A story involving a war between mermaids and unicorns. :) For The Whatever Contest.
|Prompt ▼ |
Katerina knew something about the power of stories. She knew that they could change the way that you feel about things. She knew that they could give you ideas and teach you to see through another's eyes. She knew how sometimes stories lied in order to tell the truth and that sometimes, they just lied.
She knew about secrets, too, and what leaving one part of a story out could do to change the truth of it.
When she was just a baby, her father had to settle a land dispute between the neighboring kingdom of unicorns and their own people. A farmer on the border had cleared land that belonged to the unicorns, burning down some of their sacred orchards and groves. For dealing with the matter fairly and having the argument ended in their favor, the unicorns gifted Katerina's family with a foal. His name was Vassilis, and Katerina doesn't remember life before him.
Her first memories are of his white coat and his golden horn gleaming in the sun and of chasing him through the halls of the castle, the endless wheat fields, and the apple orchards. He plucked apples down from the branches that were too high for her to reach and dropped them down onto her lap. She would look up and smile while twisting the stem from the apple before taking that first, delicious bite.
Her next memory isn't nearly so pleasant. She doesn't remember how she got there. She does remember the crashing of waves, the chill of the water, the excitement, and the clarity of a lovely day. The drive to go out further and further into the waves sang in her blood. She went out until she lost her footing, until she had gone too far.
The pull of the sea dragged her from shore. Her muscles soon burned and ached. When she thinks back to it now, she can still feel the heaviness of the seawater burning her throat, invading her nose. She can feel the pounding of her heart, rapid heavy thudding. Her head slipping under the waves, so, so cold.
She had been alone at first, but now she could hear Vassilis shouting her name. She could hear the pounding of his hooves as he ran back and forth across the beach. She called for him during a fleeting moment when she could keep her head above water. She begged him to save her.
"I can't!" he yelled back. "I can't go into the sea. It would break the truce!"
Truce? What was a truce? She didn't understand.
He pranced back from the water as it rolled towards him. Just as she was starting to fail, he, at last, splashed into the water, charging to get to her.
His approach was the last thing that she saw before her head slipped under the waves. She held her breath until her chest was aching. Her limbs were so tired that they simply wouldn't work. She knew she couldn't hold on much longer but then, she felt cold arms snake around her middle, pulling her up towards the murky light above. Her head broke the surface. The beauty of air filling her lungs, of salt stinging her eyes, of the blue expanse of sky spreading above her, brought fresh tears to her eyes.
She fell limply against the body behind her, too weak to even turn to see who it was. The shore came closer and closer. She could see Vassilis pacing again at the edge of the water.
Once she was close enough, she pushed her feet into the sand beneath her, and, standing on trembling legs, she finally turned to see who had saved her. A mermaid. She was beautiful, skin as pale as moonlight and hair as dark as midnight. Blue eyes, like the sky's reflection on the water. Her tail flowed out behind her, sinuous. Her scales gleamed golden in the sun, almost a match to Vassilis's horn. The mermaid smiled at Katerina.
Vassilis was silent. Katerina turned and stepped out of the water, shivering. She stood between them now, able to look back and forth as they spoke. Vassilis was tense and so still. Silence stretched out until Katerina felt the tension between them in her belly.
Finally, Vassilis spoke. "Why did you save her?" he asked. His voice was strained like he had so much more that he'd like to say.
"I have seen enough hurt caused by hate." She answered. Her voice rang like bells, soothing and beautiful. Pure. "I think perhaps you feel the same," she said. "You crossed the boundary to try to save her."
"A grave offense," he said. "Will you inform the king?"
"And start the war again, in earnest?" she scoffed. "I just said that I had seen enough pain. The truce is safe with me."
He nodded and inclined his head to the mermaid in a gesture of respect. He didn't confirm nor deny his own experience with hate.
She nodded back. "I am Althea," she said. "I will come back at the full moon. I have questions, but you must take her home." She turned back to Katerina and came close, looked into her eyes. "You must be careful not to tell anyone the full details of this day. For the safety of us all. Can you do that?"
Katerina doesn't remember anything else about that day. She doesn't remember Vassilis leaning down to let her climb onto his back. She doesn't remember being carried home to the arms of her father. She doesn't remember Vassilis being banished back home for having lost track of her that day. Nor that he became so adept at escaping from his home and finding his way back to her that he earned his place back at her side.
