Beneath Green Waves of Brine || J.S. Alexander

2
by J.S. Alexander

Image Credit: Myron Davis/Getty Images



Deep down beneath green waves of brine there sits two sunken towers of rust. Between them yawns a fathomless trench leagues wide, a black abyss devoid of life. The towers, sentinels lost and forgotten by the races of Land Above, have kept a baleful watch over one another since before the seas first rose.


The merfolk now inhabit the towers. Two sovereigns rule against one another, both descended from the ancient Winter Queen. On her death bed the Winter Queen gave each of her children a gift. Lord Wallace, resplendent in his iridescent scales and tail half a league long, floats in the East. His gift from the Winter Queen: a silver trident tipped with iron that returns to him every moonrise no matter where it lay. Lady Bruce, red scaled with an eye sharp enough to cut even the thickest stone, floats to the West. Her gift from the Winter Queen: a single scale of pink coral that allows her to turn invisible, save for the scale itself.


But the queen gave a third gift. Lord Wallace, the fiercest of the two siblings, took this honor. The gift: a wife, the most curious of the merfolk, Isla. At first Isla was thrilled to be wed. As the decades wore on, however, a dark cloud of ink grew over the Eastern tower.


Lord Wallace saw this omen and decided it was a sign of his sister’s jealousy over his wife. Jealous that the Winter Queen loved him more. Jealous that he thwarted her every attempt on his life. To keep Lady Bruce in her place, he took his trident and hurled it across the trench every moonrise. Nothing crossed the trench out of fear of his mighty arm.


#


One day, decades after the omen began, Isla came to Lord Wallace. “My lord,” she said “what lives above your great and mighty sea? I want to learn about the Land Above.”


“Do not wonder, you! Rather wander, see the reef I grew for us,” said he.


The reef was new and contented Isla for a while. It was born of an ancient shipwreck, rotted wood and rust still littered the reef. That, and bone. Isla found long forgotten skeletons of a strange sort of two-legged folk, the sort said to live in Land Above. There was one skeleton that drew Isla’s attention the most. It had the most beautiful skull. Fully intact, jaw and all, and smooth as skin. Other bones had coral and algae growing on them, but not the skull. She took to calling it her Prince, and would pretend to have conversations with it when Wallace could not hear.


The most curious of the merfolk could not stay in one place for long. She imagined her prince telling her of Land Above, of beautiful shining towers and markets and music and forests. Isla secreted the skull away from the reef, and together they formed a plan.


#


One moonrise, after Wallace threw his trident and went to rest from the exertion, Isla left the tower. But she did not know the way to Land Above, and her prince could not remember. But they did know up.


Skull in hand, she swam upwards as fast as her stout tail could carry her. Her stomach turned at the changes in the water, but she pushed upwards still. There was no telling what Wallace’s punishment would be if she failed and had to return.


And then, air.


Isla had no idea how close she was until surface tension broke and her gills strained. Disoriented and lost, the cruel green waves battered her and twisted her about. The air bit and howled. Isla bit and howled back but to no avail. Land Above was nowhere to be seen.


Heartbroken, Isla allowed herself to sink. Down, down, far beneath the waves and back into the brine. Back to the towers of rust and Lord Wallace, back to his retribution. As she sank she renounced all the false gifts Wallace ever gave her. For a true gift expected nothing in return, and everything about him was false.


Her one true gift, shown to her by her prince: a glint of red to the West, and a new plan.


#


Lady Bruce swam the caverns beneath her tower. They were a labyrinth carved by her own eye, something to pass the time alone in her tower. Once upon a time she was almost as feared as her brother due to her eye and powers of invisibility, but that time was almost a century past. Now she preferred her solitude, to carve out her great maze in peace.


Peace that was shattered that very day by a visitor at the mouth of the labyrinth. The visitor carried a skull and wrapped themselves in kelp as an attempt at disguise, but Bruce’s eye saw right through it.


“Fear not, young lass. I am not one to break secrets of those who share them with myself,” she said to Isla.


Isla dropped the kelp from around her. She met Lady Bruce’s eye. “Please tell me how to reach the Land Above,” she said. “Your brother Wallace is an ignorant beast. I must be free of him.”


Bruce turned this thought in her head, much like a maelstrom turns the sea. There would be consequences, sure. She was no longer a warrior, and could not stop Wallace from striking her down should it come to battle. 


But her thoughts turned deeper. It was careless to give the third gift to Wallace, she thought. Lady Bruce’s memories of the Winter Queen were a salt-crusted wound. The queen was a short-sighted, spiteful witch, she thought. Bruce once had the chance to spit on the queen’s grave, but did not take it. Setting that third gift free might be the next best thing…


And even deeper: what was a grave to the Winter Queen?


“No,” said she, “I will not help.”


