A horror tale about the Witch Bride, second wife of a King, and the discord between her and her young stepson.
“You’re not supposed to say that,” the young prince whimpers, looking up from his dinner of sausages and truffle-infused mash, savaged and pearled with the bites he’d drooled out half-chewed. It’s hard to believe he’s eleven. There’s gravy everywhere; practically a gallon of flavorsome beef extract, seasoned with allspice and caramelized onions, a rub of thyme, a bay leaf cooked to gossamer. The new cook spent ages on it. I know. I was there.
“You’re mean! I’m going to tell my daddy that you said all those things! You’re not supposed to say that.” He howls.
I laugh, a little bitterly. There were many things I wasn’t supposed to do, or be. I wasn’t supposed to be someone’s second chance, someone’s happily ever alternate. I wasn’t supposed to be the malevolent stepmother—heartless, soulless, devoid of the natural compassion expected of childbearing women, the instinct to drop everything and coddle needy, whiny little whelps like him.
Actually, I suppose I was meant to be all of those things, but I was also expected to rise above the unflattering stereotypes.
Well, fuck them.
I gesture, a slant of the palm. His attendants, bruise-cheeked and flinching, retreat as one, silent as they pour back through the servant doors. A few hesitate, questions in the bends of their mouths. All these years and I’ve never once asked to be alone with the little prince, have done everything I could to avoid his company.
Even if some of them might have been suspicious of my intentions, not one gives voice to their misgivings.
At last, the servants are all gone.
“I do hate you, though,” I murmur, striding deeper into the room, my gown rustling across the marble floor. Underneath, I have my riding leathers and my boots, the chestpiece I’d sewn under the watch of the tanner’s sweet son. My first and truest love. His bones are with me still. When he died, I carved his femurs into the handles of my skinning knives, his tibias into ice picks. A knucklebone, I loaded with iron bearings and then sanded into a gleaming die. We became legends, he and I, but that is a separate story.
“I hate you,” I continue. “With everything that I am. I hate your screaming. I loathe your lying, screeching ways. I abhor your crocodile tears, your sly little smiles—oh, don’t think that the adults don’t know. We can tell when you’re putting on a show.”
The little prince lets out a lunatic shriek, slapping his spoon against his palm. Pureed potato, beautifully infused with garlic oil and a lick of mustard, goes everywhere.
“I hate you.” I crouch in front of him. “You have no understanding as to how much. You charmed little prick.”
“I’m going to tell Daddy,” he announces, venomous. The pupils of his eyes are so wide that they almost eclipse his irises, leaving only the barest halo of gold to encircle the dark. In them, I can see myself: fearsome, fearless, furious. “I’m going to let him know that you said mean things to me. I’ll tell him that I hate you. I’ll tell him to get another mommy for me. Then he’ll throw you out and the dogs will eat your bones!”
Another giddy scream of laughter. “New mommy! New mommy! Someone tell Daddy! I want a new mommy!”
“You waste of meat,” I hiss, savoring the sibilance. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
The little prince giggles.
“You’re uglier than my real mommy.”
“And you’re a piece of shit.”
I don’t know why his father chose me. It couldn’t have been for beauty. My sister, ebony-tressed and sublimely sleek-limbed, would have been the superior choice. It couldn’t have been that he was looking for someone tractable. There are storms more accommodating than I, wildfires less inclined towards defiance. For a while, I suspected it was because he was wise to my genealogy, that he could hear my bones whispering to his.
But he never asked for anything, would never even acknowledge how the troubadours commemorated me as the Witch Bride, an auspice of calamity. To him, I was simply his wife, his confidante, an ornament to sometimes admire and, when our moods aligned, a lover with whom to pass a gray-bellied afternoon.
No. Actually, that wasn’t true.
There was one thing he wanted, and such a simple thing, too, such a compassionate desire. More than anything else, my husband yearned for me to love his son. The little prince was all that remained of the boy’s venerated mother; a pale wraith, sweet if slightly stupid, given to whimsy. She was beloved by the court, I’m told, an overgrown pet whom no one saw reason to censure, charming enough in brief doses. When she died, they mourned for weeks.
Small wonder they feared me: the flint-eyed, sharp-mouthed wildling the king brought home from a distant land, mere months after the tender one’s tragic demise—midnight and bone to my noonday predecessor.
