I was born to the marsh with a memory of silver, acute as fear and soft as peat on my tongue.
When my eyes opened, they fell upon the most beautiful woman I had ever seen: the leeches, pale white, had adorned her brow and hip, a soft crown. Her marbling, the color of bloodroot and oleander, was bare to the yellow sky, not an ounce of her glowworm skin untouched. A tapestry of a hundred diamond mouths brocaded the length of her honeydew limbs.
All sang a crooning dirge.
I was no bigger than a marigold then, smaller even than any of her glorious mouths.
‘Heed me, daughter,’ she wrote in short lines, dabbing her clawed finger in her own blood, stroking out sigils across her palm. I was born knowing the language of leeches and so I read them easily, as easy as if they were my own thoughts made rune.
A line of characters of her heart: ‘I’m sorry that I cannot give you a new fate.’ Across the length of her collarbone: ‘Know this: we are cursed. They will make you sing. Fight them, if it pleases you. Eat their horses. Break their armor. Shatter their swords.’ Across her forearms, with urgent curling stripes: ‘But know, eventually, they will open up a mouth for you to sing from. And you will hate and love them for it.’
I was a babe then. Less than a babe — a maggot. I could not comprehend her warning, and so I lay on her flayed cheek and listened to her hum, hum until she sank below the river.
It swallowed her up like a kiss.
It took only a single night for me to grow to my mother’s stature, roped in muscle, a crown of hair as thick as a bramble. From sunrise to sunset, I dined on spearwort and frogs, milkweed and crane. Moth wings and cattails fell from my voracious lips like raindrops. Now the river was motionless, still as birth as it observed my growth like a profane weed. I settled into an engorged stupor in the chilled, wet meadow, content with only the moon as my witness.
A time passed, or none at all, when I felt something lean in as if to kiss me awake. I opened my eyes to the yellow morning and found a silhouette dominating my sight.
“Monger of carrion crows. Seer of offal. You gave my father, the King of Red Tides, his prognostication. It is my turn to cut a prophecy from you. Surrender yourself!”
The prince’s body bulged in his armour, the steel chainmail straining against his gut. When he drew his sword, an object I had never seen until that moment, the silver made my mouth water. The fanged ring of my mouth parted in a nauseous hunger.
He sliced me across the chest before I realized my own instinct had meant me to lunge for his throat.
The open wound screamed a song into the air. It was louder than anything within leagues of the marsh. The prince’s eardrums bled with the force of it.
I don’t remember the song, the words of my divination. I can never hear them through the pain of the silver edge, the glory of the melody.
This was my mother’s warning made manifest.
This was my first prophecy.
The first prince I made king.
I spent the next evenings trying to force my first mouth to sing, to speak, to say anything. It was not human, this first mouth of mine. It was a bear trap of teeth, an endless spiral of ivory barbs that disappeared down my throat. I tried to sing like my wound had, now my second mouth. I could wheeze a ghost of a scream at most, but I fainted if I attempted it more than once. A hum came easily, but it was nothing close to the song from my prince-given maw.
I examined my new mouth, the second, just below my collarbone. It was also ringed with teeth like mine, but a tongue lolled from it every so often. I prodded it, pulled apart its jaws. It huffed, bit, snapped shut at my goading.
I could not make it sing.
In my frustration, I turned a copse of alders into splinters, bit the wings off a tern. In this way, I forced my own strain of music into the world.
The next few princes who braved my marsh didn’t last long enough to draw their swords. On a good day, I left bloodstains on the sycamores.
Word traveled quickly of my predatory intent, and the next prince brought a retinue and snared me in a silver net. That night, I slept where I had collapsed, my new mouth raw from all its singing. I couldn’t move and so drank from the mosquitoes that swarmed me.
Four mouths breathed from my body now. One on my left arm, one below my collarbone, one on my right hip, and the last resting on the point of my shoulder blade. I glared at them, at their silence for me. Every oracular ode the princes ripped from me, I strained to listen to. It was not easy through the agony of their silver weapons and snares, the sensation of burning down from skin to bone a distraction I could not ignore. I longed to sing something of my own, to emit the smallest quaver of sound. I even went as far as to slice my belly open with my sharpest claw.
But no song emerged from the wound.
I needed a prince or a whelp with a knighthood vying for the role.
Or perhaps, I thought, just his silver.
I became manic with yearning and abhorrence. The next prince came, and I cut him down with my claws before he could utter his imperial motives. Royal marrow clung to my hair, clotted on my cheeks and hands. I crawled where the knight had fallen, licked the mud where his sweat had spilled, where his blood had been spent.
I took the prince’s silver sword, shivering with vengeful euphoria.
Finally, finally, I would sing a song for myself.
I drew the blade across my wrist.
