Helga had wandered the marshes by herself for as long as she could remember. Her foster-mother, Gudrun, knew better than to worry over her. Instead, she had left a lamp burning at the window of Helga’s room. The last of the sunlight chased Helga’s steps, as she left wet footprints on the stone.
Though she had lived in village for all of her life, she had never felt like she truly fit into her foster-parents’ world. She did not look like anyone else here -- she was small and dark, and though her face was comely, that brought her no great joy. She was always a foreigner, though she had never known another home.
That was one of the reasons she liked to wander the marshes, though it could be dangerous at times, and lonely, always. She seemed to know the secret ways through reeds, and never truly sank in the mire. Often, the marshes would reveal to her lovely things -- a pink shell, swept in from the sea, or the sunlight setting a pool of water alight into gold.
But always Helga returned home, before dark, before the danger.
At the sound of her steps, Ernehale, the English captive that Helga’s Viking father had presented to her on her sixth birthday, stirred from his spot at the door and stood up.
“Hello Helga, have you found what you were looking for?” he asked cheerfully, bowing so low he nearly tipped over. Ernehale had always been small and meek -- the monks had wished to make a little monk out of him, but had never the chance -- but in the last year, he had shot up and up until he seemed to be more a reed than a person.
His hair was flame-red and more often than not, stuck up in spikes around his head when it was not on his face.
It was a pleasant-enough looking face, as faces went, sprinkled with freckles and wide, hazel eyes -- but Ernehale was only only a boy. Only a boy, Helga thought, but perhaps a little more than that as well. As children, they had been very good friends -- Helga did not have many of those -- and she loved him well.
But lately too, that love had become a little more complicated. When Helga was to come of age -- just a few days from now -- she would use some of her dowry to buy Ernehale’s freedom, and she expected him to go back to his own country as soon as he could. That was just the way of it.
When Helga looked at him, she felt a queer clenching in the pit of her stomach, something like guilt and happiness tied together.
“I was not looking for anything,” she said loudly, closing the door behind her with a bang. She could feel the sun set, though she could not see it. It felt as if her body was being crumpled like a leaf under someone’s boot, shrinking in some places and painfully stretching in others. She fell to the ground and stayed there until the transformation was complete.
By day, she was a lovely-looking girl, though a strange and savage one, and at night she reverted back to a toad-like form that was as familiar as her human skin. She felt no different, however, as a human or as a toad. She was always herself -- but.
It was full dark by then. Outside of Helga’s bedroom, she could hear the sounds of the house getting ready for supper, and then bed. Her own supper was laid on a tray on the floor, near the window. Light leaked through the space between the bottom of the door and floor and cut through the dark like a sword. Helga sat crouched down and croaked sadly to herself.
Then, she crawled over to the tray of food and ate.
Helga’s life had always been thus: neatly bisected between day and night, girl and monster. She had asked her mother why this was so, but Gudrun did not know. The storks, she said, running her hand through Helga's hair, had brought her to Gudrun, a tiny babe and yet already so proud and angry.
“You are royalty from a foreign land, I think,” Gudrun had said once, stroking Helga’s black hair. She drew out a necklace that she said had come wrapped around baby Helga's belly and put it around Helga’s neck. It was a simple golden pendant, but there was writing on the back of it. According to a Greek slave who had examined it once, it was carved with the name of the King of Egypt’s daughter, from the blood of Ptolemy.
But then he had laughed and said that princess was long-dead, disappeared one day from the palace, never to be heard from again.
Helga kept the necklace with her at all times, except during the nights. Royalty? A princess? No, she was none of those things. She was cursed! As soon as the sun set, she turned into a toad!
Not an ordinary toad, but one the size of a dog, with mottled flesh and sad, bulging eyes. She had seen her reflection on Gudrun’s bronzed mirror once, and remembered it forever.
Helga had asked Gudrun -- begged, in truth, for an explanation of her transformation, but her mother knew nothing about it. "Some curse is upon you," Gudrun said, touching Helga’s face tentatively. Helga had pushed her away then, but now she curled up into herself and thought sad thoughts that simply did not come to her in the harsh light of day.
What would she do if this went on forever? She felt as if she was trapped there -- she could not go raiding with her father with such a weakness, nor could she have the kind of life the other girls had. (Not, of course, that she wished it.)
