The Mermaid’s Kiss – Part Three

Spring passed, summer waxed, autumn waned and faded. The ice of winter froze over Lake Esrathel, and all commerce with the merpeople ended for a season. Three times the months turned to years. And over each passing day hung the remembrance of something lost. Auril, grown from a wild, mischievous boy to a thoughtful, silent young man of seventeen, did not pass a single month without his mind traveling back, at least once, to the strange meeting on the shore, now growing hazy in his mind. He knew he had seen a mergirl. Yet every month, the image of her face faded another degree, until all he had left was a withered, half-forgotten memory. But that memory still remained, empty as it now was, and although in the beginning Auril had hardly ever called it up, he increasingly spent every spare moment wondering, questioning it.

Neriss felt her brother changing. His other half, she could not help but change with him. As Auril became slowly more serious, mysterious, and closed off from everyone, even his twin, Neriss also became different. She spent less time alongside Auril, sharing in his thoughts and ideas. She took to spending her days on the terrace garden, gazing over the lake and letting her thoughts wander where they would. No longer did she accompany Auril on rambles through the hills or along the wharfs. No longer did she encourage and follow along with his mischievous pranks, giggling and dancing like a fairy about him. Something cold slipped between her heart and his, and Neriss didn’t understand.

Thunder boomed, echoing, cast from one mountain peak to the other as it rolled around the hill-circled lake. The rain came, falling in impenetrable sheets thick and cold as glass, black as the night it fell through. Tossed in the wind, the lake almost roared. Auril awoke, startled from uneasy sleep by the blue, otherworldly flash of lightning. For a moment he lay waking, eyes fixed on the wide casement by Neriss’s bed. She lay motionless, buried deep beneath her blankets, fast asleep. Auril gazed past her, through the window and out at the thrashing trees that lined the path beyond. Through the driving rain, he could see nothing past their wildly-lashing branches.

A cold draft slid beneath the bedroom door, winding along the bedspread and caressing Auril’s face. He lay motionless, but as the chill grew greater, he sat up. Sliding his feet over the edge of the bed, he walked to the door. A window must be opened in the library, letting in the tempest rain, as well as the cold that licked over his bare feet. He stepped out into the dark hall, one hand feeling along the wall for direction, the other held out before him, searching for obstacles to obstruct his path in the darkness.

A sudden peal of thunder and flash of lightning lit the passage before him, glaring from Uldera’s opened bedroom door. Auril paused, suddenly wide awake. Uldera never slept with her door opened. As a rule, it remained always both shut and locked, ever since he and Neriss had been young and still full of pranks, and had left a garden snake beneath her blankets. At the next flash of lightning, Auril moved forward again, grasping the knob of the door in his cold fingers. He paused again, taking a deep breath before stepping around the door and looking into the room.

At first, only darkness met his gaze. And then a brilliant flash of blue. As the light died, replaced almost instantly by the growling roar of thunder, Auril caught a glimpse of Uldera’s bed. Made up perfectly, and entirely empty and un-slept-in.

Alarm flooded Auril’s thoughts, casting tight iron bands about his chest and causing his breath to run fast and shallow. Over the past few months, Uldera had grown strange. Although she still cared for Auril and Neriss, and served as companion and friend, she had taken to staring for long hours together out the window in silence, always towards the lake. Sometimes she even disappeared entirely for an afternoon at a time, not to be found anywhere in the house or the parts of the city nearby. When she returned, she often retreated to her chair by the window and murmured softly to herself in a strange, musical tongue Auril did not recognize. Once when he had tried to ask her what she spoke, she had turned her eyes upon him. Her gaze was filled with unrecognition, and she had examined his face for a long while before turning back to the window without an answer. He had never asked again.

At the discovery of her disappearance, all these memories and more flooded Auril’s mind. Uldera could be anywhere, perhaps even out on the terrace in the storm. The cold draft and opened library window entirely forgotten, Auril ran as quickly as he dared in the darkness towards the living room and its door to the terrace, on the other side of the house.

