by Meghan Stigge
Oliver Wellton woke with sand in his mouth and thunder in his head. He blinked his dry eyes and wished he had stopped three cups earlier than he had the night before. Perhaps then he would have woken comfortable and cool on his mat within the acropolis walls rather than hot, on a beach of pebbles, and staring at the naked asscheeks of his friend just a few feet away.
As he rolled to sit up, Oliver inhaled the ocean breeze and shifted a bit further into the shade of the brush. He knew that the rising sun on the beaches of Rhodos shifted the air from life-affirming to brutal quite early.
He looked over at what he could see of Philip again and grinned despite his blooming headache.
“Wake!” he said, pelting Philip on the right cheek with a small stone. Philip flinched and fumbled at the pants around his knees as he rolled to see what had hit him. His face of alarm quickly turned to a sheepish grin as he met Oliver’s eye. It then bordered on embarrassment when the woman beside Philip propped herself up and straightened her dress.
“Good morning, sweet lovers,” Oliver told them both. He decided to face the situation directly. “May I express my delight that my presence did nothing to prevent your…” he coughed, “discourse last night.”
The woman looked directly at Oliver.
“Never fear,” he told her. “Philip’s secrets, and therefore, yours, are forever safe with me. And,” he added, “you can go home this morning assured that you picked a fiercely kind and honorable man to… engage in discourse with last night. Philip will do right by you.”
A solitary eyebrow went up on the young woman’s pretty face. Then a look came over her that Oliver didn’t recognize. “He did well enough by me already last night, sir,” she said. “I only regret that you were here.”
Oliver looked at Philip, who grinned and shrugged his shoulders.
Philip stood and offered his hand to the woman. “Please allow me to see you to Hedgerow Street,” he said as he helped her to her feet. “Oliver. I’ll see you in the acropolis.”
Oliver nodded, and bid the lady farewell. As they left him, he sighed, rubbed his sore neck, and tried to remember exactly how the three of them had ended up sleeping on the beach. The morning’s ocean breeze was gentle and it lulled him into a vague recall of the previous night’s events. He remembered the plan to have a few cups on the tavern’s terrace after a long shift in the acropolis guard.
Yes, he definitely recalled the tavern terrace. They had toasted with their fellow knights, they hoped for advances from the townswomen, and the birra’s intoxicating effects had convinced them that they needed to see the nighttime photoluminescence of the sea flora washing ashore. And so the two knights and the woman had parted ways with the rest of their party and set off to indulge in what the Rhodians called Light-Gazing.
Except that Oliver was the only one who had done any Light-Gazing.
The previous night’s recall complete, Oliver stretched his arms and contemplated returning to the acropolis, and duty. He closed his eyes and drew a breath deep into his chest, summoning the energy to plod home. When he opened his eyes, a woman stood before him, dripping with salt water. He startled, confused at her sudden appearance.
“You’re on my beach,” she said.
He squinted up at her. The sun was positioned just behind her head, shadowing her face and bestowing her with an eye-piercing halo.
“Your beach,” he said, stupidly.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
He ran a hand through his hair, willing his mind to function. “Well,” he said, “that’s a rather unfortunate story.”
“Never mind that,” she said with impatience. “Please leave. I have work to do. And if you try to poach my beach, I will make sure you have a ‘rather unfortunate’ accident.”
Oliver stared up at the shadow that was her face, more confused by the second. “Work? Poach? What?”
She grimaced and turned on her heel. “I mean it,” she yelled as she walked away. “Leave!”
Oliver watched as she walked away. The eclipse that she had made of the sun slipped away with her. In one fluid motion, she stepped gracefully into the sea, raised her arms, and dove beneath the waves. He sat for a few more minutes, trying to make sense of their exchange, but he never saw her surface.
The cool walls of the acropolis and a splash of water on his face cleared his head well enough.
He reported to his station for the day, relieved the soldier in place, and assumed an attentive stance outside the door of the Didaskalos at work. His thoughts first turned to what advances might be happening on the other side of the door at that moment. The Didaskalos stationed on Rhodos were a mind trust of sorts, gathered from afar to study, imagine, create, and heal. Their genius was renowned and valuable, necessitating the specialized order of guards to which Oliver belonged. His curiosity about their work never diminished, even after standing watch to their efforts for years.
His thoughts then turned to the events of the morning. The woman’s sudden appearance had not made sense; her sharp words had not made sense; her disappearance had not made sense. And how had she managed to not surface during the time that he had stared at the sea? Perhaps she had, and he had simply not seen her in the sun’s glare off the water. He leaned slightly back, taking pleasure in the cool touch of the acropolis’s stone walls at his back.
