Smashwords has kindly included Straying from the Path as part of their Once Upon a Time promotion.
If you’re in a fairy tale sort of mood, head on over between now and February 4th.
One year. Four dozen stories.
Here’s How We Survive: The (Love) Stories for 2020
When I first conceived of this project, way back in late 2019 (around November, I think), I had no idea what 2020 would bring.
Then again, none of us did.
All I knew was that I had any number of previously published stories that weren’t doing anything and several on my hard drive that had never found a home.
With a little creative scheduling, I figured it would be fairly easy to write enough new stories to fill in any blanks.
Then 2020 actually happened.
I wondered what I’d gotten myself into and feared that somewhere along the way, I’d get derailed. So I took it one story and one week at a time.
It was both easier and harder than I thought it would be. In some ways, it became my anchor for 2020. I could always edit a post, create images in Photoshop, or excavate stories from my hard drive.
(Note: if you’re fairly new to writing, it may seem strange that you can forget about writing stories. I’m here to tell you: it really does happen.)
A couple of times, I came this close to not having any stories scheduled. At others, I had so many in the queue, there wasn’t enough room on the WordPress dashboard to display them all.
Once, I became exceedingly confused and published a story on Thursday, realized my mistake, and unpublished it until the next day. This was post-COVID, so we can simply blame lingering coronavirus brain fog for that.
I learned a number of practical lessons, things like it’s good to have several posts in reserve in case you sprain your ankle or that scheduling each story/post will take much longer than you think it will.
The project–and 2020–gave me the chance to reflect on my writing in a way I’m not sure I would have otherwise. As the saying goes:
Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten.
Or, in this case, fifteen. That’s the breadth of the stories in this collection. It’s not the sum total of my entire writing career, but it’s a significant portion of it. I chose not to include some earlier stories (and, actually, some later ones too). They’re not necessarily bad. They were published, after all–one even nominated for a Pushcart Prize. They simply didn’t fit the collection.
So now I’ll turn my attention not only to 2021 but beyond. Sure, there are many things I’d like to accomplish this coming year, but I’m going to keep my eye on the next decade as well.
Filed under Reading, Stories for 2020
A contemporary retelling of Diamonds and Toads, one filled with coleslaw, tattoos, and forget-me-nots.
I’m standing at the self-checkout when the first pinpricks race up and down my back. I freeze, an entire cabbage clutched in my grip. For a moment, with the icy sensation against my spine, my mind blanks.
I stare at my hands. Why cabbage?
Oh, yes. Coleslaw. Homemade. It’s been a long week, and I’m in the mood to shred something. Coleslaw is good for that.
I roll the cabbage between my palms like it’s a basketball. With a little finesse, I could give it a spin, land a three-pointer in the open grocery sack at the checkout station across the way.
Another wash of pinpricks reminds me that I’m not the one in the family who does those sorts of things. No pickup games with vegetables or ill-advised tattoos for me. So instead, I scan the cabbage and drop it in my canvas sack—only to have the screen flash at me:
Unexpected item in bagging area.
The light above my station blinks in time with my heart. I stare at the cabbage, in the sack, with dismay. In this case, I’m that unexpected item.
A cashier and then a manager try to scan the cabbage. They struggle to add it manually, fingers jabbing at the screen. Then the manager sends the cashier for a price check. Even then, she can’t add the amount to my bill.
I keep my lips pressed together, not daring to say a word. I know if I speak, I’ll simper like some old-school Disney princess.
And that won’t help.
“You know what?” the manager says, at last, her tone conveying that this is all my fault, although she can’t really explain why. “It’s on us.”
My remaining groceries are waiting, some patiently, like the carrots. Others not so much, like the mint chocolate chip ice cream that’s starting to sweat.
A third wash of pinpricks chases across my skin before the pain centers between my shoulder blades. An urge—to rush to the restroom, rush off and leave everything behind—overwhelms me. I want—need—to find a mirror.
At that moment, I don’t care about anything else. Not my groceries, or even my purse. I’d leave everything behind all so I can yank up my shirt and glimpse the image emerging on my skin.
That urge thrums in my blood until it emerges as a compulsion. I remember to grab my purse, but I leave everything behind in my search for a restroom.
This is a high-end grocery store, with carpet and chandeliers, and enough samples on Fridays to make a meal (which is why I shop here on Fridays). The restroom is well-appointed, with a beveled mirror and infinity sinks.
I crash through the door. I don’t do a stall check. I don’t care if anyone else is here. I plant myself in front of the mirror and yank my shirt up and over my shoulder.
Then I spin, a slow rotation, like a dog trying to catch her own tail. The second I spot the intricate design, it slips from view. At last, I pull out my phone for a selfie.
Just as I snap a photo, a woman walks into the restroom. She halts, dark eyes panicked. Well, yes, she’s just stumbled onto a bit of crazy. I wouldn’t blame her if she backed out slowly, hands raised in a pacifying gesture, and then ran for the manager.
It wouldn’t be the first time.
Then her expression softens. Curiosity rather than fear lights her eyes.
“Oh, hey.” Her voice is low and melodic and full of appreciation. “Did you just get some ink?”
But I nod. “Yeah. Sort of.” As if there’s sort of when it comes to tattoos.
Again, her expression is bright and friendly. So I hold still and let a complete stranger examine the tattoo between my shoulders.
“That’s wicked good,” she says. “Where’d you get it done?”
I have no idea.
I swallow. “A place out in San Francisco. They’re fantastic.”
At least, I’m pretty sure it’s San Francisco. I clamp my mouth shut before I can rhapsodize about a place I’ve never been.
The woman pushes up a sleeve. “Great minds, huh?”
I don’t know what she means, but I nod and admire the triple moon goddess tattoo on her forearm. It’s really well done, and certainly there by choice rather than a surprise, like the one currently stinging my back.
The woman takes another look at my ink, her eyes squinting as if she’s having trouble focusing.
“Is it … fading?” She shakes her head. “No, now it’s …”
I slip my arm back into my shirt before this gets truly awkward. “The lighting.”
Again, I press my lips shut before I can enthuse about the ambiance. Instead, I point to the chandelier above our heads (yes, fancy, even in the restrooms).
She accepts this with a nod. Because, really, what’s her other option? Declare that my tattoo is changing before her eyes?
She heads for a stall. I take that as my cue to leave.
When I reach the self-checkout station, I discover my groceries are bagged and paid for. There’s a note—a kind one, to be sure—suggesting that I find another place to do my Friday grocery shopping.
The manager won’t meet my eyes. Because, yes, this has happened before.
I wait until I’m three storefronts away and tuck myself into a corner by the kiddie haircut place that’s closed for the evening. It’s dark and safe, and I concentrate on the brick rather than the fire against my back.
I tug my phone from my jeans pocket. The picture I took earlier is slightly unfocused. But I’ve done this so many times, it hardly matters. I tap and zoom, crop and enhance.
At last, an image emerges.
A triple moon goddess.
The scrollwork is intricate, and the woman in the restroom was right; it really is wicked good.
And this can’t be a coincidence. Something is brewing. That much, I know. Still, as I study the tattoo, I don’t know what it means.
Or what it is my twin, Alyssa, is trying to tell me.
* * *
Finding a tattoo artist in a city the size of San Francisco isn’t hard. Alyssa’s found any number of excellent tattooists in any number of cities.
It’s finding one who won’t remember working their magic on her skin that’s the issue. Another? Finding one the crone doesn’t know about.
Alyssa doesn’t know if an actual crone is shadowing her steps. It’s simply the name she’s given the thing that’s haunted her and Emma since they turned eighteen. The crone knows things she shouldn’t, knows things she can’t.
Every time Alyssa thinks she’s outsmarted this being, something else disrupts her life—or worse, Emma’s.
Moon and Stars Tattoos is surprisingly empty for this time of day. One artist bends over the extended arm of her customer, her brow etched with pure concentration. The others appear on the verge of napping. Through the open door, Alyssa catches strains of something ancient—Fleetwood Mac, she thinks. She’s never been much for music, but it sounds like something her mother would listen to.
Alyssa decides to risk it. Her card is ready, printed fresh this morning. The words: Can’t speak, acute laryngitis should get her into a chair and inked without any issues.
As for the tattoo itself? Alyssa will let her gaze wander the artwork displayed on the walls. The right image will announce itself. If she’s meant to get ink today, meant to warn Emma, that image will lead her to the right artist.
A hush falls on the space as she steps through the door. One of the male artists smirks. Another day, another time, she’d open her mouth and let him have what for. After all, what for is her primary skill. But not today. Today is too important.
One of the women raises an eyebrow. Yes, Alyssa knows. She looks impossibly young. They’ll probably ID her, too.
“Can I help you?” the woman asks. If her eyebrow is skeptical, her voice, at least, is kind.
Alyssa doesn’t mean to be rude (really, it simply happens all on its own), but her gaze is still tracking the images on the wall, searching out the one she needs, and so she barely gives a nod.
It’s the scrollwork she notices first, intricate and refined. It reminds her of the very first tattoo she ever got, the one that was an apology, a love letter to her twin. With a shaky hand, she points.
“That’s one of mine,” the woman says.
Alyssa digs the card from her pocket, praying that the words haven’t transformed into something obscene between this morning and now. Her heart thumps in her chest. Everything feels right, from the music to the tattoo to the woman waiting patiently.
She knows better than to wish too hard. It’s like a beacon, sending her hopes and fears into the world where anyone might pluck them from the sky.
Like the crone.
Even so, her entire being is focused on the card and, at the same time, not. She fills her senses with everything else. Rainbows and unicorns decorating the wall, the music playing low enough the words are a mere suggestion, the scent of anticipation and blood.
The door is three steps away. Depending on what’s now printed on the card, she can make a run for it. A quick break to the left, and it’s all downhill. Not that anyone will chase her. At least, no one ever has. But this could be a first.
Alyssa pulls out the card and hands it to the woman and waits.
“Oh, no problem,” the woman says at last. She grins at Alyssa, and her eyes sparkle with delight. “Really, the less you say, the better my work. I’m Samantha, by the way.”
Alyssa digs out her ID and hands it over.
Samantha glances at it. “Nice to meet you, and yeah, I was going to have to card you. You barely look eighteen.”
Alyssa shrugs. The male tattoo artist—the one with the smirk—snorts.
And because Alyssa is feeling triumphant, she sends him a smirk of her own. When he averts his gaze, her triumph doubles.
