PART ONE ~ KERISAN
He was on point when the warning came, two sharp whistles from a few yards behind. Kerisan twisted and peered over his shoulder. The others had stopped dead in the water. Richos extended his arm, his index finger dipped towards the rippling surface. The sun’s glare made a fiery blanket of the sea, and Kerisan had to squint to keep his eyes from being scorched. He nodded, then sucked in a breath and lowered himself fully into the warm water.
Immediately he saw it. Their footsteps had disturbed a seven-foot long, blood-red panther eel, which had shrugged out from beneath the sand and was suspended behind the fisher’s legs. The thing looked like an enormous bulging arm, with a bony, swollen head in place of a fist. Its scales, tough enough to effortlessly brush away their spears, shone in the flickering ocean light. Richos held still as trained, but the creature stroked his toned muscles as if daring him to move and Kerisan saw the boy’s toes curl and spark up a miniature cloud of sand. The eel curled up, its jaws twitching. Cruel poison-tipped teeth emerged, black and serrated.
How did I miss it?
“Panther eel,” Kerisan gasped as he broke the surface, spitting the salt from his lips. Pon and Fenn were yards to Richos’ left and right. They immediately started towards the eel, but Kerisan waved them back. If the beast knew it was surrounded, desperation and survival instinct would kick in. He had to draw the creature away.
His foot twitched, then stomped over and over into the warm sand. The movement had an instant effect. When he sunk back under, a crimson bulk filled his vision as the eel streaked towards him. Kerisan bent his elbows and dragged one leg back, his toes buried in the sand.
The thing was so quick, so unnatural in the way it sliced through the water, but it closed the gap in a predictable line. The beast’s mouth gaped, those deadly teeth framing a gaping black gullet. Kerisan tensed and spread his fingers, and when the eel was almost on him he slammed his palms together and felt the beast’s solid scales pressed beneath his fingers.
His entire body jerked and his legs thrashed through swirling froth as the eel drove him backwards. Muscular jaws snapped before him through the white sheet of foam. His arms whipped from side to side as the monster writhed, but his feet found the bed again and he dug his heels into the sand. Bubbles burst from between his lips, his chest taut and full of fire. His biceps ached, wrenched by the endless thrashing of the eel. The current threw him one way as the beast dragged him another, and that gaping maw edged closer. His knife was cold at his hip.
End it, quick!
With a silent roar, Kerisan squeezed his arms together until his muscles were ripe to burst. The thrashing intensified and he timed his move perfectly, whipping the bulging head to the side and wrapping his forearm across the creature’s throat and crushing it to his chest. He could feel its heartbeat against his flesh, fierce and frantic. The tail whipped past his leg, scales scouring his skin. When he was sure his arm had the beast, he slipped his other hand to the hilt of his knife and pulled it free, and the slate blade sliced through the froth and found the eel’s eye. He pushed against the frenzied thrashing as bright spots burst across his vision. The creature bucked once, twice, then finally fell limp in his grasp.
He burst from the sea and glorious air crashed into his lungs. Immediately the pain was gone. Someone prised the dead beast from his hands, while another patted him on the back. Voices surrounded him, but all he could hear was the ocean’s roar and his own blood as it pulsed through his ears.
Too close…far too close…
Back on land, the scrouts crouched in a circle around the dead eel and took it in turns to prod it with a stick. Each time they did, they would turn and run, screaming, as if the thing had sprung back to life and was ready to sink its jaws into them. Kerisan watched them while his strength returned. The sand was hot against his legs and back, coating his body like a second skin, but he was numb to the heat as he ran his fingers through the fine grains.
Someone was headed this way, a blur at the edge of his vision. He could already tell it was Eva before her shadow crossed his bare chest.
“Are you hurt?” Her hand gripped his shoulder and he smothered it with his own, his neck twisted so he could focus on her bronzed face.
“Panther eel caught us by surprise. It was my fault, I missed the damned thing as we headed out.” Her skin was smooth. He traced his thumb over her palm and she squeezed it tight.
“I heard you wrestled that thing! It has to be bigger than you by a foot or more!”
“We were lucky no one got hurt. I just don’t know how it happened.” He sighed and stared out to the horizon, the distant clouds skimming over the sea as if they were dancing on its surface. “We need to make our way out again, I’ve cost us too much time already.”
