Mirror on the Wall

Mirror on the Wall is an enchanting, dark and wickedly thrilling illustrated novel which retells the tale of Snow White

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English Pages 128 Year 2020

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Table of contents :
Chapter 1......Page 7
Chapter 2......Page 15
Chapter 3......Page 25
Chapter 4......Page 30
Chapter 5......Page 34
Chapter 6......Page 44
Chapter 7......Page 53
Chapter 8......Page 62
Chapter 9......Page 67
Chapter 10......Page 76
Chapter 11......Page 82
Chapter 12......Page 91
Chapter 13......Page 98
Chapter 14......Page 105
Chapter 15......Page 115
Acknowledgements......Page 125
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Mirror on the Wall

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Mirror on the Wall K M Goldstar 12.4260:75.7382

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organisations, places, events and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. Text copyright © 2020 by KM Goldstar. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher. Published by www.apub.com ISBN: 9798694487276 Illustrations and book cover by Domenique Serfontein

This book is dedicated to the ‘Malcas’ of this world.

Table of Contents Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Acknowledgements About the author About the illustrator

Mirror on the Wall

Weiss Chapter 1 ☐☐

When tales of old are recited to children around warm fireplaces, bellies filled with hot food and eyes filled with dreams, the tales are tamed, harmless dwarves replacing vicious men and vengeful women. To save their precious childhood, truth of centuries is mellowed in the warmth of the fire. Truth which has shown time and again that men and women have been born of violence and yet we hide it from children, feeding them tales of cherubic beings, with wonderful words. It will be the same with my tale in the future, for I know my tale will be famous in the years to come and it’ll be told around fireplaces on wintry nights. I am the princess in the tale, the one which tells of a child white as snow, and I too have been told such harmless tales of princesses before me which I know the truth of now. These tales have always told of fair maidens and beautiful princess. But you see, in my tale I was truly the fairest of them all, my mother made sure of it. She will be painted as a benevolent soul when this tale is told, but the story is always half the truth. There is always just the one villain and the rest are painted so white that even holy men pale in comparison. My mother had the same luck, for her folly was only to me, none other. She became a symbol of good and all that is pure in the kingdom; for the truth was nothing but lies dressed as white as possible. It was her pride, a pride for which we all paid a price. It was her pride that made her marry the mightiest of kings-my father. He who was in age older than her oldest brother, she a girl of sixteen and he well into his middling age. But it never troubled her as she travelled across kingdoms to reach my father’s castle, her own home a distant dream she never returned to. She always wanted the finest in life- clothes, jewellery and then a husband as well- as she wished she received; and she basked in the joy of it. The trouble came as years passed, for not everything was destined as my mother bid – try as she did, not an heir did my mother bear. She tried the roots they asked her to chew and they chose days when the moon was full, for it was said to bring the best seed to life. But none of these bore fruit, and she remained barren and filled with pride. My father grew cold and distant, never for once did he blame himself as is

the way of men. He laid the blame free at my mother’s threshold and turned his face away. Eager he was as the rest to be distanced from the blame of a kingdom left without an heir. How strange for a man called the mightiest? Where was his courage to own his part of the fault and accept his share of the blame? Made me wonder if heroes were truly what they were touted to be, spilling blood on barren lands and crying in hubris filled rages. Yet cowering when courage was truly asked of them, they were not to be found. My mother bore her pain alone, no- I think she and her pride bore the pain alone; as she became a queen soon to be forgotten. To be left in the distant tower where the wind whistled through the walls. The nobles had the king’s ears, as they whispered and plotted, each pushing their daughter to preen before the king, some young enough to be his daughters. ‘Marry her, her mother bore me eight children.’ ‘No marry mine, she will give you a son, her stars have predicted no less.’ And the king watched them through half lidded eyes, for he was no fool, he had not become the mightiest of all with just the light of his sword. I think deep within, his love for the queen was as fresh as the first blossom, but his duty stood in the way of him doing what a man devoid of the worries of a kingdom would. It was a cold winter’s night, when the moon had broken through crisp white clouds appearing after a flurry of snow. My mother walked through her bare garden where the crocuses and tulips slumbered waiting for spring to break through. She sat with her spindle, spinning it with practice, her eyes on the horizon, an emptiness settling on her. Her pride was being whittled away; words much powerful than a knife in her back snatching at her worth. She sat in that sorrow, mind unravelling the mire of people whom she thought she trusted. The brown spindle slipped, marking her thumb, and out spilled three little drops of blood, crimson, bold and beautiful against the paleness of the snow all around her.