She follows Samantha to her station. While she waits, Alyssa lets her gaze wander the art on the walls once again until it lands on the triple moon goddess.
This time, her smile is nothing but pure.
* * *
Everyone in the call center knows to route the worse customer calls to me. They’re not supposed to. It’s not an official policy. If anything, our manager would wring his hands, sweat gathering on his forehead, and insist it isn’t fair.
No one ever listens to him. Since our center has the highest customer satisfaction rating in corporate, he never insists too hard.
At the end of each year, I get a holiday bonus and a plaque.
At the end of each year, I try not to think about the full-ride scholarship I gave up.
Sometimes I pretend I’m Snow White and each caller a dwarf, albeit ones who never made it into the fairy tale (Irate, Belligerent, Passive-Aggressive, Confused, Outraged, Lost, and Arrogant).
Repeat complainers sometimes ask for me by name. A few send me holiday cards.
I’m incapable of saying a bad word to them.
I’m incapable of saying a bad word to anyone.
To compensate, I take out my frustration on inanimate objects. Cabbage, carrots, and a fierce grater all wait for me in my kitchenette. I’m going to shred the heck out of some vegetables.
I’m going to forget about the customer who called me every foul name in the (urban) dictionary before breaking down and admitting that his wife had died. All he wanted was a pair of pants that fit, but since she did all the shopping, he had no idea what to order.
I’m going to forget about the lonely old woman who didn’t want to complain so much as to talk to someone.
I’m going to forget I can still feel the residual burn of the triple moon goddess between my shoulder blades.
At this point, all that remains is a ghost of a tattoo. I’ve watched at least two dozen come and go over the years. Sometimes they’re sophisticated—works of art in their own right. Sometimes Alyssa sends me nothing more than a heart, the red so vibrant you might mistake it for fresh blood.
And sometimes she sends a message.
I’m shredding and wondering what on earth I’ll do with all this coleslaw. I’ll never be able to eat it all on my own, and it’s not like you can freeze coleslaw. My mother, perhaps. Maybe she’s having a luncheon this weekend or some sort of charitable event.
A knock comes on the door of my tiny cottage. Yes, just like an old-school Disney princess, I live in an actual cottage. Although hardly anyone ever knocks on the door.
When I answer, I find my mother backlit by the big house up on the hill. Fairy lights adorn the patio, its slate gleaming as if by magic. In the yard, it’s as if a celestial hand has sprinkled tiny stars along the branches of all the trees that surround what is, in truth, a mansion.
This is not the modest split-level Alyssa and I grew up in. Henry, the man who owns this mansion, is not our father. He is like a prince at the end of a fairy tale, but one with a salt and pepper goatee and round, rimless spectacles. Instead of sweeping away the maiden, Henry fell hard for the matron.
He still can’t fix all that is wrong.
It’s as if my thoughts have brought my mother to the cottage doorstep. In truth, they may have. Above her head, above the house on the hill, a moon rises. Not quite full, but only a few days off.
I look at my mother and blink. For a moment, the young woman from the restroom appears before my eyes. I blink again, and my mother replaces her.
I’m afraid to blink a third time. So instead, I say, “It’s lovely to see you.”
It doesn’t matter if that’s true or not. It’s the only thing I can say to her. We don’t talk, haven’t since Alyssa and I turned eighteen. I don’t mean that in a Lifetime movie sort of way, although the results are nevertheless the same.
My mother stares at me, clutches her throat as if the words she wishes to speak burn.
Perhaps they do.
“I’m making coleslaw,” I say, brightly, as if there aren’t any number of things we should be talking about. “Could you use some? I’m always happy to share.”
Something sparks in my mother’s expression, something that tells me I’m on the right track.
“Are you having guests?” I venture.
“Yes.” The word is no more than a whisper, but it is a word. “Guest.” Relief floods her eyes. She turns, and I follow her gaze to the swollen moon rising above the house.
A full moon.
And then I know.
* * *
Once upon a time, a young woman cradled two daughters inside her, her belly as round as the brilliant full moon.
When the time came, there would be three of them, three to make a family.
But the daughters were too eager, not content to stay put until the time was right. So the young woman sent her hopes, her fears, into the world.
Someone plucked them from the sky.
There would be three of them, three to make a family.
But only until the debt came due.
* * *
On the flight home, Alyssa pretends to sleep. Even with headphones and a book propped in front of her, the guy (and it’s always a guy) next to her will want to talk.
She can’t risk the altercation, the escalation, the plane making an unscheduled landing in the middle of the country, and security escorting her—and the guy—off the plane.
It’s happened before.
She feels the stirrings of that impulse—to lean across the middle seat and ask the guy next to her about those three restraining orders. Oh, and some outstanding child support payments as well. It would be gratifying, absolutely, to watch this guy’s complexion go from ruddy to bright red, to have half the passengers cheering him on, half applauding her.
This is how the crone tempts her. Alyssa can’t know these things about this guy. But in every altercation (and there have been several), she’s always been right.
Instead, she channels everything she knows and loves about her sister.
It was Emma, of course, who saved them that first day, who held fast even when Alyssa started spewing hateful words.
She hadn’t meant to say them, of course. But in the last seven years, she never has. She can hear what she says warped, transformed in the air until these mutations reach the ears of the other person. A simple I love you becomes I hate you—and always have.
But the crone never counted on Emma, her sister who should’ve gone on to some Ivy League school, been a doctor or a scientist, or something more.
They say twins have their own language. If so, Alyssa and Emma had long forgotten theirs. But that didn’t stop Emma from picking up on the false notes in Alyssa’s tone. It didn’t stop her brilliant twin from grabbing a pencil and scribbling a message across her calculus homework.
What’s going on?
They spent a blissful Saturday exchanging notes until the crone caught on. It took three days before text messages were ruined, and another five for emojis.
By then, they had a plan. Alyssa would leave. Emma would stay, take care of their mother and explain the situation as best she could.
That was when Alyssa went in for her first tattoo. The intertwined E and A were so beautiful, the letters surrounded by fancy scrollwork and leaves. At the time, Alyssa didn’t think to question why that bit of artwork was on the wall, at eye level, as if waiting for her.
She only knew she had to get it. Alyssa held her breath, worried that there was something too magical about the artwork. It would change before her eyes, and she’d be left with something nasty or obscene on her skin. When it remained—perfect and oh, so beautiful—she hurried home, excited to show Emma.
Alyssa found her twin clutching her ankle, pain and fear flashing in her eyes. Together they sat on the lower bunk and watched as the tattoo faded from Alyssa’s ankle, bloomed on Emma’s, only to vanish entirely after a few minutes.
But during all that, the image remained pure.
And Alyssa knew that no matter where in the world she was, she’d have a way to send Emma a message.
Their mother wasn’t surprised to find Emma burning the goodbye note Alyssa tried to pen before she left—one filled with so many invectives it was hardly a note at all. (It was a silly attempt, but Alyssa had to try.)
Over the years, they’ve peeled back the layers of their story—of crones who might grant wishes but always demand their due in the end.
And, at last, they’ve reached the end.
Now, on this final flight home, Alyssa knows there’s only so much she can channel of Emma. Her sister speaks in flowers, Alyssa in stones. Emma’s words perfume the air, Alyssa’s sting the ears and bite the flesh.
If Emma is often too pure for this world, then Alyssa is well suited for it. Because sometimes the guy sitting in seat 1F deserves what for.
Alyssa knows this, too. This fight, this final confrontation that’s waiting for them, it won’t be the two of them against the crone.
It’s Alyssa versus Emma.
And Alyssa plans to win.
* * *
I’m clutching a gigantic bowl of coleslaw, my arms aching with the effort. With careful steps, I navigate the path to the main house. One distraction and slaw will coat everything—me, the decorative stones Henry has placed by hand, the flowers and shrubs he pampers.
Dusk shrouds the patio. My mother stands on the slate, haloed by those thousand fairy lights. On the table sits slender-stemmed glassware, an elaborate floral arrangement, with sweet, summer wine chilling in silver buckets. It’s the trappings of an evening garden party, and an expensive one, too.
It will all go to waste.
My mother’s hands are clutched beneath her chin, her dress billowing about her. She is as picturesque as any fairy tale princess, except her eyes are huge and wary.
Above the house, a full moon rises. There, in the twilight, the first evening star glimmers.
The night holds its breath. It’s waiting, as we all are, for the crone.
I’ve known all along what Alyssa plans to do. How could I not? Her intent is indelible, present in each and every tattoo she sends me. Now that I’ve received the final one, it’s as if all the pieces have fallen into place.
I know, without consciously knowing. I’m ready because she’s made me that way.
I won’t let her do what she plans on doing.
A ride-share pulls into the circular drive, blaring death metal and spewing exhaust. Alyssa steps out, throws a handful of bills at the driver, and then gives him the finger for good measure. Hands on hips, she surveys the backyard. Her feet are clad in steel-toe boots. Her jeans are worn through at the knees, and the collar of her gray T-shirt hangs loose.
She looks like she did the day she left, and not a minute older.
At the sight of her, my chest constricts; my heart is tender and raw.
If the past seven years don’t show on my face, I feel them in my bones. Like Sleeping Beauty, I long for a hundred-year nap. I’m tired of this relentless niceness. It is false and draining, and I can’t imagine another seven minutes living this way, never mind years.
That’s why I plan to stop Alyssa. I will step into the void, offer myself as a sacrifice to the crone. She wants more. She wants blood.
She can have mine.
My gaze meets Alyssa’s. Her tough-girl stance shifts. I wonder if she can read my intent in the same way, if it’s in the blood and always has been.
The crone materializes equal distance between us.
I don’t drop the bowl of coleslaw, but I let it slip through my grip. My fingers guide it to the ground, where the soil swallows it up. A cackle rings in my ears, unsettling and scornful. The slaw, of course, was a mere pretense.
I have not fooled the crone.
To my surprise, she is not the hideously-bent creature from any number of tales. She is not any one creature.
I blink and see my manager from work. I blink again, and the sales clerk from the grocery store appears before my eyes. A third time, my guidance counselor from high school, the one who urged me to apply to Harvard.
Is the crone everyone and no one at the same time? I dart a look toward Alyssa. Her eyes are narrowed, brow furrowed in confusion. I wonder what it is she sees. Missed opportunities? A truncated life, or one denied?
