This story is taken from a chapter of my book, Archie’s Mirror. You can find out more about it here.
In a barren land occupying a distant corner of the world there stood a forgotten wood. In the centre of the wood, surrounded by thorns and briars, was a pool, its surface still and dark as midnight. The wood was completely silent—even the wind would skirt around its edges, as though it was too afraid to cross the perimeter. However, if you listened closely you could hear a quiet song coming from the depths of the pool.
Villagers nearby would tell tales of the haunted pool and the people would never venture near. Occasionally, travellers were said to disappear as they paused at the pool, the story going that something within had dragged them to their doom.
One day, a young adventurer found himself wandering amongst the trees of the wood. He’d left home looking for excitement and fortune, but all his journey had brought him so far was empty pockets and weary legs. Yet, he was an optimistic sort of fellow, and was certain that his luck would soon change for the better.
Plucking a ripe apple from a nearby tree, he took his knife from its sheath and stepped towards the pool to wash the fruit. It was as he knelt at the edge that he first heard the song. It was strange and haunting as though something deep beneath the surface were calling to someone who would never hear.
The adventurer was moved by the music and felt himself beginning to drift. The sorrowful tune swept him up and carried him. Suddenly, all his limbs felt as heavy as lead and he leant forward towards the pool just as a hand broke the surface and reached up to grab his throat.
The adventurer, being sharp of mind, broke his reverie and leapt backwards, his own hand still gripping the knife. He crouched at a safe distance and watched as the mermaid —for that was what it was—rose out of the pool. Her hair was golden and moved like the surface of the water, as two clear blue eyes watched, smilingly, amidst a face of perfect beauty. She rested her chin on her hands as she leaned on the lip of the pool, watching the adventurer. Eventually, she spoke. “Why do you flee from me?” she asked, her mellifluous voice floating gently through the air and into his ears. “Are you afraid, traveller?”
The adventurer smiled—he had a smile that fluttered the heart of many a pretty girl back in his village. “You would pull me into your pool and drown me to my death,” he replied.
“Do you think me a fool?”
“A fool you are not, but my home at the bottom of this pool is filled with treasures. I would willingly share them with you, if only you would come with me.”
“What use are treasures in the hand of a dead man? And besides, I’ve looked into that pool and it appears to me that it is bottomless.”
“I say again, a fool you are not, but I cannot let you leave. None who look into my pool ever leave. Sooner or later, you shall return and dive with me down to my home.” The mermaid laughed and flipped backwards, her white and green fishtail splashing through the water. And with that, she was gone.
The adventurer smiled as he watched her disappear, and the surface became still once more. He shook his head, then took a bite of his apple and headed on his way.
He walked for more than an hour, yet something felt wrong. By now he should have reached the far edge of the wood, but he was still walking amongst the dappling trees. And that sun, dappling the trees, should have set some twenty minutes since, yet it was still overhead. Pushing on, he burst through the undergrowth and into a clearing. In the centre of the clearing was a pool.
“Hello, again,” said the smiling mermaid from the middle of the water.
The adventurer stared and scratched his head. He looked back in the direction from which he had just come then shook his head.
“As I said before, I cannot let you leave.”
Glancing over at the mermaid bobbing happily in the water the adventurer gave a weary smile. “So, no matter the direction in which I wander, no matter how far I walk, I shall return here to you?”
“Why don’t you try to walk away again and see what happens?” came the reply.
True enough, no matter which direction he left the pool and clearing, after an hour’s walking he ended up back with the mermaid. North, south, east, west—the result was always the same. Eventually, the adventurer could walk no further. He sat on a rock opposite the pool, removed his boots and rested his weary feet amongst the long, cool grass.
“So now are you ready?” asked the mermaid. “Now will you come with me to my home?”
The adventurer closed his eyes and sighed. When he opened them again he slowly, almost reluctantly pulled his boots back on. “It appears to me that you are leaving me with little choice,” he said. “This wood is clearly under the influence of your powerful magic. I’m but a simple traveller, what hope do I have? I’m exhausted. I’m thirsty. I want nothing more than to kneel at the edge of the pool, take a deep, cool drink, and then wash the sweat from my face.”
“Well, come, traveller,” the mermaid replied, in her lyrical, sing-song voice. “Come and drink from the pool. Cool your throat and soothe your brow. You have nothing to fear.”
Her smile shone and in a moment the traveller forgot himself and started to move toward her. That is, he made to move but found that he could not. Looking down he saw that his boots had sunk into the soft earth beside the apple tree and he was, temporarily, stuck. It was at that moment that a thought struck him. It was a thought that was so clear, so bright, that he could not help but act upon it.
