*So I thought I’d post a few short stories here, just for a change. Here’s the first, a dark fantasy version of The Little Mermaid.*
Wild. The coast of the North country. Untamed. Inhospitable. Never silent, never still. Wind screams a constant shriek, echoing in dark sea caves, the cries of the damned drowned. Foam-topped waves taller than ships crash against towering basalt cliffs, bringing ruin to long-ships, bringing death to the men who crew them. No beaches here on this cliff-tall coast. No landings but those hewn from hard rock by the seafaring people who inhabit this unforgiving place. People as wild and unwelcoming as the terrain itself. Untamed and ferocious as Great Mother Sea.
Ragnar stands on the prow of his long-necked wave’s steed. Watches the wind-whipped waters, an insolent smile stretching his lips. Ragnar, Mother Sea’s son, favoured in her watery eyes. Hair the colour of sun-ripened wheat whips and flails about his face. Salt-sodden strands sting his half-closed eyes. He tastes the birth water of his turbulent mother on his tongue, savours it, and shouts to his hard-labouring crew to hold the damn sail in place, my brothers, urging them on to row, row for their lives, his voice competing against that of the howling wind. Row the serpent. Bring it down the icy stream. Fly us home.
He cannot afford to lose the plunder they’ve fought for, risked their lives for, spilled blood for, died and murdered for. Bolts of silk, treasure chests brimful with coins from all lands. Ropes of milky pearls, droplets from the oyster’s breast. Single black milk-beads, more valuable than gold. Jewels. Diamonds. Rubies. Emeralds the colour of Kara’s eyes, sapphires the colour of his own. Fragrant treasures reaped from foreign far-flung Aesir. Much as he loves her, Ragnar will never willingly surrender them to his demanding mother. He yells a curse against her that he would rather die than be so dishonoured, and feels himself swell with the excitement of his challenge, with the possibility that today, his mother’s favour may finally desert him.
Mother Sea knows his arrogance. Hears his defiance. Up until now, she has spared her most favoured son her terrors, the son so beautiful he will not allow a beard to hide his features. But now, furious with his mutiny, she sends another of her sons against him. Squall becomes Storm, screaming out warnings, pouring rain and hail down upon the sea-dragon and its proud riders. On its young master. Waves lash against the slender wooden hull, saturate the snake-emblazoned sail. Timbers groan. Men cry out with fear. Heave their oars in desperation. Pull, you bastards. Pull. But the waves toss the ship like a wildcat tosses a rat. Ship pitches and falls. Pitches and falls. The water-peaks rise higher, the troughs dip lower. Ragnar feels his stomach rise. And fall. Rise. And fall. Clings tighter to the guard rope, tries to keep his balance. Shivers in the teeth of icy North Wind and, refusing the unmanning of terror, laughs, defiant in the face of death and…
Losing control. Oars snap. Timbers gape. The sea-dragon falls apart. Again, Ragnar shouts an order, but his words are lost in the screams of his mother’s fury. Now he feels fear invade him. Now he must join the poor bastards he’s condemned. Must die amongst them, his warrior-brothers. But he will die an honourable death, a sword-reddener’s death in his mother’s arms. Not standing here, frozen in emasculated terror. He abandons the guard rope, lurches as the ship plunges. Cries out as a wave, fiercer and greedier than any other, engulfs him. Knocks him off his feet. Sends him down into the watery depths of his mother’s furious lust for her once-favoured son.
Dead. He knows he’s dead. Images of his homeland run through his mind. The village at the end of the deep sea fjord. The ring of high mountains that protects it from invaders. Mountains that always have snow on their peaks, even in high summer. The meadows where the short-horned cattle and white-fleeced sheep graze on sweetgrass. The sound of gulls wheeling overhead, screeching at the catch of fresh fish. He sees the sky above him, clear and blue. Feels the deep heat of the brief summer sunshine. Sees people. His father, an older, flawed version of himself, the massive scar that seams his face creasing livid with laughter. Sigurd always laughs at his own jokes, no matter how bad they are. And he sees his flesh-mother, care-lined, her body bent from working too hard carrying for her wayward husband and eight strapping sons. Yet her eyes – sky-forged as Ragnar’s own – twinkle with wry good humour and love.
And Kara. Flame haired emerald-eyed Kara. Skin the texture of the white samite he stole from a Southern trader two days past. Nipples that taste of milk and thighs that taste of sweat and woman musk. When he left her she was big, distended with his child. Long wished-for boy-child. Must be a son for Ragnar, who will be the father of many sons, and this the first, with the strong legs of a warrior kicking inside Kara’s belly. Bunched fists punching against her womb, waiting to hold an axe or an iron short sword, eager to conquer the world his father has created for him. Never to see that boy-child. Because Ragnar is dead. Drowned in the birth-fluid of his vast mother’s sac.