And because I am looking at Alyssa, I see the moment she decides. It’s there in the way the soles of her boots churn the earth, the tightening of her fists. I start my run a split second before she does.
I will win.
I think this as I gain ground. I think this as I pull ever closer. What will happen when my body meets the crone’s? I’m not sure. I only know I need to reach her first.
The full moon shines down on the backyard, revealing a pathway to the crone. She is everyone and everything I cannot have. She is everyone and everything Alyssa’s been denied.
I’m so close, hands extended, fingertips yearning, when something white and billowing brushes past me, the figure lithe and quick.
She reaches the crone before I can, before Alyssa can. When the two collide, the night explodes into a million stars. A wave washes through me. There’s a loosening—in my heart, my throat. I feel words, real words, in my mouth.
I want to laugh. I want to cry. I want to reach out and bring my mother back.
When those million stars fade and only the moon illuminates our backyard, nothing remains of my mother or the crone. In their wake, we discover a patch of rich earth surrounded by quartz and agates.
We stand there, me, Alyssa, and Henry, and marvel as seedlings push through the soil, sprout, and bloom as if moonlight alone sustains them. Daisies and roses, slender lilies, and flowers I don’t know the names of, but certainly, Henry does.
At last, around the border, a flock of forget-me-nots blossom. Henry kneels, gathers a handful, and says:
“As if I could, my love. As if I could.”
* * *
Henry is like a prince in a fairy tale.
He smooths the way for Emma to start college. When she balks, Alyssa prods and cajoles, poking her sister relentlessly until—at last—she enrolls in the honors program.
Whenever Emma falters, Alyssa says, “Don’t you dare waste that brilliant brain of yours.”
Henry smooths the way for Alyssa, too. She agrees—reluctantly—to take classes of her own at the community college. One each semester. She navigates the strange language of profit and loss statements, of double-entry accounting. Until she’s fluent, Henry will keep the books for her, make sure the taxes are paid on time.
The first artist (other than herself) to step through the doors of Flowers & Stones Tattoos is Samantha from San Francisco. The first customer (other than herself) is a woman who wears a triple moon goddess on her forearm.
Her storefront is a cozy, safe place in this world. She handles the rude customers by channeling Emma. The ones who are lost, who stare at the walls until their gaze lands on the artwork they need? Those customers she tends to with care. Alyssa sends them into the world again, armed, she hopes, to fight their own battles.
When the E and A tattoo doesn’t bloom on Emma’s ankle, Alyssa drags her to Flowers & Stones. While Samantha works on Emma, Alyssa swears she feels the residual burn against her skin.
On weekends, she, Emma, and Henry gather. The garden overflows with blossoms and fragrances. The quartz and agates gleam in the sunshine. A sapling takes root, flourishes in less than a season to shade the chair where Henry rests each evening.
They are three, Alyssa thinks.
Three to make a family.
Flowers and Stones was written especially for the (Love) Stories for 2020 project.
So, this may be my favorite sp@m comment yet:
Keep functioning, impressive job!
In fact, I think a variation sums up 2020 fairly well.
Still functioning? Impressive job!
In actual writing news, I’m working on that very last story for the 2020 project. I finally figured out that it’s a Diamonds and Toads retelling, which is one of those fairy tales I keep coming back to. I find it unfair. I believe it’s more of a curse to have diamonds and gems fall from your mouth than toads and vipers. (Really, vipers could come in handy, especially in 2020.)
But it’s a modern retelling, so no actual toads or diamonds are making an appearance (so far). If you want actual diamonds (and some toads), there’s always An Army of Toads in my fairy tale compilation, Straying from the Path.
Next week, I hope to report that this story and the 2020 project are complete.
Filed under Weekly Writing Check In, Writing
This is not your mother’s Rapunzel.
This week’s story is a little bit longer than usual. If you’d like to download a copy for your phone or e-reader, you can do that at BookFunnel (link good until the end of the year).
She caught the thief with his hand wrapped around the stem of a flower, its spike of golden flocked petals sprouting from his fist. The brim of his hat shrouded his features, and the overcast night made it impossible to identify him. Even so, the witch knew a desperate husband when she encountered one.
“Let go of the lion’s tail,” she said, her words crisp as the air, with just enough bite to get her point across, but not so much that she didn’t appear neighborly. She’d always been a good neighbor.
“My wife, Mistress Witch.” The man sunk to his knees. “She is with child.”
“Yes. I know.”
In truth, the entire village knew every time the babe kicked or the woman’s back ached or her ankles swelled. Never had so many prayed for a timely birth.
“She craves all things fresh, all things green, all the things that grow in your garden. Please, Mistress. I will work, split logs, do whatever you ask, but let me take some of your bounty home to her, so our babe might grow strong.”
A first love, a first child, it was enough to make anyone a fool—or a thief. The witch spread her arms wide. “Take, neighbor, take all that your wife craves.” She grabbed hold of his hand. “Except for this.”
Beneath her grip, he unclenched his fist. The plant he held—lion’s tail, as the locals called it—dropped to the ground, stem broken, bright petals crushed.
“Leave the lion’s tail,” the witch said. “She should not eat it while with child, and I cannot be responsible for what happens if she does.”
The man bowed, his movements jerky and frantic. The witch helped him pluck the best greens and place them in a basket. She saw him to the edge of her property, and when he hesitated, she urged him forward.
“Go,” she said, voice gentle. “Take the greens and return to your wife.”
When the man had left, the witch bent and plucked the lion’s tail from the ground. She stroked the petals and wondered if his wife had already tasted of the plant.
That could be very bad indeed.
* * *
The babe was born strong, with a lusty cry and deep blue eyes that peered out at the world around her. Within a week, the entire village predicted she’d be a beauty. Within a month, her golden hair fell to her chin, the strands thick and wild. By nearly a year, the strands fought all attempts to comb them.
It was then that cries emerged from the cottage, by day and night, until the babe’s mother ran from the house. Neighbors peered from their windows and did nothing, but the noise brought the witch from her garden.
The woman trembled, skirts in tatters, arms scratched. Blood oozed from wounds. In her hands, she clutched a pair of shears. She pointed the tip at the house and the infant inside.
“That is not my child. That cannot be my child.”
She stood like that, her arm shaking, the shears more weapon than tool.
The witch examined the woman, gave a curt nod, then proceeded inside the cottage. Scattered strands of gold littered the floorboards from hearth to door. Other than a soft whimper, the room was quiet. She crouched to approach the babe.
“Shh … there you go. You are not in danger, and I will not hurt you.” She gathered the child to her and stroked the remaining tufts of hair.
“See? I’m a friend. Let’s find your mother.”
The child cried out, fists clenched, but the witch hummed a lullaby, one with the power to sedate a charging troll. The babe blinked and then stared at the witch with curious blue eyes. The sight of them transfixed her, and the old witch’s heart caught for a moment before resuming its natural beat. They stepped into the sunlight and into the crowd that now surrounded the cottage.
“She’s the one!” the mother said, jabbing her shears toward the witch. “She poisoned me with the plants from her garden.”
“Your husband stole from my garden to satisfy your cravings.”
The woman’s hand shook, the tip of the shears bobbing. “That cannot be my child. She looks nothing like me.”
Laughter rippled through the crowd. True, the woman was no beauty, and her husband no prince. The woman turned her wrath on the closest bystanders, silver shears glinting in the sunlight. The crowd eased back, catching laughter into cupped hands.
“Oh, then perhaps the child is mine?” the witch asked.
This time, no one held back their laughter.
“So you think I wasn’t a beauty in my day?” The witch scanned the crowd, the babe still secured in one arm. “Master Tailor, I believe you know different.”
The old man shuffled and stammered, a ruddy cast to his weathered cheeks. The witch turned back to the babe’s mother.
“You do not want your child?” she said to the woman.
“That is not my child.”
“Then who will care for her?” The witch held the child aloft for the village to see. “No one, then?”
She considered the quiet bundle in her arms. A beauty, it was true, but those deep blue eyes were uncanny, knowing. No wonder this simple woman trembled at the sight of her own child.
The witch cast a look toward her own cottage and the garden with its walls—ones that kept her tender plants safe from hooves and teeth. They kept the variety of weeds she cultivated from invading her neighbors’ gardens. Walls were handy but not foolproof. Her gaze met the babe’s, and once again, her heart caught.
In this case, perhaps she was the fool.
“I will care for her,” the witch declared. “Please, before I take her with me, tell me her name.”
The woman blinked as if waking from a dream. “She has no name.”
“You have not named your child?” No wonder the babe lashed out. Even now, at the sound of the woman’s voice, those short tufts of hair bristled, and the child cried out again.
“Oh, my poor child,” the witch murmured, “fate has been cruel.”
No one stopped the witch from taking the child. No one uttered a word of protest. When the witch passed the mother, so she might say goodbye, the woman only turned her back on both the witch and her own child.
To the witch’s surprise, the husband followed her home, weighed down by the cradle, a wee table, and a chair.
“Please, Mistress Witch, take these things for the child.”
The witch nodded, held open the door to her cottage so the man might bring the items inside.
“Would you like to say goodbye before you leave?” she asked.
He had none of his wife’s hesitation. His hand cupped the babe’s cheek. The tufts of hair wavered as if blown by a soft breeze, and the babe’s eyes were luminous.
“Goodbye, sweet girl. Goodbye, my Rapunzel.”
“Is that the child’s name?” the witch asked.
“It is what I wanted to name her,” he said, his voice wistful.
“Then Rapunzel she’ll be.”
* * *
With Rapunzel still in the crook of her arm, the witch gazed about her cottage. Oh, it was a poor place to raise a child. Too many dried herbs that, consumed incorrectly, might injure or kill. Too many sharp objects. She inspected the child’s head. Scars from the shears crisscrossed her raw scalp. Clearly Rapunzel was no stranger to those.
She would need to find a grate for the hearth, a cow or goat for milking, soft cloth for diapers, and something other than the stained gown Rapunzel was wearing.
“It’s been many years since I’ve even held a child,” she said to the babe. “And I’ve never had any of my own.”
At the thought, her heart caught once again. Had she ever intended to raise a child? Did she regret the time spent in the pursuit of her potions and spells? No. The village was a healthier, happier place for her efforts, even when its citizens didn’t fully comprehend them.
“We can make do for now.” The witch placed Rapunzel in her cradle. “I can soften bread in weak tea and stew some apples. Does that meet with your approval?”
