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The Mermaid's Kiss
Auril stepped gently up to the half-opened door of his father’s shop. Peering cautiously into the vast room, Auril searched hopefully for the absence of the other workers. The craftsmen under his father’s steady command enjoyed the frequent visits from the overseer’s son, but today Auril wanted to catch his father alone. The early hour meant most other workers would still be at home, eating a hurried breakfast with their families before leaving for the smithies and metal shops that filled the town.
Seeing none in the great shop but his father, sitting bent over a workbench laden with tools and bits of metal, Auril smiled and slipped into the room. The workshops had been Auril’s favorite haunt since he first learned to walk, and the magnificent skill of the craftsmen fascinated him. His father, Argentel, served as overseer in his shop, and often let his son spend the morning with him, teaching him the fine nuances of his trade. Each workbench in the wide shop proclaimed the varying skills of its user. Those nearest to the doors bore strong tools for the rough bending and shaping of metal, while those further back were covered, like Auril’s father’s, with finer tools and smaller scraps of silver and iron. The most fascinating work happened on the far side of the room, however, and those benches held brilliant trays of gems and precious stones, and wore the sparkling sheen of spilled drops of molten gold.
Auril walked slowly along the first row of tables, pausing at each half-formed object. Laid carefully across the top of the first workbench, covered in a clean strip of linen fabric, sat a mighty sword. The edge, beaten to a deadly keenness, glinted dangerously at Auril, though the hilt was as yet unfinished. Another workbench bore half of an elaborate set of silver dishes. A large urn stood unpolished in the center, surrounded by several goblets and small bowls, all awaiting the jewels that would soon bedeck their rims. Auril paused, glancing back over his shoulder at the sword. It too seemed waiting for something to complete its glory, something besides the embossed leather that would complete the grip.
“Tavion started that blade a few days ago. He’s taking much care with it. It will be beautiful, and wicked, when he has finished.”
Auril looked back, meeting the smiling gaze of his father as he stood up and walked to his son’s side. “What are you doing here at this hour, Auril?” Argentel questioned. “Even the other workmen are not yet arrived.”
Auril smiled. “Looking for you. Neriss isn’t awake yet,” he added, naming his twin sister. “Neither is Uldara,” he said, grin widening into an expression of mischief. “She doesn’t know I’m out here.”
Auril’s father laughed. “Escaped your governess again, have you? I don’t know why Uldara is still here, after all you put her through. You and Neriss both. You’re like a pair of sprites, sometimes.”
“Oh no,” Auril said, shrugging his shoulders. “Not sprites. Uldara calls us hobgoblins.” He laughed as his father pulled him close in an affectionate embrace. “Tavion’s sword,” he continued, pointing to the great blade, “It looks lonely. It needs a hero to wield it,” he exclaimed, walking around the table on which the bright weapon lay.
Argentel nodded. “It does. And one day it shall have one, once it is finished. But you have yet to tell me what’s gotten you out of bed so early, when Uldara has a time of it just to get you dressed by noon, most days,” he added, eyes twinkling.
“The sun woke me up,” Auril said, motioning to the brilliant golden light that spilled through the high windows beneath the eaves of the metal shop. Then, hesitating a moment, he continued, “Can I ask you something?”
“Of course. What is it, son?” Argentel asked, pulling a second stool over beside his bench for Auril.
“Well…the traders are always telling tales about the merpeople. They see them often. And I wondered, since you work so closely with them…have you ever seen a mermaid too?”
“A mermaid?” Argentel repeated, surprised. When Auril nodded, he leaned back against the work table behind him, thinking. “No, I’ve never seen a mermaid before,” he continued after a moment, “but I have seen a merman. It was the only time I ever accompanied the traders in their ships. With me aboard, the merpeople would not let the traders near their capital city, but one of them came near enough to the boat to be spoken to.”
Auril leaned closer. “What did you say?”
Argentel’s voice carried all the strains of truthful sincerity, belied by the twinkle in his eyes as he answered. “Oh, not much. I asked him what the weather was like down there under the waves. He said they’d been having a rather damp year, lots of flooding, you know, but they were making the best of it.”
“You didn’t!” Auril protested, hiding his amusement beneath a stern frown.
