottom, and threw them into my pile.  Looking up from my task, I saw three more men coming to help.  I cursed under my breath and looked down at my chest.  I had grown quite a bit in the last years, and I found myself having to tie the strip of cloth around my chest tighter and tighter.  On board the ship, I depended on baggy shirts to hide whatever the cloth did not.  Now my shirt was clinging to me, and when it was wet it was see-through.  Would the men wonder why the cloth was there?

I avoided the men as we tended to our work, hoping to keep any question about me out of their heads, and also in case they to take off all their clothes.  Despite living with them for six years, it was no less awkward for me to see them naked.

With my eyes open underwater, I noticed a cave, and light on the other side.  Curious, I surfaced for air, and then plunged into the darkness.  Once inside, I found that the cave stretched back a lot further than I realized, and it was too late by the time I realised that.  My lungs burned as I came up on the other side, gasping as I made for the sandy bank.  A crevice in the roof of the dome shaped room I found myself in illuminated the stone walls in a blue light.  I pulled myself onto the sand, muscles aching.  I pulled myself to my feet, and went to the opening in the wall from which sunlight came.  I walked slowly through the arch into the open air.  What I saw on the other side made my heart plummeted.  I stood in a small glade tinted green from the sunlight filtering through the trees.  In the middle of the clearing sat a stone basin.  With dread in my stomach, I slowly approached it, feeling as though I treaded on sacred ground.  Water filled the stone basin, bubbling up from below.  I was unable to read the markings inscribed in the stone, but there was no doubt in my mind that I had just found the Fountain of Youth.

I backed up, not taking my eyes off of it.  The Fountain of Youth was real.  It was real.  So now I had to make a decision.  I could keep silent and tell no one, but that meant none of the sailors could return to their homes and families.  The other option was to tell the captain, and we would return to Lord Fitch with the water that would grant him eternal life.  I jumped, startled when I ran into one of my crewmates.  The men who had been diving with me must have followed me to the cave, because they all stood behind me, eyes trained on the fountain.  

 “Is that what I think it is?” one asked.

 “We’ve gotta tell Cap,” another managed.

After years of searching, the fountain finally sat directly in front of them, right within their reach.  One of them, Tom, started toward the fountain.

“Wait!  Don’t we need to tell the capt’n about this first?” the first said.  “He won’t like us to drink the water without his permission.”

“Who cares?  We have immortality in our grasp!  Let’s take it!”

He started to reach for it.

“Wait!” I cried.

He stopped.  “What?” he snapped.

 “What happens when you get tired of living forever?” I said.

He scowled, but I pursued.

 “Think about it—thousands and thousands of years and no escape.  You think you get tired now?  Think about a thousand years from now.”

“Hold your tongue,” he snarled at me.  “You forget your place.”

He dipped his cupped hands into the bubbling water, and brought them to his mouth as we watched in amazement and curiosity.  Nothing happened.  We held our breaths until one of the sailors timidly asked, “Do you feel anythin’?”

Tom turned around so that we could see his face, devoid of expression.  His eyes glowed an eerie green.

“Tom?”

He blinked and the glow disappeared.  “What’re you waitin’ for?  Let’s go tell Capt’n.”

With that he returned to the door of the cave.  We looked at each other, mystified, and then followed him.  After passing through the underwater cave and getting out of the water on the other side, we did not bother even picking up our mollusks as we went to go find the captain. I walked behind the others, peeling my shirt away from my skin and crossing my arms over my chest.  Hopefully that would be enough to hide my chest.

“Capt’n, we need to talk to you,” the sailors said when we found him.

Tom walked by us and went on, obviously not wanting to deliver our message with us.

“It can wait,” Captain snarled.

“Capt’n, we found it.”

“Found what?” he demanded.

“The fountain.”

His face paled.  “Come over here,” he said, pulling us away from the main group.  “You mean to tell me that you found the Fountain of Youth?”

They nodded enthusiastically.

“Where?”

“Down where we collect clams.”

“Okay.  The ship is nearly ready, and soon we will leave.  Do not tell any of the others or I will leave you on this island to live out the rest of your days.”

“Yes sir,” we said soberly.

“Pretty Boy, you take me to the fountain.  The rest of you get back to work.”

They saluted, and I took the captain to our clam hunting grounds.

“What do you mean by bringing me here?” Captain demanded.

“There’s an underwater cave,” I explained.  “You have to go through it to find the fountain.”

He frowned.

“Can you swim?” I asked.

“Yes,” he snapped.  

I got the impression he was not pleased that I could.  I had heard that captains did not like their crew to know to swim, because they might abandon ship in the event it began to sink as opposed to doing their best to save it.

I dove into the water and waited for him to follow.  He took off his shoes, and then his coat and shirt.  I forced myself to look away from the sun glistening on his chest.  If he had been one of the men my father brought round as a suitor, I might not have fought him so much.  Thankfully he soon jumped in and I was occupied with building up the strength to make it through the tunnel.  

I took a gulp of air and led him through the tunnel and to the glade where we had found the fountain.  He hesitantly approached it, uncapping a canteen.  He paused and looked at the markings on the side of it.

 “What does it say?” I asked, wishing I could read it for myself.

He did not answer at first, and then he spoke.

 “There is not one person who lives without a vice,

So the one who drinks of my water must pay a price.

These words to you are my only advice:

Give up this quest while you may,

For it will not be long before your sins will make you pay.”

Chapter seven

Less than a week later all repairs to the ship were completed, and we set sail.  

Little time passed before rumors that the fountain had been discovered flew around the ship, and soon they reached the captain.  He demanded to know who had disobeyed his orders by telling someone, but nobody stepped forward to take the blame.  As a result, he called those of us who found the fountain forward for our punishment: ten lashes per person.  When I heard this, I panicked.  To save our shirts from being torn to bits by the whip, they had to be removed.  However, if I took my shirt off, my secret would no longer be a secret.  

Unfortunately, nobody decided to spare the rest of us by taking the blame.

Before my turn came I hurried to the cabin to unbind my chest.  When I returned to the deck I hunched over to make up for it.  My stomach churned as I listened to some of the others yell in pain.  When my turn came, I went forward to take my punishment.  I bared my back, but kept my shirt on over my chest.  The whip delivered the ten, stinging blows to my back.  I did my best to keep quiet, but even the largest of the men who took the lashes cried out.

A few nights later I had watch duty with a few of the other sailors.  I leaned on the rail and looked out at the stars and the reflections on the ocean.  I walked down the length of the ship and saw Tom standing by the rail looking down into the water.

“I wonder if I can drown,” he said, and then looked at me. “I can’t sleep.”

“Why not?” I asked.  “Is it because of the water?”

“No.  I’m just thinkin’.  I’m not one to admit that I’m wrong, but I regret drinkin’ it.”

“Already?  Why?”

“I’m thinkin’ bout me wife.  She’ll die before me, if she’s not gone after another man already.”

After my shift I lay on the floor waiting for sleep to come.  I wished my efforts to convince Tom not to drink the water had succeeded, but he made his choice, and now he had to live with the consequences.  I knew that if given the chance, I would not choose immortality.  There were too many unknowns going into that decision.

My thoughts turned to Lord Fitch.  We sailed to give him the water that would grant him eternal life.  What would he do with the life that the water gave him?  I considered stealing the water from the captain, but he always kept the canteen on his person, and besides, he knew the fountain’s location—he could simply return to the source.  On the chance that I did manage to steal the water, the men would have to go back to the island, and that would mean more time away from their families.  I could not be the reason for that.

We landed at the nearest port for supplies, and also to send word to Lord Fitch to tell him when we would meet him in Hangman’s Harbor.  Captain let me disembark the ship along with the rest of the crew.  As this was my first time setting foot on civilized land in over six years, I was excited.  I accompanied a group of sailors to get drinks from the nearby pub.  Before long, most of them were drunk.  If I wanted to, I could have left—if Caspian was not sitting directly in front of me.   Ever since the shipwreck he ate meals with me and had seemed a little bit more friendly.

 “All hell is about to break loose,” I muttered to him, eyes on the drunken sailors.

Caspian looked over his shoulder at them and sighed.  “Great.  I’m gonna go make sure Tom doesn’t bust his head open when he falls off his stool.”

He sat at the bar and listened to Tom rant.  Struck with the sinking feeling that alcohol would be Tom’s crutch over the next several thousand years, I looked around, trying to see if any of the sailors were watching me.  I started to get up, taking a last swig of my ale, but at that moment a man perhaps in his thirties appeared in front of me.

 “Merry Blame?” he said.

I choked, spitting my drink back into my cup.  “Excuse me?”

 “Your name is Merry Blame, is it not?”

I felt my face pale.

 “Who’re you?” I said.

 “Do not worry, Miss Blame.  I do not come on behalf of the man to whom you are betrothed.  Will you come outside with me so that we may speak more freely?”

 “No.  I’ve got no idea what your intentions are, and I’m much safer in here.”

 “Would you prefer me to tell your identity to all who are inside this pub?  I am sure all would appreciate the reward Fitch has placed over your head.”

 “Bullying ain’t gonna work on me anymore,” I said, my voice hardened.  “If you think—”

 “Have you obtained the water from the Fountain of Youth for Lord Fitch?” he interrupted.

 “Why would you think I know anything about that?”

“Because you live on one of his ships that searches for it.”

I glanced at those who accompanied me.  They talked and laughed rambunctiously.  I did not want to risk one of them hearing our conversation, though that was not the reason I answered as I did.

“No.  We haven’t,” I lied.

He breathed a sigh of relief.  “You lived with Lord Fitch for a few days, correct?”

“Yes,” I answered bitterly.

“I ask you this, because a girl of your age and status who runs away from a handsome man with such a large fortune must have a reason.  Surely you will help us bring him down.  Do you know of any weaknesses he might have?”

“Excuse me?”

“Does he have anything or anybody he cares about, or has he any place he goes alone?”

I looked at him incredulously.  “Are you asking me to help you kill him?”

He did not answer at first.  “I understand your reluctance to help us take someone’s life, but I assure you on my master’s behalf that Lord Fitch has malicious plans, and he must be stopped.”

“No. No, I don’t know of any weaknesses, so please get out of here before people start asking questions.  I’ve spent too long running away from that past for it to come back and bite me.”

He leaned in close.  “Lord Fitch is a dangerous man with dangerous plans, Miss Blame.  It will not be in your best interests to protect him.”

With that he left.  I glanced at the men at the bar, hoping none had noticed my conversation.  I needed to get out of here, and soon.  I was rising again to leave, and Caspian sat down in front of me, halting me in my tracks.

“First day in port and already you’ve found a friend,” Caspian said.  “Who was that?”

I cursed cursed my slow feet and lowered myself back into my chair.  “Uh, that…He asked for directions,” I fibbed.

“There were several people outside that could’ve helped him.  Why didn’t he ask them?” Caspian asked.

“He asked, not me,” I said crossly.

At that moment one of the drunken crewmen picked a fight with another customer.  Caspian went to go try to break it up, but before I even knew what had happened, everyone became involved.  This would be the perfect time to make my escape, but getting to the door was going to be a problem.  Chairs and fists flew; heads slammed onto tables, and mugs served as weapons.  I ducked as a plate flew toward my head, and I knocked one man into another.  The first reached for my head and chased me when I escaped.  Suddenly, I felt my collar yanked and an arm my middle.  I struggled to see who held me.  My assailant proved none other than Caspian, and we crammed into a small alcove that nobody seemed to notice.

“Let me go!” I said angrily.  “What do you think you’re doing?”

He held firmly, keeping me from walking into a flying mug.  “I’m keeping you from getting killed!  This ain’t no place for a girl.”

I went rigid, and so did he as though realizing what he had just said.

“What did you say?”

“I said I’m keepin’ you from gettin’ killed,” he repeated.

I wrenched away and faced him.  “No—I mean—How did you—”

He grabbed my wrist and pulled me toward him so that I narrowly escaped a chair bashing my head.  In uncomfortably close quarters with him, I saw him blush.

“Sorry,” he apologized.  “Come on.”

He took me to the ship in silence as the captain had mandated that I was to be accompanied.  I was too shocked to say anything.  The two revelations in such a short time proved a bit much to handle.  I could not even ask how in the world he had discovered my secret.  I knew I was not the most manly girl, but it had worked for the rest of the crew for six years.  Once we made it on board I left Caspian and went directly to Cook.

“What’s wrong?” Cook asked as I entered.

“Caspian knows I’m not who I say I am,” I said pointedly.

Cook looked up sharply.  “Well how’d he find out?”

 “I don’t know.  I didn’t ask.”

 “You didn’t think to ask?  Really?  Is he gonna tell on you?  Do we need to get you out of here?”

 “I don’t know, I don’t know!” I said running an anxious hand through hair.

 “Well you’d best find that out quick, then.”   

I had not the guts, nor the opportunity to confront Caspian for the next several days, and since nobody acted strangely or mentioned anything I had reason to put it off longer.  It was when we were on watch together a few days before we would land in Hangman’s Harbor that I finally built up the courage.  I found him standing by the ship’s railing and made sure no one was around as I sidled up next to him.

 “How’d you know?” I asked quietly.

