Angela Slatter’s The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings returns to the world of Sourdough and Other Stories, introducing readers to the tales that came before. Stories where coffin-makers work hard to keep the dead beneath; where a plague maiden steals away the children of an ungrateful village; where poison girls are schooled in the art of assassination; where pirates disappear from the seas; where families and the ties that bind them can both ruin and resurrect and where books carry forth fairy tales, forbidden knowledge and dangerous secrets.
The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings is available now from Tartarus Press. Read an excerpt from “The Maiden in the Ice” below, and preview some of the collection’s pen-and-ink illustrations by artist Kathleen Jennings.
“The Maiden in the Ice”
Rikke does not like crossing the ice.
Even during the harshest of winters, when the surface of the lake seems changed to bedrock, when it is frozen so thick you cannot see what lies below, even then, she does not like it. Ice is tricksy; it cannot be trusted. Rikke knows this—has known it ever since her little brother Geir went through four years ago. She still remembers, still re-imagines each year as the seasons change and grey frost-filled clouds gather, as the air cools and the stream and the lake become sluggish, until they stop moving altogether and households must break off chunks of freeze to dump in a pot above the fire for fresh water. She thinks how he looked, when they finally found him, days after an unseasonal thaw, at the spot to which the currents draw all debris, at the break in the earth where the flow spits out unwanted things. He was small, so terribly small, which meant he didn’t get caught on some sunken obstacle and stay beneath until the flesh and muscle decayed and released his bones to the depths. He was small and whole and pale, not even beginning to bloat, and his eyes had turned snow-storm white.
No, Rikke does not trust the ice.
But this day she is on it because she is in trouble. She’d forgotten to collect more singing winter grass. When Aggi called from bed for tea made from the stalks, preserved lemon curls and fresh snow-melt, Rikke’s heart sank and cooled. Her mother was unwell, her mother was bedridden, her mother was pregnant (again) and with such hopes for another boy to replace the son Rikke had let drown. So, fearful of hearing every fault of her eleven years recited once again (certain her mother would know she had been distracted by the same activity—reading—on both occasions), Rikke yelled back that the water was not quite ready, and slipped quietly out the door. Her usual route on the firm ground around the shore’s edge would have taken far too long and Aggi would have known something was wrong. But if she went as the crow flies, it would be mere minutes before she made it to the patch of song-fine stalks, and a heart’s breath for her to return. Screwing up her courage, Rikke stepped out.
Her boots are stout, the winter ones, with tiny ridges of metal embedded in the soles to clutch at the slippery surface, and she moves quickly with the light cautious step of a fox approaching a henhouse. Her ears almost hurt from the effort of listening for the slow, dark moan that will tell her the floe is about to betray her. For a while she tries to keep her eyes firmly fixed on her destination, on the silver-ash clump of sedge not so far—yet so very far—away. But the panic she’s tamped down hard gets the better of her, and she looks to the sparkling, treacherous ground upon which she moves, seeking the cracks, the veins, the fissures that are surely forming there.
But what she sees is something entirely different.
An oval face; skin sallow—in the sun it will become olive; dark-flecked, large eyes; thick straight brows; an unbalanced mouth, the top lip thin, the bottom full; and hair as black as Rikke has ever seen. Black as nightmares, black as a cunning woman’s cat, black as the water she is trying to escape. Older than Rikke, caught between girl and woman, and suspended in the solid lake as if she’s a statue, standing; head titled back, one arm reaching up, the other pointing downward.
Rikke shrieks. She forgets the singing winter grass, her mother’s tisane, her mother’s disappointment; she forgets all her fears of a permafrost death, of cold and hoar. She spins about and runs, boots throwing shredded ribbons of rime behind, body moving faster, so much faster than her little legs it is a wonder she does not fall. She clatters into the house making such a noise that Aggi drags herself from bed and Rikke’s father, Gamli, comes running in from outside where he has been seeing to the chickens and the goats. When they decipher their daughter’s shouts, Gamli leaves the little cottage, yelling at the top of his lungs.