As he turned out of the hallway and walked across the great foyer that lay between him and his destination, the sound of the rain grew suddenly much louder, and Auril felt a great wave of cold, damp air wash over him. Pausing, he turned around, searching in the dark for the cause. His hand brushed against something hard, and he grasped it, exploring with his fingers. With a start, he realized his hand held the edge of the great front door. It was thrown wide opened.

Auril waited only for the next flash of lightning to orient himself in the hall. As the brilliant light spread and chased every shadow from the room for a heartbeat, Auril found the passage down which he had just come and sped back through its dark opening. In a moment he was outside his own bedroom door again, slipping the catch silently, taking up his cloak from the back of a chair. He paused a moment to glance again at Neriss, ensuring that she still slept. She murmured in her sleep, disturbed perhaps by the thunder, but did not wake. Auril left the room again, shutting the door softly behind him, passing back down the hall, a cloaked shadow in the dark.

The dim, wavering beam of a covered lantern hastily taken from its place behind the door lighting his way, Auril plunged into the wall of rain, sheeting down in buckets from the tempest-tossed clouds that blotted out all hint of moonlight. He made directly to the wharfs. Uldera often walked along their sun-withered planks at night to watch the stars or listen to the murmur of the lake. The decision to begin his search there had been easy. Afraid for the older woman who had so often protected him, Auril cast his gaze along the docks, as far as he could in the storm. His breath was torn from his lips by the wind, which blew the rain, lashing into his face and quickly soaking through his cloak. Again and again the thunder rolled across the mountaintops, lightning branching across the sky like ice-blue fractures in the ink of night. And Uldera was not there.

Running now, bare feet sliding on the slippery wet wood of the docks, Auril hurried from one end of the wharfs to the other. She must be here. There was nowhere else. Perhaps she had come to the wharf before the storm began, and was caught by the sudden onslaught. Perhaps she waited even now, cowering in the shelter of some small, dusty boathouse shack for the rain and lighting to abate enough for her to return safely. Perhaps she had tried to make her treacherous way back to the house, and had gotten lost or hurt in the bewildering torrent. Perhaps…

And suddenly Auril’s searching eyes, straining through the rain, desperate, frightened, lighted on a dim figure. Far down along the shore, it moved slowly closer, bowed beneath the falling buckets of water. Leaping forward, Auril jumped from the dock, feet thudding into the hard, wet sand, and ran. His cloak, drenched through and useless, whipped in the storm behind him, forgotten and burdensome. In a few seconds he was at the figure’s side, panting, frigid, his hair lying wet across his brow. The woman, for so it was, lifted her bent gaze and met Auril’s frightened, questioning stare. It was Uldera.

 

The storm held to its fury, but Auril and Uldera had made their slow way, pressed back as they were by the wind, to a small boathouse near the last dock. Hidden beneath its sheltering roof, bringing nearly as much water inside with them as fell from the heavens, they sat silent for a long minute. Finally, Auril shifted, pulling his wet cloak closer, striving to block out the chill air. He spoke softly, as if afraid almost to hear Uldera’s response. “Uldera? Why…what possessed you to come here so late, and in such a storm? It must be past midnight, at least.”

Uldera answered immediately, her voice surprisingly clear and calm. “Yes, I suppose it must be late now. I have been here for many hours, though, Auril. The rain had not yet started when I came to the wharfs.”

“That is what I supposed, at first. But why did you not return when it started? Surely the storm did not spring up in such fury at once. You must have had some warning.”

Uldera nodded. “Yes, I did. It began to rain hard, but gently, a good while ago.”

“But why did you not return?” Auril asked again, taking the woman’s cold, tired hands between his own and rubbing the warmth back into her fingers.