 “I wondered when you were going to say something,” he said.

 “So?”

 “After the shipwreck—you know when I saved your life?  Well, when you’ve got your hands on somebody’s chest, you tend to notice things.”

My jaw dropped.  “Were you copping a feel?”

He raised his hands defensively.  “I swear on me life I wasn’t.”

I turned around, wiping my face.  “Have you told anyone?” I asked.

He shook his head.  “Nah, I figure you have your reasons.  I have four sisters I love to death and I wouldn’t want anyone doin’ that to them.”  

That should have eased my mind, but I knew how people could lie.

 “You’re not gonna ask why?”

 “Did you want me to?”

 “No.”

 “Then I won’t.  And I won’t tell nobody neither.”

I nodded reluctantly.  “If you’re telling the truth, then thanks.”

Chapter eight

When we put in at Hangman’s Harbor Captain sent word to Lord Fitch that we had arrived.  Captain made us scrub the decks and make the whole ship shine.  He wanted everything to look perfect—including me, as he had chosen me for some crazy reason to stand by him as he presented the water to Lord Fitch.  I had to clean the grime off my face and look presentable, which normally I would have welcomed, but with the loss of the dirt I felt sure I looked more like my normal, female self—the last thing I wanted right now.  I dawdled around, trying to decide whether or not to make a break for it before Lord Fitch arrived.  Perhaps Caspian had told the captain about me and he wanted to gift his master with both the water and his runaway bride.   Caspian had seemed sincere in his promise that he would not give me away, but I could not be sure.  I had just made my mind up that leaving would be the best move, whether Lord Fitch was going to be here or not, when Phillip came round the corner and grabbed my arm.

“Captain’s gettin’ mad, you better get over there before he gives you a beatin’,” he said, pulling me out into the open, leaving me standing next to the captain.  It was too late to leave now.

I felt sick watching Lord Fitch leave his procession at the gangplank.  His face was just as severe as I remembered, but now I knew more of his evil deeds.  Lord Fitch continued toward us, and I stepped back, almost behind the captain.  I glanced at Caspian, standing with the rest of the men to see if his face betrayed anything, but he seemed just like the other men.

Lord Fitch stopped in front of us.  “You wrote in your letter that you have something for me,” Lord Fitch said.

 “We discovered the Fountain of Youth, and I have brought back some water from it, as you requested,” Captain said.

He handed Lord Fitch the canteen.  To my mild surprise he held it at his side instead of drinking it immediately.

 “I will give you your final directions on the morrow,” Lord Fitch said.

Lord Fitch’s gaze turned to me and I shrank back more.  “Where did you acquire this one?” he asked.  “I do not recognise him.”

 “We discovered him hiding on the ship after one of our ports, so I put him to work,” Captain answered.

Lord Fitch continued staring at me, and then wicked smile of recognition grew across his face.

“I think I will keep this one,” he said.

“Sir?” Captain said, confused.

Before he could answer I sprinted for the rail.  I heard Lord Fitch shouting orders to his men.  I landed hard on the dock, feeling as though I had shattered my knees, and continued my flight, but Lord Fitch’s men cut me off.  They grabbed me when I tried to dive into the water.  I struggled to free myself, but by sheer numbers they beat me.  I still thrashed about when Lord Fitch sauntered down to see me for himself.  His men parted for him.

“Well, well.  Miss Merry Blame, it’s been a while,” he said.

“It has been a while, hasn’t it?” I said harshly.  “I could’ve done with longer, though.”

He struck my face. “I gave you a chance that every woman in this kingdom would have jumped at,” he spat.  “And you ran away.  Why?”

“Because I believed you to be a cold, cruel man.  But you’re worse.”

“Careful what you say, my dear.  As you said, I am a cruel man.  Take her to the manor,” he told his men.

Because I would not stop fighting, they had to tie me up and throw me over a horse in front of one of the riders, where I hung miserably for the ride to the house.  At Lord Fitch’s mansion, I was deposited into an upstairs room containing only a sleeping pallet, a window, a broken mirror, and dresser with a basin of water on it.  I washed my face in the basin and looked at myself in the mirror.  Not as dreadfully skinny as I began all those years ago, I noticed that I had some muscle, and that I had grown into my figure a little more.  My face tomato red with sunburn made me look perpetually embarrassed.  I took my saltwater-stiffened hair out of the ponytail many of the men wore, and saw that my hair grew almost to my shoulders now—I had not taken the time lately to cut it.

I lay on the cot how long Lord Fitch leave me up here, and what he would choose to do with me.  I feared not death much as the thought of torture and life imprisonment.  I wondered if he would still try to marry me.

A few maidservants came upstairs that evening to help me bathe and dress in a simple green dress—the same one I had worn the first time I met him.  Was this sentiment?  I let them help me because I guess they would force me if I refused.

The guard outside door led me downstairs.  Long out of the habit of wearing skirts, I found it quite an ordeal to my way down the staircase.  We came to a room with a table richly set with food for one.  The guard put me opposite the food and shackled my wrist to the back of the chair.  He left.  I sat, my mouth watering as I stared longingly at the food.  Beans, salted pork, and hardtack had been my fare for far too long.  Lord Fitch soon joined me, and I quickly averted my attention.  Instead of eating he sat back in his chair, his fingers steepled and a smug little smirk on his face.

“Here we are again.  You and me.  Only this time you do not seem so…how shall I put this?  Lively.”  He chuckled.  “This must be a terrible meeting for you; you who went so far and did so much only to fall so short.”

I said nothing.

 “You lowered yourself so far as to live amongst men in conditions not much better than those of a pigsty, and yet you find yourself right back where you started.  I do not understand why you seem to find this situation so ghastly—here you had the chance to live among the wealthy, in luxury, and in possession of all in my power.  What could possibly possess you to give that up?”

 “I found out how cruel you are, and I didn’t want a part in it.” I answered.

 “Do not give me that!” he shouted, slamming his fist on the table.

I jumped.

 “All the wealth in the world at your fingertips, and you ran away!  Nobody leaves that to hide on a smelly ship!”

I swallowed. “What do you want me to say?”

He sat back suddenly and smiled.  “Nothing.  I do not want you to say a single word.  I have succeeded  I have found you and captured you—you who have eluded me for so long.  This is my victory!”

A servant opened the door.

“Sir, we have found an intruder,” he said.

“Have you apprehended him?” Lord Fitch asked.

“Yes sir, but he said—”

“If you have apprehended him then you do not need me,” Lord Fitch said through gritted teeth.  “Leave me!”

“Yes sir,” the servant complied.

 

“Why me?” I asked.  “When you could’ve had any woman in the world, why did you choose me when I was no more than a child?”

“You were…how shall I put this?  Convenient.”

“Convenient?”

“Yes.”  He smiled.  “There is a process I use to gain temporary immortality—or should I say, invincibility.  For it, I require the blood of an innocent.”

“An…innocent?”

“Oh yes, I—”

He was interrupted once more by a servant entering.  “Sir, I really think—”

“What did I tell you?!” Lord Fitch shouted, rising from his chair.

The servant shrank back.  “But he—”

“Get out or one hundred lashes will land on your back!”

“Yes sir,” he said meekly.

Lord Fitch took his seat, and turned his attention back to me.

“I planned to use your blood.  But alas, you seem to have lost your innocence, and I cannot use you anymore.  Tsk, tsk.  What did you do on that nasty ship?”  He gave me no chance to answer.  “Fortunately I have something even better planned for you.  You eluded me for six years, seven months, and three and twenty days.  Now that I have found you, I do not feel inclined to release you in death so soon.  Despite the fact that I will live forever, you will not last quite as long.  I have seen to remedying that.”

“What’re you saying?” I asked, rising to the bait when he failed to continue.

He chuckled.  “Unfortunately, the canteen of water I received from the Fountain of Youth contains only enough for me.  Therefore we shall return to the fountain to procure immortality for you, and you shall live with me forever as my trophy.”

I felt my face pale.  “No,” I said.

“Oh, yes.  You see, I do not take kindly to those who defy me.  But you shall forever have life.  Is that not something to be happy for?”

“If I wanted eternal life I would’ve taken the water when I found it!” I snapped, my panic making me angry.

Lord Fitch grinned.  “Oh, so I have you to thank for it?  As the legend says, ‘No man may find the fountain.’” he said in amusement.

I felt sick.

“I am surprised that you did not take it from the captain.  Maybe you do love me for all the trouble you have caused me.”  He laughed.

“I didn’t do it for you.  I did it for the men on the ship—the men who you wouldn’t release until they found what you wanted,” I retorted without thinking.

“Oh, so I have found the young lady’s soft spot!  Perhaps I use them to continue your suffering,” he sneered.  “Oh, and that reminds me!  Your brother and father!  Do you remember them?  They have stayed in my dungeon almost ever since your sudden departure.  I am sure they cannot wait to see you, the reason for all their suffering.”

“Let me go,” I whimpered.

“You might have escaped six years ago in death, but instead you chose to humiliate me in front of the entire kingdom.”

“So this is your revenge?”

“No,” he said in his booming voice.  He lowered his tone.  “This is sport.”

I swallowed hard.  “So what’re you gonna do with me after you make me immortal?”

“Whatever I please,” he said each word with satisfaction.  “And I will leave you to imagine whatever that may be, for the anticipation of your unknown punishment, I believe, will be worse than knowing.”  He gave a short laugh, stood, and left me alone in the room.  I broke down, sobbing.  I did not have to think hard about what he would do; I had been dreaming about all the possibilities almost every night since I found out he was still searching for me.  There, chained to the chair, I stayed until the light in the window grew dim.  The servants escorted me to my room where a slice of bread waited for me.  I ate hungrily and lay curled up on the cot to stave off the hunger pangs.  I fell into an uneasy sleep.

The next morning the servants took me to the carriage that waited downstairs.  When we arrived at the docks Lord Fitch waited for me.  The ship commissioned to take us back to the island proved none other the one I had served on.  I thought the crew would surely recognize me as Pretty Boy, if Lord Fitch had not already told them my identity.  Fortunately, it did not seem that he had told them, nor did they seem to recognize me.

“I see you have arrived,”  Lord Fitch said by way of greeting.  “Take her to one of the cabins,” he ordered Drake.

“Yes sir,” he grumbled.

With his eyes cast downward he took my arm and led me up the gangplank.  One of the few cabins on board the ship was my destination.  Drake locked me in, and in that small room I sat miserably for hours after the ship left port.

Chapter nine

That evening one of the crewmembers arrived to take me to dinner with Lord Fitch in the captain’s quarters.  The lord stood just inside the door.  The light was dim, but I saw he looked queasy.  The great and mighty Lord Fitch was seasick!

“Merry, I would like you to meet my son,” he said, stepping aside to reveal Caspian seated at the table.  Caspian did a double take, recognising me.  “Caspian, this is Merry.  Now, if you will excuse me I have to—” he broke off started to gag, and ran out.  At any other time I might have laughed, but I was too busy staring in horror at Caspian.  He looked unsure whether to laugh about Lord Fitch’s sickness, or to be ashamed.  My escort chained my hand to the arm of the chair.

 “Okay, what?” I said, stunned.  “Lord Fitch…has a son?”

Caspian lowered his head, the humor gone from his face.  “I just found it out meself.”

I looked at the food set in front of me, and my stomach growled, but I did not touch it.  Instead, I stared at Caspian as he picked at his food.

“And you’re Lord Fitch’s son?” I said.

He looked up.  “Yeah,” he answered quietly.

 “What happened to you weren’t going to tell on me?  And what about that family you told me about on the farm?  What even—”

 “It didn’t tell on you,” he said darkly.  “And I didn’t even know about…I’m still not completely convinced he’s my father, but—”

Lord Fitch reentered the dining room, still a little green, but he managed eat some.  

 “Speak to each other!” he said.  “After all, Caspian, she is going to be your new mother.  She is bit younger than you, but that does not matter, now does it, Merry?” he gloated.

I felt as ill as Lord Fitch looked.  Hungry as I was, I was not sure if I would be able to keep the food down.  I was glad when dinner was over, and I could retreat to my cabin.

I was lying down, unable to sleep, when I heard a key turn in the lock.  Fearing Lord Fitch, I immediately shot out of bed and seized the candlestick, motions I had practiced in my head.  I started to relax when I saw by the light of the lantern he held, it was only Caspian, but then I realised that Caspian was in my room.

 “What are you doing here?” I demanded, readjusting my grip on my makeshift weapon.

 “Can I come in?  I just wanted to explain.”

 “What is there to explain?” I asked.  

 “A lot, actually.  Look, Fitch might be back soon and see me.  Please don’t beat me with that.”

I hesitated, pretty sure I was making a bad decision.  “Okay, come in,” I assented, closing the door behind him, but not loosening my hold on the candlestick.  “Where did you get the key?”

 “Drake was easy to bribe,” he said, looking nervously at the candlestick I still held.  “Look, I promise I’m not gonna to attack you.  Can you put that down?”

 “Caspian I spent six years on a ship full of men.  We’re in my room, alone, and you’re the son of the worst man I know.  If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that men see women as their prey.  I’m not taking any chances.”

 “Fair point,” he said.

