(This is a little over half of the first chapter I had planned to share the whole thing, but then I realized it was 7,000 words. You can buy and read the rest of Lindworm here!)
“Thank you so much for thinking of me,” Marit said, “but really I would rather not marry a monster.”
Marit would not have thought herself the sort of person to talk back to kings, had she ever had cause to contemplate such matters. But then she never would have thought the king the sort of person to sacrifice a girl to a lindworm, and yet here she was, the third victim.
She was only seventeen, and this wedding was a death sentence.
Six months ago, Prince Harald had set out to find a bride, and had been stopped by a great serpent in the road. Since then, the serpent—the lindworm—had eaten two foreign princesses, both after a sham of a wedding. Both women had thought they were coming to marry Prince Harald.
Here, in the forest outside the capital city, rumors had flown. Rumors that they would shortly be at war with both kingdoms that had lost a princess, and rumors, more interesting to their small family with no members likely to be sent to the battlefield, of the lindworm, of why a man-eating dragon would be welcomed to the palace and fed. Rumors that said the lindworm was Prince Harald’s brother, that the king humored it instead of killing it because the monster was family.
Marit didn’t know how much truth there might be to such rumors. She didn’t know how a queen could bear and birth a serpent, but she did know the world was full of strange, incomprehensible things.
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.
“It is not an offer,” the king informed her when he found his voice. “It is a command, and you may choose to obey or not, but willing or unwilling, you will find yourself before a priest in my great hall one week from now.”
One week, she thought. One week to live the rest of her life. She could run—could she run?
No, if the king was leaving her a few days to say her goodbyes, it was only because he knew she could not run. There would be guards posted. She would be caught and brought back. She would still end the week dead, and likely her father and sister, too, if the king suspected they had helped her. As they certainly would.
Her family—they were away from the house now, deeper into the woods, scavenging. There was little left to eat, their winter stores almost empty by March, and the ground still too frozen to begin the year’s planting. She had stayed behind to tend to the animals, too likely to slow them down after twisting her ankle yesterday, falling from a tree; it had barely hurt, and would be healed by tomorrow. The king would be long gone before they returned, and it would fall to her to explain her upcoming death.
“There will be a bride price, of course,” said the king.
Marit wasn’t quite sure what a bride price was, thought it may be like a dowry—she’d sewn items, slowly, over the last several years for her dowry, but doubted the lindworm would demand her linens as well as her life.
The king went on to explain the bride price, the amount of money her father would be given for this farce of a marriage—the opposite of a dowry, then, and a staggering amount.
It had been a long, brutal winter following a short, dry summer, and for that price Marit may have volunteered herself. Any number of young women may have; it was enough to save not only their own small farm, but those of a few near neighbors. Enough to buy a second goat, a few more chickens, enough to pay all of their debts in the city and have their broken tools repaired.
For such a sum, she would have volunteered. She would have gladly given her life to so dramatically improve the lives of her father and younger sister.
But the king had not asked. The king had demanded, and Marit knew she would resent him for however many days she had left to do so.
He left her, as she’d expected, with guards posted nearby, and she led the animals back to their shed and let herself back into the cottage, not wanting to look at them, their clean uniforms with shiny brass buttons, their polished boots slowly gathering mud, their faces as they avoided her eyes, because they knew, must know, that this was wrong, and yet they were loyal to their king, and would not let her run.
Marit watched through the back window, working idly on her knitting, unable to stay focused on the difficult stitch she’d meant to master this week, until she saw her sister and her father coming out from the woods. She ran to meet them, and hurried them inside before they could ask about the soldiers scattered about. And then she told them.
“Why you?” Greta cried. “Why you?”
She hadn’t asked how he’d chosen her, out of all the unwed maids within walking distance of the palace. She didn’t think she wanted to know why it was her that must die, and not Annette, who had no father to protect her, or Martine, who was more beautiful, or Signe or Gretchen or any of the other girls she knew.
She didn’t want to die. She didn’t want to be the kind of person who wished death on her friends, either.
