The Sea Witch’s Goddaughter
On a shining coast, not far from the capital, where the ocean stretched out blue and sparkling to the western horizon, there lived a poor widow. Her fisherman husband was long eaten by the sea; she lived by beachcombing, taking in sewing and the charity of her neighbors. It was not a good living; and loneliness carved lines in her once-beautiful face.
One night, the night of the Crown Prince’s wedding, the sea grew restless. The air was calm and windless, but still the waves thrashed and moaned, hurling themselves over the beach at the cliff by the widow’s house.
None of this disturbed her sleep. But then a single note began to sing, high and pure over the ocean’s noise, and her eyes opened.
For a moment, she lay blinking in confusion. Then she succumbed to the music’s call, letting it pull her out of the cottage and down to the cove.
The moon had set but the stars shone coldly down, glimmering on the water. Guided by the song, the widow made her way down the path and onto the old jetty, where a disturbance frothed in the water.
A phosphorescent light evolved in the air, and the widow drew back gasping. For it was no ordinary visitor in the water: a pair of shark-black eyes peered from a face whiter than snow, framed by long green hair. A scaled, muscular tail splashed in the water, glittering silver.
The widow fell to her knees, for this was one of the sea folk, whose songs were spells and who could wreck ships and lure sailors to their doom. She opened her mouth to beg for mercy.
“Don’t be afraid,” the sea woman said. Her voice was as musical and hollow as that of a seashell, and colder than the outermost depths of the ocean. “I mean you no harm tonight, I swear by the tides and currents.”
Only partially reassured, the widow stood. “Please, your greatness,” she said, voice trembling, “to what do I owe this honor?”
The sea woman laughed, a surprisingly ugly, cracked noise. “You’ve got a courteous tongue, I’ll give you that,” she said. “Fear not: I’ve come to strike a bargain with you.”
The widow shivered in fresh terror. There was only one of the sea folk who ever struck bargains with mortals: the Sea Witch, the most dangerous of all. But then a new cry came, thin and plaintive.
The Sea Witch bent, fussing with a bundle in her arms: a bundle that wriggled and mewled. The widow caught her breath at the tiny, exquisite face peering from a blanket woven of seaweed.
“Is that your child, greatness?” the widow asked, surprise making her bold.
The Sea Witch straightened. “Hardly. But she’s what I’ve come to discuss.” She held up the child, bringing its face into the magical light. “She’s a human child,” the Sea Witch said. “Abandoned and left to die. I would not wish to see a helpless infant perish. And so I have this bargain for you: adopt this child and treat her in every way as your daughter. Care for her, love her. And in exchange I will pay you: every month, a new treasure from the sea, something valuable that you may sell or save as you choose. What do you say?”
The widow gaped at the Sea Witch, head spinning. She had never heard of such a bargain. She hesitated, but only for a moment.
The widow bent down to take the child. She cooed and nestled into the widow’s arms as though she’d been born to her. The new mother held the child close, face softening, already in love.
The Sea Witch slapped her tail in approval. “Here is your first payment,” she said, reaching to her waist, where a belt of woven green fibers rested. She removed a beautiful comb of electrum, embellished with pearls, and handed it up to the widow.
The widow marveled over the comb: it was of exceptional workmanship and beauty, its style and materials proclaiming it to have been made by the sea folk in their underwater smithies. The widow looked up to the Sea Witch’s approving smile. “Thank you,” she said. “This is a piece of true good fortune.”
“Don’t thank me,” said the Sea Witch. “You’re really doing me the favor, taking in the child.” She paused. “However, I will see the child whenever I choose. You will not deny me the right to visit her on occasion, and ensure her wellbeing.”
“Oh, no!” The widow hastened to reassure her. “I wouldn’t dream of it, greatness.” She paused. “Please, greatness…what is her name?”
“Her name?” The Sea Witch drew back in thought. “She’s of the sea and the land together,” she murmured. “She should have a name that reflects that.” She paused. “There are anemones in the sea,” she said, “and anemones on land. Call her Anemone.”
“Anemone,” the new mother agreed, and so the bargain was sealed.