I wailed, a sound like lighting-cracked wood and strangled herons. A songless, uncontrolled sound. I buried myself in the stench of the princes’ corpse, face in my cupped hands. I imprinted the revolting human smell in my mind. I let my hatred steep in my mouth, brewing it in my saliva like a tonic.
These were the ones who my mother had warned of: the despicable sons of kings.
Why couldn’t it have been different, I wondered.
I knew of other oracles and how their homes were not made abattoir by their petitioners. I knew the dragon chiefess in the west lived in luxury in an aquatic pavilion made of opal. I knew the owl crone in the north had elk meat and coyote pelts brought to her every new moon. I knew the coven of fox hags in the south were offered children to raise up in their semblance every other year.
So, why? Why was the path to my marsh not lined with votive statues of my likeness? Why were supplicatory offerings not placed at my feet? Where was my altar piled with leather purses filled with gold, with bejeweled amulets and hunks of dugong meat? Why were prayer fortunes not left on my shrines, asking me for some small kindness? Where were my alder effigies, my mother’s mythical burial ground filled with funeral caryatids?
If only I had been marble and obsidian instead of leech.
A sanctuary for coveted prophecies and divine song.
If only I was worthy of enshrinement.
Dark sheets of winter rain spilled over into spring. The evenings came late and the knights even later.
I scented one on the wind, their smell diluted, like a drop of blood in a puddle of water. They smelled like brimstone and berries, smoke and copper.
I saw the plume of their helmet, a pair of charred feathers flashing in the yellow of the day. Their lamellar armor was gold soured ancient green, smeared with ash. It hung loosely from the knight’s frame. They were gaunt, maybe even ill. I slithered forward in the water, crocodilian. The knight removed their helmet in a single fluid motion. Ropes of coiled sable hair dropped from the helmet, their amber skin smudged from battle. The cicatrix mark of a firstborn sat delicately on their brow like a heron, a modest arabesque.
I hummed a growl in my throat, sniffed the air for silver… and found none. I wrinkled my brow; I wouldn’t take any chances.
I burst out of the water to meet them, all my hundreds of spiraling teeth bared.
The knight’s helmet dropped to the water as they knelt, ungloved hands held out cupped and supplicant.
“Please, my lady…. I beg you…” I looked from the knight’s open hands to their battleworn face. My towering body threw a shadow over the gold breastplate, divided the knight down the middle.
“Make me queen.”
His voice was a gently rung bell, unusually delicate.
Queen. Her. A daughter of men.
Her gaze unfocused and her eyes rolled back. She fell to the river with a heavy splash.
I was shocked still. Not a ripple stirred in my wake.
I had never made a queen.
The rain came and I stripped the knight, searching for her hidden silver blade.
A bandage hid the entirety of her torso, moist with pus and blood. She held no silver, only ichor and lymph. I left her naked in the storm, let the rain wash her until she smelt of nothing but fresh wet earth. She didn’t wake when I dragged her to my den, scrubbed out her wounds with fresh sand, and wrapped her in alligator skins. I watched her through the night, listened to her mutter archaic prayers in her sleep and thrash in the darkness of my burrow.
With my black spruce and goldenrods, I stood vigil through the next two nights. I couldn’t bring myself to leave her side, this strange unarmed woman, both princess and knight.
So I slept.
I had never thought to sleep before, had no need of it, but I played at it until it came upon me like a tide.
In my dreams, mother was alive. Knights were all around her like hungry dogs, circling and snapping with silver teeth and claws. I was crying. They turned on me then and I was suddenly half-sick with the thrill that came from opening under their blades, half-elated as songs came bursting out of me like a choir. I held on to each knight piercing me, gathering them to my chest like a bouquet. They slashed at me, desperate to escape my claws and my hymns, but I couldn’t bring myself to let them go. I felt myself being fragmented into a million pieces and then I felt nothing except the vibrato of my voices, all hundred, all thousand of them, numerous as stars….
My luminant eyes snapped open and the red of them must have startled the knight— No, the princess. She flinched backwards, clutching the ragged quilt of alligator skins to her like a shield. I tore it away from her, smoothed it flat to the ground between us. I dug my finger into the black mud at the mouth of my den, smeared rough human letters across the scaled hide like parchment.
“You… write,” the princess rasped, leaning closer to the skin, to my marks. “But you don’t speak?”
‘Why are you here?’ My finger whipped the question out onto the scales impatiently. She peered at it, body still tense in my presence as was appropriate for someone so slight, so fully composed of prey. She sat back again, bowed her head and opened her palms upwards as she had done before.
“Lady of the Leeches, I come to beseech, to bargain, or to beg. I would be queen with your appointment. Your song, your blessing, is the only thing my people will honor.”
I pause. ‘I have never made a queen before.’