In her haste with her built up anger and pride, she demanded of the earth and the snow and the skies- a child as pale as snow, with lips as red as the blood on her finger and hair as dark as the spool on her spindle. She stood trembling and alone in that winter kissed garden, waiting for an answer. Her wait was long and when she heard none even with the coming of dusk, she walked away, a sigh escaping her as the pride was chipped away a bit more. She walked away smaller than she had come. It was the blossoming of spring when she realised, she was with a child. Her breasts grew heavy and her legs swelled, but she swept through the castle, her eyes brilliant with the shine of new found strength. As the days passed her pride returned hot and feral, claiming all of her that it had lost purchase on. And as the word spread of the heir, there came a barrage of men and women with their empty wishes, on a quest to confirm the coming of an heir. And the king returned with his devotion. ‘Promise me!’ She asked as soon as he stepped over the threshold of her old chamber. He looked at her warily, foot dangling. ‘Promise me, that never will you subject me to humiliation again. I will not be made second to any.’ And he agreed, his guilt eager to give her what she wanted. She watched amused as the nobles declared their allegiance to her, and these were the very ones who had vied to usurp her throne with their spindly daughters. She banished none, she was adept in court politics even before her marriage and she would not be foolish now. Insulating herself from the chaos surrounding her, she felt that she was still at the eye of the storm. She was a royal in every sense, for she loved the chaos her child was bringing. So, she played them, played them so subtle that they bowed to her and did it grinning through their teeth. It was her time for revenge now, not extracted at a knife’s edge but with venom coated words wrapped in velvet. She guarded me through this, her precious wished-for child. Tasters tested every morsel, every sip of all that she wanted to eat or drink. Sentinels guarded her doors, as she slept in peace. I was born in the midst of winter, the snow laid its seal on me as did my mother’s blood on my lips and the thread on spindle spilt as my ravenous locks, as she had wished. When the blessings came, they

called me the fairest babe in the land and mother watched me with a possessive eye- I grew as a child, guarded more than the king’s coveted crown. Tales of my beauty spread far bringing me no joy, for I was cleaned and brushed, powdered and preened, until my hair shone black as the velvet of the night and my lips were a reminder of the blood spilt.I was a sullen child, cosseted in reams of silk and lace, corsets cinching my waist tight and ribbons streaming from my hair. I would look out of my window everyday, as the sparrows would chirp on the boughs of the apple trees, and I would dream a freedom I was not entitled to. I would march everyday between hordes of ladies to be seated on perfumed cushions, soft as butter, but to me they were the like of iron manacles, chaffing at my wrists. And through all this I saw mother bask in the glory of my beauty, she was the ocean reflecting the sun, soaking all that was bright and beautiful. She was never envious, no, for she was beautiful too, but hers was an earthly kind, and mine the kind which made me an object of worship. Mother would always be watching me, her lips set in a tight line every morning as she inspected my attire and my hair. She would not smile or greet or hug me, but her hands would feel the silk for softness and look at the lace to see if it was intricate and showed the silver spent. She would be satisfied everyday, for none wanted to be in the line of her ire. A small smile would light her face towards my ladies in waiting, a nod of approval as she climbed to her throne right next to my father’s. In the beginning I would wait eager and expectant for a smile as a nestling for food, but as I grew and learned and watched, the hatred began. It took me long to appreciate that rotting emotion within me, which would make my breath hiss and fill the insides of my head such that I felt it would splinter into a thousand pieces. All the while I pretended to be calm and serene, the picture of a perfect court lady. I was never allowed to cry, any tantrums subdued as I would be left in a dark chamber, devoid of any to see or speak to. I raged at the beginning but mother trained me incessantly until I was what she wanted and dreamt of, a picture of perfection. The words and emotions which I would have used if I had been born in any household with a loving mother and doting father, ended up being prisoners in my head. It became a

venomous adder which I petted and reared. All the darkness in me coiled and wound tight, waiting in a light slumber. I sat as the seasons changed, same as the yesterday and the day before and the day before that. Slipping in and out of clothes, sitting still as my hair would be teased and pulled into braids twisted into delightful shapes. The visitors would come, with their trinkets and wares and precious silks. Jewels mined from the farthest mountains- precious beyond belief. They would come with all this to my father’s court. They could have travelled to the kingdom nearest to them, but they came, journeying for days and months to where my mother waited for them. A spider spinning her web and pulling her prey- I was the bait. The best of what the lands had to offer poured in to our kingdom. They would all clamour just for one glance, one look at me. A trickle became a flood, which came to our very doors and my mother got her due from my father, her king. Never would he dismiss her again. There was a time when all who had made the journey would be allowed to catch a glimpse of me, and then it would be that only those deemed worthy by the appraisal of their goods stood a chance. A chance, which they were clearly made to appreciate came but once in the span of a lifetime. They would come and gaze at my face as I looked into the distance. Some fell prostrate, calling me their saviour. A few more painted my face to be taken away and held in reverence. None dared speak to me, though I would yearn for one simple question from all who came. Do you wish to see the forests, or the rivers and the seas and the ocean? But none dared, I became one amongst the Gods, to be revered and praised, never to be brought down from a pedestal. I was named Weiss, but those who came to see me gave me my name which would be what I would be known as- Snow White. I was called the rare bloom of winter and where other kingdoms hibernated and cocooned in the hard months, my father’s court brimmed with wealth and riches. Exotic fruits and rich roasts always adorning the table, with as many patrons flocking to the court. It was said to be a rare sight, to watch me during winter. For some unexplained play of nature, my skin would shine as snow under the brilliance of a winter sun.

