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|A Garidon story. A children's tale about a young girl's desires is told at the Naridale Faire by a woman who knows far more about the story than she should. (Please, feel free to leave comments following your readings of the tales I've provided... feedback is always greatly appreciated!)||
To Swim Forever
The first annual Midsummer Faire was finally over.
It had been a beautiful day for the first-ever Marnet fair, a joyous occasion marking the day of the midsummer solstice. Numerous tournaments of all types had been staged for all, ranging from tests of might and brute strength to exhibitions of finesse and of the mind. As the sun began its downward wane, myriad horns blared from the central square, marking the beginning of the presentation ceremony for the day's champions. Beside the lord mayor, the presenters of the awards- Keralyn Trailsong, local master bard of Marnet, and mage-turned-merchant Shasta Rameikos, who had graciously donated money and trophies to be given to the inaugural victors- stood proudly on the podium, surveying the gathering crowd and silently praising the success of this inaugural event.
Before the ceremony began, though, Keralyn- a favorite both among the gentry and the common folk- had been begged by the crowd, then egged on by Shasta, to perform a short tune or two for the semi-hyper (and somewhat inebriated, thanks to the ale tents) crowd. She soon finished her improvised song about Shasta and his early exploits, much to the crowd's enjoyment- and Shasta's utter embarrassment. Just as the two had at last quieted the rowdy crowd and were ready to announce the first champion of the day, a young, blond-haired woman in the front row stood up. "Please, Lady Bard, if I may," she asked timidly, "I, too, would like to tell a story- the Mermaid's Tale, a story that I can tell like no other has before."
Keralyn looked down at the young woman as the first rows of the crowd began murmuring unpleasantly in a low, agitated rumble. "A common child's tale? I really don't think-"
"-That would be much of a problem, milady!" Shasta broke in. "If you would excuse us for just one moment?" The young woman nodded, and he pulled Keralyn off to the side as the crowd became more frustrated. "What harm could it do?" he whispered. "She certainly cannot take too long; the Mermaid's Tale is but a short story. Besides, Lady Trailsong, as you yourself are so fond of saying, each bard must begin somewhere."
"Somewhere, aye," Keralyn countered, "but in front of this crowd at this time? This certainly is not the time or place for-"
Shasta shook his head. "Kera, Kera, Kera..." he admonished with a smile. "This is, in all likelihood, merely an attempt at free publicity on her part. And we both know the value of free publicity." Keralyn conceded Shasta's point with a small smile. "Who knows? This may even give her career a boost."
Turning back to the young woman, he held out a hand and helped her to the stage, quickly producing a stool on which she could sit as she played temporary host to the grand assembly. "Speak loudly and directly out to the crowd; enchantments laid upon this stage will carry your voice quite far. Please, begin your telling of the tale at your leisure, Miss."
* * * * *
"Why do the gods see fit to always pick on me?" Endara whined between breaths as she ran through the thick greenery of Narilan's heavily wooded border. She looked back to see that not more than three long steps behind followed another human, this one trying so desperately to catch its prey. Turning her head back, Endara found she was getting so close to the edge of the woods, to freedom and aid- safety was perhaps only fifty or so feet in front of her. As she took a stutter step to leap an upturned root, her right foot caught her left heel, and down she came, landing face first in a pile of fresh pine needles. In a flash, the hunter was upon her, and as she lay helpless in the forest floor, she looked up into the dark, crazed eyes of the one who had chased her all this way. The hunter towered above her and tapped her shoulder once, muttering a simple, oft-dreaded word: "Tag." The 'hunter'- another girl about Endara's age- dropped to the ground beside her, and both girls lay on the pine bed, struggling hard to catch their breath, alternately giggling and panting.
It was a normal early summer day in Naridale and the two youngsters, both barely upon their teenage years, were enjoying their first day off from both school and chores. The past school year, as each consecutive year always did, seemed to have dragged on for a particularly long time, and the girls decided not to let the first summer day go by without playing games with a group of their friends.
"Gods above, girl, but it took me forever to find you," said Corene between breaths, "but finally I got you! Now you're it." She stood up, brushed herself off, and let out a great breath with a loud, long sigh. "That was wonderful!" She jogged off, her rarely-cut cornsilk hair bouncing behind her. "Come! Let's find the others!"
Endara still lay on the ground as Corene trotted away. "Hey! Cor, wait for me!" Endara, forest-brown braids sticking out wildly to one side, shook off the dead, dry brush that stuck to her clothing and ran to catch up to her best friend.