“Sure you’re up for it?”
“Course. Just needed to breathe, that’s all.” He rolled onto his side and heaved himself up, then took her in his arms. Her deep green eyes sparkled beneath long black lashes.
“I can still come out with you tomorrow, right? This hasn’t changed anything?”
“I don’t know,” Kerisan said, his head suddenly heavy. A hazy image came to him. Eva waist-deep in the water, the bloodstained eel wrapped around her leg, its teeth bared and ready to delve into her firm belly.
“But you know I’m ready,” Eva said, her face drooping. Her fingers worked their way over his chest, then latched on to his shoulders. “I’ve trained for as long as Richos or any of the others.”
“I know, but what happened today…”
“Was a freak occurrence, and I wouldn’t feel safer with anyone else out there on point.” She smiled and slapped his cheek, just sharp enough to sting. He recoiled as if she’d punched him and staggered backwards.
“Ooh, ahh, my jaw! You knocked it out of joint!” He dropped to his knees and masked his grin with his hands. Eva strode over and pulled his head into her belly.
“Poor baby, let me nurse you better.” Instead, she dug an elbow into his shoulder and kneed him back onto the sand. Kerisan stared up at her, a glorious shape drowned out by the sun, and for a moment the eel slipped from his thoughts.
“If something happened to you, I’d have to kill myself,” he said. “I’d take my own knife and bury it in my heart, or throw myself into the sea and swim until my body gave out and I sank down.”
“Oh, don’t be so depressing. You know you wouldn’t do either. But you’d better be upset, or I’d make you regret it.” She bent down and pressed her lips to his, washing the salt taste away. He ran his fingers through her hair and kissed her back, until she pulled away and dark shadows filled his vision. He was surrounded by the three fishers, their eyes cast down at him.
“Gonna lie around all afternoon?” Fenn asked, his shaggy hair tossed back over his shoulders. “Fights with one little fish and he’s done for the day.” Pon, the eldest fisher, ground her knuckle into Fenn’s side and pushed him back.
“Time to rise.” She offered Kerisan a hand and he was hauled to his feet. “Do you want me to take point this time?”
“I’ll manage,” Kerisan said, his voice firm. Pon raised an eyebrow.
“Manage isn’t what we need. Can you do it?”
“I can do it.” He met their gaze, one by one, and wished he could read their thoughts. But then, how could he ever fish with them if he knew their true feelings - knew whether they doubted him?
“Aye, but be sure to drink some water first,” Richos said, his lips stretched thin. “Case we need your bladder again.”
Fenn shook with laughter and even Pon found a rare smile, but Kerisan saw an uncertain hesitation in Richos’ rich brown eyes. Then the boy’s gaze flickered over Kerisan’s shoulder. He turned to catch a form tearing across the beach towards them, and he pressed his palm to his brow to block out the sun. The figure was Wax, one of the gatherers. The young boy’s fists pumped awkwardly at his sides as he jerked his way over the sand.
“Quick, come,” Wax yelled when he was close enough, his voice hoarse as if he’d run the length of the land. The fishers gathered in a line.
“What is it?” Kerisan asked as the boy struggled to a halt, his silver hair whipping across the fisher’s navel. “Hohh, careful, what’s got you in such a rush?”
“Sammus. Got to come help.” Wax doubled over and grabbed his knees, his chest trembling. “Sammus climbed up the cliff by the waterfall…see if he could make it. He made it to the top…but then he disappeared. We waited for him to come back, but then we heard him screaming! He was calling our names, he sounded terrified, really scared! We came straight back for help, I swear!” Wax straightened, his hand pressed to his gut, his terrified face half hidden behind a mess of hair. Kerisan frowned and nodded to the others.
“Grab your knives and meet me at the trail.” They murmured acknowledgement and ran to their homes, a row of wooden huts that filled the space between the dunes and the trees.
“Do you need some help?” Eva asked, her hand rested on the hilt of her dagger which poked free of her shawl. Kerisan shook his head.
“Four of us is plenty. Boy probably came up against some pigs. I reckon we’ll find him hiding up a tree when we get there.”
Yet as he took the beach in powerful strides, something in his gut told him he was wrong.