I became a pawn in the politics of my father, one he guarded and sacrificed eagerly. For human as he was, he had grown to love his glory and was not ready to sacrifice it for his daughter’s want of freedom. Loving my mother like the love of moth for flame, the closer I got to her the more I burned. Together as a family, we appeared to be happy, the mighty king and his wonderful wife who had birthed a Goddess herself; but no one asked the Goddess if she liked being one. Day in and out I was displayed and I looked at them with beady eyes. But they said it made me an ethereal beauty, my look of melancholy made me a rarer joy. In rare moments, I thought I found my mother’s thoughtful glance, a tinge of pain and a knowledge in her eyes as I grew. A knowledge that she had done wrong by me; but before I could grasp it from the corner of my eyes and turn to cry in her lap, her eyes would be averted from my own. A hardness in the smile she bestowed on another who praised my eyes or my mouth, eager to forget the tenderness which was my due. On one such wintry evening came a guest, an old crone with empty hands and hooded eyes, the skin on her face hanging off her bones like the melting of tapers on the wall which beamed their light on her sallow countenance. She came in rags, with her crooked back and gnarly fingers curled around a stunted stick and she stood at my father’s door. She was the fork in the road for us and yet none of us knew it that night. ■

Weiss Chapter 2 ☐☐

She should have been stopped at the gate by the guards or by the nobles surrounding me, but they stood curious to see the old woman next to the blossom of spring; and I found myself looking into the eyes of the crone. She had no teeth and her gums were black and shrivelled. She smiled and her cheeks puffed from where they were hollow. Then as if a spell was broken, my mother screeched, hands pointing at what she considered evil, for in my mother’s eyes all that was ugly was evilto be shrouded and hidden forever. My father who was sitting strangely serene under a sudden enchantment, leapt to his feet at this, drawing his sword, which stood as tall as him and glinted with gems and gold at the hilt. I watched as my father, full of strength and well of body, towered over the old crone, his eyes flashing and then a veil of indecision fell over his eyes again as if he had forgotten as to what drove him to rage. It was only my mother and I, who saw her for what she was. Maliciously stretching her gnarled nails to touch me. Having been trained to sit and be still as stone, I stared at her hand as I would look at a fly. ‘Ugly crone, how dare she step close to our precious daughter, how dare she dream to stand in her shadow.’ My mother’s insults resounded in the endless hall as my father swung his sword breaking out of his reverie, but where had stood the old woman was a single jewel blinding and bright, blue as the sky on the brightest day of summer. It caught my mother’s eyes. The hall erupted in gasps and words of shock, but my mother, her eyes enraptured by what she saw, stretched her hands as she came down the steps with her trailing cloak of ermine. ‘Mine…’ She claimed it and I laughed, young as I was. For I had not doubted that this was what she would do. After all she was not unlike a magpie who collected what was shiny, pretty and good. I felt a small joy, like the colours of a rainbow I had stared at from the confines of my chamber. A wonder and pleasure so intense had I felt on that day of the rainbow- a sliver of that was what I felt again. As my mother fondled the jewel- the corner of her eye which would always be trained on me, I could see it no more, her eyes riveted on that blue glow.

It was a pendant, on a barely-there silver thread. Seen from a distance it looked as if a giant rain drop had stilled on my mother’s bosom. She sat as proud of it as she had been of me, her hands constantly caressing it to convince her of its presence. It gave me great pleasure, for I felt I no longer was the only object trying to please her so hard. Her iron grip on me loosened, as I felt the burden move away from my shoulders. She couldn’t stand the jewel being lost to her sight for even a moment. I noticed small tremors in her hands, her eyes feverishly lit, as she would pet the jewel in a self-assuring manner. Her eyes slipped off me and I saw the ladies’ slack in their daily duties towards me. My braid would have tendrils of hair peeking out and curls slipping on my face. The silks were not as fresh as she expected them to be. I watched them smile and giggle as their breaths came easy and I felt mine calm down, something I hadn’t realised until it actually changed. I went to court that day assured that the tiny slips would be noted and the maids would be chastised or replaced, but she had just a glance to spare for me and nothing more; as she checked the jewel every other moment. This went on for days and on one such day I dared, to ask for myself what I had hoped others would ask me. ‘Can I see the roses in the garden and the lilies which grow by the stream.’ I didn’t add the please at the end, for it would make her think I was begging instead of saying that I am going to do it. Mother nodded absently to my request, as she sat with merchants who had come from distant lands and were appraising her jewel. I could see their stunned faces as they realised the stone’s worth, and I heard her ask them, ‘Is there anything you have seen to equal this on your travels?’ And they would silently shake their heads, making my mother glow with ill-concealed pleasure. I slid out of the chamber before she could realise that I was asking her for a chance to go tumble in the weeds and slosh around in the stream. But I would realise very soon that I had no cause for worry. Her thoughts were completely and terrifyingly abducted by the jewel. For the first time in twelve years I knew what was simple pleasure, of how fresh grass felt under bare feet and what the rolling waves did to one’s soul music. Gradually, I could see on my face a beauty far superior than

