‘Get behind me,’ Rheahal whispered, and Barameya stepped behind him.
She continued staring into the forest, but she couldn’t make out anything. She heard footsteps. More than one. Finally, silver light poured down from the night sky, and the moon’s rays were reflected in glowing eyes. Some of them were grey, like Rheahal’s. Others sparkled blue or green.
Shapes formed on the edge of the forest. They were tall, not as tall as Rheahal, but some of them were as muscular as he was. There were men and women. It dawned on Barameya who they were. Fear crept into her inner lake. Shadows filled her up, as if the darkness of the forest could reach her. She remembered Rheahal telling her that not all of them were friendly like he was when they met. Some of them even despised everything that came from the water. How would they respond?
‘What do you think you are doing?’
It was a woman’s voice. She sounded angry.
Rheahal growled. Barameya had never heard a sound like that coming from him. It was defensive, almost aggressive.
The woman came closer. She wore a torn grey dress. It appeared as if she had worn it for a long time. However, her grey eyes shone with strength and exuded a royalty Barameya had never seen before. Her hair was long and brown. Strands of silver hair, the colour of the moon were within them.
‘There is no need to be angry,’ the woman said. ‘You should have known we would find out sooner or later.’
Barameya noticed something else about the woman. She held a long, golden dagger in her hand. And as the other figures came closer, she saw that they carried weapons too. Bronze spears, silver swords, and golden axes rested in their hands, ready to strike.
‘It is none of your business what I do in my human form,’ Rheahal shouted. ‘In wolf form, yes, you are our leader. But in human form, I can do whatever I want. It is the only night we are all free.’
The woman laughed. ‘It’s the only night we are most vulnerable! We should stay together. At all times. This way, we have survived this curse.’
‘What if the curse can be broken?’ Rheahal shouted.
The woman laughed again. This time, she really seemed amused. ‘The curse cannot be broken. This is our life. And I command you to end this. Before something terrible happens!’ There was a softer expression in the woman’s face when she said. ‘Please come home. We don’t associate with merfolk.’
‘She is not of the merfolk. She is a lakemaid. She doesn’t know the ocean.’
‘I am commanding you as your Queen!’ she shouted.
‘I am telling you as your son that I will not leave her! I love her!’
The old woman looked as if Rheahal had slapped her. She appeared so much older, so much more fragile than the strength and power she was emitting moments ago.
‘Do not say this,’ she whispered, taking a step back.
‘I can break the curse,’ Barameya said, stepping forward, standing next to Rheahal.
He held out his arm, as if to protect her, but Barameya did not need any protection. She could summon a protective shield in less than a second should any of the wolfmoon people attack her. Besides, she didn’t believe they would. They appeared angry but also curious. And now they were looking at her in wonder.
‘What did you say?’ Rheahal’s mother asked.
‘I said that I could break the curse,’ Barameya said. ‘And it is lovely to meet the mother of Rheahal. You raised him well. He is a good man.’
At that, the Queen of the wolfmoon people looked even more astonished. She stared at Barameya for a long moment. Barameya and Rheahal looked at each other doubtfully. Finally, the Queen bowed her head and said. ‘These are kind words. My name is Weyrenna. I am the Queen of the Wolfmoon Kingdom. Or what’s left of it.’
Barameya’s fear ebbed away slowly. She bowed her head. She noticed, though, that the Queen and the other wolfmoon people didn’t lower their weapons.
‘You do not have to fear me,’ Barameya said.
‘You come from the lake. You are a creature of deep waters. We must fear you. We have no other choice. Don’t you know what happened to us?’
‘Rheahal told me everything,’ Barameya answered. ‘I have been trying to find a spell to lift the curse. I believe that, while we are very different, we both worship and love the moon very much. We can put all our differences aside and cherish the common ground we have. Her light in the night sky.’
‘But we don’t have her light,’ Weyrenna answered. ‘Not anymore. Your kin took it from us long ago.’
‘Mother, it was not her,’ Rheahal said. ‘And I don’t think it was anyone closely related to her. Lakemaids are different.’
‘Perhaps,’ Weyrenna said. ‘But you cannot break the curse. No one can. The shadow mermaid who destroyed our world said that only one of her own could do it. They had to find the rainbow underneath the earth, and somehow, in this way, they could return the moon’s magic to us. But I understood long ago that her words were mockery. They were empty words thrown at the survivors to hold on to a hope that was a lie. It was another act of cruelty. Twisting a knife even deeper into an already festering wound.’
‘I believe I found the rainbow underneath the earth,’ Barameya said. ‘I believe I found it a while ago. And your ancestors found it too. The rainbow underneath the earth is in plain sight. It is a clever riddle. But not clever enough. The shadow mermaid was very smart. But she wasn’t as smart as me. I can break the curse.’
Weyrenna shook her head. ‘You speak in riddles now. Where is the rainbow underneath the earth?’
Barameya could make out hope in the Queen’s question. For the first time, her voice sounded softer.
‘Why didn’t you tell me about this earlier?’ Rheahal whispered.
‘I only realised it tonight. It was just an abstract idea. But the more I began to think about it, the more it made sense,’ Barameya answered.
She turned to the archway with the gemstones. ‘Sapphire, ruby, emerald, and a yellow stone shining like the sun,’ she said. ‘Blue, red, green, and yellow. Aren’t those the colours of the rainbow? Under the lake, in hidden caves, I found many more stones like these, glimmering in so many more colours. They hold magic. They respond to the moonlight. Your curse is bound by moonlight. Only another light can lift your curse. The light of the colourful gemstones will lift this ancient curse. I am certain of it.’
Rheahal’s grey eyes sparkled with wonder and love. She knew that he understood that she was right. Barameya looked at the Queen, who nodded her head thoughtfully. ‘But even if you are right. The power that demands such a spell is infinite. It could take your life.’
‘I will try, nonetheless. I want to prove to you that some creatures of the water are good. And if the spell takes my life but lifts the curse, I will die a happy lakemaid.’
‘Barameya, no!’ Rheahal pleaded. ‘You can’t do this! You cannot leave me!’
‘I will never leave you,’ Barameya said. ‘I told you I like solving riddles. This is what I do. And this is the greatest riddle yet.’
‘But what if this riddle takes your life?’ Rheahal breathed and took her hands in his own.
They were so warm and so coarse to the touch. Baramyea felt his love flow from his arms into her. In the face of death, everything appeared more sensual than ever before.
‘If this riddle takes my life, then we have shared more love and experienced more happiness than most in this dark world. But I must find out if I can do this. You know that this is one of the reasons why you love me.’
A tear, glistening silver in the moonlight, ran down Rheahal’s cheek. And Barameya kissed him gently. It was the kiss of a thousand kisses. A kiss to treasure for a lifetime. So sweet and light as if she had kissed him like that their entire lives and still would, for all their days to come. It was a gesture of a lifetime poured into one moment, for both understood that tonight might be the ending of their love. A curse that has haunted and destroyed a kingdom in the past might also break their love tonight.
Barameya was filled with hope, though. Because what if her spell were to lift the curse and she were strong enough to live? What if their forever began tonight? Barameya had to know. And so, she let go of Rheahal, pulling away as if she were pulling upon the forces of earth and moon themselves.
Barameya walked over the ruins, back towards the forest. ‘Follow me,’ she said. ‘We have to go back to the lake.’
And the lakemaid began to sing, knowing that this might be her last melody.
To be continued…