After marrying the prince and having her own child, Snow White visits her stepmother—promising to kill her in ever more horrible ways, at the same time attempting to stay away from the mirror that started it all.
I shall drown you in the river where the willows grow. Their branches will reach for you and in desperation you will grasp for them but they will break between your fingers like the bones of small birds. As the water fills your throat, the last thing you shall know will be my two hands holding you down.
I only visit my stepmother during the time of the new moon. Although she hasn’t been given access to so much as a herb garden since she came to stay in my husband’s castle, I don’t trust the magic to lie completely fallow in her breast, and would not dare step foot in her rooms when the moon rides full and high in the sky. But now it’s noon and I balance the round silver tray on one hand as I rap three times on her door with the other. This is a courtesy only; the door is kept locked and the key, when not borrowed by our housekeeper at mealtimes, dangles from a blood-red ribbon on my belt.
A voice bids me enter and I do so, closing the door gently behind me. For a moment, I hesitate, struck to find the woman standing by the window, staring out at the snow-covered trees.
She turns to face me, hobbling on her birchwood canes. My stepmother is a vain woman still; normally she likes to be seated when I arrive, skirts neatly arranged to hide her feet. “Sit down, Fairest.” She gestures towards the small, round table where we customarily take our wine.
Setting down the tray, I inquire as to her well-being and she replies, as she usually does, that she is no better, no worse, before plonking herself down with all the grace of a mill-woman. “They’re no better either,” she says, catching me looking at her feet.
I avert my eyes and pour the wine into our goblets. Thick and sweet, my husband has it brought in barrels from the south, and I’ve developed quite a fondness for it of late. Lastly, I take up the apple along with the sharp little paring knife and begin to slice it down the middle. The flesh is whiter, crisper, than it has any natural right to be this deep into winter. But the tree behind the stables has borne such fruit, month after month, since my wedding night. One single apple each time, ripening to a bright and glossy red, and no one can pluck it but myself. Which I do, each new moon—pluck it and place it upon my silver tray, and bring it to my stepmother to share.
She takes a slice now, holds it to her nose a moment as she always does, then pops it whole into her mouth. I can hear the crunch as she bites down and my own mouth waters. She always takes the first taste of the fruit. We eat in silence, my stepmother and I, until the apple is gone. She spits the seeds into her hand, arranges them in a circle on the tray, then moves her hand over them in a quick, sharp movement. Does she think I do not notice? Later, I will burn them in the fire. Whatever pitiful magic she attempts, it will be reduced to nothing but ash.
I do this every month.
We do this every month.
“What are your intentions, Fairest?” My stepmother sits back in her chair, fixing me with her gaze. Her eyes are brown and glossy as apple seeds.
“Regarding your daughter.” She leans forward. “And your husband.”
Some wine splashes onto my wrist as I return my goblet to the table, and I wipe it hastily on my skirts. “My daughter is happy and healthy,” I tell her. “And my husband is travelling on matters of business. You have no need to ask after either of them.”
“But that is why I ask, Fairest. The time to close the barn door is now, before the horse is stolen away.”
“Bolted. Before the horse has bolted.”
“I know precisely what I said.”
I gather the goblets onto the tray, still half-full the both of them, and make to rise. The woman grabs my wrist, quicker than a hare before hounds. “Do not close your eyes to this, Fairest. You of all people know his proclivities. You know his heart.”
I wrench myself free. It’s not her place to speak to me so, I stammer. If it were not for me, she would have no visitors at all. If it were not for me, she would likely be dead, long dead and rotted in the ground. If it were not for me—
“I would still walk with ease,” she says, sticking out a foot from beneath her skirts. Although she wears her customary fur slippers, the scars are still visible around her ankles—red and ropy welts where the skin melted as candle wax does. I don’t need to see more than that. I know her feet too well. All those months tending to her horrendous wounds, cleaning away the foul-smelling pus and infection as she screamed her agony into my ears, forcing tonics down her throat to break her fevers, allowing her to clutch my hand so tightly that her nails left crescents that did not heal for days. We both bear the scars from those times; she has no cause to remind me.
“I was a child,” I whispered.
“And that child chose my punishment.”
“He asked me—”
“Make her dance in iron shoes, you said. Make her dance until she falls down dead.”
“A child’s wish. I—I had no idea of what it meant. I was only seven!”
“Seven,” she echoes. “The age he made you his bride.”
“The age your mirror condemned me.”
“The age your daughter is now.”
My lips ache, I’m pressing them so hard together. Standing, I pick up the tray. It’s all I can do not to throw it into her face, goblets and all.
“He thought you were the most beautiful creature in the world when he saw you in that coffin,” my stepmother continues. “When you were seven.”
“What does he think of you now, I wonder? Those broad hips of yours, that bosom which has nursed a babe? Not much girl left to you, is there? Not much to catch his wandering eye.”
I am half out of the door before she calls out again. “Fairest?” The edge has been shaved from her voice; she sounds almost plaintive now, and I pause, tilt my ear in her direction.
“How?” she asks. “How will it be?”
Without turning around, I tell my stepmother how I will kill her the next time we meet. My tone is clipped; there’s no joy in it for me now, despite the many nights I spent concocting my method, choosing just the right words—and the many more nights I lay awake in anticipation of delivering them. It was particularly vicious this month. My stepmother waits until I am done before telling me of my own murder. I can hear the smile in her voice, the satisfaction, and in any other month I would have been pleased by her inventiveness.
But not now, not after what she has already said to me.
“Next moon, then,” I say and step through the door. As I lock it behind me, her voice seeps through the wood.
“Sooner than that, Fairest. For your daughter’s sake.”
I make no reply. I have no reply to make. But I will send word to the kitchen about her supper. My stepmother shall have boiled liver tonight, taken from an old sow. I count my footsteps as I return to my parlour, hoping to distract myself from their cold and empty echoes. The sound reminds me too well of a clock, counting down its minutes until midnight. There are two hundred and forty-eight steps in all, though admittedly, I made my final three small and tidy to avoid crossing the threshold on two hundred and forty-six.
I dislike figures with sixes in them; they do little to comfort me.
I will lay you naked upon the snow, stretched between four iron stakes. Before your skin can chap too badly, I will take a keen-edged blade and peel it from you as someone might peel an apple. Blood will pool rich and red around your body. I will leave your fingernails until last and spit them into the snow when I am done.
My daughter’s hair is like fine-spun gold. She has her father’s hair, and his envy-green eyes. But she has my lips, plump and red as blood, and my fine, snow-white skin.