“Alright,” Argentel laughed, “I didn’t speak to him, though I could have if I had wished. I do not think he would have answered me, though. But why do you ask about the merpeople? It is very rare for one who is not a trader to see them, much less to exchange words.”
“I know,” Auril answered, looking down. “But…I just wondered…are they really like people say?”
“What have people said about them?”
“I asked Uldara. She says they’re awful and mysterious, and wicked. Different than us, colder and more…more aloof. Dangerous. They don’t like us, and that’s why they stay in their city in the center of Lake Esrathel and we never see them near the shore here.”
Argentel was silent for a moment, deep in thought. “I believe Uldara is not totally correct,” he said finally, speaking carefully. “The merpeople are not evil by any means. Once, long ago when the world was much younger and magic still flowed in the air like water and light, the merpeople rose up from their cities far off from shore and came to the aid of the first humans, who fought along the lakeside against the werewolves that inhabited the wilderness for a place to call their own. No, the merpeople do not wish us evil. But it is true that they are not like us. They are more distant, more reserved. This very city thrives and expands because of our trade with the merfolk, and yet we still do not often see them. Only the traders that sail out on the waters in their long ships to facilitate the exchange of goods see the merpeople on a frequent basis.
“But I would not call the merfolk cold. We live in harmony with them. We depend upon their trade, they depend upon ours. If our city is attacked, the merpeople will aid our warriors, to the best of their abilities. We will do the same for them. Although they rarely come near the shore of the lake, and most people count themselves lucky to see a merperson so much as a very few times in a lifetime, the merpeople are our allies, and our friends. They are not cold. Just, as you said, different. And dangerous…I suppose they are, in their own way. But they do not wish us harm.”
Argentel paused, and Auril sat deep in reflection. A minute passed in silence, and the first of Argentel’s craftsmen had begun to filter into the vast metalwork shop before Auril looked up again. He saw his father watching him intently, and grinned self-consciously. Then he was up, laughing his thanks, wishing the first workmen a productive morning, and disappearing down the narrow path from the metalworks back down into the city.
Neriss sat up slowly, blinking and rubbing her eyes. The early morning sunlight shone brightly through her wide windows and the fine curtain that hung about her bed, creating a patchwork of light and shadow spread across the untidy folds of her coverlet. Something had awakened her, and as she turned from the window and pushed aside the thin drape she understood what it had been. The curtain of Auril’s bed was flung wide and his blankets fell in a tumble of blue and gold, more covering the floor than the high mattress.
Auril’s feet seemed to have perfected the art of silence, and Neriss knew his movements had not been loud enough to wake her. Her mind, tied closely with her twin’s, had rather felt his absence from the room, wakening with the sudden departure of its second half. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and slipped to the floor, the cool stone making her shiver slightly. Neriss couldn’t say what had pulled Auril so early from his bed, but she knew he was happy. His mood, though he was nowhere nearby, still impressed itself upon her, humming soft in the back of her mind. Smiling, Neriss tip-toed from their room, padding quietly down the great stone hall past Uldara’s bedchamber and out into the garden to wait for Auril.
Neriss and Auril’s bedroom window looked out onto a small, sun-filled walkway that led to a sheltered nook in the mountain that rose from the edge of Lake Esrathel, on which Methnai, the city of metalworks, was built. This tiny garden of sorts was not the one Neriss now occupied, however. As an overseer, Argentel held the honor of living in one of the great houses situated higher up in the city on the gently rolling mountains, and possessing a breathtaking terrace view away eastward over Lake Esrathel. The wide balcony-garden floated out above the rest of the city, backed by a wall containing more windows than stone, to catch every drop of morning light. It was to this balcony that Neriss went, and sat down against the narrow rail, looking through the stone balusters across the water. The sun’s rays, shining so clearly into the eastward window of her bedroom, had not yet reached the water, and it lay still sleeping under a shadowing silver-blue mist. Her young imagination sprang to life, and Neriss scarcely noticed the cold spring breeze that jumped from the lake, ruffling the silk of her nightgown and refusing to give way to summer’s first advances.
Thoughts flying with the birds that dipped and spun over the water, glorying in the return of daylight, Neriss jumped in surprise when Auril’s voice broke the relative quiet. “Neriss! I thought you might be here,” he exclaimed.
