“Thank you so much for thinking of me,” Marit said, “but really I’d rather not marry a monster.”
The king stared at her, his men standing stiffly by. It had not, of course, been thoughtfulness that led him to her cottage in the woods. Marit knew this, and knew that the marriage was not optional, and that one could not speak to a king in this manner and expect to keep one’s head. But when one has already been sentenced to death, such things as respect for royalty matter very little.
She had heard the story—she was sure the whole kingdom had, by now. How some six months ago, their prince had set off to find a bride, and how his path had been blocked by a dragon, a snake-beast, a great lindworm who spoke with the voice of a man, demanding a bride of his own before the prince could have one. How instead of chopping him into small pieces, the prince had ridden home, and how instead of sending someone else to chop him up, the king had set about finding the lindworm a bride. How the lindworm had devoured that bride, and demanded another, which the king had also found. And now, with two princesses dead and two countries about to declare war, he had chosen Marit to be the third. She was no one, and lived near enough to the palace. He could not risk another princess.
It was rumored that the lindworm was his son. She did not know how true that might be. She did not much care.
Finally, the king found his voice. “You misunderstand me. This is not an offer or a suggestion. You may come willingly, in which case your family will be compensated, or you may be dragged off by your hair. Choose wisely.”
Kings, she thought, ought to be more impressive and aloof.
There was no doubt they needed the king’s gold. It had been a dry summer, and an unpleasant winter. If he had called for volunteers, she might have gone, to see her family safe through this next year.
But he had not called for volunteers, and stood now in the mud, glaring down at her in his purple coat as if she were the one that was worthless. The chickens squawked around him.
“Ja, and what next?” she said. “After me, you’ll kill off every maid in the country, and then I suppose you’ll have to go to war, and find slaves to feed his appetite? Discipline is important for growing boys, Your Majesty. Learn to say no to your son.”
The king slapped her, but did not contest the claim he was the lindworm’s father. He did not bother to punish her further. There was no further punishment than this wedding.
“You will be collected, and the gold delivered, in one week,” he said. “Of course, there will be men watching to see that you do not run.”
“Of course,” she echoed. Her father and sister were in the back—they would not have heard the commotion. She could hear the cow mooing still from here, more than enough to drown out a king. It would be left to her, then, to explain. She did not look forward to it. They had dreamt of kings and queens and ball gowns. Greta was half in love with Prince Harald, as were most girls her age. The king had long had a reputation for mercy and kindness, before the lindworm. And now she would explain to them that he was the sort of man who struck defenseless girls in the forest.
It was three days later, wandering the woods to escape the oppression of mourning at home, that she met the old woman. She was short, with white hair spilling from her cap, bright and cheerful in a blue skirt and red vest, and she smiled like an old friend at Marit.
“And why are you so sad?” the woman asked.
“It is nothing.” She would not tell her sorrows to a stranger with the soldiers watching—she had some small pride, still.
“Come,” said the woman, “perhaps I can help you.” She leaned forward and spoke softly, so that only Marit might hear, “It is the lindworm, is it not?” Marit was too surprised to answer, and the woman led her deeper into the trees, where there was snow still on the ground. The soldiers could see them still, from their post behind the evergreens, but would not hear. “Now. Here is what you must do.”
The king came himself to collect her for the wedding, which might have been an honor, except that they had learned to hate him, these past seven days. He said that her family was invited to the wedding, of course. Perhaps her sister could be a bridesmaid.
Marit had declined his generous offer. Her father had sent her off with her mother’s wedding dress, just as if this were something real. Greta had cried.
The walk to the palace was long and mostly silent. Marit would have expected a carriage. She walked beside the king, in front of a small horde of soldiers, clutching the bundle that held her dress and everything else she might need.
If they had come through the city from the front, instead of through the woods, she could have walked beneath the rows of pink flowered trees that led to the gates. She would have liked that.
They probably weren’t blooming yet.
Greta had cried. She would not. Not in front of the king.
The terracotta waves of the palace roof were in sight when he started trying to make conversation. “What is your name?”
“Olaf,” he said, and it sounded like an apology she would not accept. She had known his name already. She had not cared.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“We all do foolish things for our children.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” She wondered if he meant the lindworm, or only Prince Harald, who could not be married until it was satisfied.
“We’ll probably have to go to war with the princesses’ fathers.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“You had much more to say a week ago.”
She would be dead by morning, and he wanted small talk to distract from his guilt. “What would you have me say? I’m sorry this is hard for you? Good luck with your war? I’m sure I’ll be very happy with your son? No, I really don’t mind dying before I’m twenty?”
A few soldiers stepped forward, and he waved them away. There was another long silence before the king asked quietly, “How old are you?”
Marit stared down at the ground, arms wrapped around her chest. “Seventeen.”