“Why should I?” Uldera responded, turning her head to gaze from the small window in the shack, out over the stormy water of Lake Esrathel. “I would far rather spend the night on the shore, tempest or no, than in my room, so far from the water’s edge.”

“You left the door opened when you left, Uldera,” Auril said, his keen eyes fixed solemnly on her face.

“Did I? I am sorry for it. I suppose that is what brought you here after me?”

“Yes. I was afraid, Uldera. Afraid for you. No one should be out so late on a night like this, in this weather. If something happened to you, I…Neriss and I would…Uldera, you mustn’t do this anymore! You’ve grown strange, different. It’s frightening. I miss…I miss how things used to be, when Neriss and I were little, and we spent all day scheming a way to tease you, and when you smiled and laughed, or acted annoyed with us, it was everything! Now, it’s like…like you aren’t even here most of the time.”

Uldera looked up, her steady gaze searing into Auril’s. She spoke quietly, so quiet he almost did not catch her words. “And you? You are here? And where is Neriss?”

Taken aback by the sudden mention of his twin, Auril sat wordless. Uldera continued, “I am sorry, Auril. But I cannot stop now. I have come too far…you have come too far.” She trailed off, and sat deep in thought for many long moments. Suddenly she spoke again, awakening Auril  from thoughts of his own. Her voice murmured in a sing-song fashion, as though speaking words long rehearsed or chanting old tales. “‘Once there was a girl, an innocent, ignorant child…She did not understand the magic entwined in the merman’s kiss. Still she walks the shore at night…Half of her soul beneath the waves, a broken, empty shell.’ Do you remember, Auril?”

Uldera

The whirl of the storm outside deadened, fell away. There were tears on Uldera’s cheeks, beneath her wet, greying hair. She looked up, meeting Auril’s gaze. He saw in her eyes that day, three years ago, in his room with Neriss. His story of the mermaid he had almost ceased to believe in. Uldera’s white face, the immobilizing fear written across her features. The tale he had thought no more than just that, just a tale. He felt the cold in the small room digging into his skin, seeping into his blood, causing his body to run cold as ice. He looked into Uldera’s eyes and saw only half of a heart, half of a soul. Half of a life.

“Yes,” he whispered. “Yes. I remember, Uldera.”

She stood, turned to the door. “Then let me be. There is nothing you, or anyone, can do for me, Auril. Save to heed. Learn from my foolishness. Go back to Neriss, now,” Uldera said, reaching out and touching Auril’s cheek. “Do not grow away from her, my child.” And Uldera slipped out of the shack, into the rain, into the thunder and the wind. Into the emptiness of her heart, lost somewhere beneath the waves with a merman.

Auril waited until she was no longer in sight through the rain and the dusty window, then he too slipped out again into the storm, directing his tired feet towards home.

 

When Auril awoke the next morning his cloak was dry, draped over the back of a chair before the window, where he had left it, splashed now with warm sunlight. Everything was peace and still, and when he climbed from his bed and looked out down the hall, he saw that Uldera’s door was shut tight. The storm and frenzy of the night before might have been no more than a dream, but for the aching memory of Uldera’s words. Uldera’s story. Her past.

Auril went back to his bed and set down, legs crossed beneath him, and pulled the blankets up around his shoulders. He sat thus for some time, his mind finding its way slowly down lanes of old memories from three years before. First the story Uldera had told to him and Neriss, that was in fact no story at all, but a tale of her own youth. It came flooding back now, as though he had just heard it for the first time not more than an hour before. From there, his mind pressed back even further, to his own chance meeting with the mermaid, beneath the wharf. It had been three years ago exactly. Three years to the day.

 

In her bed beside Auril’s, Neriss awoke. She sat up, leaning on her elbow, watching her brother as he studied the blankets before his downcast gaze, obviously deep in thought. She could still feel him within her, still feel his mind turning, yet she no longer could understand his emotions as she once had. She no longer knew instinctively what his mind dwelt upon so earnestly. It was as though they both had forgotten something, somehow. Some key to the intimate connection of their hearts. And now they were lost forever, in some small way, to the other.

