The following short story was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event–Terrible Princess: A Celebration of the Fantasy Genre. Actress Elena Zazanis read an excerpt of The Lake-Demon. Video from the event can be viewed here. Please enjoy.
The creature let out a shriek, but that wasn’t what made Thea jump – it was the rattle of teeth and claws on the bars of the cage as it bit and scrabbled wildly, as if somehow it might be able to rip apart the thick iron, if it fought against it fiercely enough. It did this for a full minute, and Thea winced every time the teeth hit the metal. Finally it gave up, beat its wings once, twice in rage, and shrieked again.
It wasn’t a demon, not really, she decided as she stood there. It had returned to biting and clawing at the bars. Lake-demon isn’t the right word, she thought. It’s more like a fish. She frowned. No, not like a fish, more like a bird with no feathers. No, not a bird either. A lizard.
It released the bar from its mouth and let out a loud, outraged squawk, staring at Thea as if it had been a pointed squawk, meant specifically for her. Alright, it’s a little of all three, she decided – fish, bird and lizard. And she supposed there was something wrong about that, and perhaps that was why it had earned the name “lake-demon”. It gave another flap of its wings and another shriek, only this one was drawn out, more like a scream.
“Lady,” she heard a voice say behind her, full of the gentle outrage needed at finding a king’s daughter in the dungeon. She turned to see one of the guards. His face was familiar and he often smiled at her when they passed each other in the courtyard, but she realized she had never known his name, and it made her sad for a brief moment. “Lady, this is no place for you,” he said as he drew up next to her, hesitating before taking the last step, the one that put him within feet of the cage.
“I wanted to see it,” Thea said. The guard opened his mouth as if to give another reprimand, but then closed it.
“Is it everything you imagined – or feared?” he asked finally, in a soft voice.
Thea frowned. She hadn’t had to use her imagination to see the lake-demons, not for many years now. She had seen them in the flesh before – once. And she had never feared them since.
She had been swimming in the lake, with her nurse watching from the shore. Thea came up only for air, and each time she did her nurse scolded her for staying under for too long, but Thea said nothing and dived again. The sun was brilliant and hot, so much so that she could see fairly well when she opened her eyes under water, at least well enough to spot the lake-demon.
It rose from the depths, close enough that she could see the way its wings beat in the water as if it were flying, and the way its legs rolled back and forth in a galloping motion, and the way the long tail writhed powerfully behind it like an eel. Thea windmilled her hands to keep herself under, not wanting to miss a second, but her breath ran out and she had to rise to the surface.
She emerged just as the creature emerged, and her breath caught as she watched the transition from water to sky. The wings continued with steady strokes bearing it up and into the air, the legs continued to gallop and the tail continued surging as it rose up and over the tree tops. Then Thea’s nurse screamed, and ruined it.
Thea was not permitted to swim, or even walk along the lakeshore, for the remainder of the summer. And when the next summer came around, she was told that she was too old to go swimming bare anymore. So she spent that summer, and every one after it, inside the castle, sweating under layers of fine clothes.
She remembered the lake-demon, though, or maybe it was more that things would remind her of it. They were strange things, like when she saw a horse stamp its foot, or when she watched a leaf fall from a tree. It was the way it moved, she decided finally. The way it broke from water into air as if they were both the same. As if everyone should be able to move so freely, flying and running and swimming at the same time.
There was another clatter as the thing bit at the bars viciously, moving its head up and down so that its teeth ran along the metal with a hair-raising scrape.
“See how it would devour everything,” the guard said at her side. “It is fearsome,” he added with a shudder. “Imagine meeting one in the woods?”
Thea frowned. The thought of finding one in the woods didn’t scare her.
“I am not sure it wants to devour anything,” she said. “I think it wants to be free of its bars.” The creature’s eyes flicked to her as she spoke, and there was a fierce hatred in them that was almost human. It watched her while it chewed, as if it were imagining the bars were her bones. But still she felt no fear. I understand, she realized suddenly. That is why I am not afraid.
She had seen it before, or at least something like it – a wild, screaming thing inside herself. It was deep-down, so deep that she was able to dance at balls and accept compliments from nobles with a still, smooth face, while the thing in her shrieked and clawed. It was so deep, in fact, that she was able to observe it calmly herself, the way she stood there before the cage, unruffled by the screaming and clanging of teeth and claws on bars. It is there, she thought. It exists, even if I forget sometimes.
“Why did they capture it?” she asked. “If its end is to be killed anyway – why capture it first?”
“They will use it to condition the horses,” the guard replied. “It would be a great thing, if our horses no longer feared them. The hunts would be more successful if we could go on horseback. We might kill the last of them.”