my sullen cold self, as my lips learnt to smile and then laugh. My heart sang the same song as the birds in the tree and I danced with abandon. It worried my father, as my appearances in court trickled and then I would refuse to come or would not be found. He didn’t know what to do or whom to ask. He remembered the days he had doubted his wife and then she had given him me, that which brought him riches and prosperity beyond his wildest dreams. He also remembered her sarcasm and taunts, as she would not let him forget his abandonment of her. He lacked the courage to ask her questions again, trusting that she knew what was best for the kingdom. So he, who could make a hundred lands around him bow to his might, was left unsettled and wary of his wife. He hoped she had found another wonder, like she had given him his daughter, another piece to pawn, to bet on and bring more riches to him. He tolerated her madness and watched carefully, waiting for her to make a discovery that would enthral him. Though he knew she was growing thin in her very clothes as her feverish state refused to let her eat and drink. At the arrival of spring, when her jewel matched the azure blue sky, she took to bed. The cough which came, was deep in her chest and it refused to leave her as she hacked at it. Her body grew frail, the breath she took stabbed and burned her. The court healer would coax herbs and potions down her throat, but she would bring them up with blood crying, ‘Enough, spare me, enough.’ She would beg as the herbs burned her throat and her insides, and then she would lay still except for her hand caressing the jewel. My joy which I had earned at such price quickly dissolved into days of worrying and sorrow. People who would come to see me were turned away and a sense of resentment spread through them who had travelled for hundreds of days to see Snow White. I remember the day so well, a strange empty day, no maids jostled around me nor did any block my path for a view as I slipped to mother’s chamber. The hatred which grew for her within me had mellowed with her suffering. She lay on her pallet, dry as a bone sucked of marrow, eyes hollow in their sockets- but when she beckoned me next to her with a tender smile and tear-filled eyes, I couldn’t recall her being more beautiful. To me then, she was the perfect mother as she kissed my brow and held my dainty hands within her blue veined ones.

‘Forgive me Weiss.’ She asked of me. ‘I should have seen what was important to you.’ I hurried to tell her that I had forgiven her and we still had time to make amends as she planted that kiss; but before I could, her eyes turned to glass and her head lolled. The breath which she had complained of burning her chest passed no more. It seemed I was destined never to find the joy of family, I felt maybe fate had forgotten for a small sliver of time. It was not kindness, but a slip in time that I had seen my mother as I had hoped her to be. I asked to the sky and the sun, should I mourn her passing or should I be thankful for the chance to see what she truly was. Unfettered by the burden of her wants, that was the mother I had always wished for.

I never screamed. When they found me, I was standing cupping her hands on my cheek trying to find the love so preciously given. They dragged me away as they lamented, and as I watched she was burnt on a pyre, it’s smoke spiralling to the skies, the flames as brilliantly red as she had been when alive. Father barely spoke, his eyes like flint, mouth hard and pinched in. Worrying, I sidled close to him and without a word he hugged me, and we both waited dismissing the rest, as we watched the wood burn to ashes and the flames die, reducing my mother, his wife- the queen to a mound of ruins. I broke down then, away from all those eyes, in the safety of my father’s embrace. He was not a king then. He grieved as a husband and a father and we wept knowing we had lost our anchor. The palace mourned her passing, silent long faces hiding in cornerscrying, eyes red and puffed when they came to me. I realised that though she had been hard on me, she was loved by so many and at that miserable moment I hated my beauty which had taken her love away from me even before her death. In the beginning, they tiptoed around me, worried that they would break me. Then they worried I did not mourn like them. For some a single look at her bejewelled comb would be enough to drown them in sorrow. A few days later, they surrounded me and gingerly spoke of my mother, not to me, but amongst themselves, always within my earshot. ‘She was a mother to me; such was her care to all her maids.’ One whispered. ‘Her grace and charm will be ever remembered.’ Another chimed in. I could see them furtively glancing at me as they praised her eyes, or her speech. They hoped that these reminders would bring forth tears of sorrow. They had not seen me cry with my father and they worried that I did not mourn enough. My silences grew longer. I looked out of windows all day, listening to the birds until I could glean what they said. They became my little friends, who sang to me day and night, their tune so melodious and haunting that the palace feared I was close to death myself. Concerned voices spoke, in the kitchen, in the maid’s chambers, until it grew and became a torrent of worry flooding my father, who appeared to have

