They had taken the temple as their own the day it sunk into the sea. Vast halls, hallowed by the ocean, became their playground; the humans’ treasure, abandoned to the depths, became their playthings. Those few humans who had not managed to escape the thunder and the rising waves became their silent guests.
While her sisters made a palace amidst the splendor of deep columns and shallow pools and trapped air pockets, Muirgen explored the darkest corners and secrets of their home. She shared the treasures and the knowledge she found, save one gem, which she guarded jealously and that set her apart.
Over time, seaweed draped the walls that, once white marble, had turned to greenish-grey. The ebb and flow of currents washed sand from stone and brick and bone. Treasures were lost and scattered, and guests rotted away. Muirgen had long since vanished into the tide with her dulled pearl – perhaps she had grown legs or been swallowed by the Great Mother, or perhaps she had simply become foam. And, while none of them remembered quite when, a nameless terror had crept into the deepest, darkest chambers of the temple.
Unlike her sisters, Darryl was young yet and full of wonder. Rather than idle away her hours hidden in the Grotto, she brazenly explored the ruins of the temple, going so far as the calm waters beyond the walls. The sahagin couldn’t catch her; the elementals didn’t want her. The Great Mother was nowhere to be found; the nameless terror slept in the deep. And Darryl laughed where her sisters feared.
It was seldom that her fearlessness brought her trouble. When stuck with the poisoned fang of an angered snake, she stayed in the Grotto until the sickness subsided, splashing the shallow water of the pool impatiently as her sister tended the infection.
“Why explore?” Lyra wondered, washing away the tainted blood with cool, cleansing altar water, “What is there beyond our pools?”
“Why not?” Darryl asked in reply, studying her own reflection. “Why sit here, day after day?”
“At least here, we are not bitten. Or scratched. Or torn. Or broken.”
“We are no longer free.”
“No,” Lyra said softly. “We are not free.”
Darryl splashed her tail in the pool. “The others won’t admit it.”
“If you’re not careful, you’ll become foam.”
That was the end of it.
For a time, she stayed near the Grotto, dallying in its pools, keeping to the shallows where sahagin had yet to find. The familiarity of the columns and the coral beckoned her to return, until she was again haunting the deep halls and swimming the reef.
And in the reef, lounging peaceably amidst forest of coral and kelp, Darryl looked up. Light trickled through the water, dancing languidly with shadow. On pure whim, she rose to meet it.
The distant sky – full of sun and clouds, rain and nothing – enraptured her senses, until, as Darryl drifted with the current, sand and earthy greens displaced it. The earth grew from the water, with its own white sand and green fauna, brighter it seemed to her, than any beneath the waves.
And brighter still was the creature swaggering across the sands. Festooned in reds, golds, and yellows, the human – the first she had ever seen, that was not rotted away to bone – gestured in pomp to an invisible audience. She watched him, as the waves crashed over her and drowned out his words.
At long last, he saw her, for the tide receded and she made no attempt to hide. Flicking her tail this way and that, she watched him stutter and run, not without looking back.
She stayed in the shallows of the estuary, awaiting his return.
Return he did. The dull tan of his garments matched the sand on the beach, but his face was the same as he searched the water’s edge. Flicking her tail in the water got his attention, and her voice called him from his uncertainty.
“You’re far less colorful today,” she told him, as he crouched beside the shallow’s edge.
“I’m...?” Eyebrows knit in confusion, he looked to the reeds surrounding her for guidance. Then, understanding dawned in his eyes. “Oh... yes, that. Well.” Glancing around, he leaned down close to whisper, and Darryl cocked her head to listen. “I’m really a prince, you know.”
“That’s right.” He straightened, puffing out his chest. “Prince Aldric.” Abruptly, he dropped back down, furtively. “In disguise. It can be dangerous to be a prince, don’t you know?”
“No.” Smiling, Darryl flicked her tail, casting a spray of water. “I don’t.”
Aldric, as he called himself, came to see her every day thereafter. He asked about mermaids and the sea and the temple, about things Men ought to have known, but had seemingly forgotten. And Darryl learned about the sky and the shore and the ways of royalty and love and feasting and dancing – and she liked the sound of dancing the best.