But she had suffered this way for sixteen years, but every night was torture to her. She wished that her body would decide once and for all what she was to be. She would rather be a monster every hour of every day than this half-existence.
Outside her window, someone was singing. Helga could hardly hear it, wrapped in the gloomy cocoon that she had made for herself. But she recognized the singer --
It was Ernehale, of course. Ernehale liked to sing -- sing to her, in truth, though none but Helga knew it. She turned her head to listen, to make sense of his words. But again and again, her thoughts intruded. Why should she be here, hiding in the dark like a cowardly thing?
Ernehale’s songs were always the same, of absconding lovers and bold princesses and those who loved them. They stirred her heart, but stayed her legs. She knew it was not time to go -- not yet.
But one day, it would be. One day. She thought, one day, I'm going to burst through that door and they'll have to accept me.
Girl or monster, or both.
The sun hung high over their heads on the day of Helga’s coming of age. Ernehale’s freedom had been bought and paid for, and now he was free to go. Although a crowd of people had followed Helga and Ernehale some ways out of the village, soon all had fallen away.
A cloud of midges descended upon them. Ernehale groaned as another one bit him. Helga waved them off distractedly. Midges never seemed to bother her at all.
“Ouch,” Ernehale said, slapping his neck. “These flies are of the devil!”
“If you agitate them so, of course they'll bite you,” Helga said, turning and giving him a superior look. Ernehale’s face turned as red as his hair, and he opened his mouth to speak when Helga saw something at the corner of her eyes.
“There!” She pointed to a stone, sticking out of the marshy ground. It was the carved figure of a man, more or less, although the bulging eyes and wide, frowning mouth gave him a decidedly amphibious look. “I've heard that if you follow the stones, you’ll find your way out of the marshes.”
“Or deeper into it,” Ernehale said, going over to the statue and squatting down to take a better look at it. “I don't trust this Marsh-King at all.”
Helga folded up her hands against her chest. “You haven't a choice. You're going away and you haven't a boat.”
“Come with me,” Ernehale said, as he often did, and sprang up again. He moved too fast on the uncertain ground, however, and banged his shin hard against the stone. He howled in pain and Helga laughed, exasperated.
“You know I can't,” she said, between giggles. Ernehale glared at her, rubbing at his shin. More somberly, Helga said, “I would like to go. I would have liked to go with my foster-father out to the wider world --”
“The wider world trembles at the very thought, Princess,” Ernehale said drily. He called her that sometimes, for he had heard Gudrun say the same. He had laughed then, but seemed to take it seriously enough, though Helga always pointed out that there was no evidence of her royal blood but a little necklace any brigand could have.
“But you know of my -- condition,” Helga frowned, balling up her fists. “I can't hide in a ship, nor in a foreign land.”
“I know you cannot leave your room, but perhaps if you --” Ernehale looked uncertain, miserably so.
“So, go if you must!” Helga said loudly. “I will not stop you!”
“Perhaps you should stop hiding,” Ernehale said, as she turned to go back home. He followed her steps, touched her shoulder a moment before she growled. “Anyway, I will not go before you do.”
“You are foolish, then,” was Helga’s only reply.
“A fool indeed,” Ernehale agreed cheerfully.
They went home, though the sun still shone in the sky.
Early that spring, Gudrun fell sick. Her husband was still at sea, and so was most of the household. Helga watched as her foster-mother, who had always seemed so tall and strong, now seemed to shrink within herself, day by day. Helga tried her best to be still, to help the healers with their work. She was wiping her mother’s brow, when Gudrun stirred in her sleep and opened her eyes.
“Helga,” Gudrun whispered.
“I'm here,” said Helga, blinking fiercely so she would not cry. She scowled instead, even when Gudrun placed a thin hand on her face.
“I was so happy to have you, my child,” Gudrun said. “I thought you must have been a gift from the gods, when I saw you on the ground in your little reed basket. The stork had brought you to me, you know.”
“Ah, Mother --”
“I brought you home and could not wait to show you to the world, so pretty and sweet you seemed -- though soon you woke and scratched my hand like cat! But I loved you already. I fell asleep beside you, I could not let you go so far as the cradle my husband had made for our firstborn, who had died so long ago.”
