The Maiden Thief

“The Maiden Thief” by Melissa Marr is a dark fantasy novelette about a teenager whose town is plagued by the annual disappearances of girls and young women. Her father blames her when one of her sisters is one of the taken.

I don’t remember a time before girls vanished. The first one I heard about was April Shaw. I didn’t know her, only her name. I had just turned ten when she disappeared. I was fourteen when the taken was someone I knew. That was the year Jenna Adams didn’t make it home. No one did anything. Autumn meant harvest, a chill in the air—and another missing girl.

The taken are as young as fifteen and as old as thirty. They are vine-thin, heart-curvy, dark of eye and pale of hair, light-eyed and dark-skinned. There is no true pattern to who will be taken.

Despite that, I look for one. I cannot help it. The girls are always taken near my birthday, so I feel a strange kinship with them. Every spring, as the fields are tilled, I watch for bones as if this, at least, will give me some insight into the secret of the Maiden Thief. I walk the long way home, meandering along the roads, peering into freshly turned soil as if I’ll be the one to find the dead girls.

But spring fades into summer yet again this year, and we still have no answers.

Months and weeks pass, and the air eventually turns cool. No one seeks the killer. No one searches for the taken. We simply wait, knowing that inevitably autumn will come—and another girl will vanish.

As my sixteenth birthday draws near, I wait and watch like most of my classmates. He’s out there, studying us, thinking about who’s next. We’re all secretly whispering, “Not me.” We can’t meet each other’s eyes as the leaves start to drift to the ground.

Not ten minutes after I walk into the kitchen door, Karis tells me, “Today, at the market, I heard that Ella—the girl with the pretty voice and the red shoes—was late on Sunday, and her dad was going round to everyone thinking she was this year’s girl.”

“And?”

“She twisted her ankle and couldn’t get home. She’s fine.”

“That’s good.” I drop my books on the table and go to the sink to wash my hands. It’s what Bastian used to do after classes, and I follow his routine.

When he was alive, my brother was my closest playmate. Our sisters were both much older than us, and the two babies after them but before us hadn’t lived past their second years. Karis, who was ten years older, was the “little mother,” while Amina, who was only two years younger than Karis, was the “big sister.” Bastian, of course, was the future, the one who would increase fortune and ease for our family. I was only the poppet, the plaything they indulged. I read every book Bastian had, and many of Father’s, too. Then, they smiled and laughed. Now, there is no laughter in our home.

The only brightness that remains is from Karis’ determined cheer.

As if she hears my thoughts, my sister takes up the song she was singing when I walked into the house, something about meadows and fields of forever. Her voice is sweet, and the words are familiar. Before Mother’s death, Karis sang more than she spoke.

Both of my sisters would make wonderful wives and mothers, but the money for their dowry is long gone. Mine went first, a peril of being the youngest. Only our household skills and presumed virtues remain as enticements to potential spouses.

Karis sets me tasks, and we work in quiet companionship. We are not petty with each other, not short of temper or ill of manner, not since we lost Mother and Bastian. We work together, and we are stronger for it. Our sister Amina draws forth the food that we sell for our money. Karis minds our home, cooking and cleaning. Once a week, she goes into town to sell what we can and buy what we need. I go to and from the school, learning so that I can figure a way to a better future. Ours is a quiet life with no friends, no outings, and little contact with the people in town. Being with my sisters fills me with peace.

But that peace is soon broken. My father comes in with something clutched in his hand. I can’t see the words on the parchment, but I know well enough what’s there. I wrote the words myself, gathered the facts, and called for action.

“Verena!” Father stops and levels me with a glare that makes me want to reach out to Karis. “What have you done?”

“Shared my findings,” I say with barely a quaver in my voice. I know he disapproves. Girls are to be seen, to be delicate, to be graceful, to be many things my sisters excel at, things I will never be—things I might not have even been if we’d kept our fortunes.

I straighten my spine and stare at my father. “It’s true. Every word of it is true.

“It’s shameful to say so.”

“It’s more shameful that no one is doing anything to catch the Maiden Thief,” I say, a tremor in my voice as I try to not look away from Father.

I remember being the “littlest gem,” the daughter who drew eyes and smiles. He’s dead, though, and I am expected to master my studies as my brother once had been. It is a lie we agree to live, to pretend I can replace my brother, but it doesn’t mean that Father has forgotten that I am a girl when I dare cross him.

“So, you went courting trouble we don’t need?” Father asks. It’s not a real question; he makes that quite clear as he thumps past the table and into the sitting room where he’ll stare out at Amina as she toils in the garden, the orchard, and the fields.

Amina is his favorite. He doesn’t say that aloud, but we know it just the same. We always have. Amina looks like Mother, much as Bastian did. Father used to laughingly speak of selling their golden hair should we ever need coins. When I was a small child, I clipped a lock of Bastian’s hair and tried to buy sweets with it. The grocer gave me candies, but he let me keep that lock of Bastian’s golden hair. It is all I have of my brother.

Amina is all Father has of his three golden ones. And so, Father watches her every afternoon and much of the morning to be sure that she is not the one taken this year.

Karis and I exchange a look as he passes, but neither of us dare to speak. We see that his bad leg is dragging more than last month. It’s getting worse again. We see it, but no one is so foolish as to comment. Father doesn’t discuss the accident that took my mother and brother, and we’re not to do so either.