In the years following, my reputation grew the way my belly refused to do. Rumors spread like brambles, digging thorns in the countryside, sowing myths. My sins were myriad: I poisoned wells; I seduced husbands from their wives, wives from their husbands; I’d birthed the sea monsters that’d devoured one of our northern neighbors; I stole children and made necklaces from their bones before giving them away at midnight balls to demons beyond number; I brought famine, brought plague, trailed locusts and death the way a widow drags her mourning veils.
The king paid no heed to those acid whispers. Like I said, all he wanted was for me to love his child, his sweet boy, his dearest treasure, his unlovable whelp.
“I’ll tell Daddy.”
“You won’t.” I pull on the weft of reality so that the threads close, shutting all sound from entering or exiting the room.
The little prince glares at me from under the long fronds of his lashes, all teeth and malice. He drops his spoon and the impact shatters his plate. Food slops onto the mosaic tiles. Mashed potato gives the kingdom’s Crucified Lamb an unsightly beard. “I will. I am going to scream until he comes in. I am going to tell him you hurt me.”
As he intones this, he gropes through the mess. The little prince soon finds what he’s looking for: a sharp triangle of porcelain still dripping with gravy. If I gave a shit about him, I might have stopped him. But I don’t. Instead, I fix him with a lidded stare as he slashes at his own truculent mien, again and again, until he’s bloodied and weeping from every joint. His continued existence is a bonus, not a requirement. His carcass would work just as well.
“You’re a witch.” He pants gleefully. “I’ll tell them you tried to kill me. And you hurt me.” He barks out a quavering scream. “You made me do things. You made me cry.
“You know they burn witches,” the little prince continues. “Maybe they’ll burn you. I want to see you burn.”
I sigh and rise. “Keep telling yourself that, little prince.”
That last word—prince—shivers through the air, catching in the shadows, like hair snarled in briar. A chittering answers, churning up from the corners, fingernails tap-dancing on the glass. It grows, the noise. It grows and it grows and it grows until the windows blacken and shake.
People are always so quick to coo over children. So innocent, they simper as they press the screaming babes to their breast. So helpless. So pure. They forget that wolves are innocent, too, that the wild dogs savaging the family kitten, itself once a thing inclined toward toying with broken-breasted mice, harbor no cruelty in their ribs.
The little prince killed a squirrel when he was four—when I was still trying to love him. One winter morning, he shot the creature from its roost on an ice-rimed branch, the slingshot a wrongheaded gift from his father. The squirrel fell, stunned by the rock, a russet blaze against the white. Both the little prince and I trotted to where it’d landed, I to see whether it could be saved, and the boy—
He pulped that small head under his boot before I could cry out. It was as good as dead, the little prince informed me, laughing as he dashed away, red footprints across the snow.
In retrospect, it seems like such an irreverent little thing to hang a hatred on. Every child, after all, is guilty of some thoughtless savagery, even if this one was more vicious than most, more dangerous. Nonetheless, I learned to despise him that day. Sometimes, I wonder if I should have ended it then, if I should have walked the squirrel’s needle-bones down his throat and through his lungs, let him drown in his own blood. It would have saved a lot of trouble.
The little prince blinks, lapsing to a cunning quiet, animal instinct compelling him to watch, to wait, to be wary. “What did you do?”
“I spoke to the things you hurt—”
“I said I was sorry, ” he barks, as though that one word is a confessional to be stuffed full with his sins. As though that one word could absolve everything.
“—and I told them they had a decision to make. If they could forgive you, if they could bury their rage with them, that would be that. I would ask them nothing else. But if they couldn’t —”
Now the sounds outside have become a thundering of locusts, a murmuration of beetles. Now the shadows lengthen into grasping fingers. I exhale. A moting of green light spools in the air, a hieroglyph from an old and forgotten language.
“If you kill me, I’ll come back and haunt you.” The little prince makes a hissing sound, scrabbling upright, his petulance morphing to rage. In his hand, the blunted knife he’d been given for dinner, useless for cutting but not, perhaps, for gouging an eye from its socket.
“No one’s going to kill you, you little brat, and more’s the pity. But you’ll wish you were dead.”
At that, he charges, brandishing his knife; no grace at all, no strategy, the weapon clutched like a torch. I sidestep, an easy pivot of the heel, and the little prince staggers past. A howl, high and thin.
“Oh, you little prick.” I smile in the penumbra of the dusty, green light, all teeth and hate. “You will hurt terribly.”
When he was seven, the little prince sewed up a cat and hid it in a box. When it finally died, he brought the oozing corpse to my library, practically swollen with pride. “Its tummy is full of poo.”
When he was eight, he blinded a rabbit with his thumbs, left its skull half-cracked.