Thea nodded but said nothing.
Conditioning the horses to the lake-demon was a long process. Thea was glad it was long, though she knew it was foolish to be pleased – they would kill it just as dead now or later. But she had taken to visiting it, and she liked her time in the dungeon even though it was full of inhuman shrieks and clatters of teeth on iron. Each time she thought – perhaps this is the day it grows used to me, and settles down. Perhaps it will see I am not an enemy. But it never did. Every day it erupted into wing-beating, shrieking fits of fury at the sound of her footsteps down the hall.
The first step in conditioning was to put old blankets in the cage that they might pick up the scent, so that the horses would first grow used to the scent. Once the guards left, Thea would sneak down and watch as the creature shredded the blankets to ribbons. It ripped them in an almost methodical, determined way, as if it were pleased to finally have something to destroy, and it didn’t want to waste the opportunity.
After several weeks the horses no longer rolled their eyes wildly, or screamed their neighing screams at the smell of the lake-demon blankets. The next phase was to bring them to the demon itself. Thea watched from a corner of the dungeon, pressed up against the damp, dripping stone, as four men led the first horse inside, blindfolded so that it wouldn’t spook and hobbled so that it could only take small, dancing steps even if it did.
The lake-demon shrieked, and the horse let out a shrill neigh and began to rear and plunge as best it could with hobbled legs. The men jumped this way and that out of the way of the flying hooves. The fit continued for what seemed like hours to Thea, until finally the horse dropped from a rear, lowered its head to the floor and gave a great sigh, flanks dark with sweat and muscles shivering with fear and exhaustion. Thea wondered suddenly: if the horse can get used to the lake-demon, might the lake-demon get used to his bars? She went cold at the thought. She realized suddenly that she’d grown to believe that it never would, that it would always be biting and screaming, and it scared her to think that it might one day settle down, curl into a small ball in the corner with dull, lifeless eyes, and forget that it had ever known was it was to fly or swim or run.
Thea stopped going to the dungeon after that. It had been getting harder to sneak out, anyway, and she supposed it couldn’t hurt to get through a few days without disappointing her governess. She never gave excuses for why she left during embroidery hour, or music hour, or even mealtimes. She simply waited until the governess – Lady Amelia – was busy speaking to a servant, or one of the other noble’s daughters – and then she left. When questioned afterwards, she gave neither excuse or explanation for her absence.
Still she thought about the lake-demon. When she sat in front of the harp, playing the same song for the fifth time because she had made a mistake halfway through, she imagined that the strings were bars. When she sat on a soft couch embroidering a pillow, she imagined threading the lake-demon’s likeness instead of the usual pattern of dancing lords and ladies. When she sat in the dining hall, she made sure to sit at the far end, even though it was drafty, so that she could peer out the window at the lake beyond. Often Lady Amelia would address a question to her two or three times before Thea realized she was being spoken to, and she’d wrench her eyes away from the dark water with the odd realization that she had been imagining herself flying over it.
“Lady Amelia has been concerned,” Thea’s father, the king, said at their weekly meal. She dined with him every Friday afternoon. It was the time he made sure to set apart for her. But since she saw him little on the other six days of the week, the time was often full of long silences.
“It is her job to be concerned with me,” Thea said, keeping her eyes on her soup.
“Indeed.” The king sighed, something he would not do in front of nobles or servants. But he would do it in front of her. “Thea, I am concerned as well.”
“About Lady Amelia?”
The king sighed again. “Thea, do not play. About you.”
“What have I done wrong?” she asked evenly, eyes still on her soup.
“You – “ He began and then stopped. A long silence took over the room. “You are very quiet, Thea,” the king finished.
“Ought a lady be quiet?” She looked up as she said it, to see him staring at the wall past her, hands in front of his face with fingers pressed against fingers, as if in thought. He frowned.
“Yes, but – you do it differently. It is like – “ He paused again. “When you dance at the festivals, with the noblemen’s sons, it is like you are not there. It is like you don’t know them from anyone else in the room.”
I don’t, Thea thought to herself.
“It’s not good,” the king continued. “No man likes being treated so.”
“What would you have me do?”
“Smile more. Talk to them. Look them in the eye. It doesn’t have to every one, even pick out a few – but for God’s sake, don’t pick one of the lower-ranking ones, or the youngest sons. You can go on ignoring them.”
“Yes, sir,” Thea said, returning her eyes to her soup.