“I am very sorry,” he said. He did not speak again until they reached the palace.
It was stunning, but few things are truly impressive when one is about to die. Mostly, she just felt numb. She asked, dully, as a troop of maids descended, “When will the wedding be?”
“At eight o’clock,” he said. “Will that give you enough time to prepare?” One of the maids assured him it would, and he told her, “Give the girl whatever she wants. It’s her wedding day, after all.” He laughed, unamused, more bitter than cruel, and then he was gone.
“Is there anything special we can do for you, miss?” the maid asked dutifully.
Marit thought of the old woman in the forest. “This is going to sound a little strange.”
The rest of the day was spent preparing her for the wedding, as if it could possibly matter what she looked like, as if the lindworm would notice or care. Would the state of her hair really impact how she tasted?
They even had a mirror. She had only seen her reflection in rippling water before, and it was incredible, like magic, but this was much too high a price for learning she had freckles.
The worst part was that she felt special, by the end. Like a real princess, with her hair piled high, and those gorgeous soft slippers. Her mother’s wedding dress. And she was cleaner than she’d ever been in her life. So much hard work, all for her.
She didn’t want it. Her father had the king’s money, and that was only fair. She didn’t want any favors. She didn’t want to die feeling like she owed them something. Not when she was the unwilling sacrifice. She didn’t owe them anything.
The ballroom where they held the wedding was gorgeous, with shining wood floors and dark walls covered in rosemåling, blue and gold and red. All the court was seated when she arrived, dressed in their finest clothes, looking horrified. She recognized the king and the queen and the prince, familiar from a dozen parades, sitting in the front row. The rest were strangers.
And then she saw the lindworm.
He was enormous, the height of seven men at least, white like a maggot, or the mold on stale bread. He had dark wings on his back, far too small to hold his weight in flight, and shiny white fangs quite visible even when his mouth was shut. He had no legs. There was a crown on his head, the size a man would wear, which might have been funny if he hadn’t planned to eat her, and he was staring at her with an expression of mild curiosity.
That was the worst part—the look of his eyes, which were a comfortable human shade of blue.
She broke eye contact and started walking down the aisle, alone, since her father wasn’t there, and quickly—maybe the anticipation was worse than the death itself.
One could only hope.
The lindworm stared at her a moment longer when she took her place beside him, then turned to the priest, who stared silently ahead, pale—whether in anger or fear, Marit couldn’t tell. It was a mockery of a marriage, and enough to infuriate any priest.
If he disapproved so much, he needn’t have performed the ceremony.
There was a long pause before the lindworm hissed. “Whenever you’re ready, Father.”
Marit flinched at the sound of his voice. She had known he could speak—how else could he have demanded a wife in the first place? But hearing it for herself was different.
“Of course.” He swallowed. “Do you, Prince Lindworm, take this girl—” He paused, and looked up slowly to meet Marit’s eyes.
“Thank you.” There was another pause, until the lindworm hissed again. “Do you, Prince Lindworm, take this girl, Marit Liefsdotter, to be your lawfully wedded wife?”
Marit looked about the room, hardly listening, as the ceremony continued. Her dress, fine enough for a peasant girl’s wedding, must be the poorest garment these people had ever seen. She did not want to care what they thought of her, these fine lords who stood by, swords in their belts, sacrificing when they could be stabbing, and ball gowns were not so tempting as they had been in her dreams, on these stiff cold women who did not care.
She realized that everything was quiet again, and then that everyone was staring at her. Including the lindworm, his forked tongue darting in and out below those terrible eyes. “I’m sorry?”
The priest repeated, slowly and unhappily, “Do you, Marit Liefsdotter, take this lindworm to be your lawfully wedded husband, for be—”
“I do,” she interrupted. There was no point in drawing it out.
He nodded, and mumbled something that sounded like “You may now kiss the bride.”
Marit took a step back. “Absolutely not. There will be no bride kissing here.”
The people in the audience leaned forward. Marit saw them, and wondered if the princesses had let themselves be kissed, but mostly she was focused on the lindworm, who was unreadable.
How did a lindworm kiss?
She didn’t want to know.
“Time for the reception, then,” the king said, finally, from his seat in the front row. The lindworm twisted his head to stare at him, but didn’t object.
Prince Harald took her arm to lead her to the banquet hall, the lindworm somewhere ahead. He was very handsome, their prince—well, the whole kingdom knew that. But he was also rumored to be funny, and kind, and very charming. If she had any hope of rescue outside the old woman, it lay with him. But he had already failed to save two girls more important than her.
“Could we not just be done with it all?” she whispered.
“You don’t want the reception?” He sounded surprised.
“We all know how this ends, ja? I would rather not pretend at being a happy bride.”