The Sea Witch remained by the jetty, watching while the human woman carried Anemone back to the cottage. Only when the door closed did she flip over and swim away, back to her deep grotto, lit only by phosphorescent fish, where she remained for a long, somber time.
The bargain held good. Every month the Sea Witch returned with some new and valuable treasure. Strings of pearls she gave, and rings of gold, or loose diamonds rattling from her hand to the widow’s. The widow sold most of the treasures in the city; her face rounded and relaxed as her fortunes prospered, and the cottage grew bright and cozy with new fabrics and furnishings.
In exchange, the widow raised Anemone, and she couldn’t have loved her more if she’d been her own daughter. She was a happy, surefooted child, who ran about the cottage with her mother, chattering and laughing. She was beautiful too, with her rippling black hair. Older folk frowned, though, when they saw her startling green eyes and pale skin, so unusual on this sunny coast, and they glanced uneasily at the ocean; for were the alien sea folk not known for their uncanny pallor? Whispers spread concerning the origins of the mysterious child.
Indeed, Anemone herself did nothing to dispel the rumors, for she was ever drawn to the sea. She ranged all over the coast, exploring caves and tide pools. Every morning, she ran down the cliff to the beach, hiking up her skirt to wade into the water, feeling the push and pull of the waves.
“Anemone!” Mother called. “Time to comb your hair.” And Anemone rushed back, to sit on the stool before the house and stare out to sea while Mother ran the electrum comb through her long black locks. Mother always used that comb to tidy Anemone’s hair, working through the knots with oil, until it lay smooth and shining as the ocean on a calm night.
The feel of that comb, and the sight of the sea, always made Anemone calm and pensive. One bright morning when she was five, while Mother combed her hair and the shadow of the cliff extended over the wrinkled waves, she suddenly straightened and said:
“Who is that, oh mother oh,
Who is that limps into port?
‘Tis a treasure ship from Aessa
Soon to lose all its gold.”
She half-sang the words, picking out a simple melody, eyes dreamily focused on the sea. Mother froze. “What was that?”
Anemone blinked, coming back to herself. “I don’t know.” She gave a half-frightened giggle. “It just came to me, when I was looking at the sea…”
“What was that about a treasure ship from Aessa?”
“I…I don’t know.” But the knowledge the verse had imparted to her sank into her mind, and she said, “There is an Aessan treasure ship, though. And it’s about to lose all its gold.”
“Nonsense!” said Mother, but the very next day, when they were in the city selling the latest treasure to a dealer, they heard the news that an Aessan treasure ship had come into port for repairs and promptly been seized by the King for its gold.
“They should have known better,” said the dealer. “Everyone knows what our King is like about money.”
Mother said nothing, but her eyes sought Anemone. And, the next time Godmother visited, she confronted her.
Anemone’s godmother visited regularly, emerging from the waves in a surge and splash, tail beating the water while she propped herself on the jetty. She was odd, with her pinched white face, green hair and black eyes, but wonderful in her strangeness, with shells and coral in her hair, her mighty tail and the green belt that always rested around her hips. Anemone was always happy to see her, for she had hugs, and strange toys from her stingray-skin pouches, and, best of all, beautiful songs sung in that voice that seemed the essence of the ocean itself.
This time, though, Mother stepped forward, mouth a grim slash. Tersely, she told Godmother what had happened.
“Hmm.” Godmother looked at Anemone. “Did you choose for this to happen, child?”
White-faced, Anemone shook her head. “It just…happened.”
“It sounds like ocean magic,” Godmother said. “Uncontrolled, unpredictable…I’d say it was the proximity of the sea and that comb that did it.”
“How can she have ocean magic?” Mother’s hand was tight around Anemone’s wrist. “She’s human!”
“She was born at sea.” Godmother waved a hand. “Some of it probably got into her then.”
Anemone straightened alertly, for never before had Godmother hinted anything about her origins, always changing the subject whenever it threatened. But Godmother said no more on the matter. “Don’t use that comb anymore,” she advised Mother. “Or, at least, not within sight of the sea. That ought to suppress the magic—for now.”
“For now?” Mother’s eyes were huge.
Godmother spread her hands helplessly. “It’s ocean magic. That’s unpredictable stuff, in humans. And it may grow stronger with certain tides.”
