This short story, “The Grey Marshes” by Becky, showcases a fierce girl named Helga choosing her next step in life.
The marsh had always felt like Helga’s home, in all of its emptiness. The place was bare and open and alone. One lone tree stood out in the center of the marsh, its leaves fallen to the ground after the last frost. It was bleached grey like everything else out there, stripped of color. There would be no color out on the marsh for several months, not until the cold season was over.
Helga stood by the water, gripping an axe in her hand. Her dark hair was braided down her back, her ears almost pointed, her skin a deep copper brown. The icy water soaked through her shoes and soaked the hem of her finest blue dress, a dress she might have worn to a wedding. She was not going to a wedding. Possibly a funeral, if worst came to worst.
She pulled her bearskin cloak tighter around her, trying not to shiver. She’d made the cloak from her own kill, a year ago. Helga had rushed into the she-bear’s den with a wild fury, without a thought to the consequences. Fighting had felt like a prayer, an ease to the rage and the fear. She had come out of the den with a gash on her shoulder, but alive. She had always come out alive. She would try her best not to make it her own funeral that she went to.
“Helga,” her mother, Inga, called out. Helga shut her eyes. So Inga had found her out here, then.
“Helga!” Inga shouted. Helga finally turned to her. The wind was starting to tear Inga’s blond hair out of her plait. She was fat, with a round face and warm blue eyes. Inga panted a little, looking as though she had run all the way there. She had her sword at her waist, and she carried two shields. Helga almost laughed. Her mother never underestimated either her propensity to get in trouble, or to forget her shield.
“They told me you had rushed out of the house at the break of dawn, and I knew you were either here or you had gotten yourself into a fight,” she said as she came closer, the glimmerings of a smile on her face. “I am glad it is not the latter.”
Helga tilted her head down, and she did not smile. “No, I only learned something this morning,” she said carelessly. “Something one could say surprised me. So you are not really my—” She stopped mid-sentence. She could not bring herself to say that Inga wasn’t her mother, because it wasn’t true. Inga had raised her, had been the only one who consistently could talk sense into her. If only she would talk sense into her now.
“Did the Marsh King truly steal my mother?” she asked. She tried to ask the question casually, but she could not hide the desperation at the back of her voice. “Because that’s what one of Father’s warriors said. I accused him of being a liar, of course, but he told me to ask you.” Her throat was dry. She laughed a little.
“I should have followed my first impulse and dueled him. He was speaking nonsense.” She had never seen Agnar lie in her life. He may have been quick to anger with a tongue that often got him into trouble, but she could not even imagine him lying. She could not remove his words from her head.
He said that her mother’s name was Tabarak. She was a fairy woman who could turn into a swan, and a princess of Egypt. Many years ago, she had traveled far with her sisters to find a cure for her ill father. She stopped by the marsh and took off her swanskin to rest, and when her back was turned, the Marsh King stole it and slipped beneath the surface of the water. Tabarak had followed him angrily, and she did not resurface. The people, apparently, said he had stolen her away to his hall beneath the marsh and made her his wife, to rule beside him as queen.
Helga would suppose that this story would mean that the Marsh King was her father, but that was something she could not quite stomach. It was so annoying, to be a figure in a local legend and never have been informed.
Her question effectively wiped the smile off of Inga’s face. “Who told you that?” Inga demanded. She did not say it in surprise, and she did not quite meet Helga’s eyes. That was enough for Helga to know.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Helga shouted. She started to pace back and forth. “Do you think I would rather hear the rumor from some stranger than you?”
Inga let out a breath and looked down. “I am sorry,” she said. “I thought if I were in your place, I would rather be ignorant.” Her voice was slow, apologetic.
Helga stopped to stare at her. “You are not in my place. It was not your secret to keep.” She had thought her mother might have had more sense.
“And I didn’t think you would react very well,” Inga admitted, glancing back up at her.
Ah. That was more like it.
“But I am sorry,” she continued. “I should have had more trust in you.”
You shouldn’t have, Helga thought, her hand clenching. I am about to do something rash. I don’t know what, but I will do it. Her nails bit into her palm.
“Helga,” she said. Inga spoke firmly, taking a step closer to her. “Please listen to me. You are a strong warrior, but if you fight against your father, I do not think you will come back.” Her voice shook.