In the early weeks of his recovery, he blamed God. He blamed himself. He blamed us—three useless daughters. If Father could’ve bartered with God in those fever-filled days, we would all have been offered in exchange for the return of the two people he’d lost. Bastian was the cherished one, the son who would carry on the family name. His death was worse because Mother was taken too, so he had no wife to carry a replacement son . . . and soon after, we were far too poor for Father to woo a new wife. He couldn’t work, and our fortune had sunk to the bottom of some dark section of the sea.

“What did you do this time?” Karis asks softly.

“I wrote a tract on the Maiden Thief.”

My sister smothers her gasp by slapping her hand to her mouth. It’s such a girlish gesture that I wonder how we’re related. Even as she stirs a pot of what we privately called “stretch soup,” she manages to be feminine in the way of the girls I study in my classes. Most of them are excelling at the courses in Household Angels, Art Appreciation, and History for Delicate Minds. They don’t take the courses in the maths or sciences, and they certainly don’t take Literature Unbound. There, I mostly only see boys or the girls who wear trousers out in public. I wear dresses, as much to remind myself of the girl I once was as to remind the boys that I could be a bride one day.

Karis stirs the soup before coming over to embrace me. It’s the sort of all-encompassing hug that Mother used to offer, but Karis doesn’t smell of lavender, and her body is brittle and bony against mine. She may hide it with Mother’s remade gowns and layers of cloth, but she takes the smallest portion of the food. Karis has told me often enough that Father needs to eat for his health, Amina for her strength, and I for my mind.

“I’m not hungry,” I blurt out, as close to a thank-you as I can come without embarrassing us both. “Will you eat half of my soup so Father doesn’t notice?”

I’m certain she’ll see through my words, but instead, she squeezes me tighter still and whispers, “I think you’re brave, Verena.”

* * *

When Karis vanishes three days later on one of her rare trips into town, Father slaps me. “It should have been you. Your brazen words made that monster look our way.”

I stand staring at him. There are no words, no argument, no defense I can offer. My sister is dead—or will be soon—and it’s my fault.

I do not resume classes when the new week dawns. I pick out the most worn of my sister’s dresses and let out the seams so it fits my curvier body. Dress held tightly in hand, I go to the garden where Amina is watering the ground with her hidden tears and taking her anger out on the weeds that dared invade her territory.

“I need beets,” I announce.

She glances at the dress in my grasp. “That’s . . .”

“My new work dress,” I finish. “It should be red for the blood on my hands.”

My often-silent sister sighs before saying, “Oh, little gem!”

The childhood name stings, although I’m sure that’s not her intention. I shake my head. “I need beets,” I repeat.

My sister accepts my choice, not speaking to me of shame or guilt, not arguing that I am innocent. She simply pulls the plants.

I take up Karis’ tasks as my own. The soup I make is no better or worse than hers. The stitches I sew in Father’s remade clothes are no straighter or more crooked. The meals I take are of the portion that Karis would have ladled into her bowl.

Unlike my now-dead sister, I do not sing in the kitchen.

Father rarely speaks to me, and when he does, it’s only the most necessary of words. I am not sure I’ve heard my name on his lips since the day Karis vanished. He does not need to tell me that he blames me. It’s obvious in his every unspoken word.

* * *

The death of my sister has changed me, but half a year later, spring still comes, and with it, my old habits start to return. I cannot help but look for the bones of the dead in the freshly turned soil.

“Verena, she’s not here.” My remaining sibling catches my eye as I scan the garden. “Wherever she is, it’s not here.”

I’m outside with her, turning the soil by hand. It’s hard work, but like everything else, I aim to fill the hole left by the loss of Karis. It’s harder than I expected, both on my heart and on my body. I was at school in prior years when the bulk of the garden was broken. Still, I carry on as if I have strength and experience at the hours of back-breaking work. To do otherwise is to insult the dead.

“Maybe she’s alive,” I say, my gaze steady on the worn blade I force through the ground. “Maybe they all are.”

I want to understand the Maiden Thief. I want to prove my own theories wrong, and so for the first time, I find myself hoping that the reason no bodies are found is because the stolen girls are actually alive.

For several moments, Amina says nothing. I hear birds, the calls of spring insects, and the rustle of new leaves on the tree. My remaining sister’s voice is silent.

I risk a glance at the window, and I take small comfort in the fact that my father is not watching. At least he trusts that my sister is safe with me at her side. I have no illusion that I am strong enough to defend her, but he counts my presence as enough to walk away from his post at the window.

Either that or he cannot bear to watch me overlong. That, too, is a possibility. I no longer have the heart for such answers. I’ve tried to replace Bastian, learning so I could be of use to the family in business. I’ve taken my sister’s role in the kitchen. Nothing I do changes the fact that the most useless of his children is one of the only two remaining.

“They’re not alive,” Amina says finally, her words coming so long after mine that I can almost forget the context. I want to forget it. I want to forget so much.

“They could be,” I insist. In that moment, I feel like the girl I once was, back when weaving flowers into crowns and reading tales of fantastical creatures was all that I had to do.

“It isn’t your fault,” Amina tells me. It is far from the first or even the sixteenth time she’s said those words. She and Karis said them when Bastian and Mother died in the accident coming back from picking up my new dress. She and Karis said them when I saw how badly mangled our father’s leg was from that same accident. We all said them when Father risked the rest of our savings on an order of goods that sank into the ocean. Now Amina says the words to me again and again since Karis vanished.

