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The Coral Oars By J. C. Mathas


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The Coral Oars

Copyright Š 2013 Waterloo, Ontario

All rights reserved including those of translation. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission of the copyright owners.

Published in Canada By Brav’s Index www.bravsindex.com bravsindex@gmail.com

ISBN 978-0-9918564-1-1

Library and Archives Canada Canadian ISBN Agency 395 Wellington, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0N4

1-866-578-7777 E-mail: isbn@lac-bac.gc.ca


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This Book Is Dedicated To

Loredana Catherine Goren My Mentor, My Inspiration, My Friend


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Chapter

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Did you know, adventurous reader, that before God created people, or animals, or even the very stars in the sky, He first created the sea? This is true! Man was given dominion over all creation, including the sea, but when man first did evil, something happened: the sea became a mysterious and sometimes savage thing, suddenly blanketed with rippling curls like a flock of lambs, suddenly fierce as a herd of wild boars thrusting up their frothy tusks to gore the skies. Men have learned to respect the sea; only the brave or foolish ever dare venture far from the shore but those that do bring back tales that become the stuff of legend. This is where our story begins, a story about a young woman who was swept up in the quest of the Coral Oars and who saved the world by braving the sea. Once upon a time, when the horizon was the beginning of all possible dreams, in a cottage near the sea, there lived a little girl with long, brown, wavy hair and light, blue eyes. The little girl’s name was Loredana and she lived with her aunt on a beach. Her aunt was a very busy person, an artist of sorts, who did wonderful paintings and so had little time for Loredana. Loredana took to rearing herself, spending most of her time on the beach, gathering shells and building castles in the sand. Some days she would sit for hours, watching the rolling waves pound the cliffs, but she did not mind; she was happy and she never thought about her loneliness. The sea, the ships and all the ocean life kept her company. And that is how Loredana spent her days and the days turned into months and the months turned into years and Loredana became a young woman. Then her aunt wished to leave in order to discover new and beautiful places to paint, but Loredana dearly loved the beach. After trying to convince her many times, Loredana’s aunt finally gave up and leaving the cottage to Loredana she went abroad. Loredana was truly alone. One warm eve brought with it a terrible storm, a storm so fearsome that none living could remember its like. Loredana watched the storm brew; heavy clouds gathered and scudded over the sea. As they approached the shore, they began to curl and flex, becoming great angry, black puffs. It was a strange storm; there was so much lightning that it looked as if it was raining thunderbolts and strange lights darted through the clouds and reflected off the jumping waves. The ocean seemed to boil. Loredana returned to her house. She closed all the window shutters, just in time to keep out the wind and rain and went to bed, hugging her sheets close and listening to the raging sea outside. She watched the slats in the shutters glow white with the storm’s fury until she fell asleep. Loredana awoke the next morning very excited for storms always stirred up the ocean depths and brought forth many treasures. She loved to race outside to greet the sunrise and watch the clouds and then to discover what wondrous things might have been left by the tides. And what treasures she sometimes found! Treasures like exotic tangles of seaweed torn from the ocean floor, five-armed starfish, wobbly puddles of jellyfish, and the flat sand dollars that the sailors had shown her bore the wounds of Our Risen Lord. In the tide pools could be found all sorts of crabs, minnows, shellfish and sometimes bigger fish that had been forgotten there by the sea. Above all, Loredana loved the pieces of driftwood that came to her beach. She longed to ask them where they had come from and what they had seen during their travels upon the sea, but they had no voices, and so she sat on their smooth, warped sides, kneading the sand with her toes, and daydreamed.


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A most curious sight greeted Loredana when she opened her window shutters this morning: the sea was calm, as still as a mirror, without even a ripple upon it. Even the loud gulls stood quietly on the beach; she could not spy a single one flying over the water or bobbing on its surface, and this struck her as being very odd indeed. For many days this strange calm continued; no fish jumped, no seabirds called, and no wind blew. Then, one day, when Loredana opened her shutters, she saw a most peculiar thing: a small, wizened man all by himself sitting in a boat upon the beach. Loredana quickly threw her robe about her pajamas and raced outside to see what it could mean. The man watched her come; he was ancient beyond years, his skin leathery from the sun, but his eyes were clear, and as blue as the ocean. "Come no closer!" The old man called when she was quite near. "Please sir," Loredana said quite breathlessly, "but why is the sea so still? And who are you, and why do you sit upon the beach in your boat?" “My name is Phaelon; I am the ancient seafarer of the oceans. I am the keeper of the tides, for it is I who wield the Coral Oars!” Loredana suddenly felt very shy, for the man sounded terribly important, and she curtsied as her aunt had taught her to when meeting such important people. The man gave her a kindly smile but quickly became serious again, “I have come to these shores seeking help from the world of men!” “Oh!” cried Loredana, “Then you must paddle further on to the south, to the village where there are many fishermen and even some sailors! I am the only one that lives on this beach!” The old man looked disappointed. “Is that so?” he asked. “Well, I must wait for my dolphin – she has faithfully towed my boat for many days and nights to reach these shores and has just now gone off to find some fish to eat.” “Would you like some breakfast while you wait?” asked Loredana, being very polite. “Thank you, but I am not hungry. Many centuries have passed since I have eaten anything.” The old man became thoughtful, “In fact, I cannot remember if I have ever eaten anything at all! But I wouldn’t mind a little conversation – I’m quite starved for it, and it has been a long time since I have spoken with anyone!” Loredana smiled, for she too liked a good conversation, and very few people ever came by to visit, “Will you not come inside then?” “I would like that very much, but I cannot leave my boat!” the old man replied. “Not at all?” asked Loredana in surprise. “No. It is my prison; I am bound within it until the end of time!” Loredana thought this very peculiar, but she kept this thought to herself. “Well then,” she said, “I will fetch my own breakfast and join you here on the beach!” and running into her house Loredana quickly reappeared with some bread and marmalade. “You are very polite! What is your name, child?” the old man asked. Loredana made sure to finish her mouthful before replying, “My name is Loredana.” “Loredana! That is a very beautiful name!” “Thank you!” Loredana smiled, “I think so too!” “Well Loredana, do you really not know why the sea lies so still?” “No, Phaelon, I do not understand it.” “What? Do you not know the history of this world? Have you not been attentive to your studies?”


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Loredana admitted that she had not, but only because she had been too poor to go to school, “The only teacher I have ever had is the sea!” she explained to the old man. “Ah!” the old man’s face softened, “A very fine teacher, as full of wisdom as it is of salt! Come child, tell me what the sea has taught you!” Then Loredana told the old man the many things she had learned, beginning with the serious things like life and death. And then she spoke of rainbows and storms, and of how the sky and sea discussed with each other as to what they were going to do on the morrow, and how the waves and wind guided the fishermen to those fish that were to be caught on that day, and of the family matters of whales, and the habits of crustaceans, and the boasting of gulls, and on and on until the old man was laughing and clapped his calloused hands in delight. “Why, you are a scholar! Surely, if the king knew that such a bright and beautiful young woman lived in his realm, he would summon her to his court!” Loredana blushed, “Perhaps, but there has been no king here for many years!” “No king?” the old man cried in alarm, “What has happened? How is there no king here? Is this not the world of men?” “Yes, yes! But many years ago – so my aunt told me – when I was just a baby, the king and queen were lost while returning from a visit to the foreign lands on the other side of the ocean. Even as they neared the shore, a storm struck and their ship was dashed against the cliffs beneath their castle. The king and queen perished, as well as their son who was then only an infant.” “But who rules the kingdom now?” the old man asked. “The lords of the late king, but they grow old and are not strong; the many dangers of the land steadily weaken them. They are always out with their tired armies in some corner of the kingdom, fighting off dragons and bandits and other terrible things.” “What about your young men?” “Our young men all wish to become knights, and so they go into far away lands seeking other kings before whom they might do great deeds in order to prove their valour. None ever return home, for there is no glory to be found here. But they have many adventures elsewhere and the sailors that pass through love to relate their tales.” The old man had become quiet. “No king or queen, and no young warriors! All that remain are aging lords, and they too are gone, out fighting with tired armies of old men? This news makes me sorrowful! How can this be?” “It is the way of men,” Loredana replied slowly, trying to console the old man. “A kingdom is rather like the tides of the ocean: when the tide is in, it is a time of strength and plenty, but now the tide is out and the glory of the land is ebbing.” The old man nodded. “The sea has taught you much, my child, but still, you do not know the first things. Attend to me now and I shall reveal them to you!” and forgetting his sorrow for a moment, the old man began the tale of the first things: “When the Creator first made this world, He wished it to be a world of light and goodness. Thus He first begot the sun. But in order to give warmth and light to all the world, the sun would have to burn very hot, so hot, in fact, that it would be in danger of being burnt up! So the Creator made the ocean into which the sun could be immersed to cool, and He made a second sun, so that while the first cooled the second would shine. I, Phaelon, was charged with lowering the sun on every twelfth hour, while Muirgen, my wife, was to raise the other. “And so the earth was always warm and lightsome, and in the oceans creatures and plants flourished, and it was the same upon the land. And it was all very good. Then, one day,


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Muirgen came to me and spoke strange words of other suns hidden deep within the sky that we could not see because our own suns were so bright. She had been shown them by the Firebird – who flies about everywhere, trying to discover all knowledge and secret things – for they can be seen, if only for a moment, upon the twelfth hour when the two suns pass, one extinguishing while the other waxes. “And Muirgen said to me, “There are many thousands upon thousands of suns! Too many to ever be counted! Their splendor is such that the Firebird says one’s eyes become lost among them and time itself stops! Each sun is like a pearl glittering in the depths of the ocean! Now attend to me my husband: this next time, I shall not raise the sun, but let it remain in the depths and you, you shall extinguish the other. Then the sky will be dark and we will be able to see these great lights that the Creator has hidden from our eyes!” “When the hour came, I set the sun but Muirgen did not raise the other, and for the first time darkness covered the earth. It was as the Firebird had said: the sky glittered with countless lights. We stared at these distant suns for many hours, not aware of how the time passed, as we tried numbering them, seeing if any ever extinguished, and allowing them to guide our imaginings. “But I realized that time had not stopped, no, we had only lost track of it. And as for the suns, I saw that theirs was a false light, each one giving only enough light to be noticed and no more. But theirs was a cold light, for their light gave no warmth to the sea, or to the earth, or even to those who admired it. And all of these suns, together in the sky, gave no light or warmth. “It was then I wished to raise the suns under our charge, but Muirgen protested, saying that she enjoyed things as they now were. But then the Creator was there and He saw that we had left his designs. Plunging His arms into the ocean, He took up the suns, together raising them in His hands. One reignited, but that which had been immersed the longer had lost its fire and had become as cold and pale as the many suns that lay deep within the sky. “For failing both Him and the world that He had created, we were punished: Muirgen was sent into the abyss, deep within the ocean’s depths, where never again she would see any light save that which was filtered or pale, and she was changed, so that like many sea creatures she could never leave the water. I too was punished: save for this cloth about my waist, I was stripped of my garments so that I would never forget the sun – for it beats upon me during the day and in its absence, at night, I miss it and am cold. “I was given two oars – carved from the great coral reef of Caritas that is the world’s foundation – to churn in the oceans, for they have great power. With them, I was to mind the tides, and set the currents, and fan the waves and so keep the sea ever renewed. “And to replace us, who were punished, the Creator set a great wheel in the sky, invisible except for its course, upon which the two suns would forever turn; half of the day will see the sun before it returns to the ocean to cool, whereupon emerges the cold sun, the moon, to travel across the sky. And so by us, darkness entered the world. “Centuries beyond memory have since passed. But Muirgen, the fallen queen beneath the sea, is a spiteful creature. Since her banishment all those ages ago, her only wish has been for utter darkness, that there might be no light to torment her. Thus, after having stored up many fell clouds and stray winds, she released them not many days ago and caused a great storm, and even as I was caught within it, her dark servants rose from the depths and found me in my boat and stole from me the Coral Oars!


8 “The Coral Oars – whose strokes manage the tides and the currents and the waves! Without them the ocean will become stagnant. All the creatures within it will die and with no wind or water the land will also perish and become a barren desert!” Loredana had ceased eating as she listened to Phaelon’s tale and now, upon hearing this terrible news, she was so upset so as to not want any more breakfast, “But this will mean the end of the world!” she cried. “It could! It could!” cried Phaelon, “God is testing me and I know He means that I humble myself and seek help! That is why I have come to the shores of the earth where men dwell, seeking to entreat your king and queen that they might lend to me great warriors or mages that would descend into the watery depths and recover the Coral Oars from Muirgen. But now…there is no king or queen and your lords are scattered about the land! Now I shall have to cross the ocean for many days yet to find a champion, and by then the sea will have died!” Phaelon closed his bright blue eyes and began to weep. “Do not cry!” Loredana said, “God will not abandon you! Somehow you will succeed!” Phaelon opened his eyes. “Would you help me?” He asked. “Me?” Loredana cried in surprise. “Yes!” Phaelon’s blue eyes sparkled with new hope. “Would you recover my Coral Oars?” “But I am not one to treat with an evil queen – I can barely stop the gulls upon the shore from pestering the hermit crabs! Besides, I dare not go to any place within the ocean, for I cannot breathe underwater!” “Ah, but I can give you items that will aid you, and you are already brave!” Loredana was indeed a very brave young woman, but she was also very sensible and knew this affair was better left to a proper warrior. Still, she was very unhappy that she could not aid the old man. “I am very sorry that I cannot help you recover your Coral Oars,” Loredana answered sadly, “I can offer you a pair of wooden paddles from my own boat; perhaps they can be of some use?” The old man sighed, unhappily. “Only the Coral Oars can make things right again, but I thank you. I will take your paddles, along with the hope that I will be able to return them in happier times.” Loredana quickly fetched the paddles and gave them to the old man. “Well, my child, I must not tarry here any longer. With these oars I can again set out on my journey. Now, please, push my boat back into the sea!” Loredana set her shoulder to the boat; it was surprisingly heavy. She saw that it was of an ancient design and had been in the ocean for so long that a waterline had been worn around the hull. Many pictures and symbols were carved on the boat’s sides, so many in fact that Loredana was sure that they must tell a story, but there was no time to ask about it now. With great difficultly, she managed to slide the boat back into the water. The old man tested his new oars, but the boat did not move. “Out further, my child!” Phaelon commanded. “My boat is stuck fast in the shallows! You must push me out further!” So Loredana waded in further until the water was around her knees and she pushed the boat from the shallows. “Look there!” The old man exclaimed. Loredana spied a fin cutting across the water, “A shark!” She squeaked in fright. The old man leaned over the side, “Quickly! Into my boat!”