“There will be a banquet. You don’t want him hungry, do you?”
“That’s your plan to save my life? Feed the lindworm wedding cake?”
He stopped abruptly in the middle of the hallway. “Honestly? I don’t think anything is going to save your life. But if this gives you a few more hours, well, isn’t that worth something?”
“You’re the prince. You’re supposed to be a hero. It’s your job to kill him and save me. How can you let him do this?”
He had the grace to look uncomfortable, at least. “So I should chop off my brother’s head to save a stranger? I’m sorry. I am. I hate him. I hate what he’s doing. But there are bigger things in this world than a farmer’s daughter, or even two princesses and a war, and I will not live with his blood on my hands.”
“But you’ll live with mine.”
“I’m sorry,” he said again. And then they were in the banquet hall, and she walked unaccompanied to the lindworm’s table. He looked up with interest as she sat, then ignored her as the food was served.
A short blonde girl caught the prince’s arm as he walked away. “This is dreadful. Harry, please.”
He shook her off. “Don’t call me that.”
Marit did not see the prince again. She watched as the wedding cake was cut, a golden tower of ever-narrower rings, white icing dripping down the sides.
A little boy, six or seven, charming with curly copper hair, ran forward to whisper, “If I were bigger I’d kill him for you,” and his mother dragged him away. The lindworm stared down at his plate and said nothing. He must have heard.
Everyone ate in silence, eyes cast carefully down. They were afraid of the lindworm, and he was frightening, of course, but just then he was flicking his tongue absently at a slice of cake, and looked less deadly than he might have. If there was any chance of reasoning with him, now would be the time.
“Not hungry?” she asked.
His head swiveled around, and she thought he was confused, and looked down to avoid his eyes. “No. I don’t eat much.”
“Oh. Maybe if you—” She stopped. But there was nothing to lose, anymore, by being direct. She looked into his human eyes and asked him, “Will you be hungry tonight?”
His tongue stopped flicking. “I’m never hungry.”
“Then you do it for fun?”
“Fun,” he repeated slowly. “Is this supposed to be fun? With the cake and the terrified silence? I’m not having fun. Are you having fun?”
“No,” she whispered. He had not blinked once all night. Maybe lindworms didn’t. Normal snakes didn’t seem to, after all.
“Let’s get it over with, then.”
“I thought you weren’t hungry.”
“I’m not. That’s why I want to leave the banquet.” She let herself be pulled into those eyes again, trying to understand what he wasn’t saying, and he added, “It’s only some pathetic cosmic joke. You realize that, don’t you, Marit?”
It was the first time he’d said her name. She nodded, wishing he hadn’t.
“The other ones didn’t.” He rose, towering above the entire room, and announced, “Princess Marit has had a long day. She is bored and tired. We will retire to our room for the night.”
A few people in the crowd looked sick, but no one objected, and Marit wondered, as they started to flee, why she had wanted this. Surely, a few more hours to live would have been better.
But then, perhaps the old woman’s plan would work.
The lindworm led the way, managing stairs quite impressively without legs. Marit followed, hemmed in by fleets of maids and soldiers, as if she were foolish enough to think she could escape this now. There was no sign of the royal family.
At the door, the lindworm bowed his head, and one of the maids, trembling, went to lift off the crown. He slithered into the room, and Marit stood frozen in the doorway. Finally, one of the soldiers nudged her, and she took a step forward.
Everyone in the hall was suddenly in a great hurry to get away, but Marit had just remembered something. She turned back to the door.
“Wait, please.” The last maid stopped, looking helpless and miserable. There was really nothing to wait for. “Can you just help me with the buttons? On my dress? It was my mother’s, and I don’t want it to be ruined when—could it be sent back home, please? After I—to my little sister. Tell her it doesn’t—I mean, she should still wear it. She’d look beautiful in it.” The girl nodded and started to undo the buttons, glancing nervously over at the lindworm as she worked.
“Good night, princess,” she whispered, just as if Marit were a real princess. And then she fled.
Marit closed the door and turned to the lindworm, who was twined around the bedpost, watching her intently. He had done nothing so far, and didn’t look too malevolent.
“All right, then.” She stepped out of the dress, so she was in just her shift, and began to fold it carefully. “This dress is a very important family heirloom. So I’m going to leave it up here.” She set it on top of the wardrobe. “You’re not to tear it or get it bloody or anything. I want it left alone, and returned to my family tomorrow. Ja?”
The lindworm flicked his tongue a few times, then nodded. “You may take it home to them in the morning.”
She felt the pressure of tears rising, and blinked them back furiously. If she hadn’t cried for the king, she certainly would not for the lindworm. “Well, that’s just mean.”
It looked puzzled.
“We all know what happens next. We’ve heard the stories, even us peasants in the forest. So don’t act like this is some kind of—let’s just get on with it, ja?”
