The Marsh King’s Daughter—Leslie Anne Meyer
“In the castle, every one was in a deep sleep. It had been late in the evening before the Viking’s wife retired to rest. She was anxious about Helga, who, three days before, had vanished with the Christian priest. Helga must have helped him in his flight, for it was her horse that was missed from the stable; but by what power had all this been accomplished?
And, close to the terrified woman, Helga seemed to be seated on the floor, in the hideous form of a frog, yet trembling, and clinging to her foster-mother, who took her on her lap, and lovingly caressed her, hideous and frog-like as she was. The air was filled with the clashing of arms and the hissing of arrows, as if a storm of hail was descending upon the earth. It seemed to her the hour when earth and sky would burst asunder, and all things be swallowed up in Saturn’s fiery lake; but she knew that a new heaven and a new earth would arise, and that cornfields would wave where now the lake rolled over desolate sands, and the ineffable God reign. Then she saw rising from the region of the dead, Baldur the gentle, the loving, and as the Viking’s wife gazed upon him, she recognized his countenance. It was the captive Christian priest. “White Christian!” she exclaimed aloud, and with the words, she pressed a kiss on the forehead of the hideous frog-child. Then the frog-skin fell off, and Helga stood before her in all her beauty, more lovely and gentle looking, and with eyes beaming with love. She kissed the hands of her foster-mother, blessed her for all her fostering love and care during the days of her trial and misery, for the thoughts she had suggested and awoke in her heart, and for naming the Name, which she now repeated. Then beautiful Helga rose as a mighty swan, and spread her wings with the rushing sound of troops of birds of passage flying through the air.”
The Marsh King’s Daughter
Hans Christian Anderson, 1858
The Marsh King’s Daughter
Helga was lovely. Helga was strong. Helga was a frog. Helga was a princess. Helga was a miracle. Helga was a swan that flew away the night Valhalla shuddered under the weight of the new White Christ. Helga was my bane and never would I be Helga. Helga was my sister. My sister flew away with the ghost of the White Priest who was sacrificed to our gods. Helga was gone. And soon after, I was born.
But who were my parents? Rape has always been the prerogative of kings and that weak and clever Egyptian princess who was lured, betrayed and abandoned in our Danish bog by her sisters, was neither the first nor the last of his conquests. After the Viking’s wife saw her lovely Helga melt from maiden to swan and flee, the Viking’s wife went to the edge of the marsh to the spot where she had transformed. The edge of the bog quivered under her feet but she knew the ways of the marsh and chose her steps with care. And she found what she sought. Amongst the reeds and waterweeds there lay a perfect white feather. As she reached for it, long, clammy branches like arms shot out of the water and seized the Viking’s wife and pulled her under. Great black bubbles rose up out of the moor-slime and she disappeared with a watery scream. But unlike Helga’s Princess mother, the Viking’s wife (whether because she was a woman of this country, less attractive than the princess, or because the Marsh King was in a good mood) was not kept in a dream-like sleep following her rape, but was dragged to the surface by the Marsh King and tossed on the edge of the marsh, next to the perfect feather.
She lay there, sobbing, mud and slime covering her torn clothing. The stinging pain between her legs made her retch. She prayed for death but it did not come. The Viking’s wife did not stir until the sun had set and the cold became unbearable. She slowly made her way back to the castle where she hid in chambers until she was at last able to order her maids to prepare a bath. They knew not to question the Viking’s wife. More than one girl had been banished for seemingly insignificant transgressions. They prepared a steaming bath, ministered to the Viking’s wife as she wept silently. She hid the feather, now caked in mud, under her mattress.
And the Viking’s wife, barren though she was thought to be, brought forth in the fullness of time, a babe. (And now we know the fault was not hers, but that of her mate, but that is another story). My mother feared me and when the sun rose on my first day and I did not transform, she wept with joy and prayed to the old Gods once again, her brief affair with White Christ now forgotten. Like my sister before, the Viking believed I was his and roared with pleasure at my cunning ways. I was no Halfling like precious Helga; beauty by day and frog by night, but a human daughter with black hair, black eyes and skin as white as milk, as white as snow, as white as salt. I was a curious child. Always grasping my mother’s shining earrings, trying to catch sunbeams with my baby hands, looking at the glint on the silver mugs that glimmered in the torchlight of the Viking’s hall. I was quick to laugh, quick to walk and talk and quick to win the hearts of my village. I grew tall and willow thin. No one could catch me in a race, no one could jump as high and no one has a sharp an eye as me. They called me Raven.
