“A magical tale. . . . Unconventional narrative techniques and a full dose of magic and folklore give this urban fantasy a lyrical, mythic feel.”
“A wonderful romp of a book, full of unlikely heroes and heroines, thoroughly nasty villains, and natural magic seen through a kaleidoscope’s eye in vivid, ever-changing detail. . . . The writing is fast-paced and powerful. . . . Except the Queen is indeed a treat for the fantasy lover.”
—Patricia A. McKillip, author of The Bell at Sealey Head
“This is a great urban fantasy with an atypical feel to the story line that enhances the otherworldly tale. Fast-paced from the onset, fans will welcome the siblings as each struggles with adjusting to the world of the mortals.”
“Reminiscent of the urban fantasy of Charles de Lint in their ability to blend human characterizations with the world just beyond the borders of human perception, the authors succeed in crafting a modern fairy tale.”
“Jane Yolen really can’t be beat when it comes to traditional fantasy. This is a beautifully written novel.”
—So Many Books, So Little Time
“A fantastic read whether you believe in fairy tales or not!”
—Sacramento Book Review
“An unexpected delight of a novel. . . . I loved the little surprises along the way to resolution and the unexpectedness of this quiet, beautifully written book.”
—The Book Smugglers
Table of Contents
The Queen Remembers
You are in the forest that is not your own. You squint at its brightness; the sunlight bleaching the familiar green, the scent of the trees dusty as pressed flowers. You have come out of curiosity, and shivering beneath the glamour you are wearing, you roam through the quiet pines and birch. You have left behind your armor, your rank, your power, your great age. Here you are young, beautiful and fragile as the lily, your throat white and perfumed. Birds trill a warning and fall quiet. And then you hear it, a man singing softly under his breath, something tuneless, without true shape to change the world.
You stop and wait, frozen as the deer, for this is what you have come to see, to learn, to experience. For an eternity you have existed in another time, but now you are in this moment, and desire burns away the practiced control.
You see him weaving in and out of the sunlight, his chestnut hair stippled like a fawn’s hide. Yet he moves purposefully, hunting for you. You can smell the oil of his rifle, cradled in the crook of his arm. Alarm prickles your skin, crying run. But you will not. You want to see what happens. You want to know what it feels like, that pain that is human love, that weakness that binds stronger than spells. You, who have never given so much as a mustard seed of power for free, you have come to give yourself away.
The man moves into the clearing and hesitates as if he knows you are there. And why should he not feel you? Have you not come here the last three days to spy on him? He is well made, with a comely face that pleases you. He is dressed like an oriole, the dark wool of his coat partially covered by a shrill orange that makes it easy to spot him even in the brush.
You study his face, wondering if you can allow yourself this indulgence. All the others have had their dalliances, their madcap affairs—everyone except the Queen. But you are here now and strangely calm as he turns toward you. You raise your arm and the dun-colored sleeve covers your face as you bend from your supple waist. You hold your breath for you hear the soft snick of the gun, feel its eye upon you, and you brace yourself for the stinging touch of iron.
The shot cracks the air open like a nut and it is too late to change your mind. You cry out as the bullet passes beneath your ribs and out your back. How could you have known it would hurt so much? Blood spills, staining your white shift crimson and you fall into a nest of autumn-bitten bushes. You can hear him now, running toward you, the gun dropped behind him when you screamed. Already he bleeds too; despair, hope, and love spilling out for you as he runs to where you wait, wounded in the bloodstained green.
Meteora Spills a Secret
In the Greenwood, the fey do not write accounts of their own doing. Yes, we have bards whose entire lives are spent composing heroic verses to praise those we claim as heroes or those great and terrible loves that have nearly destroyed whole clans. Yes, we have history. But we do not care much for personal memory. When you live each day as we do, nearly immortal, there is no day that is unlike the other, there are no rites of passage but those of the seasons, there is no memory of consequence. Each day is the same tale, so there is no need to remember it at all.
But the Queen has requested that my sister Serana and I chronicle our time in the world and so it must be. And in this body unexpectedly aged by exile, it is indeed comforting to record these events for myself and my sister. We can no longer return to what had been for us a blithe and pretty life among the green. We have been transformed by exile that made us strangers dependent on the generosity of other strangers quite unlike ourselves. Our fey lives have been deepened with the tincture of mortality.
How it began was simple enough. Serana and I had escaped to the edge of the Greenwood, looking for sport. Lovesick boys wandered in these margins, saplings with sad eyes and dirty nails. There were rough-hewn men sometimes, but then, we were strong enough in magic to tame those flat-footed satyrs into playmates. We were beautiful then; our bodies fleshed full and ripe, skin scented with honeysuckle, and shoulders dusted with amber pollen. Bees kissed our mouths and our lips as ruby as pomegranate seeds.
On that day we heard the moans and the soft slap of skin against skin before we saw the couple. Serana, her berry-black eyes wide with delight, placed a finger against her lips to remind me to be still. I suppressed the giggle, though it bubbled in my throat. We crept silently through the brush, following the sound, stopping only when we had reached the boundary between our world and theirs. The green shadows hid us in the leafy arms of a viburnum, its tiny fruit dangling like drops of blood.
On a field of cut grass, someone had spread out a blanket, and on the blanket was a golden-haired child in a pale blue dress sleeping soundly on her back. Pretty thing she was, with pouting lips, creamy round cheeks touched in the middle with a bright red blush. Serana and I exchanged looks and I knew what she was thinking—that we should steal her; bring her back to court as our precious pet, our wild strawberry.
We glanced around and realized that the couple had indeed slipped into the woods a little way so as not to disturb the napping child. Their moans were reaching a crescendo, something that of course amused us even more than the child. We crawled through the bushes and parting the branches, we saw them.
It was known that the Queen did not engage in carnal play as the rest of us did. She held herself aloft, as though her power and her crown made her untouchable to such passionate fires. Or so we had thought. Even as I write this now, I am struck remembering how vulnerable she looked in his arms—head thrown back, the pulse of her veins against the white skin, her shimmering hair falling on the ground like spilt honey from the comb.
