Uldera walked alone along the curving shore of Lake Esrathel. The sand, glowing faintly silver in the starlight, warmed her bare feet and whispered dreams of turmoil. The moon, rising high in the sky above, bespoke the lateness of the hour. Auril and Neriss were long ago in their beds asleep. As thoughts of her two charges tumbled disorderly through Uldera’s mind, she shook her head, smiling softly. Despite everything, they were precious to her. They were her ties to the carefree world of innocence.
The sand beneath her feet felt somehow wrong. It always did. Like she did not belong upon the shore at all. The sound of the gently lapping water rushed like music upon her ear, flooding her senses and aching to overpower her, draw her to itself. As though her very soul yearned for the waves. Sighing, Uldera sank to rest upon one of the wide, flat rocks that jutted irregularly from the sand. Within her, her mind and heart rose in tumult, yet she was too accustomed to the sensation to give any outward sign. Every night it was the same. The lake spoke to her of freedom; the shore laughed and brandished her chains. The sand tormented her, and still she came, every night, to walk upon its fair and terrible surface.
The moon reached its height, and began to fall back towards the west. The rock on which Uldera sat became her bed, her thin cloak both pillow and blanket. Mist rolled from the waters, enshrouding and entangling her in its web. And as the moon set and the stars dimmed slightly, Uldera awoke. She stood, stretched, turned, and walked back along the shore towards the dim lights of the wharf in the distance, still illumining the docks in the darkness.
As she reached the first ships tugging at their moorings, Uldera looked back across the dark water. She spoke quietly, one word in a strange tongue like the flow of wind and foam, hardly a whisper in the still air. Her breath mingled with the mist off the lake. Then she turned, mounted again the wooden docks, slipped away between the buildings. The only moving figure in a silent, sleeping city.
The twins sat hunched over their lessons, reading together the pages of a thick book. Across the front of the faded leather cover, the words, “Rehevän, An Historie” were stamped and colored with fading hues of gold. Neriss seemed intent on her reading, though Auril kept glancing up surreptitiously, his eyes flicking to the chair in which Uldera sat on the other side of the room, near the window. A workbasket lay beside her on the floor, brightly colored scraps of silk and batiste peaking from the half-opened lid. Her eyes were closed, however, and she appeared asleep, the lines of care and anxiety appearing much deeper across her brow, making old her still-middle-aged face.
A few minutes more passed in silence, then Auril nudged his sister gently. Leaning towards her, he whispered softly in her ear. Neriss nodded and stood quietly, leaving the book where it lay. Then the twins left the room, taking care to tread softly so as not to wake Uldera.
As soon as they were safe away into their wide bedroom at the opposite end of the house, with the door tight shut and barricaded behind them with an old chest, Neriss burst into an impatient exclamation. “Oh at last! History is interesting and all, especially the oldest parts, just like fairy tales. But not now! Yesterday Uldera interrupted us just as you were talking about the mermaid. You must finish your story now, please, Auril!”
Auril frowned. “It’s not a story, Neriss. It’s real. It’s fact.”
Neriss saw his frown and checked her excitement, understanding how much the strange occurrence had meant to Auril, and how much it would mean to her had she been there. It was not something to take lightly, so few and far between were sightings of the merpeople close to shore. Climbing up onto Auril’s bed, Neriss pushed her excitement down to a more manageable level, waiting for Auril to speak. When he remained standing, staring out the window with the slight traces of a frown still lingering on his lips, Neriss spoke up softly. “What did she look like, Auril? The mermaid?”
Auril turned back, climbing up next to Neriss on his bed. His frown was wiped away, replaced instantly with a contented smile. “She was beautiful, of course, but not like a normal person is beautiful. She was different somehow. It was dark under the wharf, and I couldn’t really see that well, but she…she almost seemed to glow, I guess. Her skin was much lighter than yours or mine; white, almost, or cream-colored. It kind of looked almost blue from the water’s reflection on her face. She had long hair; probably longer than yours. It was all floaty in the water around her, like seaweed. It was really dark. Black, or at least dark brown.
“She wore a tight vest sort of thing, and it looked odd. Not made out of any sort of fabric like what Uldera sews with. It was green and blue and silver, and kept changing colors when she moved. And she had a necklace with a shell on it,” Auril finished. He stopped, seeming embarrassed by the amount of detail in which he had described the strange figure.
Neriss,however, was still unsatisfied, and pressed him for more. “What did her face look like? You said she was pretty, but not like regular people. What do you mean?”