I watch through the window for a minute or two, not wishing to disturb whatever game she’s playing in the little courtyard outside the stables. The building is empty now that my husband is away with his horses and the others—including my daughter’s beloved pony—have all been sold to repay some debt or another. He has assured me that he’ll replace them when this current venture reaches fruition, but such words would be no comfort to my daughter. It won’t be her pony that comes trotting back to the stables, if indeed any pony comes at all. These days, my husband’s promises run thin as melt-water. She cried herself to sleep the night I had to tell her little Klaus was gone, and for days afterwards, when she remembered his absence, her lips would tremble.
Yet here she is, building a snowman outside his very stable, her small face tight with concentration, her nose nipped red by the cold. Children can be so resilient. How astonishing that they are able to bear the very worst of losses and still step forth into each new day as though some fresh delight awaits them there. If I could spare my daughter anything worse than the loss of a favourite animal, I should count myself among the best of mothers.
We must find a match for her soon, my husband told me the evening before he left.
When I protested that she was still a child, he merely glared at me and shook his head. His eyes these days are red-veined and yellowing from the amount of wine he consumes. I couldn’t bring myself to meet them, and instead bowed my head over my supper. I loved him more than I feared him once, thought him brave and wondrous and strong. How naive I was: a child with no knowledge of the world.
She is the granddaughter of the king, he reminded me. There will be a wealth of eager suitors, eager enough to plump the coffers of this pauper province I’ve been saddled with.
It’s a complaint I’ve heard so often, I could recite it word for bitter word. His two older brothers were given the best lands in the kingdom to govern, my husband insists, while he is forced to preside over lazy peasants and all manner of useless men. Though I’ve heard it said that these lands where we make our home were prosperous before he took governance of them, that it has been his taxes and sporadic, unannounced levies that have brought poverty among its people and made them fear what each new season might bring. What value is there in the daughter of such a man? Short of a plague running through the rest of the royal line, she will never wear the crown of a queen—I should not even think such things, though I am certain my husband would rejoice in such a tragedy.
She’s too young to be married, I told him. She’s too young to leave us.
He laughed. I would only see her pledged, not handed over. She is unripe fruit; it would not do to have her plucked too early in her season. He smiled, more to himself than to me, before stuffing a whole rasher of bacon into his mouth. I could see the soft meat being rent between his teeth as he spoke. Worry not, dear wife. Our daughter will remain under my protection for some years yet. But this is how the world works—not all brides are stumbled upon as fortuitously as you were, arrayed so prettily under glass.
How I wish it were so. I would rather see my daughter sleeping safe in a glass coffin for a thousand years than have her hurt by the waking world and those who walk within it.
Five times I tap on the window, although my daughter looks up at the first knock, grinning to see me standing there. “Mama!” she cries, and pushes herself to her feet. As she runs over to the courtyard door, I can better see the creature she has been building. Not a snowman, but some lumpish thing, hunched over and seeming ready to collapse at a breath. It makes my skin prickle with gooseflesh to look upon it.
“What have you been making, my pet?” I ask as she comes charging through the door to hug me. I crouch and fold her gloved hands within my own. Her cheeks are pink. Her teeth chatter.
“Mama, it is Klaus!”
“Klaus?” I stare again at the poor, misshapen thing outside. It could be thought a pony, I suppose, if one squinted hard enough, or viewed it with a mother’s eye.
“The fairy told me to make him out of snow and he would come alive and I could ride him again.”
“What fairy, my pet?”
“The fairy who came last night.”
Sighing, I smooth her hair back from her eyes. “That was only a dream.”
“No, Mama, look!” She points beyond the window and I follow the angle of her finger to spy a large black bird perched in one of the leafless trees overlooking the courtyard. Its silhouette, dark against the wintry grey sky, is distinctive. “See, the fairy!”
“That’s only a raven, my pet, a feckless bird come to see if we have kitchen scraps to scavenge.” I’ve never liked those birds, with their ink-black plumage and cryptic, guttural croaks. There’s often one flitting about the castle grounds, and I never count it as a good day when I happen to spy it. Softly, I kiss my daughter’s brow. “Now, remember what I told you? Little Klaus has grown up and gone away to be with all the big horses.”
She swallows and her eyes glisten. “When I grow up, will I go away too? Will I get to see him again, when I grow up?”
“I don’t know, my pet. Klaus has very many important things to do now. As will you, when you grow up.” She doesn’t say anything to that, merely hugs me tight and presses her face into my shoulder. I know that she is crying and doesn’t want me to see. I rub her back until her small frame ceases to shake. Outside, the tree where the raven perched is empty. Foolish as such feelings might be, I’m relieved to see it gone.
Unbidden, my husband’s face swims into my mind. His golden hair, once so glorious, now lank and greasy against his neck. The burst veins in his cheeks spreading like the webs of tiny spiders. Is it memory or imagination, the way his tongue darted across his lips as he spoke of auctioning my daughter to the highest bidder? As he spoke of how young she was, and how fair?
You know his heart, my stepmother said, and she is right.
His heart, and every other dark part of him.
I will keep my daughter safe. I must, I must. But I need to know what threatens her, and there is one thing in this castle that will tell me the truth of it.
I shall feed you honey, spoon after golden spoonful of it. I shall pour it down your throat until you can swallow no more, until it soaks every organ and your veins are stopped with the cloying thickness of it. Then I shall cleave open your breast and catch the gleaming nectar as it drips from your ribs onto my outstretched tongue.
I’ve never once spoken to the mirror. My stepmother brought it with her when she came to my wedding, so little could she bear being apart from the monstrosity even for the span of a week, and it’s been kept in a small, windowless chamber ever since. I know the sly deeds of which it’s capable, how it sniffs out a crack in a person’s heart and prises it open. Until now, I’ve never wanted to seek its counsel—or, at least, not enough to risk its manipulations. But I need to know about my husband. I need to be certain.
The mirror never lies, my stepmother told me once, when I pressed her on the subject. The trick is to know whose truth it is speaking.
There’s a woman standing outside the mirror’s chamber as I approach. Tall and thin and wrapped in dove grey, I recognise the arrogant set of her shoulders even before she turns to greet me.
The woman sniffs, her lips a taut line. “I have been waiting for one half hour. More!”
“I—I’m sorry. I had—I was unavoidably detained.” In truth, I’d forgotten utterly about her appointment, a fact she has no doubt surmised.
She smiles with all the grace of a blade and nods towards the narrow wooden door behind which the mirror awaits. “Shall we?”
I would like to ask her to leave, to return at a later hour or even another day, but there is the matter of the small linen bag that she clutches. I need the coins it contains; they will pay for good meat for our table and perhaps a warm winter cloak for my daughter. After all, the women come more seldom these days; the mirror seems to have exhausted them.
“Of course, Lady Heron.” I hold out my hand and she deposits the bag in my palm. It feels lighter than I’d hoped, but perhaps the coins inside are silver. After unlocking the door, I step aside and gesture for the woman to enter. She hesitates a moment, visibly steeling herself, before sniffing once more and marching past me.