And the man? Mortal, we knew by the gamey smell that prickled our noses. We were shocked into laughter. Imagine our haughty, Highborn Queen rolling in the dirt with a common man. I recall very little of his looks, only that we could not fathom how this man had found favor enough in the eyes of the Queen that she should shield the brilliance of her power beneath a glamour intended to make her seem ordinary as a haymaker. And I know that even as we choked on the surprised laughter, the sound escaped in peals that rang clear as a wind chime disturbed by a breeze.
The child began to cry. The couple sat up, dazed for a moment. Wariness hardened the man’s features as his eyes searched for us. We were not afraid of him, for we knew he could never see us in the Greenwood. But the Queen could and before she could rise from the ground, Serana grabbed my hand and we ran, scampering through the dense brush like squirrels back to our own nests.
The Queen was cold and merciless and we knew that punishment would be swift and unpleasant if we were found. So all that day and night we hid in the hollowed trunk of a knotted pine, our arms wrapped around each other, fearing the sound of her hunting horns. Serana whispered hiding spells softly over and over, and I—for once—was very quiet.
But except for the patter of rain that fell on the second day, the Greenwood remained silent of rumor. On the third day we came to the conclusion that perhaps we had escaped unseen. And perhaps, if we kept the secret to ourselves and told no one, the Queen might never know that it was us who had spied upon her in the woods.
“You must never tell,” Serana warned. “The Queen will not forget this.”
* * *
WE RETURNED TO COURT AS innocent as lambs. Seasons came and went, and though there were many times I wanted to spill our secret while frolicking with a new playmate, I did as my sister instructed and remained quiet about it. But my cheek twitched during the solemn court rituals to see the Queen standing at regal attention, so unlike that time in the woods. And then I would feel Serana’s hot gaze, the stern set of her lips beneath her flashing eyes, reminding me to forget that old secret once and for all.
But an arrow loosed in the world must eventually find its mark, and there are few secrets that do not eventually fly into the shell of an ear.
I was napping in a field, when through my dreaming I overheard a pack of boogans talking as they set traps on a farmer’s field.
“Do ya think he’s the one? You know, the one that giped the old girl. Aww . . . can you imagine that, then? Her on her back, legs to the sky. What a sight, eh?”
“Nah,” chaffed another voice. “She said it were a different man. Not a farmer.”
“The mason, you know, a man who lays the bricks.”
The boogans were guffawing now. “He laid her, ’tis true. Trowel in hand, he stuffed her, he did, working that yellow hair of hers into the dirt, while the babe wailed in its cradle.”
From the depths of sleep I blurted out, “What did Serana tell you about the Queen and her man?” I sat up and rubbed my eyes, confused. Then turned in horror to see the boogans, stunned into silence.
They stared at me slack-jawed, their bottom tusks more in evidence than usual. They were surprised as much by my question as by my sudden resurrection in the field. But their expressions quickly turned sly, then nasty, the leers splitting their faces till they looked like frogs.
“Oy, then, so the Queen herself is a-laying with the mason. Busy man he is. And she got with a wailing baby too. Now that is news!”
“No, you misunderstood me. Not the Queen.” I tried to call the words back into my mouth.
“You said the Queen. Your sister was it told you?” The boogans snickered. “We all heard you and anyway who cares if it’s true or not? It’s a good lark. And we’ll just blame the pair of you if we get caught.” Their heads goggled excitedly. “Let’s away then, boogans, there’s more tricks afoot to be played with this thread of news than watching a farmer’s old nag turn lame in one of our holes.”
They dashed away into the green and I knew that within a heartbeat, the story would grow and I would be the root of it no matter how far the branches spread, or how bright the leaves of the tale unfurled. I spoke from a dream and there it was, the secret nocked to the quickest arrow in the quiver. There was nothing I could do to stop the rumor. I had to find my sister to warn her. We needed to hide, somewhere safe from the Queen’s wrath. The Highborn clans were gathering at the Great Hall, Under the Hill, and I prayed that we might have the chance to scamper while they were so engaged.
Red Cap’s Dark Lord
Listen! She knows winter comes, knows we come. When shadows be longest, we UnSeelie rise. So She gathers light into Herself to hold Her weakling people through the cold.
Ha! How I love it then: gnashing of teeth, trembling of limbs, tooth red in the gum, stone in the eye, heart beating in the hand. How I love to hear the weak puling of those milklings, whose blood be like whey. The struggle, dark/light, death/life. Ho!
Already, we prepare the way. Listen! The scream of an old woman brought down by a Ravener. Smell! A man in Founder’s park strangled with twine and mistletoe. Taste! A village well poisoned, a crop blighted, dung in the porridge. Touch! A child stolen from his cradle, a wooden log sprinkled with blood left in his stead.
This be my duty.
This be my delight.
I write sonnets in my enemy’s blood. I dip my red cap in a thousand years of war. Ho!
Strength be needed now: fist, spear, blood. Now I cry vengeance, argue it in our own court, the UnSeelie. I stand here, cap newly red with blood. The old woman’s blood. The man in the park’s blood. The boy child’s blood. My muscled legs spread apart. Let them see my maleness. Let them desire me. Let their jealous natures feed me. All help me reach my ends.
“We be under threat,” I tell them. I speak first in that hushed voice that draws all ears. Even my dark lord listens.
Then loudly I say: “Humans and their iron destroy our world. Let us hunt them as once we did. Not one by one by one. But all of them. Let us make tithes of blood sacrifice. Let the winter be long. Let the dark be king.”
Jackdaws caw my name. Wolves howl. Jackal-headed men caper on the red carpet. Overexcited, one squats and lets loose a series of black pebbles. The King blows him into ashes, along with his shit.
My voice rises even louder. “Now be the time to cull their weakest. Pull down their strongest. Take back their power. No more this easy pax. We must war on the Seelie court. Take the Highborn and we take the Game.”