On cloudy days, Darryl would lounge on the sands, listening to the poetry of his voice. On stormy days, he would huddle under a tarpaulin and often left quickly. On sunny days, the prince took a small rowboat out on the sea to watch her frolic in the surf.
On one such day, as the sun set over the distant shore, she swam far below the boat, amid the colors of the reef, and a shadow passed between them. When Darryl looked up, she knew fear.
The Great Mother was ancient and bloodthirsty; her children haunted the seas, gluttonous and starving. She circled the boat, gliding silently beneath the surface. Slowly, it seemed to Darryl, she turned upward, massive jaws wide.
The boat was thrown upward before being cracking and shattering apart. Aldric landed in the water, floundering against a current that pulled him under.
Darryl was swift and cunning. She could have made it to the reef, to the Temple. She could have hidden in the Grotto, and never returned. She could have forsaken the world above the sea and its beauty and its light and lived in shadow.
Perhaps, she should have.
On pure whim, she swam for Aldric, hopeless as he was, and pushed towards the shore. For her folly, she felt teeth, tearing through her gossamer fin. Her blood clouded the water. More sharks had come to feed, and the Mother turned abruptly from her pursuit, biting one in half. Her hope was the shallows and the beach, where the monstrous beast and her progeny couldn’t swim, and the blind hunger that spurred the hapless creatures to turn on one another mindlessly.
She pushed until the sand grazed her belly, and she shoved her prince out of the water. Men had come, investigating the cut moorings of a rowboat. Men had come, and by the grace of the night, they didn’t see her. In the cool moonlight, amidst the reeds, she rested as her blood dried and was washed out to sea.
Darryl awoke to the clattering of stones. The pain and the brightness followed. The water of the estuary had left a slime over her skin and scales that died and thickened under the sun, and the gash in her tail stung. Another stone skimmed across the beach, and hit the water nearby. An old human woman was hunched over among the stones, a wooden bucket on her arm, collecting seashells that had washed among the rocky shore.
She pushed herself up, uncertain whether to stay or to flee. As she coiled back defensively, her tail hit water, betraying her presence. The woman barely glanced her way. In no immediate danger, Darryl relaxed, easing into the water.
“Hn.” The crone muttered, “What’s a finny girl doing in the shallows, anyhow.”
“I know a man... rescued a man... a prince.”
“Tch!” the woman scoffed under her breath, “Ain’t no princes around here.”
Darryl’s chest tightened, as the evening relived itself in memory. The Mother’s teeth, her torn flesh. Blood. “I’m trapped here, now.”
“Ain’t trapped.” The woman stood crooked, brushing strands of greasy hair out of her face before drawing a line through the air. “River’s here, sea’s over there. Nothin’ in between.” Abruptly, she returned to her shells, waving a dismissal. “Go on. Shoo.”
“I cannot go back.” Darryl pressed her fingers to her wound, and they came away sticky with blood. “The Great Mother has tasted my blood and would haunt me as my shadow.”
“So grow legs.”
The mermaid laughed, mirthlessly. “That’s a myth.”
“Ain’t,” the woman answered. Darryl waited for her to elaborate, in vain. More rocks scuttled across the beach.
“Have you ever seen a mermaid grow legs?”
“No. Never been a mermaid ‘round here in a hundred years. Doesn’t mean it’s a myth.” She shrugged; her body rippled under her tattered cloak, and her bucket rattled. “White magic can do it. Or black, for that matter. Few other ways.”
“Can you?” Darryl crawled out of the stream, raising her fin. Droplets of water rained upon her back. “Can you do it?”
“I can’t. No. Not me.” Shaking her head, the woman dug deeper, pulling a broken nautilus from between a cracked stone. “You. You can.”
The crone looked up, fixing Darryl with a stony gaze, filling her with a sudden, inexplicable dread that was gone as soon as it had come. “Your so-called-prince. He love you?”
“He says as much.”
The woman grunted an acknowledgement at that. “And you. You love him?”
Darryl smiled, the pinpoints of her pearl-white teeth glittering in the sunlight. “What is love to a mermaid?”
It was days before Aldric returned to the water. Limping down the beach, he cast his gaze out to sea while she watched him from the shallows. He beamed when he saw her, hobbling faster to be by her side. Darryl half-crawled, half slithered from the water to meet him on soft, dry sand.