“All right.” It slithered away from the bedpost, stopping just a few feet from her. “Would you take off your shift, please?”
The lindworm had manners. She was sure that would be a great comfort as it devoured her.
She took a deep breath. It was time to find out how crazy the woman was. “I will take off my shift after you take off your skin.”
It tilted its head, clearly puzzled, but started to wriggle obediently. “The others didn’t ask me that.”
Marit didn’t want to think about the others.
It was a full ten minutes before the skin lay on the ground beside the lindworm, long and thin and hideous. He was bigger than he had been. Just slightly. But if every skin shed led to such an increase in size—it wouldn’t. The woman had said this would help, and growing could only make things worse. She took off her first shift and laid it on top of the skin.
The lindworm seemed fascinated by the second shift, but not unduly concerned. “Take that one off too, please.”
“I don’t think I’m supposed to shed twice in one day. I wasn’t even due the first one for another month.”
“No skin, no shift.”
The wriggling started up again.
It was not until the sixth or seventh skin that Marit began to be really concerned. Hours had passed. It was taking longer each time, and it sounded painful. He wasn’t getting bigger anymore—in fact he was getting smaller. He was more greenish than white now. But he kept going, with no more questions or complaints.
It was not his health that worried her. If he was this determined to have her unclothed, what must he be planning for when it was finished? She could not imagine he would go so far merely to avoid the hassle of eating fabric.
She was down to her last two shifts, and he was working, very slowly, with long and frequent breaks, on the ninth skin, when he asked, sounding rather alarmingly like a little boy, “Can I be done now?”
“Not if you want my shifts off.” She crossed her arms and tried to look stern.
“I’m sorry. Only it really hurts, you see, and I’m afraid it might get messy. I don’t know how many skins I have.” He was beginning to look a little transparent. She did not tell him that he had only ten. He would find out soon enough.
While he was working on the tenth, she went to the closet to organize the supplies the maids had left for her. That she wore ten shifts was strange enough; what must they have thought about a tub of milk and one of lye?
And the whips, of course. She dipped them into the lye, now, and carried them back out to the lindworm, just in time to see the final skin slip off.
He had been horrific enough before. The first layer had been stiff and dry, and very thin. This last one was thick, slimy with blood. She looked up from the floor to the lindworm, and caught glimpses of his insides that she had not needed, and she wondered how old he was. Not far from Prince Harald, she thought, but perhaps lindworms aged differently.
She lifted the whips.
“What are you doing?” he asked, and his voice was shrill and frightened and young.
“I don’t know.”
Anyone listening would assume the screams were hers.
He shouted and whimpered and begged, and she thought that nothing right could cause a creature such pain, not even a creature like him, and would have stopped, but he would have eaten her, as he had eaten the others, who had spoken to the woman too, and who had not listened. He called again and again for Ida, apologizing and condemning her, then apologizing again, and finally Marit could bear it no more, and dropped the whips. She dragged the tub of milk to him and dunked him once, reminded absurdly of a baptismal service she’d seen last spring. Then the milk turned red with blood, and she dropped him whimpering to the floor, and found her hands and arms still streaked in it.
But they were nearly done.
She lifted him again, a quivering mass of blood and twitching muscle, and pulled him to the bed, where he fit from head to small bedraggled wings, the rest of his tail in a heap on the floor. He had lost the majority of his great size, between the shedding and the whips.
He seemed to be crying.
She looked up at his eyes, the blue even more startling now against the red.
“Is it over?” he asked.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know.” The woman had promised that Marit would survive the night. She had not said how it would end for the lindworm.
He was no danger to her now, at least. She did not know how long he might survive in this state, or what she would tell the king when he woke to find him dead.
Telling the king, she would manage, somehow. She did not want to explain to those blue eyes how unlikely it seemed that he would live much longer.
“I am afraid,” he said.
“It’s all right. Just go to sleep.” She pulled the blanket over him, gently. There was already enough blood to wash out. It could not hurt to give him some warmth, or herself some distance, as she lay down carefully beside him. This was the final step—something symbolic that the woman had not explained. She reached up to catch a trickle of blood before it dripped into his eye, then closed her own eyes and lowered her hand.
The blast threw her across the room.
When she sat up, she was half convinced she’d been knocked out, and woken in some dream world.
There was a thin, pale young man on the bed, bent down with his head on his knees, arms hanging useless at his sides, crying quietly. He was completely naked, covered in long red welts.
“Make it stop,” he was saying, apparently to himself. “I don’t want it. Make it stop. Make it stop.” He repeated this, again and again.
Marit approached slowly, and touched his shoulder when he didn’t react. The boy leapt up explosively, then slumped down again. She backed away.
“Oh, gods,” he said.
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