When he opens his eyes he knows he’s arrived in the Otherworld. A place of holding where souls await judgement. A cavern in the depths of the earth-mother, far away from the brief summer sun. Far, far away from the too-brief lives of men. No warrior long-house for Ragnar. He sits up; his aching body, clothes ripped away by the storm, protests; his chest heaves, and he coughs up great gouts of sea water. Pukes it up until his guts hurt and his lungs are consumed with fire. Surely death does not feel like this? Surely his heart should not beat so wildly, wild like the drumming the elders use to summon the spirit-gods? Surely his every movement should not feel like a torture? Slowly he understands that he’s not dead at all. But if he’s not dead, then where is he?
After he has finished spilling his guts he tries to rise. Screams out involuntarily as agony sends him crashing back down. His new world whirls around him. Sight blackens. Sweat, hot and cold, pours from his brow, his sodden body, clammy with fear and faintness. He feels himself unmanned, reduced to a whining dog. Biting his lips, he looks at his legs. The left is black with bruising, probably broken. But the right… the right is a bloody mess of bone-rent tissue. Destroyed and useless. Probably forever. Ragnar pukes again and bites back another agonised howl. Blinks back tears. A warrior does not weep, no matter the pain or the torment. It’s only water from his hair that runs hot down his face, only the salt of the sea that he tastes on his lips, in the back of his gulping throat.
With a huge effort of will, he gains control of the pain, proves to himself he is no whining cur. Rises on his elbows and peers around him. Sees that he is stranded in a basalt cave lit with phosphorescence and glinting mica, hears the gentle lapping of water. No storm here, but a wyrd lull that seeps into his bones and almost unmans him again. Scent of amniotic salt rises from the sea pool that half-fills the space. Scent of fresh fish-catch and rotting fish-flesh. Scent of something unfamiliar. Scent that sends him back to puking. Quivering in terror, he curses himself and his weakness.
She watches it. Bara-rida, the wave rider. Elliptical pupils in yellow sclera open and close, open and close, capturing the vision. Paints it on the retinas of her slanted eyes. Gills in her neck open and close, open and close, capturing air. Something stretches her thin silver-scaled lips. Some might call it a smile; some might call it hunger. All would call it terrible. Something like longing beats in her many-chambered heart. Her catch is beautiful. They are all beautiful, the land-walkers, even the old ones, the ugly ones. Beautiful in the way they carry their bodies. In the way they move, with long lower protuberances so different from her fish-scaled tail. Her inhuman mind searches for the word, and her thin mouth stretches again as she finds it. Legs. Marrow-halls she longs for but will never have.
She cares nothing for the threats made against her. Bara-rida has been following this feeder of war-gulls for many moons, and refuses to give it up. Attracted by the paleness of its flesh-cover, its sunlit scalp-cords, and its strong lean bone-house, she has yearned for many moons. She, who has sought the most favoured of the land-walkers, the sons of earth, now owns it. She, who has prayed endlessly to the sea-gods for this prize, in saving it, has finally been rewarded. True, its legs are damaged, and the scent of its wound-sea drives her hunger relentlessly forward. But she has desired it so long, she must heal it, keep it for her own. Surely, she will not be punished for accepting the gift that the gods themselves have given her? A thought, clear and strong, passes through her mind and lodges there: I will not tell.
Bara-rida watches as it ejects salt-water from its mouth, scents its terror as it understands that it’s injured, and watched by unseen sight-paths. Strange, associating terror with this creature, this sea-warrior. But humans are superstitious, stuffed full of tales of spirits and demons and mythical beasts. Living on the edge of death as they do, it is easy for them to believe in such things. Bara-rida knows the truth that men can only guess at, for is she not part myth herself, she and her race? Hasn’t she been told tales by the elder-kin of how her kind are harpooned and killed by the land-locked ones? Of how they are hunted by the fish-eaters, the chase considered sport, and their murdered flesh a rare delicacy? Yes, she has heard. And seen. But it makes no difference to her. Bara-rida claims this one as her prize, as her trophy, and she will not be denied.
Who’s there? Ragnar’s voice echoes around the glistening basalt walls, comes back to him, high and helpless. Who’s there? There…. there…. Show yourself. Show yourself. Yourself… yourself…. He hears a splash in the centre of the sea-pool, feels the pressure of a gaze upon his prickling skin. Strains to raise himself up higher. The pain of his shattered leg descends the black veil over his eyes once more. For a few seconds he writhes on the cave floor like a landed fish, gasping, sweat pouring from every pore, then, still gasping, raises himself on his elbows and sees it, the source of the splash, the sensation of being watched.
Water ripples and splashes, ripples and splashes. Something – a fin? several? – breaks the surface of the water, disappears again. Breaks again. Rises. Rises higher, revealing the humped back of… of what? Ragnar watches, horror-struck – whatever it is, it has almost reached the lip of stone – propels himself backward on his arms to the basalt wall of the cave behind him. Shudders and whimpers. Whimpers and shudders. Sees what his Mother Sea has sent to him and wishes he had died. Or maybe this is Hel.