“What if it’s all my fault?” I look at my sister and ask for answers to a question that has plagued me for years. “They die with my birthdays. Mother and Bastian died fetching my dress. Karis was stolen after my theories on the killer.”

“The sun rose on those days,” Amina begins. She leans on her garden hoe for a moment. “There was a fox in the garden the morning Karis disappeared, possibly the day that the accident happened too. I sneezed those days. What ripples we see are not always causes.” She shakes her head. “We can look for patterns, and we might even find them. There were a lot of acorns this year, and the snow was heavy. Are they related? A fawn died of hunger after I chased it from the garden, and our sister died. Were they related?”

I let out a sound of frustration. “That’s not the same. I wrote the words on the killer, and Karis was taken.”

Amina sighs. “No one knows why he takes the girls he does. Did the other families do something to cause their daughters to be chosen? Is it their fault?” She stares at me in such a way that I can’t help thinking of Mother. Those are her eyes, her peering-into-my-soul stare. “No one knows, Verena. Do not presume to understand a madman.”

Mutely, I nod. I believe her. For the first time since Karis was taken, I believe that I may not carry the full burden of her death. I do not return to school, but sometimes, I sit in the darkened house with a candle at night, and I read.

When Amina starts sharing the chores, I do not send her off to her bed with a stern word, and when she slips into the sitting room and asks to read the book I have just finished, I hand it to her. Together, we are not as whole as we had been with Karis, or with Bastian and Mother, but we are healing. Like the other families who have lost their daughters, we are moving on—guiltily grateful that come autumn, we will not be among the families worrying that one of us is next. The Maiden Thief has never taken two daughters from the same family. That, at least, gives me a horrible comfort.

* * *

By the time autumn finally comes, I realize that Father no longer watches Amina in the garden. He even smiles once. It is not much, but at least we know that we will be spared. No one speaks it aloud, but Karis’ loss has spared us from the pall that hangs over every other family with a daughter in Charlestown.

Amina has even been talking to a man. He is closer to Father’s age than to mine, but Father cannot reprimand her because he doesn’t know. Jakob is a secret.

Not long after she tells me of him, I hide and study the man who has drawn smiles from my sister. He is older but still handsome, dark of eye and hair, light of skin and spirit. He travels for his work, passing through small towns like ours. He does not speak of his work, telling Amina only that it is not a woman’s place to worry over such things. It may be unwomanly of me, but I wonder all the same. Jakob dresses in rags, but it doesn’t take me many afternoons of secret observation to realize that these ragged clothes are a ploy to make her feel comfortable. His nails are short and clean, and he has the scent of herbs about him. I think he might be a doctor; I am certain he is a man of learning. His words when he speaks reveal more education than the simple clothes he wears. If we weren’t fallen so low, he would be exactly the sort of man Father would’ve selected as a groom for his daughters.

Jakob is not meant to be mine. No groom is. All that can be mine is the penance for causing the Maiden Thief to steal my sister. Amina deserves happiness. She has lost too many siblings, and she’s paid for others’ mistakes with too many years of work.

“He’s so kind,” Amina says one evening after Jakob has left. Her voice is filled with a softness I’ve not heard for years.

“Do you think he’s going to offer for you?”

She looks down at her ragged nails. Every night lately, she scrubs to get as much dirt from her hands as she can. It isn’t enough to remove the years of ground-in earth. “I couldn’t leave home. I’ve told him as much. I don’t even go into town. How would I leave?”

“With only Father and I, we don’t need much,” I point out. “I could grow enough to earn what we need to pay the bills and add meat to our meals sometimes.”

Amina meets my eyes. “Maybe.”

A new part of me is burning with jealousy, not of Jakob but of what he can give her. If Amina leaves, if she finds freedom, I will never be able to do so. In truth, I may not have that option, anyhow. Father needs someone to mind the house, to cook his meals, to suffer for the loss of almost everyone he’s loved. He has become colder and crueler every year. Gone is the man who would heft me onto his shoulders when I was a small girl. Gone is the man who brought me a rose when he returned from his business trips. The man left in his place has a stone where his heart once resided.

I want my sister to find happiness, to have cause to laugh and smile, to not spend her years toiling for Father and me. I shove my envy down so far that it hurts to breathe, and I assure my sister, “He’d be a fool not to want to marry you, and you’d be a fool not to take his offer when it comes.”

* * *

Those words haunt me when the leaves begin to turn and fall. Jakob has always been cautious to avoid Father’s eyes, and his visits tend to coincide with when I am not at the window. I still watch them surreptitiously sometimes, but I have avoided even being glimpsed by the man who will probably marry my sister.

When Amina slips out to meet Jakob, I feign sleep as I do often. It’s been a full year since Karis was taken, but the nightmares of her abduction and presumed murder weigh heavy enough that sleep is often hard to find. A cry outside startles me, and I am out the door with only my nightdress on. My knee-length hair hangs mostly free of its confining braid, proof of my restless thrashing, and my feet are bare despite the autumn chill.

“Meeny!” I call out as I run into the yard, clad in only my white nightgown.

I stop suddenly, my eyes widen as I take in the unexpected scene before me. My sister, her bright hair glowing in the light of the nearly full moon, is caught up in Jakob’s arms. He has a hand splayed across her back, and her nightdress is pushed up to her hips. Her legs are bare, quite indecently so, and as I stare at her, I see that her body is pressed tightly to his. Her back is to me, and for that I’m grateful.