Besides, the lindworm had already eaten two women, and there was no reason to expect he might stop at a third. They may all be dead before this ended, Gretchen and Signe and Annette and Martine, and the younger girls, Greta and her friends, all the forest, all the city, someday all the kingdom sacrificed to satisfy the appetite of a monster that should have been killed the moment it showed itself to Prince Harald.
She could only hope that the fathers of the dead princesses would declare war, that they would kill her king and his lindworm with him before the whole country was devoured.
King Olaf had always been known as a kind and noble king. He’d lowered taxes and held festivals and been much loved, before these last six months, and Marit didn’t understand. She didn’t understand how a good king could become a bad one overnight because of one monster.
Maybe it was his son. Marit would throw the whole world over for Greta, she knew, but she’d been at Greta’s side since she’d emerged from their mother’s stomach, been the first to hold the new baby, tiny and wrinkled and red, getting blood all over her vest, as their father had said his goodbyes to Mama, only turning his attention to Marit and the new baby when his wife was gone.
For Greta, for her father, for Mama if she’d lived, Marit would do anything. But if a boar walked out of the woods and claimed to be her long lost brother, she wouldn’t take him at his word, wouldn’t escort him into the city to trample the blacksmith just because he asked her.
She didn’t think the king could hide a paternal relationship with a lindworm for several years. They must have met only when he stopped the prince on the road. And Marit didn’t understand.
She gathered Greta in her arms and listened to the younger girl cry, unable to shed any tears for herself, unsure why. She looked over Greta’s head at her father, and saw the same desperate sadness in his eyes that she had seen when she was five years old, and her mother was dying in childbirth. Her father loved her, but he could do nothing to save her, and they all knew it. He could not defy the king; to try would only make him angry, would likely risk Greta’s life too.
He came and wrapped himself around them both, and Marit thought, but was not quite sure, that he wept too. She sat, dry-eyed, between them, for long hours, until it was time for dinner and bed.
They watched out the window as a new group of soldiers marched in, and the first group left. At least they weren’t expected to feed and board their prison guards.
In the morning they found that the soldiers would let Marit go where she pleased, but one or two would always follow, from a respectful distance. No one followed her sister or father, so they went in three different directions, to the neighbors and to the city, Marit to make her farewells, and all of them to give warning. The king is feeding maidens to his lindworm. Marit is the first; she will not likely be the last. Send your daughters quietly to family in other cities, if you can. Marry them quickly to boys in the village, if you can. We do not know why the lindworm wants weddings, but he does, so make your daughters unweddable.
Gretchen, when Marit told her, said it probably had to do with a dragon’s fondness for virgins. She then said that if the king came to her, she would rid herself of virginity with the first man she could find before she would go to the lindworm, with the whole town to watch as proof, if necessary.
Gretchen’s older brother, the only other person there save the guards, too far away to overhear, made a sound of disapproval in the back of his throat, but said nothing.
Marit wondered if it was too late to try Gretchen’s plan for herself, and concluded it probably was—if the lindworm demanded a virgin, then the soldiers would not let her cease to be one. The small chance of success wasn’t worth giving herself to a man she didn’t want and wouldn’t be allowed to keep. And the kind of man who might cooperate with such a plan would likely not make it a happy experience to cherish in her final days. She reminded Gretchen of the soldiers before moving on to the next neighbors.
Marit spend her days wandering, mostly. There was work to be done, and she helped, or tried to—her father said not to trouble herself with anything in these last few days, and when she insisted, she often found herself too distracted to finish, or at least to finish well, haunted constantly by imaginings of what the lindworm might be like, how it might feel to be eaten. She remembered breaking a finger in a slamming door as a child, the sharp crack of it, the pain. She imagined the pain and the cracking both amplified as an enormous snake swallowed her whole, as snakes will do, and then, bizarrely, imagined cowering on a banquet table as the lindworm sliced her to pieces with a knife held in its tail, popping each slice into its mouth one at a time, sometimes dipping a slice in a butter-sauce first.
She still had not cried, though she had found herself several times laughing hysterically at humorless jokes she couldn’t explain. Greta didn’t need to know about the butter sauce.
When there were two days left before the wedding, she went out intending to collect eggs from the chickens, and her feet carried her, instead, deeper into the woods.
