She was so startled that she stumbled backwards from her makeshift platform and sat down hard on the ground. Kicking up dust, she scrambled to her feet and made to run away, but somehow the merman was already in front of her, blocking her escape. She turned around and tried to flee in the other direction. In an instant, she was sprawled on her stomach, the merman's boot resting on the small of her back. She did not know how he had done it.
"Now, now, little thief--or shall I say...Fern." He spoke her name gloatingly, with relish, enunciating it far more than was necessary.
She knew that he was waiting for her to ask how he had guessed her name, but she was not going to give him the satisfaction. "What do you want with me?"
He laughed, his voice soft and light. "You interest me."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing more and nothing less, m'dear." Suddenly gentlemanly, he removed his foot from her back and helped her to her feet.
"What, do you fancy me?"
"Fancy you? Don't kid yourself, little thief." He put his knuckles against his mouth, smirking behind his hand. "No. I don't."
Fern was not sure whether to be insulted or relieved. "Then what do you want me for?"
He blinked once, slowly. "Words."
"Words. Sets of phonemes and morphemes, strung together to convey meaning. Perhaps grouped together using semantics and syntax to create sentences, and thus transferring information from your brain--" (here he tapped her on the head) "--to mine." (He touched a long, clawed index finger to his temple). "It is my hope that aforementioned information may be of some import to my current investigation."
"And how am I supposed to know anything?"
He shrugged, frowning. "Why else would you have gone to so much effort to see into the hut? What else would fuel your curiosity? No one else stuck around to see--what makes you different from them?"
"Well, I would name all the things that makes me different from them, but we would be here all day."
He waved her comment aside. "You are missing the point. Something has happened. It's written on your face."