And then the hall bursts into flames of laughter, shouts of my name. Only my King sits silent on his throne. No smile creases that dark face. But I know he agrees with me.
After all, he has not blown me into ashes. Hah!
Beneath the blazing torch light, you hold your head high, your slender hands resting at your sides. Betray nothing, you counsel yourself. Let them see only the glamour regardless of what it costs you. There will be time later to rest. But not now. The clans of the Seelie and UnSeelie court have gathered Under the Hill to celebrate the Solstice, the slow turning of day into night, green fields into the black muck of winter. They come to consume the light and unleash the darkness. As it has always been.
The predatory eyes of the UnSeelie devour your flesh. They pace the hall and their claws strike sparks from the flagons. Hobs and sprites scurry in terror behind your dress, while the Highborn study your movements, your face, looking for signs of weakness. You must reassure them. You walk to the bright center of the hall, then cross into the shadows, until you are mingling among the UnSeelie, who growl and hiss in flecked tongues that threaten but do not touch your pure white skin.
The Highborn follow in your wake, forced by convention to stand beside you, but you can feel their reluctance. They do not know if they can trust their lives to you, though you have given them no reason—other than that you are female—to doubt your power. You tremble with the effort of maintaining the glamour of youth. But none must know the truth.
Heat licks the nape of your neck and you turn to see Red Cap standing close, his nostrils fanned to catch your scent. In spite of your resolve, you shiver and he smiles smugly, the row of sharpened teeth like a rusted saw. You inhale the metallic reek of human blood on him and notice that his cap, vest, hands are freshly stained mulberry. And while once you might not have noticed or cared, now you care very much.
Standing this close you must push back the brutal hand that culls the sweetness from life. You must show there is another way. You draw your hands together, palm to palm before the pale skin of your breasts. You float your pressed hands to your forehead and rest the tips of fingers on your brow. You bow to him, offering the unexpected: a gesture of peace.
He snarls in answer and shifts his body away from you. You smile, triumphant.
And then you hear the undertow of whispered words you have long anticipated. And for the first time you learn the names of those who have betrayed you. Fear takes you. But you know the words cannot be stopped. They drift around the room, and you see the startled looks as the story scatters like feathers from a torn pillow. Red Cap’s ears have twitched forward, a leer spreading slowly across his brutal face.
You see it, but all you can think of is will they believe it? You struggle to banish the heat of shame from your face.
Red Cap grabs his groin and laughs, and a furious color stains your cheeks. Even now he has caught your true scent and has guessed what lies beneath your glamour. He will have no trouble believing the tale. No trouble twisting it like a knife against you, against your court. You turn away, so that he cannot see your expression for too much has already been given away. You must act quickly now.
When you turn to your own clans, there is contempt on the faces of the few Highborn Lords you once took to a barren bed. Their dams regard you with envy and bitterness. If they believe the boogans’ tale, they must accept that what was denied to them has been given to you. Lips pressed with scorn, your court draws back to let you pass.
Only quickness now can serve your plan. Only rage can save you. And this time it will not be hard to find the meddling pair on whom to pour out your fire.
Green. So many shades of it filtering through the canopy of trees. The gray-green fingers of late summer maple. The stubby dark green lobes of oak. Heart-shaped silver-green of the birch trees. The matched light green droplets of the rowan, dark green rounds of alder and beech, the lighter green spray of ash, the hazel’s double-toothed hairy green leaf.
And me, lying on my back, in my nest, under the trees, the green light covering my legs and belly and the aureoles of my nipples, all green.
I was dallying with a favorite lover, a hob with soft hands and a slow manner. We sought one another out once a decade or so when neither of us wanted hard sport or a fleeting wild plundering. His love-name was Will Under the Feather and he had just gotten under my feathers indeed. And with a will.
We were speaking together of the green light, of the night’s party to come, and laughing. I remember most the laughing. It made little motes of light spark around the nest. Not enough to set the nest on fire, of course, but enough to remind us of the danger. We were hazy in the afterglow of lovemaking, and hazy with the glowworm evening. His fur-covered foot touched mine, and his hand trailed down my throat.
“Berry-eyes,” he murmured. “So delicious. I could eat you up forever.”
I responded with a kind of throaty purr that made him laugh, but in that satisfying way that turned me warm all over. My left hand played with Will, while my right stroked the bits of feathers and silk, colored yarns and shiny stones that were stuffed into the crooks and crevices of my nest. My precious things taken down from the branches of trees where humans had tied them, offerings to the fey.
Without warning, the Queen appeared, looming over me, her golden hair blazing around her shoulders. “Out! Out! Out!” she cried, her face a harridan’s mask. “Gossip’s cup and sneak thief, spreading lies and calumny. Out! Out! Out! I command.”
I gaped at her, rising before me in a column of flame and I knew with a terrifying coldness that Meteora had spoken aloud the words that were meant to disappear. And she must have included my name, which the Queen now screeched into the boiling air.
I had no chance to be angry at Meteora. Putting my hands to my ears, I prepared for the worst. Blood rushed around inside my head, hot rivers of it threatening to overrun the sides. I could feel my right hand wet with something as the eardrum burst. But I was not dead.
Then courage and instinct took me by the left hand and threw me over the side of the nest. I heeded neither the scratching of the dried grasses on my legs nor the thwack I received from Will’s heels as he bailed out the other side.
As I fell away from the nest, I glanced over my shoulder. The Queen was holding up a rosewood wand, the bumps that would one day be thorns as red and pulsing as pustules. Not her oaken staff. Not her silver mace. Not her rowan switch. So it was to be a punishment, and not death this day. I can live with that, I thought.
I ran full out with scarcely a strip of cloth covering me, remembering only too late that one does not turn one’s back to the Queen, whatever the hurry.
The rosewood wand hit me high up on the right shoulder, breaking the skin, and my arm was all at once red, looking more like a sleeve made of holly berries than a naked arm covered with blood.