For a long time, though, Anemone’s tide was out.
Mother ceased to use the sea comb for her hair, though she did not give it back to Godmother: it was the symbol of their covenant. It went into a drawer, and Anemone used a wooden comb. No more magical poetry came to her as her hair grew ever longer and she herself tall and willowy, hips and breasts beginning to curve. Now travelers to and from the city stopped to stare in admiration at the lovely girl who waved to them from the side of the road, or whose voice rang out with unexpected sweetness over the crash of the waves.
In her fourteenth year, the King died. The city, and the palace at its heart, flew black banners, and the ships all lowered their flags. Anemone, at her Mother’s side on the crowded city street, watched with wide eyes as the draped coffin went past. There were no tears among the spectators; the King’s ruthlessness and greed had been known all over the kingdom and led to much hardship for his people. However, no one held out much hope for his son, the new King: his green eyes were dry at the royal funeral, and his mouth was hard.
On their way home, walking along the cliff, Anemone suddenly lifted her head and looked out over the clouded sea to the distant sparkle of sunlight on the horizon.
“Alone, the new Queen weeps—
Ambition ever was her husband’s love.
The new King laughs as he drinks wine:
A toast to the future, the past forgotten.”
Anemone blinked into focus, to see Mother’s stricken face. “Oh. I’m sorry.”
“We don’t even have that comb.” Mother’s voice shook.
“I don’t think it needs the comb anymore,” said Anemone. “Just the sea.” She looked out at the ocean, the poem’s knowledge once more settling into her mind. “It’s true, though,” she said sadly. “The Prin—the King never loved his wife. And he doesn’t care that his father’s dead.”
Mother yanked at her wrist, grip like a claw. “Never do this in front of others!” she cried. “Never! And tell no one of it.”
Anemone fought down a sob. “I don’t know if I can control it,” she said in a tiny voice. “It just happens.”
“There must be some way!”
But there was not. Anemone’s gift was in full tide, and now there was no stopping the bursts of poetry that came out at unexpected moments: glimpses of the future, peeks into the past. Anemone might look at a passing ship and predict its loss, with all hands; she might see an ancient crone go by and recite a poem detailing her son’s life as a pirate. Once, almost disastrously, she recited a verse about one of Mother’s dealers in front of him, saying that his missing wife still hated him. Mother soon stopped taking her into the city altogether.
Still Anemone could not keep from the sea. Its voice called her; its tides pulsed in her blood. Still she came down to sit on the jetty in the evening, absorbed in the motion of the waves, in the gleam of sunset on the waters. And sometimes Godmother would join her there, emerging with a surge of froth, ready to talk.
It was such a relief to unburden herself. Anemone might weep, detailing what her magic had made her say this week. Godmother would run a comb of shell through her hair, smoothing out her fear and unhappiness. “This doesn’t have to be who you are, you know,” she said. “It isn’t that much of a curse.”
Anemone sighed. She was by now a tall girl of nineteen, old for a maiden. But she dared not go to a husband. “That’s not what people will say if they find out. They’ll say I’m a…” She trailed off.
“A witch?” Godmother finished. “Yes, the land people aren’t kind to witches, are they…” Godmother turned her around again. Anemone faced the sea. She drew in a breath, luxuriating in the smack of salt and the hint of depths. The sun was just setting, a blaze of purple and red.
“Rumor is a bird-she has wings
And has flown to the palace free.
Tomorrow she will return,
With news for me.”
Godmother froze. “What did you say, child?”
Anemone shook her head as the knowledge settled like silt on the sea bottom. “Someone’s coming tomorrow.”
“Who is it?” She’d never heard Godmother’s voice so sharp.
“I—I don’t know.” The knowledge slipped from her mind. “It’s…it’s someone important. Dangerous.”
After a moment, Godmother resumed combing. “I think,” she said, “you should probably hide away tomorrow.”
But when Anemone woke the next morning, it was already too late.
A royal carriage waited outside the cottage. Mother stood by the door, dazed and frightened. A royal messenger, resplendent in his red coat, loomed in the kitchen.
“You are Anemone?” His voice was like a stagnant pool.
“Y-yes,” she managed.