9 Loredana did not have to be told twice. Grasping the old man’s hand, she practically leapt from the water into the boat. The old man immediately took up his oars and began to row hard, away from the shore. “Wait! You must take me back and leave me upon my beach!” Loredana pleaded. But the old man did not heed her and he continued to row and did not stop until the shore was no more than a hazy line upon the horizon. The fin followed them and it was moving faster now, coming ever closer to the boat. It suddenly submerged and moments later a dolphin exploded from the water and somersaulted over the boat while spouting water at its two passengers. The old man laughed, “Ah, there is my faithful friend!" Loredana was astonished; it had not been a shark at all, but a dolphin! She was very cross at the old man for such a trick. “I am sorry,” the old man apologized, “but you see, you are the only one that I have found and there is no time to find anyone else! And you are a very wise girl and you know so much about the sea that even warriors and mages do not know. Surely, it was Providence that I found you, which means that you must be the only one who can recover the Coral Oars.” The old man threw a rope into the water; the dolphin caught it in its mouth and began to tow the boat along. The old man began to row again. “Where are we going?” asked Loredana, trying to be brave. “There are only two places where one can enter into the dark abyss under the sea: at the beginning of the ocean, where the sun rises, and at the end of the ocean, where the sun sets. The Queen under the sea lives at the beginning of the ocean, and so that is where we must go. You must sleep now, for you will soon have many adventures, and I will wake you when it is time for them to begin.” Loredana did not feel sleepy for it was still morning. But she listened to the old man and curled up in the bottom of the boat and very soon she was fast asleep. “Awaken now, Loredana!” Loredana’s eyes fluttered open, releasing her from dreams. The old man had rowed hard all day and into the night. Around them the darkness was complete, save for a pale glow that came from within the ocean and surrounded the boat in a halo of ghostly light. “Oh my! How I have slept!” Loredana rubbed her eyes. “You slept soundly!” exclaimed the old man. “Even as I navigated through the gurgling sea of the thousand whirlpools, you did not wake!” “Where is that curious light coming from?” Loredana asked. “Come and see!" Loredana crawled to the side of the boat and peered into the sea. A massive orb of light was there, just beneath the surface. The orb was so immense and mysterious that Loredana lost her breath just to look at it. "That is the sun!” said Phaelon. “Soon it will rise; the time is near at hand for your descent! “But first I must give you some things to help you: three gifts which will keep you from harm and help you on your way!” The old man stood and lifted the plank that served as his seat, revealing a small space. Reaching in, he removed a folded cloth, which glistened silver and blue in the pale light of the submerged sun. The old man carefully pulled away the folds revealing two objects. The first was a crystal vial. It was filled with a clear liquid that when swished glowed and sparkled like diamonds. The second was a small tin of copper.


10 “It is very dark at the bottom of the ocean, but deeper and darker still is the abyss wherein Muirgen’s kingdom lies!” Phaelon warned. He held up the vial. “But you will suffer no darkness when you have this! This vial is filled with “Morning Tears”, the first drops that fall from the sun as it reemerges each day from the sea. Most drops return to the sea, but if you are fast enough and can catch one as it falls, why, it remains pure and shines with the brightness of dawn’s morning light! Dab some in your eyes and wherever you look it will be bright; even the darkest dungeon will become lightsome. A drop lasts only three hours, but there is more than enough here to last you many days.” “And this,” Phaelon said, holding aloft the tin, “The second gift! It is – my, I have forgotten to ask you, but, can you swim?” “Like a fish!” Loredana replied, beaming. “Good!” the old man chuckled. “That is important! Now, where was I? Oh yes – the second gift is this!” The old man opened the tin for Loredana to see. “Why, they look like little candies!” “They taste nice, but candies they are not! These are hardened nuggets of resin, taken from the bark of the amber tree that grows only on the lost islands of the Western seas. This resin is very special, for with it you can breathe underwater! Just place a piece in your mouth. It will begin to dissolve, and as it does, it will become as air that you can breathe! Each piece of resin will only last for so long; so be ready for another when only a sliver remains of the first. They are so rare that I have only twenty pieces to give you, and these I rescued from the flotsam of a sunken merchant vessel. Keep them well.” The old man gave Loredana the two gifts, making sure that she placed them safely in the pockets of her robe. “But isn’t there a third gift?” Loredana politely asked, for the old man seemed to have forgotten. “A third gift? Why, yes!” The old man held up the cloth that shimmered silver and blue. He became sad, “This is a shawl, a very special one. It belonged to my daughter, Corinne.” “You did not tell me that you had any children,” said Loredana, intrigued. “It is not a happy thing to tell: for I had a daughter, and she is no more.” “What happened to her?” asked Loredana. “With me forever in my boat, and with Muirgen trapped beneath the sea, the Creator allowed Corinne to remain on the island of paradise, which is in the middle of the world, where Muirgen and I had been happy. I often visited my daughter while I managed the seas, and she was my joy and my delight. But she pined after her mother, forgetting the reason of her banishment beneath the sea. Finally, Corinne would no longer hear my words, nor would she heed my warnings, so set was she upon descending into the abyss and recovering her mother from that dark place. Seeing this, I relented and taking the spray of the sea and the mist that crawls over the ocean, I spun them together into thread and wove this shawl. You see how it shimmers, for it is made from both air and water, and it shines with their brightness. I knew it would keep Corinne safe if she wore it, for Muirgen can stand no shimmer of light. But also, and this I told my daughter, when the time came to return, she would need only to hold out this shawl behind her and turn a somersault, and a bubble would form around her and float her back to the surface as fast as the sailback swims.” Looking at the shawl, the old man sighed heavily, “Many days passed and Corinne did not return from the depths. I asked all friendly creatures of the oceans to help find her, but to


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no avail. Only the dolphins found any sign of her: they retrieved her shawl from the depths, and seeing it, I knew my daughter to be lost.” The old man brought the shawl to his lips and kissed it. He gave it to Loredana, making sure that she secured it about her neck and across her shoulders. The old man looked at the young woman, “Loredana, I will not force you to do this thing. I was wrong to have brought you here without your consent. If you do not wish to go, I will even now return you to your beach.” Loredana was trembling; she was becoming very nervous. She smiled bravely and said: “It was not at all nice of you to have tricked me, but I forgive you. I am here now and I understand that the world will die unless you regain the Coral Oars. You have been kind to me and given me these gifts, so I will go, even though I think I shall be terribly alone and afraid.” “Ah, but you will not go alone!” The old man exclaimed, gratefully. “My dolphin will go with you!” The dolphin, which had been floating quietly beside the boat the whole time, now raised its head from the water. The old man smiled: “It was this very same dolphin that returned to me my daughter’s shawl. Since that day, through years beyond memory, it has been my companion. It is a strange dolphin – I think it must be a punished creature as myself – for it does not speak or make any sound as a dolphin should and it is ancient beyond the living days of any animal, yet it shows no age. It can hold its breath longer than any of its kind and swim with a speed to rival the fastest marlin! This dolphin has always showered me in the day’s heat, and danced and played about my boat to cheer me. It understands speech and I do not doubt it will accompany you. I call her Haida, after the great schooner of old that used to race the seas. “With Haida at your side you will have the best of companions! She will be your guide and friend, and if you come to any trouble, she will be there. Only once every hour will she be missed, and only then because she must return to the surface to breath, but she will be so fast that she’ll have scarcely left your side before she is back again!” Loredana laughed, “Well, this makes me feel much better!” She looked over the side and patted Haida’s nose. “You will come with me then, Haida?” The dolphin burst from the water and stood on its tail, nodding its head while grinning as only dolphins can. Phaelon then stood, his face serious. “The time is at hand, Loredana! Now, anoint your eyes with morning tears and place a tablet of amber resin in your mouth and watch that you try to breathe out only through your nose so that you do not spit it out. Hold tight to the anchor chain which I will heave from my boat and you shall rush straight to the bottom and find yourself before the gates of Muirgen’s kingdom.” Even as Phaelon spoke, the water began to bulge and boil and the great sphere broke forth from the stilled ocean. As its mighty crown emerged, tongues of fire sprang up and rekindled. Slowly, as an anchor being dragged up by a crew of angels, the sun rose and flared and set the sky afire with its dawn. The old man cowered in the bow, covering his watering eyes which were not for the sun but for the sea. Then the sun was clear and with a great sucking sound the ocean rushed in to fill the great hole left behind. "Hold fast to the chain!" cried the old man and grabbing the wooden paddles, he rowed forward and down into the hole which had become a great whirlpool. Loredana screamed and fell backward into the boat. Around her she saw the sea become as a wall and a canopy of waves hid the sky.


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For a moment the sun was lost as walls of water crashed over the boat. Phaelon threw the anchor overboard; its splash was drowned out by the raging sea. “Loredana!” Phaelon cried over the roaring waves and humming sun, “Go now!” Climbing onto her knees, Loredana sloshed through the water that nearly filled the boat. She looked over the side into the ocean. A huge wave surprised her, lifting her from the boat and throwing her down into the surging ocean. Loredana battled the water to find the anchor chain; she gripped it fiercely lest the waves wrest it from her. And how the waves did try, for they grabbed at her and bullied her about, but the chain towed her away from them and the roaring waves lost her and their rumbles quieted in the silence beneath the sea. Chapter

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Down, down, down sank Loredana. The chain sank rapidly. The water was becoming darker and colder. How full of life the ocean was! She passed through veils of plankton and schools of silvery fish that all darted and twisted about as if one creature. She saw pods of whales in the distance and heard their piercing cries, and passed a yawning basking shark as it trolled along. And still she sank and the water became darker and heavier, but she could see well, thanks to the morning tears and she was not cold, for the morning tears also sent warmth through her body. But even so, she could not yet see the bottom of the ocean. As she sank ever deeper the creatures became stranger; she saw things that only existed in fishermen’s tales, things that were sometimes caught in the deepwater drag nets or found washed up on deserted shores after only the greatest storms. Loredana saw fish that carried glowing lures on their heads, and fish with whiplike tails, and squirming eels and fish with pointy teeth and bulging eyes. She saw the hagfish, which can tie itself in a knot, and the oarfish, which is as long as a sea serpent, and even the viperfish, which looks as scary as its name sounds. She nearly collided with a great sperm whale that was battling a giant squid in the depths. How she nearly died for fear as she drifted down the great whale’s flank, right past its angry eye, and through the flailing tentacles of the squid. The squid’s eyes were as big as saucers, and as Loredana passed, one great eye fixed itself upon her. She could hear it click its beak that was hidden away among its many legs. She sank further still, until there were few fish left to see, and those that were still about were sickly-looking and blind, for there was no light for them to know that they should want to see. At last Loredana could see the bottom. At first it appeared as a hazy cloud, but then she saw that it was made of clay and was barren. She could see one island of creatures though, all gathered around a hot water vent in the ocean floor, like people around a campfire. There were long-limbed crabs and spiny octopi, and giant tube worms that filtered the deep ocean currents. Then Loredana had another fright, for she noticed a shadow moving towards her. It swerved from side to side, propelling itself at her with great force and she knew that this time she was seeing a real shark. It was a shark indeed, a deep sea shark, with six gills and a sicklelike tail. The shark was a hungry thing and all the more so once it had espied Loredana, for it had never found such a tasty-looking morsel in these depths. But instead of attacking, the shark grunted and swerved away. Another shadow appeared from below, and Loredana was overjoyed to see that it was Haida. The shark was very upset, for besides losing a meal and getting Haida’s snout in its stomach, it no doubt was of the opinion that dolphins had no


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business being in the deeps. But it was not about to complain, for a dolphin can kill a shark by butting it repeatedly in the stomach, and there were easier meals to be had. Haida came to Loredana and nuzzled her face. Loredana was very happy for her companion and put her arm around the dolphin and hugged her close. The anchor thudded into the clay and the chain piled up upon it and Loredana touched the ocean floor. Loredana looked around in bewilderment. There were no gates, no kingdom, why, there was nothing at all in sight! But really, this was not so strange; Phaelon had forgotten about the hot volcanic vents along the ocean floor that help keep the deep ocean currents flowing. These hidden currents had caught Loredana as she sank and had taken her many miles off course. “We have missed our mark and so have yet some distance to travel. You must sit on my back, and I shall take you to the kingdom of Muirgen.” Loredana looked around in astonishment: a voice, here, at the bottom of the sea? “It is I who am speaking!” Loredana looked at Haida in astonishment, for it was the dolphin that had spoken! Immediately, Loredana tried to answer, but only a torrent of bubbles came from her mouth. Haida made a laughing sound. “Careful – do not lose your amber tablet! Only under the ocean may my speech be understood. Even you can speak beneath the sea, but I will have to find you something special for that. For now, trust in me, and I will guide you true. Now, climb upon my back, for we have drifted many miles and there isn’t a moment to lose!” Loredana quickly climbed upon Haida’s back and the dolphin shot through the water at a tremendous speed. Loredana thought it incredible fun to ride on a dolphin’s back, and she quickly became accustomed to it, clinging close to the dolphin and feeling the water rush over her. Only twice was their journey halted, as Haida left to return to the surface for a breath of air. During these times Loredana was left alone, not only because Haida could swim much faster without her, but also because Haida ascended too quickly for a human body to stand, for the changing water pressures can kill a man if not taken slowly. Around them there was not much to see; the ocean floor was a ghost world. It was all mostly clay with bits of rock and ragged weeds, with little crabs and lazy starfish wandering aimlessly about. But then they swam over the ruins of an ancient city. “That is the city of Atlantis,” said Haida. “I once played among the coral reefs that grew along its shores, but the people there were cruel, and the Creator laid their island beneath the ocean. But in the beginning it was not so, for the people were very good, and it was they who built the city. Would you like me to swim closer that you may see?” Loredana excitedly patted Haida’s back. The dolphin dove, and was soon careening through the city streets, over fountains and empty spaces that might once have been courts and gardens. The masonry was a marvel to behold, each glittering stone had been expertly carved and set perfectly into its place. The colours of the buildings were warm and inviting. They had fallen into ruin though, and Haida took Loredana into them, swimming through doors and holes in the walls, and Loredana saw the rooms with their stone furnishings, wall mosaics and magnificent baths and aqueducts. Loredana decided that it would have been a very nice city to live in. They stopped in a garden that was decorated with countless seashells. “Here,” Haida nudged a conch shell with her nose. “This is what shall allow you to speak underwater!” Loredana picked up the shell, but still only bubbles came out of her mouth. Haida laughed. “Have you never held a seashell to your ear?” Loredana nodded, she had done so countless times.