Neriss watched Auril in silence, inwardly yearning for him to look up, meet her gaze, maybe even smile at her. Yearning for the days long past when both of them had still been young. When both of them had understood.

 

Evening fell gently upon the lake, as the sun sank, and climbed slowly up the mountains. Auril paced the rail of the terrace garden, his dark hair brushed back by the cold breeze. He had spent most of the day in this manner, his mind still turning over memories from three years before. Soon after the noon hour, Neriss had joined him, at first walking beside him and striving to make conversation, but Auril’s short, distracted responses quickly discouraged all her attempts. She had retreated now to an alcove corner on the other side of the wide balcony, a book spread open upon her lap, her eyes intent upon the fantastic tale she lived within the pages of her imagination.

Auril paused in his agitated walk, glancing back at Neriss. She sat unaware, immersed completely in her book. He spoke her name softly, and still she did not stir. Satisfied and relieved, Auril turned quickly and slipped through the gate that opened on the path to his father’s metalworks. He was alone.

It took him only a moment to adjust his course, turning off before he reached the workshops and following a narrow street on a winding, round-about way through the city towards the wharfs. The lake, shining in the last glow of the sun, spread below him, and soon he was at its edge. Auril stopped walking as he reached the first planks of the docks. For a long moment he simply stood, and watched. Watched the sun as it fell. Watched the clouds scudding the windy sky, like ships on an inverted sea. Watched an osprey drop like a flash of light to the lake surface, and rise again a split second later, a fish in its talons. He looked down at his feet, passed his gaze over the long grasses that grew along the landward edge of the dock. Saw the first early moths fluttering their gossamer-fragile wings between the blades. And then Auril looked out. Out, across the lake. He stepped onto the dock, walking out until he stood above the shallow water, a few feet below him.

On a sudden whim, Auril dropped to his hands and knees on the planks, and swung his legs over the side. Sliding off the edge, he jumped down into the knee-deep water. It soaked through his pants, burning cold on his skin. Ducking down, he searched for the large, once-familiar, smooth stone beneath the water, that marked the correct place to enter the secret passage he and Neriss had used to fairly live in during the summer months, in the cool wet beneath the wharfs. Soon he found it, and smiling, ducked beneath the dock.

Auril struggled to press forward, hampered both by the cold water that swirled about his knees, hiding the slippery stones underfoot, and by his height and size. After Uldera’s warning against the merfolk, Neriss had refused to come into the secret passage again, and Auril soon tired of going there alone. He had not clambered about beneath the wharf since he was fourteen. But Auril pressed on, steadying himself on the planks over his bent head each time he stumbled. Soon, he knew, he would come beneath the main dock, which stood a few feet higher than the rest. Beneath it, the water had hollowed out an almost cave-like opening in the shore during some ancient flood, leaving a wide shelf above the level of the water, high and dry. It was here that Auril and Neriss had spent so much of their childhood. It was here that Auril had once left a precious knife, fashioned for him by his father. And it was here that Auril had come to retrieve it. It was here that he had turned around and seen…seen her. The mermaid.

Auril smiled at the memory, which seemed to become suddenly vivid again in this familiar setting. He climbed up onto the ledge and sat down, leaning back against the earth. He closed his eyes, letting the memory wash over him. He heard again the splash of water as she drew nearer, curiosity in her face. He felt again the sudden chill that had run down his spine, tingling from the back of his neck to the tips of his fingers and back. He knew once more the sudden grasp of wonderment and almost awe that he had felt as the girl’s gaze had met his. When Auril opened his eyes, he still saw before him the creature of that long-ago meeting, beckoning for him to come.

He shook his head. How could he hope to see the mermaid again? The merpeople did not come to the shore more than a few times in a decade. And why should the mermaid, even were she to come, let herself be seen a second time? And why did he care so much?