Rapunzel sat up in her cradle, that unnerving blue-eyed stare never leaving the witch’s face. Then the child clapped her hands together and gurgled.
“Well, I see that it does. Tomorrow we will explore the village, get you some proper things. But tonight? Let’s get to know one another.”
It was late when Rapunzel fell asleep in the witch’s arms. She eased her into the cradle only to be caught short by the babe’s cries moments later.
She knelt at the cradle’s side, cupped a hand against the child’s soft cheek. “We both must get some rest.”
The babe quieted immediately, but the moment the witch withdrew her hand, the cries started anew, stronger, more strident than before.
“Oh, very well, it has been a rough day.”
She scooped the babe up and carried her to the large bed behind a curtained wall.
“I imagine you could use the comfort.”
But when the witch extinguished the lamp and felt the babe curled at her side, tiny fingers clutching her thumb, she wondered which one of them truly needed the comfort.
* * *
It was not the sudden acquisition of a child that shocked the witch. No, she’d come to terms with that during the darkest hours of the night. It was not the surprise of a cow tethered to the cottage gate. This, she suspected, was a gift from Master Tailor.
It was the way Rapunzel’s hair had grown overnight. The strands curled and swirled. They felt like silk flowing through the witch’s fingers, their length already to the child’s chin.
The witch pulled ancient volumes from a shelf and thumbed through them, searching for something, anything that might tell her what manner of sorcery this was. She thought back to the man in her garden all those months ago. What had she given him?
She peered at the child who sat at her wee table. “Was it a combination of plants your mother ate?”
Rapunzel slapped the wood of the table, blue eyes stormy, hair undulating. It bristled, strands on end like that of a thistle.
“She is still your mother,” the witch said, her voice soft but no nonsense.
“Do you wish to be my daughter?”
Ah, the gurgle again. The hair calmed itself. Rapunzel peered at the witch, her blue eyes dark and serene.
“You shall be the daughter of my heart. Does that suit you?”
Rapunzel stood and toddled over to the witch. She clutched at her skirts with tiny fists.
“I see that it does.” The witch bent down and clutched the child close. When she had Rapunzel nestled against her chest, the witch found herself stroking strands of that hair, much like she’d done all those months ago with the petals of the lion’s tail. The locks slipped through her fingers as if they had a mind of their own.
“Inquisitive little beasts,” she murmured.
And then froze. The lion’s tail.
What manner of sorcery indeed.
“We have all been very, very foolish, I’m afraid,” she whispered into the child’s hair, “and you will be the one to pay for our folly.”
* * *
The witch took Rapunzel with her everywhere. Aside from the father, there was no one she could trust in the village to watch the child and not gossip. And gossip they would. Already rumors flew about the miraculous growth of the child’s hair.
Every morning, the witch worked to contain the strands before leaving the house. In a bonnet. Secured with bows. The strands had a life of their own, flowing through her fingers, curling into points, flicking back and forth, very much like a tail.
“Until we reach the woods, child,” the witch would say. “Contain them until we reach the woods.”
Rapunzel blinked, a frown marring her little brow as if she were trying hard to comply.
Even with the babe in a sling, the witch felt lighter on her treks into the forest. With her age, she knew the senselessness of rushing. Leave that to the young. She’d complete her tasks all in good time. This morning was no different.
In a clearing, she set Rapunzel on a blanket, handed her a crust of bread to gnaw on, and began her work.
“I will teach you this,” she said, flicking a glance and her words over one shoulder. “I will teach you which plants to consume and which ones to avoid. I’ll show you when to cut, how to cut, and when neither of those things matters.”
The witch inched her way around the clearing, always darting a look toward its center, toward Rapunzel. The child seemed content to chew her bread, clap her hands, and track the witch’s progress. Not for the first time, her thoughts drifted to Rapunzel’s mother. How could she abandon such a child? So compliant. So calm.
“We will see how long that lasts, won’t we?” the witch said with a wink.
Perhaps it was that steely gaze or the miracle of the hair that now hid the scars on Rapunzel’s scalp, but the witch swore the child understood more than she ought.
“Which makes me feel less foolish when I talk to myself,” she added.
The witch was near the old willow tree when a cry sounded behind her. Her throat tightened, and she was certain some harm had come to Rapunzel. Or perhaps the mother had a change of heart, followed them this morning, and was intent on stealing the child away.
Instead, when she turned, the witch came nose to nose with a river rat. The thing was large and hairy, its gray fur matted and stinking of stagnant water. This was not the sort of creature that kept the barn cats fat. This was the sort of creature that took whiskers and tails as trophies.
Where there was one rat, there would be another; they hunted in pairs. She’d survive a bite, although the infection would linger, and nastily so. Rapunzel? The daughter of her heart? A child barely bigger than a cat?
The cry went up again. The witch started forward, taking an inventory of the arsenal she had on hand. A pair of shears. Some twine. A handful of willow branches that she might fashion into a switch.
Rapunzel still sat in the center of the clearing. Despite the tears that washed her cheeks and tiny hands clenched into fists, she was unharmed. It was the sight of the child’s hair that froze the witch in place.
The strands had grown, not by inches, but whole yards. They flowed across the clearing as if exploring new territory. They curled and lashed out, the ends sharpening into points. Like teeth. Like claws.
Several locks had already trapped the second rat, bound it neck to tail, so all the witch could see of it was its grubby nose and crooked whiskers. Now several locks worked in tandem, approaching the first rat from two sides and from behind. The creature hissed—at the witch, at its predicament. A predator such as this always knew when it had met its match.
It made one desperate lunge, an attempt to inflict injury before succumbing itself. Claws extended, teeth bared, it launched itself from the branch, its target the witch’s face.
The golden strands of Rapunzel’s hair caught the beast midair. A slashing. A slicing. The carcass tumbled to the ground and landed with a soft thud.
Only for a moment did the witch hesitate. Only for a moment did she consider what the villagers might make of this child. Cries of monster echoed in the back of her mind. But then she rushed to the center of the clearing. The golden strands parted, let the witch through to her child, and she clutched Rapunzel to her.
With that tender embrace and her quiet words, the hair relaxed its guard. The strands softened their points, retracted until their length was a touch longer than earlier that day.
The witch cupped Rapunzel’s face. “Do you know what it is you can do, child?”
Rapunzel stared, unblinking.
“Is it even you who is doing this, or is it your wonderfully monstrous hair?”
At the words, the strands extended, a lock wrapping around the witch’s wrist, none too gently.
“Cut that out,” she said to the golden rope around her wrist. “It takes offense far too quickly. We will have to work on that.”
The hair tightened its grasp, while a separate lock flicked back and forth, once again an angry tail.
“If you are to live in this world, you will need to learn to control your hair.”
Rapunzel stared back, steely-eyed as ever. Then she clapped her hands together and gurgled.
The hair relaxed its grip and flowed into golden ringlets.
The witch released a sigh. Yes, to live in this world. That would not be an easy thing.
* * *
Rapunzel soon outgrew her cradle and wee table and chair. Her hair evaded all attempts to tame or trim it, and the strands quickly traveled down her back to her knees, until it swept the ground. Every morning, the witch would braid the strands, and Rapunzel would loop the plaits around her arms or her waist. She grew into her beauty and her strength, for she did everything under the weight of her hair.
The witch became deft at avoiding the majority of the villagers who might cause problems. The father was kind and no worry. He left Rapunzel all manner of carvings and trinkets. Master Tailor kept them in cow’s milk, although the witch made a point to avoid his wife.
Once, on a walk to the forest, they encountered Rapunzel’s mother. The woman herded two children—twins—in front of her. The girls danced along the lane, skinny arms freckled, red hair thin but flowing down their backs—free of all of the constraints the witch placed on Rapunzel’s hair.
The daughter of her heart halted, her spine impossibly straight beneath the weight of all her hair. She locked her gaze on the trio, strands of hair straining against their braids.
Then one lock escaped, slithered down the lane after the mother and two girls. A few strands wrapped themselves around the woman’s ankle. It was then the witch pulled the shears from her apron pocket and snipped the lock.
The strands released their grip, twitched much like a dying snake, and at last ceased all movement. The woman walked on, oblivious.
“She cannot hurt you, child,” the witch said.
Rapunzel glared, a non-answer if there ever was one. She was at that age—no longer a true child, not yet a woman. And the witch knew she’d spoken a lie.
Of course the mother still had the power to hurt. All mothers did. Try as she might, the witch couldn’t banish the image of the quivering strands of hair, lying dusty along the lane. Try as she might, she couldn’t muster the courage to ask for forgiveness.
But that night, Rapunzel crept into the witch’s bed, curled next to her, and clutched her thumb with long, slender fingers.
* * *
One morning, in Rapunzel’s sixteenth year, they awoke to an odd humming that came from outside the cottage. Rapunzel peered through the shutters, her hands poised to open them to the morning sunshine, her fingers unmoving.
“Child, please, let in the fresh air,” the witch said.
Rapunzel’s hands remained still. “There are many strange men outside our door.”
On the way to the door, the witch secured a broom. She sprang across the threshold, broom handle connecting with a jaw here, a temple there.
“Go, go! All of you. She is too young to marry.”
True, Rapunzel had fully grown into her beauty, and when tame, her hair was a sight to behold, glimmering without the benefit of light. The witch had not anticipated this, however. Not so soon, and not so many suitors.
In retrospect, perhaps she should have.
Rapunzel’s father took to guarding the path to the cottage, but this only worked for so long. Men came daily, hourly, knocks on the door, the windows. More than one man tried the chimney only to find his breeches smoldering from a stoked fire.
After a night of off-key serenading that had left them both bleary-eyed, the witch decided.
“We must leave the village.”
The daughter of her heart peered through the shutters, the tips of her braids twitching. “Why do they want me? They do not even know me.”
“They want your beauty.”
“But my beauty isn’t me. If that is all they want, then surely I will disappoint them.”
“That is something none of them understand.”
Rapunzel’s gaze darted toward the door. Already a fresh crop of men lined the path, their murmurs rising in the morning air.
“But how?” she asked. “How will we leave?”
“Do they make you angry?”
“Oh, they do.”
“Remember that when you step outside, and all will be well.”
Rapunzel’s father packed the wagon and hitched the horses. For the first time since the day he gave his daughter away, he ventured inside the witch’s cottage, cupped her cheek, and told her goodbye forever.