“Do you believe the story, then?” Helga snarled. “I wouldn’t have thought you would.” Considering she had rushed out to the marsh with an axe, as if there were any chance she would happen to meet the Marsh King out here, there was a possibility Helga was convinced of the story herself. “It’s foolishness. It’s a story mothers tell their children in order to scare them into good behavior.”
“I met your mother’s sister, Helga,” Inga said, sounding very tired. “She told me the story herself.” Inga’s brow knit together. “I searched often for your mother,” she murmured. “But I never found her. I thought I saw her one evening in a storm, but when I got closer she had vanished.” Her hands twisted in her apron dress. It began to rain a little, misting both their faces.
By the gods, how many secrets had her family kept from her? Helga turned to the marsh. “I’m going to kill him,” she decided.
“This is exactly why I—” Inga began, exasperated. Helga raised an eyebrow. “You rush into battle with the fury of Tyr,” she said slowly, enunciating her words. “But you cannot win this battle alone.”
“I don’t care,” Helga said. “Either I die or I don’t. Is it honorable that my mother should stay forever entrapped in the halls below while I live comfortably in yours? I would never have rested if I had known.” Her mouth twisted.
“I care if you live or die—” Inga snapped. She took in a breath. “Don’t speak so of your own life,” she said. “If there really is nothing I can do to dissuade you from this, at least let me come with you.”
Helga stopped short. “But you said it yourself,” she protested. “It isn’t safe.” It didn’t matter how angry she was at her currently. She couldn’t allow Inga to risk her life.
Was this what Inga always felt for her whenever Helga did mad, life-risking things? Helga had never been on the other end of this, and she did not know how to feel.
“Exactly,” Inga said. “Two are better than one, and I will not let my daughter face danger alone. You’re only fifteen, Helga.”
The thought of going with her mother by her side did hearten her, as ashamed as Helga was to admit it. “I probably won’t be coming back home,” she said. She realized what that sounded like. “I plan on getting out alive,” she added, making her voice sound as bored as possible. “But I don’t plan on coming back home. No one except you and my father—” She coughed. “Bjørn,” she corrected. “None of them have ever cared for me. I want some time by myself—and with my mother, I suppose.” A bit of a wistful smile rested on her face. “I’ll figure things out. And maybe kill a few people along the way.”
“I’ll go with you if you want,” Inga said. “If you ever need me, I will always be here.” There was an uncomfortable lump in Helga’s throat. “I do, of course, much prefer that you discuss this with Bjørn first before running off on some adventure.” She spoke with a dry lilt that nearly made Helga roll her eyes.
“I do wish for you to come with me,” Helga said quickly, before she could lose heart.
Inga’s face split into a smile. “Then of course I will come. Let’s go save your mother. And Helga—” She grabbed Helga’s shoulder, and Helga tensed but did not shake it off— “Let’s try to resolve this…problem with your father non-violently. Not for his sake, but for yours and your mother’s.” Inga’s eyes were intense, serious. Helga’s plan was dangerous, and Inga knew it. And yet she would follow Helga anyway.
Helga nodded briefly. She did not understand things like this. She understood what it was to cut and tear, to breathe in the smell of blood and iron. She understood how to fight, to parry sharp words and to reply with a harsh tongue of her own. She knew nothing but war, on the battlefield and off of it. This? She had no idea.
“Do you know the way to your father’s halls?” Inga asked.
Helga nodded. The place called to her as she spoke. It wanted her. She had felt that a few times before, with places where magic piled up and spilled over. “It is beneath the water,” she said with difficulty. “I think…I think it will not be difficult to find right now.”
Inga nodded and stepped aside, and Helga realized she was waiting for her to lead the way. “Your shield,” Inga said, handing it to her. Helga strapped the shield to her back, the chafe of the leather against her neck almost comfortable in its familiarity.
“Thank you, Mother,” she whispered, and dove into the water.
About the Author
Becky is an eighteen-year-old who has always been far too obsessed with fairy tales. At age twelve, they took the step from reading fairy tales to writing retellings of them, and they have been writing ever since. They hold a deep love for the fantasy genre and for morally grey characters. Arthurian legend is their current obsession.