Auril shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know what I mean. She was just…different, is all. I can’t really remember what her face looked like. Except that it was nice, and her eyes flashed and she smiled. But she was gone too fast and it was too dim…I couldn’t see her face much.”
Neriss opened her mouth to continue questioning, but a sudden noise behind them made the twins start up and look over their shoulders. The sight that met their eyes caused their hearts to sink, and alarm rise up in their breasts. In the door of the room, one hand pressed against the frame, the other gripping the doorknob so tightly her knuckles were white, stood Uldera. She must have opened the door slowly and quietly as the twins talked, pushing the barricading chest out of the way. Her face, usually so secretly kind beneath her tired expression of exasperation – or resignation – seemed melted into a tempest of conflicting shock and fear. Neriss instinctively reached for Auril’s hand, cowering slightly behind him as Uldera advanced, walking almost unsteadily into the room. Her face was ashen grey.
“So this…this is what your sudden curiosity about the merfolk meant,” Uldera said, almost collapsing onto Neriss’s bed across from the children. “Why did you not say so, Auril? Be thankful it was dark, be thankful the creature left you alone. Auril, child, how little you know of the merpeople and their ways. Their dangers. Their deceptions. Their –” Uldera stopped speaking abruptly. In a moment, she continued. “But it is not yet too late. Let me tell you…a story. Listen to me, I beg you, child, and take heed to the warning. And you, Neriss. Please, hear me, and do not stray from the wharfs and quaysides here. Do not walk along the shore alone.”
The children were silent. Neriss’s eyes searched Uldera’s face, concern filling her gaze. Auril pulled his legs up, leaning his head on his knees. His expression was unreadable, but Neriss could feel a twinge of resentment radiating slowly from his heart. Uldera, her face still ashen and her eyes fixed on the floor, began her tale.
“Once there was a girl, older than you, but still an innocent, ignorant child. She lived here on the shore of this lake, but in a smaller village far from this city. I…I met her once, when I was but a lass. She would have been near me in age.
“She was the most beautiful girl in the town, and every boy thought himself lucky to gain her notice. Her heart, however, belonged wholly to the son of the chief councilman. He was handsome, strong, and kind, and he loved the girl as ardently as she loved him. Although she was not yet sixteen, and he hardly older, they dreamed together of the day they would come of age and could plight their troth together.
“But one evening, as the sun was sinking behind the mountains and the lake was lost in gloaming, the girl went out alone for a walk along the shore. Her mind was filled with happy visions of her love, and she did not see the creature waiting on the rocks just off the shore until she was nearly upon it. But when she looked up, and cast her starry-eyed gaze out over the lake, she saw, and she jumped and nearly ran in fright. Before she could turn to dash away, however, the creature called her by name and begged her to stay a moment.
“Foolishly, the girl paused, turned back, and walked to the edge of the water near the creature. It was then that she recognized him as a merman. His skin, whiter than pearls, reflected back the blue sheen of the water, and the girl could see the bright, silvery-gold scales that covered the great fish’s tail below his waist and crept up along his spine to decorate his wide shoulder blades. By the glitter of coral about his waist and the circlet of pearls as big as marbles that tamed his wild hair, she knew him instantly to be of pure, royal lineage, descended with blood untainted from the first merkings of old, whom she had heard of in many a tale by the fire at night. Probably he still possessed the age-long lifespan of those great creatures. And even still, like the foolish, ignorant child she was, she waited to hear him speak.
“When he addressed her, it was as though all the voices of the wind and waves were captive in his speech. He spoke to her in Tungumál, and yet with a thick, strange, and musical accent she had never heard before. Again he called her by name and beckoned her to him. ‘I have watched you, Ithlǽnaä–’”
Neriss interrupted, bouncing on the bed in her eagerness, her eyes shining like stars. “Was her name Ith…Ithla… what you just said, then?” stumbling over the strange, musical word that Uldera had pronounced so effortlessly.
“No, child,” Uldera answered. “Ithlǽnaä is merely a term of affection in the merpeople’s tongue. It means only ‘little one.’”
Neriss sat back, nodding, and Uldera continued her tale. “’I have watched you, Ithlǽnaä,’ the young merman said, smiling at the girl. ‘I have seen as you walk along this shore, when you think you are alone. You are beautiful. Too beautiful for the short, pain-filled life of a human. Come with me, and be mine, and together we will enjoy the merfolk’s life of an age or more. I will build you a palace of coral and pearl, and one day you shall be my queen. You have only to say yes, you have only to take my hand, and we shall be in paradise.’