The witch stepped from her cottage for the last time, cries and calls of the men thickening the air around her.
“Going somewhere, Mistress Witch?”
“Can we follow?”
“Is there room in your wagon for me?”
Men lined the path three deep. The witch traveled its center until she reached the wagon. There, she climbed into the driver’s seat and took the reins from Rapunzel’s father. She gave him a reassuring nod before speaking to the men who had chased her from her home.
“Gentlemen,” she said, “if I were you, I’d step back.”
No one heeded her warning.
When Rapunzel emerged, the cries grew louder still. Jeering and whistles and bids for attention. One man and then another blocked her path. Two grabbed her wrists. A third—the tallest and fairest, the only one dressed in nobleman’s attire—pushed the others aside in his quest for her.
But when the last of her unencumbered hair cleared the doorway, a gasp filled the air. The strands whipped and whirled, the ends sharpening into teeth, into claws. The men released her. Some ran, the nobleman among them. Others froze in place. Rapunzel walked, expression serene, hands folded in front of her, while her hair dispatched the men.
The slate walkway ran with blood. Bits of flesh speckled the walls of the witch’s garden. The cries went from jeering to unearthly, the agony sharp in the air.
No one followed them from the village.
* * *
They rode for days, stopping only to sleep. The first night, when Rapunzel wished to keep them dry from the rain, her hair wove itself into a shelter.
“Oh, it can shield as well,” Rapunzel said, her fingers investigating the crosshatch of strands above their heads, her eyes curious once again.
“Indeed it can, my child. Indeed it can.”
At last they came to the borderlands, to a stone watchtower long abandoned. The space around it was vast and empty—only hill after hill that stretched into the horizon. No sign of a village, a farm, or even a hunter’s cabin. Desolate and barren and the perfect spot for the two of them.
“Here,” the witch said. “We can make this our home.”
And yet, as she said these words, the ground shook with the force of approaching horses. In the distance, the standard of the war prince fluttered above a line of soldiers on horseback.
“Quick, Rapunzel, hide. In the wagon. Pull in all your hair.”
The wagon creaked with the weight of Rapunzel and all her hair. The horses whinnied as if they wished to cover the sound. They were good beasts, the witch thought, and they loved Rapunzel almost as much as she did.
When the war prince arrived, the witch bowed low.
“Mistress Witch, may I ask what you’re about?” the prince asked.
He was a powerful man, large and dark, a mask partially shrouding his features. His eyes, black and inquisitive, took in everything. They surveyed the tower, the horses, the wagon, all before returning to the witch.
“But of course, Your Highness,” the witch said. “I plan to use this tower for my home. It is no longer in your use, is that right?”
“That’s true, but the borderlands are dangerous, and my army is small in number.” He waved a hand at the group behind him. They were a motley crew, large and small, green-skinned or not, pockmarked or masked for reasons the witch decided not to contemplate.
“I cannot guarantee your protection,” he added.
“And I do not ask for it. All I ask for is quiet to practice my craft.”
“And if a troll happens by while you’re practicing your craft?” Now those dark eyes were lit with humor.
“Oh, Your Highness, I have lived long enough to know exactly what to do with a troll if one happens by.”
The prince laughed. “I believe you do, Mistress Witch. But be warned, this is a lonely stretch of land. Men seldom travel it.”
“That’s what makes it perfect, Your Highness.”
He laughed again, as if he took her meaning. He bid her farewell and rode away, his soldiers following, their horses kicking up dust that floated on the humid air. The witch tasted that air and licked her lips.
“It shall rain soon,” she declared. “Let’s get settled.”
The watchtower had a single entrance that the witch sealed over once their belongings were inside. It was cozy here, space enough to work and live, and the window let in sunlight and fresh air but would shield them from rain.
“But how shall we leave?” Rapunzel asked.
“I shall climb down the face of the tower,” the witch said. “There are hand and footholds that should not crumble beneath my weight. Or perhaps your clever hair might weave itself into a ladder.”
At the suggestion, the golden strands did just that, the construction so quick it produced a breeze within the circular room.
“But I cannot climb down a ladder of my own hair,” Rapunzel began, then clamped her mouth shut. “Oh, I see. This is to be my prison.”
“Not a prison, child, but a sanctuary.” The witch laid her palm against Rapunzel’s cheek. “If your hair were not so fierce, so untamable, you might seek a quiet life in some faraway village. But when we left, your hair felled two dozen strong men.”
“And no one wants to live near a monster.”
The witch tugged her close, wrapping her bony arms around the daughter of her heart. “You are no monster—”
“But my hair—”
“Seeks out injustice. It always has. Why would it attack the woman who gave you life, but not your father? Why does it lash out at men whose only interest is your beauty?”
“The world doesn’t want that sort of justice, does it?”
“I’m afraid it does not.”
“I will stay, then.” Rapunzel gathered handfuls of her hair. It flowed and swayed and cascaded to the floor in waves. “We shall stay. Perhaps I can teach it to behave.”
The witch spent her days in the forest, gathering herbs and berries. Every fortnight, she ventured to the nearest village for supplies. She traded with merchants there, weaving her deception. Just an old crone brewing potions and remedies. That spring, the lion’s tail grew thick in the woods. Every time the witch caught sight of it, she flinched, only to confront yet another clump a few feet away.
Rapunzel practiced remedies and potions along with the witch. Together they cultivated containers of herbs and small plants so Rapunzel might feel the soil beneath her fingers without leaving the tower. Beneath her touch, the plants flourished. She coaxed all manner of exotic flowers from the soil, even those the witch had never managed to on her own. Their petals brightened the little room and perfumed the air.
At night, she studied history and took a particular interest in the battles once waged in the borderlands and the ghosts said to walk and howl, searching for their old regiments or gutted homes.
“I do not hear these howls,” Rapunzel said one evening. She lifted the heavy locks beneath her hands. “Perhaps my hair is too thick against my ears.”
“Perhaps people search for excuses not to inhabit these lands,” the witch said.
“Perhaps.” Rapunzel remained at the window for a long time, her gaze exploring the borderlands, the very tips of her hair twitching like that of a penned beast.
For eight months, they lived in quiet in their watchtower. The war prince had been right. Few strayed this close to the border. Once, the prince himself rode by on patrol, a small group of soldiers at his side.
“I see you live well, Mistress Witch,” he called out.
The witch leaned from the tower’s window and called back, “Very well and very alone, Your Highness. However, I see you have added to your party.”
The witch inclined her head as the prince’s younger brother rode forward. He was light where the war prince was dark, unmasked and unscarred. Even from a distance, the witch felt those legendary gray eyes taking in everything. In this, he was very much like his brother.
With a hand, she shielded her own eyes and hid her frown. There was something about him that unsettled her. True, she never paid much heed to palace gossip. Even so, she knew that the younger prince preferred the boudoir to the battlefield for his conquests.
With as much stealth as possible, she gestured at Rapunzel, urging the child to conceal herself further, to constrain every last strand of golden hair. Rapunzel merely covered her mouth with a hand so as to not to laugh out loud, her hair rippling across the floor with repressed mirth.
“Perhaps this stretch of land is not so lonely for you now, Your Highness,” the witch said, her voice rougher than she liked.
The war prince cast his brother a look. “Perhaps not.”
As the party rode off, the witch considered that perhaps she and the war prince also had something in common.
They were both liars.
* * *
Later, the witch would admit that she’d grown complacent. Life with the daughter of her heart was more than she had ever hoped for. Her trips to the village grew more frequent. Perhaps those gave her away. Perhaps she called too loudly for Rapunzel to lower her ladder of hair. Perhaps someone followed her, spied on them, although who would be curious about an old crone living alone, the witch couldn’t say.
But when she returned from her most recent trip to the village and saw not the golden ladder of hair but one of wood propped against the tower, the witch knew she’d betrayed Rapunzel in some fashion. She dropped the reins and leaped from the wagon. The horse, so gentle and loving, simply continued forward to meet its sister. The witch scampered up the ladder, her hands catching on the rough grain so much she had to claw her way to the window.
There, in the center of the room, Rapunzel stood. Around her, strands of her hair whipped and whirled, the ends sharp and deadly. Like teeth. Like claws. A monster of a thing. On the floor? A man.
A dead man—a dead nobleman from the looks of his clothes—one who had suffered the death of a thousand cuts, a thousand bites. One whose breeches were around his ankles. One whose hand had torn away the bodice of Rapunzel’s dress.
“He surprised me. I never heard him until he cleared the window.” Rapunzel stared straight ahead, her gaze on the window, not on the man, and not on the witch, a hollow look haunting her blue eyes. “And then … and then … Mother, I’m … I’m …”
“No!” While flight had never been one of the witch’s skills, she flew across the room, cradled Rapunzel to her. “You are not sorry. This is not your fault.”
“He is dead. A lone nobleman, venturing out on his own, in the borderlands? This will surprise no one.”
“Turn him,” Rapunzel said, her voice devoid of emotion, a dead thing.
Panic gripped the witch, had her by the throat. With a foot, she complied, heaving the dead man onto his back. Fair hair. Royal crest.
The war prince’s brother.
“He will come searching, won’t he?” Rapunzel said. This was no question. “The war prince will search for his brother.”
“Perhaps. The borderlands are vast. It may be months before we see him again. And by then?” The witch surveyed the man, the window, and considered how they might accomplish this next task.
“If your hair can lower him to the ground, I shall bury him in the woods. I feel winter in my bones. An early snowfall will be welcome.”
Rapunzel nodded. “I shall scrub his blood from our floor.”
Without another word, Rapunzel’s hair wrapped the man from head to foot and lowered him through the tower’s window. When the witch reached the ground, she was surprised to find the longest strands of hair in a dense copse behind the tower, the claws already digging a grave.
By the time the witch found a shovel, the man was deep in the ground. So she took up an ax and splintered the ladder into kindling. And by the time she finished that chore, those beastly strands of hair had scattered dry leaves across the grave, the fresh-turned soil all but hidden.
She eased a hand beneath a lock of that hair. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for protecting her, thank you for being so fierce.”
The strands wrapped and unwrapped themselves around her wrist before caressing her cheek.
* * *
Despite her own words, the witch knew. A dead prince was still a dead prince, and justice would be served. A week later, when the war prince rode up with a contingent of his soldiers, she was ready to face that justice.
“Good day to you, Mistress Witch.”