14 “Then you have heard the voice of the sea!” Loredana smiled and nodded again. “The reason you hear the sea is because seashells remember and repeat anything that is spoken into them when under the water. Most people never think to speak into them, only to listen to them. That’s why seashells always sound like the ocean, because it is the ocean that has last spoken to them. Do you understand?” Loredana nodded and bringing the shell to her lips she spoke into it. Then she placed it to her ear and what a wide smile broke across her face! She held the conch next to Haida’s ear. “Yes, yes, I hear you!” Haida laughed. “Now you can communicate with me under the sea! But be careful! Make sure you tuck your piece of amber resin into your cheek when you are talking or you’ll lose it!” Loredana smiled and said many happy things she wished to tell Haida. Then she wound the conch into the shawl around her shoulders that it might not be lost. They continued to explore the city, and Haida told Loredana many forgotten things about it and about the centuries when its people had ruled the seaways. Their tour, however, was suddenly cut short when they rounded a corner and bumped into a Lusca. Now a Lusca, if you don’t know, is a kind of octopus, a giant octopus really, and it is of an incredibly colossal size. One day, if you ever chance to find an old mariner’s book, you must look inside and surely you will find a picture, done in India ink, of the Lusca, or its cousin the Kraken, attacking a ship, with its eight thick arms and suckers wrapped around the haul and snaking up the masts. You must not fear though, for centuries ago, when the ocean was a much more mysterious and wild place, the Lusca was a very aggressive creature that sometimes came into shallow waters and attacked the wooden sailing frigates and galleons of old. But now Luscas are rare and shy, though still not nice as company, which is why Loredana and Haida did not stay to visit with the Lusca. In fact, they were off in a flash, leaving the drowned city and the giant octopus far behind. They next came to a very mysterious place; on the horizon were hundreds upon hundreds of spinning funnels that stood upon the ocean floor and disappeared into the waters above. “This is the bottom of the sea of the thousand whirlpools,” explained Haida. “Just beyond it lies the kingdom of Muirgen.” Haida slowed as they approached the funnels, and Loredana drew her hand to her mouth in horror for inside each funnel was a person. “These are Muirgen’s prisoners,” said Haida. “They are caught by the riptides that creep beneath the ocean and are brought here, where they are imprisoned in whirling eddies that stretch all the way to the surface where they become whirlpools – just enough air comes down each funnel to keep its prisoner alive.” “So every man, woman and child that has ever been lost at sea has been imprisoned here?” Loredana said through the conch. She gaped in awe as they swam among the funnels. “No, not all,” said Haida. “The ocean is too vast for Muirgen’s servants to be everywhere. Some, the riptides take for themselves, dragging them into the underground city of Purgos, the city that lies beneath the seabed. Others perish in the waters, or worse, they are taken by…well, we will not speak of that now.” Loredana became quiet as she watched the people turning in their funnels. She saw that there were many different people: armoured knights and collared slaves, sailors and fishermen, lords and ladies, servants and squires, even children in their summer clothes clutching their dolls and wooden toys. The faces looked so peaceful, but they also had a trace of sadness, as if each man, woman and child knew that they were a prisoner.


15

Suddenly Loredana made Haida stop swimming. They hovered beside a funnel in which a young man turned, very close to her own age, so Loredana thought. He was dressed in rags and his feet were bare and blue with the cold of the deeps. “What is it, Loredana?” asked Haida. “Why have we stopped? Do you know this young man?” “No, I do not know him,” Loredana said, using the conch, “but he has a kind face. Can he be freed?” “He can, but then how will he breathe?” asked the dolphin gently. Loredana opened her tin of amber tablets. “I have enough amber tablets to share. Oh please let us free him!” “All right then,” said Haida. “Be ready!” Haida swam close to the young man and swung her tail under the funnel, blocking it from touching the ocean floor. Immediately the funnel faltered and was gone. The boy’s eyes fluttered open and bubbles fled from his mouth and he began swallowing sea water. He panicked then and slashed at the water with his limbs, for he was surrounded in watery darkness and knew only that he was going to drown. Loredana put the conch to the young man’s ear. The young man paused in his struggle when he heard her voice in his ear. Loredana placed an amber tablet in his mouth and took one for herself. Then she anointed his eyes with morning tears; how the young man’s face changed to astonishment when he suddenly saw Loredana and Haida! Loredana explained about the conch and quickly understanding he spoke his gratitude, and so began a conversation of sorts. “What is your name?” asked Loredana. “I don’t know,” he replied. “I don’t think I have ever had a name.” “Over the years, the sea washes away all memories of the world above,” explained Haida. “You will remember nothing of your life before.” “Then I shall give you a name,” said Loredana, “for we must call you something! How would you like to be called Nereus? That was the name of my uncle’s boat. He was a fisherman.” “That sounds like a very good name,” the young man agreed. “But tell me, where are we? And who are you?” Then Loredana introduced herself and Haida and explained to Nereus about her quest and how they were in the depths of the sea. “So I was the prisoner of Muirgen, and must have been so for many years! All my memories are of dreams filled with her dark thoughts and words!” He looked at the hundreds of other prisoners still spinning in their funnels. “Why did you free me alone out of so many others?” Loredana smiled, “Because I think we shall be friends!” Nereus smiled back, “I like this reason very much! Loredana, I will help you find the Coral Oars!” “Good, good!” said Haida. “But now we must move quickly! Muirgen’s spies will have seen us! She does not take kindly to intruders!” Loredana and Nereus then each took hold of a flipper and Haida swam away from the bed of a thousand whirlpools that was the prison of Muirgen. The sea floor then dropped away and beneath them was a great abyss, blacker than any darkness that was upon the earth. “We are crossing the rut that both the moon and sun roll within,” explained Haida. “They travel within this abyss and reemerge before the gates of Muirgen’s kingdom, where they then rise up through the sea and back into the sky.”


16

Even as Haida explained this, a great cloud of creatures arose from the black abyss. They were squid, servants of the Sea Queen, and they had been sent by her to capture the intruders. Haida, however, was swift and cunning, and quick to act. Through the squid she swam, twisting and turning to avoid their grasping arms. But the squid did not give up; they chased after them. Haida’s speed began to slacken. It was then that Nereus, so new to the world, did something extraordinary; he let go of Haida, allowing his new friends to gain some speed. Immediately, the squid forgot about Haida and Loredana and set upon brave Nereus. They swarmed him, wrapping their tentacles around his arms and legs and held him fast. But his brave deed was all for naught, for ahead more squid were waiting. They poured forth from the abyss like the Biblical plague of locusts that was visited upon Egypt. These squid made an inky cloud in the water that even Loredana’s eyes could not penetrate. Haida did not turn aside but instead plunged into the cloud, hoping that its darkness would cover her escape. But the cloud was full of little arms which caught them up from every side. The little arms found Loredana and pulled her from Haida. Loredana was so terribly frightened. She fought the squid as best she could, until she was exhausted and her arms sank like weights to her sides. Haida dashed back and forth through the squid many times, her sleek sides too slippery for their suckers to grasp, but she could find neither Loredana nor Nereus. Haida became short of breath and she was forced to turn her nose up and bolt to the surface. But the squid had their prisoners and they took them now to their master, who was the queen beneath the sea. Chapter

3

Loredana and Nereus were taken to the abyss’ end, where the sea floor rose and became a ramp from which launched the sun and the moon. Beyond the ramp they saw the palace of the sea queen. Wisps of seaweed, long dead, waved from its barnacle-plated walls and towers. The castle was made from rocks upon which ships had been wrecked long ago, and blocks of petrified coral. The coral had been taken from the great reef of Caritas – the same reef from which were forged the Coral Oars. Long ago the sea queen had attacked the reef, hoping to destroy it, but she had been driven back; all the coral she managed to steal had turned to stone. Now perhaps you have seen castles before, and you would naturally expect them to be surrounded by a moat of water with a drawbridge to allow only the people they want inside. But, as you can imagine, when you are underwater, such a moat would not make much sense. There was, however, a moat around the sea queen’s castle, but it was a moat of air that the sea queen kept by magic. The drawbridge was a passage of water that rushed out from the gates when they were opened and spanned the moat of air. So it was even as they watched that the gates to the castle opened and the water rushed forth. Two great crabs scuttled out from the castle, walking sideways as is their custom. “Land dwellers!” gurgled one of the crabs. “We’ll take them and put them in an air cell.” The crabs plucked the prisoners from the squid. Their pincers were so tight that Loredana was afraid her hands might be snipped off, for even normal crabs can take off a finger if one is foolish enough to offer it. Down many halls and tunnels were the prisoners taken until, at last, they were thrown into a dry cell, which was really an underwater cave sealed with magic and with bars made from the ribs of a whale.


17 “I’m afraid our adventure has come to a swift end!” Nereus remarked grimly after he had inspected their cell. Nereus suddenly laughed. “Why are you laughing?” Loredana asked in astonishment. “I’m sorry. I just realized I am not in the water anymore! So this is what it feels like to be on dry land! Look at me! What is this I am doing called?” “Stumbling…though I’m sure you are trying to walk!” laughed Loredana. Nereus clapped his hands and walked about the cell, his joy such that they both forgot they had just been made prisoners. The crabs were not impressed and after speaking with the jailer they waltzed out to return to their posts. Loredana waited until the crabs were gone. “We cannot stay here, Nereus. We must escape!” Nereus’ eyes brightened, “Yes, you’re right! I will not be put to sleep again by the spells of the sea queen!” He shook the bars of their cell. “Hey you, you stop that!” a raspy voice growled. A great moray eel, guardian of the castle dungeon, slithered up to their cell. “Settle down now, or I’ll bite off those useless hands of yours so that you can’t make any more noise with them!” Nereus winked at Loredana and rattled the bars again, “What noise?” asked Nereus. “Like this you mean?” The eel snapped at his hands, but Nereus was quick and pulled them out of harm’s way. “Just try that again!” hissed the eel. “I think I just might,” Nereus said bravely and he held the eel’s unfriendly stare for several moments. Finally, the eel growled and turned away, muttering to itself on how hands and arms were completely silly for any creature to have. “I’m afraid it’s cross with me.” Nereus remarked to Loredana. “Are you sure you want to make it angry?” inquired Loredana. “Very sure! Watch this –” And Nereus again shook the bars. In an instant, the eel was there, snapping at the bars with its rows of sharp teeth, but again it was too late. “You! Stop that I say!” “Stop what?” asked Nereus, who was being very calm. “This?” And he shook the bars. The eel’s slashing fangs missed again. “Gah! I’ll tear you to shreds I will!” threatened the eel and it slammed its body against the bars several times. Having vented its rage it reluctantly swam off, though still watching them from the corner of one of its yellow eyes. Nereus, however, did not stop, and he shook the bars time and time again, and each time the eel came rushing back and ever the angrier for it. Finally, the eel had had enough, “You little urchin! So you don’t like your prison cell, eh? Well, that’s fine, for I have a better one for you! In my belly!” And the eel attacked the bars, biting them with its teeth and violently thrashing from side to side to pull them out. A moray eel in its wrath is a terrifying thing, especially when its wrath is directed at you. Loredana took hold of Nereus, “What have you done?” she cried in alarm. “You must trust me, Loredana!” said Nereus, making sure to stand between her and the eel’s snapping jaws. The eel was rather large, terrifyingly so, and it needed to pull several ribs away if it was to fit its large head into the cell. One by one it was succeeding and a pile of ribs was growing on the floor. But Nereus was watchful, and creeping forward he snatched one of the ribs where it lay.


