Introducing author Aisha Urooj who shares an exclusive excerpt of dark fantasy romance ‘The Stone Mermaid’.
Victor was thinking about her again.
The sea witch’s son had a fascination, an obsession even, with Ariana. Victor’s obsession was even more unusual, seeing it was everyone else that fell for him. He could charm anyone with his smile. He could even captivate them further with his magic.
All he desired in the oceans was his to take, all except for her. And that made him want her more.
Ariana was the sea king’s daughter. The most beautiful mermaid in the seven seas.
Sure, her siren cousins were more alluring… even more agreeable, but there was something about her he couldn’t get off his mind. Was it her voice? Was it her physical beauty? Or was it something else?
Victor’s brand of magic had no effect on the mermaid, nor did Ariana fall for his charms.
If only she had a weakness? Victor thought. Something he could mould or bend towards his will… but Ariana had no desires, except to be free.
Hers was an odd desire… Her freedom.. but Victor thought he knew why.
Ariana’s mother was a human, kidnapped by the sea king, and brought against her will to his watery kingdom. Mad in love and lust, he made a bargain with the sea witch, Ursula, Victor’s mother.
If the sea king’s love had been greater than his lust, he would have sought Helena’s heart first.
But he didn’t.
Ursula told Brutus it could be done… that he could have his human bride, and she could live with him under water, if he gave away some of his kingdom to her. Now, the sea king ruled the seven seas, but the darkest and deepest corners of his kingdom belonged to the sea witch.
For as long as she lived, Helena, Ariana’s mother, never loved the sea king. She was bound to him against her will, a bird in a gilded cage, or in her case, trapped in a floating crystal palace under the sea. Helena never forgot… but for all her sorrow, she dearly loved her daughter. Ariana was the reason she didn’t fade away sooner.
As she grew up, Helena told Ariana stories about the human world, the wonders, and magic of the land above the oceans. Though she never uttered a word of complaint to her daughter, she made Ariana promise to prize her freedom above everything, and guard it with her life. Helena died when Ariana was sixteen. Ariana remembered the promise she made to her mother.
Victor had cared for Ariana’s mother because of her gentle nature. Queen Helena’s kindness was a stark contrast to his own mother, Ursula. He had watched the queen fade with each passing year.
So Victor understood Ariana’s reason…
“Ariana is a creature of the sea, and I am not forcibly taking her away from her realm,” Victor mused. “I am not as brutal as the old king.”
Victor knew Ariana, unlike her human mother, was born an immortal being.
Her magic might be delayed, but she was still immortal.
“I have an eternity to change Ariana’s mind,” Victor said to himself. “She will be mine.”
For her seventeenth birthday, Helena requested to her father she wanted to see the ocean.
Seventeen years she had lived in this world without seeing a glimpse of an ocean wave. Her father thought it was an odd birthday present to ask for, but since it didn’t cost him anything except a few days’ journey, he agreed. They had a good harvest that year, and he could afford to spend a few days away.
Helena’s siblings were five and six, too young to be fascinated by anything other than toys. They were also too young for the journey, so they stayed behind with their mother.
Helena’s step-mother thought her husband spoiled her oldest daughter, but didn’t say a word. She knew Helena hardly asked for anything. It was impossible that he would deny his favorite daughter’s only request, she thought, so she didn’t bother to stop them.
Helena and her father, the farmer, went on the journey to see the ocean.
Helena loved her birthday present! She had seen nothing so big as the ocean. Her world instantly stretched bigger than the farm she was used to seeing.
Helena played with the seashells and sang songs to the waves. She liked looking at the waves crashing onto the shore, but she didn’t like being in the water. She found the water too cold for her liking. Helena had been playing near the rocks when she first saw him.
He was a strange-looking boy. His eyes were the same color as the ocean, as if they had captured the waves in them. He looked seventeen, the same age as Helena, but seemed much older.
“Can I know your name?” he asked.
“My name is Helena,” Helena replied.
“So you like singing, Helena? You have a beautiful voice,” he said.
Helena blushed at his compliment.
She saw the strange boy every day while she was near the ocean. Every time, he seemed to appear out of nowhere. Every time, he disappeared when her father was around.
Sometimes Helena thought that perhaps the boy was imaginary, a figment of her imagination. Her step-mother had often said that she daydreamed too much. She said it was not a good trait for a girl to have. She said Helena should learn to be practical.
“Where do you live?” Helena asked him one day.
“I live in an underwater kingdom. Would you like to see it?” he asked.
His answer surprised Helena. Perhaps she really was in a daydream?
Helena shook her head. “I am only here for a few days, and then I will return to my farm. I don’t even know how to swim well.”
“I can teach you,” the strange boy offered.
“I don’t like to be away from my family,” Helena answered truthfully. “I don’t like the water, for it is too cold.”
“I can give you a ring which will help you in the water. You won’t feel cold anymore,” the boy said.
He showed her a ring which had a single pink pearl. Helena thought that it must have been pricey, for it was precious. She remembered how her father had warned her not to accept gifts from strangers.
“I cannot accept such a gift. It probably costs more than my entire village!” Helena exclaimed.
The ring that the boy gave Helena was worth more than all the villages combined. It was an immortality ring, and once the wearer wore it, they gained eternal life.
“Please accept it as my gift. Wherever you go, if you wear it and call my name, I will come to you,” the boy said.