There must have been a spell. The wand should not have extended that far. But if there had been a spell, I never heard it spoken; or if I did, it did not register. All that registered was pain. Pain, fear, and darkness. And then the Queen’s voice calling after me:
Should Sister meet Sister in Light again,
Then falls the iron rain.
I tumbled in the air and was somehow transported over the hill and away from home. Away from the body I knew, away from the world I was fond of, away from the sister I loved. I did not know if Meteora, too, had run, leaping over the side of her nest, leaving her lover as fast as I had left mine. And to be truthful—which is not always a mark of fairy—I did not at that moment care. All I cared about was my own pain, my own fear, and the darkness around me that was every color intermixed but green.
As I fell through the cold, unknown air, I fell out of magic, too, felt it being stripped away from me as if I’d been skinned. As if a hunter had taken a piece of cold iron and slipped it around me with such precision that I was now naked to the elements. And so I entered the new world raw, unprotected, veins open to the earth, sky, and all about, and that was the worst pain of all.
* * *
I AWOKE ON A GRAY table in a gray hall, covered by a gray sheet. There were low lights and a buzz of voices.
And the smell. Oh, sweet Mab, the smell.
It was as if all the meat of the world had spoiled, and I along with it.
I turned over on my side and did something I had never done before in my long life. I let what was in my stomach empty out onto the gray floor.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” I heard a voice say. “These street people. Look what the cat’s thrown up now. Jenny—get the mop.”
* * *
WHEN I WOKE AGAIN, I was starving. My stomach felt scraped and my throat was raw. My shoulder, where the Queen’s wand had struck, ached down to the bone. I was wrapped in some sort of winding sheet that smelled ever so slightly of flaxseed. It was as gray as the room.
I tried to call out, but my voice sounded scratchy, and as ancient as the great holm oak that sits atop our green hill. But someone must have heard me, for an unhandsome woman ran in. She had a shock of black hair that had strange white roots, as if she had put a glamour on that had worn off raggedly.
She glanced at me, pulled a long silver needle from a pocket in her gray coverall, and then attempted to shove the needle into my upper arm.
I screamed and sat up—who wouldn’t? Any fey knows that poison loves the needle. In the same movement, I unwound the top part of the sheet and tore my arm from her grasp. Then I slapped her. My fingerprints blossomed on her cheek. I stood, despite the best attempt of the bottom part of the sheet to keep me down, spoke a curse, and waved my hand to turn her into a toad. She looked at me with a mouth slightly awry, not at all toadlike. I stood there like a gob, staring at her unchanged shape as she grabbed up my arm again and this time shoved the needle straight in.
It stung, but far less than I had expected. There was a sudden sweet flavor in my mouth, not quite nectar, but not far off from it, which was odd because I had had no drink at all.
As I fell back hazily onto the bed, I noticed my arm and hand for the first time. Or at least what should have been my arm and hand. Where was my alabaster skin, the agile wrist, the tapering pink nails? What was this long, plump protuberance covered with fine, dark, curling hairs? These fingers as thick as cow dugs? What lines were these across the back of my hand, like folds? And why was the fat, horrible hand clutching a piece of silk the color of a summer rose?
Whose arm is this, I thought, for surely it was not mine, no matter that it seemed firmly attached to my shoulder.
A dream, I thought.
A nightmare, I corrected.
And then I thought: The Queen’s spell.
Knowing I was right at last, I let the nectar take me into sleep where I stayed through day and night and into the following morning.
Meteora Runs Away
Word was spreading fast from court as I searched the Greenwood for Serana. But there was no sign of her. All I found was Will the hob, shaking with fear, tucked in between two rocks.
“Where is she?” I whispered.
“Gone,” he answered, his eyes rimmed white.
“Gone where?” I demanded.
“Wherever the Queen has sent her. Quick-like in a shout.” He squeezed out from between the rocks and bolted into the dense bracken.
Those words, how they stabbed me to the heart. Serana gone! I knew she had no time, no chance to reason with the Queen. With naught on her back, she had disappeared and only the Queen knew where.
And I was next. I was sure of it. Fleeing to our quarters, I arrived at my room unseen through the mouse holes we had built as a secret passageway to the little springs where we liked to bathe. Frantically, I gathered up beloved things: a silver dove, milky crystals, a lozenge of copper, a pouch of amber beads. I hid these treasures in a band hastily made from my dam’s torn silk petticoat and tied it around my waist. I thought in all foolishness that these things might be of use when I found Serana wherever the Queen had sent her. I held that thought hard and close to my guilty heart.
Just as I was tying a blue cape around my shoulders, I heard someone enter. Heart pounding, I turned. Of course it was the Queen. Who else dared enter without permission? Perhaps if I begged she might let me share my sister’s place of punishment. At least we would be together. But I quaked before her, my resolve unraveling in fear. She stared at me with an odd mixture of fury and desperation. But there was no mistaking the danger that smoldered in her narrowed eyes.
I threw myself on the floor, reaching out a tentative hand to touch the doe-white skin of her foot.
“Oh Gracious Queen, our Queen, your worthless servant begs you—”
It was useless of course. Even as I had begun pleading, the Queen spit forth a banishing spell that pierced my flesh the way summer hail shreds the tender leaves. Groveling in pain, I wept quicksilver tears, unable to speak further.
A murderous clap of thunder hurled me from light into dark, from mist into mire. I groaned, my cape soaked through, my face pressed into the soggy earth. I turned on my back, and gasped as rain pelted my cheeks, and pooled in my eyes. I reached out a hand for protection from its stinging cold, seeing only the thrashing branches of storm-tossed trees.
“C’mon, Grandma!” a shrill voice shouted. “Get up, damn it! I can’t carry you.” A small hand tugged at mine, now grown swollen and useless.
Dazed, I struggled to my feet, only distantly wondering where the Queen had exiled me.
“C’mon!” the voice insisted and I looked down through the sheeting rain barely able to make out a girl-child, feral from the look of her matted hair and ragged clothing. “Hey, somebody give me a hand with this one!” she whined.