 “Now, are you going to do your explaining or not?  You haven’t got long to convince me not to bust your head open.”

 “Okay, okay.  May I sit?”

I nodded, and he seated himself on the edge of my mattress.  “The first thing you should know is that what I told you about me family on the farm is true, everything I told you about them is true.  I didn’t say that I was adopted.  Me mother never told me where I came from, though.  

“So, after Fitch took you away, a few of us went into town for drinks.  This woman approached me and told me that you were in trouble, that you were the one who ran out on him all those years ago.  A lot was said, and I’ll spare you the details.  But basically she said that…and these are her words, that he needed to be ‘put down.’  She gave a whole bunch of reasons, stuff I’ve heard before, and said that worse would happen if he drank the water from the fountain.  If he had drunk it, then they had to figure out somethin’ else.  But she needed to know.   She says she has servants in his house who give her information, but that there are some places they can’t go.  She said that I was his son, and that he would know it when he saw me.  I wasn’t really sure about that, because it seems pretty off, right?  Well, she told me that I could get close to him and find out what she needed to know and feed them information.  She said to sneak into his house so I could see him personally.”

 “You were the intruder the servants kept talking about,” I realised.  “And why the hell did you think it was a good idea to get yourself caught by Fitch?”

 “I can’t say I don’t regret doin’ it,” he said.  “But I knew I wouldn’t be able to forget about it if I didn’t do it.”

 “Caspian, I spent nearly seven years of my life trying to get away from that man.  To willingly—intentionally get yourself caught, that’s pure foolishness.”

He looked embarrassed.  “Yeah, well, I got me audience with Fitch.  That lady was right, he recognised me somehow.”

 “Do you even know who she was?” I asked.

 “Well—no.”

 “So you’re telling me that you got yourself caught by Lord Fitch because some strange lady you’ve never met told you to?  And here I was thinking you had some sort of intelligence.”

 “Wow,” he said ruefully.  “You’re more insulting than most of the men I know.”

 “Yeah, well, had to learn to compensate.”

 “Was that a—” he stopped himself.  “Never mind.  Well, I guess from there all you need to know is that I managed to send word about where we’re going.  Of course, as you said, I really don’t know this lady, so it’s likely nothing will happen, and I just sentenced myself to whatever it is my apparent father has planned, which sounds like immortality.”

 “You too?” I asked darkly.

 “You mean he’s givin’ you the water, too?”

I laughed scornfully.  “I’m to be his trophy, the one he makes an example of to those who try to go against him.  He’ll torture my brother and father in front of me until they die, and then he’ll move onto me, the one who can’t pass no matter how he carries on.  I’m to be the toy he locks up for ages until he wants to be reminded how good it feels to be the winner, to come out on top.  Of course he’ll give me the water.  Caspian, all you’ve done is sentenced yourself to a life that’s only a little better than mine.  Perhaps he’ll be kind to you, but I think you have a conscience.  You won’t like what you see.”

Now that we were out in the open water I was allowed to move about the ship freely.  After all, there was not really anywhere else to go except the bottom of the sea.  However, lately that option was becoming more and more attractive.  If I drowned myself, I would not have to live forever under Lord Fitch’s thumb.  I looked up to see Caspian, whom I had been avoiding.  Even though it seemed we were in the same situation, his relation to Fitch still made me nervous.  My gut told me he could be trusted, but how could I know for sure he would not turn on me?  Caspian leaned on the railing beside me.

 “Fitch is sick in his chamber,” I said to him; I wanted to see his reaction.  “If there was any time to kill him, this would be the best.”

He looked at me sharply; I had taken him by surprise.  “Are you going to?” he asked.  

I looked out over the water, not answering.

 “Fitch is terrible, I agree, but does he really deserve that?”

 “You haven’t seen what I’ve seen.  You didn’t hear what—” I had to stop myself.  “That demon needs to be put down.”

 “What made you leave Fitch?” Caspian said.  “Seven years ago when it all started, what happened?”

I crossed my arms.  “I’d met him before.  Father gave me to him to pay a debt, but you probably knew that.  Something seemed off about him, but I just guessed that was how the upper class was, and that I’d learn to deal.”  I crossed my arms and turned around to sit on the rail.  “It was the day I got to his house.  I was exploring, and I went out back of his house.  The stones were thick with dried blood, torture equipment I’d never even imagined was out there.  Human corpses were rotting in cages while the birds ate at them.  Whether or not that’s normal for the rich, I was scared, so I ran.”

 “How did you end up on the ship?”

 “His men were chasing me, and somehow I ended up here.  I had dressed as a boy and cut my hair, so the crew thought I was just a regular stowaway.  They made me stay on board to pay off my debt to Captain, or whatever.”

 “Wow,” Caspian said.  “Me sisters would never—”

Drake approached and interrupted coldly.  “Your father wants you,” he told Caspian.

 “Okay.  I’ll go in a second.”  He waited until Drake had gone, and then turned back to me.

 “I agree with you about Fitch needin’ to die.  And I know I’m in the best position for doin’ the deed, I just don’t know that I can drop the blade.”

Surprised by his words, I watched him leave.

Chapter ten

“Land ho!” came the cry from the crow’s nest.

I ran to the side of the ship to see the island.  Though only a sliver of green was visible on the horizon, we drew close.

We dropped anchor a little way off from land.  One of the crewmembers tied my hands together, and and made me climb into the rocking rowboat.  Lord Fitch vomited over the side.  Caspian’s hands were also tied, as he had apparently, foolishly, made it clear to Lord Fitch that he was not going to take the water without a fight.  Several sailors accompanied us, including one who discovered the fountain with me.  The rest of the sailors rowed the boat; Aaron came only to lead us to the fountain.  I wondered how Lord Fitch planned to get Caspian and me through the underwater cave while we were tied up, and hoped he would give up.

Once we arrived at the beach I thought Lord Fitch would kiss the ground.  We stayed the night on dry land, because Lord Fitch refused to pass another night on the water.  I did not sleep at all, but when morning came I was too scared to be tired.  I should have thrown myself into the water and drowned myself when I had the chance.  Aaron embarked on a hike to find a different route to the fountain, as Fitch could not force Caspian and me to swim through the underwater cave without risk of us or his men drowning.  When the ground rumbled we looked around to see what caused the disturbance.  The mountain that loomed above the whole island sent up great clouds of smoke.  I remembered the sailors’ tales about mountains that spewed liquid fire—could this mountain be one of them?  The sailors informed Lord Fitch of this possibility.

Lord Fitch, however, disregarded the warning.  “We continue as planned.  I will have my way.”

When the sailor walked away Lord Fitch grinned at me.  “Soon we shall begin our life together,” he said.  “And it will not ever end.  Let me see, how shall I make your life miserable?  I think…I will start with your brother.  He has never seemed to enjoy the knife, so—“

“Leave her alone,” Caspian snapped.

Lord Fitch turned to his son.  “She is my prize, and I shall do with her as I please.  In case you do not understand, let me elaborate.”

He struck my face, sending me sprawling backward.  I sat back up, wiping the blood off my mouth and glaring at Lord Fitch.

“Do you see?”  Seeing his son’s scowl, he spoke again.  “I see your raising has been soft.  Your mother is to blame for that, because you have it in your blood to dominate, and I shall see to it that you do.  I usually do not kill, for I prefer to find ways to dispose of people.  But for this, your first lesson, I will make an exception.”

Lord Fitch cut Caspian’s bonds and gave him a dagger.  He pointed at the sailor who sat a few years away, faced away from us, keeping watch.

“Kill him.”

Caspian looked at his father, appalled.  “No!”

“Do it!  You are my son, and I will not allow you to spare his life out of pity.”

“Well then you’re just gonna have to do without, because I won’t kill him.”

“I will give you one last chance.”

Caspian looked at his father, and for an instant I thought he was going to do what he ordered.  And then—Lord Fitch missed it, but I saw the fire in Caspian’s eyes.  I am not sure what exactly happened, but Lord Fitch suddenly had the knife, and Caspian was on the ground.  Lord Fitch adjusted his grip on the knife, and threw it.  It stuck the sailor’s back, and he straightened with a squeak before keeling over, dead.

Lord Fitch stood and went to retrieve his knife.  “Retie his hands,” he ordered one of the remaining sailors.  “It is as I expected,” Lord Fitch said once Caspian was tied up next to me.  Already a bruise was forming across his face.  “You are weak, and I will not tolerate it.”

 “You didn’t need to kill him.  He did you no wrong!” Caspian said.

“Yes I did!” he shouted.  “Now you see what happens when you cross me.  You are fortunate you are my flesh and blood.”

“That is the only way we are related,” Caspian scoffed.  “I won’t become like you.  You may as well get the killing over with now.”

“Ah,” Lord Fitch smiled.  “But that is not the way I do things.  I prefer to drag out the pain.  Suffering is so enjoyable to watch.  I must desensitise your sensitive mind, and this will start now, with Merry, here.”

Caspian pale.

“I bet she has a lovely voice when she screams.  How about it?  I have not heard any screams lately.”

“No,” Caspian said

 “I think so.”

He placed the blade over the remnants of last night’s fire, looking at me hungrily.  Fortunately, at that moment, Aaron returned.

“I found the way,” he said.

The remaining sailors, keeping a tight hold on us, followed Aaron and Lord Fitch.  We broke through the trees to find ourselves in the glade where sat the Fountain of Youth.  I struggled anew. Lord Fitch ordered the sailors to bind our ankles, and stand by for further orders.  He stood silently for a while, surveying the fountain, then stepped forward with a canteen.  I recognized it as the one Captain used to carry the water to Lord Fitch.  He raised it above the fountain, and dumped the water into it.  Why he had not drunk it?  He threw the canteen onto the grass beside us.  As if on cue the ground rumbled, reminding us of the mountain’s anger.  Lord Fitch began chanting over the fountain.  The words were in a language that I did not understand.  He drew some water out in a golden cup and brought it to us.  He started with me and put the cup to my tightly closed lips.

“Open your mouth,” he commanded.

I turned my head to the side, trying to refuse.  Impatiently, he covered my nose and yanked my head back so that I had to open my mouth.  I felt the water slide down my throat.  Colors exploded before me, and I lost consciousness for a moment.  When I came to, I felt light, like I weighed nothing.  I felt no pain or discomfort—nothing at all.  The ground shook hard.  Lord Fitch stumbled back from Caspian.  Caspian’s eyes flashed green.  Lord Fitch had succeeded in giving Caspian the water.

 “Sir, the mountain is going to blow. We need to leave,” one of the sailors said.

 “We will depart when I say we depart,” Lord Fitch snapped.

The ground trembled without stopping.  I saw smoke high in the sky. Lord Fitch approached the Fountain of Youth a second time and filled his cup.  He tipped it into his mouth as there was a boom from the top of the mountain, and the smoke became thicker.

“Sir, we gotta leave.  The mountain’s gonna explode!” one of the sailors said.

Lord Fitch stood rigidly.  The ground gave a jolt and a sailor stumbled to the ground next to me.  Before he got up, I snatched the knife from his belt and worked at cutting my bonds.  Lord Fitch began to turn around, the green fading from his black eyes.  The ropes snapped.  I gained my feet slowly, hoping he would not notice.  Keeping with my tradition of bad luck, he looked directly at me.  I grabbed the sword from the sailor’s scabbard and rushed him, the blade poised to strike his heart.  He met my blow with his sword.  Our blades locked.

“Fool!” he spat.  “You cannot even hope to kill me!”

We struggled for what felt like hours.  The blows I struck with all my might were met with seeming ease, as if he were toying with me.  One of my blows met with his shoulder, and another his leg.  He went on the offensive, beating me back to the trees until he stabbed.  I gasped, the cold metal sliding into my stomach.

“Oh, do give us a scream, now won’t you?” he said with a sneer, twisting the blade.

I made a sound of pain.  My legs failed me, and he drew the blade out.

“Do not worry, your survival is guaranteed,” he said.  “So it is all right for me to do this.”

He kicked me right where the hole inside me was.

 “Hey!” Caspian shouted.

 “Right now, my son, I can do the same to you.  I would keep my mouth shut if I were in your place.”

He gave me another kick, and I cried out, doubling over.  He sauntered to the fountain, gazing into its depths.

Blood spilled through my fingers, black spots dancing before me.  My mind’s eye flashed to a dream—a memory of a time when I stood in front of Lord Fitch, his dagger in my abdomen while he laughed.  Anger surged through me and I gathered my strength to push myself up against the tree.  I ran forward and pushed him with all the force I possessed.  He tumbled over into the fountain with a scream.  He held on to the edge, his knuckles white as if he were being pulled down.  I saw fear in his eyes.  I heard people racing from the forest into the clearing, but my head was swimming.  I could barely see him through the haze of pain.

 “Come with me,” Lord Fitch sputtered the command.

His fingers darted up and seized my arm with a grip of steel.  He grabbed my other arm, pulling me in.  I stopped myself on the edge of the fountain, but my strength soon left me.  I braced myself to enter the icy water, but someone else took hold of my waist, and Fitch’s hands around my arms released me with a sputter of pain.  Whoever caught me put me on the ground as Caspian and a group of unfamiliar people stood around me.  I wondered vaguely where they came from as I lost consciousness.

