Mela floated on her back and watched her mother swearing. It was just before dawn, and her family was still in a fury about the human boy escaping, but she found herself ambivalent. Sure, the stories made them sound like monsters, but he hadnâ€™t seemed like a monster. Just a scared boy who didnâ€™t want to die and who was stronger than his weedy frame suggested. And they shouldnâ€™t have tried to force him into the water, anyway. That was a heart law, and The Core wouldnâ€™t care that he was human.
The sound of hooves from the rocky path down to the pool shook her out of her reverie. She looked up to see a hooded human astride a black unicorn with glowing red eyes making his way towards them. The sight made her feel colder than when the boy froze the pool. Sheâ€™d heard of the Dark Rider â€“ everyone had. If the stories sheâ€™d heard were true, he really was a monster.
â€œGreetings, good merfolk,â€ he said.
Melaâ€™s mother and the other two songstresses of the clan turn to stare at him. Her mother gasped, then she shook herself and narrowed her eyes. She gathered the other two to her and they wove their most compelling song.
The Rider cocked his head at them and laughed. â€œNice song, ladies, but it wonâ€™t work on me. Now please, give me the Seeker’s Pendant. Iâ€™d hate to have to hurt you.â€
â€œThe what?â€ Melaâ€™s mother asked. â€œIâ€™m afraid Iâ€™ve no idea what youâ€™re looking for, human.â€
She made a surreptitious gesture with her head and Mela saw her father and the rest of the clanâ€™s adult males slip from the pool. It should have been beyond the humanâ€™s sight in the darkness, but the slight tilt of his head and the way he shifted his hand slightly on the haft of his infamous spear told Mela he had.
â€œYou know exactly what I mean, Madam Songstress. Hand it over or pay the price.â€
She shook her head. â€œYou cannot defeat us, Rider. We will never bow to the will of humans.â€ Then in a clear voice she added, â€œNow!â€
The clanâ€™s males, armed with spears and weed nets, burst from the darkness as her mother wove ropes of water to attack him from the front.
â€œYou arenâ€™t entirely wrong, Madam Songstress.â€
Rider and unicorn wheeled as one. His spear took the closest merman through the chest while his mountâ€™s silvery horn shattered the heart gem of another. Both mermen collapsed: the first instantly dead, and the second screaming in the throes of the slow, painful death which accompanied heart gem loss.
â€œBut youâ€™re wrong about me not being able to defeat you.â€ He looked down at the screaming merman for a moment then silenced him with a single sharp blow. â€œSuch a pity. Your clan could have all walked â€“ swam â€“ away from this.â€ His spear whipped out and shattered the heart gem of the youngest songstress before dropping and spearing her through the heart. â€œGive me what I want and Iâ€™ll let the rest of you live.â€
The unicorn slew another merman as he attempted to snare them with his net. She lifted his body on her horn and tossed it into the water.
â€œWe will never give it to you. Not even if you kill us all. You couldnâ€™t use it even if we did, human.â€
â€œThatâ€™s true. I suppose Iâ€™ll need to keep one of you to use it. Donâ€™t imagine I wonâ€™t force you if I have to.â€ He looked Melaâ€™s mother directly in the eyes as he speared the second songstress â€“ Melaâ€™s favourite aunt Lori â€“ in the shoulder and lifted her out of the water on his spear before knocking the clanâ€™s final warrior â€“ Melaâ€™s older brother â€“ flying with the butt. He smashed into a rock and sank beneath the water, but at least he wasnâ€™t dead. Not yet anyway. Mela had a horrible feeling that wouldnâ€™t last. Not unless she did something which would make her mother hate her forever.
She turned and swam down into the grotto which formed their home and grabbed the freshwater pearl necklace he sought. She returned to the surface, formed legs for herself and crawled from the pool.
Her mother was cursing at him as he sent a crackling charge of darkness at her from his hand and demanded the pendant again. Her mother was far too proud. Mela just hoped he would keep his word and not wipe out the rest of them once he had her and it.
She crept up beside him and swallowed the apprehension in her throat. It became terror in her stomach.
â€œRider.â€ She concealed the pendant in her right hand as she tugged lightly on his ankle with her left. His spear darted for her throat and then froze a mere inch away.
â€œGo back to your grotto, foolish girl,â€ he said softly, for her ears alone. â€œIâ€™ve no desire to hurt you.â€
â€œIâ€¦â€ she said, â€œIâ€¦â€ Words failed her, so she held up the pendant instead and heard him gasp. â€œSpare my family, please.â€
â€œMela, no!â€ her mother screamed. â€œYou stupid girl!â€
â€œSpare them, and Iâ€™ll come with you. My aunt canâ€™t help you.â€ She nodded to the second songstress and bowed her head when Lori managed to give her an encouraging smile through her tears, even though she must be in agony. Aunt Lori was nice. â€œShe canâ€˜t use it. I can.â€
The Rider lifted her chin with the tip of his spear and studied her eyes.
â€œIs that true, Eb?â€ he said after a long moment.
The unicorn nickered softly and turned her eyes on Mela. â€œSheâ€™s telling the truth.â€
â€œI thought so. Youâ€˜re brave, child. Whatâ€™s your name?â€ He pulled a blanket from the bags his mount was carrying, leaned over and wrapped it round her before lifting her up in front of him easily.
â€œM-Mela,â€ she said. â€œPlease spare my family.â€
â€œI have no reason to kill them now,â€ he replied. â€œAnd I keep my promises. Now ask that treasure to find the Ice Heart Bracelet for me.â€ He bent over and whispered something to his heart friend she couldnâ€™t hear. The unicorn turned away from the pool as she placed the pendant round her neck and concentrated. It rose from her chest and floated in mid air, pointing in the direction they needed to go.
â€œNo!â€ She heard her mother shriek and begin the merfolkâ€™s most deadly song. Mela braced for the impact of the wave she knew was coming, but it never hit. She looked back and saw the rider holding a wall of dark energy between them and the wave, which broke round it without touching them.
After it was done, he shook his head at Melaâ€™s completely spent mother as she panted on the shore.
â€œThat was extremely foolish, Madam Songstress,â€ he said. â€œIf I hadnâ€™t promised Mela Iâ€™d let you live, Iâ€™d be tempted to shatter your heart gem and leave you to die. You deserve it for trying to kill your own child.â€
â€œThat treacherous bitch is no child of mine,â€ Melaâ€™s mother said. Mela felt rather than saw the Riderâ€™s hand tense on the haft of his spear and looked up at him.
â€œPlease donâ€™t,â€ she said. â€œShe may hate me, but sheâ€™s my mother and I love her.â€
The Dark Rider looked down at her, and his hand relaxed slowly.
â€œShe saved your life again, Madam Songstress. Consider that before you call her a traitor.â€
He wheeled his mount away from the pool and they took off into the darkness.