The First of the Mermaids: Part I
Leara Schlinn sat cross-legged in front of her older sister, Nim. They were only two years apart in age and as they grew older, they looked more and more alike. The Schlinn lineage was as ancient as the moons themselves, and it was perhaps from the moonlight itself that their look was inspired.
In a land where most were tanned a deep brown from the constant sun, the girls were favored with pale, nearly translucent skin. Both of them had large blue eyes, and the same straight, white hair. Nim was currently brushing Leara’s hair, and she wasn’t being all that gentle about her strokes.
“Ow,” Leara complained, “Could you try not to rip my scalp open with that thing?”
“You complain too much,” Nim said. “You’ll get wrinkles before you’re even truly an adult.”
Leara’s eyes narrowed a little but she didn’t contradict her sister. It was true that she’d only been of marrying age for two years, but that fact seemed to pale in comparison to her role in the village. The Schlinn legacy was a long one; if there was a class system for the people of Merdoc, they would be royalty. Since there was none, they were simply the favored ones.
“You need to look good,” Nim said. “Clancy told me that he saw you with tangles in your hair. Tangles, Leara. What will people think of you?”
“It matters little what they think,” Leara said. She didn’t mean any malice by the comment, she just had very little regard for the people of Merdoc. They were a violent people and most didn’t grow to a wise, old age. Most of them died in fist fights gone wrong, or by murder most foul.
“Of course it matters,” Nim said. “The people need to trust you, Leara. You have a responsibility.”
“It isn’t one I asked for,” Leara said. As if on cue, her eyes drifted over to the small, wooden box on Nim’s night table. Inside the box was a finely crafted flute. None of them recognized the material it was made out of, but it produced the most beautiful music any of them had ever heard.
Of course, it wasn’t the music that made the flute famous, or even the strange, glass-like material it was crafted from. The flute was as ageless as the Schlinn legacy and the people who played it were the chosen ones, touched by the Gods themselves. Their mother had played it before her death, and with her last breath, she’d passed the honor down to Leara. Not Nim, people said. No, that would have been too simple. It had to be Leara. It had to be the odd one, the one who didn’t stay to watch the nightly street fights, the one who enjoyed swimming in water too cold for the rest.
It had to be Leara, not Nim. That’s really what it came down to. Everyone had expected Nim to be the chosen one, touched by the Gods. Even Nim had expected it. But it wasn’t their place to argue with their mother’s words. If she said it was to be Leara, it would be Leara.
Never had the flute been passed down without a name.
“But it is your role,” Nim said, “and you will play, Leara. I know that you will. Soon, I think.”
“I don’t know,” Leara said. As usual, when she thought of that flute, her stomach would roll over, and she would feel as though there were butterflies trying to flap their wings and escape her womb. The flute had produced such beautiful notes when her mother had played. They seemed to come from the angels above. Leara didn’t think she’d ever play that well.
No, when she tried to play, the flute would only spit out sour, unkempt notes, messy like herself. When people heard it, they turned their heads away, as if ashamed. She knew what the whisperers said. She knew they didn’t believe in her. That was fine, really. She didn’t believe in herself either.
Nim believed in her, though.
The music from the flute was something from another world. That’s what Nim told her, repeating things they’d learned at their mother’s knee. It was used to soothe the people of Merdoc, used to calm them when their tempers flew. Those touched by the Gods could play it, and the music would float into the people somehow, ending their violent rages.
So far, though, she hadn’t even managed to break up a petty argument. The larger things, the important things, the fights, they were most definitely outside her skill level.
“Perhaps you should play it,” Leara suggested, not for the first time. Nim gave a violent tug on her hair.
“You know that I can’t,” Nim said, “It has to be you. Tradition dictates that, Leara. You can’t argue with your heritage. You should be proud. I would be, if it was me.”
“If it was you, nobody would ever say a cross word to each other,” Leara said. “You’d play it so well that people would simply put down their fists and embrace. You’re so much like mother was. I’m more of my father’s child.”
They didn’t share the same father, but that wasn’t uncommon in Merdoc. There was no marriage or holy unions or anything of the sort. When a man or a woman felt the urge to kindle a child, they simply sought out someone feeling the same way. It was the mother’s responsibility to raise her children. The men of the tribe hunted and provided for all.
“You just need more faith,” Nim said. “You are stubborn, like your father, but you would have been blessed to have more of our mother in you. She always knew what she was doing. Someday, you will too. I trust in that.”
Leara shook her head, and pulled away from her sister’s hand. “I think it’s been brushed enough,” she said.
Nim sniffed, and shrugged a shoulder. She stood, walking past her sister. She set the hairbrush down beside the box. She ran a loving hand over the soft wood, and then looked back to Leara. “You will play,” she said. “Why don’t you try now? See if you can calm my nerves.”
“Why are you stressed?” Leara asked.
“There’s a man I want to see,” Nim said, “but he keeps avoiding me. It rankles me, Leara. Just try, please. If you can calm me, you can calm the rest of them.”
Leara sighed and stood as well. She went to the box and picked up the flute. Her fingers stroked the instrument with a sort of adoration that she couldn’t quite place. Then she lifted it to her mouth and began to play. The only song she knew was said to be about wolves and their pups. She didn’t know the lyrics, but it wasn’t as if she could sing and play at the same time anyway, and nobody ever sang along to the tune of the flute.
After a few minutes, Nim held up a hand, “If anything, that’s making me feel worse,” she said. “You aren’t ready. You have to have a pure heart, Leara. There can be no malice in you.”
“I’m not malicious,” Leara said. “I’m not.”
“I know,” Nim said softly. She put a hand on her sister’s arm. “I know,” she repeated. “But you doubt yourself, and you can’t do that. You must understand the music to play it. You must truly wish to help.”
“I’ll keep trying,” Leara said. She felt tears sparkle just behind her eyes. She didn’t want this responsibility. She would have been happy to spend her life running around the village, swimming in the river, and counting fish and skipping rocks. It was the simple things she enjoyed. Nim was right, though. She couldn’t hide from her heritage.
Nim took the flute from her fingers and set it back in the box. “Let’s go to the village,” she said. “There are supposed to be visitors.”
“There’s a nomadic tribe passing through,” Nim said, “Clancy told me of it, when he told me about your hair. You know, you’re far too pretty to be playing in the mud, and you should brush your hair more. People will—”
“People will talk,” Leara finished. “Tell me more about this nomadic tribe.”
It was rare for Merdoc to get visitors. When they did, it was cause for celebration. Everyone would be gathered in the center of the village, and they’d share what they had with the traveling tribe and the tribe would trade with them, giving them spices they’d been lacking, or sometimes silk cloth.
It was a festive time, but it was also a dangerous time. The wrong word could start a fight, and a fight with visitors usually got out of control fast, turning into a brawl. Leara had seen it happen before. She had no wish to see it again. Still, the idea of visitors gave her the same funny feeling that thinking of the flute gave her. Butterflies, she thought. Butterflies, trying to get out.
“Come,” Nim said, “Let’s go.”