Hot. No other word or phrase could better describe the day's weather. The tiny village of Naridale had a way of coping with the heat, however. Its namesake, the small but beautiful Lake Narilan, offered plenty of sanctuary for any who wished for instant relief. The two sweating girls, both acting on a sudden, almost extra-sensory impulse, each grinned from ear to ear as the same idea entered their heads. Without a word, they agreed to a sudden change of their plans- instead of a day in the village, a day at the lake suddenly sounded infinitely more pleasant. They picked up their pace toward the town square, toward their friends to inform them of this sudden change in plans. "Garth! Shea!" they shouted when they found the two unofficial ringleaders of their merry little band of young imps. "We're going to the lake. Would you care to join us?"
The response was unanimous. Garth Selmo, a local carrot-topped rogue who wasn't necessarily letting his friendship with the two girls get in the way of perhaps trying to get to know them better, spoke for himself and his friend Shea when he shouted enthusiastically, "Sure! I'll go get some of the others!" The four children ran off to their houses, exchanging their day clothes for more appropriate swimming attire.
The two girls, now absolutely thrilled by the prospect of a lazy day at the lake, reached their houses in record time. Corene finished changing first and, after saying good-bye to her parents, ran for Endara's house. "Hurry up, Dara! At this rate, it'll be sunset tomorrow before you get out here," she called sarcastically from the dirt street outside.
"I'm moving as fast as I can!" shouted Endara from inside. On her way out the door after a quick wave to her mother, she muttered quietly, "Besides, it's not like we haven't got all day." She closed the door and ran up to Corene, looking her right in the eye. "You know, Cor, if you had wanted to get to the lake so quickly, why did you wait for me? You know from experience I'm not the fastest person in the Dale."
The blond-haired girl smirked. "Last time I went to the lake alone, Mother wouldn't let me hear the end of it! I had to wait for you- even though you know how much I love to swim." The last bit of Corene's statement was indeed very true. She took better than a fish to the warm waters of Narilan. By the tender age of seven, she had already become the fastest swimmer in Naridale. By her tenth summer, she alone could swim across the tiny lake faster than some folks could paddle it. Now, a few years later, she took even less time than before. She just plain loved to swim. She was known to skip her daily lessons and household chores to swim. Twice, she had even left home in the middle of the night to swim.
And today, at long last, she was free to swim all day.
Both girls sprinted the last few yards to the lake. As they reached the shore, they quickly shed the outer layers of their clothing, threw them down in an unorganized pile on a grassy patch, and splashed their way into the lake. The cool waters swept refreshingly over their bodies as they plunged deeper into the waters of Lake Narilan and swam away from the shore. The shoreline receding, Endara floated peacefully on her back, watching the clouds go by- and purposefully avoiding looking at the familiar, wicked grin spreading across Corene's face. Here it comes again- she's going to challenge me to another race across the lake.
"How about a race across the lake, Dara?" Corene asked predictably. "It's not too far, and I know you can make it. You've done it before. Please?" Corene plead to Endara. This was not the first time Corene had challenged Endara to a race. A few years ago, when Corene was only nine, she had challenged Endara to a race from the main beach of Naridale across the lake, to the mouth of Narilan's only river. Although Corene won that race (and the next one, and the next one, and so on), Endara hoped and prayed that perhaps someday, she would finally triumph over her swimming partner. Maybe, just maybe, she thought as ever, today might be that day.
"Okay," Endara replied, grudgingly. "But only on two conditions."
"Well," said Corene, tempering her giddy enthusiasm with a feigned look of disgust. "I guess that it's only fair. What are they?"
"First, I need a head start. Say, a count of two hundred. You can swim much faster than me and you know it."
Corene smirked. "Agreed. Two hundred should still give me plenty of time to catch up. What's your other condition?"
"I was getting to that. My second condition is that we stay clear of the center of the lake- Lannie's zone. You know, make a course from the beach to the Swing Tree and across, instead of clear across the center of the lake."
Corene sputtered and tried, unsuccessfully, to hold back a fit of the giggles. "You mean you actually believe that old story?" Lannie was Naridale's resident legend, a 'dreaded sea monster' who inhabited the deepest section of the lake. Even though nothing even remotely resembling Lannie had been spotted for many years, scholars and curiosity seekers alike still came from places far and wide each summer to seek him out. It was, for a time, the single largest seasonal business in Naridale, so few of the local folk discouraged the searches. Most children thought it just to be a tale told to keep them away from the lake. By adolescence, very few children believed the tales to be true.