Quietly, I close the door and move to the other side of the hall to wait.
She won’t be very long. They never are.
Scarce six minutes pass by my reckoning before she emerges once more, shaken and trembling, a handkerchief pressed to her mouth.
The woman waves me away. “I shall see myself from the castle.” Her eyes are red-rimmed and she refuses to meet my gaze. As she walks, her skirts rustle on the tiles in whispered accusation. But how is it my fault? I don’t make them come here, these women with their coins and haggard hearts. I don’t even know how they learn of the mirror’s existence—a network of gossip and half-truth, I suspect. Whatever they expect, whatever they are told, most do not visit more than once.
This has been Lady Heron’s fourth visit. Is her heart that ravenous?
I hesitate with my hand on the doorknob. One turn and I can be in the room with it. Three steps to place me before its glassy face. A handful of words in return for… what? I scarce know what I need to ask, let alone how to phrase it.
(Don’t I know? Oh, don’t I?)
Another day, then. When I have had more time to ponder my question.
Carefully, I insert the key into the lock and turn it. The weighty clatter of the tumblers brings me more comfort, I am sure, than the words of the mirror ever would. But do I imagine it? That barely heard sigh from the chamber beyond, so heavy with disappointment and with desire? Before leaving, I tap my toe three times and brush the tip of my nose.
Am I mad to have even considered such a diabolic audience? My stepmother has twisted my thoughts, most like for her sport. My husband is not a good man but he is not—
He is her father. He would not—
(you know his heart)
I need to occupy myself with practical matters and stop this foolishness. The snow has stopped and I have coins that need to be spent before my husband’s return, lest he find a more worthwhile cause for their use. I will take my daughter down to the village and buy her that winter cloak. Already, I can picture her wearing it, a scarlet weave folding soft and billowy around her slight frame, all that golden hair kept safe beneath the hood.
Oh, I know that I won’t be able to find such a thing as that. It will be lucky enough if the village seamstress has one of sparrow-egg blue or the bright green of ferns, anything other than muddy hues of brown or grey. If it be trimmed with rabbit fur, then we shall be luckier still. For red, I would have to place an order, and all of that would take too long.
My husband returns in a fortnight. The coins will need to be spent by then.
I will hunt you down with dogs. Hungry, vicious hounds that have been starved for days before being given your scent. You will beg for your life when finally they bail you up, circle you with their jaws snapping and slavering, but I will let them have you. I will let them tear you to pieces. I will let them take their fill of your flesh. All that will be forbidden them is your heart. That I shall bring home with me, safe in a locked, lightless box.
The gatekeep steps into our path as we approach, my daughter’s mittened hand clutched tight in my own. It takes four more steps to reach him. I do not like four as a number—it is slippery and too easily split in twain—but I dare not take a fifth.
“Weather’s closing in, Your Highness,” the gatekeep says, his shoulders squared.
My daughter squeezes my hand. Mama, she starts to say, but I shush her quickly. The sky above us is a weak blue and utterly clear of clouds.
“We are only going down to the village,” I tell the man. “We will not tarry long.”
“The little one will catch a chill.” He does not move, though his fingers tighten their grip about his staff. “Best get her back inside.”
“Thank you for concern, but we—we are warmly dressed, the both of us.” As I tug my daughter forward, the gatekeep too takes a step closer. So close that his broad, leather-clad chest almost bumps my own. His breath fogs as he speaks and I can smell the warmth of it.
“You may go to the village if you wish it,” he says. “But the little one should go back inside.”
For a moment, I’m too flustered for words. Then I picture my stepmother and the manner in which she used to conduct herself when I was a child. How imperiously she would speak to everyone, even my father himself. I draw myself upright. “Do you propose to tell your mistress what she might do with her day?”
The words taste flat as failed bread in my mouth and the gatekeep doesn’t so much as flinch. “On instructions from His Grace, your master and mine both. He did not wish the princess away from the castle in his absence. The winter is foul and the woods are wild and he would not have his only daughter come to any harm.”
He smiles now, a genuine smile, yet my daughter hides her face in my skirts. Part of me wishes to push past him regardless, to see if he will truly dare to lay a hand on his royal mistress. But another, more certain part burns with the humiliating knowledge that he would not hesitate to do so. My jaw begins to ache, so hard are my teeth clenched together.
“Mama? Are we not going to the village today?”
I forced a smile to my lips. “No, my pet. This kind gentleman thinks that it will storm, so we had best stay warm and dry by the fire.”
She kicks at the dirty snow that lies piled at the side of the path. “I wanted to see Klaus.”
“Silly poppet, Klaus is not in the village. I told you, he’s with all the big horses now.”
The gatekeep laughs, a far from pleasant sound. “You’d be best served looking for that old nag in the knackery.”
My daughter stares up at me, confused. I glare at the gatekeep but the man merely winks. “That’s—that’s a place where the big horses live,” I tell her quickly. “Come, my pet. We shall go down to the kitchen and have Cook warm you a mug of honey-milk.”
“I’m not cold, Mama,” she replies, her words frosting in the air. “I want to see the knackery. Please can we visit the knackery?”
The gatekeep’s rough laughter follows us up the path as I drag my protesting daughter back to the castle, and I curse him beneath my breath. High in the sky above, a raven flies in a slow circle. I curse it as well, wishing for its feathers to turn to stone, for its abruptly heavy body to fall to the ground and shatter like so many thwarted dreams.
It takes one hundred and nineteen steps before we are inside once more. I don’t care for that number, either. It has sharp edges and seems keen to draw blood.
I shall bind you with silken threads, wrapping them around and around your body until every inch of skin is cocooned. Only your eyes shall remain uncovered, so that I might peer into them over the days and weeks it will take for you to wither and waste and starve, stoically, silently, to your death.
My husband doesn’t care for the stories of my childhood, of the times before he jolted me from my poisoned sleep and lifted me boldly from the coffin, but my daughter loves to hear them. Each night, I sit by her bedside and tell her tales of the kindly little men who took me into their mountain home when I was lost, and for whom I kept house for several months. I tell her how I would make their beds and darn their socks and prepare their dinner the way they taught me. I do not tell her about poisoned combs or apples, nor about coffins made from glass; she is too young for such horrors.
Neither do I mention my stepmother. My daughter will have too many questions that I’m still unready to answer.
Instead, I relay happier stories of happier days—for there were many happy days betwixt the huntsman and the coffin—as well as the stories that the dwarves used to tell to me. Tales of crafty foxes and wise, well-born hares; dancing princesses and frogs with jewels hidden deep in their bellies; mighty frost giants who once lumbered through the mountains, and mischievous pixies with a taste for stolen sweets.
“Can we leave a cake out for the pixies?” my daughter asks me tonight.
“There are no pixies in our part of the world, my pet. It would only be a family of rats who come to nibble on your cake.”