After that day, Thea returned to sneaking out, and even more boldly, sometimes two or three times in the same day. But she didn’t go to the dungeons. She knew the lake-demon was still there; she made sure to ask the Head Guard every morning. But she was afraid to step down the dripping stone steps and see the image that had come to her the last time: wings folded up, tail wrapped tight around the body, head on the ground, eyes glassy and defeated.
Instead she went to the west wall, which looked out on the lake. She would lean over the wall until she could look down the side of the castle to the black-blue water below, watch it lap up against the gray stone, leaving a thin film of pine needles at the waterline. She would imagine herself plunging off the wall, falling, falling, falling but then landing in the water and finally swimming, surging out and away from the castle with each kick of her legs. As the imaginary Thea kicked out further and further, her eyes would rise and follow, until she was squinting at the thin line of black on the horizon: the land across the lake. There was a castle there; she knew that, though it was too far away to see. Did they hunt lake-demons there? Or did they just watch them move through sky and water, the way she had watched her first one so long ago? Perhaps not all kingdoms were like hers.
Lady Amelia grew more annoyed with each day of absences, until her mouth was set in a permanent frosty, thin line when she looked at Thea, and she no longer bothered to ask where she had gone. The king remained distant, except on festival days when Thea caught him looking at her as she danced in the arms of the noblemen’s sons. He would smile encouragingly, and Thea’s insides would twist up. The Head Guard continued to answer her patiently every morning: “Yes, the creature is still in the dungeons,” until one morning, he had more to say.
“For today, yes,” he said, with a gleam in his eye. “But tomorrow we will dispose of the thing. We will do one more round, to make sure, but the horses have been tolerating it very well.”
“What time tomorrow?” Thea asked.
“After our regular duties. A little after sunrise.”
Thea skipped out on all of her activities that day, excusing herself from breakfast and never returning. The lake was still black-blue, the horizon beyond still a thin, black stripe, and still she felt an urge to jump as she stood at the wall. But she couldn’t enter into her imaginations the way she did every other day, picturing herself swimming off into the distance. She felt tied to the castle wall, as if the hem of her dress had mingled with the stone, trapping her where she stood.
She stayed anyway, looking out across the lake and wondering about the kingdom on the other side. She dropped her gaze to the water below and considered just how cold it might be. Summer was not so far off, but a chill lingered in the early mornings. That was why she was still wearing the thicker winter dresses, the ones that were heavy with layers and embellishments, that weighed on her when she walked and forced her to hold her shoulders in a way that made them ache.
That morning the dress she wore felt even heavier than usual. She played with the sleeve, which was thick with blue beading, like little drops of water, or scales, and she imagined taking the dress off – loosing the ties in the back, sliding her shoulders out and letting it drop to the stone at her feet. But the daydream didn’t stop there – it continued, so that after shedding the dress she was stepping to the side, and then closer to the edge of the wall, and then sailing over the wall – floating in the air, as if flying for a moment, before plunging into the water below with barely a ripple. She liked that daydream, even though the water looked cold and unfriendly, and so she stayed on the wall for longer than ever before, until the sun was low in the sky, ready to set.
It was that, the setting sun reflecting off the lake like fire, that brought her back to the present, and made her leave the wall. She passed the ground floor on her way down the steps, and then descended another level past the kitchens, and still another, and another, until the air grew cool and the stone walls slick and damp. She told herself that she was going for one last look, but with each level she passed on her way to the dungeons, she wondered if she wasn’t going for another purpose.
The cold air caught in her lungs once she reached the bottom of the stairs, reminding her of how it feels to be underwater when the last bit of breath runs out. It won’t matter either way, she told herself sternly. It won’t matter whether it’s given up, not if it’s going to be killed either way. But the silence, the absence of frantic shrieks and teeth on bars, cut through her like ice water. She gulped down a breath, told herself again that it didn’t matter, and stepped inside.
There was an explosion of sound even before she could orient herself, before her eyes could adjust to the dim torchlight. It was the familiar shrieking and clattering and flapping of wings, and once her eyes adjusted she saw the creature in the same place, behind the same bars. She breathed out in relief.
The lake-demon was thinner than before, limbs bony, muzzle sharp and angular, making it look even more unnatural than it already did. There were pale scars and scabs across its body, perhaps from rubbing and flailing against the bars.
There was a change to its eyes, as well, though it wasn’t the glassy, dull stare Thea had feared seeing. The defiance was still there, as hot as ever as it locked eyes with hers and chewed on the bars, but there was defeat mixed in as well. It was the look of someone who continues to fight not because of hope but because of hate.
It opened its mouth wide and cried, flapping its wings and thrashing its tail. Thea drew closer, not bothering to walk around the damp spots on the floor, or the dripping stones in the ceiling.