My hand flies to my mouth as Karis’ always did when she was in shock. I bite down on my own skin to keep my sounds of surprise hidden.

I start to turn to creep away, feeling foolish for mistaking her cry for pain, but before I can escape, I realize that Jakob sees me.

I would apologize if the words could be kept from Amina.

I would run if it could erase the embarrassment of this moment.

Instead, I stand still, unable to move as Jakob meets my eyes . . . and smiles. Moments drag by as I study his smile, unsure of what to do. Then he closes his eyes, releasing me from his stare.

I run.

Later, when Amina stealthily returns to the house, I again pretend to sleep.

The next morning, I wait for her to tell me her good news, prepared to feign surprise at her pending nuptials.

The following day, I wait again.

By the week’s end, I am forced to ask, “Where is Jakob?”

Amina offers me a weak smile and says, “He had to travel for business. He’ll return next month.”

And it is then that I understand that what I saw was a goodbye. I hug my sister. “It’s only a single month,” I tease. “Father was often gone that long.”

She nods and holds me tighter. “Maybe if he returns, you could come with us. He says . . . he says he loves me, Verena.” She smiles then. “He says he’ll take me away to a castle where I’ll be his perfect wife. He told me that he’ll cherish me, and I’ll live like a queen as long as I’m faithful and good!”

“You deserve it,” I tell her.

I mean it.

Yet, that night, when I sleep, it is not Karis I dream of. In my sleeping mind, I see Jakob smiling at me as he had held Amina. I wake, and I hate him for giving my sister the life that Karis and I will never have. I lie awake, and I hate myself for envying my sister.

* * *

Only three weeks later, Amina is gone without even a goodbye. I will never see that castle. She is gone, and I am left alone with Father.

“What did you do?” he roars at me. His words are followed with a fist.

I shake, staring up at him, afraid to stand. “Nothing.”

“She’s gone. You did this. They are all dead because of you.”

When I open my mouth to tell him that it was not the killer who took Amina, he puts his weight on his good leg, and then he hits me over and over with his cane.

I decide then and there not to ease his pain by telling him Amina left by choice. Let him think that she was stolen. Let him suffer. I am bruised and bleeding, and the man who was my father is nowhere to be found in this shell before me.

“Better dead than here with you,” I tell him as I crawl out of his reach.

He stares at me, chest heaving with the exertion of beating me, and for a flicker of a moment, I see the man I once knew. Then he says, “Get up. The blood will stain the floor if you let it stand.”

And I am left alone to clean my blood from my father’s floor.

* * *

The townsfolk look at me with equal parts fear and pity when I go to sell the vegetables over the next weeks. I want to tell them the truth, that the Maiden Thief has not yet taken this year’s girl, but they turn their backs or look away quickly the few times I open my mouth to speak.

They will know when this year’s girl is taken.

But days pass, and no girl vanishes. It worries me. Maybe the Maiden Thief has stopped. Maybe he visited another town this year. I wish Amina had told me where the castle was. I would feel better if I could speak to her.

Weeks pass, and one day, I am picking apples when Jakob stops at the orchard.

“Did she come too?” I look past him, expecting to see my sister, wondering why he still wears such ragged things when he’s already taken Amina to his castle. There is no need to feign poverty now.

Jakob stares at me. “Who?”

“My sister.”

“Amina?” he asks.

I try to recall if he would have met Karis, but she was dead by the time he started visiting Amina. Something about the way he watches me sets fear racing through my body. “She left with you, didn’t she?”

“Why would you think that?” He folds his arms and studies me.

“But Amina . . .”

“I was looking for something, and I thought I’d finally found it. I was wrong again.” He gives me a sweet, sad smile. “I came back. I’ll have to try again.”

“She’s not with you?”

“No.”

If not for his arms coming around me, I would have tumbled to the dirt. I am limp in his grasp, upright only because he holds me so. My sister is dead. I’ve envied her for escaping this wretched drudgery, this poverty, this life.

But she did not escape.

She was stolen.

Like my eldest sister.

Like the other girls before her.

“She’s dead,” I tell Jakob in a voice made weak with the tears I cannot stop. “I thought she went with you, that you married her, but if she’s not with you . . . she’s dead. My sister is dead.

Jakob cradles my head and holds me to him.

“It’s my fault,” I say between sobs. “Both Karis and Amina were taken. It’s my fault. I should never have asked the townspeople to catch the Maiden Thief.”

“True.” He looks down at me and asks, “Will you atone?”

For a thick moment, anger that he’d ask anything of me makes me want to strike him. I have lost two sisters. I have lost any chance of happiness. But then the weight of my own culpability squashes fear and anger. I caused this. I did not steal their lives, but I drew the madman’s eye to them. I owe penance.

“I will,” I promise Jakob.

I’ve stepped into my siblings’ duties so often that is has become like donning a nearly fitting coat. Perhaps this time it will be for the best. Jakob loved my sister, and she is gone from him. I can replace her.

“You will love me as she should have,” Jakob murmurs.

I’m not sure if it’s a question or an order, but I swear, “I will. I promise I will.”

* * *

Months pass, and Jakob visits me in secret as he once visited my sister. He wears nicer clothes, though. With me, he doesn’t hide his wealth.