“Talking rats?” she asks hopefully. “Magic rats?”
Smiling, I set aside the nightgown I’m hemming. My daughter grows so fast; this is the second time I’ve let it down and there won’t be fabric left for a third. “No,” I say. “Fierce and hungry rats who will gobble up their cake and then creep under the blankets to nibble on your toes!” I grab her foot and tickle it until she shrieks.
“Stop it, Mama! Stop it!” She’s almost breathless as she struggles to pull away.
Laughing, I release her and begin to straighten the bedclothes. “Come now, fidget. It’s past time you were asleep.”
She wriggles beneath the quilt. “Can we visit the pixies, Mama?”
“One day, perhaps.”
“They live very far away from here.”
“But we can use magic and fly to see them, quick as blinking.”
“Hush now.” I pull the covers up to her chin.
“But Mama, we can—”
“Hush!” Though her talk is fanciful, I don’t like to hear my daughter speak of magic. “It’s no small thing, my pet, to use magic. There is always a cost.” I kiss her three times, once on the forehead and again on each cheek, before gathering my sewing together. The candle flickers as I pick it up, casting moving shadows on the walls. My daughter cringes to see them.
“Surely you’re not still afraid of the dark?” When much younger, she cried whenever her candle was taken away, but many years have passed since then.
“No, Mama,” she whispers, her gaze flitting to the corner of the room. “But sometimes he is there when I wake up.”
“Who? Who is there?”
“The Night Man. He watches me in the shadows. I don’t like him, Mama. I don’t like his watching.”
“Is he here now?”
“No, Mama. You have the candle. He does not like the light.”
“It is a dream, my pet. A nightmare and nothing to fear.”
She frowns, doubtful, and I lean over to kiss her again. Forehead, cheek, cheek. “I shall leave the candle then, shall I? Just for tonight?”
I find my way back to my own bedroom by moonlight and memory, keeping one hand on the wall as I creep along the corridors. It’s a luxury to leave a whole candle to burn while my daughter sleeps, but the way she spoke of the Night Man chilled me.
I don’t like his watching.
Has he visited her, this Night Man, while her father has been away? I hadn’t thought to ask it and, surely, it is a foolish question. It’s only a nightmare. It must be a nightmare.
You know his heart.
I do. I do know his heart.
I will come upon you in darkness, my breath burning hot on your cheek. My ungloved hands will close around your neck and my fingers will squeeze, unrelenting, throttling your startled cries. You will die with your last words lodged, unspoken, in your throat.
I knock my customary three times but do not wait for an answer before unlocking the door to my stepmother’s room and swinging it open. The woman is sitting on the edge of her bed, jerking a robe over her bony shoulders. She wears nothing underneath; I glimpse the sag of a breast, the wrinkle and fold of belly skin pale as fresh cream. Her long, grey hair is dishevelled, hanging in tangles about her face, and her feet are bare. Quickly, I turn away, an apology stammering to my lips.
I’ve never sought such intimacy; my skin burns with it.
“What did you expect?” my stepmother asks. “I’ve scarce had warning of your visit.”
“But it’s past noon!”
“Do you suppose me unduly burdened with morning chores, Fairest? Or blessed with a surfeit of company for whom I should make myself presentable?” She waves a hand at the corners of the ceiling. “The spiders here care not a whit for appearances, I can assure you.”
I’m ashamed to admit I’ve not spared much thought for how she spends her days. She is fed; she is clothed. I keep her moderately stocked in embroidery thread, albeit often coarse and dull of colour, and have even brought the occasional book from my husband’s ever-shrinking library, as she once expressed a yearning for words. Royal histories, mostly, but also some volumes of verse. If I’ve ever had cause to think on my stepmother all alone in this room, it has likely been to imagine her daydreaming by the window with book or embroidery hoop in her lap, still elegant despite her fading finery, with all that wild hair swept into its usual immaculate coiffure.
It is a shock to witness her so… diminished.
“I—I have come to ask—that is, I wish to know—”
“You might meet my eye when you speak to me, Fairest. It would be polite.”
I turn around to find my stepmother now risen from the bed, robe tied close around her body, fingers working her hair into a rough braid. I’m careful not to look at her feet, though I glimpse her two canes leaning nearby. “I wish to ask about your—your mirror.”
Her eyes narrow. “You told me that you have never gazed upon it.”
“I’ve not had need… until now.”
The woman takes up her canes and hobbles across to the small table where the two of us normally sit. With a soft groan, she lowers herself into a chair, then gestures to the one remaining. “I have nothing useful left to tell about that thing.”
“I’ve come to ask your aid in… crafting a question. One that it must answer clearly, without trickery or guile. One that is… is…”
“Unambiguous? Fairest, there is no such question. The mirror will know your purpose as soon as the words part your lips. It will twist its own words accordingly.”
“If it may only answer ‘yea’ or ‘nay’? How can that be twisted?”
“You cannot impose such restrictions; it will answer as it will, with as many words as it chooses, or as few.” She leans forward. “Heed me well, Fairest. When you stand before that thing, when you peer into its depths, you also allow it to peer into you. It will see the very darkest of your fears; it will sup on them and find them delicious. And it will use them against you in terrible ways.”
“But I need to know!”
“You already know.”
“No, I suspect, I worry, I dread—that’s not the same.”
“It is enough for you to take your daughter and leave.”
The laughter bursts from me like a startled bird. Leave? How simply she puts it, I scoff, as though I might just pack a trunk, snatch my daughter by the hand and waltz out into the world. As though there are carriages and fine horses to carry us wherever our whims direct. As though no burly gatekeep would stand in our path, no armed men hunt us down should we persist.
As though, even if we can find a way to leave, we have a place to go.
“There are always ways, Fairest, if you have the knowing of them. And places.”
“This is a waste of my time.”
As I stand up, my stepmother reaches forward and grasps my hands. She moves more quickly than I would have thought her capable and this, along with the warm, dry press of her skin against mine, shocks me into place. I can’t remember how long it’s been since we’ve touched. The woman pulls herself to her feet, pulls me closer, her face inches from my own.
“I can help you,” she whispers, “but first I have need of some things.” Her breath is oddly sweet. It smells of spring blossoms, and of apples. My knees threaten to buckle and I find myself clinging to her as much as she does me. Her eyes locked with mine, she gives me a list, then asks me to repeat it back to her. “Again,” she says, and I do, twice more, as her thumbs move in slow circles over my wrists. At last, seemingly satisfied, she releases me.
My arms drop to my sides. I feel muzzy-headed, woolly, as though I’ve just woken from a troubled sleep. My mouth is dry. “You—” I cough, backing away from the table, away from the woman now supporting herself by its edge. “You spelled me!”
“Only your memory, Fairest. My needs are precise.”
“You—you wretched creature! I wish you had died on my wedding day!”