Auril could not understand his own thoughts. Had it been anyone else, they would have wondered and rejoiced at sighting a merperson, and soon the story of their meeting would become no more than that. No more than a story. Exaggerated, embellished, improved for future generations, prided over. But he could feel none of those things. Rather, Auril felt only a strange aching pull in his heart. Why could he not forget the strange, mysterious girl?

He sighed, and crawled back off the ledge into the water. The darkness under the wharf came quickly once the sun’s rays no longer directly hit the docks, and he did not want to be caught in utter darkness in a place grown so unfamiliar. Auril bent his head, ducking, almost crawling, back through the water. Before him, the light of the end of his tunnel almost blinded him, dim though it was. When he at last stood upright again beside the dock in what was left of the fast-waning light, it took Auril a moment to get his bearings and clear his sight.

And when he did, he did not trust in what his eyes told him was suddenly before them. For there, hardly five yards off shore, reclining against a jutting rock, fingers trailing in the water with her hair, waited a mermaid. His mermaid.

 

It was as though Auril had walked into another world. Everything around him faded, became trivial in the presence of such a creature. She was exactly as he had remembered, from so many months and seasons ago. Black hair, dark as jet and shining in the fading light, fell across her pale brow and cascaded to the water in dark waves. Her skin caught the light from the water, making her almost glow with a blue-green radiance. Below her waist, Auril could see the scales of her fish’s tail shimmering in impossible hues of indigo, silver, and amethyst. Her face held exquisite loveliness, and yet something about it seemed different, higher, than mere human beauty. When her eyes met Auril’s, her lips broke into a smile so filled with wisdom and joy it almost hurt Auril to look upon her. Stretching a hand towards him, the mermaid beckoned.

And it was just as Uldera had said. Before Auril knew what he did, he found himself at her side, the water now risen up over his waist. It felt far colder here, so close to the beautiful creature, than it had near the shore. It was as though she brought with her the chill of the waters about her home, so deep below the surface that no sunbeams filtering down were enough to warm it. So close to her, Auril could get a better look at her face. Her eyes captivated him. At his first glance, they seemed only a brilliant emerald green, more radiant than stars. As he watched, however, they seemed almost to change, growing deeper, wiser, more mysterious. The emerald of her irises was broken by shades of turquoise and deep blue, as though Auril looked into a bottomless well of tropical light and clear waters.

And then she spoke. And her voice was like all the pealing of bells and sighing of harps and wistful breath of the ocean, all pulled together into one moment of sheer heartbreaking beauty, mystery, and aching. “I have come back for you, Auril.” His name sounded beautiful on her tongue.

Auril drew back, whispering, almost afraid to speak aloud. “Come back? Who…who are you? And why?”

She smiled, and the stars came out overhead. “I am Nyahle. And I have come back because when first I saw you, you were too young. You did not yet understand many things. I saw in your eyes that you had much here to live for yet. You were not ready to come away. But now, I think, things are different?”

Nyahle
Nyahle

Auril frowned, sudden resentment rising in his heart. “Different! Yes. Things are different. But would they have been, had you not come? Had I never seen you, would things have changed?”

“That, no one shall ever know,” Nyahle said. Her eyes became serious, and the water about her grew restless. “There are many things even the merpeople cannot understand, Auril. But if you come with me, you will yet learn much.”

“I do not know you,” Auril said simply.

Nyahle reached out, touched his wrist with her slim fingers. A wave of searing pain shot through Auril’s arm and spread in his body, and he cried out. Before he could pull back, the agony passed, leaving only a dull, aching numbness. Nyahle spoke quietly. “You know me, Auril. Will you come with me?”