The cry goes up from house to house. ‘Someone’s in the lake!’
More men join him at the shore and they move carefully on and out, even though the substance beneath their feet is utterly silent. They find the place and stare down at the peerless face of the maiden. The ice is thick; experience tells them they can break through it—but to what end? She is surely dead. When the weather changes, she will come loose of her own accord.
And so, the villagers wait. And as they wait, they watch. Every day of winter, no matter the snows or the sleet, the winds or the frost, at least one person from Iserthal goes to visit her, to marvel at the colour of her skin, how her hair and the frozen black fathoms seem to be enmeshed, at the extraordinary planes of her face. At how her agate eyes, just sometimes, seem to flicker if they aren’t quite looking at her. Some notice how strangely clear the ice around her is, but they keep their thoughts to themselves.
At some point, though, in the days and weeks and months, it becomes clear that she is moving, coming up a little at a time, a tiny bit every day—not so one marks it in the short term, but those who visit her only once a week notice and comment. The others, after consideration, agree. Perhaps it is the currents beneath, warming and wearing away at her gelid prison.
They wait. They wait until the spring thaw comes and the hard crystal surface begins to creak and crack and thin. They wait until the morning when a single slender arm and a clenched fist are seen by three feckless youths to break through the now-weakened layer of cold on top of the water. Having snuck away from their ’prentice duties to miller, butcher and smithy, but unable to find mischief to make, they are kicking a straw ball about by the shore. Upon noticing the arm raised like a flag, they run for their parents—the currents that have freed the body should surely have swept it away. Soon a small red dory is despatched to negotiate the rapidly melting, floating chunks of ice, to the centre of the pool.
Aggi refuses to have her in the house, as do all the women of the town, including Hebe the innkeeper’s wife, so the nameless girl is sleeping in the barn loft behind the home of the largest landowner. Make no mistake, they laid down clean, fresh straw, and every household gave up at least two thick blankets so the warmth could be brought back into her limbs. All the goodwives sent broths and fresh bread—which she ate—and healing infusions, which she sniffed then refused, but none of them would have this strange damsel, this survivor of certain death, in their homes. Some whispered fossegrim, but others hushed them—she looked nothing like such a creature.
Aggi, upright, and conscious not so much of the miracle as of the fact that it was one denied to her Geir, had taken a sweeping look at the limp young woman in her husband’s arms, at the long lashes on the cheeks, at the dark red of toe nails, the dirt clumped beneath her finger nails, and shook her head, a single sharp jerking motion that told Gamli in no uncertain terms that the girl would not cross their threshold.
Only Rikke, hiding behind her mother’s skirts, felt the terrible weight that Aggi held up; knew that her mother’s strength was the sole thing keeping the strange girl from their door. Gamli and every other man gathered around him had an unfocused gaze pinned on the pale form in his grasp, wrapped in Wurdin’s dory blanket, the one with holes, that smells like fish and elderdamson rum. In case her meaning was lost, Aggi said quite clearly, ‘No,’ and Gamli reluctantly nodded. Thus began a meandering procession through the town, which was finally resolved at Adhemar’s door—his wife was away so he took the refugee in. Even though he knew there would be heated words upon Mairen’s return, he could not quite stand to turn the sallow lass entirely away.
Within four or five days, the girl is up and about, wearing cast-off dresses. Her long locks have been brushed and untangled by the resentful fingers of Adhemar’s unwilling wife; Mairen will not have a member of her household, no matter how unwelcome, wander about unkempt. The maiden does not smell like a being of the water, which put paid to whispers that she’s some breed of mari-morgan or merrow. Her perfume is earthy, rich and dark, like rotted roses; a sweetness at first, then a potency, then grown too strong, and finally the hint of decay as she moves past the folk in the streets, those in the markets. Storeowners open all their windows and doors after she has gone, to try and get rid of the scent, but it never quite goes.
