Promised to a being that lives in the waters between her village and the rest of the world, a young woman walks to what will surely be her doom.
I walk until I see the shoreline, the hem of my white wedding dress turning darker and darker with every step that I take dragging it through the mud and silt that line the path down to the sea.
Every single step that I take reminds me that I am not doing this for myself. I am not striding towards my death and doom because I want to find myself carried away or crushed by whatever it is that lives in the murky waters between my village’s land and the outside world.
I do this because I have been chosen – because no one else can, or would bind themselves to a beast that lives beneath churning waters and has demanded a bride every fifteen years when the twin moons cross in the sky.
I had expected to find happiness in marriage.
Or, in the absence of that happiness, a comfortable complacency in doing what was right and proper of me. I had expected to marry someone from my village and perhaps take a lover from one of the others across the sea. I had expected to have children, homes that I kept clean, and animals that I’d raise for milk and wool.
I hadn’t expected the village priestess to tell me that I was to be the next sacrifice to the – the thing that lived in the water that served as our people’s only connection to other villages.
I hadn’t expected to become a bride on what would probably be the last day of my life.
I trudge along the path silently. Sullenly.
There’s no one with me on this journey, no friends to help cheer me and no family to hold my hand. The walk from the outskirts of my village to the rocky cove where my new spouse awaits me is a lonely one.
I wish that I could turn back.
When I reach the water, I pause.
My dress is now grey-green up past my ankles and so are my feet, mud clinging to my skin despite my sandals. When I shift, I swear that I feel a pebble digging into the tender arch of my right foot. I glance about as if expecting my new spouse to leap from behind a boulder and drag me away by my hair and then, after nothing happens, I crouch down so that I can dust the soles of my feet off.
Halfway through the task, a shadow stretches above my head.
I freeze, my fingers still twisted up in the strap of my sandal. Aside from the thudding of my pulse and the way that I can’t stop sucking in air as if I’ll never get the chance to breathe again, I don’t move.
The shadow however, does, shifting until it becomes a person crouching down in front of me and offering their hand.
At first, I don’t register what I am seeing.
Dark brown skin with paler brown and grey patches of scales. An almost flat chest with prominent gill slits slashed across slender sides. Webbed fingers with impressively curved black claws. Big silver eyes with two sets of eyelids that blink one after the other.
I squeak out a cry and scramble backward, banging the backs of my thighs against the rocks on the shore and scraping the palm of my left hand open on a jagged-edged shell as I try to fling myself away. The scent of blood rises in the air between us and I cry out, clutching my injured hand to my chest as I eye the creature in front of me warily.
“Don’t — don’t hurt me,” I demand. At first, my voice comes out with a stutter as fear tightens my throat, but then it strengthens. “I didn’t do anything –“
The creature blinks at me, those eyes nonjudgmental but simultaneously and seemingly uncomprehending. They reach out for me in the very next moment, those webbed fingers falling on my knee where it bends, the weight of that touch trapping me between flight and frightful stillness.
“I wouldn’t hurt you,” the creature says, speaking slowly as if the words don’t come naturally to them. Then they smile, revealing teeth so sharp and jagged that they wouldn’t look out of place in the mouth of a freshwater needlefish. “After all, you are the one that is supposed to be my bride.”
I scream and the sound echoes into the silence, spiraling higher and higher until I slap my hand across my mouth to try and hold the noise in. It’s the hand that I had scraped in the dirt and I taste blood against my tongue when I gasp into my hand.
The creature peers at me, those luminous eyes narrowing with worry.
“You’re frightened,” they say, teeth clicking together as they talk. “Why? I said that I would not hurt my intended.”
I shake my head and then force myself to speak, moving my hand just far away from my mouth that the whisper-soft utterance of my question can escape into the air.
“And th-the others,” I ask. “Did you lie to them too? Did you kill them when they didn’t do what you wanted?”
The creature doesn’t answer.
Instead, they peer at me with a frown.
“I do not lie,” they spit out, clearly incensed. “I do not hurt the ones that are given to me and I do not keep them against their will, this I swear on my sea and scales.”
I frown —
“Then why haven’t any of the other girls come back?”
The creature blinks twice and then looks at me as if I am particularly slow.
“Because they did not wish to return,” The creature says slowly, seriously. “And it is not in my power to make them go back to a place where they are unwanted. Alone.”
Despite myself and my fear, I scowl.
“You asked for this,” I snap.
The creature tilts their head to one side, sending a sodden and seaweed tangled mess of silver hair spilling over one bare shoulder. “Did I, now? I think I would remember asking for your village to appease me with human sacrifices. Your people do this willingly and I give the girls a choice.”
My mouth drops open. “You do?”
The creature nods.
“I do,” they say, with a patient smile that still manages to set chills up the length of my spine. “Now what decision will you make when I give you your choice?”