“The girl listened to the merman’s almost indifferent words as though in a trance, captivated by the music of his accent. Before she knew what she did, she was at his side, waist deep in the icy chill of the lake. Her dress floated lightly on the water about her, rising up like flower petals. The merman smiled, and took the girl’s hand.
“His touch seared. His grip on her fingers was cold as the water far below the surface of the ocean, where no light breaks, and strong as the great leviathans of old. And suddenly the girl was afraid. She stepped back, terror slipping cool tendrils into her heart, and looked over her shoulder toward the shore. The merman saw and felt her hesitation, and asked the girl why she feared to go with him. She answered haltingly that she did not know aught of him, and she could not leave her family without saying goodbye. Her thoughts jumped instantly back to the councilman’s son. Her heart leapt in her chest, and she pulled, desperate, away from the merman, taking one hurried, terrified step towards the shore and safety. But the merman was too fast, and she found herself suddenly in his arms, held close, protectively. She looked up, frightened eyes locking on his face.
“The merman saw her clinging, paralyzing fear, and instantly his face melted into an expression of heart-deep, genuine concern and compassion. He loosened his grasp, but the girl did not move, still frozen as she was with fright. ‘I am sorry,’ the merman said quietly, and the regret in his eyes melted the girl’s heart. ‘I am sorry, I did not wish to frighten you. I forget that you are young, and you are not one of us…not yet.’
“Still the girl made no answer, but she relaxed in his arms, her fear slowly melting away as the merman spoke softly, drifting from her tongue to the language of the merpeople. He bent over her, eyes searching her face. She felt his breath, warm against her forehead, her cheek. Then suddenly his lips were on her pure, as-yet-untouched mouth. The merman caressed her hair and stole away her first kiss, that should have belonged to another.”
Uldera paused, and Auril, looking up, saw the tears fall wet upon her weary, wrinkled cheek. He slid off his bed where he sat with Neriss and crossed the room, climbing up to sit beside Uldera on Neriss’s coverlet. “What happened next?” he whispered, leaning against his governess.
“He kissed her,” Uldera said, “And everything changed. The water seemed suddenly warm and comforting about her, and she looked on the merman no longer as a creature to be feared, but as a lover. Just for a moment. The last traces of her fear were gone. His gaze lingered on her young face as he held her in his arms. Then he spoke again, and somehow his musical accent seemed no longer strange. ‘Come with me, Ithlǽnaä,’ he said, ‘I love you, and soon you will learn to love me. You have shared in a merman’s kiss. Come with me now, become like me and shun the brief, passing world of the land. Choose the lakes, rivers, and oceans. Choose to become mer. Or choose to go back to your family and friends, and never, never shall I see you again. For a while you shall be happy, happier than ever before, but soon your joy will fade. Half of your heart and your love are now lost forever under the waves with me. Come, and be whole, and be mine. Or stay, and be forever torn. This is your choice.’
“The girl did not speak, for a long time. Her mind dwelt on her love, back home in the village, waiting for her. Her heart said she could never trade the love of her life and the long years past for the man now before her, mer though he was. She did not understand the magic entwined in his kiss. And she could not choose. At last the merman spoke again. ‘You have until sundown tomorrow to decide, Ithlǽnaä. I will not force you to choose instantly. If you would come with me, return here alone tomorrow at dusk. You have only to call for me, and I will be here. Yet if you would stay, do not come to me. But Ithlǽnaä, do not take lightly the merman’s kiss.’ And then, in a flash, the merman was gone,” Uldera said, her voice falling to a murmur of sad recollection.
Auril looked up, meeting Neriss’s gaze across the room. He felt her sorrow at the strange girl’s impossible choice grow thick in his breast, and did not wonder at the tear that escaped and fell trembling from her dark lashes. She too slipped from Auril’s bed and joined him on the other side of Uldera. She spoke haltingly, struggling to contain her tears. “How does the story end, Uldera? Did she go with the merman? Did she return to the shore?”
“No,” Uldera answered, her voice heavy with emotion. “She did not go with the merman. She did not return. After the merman left, she retreated to the shore, her dress heavy with water, slapping around her ankles and holding her back like a dead weight. By the time she reached the village again, it was quite dark, and she was shivering violently. Her love was waiting for her, standing outside the gate, anxious. I believe she told him she had fallen into the lake while watching the minnows darting between the rocks, to explain her soaked garments. He walked her back to her house, and she was soon in bed and asleep, her dreams filled with the rush of water and the silk feel of scales against her palms.