From the rain-soaked bushes came an explosion of small bodies, some human children by their clothes, some spriggets and hobs, their naked pelts slick with rain. I balked like a nag refusing to plow but they shoved, cursed, and finally kicked me into motion.
I lumbered down a steep embankment, the girl-child tugging frantically at my hand as though we were being chased by unseen demons. Infected by her fear, I stumbled over root and mud to catch up to her.
“Get down,” the girl ordered.
Aided by other hands tugging on my cape, I was pulled to my knees and then forced to lie prostrate in the drenched grass. Twin ribbons of light swooped over us and when the night returned to darkness and rain, the children helped me to my feet again.
“Who are you?” I asked, finding the sound of my voice strange—thick and husky, as if I had caught a human chill.
“Later, when there’s time. We have to get you over first.”
“Let’s go! Or we’ll miss the train!” shouted a lanky boy, his hair shaved into spiral patterns over his skull.
“You gotta run,” commanded the girl who was still holding my hand.
I started to trot with a clumsy gait, when I saw again the twin lights approaching. “Wait! Wait!” I shouted, trying to drag my companions to a halt.
“Aw, shit. We got no time for this,” the boy yelled and slapped me on my flanks. “Run, now! Or we’re all dead!”
I ran nearly insensate with terror, as the children dragged me by the hand over a gravel path and across a hard road to the other side. Midway, blazing lights captured us in a net of silver rain, a horn blared an alarm, and the monster screeched and swerved, but still we ran, our bare feet pounding the unyielding roadway, until we had crossed over.
Crossed over . . .
I was panting, the breath knocked from my chest, my feet burning from the hard slab of the road. But the children continued to push and pull, curse and cajole, dragging me farther into the woods on that other side until again we were on the crest of a hill. Below us on the edge of an open field, I could just make out the rails of iron gouging the earth. Even on the hill, I tasted the bitterness of rust.
Looking around wildly, I realized that I was now alone with the children, for the spriggets and hobs had not ventured onto the road. They had been there only to see me off into my exile, no doubt to report back to the Queen that I was now fully lost to the Greenwood.
“Let’s go,” said the lanky boy, grabbing my arm at the elbow.
I resisted his grasp and stumbled back onto the ground. “I pray do not kill me thusly. Do not tie me to the iron that her hands may be clean of such a shameful death. For though I have wronged the Queen, I do not deserve this. Give me a dagger of silver and let me end my disgrace with some honor.”
Another girl, this one with hair rolled into a hundred braids like the mane of a fairy horse, clasped my face in her small hands. She leaned in close so that I could see her simple, heart-shaped face in the dark. “We’re supposed ta help you. Not kill you. You gotta trust us. There will be wood over the rails and you’ll sit on that and the iron won’t burn you. I promise.”
“You’re changelings, aren’t you?”
“Once, but not anymore.” She shrugged, releasing me.
“Tossed out like the trash,” retorted a third girl in a dress of pieced furs.
“Shut it,” snapped the boy. “Didn’t she promise to bring us back if we helped?”
“Who promised?” I asked.
“No time for talk. The red-eye’s almost here,” the boy said. He grabbed at my cloak, roughly bringing me to my feet again.
A shrill whistle screamed over our heads. The children were moving at once, dragging me in their tow to where the path of rails curved away into the forest again. An iron dragon screeched as it rumbled over the rails, steam exploding around the long segmented body snaking across the field.
Now we were running toward it, and though I gagged at the stench of its bellowing breath, I let the children pull me alongside its slow-moving flanks. The boy was searching as each armored segment passed, until at last a long wooden tail appeared. A door slid open in its side and a stout pair of arms reached out with expectant hands.
“Take a hold and jump in,” the children shouted.
Before I could protest, those broad-fingered hands grabbed my wrists, and I was forced to run faster alongside the open door or fall beneath the dragon’s churning belly and onto the iron rails.
“Jump! Jump!” came shouts from all sides.
I pulled in a gasping, painful breath and jumped . . . landing hard on the threshold of the door. My legs dangled uselessly over the edge behind me, my arms nearly wrung from their sockets, my stomach roiling against the poisonous iron. I flailed like a reluctant mermaid. But the grip on my wrists remained tight, nails digging in and cutting the flesh.
The iron dragon picked up speed, and I was relieved when at last I felt the planks of dried oak beneath my cheek and thighs. Effortlessly, the huge hands hoisted me up until my back rested against a wooden wall that rattled and bucked as the iron dragon galloped over the rails.
“Good. You have come,” said a gruff voice, chuckling. Actually it was more of a growl and the sound of it lifted the hair on my beck.
I stared up at my rescuer, visible in the flashes of distant lightning. Long hair billowed in the wind, sweeping across the rough-hewn features of a hag. In the middle of her broad forehead, thick brows met over a bulbous nose. The mouth was a wide grin filled with glimmering teeth above a knobbed chin. Between the black strands of drifting hair, the eyes flared red like embers ignited by a gust of wind.
“Shut the door!” a man’s voice barked and two others rose from the shadowed recess of our hold to push their shoulders into the heavy wooden door, so that sky, the rain, and even the faintest hint of light were obliterated.
Only the eyes of my rescuer, still holding my gaze, continued to burn.
Serana Finds Herself
The sun rose and as I lay in the nest of covers, I heard the dawn chorus struggling through what I would later come to know as glass. It was not spring of course, where birdsong pulses with life and invitation. Now they sing more quietly, in anticipation of autumn, bidding one another safe passage to the summer lands far away.
But for the moment, they were so muffled, I believed that this strange enchantment had somehow stifled the very birds.
And then I saw again those hands that I had concluded were my own. Rough. Plump. Squared fingers. Aching joints. With not a bit of the old, familiar magic in them, the magic that used to rush along the blue rivers down the back of my hands and the front of my wrists.
I turned my palms up and then down, as if by moving my hands, I could make them change back to the way they had been in the Greenwood. But they remained horrid, gross, inert troll hands. To look at them made me shudder.