18 “You won’t be shaking these bars again!” cried the eel, baring its teeth, and with a snarl it launched itself into the cell. But Nereus was ready, and as the eel’s jaws came for him, he jammed the whale’s rib down the eel’s throat. Now, if you’ve ever eaten a delicious piece of fish you know that nothing spoils it so much as discovering a bone. Worse still is when a bone gets stuck in your throat, for that is not at all a pleasant feeling! So you can only imagine what the eel must have felt like when it found itself with a whale’s rib lodged in its throat all the way down into its belly! The eel began thrashing about like a mad thing, but the bone was stubbornly lodged in its throat. “Ah! Too bad you can’t pull it out!” remarked Nereus and he wriggled his fingers under the eel’s nose. Nereus and Loredana escaped through the hole that it had made and back into the water. The furious eel tried to stop them, but it could not even turn around. Hand in hand, Loredana and Nereus swam down the many dim halls of the castle. They were very wide halls, lit by lamps full of glowing nudibranchs, which are a kind of colourful sea slug in case you have never met one. Before long, Loredana and Nereus were quite lost. “We shall be caught if we continue in this way,” Loredana whispered into the conch to Nereus. “You’re right,” agreed Nereus. “We must try some of these doors.” But the doors all led to empty rooms. All, that is, except for one. Behind this door was a dark and winding staircase, which Loredana thought very odd indeed, for what good are stairs when they are underwater? Up and up the curling stairwell they swam until they reached the top and there what a sight greeted their eyes! A room full of clothes and treasures, weapons and beautiful furniture – it was, in fact, a secret room where the queen kept all she took from her prisoners as well as items brought to her by her servants from shipwrecks and drowned ruins. Laughing, Nereus took up a sword. He flourished it through the water and brought it to Loredana. “How many pleasant things lie here! This one especially pleases my eye!” “That is a sword, good Nereus,” said Loredana. “It is for lords and knights and is used by them for war – have you never seen a sword before?” “I have never seen the likeness of anything in this room!” responded Nereus as he looked about in wonder. Nereus took up the scabbard to the sword and a belt. Finding some fine clothes, he would have put them on in the place of his rags right then and there, but Loredana was quick to teach him about modesty and she found a blind behind which he could change. When Nereus reappeared Loredana clasped her hands and laughed for joy. “My!” She exclaimed, “How handsome you look! Like a prince!” Indeed Nereus cut a smart figure. The clothes fitted him well and the sword on his hip made him look grave and mature beyond his years. Nereus smiled, and he twirled above the floor the better to show off his clothes. As he did so, he bumped a golden box. It sank to the floor making a hollow thump. The lid on the golden box popped open revealing a jeweled ballroom with two finely crafted dancing silver figures entwined with gold. They began to turn and a faint strain of notes could be heard upon the water. Nereus paused and listened, for he was very curious at this new thing. “That is a music box and it is playing music,” said Loredana, again beside him. “Do you like it?” Nereus smiled, “Music! It is a strange and wonderful thing – a voice without words! It moves my soul, as your voice did when I first heard it. It is making me happy.” Loredana smiled. “Music can be a very happy thing if you let it speak to you.”


19 “Really? Speak to me?” Nereus listened for a while, his brow furrowed, deep in concentration. “But what language is it speaking?” he finally asked. Loredana laughed. Taking his hand she smiled, “I will show you!” And in time to the music, Loredana began to dance, gently guiding Nereus along until he could follow her movements. Soon Nereus was smiling and they twirled in the water, dancing along the walls and ceiling, their toes trailing through piles of coins and jewels that sparkled and rang against one another. For a moment, they were no longer prisoners escaping from the sea queen’s castle, but rather enchanted dancers at a great ball who had taken leave of the floor to dance upon the air. There came a great rush of bubbles from the stair; several large crabs scuttled into the room. They were in a sullen mood, which is understandable, for, you see, being such poor swimmers they had had to shuffle sideways all the way up the winding staircase. Nereus drew his sword, and though he was new to sword fighting, he gave the crabs a hard time of it. But the crabs were too much for Nereus and they recaptured their prisoners and took them away, for the sea queen was awaiting them. Chapter

4

The great hall of the sea queen is a dreadful place, a great cavern, dark and foul, filled with many misshapen and ugly things. The sea queen had not made it, no indeed, rather she had found it and built her castle around it. The great cavern was large, with a vaulted dome. The walls were ancient rock that had the fossils of great beasts locked within them. Great sea creatures that had long left the world such as the Plesiosaurus with its long neck and paddle limbs, and the Ichthyosaurus, which looks like a fierce porpoise; bony crocodiles and giant sea lizards and even a Megladon, which is the most fearsome fish that has ever prowled the ocean, for it is the great shark, with teeth as big as carving knives and a mouth wide enough to swallow a horse and rider. Into this ancient hall were led the prisoners. Bound with kelp, they were prodded forward by a host of guard crabs. The hall was filled with the minions of the sea queen, mostly crustaceans and pale invertebrates with ranks of ugly fish and other creatures that have no name yet in the tongues of men. Seated upon her twisted throne, made from the volcanic black coral from the deep water trenches, was Muirgen. She was tall and thin, her face like marble, severe in its deathless youth. Her clothes were shapeless black and around her neck hung a stone key which she clenched in her hand as if she did not trust it to be there. Even though all that was under the ocean was hers, she herself did not look as though she belonged there, for there was nothing of the sea in her eyes, for they were cold like ice and full of the evils from the world above. Loredana and Nereus were brought before the throne and made to kneel. The hall became still and the queen regarded them; all waited for her to speak. The queen waved her hand and an air pocket formed around them. “How is it that you dare to appear before the queen under the ocean dressed in your pajamas?” the queen asked Loredana. “Please, Your Majesty, but I didn’t have a chance to change!” Loredana excused herself. “And I really did not expect to be meeting any royalty today!”


20 The queen was not amused. Her icy stare next fell upon Nereus. “You, boy, where did you get those clothes?” “I took them!” he declared. “Insolent boy to speak so! But you are an honest thief who now steals the truth to properly frame his sins! I daresay that you stole them!” exclaimed the queen. She was very cross. “Yes indeed! For those are clothes taken from my royal treasury!” “And who did you steal them from?” But Nereus’s challenge ended with a cry, for a great crab caught him up in its claw and pinched his middle. “Air breather, you will address the queen as Her Majesty!” said the crab in his gurgling voice. Nereus tried very hard to pretend that the pincer did not hurt him. “Such thievery and insolence do not go unpunished in my kingdom!” the queen warned. Nereus struggled to speak, “Then what of my life that you have stolen, O Queen? What of the years that you have taken from me while keeping me a prisoner? Even my memories you have stolen and presumed to fill with yourself!” “Ignorant boy! You think that I stole you? Like a cloud that rains that it might pass over a puddle to admire its own reflection – you flatter yourself! It was the sea that gave you to me! The sea has given me everything I possess! I did not ask for it, I was chosen, and the sea serves me even though I hate it, and it rules me even as it calls me queen. I am its prisoner more than you are mine! “It was I who saved you from the closing waves, whose kiss drowns mortal men. I gave you life. In your dreams I taught you speech and set before your mind things you would have never known or seen. Your life is my own! Silly child, how can I steal what is mine?” Nereus struggled, refusing to yield to the grip of the crab or to the words of the queen. Muirgen frowned at his resistance. “You are spirited for one who has known only dreams!” The queen stood. She wore a fearsome grimace. “Release him!” she cried. Immediately, the crab did so. Loredana caught Nereus as he sank to the floor. “You, girl, leave him be!” But Loredana did not listen and she comforted Nereus. “How is this?” the queen asked in anger. “I was there in all of your dreams, I know your thoughts; I gave them all to you! I have been in each one a thousand times, and made you dream them a thousand times more! And yet here, awake, you are different. You are not like the frightened shadow that flutters through your dreams.” The queen pointed at Loredana, “I do not know you, girl. What are you, that you have undone my spells so quickly? Are you a sorceress from the lands above? What magic do you have? What things have you wrought upon him?” Loredana looked up at the queen. “I am a poor fisherman’s daughter. I have come here only to recover the Coral Oars that you have stolen from Phaelon, the ancient seafarer of the oceans!” “Oh really?” Queen Muirgen laughed and her fist tightened about the key. “Ha ha! How pathetic and droll – you are running errands for Phaelon? Well then you serve an old fool! The oars are not here! How could they be? They are hateful to me and have a brightness that cannot be in this place. They are lost to the world and the world is lost for them. I have given them to the Drak, the great sea sorceress who dwells in the form of a dragon. She has them bound by spells in her sea cave. Phaelon has sent you to your doom!” “Not so, for I am helping her!” Nereus cried. “You!” The queen cried. “What hope drives you to do anything?”


21 “I wish to see the sun!” Nereus cried. He sat up and looked upon the queen with defiant eyes. “I will see it! You have hidden it from me, never teaching me about its light, but I have seen its reflection in this girl’s eyes, and I shall embrace it myself!” Then the humour left the queen’s face and her eyes widened and she began to tremble in rage for she understood now as Loredana held Nereus close. And even as the queen shook, the cavern began to shake as well. A deep rumbling boom sounded; the floor split, and a jagged crack traveled the length of the room before all again became still. The queen let out a horrible shriek and all her minions looked about that they might see why. They saw that the crack began beneath Nereus and Loredana, and in the crack were small growths of coral, blue and green and red. They flickered like live coals, casting their hues upon the walls of the ancient cavern which had seen light but once at the world’s creation. “You terrible girl!” the queen thundered from her throne. “Would that your quest had succeeded rather than things had come to this end! You could have been my prisoner and he a prisoner again, for even I may be merciful to thieves! But now I choose to destroy you both for you have attacked my realm and my power as no creature has ever dared! For together you have brought love here, and hope, the light of the soul which your dull senses can only feel within but which blinds me and burns me like fire! “Here, in my own hall, now grows a piece of Caritas, the coral reef that is the world’s foundation! By your love it has grown here and it will rend my hall asunder!” Hearing these words, all the servants of the sea queen trembled and churned the water with their fins and tails and snapped their claws or stamped their knobby feet. “I, Muirgen, the Queen beneath the sea, banish you both to the shark infested waters! No trace of you shall remain, not even a shred, to remind me of you! Muirgen then addressed her minions: “You, my servants, destroy this coral and dig out its roots that it may grow here no more! “Guards, separate these two, and take them away, and do not return unless to tell the tale of their end!” The air pocket collapsed and four red octopi came and seized Nereus and Loredana, pulling them away from one another. An escort of giant crabs surrounded them, and the prisoners were marched out the castle gates and across the drawbridge on their way to the shark waters. Many times the octopi had taken the prisoners of Muirgen their queen to the shark waters. Sometimes they themselves fared no better than their prisoners, for sharks are no respecters of persons. In fact, each octopus was missing an arm or two. The queen did not care if these, her guards, were devoured; she never even bothered to learn their names and she had others to take their places upon their being eaten. The small party of guards and prisoners crossed over the abyss wherein rolls the sun and moon and came to a desolate place in the ocean. It was a strange place indeed, for the ocean floor was littered with the rotting hulls of many ships: great ships of war and speedy interceptors, massive treasure galleons and transports and even the frail skeletons of the humble skiffs piloted by fishermen. The currents had brought them here: when either some war or storm or monster took a ship under the waves, the currents would catch it and play with it, tossing the ship to one another, and if they were not careful, tearing it apart or breaking it asunder. And after the currents had had their fun and had run the course of the ocean, they left the ship here, and went to find another.


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This is the reason the sharks gathered here: they always checked the ships for food, which is a horrid detail that we will not speak of now, especially since this is a bedtime story. “We have come far enough. Let us leave them here,” said a crab in its bubbly voice. “And what if they escape?” asked another. “We must make sure they are eaten!” “Then eat them yourself!” replied the crab hotly. “I’m not waiting for the sharks to find us!” “They will not escape,” said another crab. “They are not made to scuttle quickly like us and the sharks cannot be far off.” “All the same, let us be sure, for we do not wish to bring down the queen’s anger upon us!” So the crabs and octopi drew near to a drowned ship and put Loredana and Nereus in the crow’s nest – which is the little basket atop the main mast where stands the lookout when a ship is at sea – and taking some rope, they secured them there. When that was done they turned to go, but froze in terror; the dark shadows of many sharks were approaching. But they did not hesitate for long: the octopi bolted and how the crabs scuttled away! The shadows of the sharks followed after them. Forgotten by all, tied to the top of the mast, were Loredana and Nereus. Freeing themselves was not at all difficult, for the ropes the octopi used had been rotting beneath the ocean for many years so as they struggled, the ropes loosened and fell away. “We must hide!” said Loredana into the conch. “We must swim away!” Nereus replied. But they did neither, for the sharks were returning. They had seen Loredana and Nereus and were closing in, making tighter and tighter circles around them. Nereus swam up and broke off the tip of the mast, and held it before him like a spear. A shark looks very frightening, for it is very big and extremely fast and has lots of teeth which it uses for more than just smiling. Wild sharks though are rare creatures that prefer to be left alone, but these were not so wild, for they had become lazy, feeding amongst the drowned ships. A lazy shark is a dangerous shark, a very dangerous shark indeed. Nereus, however, thought only of protecting Loredana. When the first shark struck he showed no fear. Swinging his spear low, he caught the shark in the mouth and the shark drove itself upon the spear, so that it went out by its gills. The shark shuddered and rolling over it fell below the ship. Some of its fellows followed after it, for sharks will eat their own when they die. It was a very brave thing that Nereus had done, but now his weapon was gone. He and Loredana crouched low in the crow’s nest. The sharks were close, watching the two humans out of the corners of their eyes, wary of them now, but too proud and hungry not to risk another attack. And many attacked, chewing up the mast and tearing at the crow’s nest in their hunger, but they could not get at Loredana and Nereus. Then one old and clever shark drove its snout deep into the crow’s nest, reaching for them with its jaws. Loredana and Nereus were trapped, and things would have gone ill for them if the shark had not suddenly grunted and squirmed backward and away. Loredana and Nereus watched in wonder for the sharks now swam above them in a frenzied manner. It was Haida that had sent the sharks into such a state. She was darting among them and ramming them in their soft bellies with her hard dolphin nose. Dolphins can kill a shark doing such a thing, and these sharks knew it well. However, the sharks thought themselves able to catch Haida, but in this they erred, for Haida was too fast and too often found her mark on their