shrunk without my mother’s gentle guidance. His mind was weakened greatly and the lack of riches enriching the coffers worried the nobles. It worried them that I no longer sat at court, that word had spread about Snow White hiding. No merchants came, for was the journey worth the disappointment? What were voices of concern in the kitchen reached the houses of nobles who spent gold and silver like water. It worried them, the emptying of their coffers. The court nobles came as one, united by greed and want. They put on a good pretence of worry for my father and I, but I knew it was their own that they mulled about. They argued and fought, beseeching my father, for my mother was not around to halt their boisterous talk. And I sat stunned, unable to find words- words which had failed me all my life. ‘You need a wife sire; a woman always sets matters right.’ It was Talion who spoke. I knew he had a daughter of age, one who pinched my cheeks with envy when no one was watching, trying to mark my skin. I hated her and she me, so it made me shudder when he spoke of a new wife. I was quick to catch the drift of it, lacking the wit of speech, I was thankfully not blessed with a simple mind. ‘Aye, aye.’ The rest concurred, banging their pewter glasses sloshing red wine. My father looked worried; he was not the young man he once was. He had grown to love his brilliant wife and once what would have been easy to him looked insurmountable now. I wish I had not sat in council that day, I wish I had been sullen and stayed away. But I was there and I saw his sad eyes fall on me. His eyes hardened in resolve, maybe my face reminded him of all the muttering of me losing my mind and not mourning. I wished he had come to see me, so that I could have embraced him and cried in the safe confines of his arm. But he was as rudderless as I was and I could see the guilt of it in his eyes. I wanted to speak then, to halt the error of his ways, but again the ingrained obedience and fear of the court choked my words and I saw him bow his head in acceptance. He had scarce nodded- before the town’s crier was sent around asking for noble women to come and try their luck. To be the next queen and mother of the girl called Snow White. Men were sent to nearby kingdoms, and as fire to tinder did the word spread of the mightiest king seeking a bride and a mother for Snow White

The day quickly dawned when women lined as ants to be seen by the king. I sat, unseen by them, as I watched each of them -some filled with pride, others trembling as leaves in the throes of autumn. The noble’s daughters were first to come. There were many ripe to be wed. I watched them as my heart fluttered within my chest as a bird caught in a cage, what would become of me, what cruelty did fate hold for me? It was strange what occurred that day. I had seen these women before. They came, some plain and dull, a few deft with hands and others who could hunt better than men; but none caught the fancy of my father, who looked at all morose and dull. But there was something more sinister, subtle to not catch the eye of men. But I was a woman and my eyes were swift. These women, each suffered an accident. The prettiest amongst them broke into spots, just as the king laid his eyes on her. Another cut her thumb as she knocked an arrow which flew close to the head of a noble. ‘My arrow has never flown astray.’ She screamed with regret and bewilderment as I saw her being dragged away. Misfortune plagued the women who set foot in my father’s court as their dresses ripped or worms tumbled out of fruits they brought as a present to the king. Each evening the courtiers would sigh and their hopes would dwindle some more. Not Talion, he waited, until the king was exhausted and then he brought his daughter Eva forth. Now I may not have been fond of her, but she was not a common wench. She was pretty as the morning sun and her hands could play the lute to charm a man off his feet and tangle a soul in her love. She was a master at the bow and her sword was sharp and swift as any man who excelled at this skill. I watched with trepidation for another tragedy. But neither did she look ugly nor did her offering of fruits have a single worm. They all smiled, for it meant that she would bring prosperity to the land and be as fertile as the tree which bore the fruit. I sighed, resigning myself to the truth that a girl but four years older to me would take the title of my mother. My eyes wandered away with sad acceptance, as I looked at the threads woven into my dress- red and blue. A scream made me flinch and look, a huge furore broke out and I stretched my neck to see what had occurred as the nobles rushed to the centre of the court.

Talion was screaming tugging at his hair as some attempted to calm him. I followed where his eyes looked. Amidst the frenzy of courtiers, I saw Eva pale and white, her having run a sword through her belly. A dark stain spreading on her wonderful white dress. She looked like a bride, but the stain spread deeper as the screams and shouts grew louder. Stunned and terrified, I fled from there wondering if it was my incessant wishing that she was not right to be my mother, which had caused the unforeseen misfortune.

Weiss Chapter 3 ☐☐

That morning a nest filled with eggs fell off the limb of the apple tree outside my window. The yellow yolk lay splattered on the rich earth, and I cried, after months of hiding it inside of me. But there was none to watch me cry as I was not what worried them anymore. Eva’s death had been strange, unexplained. The rumours spread of her having a lover, her father twisting her hands to forget him and present herself as suitable for the king. They said she killed herself, unable to refuse her father and forget her lover. But somehow, I knew better. I saw what others had chosen to ignore that day. That was the last of the women, none came after that. The court was hardly held and my father faded into his chambers, brooding and worrying. I walked to the court on my own several times now. It echoed its silence within its immense walls of gold and red, painted with naked nymphs and ill clad angels all with a cherubic face. I stood where she had died, the floor of marble wiped clean of her blood. But in my eyes, it was still there, red and glistening pooling under her white dress. My breath caught in my throat and I felt the burn of eyes watching. Petrified I ran to my chamber, seeking the calming song of my birds as I rubbed my eyes to brush Eva’s image away from my mind. The eggs shattered that day and the birds stopped singing. She came that day, Malca, she called herself. When she came, alone she was with no family or lineage to boast of; but she was beautiful. A beauty so rich and mature that I could see my father drink it like fine mead. It was the first I saw his eyes light up, as he sat there looking at her spell bound. His face looked younger as he smiled at her, a smile which had vanished from his face for months. The men in the court watched her entranced as her ravishing hair of gold and eyes of ice held them in rapture. ‘Sire, I come from far. I heard you seek a wife.’ She fell silent, demurely bowing her head, letting her beauty talk. They who had come with questions to ask, to speak of trades to be gained, pacts to be made, armies to be strengthened watched helplessly as her beauty took them all prisoners. They forgot that she came with no army to boast, no trades to bring and brought no royal blood to speak of.