Now, we fey understand glamour. We live our lives surrounded by it. We wear our young faces, our lithe bodies without consciously thinking about how we got them or why. They are as they are. We are so painted with the stuff of glamour that every movement elicits desire, every cough a laugh, every tear an ocean. We know we are glamoured, but we forget it as well. It is simply a cloak against the cold, a mask to hide the ugly. We do not think of the stink of a cave full of bones, or how dim it is. It is to us as well as any viewer a palace of diamond-sharp lights and the overwhelming scent of roses, for glamour makes it so. We do not feel how coarse leaves are against the skin, or how prickly the nest we lie in. Silk and down is what we see. We fool ourselves that we gain succor from dew, the taste sometimes sweet, sometimes tart when there is no taste at all.
Magic disguises. Magic contrives. Magic convinces.
And I had no magic now. My rigid, aching fingers told the truth. When a carer—young and pretty in a red striped overgown—gave me a mirror, the fat, old lady looking back at me told me the truth.
At first I’d thought she was some visitor come to beg a potion from me, like the old ones wanting surcease from wanting. I thought her a stranger until I watched her speak the very words that were in my mouth. Over and over and over again until even I had to understand.
She said/I said, “Where is this place?”
She said/I said, “Who are you?”
She answered/I answered, “I do not know.”
But I knew.
The woman was me. I shook my fist at her and she shook hers back.
And then I cried.
Yet even as I wept, I watched her in the mirror and it was not pretty oceans that fell from my dark eyes, just a drizzle of snot from my nose, and tears like globules of fat running down my large cheeks. And hers.
I lay back down heavily on the bed. Looked down at the flaxseed cloth on my body, this body, this sunken, fallen, flabby body. And knew that for me, for some reason, there was no glamour anymore.
And while I was engrossed in my misery, all alone, the young carer long gone to others needing her, a knock sounded on the door, like a knell. A voice spoke so cheerily, like tinkling bells, I wondered briefly if I were wrong. Perhaps there was still some glamour in the human world.
“Hello! I’m here to help you. May I come in?”
Of course with magic, entrance must always be asked for, before it can be offered. I have known this since . . . well, since forever. No one except the Queen can enter unbidden. Though the carers had—the girl with the mirror, the mean woman with the needle of sleep.
I looked up and saw Miss Jamie Oldcourse for the first time. Plain-faced, plainspoken Jamie Oldcourse, with a body like a twisted oak and a face like a peach left too long in the sun and sunken in upon itself. Still, her voice belied her ugliness, her lameness, and she had a name like a glade, or a lea. For the first time in my life, I had nothing to say.
Miss Jamie Oldcourse did not seem to notice that I was suddenly tongue-tied, or at least she did not let that stop her. Even without my offering, she walked in as if she were the Queen, and sat down next to me on the bed. She took my hand in hers. Her skin was peachlike, too, soft and slightly fuzzed. I let her keep my hand. Indeed, without magic I had no will to take it away.
“Now, dear,” she said, and I heard for the first time behind the sweetness, that hint of sour. Or maybe it was a hint of strength. Hard to tell. “Now, dear,” she said, “no one seems to know your name.”
“One does not give away a name just for the asking,” I replied, firmly. It is the first thing a fey learns. “Or one gives away power.”
“Power,” she said and smiled. Then nodding wisely added, “People of the street must find power in small things.”
“I am not of the street,” I answered back. “I am of the hill and the trees, the moonlight and . . .”
Still smiling, she interrupted, “Then give me something I may call you,” she said with a smile. “Hey you seems so awkward.”
It did not seem awkward to me, but I looked over at the mirror again and this time saw just my face and neck and a bit of my shoulder. I gave her the name of that thing, with the fat cheeks and the wattle.
“Maybelle,” I said, thinking of a farmer’s cow not far from our grove. A brown-and-white cow with enormous dugs and big dark eyes. In this body, I looked remarkably like her. “The farmer’s Maybelle.”
“Mabel Farmers,” she said, trying out the name. “A name not much used these days. But I think it suits you.”
Oh what a coil, what a curse is naming. But suddenly I was stuck with Mabel. I thought: Next I shall have to eat grass and moo.
“And I am Jamie Oldcourse,” she said, freely handing over her name without fear I might use it or abuse it. “Ms. Oldcourse. Your social worker.”
I spat out her name, at the same time thinking of her as a toad, a tadpole, something silly and insignificant. Waiting for the change . . . which did not come. I shook my finger at her. I made a puff-mouth at her. And still she did not change. I said a word of transformation in the Old Tongue, then in the Middle Tongue. And still she did not change. She was right not to fear me. I had no magic anymore. Not an inch of it, not an ounce. I said her name again, this time with a kind of resignation. “Miss Jamie Oldcourse.”
She smiled. “That’s right. Like the golf at Saint Andrews.” Clearly something she said often. If it was an explanation, it meant nothing to me.
And so we met, my spirit guide to this new and awful Eden, and Miss Jamie Oldcourse became the first of my Helpers. For in this new world, one cannot navigate without them; the rules are so particular, so peculiar, and so dissimilar to the fey’s.
First there is the Law of Papers. One cannot move, buy food, nest, heal, or otherwise live without papers. And of course I had none.
Second there is the Law of Restraint. Humans believe in it, the fey do not. Why consider restraint when you have magic that can overcome all restraints at will?
Third, is the Law of Friendship, which seems to supersede family, sept, clan, or court. It would be a long and hard while before I was to truly understand and trust this.
Three rules. Three unbelievable rules. But I quickly realized that as I was to live in this place for the unforeseeable future—and that time would be of the Queen’s choosing, not mine—I would have to learn these rules. Even if I did not believe them. This did not make me happy and I told the Glade so.
She laughed. Again that tinkling, bell-like sound. I have never liked bells. I told her that, too. Which made her laugh anew.
It was not a good beginning. But at least it was a start.