As I grew, I was fed the stories of my village and the stories of Helga with my mother’s milk. Pretty Helga, terrible Helga, blessed Helga. Always Helga. The Viking’s wife whispered to me the stories of Helga the frog, Helga the gentle and Helga the precious. She told me her great secret: Helga had been brought to her in the night by the Storks. She had no other confidante but me. She pulled the now clean and shining feather out from its hiding place (the Viking’s wife had bathed and oiled it so it was now pure and lustrous) to show me how it was pure like Helga. The Viking bragged about her, calling her Helga the fierce, Helga the brave, even as he raged at her for running away, calling her Helga the betrayer and Helga the slut. I grew to hate her very name. I prayed to the Gods she and her ghost priest would never return and that everyone would forget her.
When I was nearing twelve years of age, I was playing along the banks for the marsh, looking for tadpoles and newts. I loved all manner of wet and wild creatures. Birds came to my hand and even the fishes swam near to me and seemed to have not fear. And despite my mother’s repeated warnings, I would escape from her watchful eye to wander the banks and wade up to my knees in the rich peaty mud. The autumn rains were falling in a steady stream but this never bothered me. I could find more interesting things in the rain when the villagers stayed inside by their smoky peat fires. I was turning over a moss covered branch when a Stork flew down beside me and startled me so that before I knew what had happened, I had leaped up and transformed into a raven, flying into the tall trees above the bog. I was dizzy with the sudden height. Below me the bog was spread out like a painting. And at the base of the tree, the Stork stood next to a pile of what I now saw were my clothes. I clung to the branch and called out in fear but all that issued from my mouth was a harsh croak. I was afraid to look down. I was too afraid to move. The Stork, having heard my call, flew up into my tree and spoke to me.
“I have been watching you, girl, waiting for you to show yourself,” said the Stork. “I know who you are, and now I know what you are. You are the true daughter of the Marsh King and your nature has finally come forth!” And the Stork proceeded to tell me what I have already told you and more. He told me the tale of Helga, of the princesses from Egypt and how Helga’s mother was really one of those princesses, that Helga’s father, too, was the March King.
I couldn’t bear to hear any more. My mother abused, my father not my father. Helga. Horrible, beautiful Helga. My sister, no foundling but a true sister. Helga, the daughter of a princess and a monster. Our father, The Marsh King. I stretched my wings and as I prepared to launch from the branch, I found myself falling, no longer a bird but a girl, branches whipping and scratching me as I frantically flapped my arms and fell into a heap on top of my sodden clothes. I pulled myself up, more shocked than hurt, and dressed. The Stork croaked at me from the tree but I shut my ears and ran back to the castle.
The Viking’s wife was preparing a feast for the Viking’s return. The hall was full of serving wenches and boys bringing in wood and peat to stack by the great fireplace. I ran into the great hall, feet caked in mud, water streaming from my clothes. The busy hum of talk that had pleasantly filled the hall ceased. The Viking’s wife, noticing the sudden silence, looked up. She took one look at me, at the tears streaming down my cheeks and the look of anguish on my face and ran to me, wrapped her shawl around me rushed me out of the hall.
In the privacy of her chamber, I told her all I had experienced, told her that I could transform into a raven, and told her all the Stork had told me. As I ended my tale, she stiffened; her warm caressing hands froze and no longer soothed my cheek. She pulled away and said,
“I know well whose child thou art. I prayed you would be spared and thought you free of his nature but thou art are his child.” She wept and said, “Thou must leave here, Raven. Thou must not be found out. I will send thee away to my sister’s people on the island of Læsø. The women of this island are warriors, she-wolves, berzerk in battle and learned in the ways of enchantment. Thou shalt go there. My husband will approve this and thou shalt remain in his favor. I should have sent Helga there but once they saw her gentle frog nature, they would have killed her.”