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undersides. Finally, the sharks gave up and turning, they became shadows in the ocean once more. “Dear Haida!” exclaimed Loredana into the conch. “Thank you for saving us!” “It is good to see you too!” Haida replied. “Have you recovered the Coral Oars?” Loredana explained what the queen had told her and how the oars were being guarded by the Drak. “This is both fair and ill news!” Haida replied. “It is well, for the Drak lives not far from here. But it is also very ill, for no one has ever entered the lair of the Drak and come out again! But we must act quickly now; you must hide in the hull of this ship!” “But whatever for?” Nereus asked, quite puzzled. “If it is not safe to escape from the sharks now, when will it be?” “It is not sharks that we must fear now, but their masters!” said Haida while she nudged them over the lip of the crow’s nest. “Their masters?” Nereus asked, though his question came out as many surprised bubbles since he had forgotten to use the conch. “There is no time now to explain – quickly, dive below deck!” urged Haida. The dolphin and two humans did just that, slipping down through the hatch and inside the drowned ship. Loredana and Nereus each took a fresh amber tablet and joined Haida who was peeking through a hole in the hull. Nereus took the conch from Loredana and after a torrent of words, he put it to Haida’s ear: “I don’t see anything to be feared, in fact, I do not see anything at all! Let us hurry from this place!” “Patience!” Haida said softly. “What do you see now?” Both Loredana and Nereus blanched. The sharks were returning, hundreds of them, all swimming lazily side by side. But behind the sharks was something even more terrifying: seven sunken ships loomed out of the shadows of the sea. Stained by ages spent under the ocean, the ships were entirely covered with barnacles and feathery green seaweed that billowed in time with their tattered sails. The ships moved like great engines of war over the ocean bed, for their anchor chains had been looped from bow to stern and turned like iron treads, chewing up the sand and clay and propelling the ships faster than even the currents could push them. “Are these ghosts I see?” Asked Nereus. Before Haida could answer, Loredana cried out and pointed. There were skeletons moving on the ships, moving as if alive. Their bones glowed blue, an effect that came from their having many times sailed the heavy waters of the phosphorus seas. “That is the sunken fleet of Captain De Merrill, a pirate, who brought upon himself the terrible curse of sea,” Haida said softly. “I have never heard of him or of this curse,” said Nereus, “and I had thought Muirgen had told me of everything beneath the sea.” “Muirgen did not speak of him to you because she fears him, for he has taken from her the command of the fiercest creatures in her realm, the sharks, and he has seven ships filled with vicious pirates and armed with cannons that fire cannonballs that have been carved from the underwater lava flows that are the reefs of the Volcano Islands.” “I have heard the fishermen tell of his legend,” said Loredana. “It is one of my favourite tales, but I did not know that it was true!” “It is true,” Haida confirmed. “What is this legend?” Nereus asked.


24 “Attend to Loredana then,” Haida whispered as she watched the pirate ships approach, “but she must be quick in the telling!” Chapter

5

“Long ago, Sir Erik De Merrill was captain of the “Midgard Serpent”, the most fearsome ship to ever sail the sea. He was a privateer in the service of a great king. After many adventures, he returned home and won the heart of a rich merchant’s daughter. But his feet were restless upon the land and in his heart he shored up many memories of plunder and the sea. He betrayed her love. Taking a crew of criminals, he robbed her father and sacked the king’s palace and left her alone upon the shore where she died of a broken heart. “The king sent his entire armada after him, thirty great warships, each with twenty cannons. They chased the rumour of the “Midgard Serpent” across the oceans, catching stories from sailors and fishermen, until they were finally on its trail, a trail made easy to follow by the wrecks it had left floundering in the shallows and the burning towns the pirates had sacked. Then the day came when the armada caught sight of the red sails of the “Midgard Serpent” and six ships besides, which Captain De Merrill had taken and turned to piracy. The king’s armada made a sign that they should surrender, but Captain De Merrill ran up the colours that he would give no quarter and turned his fleet to fight. “A great sea battle then raged. The end of the day saw twenty of the king’s vessels sent to the bottom and five of the pirate schooners as well, but the “Midgard Serpent” moved through the battle as if charmed without receiving so much as a scratch upon her hull. And the “Midgard Serpent” and its last vessel turned with the wind and took flight, but the armada pursued. The chase stretched over many days, and seeing themselves so pursued by so many ships, Captain De Merrill’s crew lost hope and thought to mutiny. But discovering their intentions, Captain De Merrill sank the last ship of his own fleet and then slew his own crew to a man. “But even then De Merill did not think to surrender. Alone he sailed for many days neither sleeping nor eating. Even so, the armada never left off pursuing him. Then, rather than surrender, Captain De Merill loosed his cannons against his own hull and sent his ship beneath the waves. “The legends say that Heaven was closed to him and that Hell would not take him. So it is that Captain Erik De Merrill sails the “Midgard Serpent” on the bottom of the sea, always searching for more treasure to sate his empty heart.” “The story is true!” said Haida. “He was an evil man while living, and the ocean knows that he is even worse when dead! But as to why he still sails upon the ocean’s floor, it was Muirgen who found his ruin within his ship and revived his spirit. She needed just such a cruel man to manage her schools of unruly sharks. But Captain De Merrill learned dark arts and brought the dead bones of his drowned pirate crews to life. He recovered his sunken ships and made them whole again. Thus he had a fleet of seven deadly ships, and the sharks of the ocean’s depths do his bidding. His sharks bring to him those over whom the ocean’s waves have closed that they might be made to serve him. Those souls that refuse to join him he imprisons in the hulls of his ships, there to work the levers and gears that turn the boat’s anchor chains until the end of time.”


25 Haida nudged the two humans away from the hole, “You cannot allow yourselves to be seen! Alive or dead, the pirates will take you, and there is no fate more horrible than to be made the slaves of lost souls!” The pirate ships had by now drawn so close that they could hear the skeleton pirates calling to one other and the planks of the ancient ships groan. At the head of this drowned fleet was the “Midgard Serpent” herself. She was an enormous vessel bristling with guns and she had massive razors, like fins, thrust out from her hull, which were meant to cut down anything that they drew against. She led the ships within a ring of sunken vessels and there her anchor chains stilled and the ships ground to a halt around her. A skeleton on the forecastle of the flagship suddenly emerged from a room. He wore an eye patch, which was very strange indeed since he, of course, had no eyes. “Look alive, lads! Yo ho! The Cap’n is coming out on deck!” Now this was a rare thing, for Captain De Merrill did not often emerge from his cabin. He only did so if there was some sport to be had or some new crew member or treasure to be captured. No skeleton dared ever disturb him, for an ancient shark, blind and massive, circled above and would attack anything that laid hand to the door of his mess. Immediately the skeletons became a confusion of movement, each having some task to perform. A rather large skeleton climbed into the crow’s nest of the flagship. He signaled to each ship with his glowing arms. A most curious thing happened then. The pirates began to play music. In each ship great drums begin to rumble. Other instruments joined in, fiddles and accordions – the pirates began to clap with the beat and those on deck began to dance a very lively jig. There must have been thousands of pirates, so many that the decks were crowded and the riggings sagged with them. Captain Erik De Merrill then appeared. It was his way to always have music playing when he was on deck, and all the more so since it cheered his men and terrified his enemies. Captain De Merrill was not a skeleton. No indeed, he had neither aged nor corrupted since that day when he had last saw the sun. His eyes were glassy and pure black, and his skin was a drowned shade of blue. There was only one blemish on his body, and that was the finger on which was fused his engagement ring; a blue flame shot from its band and consumed the flesh of his finger, a divine punishment to remind him of the promise that he had broken and the love he had spurned. The ancient shark came to the captain’s side as he emerged and De Merrill scratched its steely head. He then came among his men and leaning back he gave a hearty laugh. Then, much to his crew’s delight, he danced a reply across the deck. The pirates cheered now and whistled and hollered and danced in step with him, and it all looked like something they must have done countless times before but never tired of. When De Merrill had decided that there had been enough dancing, he raised his hands and grasped the helm. The music lowered then, changing to more somber and impressive tones so that the captain might be heard. “Aye, how then is me hearty crew?” Captain De Merrill bellowed. “Dead, same as yesterday!” cried the first mate. “Har har har!” the pirates all roared with outrageous laughter and they slapped each other’s backs so that their spines wobbled. “Well me lads, it seems y’ell have some sport today! Me sharks were on to some’n, and did tell me to come ‘ere and see it for meself, but still I not be see’n it! They must’ve gobbled it up, the scuppers!”


26 “Let’s have it at ‘em, Cap’n!” The pirates cheered. Captain De Merrill walked along the railing and peered across at the ruined hulls around him. His great shark never left his side. Loredana and Nereus ducked low, their hearts in their mouths. “I know there be landlubbers nearby – I sense ‘em in the very brine of the sea! Bring me the eye of Gnaris!” Away ran the first mate to the captain’s cabin where within a small chest lay the eye of Gnaris. The eye of Gnaris is a gem stone that was once given to Gnaris, the blind wanderer of the sea floor, who was given it in turn by those he saved from the city of Purgos. It grants its bearer sight of all hidden things. But that is another legend. Captain De Merrill now took this same gem and holding it before his face he gazed into the ships that lay at hand. “This is very bad! We cannot stay here!” squeaked Haida. “Shh!” Nereus said. “He’s fixed the eye upon us!” Indeed, Captain De Merrill had fixed the eye of Gnaris upon them. The dolphin and two humans did not dare move. Captain De Merrill paused. Then, just like that, De Merrill passed over them and on to the next ship. Loredana exhaled, releasing many bubbles, “Did he really not see us?” “We best not remain here to find out!” Haida said. “There are too many sharks – I will draw them away that you may escape!” Before Loredana could say a word, Haida was gone, out through a hole beneath the ship. Haida rushed up from the bottom of the sea and butted a great shark in his midriff. Immediately, in a flurry of angry bubbles, the sharks were after Haida. The pirates made ready to give chase, but Captain De Merrill stopped them: “Stay your hands, lads!” Captain De Merrill returned the eye of Gnaris to the firstmate. “Was it only a dolphin that I came out ‘ere to see?” The crew murmured in confusion. “No! We be after landlubbers!” Captain De Merrill walked along the deck. “Now, say we find these lubbers, what should we do with ‘em, what say ye all?” “Arr! Make ‘em walk the plank!” a pirate roared into the Captain’s ear. Captain Merrill stopped walking. “Walk the plank, ye don’t say?” He asked quietly. “Aye!” The pirates all cheered. Captain De Merrill drew near to the pirate that had spoken. “Ye bones for brains! What happens to people that be walk’n the plank?” “They be fall’n into…the…wat’r…Cap’n!” All the pirates were silent. Captain Merrill nodded and then drawing his sword, he lopped the skeleton’s skull from off its shoulders. “We already be in the wat’r!” De Merrill shouted. “Aye!” The pirates all cheered. Captain De Merrill’s black eyes rolled in their sockets. He picked the skull off the ground and shoved it into the skeleton’s hands. “Hold that thought, mate.” “Aye Cap’n!” said the skull, and the bony hand finding its head, saluted the Captain. The Captain became thoughtful and stroked his wispy beard. He looked over the railing and across to the ship where Loredana and Nereus were. They felt his gaze upon them. The Captain turned to his crew and jovially shouted: “Boys, what say ye? Shall we play a game this night?” “Aye!” The pirates all cheered. “Here be the game! In one of these wrecks crowd’n the ocean floor there be hid’n two mangy land whelps! A thousand gold coins to the first rogue vessel that finds ‘em!”


27 “Yarr, and how are they to be found if we be in our ships, Cap’n?” called down a lookout. “How?” repeated Captain De Merill. He rested his boot on a deck gun and touched the fuse with his burning ring. There was a hollow boom and one of the shadowy wrecks erupted into an explosion of furious bubbles and splintered wood. The men cheered and laughed horribly at the spectacle. Now the captains on every ship were yelling commands. From bow to stern, skeletons were swarming the deck. The ships groaned deep in their hulls and the anchor chains bit into the ocean floor while the rudders flipped about like fish tails. Commands and calls to arms were ringing throughout the ocean: “Make ready the guns, ye scurvy scalawags!” “Come around, me hearties!” “Har har! Fire me starboard cannons, ye sea dogs!” Ships vied for position, and drew up their cannons. Then, in a confused mess of sounds and swirling water, cannons fired and the dead wrecks quaked in the silt. Ship fragments littered the water and through the ruins prowled the victors searching for spoils. Inside their ship, Loredana and Nereus were trembling. Every now and then cannonballs ripped through the hull near around them. “We must do something, Nereus!” Loredana cried. Nereus peeked out of a hole that had been blown through the hull just inches from his head. The pirate ships were all around them now. Only Captain De Merrill’s ship did not move, for he knew where they were and only waited for his pirates to find them. He and Nereus locked eyes. Nereus pulled away from the hole and turned to Loredana. “He knows we’re here! But I have a plan, though I don’t think you will like it.” And indeed, Loredana did not like the plan, and you will soon see why, for it began with them having to swim back up through the hatch and onto the deck of their sunken ship. The two moved across the deck and up onto the railing. They waited but a moment and then, joining hands, they jumped. Now this might seem a very silly thing to do, but it is far worse than you think, for you see, Nereus and Loredana were not trying to descend to the ocean floor; rather they were launching themselves onto one of the pirate ships that was just then passing by! They timed it very well, for they landed on either side of the skeleton manning the helm. Nereus and Loredana seized the skeleton and launched it over the wheel. It tumbled down onto the deck below and broke into pieces. The pirate ships all stopped moving, for the enchanted skeletons knew that one of their own had perished. Every empty eye socket turned to them. The daring of the landlubbers caught the pirates so unawares that they were utterly astonished. A great cry went up and the other pirate ships lurched toward their sister ship the crew of which all drew their swords and rushed Loredana and Nereus. Nereus drew his sword as he picked up another from the deck. “Make for the sea dragon’s cave!” he said to Loredana who was already turning the wheel. Nereus faced the pirates. Though he was not well experienced with swords and fighting, he had two great advantages: two swords and body weight, something which skeletons, whether pirates or not, have precious little of and so they tend to get pushed around quite easily. If you do not believe me, I highly encourage you to experiment for yourself the next time you find yourself fighting