Chapter eleven

Seconds later my eyes shot open.  People still stood around me, and I no longer the felt pain in my middle, but I hardly noticed these things.  I was aware only of the simple, insistent call: come to me.  I staggered to my feet, and everyone stood back to give me space.  Come to me.  I had to follow Lord Fitch into the fountain.

“Merry?” Caspian said.

I barely heard.

Follow me.

I put my hands on the side of the fountain and gazed into the dark water.  Come to me.  I stepped up onto the wall of the fountain.  Everyone gasped. You will be mine.  I started to jump again, but strong hands caught me and dragged me away kicking and screaming.  Come to me!

 “I have to go!” I screamed.  “I have to go with him!”

 “Merry, snap out of it!” I heard a shout.

The call became more insistent so that I heard nothing else.  You will not escape me this time.  I let myself go limp and the grip on me lessened, letting me jump to my feet and dash for the fountain.  Again, someone caught me.  I felt a stinging slap to my face, and suddenly, my vision cleared.  A woman’s freckled face hovered in front of me, foggy because of the hot tears streaming down my face.  I still heard the voice, but not as all consuming.  Come to me.

 “Merry?  Merry, can you hear me?”

I saw Caspian in front of me and felt arms about my waist, pinning my arms and holding me tightly.

 “He wants me to follow him,” I said.

 “You can’t do that,” he answered.

 “I can’t get his voice out of my head,” I whimpered.

 “Okay, then listen to me.  Can you do that?  Listen to me.”

The ground started rumbling again.  The voice started anew, and when the man holding me lost his balance, I broke free to run for the fountain.  Merry Blame, you will be mine.  Another stopped me once more.

“Ma’am, the mountain is going to blow at any second.  We must to leave now.”

These words were directed at the woman who slapped me, I realized.

“Let me go!” I screamed.

They dragged me away.  The fountain moved further and further away until obstructed by trees.  The newcomers took me to the rowboat despite my thrashing.  They did not tie me up, though I heard someone suggest it. Suddenly an ear-shattering noise broke my trance.  Fire exploded from the top of the mountain fire falling over the entire island.  We had made it off just in time.

Caspian forced me onto the ship.  Lord Fitch continued calling; however, his hold over me lessened.  When I stopped fighting, the arm around my waist released me and its owner, Caspian, came around to look at me.

 “Merry?” he asked carefully.

I raised my eyes to look at him.  “Present,” I said in a bad attempt at humor.

 “For good?”

I shrugged and shook my head.  “I don’t know.”

 “Can you still hear the voice?”

I nodded.  He put his hands on my shoulders to look into my face.

 “Listen to me, it’s gonna be okay, we’ll figure this out.”

 “I’m not a baby,” I muttered.

 “I’m doin’ my best,” he said.  “Can you help me any?”

I shook my head.

 “Okay, let’s sit down.  What’s your favorite color?”

 “Blue.”

 “What kind of blue?”

I shot up, panting on a cot in a ship’s cabin, just woken from a nightmare.  As I caught my breath I remembered being brought into the cabin and promptly passing out.  The voice no longer tormented me, but stayed in the back of my mind. I ventured out onto the deck.  Sailors I did not know watched me carefully; I tried to ignore them.  A tall, middle-aged woman approached me.  I recognized her as the freckled one who slapped me out of my trance at the fountain.

“Feelin’ better, Miss?” she asked.

I nodded guardedly.

“Good.  None of my men wanna have to jump into the ocean after you.”

I just looked at her.

“I sent one of my men after you to see if you knew Gregory had found the fountain,” Mabel said.  “Why’d you lie?”

“You were the master he spoke of?” I asked.

She nodded.  “If you’d told him the truth about the fountain, Gregory might not have been able to take you away.  You died, there at the fountain,” she said.  “That water brought you back.”

 “The men on the ship I was on had been away from their families anywhere from one year to ten,” I said.  “If I had told your man, would they have gotten to go back home?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted.  “If we had killed him, yes.  But you’re right.  It was likely that we would’ve failed.”

“I thought about it,” I told her.  “I thought about throwing the canteen of water overboard, but they could’ve just got back to the source.”

“You don’t gotta defend yourself to me,” she said.

We looked at each other a moment longer, then she left me.  I walked to the edge of the ship and felt the eyes of the sailors on me.  I supposed they thought I might throw myself overboard.

 “Merry?”

I turned around to see Caspian coming toward me, looking worried.  He relaxed when he saw that I was in my right mind.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“Remember that lady I told you about?  Mabel?  This is her ship.  They got here a little a late,” he said wryly.  “But they’re takin’ us back to Hangman’s Harbor.  Is the voice gone?”

There was still more I wanted to know, but I answered his question.

“I can hear it in the back of my mind.  What happened to the others?  The ones from Lord Fitch’s ship?” I asked.

“I suppose they left.”

“Will they go back to their families now that Fitch is gone?”

“I hope so, but I don’t know for sure.  I know that’s where I’m goin’.”

We ate dinner in the captain’s quarters with Mabel.

“You realize now that Gregory is dead all of his property belongs to you,” she told Caspian.

“Wouldn’t he have left it to somebody else?  He knew of me only a day before we left,” Caspian said.

“He wasn’t expectin’ to die.  He did everythin’ in his power to make sure he stayed livin’, so, by default, the closest family member receives everythin’.”

Caspian did not look thrilled to hear this news.

 “I know it’s no pleasant task, but we must eventually discuss what will be done with Gregory’s property.”

 “I’ll think about it,” he said tightly.

He finished eating his food quickly and excused himself.  Mabel sighed in exasperation.

“I don’t think he likes being reminded of his heritage,” I said.

“Nobody would,” she said.  “But it’s his responsibility and he’ll have to learn to deal with it.”

She looked said.  Was that guilt in her eyes?

Dressed in the trousers and shirt that Mabel attained for me, I took to the deck once more.  I felt uneasy.  I had been thinking about what I would do once we got to Hangman’s Harbor.   I knew I had to get my family out of Lord Fitch’s dungeon, if they were still alive, but I likely could not stay with them.  Father probably hated me, and I was not sure I could live with them, the guilt of what I had sentenced them to eating at me.  I would never die.  My family, however, would.  Their lives would seem like but a moment to me.  Any connections I made with people would end, but I would go on. I reminded myself of the rhyme on the fountain.

Give up this quest while you may,

For it will not be long before your sins will make you pay.

What did that even mean?  ‘Your sins will make you pay.’  What price would I pay?  I found a dark corner where I curled up until I fell asleep.

When I woke, shadows covered everything.  The sky was clear, and the stars lit my path as I wandered around the ship.  The men on the night shift paid me no mind, for which I felt grateful.  I held free reign over the ship.

I saw a figure leaning on the railing, head down.  As I drew closer, I recognized the form as Caspian.  I leaned on the rail next to him.

 “Couldn’t sleep either?” he asked.

I shrugged.

He took a deep breath.  “Does it bother you?  Bein’…immortal?”

I did not answer at first.  “Yeah.”

 “Me family…they’re gonna die before me.  And I wonder what happens when the world ends.”

I shuddered.  That last thought had not crossed my mind. We were quiet for a while as we each contemplated what our futures could hold.

 “Do you think I might become like him?” Caspian asked.

 “Like who?”

 “Fitch.”

 “That’s a stupid question.  Why would you think that?” I asked.

 “At first I didn’t believe that he really was me father, and then it…just started making more sense.  I just don’t want to end up that way.”

 “Somehow I just can’t see you killing and torturing people just for the sake of seeing their pain,” I said dryly.

 “I don’t think so, but a lot can happen in an eternity.”

I thought about my own future, and the words played over in my head: your sins will make you pay.

Chapter twelve

Come to me.

I shot up in bed.  Lord Fitch summoned me.  I crawled out from under the covers and groped along the wall, my hand to my head.

Merry, come back to me.

The voice sent a shooting pain through my skull.  Merry.  I made my way up the stairs to the deck.  I must have cried out because suddenly a bunch of the sailors gathered around me.

 “What’s wrong with her?”

 “Same thing as ‘fore I bet.”

 “But she’s not tryin’ to get away.”

 “She’s got some sort of curse on her.  She’s gonna kill us all.”

 “Well, we can’t let her go overboard.  Let’s lock her in the cabin.”

I felt hands on me and they took me downstairs.  They threw me on the floor and locked the door behind themselves.  It was then that I lost the fight against Fitch’s voice.  I pounded on the door, screaming for them to let me out, but they stood against the door, bracing it against my attacks.  Eventually I tired out and curled up on the floor, holding my head.

 “Is she okay?” I heard Caspian from outside.

A sailor answered.  “She’s mad, she is.  You can’t go in there.”

 “She’s quiet now.  I’m gonna see if she’s all right.”

 “I wouldn’t do that,” the sailor warned.

Despite the sailor’s caution, Caspian entered.  I flew past him, and assaulted the door that he closed behind himself.  My hands bled from the coarse wood of the door, but I could not stop.  Caspian caught me and pinned my arms to my sides.  Finally I fell slack, exhausted.

“Merry?”

“It hurts,” I whimpered.

“I know.  You told me when we left the island that it helped to listen to me.  I’m gonna sing, but you can’t laugh, okay?”

He sang in his deep voice, though off key.  When I relaxed, he let me go slowly in case he had to grab me again.  Nothing happened. I was better—for now.

“Let’s go get you cleaned up,” he said.

He took me to the kitchen and started to wrap my hands.  Mabel came in.

“Are you okay?” she asked.  “They told me what happened.”

I nodded.

“Give that here,” she told Caspian, and unwrapped my hands to redo the bandages.  “The crew don’t like this,” she warned.  “They think women are bad luck without your screamin’ and hollerin’.”

When she left, I looked at Caspian.  “How did she know about you bein’ Lord Fitch’s son?” I asked, flexing my hands.

 “You remember she said something about tryin’ to get rid of him for years.  She’s probably got a lot of information on him.”

 “I wonder what it is that she’s got against him.”

 “He’s the kind of person who has a lot of enemies.

The next day the men rallied together and announced that they wanted to throw me overboard.  Mabel briefly explained my situation to them and offered them extra pay on arriving at port if they let me stay.  They conceded, though hesitantly.  After all, what use was extra money if they were not alive to use it?

Over dinner a few weeks later, Mabel and Caspian discussed what to do with Lord Fitch’s money.  I watched Mabel closely.  An idea had been forming in my mind, but I wanted to be sure before I brought it up.  How did Mabel know so much about Lord Fitch?  She said that she had sources, but who were they?  Lord Fitch was not in the habit of making friends, and his servants were the only ones who knew anything about him.  From what I had seen of Lord Fitch’s servants, they seemed unlikely to go behind their master’s back.  More than that, the way she acted toward Caspian was different than the way she treated anyone else—not in a romantic way, but in another way I had seen before in my own life.  Mabel looked at Caspian the way my mother used to look at Joseph and me.

Caspian startled me out of my thoughts. “What do you think, Merry?” he asked.

I looked up.  “What?”

“What do you think about what Mabel was sayin’?” Caspian repeated.

“Oh…I wasn’t really listening,” I admitted.

We finished eating.

“Mabel, may I speak with you for a moment?” I asked her after Caspian left.

Mabel crossed her arms.  “Are the men givin’ you trouble?”

“No, there’s something else.  Are you…Caspian’s mother?”

She paled.  “What?”

“He looks a little bit like you, and the way you look at him.  I know it’s none of my business, but…”

She swallowed hard and swept out of the room, leaving me feeling as though I had made a mistake by asking.

That night a knock sounded at my door. It had been many, many days since Lord Fitch had taken control of me, and I was enjoying the quiet.

 “Who is it?” I asked.

 “Mabel.”

I opened the door, and there she stood.

 “Have you told him?” she asked.

 “No,” I answered, knowing who and what she spoke of.

 “I didn’t want to leave him,” she blurted.  “I had to get rid of Gregory.”

Surprised that she was talking to me at all, I did not respond.  She drew a breath as if to speak.  She changed her mind.  “Don’t tell Caspian, please,” she said.  “I already told him his father was the worst man in the world.  I can’t tell him that his mother is…me.”  She floundered for a moment, trying to decide whether to say anything more.  She decided against it, and fled the cabin.

We landed in Hangman’s Harbor.  I felt my habitual fear that Lord Fitch would find me, and it took me a moment to remember he was gone. Mabel paid the crew of the ship as promised, and we walked to Lord Fitch’s fortress where we would stay until we found another place to go.  As I walked into the mansion, dread filled the pit of my stomach—entering the place where Lord Fitch had lived and committed so many terrible deeds made me feel sick.  Immediately Mabel directed Caspian and me to the dungeon to release my family.  She told Caspian she would inform the servants of their master’s demise and get everything in order for him to distribute his father’s wealth.  We descended the steps to the dungeon.

 “What if they’re dead?” I blurted, voicing the worry I had had since we left the island.

Caspian looked at me, but said nothing.

When we got to the bottom of the steps two guards sat at a barrel, playing cards.  They rose and blocked the way when we entered.

“You can’t be down here,” said one of the jailers.

“Lord Fitch is dead,” Caspian said authoritatively.  “I’m taking his place as master of this house.”