I wept to leave my home but I knew that were I to transform in front of the Viking or any of his men, I would be shot through the heart and my body pinned to the gates until the flesh and feathers fell from the bones.
Like Helga, I left in the night. A small guard traveled with me as befit the daughter of the Viking. We traveled fast and in two days arrived at the shore and lit the signal beacon to alert the berzerker women that I was come. The low mists blew heavy across the shore and we feared they would not lift. We kept the beacon burning for nearly two days on the shore until finally their boat appeared. The curved prow cut through the mists, a brand burning in the hand of a warrior maiden. The crew loaded my few things and I bid my guards farewell and we rowed back into the mists.
I told my tale to my Aunt Hunulven. Not really my mother’s sister, they were the closest of friends and closer than blood. She was the head woman of Læsø and ruled the village of thirty or so women. They were big women, strong and fearless. Their long hair was twisted in braids, and all wore wolf skins but Hunulven wore a cape made from an enormous grey wolf hide, it’s head worn as a hood. She wore a silver necklace strung with amber and wolf’s teeth. Hunulven puffed on a pipe that emitted a sweet dusty smoke, stared at me with eyes as yellow as a wolf’s and said, “I know your story; I read it in the waves and smelled it on the wind. Læsø will be your home and we will teach you your nature.” I wept with relief and the head woman sneered at my tears. I was frightened she would bite me but she merely growled and took me to a hut across from the lodge and told me this would be my home. It was tiny – one small room with a fire pit and a smoke hole and a strong timber door. There was a low bed covered in hides. Heavy tapestries lined the walls to keep the cold at bay. My trunk with my few belongings was at the foot of the bed. I fed the fire and crawled into my bed, pulling the soft deer hides over my shivering frame. Slowly I relaxed and fell asleep to the crackle of the embers.
I soon met the other women of the island and learned to plant, hunt and create weapons. I knew these skills from my childhood but the women of Læsø were masters and I was as an untrained child to them. I learned quickly for I feared them more than a little and while they were never cruel, they were not gentle. There were other maidens on the island but they were several years my senior and they treated me with indifference.
I learned my nature. Slowly. I could not change unless threatened. I could not change back at will. After several attempts at trying to transform on my own, Hunulven crept upon me and howled in my ear. I flew out of my clothes and perched on the thatch of my hut. Hunulven laughed and laughed. I cawed resentfully at her and flew around her head, threatening to peck at her eyes. She swatted at me with a lazy wave of her hand.
“You must do more than think change. You must feel change. Feel feathers, claws and beak. Feel your nature pushing through from one to the other. You must feel fingers, and skin and hands.” I did as she suggested and found myself standing naked in the middle of the clearing, fingers, skin and hands, but with feathers instead of hair. Some days I could change at will, some days no amount of feeling made the least bit of difference.
On those days I could change into a raven, I liked to fly over the island, cawing and reveling in the freedom of wings. At first I feared flying any higher than a few feet because I had so little control of my transformations but as it became easier and easier to transform, I flew higher and higher, eventually flying as high as any raven. I spoke with the birds, understanding them as easily as I had the Stork. Finally, I became able to transform at will, and able to maintain my form despite Hunulven’s attempts at frightening me.
When I was in human form, the ravens dropped acorns on my head and teased and taunted me. When a raven, they taught me to dive and dart, to hunt and find the tastiest morsels under bark and leaves. The final test came when I came upon the fresh carcass of a fawn and without hesitation I flew down and landed on its head and ate the eyes. I was truly a raven.
I heard tales of the Viking’s wife from the wild ravens. They told me that she was well, and that she was creating a new tapestry for the hall. I missed her deeply but knew this was for the best. I put her out of my mind and worked on perfecting my transitions. I kept bags of clothes in several places around the island in case I accidentally found myself in human form and unable to transform back.
On the anniversary of my first year on Læsø, I asked Hunulven if I could fly to the Viking’s castle and see my mother. Hunulven said, “Do you think you are ready? Can you fly day and night, not stopping, not resting, not eating?” Are you able to control your fear so you do not change from one to the other and fall to your death?”
“Yes, Hunulven. I can. I am in control and I am ready to see my mother.”
“You are not but you are determined and that is good.” She paused, “and I will go with you.”