Auril fled in his thoughts back to that night under the wharfs three years ago. The mermaid had seemed about to speak, to beckon him, when she had suddenly turned and disappeared. Since that moment, the world around him had felt different. Perhaps it was because of his father’s intriguing report of the merfolk, inciting Auril’s curiosity and touching his imagination. Perhaps it was because of Uldera’s warning and her strange, iron-strong conviction of the merpeople’s cold-hearted reserve and deadly mystery. Auril could not be sure, but he knew something had caused a shift in his thinking. Something had changed. And now his mind was more captivated by the unknown than by what was familiar. The chill of the water beckoned.

He looked again into the mermaid’s face, and read there a love so deep it could kill with one miraculous breath. She smiled. And there, deep within her eyes, he caught the same sparkle he had observed so long ago. And he laughed aloud. There in Nyahle’s eyes, something was still the same. Though his heart had changed, though the world seemed grown somehow grey and uninteresting, though he no longer knew his own sister or even his own mind, something still remained of what he had had before. And that something dwelt within Nyahle.

Auril smiled. This time it was he who reached out, taking the mermaid’s hand in his own. He felt a shudder run through her, and she looked up at him. Quietly, he said her name, feeling it run like music in his heart, calling her by the single word of the merfolk’s tongue that Uldera had ever explained to him. “Nyahle. Ithlǽnaä.”

The mermaid gazed at him quizzically. “Ithlǽnaä? Where did you learn this? Where did you learn to speak my tongue?”

Auril laughed again. “No, Nyahle, I do not speak your language. I know only one word. Someone I know well once taught it to me.”

“How did they come to know? Was it one of your traders?” Nyahle asked.

“No, it was not one of the sailors. She was once my governess, and is now my friend. She met one of your folk along the shore, when she was just a girl,” Auril finished quietly.

“I understand,” Nyahle said gently, looking down. “She refused to come.”

“Yes.”

“And now she is broken?”

Auril nodded wordlessly, the remembrance of Uldera’s tale filling him once more with grief. After a moment he looked up again, meeting Nyahle’s brilliant gaze. “I don’t know what to think.”

“Then don’t,” Nyahle said, pleading. “You have only to ask me, Auril. You have only to ask for a kiss. Come with me. Be with me. Please, won’t you come?” Her eyes spoke her love, wordless, infinite. “I have been here, Auril. Nearly every week since I first saw you. Waiting for you to become ready. Waiting for you to grow old enough to understand. Waiting for me to grow old enough as well, for though I possess the long life of a merperson, still I was then hardly more than a child myself. I came back and watched you and waited. And you came often to the place beneath the dock, at first. But soon you did not return. I still waited for you, often. Seasons passed, and still you did not come. I had almost given up. But now you have come back. The land has not yet claimed you, Auril. You can still choose the waters and the sea. Just ask…”

Auril looked long into Nyahle’s mysterious, enchanting face.  He almost nodded, almost agreed to go with her, when a sudden noise from the shore caused him to start like a guilty child. Turning, he glanced back at the water’s edge. And he felt his heart jump within him.

Neriss

Neriss stood upon the shore, shock written on her face, one hand pressed to her mouth as though to stop too late the moan of horror that had escaped her lips. Nyahle saw her, and with a gasp, slipped into the water, taking shelter behind the rock on which she had lain.

“Neriss,” Auril said, his voice a confusion of relief, fear, and almost annoyance.

“Auril!” Neriss cried, running to the edge of the water. “What are you doing here? Who was that woman? Auril, please!”

“Don’t, Neriss,” Auril said, his voice almost rough. “Stay where you are.”

The horror on her face suddenly replaced by shock and hurt, Neriss backed away until she stood a few feet from the water’s edge. “Auril, what is this? Why are you doing this?” she asked, her voice breaking. “I felt you leave the balcony, Auril. You have not cut me off as wholly as you thought. I still can feel your heart in mine. I felt when you left, and I came after you, hoping to walk with you. But then I saw you were going to the wharfs. We have not been here alone together in so long! Years. I was curious. And…and afraid. So I followed quietly, so you wouldn’t see me there.