When he was nine, he bored a hole through a tortoise’s shell and filled it with ants.
When he was ten, he learned to be greedy. Every week, there’d be another chambermaid or trembling guardsman rapping at my door, meekly begging for succor, their fear of me subsumed by need. For an entire year, I did nothing but clean up after the little prince’s frivolities. I spent my evenings in the servants’ quarters, exorcising their rooms of his ‘gifts.’ I brewed poultices against nightmares and gifted charms against hauntings, tidied what bones would permit themselves to be put to rest, and made promises to the remainder.
The court at large paid no mind to the little prince’s eccentricities, lauding them as portents of glories to come. In battle, the soothsayers exulted, he’d be a monster.
Funny how they wouldn’t talk about how he was one already.
Still, all that paled compared to what happened when the little prince turned eleven . . .
Bones pour from every crack in the walls and windows. Lengths of rodent ulna. A blanket of hedgehog spines, undulating down the tapestries. Vertebrae, joined even in death, slithering like snakes. The molars from his first kill, the fragments of its skull. Everywhere, bones, clacking their way across the curlicued tiles.
I’ll admit. I hadn’t expected so many. There are hundreds here. Thousands. The little prince was cleverer than I thought, I suppose. More prolific. Perhaps those kills I witnessed were just practice, or things he’d curated for our discoveries.
The little prince is silent throughout the display, agape with wonder, too stupid to understand that they are coming for him. It isn’t until she appears that he begins to keen, begins to wail without breath or pause.
Like the rest of them, she is bone, untethered to muscle. Unlike the rest of them, she is whole, preserved by memory or, perhaps, the wailing rage that often suffuses those who have met a violent end. No longer wired to sinew and tendon, she jitters through every stride, a marionette with missing strings; sometimes, she slips. Sometimes, she loses herself, coming apart before some echo of the past draws her back together.
She stretches her fingers to him, her phalanges bonded like ropes of white.
It is the only warning he gets.
She was just a girl, no older than the little prince, small in every sense of the word. There were scores of children like her, roaming the castle grounds, bastards of the serving wenches; lasting, unwanted souvenirs of a noble’s visit.
Another king might have cast them out, but my husband has always been wise. He knew that sometimes there were changes of heart, and sometimes there was a need to pluck an heir from the common people, an heir naive to the rules of power. You could make good money trading in happily-ever-afters.
Nonetheless, when the girl disappeared, no one had very much to say. It was a thing that happened, the chancellor explained. Occasionally, the maids would barter a child to the whorehouses, or auction them for a sizable dowry. And the child, until then a hungry mouth with no value, would become worthy of fond remembrance.
But the girl, as it turned out, hadn’t been sold.
She hadn’t been given away.
I won’t tell you about what I found. I won’t tell you what I saw when I walked into the kitchen, a sobbing maid curled by the fireplace, the little prince singing rhymes. I will not tell you what he said to me, only that I had to give the maid a sedative before I could lead her from the little girl’s corpse.
As for the girl herself—
We spoke, naturally, after her bones had been bathed in firefly gut and frangipani. No, I won’t tell you what she said to me, either. But I am not ashamed to say I wept.
Bones do not lie.
Even when they are broken and then mended, there are scars to say where a fracture once was. A woman might wear powders to disguise her age and a man might boast of his vigor, but if you know where to look, if you can read their teeth and the bends of their spines, you’ll know the truth each time.
And the little prince’s truth is this: He deserves all of it. His bones—pale, pristine—gibber across the floor in rage, incensed to have been ousted from their cloak of flesh. Even now, even in their current state, they are petty, petulant things.
I ignore them.
Instead, I watch. I watch as those other bones crawl through the red circle of his sagging mouth. I watch as they negotiate placement; which vertebra would go where, which finger would be made by bird wings and which would be put together by human teeth.
By tomorrow, they will have cohered into a single entity, a half-thing with dreams of the woods. And who knows? In the years to come, perhaps those dreams will dissipate, leaving a soul like mine, whole and strange.
The doors bang open just as the last sliver of calcium slots into place, and the little prince takes its first new breath.
“Stop!” shout the guardsmen as they stampede into the room, its eaves and recesses still choked with bones. “Stop in the name of the king!”
Is this where I say they caught me? Is this where I tell you that I wrote my tale from a cell, while awaiting the frozen dawn and a death in the fire? After all, this is usually the part of the story where the reprehensible meets her end.
Not this time.
“These Deathless Bones” copyright © 2017 by Cassandra Khaw
Art copyright © 2017 by Sam Weber