"Do you agree?" Endara pressed, sure she had a real bet.
"I... well, okay. Are you ready?"
"I am." Endara, pulling wet hair away from her eyes, primed herself to make this day her first victory ever in the eternal series.
"On your marks, get set, go!" Corene shouted, and Endara began paddling madly toward the Swing Tree on the near shore. Corene watched as her friend swam relatively out of sight around a bend in the lake. "This may be easier than I thought," she muttered, beginning the steady count to two hundred. Upon hitting two hundred, she took a deep breath and began her swim across the lake- directly across the lake- determined to truly make a point not only about her speed, but about the truth behind the children's tales of Lannie.
By the time the contest began, the other children were finally arriving at the lake. Garth, ever one to ogle the two girls, looked at the ensuing race and shook his head, smiling quietly to himself. He took off his shirt, spread it out on top of the pile started by the girl, and turned to the others. "I told you so," he muttered to Shea, who shrugged helplessly. "I told you they were going to race." He sighed as he walked to the lake and sat lazily on the end of the pier. "I guess we should cheer for the underdog, hmm?"
"Even though we all know Endara doesn't stand a chance." Shea chuckled. Their friends snickered, watching the familiar spectacle, and Garth laid back on the pier, feet up to his ankles in the water, just waiting for Corene to beat the stuffing out of Endara. Again.
While Corene was just beginning her journey across Lake Narilan, Endara swam past the Swing Tree and out to the opposite shore as though her life depended on it. This has to be the fastest I've ever swam! She thought. She tried to swim faster, fearful of her friend catching up to and overtaking her, but she just physically couldn't. She paused briefly for breath and a quick rest, stamina waning, and looked back over her shoulder to see where Corene was, but she was nowhere in sight. Am I ahead? Oh, gods! Yes! I'm finally going to beat the little toad!
Far beneath the surface, Corene continued to gain steadily on Endara. She can't- won't- see me down here. A little more practice, maybe; she's getting better, but it appears victory is again mine, she thought confidently as she came up for a deep lungful air. She peeked in the direction of the Swing Tree to see how close Endara was to the halfway point, then slipped back beneath the surface and began to close the remaining gap.
She looked off to the right, and that's when she saw the mermaid.
Corene stopped dead and gasped, air escaping in a huge bubble. A mermaid! A real, live mermaid! It appeared the poor, silver-finned woman had swam too close to the bottom of the lake and gotten herself caught in a tangle of vines. Stay calm, Cor, stay calm... you can help. It's only a mermaid, only the living embodiment of your dreams. This should be no problem at all, thought Corene, fighting both a lack of air and the intensity of the butterflies in her stomach. She rose to the surface for a deep breath and dove back down. As she got closer to the scene, she noticed that the vines were moving more of their own accord, not swaying with the motion of the waves as she had first assumed. As she got even closer, she noticed that the vines weren't vines but something slimier and bumpier.
But if they aren't vines, Corene quickly reasoned, that could only... mean... oh, dear gods...!!
Quickly re-assessing the situation, it now appeared to Corene that the young mermaid had gotten too curious for her own good, that the monster (Lannie?!) was not at all happy about being disturbed while he slept. Now this creature was ready to punish that which disturbed it's slumber- by making the mermaid his next meal!
The butterflies in her stomach multiplied a hundred-fold as Corene fought a rising panic. What should I do? The race? The mermaid? She went up for a quick snatch of air, saw Endara heading back towards the Swing Tree and the beach, and decided to forget the race- saving the mermaid, saving someone's life, was more important to her. Down she swam toward the dim, murky bottom of the lake, looking around desperately for something, anything she might use to harm Lannie and help this poor fish-girl out of her deadly predicament. The search seemed fruitless; nothing but half-rotted wood and plants marked the lake's bottom.
But then, hope shone through with the rays of the noonday sun. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see a few struggling rays of sunlight reflecting off something metal near the bottom. It was half-buried in the mud, but its shape was unmistakable: a fishing knife, dropped long ago by some unlucky fisherman. Corene had hoped for something bigger, something more powerful, but, if the fates decreed it, under the circumstances this would have to do.