She drew closer than she ever had, close enough to see the demon’s black pupil dilated with rage, close enough to see the individual scales spilling across its face like a flow of water.
A daydream came to her, sharp and clear despite the distraction of the shrieks and cries. She saw herself reaching for the lock, unfastening the chain and opening the door. She saw the creature giving one last cry, one last thrash of its tail before sailing through the door, flying across the room and up the stairwell. She saw herself running after, clumsily in her heavy dress, tripping over the hem. She saw herself frantically untying the ties, stepping out of the dress and flying up the last of the stairs, reaching the castle wall just in time to see a black dot disappearing into the horizon as the demon escaped.
Her hands began to shake as she realized they were moving for the chain. The lake-demon fell silent, watching her with shrewd, beady eyes, as if it were just as surprised, as if wanting to see what she would do next.
What if it doesn’t go the way I saw, she thought, resting shaking fingers on the lock. What if it doesn’t fly straight out. She looked at the teeth, at the claws, at the rippling muscles under scales, at the small, hateful eyes. It could rip me apart, if it wanted to. She thought of the guard on the day they caught it – “Look how it would devour everything.”
Then let it, she thought suddenly with the same fierce hate she saw in the thing’s eyes. Let it end now, when I still feel alive. Let it end now instead of twenty, forty, sixty years from now, when my eyes go dull and glassy.
The lock was cold and slick from the damp, but after a few tries Thea was able to unfasten it. The lake-demon stayed silent the entire time, watching her as if fascinated. Her hand shook as she undid the latch to the cage, and her heart was pounding so fast she thought it might burst as she swung open the door.
There was a split second where the lake-demon and her were both still, eyes on each other instead of the open door of the cage. Then with a shriek it flew out, past her and out the door of the dungeon.
Thea followed, tripping and stumbling on her dress just like she’d foreseen. The cries of the lake-demon echoed around her as she followed, floating down and echoing in the small space of the stairwell so that it sounded she was following an entire flock of them.
She made it up one level before ripping off her slippers, which slid on the stone, making it impossible to get traction. She climbed two more levels after that before she reached behind her to untie the ties of her dress, still running as she did. After another level she got it unfastened. She shrugged the weight off of her shoulders, slipped out of the beaded fabric and continued up the stairs.
The air was cool but soft against her skin as she stepped off of the last step and onto the wall. The lake-demon was not yet a black dot on the horizon; she had run fast enough. She had caught up to him, almost. He was still close enough that she could see the outline of his tail writhing as if through water, and she could hear the rushing wind with each stroke of his wings. But with every second he drew further away, and she realized with a shock of despair that it was over – she’d never see it again, might not see another one as long as she lived. The despair grew as the lake-demon shrunk to nothing more than a silhouette against the blue sky, and then a dot, and then it was impossible to see at all.
Thea’s eyes dropped to the lake, to the dark water below. She saw herself plunging in, again, like she’d seen so many times before in her mind’s eye. Only then, she had simply sailed over the edge in something that was half-flying, half-jumping. But now, with the wall’s edge before her, the stone reaching up to her now-bare waist, she was not sure she’d be able to do it like that.
She brought her hands forward, let them rest lightly on the edge for a moment that was less hesitation than savoring the feel of the stone on her hands, the air on her skin. Then in a swift movement she heaved herself up, the stone cold against her hands, her legs, her stomach as she scrambled up.
She looked long at the horizon before she jumped. The lake-demon was gone, but the thin black line of land beyond, of the kingdom across the water, was still there, more solid and immoveable than the water that lapped at the stones below her.
She jumped, hands streamlined in front of her in a dive. As she soared down to the water below, she imagined it felt a bit like flying, perhaps a fraction of what the lake-demon must feel as it moves through the air, no ground under its feet. She was vaguely aware of hearing shouts as she fell, and realized as if remembering another lifetime that the guards must have seen her jump.
The cries went silent as she plunged into the water. She felt a split second of panic as she wondered whether she’d remember how to swim. But it may have just been the shock of the cold, because her feet started kicking before she realized she’d told them to. She swam for yards before finally coming up for air. The sudden explosion of sound, of alarmed shouts and whistles, as her head emerged, felt like as much of a shock as the cold water had been. She looked behind her quickly to see guards clustered at the wall, waving their arms and their spears. Then she faced forward, towards the thin black line across the lake. They’ll come after me, she realized. They’ll swim after me. But I’m bare, and they’ll have to swim with tunics weighing them down.
I can’t let them catch me, she thought. She took a deep breath and plunged back down into the water.