It was my twenty-first Summer and our ride to the coast that year proved memorably intolerable. Father had matters of business to attend and would not be joining us, vowing to arrive sometime in the weeks ahead. Without him as an intermediary, Mother was free to focus all her scathing ire upon me. To hide my tears, I turned to face the window. Our destination was still days away.
There was a short-lived period when I actually strove to be the debutante I thought she wanted. In my foolish naivete, I convinced myself that I could truly earn her affection, or at least her respect, through imitation – that she would see something of herself in me, as for her there was no other more beloved.
My efforts were in vain. Mimicry only served to better illustrate the differences between us. In despair, I returned to the quiet defiance that had always characterised our relationship.
For four days I suffered in silence, seething in my secret hate, but Mother’s suffocating darkness diminished as the Welsh coast came into view. Alerted, I focused my gaze on the distant beaches, watching the shapes – little more than dots at first – manifest familiar forms. The stones had again been raised, heralding the coming of the merrows. I smiled, I truly smiled, as hope rekindled my dimming heart.
Kicking off my shoes, I practically threw myself from the carriage the moment we neared the gatehouse. I sprinted down the hill, across the emerald headland, along that narrow path leading to the hidden cove. Foolish in my excitement, I failed to reckon the hours remaining between then and sunset. Already weary from the daylong journey, the sudden exertion depleted what little vigour I had left. Slumping beside a boulder, I slipped into a sweet torpor while the placid tide lulled me to sleep.
My mind’s eye conceived, or instead found itself impressed with, a double flash of white and scarlet. I awoke face-down in a pool of my own coagulated blood with my hands bound behind me. Shifting my weight from side to side, I rolled onto my back and regained my field of vision. Though the sun had yet to wholly set, the moon, full and silver bright, presaged the advent of night.
My eyes widened as my dread surmise became fully realised.
Having been rendered senseless by blunt force trauma, I was bound, gagged, and taken captive aboard a skiff. To this day, I do not know if the assault was an act of opportunity or one premeditated with grim intention. We were far from the coast, far from any who might take pity. Two strangers manned the oars whilst at its bow, facing my direction, was an old man bearing a familiar visage.
It was the groundskeeper of Caeruchel Hall, the man who spurned my search for answers years before – questions that undoubtedly raised suspicions and ultimately precipitated the dire situation I found myself in.
I lay there, still as the dead, virtually invisible beneath the groundskeeper’s moonlit shadow.
He spoke to me, or rather at me, as he seemed oblivious of my return to consciousness. Between his litany of chants, prayers, and ancient invocations, were apologies. Solemn, sincere, but not too mournful – the words of a man who had experienced a lifetime of necessary evils yet never grew entirely numb to the deed. He went on to say that I knew too much; that what he intended was without joy or malice. “Better an outsider” he said, “than yet another of our own”.
“Just one life,” he muttered, “just one life to ensure the survival and prosperity of Craigwen”.
When the oarsmen ceased their rowing, the groundskeeper lifted a crwth and bow from his lap, braced the bottom of the instrument against his chest, and began to play. The sounds he produced bore a singular assonance that deviated from the region’s traditional folk music. He called out to the sea with his strange and frightful melody and the sea called back in immaculate chorus.
The merrows had risen.
The largest oarsman lifted me over his shoulder, bringing my head so close to his that I could smell the ale on his breath. Perhaps the brute drank a few pints for courage – and to numb his conscience in preparation for what he intended to do next. In spite of his robust physique, he grunted and laboured to carry me, leading me to notice that my bindings were tethered to several hefty stones.
These men planned to drown me – to sacrifice me to the merrows and their nameless gods – and these weights were there to seal my fate. This had always been their way. A tried and true method, learned from their fathers, as their fathers learned from theirs.
The sea was full of light and song, a beauty so mesmerising, so utterly transcendent, that few would ever recognize it for the predatory lure that it was – no, not before the trap was sprung. And the colours! Gold and violet, turquoise and indigo – sprawling, cascading, and vibrating to the rhythm of their ancient rime.