Meteora Meets Her Guide
In the utter darkness of my rumbling prison I passed the longest night I have ever known, one without the comfort of stars or moon. A suffocating heat gathered in damp waves, infused with the sour stench of unwashed humans. I wept noisily until an unseen hand touched mine, sharp nails scratching the inside of my palm. Briefly her eyes flared into reddened coals, the dim light illuminating the hag’s grotesque face.
“Quiet,” she rasped, her breath pungent with wild garlic and leeks. Her callused hand cupped my cheek, holding it steady before gently raking her gnarled fingers through my sopping hair. “Show your courage, little one, and I will not harm you.”
In the dark, I obeyed, stifling my sobs. Instinctively, I opened my senses to the aura of the power beside me, but there was only a deep well of nothing. Beneath my breath, I whispered the spell of shielding to hide me from the bold touch of this stranger. The hands continued to comb my hair, the splayed fingers snagging on the knotted tangles. I tried the spell of stabbing pain, followed by a spell of bursting sight. Desperate when none of those worked, I spoke in a loud voice the spell of endless shitting.
“In the gut, a long, sharp sliver;
Down and out, the soft brown river,
Till I cry ‘Hold!’”
This provoked a loud guffaw that ended in a snarl.
I froze as the hollowed eyes flared brighter. In the light of those terrifying eyes, I studied her more closely. Her misshapen skull was framed by matted gray hair. The bulbous nose cast a shadow over purple lips that parted to display two yellowed tusks, one broken and jagged. A thick tongue uncurled between rows of tarnished metal teeth and licked my cheek. I sat still, my stomach lurching at the overly familiar gesture. She sat back again, clucking her tongue against the roof of her mouth.
“Ah, bednjaga. It wasn’t enough to cast you out. They stole from you too.”
“Stole what?” I asked, forcing myself not to reach up and wipe away the damp trail of her tongue.
“Everything,” she answered. “Now you must rely on good manners. Something your folk have conveniently forgotten.”
“Who are you?” I demanded, my pride pricked by her insult. “Get away from me, you hearth-hag.”
Grinning wolfishly, the light of her coal-fire eyes glancing off the metal teeth, she held me fast by the wrist. “Manners!”
“Help me, help me, good folk,” I cried to the others who were hidden in the shadows. “Help me, I am being attacked!”
There was no answer. No rustle or movement, not even enough sound to indicate they’d heard but didn’t want to get involved.
“They sleep,” she said. “Maybe I eat later, maybe not.”
“I pray thee, Black Annis, daughter of Giants, do not eat me,” I burbled, suddenly very cold. “I am but small and insignificant.”
She threw back her head and howled with crackling laughter. Beneath the hard knob of her uplifted chin I saw a necklace of delicate finger bones threaded with knuckles small as pearls. My heart leaped in my chest.
“Not small anymore.” She poked me hard in the ribs. “But I would not eat you. You are not the sweet flesh and wine-blood of man, which is what I crave.”
I lowered my head in a hasty bow of obeisance and real fear. Of course. I knew her now. “My abject apologies, oh most Glorious Mother of the Woods, Slayer of Wayward Children, and Undefeated Rival of Koschey the Deathless. I apologize. I did not recognize you before, not in this place of iron and wood. I am your humble servant,” I squeaked like a cornered mouse, and then dared her name. “Baba Yaga.”
“That is better,” she croaked, releasing me with a pat of her hand. She leaned back, all the while sucking on her lower lip, scraping her tusks against the purple flesh. She was wearing odd clothes—odd in the sense that she was wearing any at all—for the little I knew of her, Baba Yaga was not beholden to the fashions of the Seelie court or of man himself. She was old enough to have roamed pristine forests in gleaming nakedness when the first man and first woman still wore their skins in innocence. She could not forgive their betrayal, the death of those perfect forests, and now wore the skin of old age, of mortal corruption, to remind those who encountered her that she had not forgotten.
Serana and I had seen her once Under the Hill. Accustomed to the cloth of beauty and youth, we were goggle-eyed at her withered hide, her long sagging breasts hanging low over the bony chest. Her hips had jutted like the pelvis of a starved cow, the loose skin of her belly had lapped in folds over the tangled fur of her sex. But her spindled arms were wound with taut ropes of muscles, her hands broad as spades with thick fingers that ended in black nails, sharpened to razor points. At that time she had refused all gifts of clothing the Queen had offered her: the finely woven cloaks with silver clasps, the silken green gowns, the lace chemises and pretty petticoats.
Serana and I had talked about nothing else for days. How from a leather pouch slung low on her bony hips, Baba Yaga had withdrawn a necklace of little bones and knuckles and placed it around her neck. The court had flinched at the sight of it. Even Red Cap, there as an emissary from the UnSeelie court, bowed his head before the mocking challenge in her flaming eyes. All fell back from her, all except the Queen who bloodied her fine garments carrying the carcass of a new-slaughtered fawn and placing it as an offering in Baba Yaga’s hands.
“Sleep,” Baba Yaga commanded as we rocked in the swaying box, riding over the iron rails. “Sleep, little one, no harm tonight.”
I willed my eyes shut, the red flare of her gaze still visible beneath the skin of my lids. Despite her saying I was not her type of meat, I waited in stillness for those taloned hands to tear me to tiny pieces as she had done the slaughtered fawn. We had stood speechless, watching her eat her fill, watching as she rolled the bones into the bloody hide, tying it with the sinews, tossing it into her mortar. She’d climbed in after it. Then, snatching up the heavy pestle, waved it in the air until the mortar hovered a few feet above the ground. The ancient doors that protected our court Under the Hill shattered with a huge blast of splintered wood. She steered her mortar through the ravaged entry, poling the air with the pestle until she found the open sky again.
Serana had said to me then, “Do not meddle in the affairs of that one, little sister. She will eat you whole and not even spit out the pips.”
* * *
I SLEPT AS BABA YAGA commanded, but it was a sleep plagued by fitful dreams, most of them about Serana.