“His Royal Majesty summons you.” The messenger held up a scroll of paper, written in an elegant hand and stamped with the royal seal at the bottom. “You’re to accompany me at once.” The messenger turned to Mother. “Go pack her things.”
“How long will she be gone, sir?” Mother asked in a terrified, quavering voice.
“As long as the King wishes,” the messenger said indifferently. “Now hurry up.”
Anemone could muster no protest, make no resistance, as, inexorable as a riptide, he grasped her arm and pulled her out of the house. He pushed her into the carriage, where she found herself shivering on a horsehair seat. A moment later, a miserable little package of her belongings was thrown in. The coachman spoke to his horses, and the carriage began to move.
Anemone leaned out, desperately seeking Mother, a desolate figure already growing small behind them. Then the carriage rounded a bend, and the cottage was gone.
The carriage traversed the city and clattered into a small courtyard behind the palace. The gate clanged shut behind. The King’s valet was already waiting at the door; he escorted Anemone up a back staircase to a small parlor where the King waited.
He sat in a velvet chair, a thin man with graying black hair and an expressionless face. His eyes shone a startling green, cold as ice, against his cinnamon skin, as Anemone clumsily curtsied.
“You are Anemone?” His voice was as cold as his eyes.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Anemone whispered.
The King stood and paced over to her. A hand under her chin forced her to look him in the eye. Anemone blinked. There was something in the King’s face that was strange, almost—familiar. The King frowned, as though he too was uncomfortable, and let go.
“They say you are a seer,” he said. “That you can see the past and future, and tell of them in verse.”
“I don’t see Your Majesty,” Anemone said. “It…just comes to me. Sometimes. In the presence of the ocean.”
“The ocean…” The King went to a shelf, where he removed a curiously worked seashell. He turned back to her. Putting the electrum mouthpiece to his lips, he began to play.
The atmosphere grew dense and caressing: the light was languid, blue-green and wavering. Weeds waved around Anemone; strange shelled creatures crawled on the seafloor. The music whispered into her mind, held her buoyant, unthinking. And, murmuring along the currents, came the King’s question: “Who among my courtiers is plotting against me?”
Anemone sang the response: she felt the verse form in her and then float free. She could no more have stopped it than stopped her hair drifting or her gills fluttering…
Anemone gasped for breath. The light was blinding; she fell to her knees in the sudden deluge of gravity in the silent room. “What…what—?”
“That was a water-flute.” The King barely looked up from the paper he wrote on, the shell beside him. “An artifact of the sea folk. It invokes the ocean—to great effect, it would seem.” He contemplated what he’d written. “Hmm.”
Anemone climbed to her feet. “What did I say?” It was terrifying not to recall.
“Nothing that need concern you.” The King rang a bell and a footman appeared at the door. “Lock her in one of the guestrooms. Assign her a maid, but don’t let her leave.” He tapped the paper. “I believe I have something to verify among certain of my courtiers.”
Anemone was too stunned to make any resistance as the footman escorted her to a small room under the eaves, and the lock clicked closed.
A maid came in with food, but Anemone heard no news until nightfall, when the King himself arrived. He was almost smiling. “Well, well,” he said, “it seems you will be very useful, Anemone.”
“What happened? Your Majesty?” she added hastily.
“My agents searched the apartments of Count Feria, whose name you so thoughtfully provided. There were indeed incriminating papers. Feria’s in my dungeon now, awaiting questioning.”
Anemone shuddered, thinking of the trouble she’d brought down on another. “You have your answer,” she whispered. “Now let me go!”
“Oh, but you have such an amazing talent!” The King held up the water-flute. “And I have so many more questions.”
“No!” But the King was already playing, and the ocean flooded into the room once more…
After that, Anemone was the King’s prisoner.
She was allowed to roam the palace, as long as a guard was with her, but she could not pass the gates; and when the King summoned her, she had to attend him immediately. It was generally in the small parlor, where he would play the water-flute, put her into a trance, and ask his questions.
“Which tax will yield the best income? Which of my cousins covets my throne? When will my wife conceive?” And Anemone, drifting in the oceanic dream, would open her mouth and let the truth emerge, unable to stop herself. As she reentered the waking world, she would hear his quill scratching out whatever poem she’d recited. He never showed her the results, but always dismissed her, with no more consideration than he would have shown a dog.