“Mother, I know,” said Helga, leaning in.
“That night I woke, and you were gone. How frightened I was! I thought perhaps I had rolled on top of you and crushed you, I thought -- but then I saw the blanket that held you was not wholly empty. Instead there was toad, enormous and hideous, where my baby should be! I thought to dash it against the floor, kill it dead but --” Gudrun sighed. “I realized that your eyes hadn't changed.”
“I frightened you,” Helga said, her voice shaking a little. “Perhaps you should have--”
“No,” Gudrun said firmly, “I am not sorry for it. You have given me such joy, Helga. No matter what form you took. My little girl.”
Helga stood up and bent down and carefully kissed Gudrun’s forehead. She straightened then and walked to the door.
“Where are you going?” Gudrun asked her.
“A sickroom is dull for me,” Helga said, her voice loud and carrying. She knew the healers heard. “I must go now, but I will return. Soon.”
She was in the middle of packing when Ernehale came to her room, his arms still filled with sheets for the bed.
“Where are you going? What are you doing?”
“I am going to find the plant -- the flower that heals the sick. You've heard the stories, I suppose.”
“Yes,” Ernehale said, putting his burden on the bed. “We don't know that it's real, you know.”
“I haven't any choice,” Helga said, swinging her pack over her shoulder.
“All right,” Ernehale said. “Though I will need time to pack.”
“What do you mean? You're not going with me!”
“Of course I am,” Ernehale said. “Haven't I said that when you go, you'll have me with you?”
Helga sighed. She felt tired already and did not feel ready to argue. “All right, but if you should die or fall into the mud and get stuck, I will not rescue you.”
“And you must promise to follow my steps and listen to me, always.”
“I will,” Ernehale said, and impulsively, he stepped forward, wrapped his arms around her her and kissed her. For a moment, Helga wanted to kiss him back, to forget for a moment that her mother was dying and she had only a slender thread of hope of saving her.
But she was still stiff and cold in his arms, and, acidly, “This ought to wait, don’t you think?”
Ernehale blushed and nodded. “Yes. Right. Of course.”
They started off at the break of dawn -- Helga had wished to start at night, but realized quickly that she would not make much time in her other form -- and soon left behind the part of the marshes they had known for all their lives. The statue of the Marsh King stared at them as they tramped past, and beyond it was his kingdom.
At first, it was not an unpleasant journey. Helga knew well enough what patch of ground was safe to walk upon, and Ernehale kept his word and stayed behind her. In difficult terrain, they held hands and went forward carefully.
The family of storks that lived in the marsh, newly returned from their sojourn from southern lands, followed them at times, and at others, flew ahead of them. The marsh itself was quiet -- except for the flapping of storks’ wings -- and felt watchful, as if the land itself was waiting for something to happen. Not even the frogs and toads, deep into their mating season, made a sound.
Around noon, they broke their fast with bread and dried fish. Ernehale offered a fish to a young stork that was lurking above him -- it snatched it from his hand and swallowed it in one gulp. The storks stuck close to him after that.
They saw another idol of the Marsh-King on their journey, and then, half-a-day later, another.
They walked on. Helga felt sure she knew the way, although she could not quite tell why. It seemed that a path was opening up for them, narrow but there, where she was almost certain no path had been there before.
Soon, the sun began to sink beyond the horizon. Helga took a deep breath, and then two. She put her pack down on the ground and took off her jacket and belt.
“What are you doing?” Ernehale asked suspiciously, as he bent down and picked up her pack.
Helga shook her head.
“Stay here,” she said, “the rest I’ll have to do myself.”
“I’ll be here,” Ernehale said, his knuckles showing white against the rope of his pack. He looked so resigned that she wanted to kiss him, to reassure him that it would be all right. But she had no such reassurance to give him, so she only touched his shoulder for a moment. He leaned into her touch for a moment before she moved away.
As the sun sank below the horizon, Helga felt the transformation take hold. For the first time, she felt no pain, however. Her skin rippled around her and stretched around her, dry and bumpy. Her legs lengthened and her eyes grew as large as dinner-plates. Finally she dropped down, no longer a girl but a toad.