They are calling her the damozel, or ‘Damozel’ to her face and she seems to accept it, to answer to it.
As she goes, male and female gazes follow her. Children in particular watch for they have never seen such a pretty creature—nor have they ever known, in their short lives, anyone who has escaped the ice. Their fascination, for the most part, overcomes their fear. She smiles, caresses them if she can get away with it, stroking hair and cheeks, holding small hands and faces, giving them gentle words, singing snippets of songs no one knows, in a language no one recognises. Her smile broadens as they break into answering grins, until their mothers pull them away. The three youths who saw her dragged from the icy lake watch her too, as she passes their places of work, but do not pursue her. Rikke thinks they are afraid.
Rikke follows her, but at a distance. She has not, since that first day, gotten close to the stranger. Rikke does not understand why she shadows the damozel so furtively, why she observes so closely—she comprehends only that the girl should not be alive, that she should not be hale and hearty. That she should not draw Gamli’s eyes towards her, nor those of the other men, for it is a regard from which the will and intellect are absent. It is a look that Rikke, young as she is, knows to be dangerous—it’s the stare of someone not paying proper attention. She suspects it was her own the day Geir was lost.
At night, Rikke hears her parents, after they think her asleep, arguing as they never have before. Aggi berates her husband for the thoughts she believes he harbours, and Gamli swears she is wrong. He wants no one but Aggi, but his wife… except, when he sees that girl, those flecked eyes, something happens; it’s like he’s being pulled forward, downward, then further downward. Only he doesn’t want it, he doesn’t want to go, but it’s as if he has no choice. He will, he promises, stay away from that girl so he cannot see her, cannot feel that feeling, cannot think those thoughts, cannot want to surrender.
When he says that word, that last word, that’s when Aggi shrieks and it is a sound such as Rikke has never heard. But she can recognise pain, a searing soul sickness; she can recognise jealousy.
So perhaps Rikke does know why she follows the one who smells like death and flowers. She simply ignores the reason, or perhaps, is still too young to know precisely why she feels the need to protect her mother. She tracks the damsel, hiding herself behind carts and stalls, behind the fountain with the statue of a bear and a wolf shaking paws; she darts between women’s skirts and men’s trousered legs, she glues herself to the corners of stone buildings, thinking herself thin and beneath notice. She watches as the nameless girl follows the same path she’s taken since she rose from the clean straw and the mountain of second-best eiderdowns. She goes into every shop in exactly the same order each day, then visits each stall and barrow, again in the same order. She buys nothing—then again, she surely has no coin—and she speaks very little, but smiles a lot. When she finishes her rounds of the town square, she takes the cobbled street that leads to the lake shore—she stands here for a good few minutes, shading her eyes against the reflection of the sun on the water, and stares out at the place she was once entombed. Then she invariably turns around, and wanders back to Adhemar and Mairen’s, sometimes into the kitchen where Mairen has her help, sometimes straight back to the barn.
This day as the girl stands poised on the edge of the lake, its waters, still frigid, lapping at her toes, Rikke, behind a tree, watches the taut back, the head held just-so on the slender neck. The damozel is still so long that Rikke’s caution slackens, just for a moment, and the object of her scrutiny turns, faster than Rikke would have thought possible, and the child is pierced by the other’s gaze, frozen until the maiden from the ice grins and waves her slim fingers, mocking, beckoning. Rikke breaks cover and bolts.
Rikke is woken not by a scream but by an exhalation. Almost inaudible, it is the sound of surprise, of a soft agony, an agony which will build once its moment of bewilderment has passed. She rolls from her blankets and tiptoes to the door of her parents’ bedroom.
Light streams through the single window and highlights Aggi, flat on her back, stomach protruding, knees bent and parted beneath the covers. Her breathing is fast, sharp; she puffs with intent, trying to breathe the pain away. Gamli is nowhere in sight and Rikke remembers that today he is hunting deer.