“The next morning, she awoke in all the joy of heaven. She thought of the merman, and true, her soul panged with sadness and something akin to longing, but the sun was warm, the grass was green, and her love was by her side. By the time evening came, she had forgotten entirely the strange happenings of the night before.
“But as the days and weeks passed, the girl soon and bitterly found it was just as the merman had foretold. For a while she lived in paradise. The earth seemed so alive and beautiful after the frightening thought of a life beneath the water. Yet all too soon, the memory of her fear of the merman was gone, replaced by a wistful longing. She grew pensive, and spent long hours alone, walking the shoreline of the lake. Slowly, her love for the councilman’s son faded, and she was left with only a burning, aching loneliness. She watched the boy she had loved fall under the breaking of her heart. Now, as she walked the shore, she cried out for the merman to return, begging on her knees, wading out into the lake until she could barely keep her footing. But he never came. She had made her choice. Half of her soul lived beneath the waves, and she could only walk the cruel shore, a broken, empty shell of a girl, the land causing her feet to burn.
“I saw her. I…was there, watching, as she fell apart. And still she walks the shore at night, even now. She will never more know peace or love. She will live always only to regret bitterly the merman’s kiss.” Uldera finished her tale and stopped speaking, immersed in painful memories of the past. There was silence in the room for a long time. When finally it was broken, the words came from Uldera herself. “And that is why you must never, ever wander far from the wharfs alone, Neriss. And that is why you, Auril, must forget the entrancing, devilish mergirl you saw. To the city, the merpeople mean commerce, economy, perhaps life itself. To us, they mean only deception and destruction. To sight a merperson from afar is said to be good luck. But to sight a merperson up close, close enough to speak to…that means only despair. Do you understand?”
Neriss, passing the back of her hand across her face, nodded. “Yes, Uldera. I will stay near the wharfs, I promise.”
Uldera looked towards Auril expectantly, awaiting his reply. He stared back at her for a moment, his expression unreadable. Then he slipped off the bed, turned his back on his sister and his governess, and left the room without speaking.
He fled to the wharfs. Uldera’s story echoed and re-echoed in his mind, the images it had invoked thrashing before his eyes. Everything, every reassuring word his father had spoken to him the morning before, was suddenly thrown into question. He felt the foundations of that hopeful conversation crumbling.
The other children in the city whispered that the merpeople were evil and cruel. This, however, Auril knew came from ignorance and the mystery surrounding that ancient race. Then Uldera had told him the merpeople were strange and cold, vastly different than the humans they traded with. Unwilling to believe the merpeople capable of such heartless, emotionless reserve, Auril had gone next to his father. Argentel’s opinion had been much more hopeful, and in all probability, much more true, as Argentel worked closely with the traders who spoke the merish tongue and facilitated the commerce between the city and the lake. Remembering his father’s words, Auril’s heart lifted. But only for a moment, as Uldera’s tale came flooding back yet again, sending his hope crashing into the surf that shuddered against the dock below his feet.
Uldera could not be right. She couldn’t! Something in her tale was wrong, some small, obscure detail that would make the entire thing untrue. It was only a story, an idea exasperated mothers conjured up to frighten their children into submission. Nothing more. The merpeople could not be such heartless creatures. Not after he had seen one. Looked into her eyes and seen something there, like starlight through a storm-blown window, a rainbow at midnight. Something alive and alive and alive, beckoning, curious, true. She had been real. Uldera’s tale was only myth. Just a story.
And then Auril’s mad, scrambling thoughts paused. Just a story? Neriss had called his brief glimpse of the mermaid a story. And at that, the insinuation of myth where hard truth really lay, his heart had revolted. He had seen the tears in Uldera’s eyes. No story, no mere fairy-tale concoction could call out such emotion. Not in Uldera. Maybe in a small child, perhaps, but not in one grown so old and weary of the world. For Uldera was weary, that Auril could see. How could she, tired as she was, invent a story and place such meaning into it, without it being real? Put so much of her soul into a myth, a child’s tale, that held no truth? No, it must be right. Her tale could not be otherwise.
Auril looked up, pulled himself from his thoughts with difficulty. He found he had left the wharfs, and stood now on the beach, the cool waves from the lake lapping about his ankles. The last dock was just within sight around the curve of sand behind him, and he turned, struck out for its harboring safety. He would heed Uldera’s warning. He would forget the strange creature of the sea who had watched him so curiously. He would not return again, alone, to the lake shore.