Awkward and slippery-slow, thus is the progress of the toad. From the tiny fresh-water pond that some quirk of nature has placed in the middle of the coastal marshlands. Across the sometimes sandy, sometimes muddy ground. Underneath a lonesome, thorny bush and through a crevice, then down, deep down, through the steep tunnel. Down into her cave.
Old and bloated she lies, halfway buried in mud. Her hair is tangled and crusty, her hands are gnarled and tipped with yellowed claws, her breasts are huge and dangle down her sides.
She watches through slit eyes as the toad drags itself across the muddy cave floor, clambering over the yellowed old bones and past the shards of broken bottles. Watches as it climbs up her tail, nearly sliding off more than once, dragging its soft belly over rough scales and soft patches of fungal infection, making its way up between her breasts and over her chin. Clambering up to her mouth.
Slowly, a hand rises, a finger gently strokes just so. Lips part and a tongue slides out, sliding around the toad. Then her eyes close and her head falls back with a moan.
In her cave beneath the waves, the sea witch dreams her toad dreams.
Her mother had legs, in the manner of all dryfolk women. It had made her a clumsy swimmer, slow and graceless to such a degree that she preferred walking along the bottom of the sea, trailing a cloud of whirled-up mud.
They lived on the outskirts, mother and father and their shoal of children. The daughters were pretty things with pearly-white skin and glittering tails. They could swim like dancers through the water, plucking fish like ripe fruit when they were hungry and laughing at the young mermen who gathered to court the oldest and fairest despite the disapproval of their families, who had no desire to form bonds with a halfway family.
The sons were not pretty. As awkward as their mother, they grew up lean and hungry, digging through the mud for clams and snails and chipping their blunt teeth on the hard shells. The eldest went to court the sisters of his sister's suitors, but returned home covered in bite marks and tail-shaped bruises, for mermaids are cruel beasts.
It did not surprise her when her mother left. It did surprise her that it surprised everybody else.
The cave is dank. Wet. Drops of water are constantly drip, drip, dripping down, slithering their way into the dark depths of the salt-lake that connects the cave with the sea.
She doesn't turn her head at the sudden sound of the surface being broken. She doesn't need to. Doesn't need to see the young mermaid, lithe and pretty, all sharp smiles and gleaming scales, who has intruded on her domain. Doesn't need to see to know she looks around, nervously, blinking at the dancing lights reflected from the hundreds of glass bottles in the cave. Doesn't need to see how she swims to the water's edge and drags herself out of it, her eyes for a moment more full of distaste than fear as her scales slide over the mud.
Then and only then does she open her eyes, turn her head and see her - and seeing her she knows her. And smiles.
Her father was the seventh son of a seventh daughter and a seventh son. He was a knower of the storms and a teller of fortunes, a merman who could sing the whales to sleep or dance the maelstrom into being. A true scion of Ægir and Ran, that was her father.
Before her mother left, he would fill the nights with stories - tales of the proud and wild merfolk of old, sons and daughters of the storms, wreckers, drowners, lovers - givers and takers of lives. Sometimes, just sometimes, he would tell the tale of a young merman who saw a pretty dryfolk girl walking on a beach. It was a tale of song and seduction, of the weaving and casting of a siren spell to lure and bind.
After her mother left the stories changed. Gone was the wild laughter and the crashing waves. Now he told of grief and loneliness, of thoughtless, thankless sailors and the traitorous ways of the fishermen with their nets and spears. Again and again, he sang the Lament of Calypso, oldest and saddest of songs.
"Never fall in love with a human," he told her. "They'll always break your heart."
"You have fallen in love with a dryfolk man."
"And now you want to join him."
"You want legs."
"And the parts that dryfolk women hide between their legs."
"I can give you that."
"Of course, there is a price."
"Just a kiss from a little mermaid."
Three sisters rose to the surface and later returned with wondrous tales. Three brothers rose to the surface and never did.
She was fifteen, fair and fine as only a mermaid can be. Her sisters wove strands of pearls and amber in her hair and wondered why the thought of sun and moon and stars did not excite her.