He tried to make a sound when the coral knife pierced his heart. A gurgle that she didn’t know the meaning of.
Coiled in the sand, the mermaid stared at the blood on her hands, entranced. It didn’t, at a glance, seem so different from her own. Could a man, she wondered, grow a tail from the heart of a mermaid?
She stained her scales with blood, but nothing came of it. Flicking her tattered fin one way and then the other, she frowned.
Growing legs is a myth. Sighing, she curled up beside the cooling body of her prince, watching the sun rise over the sea. As the light was cast over her tail, the drying blood began to crackle and steam.
They found her on the shore, in the arms of a murdered man. Her prince was not of royal blood. He was the only child of a humble family, and his parents took her in as a daughter when old crone vouched for her. The true owner of her prince’s borrowed finery – a traveling merchant – was hanged for the murder.
Upon the land, Darryl learned many things... how to walk, how to sew, how to run, how to wait tables, how to dance, and how to fear the sea.
Some nights, she would sing, and everyone would stop to listen.
The tavern was less than full, which suited her. The winter storms discouraged travelers, but for a few. One group in particular held her attention, only for the man whose eyes followed her legs as she moved from table to table. After having served his table – his companions took no notice of her – Darryl took two steps back and curtsied to him with a knowing smile, drawing his gaze upward.
Her rounds finished, she took to the small platform near the hearth that served as a stage. As she began to sing, the traveler leaned back in his chair, stare no less intense than the minute she first noticed his attention.
By now, she knew that words didn’t matter. She sang from her heart, of distant worlds in time, and of lovers parted by the sea. As she sang, the tavern grew still as the winter outside.
Before the sun’s dim light filtered through the thick winter clouds, she heard her own melody being softly hummed in the throat of a stranger. By – she found, following the sound – the traveler from the night before. He moved softly through the crisp morning shadows of the buildings, then the forest, towards the sunrise and the sea. She followed him through the snowflakes, and under the boughs, hiding among the brambles where the frosted grass gave way to exposed roots amidst the sand. The man paused briefly, and Darryl held her breath, but he merely stripped to his skin and, leaving his garments in a pile on the sand, strode into the surf. He paused again as the icy water washed up to his thighs before diving headlong into the ocean, carried with the recession of the wave.
Darryl watched his movements the water, holding her breath when he disappeared beneath the surface and breathing deep when he reappeared. He knew the water, did not fear it, and the woman felt a phantom pang in her chest.
Perhaps she ought to have run. Instead, she crept down the rooted embankment to the beach, where the man’s belongings rested, closer to the water than she had been in years, for if the sea touched her, if the ocean called her back....
She shivered, casting off such thoughts. Beneath the tunic and the breeches, she found a belt, heavy for the scabbard it bore. Curious, she drew the weapon an inch from its hold, then farther. The pale rose blade was sharpened to an edge, but cast no reflection. A sword like the knife she had cast into the sea, so many years ago.
Memories stirred in her, and she set the weapon aside, grabbing instead for the pouch that was secured opposite to it. Pouches held coins and sometimes gems or jewelry, and she had learned the use of treasure to humans. This pouch, however, contained a gem unlike any she had ever seen.
Smooth and round, it fit between the cups of her palms. Translucent, yet dark and smoky from the center outward. Darryl felt herself drawn towards that center, and, so transfixed, she didn’t notice the man returning from the sea.
Crouching beside her, he grabbed for his weapon first. Startled, she fell back on her heels. Rather than attack her, he simply collected his clothing and his boots, holding the later together with his sword and draping the former over his arm.
They stood in unison. She held the gem out to him, tentatively, for it still pulled at the edges of her being. To her bewilderment, he hesitated to take it back, one hand – fingers webbed – hovering above her both, uncertainty playing across his eyes.
At last, he lifted the gem from her palms, almost reverently. Giving her a wide berth, he moved backward across the sand, watching her as he left, before scrambling up the bank to disappear amidst the trees. Darryl glanced at her hands, turning them that the stray moisture glistened in the light; the droplets of seawater that fell upon her made her feel nothing, but fleeting cold and wet.