‘Marry me.’ My father asked her without knowing of her and she nodded. I wanted to shout a warning, ‘Watch out father, she is not what she says.’ Instead, I keeled and a calmness embalmed me. I fought it with my will. My teeth set on edge as my head split- for the calmness wanted me to sink into that morass of painlessness which it offered. I looked at her as the court erupted with loud cheering. Only I saw her eyes searching incessantly and when she found me, a smile split her face- reminding me of the crone and her toothless grin. The wedding was a quick affair, it came and went with the blink of an eye as the rites were done and vows spoken under the rowan trees. I was dressed in the simplest of gowns by the maid who said that my beauty shouldn’t overshadow that of the queen to be. It seemed like she was in awe of Malca as well and I nodded. Little did they know I hated my beauty more than any other. Malca made her vows, strange ones they were. ‘I will love you as you me. Adore you as much as you adore me. My acceptance of you will be the same as you of me.’. Again, I looked around, but none found it strange. What if we stopped admiring her beauty, would she still love us then? Her eyes settled on me again as she spoke. ‘There may be some who doubt my emotions, but they run true, mirroring what they receive.’ Not one noble spoke or raised their brows, I felt it was only I who read the hidden threat there, warning all that her love was steeped in a veil of conditions. The day was swept away in celebration, as glasses tinkled and food was consumed freely and with joy. Long past had it been since the kingdom had observed such festivities. Men sang bawdry songs and women danced with colour in their cheeks and wine in their blood. The bride looked radiant besides my resplendent father, so I kept my counsel to myself. There was talk of comparison of our beauty, how my pale looks were no match to the rich beauty of the queen. I was happy for once to be ignored, for if I voiced my words of doubt, it would be the stirring of sourness into my father’s joy.

Yet a sadness enveloped me that day. My mother, whom I grew to love in her dying days, I missed her terribly. It reminded me of my last moments with her. I wish I could have held her longer, made more memories and told her that she was forgiven and I wanted her back to be my cherished companion. But she was long gone now and my tears were no longer welcome as my mourning was too late and too less, not what the court wanted of me. It was not proper or right, the place and time of my emotions were wrong. I held my tears and smiled, as they rejoiced around me into the midst of the night. A gradual quiet fell over the kingdom, the kind which comes with forgetting to ask the right questions. The new queen was accepted with no doubts. None asked where she came from, all they could see was her beauty mature like a well-aged wine. In her shadow I was forgotten too and for the first time in years I could breathe a little easy. In the beginning, it was a freedom I cherished. Gone were my dresses rich and heavy and the corsets which bound me so tight. I realised what a treasure freedom was and I ran with reckless abandonment through the castle. For the first time I knew what it was to play with children my age. People no longer came to see me, for the queen kept them all enthralled. ‘You are no longer needed at court Weiss.’ She said with a smile and I hugged her, a wet track forming on my face as I sniffled loudly. She patted my back gently and walked away, and I watched her with my heart set free. Her giving me freedom made my doubts vanish and I chastised myself for the flights of imagination. Malca gradually grew into the castle. Her song became ours, the food we ate was richer than what we were used to. The tapestries on the walls changed and so did the maids who had served my mother loyally for years. A slow melding of the old into the new, she let it brew and simmer. This happened as slow as the melting of snow after winter, it crept on everyone over days and months. They were so subtle that none were wiser to the ploy, not to me though. My freedom, given after so many years and taken with care, made me memorise every part of the castle as I wandered around; and what others failed to see I could. She was changing this to her castle, not ours, every chamber, every nook had her imprint on it.

Despite this, there was nothing sinister to her; nothing that I could point a finger at and say that she was a threat to all I knew. And even if I had, none would have believed me. I let that niggling doubt pass. Those were the best years of my life. The everyday chores, rolling on swathes of wild flower, smelling fresh grass in all its glory. My maids would, or rightfully Malca’s maids would not be far off, but I saw them rest their guards as I spoke to flowers, leaves and trees. To the squirrels I wished a good morning, until there was around me a hoard of birds and beasts. Butterflies sat on my hair, birds wove halos for me, and small beasts played around my feet. I was as near bliss as I could be. In the beginning- it appeared that my father had forgotten my mother and his love for her. He appeared to be thoroughly and passionately in love with Malca. As for my step mother Malca, I began to believe I had imagined her smile on that first day, for she never gave cause for me to complain and we lived happily as one could without asking questions. ■

