September 17, 2021

Prologue: The Sea Goddess of Old

Le Mont-Saint-Michel doubling as Ursula's island temple
Previously: Dramatis Personae

"It is true the goddess Ursula rules the seas, but once upon a time, she was a constellation who lived in the skies."

It was a story the First Ursa had told many times but despite that, the other Ursas and all the acolytes never failed to gather round and hear it once more.

She always told it in the courtyard, at the feet of the goddess's statue. Ursula was carved from white marble, portrayed as a shapely woman wielding a trident and with octopus tentacles for legs. Though the goddess appeared to be made of stone, same as her trident, the crown upon her head was quite real. Gifted by a king many years ago, the circlet was made of the purest silver, set with large sapphires.

To touch the goddess's crown was a death sentence.

It was evening of the autumnal equinox as the temple women gathered around the First Ursa. The sconces had been lit, and along with the setting sun, the great stone courtyard was aglow with shades of red, gold, and everything in between. Mortal and mermaid alike, the women drifted from their tasks to hear the ancient tale.

"Ursula was the keeper of the Bear Stars," the Ursa continued, her long simple gown of bluish gray sweeping the soft grass beneath her feet as she rounded the statue, "until she made the fatal error of falling for a mortal.

"His name is now lost to dust and ashes, but there was a time when the goddess sang it as though it were song. She became pregnant with his child, and when the elder gods discovered this, they cast her into the oceans."

"But why, my Ursa?" Aquiel was a young mermaid, new to the temple. Like her fellow mermaids, she was granted legs and allowed to walk freely upon the island, but so only as they remained on the island. Like the Ursa, she was dark of skin, with hair as black as night, and eyes of the deepest violet.

"For a god to mate with a human is considered a violation of the natural order," the Ursa replied. "When Ursula fell to the oceans, she quickly realized her child would not be able to live under the sea. So she found a island to give birth.

"But when her son was born, he was frail and sickly, yet another curse from the gods. And he was lonely, an only child on a lonely island. So his father, a great sorcerer, cast an enchantment upon the isle, so that other little boys could visit in their dreams, and keep his son company.

"When Ursula and her lover realized that their son would not heal from his innate sickness, the sorcerer stopped the ebb and flow of time on the island, so that time would stand still. And when the boy continued to wither way, the goddess enchanted the springs of the isle, so that every sip the waters would keep him young, and buy him just one more day.

"But the will of the gods could be denied, and on his tenth birthday, the child died."

There was silence through the halls of the temple. The sun had set now, and as the stars began to twinkle above, they could hear the waves of the sea just beyond their walls.

The Ursa paused for emphasis, as she always did. She was a tall, thick woman with a commanding presence, her dark eyes ever unreadable. No one knew if the first Ursa came from the land or the sea, only that she had served at the temple for as a long as anyone could remember.

"What does this ancient tale teach us?" she finally asked, eyes zeroing in on the youngest among them.

"To resist temptation, my Ursa," a new voice piped up.

Aquiel's head turned to see her fellow acolyte, Gisela. Unlike Aquiel, Gisela was a mortal from Misthaven. Dark-skinned and black-haired she was a great beauty who neither smiled nor spoke about her origins. And whenever she did speak, her voice was always the same as her face: emotionless.

"Indeed," the Ursa raised an eyebrow. "The goddess herself fell into exile because of her own temptation. She lost her beloved child, borne of temptation. Life at a temple is not for the weak-willed. Mermaids, so long as you dwell on this island, you can walk at will, instead of just once a year at high tide. Mortals, so long as you dwell on this island, your beauty will remain long after others' have faded. But to worthy of such great gifts, you must all prove yourselves immune to temptation."

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