She slept the rest of that day and never once mentioned mermaids.
The first story that she remembers hearing was the legend of the war between the unicorns and the mermaids. She'd pestered Vassilis for ages, and at last, he bowed under the pressure.
He sighed as he began the tale. "Long, long ago, the unicorns lived in the sea. We shared dominion over the waters with the merfolk. A powerful king, sound of body but not of mind, rose to power in their kingdom. He suffered from bouts of madness and a deep paranoia borne of whatever ailed his mind. It was controlled by his guards but never entirely hidden. He'd disappear for weeks in only the company of the guard and his seven daughters.
"They would return soul-sick and exhausted, but he would be rejuvenated, a real king for a time. After years of this cycle, his youngest daughter, the most lovely of them all, disappeared. When she could not be found quickly, the king became convinced that the unicorns had taken her. His rage was terrible. We were banished to the far ends of the sea. He played us against each other, even as we tried to find his daughter and earn back our home.
"Our failure to find her stirred the waves of war into a tsunami. Years of bloodshed followed. In the end, we lost and were banished to the lands, emerging from the foams of the surf, exhausted and shaking. A kind old woman found the remnants of my people and gave them land to graze and shelter when they needed it. We still live on that same land, generations later.
"The sea king came to the shore and met with our king, and from that meeting came the truce. It holds so long as none of us set hoof into the sea."
"But you did," Katerina said.
"Yes," he said and looked at her levelly. “I would do it again.”
Ever since her brush with death, something had changed in Katerina. Perhaps a door had opened that should have remained closed. Occasionally, she would see things that weren't there. Clouds of people moving through shadows. She'd hear snippets of music plucked on phantom harps, voices that whispered secrets too low for her to understand. For years she hid this from everyone—even Vassilis.
She collected the stories, that were sung loud enough for her to hear, like pearls in a jar. The voice of the cook who used the wrong mushrooms for a stew and now sings the song of his pain all through the castle halls. The old Queen who had stayed at this castle for a time, a prisoner in her own kingdom. She'd died in the tower and even now sang from up in the ramparts.
Katerina kept her silence until she simply couldn't anymore. One of the death songs she heard rang too loud for that. The most persistent of her visions was a ballad echoing out from the sea caves. Each passing season, the song grew louder, echoed further until it was a constant low clanging inside Katerina's mind.
She was unaccountably nervous when she asked Vassilis to accompany her to its source. "Will you go with me in search of something?"
"Is it dangerous?" he asked.
"That's likely," she answered.
"Well, then. Of course."
She was now tall and slender and nearly a woman grown. He could keep her safe anywhere on land. A pity that she was always so drawn to the sea.
She picked her way among the caves off of the shore. The rocks here were enormous, reaching to the sky. They made her feel so small. The salt smell hung heavy in the air. She could feel it on her skin and clinging to her hair. Vassilis walked even slower behind her, careful to never even set so much as a hoof into the water. If she really listened, she could hear the slow plod of his hooves striking stone behind her, a quiet echo underneath the ancient, sad song that was calling to her from the caves.
They came to a small cleft in the rock, too small for Vassilis but just large enough for her. She slipped through before he could stop her. The cavern was small and empty, save for a small dais in the center. A beam of sunlight peeked through a gap in the rock above, striking the platform, making it glow.
The tone of the song that had called Katerina here changed and softened. Lying on the dais, glinting in the light, was a necklace. A heavy gold chain ending in an ornate heart formed from two sets of overlapping mermaid scales. One set on each side. Gold filigree twined across the front of it, sealing the pieces together. The desire to pick it up was overwhelming. She knew in her own heart that she was meant to take this one from here.
Still, she was hesitant. She walked slowly and stepped quietly across the room. The closer to the necklace she got, the quieter the song became, now a whispered chant, tolling back and forth with the sound of the waves.
She carefully reached out to touch it and felt a shock flow up her arm. The song was loud again, wrapping around her in the chamber until the outside world ceased to exist. A vision of a beautiful woman rose up from the necklace. She looked at Katerina calmly.
The song stopped as she spoke. "I was once a princess, my kingdom was under the waves." The vision gestured, and a picture of a swimming mermaid, the woman of the song, appeared, swimming across the air. "I longed for a human life and freedom from my father."
The picture changed into that of a stern, powerfully built merman towering over the small mermaid.