It was like a nightmare—only she couldn’t wake. She longed for home, for Mother and Godmother, for the sea—the real sea, not the waking dream the King forced on her. In her restless walks around the palace, she tried to find escape routes; but the iron-faced guard was always there, and the corridors were lined with dozens of his colleagues. The courtiers watched her constantly too, their whispers following her like a current; there was no place she was unobserved.
A month went by. Anemone thought she’d die of loneliness. She saw the expression in the Queen’s eyes whenever they passed in the corridors; and the expressions of the servants and courtiers too. She knew what they all thought she and the King were doing together, and the King knew it too.
“Such filthy minds courtiers have.” He laughed contemptuously, face limned by the candlelight that evening. “But you’re too young for my tastes.” He regarded her thoughtfully. “Though you do remind me of a certain woman from my past…”
Anemone had no desire to hear about the King’s previous amours. “Please, Your Majesty,” she said, “at least let me visit my mother!”
“Impossible,” he said calmly. “The Spring Ball is a mere two weeks from now, and after that the court journeys to the Summer Palace.”
“You’re taking me, too?” Anemone gasped.
“Of course. I’m hardly going to give up my own magic seer, now am I?” The King waved her away. “Now get to your room. There’s jewels awaiting you, and the dressmaker will see you tomorrow. You must look your best for the ball.”
The Spring Ball was a marvelous event. The courtiers filled the ballroom as the sun canted west, shafts of golden light glittering on jewels, pearls and priceless gowns. An orchestra played as ladies fluttered their fans and gentlemen exchanged greetings. The King sat in a pearl-sewn chair, resplendent beside his Queen, and accepted the homage of his guests. Soon the dancing would begin.
Anemone drifted through the crowd like a mournful ghost, in a new gown and borrowed jewels. She contemplated her situation with utter despair. The King was never going to let her go. Why would he, when he could play her like his water-flute, and use her gift to persecute his enemies, secure his throne, and squeeze more gold from his people? She would be his prisoner forever. She would never see Mother or Godmother again.
“May I have this dance?”
Anemone blinked at the King. Darkness had fallen outside, and the orchestra picked up a louder, more insistent tune. The courtiers had obviously just finished one dance and were reforming for another. Lost in misery, she hadn’t noticed the ball starting.
“I don’t know court dances,” she said.
The King took her hands. “You’ll learn.”
The crowd murmured as the King led Anemone to the top of the dance. “Smile,” he ordered. “My dancing with you is quite an honor.”
Anemone said nothing to this.
The King whirled her out and pulled her close. “Yes,” he said, eyes boring into her. “Yes, you do remind me of her.”
Anemone stared into the King’s green, green eyes. “Remind you of who, Your Majesty?”
At that moment, a huge crack rang out. The ballroom doors slammed open. The orchestra squealed to a halt, and Anemone and the King turned with the crowd to face the outlandish figure standing in the doorway.
It was a woman, with shark-black eyes and a pinched white face, hair a straggling green, her dress as rough as a peasant’s, secured with a belt of green. Anemone caught her breath at the sight of her, and at another woman following close.
Mother hurried to Anemone’s side, cutting through the crowd. “I’m sorry, my girl,” she whispered, hugging her close. “I’m sorry I didn’t save you.”
“Not as sorry as I.” Godmother hobbled forward on her clumsy, magic-hewn feet, wincing as the spell sent daggers of pain through her legs. She glared at the King. “Time to put a stop to this, Your Majesty. Or would you make a slave of your own daughter?”
A gasp ran through the court. Anemone’s eyes flew to the King. His face had turned dead white, and in that pallor Anemone saw the truth: she was a pale-skinned reflection of this man who now stared at the Sea Witch in utter horror. “My…?” He gaped at Anemone. “Her? Anemone—this girl is her daughter?”
“Yes. Didn’t think that would come back to haunt you, did you?” Godmother cackled. Her gaze sought Anemone’s, turning fathomless and sorrowful. “I’m sorry, Anemone. Much of this was my doing.”
Anemone gasped, as bewildered as her father. “But…how…?”