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a skeleton. Thirdly, it should be added, Nereus was fighting to protect Loredana as she stood at the helm. Knowing this gave him a great deal of strength that normally people do not have. Skeletons were swarming up the stairs and others dropping from the riggings. Nereus had to twist and turn for they came at him from every side. Fighting underwater is very different from fighting on land. Fortunately, Nereus had never fought on land and so had not picked up any bad habits. Thus he quickly learned to flip and turn and fight while upside down or swimming and so always use the water to his advantage. Captain De Merrill himself was now at the helm of the “Midgard Serpent”. He was infuriated that one of his ships should have been so brazenly and successfully hijacked. His pirate ships were going at a tremendous clip in pursuit, with the poor souls in the hulls turning the anchor chains like never before. The “Midgard Serpent” drew up beside the stolen ship and Captain De Merrill and Loredana looked over at one another. “Shiver me timbers!” exclaimed Captain De Merrill, “but if it isn’t a woman whose gone and taken me ship!” “And she’s not giving it back!” Loredana called. De Merrill, though he could not hear her words, saw them framed in the water. “Avast there ye shrew of the sea!” Captain De Merrill cried angrily. “Or I’ll fire me guns across your bow!” Loredana, the young woman from the humble beaches of a dying kingdom, smiled back, full of defiance. She turned the wheel hard to starboard and drove her ship into that of Captain De Merrill and impaled it fast on its razors. The “Midgard Serpent” veered hard and Captain De Merrill, the scourge of the ocean floor, was knocked off his feet. Skeletons fell from the riggings and smashed on deck or missed the ship entirely and were plowed under by the ships following behind. When Captain De Merrill regained his footing, his pirate hat was gone. He gnashed his teeth. “A squid’s breakfast! Oh, but this sun wench has put me in a foul mood!” He sputtered. “Lads, make ready the guns!” He spun the wheel and sent his ship into Loredana’s, but Loredana was quick and met him halfway. The two ships crashed together and their anchor chains locked. “By St. Elmo’s fire!” roared De Merrill as he tried in vain to pull his ship clear. Nereus, meanwhile, was losing ground. In fact, he was so hard pressed that he stood at Loredana’s back just barely holding off the skeletons. Loredana tapped Nereus on the shoulder and pointed. Ahead the smooth clay of the sea floor became a wall of rocks – the ships would be dashed to pieces upon it. Nereus chanced a look over his shoulder and nodded furiously. Captain De Merrill also saw the rocks. He panicked and did a very silly thing: he commanded his slaves below to cease turning the anchor chains. This they did, but since the chains were locked with those of Loredana’s ship, the “Midgard Serpent” did not stop. Instead both ships began to skid wildly until they were spinning out across the ocean floor. Captain De Merrill gripped the wheel. “Blow us apart! Every cannon on the port side fire a double charge!” Now pirates are always ready to fire cannons, and at this command they let loose a fusillade from the portside cannons. Disaster! The cannonballs caromed through the spinning ships and the force did little more than spin them faster. “Send ‘em to float with the algae!” Captain De Merrill screamed to his fleet. The pursuing pirate ships drew alongside the spinning ships and let loose their cannons. Searing cannonballs shot into the entangled ships


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and back through to hit the ships on either side. Skeletons flew everywhere and the stricken pirate ships all pulled away. Meanwhile the skeletons attacking Nereus had all lost their footing and were being smashed about the deck, their bones rattling like dice. Loredana hugged the wheel and Nereus her. Around them crashed pieces of the ship as it was torn apart by cannonballs, for the pirate ships had closed again, this time each side firing and pulling away that the other side might fire a salvo without being hit in the crossfire. The main mast itself was blasted from its socket and smote the deck with a thunderous crack and they were covered with the sail. Nereus crawled from beneath the sail and slashed it from the mast. Finding an edge, he began to fold the sail lengthwise many times while cannonballs and debris swirled around him. Staggering across the deck, he punched the sail’s midsection into a cannon’s mouth. He beckoned to Loredana. He took her hand and they each tucked an end of the folded sail under their arms. Nereus trimmed the fuse of the cannon and waited for when the ship was square with the rocks. Then he fired the cannon. The cannonball was caught by the many folds of the sail and took Loredana and Nereus on its flight from the ship. De Merrill’s dismayed cry came after them but was lost in the splintering crunch of the ships as they crashed into the rocks. Chapter

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The cannonball moved through the sea like a comet through the sky. Finally, it began sink to the ocean floor. Joining hands, Loredana and Nereus let the sail fall away. The world was quiet again and they were safe from the pirates. Beyond the rocky barrier was something quite unexpected. You might think the way leading to the Sea Sorceress’ den to be barren and foreboding but no, here before them was a wondrous sight. The rocks gave way and seemed to transform into beds of giant oysters, which studded the sea floor in every direction. The oysters all had their pink mouths open and the insides of their shells were beautiful to behold. Imagine flying over a bed of glittering jewels in the night, for this is what it was like. It was then that Nereus espied something that stopped him up short, a pearl, a magnificent pearl. It was enormous, bigger than anything that had ever been taken from the ocean by men. Its creamy orb shimmered as if liquid. Now, it takes a great many years for a pearl of such size to come to be, and you can imagine how great an oyster it was that had this pearl sitting in its mouth. It was a giant oyster, a giant among giants, as large as a grand piano and bespeckled with generations of barnacles. It had sifted the currents for so many years that all the sea creatures knew it, and there was no one, not even the tides themselves, who could remember a time before the oyster had come to be there. Under the sea, an oyster gets a lot of respect, and this because if it closes its mouth, there is no creature strong enough to force it back open. So it stands to reason that only the foolhardy would stick their hand into an oyster’s mouth. But Nereus knew only the tales that the sea queen had made him dream, and they seemed far away to him and of little consequence. Nereus left Loredana’s side, for his eyes were transfixed upon the pearl. It was then that Haida returned. She happily twirled around Loredana who embraced the playful dolphin, and they rejoiced in each other’s escape. “But where is Nereus?” Haida suddenly asked.


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It was then that Loredana realized Nereus had left her side and was nowhere to be seen. “He was just here beside me!” Loredana spoke into the conch. “These are perilous waters!” Haida squeaked, “We must find him quickly! Onto my back and reapply your Morning Tears!” Nereus, meanwhile, had come to stand before the great oyster. It was a massive thing. As if in greeting it opened its mouth even wider, the to better show off its pearl. Nereus came right up to its lip. Then, ever so carefully, he reached in with his hand. But the pearl was deep in the oyster’s mouth. So Nereus reached in with his whole arm. The oyster’s mouth quivered ever so slightly. The pearl was yet beyond his grasp. Nereus leaned in further still. Then Nereus left all pretense of caution; he climbed right into the oyster mouth. In the swish of a fish’s tail, the oyster snapped shut. Loredana was there in an instant. She pleaded with the oyster and pummeled its shell with her fists while Haida drummed its shell with her tail. But it was a great old oyster that did not care whose friends it ate. They tried everything they could, but the oyster did not even crack a smile at their efforts. Loredana, however, was a resourceful young woman. She rubbed Morning Tears all over the oyster’s shell. At first nothing happened. Then the shell began to glow as it warmed. Soon the barnacles began to squirm and jump off in ones and twos and then in whole groups, and wherever they left off from, Loredana would rub that spot anew. The refreshing cold of the deeps that the great, old oyster loved was gone. The oyster opened its mouth the tiniest crack. A stream of little bubbles seeped out. But it only did this to suck in water with which to cool itself, not to let Nereus go. Loredana was not to be bested; she slipped a few amber tablets into the oyster’s mouth. Immediately, bubbles and froth erupted from the oyster like beer overflowing from a mug. The oyster’s mouth flew open and out popped Nereus like a jack-inthe-box. Fearless and relieved, though somewhat cross, Loredana stepped into the oyster’s mouth and embraced Nereus. She made him sit and gave him a new amber tablet, for he had swallowed his in his panic. The giant pearl lay between them as they sat framed in the glowing oyster’s shell. Loredana took the conch: “Nereus, whatever possessed you to hazard such danger?” She rested her hand on the pearl. “What was this pearl to you?” Again calm, Nereus looked into Loredana’s eyes. “I wished to give you something beautiful.” Loredana smiled. “Sweet Nereus, thank you! The ocean is beautiful because of everything in it – if we remove what is beautiful, the ocean will dim and its beauty be lost. Our friendship is beautiful and precious to me. Do you know how much I would suffer if you were no longer here? True friendship is a rare thing, and that is why ours is so beautiful, for we give it to each other. I would not have anything in its place; do not put yourself in danger for anything except to protect what we have. This is our beauty, and it is enough for me.” Nereus smiled and placed his hand on Loredana’s. Rising up together they left the pearl and the oyster behind. They passed over the oyster bed and the water became darker, and the clay of the ocean bottom gave way to black shale. Finally they came to the den of the Sea Dragon. Her lair was a hole in the ground, a pit, whose sides were shale, jagged and brittle. Around the pit were the skeletons of giant whales which the Drak had captured and eaten. Now that they were actually here, Loredana and Nereus did not know what to do, for certainly they could not hope to fight a dragon, let alone a sea dragon, underwater and in her


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own lair. But Loredana was not about to give up. It seemed wisest to have the dragon come out of her cave rather than to sneak inside and be caught by her. But they could not call out or summon the dragon and they were not about to whisper a challenge into the conch and drop it down the hole in the hopes that the dragon might pick it up and hold it to her ear. They prevailed upon Haida to call down, but Haida’s voice was quiet in the water and she only called half-heartedly, for she really was not eager to summon the dragon at all. Nereus had an idea then; he rolled one of the whale bones into the pit. They listened to its echoes as it glanced off the walls. It seemed an awfully long way down. They waited for the angry dragon to explode out from her lair. But the echoes died and no dragon came. Then their secret hope began to grow, for maybe the dragon was not home at all! They could go in and retrieve the Oars before she returned! Nereus took the conch, “Loredana, I would not have you go – I will descend and find the Oars. Stay here and be the lookout, and you can warn me if the Drak returns.” Loredana searched Nereus’ face, wondering why he should say such a thing. “Nereus, let us go together or not at all. Haida is the swiftest; if the dragon returns she can quickly swim down to tell us and help us escape. I know you speak from the fears in your heart, but together we are stronger.” Haida agreed to stay as lookout and together Loredana and Nereus swam down the shaft. As they descended the jagged shale walls became coated with ice, and had it not been for the warming effect of the Morning Tears, their very blood would have frozen in their veins. They reached the bottom, which was a great frozen chamber with four passages. There, against one wall, were the Coral Oars encased in ice and bound in chains that were locked with magic. Nereus swam to the Oars. A terrible shriek sounded then and an icy spray shot from one of the passages. The spray caught Nereus’ outstretched arm, freezing it within a block of ice. Another blast followed, meant for his head, but Loredana knocked Nereus from its path. The Sea Sorceress charged in, resplendent in her dragon form. Her hide sparkled with a million scales of tempered ice, each coated with deathless permafrost. Ice crystals floated from her nostrils and mouth when she exhaled. She seemed to fill the chamber as she came. Nereus met the dragon’s charge; he drew his sword and held his frozen arm before him as a shield. The dragon struck but Nereus ducked the blow and with a mighty stroke he slashed the dragon across the muzzle. The dragon reared up and beat the water with her wings, causing shards of cutting ice to form. Crashing back down, the dragon went for Nereus, but Nereus blocked the grasping talons and again struck the Drak. The Drak backed into her passage, suddenly unwilling to fight. Loredana came to Nereus’ side. The dragon spoke: “Peace! Perhaps there is no reason to fight. Have you come for the Coral Oars?” Nereus and Loredana made no sign, for neither trusted the dragon, for it is well known that dragons are often liars and twist the meanings of words. “You must have,” said the dragon. “Why, you need have only said so! I thought you some vainglorious knight come to win favour with his lady by slaying me!” The dragon moved from the passage and gestured with her claw to where the Coral Oars hung upon the wall. “Here they are. What a nuisance they are for everybody! They are not mine, and so I have no interest in keeping them. Will you not come and take them?” Loredana placed her hand on Nereus’ shoulder. Together they approached the dragon. “If they are of no importance to you, why do you keep them in your chamber and bound in chains?” asked Loredana.


32 “The Queen under the sea has bound them in chains because they are hateful to her. She alone holds the key. She has forced them on me with threats so that I would be their keeper. So you see, they are her property, not mine, and I have no interest in keeping what is not mine. If you take them you will be freeing me from my charge, for I never wanted them in the first place!” Nereus and Loredana stood a long moment regarding the dragon. Nereus’ whispered into the conch from the side of his mouth and held it to Loredana’s ear: “She talks too much. I do not trust her.” Loredana nodded. The dragon, seeing their mistrust, took the Oars from the wall, set them on the floor and shuffled backward a few steps, signaling that they should come and take them. Nereus sheathed his sword and he and Loredana strode up to the dragon. Nereus’ teeth were chattering, not from fear, but from cold, for his left arm was still locked in ice. He reached forth and paused, watching the dragon. “Go on,” urged the dragon, “take them and be on your way!” They both set their hand upon the Oars. The dragon cackled. “Ha ha! The Oars do not belong to me, oh no, but they are the queen’s and all that is the queen’s is under my protection! Since you have touched them, you are thieves and worthy of death!” The dragon rushed back into the chamber, billowing ice and freezing spray. The dragon was not going to fight again, for she knew too well the sting of Nereus’ sword. Instead, she cast her arm towards one passage and a great flurry of bubbles boiled forth. Summoned from enchanted sleep, hard-bodied fish emerged in droves. They were piranhas, a fierce breed of fish, with mouths full of razor sharp teeth and very short tempers. These were absolutely furious, for piranhas detest cold water. They became frenzied and gnashed their teeth with murder in their eyes. Nereus pulled Loredana into a corner and stood before her, protecting them both with his arm of ice while he slashed at the attacking fish. The piranhas did not stay to fight long, for the cold made them desperate. After a few passes around the room they found the shaft in the chamber roof and disappeared. But the dragon was not done. She raised her clawed hands. The icy walls then cracked and splintered as belts of seaweed burst through them. Through some evil spell the seaweed sought the intruders out. Nereus drew the extra sword he had taken from the pirate ship and gave it to Loredana. Moving to the centre of the chamber they hacked and slashed at the seaweed as it tried to catch up their arms and legs. Not content with this, the dragon cast more fell magic: great ice chunks flew into the chamber from the different passages. They were huge boulders and could crush a man or strike him dead such was their size and speed. Nereus and Loredana avoided them with twists and turns while yet battling the seaweed. The boulders crashed into the walls and sometimes crumpled up the seaweed. The cavern began to shake and giant icicles dropped from the ceiling. Loredana and Nereus moved like acrobats in the water as they avoided the crushing ice. Finally the ice was spent and the seaweed was reduced to frozen tatters hanging from the walls. “You have defeated my servants and outlasted my spells,” fumed the dragon, “but there are worse things yet hidden in my lair!” The dragon gave a low rumbling cry. Something answered, skittering down a passage towards them. Nereus and Loredana turned to face this new peril. A giant lobster rushed upon them, gleaming frosty green with two massive claws, the left twice as big as the right. It snapped its claws and the sound was enough to bowl Nereus and Loredana over in the water.