#


Isla, heartbroken again, turned away from Lady Bruce. There was no way for her to know if Wallace had noticed her gone. That troubled her, for the journey across the trench was longer then she hoped it to be. Moonrise was but hours away. When last she returned from seeking Land Above, he showed Isla how sharp the iron tips of his weapon reflected the moonlight on her throat. Her prince’s stare caught her own, and his naked gaze confirmed her thoughts. Their fear of Lord Wallace was greater than their fear of Lady Bruce.


And so she turned at the base of the Western tower. She called up to Bruce, who now floated on a balcony above her.


“Lady,” called she, “think what could be yours: trident of silver! Teeth of iron!” Calling so forcefully felt strange and unnatural to Isla, but she knew deep down that this was her last chance.


Silence floated down from the balcony, mixing with her growing despair. But something else floating down. A single scale, pink and made of coral.


“Bring it to me,” Bruce said.


#


Lord Wallace stood atop his tower and drew his trident from the risen moon. The ink cloud was finally clearing. In his twisted mind, this served only to solidify his suspicions. Lady Bruce had stolen away his wife without him noticing.


“Bitch!” roared he. “Invisible red bitch!”


He cursed the Winter Queen for not birthing him with a sharp eye. He looked across the trench, searching for any sign of his hated sister Bruce. No sign showed itself to him. His paranoia grew a hundred fold. Wallace thought his sister now meant to murder him as her final act of jealousy. No—revenge! Revenge for mother loving him more.


He did not hurl his trident that moonrise like he had since the cloud first appeared. Atop his tower he waited. Days and then a week. Patiently plotting how he would rend her corpse apart after smiting her dead.


Then he saw her.


Or rather, the scale. The second gift from his mother, swimming fast toward his tower. Oh, how Bruce was clever! Of course she would not show herself. But she underestimated the might of Lord Wallace. To strike a moving target so small and from so great a distance was unthinkable. But Wallace excelled at the unthinkable. He would do well to remind his sister of that fact.


#


Lady Bruce watched that sliver of silver fly from the East. In that throw twisted centuries of hate and abuse between the two of them. From her tower she could see how it stained the water blue and deepened the black of the trench. There was no doubt in her mind. Wallace thought he was killing her, not Isla. Bruce took what satisfaction she could from this deception.


It would not miss. Bruce could see that now. She’d hoped Wallace’s dull eyes would not see the scale’s approach. She did not care enough to watch the girl die. Instead she turned back to the weakened foundation of her tower, her labyrinth, to curse herself for hoping. 


#


And so the trident, first gift of the Winter Queen, did strike true. Isla felt nothing as it pierced the scale, turning her body to a pink foam. Upwards she once again floated. Upwards and forever away from the little sovereigns down below. With no hands to hold him, her prince sank to the black trench below.


Then, she saw the towers of rust no more.


Isla thought, why won’t my prince swim up to me? We were supposed to see Land Above together...


Then, she wandered, but would never wonder again.


#


To the East Lord Wallace’s laugh echoed across the trench. His voice boomed as he announced himself, once again, the fiercest of the merfolk. The towers shook with his celebration.


To the West Lady Bruce cut away at her labyrinth. There was no art to her carving, not anymore. With hateful strokes she tore away at the stone beneath her tower.


Then, her tower moved.


Weakened by her carving and jolted by Wallace’s celebrating, the stone beneath the Western tower finally gave way. It crumbled and the tower fell to the trench, taking Lady Bruce with it. Thinking quickly and with spite, she cast her eye to the East. It cut through the debris and the blue water. Her glare struck Lord Wallace’s shaking tower. It groaned for a moment, and fell to the trench.


Wallace’s hysterical boasting echoed one final time.


Then, all was still.


Decades passed, then centuries, and soon millennia. The trench yawned wider over time, then began to close. A grave is not much to the Winter Queen, and she wanted nothing but for the world to forget her embarrassment. So the trench drew tight, leaving generations of merfolk to wonder as they wandered over the scar: what happened here to mark the ocean floor so?


Not a thought remained of Lord Wallace and Lady Bruce. Their memories washed away with the tide. Bits of flotsam, ignored by all who cared to look.

     

But there! In the sand, Land Above, flecks of pink foam adorn the shore.

***


J.S. Alexander grew up wandering the forests of the North West U.S. He lives there still with his wife and cat. When not writing or reading, he spends his time thinking about writing or reading. His fiction has previously appeared in Sci-Fi Shorts, Hexagon Magazine, and Swords and Sorcery Magazine. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram, @WurdsByJustin, or at his website, ThePolishedWurd.com.

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2Comments
  1. A beautiful story that invokes the sorrow of classic tragedies and wonderful imagery of a strange yet familiar world. I look forward to reading more of your works!

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  2. A haunting short story that reads like Beowulf meets The Little Mermaid.

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