She quickly swam up for one last great breath, trying to force her lungs beyond capacity for this mammoth task. Holding the dagger straight out like the point of a spear, Corene lowered her head, kicked her powerful legs, and charged at Lannie. Closer and closer she swam, hair trailing behind her like a tail of liquid flame, and Lannie, intent upon his moving meal, showed no signs of seeing her. Still closer she swam, and still he didn't sense her. Saying a silent prayer to the gods of light, she lashed out at the monster.
For an amateur with a blade, Corene's aim was indeed good, but the steel did not strike true- instead of striking the monster in a vital spot, she lopped off a thin, slimy tentacle. She began to peel away from the scene, praying that the mermaid was free, but soon felt something slimy grab her leg. She looked back to see that indeed, Lannie knew she was there; he had let go of the struggling mermaid and was now preparing to eat the greater threat- her- instead! Closer she was reeled to Lannie's mouth, and what little resolve remained simply disappeared. Corene simply fainted, saving her mind from the horrors to come. As she drifted into unconsciousness, her muscles relaxed and she let go of the fisherman's knife.
That was all the distraction the mermaid needed.
The mermaid, black hair floating behind her like an angry cloud, sped over to the sinking dagger, snatched it up before it hit the muck below, and charged straight at Lannie. Her aim struck true, the blade plunging halfway to its handle directly in the pupil of the monster's left eye. Enraged and not prepared to fight a two-on-one battle it was sure to lose, Lannie let go of the human girl. As his blood began to pollute the water, he moved away quickly, wishing to avoid further pain from a snack that fought back.
The mermaid, meanwhile, grabbed the drowning Corene and laid her limp body on the lake's bottom. Quickly she laid two enchantments upon her rescuer: the first, a spell of water breathing, the other a dweomer of healing. She checked her own wounds while waiting a few tense moments, hoping the girl would soon stir.
Finally, with a shallow gasp of breath, Corene began to wake. "Where am I? Am I dead? Is this heaven?" the girl asked groggily.
"No, you are yet alive," the mermaid replied in a soft alto, her voice floating all around Corene on the gentle lake currents. "Although for an air-breather- and such a young one as well!- I cannot help but be amazed by your survival and your skill beneath the waves."
Corene smiled with all the smug sureness of her teenage years. "Well, I guess the gods were-" Opening her eyes at last, the realization of her surroundings quickly began to register in her brain. "Wait! I'm out of air! I can't breathe down here! I need-"
"You, young human," the mermaid said with a polite smile, "need to calm yourself. I have laid an enchantment upon you that you may breathe the water like I, at least for the next few hours. I would thank you for saving my life. So few humans are possessed of such courage in these times."
As Corene struggled to pull herself together, the realization of just to whom she was speaking slowly began to dawn on her. A mermaid! She was talking to a mermaid! For a few awkward moment, she stared impolitely at the mermaid before finally summoning the courage to strike up a more significant bit of conversation. "What's your name?" she asked rather uncreatively, struggling to turn her random thoughts into words.
"In your tongue, my name would be Teitani," the mermaid said. "I owe you a great deal, young human- the very least being my very life. In gratitude, I would grant you anything within my power. Anything you wish that I can give you will be yours."
Anything? Corene thought. Her face lit up like a child opening birthday presents. The possibilities were endless- money, friends, anything! She could grow up to be a mighty warrior, or an archmage, or even a queen! But what do I really want? I mean, I like to swim, and...
The moment that thought struck, Corene knew she wanted nothing else more. Swallowing nervously, she looked at Teitani and asked timidly, "Could you... could you make me a mermaid like you?"
Teitani's eyes narrowed slightly; she was a bit surprised with this unexpected request. "A rather... odd decision, young human. Still, it is not my place to censure your decision, and it is indeed the least I can do for the one who has just saved my life. Yes, I can," she said, voice unemotional. "But think upon the consequences of your decision: the life you have- or had- above the surface will be no more. No longer could you see your parents; the very air would soon be poison to your lungs and body. No longer will you see the people with whom you've grown up; you would never again see your friends."
Jolted by the last statement, Corene weighed her decision for a moment. "You mean I could never see Endara again?"
"No," Teitani stated flatly.
Corene thought about the offer and the consequences for a few more moments. My family, and my friends... I can't live without my friends. Especially Endara. But to be a mermaid...! "My choice is made. I wish to be like you." Oh, Dara, forgive me, but I want this so much...!