“But you could,” she said, gaze flitting from my words to my eyes.
I sneered, scratched black into the green. ‘Why did you not just cut me then?’
The woman paused, her hands dropping slightly to her lap. “I require more than just your song. My brother is on his way here. He is… a regicide. He wishes to rule and to have none to challenge him.” The woman’s open hands crinkled into grief-hardened fists. “I tried to duel him but his mutinous horde was too much for me alone to overcome.” A tear beaded on her lashes and slipped down her cheek.
Her silent whimpers irritated me. ‘Why should I help you?’
“You asked why I did not just cut you? Tear a prophecy from your skin?” She leveled a bold gaze at me, a hint of a predator in the rigidity of her shoulders.
“Help me and no one will ever touch you again without your consent. You will sing only when you deign to, bleed only when it serves your will. Please, my lady, he is not fit to rule the scum in the sewers. He’s…. He’s a monster.”
‘So am I.’
The woman bit her lip, eyes slipping to the ground, chastened. “No. No, I’ve heard stories of you, ever since I was young. I snuck into our archives to read the recordings of the kings’ encounters with you. For centuries, my ancestors have taken and taken from you, thankless princes claiming their kingship. Not one has asked.”
‘Monsters have no use for questions.’
“And that is why I’m asking.”
A buzz surrounded us.
A legion of dragonflies darted into my hut, circled, and alerted me of an advancing horde. A prince. Her brother’s bannerets. I snarled, riled that I had let them get beyond my borders unnoticed.
“He’s here, isn’t he? Damn it all….” The princess made to stand but buckled under the pain of her still-healing wound.
I snorted at her and disappeared into the mud as if it was as permeable as air. I resurfaced in the red of my marsh before the pack of king-killing intruders. The retinue was large but not the largest I had faced.
What I hadn’t ever observed before was a cage.
A silver cage.
“Parasite seer, queen of decay! I ask you, offer me your body, that I might be sung to kinghood. Offer me your body willingly, that I might lock it away peacefully and reign eternal.” The prince’s voice was sneering and the stink of arrogance rolled off him, heavy as skunk spray.
“Offer it willingly,” he hissed, “and I won’t crate you up in half-alive pieces.”
The prince and his ten knights were outfitted entirely in silver armor. My claws lengthened uncontrollably in response, the reek of silver in the air drawing out my own reflexive, infuriated terror. I snarled with my leeches’ mouth, braced myself to sprint. The prince smiled wickedly, patted his knight’s mailed shoulder as if he was a fine and loyal dog.
“I see you do not offer willingly. A shame. Then I will simply take.”
I circled them, alligator-slow. The two lead knights were massive, towering over me like oaks to a lily. I could smell the pestilence of alchemy on them. Hidden under their armor, their bodies were gnarled knots of bone and swollen muscle, their blood bloated with empowering elixirs.
They lurched inhumanly at me, their unnatural speeds giving them all afterimages, ghosts on their tail. I dodged them with a hiss, less graceful now that I knew they could match my swiftness. Still, their pained, malformed bodies stabbed a needle of pity through me — pity for the burnt shells of their mind and the venom that flowed through their veins.
But they had come for a reason and pity would not save them.
My claws flew through their silver plates and my hands felt as if they were instantly set aflame. I bit into the open joints of their armor, pulverized them with the black of my fangs. I tore through the soft folders of their throat, delicate as moss. I took down one after the other, a vibrating dark heat spreading over every inch of my boiling skin that touched silver. I swallowed down limb after limb as if it was the easiest thing in the world. I started to choke on the silver then, my eyes swelling in their sockets.
The prince stood crooked in my vision.
The cage beyond him wavered as if underwater. I batted away the swords, slunk into the deep of the river. The knights moved closer, unafraid of leaving the shallows. My maws opened all at once and took them under, jagged teeth deep in their thick breastplates. I resurfaced, drenched in mud and blood.
Something looped around my throat once, twice, and a third time.
I hissed as I was yanked forward and back, choking and subdued, the silver chains chewing into me ravenously. The remaining knights shackled me, wrist to ankle. Sweet pink daylight mocked me. A stretch of marsh away, the princess hid in a thicket of wildrye, gritting her teeth.
The scent of her vengeance found me even there, buried under the stink of my defeat.
It had been three nights of travel, the prince leading at the fore and myself carried behind him in the cage by his horde of alchemic knights. Three eves, and we had not broken the perimeter of my marsh just yet.
I had familiars but none with as much strength as myself. Still, I called for their aid. I lay in the cage, wide awake, smoldering with pain, and watched as the knights and the prince dozed around an anemic fire. My bats fed from them in the night, left them weak and half-dead by morning, retching up the little breakfast they could get down. On the second evening, they were afraid to close their eyes, but eventually sleep claimed them. My bog spiders wrapped them in silk cocoons, spitting strands across their mouths and eyes. They tore out of them with a scream. On the third night, the ticks came for their marrow, the cicadas charging the air with applause.