“You’ve known all along that I was not poor,” he says one evening. “Yet you said nothing.”

I nod.

And he rewards me with a kiss.

In my life of silence and toil, he is my light. My father no longer speaks to or looks at me. My sisters are lost. My studies have ended. All I have in this world is Jakob. I cannot bear the thought of ever losing him—and he knows it.

Since that day, I feel like he is often testing me, trying to see what I think, checking to see what I observe of him and the world around us. He makes me feel things I hate sometimes, prodding me until I share my ugliness with him. He rewards me with kisses or kind words when I do as he wants.

“Be truthful, Verena. I want to know what you really think.”

“I almost hated my sister for the way you spoke to her,” I admit.

“Your sister had a kind heart,” he says. Then he brushes his lips over mine. “But she was not as brave as you or as smart as you.”

There is little I crave more than affection these days, and Jakob gives it to me without asking much in return. He asks for confessions of my sins, my flaws, my weaknesses. He asks that I tell no lies and that I swear not to talk to any other man. It is a small fee for the joy he gives me; his praise and his small kisses are treasures I once coveted. Now they are mine. They will always be mine.

“Amina said once that you’d been studying the Maiden Thief,” Jakob remarks.

“And now my sisters are dead,” I murmur in shame. “It is my fault. I told you the night you came back.”

Jakob tilts my head back, but he does not reward me this time. Instead, he tells me, “I’m sure it is. They suffered because of you.”

My heart seems to die. I want absolution, not this. The love that I’ve been kindling for him flickers.

“You have much yet to atone for,” Jakob whispers. “You know that, don’t you?”

“I do.” I try to look down, but he won’t let me. I think about my family, broken, dead, and lost because of me. I think of Jakob, who lost my sister because of me. There is no way I can set things right in this world.

“You should be grateful I forgive you,” Jakob says then.

“I am.”

He kisses me finally, but all I taste is bitterness. I will work harder to atone. I will show him that I have choked down ashes and brine.

* * *

By the summer, I am ready to ask Jakob if he will have me. It is not a woman’s role to ask, but I’ve decided that I am ready to prove that I can love him, to prove that I can give him the happiness I’ve ruined.

“I can never replace Amina, but”—my voice breaks as I try to find the courage to make my offer—“I could try to make you happy.”

My embarrassment makes it hard to meet his eyes, but I do. I want him to understand that I know what I’m offering. I will be eighteen this autumn, old enough to be a wife.

“I’m yours if you want me,” I manage to say.

“Did you think about what you saw that night, Verena?” His voice is rough, and I startle thinking that he’s angry. “You watched us.”

“I thought she was in danger,” I try to explain. “I heard her cry out. I didn’t know she was . . . with you when I came outside.”

“I’ve thought about it,” he continues as if I hadn’t spoken. “You watching me.”

“Oh.” I remember the smile that had seemed so cold in the moonlight.

“Are you pure?” he asks.

“I am,” I assure him.

He holds tight to me, his hands clutching both of my arms, and says, “Never lie to me, Verena.”

“I’m not. I swear it, Jakob. I am pure. I’ve never even been kissed by anyone else.”

He says nothing, but that night, when I slip out of doors to meet him, he takes me into the darkest part of the orchard. I hold his hand, following him silently. We stop in a small clearing between trees. When I was small, I played here with my brother. Father had chopped down several sick trees, leaving behind tiny stumps that barely showed after all these years. Now I come here with my . . . Jakob.

Cautiously, I ask, “What are we?”

“You are my wife, Verena.”

“After we see the minister,” I start to correct him.

“No. You are my wife now.” He releases my hand and stares at me. “Will you be good and faithful?”

“I will.”

“And I will keep you with me always. I will never ask you to work as your father has done.”

Then he kisses me. It is not the soft kisses he has brushed over my lips before. I can’t breathe for fear, and when he pulls away, I am shaking.

There is something about him that is strange and hard. I have done no new wrong, but I am afraid. The glimpses I’ve had of the darkness in Jakob are nothing compared to what I see now.

He grips my hips bruise-hard. “You must be faithful, Wife. You must be truthful.”

“I am!”

“You told me you were pure.” He unfastens his trousers.

As I understand what he is about, fear makes me bold, and I try to pull away. “Jakob, wait!”

“We are married,” he tells me. “Our vows were said.”

I’ve never heard of such a wedding. There was no minister, no guests, no family, but I’m not sure such a thing is still an option for me. The townspeople do not look my way. My family, save Father, is dead.

“You said you would try to replace her,” Jakob reminds me. “You are my wife now.”

I lift my worn cotton nightdress, baring my body to him. Jakob watches my face as he presses his body into mine. I bite my lip to keep my screams silent, but my eyes fill with tears.

Jakob smiles as he did the night I saw him with my sister. I realize now that it is a cruel smile. I let my cries of pain free, and his smile grows wider.

After he is done with my body and refastens his trousers, he tells me, “You are a good girl, Verena. You did not lie to me.”

And then he touches my body gently, kissing and licking my tears away. His mouth moves to my throat and my chest, even though the flesh is still covered with my nightgown.

“There are no tears there,” I tell him, afraid that more pain will follow.

He laughs, and then he kisses the place where he just hurt me. After several moments, I almost forget the pain as other feelings consume me. Again I am shivering, but this time for reasons I didn’t know possible.

