The Queen and the Sea Nymph

My current long-form project, other than my roleplaying campaign setting, Stonebroken, is Alysmere: a trilogy of fantasy novels that adapt, more or less, the “Henriad” trilogy of Shakespeare plays into a fantasy setting — Henry IV part one and two, and Henry V. These plays, for those unfamiliar with them, follow prince Henry from his inauspicious beginnings as a common highwayman and layabout shirking his official status as a Prince, to his rise as Henry the Fifth, the King of England who very nearly conquered France.

Of course, that’s how the project started; I set about devising an original world where this story might find a home, and things spiraled out quite chaotically from there. I’m still comfortable saying the novels will be inspired by the plays, as the principal characters will still be recognizable, but the story that is emerging as I write is quite different than what Shakespeare penned, on a structural level.

That’s all to give background to this fairy tale, which I wrote as a kind of happy little side-project to the worldbuilding of Alysmere. It exists in-universe, and the version presented here would be available to anyone with access to a university library a few centuries after the events of the trilogy.

I don’t yet know if this tale will play any role in the trilogy I’m building, but it’s early days yet; there’s still plenty of time for it to sneak its way in.


The Queen and the Sea Nymph

Long before the demons rose from the depths of the earth, there was a Queen in Alysmere. She lived beside the sea, on the uttermost western reach of the island, with a window to the sunset and the gates of the Moon. Strong in magic and learned in the wisdom of those days, she wielded a blade of purest Night. Though the tale of how she won it from the grip of Father Moon has been forgotten, in those days it was knowledge as common as the sun rising.

She had fought in her wars, the battle of Storm’s End and the War of Seven Eyes, and had killed a score of soldiers by her own hand. Many long years passed before her kingdom had peace. Seven great suits of armor were made for her, and each was broken in its turn, the first by fire, three by the strength of a Giant’s bare hands, one by the corrosion placed within by a false lover, another lost in the depths of the sea. The last was split down the middle from a mighty blow of the Giant known as Fire’s End, as was the style of Giants’ names in those days.

The Giant had sworn to snuff out the fire burning at the lighthouse at the heart of Alysmere, and his vow had worked a magic on him, so that the biting cold of the Glass Mountains blew through his veins as ferociously as it did on those unconquerable slopes. She had lost her helm that day, and many soldiers whose like the world will never see again: mighty golden Petrus and his lover, green-eyed Titius; the mountainous Golgiana, clad only in a towering band of steel taken from a ship’s hull; the clear eyed Felix, with all his clan from across the seas; and many others besides. As her trophy she carved the Giant’s heart from his still breast.

“The fire that shields my kingdom will not be your prize, while I draw breath,” she said bitterly, as she held back her tears.

It was a heavy thing, the Giant’s heart, though only as large as her fist when clenched. A Giant’s heart is smaller than our own, and this one was impaled by the sword of Night, shriveling it. It would soon enough turn to crystal in death, if her advisers spoke true, and she would claim it as a treasure of her conquest, an heirloom of her house.

With the death of Fire’s End, and the fire of her lighthouse still burning against the gates of the Moon at the uttermost west, she retired to her kingdom, her spirit utterly spent.

“Now I will gain a measure of rest as well,” said Elonin, the chief steward of her storied hall, when word of her return reached his ears. “Long have been the nights where we have prepared our feasts and set out our wines, and yet felt the cold wind of her absence steal the mirth from our cups and delight from our plates.”

The cook Arimas agreed as well, as did the chief gardener, Arigeld, who clicked his tongue as he always did before he spoke.

“Mayhaps she will find some time for my flowers,” Arigeld said wistfully. He remembered fondly his liege’s youth, and the long afternoons the attentive girl would sit patiently beside him as he worked, only asking a few questions and never being anything less than polite.

“I would hope her thoughts turn that way,” laughed Arimas. “She will have need of you within the year, mark my words! From loss and war must spring love and romance, like my young Alik.”

Alik had been betrothed one year ago to the day, not three weeks after he had returned from the front. He had lost a leg, and gained a fiery bride.

“Stop that foolish talk,” muttered Elonin. “Our Queen must not be rumored to seek a match before even she knows of it.” The cook’s smile, still, was infectious.

But the cook’s hopes would mark her as no prophetess, for when the Queen returned, her visage was dark. She ill treated the doorman. She took no food in the dining hall, keeping to her chambers. The accountant was satisfied with her new zeal for paperwork, but she too could not keep from speculation, even amid her newly-found convenience.

Rumors swirled, dark and brooding. She was seeing no one but her closest advisers, making no appearances, welcoming no guests. The cold wind of her absence still blew over the rich meats of her dining table, and none within her house could escape the chill. Her eyes were dark and flashed, now, with newfound fire within as furious as the sea. It made the throat of the chief steward stick, and never failed to inspire a quiver in the man, though he could not point to any reason in particular.

The priestess of the lighthouse, nameless since her calling, came at the turn of fall to winter. Upon her, the first buds of the Queen’s cruelty descended.

“We need another deacon for the rites,” she said calmly, once she had been granted audience. Her eye caught the gleam of something upon the Queen’s writing desk, and she shrunk back from the Giant’s heart though it was safely encased in glass. One chamber of the heart had already succumbed to the crystalline plaque.