"I ran away to a place where I thought that he would never find me." The moving pictures changed again, the young mermaid crawling up out of the sea, dragging herself far enough away that she couldn't even see it anymore. She pulled her necklace off, the very same that sat in this room, and then she chanted something in an old and terrible language. As she did so, her long and beautiful tail split into legs. The essence of her other form flowed into the heart chamber of the pendant.
"I grow tired," the spirit said. "Find your friends. I will tell the rest then."
Her voice faded and became breathy as she dissipated back into nothingness, into the salt spray of the sea, and the song returned quietly.
"Katerina!" Vassilis called from outside the cave. "The tide is rising, we must leave soon, or I will be unable to avoid the sea."
With only another second of hesitation, she snatched up the necklace and ran for the entrance to the cave. Vassilis turned the moment that he saw her emerging and started picking his way back to shore, quick and careful.
She followed, with the necklace hanging from her clenched fist, holding it so tightly that she could feel each link of the chain pressed into her palm.
She walked with purpose, quietly lost in her thoughts. She took Vassilis to his favorite place in the world, the apple orchard on the other side of the grounds, as far from the sea as they were allowed to go.
She told him what she knew and that they must wait for the full moon. They must wait for Althea.
Althea knew something about the power of stories. She knew how isolating they could be. She knew how they could drive creatures to desperate lengths. And she knew the power held in a story not believed.
Her first memories are of her mother singing, holding her in her arms as they swam, the rush of the water as her mother pushed through with her powerful tail. This is her only memory of her mother.
She's been told that her father had been kind before her mother's death. A story that she almost couldn't believe. They said that something broke in him that day. His heart cracked open, and he couldn't find a way to repair it.
When she was young she was pulled from the sea in a fishnet.
The sailors dragged her onto the deck of a ship, the wooden boards harsh against her flesh.
Men circled her, but they parted for a unicorn stalking across the deck, his hooves striking loudly. She was afraid, so afraid that she couldn't move except to tremble.
She had grown up on stories about the cruelty of the unicorns. How they had taken the ancient king's most beloved daughter all those years ago, sparking the war. Whatever they had done to her had left no trace. Was that what was going to happen to her now?
The unicorn towering above her shook his head slightly. "She's just a child," he said. He turned to one of the men and said, gruffly, "Throw her back."
Several pairs of hands descended on her, and she was cast back into the sea, in a free-fall, before the comforting embrace of the sea reached for her and took her home.
She tried to tell her father what had happened but he wouldn't listen. He raged at her. He insisted that no unicorn would ever save a mermaid. They were evil, vile creatures, never to be trusted.
A story not believed caused a deep rift. For years afterward, she kept quiet. She bowed her head when he was home and kept to herself as much as possible. She often escaped to make mosaics from sea glass in a cave far from the palace.
When she did speak, rarely, it was because she couldn't contain it. She'd ask questions that no one wanted to answer. She'd ask how all this began, the great divide between her people and the humans and the unicorns. She asked about the unicorn's families. She asked how all this fighting could ever really help anything.
Her father told her the tale of the missing princess, stolen generations back, but that was so long ago now, it hardly seemed a reason to keep a hold of the hate now.
When she was sixteen, she went to the surface to try to ask a unicorn herself. She searched and searched, but they were taking their side of the oath seriously. She never saw hide nor hoof for three years until one day, a little girl found her way into the ocean.
Mermaids aren't supposed to act on the affairs of the upper world. Althea had been lonely for a long time, ostracized, and it had been quite a while since she had worried over what she was supposed to do.
She knew what she risked by taking the child to shore. Not only the deep disapproval of her own people but perhaps the wrath of the unicorn on the beach.
Only, it was as she had thought, her people and theirs were all more alike than they liked to admit.
Afterward, every full moon, she came to shore and swam upriver to a slow-moving stretch of river beneath a willow tree, hidden from view. There she talked with Vassilis. He told her the tales he knew of the war, and she told him about her mother, lost in a skirmish, and her father's need to cling to the hate that had motivated him thus far.
When Katerina was older, Vassilis started bringing her along. As the years passed, Katerina grew into a strong but quiet woman, always listening more than speaking. She had a head full of daydreams that she kept to her own counsel. Althea could see it in her eyes.
One full moon, Katerina and Vassilis arrived under the willow carrying a mermaid scale necklace. Althea had one to match, made from her mother's scales.