Smiling, she sinks back down into her chair. “No, you don’t. There is too much kindness in your heart, even now, even for such a wretched creature as myself.”
I am too furious to speak another word. I want to throw something, break something, break everything—but the only thing to hand is a pewter goblet which makes a hollow, unsatisfying clatter as I hurl it against the wall. How dare she? I will leave her to starve. I will tell the kitchen to send her nothing but spoiled milk and rotted meat. I will—I will—
“I can help you,” my stepmother says again. “Please—for your daughter’s sake.”
Jaw clenched to aching, I glare at the woman for one long, cold moment before marching from the room. My hands shake so badly, I drop the key twice as I try to lock the door behind me. As I stalk down the corridor, my stepmother’s list rolls unbidden, unwanted, through my mind, each word a barb that catches and throbs. It so distracts me that I completely forget to count my steps.
I shall simmer you slowly, until your skin sloughs away and your flesh becomes soup. Your bones will be boiled for stock so that I might dine with special delight on the consommé drawn from your marrow.
The mirror chamber is cold, windowless, and dark. For several moments, all I know is my own breathing, shallow and fast, as I stand in the centre of the room with the door closed firm behind me. Then the glow begins. Faint at first, then brighter and brighter until I might be surrounded by a dozen candles, so forceful is the light that shines from the glass oval on the wall opposite me.
I haven’t seen the thing for years.
I’d forgotten how plain it is, had in my memory conjured an ornate, overwrought frame around its edge in place of the thin band of wood that actually bounds it. It’s smaller than I remember as well. I could have sworn the glass to be longer than the span of my arms, and near as wide, but in actual fact I could likely carry the thing in two hands without much effort.
Not that I would touch it in a million moons. My skin crawls at the very idea.
Well met, child.
The voice doesn’t seem to come from the mirror. It doesn’t seem to come from anywhere in particular, yet it fills my whole head, louder than any thought of my own, almost to the point of bursting. I can’t imagine a worse sensation than this.
What would you ask of me?
“I—I want… my daughter—is she… under threat?”
Only so long as she draws breath in this world.
“But here, in this castle, is she in danger?”
She will always be in danger, child. You cannot protect her from all the ills that may befall her.
My thoughts are thick and slow. I can’t summon the right questions to ask, the right words to pull the answers I need from the glass before me. There’s a sudden tightness in my chest and my breath comes too fast to catch. “My husband…”
He loves your daughter. More than he loves you.
Closing my eyes, I press fingertips to my temples, press so hard into those soft and pliant hollows that stars shatter behind my lids. The pain is an anchor. A compass. “And does he… does he desire her also?” For a heartbeat, I wish I could unsay those words, so solid do they sit in the air, so blunt and inescapable is the echo of them. But it is done. It is said.
It is said.
More than he desires you. The voice of the mirror swells and gloats. Beware, child, and tread carefully; your position in this household grows precarious.
With that it departs, leaving me as empty as a pumpkin shell scraped for seeds—or nearly so. My stepmother’s list drifts from my memory like smoke from a snuffed candle, her words wispy and thin but persistent nevertheless. I shake my head. Will my mind ever be my own again? The glow from the mirror is gone; the chamber is pitch black. “Come back,” I call out. “I have more to ask of you.” There’s no reply, no sense that the mirror is even listening. The chill in the room deepens; beneath my sleeves, gooseflesh shivers across my skin. The audience is over. I have been dismissed.
I turn and retrace my steps to the door. But my outstretched hands find nothing more than bare, unbroken stone. No smooth, polished wood or jutting handle of brass, nor any crack or join that might suggest an exit. Frantic, I pace the short length of the wall, palms slapping against stone, as the gorge rises in my throat and the taste of spoiled milk coats my mouth. By what devilry has the mirror trapped me here? For what purpose, and for how long? I thump at the wall with balled hands, demanding to be released, for the door to be restored. I will not rot in this wretched chamber, in darkness and silence behind this newly solid facade, while my husband and my daughter—
Behind me: the creak of a hinge, a shard of yellow light, and a timid voice calling, “Mama? Mama, are you there?”
For a strange, disorienting moment, I can’t make sense of it. Then my daughter’s head pokes around the edge of the door she has opened—the door! on the wall adjacent! so ridiculously close!—and my cheeks burn with foolishness. I stalk over and, snatching her by the arm, jerk her into the hall beyond. She cries out, the thin, high-pitched squeal of a snared rabbit that sets my teeth to grating, and I give her a rough shake as I pull the door shut behind us.
“You don’t ever go into that room! Not ever!”
The girl is starting to snivel, her green eyes wet and bright with shock, and there’s a part of me whose heart breaks to see it—but that part feels so very far away, so very small and distant and powerless in the face of the fury that boils in my breast, and I shake her again. “Stop it! You’re not an infant anymore. You need to start acting like a lady.”
She tries to swallow her tears, she does, but her thin shoulders hitch and her mouth contorts with the effort and my fingers dig deeper into her flesh. I want to—I want to—
Nearby, a throat is cleared. “Your Grace?”
Startled, I look up to see Lady Heron standing but a few paces away, hands clasped at her waist. She stares at me in an odd manner, an expression shaded somewhere between pity and fear, before nodding towards my daughter. “Do not berate the lass too harshly, Your Grace. I asked her to bring me here, after you were not to be found.” The woman taps the linen bag that hangs from her belt. “I wished another visit.”
Releasing my daughter, I straighten. “Go to your room,” I tell the girl. “Stay there.” She obeys, walking as fast as she possibly can without breaking into a run, and I wait until she has turned the corner at the end of the hall before informing Lady Heron that she can expect no visit today. Not today and possibly not ever again. For which she should be grateful.
“Have you stood before the mirror, Your Grace?”
“You have no right to question me.”
“Shall I instead advise? Do not accept the counsel of the glass. Do not stand before it again.”
The laughter that bursts from my throat is coarse and ugly. “Shall I rather take the counsel of a hypocrite? Why do you not heed your own words, Lady Heron, be they so wise?”
The woman bows her head. “I am weak. I wish I were not.”
I open my mouth to tell her to go but the words that trip forth are my stepmother’s—the wretched list with which she spelled me.
Lady Heron tilts her head. “Your Grace?”
I repeat the list and she echoes me, her grey eyes flat and glazed. There’s a curious satisfaction in speaking the words aloud, the feeling of tumblers falling into place, a sense of being unlocked—and yet I cannot find any pleasure in it. The manipulations of my stepmother and her mirror have left me drained and shaken, my stomach subjected to sour swells of nausea the results of which I have no desire for Lady Heron to witness.
