PodCastle 565, ARTEMIS RISING: I Am Fire; I Am Tears
PG, for dragon-sisters and bones picked clean.
Ulykke crouched in the darkness, just beyond the sunray’s reach.
Before her, along the forest path, an entourage of huntresses passed on horseback, armed with arrows and blades of finest silver and armor too strong for even Ulykke’s teeth to pierce. Among them, on a dappled-gray mare, rode the princess Dania herself: beloved ruler of Crowwell. Maiden most fair. Usurper of the throne.
The princess’s horse was ill at ease, its nostrils flaring and its eyes darting into the forest where Ulykke followed, just out of sight. It kept to the furthest edge of the path, so that holly-fern and moonwort and dwarf birch brushed the princess’s boots and snagged the hem of her riding skirts.
Ulykke had been creeping along at a distance since they’d left Crowwell and deserted the somber, lonely castle there. She’d peered through the ancient, frosted windows to see the heirloom furnishings draped with white cloth and the furnaces empty of flame, the whole place looking as cold and bleak as that cursed winter day so many years ago — a day of blood and tears and screams and the crying of a babe, and finally, the slamming of a door.
Earlier, the guards had engaged in lighthearted chatter and singing, assuring the princess that her decision was wise. Crowwell needed an heir, and the prince of Sedgen needed a bride. The arrangement would be mutually beneficial, even if the groom was a stranger. He had not been the only prince to answer the call, but as the closest neighbor, it made sense to unite their kingdoms.
Yet as they descended along the garnet-lined path through the misty forest toward Sedgen, the travelers grew more silent and ill at ease, their shoulders tense and lips pursed. More and more frequently, their eyes flickered toward where Ulykke hid, till she was certain they must have caught sight of her vitreous eyes and iridescent scales.
A branch crumpled beneath her clawed feet, and the captain of the guard drew her sword. “Fly, my Lady! Fly!”
The princess didn’t need to be told twice; everyone knew of the nightmarish creatures that dwelled in these forests: horrid beasts, vicious abominations, beings who’d once been human but fell to some curse or sorcerer’s whim. Never a season went by without a brave warrior organizing a hunt to rid the forest of them. Never a hunt went by without the death of many of those same men.
Dania leaned forward across her horse’s neck and raced away through the forest, leaving nothing but a plume of dust behind her.
A low snarl rose from Ulykke’s throat, but she did not pursue the princess. She could have caught her easily, for her muscular limbs were twice as strong as a horse’s and even the vast tangle of bramble and vines would be no deterrent for her claws and teeth, but though her hatred boiled like a cauldron within her, she did not wish to kill the princess.
No, that would make her no better than the mother whose greed brought this curse upon her in the first place, no better than the father who tossed her out to the forest to die. Though she despised the princess for being all that she herself wasn’t, even Ulykke was not monster enough to kill her own kin.
The royal wedding was to be a grand affair. Ulykke heard from the field mice about the days of feasting and the crumbs that would surely fall from overstuffed tables. She heard from the birds about the musicians that came from afar, bearing their strings and flutes and horns. And she heard from the fierce-toothed beasts and abominations of the forest about all the guests who’d be arriving shortly — tasty treats to pluck like ripe fruit from their horses and carriages if they weren’t wary.
But it was the prince’s livestock who told her of the man himself, the man who would rule Crowwell until Dania produced an heir.
A brute, the donkey grumbled.
A glutton, the swine declared him.
An idiot, the sheep agreed.
So while the crowd gathered in the great cathedral of St. Ingamoder a fortnight later to witness the royal vows, Ulykke sharpened her claws on the fine-grained riverbed stones and polished her scales with sand until they were bright and sharp and dreadful. Then she perched on the buttresses of the great cathedral with her long neck hanging low and her ears perked up until she heard the ceremony begin.
And just as the two were to be declared man and wife, Ulykke leaped through the window with a roar, sending shards of stained glass scattering like sparks of fire through the sanctuary. The guests in their finery gasped and screamed and huddled about like rats, and the prince called for his guards while the huntresses drew their swords.
But the princess merely stared, her eyes wide. “Who are you?”