“But you can’t fly, Hunulven. How will you travel?”
“Like this.” Hunulven threw off her cape and dress and before my eyes transformed into a large grey wolf. She threw back her head, eyes gleaming yellow and howled. The women ran to her from the great hall. They threw off their clothes and as one, transformed into wolves. Some red, some grey but all wolves. They began to howl and I rejoiced. I felt my feathers, felt my claws, felt my beak and transformed, soaring high, and cawing with delight.
The next day, Hunulven and twelve others prepared the boat to sail to the mainland. Hunulven and six other berzerkers would run to the Viking’s castle while I flew overheard. They carried their clothes in packs on their backs. When we reached land, Hunulven and the berzerkers transformed and the remaining women bade us farewell and made to return to Læsø.
We traveled for three days and nights, past lakes and bogs and moorland. Rabbits, foxes, deer and birds scattered in our path but the wolves ignored them. I flew, following the wolves. My muscles burned and hunger gnawed my belly but there was no stopping.
At sunrise the Viking’s wife rose to the plash of rain falling on the trees. She pushed open the shutters and gazed over the bog. The Storks were readying for their journey to Egypt, the swallows and plover had left weeks ago. Far to the south she saw movement in the brush. The rain was stopping and the sun was peeking through the clouds. The sun glinted something metal and she strained to see what it was – it was a warrior in a helmet! She slammed the shutters and ran to the stairs and raised the alert!
The Viking and his men were on a raid across the water and had left only a small company to protect the hall. The young boys and old men gathered their weapons and crept into position outside the hall. The women and girls took up their shields, strung their bows and took their stations on the roofs, in the windows and under archways. The dogs began to bark as they caught scent of the approaching warriors.
Now the Viking’s wife could see that these were not warriors from the south, these were strange men bearing banners with the cross the White Priest had praised. These men were not coming to preach the White Christ’s love. Word of his death had reached them in the south and they were coming to avenge the priest. Two score of men on horses emerged from the woods, with another fifty on foot, lining up in from of them.
The vengeful warriors now gave up any pretense of stealth and charged the hall. Arrows flew, axes rang and swords clashed. The attackers fell, screaming with pain. The dogs were frantic. They barked and tried to escape the confines of the hall, madly gouging the door with their claws and teeth. The Viking’s wife ran first here to tend a wound, then there to pull a dead maiden or man away from the living. The warriors of the White Christ were closing in on the hall, the jangle of armor and harnesses and the screams of her own people grew louder and her rage and fear rose. And the arrows flew. Her men ran out with their weapons and flung themselves upon the attackers. And the blood flowed.
The battle raged and the fury of the Viking’s wife began to pale as dread rose in her heart. Her defenders were falling faster than the attackers and soon the hall would be at their mercy. Then she heard a new sound: wild growls and howls arose from the edges of the bog and like flashes of shadow and fog, Hunulven and her berserker wolves appeared, attacking both men and horses, slashing with teeth and claw, faster than sword or arrow could strike. The people of the hall could scarcely believe what they saw but the Viking’s wife knew and her heart leapt with joy.
“Hunulven!” she cried, “Thank the Gods you are here! Tear them and chase them all. Leave none alive to carry back tales of this day!” Hunulven howled a reply and raced after another attacker, making short work of him.
And soon, no attacker remained standing. The shield maidens surveyed the field of battle and those not wounded began to search the dead. The wolves were far afield now and from the distance came short terrible screams and finally those too faded away.
Hunulven and the other wolves came back to the hall and transformed into women, their mouths and hands slick with blood. Their packs were lost so the Viking’s wife pulled the tapestries from the walls and Hunulven and her sisters wore them as robes. Regal they stood in that hall, aloof from the death at their feet.
“Sister,” asked Hunulven, where is Raven? Is she with you?
I flew into the battle, diving and pecking at the eyes of the horses, of the attackers. Clawing and darting I tore at their standard, ripping the cloth with my beak, calling to the wild ravens to join me in my rage. Afraid and cawing in terror, they rose in a black cloud from their rookery and winged away over the bog, not daring to come near the fury of the battle.