"So be it," said Teitani, eyes closed and concentrating. The transformation's power began flowing from her fingertips, and Corene began her remarkable change. Her legs began to grow together, her feet becoming a single, large fin. The pink, human skin below her waist became flecked with scales of bright gold. Her human torso blossomed as well, physically maturing many years in the space of mere moments. The bathing suit she had worn as a human no longer fit her changed form and tore into pieces as she transformed, so Teitani chose two nearby shells of the purest coral-white to satisfy the requirements of modesty.
Corene turned her head, gazing at her golden tail, awestruck, as each scale reflected the midday sunlight in a thousand different directions, directions changing with each minute movement of the great fin, until Teitani's alto voice brought Corene's thoughts back to the present. "Obviously, my dear child, you cannot live in the waters of Narilan anymore. Are there any particular farewells you wish to say before you depart?"
Remembering Endara and the aborted race, Corene nodded. "Yes, Teitani, if I may," she said, her child's soprano having given way to a more refined, mezzo voice.
"I will wait here for you as you say your farewell. Then, upon your return, your new life will begin in Midia, the home of our people. I would take you as my daughter, be your new mother, and teach you the ways of your new people."
"I will return soon, Teitani." Corene turned over, taking a few experimental pushes through the water with her fin. As she began to swim away, she turned back to Teitani with a smile of gratitude and joy, and politely corrected herself. "Mother."
Meanwhile, above the surface of Lake Narilan, Endara was at last nearing the main shore- and, it appeared, her first victory. As she came up for her final breaths of fresh air, she saw that, for the first time, Corene wasn't there to greet her with her usual smug smile. From the shore, Garth looked out to the figure rising from the water, expecting Corene- and saw only Endara. Rubbing his brown eyes to make sure he wasn't hallucinating, he tapped Shea, who poked the next kid, and so on down the line through the group of children until all could see that Endara was the clear winner. As she set foot upon the shore and accepted the wild cheers of her friends, she said with a smile, "Do you want to know something weird? I didn't even see or hear any sign of Corene since just after she started after me."
The other kids of the group looked at one another and began to shift uncomfortably in their places. "What, haven't any of you seen her?"
Garth just shrugged his shoulders. "Last time I saw her, she was heading out over the middle of the lake and diving under." Endara suddenly looked worried. She was supposed to stay away from there! "What, do you think something's happened to her?" Garth said.
"That's where Lannie's supposed to be!" Endara said, running back to the lake, not noticing the smirks and open laughter from the children on the beach. "You go get help- I'll go out and look for any sign of Cor!" With renewed strength in her youthful muscles, Endara powered her way to the place where Garth had last seen Endara's best friend.
"Lannie?" Garth said, trying to hide a chuckle. "Yeah, right. Hey, guys- I'm heading back home. Anyone with me?" A chorus of unsure nods- and dry chuckles of Endara's belief in Lannie- greeted him in response, and just as quickly as the children of Narilan had descended upon it, the beach was cleared.
Tired muscles already pushed well beyond their limits, Endara struggled to reach the center of the lake. Nervous about the prospect of a sea creature lurking somewhere below her, she looked around the surface for a few moments before scouting the depths of Narilan's center. Finding nothing, she once again rose to the surface of the lake, searching for a sign, any sign of Corene. Finally, off to one side, she spotted a small, oddly-shaped branch floating in the water. As she swam over to look at it, she noticed that it wasn't a branch; it was something scalier and slimier, more like a piece of squid. "Cor! C'mon, the joke's up!" Endara shouted, looking around for the tell-tale splashes that would mark the other girl's swimming. She seriously hoped that this wasn't just a trick Corene was playing to win the race. Something else, however, floating in the water a few yards to her right, told her that this was no joke- that her fears were indeed justified.
Corene's shredded bathing suit floated alone in the water, blood-stained and torn nearly beyond recognition.
"Cor!" Endara shouted. "Corene! Where are you?" Endara cried again, but there was no response. "Cor, please answer me! This isn't funny...!" she shouted frantically, but still there was no reply. Frantic, she dove back beneath the surface, but could see nothing, dead or alive, of her closest companion. Weary and afraid, she popped her had back above the surface and began to cry a quiet prayer to any god who cared to listen. "Please, not my Cor..."
Moments later, the surface behind Endara began to bubble. With a great splash, the newly-transformed Corene popped her head above the waves, golden hair crowning her like a halo of fire, both frightening and shocking the terrified and worried Endara. "Cor? Oh, Cor! I thought...! Your clothes...! You were dead...!" Endara's tears changed from those of sadness to joy as she held fast to Cor.