“You have three good men of my own guard, blessed by my hand. None have been touched by the smell or thrill of war; none have shed a drop of blood, Human or Giant. It will be hard to find a fourth among my retinue, even were they willing.”

And this was sensible enough an objection, had it passed from a kinder lip. The war had been won but half a season ago, and still the kingdom bore the weight of its oppression in the hearts of its sons and daughters. There were few pure hearts unsullied by its violence, and fewer still among the anointed guard of the Queen.

The priestess shivered as the Queen’s silent eyes passed over her again.

“The fire must remain lit and guarded. This was the charge you were given when first your crown was placed upon your brow, O Queen. The eyes of the eldest deacon are failing him. Another must take his place.”
Her tone was firm, and for this she regretted it.

“Perhaps I will take one of your former children, then! Strip them of their name and anoint them, only to pass them back to you!”

This comment struck deep, for well the Priestess regretted her own calling, and the manner of it. Not lightly did she give up her name and former life, and wished this life not to be pressed upon anyone unwilling.

The Queen stood and began to pace behind her desk. The priestess shied away from her anger, even as her liege continued her remonstrations under her breath, a string of dark words she could not understand.

“Leave me,” she said finally, and the priestess was dismissed. She was glad the Queen’s anger had not ignited into violence, but her heart fluttered throughout the passage between the great hall and the front garden all the same.

Arigeld the gardener had heard the outburst himself, and intended in his heart to tempt the Queen away from her cares but a little while.

“What is this?” the Queen asked when the gardener came before her two days later.

“It is a dewdrop,” the man said excitedly. “The first of the season, and it’s fully flowered, too.” He saw the Queen’s gaze move from the flower to his face, hard her eyes, and grey. “Well, it’s a good omen, portending a swift close to our winter.”

“Yes,” the Queen said shortly, and she slid the potted plant to her side, and spared it no more time. “Have you any other business, then?”

The gardener did not, and he did trouble the Queen no further.

Elonin, the chief steward ever loyal, saw fit to worry. He saw the Queen only at mealtimes, with a short instruction to bring up her share of the meal to her office. Soon enough, food was delivered without the Queen asking, though the loss of her steady company pained the man.

The chief steward worried for two weeks before news came to him from the lighthouse altar.

“We have a new deacon for the Watch,” the priestess said to him that morning — she had not seen fit to busy the Queen directly with her announcement — as the steward saw her in his own time.

“I see,” the steward said. Then, he realized again how improbable it was that she found someone suitable and willing, and gave voice to that realization.

“Oh, it was a miracle,” the priestess said. “She was, and is, a foreigner. My Bel told me she washed up on the beach. The beach! It was not three days past, but she came straight to me, asking for her commission. She passed the trials sure enough.”

This drew the steward back from his reverie. “You set forth the sea gate, and the pillars? She passed through everything?”

“Oh, yes.”

The steward had little more to ask. “I suppose our Watch is guarded by more than mortal strength alone,” he said, and the priestess nodded happily in agreement.

“We will need the Queen to apply the anointing oil, as the new deacon, now named Tiriel, is not already of her personal guard.”

“Of course, of course,” the steward said. “The low day next approaching, then, she will be there.”

And so it was that on the rising of the oak, the first moon of winter, that the Queen laid eyes upon the new prospective Deacon of the Watch, the woman many were calling “the sea-maiden,” Tiriel.

The Queen was dressed in full regalia, her sword of office belted at her side beneath the slashes of blue across her uniform of black. There, in the blue, nestled the gold won in her wars, and the half-crystallized heart of Fire’s End hanging beside the cold metal as her chief spoil and trophy. Upon her brow gleamed the circlet of Alysmere. She held the amphora of oil in one hand, a gleam of the sacred chrism on its lip.

Tiriel wore nothing but the white robes of her priesthood, and yet she drew all the Queen’s attention. She watched breathless as the maiden knelt to accept the holy oils placed upon her, and walked through the purifying fire to purge her former sins. She saw the maiden renounce her name, then, and could not look away when, with steady hands, the newest Deacon unharmed raised the scepter, red with heat, from where it lay in the flames.

Entranced through the whole of the ceremony, it was no surprise the woman invited this newly anointed member of the Watch to dine with her the following night.

The steward, for his part, was glad to seat his liege at the table once again. He left them alone, only troubling them to replenish the wine and cakes.

He discovered the Queen’s body the next morning, laid out on the bed, stiff and dead, as if ready to be interred. A single drop of blood lay on the cold flesh of her cheek.

Rumors of poison, of assassins in the night, of the hand of a Giant grasping her life from beyond the battlefield, swirled among the guards, and then the Kingdom. The woman once named Tiriel was beside her, weeping softly, and when the captain came with his chains and warrant of arrest, she did not resist.

When she was clapped in irons, and the delegates sent to deliberate her fate, she began to sing.