Weiss Chapter 4 ☐☐

Happiness never lasts or so I felt- life is so eager to teach us tough lessons and I was to learn this soon. My sixteenth name day was marked to announce my coming of age and reluctantly I slipped back into the dresses and corsets, ribbons and powders adorning me. Malca sat watching me awhile, and in snatches as the light played with her face, I was terrified wondering if I was imagining the puckered skin and sunken eyes. But they would be gone with the blink of an eye and she sat regal, not a hair out of place. ‘You look pretty.’ She murmured at the end, running her hand on a single strand out of place before walking away. The past four years Malca held her sway, as men vied for her attention and women revered the ground she walked on. They were none who had been spared, as the merchants and travellers, bards and marionettes returned to the court. Not to look at me, no- it was her grace which brought them back as I hid in groves and gardens. But all was not well within this picture of bliss and prosperity. My father grew aloof, becoming half of his old self. He sat stone faced, a chill emanating from him on his days in court. But none cared, the care of running the land had slowly fallen into Malca’s hands. We hardly exchanged words, my father and I, after that night when I had wept in his arms. I could still see the moments he thought of my mother, when his eyes would have a far-off look and shine in the brilliance of a thin film of wetness. My nameday drew folk from the warmth of their hearth and depths of the forests. Vaguely, did they remember, but remember they did of the fairest maiden. The kingdom which had forgotten of my beauty, woke to it again. I had blossomed into an ethereal, the kind which was rare shadowed by any other. Malca who had been a picture of serenity gradually lost her smile and by nightfall, when the king was flooded with proposals from young princes for his daughter’s hand, she was almost unrecognisable as the cherished queen. That evening around drunken inns and warm fireplaces questions spilled. Who was the queen, where had she come from? Questions long forgotten, swirling, to be asked again. They spoke late into the night, as they asked all the right questions.

But the next day, Malca looked as pristine as the morning dew and the questions were forgotten again by all. I remembered, for I had seen her face change in the dim light. I remembered now, her coming to us and leaving the jewel for my mother- I remembered because that morning the same jewel sat on Malca’s bosom, glinting in all its glory and I saw her smile, but it was the smile of the toothless crone. My doubts, suspicions and every other omen which I brushed aside these past years, blinding myself in bargain for my freedom- they crashed on me as waves. She was the woman who was responsible for my mother’s death-she who regally wore that blue stone and made us ignorant of her vile, depraved acts. ‘Sordid thoughts are not for the young of heart.’ She warned me, for my eyes never left her now. I realised that her beauty was a mirage, if one looked at her long and hard, the mask slipped and what was beneath would be hard to ignore. She tried weaving the spell on me as she had on others, by her ravishing laugh and beguiling eyes; but for me the charm was long gone. Her face appeared hard as ice, a smile not so gentle settling on it reserved just for me. From that day forth, she brought me blueberries, sweet and lush. The first I ate them was in the royal court, forced as I was by court etiquette to honour her offering. I remembered nothing after that; until dusk fell and I saw that I was being carted to my chamber, like sheep to pen. I thought of fleeing, screaming and rousing the castle to her ploy. And then I saw those around me, there were so entrenched in her magic that my words would destroy them with shock. So, I pretended to be what she hoped I would become. I thought I could escape her magic by spitting the fruit out once she left my chamber; but I felt she saw through my plan. She visited me every day, plucking each fruit and feeding it to me, ensuring that the women of the court and the maids were ever present to witness it- day after day. If I refused her, I would be ostracized as an envious daughter to her step mother, so I ate what she offered, waiting for a slip. I had no choice but to gulp the poison given to me by a trickster. My memory of her true self would fade every morning, as I would accept her sweet offering, eating them with relish. By evening my heart would be pounding, my vision blurred and I would feel dry as a bone. I would see what was not and hear noises in silence. I scared my maid

and then the kitchen hand. Slowly I believed what they spoke of me, that I was slipping into madness. My suspicions would build every night. By dawn I would remember her true form. After I consumed the fruit, by noon the madness would settle in and by night I would be given soporifics. With heavy dreams came the nightmares and with them the screams; which shook the castle and with it my father’s peace of mind. When this tale is read questions will be asked! Of why didn’t I fight, why didn’t I speak the truth. I was not a fool, she had already taken my mother from me, she didn’t need any spur to do the same to my father. So, I did as she bid: one day, one day I would find the chink, the key to my answers, till then all I could do was wait. All this while, my beauty only magnified. The feverish haze made me shine brilliant, my eyes would grow into pools of black sea enough to drown an unwary suitor and it only served to anger Malca. I came to be known as the mad beauty of Liyan. My beauty spoken of as much as my madness. To my father, this was another blow, a mad daughter, the only treasure he remembered his wife by. He quickly took to bed, a worrying occurrence to me as I wondered if he was being poisoned as me or if my terrible state had strained his mind. Either one brought me no solace. He was ill and Malca lost not a moment in taking the reign into her own hand. Malca was pronounced the regent by lickspittles, and as the regent she ruled. ■