The witch stood at the base of the tower. “And to you, Your Highness.” She bowed low. She liked this dark and masked prince, even though today he would, no doubt, declare her death sentence.
“I wonder if you can help me.”
“I will try, Your Highness.”
“My brother has gone missing. You met him on our last patrol through these parts. Did you happen to see him or even converse with him?”
Behind the prince, one of his soldiers unleashed a dog. Oh, yes, the witch thought, he knew the answer already. A moment later, so did everyone else. The hound let out a howl before digging at the fresh grave.
“Tell me, Mistress Witch, how did he come to die?”
She drew herself up tall, raised her chin. “I killed him, Your Highness.”
To her surprise, the prince laughed—a dark, somber laugh to be sure, but a laugh, nevertheless. “I doubt that.”
“Doubt what you will, Your Highness, but do you see anyone else here?”
“You have just admitted to murder, and of one of the royal family. Do you wish for death?”
“I am but an old crone, and death does not scare me.”
“I suspect you might scare death itself,” the prince murmured. “But you leave me no choice.” With a sigh, he addressed the soldier next to him. “Arrest her.” He returned his attention to the witch. “Unless you can give me a compelling reason not to.”
“I can give you that reason.”
The voice came from above, and it rang high and clear and unimpeded over the borderlands. The witch whirled, her chest constricting. No. Not Rapunzel. No. She shook her head, but the daughter of her heart paid her no heed.
Without another word, Rapunzel stepped onto the window’s ledge. She jumped, her hair fanning out behind her before rushing to the ground to cushion her fall. She landed on her feet, knee-deep in golden locks.
“Your Highness, no,” the witch began. “Please listen. She—”
The prince held up a hand, silencing her. “Let her speak.”
“I killed him, Your Highness,” Rapunzel said.
“Did you now? And you are?”
“Rapunzel? With hair of teeth and claw?”
“I … is that what they call me?”
“You are but a legend, a whispered story. I—” He broke off, his gaze drawn to the woods where the younger prince was buried. “My brother spoke of you.”
“I am very real, Your Highness, and I have killed your brother.”
“You confess to murder, then?”
“In self-defense, but yes, I do.”
The prince fell silent. The soldiers behind him shifted in their saddles. The one who managed the dog corralled and leashed the beast. Then with a single, deliberate motion, the prince removed the black leather mask to reveal a face crisscrossed with scars.
“Look upon this face, Rapunzel,” he commanded.
And she did.
“I have lost my only brother.”
“I am sorry for your loss, Your Highness.”
“You must understand that yes, he was my brother, and I confess to loving the boy he once was, but not the man he became.” The prince contemplated Rapunzel as he spoke, as if taking in her full measure, as if sizing up an opponent. “That, perhaps, was unfair of me, unfair to him.”
The prince drew his sword, the metal blade singing out. He aimed the blow directly at Rapunzel. A cry lodged in the witch’s throat, and it took all her strength not to sink to her knees.
Rapunzel’s hair whipped and whirled. When the frenzy subsided, she and the prince stood mere feet from each other, the tip of his sword poised at the hollow of her collarbone, the claws of her hair wrapped around his neck.
His soldiers sprang forward, weapons drawn.
“Stand down!” the prince called. When no one moved, he sheathed his own sword and said, “Stand down. She doesn’t intend to injure me.”
“True. I don’t.” With Rapunzel’s words, her hair unraveled from around the prince’s neck.
“And why is that?” He rubbed the skin of his throat, the move born of curiosity rather than pain.
“You did not intend to hurt me.”
“And your hair.” He gestured to the locks undulating along her back and on the ground. “It knew that.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
A smile lit the prince’s scarred face, then a laugh made it almost handsome. “Then I am lucky, for that was only my guess.” This time when he contemplated Rapunzel, his gaze was lit with interest. “And now I face another sort of dilemma, for I not only lost my brother but my best fighter.”
The witch’s heart caught. The tips of her fingers grew cold, her legs numb. “Your Highness, you can’t possibly mean—”
Once again, the prince silenced the witch’s protest with the barest flick of his wrist.
“I mean everything I say, Mistress Witch.” He directed his gaze toward Rapunzel once again. “Will you join my company and replace the man you have killed?”
Murmurs rose from the assembled soldiers. One stepped forward, probed a lock of hair with the toe of his boot. The strands curled around his ankle, and the man landed on the ground.
“She is but a girl!” another called out.
“I am strong,” Rapunzel said. She hefted her hair in both her hands. “I have been carrying the weight of this all my life.”
“A burden for certain,” the prince said.
“How will she ride?” someone else asked. “We have no cart for all that hair. We travel light.”
Before the soldier even stopped speaking, her hair swirled. It wove complicated patterns, fitted itself to her body until she was covered in what looked like golden chainmail.
“It seems I won’t need any armor,” Rapunzel said. “Or a cart.”
“Any more dissent? Perhaps you’d like to confer with my brother.” The prince gestured at the grave. “I’m certain he has an opinion on the matter.”
With the prince’s words, the witch knew: the matter was settled. Strength returned to her limbs, and a strange, detached determination filled her. She saddled a horse, and the sisters whinnied their goodbyes, tails swishing. She secured a bag of provisions and one of potions and remedies. If she could, the witch would have packed her heart as well, for it was too swollen and sore in her own chest.
“Goodbye, daughter of my heart.” The witch presented the reins to Rapunzel.
“Mother?” Rapunzel’s eyes grew large, as if only now she realized the consequences of her choice. “I don’t want—”
The witch hushed her. “Of course you do. It is right and good for children to leave home, to have adventures. This prince is a good man,” she added. “He will not lead you astray.”
“I can’t promise you comfort,” the prince added. “Or even safety. But adventure? That I can promise.”
Rapunzel’s gaze went once again to the horizon, her eyes lit with the promise of the adventure that it held.
“Go with him, child. Go be free.”
Rapunzel hugged the witch, mounted her horse, and joined the prince’s company. They rode off, and the witch tracked them until Rapunzel blended into the horizon. Even then, the witch stood at the base of the tower. At last she turned and confronted its surface.
“I’m not sure I know the spell to conjure up another entrance, or a staircase, for that matter.” She said these words to the horse, who snuffled and snorted a reply. “I’m not sure these old bones can stand the climb.”
Before the witch could even try, a golden ladder tumbled from the window. She grasped the silky strands, hardly daring to breathe, and climbed up to the ledge. Once she stood inside, the strands returned to the tower. They flowed through the window and into one of Rapunzel’s containers of exotic flowers, where they burrowed beneath the soil.
Then, in a moment that was no more than a blink of an eye, a stem pushed up and through, and the bloom of a lion’s tail unfurled.
With Hair of Teeth and Claw was first published in The Shapeshifter Chronicles.
Rumpelstiltskin meets Groundhog Day, with a twist.
The part at the end, when I tear myself in half, is the worst. But it’s dramatic, and everyone seems to like it. Besides, I’ve perfected the move.
Mind you, I don’t actually tear myself in half. That would hurt. When I stomp my foot, much like a toddler, it opens a passageway to another forest, another miller’s daughter, another king intent on fortune.
I’m not sure why I slip through this passageway, only that I do. I’m not sure how it happens, only that it does. I leave one life for another, each familiar, but distinct. I’ve done this for so many years that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a life of my own.
The forest around me is still. I breathe in dry leaves. My limbs feel sluggish, my head even more so. When the sky stops spinning, I’ll need to bolt. I might already be too late. Right now, the hangman may be tightening the noose around the neck of the miller’s daughter. That’s happened more times than I care to count.
It’s hard to save someone mid-execution.
I inhale a steadying breath and push from the forest floor only to careen into the first oak I see. Its bark scrapes my cheek, but the thick trunk stops my fall. My head spins. I clutch the tree like a lovesick girl and wait.
When I merely see double, I head for the village.
From a farmer’s clothesline, I procure a shirt with flapping tails and a tattered overcoat. I jam an abandoned straw hat on my head. The oversized clothes make me appear old, shrunken.
As I leave, a billy goat bleats a reprimand at me.
Stalls line the village square with everything from rosy apples to funnel cakes sizzling in oil. Baskets bump my hips and arms as people hurry past. I can’t move. I am a hollow thing, starved, not just for food, but a real meal, a real bed, a real home.
A real life.
When did it all change? When did I change? A curse, perhaps. Or I bargained with the wrong crone. Or perhaps I did nothing, and it’s simply my fate to watch life from the outside.
I shake myself—the miller’s daughter. I must find her.
The tavern. I always start my search there. Nine times out of ten, that’s where I’ll find her worthless father.
Sometimes he’s weeping, it’s true. Sometimes he isn’t even at the tavern, but at home, wringing his hands and concocting foolish rescue plans. Most of the time?
He’s drinking, on credit.
That’s where he is today, surrounded by ne’er-do-wells, a barmaid on his knee. But if he’s here, if he’s drinking, it means his daughter is confronting a room full of straw.
I must wait until dark. Even then, obstacles line my path: palace guards, winding corridors, and any number of locked doors.
But people are creatures of habit and convenience. I’ve crept inside countless castles, pried open dozens of locks, procured keys hanging from the same hook, in the same spot, in nearly identical guardrooms a hundred times over. Tonight is no exception, and I tie the keys to a bit of rope that I loop around my waist.
On the other hand, the miller’s daughter is unpredictable. Sometimes she’s crying. Sometimes she’s resigned or angry. Sometimes she’s both and refuses my help.
It’s better now that I obscure my face, hide my true form. Those first times? My appearance was so shocking that no amount of reasoning could calm her down. Guards poured into the room, followed by the king himself. And I found myself slipping through that passageway far earlier than I had planned.
So it’s with caution that I ease open the door. The miller’s daughter stands in the center of the room, eyes dry, gaze contemplating the truly mammoth pile of straw. This king must be extraordinarily greedy. When she catches sight of me, she nods as if she’s been expecting her supernatural helper—and I’m late.
“The king wants me to spin this straw into gold.” She casts an almost regal hand toward the towering pile.
“That’s quite a task,” I reply. “One I’m well suited for. I could help you.”
She raises an eyebrow. “For a price?”
I execute a low bow. “But of course.”
She tugs a ring from her finger. “Will this do?”
I barely glance at it, because, yes, of course, it will. People are wary of getting something for nothing. I don’t need the ring, can’t take it with me when I travel to yet another miller’s daughter and her predicament, but it always makes this part go easier.
