This was the first chapter of my dissertation for the MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck University. The dissertation follows two narrative strands, one under the sea, its first chapter shared today and the second chapter, set in Venice, coming next week. The entire story would become an epic mermaid fantasy young adult novel with the current working title: A Melody of Mermaids and Corals: The Secret of Venice.
To describe it in one sentence: The Lord of the Rings meets the Little Mermaid. This entire project has been a world- building process over ten years now. Some of my short stories published on this blog are set in the same world and/ or mythology of the mermaid world. This story in particular has been rewritten and redrafted for years. It took a completely new shape since the beginning of my MA at Birkbeck Universirty.
What I am sharing now is a draft that is over four months old now. It is a similar draft to what I handed in for my dissertation and over the next weeks and months will most likely once again change a lot. Writing and redrafting is never over. It’s always a process.
But enough on the insights of a writer’s mind. Please enjoy the first chapter of my dissertation, The Nameless:
It was a calm night and a single merman swam against the current, battling to reach a place, he knew, he might never return from. The full moon’s light shone bright upon the silver ocean and illuminated the water under the surface. The merman appeared like a spectre of a dolphin in the sea.
Every moment, he feared a creature from the dark might reach out for him, swallow him, and make him a lost soul of the blackness below. But he knew that this was not the real peril. Although, he was within dangerous waters, he understood that the true threat lay within the place he tried to reach.
It was known as the Sea of Death. It was a kingdom of stormy seas and icy waters. It was the end of the world. It was a realm where the freedom of the ocean was no more. It was the kingdom of a Queen with a heart as black as the deepest sea canyon, famous for her brutality and taking pleasure in killing and torture.
And this was the very person the young merman was trying to reach. With every stroke of his fin, which was covered in smooth scales, he came closer to her. His upper body was strong and lean and worked with his tail as one. He passed through the water fast and silently. Despite the horror ahead, the moonlight behind gave him courage to fulfil his quest.
The darkness had not yet consumed him, had not yet taken hold of him. He could still feel the cool light of the moon, the white magic from above. It felt as if one friend was still with him. He moved like a single dolphin who had lost his pod.
The further on he swam, the more terrified he felt. But he could see no other way. There was bitterness in his heart. He had been a loner, a survivor since childhood. Was it madness or desperation that had driven him this far? No, it was anger that drove him. And with this anger a plan had grown in his mind, inside his inner ocean. He had to seek out her power and join her.
The dark Queen’s spies in the Atlantic Kingdom had been murdered, and he wanted to become her new informant in the city of Atlantis. He was a high-ranking merman at court and he could see that even the Atlantic Kingdom, the most powerful of the last free merfolk realms, would not be able to withstand her power for much longer.
If he wanted to live, there was only one way: The path of her dominion. But could he really betray his own kingdom? His mind was still torn. He had been raised in the light of the free merpeople. He thought to know what their magic, their pure ocean magic meant. But in the last weeks he learned secrets of his king, of his friends, he did not think possible to be true. They had betrayed him, so he would betray them now. He was desperate. To him it seemed like the last possible way. And he wanted revenge.
Like a veil, black clouds concealed the moon and he felt a dark embrace replacing the silver touch. For a moment, everything went dark. But then his silver- blue eyes made out a light ahead, not kind but of foul nature. A light that the Queen of this kingdom had created. The merman could sense a change in the waters filtering through the gills in his neck. These were no longer the waters of the Atlantic. He had reached the borders of the Sea of Death and the Queen’s pale lights were ahead. With smooth quick strokes of his fluke, he swam on.
The bottom of the ocean was not far away here, even though he was still close to the surface. There, on the ground were all the Queen’s lights, ghostly, like flaming corpses sunken to the ground. They lingered there, close to the sand, moving back and forth like sea plants to the current’s beat. It was a long line continuing to the right and left until the distance and darkness of the ocean consumed it all.
Fields of bones they called it, here was the border of the Sea of Death. Here this Queen of Nightmares had disposed of her enemies. Countless skulls of merpeople had been piled up over the millennia. Some of them were still fresh, shreds of skin and some strings of once fair hair still clung to the pale bone underneath. Others had been rotting for longer, their beautiful features long gone. Older ones were already covered in algae and would soon disappear, leaving no memory behind. The merman turned around one last time, looked up and hoped to see the moon. But her light was covered by clouds. He was alone.
If he swam on, they would know he had come and they would look for him, the nameless, the first servants of the Queen. The young merman could sense the pull of dark magic now, a spell that might consume him. But he had to swim on. He had made his choice. He had to try. With one stroke of his silver tail, he crossed the border.
The further he swam, the bigger the skeletons became. Soon, he passed the bones of whales. He recognised the skulls of humpback whales and orcas. But some of them were so completely covered in sea plants that he could not make out what species they used to be. And then, on his doomed journey, he crossed even bigger bones. He had heard stories that the Queen had killed them in old wars long ago. Now he could see that the old tales were true. Among smaller bones laid huge skeletons of sea serpents and dragons of the sky.
When this Queen, this Empress of Malice, began her conquest of the night, the wise sea serpents and the fire-breathing dragons had challenged her. Together with the free merpeople of the seven seas they had waged war against her. But she killed the sea serpents one by one until the survivors fled into the deepest of waters far away. And she tore the dragons from the sky like they were seagulls. Their heavenly fire could not save them from her magic. The remaining dragons fled into the mountains, far away from the oceans. These fearless, invincible creatures were now only shadows of what they had been when dragons ruled the skies.