She rose and broke the surface and it looked as she had always known it would - moon and stars gleaming high above. She drew a deep breath and started singing. Clouds came, attended by howling wind and crushing waves - and a ship, broken mast, broken rudder, broken stern.
Like and unlike her brothers he looked, the youth who fell overboard, fighting to stay above the surface, fighting for every breath. She circled him, closer and closer, studying him, making up her mind.
He started at her first touch, swallowing water and coughing wildly. Then he stared. She smiled and leaned in to kiss him, her teeth sliding into lips as soft as oyster-flesh. He tasted like the sea itself. His hands groped at her, clutching at her breasts and hips.
She laughed and pushed him away, circling him again. He turned in the water, trying in vain to keep her in sight. Then she darted forth, yanking at his clothes, tearing through the wet fabric with her claws, until he was as naked as she. She looked at him, at the hard flesh jutting out in front of him, as vulnerable as if he was a seal or a whale. Then she kissed him again, grabbed him and dived.
At first he kissed her, eagerly, their hands everywhere on one another, his legs wrapped around her. He thrust, again and again and again, almost as if searching for something, rubbing his hard flesh deliciously against her pleasure-spot. Then he started to struggle, but she sank her claws into his soft, soft flesh, her teeth into his shoulder, forcing him to stay, and somehow he kept thrusting against her, her pleasure rising like a wave, even as he spluttered and choked and fought. Her pleasure built and built, until finally it broke, roaring through her and out of her, a cry torn from her lips.
She looked down at the now-still sailor, slowly sinking down to the crabs and the slime eels. Formerly hard flesh now flopped limp and mangled, shredded against sandpaper-rough scales. As she watched, she reached down and touched her still tingling pleasure-spot. Her fingers came back covered in the sailor's red, red blood and his white, white seed. She couldn't resist a taste. Then she smiled.
It was delicious.
The mermaid's lips are timid as they slide against hers. She tangles her old hands in the pretty little thing's hair and parts her own lips to nibble and lick at the youngster's mouth, until the mermaid grows daring, her tongue slipping out to be sucked on and played with.
She untangles one of her hands from the mermaid's hair and reaches down between them to rub it against the girl's pleasure-spot, until the cave is full of moans and whimpers and all caution is thrown to the winds as young arms wrap around old shoulders and a young tongue slides deep into an old mouth.
Then she bites.
She would often swim to the surface during the following years, seeking storms and ships and shipwrecked sailors - and she loved them all. She loved the smooth-chinned youths and the grizzled old salts, the fine officers in the clothes with buttons like glittering scales and the green-faced landlubbers. Far to the north, under a sky that shone like fire, she played for hours with a funny little man wrapped up in dead seals, and in the blood-warm waters of the south she took men as dark as freshly tarred ships.
But eventually she tired of the wider world and its pleasures and turned toward the cooler waters of home. She was only a few days away, swimming close to the surface through shallow water, when she suddenly found herself surrounded by a glittering shoal of herring - and she dived, abruptly knowing what came next, but for once the knowing came too late and the net closed around her.
She was more ungainly on the deck of the fishing boat than her mother had ever been in the sea, flopping and fighting and screaming her fury, calling the storm, but the dryfolk men hit her and bound her in their net and the storm refused to come.
They brought her ashore and threw her over the back of an ass - and thus she was transported through the town, while dryfolk children dared each other to dart forward and rip off one of her scales. She tried to slap them with her tail, but they danced out of the way and laughed.
She was brought before a man dressed in fine clothes, who spoke to her in an imperious tone. Her mother had long ago taught her the dryfolk tongue, but this did not sound like it and she couldn't begin to comprehend it. The man spoke again, to some of his men this time, and they grabbed her and dragged her away.
The room was small and uncomfortably hot. The dryfolk men chained her to a ring in the floor. Then they hurt her. After a while, the man in the fine clothes came and spoke to her in his incomprehensible tongue. Then he left and the pain returned.