They glanced at each other uncertainly.  “Do you have any proof?”

“I’m Lord Fitch’s son.  When he found out, I was brought down here and he visited me.  Do you recall now?”

They nodded nervously.

“We’re looking for George Blame and Joseph Blame,” I said.  “Where are they?”

“If you’ll follow me,” the jailer said nervously.

He took us down a corridor lined with cells containing sick and dying inmates.  I held my breath and tried not to look.

We found my father and brother sharing a cell.  I almost failed to recognize them.  They had become frail and sick in Lord Fitch’s care.  A wave of guilt washed over me.

 “Is this them?” Caspian asked.

 “Yeah,” I said.

 “Let them out,” Caspian ordered the jailer.

He hesitated, but then bent his head to find the right key.

 “Elena?” came my father’s whisper from the cell, calling my by my mother’s name.

 “No, it’s Merry,” I said guiltily.

 “Merry!” Joseph said, his voice weak.

 “I think we’ll have to help one at a time,” Caspian said.

Father and Joseph looked as if they could not walk two steps on their own.  We started with Father, who groaned in pain but said not a word to us as we helped him out of his cell.

“We’ll be right back,” I promised Joseph.

Caspian and I left Father with a few servants that we put under Mabel’s surveillance.  We sent two more servants to town for a doctor, and then returned to the dungeon for Joseph.

 “Joseph, I’m so sorry about everything,” I said sincerely as we carried him up the stairs.

 “You look like Mother,” he mumbled almost incoherently.

Caspian and I put Joseph into the hands the servants, and soon after, the doctor arrived to care for my family.

Over the next several days, I tagged along with Mabel because the doctor refused to allow me passage into my family’s room for more than a few minutes, and sitting alone within these dark stone walls with nothing to do did not appeal to me.  Mabel and Caspian released the remaining prisoners and found people to care for them, then focused on distributing Lord Fitch’s wealth.

Finally, the doctor declared my family well enough for visitors.  Father still slept, but Joseph sat up in bed, looking much better than before.  He wore a big smile on his face as he greeted me.  I hugged him, feeling how his bones protruded much more than they did six years earlier.

 “What’d he do to you?” I asked.

 “It doesn’t matter, but what did you do?  Where were you?”

I told him the story, including the things I found out about Lord Fitch.

 “He would have killed you?” Joseph asked.

 “It was the only reason he wanted me in the first place.  I was his way of living a few years longer.”

 “You lived on a ship with a bunch of men? For how many years?”

 “That would be your main concern,” I said wryly.  “It was a few days after you left.  But I was safe,” I assured him.

He started to say something, but then broke into a coughing fit.

 “Joseph, I’m so sorry I did this to you and Father,” I said when he stopped.  “I never meant for any of this to happen.”

 “Well, it did. But it is over now, so there is no need to keep apologizing, otherwise I really will get mad.”

Merry.

Fitch’s voice entered my head, and I tried to push it away.

“Merry, what’s wrong?” Joseph asked.

“Um, nothing,” I said, hoping that was true.

Come to me.

I heard Joseph talking, but could not focus on what he said.  I noticed a pause.  I shook my head to try to clear it.

 “I’m sorry, what?” I said.

 “Merry?  Are you alright?”

Merry, the voice said.  I am waiting for you.

 “I’m too far away!” I tried to say back to Fitch in my head.

 “Merry!” Joseph tried to get my attention.

 “Get Caspian,” I whispered right before the pain hit.

I think Joseph called for a servant.  I managed to keep myself under control until Caspian arrived.  As before, Caspian prevented me from attempting to go after Lord Fitch, and made sure I was okay before letting go of me.

 “Was that Lord Fitch?” Joseph asked after everything settled.

 “I thought he stopped trying to get me, but I was wrong,” I said, breathing hard.

I noticed my father staring at me wide-eyed, but he turned away from me.

After that incident, I avoided visiting my family.  This was not hard at all; they were still bedridden from their ordeal.  I slept very little at night, fearing the unfriendly dark.  I felt guilty that I was the cause of all the harm that had come to my family.  I was embarrassed that they had seen me when Lord Fitch called. I knew that eventually they would die, leaving me behind.  Even though that unhappy event would happen probably many years in the future, it weighed on my mind.  I feared that my father harbored anger against me. Unfortunately, my fears were confirmed when a servant came to inform me on behalf of my father that he had disowned me.

Within the hour I had food packed into a knapsack, and for the second time in my life, I ran away.  

Chapter thirteen

After walking several days, my resolve to leave forever began to waver. The mountains came into sight.  I had always wanted to go and see the snow-capped peaks—just not like this.  My heart felt heavy and guilt weighed me down.  Joseph, I knew, would be torn up about my leaving.  Father would not care.  I wondered if Mabel would tell Caspian who she was.  I was also vaguely curious what Caspian would do when he finished taking care of his father’s affairs, if he would go back to his family like he had said.  I did not expect him to come riding up next to me.

 “Caspian!  What’re you doing here?!” I demanded.  

He jumped off his horse, keeping a hold on the reins.  “Joseph sent me.  He wants you to come back.”

I cast my eyes downward.  “How did you find me?”

 “The servants told me which way you went.  Why’d you leave?”

 “Father disowned me,” I told him quietly.

Caspian remained silent, realizing the gravity of the situation.

I spoke again, needing to give voice to my thoughts.  “They’re never going to be the same because of me.  Father hates me.  I can’t even face Joseph.”

 “Your brother loves you,” Caspian said.

 “I know.”

I took a breath to compose myself.  “Tell Joseph I’m sorry, but I’m gonna keep going.”

I turned my back, but Caspian caught my wrist, stopping me.

 “Wait,” he said.  “If you won’t stay for yourself, then stick around for Joseph.  You’ve found him again after so many years.  You can’t just leave.”

 “I believe that’s for me to decide,” I said coldly.  “Let me go.”

 “Joseph is still sick,” he pursued.  “It was a big enough shock to him when he first found out that you were gone.  Do you want to make him worse?”

“Caspian, I said I’m not going back,” I told him harshly, though he had put a dent in my already wavering confidence.

His next words felt like a punch to the stomach:  “You’re bein’ selfish.”

My jaw dropped.  He looked away guiltily, and dropped my hand.  “It’s your choice, Merry.  Take it or leave it.”

I had not thought about things the way Caspian put it. As much as I hated to admit it, I was being selfish.  Joseph needed me, and I had been willing to put my feelings above his needs.  Caspian watched me anxiously.  Then I remembered all my anger from my years away from home.

“He sold me!  Father sold me to Lord Fitch to pay his stupid gambling debts!  He didn’t care what would happen after that, he just wanted to get rid of me.  What person could look at Lord Fitch and say that nothing was wrong with him?  He didn’t care, and now he has the nerve to disown me.  I don’t think that’s selfish!”  I took a breath, trying to calm down.  “That house—I can’t look at it without remembering why I left.  That place is terrifying!  All the people he’s murdered, and the fact that I could have been one of them.  And if I did go back,” I continued  “I mean, Joseph’s gonna have to take care of Father.  He won’t be able to support me, and I’m not getting married.  It ended too badly last time.  And you know what?  I’m sick of depending on other people?  I proved that I could take care of myself on that damn ship, and I’m not going back!”

We stared each other down.  Caspian’s eyes softened.

“I’m sorry for callin’ you selfish,” Caspian said finally.  “You have every right to be mad at your father.  The decision’s up to you.”

 “You bet it is,” I retorted.  “I didn’t hide on a ship for seven years to give up my right to make my own choices.”

He cracked a grin.  “That sounds more like Pretty Boy.”

I gave a half-hearted smile.

 “So which are you gonna be?” he asked.  “Pretty Boy in the mountains or Merry with your brother?”

 “I wish I could be both.  Pretty Boy and Merry.”

 “Maybe you can be.  Times may change.”

 “Not fast enough,” I grumbled.  

He chuckled.  I gazed back at the mountains.  

 “I’ll miss you…if you leave,” Caspian said.

I turned to meet his eyes.  He shrugged.  “We’ve been through a lot together.”

 “How was Joseph when you left?” I asked.

 “He’s gettin’ better.  He’s worried about you.  Surely you two could figure somethin’ out.”

I doubted it, but my resolve was shattered.  “I’ll go back with you.  But I don’t think I’ll be able to stay.”

He nodded.

He helped me onto the horse, and we made the trip back in tense silence.  When we arrived back at the manor, Caspian offered to take me to Joseph, but I declined his offer, mostly out of embarrassment. I slowly made my way to Joseph and Father’s room.  Upon finding them gone, I learned from a servant that they had been moved to other rooms, separate from each other.  I stopped outside Joseph’s door and took a few deep breaths to steady myself.  Relief me as I entered to find him asleep.  Our meeting would be delayed a little longer.  I quietly seated myself in a chair a little ways away.

When he finally woke, he saw me in the corner.

 “Merry!  You’re back!” he said, starting to try to get up, but I got there first.

He hugged me.  “Where were you?”

 “I just…needed some time to think,” I said with a weak smile.

 “Merry,” he said suspiciously.

 “Joseph, it doesn’t matter.  I’m back now.”

Joseph pursed his lips.  “Did Caspian get you?”

I nodded.

 “Then I can just ask him.”

 “Okay, fine,” I said exasperatedly.  “I was going to the mountains.”

 “Why?”

 “I needed to get away from everything.”

“Is this because of Father?”

“Well…partially.”

“Come on, Merry.  I don’t want to have to drag it out of you.  What was the other part?”

I told him my feelings about being immortal, how angry I was at Father, and how embarrassed I was that he had seen Lord Fitch’s hold over me.  When , a servant prepared the bed in the next room for me to sleep in.  As before, I stayed awake all night.  Finally, I had enough and went for a walk.  I tried to go outside, but the guard stopped me.  Scars crossed his face.  “Sorry,” he said.  “But no one is allowed off the grounds after dark.”

 “I’m not going off the grounds,” I said.  “I just need some air.”

He gave me a disbelieving look, and I got the feeling I knew him from somewhere.  The torchlight hit his face, and I remembered.  Seven years ago, I gave him the same excuse when Lord Fitch was the lord of the manor.  The scars had not been there before.  I opened my mouth, but no sound came out at first.  “I’m sorry,” I blurted, and fled before he could see tears.  As soon as I entered the hall, I ran smack into someone.  I did not wait to see who it was before I rushed on to my room, sobbing.  I slammed the door behind me once I was in my room, and slid down it.  A knock sounded on it.

 “Go away!” I shouted.

 “Merry?  Are you okay?”  I recognized Caspian’s voice.

 “I’m fine!” I said, hiccupping.

 “Are you sure?”

 “Yes!” I snapped.

 “All right, I’m leavin’,” he said after a pause.

When Joseph became stronger, he joined me at dinner with Caspian and Mabel. I felt the tension in the air and avoided eye contact with Caspian, despite his glances at me every so often.

 “We’re almost finished with Gregory’s affairs,” Mabel said.  “We’ll need to be thinkin’ about the future.”

“Whoever wants to can stay in the manor,” Caspian offered.  “Because I certainly ain’t goin’ to.

I kept my eyes on my plate, but Joseph thanked him.  “I will ask Father what he thinks of the offer,” he said.

A little later Joseph came to see me in my room where I dozed by the fire.  I was startled awake when he sat in the other chair.

 “Merry, are you okay?” he asked carefully.

 “Yes.  Why do you ask?”

 “Caspian is worried about you.  He said a few nights ago—”

 “I’m fine, Joseph.  Caspian is overreacting.”

Joseph did not seem convinced, but he let it go.  “I talked to Father.  He does not want to remain here when all is finished, and neither do I.  Are you staying?”

“This place holds too many bad memories,” I said.  “Where are you going?”

Joseph chose his words carefully.  “I am going to speak with Father concerning your living arrangements.  I am hoping we may all still live together.”

“Joseph, he disowned me.  No way is he gonna agree to that!”

“I know.  But the alternative is leaving my sick father on his own, or leaving my sister to fend for herself.  Do you see my problem?”

I rubbed my temples.  “If I had just done what I was meant to do in the first place, none of this would’ve happened,” I murmured.

 “Stop it!” Joseph snapped.  “If you had done what you were supposed to do, you would be dead!  I don’t think that’s any better!”

I stood.  “Joseph, you and Father were tortured for seven years while I was safe at sea!  That guard I got past the night I left—Fitch tortured him!  If I’d done what I was told, it would be only me who had to suffer.”

 “You didn’t hurt us. Fitch did,” Joseph said.  “Fitch is the bad guy here, not you.”

I slumped into my chair.  “If he’d killed me then, he wouldn’t have made me immortal.”

 “If he had killed you, he would still be making others suffer.”

At dinner a few nights later, Mabel asked if we had decided where we would go once we left the mansion.

“Have you talked to Father yet?” I asked Joseph.

He looked down at his plate.  “Yeah, um…he said…no.” Joseph stammered.

He was trying to be discreet in front of the others, but I knew what he meant.  Father refused to let me stay with them.

 “Joseph is gonna stay with Father,” I said.

Joseph looked at me.  “Wait—what?  I never said that!”

 “Joseph, I can take care of myself.  Father can’t.”