Afterwards, he straightens my clothes and walks me to the edge of the orchard. I know that he will watch until I am in my door, but he will not come near the house. He never has.

Before I walk away, he tells me, “If you are good, there will be joy like that.” Then he squeezes my hand tightly and adds, “But if you are not, there will be worse pain than our first moment. We choose our lot in this world. Do you understand me, Wife?”

“Yes, Jakob.”

“I will come for you.”

“Yes, Jakob.”

* * *

It is only a week later that Jakob leads me into the castle. We are far from any other house, far enough that should I scream, no one would hear me. I want to run, but there is nothing for me outside these thick walls.

He cups my face in his hands like I am a child. “You will be faithful and good, won’t you?”

“Of course.”

He kisses me in a way that makes quite clear that he does not think me a child. At first, I was ashamed of the things I let him do to my body, but over the past week, he has twice demonstrated that he does not like it when I refuse to accept his wishes. It is not what a Good Wife does.

“I like to please you,” he reminds me. “But you must be good.”

“Yes, Jakob.”

“Would you like to see your bedroom?”

“Yes, Jakob.”

There are clothes of my size, but there are also other dresses hanging in the closet, ones that would not fit me. I ask, “Whose are these?”

“Those are my wife’s clothes.”

I retract my hand, not wanting to touch either the larger or smaller dresses. I want to find an explanation that does not frighten me, but nothing comes to me. I look at my feet, unsure of what to do.

He walks over to stand beside me, and almost idly, he strokes my hair. “You are my wife.”

“I am.”

“Then those are yours now,” he explains.

I nod, and he orders me to bathe and unbind my hair. “Like the night you saw me with Amina.”

 

#

After several weeks, I can no longer stand the silence and boredom. Jakob is often gentle, but he is not always kind.

He insists that I dress only in long white dresses, and he slips soft white shoes on my feet every time I leave the bedroom. Within the bedroom, I am not given any clothing, but in the rest of the house, I must wear this peculiar uniform that makes me unsure if I am wearing mourning or bridal clothes.

I ask to go out, to do something to keep the castle up, or even to plant a small garden. Jakob refuses every request. I am given books to study, guides on what a wife should do.

After the first full month, Jakob tells me, “I need to go away for a week.”

I’m thrilled. I’ve not traveled since Bastian’s death. The only place I’ve gone is from my Father’s house to school or the town, and then last month, from my Father’s house to Jakob’s castle. “When do we leave?”

Jakob shakes his head and smiles at me. “Not you, Wife. You are mine. No one else can look upon you.”

“Ever?” I ask weakly.

For the first time since our vows, I see the whole of the darkness in the man I married. He strikes me and hurts me as he did that night. Afterward, I am bleeding in our bed, and Jakob is brushing my hair back.

“They would try to destroy what we have,” he says. “They would look at you and think impure thoughts. They would ruin you.”

“I’m sorry,” I say because it is what he expects.

“I spent years looking for you, watching, waiting. You don’t know how hard it was.” He sits up and stares at me. “Can I trust you?”

I nod and gingerly push myself to sit beside him.

“It was you I wanted all along,” he tells me. “I stopped at the orchard that first day because I’d seen you in town.” He gently kisses my forehead. “You were always meant to be mine. I need you to be worthy of my love.”

I swallow hard and tell him, “I don’t want anyone else to look at me. I just asked to go because I will miss you.”

Jakob is himself again at my words. He slides to the floor and puts uncomfortable white shoes on my feet. Before he slips each shoe on, he kisses my foot. Then he stands, and I hold out my hand to him as he’s taught me to do.

Once I’m standing, he washes away the blood he’s drawn from my body. There’s nothing to do for the bruises or swelling, but the blood is soon gone. I submit to his ministrations; not even a whimper crosses my lips.

Jakob dresses me, and then he takes my hand and leads me to his study.

“I need you to hold something while I’m gone.” He barely opens a cabinet and reaches into it.

I cannot see inside the cabinet, but from it, Jakob has withdrawn a delicate white egg. It’s perfect. No spots mark the surface, and the only imperfections are two small holes where the contents were removed.

Dutifully, I hold out my hand. “It’s beautiful.”

Jakob smiles. “And fragile.” He places the egg in the palm of my hand. “You must carry it with you while I’m away. Anywhere you go, it must be with you.”

I frown.

“I’ll know if you don’t obey me,” he warns. “You said you would be good. You said you would be faithful.”

“I am.”

For a moment, Jakob seems devastated. “You need to stay that way. I don’t want to have to hurt you. I want to be right this time. No one else was faithful, Verena, but you know me. You’re the only one who’s ever understood me.”

A truth I’ve refused to consider starts pressing against my lips.

“This key is to the only locked room in the castle,” he says, holding out an old-fashioned key on a length of red velvet as he motions me toward him.

I lean forward, and he puts the ribbon over my head so the key hangs over my heart. The velvet reminds me of a trail of blood as I am forced to think of the facts that mean my husband might be the Maiden Thief.

If Jakob is the killer, I am one of the stolen girls.

“How long have you been waiting for me?” I ask quietly.

My husband smiles and tells me, “For years, I didn’t know it was you, just that there was a Good Wife I needed to find. I thought it could be you. Your birthday was the right time, but then I saw what you’d written, and I knew you understood me.”

“When I was sixteen,” I whisper.

Jakob kisses me as he does when I give him the right answers. I stay perfectly still as he does so. Then he walks to the door and waits for me to follow.