“It was my fault.” Godmother shook her head. “I should have told you before.”
“Told me what?”
Mother placed the pearl-embellished comb in her hair. “Sing, Anemone.”
“Yes,” said Godmother. “Recite your history. Reveal the truth at last!”
She began to sing. Not a tune, not words: but the limitless voice of the ocean, the tides and waves, washing and roaring through the hall. The magic worked in Anemone: she felt her gift rise at the music, under her own command at last. And, opening her mouth, she began the story of her birth.
No one in the hall could move, nor stop their ears, nor forget a single word, as Anemone sang.
Once, Anemone told them, a princess of the sea folk fell in love with a human prince she half-glimpsed through the water. Fell in love with the ideal of him, rather, with no idea of his true character. Besotted, she went to the Sea Witch, who bargained away a pair of legs in exchange for the princess’s voice. Silent, the princess went on land, to spark love in the prince’s breast.
But there was no love in this prince, though he was quick enough to bed the gorgeous mute. She was a mere diversion, until his intended bride arrived. The sea princess mourned her ill fortune into the ocean, and her five sisters bargained away their hair for a knife that would cut the prince’s throat and restore the princess’s true form. (At Godmother’s waist, the green belt glistened.)
But the princess was too weakened, despairing and in love to use it. She threw herself off the prince’s honeymoon ship into the water, where she dissolved into foam…and left something of herself behind.
For, unbeknownst to herself, the princess had been with child. The moment her mother seethed and frothed away, the tiny seed of the child came into contact with the ferocious vital power of the ocean and formed immediately into a newborn human baby.
She might have drowned then, the baby, if not for the Sea Witch. The Witch had watched, aghast at what she’d wrought. Sick with guilt, she caught up the child and took her to the shore, where an impoverished widow was ready to make a bargain…
“And here I stand before you all,
The King’s daughter and a mermaid’s too:
Born of lust, selfishness and folly.
But I am not the sum of my parents’ sins
And I will no longer be my father’s slave.”
Silence reigned absolute when Anemone finished. The court gazed vacantly, the knowledge of the song soaking into their minds as it soaked into Anemone’s.
“Anemone,” said Godmother into the quiet, “I am so sorry. I…I tried to make it right.”
Anemone turned to her and took her cold, hoary hand. “I know you did—Godmother.” She gave the Sea Witch’s hand a squeeze, and held out her other hand for Mother. The three women stood a moment, linked.
Godmother broke off to glare at the King, who stood still bespelled. “How should we punish this one?”
Anemone regarded her father, the appalled expression growing in his ensorcelled eyes. “He’s seen himself for what he is. That’s punishment enough.” She took her mothers’ hands again. “Let’s go. Far away from here.”
And they turned and left the hall, slipping easily between the enspelled courtiers, and away.
The King retained his throne, of course; it would take more than a magic song to remove him. But he fought no more wars and imposed no more taxes on his people, seeming always in shadow. As Anemone had said, he’d seen himself for what he was and what he’d done; his arrogance was permanently shaken, his power cracked. He could only gnash his teeth in rage and frustration at the new rumors swirling through the city.
For a marvelous seer had come to live on a distant island, people said. She lived with her mother in a small stone house on a cliff above the crashing waves, through which the ocean’s voice rang constantly. You could pose her any question: she need only listen to the sea a moment before singing a poetic answer that was always right. She was amassing fame and fortune, people said—and not only on land. For the sea folk could be seen swimming to the island, dim shapes swathed by long green hair, to question the seer. That, above all, tormented the King unendurably as he sat alone in his cold parlor, brooding over what might have been, what he could have had.
But if Anemone thought of the King, it was only fleetingly. She was free now, and so was her gift, now fulfilled. The voices of the sea folk rang along her island, and Mother’s laughter sounded on the wind. And every evening, when the sun turned the sea to gold, Godmother came from the depths to comb her hair and laugh together while the waves surged, forever changing, forever constant.
Rose Strickman is a fantasy, sci-fi and horror author living in Seattle, Washington. Previous work has appeared in the anthologies That Hoodoo, Voodoo That You Do, Sword and Sorceress 32 and UnCommon Evil. Please feel free to connect at https://www.facebook.com/rose.strickman.3