“I am fire and I am tears. I am wind and I am rain. I am the one who stalks the night, the one who brings you pain.” Ulykke’s voice grew stronger, surer with each word, so that when she had finished speaking, the stones of the cathedral shook and there was not a single living being inside who was not staring at her in awe.
“Kill the foul beast!” the prince commanded, but the princess held up her hand.
“How did you come to be like this?”
“A barren queen, desperate for a child. A wise old crone, her guidance unheeded. One bite from the flower would heal the womb. A second bite, forbidden, would set a curse upon it.” Ulykke clicked her claws against the marble floor. “I am the firstborn of twins: a firstborn deprived her place, her honor, her kingdom, because of my body’s cursed form. Rescued and raised by that very same crone when the king tossed me from the castle. Unable to show my face. But no more. Now, I will take what ought to be mine.”
With that, Ulykke swooped down upon the dais and gripped the prince of Sedgen in her claws. Paying no mind to the beating of his fists upon her knuckles or the protests of the crowd, she flew through the broken window of the cathedral and up to castle tower. She set the trembling man down upon the cold, stone floor of the bridal suite and bared her pointed teeth.
By the time Dania and the others reached the tower and tore down the door, there was nothing left of the prince but a pile of picked-over bones.
That night, Ulykke watched from the nearby forest as her sister sat on the balcony of the Sedgen castle, brushing and braiding her jet-black hair.
“I know you’re out there,” Dania called, and though Ulykke made no move to confirm this, the princess continued. “I didn’t know I had a sister. Father never told me. And mother . . . well, she perished at my birth. Our birth.”
The moon shone down in silvery pools upon the garden, tempting Ulykke to slide her neck, her tail, just a claw into its light, to reveal herself and chase away this foolish young woman, to put a stop to her ridiculous ramblings. What did she mean by addressing Ulykke like this? As a peer? Did she hope to win her favor? To spare her next suitor? Did she believe that she could reason with a monster?
“There are some who say you granted me a favor,” Dania said, slipping the diamond ring from her finger. “For now I am ruler of both Crowwell and Sedgen, and I am told — now that he has perished — that the prince was a violent and callous man.”
Ulykke scoffed. Yes, she supposed it was a favor, though what good would it do her?
“I’d gladly give you the kingdom, if I could,” Dania said softly. “But the laws against such creatures are irrevocable; even with my blessing, the noblemen would slay you before you crossed the throne room. Still, I want you to have this, at least, for your help. A gift, from one sister to another.”
She set the ring upon the balcony and gathered up her brush. Ulykke’s claws twitched at the sight of the shining trinket; it was difficult to resist anything that glimmered so.
Dania pushed the curtains aside, but before she entered her chambers, she paused. “I leave tomorrow to marry the prince of Gerome, for we are still the last of our family line and still in need of an heir. If you were to find that the man is unworthy of our kingdom . . .”
Her voice trailed off as she retreated with a shrug, and Ulykke licked her lips and scrambled for the ring. Her hatred for the princess Dania was displaced by a strange curiosity, one she pondered as she slipped the ring onto her claw, marveling at how it glimmered in the moonlight. She’d never been given a gift before. Never been given anything freely. It was an odd partnership — dragon and maiden — and yet . . . they were, above all, sisters, were they not?
An unfamiliar itch crawled up Ulykke’s back, like the prickle of a spinning wheel’s spindle, and when she raised her claws to scratch at it, a layer of pearlescent scales fell from her back and sloughed off her hide with a sound like a tinkle of bells.
Without her outermost layer of scales, Ulykke was smaller and lighter — a fact she first resented, for her size had been one of her most fearsome qualities. But when she set off for Gerome, she found that she was far lighter and quicker in this new form. She made good time and spent the day as she waited for Dania’s arrival interrogating the local creatures to determine what kind of man their prince was — if he, too, was unworthy of the throne of Crowwell.
What she found was that the prince of Gerome was no nobler than the late prince of Sedgen had been. From the tiniest beer-fly who buzzed of his indulgences to the raccoons who decried his thieving ways, the creatures were all in agreement, and Ulykke polished her new scales in preparation for what must be done.
Gerome had no great cathedral, so the wedding was to be held in the castle courtyard. Ulykke perched like a gargoyle upon a crumbling tower, watching as the preparations were made. At the sound of trumpeting, Dania descended the stone staircase in her cream-colored gown, and Ulykke knew from the upward turn of the young woman’s head that Dania was searching the shadows for her, wondering what she had found.