Turning, Neriss saw her brother vault over, rather than open, the small gate that led onto the wide path to the metalworks. “Auril! Uldara says you shouldn’t do that anymore, remember?” Neriss laughed, jumping up and skipping to her brother’s side.
Auril grinned and shrugged his shoulders. “I know. But she’s not here right now.”
Neriss tossed her head, smiling. Going to the wide windows that opened into the house, she peered through the glass, leaving a mist of breath and fingerprints. All was quiet inside, the only movement coming from a pair of serving maids going about their chores. Turning back, she addressed Auril again. “Where did you go? You woke me up when you left.”
“Sorry,” Auril returned. “I went to the metalworks.”
“But there’s nothing exciting to watch so early in the day.”
“I know. But I wanted to talk to Father alone,” Auril said, sitting down on a small bench near the rail.
“Mm.” Neriss nodded, and sat next to her twin. After a moment of silence, she spoke again, curious. “What did you talk about?”
“Oh…not very much.” Auril trailed off and looked down.
“I promise I won’t laugh at you,” Neriss prompted, poking him in the ribs.
Auril smiled, hesitated another moment, then continued. “Well…I just wanted to ask him about the merpeople.”
Neriss’s eyebrows shot up, surprised. “But you were just talking about them to Uldara a few days ago.”
“Yes, but I can’t help but keep wondering,” Auril said, gazing out over the lake far below as the morning sun began to light upon the waters and clear away the fog. “Uldara’s answer didn’t seem right. Merpeople being wicked and mysterious, and all that…it just sounds wrong. So I asked Father what they were really like. I figured he would know best, since he works so closely with the traders.”
“What did he say?” Neriss asked, eager.
“He said Uldara was right; that they are different and they aren’t very friendly. But he also said they’re not bad, like she told me,” Auril said. A smile spun across his face as he spoke the last sentence.
Neriss nodded and fell silent, seeming to drop the subject. As Auril stared across the lake, however, Neriss’s thoughts turned in her head. For the past month Auril had been different, uncertain and afraid, almost. Though others observing from the outside did not notice more than a slight change in her twin’s manner, Neriss saw what they could not through the sixth sense that linked her mind with his. And now, all of a sudden, Auril was happy again. She wondered if a connection lay between this change and his strange interest in the merpeople, often taken for granted by the people of Methnai, who knew little about the mysterious race besides the odd, beautiful, and sometimes frightening tales the traders told. And even these tales held only a doubtful amount of truth, embellished as they were with each telling.
Auril’s voice broke once more upon her thoughts. Without turning his head to Neriss, he asked, “What are you thinking about, sis?”
“You, actually,” she answered.
Now he did turn towards her. “Me? Why?”
“Well…you’ve been different lately. And now all the sudden the old you is back again.”
Auril grinned. “The old me? Oh come on. We’re only just thirteen. I’m not that ancient!”
Neriss laughed, then grew serious again. “You don’t have to tell me anything, Auril. But don’t think I can’t tell when something’s different.”
Auril shook his head. “No, it’s not that I don’t want to tell you. Just…you’ll not believe me.”
Neriss groaned. “Have I ever disbelieved something you’ve told me in confidence?”
“No...Not anything, you know, real, anyway,” Auril answered, then stood up, walking across the terrace to the windows. “Uldara will be out here searching for us soon,” he said, grinning.
“All right, all right,” he said, turning back to Neriss, who sat still looking extremely exasperated on the bench. “Just swear you’ll not say anything to Uldara, or…or anyone!”
“I won’t; you know I won’t,” Neriss answered.
Auril stood before her a moment, thinking. On a sudden he began, saying abruptly, and with pride, “I’ve seen a mermaid.”
Neriss jumped up, excitement blazing in her eyes. “I knew your questions to Uldara and Father must have something to do with it!” she exclaimed. “You’ve seen a mermaid? You really have? Where? When?”
Auril nodded calmly. “I have. It was a month ago…or close to that, I think. D’you remember the night we went down to the wharfs with Uldara to watch the trade ships come in? We were going to stay and see them unload.” When Neriss nodded, Auril continued, “And you also remember I snuck off while you distracted Uldara? I’d left my knife in our secret passage under the wharf the day before, you know, and I was going to get it back. Well, when I was down there by the water’s edge, just as I was about to turn back after grabbing the knife, I saw something shining in the water. Then a second later, a girl’s face was looking at me out of the mist. At first I thought it was Sadrie or Melithia, or another of your friends, so I called out and asked what they were doing in the water so late, and how they had found our secret tunnel.