Glancing over at the mermaid, he winked. “Well, here’s a pickle.”
The mermaid frowned a frown that transformed her previously lovely features into a mask that was truly dreadful. She let out a scream that shook the treetops and made the ground tremble. When all was silent again, she spoke. “You try my patience, wanderer.”
The adventurer shrugged and lifted his feet free from the mud, his mind racing with an idea that would liberate him from the forest. It was to be a battle of wits, but he had little to lose. “Do you see these boots? These boots were given to me by a kindly, old, blind wizard I met on my travels.” The yarn was starting to spin. “He told me that they were enchanted. He told me that when I wore them, I’d always know where I was, that I’d never be lost.”
The mermaid tossed her head back and laughed. “But that’s nonsense. It’s simply not true. You’ve been wandering in circles through this wood all day and don’t have the slightest idea where you are.”
“Ah,” said the adventurer. “I haven’t finished my story. He also told me that the magic would only be triggered when I really needed it. Don’t forget that I have resisted your song twice and you are yet to pull me beneath the surface of the pool.”
The mermaid fixed him with an evil gaze. “You cannot win,” she said. “You will succumb.”
“Are you certain about that?” The adventurer was in full flow now. “Do you want to pit your magic against me and the power of the old, blind wizard?”
A silence enveloped the clearing as the mermaid stared at the adventurer and the adventurer stared back. Eventually, she spoke in a voice as black as the depths of the pool itself. “Go then. Take your enchanted boots and leave, but know this: you will return. You might be able to resist my song, but this wood will never let you leave. You might not be lost, but you are still trapped. The only way out is with me at the bottom of this pool.”
As the mermaid was busy with her threats, the adventurer made his way closer, wandering around the edge of the pool, until he was behind her.
“Traveller! What are you doing?” she said as he grabbed her.
“Fishing,” he replied triumphantly and, in one smooth movement, hoisted her out of the water.
The mermaid lay on the ground, her tail uselessly slapping the soil. “What have you done to me?” she yelled. “Nobody has ever dared…ever dared…so much as to lay a finger…on…me…” She spluttered to silence as she once again saw his charming smile.
“Now, it would seem we are both lost,” the adventurer said.
The mermaid shouted and flapped her tail, beating the ground in anger, but she knew that now she was out of the water she was growing weaker and getting smaller. Soon she would be no bigger than the tiniest fish.
The adventurer watched as a strange and eerie glow covered her body. Above the canopy of the trees, night fell in an instant. The mermaid’s magic was fading.
He looked down to see that she was now half the size she had previously been. Her once beautiful, terrifying voice was now little more than a squeak echoing in the back of her throat. Leaning closer, he whispered, “Your magic no longer has any power over me. I could follow the direction my boots take me. I could leave this wood and never return.”
“If you do that, I will surely die.”
“If you die, then so be it. You would have happily drowned me in your pool without a thought.”
“That’s my true nature, traveller. I cannot help myself. But I know your true nature, too, and you wouldn’t leave a helpless creature to perish,” she whispered, her voice now little more than a fading breath on the wind.
The adventurer looked down at her and sighed. In spite of all the lives she had taken, what she said was true. He had no right to decide her fate; it simply was not in his nature.
Carefully, he leaned down and slid his hand under her back. She was now so small that she fitted comfortably in his palm. He made his way back to the pool’s edge, then paused.
If he returned her to the water there was nothing stop her invoking her magic once more and trapping him forever.
He looked down. The mermaid’s eyes were now tightly closed and he could barely sense her breathing.
Then again, the decision of whether she should die was not his to make.
Bending down on one knee, he lowered his hand into the pool. For a moment, the mermaid was completely still, then he felt her take a breath before swimming between his fingers and away.
“Well, boots,” the adventurer said looking at his feet with a wry smile. “Which way shall we go?”
Without looking back, he made his way out of the clearing. He continued on through the gloomy wood, following his boots and heading always forward. Despite the dark, there was a lightness to his step and, curiously, a song in his heart. Before long, the song had made its way from his heart and onto his lips. It was a song of both joy and sadness, of battles won and love lost, of treasures found and opportunities missed. Soon, he realised that the song wasn’t simply his, but was echoing all around him. He took a moment to pause and listen.
The mermaid’s song surrounded him again, and the adventurer couldn’t help but smile.
(Image Credit: Julie Schon)