"No, Dara," Corene said softly, the mature voice sound perhaps more so in the company of her now younger companion. "I am yet alive," she said nonchalantly, repeating Teitani's words. "Lannie, on the other hand-"
"You saw Lannie?" Endara's eyes grew wide.
Corene nodded. "You were right about him, Dara. I'm sorry I doubted you so. Not only did I see him, but I helped hurt him! Lannie... will no longer trouble the waters of Naridale." She smile a radiant smile, but the smile quickly faded as she remembered who waited for her deep below. "But that is not why I'm here. I'm... I'm here to say my farewell to you, Endara. My best friend."
"Fare...?" For the first time since her reappearance, Endara closely examined the now-grown woman across from her. "Cor! Your hair- it's so much longer! And you've got... I mean, you've changed!" Endara gawked, stuttering as she searched for the proper words to express her friend's sudden physical maturation into adulthood.
"Yes, I know," Corene said, giggling. "That is why I'm here," she said, her voice slipping back to a more proper, more somber tone. "I am no longer one of you- no longer human, I mean- and it is time for me to leave here."
"What do you mean?"
"When I was racing against you, I deliberately swam over the center of the lake. As I dove, I saw someone struggling with Lannie- a mermaid."
"You saw a mermaid?" Again Endara's eyes went wide.
Corene nodded. "I fought Lannie to rescue the mermaid," she explained. "She said she would reward me with anything, and the more I thought about it, the more I wished I could be a mermaid. And now...!" she said excitedly, flipping her new golden tail proudly above the water for Endara to see.
"Oh, gods, Cor! It's... it's beautiful...!" Endara squeaked, at once jealous and, to a much lesser extent, both understanding and forgiving Corene her abandonment.
"I need a favor of you, Dara," Corene said, looking toward the shore and the few curiosity seekers who had gathered as the golden tail made its way above the surface.
"Anything, Cor. What do you need?"
"I need you to tell my parents of this. Tell them... I don't know, tell them the truth. They won't believe you at first, but still you must tell them the truth. They won't understand why I've done what I've done, nor do I expect them to. Perhaps they will, someday. Help them, Endara. It will take them many years, perhaps even the rest of their lives, to understand my decision to remain beneath the waves."
"You'll come back to visit me?" Endara asked, finding it difficult to speak, trying hard not to let her emotions show.
"Sure I will," Corene said softly. "Maybe someday, someday soon, we can be together again beneath the waves. For now, though, I must leave. Teitani is waiting for me." She smiled brightly, trying to cheer her best friend up, but it didn't seem to work. "She is going to teach me of life beneath the waves. As I said this morning, you know how much I love to swim. And now... now I truly can swim for as long as I wish!" Endara chuckled once, a sad laugh, as Corene embraced her friend one last time. A single tear ran down the new mermaid's left cheek. "Farewell, my dearest friend."
"May the gods shine upon you, Corene." The tears, now flowing unhindered, continued to stream down Endara's face, mixing with the lakewater, as her friend swam away toward the river's mouth, soon joined by Teitani.
"So beautiful..." she squeaked through the tears as she watched the pair of mermaids swim away gracefully. She waved to her friend one final time. Corene looked back and returned the wave with a flick of her long, golden tail.
And then, she swam forever.
* * * * *
For a few moments, the crowd sat in awed silence. From the rear of the assembly, the tense, emotional hush was broken by the sound of a single person, clapping slowly, yet forcefully. He was soon joined by another, and another, until the entire crowd at last erupted in a deafening roar of applause and wild cheers. The young woman stood up, brushed back her straight blond hair, curtseyed graciously, and disappeared into the crowd below. Shasta and Keralyn, too caught up in smiling to one another and congratulating themselves on the success of their decision to let the young woman tell the story, searched the entire crowd in vain to find where she could have gone, but the woman was not to be found.
After the presentation of the awards, the crowd began to disperse- some towards home, but most toward the continuously flowing ale tents surrounding the main market square. Even as the crowd thinned, there seemed to be no sign of the mysterious performer. "Keralyn, we must find that woman and learn her name!" Shasta stated. "Such a powerful interpretation of that legendary tale deserves to be heard all over the world! Why, the monetary potential of her storytelling skills alone would-"
"Always the merchant, Shasta," Keralyn reprimanded as she rolled her eyes.