“Leave,” I snap, once my tongue feels again my own. “You’re not welcome here.” Without waiting to see that she obeys, I turn and march off down the corridor. Bile prickles at the back of my throat and I swallow, hard and hot, with one hand pressed close against my lips.
one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three
I cannot keep more count than that, but it doesn’t matter. Three is the safest number, after all, and it’s a simple thing to match my steps to its calm, protective rhythm. The parlour is closer than my bedchamber; I’ll draw the drapes and sit awhile in my favourite chair.
one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three
I pass my daughter’s room without pause. Pass, almost, without notice. The door is closed. All is quiet beyond. I’ll speak with her once I am rested. I love my daughter, with her green eyes and golden hair. My position is not precarious. I love my daughter.
one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three
I will bring you before the mirror; let it tell the hard and glassy truth of your death.
When there comes a gentle rapping at the parlour door, I expect it to be the housekeeper with a fresh bottle of wine. Wine and, perhaps, a plate of cured meats or a bowl of stew, along with yet more earnest supplications for me to eat, eat, eat. But I’ve had no appetite for food these past two days, not since speaking with the mirror; the mere thought of eating anything, of chewing and swallowing anything, makes me feel ill. But the wine—oh!—so red and sweet on my tongue. It helps me to sleep, it helps me not to think.
My head is heavy with all that I do not wish to think upon.
But it’s not the housekeeper who marches into the room at my summons, stern of face and bearing nought but a small calico sack. Sketching a curtsy so shallow it might nearly be an insult, Lady Heron at least keeps her gaze averted until I have risen from the chair by the window where I have been sitting. My embroidery hoop, forgotten, falls with a clatter to the floor. Neither of us acknowledge it.
“H-how dare you intrude upon me here!” My cheeks feel hot, my knees unsteady.
The woman curtsies once again. “Forgiveness, Your Grace—I have your price.”
Frowning, I stare at the lumpy, cream-coloured sack in her outstretched hand.
“It is everything you requested,” she says. “May I visit now?”
Even as I back away from her, Lady Heron steps forward, pressing her price into my grasp and bidding me to look. I don’t wish to touch the sack, let alone peer inside of it. I can no longer remember the specifics of my stepmother’s list and have no desire to invite it into my mind once more. Hastily, I drop the thing onto the little table where my sewing basket sits, then wipe my hands on my skirts. My mouth is dry; I wish my wine goblet were not so empty.
“Why—why do you keep returning here?” I demand of Lady Heron.
She smiles, thin and sharp. “You have stood before it, Your Grace. Do you not hear its whisper? Do you not feel its pull?”
No, I want to retort. No, I am stronger than that. I am stronger than you. But the woman is not a fool; she would see the lie in my face as quick as blinking. Last night I woke to find myself huddled against the door to the mirror’s chamber, fingernails scratching at the wood. I didn’t recognise the sounds that came from my own throat—pathetic mewlings like those a starving kitten might make before its head is pushed beneath the water—and it took all my will to force myself back down the hall.
I remember stopping at my daughter’s bedroom, easing open the door and slipping inside to stand in the shadows. Like the Night Man. (Like my husband?) I watched her sleep, the swelling moon lighting her face through the window, all those golden curls turned to frost. Her mouth lolled open, a gentle snore easing between her lips. Did she dream of Klaus and of fairies? Or did she dream of becoming queen?
Your position in this household grows precarious.
I remember taking a step towards my daughter’s bed. I remember the surge of malice in my breast. And I remember running, horror rising with the bile in my throat as my daughter’s confused, sleep-bleared voice called out in my wake—Mama? Mama, is that you?
This morning, I found my fingernails broken and split, with a narrow splinter of wood lodged beneath my left thumb. I still haven’t spoken to my daughter—I’m frightened to look upon her face. Frightened of what I might feel when I do.
He loves your daughter. More than he loves you.
“What does it say?” I asked Lady Heron. “What does the mirror tell you?”
“Words that are mine alone to hear, Your Grace.” She straightens her spine. “As, having received your own private counsel, you must surely understand.”
I hold her gaze for one long, difficult moment before reaching for the keys on my belt. “One final visit, then, Lady Heron, after which you may never return. If you have any sense left in your head, you will thank me for it.”
“And who shall keep the key from you, Your Grace?” Her smile twists nearer to a smirk. “Who shall protect you when the mirror whispers in the night?”
Making no reply, I stride past the woman and out of the parlour. My footsteps echo in the empty halls; Lady Heron’s come half a beat behind, her skirts rustling as she hurries after me. Once this visit is done, no one will come near the chamber again—she can spread the word among all the sorry women who scuttle up to the castle, coin in hand, eyes brimming with hopeful despair.
Whatever words the mirror chooses to speak, they will be mine alone to hear.
I shall grind glass so fine that it glitters like drifts of moonlit sand and then I will use it to salt your supper. The grains will grind through your innards, scouring your tender, secret parts until each movement is torture and you beg to be released from the agony that is breathing.
Lady Heron has been in the chamber for less time than it takes me to pace the length of the hall and back—fifty-nine steps all told—and my palms are sweaty and warm from rubbing too vigorously against one another. I should not have allowed the woman this visit. I should not have left her alone with the mirror. For what if the choice is not mine to make? What if the mirror decides that she will be its favoured confidante? What if—
I fling open the door, demanding that Lady Heron take her leave right this instant, but my voice falters and I stop barely two steps inside the chamber, unable to properly comprehend the scene before me. The woman is hunched like an old fishwife, mouth contorting in fierce silence as the glow from the mirror grooves deep shadows into her face. In her right hand she wields a small hammer—though wields is perhaps too strong a term for the shaken, struggling manner in which she lifts it, lowers it, lifts it again.
“Lady Heron, what—”
Child, leave us.
The mirror’s voice slides into me, fills me, and I stagger forward with arms outstretched. “No,” I whisper. “No, please. I must stay. I have questions.”
They will not spoil for waiting.
Sensing its imminent withdrawal, I pounce on the first words to trip across my tongue. “Am I safe here in this castle? Am I safe from my—my husband?”
You are safe from nothing, child. And if you do not leave now, you will never again call this castle your home.
The voice burns with fury; the pain is so great that I sink to my knees, hands pressed uselessly to my ears. Before I can beg forgiveness, there comes a great bellowing and a crash so loud it might be cannon fire exploding in my skull, and then
all the world
Gradually, I become aware of two things: the cold, hard stone of the floor beneath my shoulderblades, and a strange sputtering noise from nearby. Opening my eyes, I roll over. Something cracks beneath my hip and, in the dim light filtering in from the hall, I can see shards of broken glass littering the chamber floor. On the wall, the mirror frame hangs barren. A few feet away, Lady Heron sits propped in a corner, breathing heavily. She sees me staring and grins with gleaming, dark-stained teeth before sputtering again. Mindful of the wreckage, I crawl over to the woman. Her grey dress is stained and wet, and a pool of blood has formed beneath her. She has a hand pressed to her side, pressed to the place where a sharp and glittering edge protrudes.