She heard Ernehale gasp as she dropped into the water. She turned to look at him, his face white and his eyes wide. Would he look away in disgust? Would he run away. But Ernehale was still.
“Can you understand me?” he called out.
“Yes,” Helga said.
“Helga --” he swallowed loudly. “Be careful!”
But she had no time to reply, and there was no time to think of that, nor to worry if he would still be there when she came back.
Instead, she sank down, down into the murky water, to where it was dark and still.
Not so still, perhaps, for she had not gone long when something grabbed her and pulled her down.
And suddenly she was in a large hall and standing with her own two feet. The hall was lit fitfully by rushlights; green filtered through the air. She was not underwater, not anymore, but in some other place. The hall was laid out much like the the one at home, though grander, in a dank and gloomy way. At the end of the hall was a platform, and upon it were two thrones.
They were occupied by two people who could not have been more different than each other. On the right sat a broad and squat figure, whose face seemed as if carved from stone. His face and clothes were the same color and texture -- mottled grey, green and his eyes were flat, black pebbles pressed against the moss of his skin. He wore a crown made of reeds and thorns, white and black.
Beside him sat a tall woman, long and languid, her skin brown (though in the greenish light, it seemed grey as well) and her hair black and braided into ropes around her neck. She seemed to be wearing a dress made of white swan feathers, and she looked at Helga with barely hidden longing in her eyes.
Neither spoke when Helga approached the throne. Helga took a sharp breath and then two. She had to control her fear; she could not show it to these two strange creatures who looked at her as if they knew her.
She bobbed up and down and said, “O Marsh King, I come to beg from you a boon.”
But the Marsh King was silent as stone. Instead, the Queen spoke. “Approach the throne, child.”
Somewhat hesitantly, Helga mounted the steps and stood in front of the Queen, who rose to greet her. They were nearly of the same height, could in fact see eye to eye. She cupped Helga's face in her hands and looked at her intently. She touched the pendant that was around Helga’s neck and smiled faintly.
“I think I know what you seek,” the Queen said softly. “But that comes at a price, you know.”
“What is the price?” Helga asked, though she thought she knew.
“A sacrifice for a sacrifice, blood for blood,” said the low, tumbling voice of the Marsh King. He blinked his large eyes and they glowed yellow in the murky light. In their depths, Helga could see a huddled figure among the reeds, a tuft of red hair escaping from his head. Ernehale lifted his head, as if he caught sight of something, when a pair of hands caught his hair and his neck, and a thin line of red appeared across his throat.
“That is not real,” Helga said with gritted teeth.
“It could be,” the Marsh King said, with a an indifferent flick of his long, red tongue.
Helga hesitated for a moment before she pulled out the knife she always kept tucked in her pocket. But she remembered too late that her tunic was on the surface, and besides, the Queen held her fast, her grip unbreakable.
“Remember, my lord, your promise,” she said aloud.
There was a long silence then, the King and Queen absorbed in their own silent battle of wills, while Helga watched awkwardly. The King rose from his seat and approached them. Behind him, Helga saw a glimmer of light, a forgotten glow of sunshine in this gloomy place.
There was a flower, Helga realized, tucked behind the Marsh King’s throne.
“Have I not let this child go when you asked? What more could you wish for?” The Marsh King began to circle the Queen, who held still, her arms crossed over her chest. Helga, carefully, began to inch toward the flower.
“You know that is not all I have wished for, my lord,” the Queen sighed, lifting her hand to her brow. She turned away from them, taking several quick steps toward the flower.
“Perhaps you asked too much,” the Marsh King offered.
Feeling that the lull was at an end, Helga reached out and grabbed the stem of the flower and pulled as hard as she could. It held for a moment, as strong as a rope, before it gave away. The Marsh King rounded at her with a shout, but the Queen held him off for a moment.
“You do not know what you do,” he said to Helga coldly, after a moment. “Take this and go, that is your patrimony. You shall not come back again.”
“I accept it, then. I have no wish to be the Marsh King’s daughter,” Helga said, tucking the flower into her shirt.
“Then go and be mine,” said the Queen, and embraced her swiftly. She whispered into Helga’s ear, “Use half to cure the Lady Gudrun, and then please go to my father and use the other half for him; they will know you as my daughter by your amulet. I came here to save him.”
