The difference between you and the humans, when it comes right down to it, is not in the protrusions of gnarled bone and horn that jut from the apex of your skull, or in the coarse fur that contrasts so spectacularly with the other parts of you, the parts that are mere human skin, or in your roar, or your pain, or their avarice.
The difference between you and the humans is that they all of them think they are deserving of something merely by fact of being born, while you understand existence does not equal right.
You can want until the end of your days; that does not make the wanted thing inevitable, or deserved.
But who cares about humans, anyway? You wouldn’t ever think of them except they keep calling on you. As much as they fear, their fascination is greater. Some of them think of you as a holy thing. Some of them think of you as an evil thing. Some, rarely, think of you as both at once. But always the thing. The object.
They never let you be the actor of your own life. And if you opened your mouth full of blunt teeth, if you told them, I am me, I am aware, I am here, well, then that would only make them more afraid.
And you are so tired of fear.
The King’s Ugly Daughter
My mother never told me she resented me for what was not between my legs, but I knew it all the same.
It was written in the way she sewed my clothes tighter than they needed to be because I was so much bigger than the other girls, never once in my life the right size. It was in the way she tugged ferociously at my dull, limp hair as she tried to dress it to fit the vagaries of fashion. It was in the way she looked at the women in our village who had sons—with a greedy, hollow hunger. It was in the way she drank clear liquor and threw small stones into the sea on many nights when she thought I was asleep, and the way she screamed at the moon to bring him back, bring him back, she would try again a thousand times if only he would come back.
On the day we learned of the king’s wedding, my mother beat me ten strokes across the shoulders for letting the bread burn.
On the day the news came that the queen had borne her first son, my mother threw a jug of oil at my head, and I slipped in the shards that littered the floor as she chased me out, and I slept out of doors for three nights until a neighbor sent me home and my mother smiled wanly with tears in her eyes and hugged me close.
On the day I first bled, she told me who my father was.
I already knew. I had known for a very long time. But still I ducked my head low, and though she never said “Oh, child, if only you were a son,” I heard it all the same.
They send you their beautiful ones, the ones they think are most worthy, and you always wonder why.
Not why they send them. That motivation is easy enough to parse. They think the sacrifice will appease you, keep you from the rage and destruction and the evil of their own hearts that they see reflected in your beastly skin.
But why the beautiful? Why do they think you would have any use, or any desire, for these quaking children with their symmetrical features and their pale, unblemished skin? They come to you reeking of fear, their eyes bright and white in the darkness, every seven years. And what are you supposed to do with such burdens?
The answers spill slowly from their mouths, the bravest of the boys and girls stuttering and stumbling over words you only ever half-learned. Those above, the humans, they think you will eat these lovely sacrifices. As if fourteen small bodies could sustain you for so many years. They think you will rape and ravish them, that you will draw amusement from their torture in your tangle of underground caves.
It would be insulting, if you cared.
Anyway, you are an herbivore.
You cannot speak the human tongue, the language you half remember hearing from inside your mother’s womb. Your throat and tongue and lips will not form the sounds. So you teach the pretty children to respond to your gestures, and as each group grows older they remain to speak to the new arrivals, to teach them, and every seven years things get a bit easier.
You do not eat the children. But there are unspoken rules. They can never return to the light and the day. That is the way of the world. This life has been chosen for them despite their will, and so they must live it.
You teach them to cut tunnels into the soft earth. You teach them to carve art into the walls, whatever art they please. You teach them to survive on the mundane sacrifices that fill the long stretches between seventh years. Grain and wine and grass and air. And when the newest have settled, you go apart from them once more, because you generally prefer to be alone.
The King’s Ugly Daughter
My father was a young man sowing his wild oats when he had my mother. But he was very drunk, and he claimed to catch my mother cavorting with a wild man after she had left him sleeping off his winesick head in her bed. He would only claim me, he told her and everyone else who would listen, if I was a son.