He startled at the sudden crash of the door opening beside him and turned on alert when a very large bearded man strode through, then stopped to turn and pull the door shut behind him with a slam.
The man, dressed in a simple brown tunic, noticed Oliver and let out a grunt. “Thank Theos it’s you,” he bellowed from deep in his formidable belly. “Come. I won’t suffer their ignorance any longer today! I need to sit and talk with someone with common sense.”
The man was halfway down the hall before Oliver realized that the man was talking about him.
“Simon,” he called after the man. “I cannot leave my post.”
Simon answered without turning or breaking his lumbering stride. “Damn your post, man! They’ll be fine for the three minutes it takes to find a replacement. Come!”
Oliver smiled with relief. When a Didaskalos commanded, one had to comply.
“What have they done now?” he asked when he caught up.
“They’re uncompromising, nearsighted fools,” Simon sputtered. He spun, nearly causing Oliver to collide with his great belly. “Tell me, do you think that it is more likely that illness is caused by humours within us, or by something from outside that attacks our bodies?” He waited expectantly.
Oliver considered this. “It seems to me, Simon,” he said, “that civilization’s problems come from infighting as well as assaults from outside. Perhaps both apply to the body and illness as well.”
Simon stared at him. A cat mewed from far down the hall.
“Theos’ eye!” Simon finally cursed. “You belong in that room more than the lot of them!” Simon slapped Oliver on the back, hard, but with good nature.
They resumed walking, now at a more controlled pace. Oliver was relieved to hear Simon’s breathing even out. The man’s temperament had to put a strain on his body, and it made Oliver nervous. They passed a boy in the hallway, perhaps thirteen years old, and Simon told him to fetch a replacement guard from the knights’ barracks. Eyes wide, the boy scurried off to do the Didaskalos’s bidding.
“Now,” Simon said, “what mischief have you been into lately?”
Oliver’s jaw dropped in protest, shaking his head, but the sparkle in his eye belied him. “I avoid mischief at all costs, Simon.”
Simon guffawed. “As well as I avoid meat, wine, and buttered bread. Come, now. The grey in this beard and the weight on these knees puts me in bed quite early these days. Let me live some colorful nights through you.”
“Its colorful nights you’d hear of? I thought you were after common sense?” Oliver nudged Simon in the ribs. Simon swatted his arm away. “Well,” Oliver relented, “Philip certainly got into some mischief of his own just a few hours ago. Perhaps you should be asking him if you’d like to hear of a colorful night.”
“Wine, women, or wrestling?” Simon asked.
Oliver laughed. “All three, in a way.”
They reached the sitting room adjacent to Simon’s bedcell. A serving boy drifted in and waited.
“Cold water,” Simon told him. He raised his eyebrows at Oliver.
“Same, for me,” Oliver told him. When the boy was gone, Oliver settled in to his chair. He welcomed a morning with the old man.
“Tell me what you think of this,” Oliver said, eager to hear Simon’s assessment. “A woman, appearing suddenly and seemingly from nowhere, dripping with water from the sea…”
Simon clutched his chest in mock ecstasy. “No more, no more!” he sputtered. “This old body can’t take description of a night that colorful!”
Oliver grinned, indulging his jesting. “But listen: a woman who then orders you away from ‘her’ beach, before diving back into the water and seemingly does not surface? Thoughts?”
Simon accepted the water from the boy and took a sip. He sighed with contentment as he settled into his chair. “Probably an urchin diver,” he told Oliver.
Oliver nodded thoughtfully. “That would explain the poaching comment,” he said.
Simon asked a question with a raised eyebrow.
“She threatened bodily harm if I were to poach ‘her’ beach,” Oliver explained.
Simon chuckled. “Yes, an urchin diver, most likely. They can stay under for quite a while. And there has been quite an array of urchins in the fish market lately. Now, enough of this mysterious aquatic maiden. Your music, how is it coming along?”
Oliver sat up, looking for the serving boy. “Simon!” he hissed.
“Calm yourself,” Simon replied. “The boy is gone. I wouldn’t risk your knightly reputation. The other fellows that make up the guard need not know of your vocal talent, but you should exercise it. If simply for your own soul.”
Oliver rolled his eyes. “My soul is fine.”
“Of course it is. But every soul can use caressing from time to time. Even if it must be done in private,” Simon advised.
This time the raised eyebrow was Oliver’s. He couldn’t resist. “Private caressing, eh?”
“Leave it, young Oliver,” Simon answered, his deep voice touched with amusement. “Go have another colorful night, and come tell me of it tomorrow. My own soul is telling me that I need a nap.”
That evening, Oliver wandered to the fish market in search of a meal. He was also curious about the urchins that Simon had mentioned.