I flew near the hall and saw the Viking’s wife through the great doorway. She had donned her shield and sword and was defending the hall and her people with a ferocity I had never witnessed before. She was a storm, a terrible wrath, striking blow after blow, leaping lithely over fallen comrades and enemies, dodging axe and mace, and killing her attackers with a dark joy upon her face.
I made to fly into the great hall, to transform and be my mother’s shield maiden. I gave a great caw as I headed for the door and then there came a great burning pain through my body. An arrow had grazed my side, sheering off feathers and flesh. I faltered, transforming as I fell and knew no more.
It was silent. A glittering mist covered the darkened courtyard in front of the hall. I raised my hand to my wound and the damp blood glowed silver on my fingertips. Around me lay the dead. They were empty shells. I alone seemed to be able to move. I called out for my mother, for Hunulven but no one replied. I tried to stand and found that I had no pain and hardly felt each step as I walked over the bodies that lay scattered everywhere.
As I made my way toward the hall, a great light burst forth in front of me. I was dazzled and could not see but when my sight cleared, before me stood a shining swan. I gasped and cried, “Helga! Helga! Is that truly you? My sister?”
The swan arched her neck and stretched her wings wide. She made as if to take flight but instead of launching into the sky, her gleaming feathers exploded off of her body, revealing a giant frog. The frog gazed at me with wondrous eyes, so deep and sorrowful that I fell at her feet, ashamed of all the jealous anger I had nurtured in my breast for Helga. I looked up weeping and said, “Sister, forgive me.” The frog smiled and as she did so the skin peeled back from her mouth, cracking and flaking as though it were old paint. The cracking spread over her body and a great gust of wind came up and blew the peeling, flaking skin away and there stood Helga, the maiden from the bog, the daughter of the princess, the daughter of the Viking’s wife, my sister.
Helga stood there a moment, her pale skin and hair emitting a pearly sheen. She said nothing but knelt beside me and wrapped her arms around me and kissed my cheek. I wept and called her name over and over; it had always been bitter to me and now it was sweetness itself. A balm to every wound I had suffered. She released my from her embrace and touched my wounded side. The shining blood looked like liquid light on her hands. When she removed them, the shining remained but the wound was healed. I looked up in thanks and wonder–and she was gone. The glittering mist, the darkened sky, all were gone. The day had returned with the cries of the wounded and the tears of the mourning.
I was human. I tried to transform, to feel feather and claw and beak but I could not. I was human. And on my left side a scar the length of my hand. No trace of blood or of the shining substance that had glowed on Helga’s gentle hands. And no sign of Helga.
I staggered to the hall and saw my mother and Hunulven running toward me. I ran to them, crying and the three of us clung to each other weeping and laughing in sorrow and joy.
The Viking returned and when he heard of the victory over the attackers, he held a feast to honor my mother the like of which has never been seen since. A great cask of mead was drawn into the hall, piles of wood blazed, cattle were slain and served up. The Viking priest who offered the sacrifice sprinkled the berzerker women with the warm blood; the fire crackled, and the smoke rolled along beneath the roof; the soot fell upon them from the beams. All wrongs and unfaithfulness were forgotten. We feasted until the Viking and his men had at last fallen asleep in their cups.
Mother, Hunulven and I took a torch and left the hall. We went to the edge of the bog. Near us was an elder stump that I did not remember. As we gazed upon it, the stump of the tree turned round, and was a tree no more. Long, clammy branches like arms, extended from it. Mother cried out, “Marsh King, beware!” She grabbed the torch from my hands and flung it at the Marsh King. He screamed as his arms and hair and body burned with a deep blue flame. We watched as his body crackled and became ash. Finally as the flames died out, the wind gusted and blew the ashes away, leaving no trace of the Marsh King.
The storks flew away that day. I walked to the waters edge and told them the story of my life as I have told you. I do not know if they understood me. I know they are going to Egypt. I had taken a handful of raven feathers I had found on the ground near where I had been struck. I left one on a rock and asked the Stork to take it Helga’s grave. I turned and walked away and as I neared the hall, I heard the storks rise from the bog and I watched them fly, their graceful wings pounding the air, whipping the drift of falling leaves into a flurry of red and yellow stars. They curled through the sky and flew once over the hall and headed away. And tucked in the claws of the largest stork was a long black feather.