For proof of paternity, he buried his cloak and his sword in a secret place that he said only a male heir could find. As if a penis were to prove a dowsing rod. At least then it would have some use, I suppose.
I found the secret place when I was seven.
It was a quiet glen, green and dense and wild. I used to go there, sometimes, when I needed to sit alone with my thoughts. Even wild girls sometimes need a place to be still.
As a further challenge, my father had buried his hoard beneath a large rock, one that only a man in his full strength could lift.
I managed the feat when I was fifteen.
Understand, I did not want the king’s inheritance. He had sons now, legitimate ones, and I cared nothing for the mythical man who dodged questions of paternity by burying trinkets under rocks.
But I wasn’t very good at being a girl, not the way it was spelled out that I should be. I was tall, and broad, and brash, and loud. I would not be the object of any man’s lust, even were he blind, and I would not be a gentle mother. So I took the cloak, and I took the sword, and decided I would be a hero.
My mother begged me not to leave. She did not want the shame of it, her ugly child running around the world in search of glory.
Her tears were too selfish. They came far too late.
I headed east with nothing but my feet to guide me, in search of other monsters.
You wonder, sometimes, what it would be like to be part of a pair, a couple, a set.
If there were another being like you in the world, could you find peace in their presence?
Or would the two of you hate each other for being reflections of one another, forcing you each to confront your ugliest parts?
Sometimes, the pale, symmetrical children try to come to you, offer up their bodies. They have convinced themselves that you have a need, and they can fill it. Or they want to be special, elect among their peers. Or they want to know what it’s like to be loved by a beast, soft flesh trembling under hard, callused skin.
You turn them each away, gently or roughly as the case calls for it, but still, sometimes, you wonder.
Your mother once loved a monster, even if it was under guise of a wicked spell, a caprice of the gods for revenge against a foolish king. Even if it was only for a moment.
In your world below, the offerings age and grow. They form a community, pair off with each other. Sometimes, you hear them gasping and begging for release in the dark.
There was even a baby once, although you aren’t sure what happened to it. Babies aren’t very adaptable, as far as you know. They would find it difficult to live in this world below, subsisting on air and wine and darkness. Even you, you once had a cradle far above. You once had a blind nurse who rocked you side to side, and fed you milk, and sang beautiful human songs. Before you were dragged down here in chains, imprisoned alone.
You should not remember these things so clearly, but you do.
In the world above, when you are close enough to it, you can hear the next batch of sacrifices being prepared. Children, presumably as beautiful as all the rest, being taught to sing, to paint their faces in the ritual ways, to not ruin themselves with tears.
You wonder, how long will it go on? How long will they want to appease you in ways you never asked for? When will they decide instead that you should be ended, that the gods have forgotten about you and that it is finally time to cut you down?
The King’s Ugly Daughter
The wide world contained countless monsters, some even worse than me. I stormed mountain strongholds and snuck down ravines. I cut off heads and made a necklace of terrific and terrible teeth. My skin grew hard and brown from wind and sunlight. And I hungered.
Oh, I hungered.
Not physically. At least, not the way you might imagine. I had my fill of feasts in every village I saved, I had plain fare for the road that stuck hard to my ribs, I had good hands and eyes and scavenging skills born as child, when I hid from my mother. Though my labors refined my shape into something lithe and quick, I was still large, still voracious.
What I really hungered for was glory and fame. Whenever a community had a problem with serpents that spoke in riddles, or two-headed fish with fangs, or dogs who walked like men, I wanted them to call for me. I wanted the entire world to see what I was, and beg for me, and only me, to save them.
I defeated the Mistress of Stone and released the spell on her statuary prisoners. I cut down the fire-breathing chimaera. Eventually, I made my way to the court of my father.
He knew exactly who I was, and not only because of the presence of cloak and sandals and sword. We shared a look, the king and I. And though I had no power, I had strength and courage, and I could have demanded many things of that man. I could have demanded riches, a husband, a crown.
Instead, I approached him politely and asked him for more monsters. I had cut a swath across the world, and there were fewer and fewer to destroy.