 “But—”

 “Do you really want to do this right now?” I growled at him.

 “What about you?” Mabel asked me.

 “I’ll find something,” I answered.  “I’ve done it before.”

After dinner Joseph pulled me aside.  “I can’t let you go off on your own again,” he said.

 “What’s the alternative?  You know you can’t leave Father—he’ll die within a week.  I’ve gotten used to bein’ on my own anyway, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it.  I can come visit you every so often if it’d make you feel better.”

 “I could tell Father that he lets you stay with us, or I’ll leave.”

I shook my head.  “You know Father.  He’d rather die than give in.  I swear, Joseph.  I’ll be fine.”

Joseph lowered his head, and I thought I had finally won the argument.  When he looked up, however, I saw the fierce light of determination in his eyes.  “You have been on your own long enough.  If Father does not agree, it is his own fault.”

“If you leave Father, I’ll run away and I won’t be coming back,” I said harshly.  “This is the one thing I can do to make it up to him.  You aren’t taking this from me.”

“Okay.  Fine.  I give up.”

He roughly pulled me into an embrace, and did not let go for a while.

Joseph and I sat in one of the manor’s many parlors playing chess when Caspian found us.

 “I’ve got some money set aside to help you get started again, if you want it,” he said.

 “Father and I will be okay,” Joseph said.  “We are going back home and I’ll work at Father’s old shop, but Merry will take it.”

Caspian furrowed his brows.  “Where’re you going?” he asked me.

 “I’m gonna travel, try to find work,” I said.

 “Oh.”

I captured Joseph’s queen.  Caspian opened his mouth, but it took a moment for any sound to come out.  “I’m goin’ back to my family,” he said.  “Merry, if you need a place to stay…I’m sure my parents wouldn’t mind you stayin’ with us,” he said.

My mouth dropped open, but Joseph brightened.

 “Really?” Joseph asked.

Caspian nodded.  “If she wants to,” he hastened to say.

 “That would be great!” Joseph said.

I kicked him under the table. “Caspian, would you give us a minute?” I said, leaving no room for argument.  He nodded, and left the room.

 “Joseph, what’re you thinking?” I hissed.

 “I’m thinking that this will keep you from being on your own,” he shot back.

I huffed.  “We’ve been through this.”

 “What is wrong with Caspian?  From what I have seen of him, he’s not that bad.”

 “That’s what you thought about Lord Fitch, too,” I said heatedly.

Joseph’s jaw dropped, and I knew I had crossed a line.

 “I’m sorry,” I hurried to say.  “That was cruel.”

 “Unless there is something you know about Caspian that I do not, I think you should go with him,” Joseph said quietly.  “You should not have had to fend for yourself like you did.  It was my job, and Father’s, to take care of you.  Now that I get the chance to make up for it, you won’t let me.  At least let Caspian.”

 “I don’t need to be taken care of,” I said, standing.  “I thought I had proven that.”  I started to leave.

 “Merry, please,” Joseph said.

I whirled around.  “What makes you trust him so much anyway?  It doesn’t make sense—you’ve only just met him.”

 “It is a feeling, I guess.  Merry, I honestly believe that he would never do anything to intentionally hurt you.”

I slowly sat back down.  “What if you’re wrong?” I asked gently.

He looked at me steadily.  “I’m not.”

I caught up to Caspian in the hall some time later.

 “Caspian!” I said.  He turned around and I stopped in front of him.  “What if Lord Fitch calls me again?  I might hurt somebody.”

 “I don’t think you will,” he said.

 “Will your parents be okay with you bringing me?” I asked nervously.

Caspian smiled.  “Sure they will.”

 “Well…if the offer is still open, I’ll take it,” I said awkwardly.

 “Great,” he grinned.

He had a very nice smile.

 “Alright, well…bye,” I said, and hurried away.

A few days later I went on my own to the stables to see Mabel off.

 “Where are you going?” I asked.

 “I’m gonna go see if me brother is still around,” she said, tightening her horse’s straps.

I folded my arms against the chilly wind.  “Are you gonna tell Caspian?”

She looked sharply at me.  “No,” she answered, then changed the subject. “I hear you’re gonna go live with him and his family.”

I made no reply.

“You’re gonna like Mal, his mama.  She’s an angel.”  Mabel mounted her horse.  “Now, you take care of me boy.  You’re all he’s gonna have in a hundred years.”

She kicked her horse and shot out of the stable.

The next day Caspian, Father, Joseph, and I prepared to part ways.  Joseph had arranged for a carriage to carry Father and him home.  Caspian and I packed our few belongings and supplies into the saddlebags.  I bade Joseph goodbye, with Father facing stonily away from us.

“I’ll come by and visit every once in a while,” I told Joseph.

I mounted my horse, and Caspian shook hands with Joseph.

“Be good to her,” Joseph said.

Caspian nodded solemnly.  When he mounted, Joseph raised his hand in a final farewell to me.  Caspian and I rode away.

 

Part Three

 

Chapter fourteen

“Caspian!” a plump, middle-aged woman cried, running across the dirt path to meet her son.

Caspian hopped off his horse and ran to meet her.  They embraced, the woman with happy tears and her son with a joyful smile.  I dismounted my horse, took the reins of both horses, and hobbled over to meet them.  Saddle sores were not fun.

“Oh!  And you’ve brought back a young lady!” she said.  “What’s your name, darlin’?”

She took my hand, wearing a big smile on her face.

“Merry,” I answered.

Before I could say anything else she said, “Oh, I’m so glad Caspian has found somebody—”

“Mother, we’re not gettin’ married. We’re friends and she needs a place to stay,” Caspian explained quickly.

 “Oh!  That’s fine too,” she said with a mischievous smile.  “How long will you staying with us?”

 “Um…indefinitely, so far.  If that’s a problem—”

 “Oh, no!  Not at all!  You seem like a decent , though I haven’t the faintest idea why a pretty girl like you would be wearing men’s clothes…”

She gave me no chance to answer, and continued on happily.  “Caspian, you’re gonna have to tell me all about everything that happened.  I was so worried about you, with all the bad things that happen sea.  Your sisters will be so happy to see you!”  

She turned to lead us into the house, chattering away.  Four girls sat in the one small parlor playing with marbles and drawing.  Upon seeing Caspian, they leaped up and ran to hug him, shouting out everything that happened during his absence.

The second one noticed me first.  “Caspian, you’re gettin’ married?!” she demanded loudly.

This got everyone else’s attention.

“No, I’m not,” Caspian said exasperatedly.  “This is Merry.”

“Oh,” the little girl said, relieved.  “Why is she wearin’ boy’s clothes?”

Caspian’s father and older brother were away on business.  After the girls were all in bed, Caspian and I sat down with Mal, Caspian’s mother to explain what all had happened.  We started with the problem of my fits.  She said it did not matter to her; she was not going to turn me out of her house because of it.

Then, Caspian told her about life on the ship.  Mal knew that Henry, Caspian’s older brother, had gotten into debt with a lord, though not who this lord was.  Caspian did not mention Lord Fitch.  He told her nothing about our immortality, or about the fact that he now knew his father.  When he told her about my curse, he said only that I had gotten on someone’s bad side.

The next evening Caspian’s father and brother returned.  Certain parts of our story had to be repeated to Mr. James Good, Caspian’s father, including my fits.  Mr. Good was intimidating.  Even Caspian held a respectful deference when speaking to him.  However, Mal regarded him with careless affection, so I decided he could not be all that bad.  Henry, Caspian’s older brother, was downright scary.  His face was turned down in a permanent scowl, and he glared at everyone from underneath his heavy brows.  Caspian even warned me to stay out of his way.  They clearly were not friends, but Caspian did not test his brother’s temper.  Despite the scary dispositions of the men, the girls and Mal were the complete opposite.  Mal was like the mother I never had, and an angel, as Mabel had said.  The younger girls insisted on doing my short hair and making me look feminine; after I told them that I had masqueraded as a man for six years, they thought it was necessary to make me pretty.

One evening, after living a few weeks with Caspian’s family, Mal and I heard an unfriendly pounding at the door.  We looked at each other.  The girls were playing down by the river, and the men were away from home.  We were alone.

“What do we do?” I asked.

“Go out back, and stay with the girls until I call you back,” Mal said.

“No way,” I said.  “I’m staying with you.”

The noise at the door became louder, shaking the house.  Mal stopped in front of the door.  “Please, Merry, go.”

I shook my head.  Mal hesitated and then unbolted the door, opening it to four enormous men who stood with anger chiseled into their faces.

“Where’s the son of Lord Gregory Fitch?” the lead one demanded.  He had a purple scar across his forehead.

Mal paled.  “What?”

“You heard what I said.”

“He—he’s not here,” she stammered.

“Then we’ll wait,” he said.

Two of the men grabbed us, and the other two pushed past us into the house.  We did not even have the chance to fight before they roughly bound us and put us together in a corner.  The others emerged from the back rooms.

“He’s not here,” one said.  “But others may be comin’.  There are several rooms back there.”

I closed my eyes and hoped that the girls would stay away.

“Keep watch.  We’ll wait for the devil’s spawn.”

“What do you mean to do with him?” Mal raised her shaky voice.

The scarred one frowned at her.  “Are you his mama?”

She nodded.

“We should kill you, too, just for associating with Fitch,” another one with a tattoo on his hand spat.

“Shut it,” the scarred man said.  “Leave her alone.”

The tattooed one glared at him, and paid no mind to his warning.  “Fitch killed our sister,” he said.  “Said he would take care of her, and when we found out about his ways, he’d already killed her.  We’re doin’ the world a favor by gettin’ rid of his kid.”

“He’s not like his father!” Mal argued.

“Not that you’ve seen,” he sneered.

“Jack!  I said that’s enough!” the scarred man .  “Go check the back door.”

Jack slunk away.  I took a deep breath to address the scarred one.  “Your sister—did Lord Fitch marry her?”  I asked him.  He and Mal looked at me.  “He tried to marry me, but I ran away.  Caspian, the one you’re trying to kill, helped me get out.  I’ve met both of them, and he’s nothing like his father, I swear.”

The scarred man looked away.

“Please!” I said.  “You’ve got to believe me!”

He rose abruptly.  “Do you think this is easy?” he roared.  He paced a moment, and then sat down.  Not another word passed from his lips.

The light began to wane, and still there was no sign of the girls or Caspian.

“You were to marry Lord Fitch?” Mal whispered.  I nodded, and after a moment she spoke again.  “Did you know he was Caspian’s father?”

“We both do,” I said.

“What?” she exclaimed, drawing our guards’ attention.

“No more talkin’,” Jack ordered, brandishing his knife at us.

The evening grew darker, and the brothers lit the lamps so as to not arouse the suspicion of anyone approaching the house.  Anxiety filled me; I knew that they could not kill Caspian, but there were no doubt many who would love to get revenge on Lord Fitch’s son.  If they found out he was immortal…

“He’s comin’,” one of the brothers said.

They rose to put gags in our mouths and then hid around the corner, waiting for Caspian to enter.  The door opened.  Caspian’s face had barely registered our bonds before the brothers attacked.  When they moved away, he lay on the floor, bleeding.  Jack severed the bonds that held my hands, slicing into my wrists in the process, and gave me the knife to free Mal.  They left.  After I cut my ankles free, I moved to Mal.  She did not look away from her son her eyes were glassy with unshed tears. I cut her loose, and she crawled to Caspian’s body in silence. My hands shook, and my voice would not work enough to assure Mal that her son would be okay.  I heard the back door open; the girls had returned.

“No!” I shouted, stumbling to my feet.  “Stay outside!”

The eldest daughter Rose stood in the doorway, staring at me.  “What’s happened?” she said.

“Nothing.” I managed.  “It’ll be alight in a minute, just…keep your sisters outside until we call you, okay?  Please.”

To my relief, she obeyed, and I returned to the parlor.  Caspian still had not risen, and I started to wonder if I was wrong.  Maybe he really was dead for good.  I knelt next to Mal, my breathing coming faster.  Suddenly Caspian gasped and shot up.

“Where are they?” he demanded.

Mal fell back in shock.  I threw myself into his arms and quickly wiped my eyes.  “They’re gone,” I said.

“But—But—” Mal stammered.  “How’re you—Caspian…”

“Where’re the girls?  Are you all okay?” Caspian asked.

I sat back to let Mal embrace him.  I tried to slow my breathing.  “The girls are out back, waiting for us to tell them to come in.  I didn’t think they needed to see…this.”

“You two need to tell me what’s going on!” Mal said.

I looked at Caspian, then back to Mal. “He—We—were forced to drink from the Fountain of Youth,” I said.  “We can’t die.”

Her jaw dropped.  “And you didn’t think tell me this?” she shrieked.

“Mother, I’m sorry, I—”

I heard Rose shout from the door.  “Is everythin’ okay?”

I met her at the door.

“Is that blood?” she asked, looking at my skirt, which was fairly drenched in it.

“There was an accident,” I told her.  “Everyone’s okay, but there’s a lot of blood.  Can you keep the girls out here a little longer?”

Rose swallowed hard and nodded.

“Thank you.”

I went back to the parlor.  “Hey,” I said gently.  “Let’s get this cleaned up so the girls can come back in.”