Mutely, I do so.

“Karis and Amina were replacing you, not the other way around,” he tells me as he pulls the door to the study closed behind us.

“The only locked door besides this one”—he lifts the key from between my breasts and then drops it so it thunks against my body—“is the door to the outside world.”

I nod.

“There are traps on the grounds.” He strokes my face and throat. “There are beasts that I set free to roam when I am away. To protect you. To protect us. You understand, don’t you?”

I nod again.

“You were my quest, Verena.” He touches my swollen eye roughly, drawing fresh pain. “I have to keep you safe.”

This time, I force myself to say, “Thank you, Jakob.” I meet his eyes and add, “I’ll be good and faithful.”

And then he’s gone. My husband, the Maiden Thief, the killer of my sisters, has left me alone in my beautiful prison. I cannot move for several hours. I sit in the silence and think. I had been right that the killer took Amina—and that she had gone with Jakob. I had been right that there was something terrible in his smile the night I had seen him with my sister. Worst of all, I had found a pattern to the Maiden Thief’s crimes. I had figured out why. There was so much that I had known, and the knowing still hadn’t saved me or my sisters.

Whatever is in that room is what I need to find. Maybe it’s proof of his sins. Maybe there is something there that will let me reach help.

Maybe it’s Amina. The others surely must be long dead, but she has only been gone a year. I have hopes that she might still live—or at the least, that I might be able to give her a proper burial.

The egg is the easiest part. I wrap it in cloth and hide it in an urn. There is no way for Jakob to discover my disobedience, and even if he does, I would rather risk my death than do as he orders.

He has killed my sisters. I will not stay here. I will not allow him the perverse happiness he has found in me for a moment longer than necessary.

First, I need to see what’s in the forbidden room. I pull off the slippers that Jakob insists I wear, and I debate what to do about my dress. He’s so insistent that I only wear white slippers and white dresses that brush the tops of my feet. I can have bare arms or low-cut fronts or even dresses with no backs, but my skirts must always touch my feet.

Whatever reason he has to keep my legs and feet cloaked in white, I refuse it now. If he wants me to do it, it cannot be good. I steal a sash from the curtains and use it as a belt of sorts. Once my skirts are tied up around my hips, I begin to try every door in the castle.

#

But when I finally find the door the key fits, I am afraid. The proof is within this room, the answer to my sisters’ fate, the details about the Maiden Thief that I thought I had wanted to know.

I turn the key and open the door. A soft whooshing sound fills the dim room, as if many hearts are beating in time, as if many breaths are slipping away at once. The floor is wet with pink-tinged water, and glass caskets with gilt edges rise up like islands in a red sea.

Most of the caskets are closed, but others are lined up against the far wall with lids open still. They are waiting to be filled. One of those caskets would be mine if Jakob found me here.

I stare at them, the taken girls. They are arranged in boxes, alive but not moving, eyes closed, lips parted as if in silent screams. In each glass coffin, one of the missing girls is preserved with tubes running into her casket, keeping her alive and silent.

The blood-tinged water would stain my dress if I hadn’t held the skirts up, stain my shoes if I’d worn them, stain the beautiful egg if I hadn’t hidden it inside an urn to keep it safe.

I back out of the room and sit on the threshold. I unroll my long hair and wipe the blood from my feet. Then I twist my hair up again, stained with the blood of my sisters. I am grateful that Jakob likes my hair bound and my strengths hidden. I am grateful that my father chose to deny me comfort. Their callousness made me strong enough to survive this day.

I glance back at the rows of glass-coffined women. I don’t know what he’s done to the girls, how he keeps them like this, but I swear to them, “I won’t leave you like this.”

And then I pull the door closed and return to the library to think.

 

#

 

By the time Jakob returns, I have a plan. I spent years waiting for men to figure out how to stop the Maiden Thief, for my father to realize that he needed to try to save his family. I am done waiting on someone else to save me or the people I love.

I greet my husband dutifully when he enters the castle.

Jakob is restrained. He doesn’t kiss me, and for that I am grateful. There is a hatred within me that he has been nurturing for years. I didn’t realize it was a hatred for him for a long time, but today I know.

We walk into his study, and I see the cabinet behind Jakob. The doors are open, and in it, I see the twelve beautiful decorative eggs. Several are broken. All are bloodstained. The taken all failed this test. I’m hoping I can succeed where they did not—for them and for myself.

Jakob watches me with such raw hope in his eyes as he asks, “Where is the egg I gave you? I want to put it with the others.”

“Here.” I hold it out. The egg is as unblemished as it was when I accepted it from his hand.

He takes the egg and stares at it for several heartbeats. When he looks at me, there is such joy and pride in his expression that I feel a touch less afraid. I force myself to smile. My blood will join my sisters’ if I disappoint him.

“You’re truly her,” he says in a voice filled with wonder. “I knew I’d find you if I looked long enough.”

I nod.

“There were others . . .”

“Other wives,” I supply, and then quickly add, “I’ve seen their clothes.”

Jakob smiles at me, proud of my mind as he has been so often. “But they weren’t faithful and good.” He strokes the egg. “You were the one I was waiting to find. I was impatient before, hoping to find you before you were ready.”

“How many?” I ask.

Jakob glances at the eggs. “None that matter now.”