“What about you?” Helga whispered back.
The Queen smiled and kissed her cheek and let her go. “I would be free then, my dearest one, thanks to you.”
Helga pulled back and it seemed as if the hall disintegrated around her. She was back in the dark and the muck, fighting her way to the surface. She burst through with a gasp and saw that the sky above her was grey, with faint washes of gold in the east.
Desperately tired now, she made her way slowly to what seemed like solid ground. There were clothes scattered around -- to her surprise, she saw that they were her own. Further along was a larger mound of clothes, Ernehale. Her heart in her throat, Helga crawled to him. He was still; what she could see of his face was blank and closed off.
But the moment she touched his face, he stirred and then opened his eyes wide. “Helga!” he said, almost breathlessly. “I dreamt that you-- you’re shivering. Come on.” He lifted up his cloak to make room for her. Helga crawled under his cloak and lay still. She was still clutching tightly on to the flower, but felt Ernehale touch her face carefully in the dark.
“I thought I had lost you forever,” Ernehale said quietly, “you have been gone for almost three days.”
Helga tried to rouse herself at that. “That is impossible, surely?”
“Is it? Where did you go, Helga?”
She pulled him down so that they were curled around each other, skin on skin. “In the halls of the Marsh King, who is my father.” She looked at him, suddenly sly. “Are you surprised?”
Ernehale coughed. “Not as such, no.”
Helga had more to say -- she had so much more to say that her head didn’t feel as if it could hold all that she could say -- but her exhaustion seemed to catch her suddenly now, and she fell asleep suddenly, completely, with Ernehale still stroking her hair.
A few hours later, she woke to the feeling of warmth on her face. She looked up and saw that the sun was already high in the sky, and she was still wrapped up in Ernehale’s cloak, though Ernehale himself was nowhere to be seen.
Her clothes were gathered into a pile near her, and Helga dressed in haste. She cast around for her pack when she heard a shout. Ernehale was there again, with a line of fish. They made a small fire and cooked the fish, Helga’s prize tucked into her tunic.
Soon, however, they were off, crossing the marshy landscape as quickly as they dared. Helga could feel Ernehale’s eyes upon her as they walked and finally, she could not stand it any longer.
She turned to him and asked, “What is it?”
“Nothing of importance.”
“Not nothing. You're looking at me.”
“I -- well, I am. You've come out of the marsh a changed woman.”
Helga reached instinctively for her hair, her face. It felt normal -- normal for the day-time, at any rate. She was covered in dirt -- “I am covered in dirt.”
“Not that,” Ernehale said, cleared his throat. “Your skin, Princess, is a very lovely green color.”
Helga stopped for a moment and considered it. She patted the front of her shirt. “Well! The Marsh King lied, then, about this being my only patrimony. The skin is also a gift of his.”
“It is a lovely green,” Ernehale muttered, almost to himself, as they trudged along.
Gudrun’s life was hanging by a thread by the time they reached home. Helga shoved the flower into the healer’s hand and watched anxiously as he turned it over curiously. The color of the flower, once so vibrant and sun-like, had faded much. The petals seemed to have retreated to the edges and the dark brown stamen seemed to be drying quickly.
The healers cut into the stamen and took out the seeds, mashed them and fed Gudrun the mash. Gudrun did not seem improve for some time -- but she also did not die.
And in time, she did recover, to Helga’s joy.
A cool wind came in from the sea, ruffled their hair and plucked at their cloaks. Helga watched as the supplies were loaded onto the ship, and the small crowd of people who had volunteered to come with her on her journey to Egypt.
What was left of the magic flower was tied around her neck, next to the amulet. Helga covered it with her hand and looked down. If she were a more pious girl, she would have prayed, perhaps. A stork landed on a beam over her head and squawked at her.
“Helga!” Ernehale shouted, across the shipyard. She spotted him and waved. He came over to her and embraced her quickly. Someone hooted at him from the back, but he only grinned.
For the first time in a long, long time, Helga leaned in and kissed him. It felt right and felt good. She could have kissed him forever.
“Is this what you wanted?” she asked him, as they separated from each other. “When you said that you wanted to run away?”
“This is better than what I could have wished for,” said Ernehale earnestly.
Helga laughed, for it was true for her as well.