‘Water,’ gasps Aggi. ‘Water.’
In the kitchen, Rikke stirs a mix of powder into a cup carved from a bull’s horn: willow bark, vervain leaf, and yarrow flower, crushed fine as dust, to ease her mother’s suffering. Aggi has coached Rikke, has taught her what to do, shown her where all the bandages and rags are, told her which herbs need to be prepared before the birth, which should be administered during and after, which should be used to make a poultice to stem the bleeding when the afterbirth has gone. How to wash the baby and make sure his nostrils are clear and his lungs are full—how to carefully hang him upside down, his feet in one hand, and slap his little bottom with the other. This is the part Rikke fears the most—what if he is slippery? What if he wriggles? What if she drops this new baby on the flags of the floor and splits his skull like a summer melon? Rikke does not think she could bear the weight of another lost soul on her conscience. She straightens her back and shoulders, sets her face with determination and takes her mother the water, then begins the process of productive bustling.
At first, things go well. She holds Aggi’s hand when the contractions are at their worst and does not cry when her fingers are crushed. She administers the medicaments as and when she should, she wipes the sweat from her mother’s face and puts cold compresses on her burning brow. She checks at regular intervals to see if the child is crowning, but after four hours there is no sign.
‘He will not turn!’ shouts Aggi and Rikke can hear all her mother’s hopes escaping in that one sentence. She is seized by the fear that the child will never come out, that he will rot inside Aggi, trapped there as Geir was trapped beneath the ice. Rikke thinks her heart will explode, it is beating so hard in her chest; she thinks she can hear its thud against the breast bone, against the cage of her body, trying to flee. She runs, followed by Aggi’s scream, and flies out the front door, desperately looking around for someone, anyone.
The agate-eyed damsel is standing at the edge of the cottage’s garden, bending over the heads of the new roses as if examining them, but her stare is on Rikke, as if she has been waiting. The little girl pauses only a heartbeat before she sobs out, ‘Help us.’
There is no hesitation. The young woman herds Rikke inside, then she pauses at the collection of herbs on the sideboard, some in large bottles, the rarer ones in small vials, others hanging bundles of dried flowerings and shrivelled bulbs. She hesitates as she looks in the mirror embedded in the sideboard, staring at her reflection, then reaching out to touch the glass. Her fingers skim across its surface and she seems surprised, put-out. From the bedroom comes a moan and the damozel shakes herself.
‘Angelica?’ she asks, for it is nowhere to be seen. It is out of season and Rikke knows Aggi keeps her supply hidden at times such as this—it’s too important an herb with which to be generous.
Rikke digs the alabaster urn from the bottom of a trunk where their best clothes and cloaks are folded. She hands it over with shaking hands. ‘Please,’ she begs, and is answered with a smile.
Aggi has passed out by the time they enter the bedroom. The girl stirs a mix of angelica, honey, lemon, vinegar and crushed nettle; Rikke observes the portions carefully, filing the knowledge away for later. The damsel holds Aggi’s head up and makes her drink; Rikke thinks it a good thing her mother is delirious—had she known this woman was in her house, she would scream fit to bring the thatched roof down. When Aggi has taken in the tincture, her midwife sits back and waits. Rikke wants to ask questions, so many questions, but her throat is closed by fear, and not a little excitement. Her breath stops, just for a second, as she wonders if the girl will do Aggi harm—if this is the moment she has chosen for revenge on a woman who has set the tone for her reception in Iserthal. When Aggi begins to moan and move, Rikke is certain that she has been poisoned. But there was nothing, nothing she tells herself, in the potion to harm either her mother or the baby.
‘The child is turning,’ says the dark girl in a low voice. She glances at Rikke as though she can sense her thoughts. ‘The child will come; they will be safe.’
And so he does and so they are.