The king told me he knew of a land to the south, where a bull-headed demigod terrorized the people. I think he hoped that I would seek the beast and die. Instead, I planned to seek the beast and prevail, adding ever more fame to my tally.
The man who was my father reached a shaky truce with me, and gave me many instructions on how to carry myself upon my return. I did not plan on ever returning, but I let him go through the motions all the same.
I went south.
They had a ritual there. Beautiful boys and beautiful girls, the best assets that they had to offer, sacrificed to the beast to keep their world in order.
But while I was not beautiful, my reputation preceded me. They hoped that if I killed the beast, their curse would be lifted forevermore. Whatever I wanted, they would lay at my feet, if I only did this thing.
On a bright day in spring, I inspected their sacrificial youths.
The task ahead did not need beauty. It needed bravery.
I chose for broadness of shoulder, I chose for strength of arm. I chose for fleetness of foot and for loyalty and for ardor. The limp, pallid beauties went back to their homes, reprieved. I built up a war party, ready to slaughter the beast below for no other reason than that I could.
Night and day are distinct, even down below. You were named for the stars, though you have never seen them. Your mother, when you floated soft inside her, told you stories of the stars, and you think, even now, that you can imagine them. What they must taste like in the world above.
One of your humans carves constellations in their piece of wall. Maps of the infinite sky. You like to imagine them glinting, glowing, warm.
Another seventh year has come to a close. It is night, and tomorrow will come, and with it, fourteen more beautiful children to feed and soothe and teach. You make your way back to the company, as close to the surface as you can ever get in these tunnels. Something feels different, this time. You are not ready for different. Change means an ending, and you are not ready for the end.
But there is nothing to do but wait. And so you hunker down with your human children, some of them not so young as they once were, and you sleep, and you dream, and you wait.
The entrance to the caves is a small hole covered by uneven boards. You could break through it anytime, if you wanted to. If that were the way things were done. But it is not, and you do not like to be closer to this doorway than you need to be.
Morning comes, and light stabs through the boards, brighter than you are accustomed to. You sniff and snarl, the way you are supposed to. You wait.
You can hear the songs above. They are the same as they ever are; some of the children beside you, remembering, quake and sway.
But then the boards are opened, and everything is different.
This is a new type of sacrifice, led by a woman who screams as if she would eat your heart raw.
The King’s Ugly Daughter
We wore the blood of a sacrificial bull on our faces, on our bare arms.
We ran toward the beast, our eyes adjusting to the dark.
Attack him at once; no way could he manage fourteen blades, fourteen pairs of fists and feet.
We had not expected that there would be anyone else alive down below.
We had not expected the children, fierce and feral, running at our weapons with their empty hands outstretched.
It was a slaughter messier than any of us had bargained for, as our blades punched through soft flesh, ripped at pale eyes. They tore at our skin, but they were small and lovely where we were large and hard. Bones cracked and blood flowed. I thought the terrible scream came from my own throat, until I realized that it came from the bull.
He was enormous. The dark gave extra shadow to his shape. Hot breath fogged from his muzzle. But I looked into the darkness and I could see his eyes. They were human eyes. Bright blue, like the infinite sky, and wet with tears.
The monster screamed. And then he ran.
My heart leapt in my chest. I had no light, I had no knowledge of these caves, but also no choice but to follow.
“Wait!” my confederates called after me. “You’ll be lost. We must block off each tunnel one by one.”
There was no time. I was not built for waiting. And his eyes had been human eyes.
So I ran after him, the blood and gore on my left hand marking a trail against the wall. I could not see well in that dark, but perhaps the blood would suffice to save me all the same.
You run because you cannot bear to watch your humans die for you. No, you want to tell them. Do not do this thing. Your fate has been changed. Let these warriors save you, let them take you back to the world above, where you will finally live free.
You run because you are a coward. You never claimed to be anything else, no matter what your outside form.
You run because the leader, the woman who did not look like any other woman-shaped creature you have ever seen, sent a pang through your unexpected heart.