The guards followed at a distance.
Marit stopped when she saw an old woman ahead. 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 asked why she was so sad.
Marit wasn’t a fool. She knew how it was with mysterious old women in forests, knew they were to be respected. Knew how often they carried magic within themselves. Knew that to cross them was idiocy, and that to be kind and respectful could change the course of one’s life.
So Marit told the woman her troubles, and the woman smiled again. “It will be all right,” she said. “If you obey me, it will be all right. Now, here is what you must do.”
Marit wasn’t foolish enough to think she might live through this, but she wasn’t foolish enough to ignore the gift of a wise woman in the wood, either, even when that gift was the strangest advice she’d ever been given. Wear ten shifts beneath your dress, have milk and lye and whips waiting in your bedchamber.
She was already going to die; what did it matter if the king’s servants thought her a madwoman?
Ten shifts, though, would not be an easy thing to manage. Marit had two shifts, and two night shifts, which were wool instead of linen, with sleeves too wide to be hidden beneath her dress. She would have to rip them off. Greta owned the same, not much smaller as she was tall for her age, but Marit could not deprive her sister of all her undergarments, so only took one day shift and one night shift from her. That brought her to six, and four more yet to find. She couldn’t buy them; the king’s money wouldn’t come to her father until the day after the wedding. She had her dowry linens, unneeded now, and could use the fabric to make more shifts. But she had two days left to live, and wasn’t willing to spend her last precious moments sewing. With Greta’s help she converted one white bedsheet into a shift, but would sacrifice no more time when she had so many goodbyes to say—to friends, to livestock, to trees and streams and every future she had ever imagined for herself.
She begged one more shift from Olga, whose family was wealthier and who had one to spare for an acquaintance going to her death. Eight shifts, eight, two short, and no time to find more. It would have to be enough.
The morning she was to be taken away, Marit’s father pulled out her mother’s wedding dress and offered it to her.
Marit shook her head. “It should go to Greta. To a real wedding.”
“You shouldn’t be alone,” her father said. “Take it, so your mother can be with you, as Greta and I cannot.”
So Marit put on her eight shifts, and she put on the dress. She was a bit smaller than her mother had been when she married, and it still fit despite the extra layers. Greta had wanted to make her a crown of flowers to match, but there were still few flowers in bloom, so she wove the crown from evergreen branches instead, coating her hands in sap, and placed it carefully on her sister’s head.
The three of them waited, solemnly, for Marit to be taken away. There was nothing left to say. All of the goodbyes were finished, all of the plans made. The next morning someone would come from the palace with the bride price and whatever was left of Marit to be buried. Her father would sell the animals and the house, give them away if he couldn’t sell them fast enough, and he would hire a wagon to take them far, far from the capital, to start a new life where the lindworm would never touch Greta. They’d gone over the details last night. Greta had cried again.
Marit still hadn’t cried, and thought she might be able to, now, but would not let herself; she didn’t want her tears seen by whoever took her away. She found she was more angry than sad. She felt a sharpness growing within her. Her life was forfeit, and so too was her sense of obligation to respect, to loyalty. The king, the queen, the prince, the priests who’d performed the weddings and the soldiers and couriers who’d stood by—damn them, she thought, damn them all, and damn the idea she owed them the barest amount of anything.
The king came to fetch her himself, and she refrained from spitting in his face only because of the guards that surrounded him, the fear they might kill her where she stood and cost her father the bride price.
The king was different, not angry and demanding as he had been a week ago, but stiff with an awkwardness that might almost be shame. Marit hugged her father and Greta one last time, and followed him back toward the city, his guards forming a circle around them. She didn’t care that he may feel shame; she had enough anger by now for the both of them.
He was quiet, and Marit didn’t want quiet. Not quite understanding the compulsion, she found herself goading him.
“What will happen after this?” she asked, and the king looked at her, then quickly away again. It was a long walk on foot, and she didn’t know why a king wouldn’t take a carriage, but she didn’t mind the extra time in her forest.
“You will be prepared for the wedding by lady’s maids. The wedding will be in the great hall, and after that we will have a banquet.”