Rolling my wrists, I successfully loosened the ropes that bound me, just enough to free my hands as the brute prepared to toss me overboard. Hastily, desperately, I hoisted one of my intended anchors and tightly grasped the stone with both hands. Invigorated by the hysterical strength that accompanies the will to survive, I took that stone and drove it through the giant’s skull. His head caved in with a sickening crack, splattering blood and brain as his lifeless body crumpled where he stood.
The groundskeeper was blind to my actions, his conscious mind lost to the frenzied playing of his crwth.
But the remaining oarsman was soon upon me. He was a lanky fellow but his tenacity more than made up for his size. Before I could react, he had the shaft of a paddle pressed against my throat and was attempting to push me into the sea. I clung to the hull, digging my nails into its sea-worn wood. Something had to give and my stubborn defiance, faced with his relentless force, would ultimately result in vicious dislocation of my left arm from its socket. The pain was of a nauseating nature and caused me to vomit. With nowhere to go due to the gag in my mouth, I began to choke on my own bile.
What a wretched and ignoble way to lose one’s life.
My attacker laid aside his oar and squatted over my limp, defeated body. In his palid, pox-scarred face, I beheld terror of an order beyond that even I, his intended victim, could possibly comprehend. He mouthed a few words but all I heard was the hundred-voice chorus and the groundskeeper’s screaming crwth. Then calmly, coldly, he pushed my head beneath the surface of the water. Powerless to stop him, I could do no more than look on in dismay.
The ocean was ablaze with the luminescent flesh of oscillating ophidian forms. Golden spots, ethereal blue-green ribbons – like the fire of rare falling stars – and suddenly, splashes of crimson, a torrent of blood as the mangled bodies of men hit the water. The calloused hands that so tightly held me released their grip and floated away, severed and trailed by streaming clouds of maroon.
I sank into a storm of teeth and claws and bone and flesh as the merrows eviscerated their own devotees. Still wracked by pain, my frayed nerves sent my body into shock, sparing me from any further glimpses of that vision of hell – before the sea, or my own spewage, had the chance to drown me.
I awoke in darkness. Though my body was battered and bruised, I was relieved, if perplexed, to find that functionality had returned to my left arm. My head had been attentively swathed as well, with seaweed serving as an opportune substitute for cotton bandages. I did not question how I came to reside in this lightless place, nor was I curious about the identity of my guardian and healer, for that answer was self-evident.
The brutes of Craigwen had sought my demise. I witnessed the end of three lives, one conceivably felled by my own hand, and returned from the sea haunted. And though it all transpired in a blur of shapes and colours, perceived through barely cognizant eyes, a troubling, albeit not entirely unsuspected truth was confirmed.
Imagine a child growing up on a farm. Too young to partake in the family’s labours, they might instead seek companionship among the domestic beasts, blissfully unaware that these animals were destined for the butcher’s block and kitchen table. Muirgein and I were young when we met. As we were too innocent to comprehend the true nature of our respective races, I was forced to wonder if she would regard me as friend or food.
These concerns gnawed their way to the forefront of my mind. There they embedded themselves – feeding on my sanity and breeding increasingly complex, ever conflicting emotions.
As I fumbled through that sunless realm, I eventually regained my bearings and, not long after, encountered an unlit lantern – specifically my lantern, and one of the many I intentionally secured in the caverns beneath Caeruchel Hall. A cache of matchboxes and oil was nearby, for I had seen to their strategic placement throughout my hidden grotto. I cast out the darkness, though I suppose I had little need for light to guide my way through such well-traversed corridors.
In search of respite, I stripped down, discarding the trappings of humanity as I approached the primordial spring. The warm water embraced me like an old friend, soothing aches and wounds. My sense of self soon became as vaporous as the balmy mist and I no longer knew where my body ended and where the water began.
My concentrative idol, the pearl-eyed goddess, stared back at me. I closed my eyes, inhaled the sibylline fumes, and entered an intoxicating reverie. Words poured like liquid from my mouth; gibberish at first but a harmony soon developed. The lyrics escape me now, if there was anything lyrical to begin with, but I was certainly no prima donna. I was loud – hysterical even – as I unburdened myself of those accumulating emotions. I wailed and crooned, though I have no notion for how long; time was meaningless – nothing existed beyond my sacred grotto.
That night, I would be the siren.