My heart twists in pain, thinking of the twelve women trapped in glass coffins. They bled. Maybe not all of them, or maybe just not the first one, but I can imagine my own terror if Jakob took me into that room. I’ve seen what waits there. I’ve seen the glass prisons. I would fight.

I will fight. I ball my hands into fists to keep from striking him. I want to hurt him, but he is stronger than me. I must wait. I force myself to swallow my rage a little longer.

“I’m here,” I tell him. “You found me.”

He looks at me in awe, and then he caresses the unblemished egg like it’s a living thing. “I can set the others free now.”

Jakob gently places the egg on a delicate stand and puts it in the center of the cabinet. Then he comes to me and takes my hand. “I was afraid I was wrong, that I’d need to try again if you weren’t a Good Wife. You understand, don’t you? I was always faithful to each wife. I didn’t touch them, though, not after I set them aside.”

I can’t speak. The others, my sisters in blood and in act, were trapped in glass boxes. Some had been imprisoned for years. I feel sickened at the horror of it, at him, the monster I’d married.

Silently, we walk to the room, and Jakob releases my hand. He takes the key from around my neck.

“You are worth every sacrifice.”

“Every one?” I ask, a bit of temper sliding into my words despite best intentions.

Jakob doesn’t hear it.

“May I open it?” I ask, and before he can question me, I add, “I want to help you, Husband.”

The words are like poison in my mouth, but I need to be the one with the key. My hand drops to the knife I have tied to my thigh. I’m not sure I can use it well enough, but I will try. For the others, I will try. For my freedom, I will try.

He hesitates, but after a moment of staring into my eyes, he relents and gives me the key. I force myself not to sigh in relief as I take it in my shaking hand. It clatters loudly in the quiet hallway as I slip it into the lock.

“They don’t matter,” Jakob tells me, as if my nerves are over being somehow un-special, as if the pain of the taken is immaterial, as if the death of my sisters is something I could condone.

I turn the key in the lock, grateful that he is staring at the door instead of at me.

Quickly then, I step to the side. “I’m not as strong as you are. Can you open the door?”

He rewards my implied compliment with a smile before he pulls open the door. I stay back as he steps into that room. I’ve been in it often in his absence—but the very sight of that blood-stained chamber still brings an ache to my heart.

There are no more prisoners in glass boxes. The floor is covered with the shards of glass, and the taken rest in soft beds elsewhere in the castle. They are safe . . . as long as I don’t fail.

He stands in the bloodied room, glass all around him. The shock of it makes him motionless at first. He looks at the empty spaces where the women he’s stolen have been imprisoned. Then, his gaze falls upon me.

“What have you done?”

For the first time, I am wholly myself, despite him, despite the terror I feel.

“Freed them,” I say.

He turns back to reach for me, but I jerk away and slam the door shut. My hand is fumbling for the key I still clutch in my hand. I need to succeed in this. He is stronger, and if he escapes, all of the girls he stole will die. My sisters will die. I will die.

“Where are they?” He’s pushing the door, trying to shove it open. “What did you do?”

I jab the key into the lock and turn it.

“WIFE!” Jakob roars, his fists pounding the door. “Open this door.”

“My husband died,” I say firmly, leaning back against the door. My voice is as unsteady as my hands. I shake all over. I count my breaths as the door shakes against my back.

“There was an accident,” I say a moment later. “My poor Jakob never returned home.”

“No!”

“He went on a trip, but he didn’t return,” I continue to explain through the door. “He left me here alone, and I’m waiting still for him to return.”

I push off the door and shove a heavy wardrobe in front of it.

“Wife!” Jakob calls again. “You cannot trap me in my own home.”

“This is my home now. I live here with my twelve sisters.”

“You may not do this.”

“It is already done,” I remind him. “I was searching for you, too, Jakob. The others did nothing. They let you steal us away. They let you hurt us. I will not. Not anymore.”

He says nothing.

I wish briefly that I could be strong enough to simply kill the man who has tormented my town, who has hurt my sisters, who has trapped and made so many girls bleed.

“You’ll die before the next new moon passes, Jakob. There is only so long you can live without food or drink.” I put my hand to the door and add, “If you prefer, there are glass shards aplenty that are sharp enough to let you make a choice.”

“Set me free.” Jakob speaks in the same tone he’s used when he’s disciplined me.

This time, however, I am the one with the key.

“I am setting all of us free,” I promise him. “You’ll be free of this world soon.”

Then I walk away, leaving my husband-no-more to his death and returning to my sisters who have found life again. Some cannot yet speak, and others are barely awake. I don’t know that they’ll all live, but I have hopes for them—for all of us.

One by one, I visit each of the bedrooms where they are recovering from their years of imprisonment. They’ve been fed through tubes, kept calm with herbs for so long that they were shocked to learn how much time had passed. Slowly, they will grow stronger, and then we will set our house to rights.

I tell each one, “It is done. We are free.”

I’d figured out the Maiden Thief’s test, and I’d trapped him. Together with the others, I will figure out how to disable the traps he’s set on the grounds. For now, the larder is well stocked, and my sisters need time to heal.

There will be no Maiden Thief when the leaves turn next autumn. In his place, there will be only invitations to women seeking solace and peace. He’s left behind a home and gold aplenty.

His many wives will turn it into something better now that there are no more glass coffins to imprison us.

 

“The Maiden Thief” copyright © 2016 by Melissa Marr

Art copyright © 2016 by Rovina Cai

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