Since first I awoke in the Greenwood, I have known my sister; known her in the shared heartbeat and the quickness of minds that needs no words. If I touched a web of hoarfrost on stilled water, she shivered. If she ate wild strawberries, I tasted the sweetness. We were joined by unbreakable bonds. Until now.
Why had the Queen separated us? Where had Serana gone? In my restless sleep I searched for her, but there was not even a phantom echo of her presence. I was without her for the first time in my long life.
The dragon-train screeched and hissed and I felt the wheels grind as it came to a shuddering stop. I woke confused, blinded by a narrow band of dawn’s light that fell into our dark hold. My unknown companions slipped out quietly, only the dull thud of their footfalls on the ground below to mark their passage.
“We go now,” Baba Yaga said, roughly pulling me by the hand.
“Go where?” I stumbled as she dragged me to the open door.
In the pale dawn, I was startled to see that Baba Yaga had transformed her harsh crone’s face into that of a smooth-cheeked elderly woman. The blazing eyes were now a faded blue, and her once unruly hair hung in a braid down her back. But she had not disguised those iron teeth. Perhaps she could not. She glanced both ways quickly before jumping down, and as she still held my hand, I was obliged to follow, though my landing was far less successful. I fell heavily and rolled, my free hand brushing against the iron rails. I screamed as it seared my skin, hot as a brand.
“Be quiet,” Baba Yaga snarled, and hauled me back up to my feet. “Don’t wake the dogs.”
It was too late. A door slammed open, a voice called out an angry warning, and dogs began barking wildly. We heard the sound of their paws scrabbling over the gravel.
“Go!” Baba Yaga shouted.
But I couldn’t. All around me the land was crisscrossed with bands of iron on which rested the hulking bodies of other dragon-trains. Steam hissed from beneath their bellies and the iron glistened.
“I cannot,” I answered. Iron screeched into my blood, drove pins into my joints, nails into my stomach. I swayed on my feet, gripped by waves of nausea.
Cursing, Baba Yaga lifted me easily and tossed me like a sack over her shoulder, my head dangling down her back. She moved quickly across the iron grid, but not fast enough, for the dogs found her and as I lifted my throbbing head, I saw them bounding toward us, a man following close behind.
“The dogs . . .” I said weakly and groaned as she turned abruptly to face them.
Then I saw nothing, but I heard it: the squeal of the dogs as they rushed us, only to be tossed aside by the killing sweep of her hand, the razor claws gutting them as they leapt.
“Stop or I’ll shoot,” the man cried. Baba Yaga reached into the pocket of her trousers, pulled up a carved comb and tossed it on the ground before turning to run. Clutching her shirt to steady myself, I glanced up from her bouncing gait and watched the ground churn into a wave of gravel that rose and then crashed down on our pursuer. As the earth tumbled over him, the man flailed his arms, struggling without success to stay above the wave of rumbling rock. I closed my eyes, unable to watch as the dirt enclosed him in its fist, silencing his screams for help.
* * *
BABA YAGA RAN OUT OF the field of iron rails, down toward a gleaming lake where rocks and boulders littered its shore. As soon as we reached a grassy beach by the water’s edge, she brusquely set me down on the ground and waited impatiently for me to stand. I was dizzy, a roar echoing in my ears that did not quite drown out the last cries of the doomed man. I rose again to my feet, swallowing hard at the taste of rust in my throat. Straightening my shoulders, I tried to look braver than I felt.
Grinning, Baba Yaga nodded approval. “Good. Tell me,” she asked, head tilting to one side, “do you know yourself now?”
“What do you mean?”
She reached out and pulled my cape from off my shoulders. “Look.”
I glanced down and gasped, seeing for the first time what had become of me. Gone was my slender torso, the small hard breasts, the flat belly. Now I was stolid and thick-waisted, my breasts pendulous. My thighs had spread like yeasted bread, and creased over my knobbed knees. I lifted my hands, cried out at the web of blue veins, and the little gold rings embedded in the swollen flesh of my fingers.
Walking to the water’s edge, I leaned down to see my reflection in the calm surface of the lake. My face was wider, with cheeks and chin padded and softly wrinkled. My eyelids drooped sleepily, the lids darker and more deep-set. My hair once the color of acorns and burnished leaves was graying at the temples and crown.
I stumbled back from the water, shocked and then angry. “That miserable bitch. Wasn’t it enough to banish me? Why did she have to leave me . . . so . . .”
“Old?” finished Baba Yaga with a snort. “Foolish thing. You have been old a long time and still you know nothing. So, your Queen has done this to you? For what reason?”
“We spied her rutting with a mortal.”
“And you told?” she asked, one eyebrow lifted in amazement.
“I didn’t mean to,” I protested and then hung my head. It was my fault. My fault. Under the witch’s unrelenting gaze, I accepted that terrible truth. My fault, yet both—Serana and I—were paying for it.
Baba Yaga waited with bemused curiosity. Small flames flickered in the pale blue eyes. “So now you need help.”
My pulse quickened with reckless hope. “Yes, help,” I answered, forgetting my fear of the old witch in my desperation to change my fate and that of my sister.
Baba Yaga was silent, as though waiting for something else.
Manners, I thought, frightened. And then: A gift. But how could I hope to parley for help with nothing to offer in return? My heart sank. I had nothing that might have interested her.
Baba Yaga yawned noisily to show her growing impatience, and I saw the broken tusk protruding through the mortal mask she wore. I murmured thanks to magpie habits and promptly dug around in the folds of my waistband while Baba Yaga watched me with renewed interest.
“I have a gift for you,” I said, and retrieved the pinkish lozenge of copper. I showed it to Baba Yaga, who frowned.
“What do I do with this?”
“It’s copper and will mold to your—your broken tooth. It will make it whole.”
“Let me taste.” She snatched it from my hand and placed it on her tongue. She rolled it in her mouth, from side to side as though it were a sweet. Rumbling with pleasure, she nodded her head. “I like it.” She spit the copper lozenge into her palm and began kneading it until it was soft. Then she folded it around the broken shaft of her tusk, shaping it to match its twin.