“What is your name?” Helena asked. Helena thought she was so silly, she hadn’t even asked the strange boy his name.
“My name is Brutus,” the sea king replied. “Wear the ring, Helena, and call me only when you are ready to go with me.”
“Ok, Brutus. I will accept your gift as I want to see you again,” Helena said, blushing, as she took the pretty ring.
That was the last she saw of the strange boy as she left the ocean with her father back to her village. She put the ring in a safe place and forgot about it for an entire year.
Next harvest season, her father had a poor yield. It worried the family as they did not have enough food to last through the winter. Helena thought about the precious ring she had hidden away. Perhaps she could give it to her father? He could sell it and it would solve all their problems.
She thought about Brutus and wondered if what he said was true.
“I will try it on before I give the ring to father,” Helena thought. She put the ring on and called Brutus’ name.
Brutus appeared in front of her, out of nowhere. He looked like an apparition under the dark starless sky. Although Helena had not thought about him in a year, Brutus had remembered her every moment since. He had gone mad thinking about her.
“Helena, you put on the ring and called my name. You wish to come with me to my kingdom,” Brutus said with happiness.
“I am sorry, Brutus. I was not thinking about going. I just wanted to see what you had said was true… that I didn’t just imagined meeting you,” Helena said flustered.
“You cannot go back on your word now,” Brutus said in anger. “You have put the ring on and so, you will leave with me.” He took Helena in his arms and took her back to his kingdom.
The next morning, the farmer called Helena for breakfast but she didn’t reply. It was strange as she usually was the first person to wake up. It shocked her father to find Helena’s bedroom empty. The farmer looked for her desperately everywhere in the village, hoping she had gone to see a friend, but Helena was nowhere to be seen.
His oldest daughter had gone missing without a trace.
The villagers gossiped she must have run away with a man, but her father knew his daughter and knew she would never do such a thing.
He felt that something terrible must have happened to her as Helena loved her family. She wouldn’t leave her father like that. She wouldn’t leave her brother and sister like that. He wept for his missing daughter.
The farmer searched for his missing daughter for years, but he died without ever seeing or hearing from his daughter again.
Ursula, the sea witch, was pacing in her throne room. Her sea serpents twisted and turned as they swam around her arms. Her crown of dark pearls visible on her head. Victor knew the powerful, raw magic that it contained.
Victor stood idly by, knowing better to ask her what was wrong. The kingdom feared his mother above all the other powerful creatures in the ocean, and they had good reason to. Ursula was the empress of the dark lands but her ambition was to rule the entire ocean.
“Making Helena’s immortality ring cost me half my magic. I should have asked the sea king for half his kingdom. He might have given it all away too,” Ursula said to her son.
Victor had heard the conversation before. He was sure it wasn’t the last time he would hear it.
“You underestimate the old man,” Victor replied, coolly.
“And you overestimate him. He is foolish, driven to madness by a mortal woman. At least he was driven by bodily desires… which is easier to satisfy. His daughter is even more foolish than her father,” Ursula said. “She is driven by something far more dangerous.”
Victor’s heart started beating fast. It did whenever his mother mentioned Ariana. He evened his breath before asking.
“What do you suggest drives her?” Victor asked, curious to know what his mother would say.
“Her heart… and that will be her undoing. I might get my kingdom yet,” Ursula cackled.
Victor didn’t want to argue with his mother, so he smiled politely.
Ursula might have been right about Ariana, but she was still blind in one regard. The sea witch didn’t realize it was her son’s heart she needed to worry about.
Victor first noticed Ariana at her mother’s funeral. He had seen her before, of course, playing with her siren cousins, or in the background, whenever he went to the king’s court with his mother.
Ariana was sixteen when he really noticed her.
Her grief at her mother’s passing made her solemn and pale. She trembled as she spoke to her cousins. When it was time for her to say farewell to her mother, she looked so frail that Victor worried she might faint.
The queen’s subjects had come in droves to say their farewell to their beloved ruler. Most were in tears, and some even wailing in their sadness. Helena’s kind spirit had touched so many, her gentle presence missed by all who knew her. They asked Ariana to sing for her mother, to share her grief with them.
Grief-stricken as she was, Ariana was still her mother’s daughter. Her entire body, and even her voice, was trembling when she said she would sing them a song. She felt the pain others were feeling and wanted to lessen their sorrow.
When Ariana stood in front of the large court, Victor was struck by how fragile she looked. When Ariana sang, it was like his world shifted. For the first time, eighteen-year-old Victor felt his heart stir, and his palms tremble.
Love is a force like no other, capable of stirring even the strongest of hearts. Victor felt the full force of it that day, as Ariana sang at her mother’s funeral.
There were thousands of others in the court, but all were silent as Ariana started singing in her beautiful voice:
Floating above the muddy water,
Have you seen the lotus flower?
In waters, dark and tainted,
Pure was the beauty that awaited.
What started as a simple bud,
Grew in splendor up above.
The petals, pink and white
Layers in a circle, open with light.
Floating above the muddy water,
Have you seen the lotus flower?
The song was about a lotus flower, but Victor knew Ariana was singing about her mother.
Victor was now twenty-one, and Ariana was nineteen. The funeral was three years ago, and Victor had seen Ariana several times since. Whenever he saw her, however, his heart pounded the same way as it did hearing her sing that day.