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Nereus recovered and struck back. Rolling under a heavy claw he swung with all his force. His sword glanced off the lobster and shook so violently from the blow, Nereus had to release it, wringing his hand in pain. The lobster tried to crush Nereus underfoot, but Nereus rolled clear and swam for his life. Loredana hacked at the lobster as it rushed past her, but it swept her aside with its tail. Without a sword, and with little room, Nereus ran up one of the icy walls and flipped backward. Passing over its snapping claws, Nereus landed astride the lobster’s back. This infuriated the giant crustacean. Nereus gripped the lobster’s long antennae and pulled them this way and that, forcing the lobster to do what he wished. He turned the lobster against the dragon. The Drak jumped in fright and retreated into her tunnel, sending blasts of ice behind her. Nereus drove the lobster against a wall. The chamber shook and more icicles fell. Nereus jumped just in time, for a veil of ice rumbled down and crushed the lobster. Infuriated that her minions had all failed, the Drak charged. Nereus had recovered his sword and stood with Loredana. Together they met the dragon, shielded from its icy spray by Nereus’ arm. The fight was a savage one. The Drak lost not a few scales and Nereus and Loredana were quite sore having been knocked to the ground and into walls by the dragon’s tail. Nereus had a long slash down his leg and Loredana had a gash on her forehead, but it did not bleed since the water froze it shut. The Drak would have even bitten Nereus’ arm off had it not been incased in ice. The water became thick with ice, almost as thick as slush, for the more the dragon fought, the colder the water became. The cold seeped into Loredana and Nereus’ limbs, making them sluggish and sleepy, for if the dragon could not defeat them in a battle, she would freeze them first and eat them later. Nereus’ strength began to flag, for his arm had been frozen for a long time, and its cold had taken root in him. He was as blue as death and his chilled hand could no longer grip his sword. It fell from his nerveless fingers and the dragon struck him down, swatting him into a wall with her tail. The dragon turned to finish Nereus. Loredana’s heart became cold then, but it was the cold that is left when hope leaves a heart and fills it with fear. All seemed lost, and Loredana dropped her sword. But Loredana still believed in hope. Unraveling her shawl, Loredana swam around the Drak, encompassing her in a bubble. Too late did the dragon discover her design. The bubble sealed and rose from the chamber floor and up the shaft. The dragon struggled and roared, but none of her enchantments or efforts could burst the bubble, for the bubble would not pop until it reached the surface, and if it reached the surface, the sea sorceress would be undone. As its mistress weakened, the Sea Dragon’s chamber began to crumble. Loredana paid no heed. Nereus was stone cold to the touch. Loredana rubbed Morning Tears on his arms and face. Her own tears added to the ice swirling about them. Nereus’ eyes flickered open. With Loredana’s help he climbed to his feet. Cold and battered they moved through the crumbling chamber. Loredana secured her shawl and they found their swords. Taking the Coral Oars between them, they began to swim up the shaft leading out of the Sea Sorceress’ lair. It was painful going, for their limbs were frostbitten. The water was so thick with ice it was if they were swimming through a blizzard and they could not tell if they were going forward or backward or if they were even moving at all. But the ice cleared and the glazed walls gave way to the black shale. Good Haida was waiting for them, but had a terrible shock when she beheld them, for they looked half-dead. They collapsed on the ocean floor. Haida nuzzled them with her snout.


34 “Loredana, Loredana! Do not sleep yet!” Haida cried. “You must use your shawl and take yourself and Nereus back to the surface with the Coral Oars! There can be no delay – the pirates are blasting through the rock and will come here!” Loredana did not move. Then Haida turned to Nereus. “Nereus, the pirates are coming and Loredana is spent! You must help her!” Nereus rose to his knees. “Loredana,” he called softly. Loredana roused herself and together they stood. “We cannot leave yet.” Loredana said into the conch. “The oars are held in chains and the queen has the key. I saw it when we were in the castle; she wears it around her neck.” Haida became quiet. Finally she spoke, “Well, then we have no choice but to return to the palace of the sea queen. But we will not go alone, for I thought you might have needed help in your battle with the dragon.” And Haida clicked and chirped in the water. From out of the inky blackness there emerged many forms. They glided through the water with grace. “A bale of migrating sea turtles was feeding near here. They already sense that the ocean is deadly sick. They have agreed to help us return the Coral Oars to the surface!” The sea turtles came near and with their permission Loredana and Nereus each climbed on one’s back and held tight. An ancient turtle of enormous size took the chained oars in its beak and the convoy set off with Haida at its head. The group moved swiftly through the inky blackness. Soon they had left behind the barren shale of the dragon’s land and passed over the bed of oysters. Ahead they could see small sparks of light. The pirates had already blown through the rocks and were widening the way. “The pirates!” Haida swam amongst the sea turtles. “Swim through the breach! Mind their ships and watch yourselves!” The sea turtles tightened their ranks and dove towards the pirate ships. The “Midgard Serpent” stood at the head of its drowned fleet, for it had been speedily repaired using the timber from the vessel Loredana had ruined. A great cry went out from the lookouts when they espied the sea turtles descending upon them. Captain De Merrill held his spyglass to his eye, “It’s that air breathing hussy! Do not let her pass!” The pirates cackled as they made ready to fight, so thirsty were they to join battle. The first wave of turtles shot through the ships. Cannons fired and skeletons swarmed up the riggings and swung their swords hoping to lop off an unwary flipper. But the sea turtles were surprisingly agile and proved difficult to hit. They careened through the harpoons, cannonballs and ships so fast the pirates were not even able to get off a second volley. “After them!” commanded De Merrill. The poor souls in the galleys were whipped and the anchor chains bit down and turned the ships. De Merrill’s sharks sniped at the sea turtles and drove them to panic, causing them to collide and swim out of rank. Beneath them the sea floor rushed by in a blur. Haida had set the course and left Loredana and Nereus to guide the sea turtles on it, for she had left off leading the convoy and patrolled its flanks, darting to where the sharks pressed them the fiercest. The convoy was barely staying together for Haida could not be everywhere, and hundreds of sharks were upon them. Loredana drove her turtle to swim even faster, so determined was she to reach Muirgen’s palace, even though only more danger awaited them there. De Merrill’s fleet followed them close, for the strongest sharks had bit down with their awful jaws into the masts and tackle and were driving the ships forward with their thrashing tails. De Merrill stood laughing in the bow of the “Midgard Serpent”, the water of the deeps breaking against his face. His would be the victory.


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Chapter

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Alone in her throne room the queen under the sea sat brooding upon dark thoughts. Around her was the sparkling coral of Caritas. It had threatened to engulf her chamber, but she had laid hateful spells upon it and stayed its growth. She neither left her throne nor slept, for her will strove with the coral, and her spell would break if her mind was not upon it. “My queen!” A sturgeon messenger swam into the chamber. “There are reports that a great host is approaching!” “Did I not say I was not to be disturbed?” Muirgen reproved the sturgeon. “If they have no business here, then have a detachment of guards deal with them!” “But, your Highness!” protested the sturgeon. “Do as you are bid! Can you not see I am busy here?” “The host is an army!” The sturgeon blurted. “They are coming straight for the castle at terrible speed!” The queen stood and angrily unfurled her robes. “What army lies under the sea that would dare challenge me?” She rushed out from her chamber, but her spell did not waver, for her will still held. Up to the parapets she climbed that she might look out over the black depths. Her captains scrambled to her side, awaiting orders. Whirling her hands she mixed the waters around her until she had whipped up a storm of bubbles. “Give me sight through the deeps; show me what force comes against this castle!” The bubbles swirled now of their own accord and became a crystalline dome surrounding Muirgen, showing her the realms of the sea. “It is that girl, Loredana! Spiteful child!” Muirgen laughed. “She brings sea turtles against me? Those dull beasts are no army! They will fall like baited hooks to the sea floor!” But Muirgen did not laugh long. Her pale face became even whiter as she watched. “So, she is in league with the undead pirates! Clever girl to have struck a deal with my enemy!” Muirgen threw out her hands, shattering the dome. She turned from the battlements. “The girl is treacherous! She thinks to hide De Merrill’s fleet behind a screen of clumsy turtles! She leads them against us! To arms then! Sound the alarm! Prepare my chariot!” Never had such a great host moved with so much speed in the depths. The sea turtles did not falter, for even though they lost some of their number and had been startled and scared, they rallied to Haida’s leadership and steadied themselves. The sharks had grown wary of Haida but they kept pace and boxed the turtles in that they might not escape or veer and the pirates followed close behind. This was the state of things when Muirgen’s castle appeared from out of the gloom. “Straight on!” called Haida to the turtles. “For there is a moat of air into which the sharks cannot follow!” This was a brilliant idea on Haida’s part, for though sharks cannot breathe air, sea turtles can. Captain De Merrill marked how the turtles slowed and he chortled with glee. But his laughter died in his throat, and his skeleton crew became as dead men, again, for De Merrill had been so caught up in the chase that he had not plotted his course and was aghast to find himself at Muirgen’s gates.


36 “The scurvy blighters! Made me a fine looking fool! They’ve been doing the queen’s bidding the whole time and lured me like a lobster into a trap! But I am no crusty bottomfeeding mollusk that the queen can toy with, oh no! I’ll visit her schemes back upon her own head! Now is the time of reckoning!” De Merrill ran from the bow and swung to the helm. “Not a slack arm among you! Make them row as hard as the lash can whip them! We’ll take the castle and chum the water with their dead!” The sea turtles dove into the moat of air. Haida alone remained outside, for she was a dolphin and could not long stand the air. But yet the pirate ships came and faster still, for the sharks that had harassed them now rallied to the ships to help propel them forward. Muirgen’s guards scattered. The ships sliced the moat asunder with their bows and passed on through. The sharks followed and fell upon the sand where they flopped and struggled among the turtles, snapping and gnashing their teeth. Great sluices of water poured in and the moat’s air escaped in great gulping bubbles. Haida was amongst them again, flopping in the rising water. “Quick! Soon the sharks will be among you! Into the castle!” The turtles skittered along the flooded sand and finding a passage they overran the guard and entered the castle. Loredana and Nereus took hold of Haida and the dolphin followed after the sea turtles with the sharks at her tail. “Out with the raiding parties!” bellowed De Merrill. “The crew that brings me the sea queen, Muirgen, shall have their bones plated in gold!” The skeleton pirates descended like ants from their ships and swarmed the castle. Then what a battle was joined! In every room and passage the three forces fought each other by tooth and bone and flipper. Haida swam through the fighting and came to the throne room. Muirgen was waiting there. She was arrayed for battle, wearing armour of plated seashells. She stood in a chariot made from a giant trumpet shell that was pulled by six spiny zebra-striped seahorses. A hermit crab was her charioteer and two killer whales were at her flanks. In her hand she bore a javelin carved from a narwhal’s tooth. Her eyes were closed, concentrating, for the coral fought her spell and her chamber shook with the strain, but she opened them and her gaze fell upon the intruders. “Loredana! Never has one dared to test me as you have! My castle is almost consumed, my servants are scattered, and you look upon my face as one who would be my master! You are fearless girl, and you are bold, but this is also often said of fools, and their end is always miserable!” “The difference between a hero and fool lies in the purity of their heart!” Nereus responded. “I see your fear, Muirgen! Evil is a scared thing! Your will is evil and there is no peace in your heart. You are as a dull blade seeking to cut by force and power. But Loredana is like a rapier that can cut to the quick with but a touch and this because her will is good and from this she draws happiness and strength. Evil cannot withstand good, just as you cannot withstand this girl, for you will throw your might against her and be ruined like a ship upon a reef!” “So, the boy has become a man!” smirked Muirgen. “Mark well the clay of the ocean floor, for you will return to it! I have no quarrel with this girl, but with the Creator whom she mirrors, for all you call good is His. Just as this girl does not do battle with me, but with the disorder of which I am but a servant. This encounter is but a pittance in a conflict that erupted all those centuries ago when I was young and tethered to another’s will. I will destroy you both, just to spite the Creator! But why perish so? Would you be a woman, and you a man? Then