“At first the girl didn’t answer at all, she just looked at me like she was curious. And then she came closer, and I saw that she wasn’t one of the girls from here at all. She wasn’t at all familiar. Then before I could say anything else, she was gone. I saw her tail splash and sparkle in the water as she disappeared. But she smiled at me before she left.”
Auril stopped speaking, and Neriss’s eyes glowed at him from her excited face. “How come you didn’t say anything before? A mermaid!”
“Because Uldara was there. And then we had to go to bed, and I didn’t get a good chance the next day, and I just…didn’t.” Auril shrugged.
Neriss satisfied herself with Auril’s very unsatisfactory excuse to exclaim, “Oh Auril, a real mermaid! Why can’t we tell anyone?”
“Well, Uldara doesn’t like the merpeople. She might be upset. And –”
Neriss jumped up, hissing over her shoulder for Auril to be silent. A moment later, one of the great windows opened, and a grey-clad woman stepped out onto the terrace balcony. Although she could be no more than thirty summers old, her face bore the time-worn appearance of one much older. Her dark hair, swept up into a braid around her head, also bore signs of premature age, streaked as it was with silver. Despite and beneath these things, however, she still held an air of old beauty, or perhaps just the intrigue of mystery, about her.
Neriss ran to the woman’s side, smiling happily. “Good morning, Uldara,” she sang, taking one of the woman’s hands and skipping beside her.
Uldara sighed. “And here you are! You and your brother both, I hope. What are you doing out so early, without telling a soul where you are? You could have caught your death of cold, Neriss, in nothing but that frilly bit of silk.” Despite her harsh words, Uldara smiled at Neriss, placing a kiss on her soft cheek. Beckoning Auril to come, Uldara shepherded the two children before her back in to the house, breakfast, and morning lessons.
Uldara 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 had long since been in their beds asleep. As thoughts of her two charges tumbled disorderly through Uldara’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…of ignorance.
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 in her ear, flooding her senses and aching to overpower her, draw her to itself. As though her very soul yearned for the waves. Uldara sank to rest upon one of the wide, flat rocks that jutted irregularly from the sand, a muffled, sobbing gasp escaping from her breast. Within her, her mind and heart rose in tumult, yet she was too accustomed to the sensation to give any greater 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 Uldara 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, Uldara 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, Uldara 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, “Rehavän, An Historié” 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 Uldara 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 Uldara.
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! Yesterday Uldara interrupted just as you were starting to talk about the mermaid. You must finish your story now, 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. He shrugged, smiling. “She was pretty, I guess. Just not like a normal person is. She was different somehow.”
Neriss nodded, waiting expectantly. When Auril offered no more information, she began questioning again, bouncing impatiently on the high mattress. “What do you mean?”
Auril rolled his eyes. “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 white, almost, or cream-colored. It kind of looked blue from the water’s reflection. She had long hair. It was all floaty around her, like seaweed.”
“What was she wearing?” Neriss asked, flopping back on the bed. “In their tales, the traders never say anything about that.”
Auril laughed in mock disdain. “Girls. Trust them to always bring up clothes.”
Neriss giggled, and punched his arm. “Oh come on! Tell me!”
“I don’t know how to describe it,” Auril said, giving in. “And I didn’t exactly take much notice. But I think she wore a tight vest sort of thing.”
Neriss, still unsatisfied, pressed him for more. “What did her face look like? You said she was pretty, but not like us. What do you mean?”
Auril shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know what I mean. She was just…different, is all. I already told you. 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 Uldara. 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 Uldara advanced, walking almost unsteadily into the room. Her face was ashen grey.
“So this…this is what your sudden curiosity about the merfolk meant,” Uldara 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, how little you know of the merpeople and their ways. Their dangers. Their deceptions. Their –” Uldara 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, 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 Uldara’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 the twinge of resentment that radiated slowly from him. Uldara, her face still pale 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 a lovely child, and her heart 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 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 arms and the circlet of pearls as big as marbles that tamed his wild hair, she knew him 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 ageless lifespan of those great creatures. And even then, like the foolish 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, Ithlaeläs–’”
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 Uldara had pronounced so effortlessly.