Mal, still crying, got to her feet.  She found some clean clothes for me to give to Caspian.

“Who were those people?” Caspian asked as I pushed him out of the house.

“Some people who wanted revenge on Lord Fitch,” I answered.  I handed him the clothes and a bar of soap.  I stood on my toes and hugged him.  He seemed surprised, but hugged me back.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” I said.

He gave a short, mirthless chuckle as I let go.

“Your wrists are bleedin’,” Caspian said.  “Did they—”

“Caspian, there’s blood everywhere.  It’s probably yours. I need to get the floor clean so the girls can come in.  You go and get cleaned up.”

After cleaning up the blood, I let the girls come back in.  The same question came out of all of them: “What happened?”

 “Some robbers broke in,” I said vaguely.  “I’m gonna go find your mother.”

I knocked on Mal’s bedroom door.  “Mal?  You okay?”

She opened the door, her eyes red.  “Yeah.  You need to go clean yourself up.  Put that gown in to soak.”

I nodded, and she closed the door.

When I came back from my bath at the river, Caspian and Mal were talking.  Mal was crying again, and Caspian held her hand.

I rose early the next morning to prepare breakfast.  Mal was already up.

 “So you and him…you’re both living forever,” she said.

I nodded.

 “How do you like that?”

 “I don’t,” I said.  “It wasn’t my choice.”

 “Why didn’t you and Caspian tell me about…everythin’?  Lord Fitch, the Fountain of Youth, the fact that you were to marry the monster?” she inquired.

“We didn’t want to worry you,” I said.  “This stuff wasn’t supposed to come back to bite us.”

Chapter fifteen

Mal sent Caspian and I to the market for supplies a few days later.  We walked leisurely through the market, buying what we needed.  By chance I saw a man with Lord Fitch’s tattoo on his neck.  Instinctively, I ducked.

“Merry?  What’re you doin’?” Caspian asked in confusion.

My cheeks burned when I remembered that I no longer needed to fear Lord Fitch capturing me.  I rose, starting to explain, but then trailed off, glancing at the tattooed man.

He followed my gaze.

“Oh.”  He put an arm around my shoulders comfortingly.

I entered the tailor’s shop where I ordered some cloth for Mal.

 “That’ll be a while,” the shopkeeper told me.  “You can wait here while I fill your order, or we can deliver it to your house for extra.”

 “We’ll wait,” I said.

I walked outside where Caspian waited for me.  The conversation of two men standing nearby caught my attention.

“You know that camp o’ gypsies on the far side o’ town?  Well they gotta seer lady what insisted on comin’ here.  Said there’s a young one who needs her help.  Says the kid is immortal?”

I nudged Caspian, but he was already listening.

“Mad ol’ hag,” the other commented.  “Why’d they listen to her?”

“They don’t seem to think she’s mad.  Anyways, they gonna leave tomorrow, I think it is.  They ain’t found the kid yet.”

“I doubt they will.  She sounds crazy to me.”

“Speakin’ o’ crazy, how’s the wife?”

Caspian and I looked at each other.  My heart beat fast.  Could it be she wanted to speak to Caspian and me?

By the time I had picked up the cloth, the men were gone and Caspian and I could talk freely.

“We’ve gotta see if they can help us,” I said.

Caspian did not seem as excited.  “Merry, somebody tracked me down because I’m…” he did not finish the thought.  “This could be another plot for revenge.”

“Sure, but this could also be our only chance.  Besides, they can’t really kill us.”

He nodded.  “Yeah, but not dyin’ hurts pretty bad.”

We argued about different possibilities, but by the time we made it back home we had decided to see if the gypsies could help us.  We told Mal where we were going.  She said nothing to prevent us from making the trip, but she gave both an extra squeeze before we left.

When we arrived at the gypsy camp, fires had been lit to combat the coming darkness. We tied the horses a little way off and continued into the camp on foot.  Laughter, conversation, and music sounded throughout.  A man approached us as we came to the first of the fires.

 “What do you want?” he asked.

 “We heard that your seer is lookin’ for someone,” Caspian said.  “We might be able to help.”

His expression changed from one of mild annoyance, and he became suddenly attentive.

 “Follow me.”

We followed him to a large tent.  He pulled the flap away from the entrance and looked at us expectantly.  We hesitantly entered.  The few candles inside illuminated an ancient woman with braided grey hair.  A cloth band covered her eyes, and she sat alert upon cushions.  I got the impression that she expected us.  She tilted her head when the flap closed.

 “I sent out the call for one immortal, and two have answered,” she said.  “That is just as well.  I have a message for you.”

When she paused I asked, “From who?”

She ignored me.  “There is hope for you to reverse the immortality if you wish it.  Return to the island where you found the fountain, and you will meet the one who can help you.”

“The island was covered by fire,” Caspian spoke.  “How could anyone have survived?”

“I have given you the message I was entrusted with.  I know no more.”

“Who gave you the message?” I inquired.

“I do not know.”

“How are we supposed to get to the island?” I asked.

“I told you, I know no more,” she repeated.

My heart sank.

“Is there a time by which we need to get there?” Caspian asked.

“I know no more,” she said again, sounding irritated.

My heart sank.  We would gain no more information from her.

“Thank you,” I managed.

We left the camp.  We had many obstacles before us, and first on the list was our lack of funds.  We owned no ship of our own, so we would have to hire one.  Almost worse was the fact that we had not the faintest idea where in the great expanse of water the island laid.  Those who knew could be anywhere by now.

 “Maybe it’s a good thing we won’t be able to go anytime soon,” I said.  “Who knows how long it’ll take us to get to the island, even if we find somebody to take us.  Our families could be dead by that time.  Wouldn’t you rather spend time with them than spend their lives trying to find a way to shorten ours?”

Caspian nodded.  “You’ve got a point.”

Chapter sixteen

Many more years passed us by.  Change affected neither Caspian nor me.  Joseph found us after Father’s death Mal offered to let him stay with us.  Understanding the family’s shortness of money, Joseph moved Father’s business closer to the house so that he could help support everyone.  I regretted my father’s death, but I did not cry or mourn him—he made himself dead to me long before his actual death.

“You look no different than you did at the manor,” Joseph told me when we finally got to sit down together.

“Yeah, I’m not sure whether it’s a blessing or a curse.”

“It is a blessing, and don’t you dare say otherwise.  I found a grey hair a few days ago, and I’m not that old.  How have things been here?”

“It’s been great.  The girls and Mal are absolute dreams.  I imagine Mal is like Mother would’ve been.”

“So…I did not make a mistake in having you come here?”

“I never said that,” I said, not wanting to admit defeat.

“Oh, so it was a mistake?” he asked with a sly grin.

“Shut up.”

One morning while folding laundry with Mal by the clothesline, we noticed three horsemen coming in our direction.  Two of them pulled a cart behind them.

“I wonder what they want,” she said tensely.

Since the attempt on Caspian’s life several years before, we had learned to be wary of people coming to the house.  Henry was the only one in the house.  He had a dreadful hangover, so the other men left him at home.  I ran up to the house.

“Henry, wake up!” I said, shaking his shoulder.

He snorted, but made no movement.  After trying a few more times, I gave up.  Running back outside, I made it to Mal’s side just as the men drew to a stop in front of her.

 “Where’s Henry?” Mal whispered.

 “I couldn’t wake him up, and I couldn’t find his sword,” I said.

Mal raised her voice.  “What do you want?” she asked the men coldly.

 “Are you Mallory Good?” the man in front inquired.

 “Yes,” Mal answered carefully.

 “Mabel Hillsong has recently died and she has left her wealth to her son.  She said I might entrust it to you.”

Mal’s eyebrows shot up.  “Um—okay.”

 “Where shall I have my men put this?” he asked, gesturing at the two chests in the cart.

 “Inside.  Thank you.”

They hauled the chests inside and then returned to us.

 “There is also a message.  Shall I read it?” he offered.

Mal nodded, and the letter went as follows:

Dear Mal,

I write to thank you for raising my son.  I did not spend as much time with him as I would have liked, but I spent enough time with him to know that you did a fantastic job raising him.  He is a caring young man, and I am sure you are proud of him.  I know I am.

I am dying now—of bitterness, I suppose.  I will not make this a lengthy letter, but if there is one person I will impart my final thoughts to, it has to be you.  I wonder if I was right in pursuing the life I did.  Should I have stayed with Caspian and raised him?  It was not I, in the end, that brought about Gregory’s downfall, so it seems like my life was all for nothing.  I will leave it up to you to tell Caspian who his birth mother is, if you want to.  But you are his real mother.  You were the one who raised him, who was there for him.

I have money set aside for you in the trunks, and the rest for Caspian.  It is the money I received after my brother’s death.  I never used it, so it is for you to do whatever you like.

Regards,

Mabel

 

Mal wiped tears from her face and accepted the letter from the messenger’s hand.  The visitors bowed respectfully and departed.  We went back to the laundry.

It was then that I finally realized what the rhyme on the fountain meant.  Mabel—though she had not drunk from the Fountain—had done things she regretted and those ‘sins’ made her pay, in the end.  She did not get to watch Caspian grow up, and she wished she had done things differently.  I imagined the price was worse for those who could not die.

 “How did you end up with Caspian?” I asked.  “How did Mabel find you?”

 “You know Mabel?” she asked with a pained expression.

 “Well—I met her.  Caspian doesn’t know who she is, though.”

 “She was running away from Lord Fitch,” Mal said quietly.  “It was a cold winter that year, and we heard a sound at the front door.  When James opened the door she was lying on our doorstep.  Her lips were blue, and she was round with child, so we took her in.  She was sick with a fever and went into labor two days later.”  She paused her work to smile a little.  “He was the smallest baby I’d ever seen.  He had those big blue eyes.  All my children had brown.  Anyway, when she regained her strength, she told us her story, how she’d been married to Lord Fitch and found out how he murdered his wives.  She’d been walking for five days before she found us.  You can imagine my surprise when she told me she wanted to bring him down.  There she was, a girl of seventeen.”  She laughed a little.  “I tried to tell her she couldn’t do that, but she was set on killing her husband.  Finally I told her that she couldn’t take a child with her to kill a man.  She got real quiet.  I thought I’d gotten through to her, but she told me this was something she felt she had to do.  She asked me if I could keep Caspian, and I said yes.  James and I knew that this was a suicide mission, but we couldn’t stop her.  The best we could do was care for her child.  She came back once, when Caspian was three, but we never saw her again.”

Mal and I completed our chore in silence.  I could not imagine leaving my child with strangers, even if I knew that what I was doing was right.

“How about we go see what’s in those chests?” I asked.

After closing the door we opened the trunks.  Gold and silver coins filled them to the brim.  As promised, a portion was set aside for Mal and Mr. Good.  Mal got up to sit on a chair. “What do I tell him?” she asked.  I knew she referred to Caspian.

I sat back on my heels and looked at her.  “I would tell him,” I said.  “There’s no reason not to, now that Mabel’s left the door open.  But if you don’t want to, I can understand that.”

The door opened, and Mr. Good entered.  He kissed his wife.

“What’s all this?” he asked gesturing at the trunks.

“Caspian’s inheritance from Mabel,” Mal responded.

Mr. Good appeared surprised.  “Really?”

She nodded.  He shrugged, and then headed out the back door.  One of the girls, Helen, pushed past him.

“Mama, Lydia’s stuck in the tree again and she wants you,” Helen said.

Caspian came in through the front door at that moment.  “What’re those doin’ here?” he asked, shocked.  Mal looked desperately at me.  “I’ve gotta go help Lydia.  Merry, will you…” she looked pointedly at Caspian, and then left with her daughter, leaving us on our own.  Caspian looked at me expectantly.

 “It’s your, um, inheritance,” I said slowly.

He raised an eyebrow.  “I don’t have a—”

 “It’s from your birth mother,” I interrupted.

 “My what now?” he asked in surprise.  “Mother said she die—”

 “Some people came by to deliver it just a little while ago,” I interupted.

Caspian searched at my face.  “Merry, what are you not tellin’ me?”

 “Your mother was supposed to tell you, and now she’s gone and left me to do it,” I said, frustrated.

 “Tell me what?”

 “Mabel’s your birth mother,” I blurted.

Momentarily stunned by the news, he just stood there.

“Anythin’ else you haven’t told me?” he demanded.

“Nope, I don’t think so.”

He ran a hand through his hair.  “How long have you known?”

“Since the ship.  She didn’t want me to tell you,” I defended myself.

“So…she told you but not me?  Why?” he asked.

“I asked.”

“You…asked?”

“I had a hunch,” I said.

He nodded, and I was glad when he said no more.

“We’ve got money enough to hire a ship now,” Caspian told me later as he helped me with the dishes.

“But there’s the problem of how to get there,” I countered.  “Neither of us knows the way, and those who do know are scattered about the country by now.  There’s also the question of whether they would help, even if we found them.”

Caspian pursed his lips.  “Do we know the general area in which any of them lived?  I think someone said they lived near Wind Haven.”