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leave the oars and this quest! Cease your childish service to the whims of others and make your own destiny!” “We are making our destiny!” said Loredana. “I pity you that you have not the wisdom to see it. The trappings of counsel ill fit your selfish words, Muirgen. There is no love in anything you have said nor anything true or lasting. Keep your darkness and your misery; we come only for the key that you wear about your neck, nothing more!” Muirgen clutched the key where it hung at her breast. “No force on land or sea can wrest this key from me! How sad that all your adventures should end here!” Muirgen spurred her chariot forward and made ready to cast her javelin. But then how the chamber creaked and groaned, the very water around them seemed to shake. Muirgen’s spells faltered and the coral of Caritas again began to flex and grow. The ground beneath the castle buckled and the chamber dome cracked and split. Muirgen saw her spell was failing. She ascended through the crack in the chamber dome and out into the sea beyond with her ire as hot as the flames of hell. Upon her castle which crumbled below, Muirgen uttered dangerous spells and words of command meant to enforce her will. The castle trembled and shook like a man tossing and turning with a stomach ache. But Muirgen’s new spells set, and the coral’s advance was halted once again. All those fighting in the castle, however, thought Muirgen’s fortress was collapsing. They streamed from the windows and the battle spilled back out into the deeps. Though she had not known just how things would fall, Muirgen had planned for this. Despite the strain upon her, she smiled and commanded that the castle gates be opened. The gates boomed as they were flung to the walls and there stood her whole army: great fish and small, stinging jellyfish, octopi and salt water crocodiles all drawn up and awaiting her command. The sea floor was littered with rank upon rank of crabs and shellfish all at the ready with their claws bared “Back to the ships! To the ships!” roared Captain De Merrill to his marauding pirates. “Leave the castle for later ye scavenging marionettes and back to the ships! Muirgen’s army moves against us!” So it did, for the sea creatures poured out of the gates and made for the ships where they sat in the flooded moat. How the skeletons did scramble then! From every nook and cranny they spilled and made for the ships even as those drowned hauls wheeled around and primed for the attack. The two armies came together with a terrific violence of steel, tooth and fin. De Merrill’s ships tore through Muirgen’s army to its core. Then all became a confused mess with sea creatures strafing the decks and skeletons harpooning and firing on anything that swam. It soon was clear that De Merrill was regaining the upper hand, for his boats acted like fortresses and his roving sharks cruised overhead and were more than a match for almost any creature of Muirgen’s. Muirgen saw that the battle was going ill for her. “Release my pretties!” She commanded. A great rumbling sounded and the sea floor trembled. Great tentacles thrust up from behind the castle and giant eyes peaked over its walls. The skeleton pirates stopped, jaws open, aghast. “What are you bone racks gawk’n at?” De Merrill bellowed at his quavering men. “What is a giant squid but spineless jelly? Make for them lads! Take ‘em down hard and fast! We’ll drape our hulls with their hides!” The pirate ships steered through the battle as one but they did not have to go far, for the giant squids climbed over the castle and made for them. The ships desperately tried to circle but great snaking tentacles wrapped around their hulls and up


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their masts. The sharks attacked, cannons fired at point blank range and harpoons rained down upon them but the squids only pulled their coils tighter around the hulls of the ships. One of the pirate ships popped like a corn kernel. De Merrill became a desperate man. His own boat, the “Midgard Serpent” herself, was wrapped with crushing tentacles. Turning her hard, he sent the ship into the giant squid and folded up the beast. The squid’s tentacles pulled tight in death and cracked the ship’s hull. All this time the sea turtles had been circling over the battle. They were trusty creatures, but they were not made for war. So it was that Loredana thanked them and told them that they had played their part well and that she was in their debt. She and Nereus again took to Haida, for in the confusion of the battle Loredana still meant to recover the key from Muirgen. Time was short, for only two amber tablets remained in her tin. Captain De Merrill rose out of the ruin of his ship. Around him his skeleton pirates still fought hard as Muirgen’s creatures attacked in waves. De Merrill summoned his shark, an ancient beast, covered with scars. It was so old that its milky eyes had gone blind and its steely hide had turned completely white. Leather straps encircled its massive body and De Merrill slipped his boots under these and stood upon its back and drew his sword. Through Muirgen’s minions he flew, for the brute beneath him was guided by his feet and together they struck fear into all they encountered. So it was that there in the black depths, Muirgen, the queen under the sea met Captain De Merrill, the scourge of the ocean floor and their meeting was terrible indeed. Javelin crashed against sword and chariot against shark. No sea creature dared interfere lest they be struck dead by the furious blows that the two combatants rained down upon each other. The water grew dark with blood and De Merrill’s steed was slain under his feet. The savage beast rolled over and sank into the abyss. And Muirgen’s reins were slashed, and her charioteer skewered. Yet still they fought, Muirgen in her chariot while De Merrill swam about her. Then came a grey streak through their midst and Muirgen, suspicious as always, grasped at the key and so saved it from Loredana’s reaching hand. Foiled, Loredana and Nereus let go of Haida in order to float between Muirgen and De Merrill. “Muirgen! Please give me that key!” pleaded Loredana. “If the ocean dies you will die as well! Your own warriors, and Captain, your sharks, see how they have become sluggish and listless? – the ocean will become a cistern of death if the oars are not restored!” Muirgen ignored Loredana and addressed Captain De Merrill: “Your two urchins here should never have let off being deck hands, Captain.” She tauntingly held aloft the key. “Jest not with me, Princess Fish Monger! I know them to be your henchmen!” “If they are not with you and they are not with me, let us dispatch them and save our own quarrel for afterward!” Suddenly made allies by a common enemy, Muirgen and De Merrill left off fighting each other, though caring nothing for their armies or for the sea. Loredana and Nereus drew their swords. Nereus turned to fight Captain De Merrill, but Loredana took Queen Muirgen, the whole while wishing only to snatch away the key. Nereus and De Merrill sank to the bottom as they dueled while Loredana stayed atop Haida and fought Muirgen in her chariot. Nereus and Captain De Merrill touched bottom, but they barely knew it, so fiercely were they engaged. Through the ruins of ships and squid they hacked and parried. Wounded fish tumbled to the sea floor around them as the battle above still raged. “Hye, ye rapscallion! You’ve stolen one of me ships, and now you fancy you can steal me life? I am already dead – how can you win? You are doomed to lose – I only toy with you!”


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So it was, for De Merrill leapt and turned through the water with grace, meeting all obstacles as if but a child’s playground and turning Nereus aside with ease at every encounter. “It is true I cannot match you,” Nereus mouthed his words and shouted them in the water that they might be heard. “But I only need wait for your own pride to defeat you!” Captain De Merrill gave a mighty leap and alighted atop a squid. He turned and looked down at Nereus and laughed. “The empty threat of a defeated man couched in a moral, oh bravo green gills!” But De Merrill ceased from laughing for Nereus was suddenly upon him. The two jostled and struggled until De Merrill was dislodged. He fell and landed amid a tangle of tentacles. Then how De Merrill’s countenance was changed! He was furious to have been bested so! But as he moved to rise again and strike down Nereus, the squid’s arms wriggled, for the squid was yet living. Around De Merrill the tentacles became as a wall and behind him yawned the squid’s terrible beak. De Merrill’s cold heart was seized with fear. Even as he raised his sword the tentacles drew him in. Then the beak closed with a weighty crunch and Captain De Merrill, the scourge of the ocean floor, was no more. Loredana and Queen Muirgen strove against one another, like a hammer striking against an anvil. Loredana fought well, but could do little against Muirgen’s far reaching javelin. So Loredana took more risks, making grabs for the key, until Muirgen finally unseated her from Haida. Without Haida, Loredana struggled in the water and Muirgen struck. Her javelin pierced Loredana’s shoulder. Loredana cried out in the depths. Muirgen made to strike again, but this time her blow did not land, for Haida darted in-between them and the javelin passed through her instead. The queen’s face turned ashen grey when she saw that she had pierced Haida, “No, no! You foolish dolphin – I never meant to harm you!” Muirgen pulled out her javelin and let it fall. “I only wished to keep you beneath the waves with me!” Muirgen held Haida’s face, her own twisted in sorrow. The queen looked about her and her face became sadder. “How did I come so far in evil ways? I have even struck down the first born of the world and I was the mother of all. All my days have become bitter and all because I chose to harden my heart and justify my sin by seeking to triumph in evil ways. So much life and energy spent in evil, and all wasted. I see I have only spited myself and am left with nothing.” All evil desires left Muirgen then as she cradled the dolphin in her arms. She passed her to Loredana, “Save her, Loredana, if you can.” The castle crumbled as shards of Caritas thrust up through it, for Muirgen had released all her spells. Muirgen placed the key around Loredana’s neck. Then she left her chariot and stood in the ruin of her castle, her head bowed, until the coral came up all round her. It engulfed her and Muirgen, the queen under the sea, passed from sight. Then, wonder of wonders! Through hazy eyes, Loredana watched Haida transform right in her arms. She was a dolphin no longer, but rather a young woman like herself! Nereus caught Loredana as she sank, for her wound was weakening her. Yet, even so, she placed a tablet in the young woman’s mouth and found that only one remained. This last tablet she gave to Nereus, even as her own failed in her mouth. She then took her shawl, meaning to make a bubble to raise them all to the surface, but all grew dark and she tumbled from Nereus’ arms into the dark below.


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Chapter

8

Loredana awoke. Wonder and amazement filled her, for she saw that she was in a castle, clothed in finery with many good things to eat at her bedside. She sat for a long time, trying to remember what had happened. Her arm was in a sling and so Loredana knew it all had not been a dream. Gingerly she rose from her bed and took up a goblet to drink. She drank every drop and laughed as she finished, so happy was she to drink water rather than live in it. Then Loredana went to the window and sat on its sill. She knew where she was: she was in the old castle of the king and queen, for she had been to the royal city before on trips with her aunt as a young girl. In the city square outside there was a tumult of people such as had never been seen in many a year. Traders and peasants clogged the square in great numbers and among them strode warriors and ambassadors from many kingdoms. Loredana wondered what they all might be doing here. She was amazed to see the palace stables full of horses and ladies in waiting and servants tending to the gardens and paths. “The king and queen must have returned!” remarked Loredana to herself, and she smiled at hearing her voice once again. “The quest must have succeeded! They must have rescued me!” Even as Loredana thought upon this a young couple caught her eye as they walked below on the terrace. She recognized the young woman, for it was Haida, and she too had a sling on her arm and more bandages besides, for Muirgen had savagely wounded her. She was helped along by a young man, very handsome, with golden hair. As they walked they were talking and laughing and enjoying each other’s company under the warm sun. Loredana’s heart leapt, for she recognized the man as Nereus. She watched them take a small turn outside and then return to the castle. Nereus took Haida’s hand and kissed it before parting. Not a few minutes later came a knock at her door. Nereus entered, “Ah, you are awake at last! I am so glad!” Nereus explained all that had happened. The king and queen had returned! They had been among the prisoners of Muirgen, all of whom had been returned to the surface by the whirlpools when their mistress’ spells were undone. Phaelon had rescued them all, for he had assembled a fleet of fishermen to pull them from the sea. He himself, thanks to the ring around his neck, was recognized as prince Helios, the son of the king and queen, but they changed his name to Nereus for he had asked them to do so. Haida, now a young woman, was Corinne, the lost daughter of Phaelon, who had been changed into a dolphin centuries ago by Muirgen that she might never leave the sea and thus lose all memories of land and of her father. “Then I can understand why you love her,” Loredana interrupted. “I am happy for you!” Nereus’ face changed to confusion, but he was quick to smile. Nereus dropped to his knees beside her and clasped her hands. “She is dear to us both, but it is you I love. You have helped bring about the salvation of this world, for the Coral Oars have been restored to Phaelon and all know of your deeds, and there is no one more praised than you! I wish you to do me the honour of becoming my queen and living with me in this castle and bringing back the glory of this land and its people with your wisdom and grace. Loredana wept for happiness and they embraced. And she accepted his offer.


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They waited for Loredana’s arm to heal and during that time the announcement of the wedding was made. People came from far away lands and across the seas to be there, even without an invitation, for they wished to celebrate such a wonderful thing and to see the young woman that had saved the world. When the wedding came it was held in the cathedral and presided over by the bishop. All the world seemed to be there, for even the sea was teeming with guests. The old man of the sea had come with great whales and seals and dolphins and, of course, all the sea turtles were there as well and they had a place of honour along the beach. Phaelon gave the newlyweds two wooden paddles as a wedding present, the same two oars that Loredana had given him, but they were now inlaid with gold and crafted so as to resemble the Coral Oars. All was going beautifully during the festivities when suddenly a great geyser erupted in the ocean and Muirgen appeared. Everyone became anxious for it looked as though the wedding might become a battleground. But Muirgen smiled; she had at last made her peace with the Creator and was not here to fight. She bowed to the king and queen and spoke humble words. She gave the new prince and princess a music box, the very same that Loredana and Nereus had danced to while in Muirgen’s treasure room. All rejoiced and the wedding was remembered as a joyous time for all. Word spread of Loredana and Nereus’ deeds and how they had saved the world and knights flocked to the kingdom to serve a prince and princess of so famous an adventure. Nereus learned the ways of living on the land, though he was happiest in the water, and he gained fame as a mariner and renown as a champion swimmer, even among the fish of the sea. Together, Nereus and Loredana restored the kingdom and built up its former glory and Loredana was much loved by the people, for she had an eye for beauty and knew how to make it thrive upon the land. Muirgen had been granted a pardon from the Creator, so that she could again return to the surface, though, like her husband, she could not depart from the sea. Nereus and Loredana made it so that a channel came into the castle from the sea, right into the throne room, that Phaelon and Muirgen might visit and gain some warmth and shelter. There Corinne received them, for she too lived in the castle, and she tended to those who had been saved from the whirlpools, helping them start their lives again upon the land. And so the sea was saved, and though many eons have passed since these adventures, Phaelon still rides in his boat wielding the Coral Oars with his wife at his side.

The Coral Oars  

Loredana, a young woman in a dying kingdom, wakes up one morning to find she has a guest - Phaelon, the Old Man of the Sea. He is desperate...

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