A fine boy, sturdy and heavy. The damozel wipes his feet and ankles with a damp cloth then hands him to his sister; she watches as Rikke holds her new brother upside down and slaps his rump with not a little satisfaction. Then they prop him on his mother’s chest while she sleeps, exhausted, and he finds the nipple straining against its load and latches on. They wait until he is full and drowsy, a trail of liquid white slowly making its way down his chin, then the damsel supervises as Rikke swaddles him.
‘Not too tightly,’ she says, fingers twitching at the bindings to loosen them, ‘you want him to grow tall and straight and strong.’
They place him in the wooden cradle that once held Rikke, then Geir and now Orvar—this is the name Aggi chose months ago. Rikke covers him with a light comforter and looks up to thank the girl, but she is already gone. There is the light thud of the door settling back in its frame, and footsteps outside, scuffing on the stones of the garden path. Rikke, torn, checks on Orvar, then Aggi; both sleep deeply.
Rikke makes her choice.
Out in the golden light of the late afternoon, she casts about, and finally catches sight of the deep green of the damozel’s hand-me-down gown disappearing between the trees, moving away from the lake and the town. Rikke follows, quickly at first, hastening to catch up with the girl and thank her for her help, but as her curiosity grows, her pace slows; she becomes more cunning, waiting until her quarry is well away, the flash of green just barely seen before Rikke continues her pursuit. She walks lightly, carefully as Gamli has taught her on those occasions when he thought to show her how to hunt and stalk; she makes sure she does not step on any friable twigs, is careful not to trip and fall. When her skirt is caught on a branch, she is patient and unhooks it rather than tugging at it so that it might rip and cause the slightest noise. Out here, she is cautious in a way she never was in town. Out here, she hopes hunting this prey will hold the prize of knowledge.
It is an hour before they reach a clearing surrounded by alder trees; one of them, the largest, shines like angel wings. In the centre of the glade stands … something. Shaped like a man, as tall as Rikke’s father twice over, wearing a crown of stripped whistle-wood branches, each finial topped with rich black alder-buckthorn berries that catch the last of the light like gems. He wears a pitch-hued cloak that moves and circles like smoke in the wind; his hair is long and inky as the damozel’s, and his face is a shifting landscape of features made from soot vapour and dust and ash. Rikke has heard, has read, enough tales to recognise him. His eyes are deep holes, their orbs sunken but polished, fastened on the girl who steps fearlessly towards him.
‘My king,’ says the damozel, her tone light, pleased. ‘Father.’
The Erl-King does not answer, but the substance of him billows, whirls, like an animal trying to make itself bigger, more threatening.
‘Oh, Father, don’t be angry. You can’t still be angry.’ The girl laughs. Rikke realises she thinks herself safe; she does not think her father a threat. But Rikke saw what Adhemar did to his daughter with a briar switch when she spoke back to him; she saw what Wurdin did to his daughter when she was caught with the butcher’s boy behind the Mill; she remembers what Gamli did to her the day Geir’s body floated free.
Still the great beast does not speak.
The girl sighs, harrumphs, pirouettes, arms held out as if she’s flying. She does a little jig, the most graceful thing Rikke has ever seen. She twirls and twirls and twirls, one foot anchoring her, the other used to leverage herself round and round and round. She finishes suddenly, hands thrown back and down as if folding away her wings and she laughs once more, a high, ringing sound.
‘Father, oh, Father. I just wanted to know what this upper-earth was like. I just want to be merry for a while, Father, to feel the sun on my face.’ She moves closer and closer to the behemoth of haze. ‘I just wanted to see everything.’
A voice finally rumbles up and out of the Erl-King. ‘You had everything beneath, daughter. You had it all in my kingdom and you disdained it to come here.’
‘Oh, not a punishment, not another—weren’t those months in the ice enough for you?’ She laughs again and Rikke can hardly bear it. ‘Come, Father, let me return home. I have had my time here, I am content. I will return with you now.’