Deeper and deeper into the maze. Past the constellations and the figures of kings and queens and gods. Down, down, into the dark center of the earth, where you can be alone. Finally, forever, alone.
Except she follows.
Except she stands there mastering her breath, and then says, “What are you, truly?” and you have no answer to give that she would understand.
The King’s Ugly Daughter
Sometimes I look back on my life and see all the points where I diverged from the path, where the story took a turn it was not supposed to.
It goes back to the very first point of my life, where I slithered out of my mother missing the only part she valued.
If I had been a son, I would certainly still have been a warrior, but I might also have been a king. I would have dispatched this monster as I did all the others, and then could have gone back to my father’s house, waving the wrong sails, watching him die for my mistake. I would not even have been sorry, would have done it intentionally, and then I would have displaced my young half-brothers and then I would have had my crown, and a name for the ages.
But I was not a son.
If I had been a proper daughter, small and silent, I might have given my life in service to the gods, or I might have turned to domestic pursuits and kept house for some average man, bearing him average children in quick succession until I died of it.
But I was not a proper daughter.
I was in-between, outside, and it struck me, looking at the monster in front of me, that we were in that way the same. He was in-between too.
His back was against a wall; there was nowhere further to flee. I stood before him, breath stabbing through my lungs, and I saw my future splinter into two distinct paths.
In the one, I took his head, sawed through the thick stem of his neck until it filled my hands, and dragged it by those incredible horns, inch by inch, back to the surface. I became the hero I’d always wanted to be. I had lovers at my beck and call, gold and jewels and wine and song. My name was spoken for generations, in tones of hushed awe, and in people’s imaginations I lived at the level of the gods.
In the other, I stayed in the dark and looked into those sky-blue eyes and tried to understand what this thing I felt was. What would come after, if anything came at all, was less clear.
I had no reason to want the second path. But I did. Oh, I did.
In that dark place, I dropped my weapon, and held up my empty hands, and the paths of the past and future collapsed in on themselves until there was only now.
You never knew you could feel loss, because you did not know you had anything worth losing. But your humans, your family, they laid down their lives for yours, and it cuts, sharp.
Now the monster stands before you, the leader of the massacre that has taken away everything you ever had.
She is beautiful, and she is terrible, and she is opening her bloodstained hands.
You want to ask her for the stars; that she will let you have this one bright thing before your empty death.
But you cannot form the words, and your voice is nothing more than a low, broken bellow.
She comes to you with open arms, and everything changes. Something ends, and something new begins.
Heather Morris is a cyborg librarian living in North Carolina. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Apex, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places. You can find her on Twitter @NotThatHeatherM.
Extinctions, by Lina Rather – After your mother went to prison, you stayed with your grandmother, and after she died in her sleep, you went to the city. Odd girls on their own in the city come to bad ends, but you come from a long line of people who made their livings fixing and killing, and that sort of work never goes out of style. These days you have work that suits you better, in a tattoo shop in the low-rent part of the city where you spend most of your days doing flash and sweethearts’ names.
Hic Sunt Leones, by L.M. Davenport – It’s true that the house walks. It’s also true that you can only find it if you don’t know about it. Once, a boy in my high-school art class drew a picture of it, but didn’t know what he’d drawn; the thing in the center of his sketchpad had ungainly, menacing chicken legs caught mid-stride and a crazed thatch roof that hung askew over brooding windows. I knew it was the house right away because his eyes had that sleepy, traumatized look that people get once they’ve seen the house. I was used to seeing this look, mostly on my mother’s face.
Spirit Tasting List for Ridley House, April 2016, by Alex Acks Welcome, honored guest, to Ridley House; the acquisition of this charming 18th-century Palladian Revival villa has been something of a coup for our club and we are beyond pleased to present a wide array of tastes for your pleasure, if for a limited time. Take a moment to enjoy the grounds, particularly the stately elms with their attendant garlands of Spanish moss, and the mist rising from the ponds and nearby irrigation canals.