He strolled the stalls as the merchants barked, extolling the virtues of their catch. The voices of the tavern women competed as they attempted to lure men away from the market and into a cold drink. The night welcomed him, surging with laughter and noise, the brush of ocean air and the dimming light.
Oliver’s friend Philip had expected him to join him, as usual, at the tavern, but Oliver had demurred, mumbling an implication that he had a woman waiting for him. It had worked. Philip had sent him off with a wink and a clap on the back, and Oliver had set off alone for what the night would bring him.
And so, in the market, he found himself staring at a spread of urchins, some cut open and some straight from the sea, artfully laid out on a rough plank of driftwood.
“Best in the market,” the small hairy man standing behind the spread growled. “First one’s free for trying. Silver a’piece after that.”
“Silver?” Oliver protested. “You’re proud of them.”
“Silver,” the man affirmed with scorn. He held one up in offering, the warm wind ruffling his dirty, unkempt hair.
Oliver accepted. The urchin slid through Oliver’s mouth, all brine and velvet. He felt his eyes widen.
Then Sir Oliver Wellton happily handed over three silvers, and a copper for a cutting tool. He exercised restraint and did not eat the urchins immediately, but left the market in search of a quiet place to sit and enjoy the rest. He walked for a bit, anticipating the delicacies and enjoying his time alone. As the market and tavern noises grew faint, he realized that he was growing weary of the days and nights spent constantly in the company of so many people. He slept in a room with five rowdy and exuberant knights. He stood watch in an acropolis teeming with servants, intellectuals, and visiting dignitaries. He went at night to taverns swarming with the young and old. Perhaps Simon was right; perhaps his soul was knotted and in need of a caress.
He soon found himself back on the beach that he had slept on the night before, alone this time. As he slid the first urchin down his throat, he was thankful to hear the waves licking the shore’s pebbles rather than the sighs and frenzied rustling of lovers’ attempts to be discreet.
But the sigh was his own when he finished the last of the urchins and leaned back against a large boulder in contentment. He hummed a few bars, his eyes resting on the faint line of the horizon between the inky blue of the water below and the lighter sky above. Then he gave himself over to the words of the song, releasing them quietly into the night air. Even alone, Oliver was hesitant to fully release his voice.
“You sing well.”
The words came from beside him.
Oliver spun, reaching for his sword by instinct. In the dim light, he saw the outline of a woman’s form; she was not menacing, but standing casually beside him.
“Those are mine.” She pointed at the urchin shells.
Recognition clicked in Oliver’s head, and he realized that he was speaking to the woman from the sea.
“Oh,” he said, fearing another angry outburst. “I didn’t take these from your beach. I bought them in the market,” he insisted.
To his surprise, her voice spilled warm amusement over him. “You called it my beach.” She sat beside him. “I believe you,” she said. “I caught the urchins. I knew they would be sold.”
He thought of the peevish little man in the market. “So, the man in the market…”
“Profits from my work,” she finished. “I hate him.” Another smile, sad this time, and inside Oliver felt like liquid.
He stared at her, unsure what direction their exchange would take. She stared out at the sea, the wind lifting her hair, piece by piece.
“I’m Oliver,” he said, abruptly, to fill the quiet. “You… were angry with me this morning.”
She smiled at the waves. “Yes, well, I’m accustomed to solitude in the early morning. And I had a quota to make.” She didn’t volunteer her name as he had.
“You threatened me with an ‘accident,’” he pressed her.
This time she laughed. “All right,” she relented, “my apologies. Is that what you needed to hear?”
“Do you have a secret lair below?” he asked, avoiding her apology.
She looked at him, startled. “What do you mean?”
It was his turn to smile, teasing. “You must be some sort of mermaid. I never saw you surface.”
She stared at him.
“After you dove in,” he clarified. “This morning.”
“Yes,” she answered. “I knew what you meant. I’m… a good swimmer.”
He sensed her discomfort. “And I thank you for your talent,” he said, lifting an urchin shell in tribute.
She stood. “And now I need some rest. Oliver?”
He peered up at her in answer.
“Please don’t tell the urchin merchant that you spoke with me.”
He cocked his head slightly, considering her request and what it could mean. “Why?”
“Because he won’t let me keep you,” she said.
She smiled. “I said: ‘he won’t believe you.’ I’m shy and I don’t like talking with people.”
“Oh,” Oliver said. “I misheard you. I won’t tell him. I’d like to talk to you again, though,” he said.
She stared at the waves in silence for a moment. “Tomorrow night,” she finally answered. “Don’t bring anyone else,” she added, her voice low and serious.
The sea breathed at them both, and Oliver was taken with even more questions.
She relented a smile for him. “I’ll see you tomorrow night. I hope you like seawater.”