But Ulykke refused to be beholden to anyone; she would make her appearance in her own good time. And when the words were spoken again, binding Dania and the prince as one, Ulykke leapt from the tower and circled the square, her breath setting the treetops ablaze. Townspeople screamed and ran. The huntresses reached for their arrows. But Dania held up a hand and asked, “Who are you?”
Ulykke showed her teeth and recited her story again, just as she’d done before, and when she’d said all she intended, she grabbed the prince by the collar and — struggling a bit now to heft his weight — carried him up to the bridal suite.
That night, after leaving a pile of bones in the prince’s bed, Ulykke returned to the forest to find a letter pinned by a silver arrow to a tree, with a diamond bracelet dangling from it.
My dear sister, it read. I owe you so much, for it was only after his death that the subjects of Gerome spoke true of their prince. Please accept my thanks and this gift.
P.S. My next suitor is prince of Rivervale; I wish that I could invite you to be my honored guest, for your discernment has proven invaluable.
Ulykke scoffed at the invitation; her, an honored guest? And yet, as she slipped the bracelet onto her wrist, she was filled with a peculiar warmth, and the itching began again. Try as she might to ignore it, in the end, she couldn’t help but raise her claws and scratch. And when she scampered off along the road toward Rivervale, she left behind her another sloughed-off layer of scales, shimmering like a puddle of quicksilver beneath the trees.
Ulykke could tell from her first steps in the kingdom that Rivervale was markedly different from Gerome or Sedgen. The homes were tidier, the fields more plentiful, and even the streams ran with fresher water, all the way down to the sparkling sea. What’s more, there were none of the abominations found elsewhere at all. Had she been in her original form, the creatures of this region would have surely fled in fear, but with the shedding of her most recent layer, she was left with smooth and luminous skin and a body only slightly taller than a human’s. She was a curiosity, yes, and strange, but no more the fearsome beast she had once been.
When she asked about their ruler, the rabbits and ponies and sparrows all agreed: the prince was a fine young man, fair and gentle, compassionate and kind to all. And even when Ulykke bared her teeth and warned them not to lie, still they refused to speak ill of him.
This, she decided, she must see for herself.
She followed the prince across the countryside, keeping to the shadows as he went about his duties and listening at doors and windows as he tended the kingdom’s business. And yet, from all Ulykke could see, the accounts had been accurate. He was generous to widows. He was pleasant to the farmers. He brought fair punishment to the sailors and traders who deserved it but gave no indication of harshness or cruelty. He was, Ulykke admitted with a low growl, a perfect husband for a princess.
Ulykke skulked in the shadows as Dania arrived and the wedding preparations began anew. The couple’s laughter flowed like a melody from behind the castle walls, and the princess herself chose the flowers for the wedding barge.
The night before the nuptials, Ulykke watched the light of Dania’s seaside chambers flicker as the princess paced about the room. But when she stepped onto the balcony and called out for her “dear sister,” Ulykke refused to show her face.
“The prince has been so kind,” Dania said, loud enough for Ulykke to hear, as if she knew somehow that she was not truly alone. “I’ve been so . . . happy, but I’ve been deceived before. I want to believe what he says, that this is not just a clever show of affection. But you, my sister, they cannot fool you. I trust your judgment above my own, for I have been sheltered from the dangers of the world, and you have proven yourself so much wiser. I only ask that you do what is best for the kingdom.”
Ulykke crouched there, scowling, in the dunes beneath the tower, long after the princess fell asleep. How cruel it was that Dania should have it all — kingdom, beauty, and happiness — when she, through no fault of her own, should have none. It would be a fitting punishment to deprive the princess of the love and security she sought.
She tried to cheer herself with the promise of a fine meal, but the thought of it only repulsed her.
The morning of the wedding, Ulykke bathed in the tidepools and polished her scales and teeth. She channeled her aggression into tearing apart dozens of shining oyster shells and prying from their grasp their luminous pearls. Then she slipped beneath the waves and waited.
The barge drifted out over the open sea, carrying with it the joyous party, surrounded by bouquets of cloudberry and starry saxifrage. Harp songs wafted from the shoreline, skimming out across the glassy waters. And Ulykke followed along behind, submerged beneath the gentle waves.