For this is what he sees: female. It is female. Or at least, on its fish-scaled torso, it sprouts swellings that resemble breasts, centred by chitinous nipple-peaks. Its mouth is a shark-toothed, flat-nosed nightmare set in a triangular face, from which lidless eyes the colour of fresh bile watch him intently. What that intent is, Ragnar can only guess at. And none of the guesses bring him comfort. It raises itself up on armoured arms, at the end of which knife-claws erupt from webbed fingers, scrape-scraping on the wet-stone floor as it tries to gain purchase. Briefly, he glimpses a pulsating opening where her cunt would be, were she a woman, and tries not to puke again. As he takes this nightmare in, watching now the slow opening and closing of the gills in its neck, Ragnar can already feel his guts spilling from his body. Wonders if his next breath will be his last.
With effort, she hauls herself out of the salmon’s hall and slithers out onto unfamiliar land, watching as her prize scrabbles away. Why does it try to escape her? Bara-rida is considered a rare beauty among her kin-kind, sought after by many suitors, and has rejected them all. No spawning for her; her mind has been fixed on this sword-blade’s messenger, this tree of gold. Awkward on land, she propels herself toward it on her arms, and approaches, dragging her tail behind her. Reaches out a four-knived hand and clasps it around its wrist.
When he feels its touch, cold and hard-scaled, he thinks he’ll faint. Strong, he realises as he struggles to remove its grasp, this thing has more power than he, weak and enfeebled as he is. With its bile-yellow eyes, it stares at him, bares white fangs, the likes of which he’s only ever seen on the great sickle-sailed sea-fish his people sometimes catch, and snake-like, it susurrates air from its mouth. Its exhalations carry the stink of rotting sea-water, decaying fish and death. Ragnar prays that death will be quick. Closes his eyes. Waits. But the bite doesn’t come.
Warm, its soft body-covering. Warm and soft with skin-fur. Bara-rida, who has never felt the casing of a land-walker before, hisses softly. Brings her mouth down to a pale five-branched arm-appendage, extrudes a long black tongue and runs it upward, tracing a rapidly beating blood-river. Salt. It tastes of salt, familiar and beloved. Bara-rida hears the sound of its breath, panting in the sea-hall, echoing off its walls, and more salt floods her mouth. The water comes hot from its skin, and with it a rapid increase of the beat of its heart. Bara-rida feels something swell inside her, and names it desire.
At the touch of her tongue, Ragnar hitches in a breath and howls. He howls like the wolves howl outside his village at night. Louder. Ululations rip from his throat, and he writhes in his desperation to get away from this monstrous female. His legs twist beneath him, bones grating against each other, and agonised, he howls louder, feels warmth run from the wounds, knows he is bleeding again. But his mind refuses him the blessed unconsciousness he seeks, and now, he wonders if his death will not be the quick release he wished for, but one slow and lingering. A coward’s death. Please, not a coward’s death, he prays, howling louder. Let me fight and send me quickly to the gods’ house, the storm-shrine of glory. Let me be a man one last time.
Why is it making that noise? Is it from pleasure? Pain? Bara-rida of the Silent Ones, has never heard its like, and the desire to spawn, fresh and new and strong, explodes inside her, races through her, a roaring ocean-swell. Gripping her prize tighter in her excitement, she presses a clawed hand hard against the slender column that supports its head, and pushes its body back against the cave’s wall, balancing herself on her tail. Looking into its face, she sees a blaze of blue-stones that burns her, and now she understands, for she has seen that expression before, in the catch-wounded ones of her own kind, of opened lung-cages, of guts spilling out into the birth-fluid of Mother Sea.
On him. She is on him, and he cannot move. Constant pain in his legs evokes a continual stream of screams from his mouth, and his sight is failing from blood loss. Dying now. He knows he is dying and no longer fights it. Thoughts of glory desert him, and his mind conjures more images of his homeland to comfort him. Wrong. He was wrong. The stench of decay becomes the scent of woodfire and wild flowers, and this is no monster reaching for him. Tearing at him. This is Kara, ripe and swollen and beautiful, opening her arms, beckoning him, touching him. Making him hard despite the pain of his shattered legs and his slow-pierced throat. And he’s in her and she’s hot… and she’s cold… and he’s moving in an ice cavern lined with knives… and it’s agony… and when he bursts inside her he feels himself ripped to shreds… and the screams become whimpers. And now silence. And now darkness. And now. Nothing.
Bara-rida feels warmth flood inside her for the first time in her life, feels pleasure flood inside her, and her spawn-sacs burst open, releasing eggs to meet the deposit it has left. She tastes its corpse-sea in her mouth, and chews the gobbets of meat she tore away in her frenzy. Swallows, savours the taste. In her grip, it hangs useless, and she knows that now it has become fish-food. Another strange emotion pervades her mind, her soulless form. It makes the chambers of her heart heavy, painful, and she cannot name it, for she has no words. But it lasts only a moment. Then she adjusts her prey in her arms, crawls to the edge of the sea-pool and splashes into the water. As she descends into the depths with her catch, a gift to her kin-kind, a wound-wave of red trails above them, before it dissipates into nothingness. She wonders what its seed will grow inside her, and knows that that will be the best gift of all.