“Rest, my child,” I say, indicating a wool blanket in one corner. “You will wake to find this room filled with gold.”
The miller’s daughter lifts the hem of her skirt and retreats, settling in, her back to the room. She is unusually compliant. I pause, taste the air, breathe in the dry, scratchy scent of hay. The room is as it always is, and yet, I hesitate. But only for a moment. There’s no time to waste.
I return to the farm and lead the billy goat and several of his companions into the room filled with straw. No one ever questions an old peasant herding goats, not even in the middle of the night. I set them to work, and they’ll gladly eat their fill.
It’s not like I can spin straw into gold. That’s ridiculous.
The keys to the kingdom jangle at my side—quite literally—including those that unlock the royal coffers. Rarely do I find them empty.
The greedier the king, the more gold he already has.
This king’s treasure room glows. I pick my way through a maze of coins and jewels, of gold buried beneath more gold, a vast amount to last a hundred lifetimes. I unearth the ancient treasures, the acquisitions long forgotten.
It takes all night to lug enough gold to replace the straw. It always does. By morning, I’m covered in the ancestral greed and grime of this current king. As recompense, before I leave, I slip enough coins into my overcoat pocket to see me through the inevitable wedding and birth of the first child.
Predictably, I receive the necklace for my second night’s efforts, and by the third night, I’m floating with relief. It was so easy this time. All I need to do is extract the promise of her first-born, fill the room with gold, and take a well-deserved rest before my final performance.
I bound into the room, but skid to a stop at her outstretched hand.
“You’re not needed here,” she says.
“But…” I survey the mountain of straw that towers over us—bale upon bale stacked precariously until I’m certain the entire mound will tip over and crush us both.
“If I spin this straw into gold, the king says he’ll marry me, and if I don’t, he will kill me.”
“He’ll keep his word,” At least, he always has—so far. “He’ll marry you.”
“I would marry a man who has thrice threaten to execute me simply because I cannot perform the impossible?”
She shakes her head so hard, her glossy black braid comes undone. Her hair tumbles free. On reflex, I clutch the hat closer to my scalp.
“No, I don’t wish to marry such a man, not even to save my life.” She leans forward as if to peer at me. I shrink further into my coat. “You’ve been more than kind, but your services are no longer needed.”
Stunned, I open my mouth, but no words come out. I grope in my pockets and offer up the ring and the necklace.
“Those are yours,” she says. “They belong to you.”
I try all night long, but she won’t budge. With the first rays of dawn, I leave the room, my eyes prickly and raw from hay and sorrow.
I attend the execution. I owe her that. Upon the scaffold, in the village square, the hangman is shrouded; she is not. Her black braid glows in the morning light, and she surveys the gathering crowd with what looks like pity rather than fear, her eyes sharp and alert.
She scans each newcomer. At first, I think she’s searching for her father. When her gaze touches mine, the miller’s daughter smiles, and I realize she’s been looking for me. My stomach clenches, and I can’t glance away.
The hangman places the noose around her neck.
With her gaze still locked on mine, the miller’s daughter winks.
The hangman releases the trap door. The crowd gasps.
But she doesn’t hang. Her neck doesn’t snap. Beneath her, the cobblestones shimmer. The rope unravels, and she slips through an all too familiar passageway.
I’m not sure how it happens, only that it does.
The village square erupts in chaos, crying and wailing and shouts of witchcraft. My heart pounds so hard it fills my throat. I am frozen in place, hollowed out.
I remain there long after the crowd disperses, and the guards dismantle the scaffold. I stay for so long that the bustle returns, and the stalls reopen. Warm spice and the scent of ale dull the edges of my earlier terror.
It’s only then I pull the hat from my head. My braid tumbles to my shoulder, glossy and black, a mirror image of the miller’s daughter. I stare up at the space where the scaffolding stood.
Did she know from the start?
I brush my foot against the cobblestone. If I stamp hard enough, will I, too, vanish, leave as she did, as I’ve always done in the past?
I decide not to try.
Instead, I pull the ring and necklace from my pocket.
Those are yours. They belong to you.
It’s been ages since I felt the weight of the chain around my neck, but I secure it now and slip on the ring.
I am the miller’s daughter. I cast a glance over my shoulder toward the tavern but decide not to bother with this world’s version of my father.
After all, I have a pocketful of coin. The possibilities of what that might buy loom large: a real meal, a real bed, a real home.
I turn toward the stall, the one with the funnel cakes sizzling in oil, and decide to start there.
Rumpelstiltskin is another one of those fairy tales that I think deserve a retelling (or two).
Sometimes the way home isn’t obvious.
The braid went slack in his hands, and the prince knew.
He’d been deceived.
In the moment before he fell, when he hung suspended in the air, the prince confronted the thorns that would steal his sight.
He refused to blink.
The pain was an exquisite brightness, the blood hot and wet. He clambered to his feet, drew his sword, and swung blindly.
The cackle of the witch’s laughter echoed in the air.
The prince stumbled across the countryside, sword unsheathed. He whirled in panic at the cries of birds and rustles in the underbrush. And always, as he walked, the faint whisper of the witch’s laughter followed him.
At last, his feet found a crossroads. The earth was smooth here, and his boots met nothing other than small stones and gentle ruts. He paused and sniffed.
A ripe, earthy scent rose up, warmed by the sun, the air filled with promise.
The marsh beckoned. The prince turned and left the road behind.
He was days into his trek when the cries of an infant accompanied his walk. His legs were weak with fever, and so too, the prince reasoned, was his head. Whatever promise had led him into this marsh eluded him.
The prince sank into the muck only to hear a startled cry moments later.
“My love? Is it really you?”
His lips were so dry that he couldn’t utter her name. Rapunzel knelt beside him, her tears bathing his face, easing the pain in his eyes. He raised a hand to stroke her cheek and missed.
He saw nothing but brightness and shadows. Of all the sights the thorns had stolen, he would miss the intelligence in Rapunzel’s gaze the most.
“Come,” she said, “come with me now.”
“Can’t what, my prince?”
“I can’t rescue you.”
“Can you walk?”
With her words, his legs found their strength. “I can walk.”
“Then come meet your son … and your daughter.”
With time, the prince’s feet learned which paths to take in and out of the marsh. His fingers became adept at finding and patching holes in the thatched roof of their little cottage. His children grew, and although he couldn’t see them, his son smelled of lilacs and morning dew, his daughter like wild roses and rain.
Each day, he ventured farther from the cottage, all in hopes of finding the crossroads once again, of finding rescue, and what that might mean. A true marriage. Proper schooling for the little prince and princess. He could resume his place in the kingdom.
It was the king’s own counselor who found him, standing in the center of the crossroads one hot, summer day. Despite his blindness, the prince recognized the king’s most trusted advisor, and the man rejoiced to have found the long, lost prince.
His feet knew the marsh so well that the prince raced to the little cottage without care. He found Rapunzel and swung her around, then hoisted the children to his shoulders.
“We are saved!” he cried. “We can go home.”
“Home?” the children echoed.
“To the palace, where we will live the way we were meant to.”
Rapunzel remained strangely silent.
“My dear,” he said. “Are you not happy? Haven’t you only ever wanted to escape?”
“Yes. Escape.” Her words were soft and hollow, and the prince barely heard them over the clatter of the carriages arriving to bear them to the palace.
Was it the noise that struck first, or the stench? Both swirled around him like a thick, damp cloud. So many voices, and all of them demanding something of him. So many smells. Waves of perfume. The dank scent of mildew. The hint of refuse that never left the air no matter where he ventured in the palace.
Nursemaids commandeered his children. Ladies-in-waiting swept Rapunzel away. The king prattled about diplomacy and trade routes and political alliances.
At their welcome home feast, in the clatter of dishes and hearty toasts ringing out, the echo of the witch’s cackle rose thin and high, a taunt meant for his ears only.
The prince knew.
This time, he’d deceived himself.
That night, he ran his hands over every inch of his chambers. His thoughts fractured each time the witch’s cackle sounded in his ears. Even if he could escape, how would he rescue Rapunzel and the children?
What caught his attention first? The scrape of leather on stone? The delicate gasp of exertion? He knew the moment Rapunzel burst through the window, landing with a soft thud on the stone floor.
“Come,” she said. “Your children are waiting below.”
“How is it you—?”
She silenced his question with a gentle finger to his lips. “Your children have stolen all the silk sheets from the royal beds.”
If he could not see the glint of intelligence in her gaze, he caught it in her tone.
“My father’s included?”
“And I have braided them into a ladder, your father’s included. Do you remember, my prince, how to scale a tower wall on a braided ladder?”
Indeed, he did.
“Come,” she said.
He let Rapunzel take his hand. At the window’s ledge, he cupped her cheek.
“I have been so blind.”
In answer, she merely kissed him.
And yes, his hands did remember how to grip a braided ladder.
Together, they raced through the palace grounds, into the forest, until—at last—they reached the crossroads.
The prince stood there with his little family, the warmth of the sunrise touching his face. Something earthy and ripe rose in the air. He turned toward its source.
The marsh beckoned.
The Way Home was first published at Long and Short Reviews.
Ah, yes, they’ve all been duped by a cat. But haven’t we all been, at one time or another?
It was during the wedding feast, when the air was heavy with roast goose and red wine, that Mirabella realized they’d all been duped by a cat.
Her new husband, the Marquis of Carabas, was sitting to her right, his teeth tearing goose flesh, grease coating his lips. She shuddered and pushed away thoughts of the marriage bed. Her father, the king, was well into his cups and tore at his food as if to mimic his new son-in-law. He slapped the marquis on the back and praised heaven that—at long last—Mirabella had found herself a husband.
At long last, indeed.
Near the end of the table, the cat was lounging, booted hind legs crossed. With a paw, he wiped goose fat from his whiskers. Mirabella fixed her gaze on him until he raised his yellow eyes and took in her full measure.
Then, the creature winked.
She sat back, a flush heating her cheeks, traveling her neck, and ending somewhere near her décolletage. She sighed, not in the mood for wine, song, or her new husband. True, the marquis was handsome. A point in his favor, to be sure. A goose leg slipped through his fingers, and he stopped its descent with one meaty hand. Mirabella cringed and again shoved thoughts of the marriage bed from her mind.
She turned to her new husband and asked, “More wine?”