"Where did you get that?" she asked, even as she reached out for it.
Katerina placed the necklace into Althea's hands and told her about the cave and the story that was told there. As soon as she was done speaking, the ghost emerged again from the scales.
"My father was insane, twisted inside," she said. "Driven always by delusion and the need for control. He had never wanted to share dominion of the sea."
An image of him on a throne of whalebone floated into existence next to the spirit.
They all watched as he swam to the surface, to the shore, and found his daughter there.
"I stood my ground. I refused to go home with him. I was used to my legs by now and could run much faster than he could crawl. He knew it and didn't embarrass himself by trying to catch me. There was a moment where I could see his frustration over losing control was outweighed by a new idea. I should have realized. I should have known that he had plans, but I didn't care. He left, and I was free."
She hesitated in her tale and looked down, sadness etched into every line of her face. "I should have cared."
She sighed and went on. "He went back down to the depths and told everyone that the unicorns must have taken me. Built an entire war on a lie."
She paused again. The words coming slower now, as if the speaking of them was its own weight for her to bear. "I was an old woman by the time the unicorns were banished to land. It was then that I discovered what my father had done. I had wanted to be free of my father, and in that, I suppose I succeeded, but I never could break free of the sea. I lived by the seaside all of my days."
"You were the kind old woman that gave us a home?" asked Vassilis.
"Oh, yes. Though it would have been far kinder to go home myself and stop any more of the bloodshed. For that, for staying, I can't apologize enough."
"Althea," she continued. "I must leave this to you now. You must go to the sea witch and get safe travel for your friends. The girl, Katerina, gives me the ability to speak, and her unicorn would never allow her to accompany you alone. I believe the only way to end this is to show them all how similar we all are. To show the strong bond between the three of you and to tell the tale as it really was."
Althea went to the sea witch. She swam through dark tunnels that seemed without end. She knew she was lost. There was no other option than to keep going. Keep going until she can't.
"Well, honey. Where did you come from?" A voice asked her from out of the darkness.
Whatever Althea had expected of the sea-witch, it wasn't this. Short blond hair that wasn't affected at all by the water. It kept its curls, and even in this murky darkness, it seemed to glow. Her eyes tilted like a salamander's, and her whole body was covered in dainty scales that shifted colors in the darkness and the light.
"I came through there," said Althea. She turned to look behind her, but the entrance she had come through was gone.
"I see," said the witch. "Well, the only people that can find their way here are the people that are worth helping." She plopped down on a bench of coral. "So what can I do ya for?" she asked.
Althea blinked. "I need passage for two friends to the sea court. There's a necklace that will only respond to a human girl and a unicorn that will not allow her to go alone."
"That does sound like quite the pickle. What does the necklace do?"
"Tells the truth about something that's been shrouded in lies."
"Ah, so it tells of the princess, does it? Good." She hopped down from her perch. She moved gracefully and with purpose. She pulled stone tablets from shelves and scanned them, occasionally muttering and nodding to herself.
In the end, the witch handed her two jars. "Have your friends drink this. It will turn your unicorn friend into his undersea form, and it will turn your girl into a mermaid."
She turned and started cleaning up from her work. "You have protection covered. The princess will keep you safe, just make sure one of you always has a hold of the necklace and all will be well."
Althea turned to go but then stopped. The cave exit was still gone. "Don't I owe you something for this?" she asked.
"Why would you think that?" asked the witch.
"You know, in all the old tales, you never get this type of thing for free."
"Well, if there's one thing you've learned today, it's that stories can lie."
"You know what happened to the princess, then?" Althea asked.
"Why didn't you say anything? If you knew, you could have stopped some of the fighting."
"I did try. Why do you think I'm hiding in these caves? No one believed me either."
A suspicion dawned. "How long have you been hiding in these caves? Are you the same witch that made the princess human?"
The witch only smiled, and in a puff of ink, Althea was transported out of the caverns and to the surface.
She returned to the river under the tree and invited both Katerina and Vassilis into the water. Vassilis hesitated but eventually stepped into the current.
She gave Katerina a bottle and helped Vassilis to drink his down.
Katerina kept hold of the necklace throughout her change, something to cling to. Her legs fused. She fought the urge to try to pull them apart. Her muscles felt different, stronger. She curled her tail upwards and tipped back into the river. Instinct had her pulling up out of the water to breathe. When she surfaced, Althea was smiling at her.