“When I saw you go into our secret passage, I hid behind a boathouse to wait for you to come out again. You were gone so long, though, that I nearly made up my mind to follow underneath. But then you came back suddenly, and waded out into the water. I couldn’t really see from where I was hidden, and I was so afraid you would see me, spying on you. But…But you spoke, to someone I couldn’t see. And…And Auril, who is she? What are you doing?” Neriss pleaded, looking from Auril to the place the mermaid had been a moment before.

Auril spoke quietly. “She is the mermaid, Neriss. You remember?”

At Auril’s words, Neriss reeled back as though receiving a physical slap across her face. “No. No! Auril, you can’t!”

“Why can’t I, Neriss? Why?”

“Because, Auril! You can’t go with a mermaid! What will I do? Auril, you cannot leave me! I need you. I need my other half. All these years, Auril, I’ve watched you growing different, distant and cold. Like you didn’t care anymore about me, or about the world. I was so afraid for you! It has hurt me to watch you falling apart like you have been. But I didn’t say anything, Auril. I left you alone. Maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe I should have talked to you. But you changed somehow, and I didn’t know you anymore. I was afraid of you. So I kept silent. But I still needed you, Auril. Do you remember when we were younger, and a storm would break over the lake at night? I used to be so frightened. But then you would come over and slip into my bed with me, and you would tell me stories until I fell asleep. I need those stories now. Please…please stay with me. If you go, I…” Neriss trailed off, fighting to keep anguished tears back.

Auril sighed. Looked back at Nyahle, still shrinking behind the stone, her beautiful eyes afraid. Afraid for him. Afraid to lose him. Again. Then he turned back to his sister, his twin. She stood watching, so anxious, so frightened. Frightened to lose him forever. She stood hugging herself, almost trembling, alone. And the tears sprang to Auril’s eyes. He knew now where he belonged.

“I am sorry, Neriss. So, so sorry. I’m sorry I changed. Sorry everything became different, and I hurt you. Sorry for this…will you forgive me?”

Neriss, a glimmer of hope flaring again in her pale cheek, nodded. “Yes, Auril. I do forgive you. You know I do.”

“No, Neriss. You don’t forgive me,” Auril said, his tears finally spilling. “Or maybe you do now, but soon…I’m sorry. But I will wait for you to forgive. I will. I promise you I will.” Auril stepped back. “I love you, Neriss. I’m sorry.”

He took Nyahle’s hand. Took her in his arms and pulled her close. The mermaid turned, looking toward the shore. “I will take care of your brother, Ithlǽnaä. I promise you.”

Auril’s lips met those of the shimmering creature in his arms as the stars spun overhead. The moon, riding the cloudless sky, seemed to cast a glow about them. Auril saw only Nyahle, felt only her magic, pulsing through him. As he held the mergirl to his breast, the lake seemed to rise to take them into itself. The world became only deep blues and greens, turned to silver and black beneath the moon. The water opened wide its arms.

 

Neriss stood on the shore, frozen, as near as she could get to her brother without stepping into the water. She reached out to Auril with one hand, aching, yearning, pleading. The other hand she pressed over her mouth to stop the sob of dead anguish that rose in her chest as tears rolled down her pale cheeks. Stumbling, she fell to her knees, the water soaking her white dress. As she watched, the lake wrapped its cold, lifeless arms around Auril and the mermaid. The darkness flashed, and they were gone.

Too deep to be uttered, Neriss’s despair flooded her heart as she felt half of her soul, Auril’s half, being ripped away. She did not see as Uldera appeared suddenly at her side. Did not feel the woman’s arms raise her up. Did not hear the words of mingled comfort and grief. Her breast held only a broken piece of what was once a heart. Her body held only a fragmented shard of what was once a soul. Her mind collapsed into the smothering darkness of waves ever lashing the shore, ever sending their monotonous laments, like a knife blade, deeper into her breast.

And she was alone.

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