The princess laughed and smiled with the others, but Ulykke saw how she glanced about, searching the skies and the shorelines.
The ceremony progressed and Ulykke lurked below, until the announcement was to be made. With her new, sleek body, she burst from the water, springing onto the barge with a mighty splash.
The prince stepped between Ulykke and his bride, shielding her from the intruder, but Dania’s face peered out from behind him — half joyous and half shattered at the sight. She touched her prince’s hand, urging him away, and asked, her voice teary and resigned, “Who are you?”
Ulykke glanced at the wedding guests, all watching her with curiosity. She beheld the entwined hands of Dania and her bridegroom. She looked to the face of the princess, her sister, so full of trust.
Then, tentatively stepping forward on soft-padded feet, she held out a string of pearls. “I am the one whose name is Disaster, whose deeds the fearsome ones whisper. Yet today, I bring a blessing, not a curse. I bring a gift for my sister.”
Dania stepped forward, out from behind the prince, and accepted the string of pearls. She placed them around her neck and extended her arms.
At first, Ulykke did not understand the gesture, but Dania did not hesitate or waver. She folded her twin into her embrace and held her there with the simple words: “Thank you, dear sister.”
It was a strange, new feeling, swirling in Ulykke’s chest — a sensation of warmth and comfort and something else, something more peculiar and strange, more wild and fierce than she’d ever known before. It crawled deep within her. It spilled out over her soul until she thought that she couldn’t bear it any longer. She pulled away.
And as the two stepped apart, the final layer of smooth, reptilian skin unfurled from Ulykke’s face and her shoulders. It sloughed off her legs and unpeeled from her arms until she stood there — not as a monster — but as a woman, with soft, human skin, in a gown that shimmered like scales.
“Your sister?” the prince of Rivervale asked.
“My older sister,” Dania said, “the true ruler of Crowwell, restored to her rightful form by virtue of her kindness to me.”
Her kindness? Ulykke had been called many things, but never once had anyone called her kind. All she’d done had seemed so little, compared with Dania’s compassion.
For now, Ulykke waited, uncertain, to gauge the prince’s reaction, to see if she’d been correct in her assessment of his character. Was this man truly kind and loving as he seemed? Would he keep the vows he’d so lately made? Or would he turn Dania away, now that she no longer could offer him the kingdom of Crowwell?
The prince took Ulykke’s hand and bowed his head in respect. “Welcome, then, our guest of honor. I am grateful for your presence.”
With a flick of his hand, the musicians burst forth with the song of harps and the twirl of dancers, and the guests all smiled and began their celebration anew.
“What will you do now?” Dania asked in a whisper. “Now that all Crowwell is yours?”
“I don’t know.”
Dania took Ulykke’s hand in hers and together, they wove through the crowd of merrymakers and danced on feet soft and unclawed. They indulged in cake that was sweeter than anything they’d ever tasted before, and as the sun set on the wedding barge and evening turned to night, Ulykke gazed up at the stars and her mind turned to the other creatures lost in the forest, the ones who, too, had once had human forms, and she thought to herself that perhaps, with a touch of compassion — and a ruler who understood their plight — there might be hope for them, yet, too.
About the Author
Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she’s left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Daily Science Fiction, Nature: Futures, and is forthcoming from Analog and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Her time travel novella series, beginning with The Continuum, is available from World Weaver Press. For more info, visit wendynikel.com.
About the Narrator
Veronica Giguere is a storyteller of the spoken and written word. She narrates across genres, but her favorites are science fiction and fantasy. Her passion for science and innovation shines in her roles as audiobook narrator, science fiction author, podcast producer, and forever geeky mom. You can hear her as the voice of the Secret World Chronicle podcast novel, written by Mercedes Lackey, Cody Martin, Dennis Lee, and Veronica Giguere.
About the Artist
Yuumei is an illustrator, comic artist, and designer. Her works include Knite and Fisheye Placebo webcomic series, Axent Wear Cat Ear Headphones, and various art that focuses on environmentalism, fantasy, and human nature. You can read her comics for free at YuumeiArt.com, Follow her on Instagram, or support her on Patreon.