"Try to stay under," she said. You'll find that the pressure of the water lets your mind know to breathe not through your lungs but in another way. You won't even feel the need to draw breath."
Katerina put the necklace on so that she wouldn't drop it and tried to do as Althea suggested. She found that Althea was right. The change was more difficult on Vassilis because he was utterly unused to water. Moving through it was a challenge even before half of him changed.
He kept his golden horn and his horse shape from his middle up, but his bottom half grew into the lower half of a beautifully colored sea horsetail. He was incandescent, every color represented. He took his time drifting here and there in the deeper waters of the river.
As soon as he and Katerina felt prepared, they all swam out to the sea together.
Katerina was fascinated by every color and texture to be found under the sea. She wished that they could stop and enjoy more of the sights, but she felt the tension coming from Vassilis and Althea, and she understood the gravity of the situation.
As they approached the kingdom, some mermen approached, swimming alongside them. One tried to attack but was pushed back by a wave of energy from the necklace hanging from Katerina's neck. Each new arrival tried the same, and each was knocked back until twenty or more mermen were traveling with them.
"Althea!" one called. "It's been a long time."
She didn't answer. She didn't answer any of the shouted questions about who they were, where they were going, why she would dare to bring a unicorn into their midst. Shouts of how ugly he was compared to mermaids. Taunts and jeers. None of that mattered. They swam on, and Althea only had thoughts of her father.
The castle loomed up out of the murky dark, glittering spires snaked with seaweed.
They swam straight through the front doors, the guards pushed aside by the necklace's power.
Her father sat, as he always did, tall and proud, on his throne of bones. Each of them thought back to the vision the spirit had shown them of the king from so long ago, seated on the very same throne.
They stopped before him.
Rather than acknowledging his daughter, the king turned his attention to a guard and asked him how they had failed to keep Althea out of the throne room. How they had let a filthy unicorn into the keep.
Althea didn't let the guard answer but spoke herself. "We are here to tell a tale. And to make a new deal."
The necklace around Katerina's neck flashed, and the princess's form appeared more substantial than she had appeared on land. She told her tale, of her father and her need to escape, of her folly in staying on land so long that hate grew up between the races.
She went up to the king and placed a hand on his chest, and she mended his cracked heart by giving him a piece of her own.
"There," said, "That is my gift and my penance. Use it well."
She faded away, an ember now, a spark, settling into the necklace and giving it a faint glow.
The king looked at his daughter now, for the first time, with his eyes clear and his heart washed clean. "Tell me again," he said. "Tell me the tale of who saved you from the net."
When she told him this time, he believed her.
She told him that no matter where they came from, no matter what they looked like, they all love, they all care for their families. They all want to be free. That when her own people turned against her she had made friends with a human and a unicorn. They had saved her as much as she'd saved them.
When she asked her father again, at the end of the tale, what made them all so different from each other, he had no answer.
She and Katerina both saw the power held in a story.
The king turned to Vassilis and told him to tell his people that they could return to the sea if they wished it. He lifted the ancient curse that had been cast to prevent the unicorns from achieving their water form.
"Tell your people that they can now change back and forth, sea creatures or land, whatever they choose," he said.
He turned to Katerina. "You are always welcome here, an honored guest. I give you the gift of the change as well. Free to live in whichever world you choose."
"And you, daughter, would you like the same? The ability to wander the earth when the mood strikes and come home when and if you will?"
"Yes, father. Though, not to escape you as you might think. Only so that I can be with my friends, in whichever form they choose."
He nodded and made it so.
There was a grumbling traveling along the merpeople gathered around them. Still, the threads of hate pulled tight on some of them. What did it matter if one unicorn saved the princess? What did it really matter if the unicorns had done nothing wrong in the beginning? They still didn't belong here now.
Vassilis heard the grumbles and responded. He told the tale of his life. How he'd lived, isolated from his people but shown kindness by the humans. He'd lived in a place he didn't belong and yet had found belonging. He asked them all if they shouldn't all have the right to find the place that they were meant to be? Land or sea. Among friends. The freedom to find a home wherever it could be found?
There was less grumbling now and some murmurs of agreement. The light that had filled the king's chest was spreading throughout his people. The insidious poison of nameless hate slowly leeched out and left in its wake a beautiful dream for the future.