I thought hard and handed him a plate.  “Drake lived near Blue River.  There was another one in Kingstown, but those are both big places and a long way away.  I don’t think we want to spend that much time away from our families.  We might have all the time in the world, but they don’t.  I wouldn’t mind being immortal for a few more years if it means I get to stay with Joseph a little longer.”

“I agree,” Caspian said.  “But remember that the longer we take to find the navigators, the more likely that they’ll be dead before we can get to them.”

I bit my lip.  “It’s worth it,” I said finally.

“Okay, then. We’re stayin’.”

Chapter seventeen

The years passed. Caspian’s sisters married and moved away.  Joseph eventually married Rose, the eldest of Caspian’s four sisters. I knew that there was more they wanted in life than sticking around with me, and I finally convinced him that they should go start new life.  It had become a sort of unspoken agreement between Caspian and I that we would stick together, at least until we could find the island once more.  A while after Joseph and Rose’s wedding Caspian worked up the nerve to ask me, and finally we got married.  Nobody was surprised—apparently they had been expecting it. Caspian and I took care of his parents when they grew old and were unable to do so themselves.  This period was hard for Caspian, and for me as well, for I had grown close to Mal.

Our time with Caspian’s parents ultimately came to an end.  We buried Mal and Mr. Good on the hillside by the house, and before long, Henry claimed his inheritance and kicked us out. Thus, Caspian and I began our journey.

We searched for the crewmembers of Lord Fitch’s ship.  We started in Hangman’s Harbor, and found two of them, both in taverns. They knew nothing about navigation, nor where any of the navigators resided.  We visited Blue River and Kingstown and found a few other sailors.  They were understandably not anxious to begin another long journey, especially with the son of the man who imprisoned them.  They did, however, tell us where we might find other crewmembers.  Off we went, across the kingdom once more, but we were not successful in finding the people we needed.

“It’s been twenty years,” I said over the dull roar in the crowded inn where we waited for our meal.

 “What do you mean?” Caspian asked.

 “It’s been twenty years since we got back from the fountain,” I told him.

He sat back.  “I feel old.”

I smiled wryly.  “You’re only, what, forty?  That’s not old.”

 “Older than we look,” he countered.  “You still look the same as you did then.”

 “That’s a good thing, I hope.”

Caspian nodded with a smile.  “You’re beautiful.”

 “Father used to say I would grow up to look like my mother,” I said, thinking back to the first time I met Lord Fitch, when everything began.

 “I never saw your mother,” he said.

 “I don’t remember her, but we did have a portrait.”

I tried to remember how life was back then, but I found it difficult after so much time.  A sudden thought hit me.  “Tom!” I exclaimed.

Caspian jumped.  “What?”

 “Tom knows navigation, and he’s immortal!  He’ll still be alive!”

 “Tom is immortal?”

 “Yeah, he took the water when we first found it.”

 “Wait—” Caspian said abruptly.  “The seer was lookin’ for one immortal person.  Could she have been lookin’ for Tom and not us?”

 “If that’s true he could still be in Hangman’s Harbor!”

We returned to Hangman’s Harbor.  After searching all the taverns in town we finally found Tom.

 “Is that him?” Caspian asked doubtfully.

I grimaced.  “Yeah, I think so.”

We stared at a drunkard who had just fallen face first into the gutter.  Some village boys rummaged through his pockets, but the sailor did not stir.

“Do you think we can trust him to get us to the right place?” Caspian asked.

“He’s our best bet.  Unfortunately”

After standing there a moment longer, we carried him out of the street and into an inn.

For a while, Tom was too drunk to say anything coherent, much less comprehend anything we had to say.  After a time though, he was sober enough to understand our proposition.

“You’re kiddin’ right?  You’re listenin’ to a crazy ole woman says she want us to go back to the godforsaken island where all this started?  You’re Fitch’s son!  Why would I help you?”

“Because…” I trailed off.

“We’ll pay you,” Caspian said.

The offer of money got Tom’s attention.  “How much?” he asked.

“We’ll give you five hundred silver coins to begin with, and then five hundred gold coins on our return; however, this is on the condition of your silence.  You tell no one of our journey before or after it.”

“When do we leave?”

We hired a ship and departed within the week.  We kept Caspian’s identity secret from the crew.  Out only concern was how well Tom could keep his mouth shut.  Though we did not know if any of the crewmembers held a grudge against the name ‘Fitch,’ we knew the safest option would be to make sure they did not find out.

“I wonder what will happen when the immortality is taken away?” I asked.

Caspian and I were in our cabin preparing for bed when the thought came to me.  Caspian shrugged, and I continued.  “Do we die immediately, or become as old as we really are, or continue our lives from where we left off?”

 “I hadn’t thought of it.  I really have no idea what’ll happen.”

 “It would probably have helped if we had at least considered these possibilities before we set out,” I said wryly.

We got into bed and blew out the candle.

 “Was it hard to hide on the ship all those years?” Caspian asked.

 “What brought on that question?”

 “I was just wonderin’…since we’re on a ship again and all.”

 “I had Cook helping me but, yeah, it was hard.  I ain’t going into detail about what made it hard, but it was a good thing that nearly everyone ignored me.  I didn’t have to worry about slipping up so much.”

 “How did you—you’re gonna get angry at me—but how did you chop wood and do all the things the men did?”

 “I needed to fit in, and after a while it wasn’t so hard.”  I paused.  “I wanted my father to see me, so I could shove it in his face.  He always said that women couldn’t do a man’s work—which is precisely what I was doing and nobody even knew!”

Leaning on the edge of the ship, I watched the clouds drift lazily by.  I heard a whisper in my head tried to ignore it, but it became more insistent. Lord Fitch had not called to me in several years, and I had hoped that he was finished with me.  Apparently, I was wrong.

“Caspian,” I said, needing him before the voice attacked with all its might.  “Caspian!”

The shooting pain went through my head, and I slammed into the deck.  The outside world stayed quiet.  I heard only Lord Fitch’s call: Come to me.

Merry Fitch, he emphasized the last name. It has been a long time, but you are returning to me at last.

“No!” I screamed.  “No!  I’m not!”

You were always mine.

“Please, no,” I whimpered.

You escaped me once, but you shall not do so again.  You will lie here in misery along with me.

“You were buried in the fire.  You can’t do anything.”

That is where you are wrong.

“Merry? Merry, can you hear me?”  It was Caspian.

Until we meet again, Merry Fitch.

Lord Fitch released me from the spell.  I slowly uncurled.

“Merry?” I heard Caspian clearly.

He knelt next to me, ready to stop me if I tried to flee.

“He—he let me go,” I said breathlessly.

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

Caspian looked grim.

He helped me up and took me to our cabin, where I told him what Lord Fitch said.

“Should we turn back?” he asked.

“We didn’t come this far just to turn around,” I said.  “Plus, there’s Tom to think about.  He won’t take it lightly if we go back on our deal.”

 “Yeah, but it’s your life we’re talkin’ about.”

 “I know, I know, but we can’t run away from him when we’ve gotten so close.”

Caspian tried to dissuade me.  “Do you even want to get rid of the immortality anymore?  You know, the longer I think about it, the more appealing sounds.”

 “What happened to you wanting to get rid of it as fast as possible?”

 “Well, an eternity with you doesn’t sound so bad.”

I laughed, but when he didn’t, I “Wait—you’re serious?”

“About the eternity with you, yeah.  I kinda signed up for that when I married you, didn’t I?”

All was calm when we set anchor in the open waters away from the now barren, rocky island.  Caspian, Tom, two sailors, and I got into a rowboat and paddled to the island.  As we drew closer, I noticed a tall woman in green, flowing robes standing on a stony rise, watching our progress.  The sailors and Caspian pulled the rowboat to shore.  Caspian told the two sailors to wait for us while we went up to meet the mysterious woman.  The seemingly solid ground crumbled, turning to sand beneath our feet as we walked.  Finally, we came to stand in front of the woman.

“Greetings,” she told us regally.  “You have come to reverse the effects my fountain.  I have for you some water from the fountain.  It will reverse your immortality, which will give you the ability to die.”

She offered a large shell filled with water.

“What happens when we drink it?” Caspian asked.

The woman answered, “Your life will go on as if you had never consumed the fountain’s water.  If the water has prevented you from dying, your mortality will cause you to perish immediately.”

Caspian and I looked at each other.  Our immortality had saved both of our lives.  If we drank the water, we would die.

“What does that mean?” Tom piped in.  “‘Your life will go on.’ Will I look and feel like I’m fifty, or what?”

“You will continue where you stopped aging,” she answered.

Tom snatched the water from her and took a gulp.  He staggered, but remained standing.  The woman looked briefly at me and then at Caspian. “I will leave this for you to make your decision.”

She placed the shell with the remaining water on the ground, then turned and walked up the hill.  She disappeared.

 “If we drink it, we’ll die now,” Caspian stated what we both realized.

 “After a few hundred years we might become tired,” I said.  “We may regret not taking it.”

 “But we haven’t done anythin’ or seen anythin’ yet.  We haven’t even lived a full lifetime.”

 “Giving the immortality up would be hard, even if we didn’t have to die immediately,” I mused.

Lord Fitch’s voice entered my head.  Merry, you are here at last.  I cannot wait to see you.

 “Caspian!” I cried in a panic.  “He’s calling me.”

Caspian grabbed my arm.  “Tom!  Help me get her to the boat!”

 “Why?” he asked.

 “Just help me!” Caspian snapped.

I managed to hold the voice at bay long enough for them to get me to the boat, but after that, I lost control. I know I ran up the island, following the voice.  I heard Caspian chasing me.  I stopped above a gaping hole, the place from which Lord Fitch called.  This pause, no more than a second, was long enough for Caspian to tackle me.  The force of being taken to the ground knocked me out of the trance—I realized that the hole was what was left of the fountain and was where Lord Fitch now dwelt.  I fought with Caspian, but he somehow kept me from throwing myself into the abyss.  I looked up suddenly to see the lady in green standing above me.  I recoiled as she reached for me. She touched my head, and everything went black.

Chapter eighteen

I awoke in the sand.  Something felt…missing.  I rolled over to find Caspian sitting anxiously next to me.

“What happened?” I asked.

Caspian started, and smiled at me.  “You’re awake!”  He smoothed my hair out of my face.

“What happened?” I repeated.  “The lady in green appeared, but I don’t remember anything else.”

“She touched your forehead and you passed out.  I thought she’d killed you, but she said you were just sleepin’.  After that she said some gibberish into the hole, and you started shakin’ real hard.  She said Lord Fitch wouldn’t bother you anymore.”

I furrowed my brows.  “Why’d she help me?”

He shrugged.  “I don’t know, but I’m glad she did.”

Finally, I realized what I missed.  “Caspian, I can’t hear the voice!”

He looked at me quizzically, not understanding my excitement.

“It was always there in the back of my mind, where I could just barely hear it, but it’s gone now!”

Caspian grinned and gave me a hug.  When he sat back he said, “That woman is still here.  She says this is our last chance to take the water.  I wanted to wait for you before I made a decision.”

“What do you want to do?” I asked guardedly.

He shrugged.  “I don’t know.  It…doesn’t seem so awful now that we don’t have to worry about Fitch.  We haven’t even lived a whole lifetime.”

“You want to leave without taking it?” I asked.

“Merry, she said we’d die if we took it,” he said quietly.  “It’s up to you, though.”

I fell silent.  “I want to talk to her.”

Caspian nodded, and he helped me up so that we could go meet her.

“Have you made your decision?” the woman asked.

“I just wanted to know,” I began.  “Is this the last chance we’ll have?”

“The island is sinking,” she said.  “By nightfall it will be no more.  So yes, this is your last chance.”

Caspian and I looked at each other.  “Excuse us,” I said meekly. This was the second time we.  I did not want to bring her wrath down on us.

“So, are you okay with immortality?” Caspian asked.

I looked off at the open sea.  “I never imagined I’d say this, but yeah, I am.”

“We’ve gotta be sure,” Caspian said.

I hesitated.  “What do you want to do?”

“I want to stay,” he said.  “This can’t be the only magic in the world, perhaps someday we can find another way, if we must.

“I do too.”

“Are we ready?” he asked, stretching his hand out to me.

I smiled, taking it.

We did do everything we wanted to do—and so much more.  After making it back to land, we traveled the world.  We saw mountains and beaches.  We watched cities crumble, and we observed as new ones were built.  We were there at the death of kingdoms and at the birth of new empires.  We listened to stories, and we made our own.

This is my story, but it is not over.  It has only just begun.

 

###


Merry

Merry is a young girl whose father decides that it is time for her to grow up and get married- to the richest man in the kingdom. Why such a man as Lord Gregory Fitch would agree to marry someone of her stature is beyond her, but she thinks little of it until she arrives at his manor just before the wedding is to take place. Upon coming across a horrible scene in her future husband's home, she decides to run away. Cutting her hair and donning the clothes of a boy, Merry passes herself off as a boy on a ship where all the occupants are searching for the Fountain of Youth at the direction of a malevolent benefactor. Can she keep her identity hidden from the man who searches for her? Or even more difficult, the men she lives with? And what will happen if they do find the Fountain of Youth?

  • ISBN: 9781370639519
  • Author: seranfyll
  • Published: 2017-03-07 05:35:11
  • Words: 30272
Merry Merry