“Not tonight,” Marit said, spurred by the thought of Annette being sent hundreds of miles away to an uncle she’d never met, of Gretchen searching for a man to defile her rather than be eaten. “Not to me. What will happen to your kingdom? 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.”
He raised a hand as if to slap her, and she tilted her chin forward, daring him—let him hit her, here surrounded by a small army, let all these soldiers, already uneasy with their roles, go home and report to their friends and families that their king was a man who struck defenseless maidens.
He lowered his hand, leaving Marit oddly disappointed. It would have been another reason to be angry, and her anger was protecting her from her fear.
The king sighed heavily. “We all do foolish things for our children.”
She wondered if he meant the lindworm, or only Prince Harald, who could not be married until it was satisfied. It didn’t matter—the result was the same for her.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” she said, suddenly exhausted. Maybe a king could afford to do foolish things for his children. Her own father had to be sensible—foolishness would only have hurt Greta. She felt the anger draining away, the fear rising up again. She didn’t want to die.
They arrived at the palace from a side gate, not taking the wide, paved road beneath the cherry trees, where any number of people might have seen their arrival. The king and his soldiers handed her off to a large group of women, some more elegant than others, and she asked him, before he left, what time the wedding would be.
“At eight o’clock,” he said. “Will that give you enough time to prepare?” One of the more elegant women 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?” asked one of the plainer women, who was likely a maid.
Marit thought of the old woman in the forest. “This is going to sound a little strange.”
All of the more plainly dressed women left to carry out her last request, leaving Marit with a flock of beautiful women whose most simple everyday clothes were likely ten times more expensive than her mother’s wedding dress. They tried to have her out of it, into borrowed silks instead, but she refused. It was the last gift from her father, the only familiar thing in this place. She kept her evergreen crown as well, but let them take it away long enough to clean away the sap, rubbing it from the branches and brushing it out of her hair.
They re-braided her hair into a more elaborate style, stringing in gemstones to match her dress, and applied powders and creams to her face, which itched and made her sneeze. She watched them carefully, picking out one who seemed both kind and fancy enough to know little of a peasant’s daily life. She drew her away from the crowd and explained, in a whisper, “I haven’t any underthings. I only own the one shift, and I left it for my sister, so she would have one to wear on laundry day. I didn’t think it would matter, when I’m only to die tonight, but I’m—I’m embarrassed to have all these fine people watching me, thinking that if the light hits just so they’ll see I’m not dressed properly.”
The woman believed, somehow, that a peasant girl might have come to a royal wedding with no undergarments, and offered to find a spare shift.
“Could I have two, please?” The woman raised her eyebrows, and Marit ducked her head. “It’s a tradition—I know it shan’t be a real wedding night, but it’s a tradition to make the groom work a little harder the first time.”
The woman believed the tradition she’d never heard of, as well, and came back shortly with two more shifts, beautiful, silken things, bringing Marit to the required ten.
The next problem came when she realized the women had no intention of leaving her alone while she took off her wedding dress and put on the shifts, which was awkward for more reasons than the eight shifts she already wore. She explained that she was not accustomed to being seen undressed by strangers, and finally they left her, for the first moment of privacy she’d had in hours, and the last she expected to have in her life.
She took off the dress and put on the shifts. She paused to look in the mirror—a thing she’d heard of but never before seen—and wondered if that was what she truly looked like, or only the effect of the powders and creams. She pulled the dress back on, took a few deep breaths—she had not cried yet, she would not cry now—and reopened the door so that the women could help re-fasten the dress in the back.
They set the evergreen crown back on her head, and took her to the priest that would read her last rites.
The hall 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.
It was the height of six or seven men, white like a maggot, or the mold on stale bread. It had dark wings on its back, too small to hold its weight in flight, and shiny white fangs quite visible even when its mouth was shut. It had no legs. There was a crown balanced at the top of its head, the size a man would wear, which might have been funny if it hadn’t planned to eat her.
It was staring at her with an expression of mild curiosity, recognizable because its eyes were the eyes of a man, over-large, but still small in its serpent head, the same shade of blue as a dozen young men she’d seen in the city.