The head shakes, a slow movement back and forth that makes Rikke think of a neck being sawn through. ‘No. What you threw away can only be re-earned, daughter. Your name is forfeit. Your place in under-earth is gone. Your power over men will be no more than that of an ordinary woman—you must learn to live as such.’
‘Father, no!’ Panic now as realisation dawns, but the dark voice continues unabated.
‘You shall be called “Ella”—you want all and now it shall be your name. Let it be a reminder of your loss.’ He raises a hand gnarled and knotted, fingers tipped with long sharp nails, coal-black, pointing at his daughter’s face, his benediction a curse. ‘You cannot return until your penance is done. All mirrors are closed to you. The shadow trees will not bear you.’
The girl reaches out, up, then, sensing no mercy, stops, drawing back in on herself.
‘How shall I ever come home?’
‘All things have a price. You know mine.’
The Erl-King gestures at the largest alder, the shining one. Its bole splits, widens, exposing such a black profundity that Rikke cannot see inside, not even in the light of the radiant tree. The breach stretches and stretches until the Erl-King can step through, then the wound closes over as softly and surely as petals curling around themselves as evening falls. The girl, Ella, throws herself at the now-whole trunk, weeping and wailing, hammering at the bark with clenched fists.
Rikke is torn: quietly slip away or show herself? The heartbreak in the girl’s cries makes her decision.
With quiet steps she crosses the clearing and rests a hand on Ella’s shaking shoulder. The girl pauses, startled, then continues with her distress. She howls until she is exhausted, with Rikke now crouched beside her, arms wrapped around the girl whose own arms encircle the unfeeling bulk of the alder tree. When her storm is passed, she pulls away from Rikke, sets her face as if nothing has happened.
‘If you tell anyone about this,’ she begins in a voice of iron, and Rikke shakes her head. Ella purses her lips, then nods. ‘I do not forget kindnesses.’
She walks off through the copse and disappears in the rough direction of Iserthal. Rikke waits until she can be seen no more, then takes another, longer, path home.
Rikke does not tell her parents about Ella.
Oh, she tells them it was the damozel to whom they owe the lives of both Aggi and Orvar, and her mother does not speak for several hours. But she does not tell them about the Erl-King or the shining tree or the girl’s unbearable loss. She does not tell them that the girl now has a name, a new one and that it has changed her.
All the townsfolk notice is that the young woman has become different. That, although Ella still keeps her routine, moving and shifting along her usual path, she is altered—perhaps diminished. The eyes of the men are no longer unfocused as they watch her—and they do not watch her for long, or no longer than any man graces a woman with his considering gaze. And the women notice this. They begin to dislike her less. They are, if not overly kind, then at least they are not unkind. Mairen gives the girl more chores to do, trusts her to make the household purchases in the markets. Mothers no longer pull their children away when the girl gives them a sad smile, and sings to them in the language they no longer care they do not recognise. Aggi says thank you to the damsel; she touches her hands and holds them for a long while.
The ’prentices overcome their fear of the girl; they begin to make their presence known, at first in the way of boys, with loud jokes and bragging. They follow her trying to engage in conversation, but she does no more than give them a smile and continue on her way. Unable to understand that she cannot possibly be interested in them, the miller’s boy, the butcher’s boy and the smithy’s boy become bitter. Their japes turn to abuse, their hints become overtly sexual and crass, their teasing turns to torments. The townsfolk frown, reprimand the youths loudly. It merely serves to make them crafty.
Rikke wonders if, one day, she will speak to the girl again, and call her by her new name. Perhaps she will ask her about her father and the name to which Ella lost all right. Rikke might ask how she could return home, and if perhaps Rikke might help her to do so, to thank her. But she stops following the damozel; her interest wanes as the girl dwindles at the word of her father. But some weeks after Orvar’s momentous birth and Aggi’s great saving, and when the girl seems no more than a usual part of the town’s life, things go horribly wrong.
Excerpt of “Maiden in the Ice” taken from The Bitterwood Bible © Angela Slatter, 2014