“No,” Uldara answered. “Ithlaeläs is merely a term of affection in the merpeople’s tongue. It means only ‘little one.’”
Neriss sat back, nodding, and Uldara continued her tale. “’I have watched you, Ithlaeläs,’ 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, terrified 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, and she did not pull away. Instead she rested her head upon his breast, leaning into the strong, protecting embrace of the strange, wild creature. 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.”
Uldara 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 Uldara on Neriss’s coverlet. “What happened next?” he whispered, leaning against his governess.
“He kissed her,” Uldara 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, Ithlaeläs,’ 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 one with me. 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 young man, 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 told herself that she would forget the merman, and nothing could break the bond that tied her heart to the councilman’s sons’. She did not understand the magic entwined in his kiss. And yet she could not choose. At last the merman spoke again. ‘You have until sundown tomorrow to decide, Ithlaeläs. 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 Ithlaeläs, do not take lightly the merman’s kiss.’ And then, in a flash, the merman was gone,” Uldara 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 Uldara. She spoke haltingly, struggling to contain her tears. “How does the story end, Uldara? Did she go with the merman? Did she return to the shore?”
“No,” Uldara 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. 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 almost 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.” Uldara 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 Uldara 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 be sought out by a merperson…that means only despair. Do you understand?”
Neriss, passing the back of her hand across her face, nodded. “I understand. I’ll stay near the wharfs, I promise.”
Uldara 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. Uldara’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 Uldara had told him the merpeople were strange, dangerous, 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 Uldara’s tale came flooding back yet again, sending his hope crashing into the surf that shuddered against the dock below his feet.
Uldara 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. Uldara’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 Uldara’s eyes. No story, no mere fairy-tale concoction could call out such emotion. Not in Uldara. Maybe in a small child, perhaps, but not in one grown so old and weary of the world. For Uldara 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 Uldara’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.
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. Six 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 nineteen, did not pass a single month without his thoughts 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 beyond 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 in the library, thrown open during the warmth of the day, must still be unlatched, letting in the tempest rain and 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 Uldara’s opened bedroom door. Auril paused, suddenly wide awake. Uldara 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, 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 Uldara’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, Uldara 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 empty bed, all these memories and more flooded Auril’s mind. Uldara 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 he 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 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. Uldara often walked along their sun-withered planks at night to watch the stars or listen to the murmur of the lake. The idea to begin his search there had come easily. 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 Uldara was not there.
Running now, bare feet sliding on the wet planks 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 disoriented or hurt in the bewildering torrent. Perhaps…
And suddenly Auril’s searching eyes, straining through the rain, desperate and afraid, 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 concerned, questioning stare. It was Uldara.
The storm held to its fury, but Auril and Uldara 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 still streamed 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 Uldara’s response. “Uldara? Why…what possessed you to come here so late, and in such a storm? It must be past midnight, at least.”
Uldara 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.”
Uldara 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.
Uldara turned 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 dry safety, so far from the water’s edge.”
“You left the door opened,” 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, Uldara. 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…Uldara, you mustn’t do this. You’ve grown strange, different. I don’t understand. 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.”
Uldara looked up, her steady gaze searching 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 strange answer, Auril sat wordless. Uldara continued, “I am sorry, Auril. But I cannot stop now. I have come too far…you have come too far. I tried to warn you…” 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?”
The whirl of the storm outside deadened, fell away. There were tears on Uldara’s cheeks, beneath her wet, greying hair. She looked up, meeting Auril’s gaze. He saw in her eyes that day six years ago, in his room with Neriss. His story of the mermaid he had almost ceased to believe in. Uldara’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 Uldara’s eyes and saw only half of a heart, half of a soul. Half of a life.
“Yes,” he whispered. “Yes. I remember.”
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,” Uldara said, reaching out and touching Auril’s cheek. “Do not grow away from her.” And Uldara 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 Uldara’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 Uldara’s words. Uldara’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 years before. First the story Uldara 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 six years ago exactly. Six 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, 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 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 old memories. 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, and almost guilty, 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 an instant later, a fish caught in its talons. He looked down at his feet, passed his gaze over the long grasses that grew against 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, which 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 Uldara’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 he had come to retrieve it. It was here that he had turned around and seen her. Seen the mermaid.