"You're the one who simply called it a 'children's tale'," the merchant-mage mumbled.
"I agree with you, though," Keralyn continued, ignoring the playfully caustic remark. "We must try to find her- if for no other reason than to learn who she is. I believe we need to split up; we can cover more ground that way. We'll meet at the dockyards, say, at true sundown. That should give us perhaps three hours. If we cannot find her by then..." She shook her head. Shasta nodded and jogged off north; Kera began the arduous task of searching the south side of the city.
They searched both uptown and downtown, asking anyone and everyone they saw for clues, willing to pay for information that would lead them somewhere. There were a few who claimed to have seen the woman, but when pressed, the lies of those looking for quick monetary gain were quickly proven false. Three hours passed far faster than the two had wished, and it was time for the pair to give their reports at the Marnet docks. As they met, identical downcast expressions lining both their faces, Keralyn caught a glimpse of a cloaked figure running for the ships. "Shasta, over there! Look!" she whispered.
"I know! I saw him too."
"Thief, do you suppose?"
"More likely saboteur," Shasta muttered, fearing the worst for his prized ships.
"Does it really matter? Let's go!" Keralyn whispered back. Duty to the city, both knew, came before continuation of the search. Running as quickly and as lightly as they could, they soon spotted the man getting ready to dive into the water. Taking one last glance around to make sure he was not seen, he casually tossed away his cloak to reveal that not only wasn't he a 'he', but that she was the person for whom Shasta and Keralyn had been searching for the last three and more hours since the ceremony.
"Halt, you!" Keralyn shouted, drawing her short sword with the sound of ready steel scraping against a scabbard.
The young woman instantly froze in alarm; the moment she recognized the bard's voice, however, she turned to the pair, arms wide in greeting. "Well done, Lord Mage and Lady Bard. Twasn't easy to evade your inquiries, but I succeeded- to this point," the young woman said, tossing her blond mane back out of her face and smiling as she modestly pulled her cloak back on.
"Just what do you think you're doing, young lady?" Keralyn asked angrily, sheathing her sword. "You lead us on a merry dance through half of Marnet with nary a 'farewell' or 'thank you', and now you expect us-"
"Easy, Miss Trailsong," Shasta said, placing an arm on Kera's shoulder and trying to calm the riled bard down before she said or did something rash. "I believe we should start with a simple 'why' question. As in, 'Why did you disappear after that wonderful performance?'"
"I merely wished to perform and leave," the woman answered, staring directly into Shasta's brown eyes, holding his gaze with her simple admission of truth. "I saw no reason to stay after I had finished the true story of the Mermaid's Tale."
"Yes," Shasta continued, nodding. "Where did you learn that particular telling of the story? It was magnificent- more detailed than any I have heard spun in the last half century! It's almost as if you had been there during the time of the tale all those centuries ago! The 'true story', you call it?"
The young woman nodded bowed her head graciously. "That particular version of the story has been in my family for many years."
"Where do you hail from, if I may ask? Your style is one with which I'm rather unfamiliar," Keralyn asked, temper fading and professional curiosity setting in.
"I am originally from Naridale."
"That's impossible!" Keralyn reasoned. "The original Naridale ceased to exist shortly after the monster- I'm sorry, 'Lannie'- disappeared, and that was well over five centuries ago!" The bard shook her head, flabbergasted by such a claim. "The College... only in the last year has there been any new settlement in the Narilan area!"
"I am well aware of that- and so it appears, Lady Bard, are you. I assure you, though, I do speak the truth- I do originally hail from Naridale." She turned away from the confused and dumbstruck woman and looked out toward the great Midian Sea. "Now, if the two of you have no more questions for me, I must be off. My task here in Marnet is finished, and it is time that I return home." With that, she again shook loose the cloak and, with a quick, graceful leap, dove headfirst into the Bay of Marnet.
"Wait, Miss!" Shasta shouted, running to the edge of the dock. "You never told us your name!"
"Have you not yet guessed, Lord Mage?" She threw back her hair and waved her great golden-scaled tail once at the pair of humans standing awestruck on the pier. "I, Lord Mage and Lady Bard, am Corene." Both Shasta and Keralyn sputtered for the right words to say, but neither could find the right words to reply to the simple girl who could swim forever.
Swan's Song: A Fantasy Idyl
|Quest of the Heart|
|Pillow Talk||The Tiger and the Lady|