In the morning, the humidity built and built, settling on them like manacles.
“I know this is your doing, worm,” the sweating prince said, striking the cage with his sword. It made a pleasing ringing sound that echoed out over the river behind us. They had all divested their armor now and had chosen the direct scorch of daylight over being roasted alive in their silver plating.
They stopped at sundown, exhausted. I would’ve laughed at their insipid choices but keeping my blistered body off of the silver, balanced on fingertips and the balls of my feet, kept me more than occupied. Though for how much longer, I could not say.
The sun flashed green and vanished. The prince’s cadre fell into a febrile sleep. When the moon hit its apex, I heard her. The crunch of grass blades, the murmur of rippling water.
The woman-knight slunk through the bog, caked in layers of dried mud. “My lady, forgive me. I underestimated the reaches of his greed.” She leaned against the silver bars of my cage, tears turning her eyes opalescent. “I’ll get you out.”
I drew my lips up in a half-snarl. I did not trust the whelps of man, even in my captive state. I watched as she crawled through her brother’s slumbering camp, serpentine. After searching the first two, she finally found the knight with the key and plucked it from his sweltering body.
The clink of my cage opening was as sweet as the sound of my first song.
Free from my incendiary prison, I danced their bodies to pieces, my claws a flock of razors through their spines, their screams a ballad to their beheadings. I rushed through the knights like a storm, all teeth and a lightless velocity.
I paused for breath, all my mouths heaving for air as I basked in the warmth of the quickly-cooling bodies. The princess sat mute in the pond of her betrayer’s blood, tears chewing down the caked mud on her cheeks. I crawled to her, deathrolled in the dense marsh water to wash my skin bare. I dipped a claw into the fallen prince’s blood pool and marked out words on my forearm.
Across my wrist to the center of my palm: ‘Do you want to be queen?’
Down my sternum: ‘Then make a cut. Spill my blood. But know that it is bitter, given or taken alike.’
The princess’ eyes wavered, her resolve melting just a little before me. But she stood, staggered to the nearest knight and pulled a blade from its sheath. Her uncertainty coagulated into determination, rain to rime.
She offered her hand and I gave her my arm, thick as an eel in her small, pale palm. I gazed at her, my mind unmoored from my hate, my feet circumscribed by a spurned heir and my arm held by a successor of my own choosing.
The princess bit the inside of her cheek, drawing enough blood for me to scent on the air between us. “Are you sure, my lady?”
I nodded and closed my eyes, her skin hot on my wrist. Inside myself, I made the choice to make a queen. I braced for the scorch of silver, a feeling like my nerves turning to thorns under my skin, but now — now all I felt was peace, a tranquility in my own decision.
The princess flicked a shallow cut through my skin, surprisingly painless and barely the length of my finger.
The song ruptured out of me like lava, like a firestorm on a glass-smooth sea.
There was no pain, and the song filled up my ears like a murmuration of golden starlings, filling me down to my bones, down to the ghosts of my ancestors, who I could feel weeping deep in the past.
The queen was crying too, sobbing into the joyful music filling her up and not in the pain of my prophecy. My eyes opened but I could see nothing — everything was muted in the presence of the song, the vibration of aria to a refrain, all of my voices colliding together in a euphoric harmony like a shoal of sunfish, flashing red to silver to white.
The first queen is born to the red marsh with a memory of silver sharp as destiny and cool as moonlight in her hand.
From that moment on, princesses and young women-knights, emboldened by their desires or their birthrights, would come to me bearing gifts: juniper wines and oilslick dragon scales. Crowns of black pearls and statuettes made of copper and emerald. Cuts of ruby-bright lynx meat and blood-ripe pomegranates.
I crown them with a hymn or dismiss them as I see fit. None raise an unasked for blade to my throat, never a flash of unwelcome silver.
Every turn of the season, the queens send me a songstress from the kingdom choir to sing me anew, serenading me with a new psalm, a queen to her maker, a girl to the marsh. It is not the love song to the future so familiar to my prophetic mouths, but it soothes me nonetheless, and my body forgets to crave the silver like the princes forget to crave the kingship.
When a princess comes with a gait like warfare and eyes like twilight, I wait.
Wait to see the pale of her hands open to mercy and a benevolent voice ready to ask.
When I see these things, hear them, I do not resist the silver. I close my eyes and swallow down the princess with a new voice, freshly opened. I fill up the space where she stands with a queen, gracious as the marsh and industrious as leeches.
In the red of the marsh, I open my mouths and choose, carving our fate from the future with song, like silver through skin.