Without waiting for an answer, she filled his goblet to the rim. He’d barely spoken since they’d exchanged I do. Come to think of it, the lad—for he was hardly older than she—seldom spoke more than a word or two at a time. Mirabella leaned forward and, once again, trained her gaze on the cat. This time when he winked, she didn’t flinch.
Oh, there was no Marquis of Carabas. She’s stake her somewhat tarnished reputation on it. Certainly, if this lad were nobility, he would’ve curried her father’s favor long before now. Not only that, but he was untouched by palace gossip, which was rife with rumors about her improper relationship with her tutor. In her defense, the relationship hadn’t been at all improper.
Well, maybe a little bit improper.
But thanks to some rumors and a fast-talking cat, her father was now praising the heavens and had shoved this lad into her arms and her bed. Would he care to know the truth about the marquis? Of course not. A married daughter was one less burden, especially a daughter with a somewhat tarnished reputation.
The splash of wine against her chest forced a gasp from her. The red liquid soaked into the bodice of her gown, the spot resembling a sword wound. Her new husband stared at his empty goblet as if the wine had sprung forth of its own accord. Her father pounded the marquis on the back, his hearty laugh filling the banquet hall. And, at the end of the table, that damn cat winked.
* * *
Her new husband’s snores filled the bedchamber. From her vantage point on the balcony, Mirabella could see the outline of his form on the duvet. Make no mistake, it was a fine form, despite the drool.
“You admire my master, then, Princess?”
Ah, that damn cat.
“There is more to admire in a man than form or face, Master Cat.”
The cat trod along the balcony’s edge, feet whisper-soft against the stone, even with the boots.
“What is it you wish?” he said.
“I fear my wishes matter not to man or cat.”
“I did not ask that.”
Mirabella glanced into the bedchamber. Yes, assuredly, her new husband would not wake until noon, if then. “Tonight’s wish has already been granted.”
Could cats grin? Well, this one could, and did, twirling long whiskers with a paw. “And tomorrow’s wish?”
Yes, the crux of the matter.
“I cannot simply un-marry, Master Cat, and I doubt my new husband will appreciate his rival.” She gestured toward the telescope at the balcony’s far end. She had yet to peer at the night sky this evening—or rather, morning. Of course, at this moment, the only view was of a cat’s tail, which was swishing in front of the lens.
Still, the urge to lean over the telescope remained. For a few hours, she could pretend that Sebastian was still at her side, imagine his fingers lighting on the back of her neck, hear his ardent whisper. “Do you see it?”
The night spent with her tutor fueled court gossip even now. That the two of them had gazed at the stars and not into each other’s eyes was of little matter. As she ran a hand along the telescope, the skies were clear, but her mind was clouded with thoughts of the upcoming tour of the kingdom. The grand celebration of her marriage meant visiting people she didn’t much care for and receiving gifts she certainly didn’t need. But the real question was: pack the telescope or leave it behind?
“You’ll be traveling light,” the cat said.
“Unlikely, Master Cat. Have you never seen a royal entourage take to the roads?”
“I have, Princess. It’s all part of the plan.”
“What plan is that?”
“Do you not wish to see your Sebastian again?”
Her hand stilled on the telescope, her fingers ice. Damn palace gossip, and damn that cat besides. How could he know her heart?
“You keep a great many unsent letters beneath your bed.”
Oh. That was how.
“Would you like to be free? Study with your tutor in peace?”
Mouth dry, Mirabella nodded.
“Then, trust me.”
“I shall do no such thing, Master Cat.”
“But what if you could un-marry, Princess?” the cat asked. “Would you trust me then?”
“What God has joined together, let no man put asunder,” Mirabella replied. “Even cats know this.”
Ah, yes, cats could grin. “Oh, Princess, have you not noticed? I am certainly no man.”
* * *
The carriage bumped over never-ending ruts. A week on the road, and the only sign of the cat had been this morning when he had slipped a wineskin into Mirabella’s hands.
“Hold it beneath your cloak,” he said. “Just so.”
Only thoughts of her studies, of Sebastian, compelled her to comply. She cradled her burden and settled in for another long day.
A cry rose up outside the carriage.
“Brigands!” a guard shouted.
Swords clanked, and then the carriage door flew open. The cat sprang past her, a single claw piercing the wineskin. Red bloomed beneath her hand, the wine soaking her gown. The marquis took one look at the stain spreading across her bodice and crashed to the carriage floor, face-first. Never mind that she reeked of her father’s finest vintage (come to think of it, so did the marquis); she was, in everyone’s view, fatally wounded.
And with death came freedom. Un-marry, indeed.
Before she could leap from the carriage, a paw tugged on her sleeve.
“You’ll need this, Princess.” The cat proffered a dusty cloak, ragged along the hem. He dropped a small canvas sack at her feet. “And, of course, you’ll need these.” He pulled the boots from his hind legs.
He crouched, then sprang through the carriage window, and Mirabella swore his final sentence was more caterwaul than words. She pulled on the boots, the leather kissing her legs, the soles cupping her feet. She held one leg extended, turning it to study the boot. How was this possible?
No matter. They fit. She jumped from the carriage. The boots carried her through sword clashes and rearing horses. No one called out. No one stopped her. Except for a cat that wove between her ankles.
His tail twitched, and he blinked slowly, but that was all.
She nestled him in her arms, the cloak shielding them both, and took to the road.
That night, she tugged the boots from her feet and placed them far enough from her campfire that no spark would reach them.
“Master Cat, would you like to take a turn in your boots?”
Within moments, the cat was standing before her in all his booted glory. He surveyed their surroundings.
“Seems safe enough,” he said. “I shall fetch dinner and return shortly.”
Mirabella pointed to the pot simmering over the fire. “I have dinner.”
“I shall fetch us a decent dinner, then.”
She huffed but couldn’t argue. Her skills with a telescope far surpassed anything she could manage with a cook pot.
“I shall almost regret finding Sebastian,” she said to him later, over stew and a loaf of hard-crusted bread from a nearby village. “I will miss these marvelous boots.”
“Why not commission another pair?” the cat asked, strutting about, the leather boots glowing warmly in the light of the fire.
“How will I do that, Master Cat? I will be a scholar and a somewhat impoverished one at that.”
“Haven’t you guessed, Princess? Who do you think gave me these boots to begin with?”
“Not the marquis?”
“Princess, you know their creator. Intimately, if I dare say so.”
“But … Sebastian is a scholar. He studies—”
“The mysteries of our world—and he has mastered a few.”
Mirabella sucked in a breath and blew out a stream of air rather than harsh words. After all, what was there to say?
With a paw, the cat twirled his whiskers, and then strode off into the night. So, it had been Sebastian all along.
And, of course, that damn cat.
A Most Marvelous Pair of Boots was first published in Timeless Tales, January 2014.
Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020
Continuing with the fairy tale retellings. This week, a different take on Sleeping Beauty.
“Try it,” my cousins say. They are the perfect princess trifecta, all in pink, peach, and plum.
I hesitate. I don’t trust myself. Not around things that are sharp. My mother, the queen, has banned all things pointy—embroidery and knitting needles, even crochet hooks, but the object in the corner of my room is different.
“Come on,” Plum says. She holds up her cell phone, ready to take a picture while the other two urge me forward. “You know how she is.”
I do. So does my mother, who always intones, “Never trust a woman whose only goal is to look as young as her teenage daughters.”
My aunt’s gifts have a way of backfiring. Last year, she gave me an elixir that makes your lips red like cherries and your cheeks glow like apples. I refused even to try it, but my cousins guzzled it down. At that evening’s ball, fruit flies swarmed around them the entire time.
What I really want for my birthday is a baseball bat and glove. I want to round up the pages, cajole the scribe into keeping score, and play until the sun hovers low in the sky and it’s too late to bathe for a formal dinner, never mind the ball afterward. But my cousins tremble; if they don’t get proof that I’ve at least touched the present, their mother will rage. Pity compels me forward. Besides, compared to last year, a spindle is downright practical. I reach out. Plum’s cell phone camera clicks.
Three seconds before I hit the stone floor, I think: my finger is going to hurt all day long.
Chaos roars around me, but I can’t wake. A narcoleptic slumber is no way to spend your sweet sixteen. My mother thunders at my cousins, and they cower, all quivering tulle and satin.
My finger still hurts.
The sobs subside. Yawns fill the air. Courtiers sink to the floor. Page boys slump against the wall. My cousins, too, sleep. My mother tucks a blanket around me and kisses my forehead before taking to her own bed.
For one hundred years, we lie dormant. This wouldn’t be so bad except my cousins, they snore.
Heavy boots stomp. A sword rattles. The door crashes open. The scent of blood and sweat fills the room. Something looms above me, something I think means to kiss me.
I worry about one hundred years of neglected dental hygiene. But really? He’s the one with dragon breath. Volumes have been written about epic first kisses. This one? I’m not sure it rates a Facebook status update.
My eyes spring open, that kiss the living embodiment of caffeine. A boy I don’t recognize kneels by my bed. I worry about being nearly one hundred years older than he is. We will have to rename the village. Cougarville has a nice ring to it. First, we should probably get to know each other.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
I blink. I’m sure he’s many things. Clearly, he has mad skills in the sword-wielding department. But I was on the receiving end of that kiss. Charming?
Not so much.
“Shall we marry at sunset?” he asks as if he already knows the answer.
Shall we … what? He squeezes my hand. Pain shoots through my finger, and I yank free. Marry? For real? I’d rather swing a baseball bat … or a sword. And Charming does look tired. (I hear dragon-slaying is kind of stressful.)
After all this time, the spindle still sits in the corner of the room. I point to it.
“Can you bring me that?” I ask, all princess-y innocence. I should feel bad about this, but I don’t.
Charming only manages a step, spindle in hand, before he crashes to the floor, armor clanking loud enough to wake the dead. But everyone sleeps on, and Charming’s snores blend with my cousins’. It’s a fairytale match. They can fight over him once everyone wakes up.
I fashion a new notch in his belt, and then I attach the scabbard and blade around my waist. I pull on my own boots and pick up his shield. It feels good in my hand. I tuck a pillow beneath Charming’s head and leave the room.
My finger no longer hurts.
In the master suite, I pause next to my mother. A serene smile lights her face. I tuck the comforter around her shoulders and whisper, “I’ll be back.”
After I’ve slain a few dragons.
The Secret Life of Sleeping Beauty first appeared in Unidentified Funny Objects, Volume 1 and in audio at Cast of Wonders.
Filed under Reading, Stories for 2020