Auril smiled at the memory, which became 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 met his. When Auril opened his eyes, he still saw in his mind 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. 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 reflecting from the lake, 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 Uldara 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 appeared 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 Nyahlé. 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?”
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,” Nyahlé 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 don’t know you,” Auril said simply.
Nyahlé reached out, touched his wrist with her slim fingers. A wave of agonizing 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. His head spun, filled in a moment with a thousand images of the wind and waves, and Nyahlé. She spoke quietly, her voice calming the tempest in Auril’s mind. “You know me, Auril. Will you come with me?”
Auril’s thoughts fled back to that night under the wharfs six 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 Uldara’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 smiled, almost laughing aloud in happiness so full. There in Nyahlé’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 Nyahlé.
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 Uldara had ever explained to him. “Nyahlé…Ithlaeläs .”
The mermaid gazed at him quizzically, wonder in her eyes. “‘Ithlaeläs’? Where did you learn this? Where did you learn to speak my tongue?”
Auril smiled. “No, Nyahlé, I don’t 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?” Nyahlé asked.
“No, it wasn’t. 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,” Nyahlé said gently, meeting Auril’s gaze. “She refused to come.” Her eyes filled with sorrow.
“And now she is broken?”
Auril nodded wordlessly, the remembrance of Uldara’s tale filling him once more with grief. After a moment he looked up again, meeting Nyahlé’s brilliant gaze. “I don’t know what to think.”
“Then do not,” Nyahlé said, pleading. “Do not think. Forget. You have only to ask me, Auril. You have only to ask for a kiss. Come with me.” Her eyes spoke her love, wordless, infinite. “I have been here, Auril. Nearly every week since first I 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 the merfolk, still I was then hardly more than a child myself. I came back and watched you and waited. And you came frequently to the place beneath the dock, at first. But soon you did not return. I still waited for you, often. Seasons passed, and you did not come. I had almost given up. But now you have returned. The land has not yet claimed you, Auril. You can still choose the waters and the sea. Just ask…”
Auril looked long into Nyahlé’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 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. Nyahlé saw her, and with a gasp, slipped into the water, taking shelter behind the rock on which she had lain, afraid and unwilling to let another human catch a glimpse of her form.
“Neriss,” Auril said, his voice a confusion of relief, fear, and nearly annoyance.
“Auril!” Neriss cried, running to the edge of the water. “What are you doing here? Who was that woman?”
“Don’t, Neriss,” Auril said, his voice almost rough. “Stay where you are.”
The shock on her face suddenly replaced by confusion 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. 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 was so afraid you would catch me, spying on you like that. But then 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. “The mermaid, Neriss. From my story. You remember. She’s returned.”
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 not?”
“Because, Auril! You can’t go with a mermaid! Don’t you remember Uldara’s story? What will I do? Auril, you cannot leave me! I need you. I need my other half…” Neriss trailed off, despair in her face. Suddenly she looked up, determination in her eye, speaking a tide of emotion that Auril had never guessed at before. “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’s hurt me to watch you falling apart like you’ve 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 shook his head roughly, casting a torn and wavering gaze to the sky. Looked back at Nyahlé, still shrinking behind the stone, her beautiful eyes afraid. Afraid for him to leave her. 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. And the tears sprang to Auril’s eyes. He took a step towards his sister, standing alone and so vulnerable at the water’s edge. In his heart, he knew where he belonged.
“I’m sorry, Neriss. So, so sorry. I’m sorry I changed. I never knew…I’m 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. I do forgive you. You know I do! Please…”
“No, Neriss. You don’t forgive me,” Auril said, his tears finally spilling and his voice for a moment turned bitter. “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 always have. I’m sorry.”
He took Nyahlé’s hand, raising her up from behind the rock. Took her in his arms and pulled her close. The mermaid turned, looking toward the shore. “I will take care of your brother, Ithlaeläs. 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 Nyahlé, 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 white cheeks. Stumbling, she fell to her knees, the water soaking her 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 self, Auril’s half, being ripped away. She did not see as Uldara appeared at her side, hours later in the darkness. 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.