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 hadn’t seemed like a monster. Just a scared boy who didn’t want to die and who was stronger than his weedy frame suggested. And they shouldn’t have tried to force him into the water, anyway. That was a heart law, and The Core wouldn’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. She’d heard of the Dark Rider – everyone had. If the stories she’d heard were true, he really was a monster.
“Greetings, good merfolk,” he said.
Mela’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. “Nice song, ladies, but it won’t work on me. Now please, give me the Seeker’s Pendant. I’d hate to have to hurt you.”
“The what?” Mela’s mother asked. “I’m afraid I’ve no idea what you’re looking for, human.”
She made a surreptitious gesture with her head and Mela saw her father and the rest of the clan’s adult males slip from the pool. It should have been beyond the human’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.
“You know exactly what I mean, Madam Songstress. Hand it over or pay the price.”
She shook her head. “You cannot defeat us, Rider. We will never bow to the will of humans.” Then in a clear voice she added, “Now!”
The clan’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.
“You aren’t entirely wrong, Madam Songstress.”
Rider and unicorn wheeled as one. His spear took the closest merman through the chest while his mount’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.
“But you’re wrong about me not being able to defeat you.” He looked down at the screaming merman for a moment then silenced him with a single sharp blow. “Such a pity. Your clan could have all walked – swam – away from this.” His spear whipped out and shattered the heart gem of the youngest songstress before dropping and spearing her through the heart. “Give me what I want and I’ll let the rest of you live.”
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.
“We will never give it to you. Not even if you kill us all. You couldn’t use it even if we did, human.”
“That’s true. I suppose I’ll need to keep one of you to use it. Don’t imagine I won’t force you if I have to.” He looked Mela’s mother directly in the eyes as he speared the second songstress – Mela’s favourite aunt Lori – in the shoulder and lifted her out of the water on his spear before knocking the clan’s final warrior – Mela’s older brother – flying with the butt. He smashed into a rock and sank beneath the water, but at least he wasn’t dead. Not yet anyway. Mela had a horrible feeling that wouldn’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.
“Rider.” 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.
“Go back to your grotto, foolish girl,” he said softly, for her ears alone. “I’ve no desire to hurt you.”
“I…” she said, “I…” Words failed her, so she held up the pendant instead and heard him gasp. “Spare my family, please.”
“Mela, no!” her mother screamed. “You stupid girl!”
“Spare them, and I’ll come with you. My aunt can’t help you.” 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. “She can’t use it. I can.”
The Rider lifted her chin with the tip of his spear and studied her eyes.
“Is that true, Eb?” he said after a long moment.
The unicorn nickered softly and turned her eyes on Mela. “She’s telling the truth.”
“I thought so. You’re brave, child. What’s your name?” 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.
“M-Mela,” she said. “Please spare my family.”
“I have no reason to kill them now,” he replied. “And I keep my promises. Now ask that treasure to find the Ice Heart Bracelet for me.” He bent over and whispered something to his heart friend she couldn’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.
“No!” She heard her mother shriek and begin the merfolk’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 Mela’s completely spent mother as she panted on the shore.
“That was extremely foolish, Madam Songstress,” he said. “If I hadn’t promised Mela I’d let you live, I’d be tempted to shatter your heart gem and leave you to die. You deserve it for trying to kill your own child.”
“That treacherous bitch is no child of mine,” Mela’s mother said. Mela felt rather than saw the Rider’s hand tense on the haft of his spear and looked up at him.
“Please don’t,” she said. “She may hate me, but she’s my mother and I love her.”
The Dark Rider looked down at her, and his hand relaxed slowly.
“She saved your life again, Madam Songstress. Consider that before you call her a traitor.”
He wheeled his mount away from the pool and they took off into the darkness.