“What have—what have you done?”
“It is over,” Lady Heron croaks. “She’ll rest now.”
“Here, let me help.” Carefully, I take hold of the shard in her side and pull it loose. More blood bubbles up through the wound and she groans, catching my free hand in hers. Squeezes hard. Coughs. I wad up some of her skirt and hold it against her side but it soaks red in a heartbeat and Lady Heron is making that sputtering sound—laughing. She is laughing! Though her life now must surely be measured in breaths.
“Thank you,” she says, shaking her head when I try to hush her. “Tried so many times. Each time, it held me. But couldn’t hold us both. Not together. Couldn’t hold me. With you there.” She’s lifting her right hand, curled in an empty fist. Bringing it down, lifting it again. “Couldn’t hold me.”
Taking her hand, I press it between my own. The hammer is over on the far side of the chamber, I see now, most likely flung from her grasp once she struck the mirror. My stomach clenches; my cheeks flush with anger.
“No more whispers,” Lady Heron says. Though her voice is weak, her speech slick with blood, her eyes are clear. “No more whispers, Your Grace.”
“You had no right,” I snap. “It was not your place.”
She smiles. “You would not remember her.”
“My niece, my darling. Stood before the mirror.” Another cough, harsher this time, and the woman’s smile fades. “Drowned herself, my darling.” Her shoulders stiffen, then relax. “But it couldn’t hold me. Tell my sister. Couldn’t hold me.”
Her gaze is locked with mine when she dies.
Shakily, I push myself to my feet. I try to wipe my hands on my skirts but they are no cleaner, no drier. Everywhere is blood and broken glass. I wouldn’t have thought the mirror so large as to produce so many glittering shards—nor Lady Heron capable of containing all that red mess. Have I as much in my own small body? If my throat were slit, would such an ocean surge forth?
You will take the blame for this, child.
No, it was—it was an accident.
The wife of Lord Heron lies slaughtered in a room to which you hold the only key.
You are soaked to the skin with her blood.
And a sack of witchcraft left in your parlour for any passing housekeeper to find.
See how well you have furnished your husband with your own death warrant.
“Stop! Please, stop!” The voice falls silent but doesn’t depart; my head might burst from the pressure of it. I stamp down on the nearest shard, a strange satisfaction rippling along my spine at the sound of cracking glass. I break another piece beneath my heel, and another. But even as I do, a sick terror begins to curdle in my belly. Damn Lady Heron to all the unknown hells for her treachery! Damn Lady Heron and—and—
Is there another, child? One who might wear the noose destined for your pretty neck?
Dizzy, I lean my back against the wall. All at once, everything draws together. It has been her from the beginning, marking out the pattern, tying off the threads, and how doltish I have been not to see it. “Stepmother,” I whisper.
Oh yes, child. Oh yes and at last. Stepmother.
I will bury you alive. Not in a coffin or wooden box. Not even wrapped in a shroud. Bound, on your knees, you will feel the dirt scrape against your skin as I shovel it upon you. And when you are buried, I will salt the earth where you lie so that you might be shunned by each and every living thing.
The old crone looks up, aghast, as I storm into the room. Fumbling with her canes, she starts to rise from her chair but I’m upon her too quickly, grasping her bony shoulders and shoving her back down. She gives a soft, startled gasp and, for the first time I can remember, those brown eyes kindle with fear. “Fairest, whose blood is this?”
“None of it mine,” I snap. “As much as you wish it were.”
She pushes her face closer, nostrils flaring as she sniffs the air. “I would not be so sure. You are cut—”
I slap her hand away as it reaches for my cheek. “Never touch me again!”
“What has happened?” She touches her chest, hand hovering over the place where her heart would dwell, had she ever possessed such a fine organ. “I felt… I felt…”
Do not listen, child. This wretch would have you banished from this place. From your home.
“I see you, witch. I see you now for what you are. For what you have always been.”
Her gaze sharpens. “You have spoken to the mirror.”
It would have been better to have let her die.
“You failed to destroy me once before. You will fail again.”
It would be better to kill her now.
“Fairest, I beg you. You must not listen—”
No more, no more of her evil, insidious words, fighting even now to free themselves, even as my hands clutch her pale, wizened throat and squeeze. Eyes wide, she struggles against me, fingers scratching at mine in an effort to loosen my grip. But her nails are as old and brittle as her soul, snapping before they can hope to break the skin, and the pitiful manner in which she writhes only serves to stoke my wrath. I will end this. Now. I will end her—
My hands close around air.
Unbalanced, I tip forward, bracing myself against the abruptly, impossibly empty chair. A raucous, rasping chorus fills the room, goblin laughter bold and burbling, and I whirl around, shielding myself from the sudden mass of black feathers that swoops upon me. The bird caws again, flapping vengeful at my face as it pecks and claws, and I try to move away, turn away, but it is everywhere, dogged and inescapable as death. Covering my eyes—for surely it is those soft and vulnerable globes it seeks to pluck from me!—I stumble blindly for the door, only to step on my own skirts and fall. My knee cracks on the stone and the pain robs me of breath. I cry out, rolling and reaching for my aching knee, and the bird is there, all feathers and fury, its black wings beating a gale as its beak latches onto my cheek.
And then, emptiness.
Warily, I prop myself up on one elbow. The bird, a raven as large as a cat, is on the floor nearby. Catching my gaze, it hops well beyond my grasp. The movement is awkward, ungainly; there is something wrong with the creature’s talons, an unnatural curl that twists them back upon themselves, and even as I peer closer—
—the raven vanishes. Or, doesn’t vanish precisely, but is simply gone—with my stepmother now crouched, naked and breathing harder than I am, in its place. Reaching into her mouth, she pulls out a shard of mirrored glass the size of my thumbnail. “You will feel more yourself, Fairest,” she says, her voice hoarse and broken, “now this foul thing is removed.”
I touch my cheek, feel the blood running fresh from the wound. I remember Lady Heron, and the glass I pulled from her side. The dauntless scarlet flow that leeched all warmth from her flesh. Tell my sister. My hands begin to tremble. Couldn’t hold me. My stomach convulses and I lurch onto my side, vomiting a thin burgundy gruel onto the stones.
“Fetch my robe,” my stepmother says. “And my canes. Please, Fairest.”
Her neck is red, marred with deep crescents that will likely bruise. Shaking, I wipe my chin with the back of my hand. “I—I don’t… I’m sorry…”
“Hush now.” She smiles. “After all these years, what use have the two of us for apologies?”
I fetch my stepmother’s robe. And her canes. We sit at the round wooden table, the small shard of glass between us. I fuss at my fingers, trying to scrape away the dried blood crusted around my nails. What a fright I must look. “How—how… the raven, I mean…”
“I was a witch long before you were born, before I even laid eyes upon your father. Did you think I had forgotten all my clever tricks?” She pauses, prods the shard with her index finger. Gingerly, as if it might bite. “Though, for a while, I could do nought but mend. It swallows no small part of you, Fairest. I think you have had a taste of that.”