Softly the tides came in, against the season, as if responding to her song. None knew the words she cried out, but the guards time and again came to her cell, certain she had another with her, certain such unearthly music could not pass from a single pair of lips. She was, each time they checked, alone. Seafoam sprayed against the tiny window above her cot, and the rush of the sea hummed along with her words.

For three and thirty hours, she sang, in a language foreign to the kingdom. It was not a happy song, and many protested her chains. “She mourns for our Queen, as do we all. Does this not proclaim her innocence?”

Others were less charitable, speaking rumors of dark magic and demon’s blood spilled in the night, shouting of a kingdom bewitched.

At midnight, the tide broke, rushing back to its proper place, to return with the cycle of the moon. The sea maiden’s song concluded, departing with the waves.

The guards came, then, certain of a thousand things, seen and unseen, that had conspired to end her song. They found the cell empty, the steady irons clapped around nothing but cold mist, their seals unbroken.

Two hours before dawn, the fire in the lighthouse died, its coals black and forever cold.

END

A few notes from the translator

This tale is a reconstruction of the popular Algys folk tale “Tiriel, the Sea Nymph,” translated as closely to the original tale as is possible with the sources at the disposal of modern scholarship. I debated publishing this under its more popular title, but have instead opted for what was very probably a closer translation of the original, which was written or passed on orally in one of the archaic languages of the Algys archipelago.

All who read this tale must, admittedly, balk at the sudden ending, and so that bears some explanation, or at least an apology for the lack of one. There is no scholarly consensus on whether this tale was intended to conclude at this point, or if we have simply lost the original ending. The earliest fragments discovered of earlier versions of this myth, sadly, contain no material past this point, and the earliest source which contains the most complete version of the story, the Baker’s Codex, clearly borrows plot elements from a contemporaneous folk tale, the Spinster and the Golden Fox, to construct its own clumsy ending (first shown by Hroth in her groundbreaking incisive analysis). That ending was, therefore, omitted here. The Codex was certainly not the last source to fashion its own ending for this tale.

It is my opinion that the next line in the Baker’s Codex, which I would translate as “And so, the kingdom fell piece by piece into the sea,” is a part of this later interpolation. No other source includes this line, which leads directly into the now-obscure ending found in the Codex.

Moving from matters of the disputed ending, readers should understand the tale of this “queen” of Alysmere is very obviously not of Algys origin, due to linguistic artifacts from other dead, indigenous languages present in the text. The most glaring example is the word I have rendered “Queen,” which does not exist in modern or ancient Algys, and was preserved in the original Algys text as, roughly, “Lady King.” Our own Tourleaux shares with these dead languages a strong sense of linguistic gender, and so ironically our own word “Queen” may be closer to the lost original used before it was translated into Algys, the language of the Baker’s Codex. That the writer of the codex saw the need to specify the gender of the Queen each time the word appeared in the story is telling to say the least. Those interested in further linguistic clues that point away from the theory of original Algys composition should pick up the excellent tome by Fester, “Voices of the Archipelago,” which dedicates a fine chapter to the subject.

Both House Coeler and the wavebinders of Cammen have been set forward as possible originators of the tale. Alternatively, it might have come from an unknown cultural group among the original inhabitants of the main island, before Edward Iolan landed on the coast of Alysmere in 611 IR. The conquest, well known to the student of history, wiped out much of the cultural footprint of all but a few groups present in the islands.

The current version of the folktale can be dated to no sooner than the early 500s IR from a source I have referred to previously, the Baker’s Codex, whose title refers to its anonymous author. Various fragments of the tale have shown up in older sources that have survived, pinning the date of its original composition to no later than 430 IR, and most probably half a century earlier, sometime in the last few decades of the 4th century.

The studious among my readers will know that Giants are a persistent motif among the cultures that managed to emerge from the Sanguine Age. They sometimes, as here, represent certain doom upon the protagonist of the tale, but less commonly they take a more ambiguous role. Only a few tales, of later provenance, ever ascribe purely noble or beneficent roles to Giants.

The rituals of the lighthouse keeper have drawn comment from quite a few antiquarians, speculating as to their source. The tale makes three things clear. First, the maintenance of the fire is somehow key to the protection of the kingdom. Whether this is for literary, magical, or more mundane reasons is not evident — the tale assumes a shared cultural understanding between audience and storyteller that no longer exists, to the frustration of many a folklorist! Second, several sundry rites and requirements that fall to the keepers of this flame are referenced in the text. (I have taken what I think is a fair liberty with the word usually rendered “keeper” here. I have translated it as “deacon” throughout, which I think captures the semi-religious role they seem to play in this kingdom). Third, from the role the fire plays in the text, scholars agree that calling the tower on the coast a “lighthouse” is at best misleading, since it’s clear its principal use is not in warding off ships from a treacherous coast even if that might be a secondary benefit. I have decided, however, to keep the word “lighthouse” as it conveys in my opinion the correct visual to a modern reader.

Readers may be curious to discover that I have personally advised a few groups here at the University here in Kent who endeavored to reconstruct the various lighthouse rituals from this text. Their efforts were impressive, drawing from the scant references here and a few other fragmentary sources dated to the same period. It has always proven to be quite an engaging project, and I would recommend it to anyone studying these tales on a sufficiently strict academic level.

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