The mermaid is back in the lake, as far away from her as possible. There is blood at the corners of her mouth.
"Oh, don't look at me like that. Did you think it was your voice that would catch you your dryfolk man?"
The mermaid glares. She ignores the girl's impotent anger and slides out of the mud, forcing herself not to wince at the pain of old wounds, rummaging through her bottles.
"Those pert breasts of yours, they'll be far finer bait, as you perfectly well know."
Her fingers close around a tiny bottle and she allows herself to slide back into the mud, sighing at its kindness towards old aches. She dangles the bottle over the lake.
"Well? It's all yours, if you still want it."
The mermaid hesitates, then darts forward and grabs the bottle. Then she dives and is gone
At first she counted the days, the light and the darkness falling in through a tiny window. Later she counted the silvery light of the full moons. Later still she measured time by the growth of the beard on the man in the fine clothes. Eventually she gave up even trying.
They hit her and they kicked her. They ripped the claws out of fingers and they broke fingers. They pulled out hair and scraped off scales. They cut into fins and they prodded with hot pokers. Then they got inventive.
From time to time the man in the fine clothes returned to speak - sometimes briefly, sometimes for hours. At times she thought she recognized words, that the meaning was just beyond her grasp, but she never quite caught it - and the man would always leave.
Her tormentors never seemed to tire of their labours. One day one of them looked at her with a strangely familiar look in his eyes. He kissed her and squeezed her breasts, laughing at her squirming. Then he removed his clothes and lay down on top of her, thrusting a couple of times, then got back up, angry and seemingly confused. He poked at her pleasure-spot, apparently not finding what he was looking for. Then he took a knife and carved a hole. She never stopped screaming as he forced his way into the hole where her pleasure-spot had been.
Apparently the hole didn't satisfy. The next day her tormentors held her down and pulled out her teeth, then took turns stuffing their hard flesh down her throat. Weeks later, when the new teeth began to grow in, she derived great pleasure from the screams of her chief tormentor and the taste of his blood. Afterwards they hurt her more, but oh, it had been delicious.
Time passed. Sometimes new men came to torment her. Sometimes she was left alone in the small, dry room for days upon days.
One day a dryfolk woman entered the room. She reminded her of her mother. Perhaps that's why she reached back, back to her childhood and her mother's tongue, and begged: "Help me."
The woman left, but others came. They carried her into another chamber, they bathed her and tended her as best they could. They found a tub somewhere and filled it with warm water. They brought her tiny pieces of fresh fish to eat. For the first time since she was caught in the fishermen's net she had a restful sleep.
The woman returned the next day and, speaking in her mother's tongue, she questioned her. What was she? Where did she come from? Was she a creature of God or the Devil? How come she spoke the tongue of the Englishmen, but not the tongue of the Danes? What witchcraft did she know? Eventually the questions stopped.
"Let me go."
"You are my husband's captive. Unless you can give me something of great value, I cannot go to him and beg him for your life."
"What do you want?"
"Don't you know?"
She looked at the woman and she knew.
"You will not like what I can tell you."
"Nonetheless I will know it."
"And then you will let me go?"
"You have the word of a queen."
"A queen who will give birth to a great king, but who will not live to see the sun rise on his first morn."
The woman looked at her for a long time, then got up and left.
The next day men came for her. They carried her down to a beach and lowered her into the water. She dived and swam - and screamed. Every stroke of her tail was pain, every turn and twist was fire. She was a broken thing, more awkward than even her mother had been, but at least she was back in the sea.
She watches the surface of the lake until the water has settled. Then she throws her head back and laughs, the sound rolling off her lips and echoing against the walls of the cave.
She closes her eyes, savouring the image of the mermaid no longer a mermaid. Behind her eyelids, a sharp obsidian knife is clutched so tightly that blood is dripping from white fingers, the tip hovering over the chest of a young man. In his face she can see the shadows of her long-ago captors.
Not bothering to open her eyes, she raises the lump of bloody flesh in her right hand to her mouth, takes a bite.