I look away. From the shard, from my stepmother. “But how long?”
“Several years now.” Her chuckle is raspy, dry as the last leaves of autumn. “Blessed three, I should have gone mad locked in this room without my wings.”
“But you could have fled at any time!”
“Is that what you think? That I could leave you to the fate I myself had wrought? You, and then your daughter? The mirror held me for so long, so sweetly and so ruthlessly—but the fault was mine. I stood before it. I asked my foolish question. I opened my heart to its hooks.”
“Has this been your penance?” The words taste as bitter as they sound.
“No, Fairest, it has been my justice. And it is not yet done.” My stepmother stands and hobbles across to her nightstand. Moving with care, she retrieves the jug of water left for her bathing and returns to the table. Gently, she takes my hand in hers. I flinch but stop short of pulling away. My stepmother works patiently, rubbing at my fingers with an old linen napkin. “So much blood,” she murmurs. “And so little of it yours.”
I tell her everything, words spilling from my lips like stolen jewels.
My stepmother listens in silence as she cleans, pausing now and then to dip her napkin in the water. Soon the cloth is pink as my daughter’s cheeks—and oh, my daughter, my darling one! How could I have spoken to her with such fury? How could my heart have been so quickly hardened against its sole delight that almost I wished her—
“Yet you did not,” my stepmother says, wiping at my tears. “And she is not.”
“Oh, but what have I done? My husband returns in a matter of days.”
“Lord Heron will miss his poor wife sooner than that.” Leaning back in her chair, she nods at the mirrored shard between us. “Take that thing and throw it from the window. Its song is faint, but still I hear it keenly.”
The sky outside is a cold, wintry blue and I fling the shard as hard as I can, the mirrored side glinting in the sunlight as it sails its final arc. My thumb smarts; blood beads from a fresh-made cut. “Good riddance to you,” I mutter. Despite the chill, I linger by the window a moment more, staring out at the pine forests that border this side of the castle grounds and at the mountains beyond, their crowns hidden in low cloud.
She could have fled at any time. Fled and flown and been free.
“Fairest,” my stepmother calls. “There isn’t much time.”
Squaring my shoulders, I take a deep breath and turn to face her. “Tell me, then. What must I do?”
I shall leave you alone. Without light. Without song. Without the skin of another soul to warm you in the night. You will pass in absolute solitude, knowing only the unsteady beat of your failing, fragile heart.
My daughter is wholly unafraid of the old woman who sits before her, smearing a clear but strange-smelling ointment onto her face. She giggles, wrinkling her nose, and reaches out to run eager fingers through my stepmother’s hair. “Are you a fairy?”
My stepmother smiles. “Some might say so.” There’s a kindness in her voice and in her eyes. Gently, she untangles her hair from my daughter’s grasp and sweeps it over her shoulder. “Now stop wriggling, little one.”
“Mama says magic is dangerous.”
The woman flicks me a glance. “Your mother is right. You should mind her words.”
Beneath its ointment, my face itches and my mouth is dry with doubt. She could have fled at any time, I tell myself, fled and flown and been free. Fear is a stubborn habit; it must be broken again and again. Though my stepmother was well pleased with what Lady Heron had brought to the castle, she refused to let me watch as she mixed her ingredients. It is not for you to know, Fairest. One day, perhaps, if you choose such a path, but not this day. I was sent instead to fetch my daughter, whom I found curled up on her bed, speaking in whispers to the yellow-haired doll my husband brought back from his travels last spring. Her eyes widened as I entered the room, and she shrank back when I sat down beside her.
I’m sorry, my pet. Please forgive me.
Are you still cross with me, Mama?
Oh no, my pet. I pulled her into my arms, held her and rocked her as I did when she was a babe. No and never again. Pressing my face into her hair, I soaked in the sweet, familiar scent of her scalp until she started to twist against me, protesting the tickling of my breath. Tickling, am I? Tickling? My fingers found her ribs, and the soft hollows of her knees, wiggled in beneath her arms until she was shrieking with laughter. Come, I said at last, smoothing the tangled curls from her eyes. There’s someone who wishes to meet you.
The doll she left discarded on the bed, its glass-eyed gaze fixed on the ceiling.
“Fairest?” My stepmother holds my daughter by the hand. “We are ready.”
“Where—where is your ointment?”
“My enchantment was wrought to last. I have no need of unguents, nor any quills save what fledge from my own skin.” She nods at the two feathers lying side by side on the table, sleek and black with promise. Muttering beneath her breath, my stepmother selects the smaller of the two and twirls it between her fingers.
“Will it hurt, Lady Fairy?” my daughter asks, voice faltering.
“No, little one. Quite the opposite.”
Quick as a serpent striking, the woman stabs the feather into my daughter’s chest and I gasp, rushing forward even as the nightdress she was wearing puddles to the floor. Puddles, then begins to flop and bounce. Chuckling, my stepmother pokes at the linen with her cane until from beneath a fold there flies—a raven, smaller than my stepmother when she takes the form, but so beautiful. As the bird circles the room, swooping and soaring, my fear dissolves into pride. Such mighty wings, such grace! My daughter flies as though she has spent all of her days in the air!
“It might be simpler if you disrobe,” my stepmother says. She’s holding the second feather in one hand, beckoning me close with the other.
“What if we become lost? What if—”
“Do you suppose I have frittered away all these years without making preparations? Without securing us a haven? You need to trust me, Fairest, one last time.”
I shed my blood-stiff garments and take a deep, steadying breath. She could have fled at any time, fled and flown and been free.
“Three days, Fairest, before this magic weakens. We have much ground to cover.”
I close my eyes. Already I can smell the mountains, can taste the snow-crisp air. Then a flash quiets my mind, and I feel myself flexing and folding, stretching and sharpening and—flying, flying, oh! Flying so fast, too fast for this too-small space, with giddying swoops, and banking as a wall rises before me, and another wall, and another, and there—the window and through it to the open air. From behind me, a black arrow shoots. She wheels and caws, and there at her tail is the smaller bird, the beloved bird—oh, my beloved bird!
I follow them both, our wings beating us through the clear and boundless sky.
When death comes at last, your hair will be silvered and your bones grown thin with years. I will stay by your side, spinning sweet tales of fairies and goblins, of soft-hearted dwarves and maidens bold and fearful and true. The birds, too, will come to honour your passing, ravens and crows and all the souls of the air. Do you see them, stepmother? Do you see them flying, so fast and so free?
Text copyright © 2018 by Kirstyn McDermott
Art copyright © 2018 by Audrey Benjaminsen