For a moment, the merman felt something like admiration for this nightmare of a Queen. Who could continue to stand against a mermaid who defeated the sea serpents and the dragons? Maybe no one could, he thought.
He continued his journey and left the pale lights and the skulls beneath him behind. He could not see the ground anymore, only emptiness all around. But he could still sense colder streams ahead of him. He only had to follow them. They would lead him to the right place.
Then he sensed a sound ahead. Like an echo revealing itself to him in the dark. He could hear a big fish’s tail move towards him. A yellow light rose from the deep, like the moon’s evil sister from below. The young merman knew whose light this was. One of the nameless had found him.
The yellow light came closer until it hovered in front of the young merman and its glow revealed a fish that should have better remained in the blackness below. The merman had heard stories of the nameless. They were hideous creatures, hiding in the dark and not worthy of a name, abominations of the Queen’s magic.
And now he could see why. The creature looked like a monster of the deep, the size of a dolphin with a short body, huge disformed flukes and an enormous head. Its yellow light of luminescence hung on a string of pale muscle that protruded from its bulky head. Its mouth was half open, exposing razor sharp fangs. Above its jaws were two large empty eye sockets, white flesh seeing nothing. The merman had heard about this. Their Queen had ripped out their eyes long ago, so their other senses would be sharpened in the dark. And to mock them she had left them with their luminescent light unable to see within the deep.
For a moment, the merman felt a shadow of pity but this feeling left him quickly when he looked at the Nameless again. Its scales appeared like fringes, as if someone or something had pulled at them and underneath black veins pulsated on the fish’s fins and its tail. It was a disgusting sight. As if the insides of the fish had grown too big and wanted to break through its scales. He wanted to turn around and swim away. But he could not. While the sight of this fish was a nightmare come to life, he also knew that the nameless showed no mercy to anyone who crossed the border of the Sea of Death without good cause. He had to give this creature an explanation.
‘I am a Nameless. One of many. We are legion. The first servants of Queen Mirah. Why have you come to the realm of my master, the shadow mermaid, the one who holds dominion over all black magic and its slaves?’ The creature spoke with strength, as if it had guarded these dark waters since the beginning of time.
The merman could not answer. He was stunned by the foul smell that had drifted out of the creature’s mouth. His gills caught its scent and he wondered if the Nameless might feed on the rotting corpses at the border. The giant fish sucked in water with its large, malformed gills and growled.
‘I can sense you are a merman of the Atlantic. You carry courage within you, but also fear. Tell me why you have come!’ The Nameless rumbled and moved closer.
The yellow light dangled right in front of the merman now, his silver blue eyes reflecting the silhouette of the blind grotesque fish. This time he found his voice: ‘I am a merman of the Atlantic. I am the first warrior at the court of Atlantis and I know how weak my people are. I do not believe that the remaining free merpeople of the seas stand a chance against Mervita. I offer myself as a spy for the Queen of Darkness. Her former spies have been exposed and were killed. I am her best chance to bring this war to a swift end.’
The merman’s voice echoed through the water. Every sentence was consumed by the depth of the sea below. The Nameless had not moved nor shown any expression while the Atlantean had spoken. For a moment, he believed he had not understood him but then the fish growled again and replied: ‘I understand.’
And then the Nameless sighed. The merman could not help but think the fish had sounded sad. Was he sad that the spies of the Atlantic had been killed? Had the Nameless known them? Or could it even be that the fish had expressed sadness for the merman because he had chosen to swim the path of darkness like the Nameless had so long ago? He wanted to ask the creature, but it spoke first: ‘I am not permitted to make this decision. I am just a humble servant of my Queen. But if you want to join her, tell me warrior, why do you still call her Mervita? As far as I know only the free merpeople call her Mervita. Her servants call her Mirah.’
The fish slid its black tongue over its translucent teeth, waiting for the merman to give the wrong answer. But he could sense the fish’s intent. Leaving his old life as Atlantean warrior of the free merpeople behind he said: ‘I want to serve the Queen of Darkness. Queen Mirah.’
The Nameless backed away an inch, surprised by the merman’s words, as if he was scared of the Queen’s name when anyone else but him spoke it aloud.
‘I see you have made your choice. I am not allowed to make this decision. Only she can do it.’
‘You will bring me to her?’ The merman said filled with fear.
He had not expected this.
‘If it is true what you said, my Queen- our Queen- will want to hear the news of the dead spies from your tongue. If she wants to keep you, you will live for now. If not, she will have her fun with you and I will feast on your mutilated body and throw you among the Fields of Bones. Follow me now and you might live. Change your mind and I will devour you. I promise, I will end your life swiftly.’
The merman looked at the yellow light of the angler fish. He knew there was no swimming away from this. He did not know these waters. The Nameless would kill him instantly. Whatever happened now, he had become the prey. He had fallen for the trick of the light in the dark. But he had made it so far, he could not give up now. Everything he had learned over the last weeks had slowly changed him in his mind. He did not believe in the King of the Atlantic anymore. He did not believe in the free merpeople anymore. The yellow light continued to pulsate in the black water. Nothing else appeared to be around. The fish waited for the prey to make a decision. The merman tried to remember the silver light of the moon but he could not. There was only the yellow light in front of him.
‘Bring me to the shadow mermaid. Bring me to my new Queen. Queen Mirah.’ he said and his words passed on, like a new shadow, and joined the blackness in the deep.
‘Follow me into the dark.’ The Nameless said and turned around.
The young merman did not look back. He followed the only luminescence he could see. The pulsating glow of the Nameless.
To be continued…