Malca Chapter 5 ☐☐

Darkness, dim, dusty and crawling with rodents. That’s all I remember. Sometimes I do remember the feel of my mother’s heavy, rough hands. The times she would wipe my head or drag me in for a hug, one that I felt she needed more than me as her tears would wet the back of my neck. I remember not much of my pa, the house was too small for three and I would be rolling in the dirt as my mother would sit in the corner blowing into the face of the fire lord. He who would eat her breath and grow, crackling and throwing out cinders and sparks. So eager was I to touch it, but my mother guarded him well. I would watch with jealous eyes as only she played with him, coaxing him as another child. Pa would return when the night was deep and dense, and my mother would cry out in pain as he would hit her, the stench of his drink around him. Then he would slip into a heavy sleep, filled with snores which would thunder across the house and I would see my mother weep silently in front of the fire lord. I never was let out to play, the four mud caked walls were all I knew. ‘Hush child, father wants me to guard you at home, the world outside is not kind.’ My mother would lull me to sleep, when I cried my heart out and my tired eyes could stay open no more. By the age of ten, I knew that pa hitting mother was wrong. Sometimes I saw his eyes drift towards me, and my mother would put herself in between us and he would hit her more. I began to sleep in the darkest corner of the house, which would mostly be filled with smoke and soot now, for the logs ran low and the fire lord was not easily appeased. That night pa hit mother so hard, that she cracked her head on the edge of the fire lord’s home and didn’t wake up. Though I wanted to run to her, she had asked of me a promise to lie still at night, come what may. So, I watched from a corner, making myself smaller than the rat which would scurry across the floor in random flights. Pa left that day at dawn, never to return. I lay in the corner, worried that he would return and I would have broken my promise to my mother. As soon as dawn broke, and I could

see the dust motes creep under the door, I ran to her. I would pretend sometimes that I have fallen asleep to annoy her when she would ask me to do chores. I thought she was doing the same now, so that pa didn’t hit her no more. I shook her, a sudden chill in the pit of my belly. My mind knew there was something wrong, but I refused to believe and kept shaking her. I even breathed into the fire lord, hoping that his roaring presence would wake her. But all I raised was a layer of ash. And even the fire lord refused to help me. When she didn’t open her grey eyes, I looked at the doors, which I had never been let venture out of. I looked back at my mother before I pulled the doors back. I knew nothing of courage or the outside world and yet, I had to bring someone to her. She was all I knew. I scrambled up steps of mud, a long winding path it was. As I reached the end, the noise was such that I wanted to run back and hide. Crowd of men and women, their clothes reeking with sweat and something more. I was lost as I stood small amidst the racing crowd. Then a woman saw my face, she gasped and then made a symbol with her hand, spitting at my feet as she spoke of satan. I watched her, initially curious and then slowly realising that she wished me harm. Her act made a few more look at me. The market which had been humming- stilled, an expectant hush falling over them. Where stood one, now stood many. They peeked over the other’s shoulders, angry faces warning me of something which I had no inkling of. They came closer, some clearly with the intent to harm. As I edged back, I felt my heel brush the steps and I knew I would tumble and lie still as mother did. A rough arm circled me unkindly, lifting me off with force. ‘Aye.’ Screamed one in protest, as if wanting to watch me for longer. The man, I knew it was a man because he was strong like pa and his arms were hairy, hissed back at the crowd and I could see them retreat with fear. I pummelled at his arms to let me go, but he carried me in the pit of his arm, my face facing the ground and he walked away from the crowd and the noise, away from where my mother lay with no help. He threw me in another dark house, it was worse than the one I lived in with my mother. I saw his face: yellowed teeth, bloodshot eyes in a

lean face. He didn’t speak to me, instead he left me on my own and returned later with food. I ate it gratefully, ‘My mother…’ ‘Forget her, she is dead.’ He said hoarsely as I sat stunned. ‘Eat, then we have work to do.’ He grunted, and when I didn’t move, he brought out a whip which flashed against my back. ‘Eat.’ He grunted again and I quickly obeyed, the skin burning where the whip had danced. He taught me to dance, and hop and leap, in the small hovel that he lived in and now was my home. I did as he asked, strange though his requests were. He took me to the market again, though this time he made sure to cover my face thoroughly with a scarf. We walked as I took in the sounds and the sight of a busy market; its colours overwhelming. We stopped in front of a man who held wild beasts in cages. He walked slowly, his yellowed eyes searching until it landed on a particular noisy cage. They were strange animals, he told me they came from a land far away. He asked me to watch one beast, see its movements and learn them. I sat and watched, learning. At home he fed me and then asked me do as the animal had moved. I did or at least I thought I had until his whip cracked over me, again and again. ‘Enough for today.’ He left me crying, not that it worried him. The next day when he took me to the market, I was prepared. I noted the beast’s acts, its strange antics and imprinted them in my head. I swore that I would not let the whip touch me. Once he was happy with my days and days of pirouetting under his watchful eyes, he made me leap through hoops. I ran on fours instead of standing like a child. Then he started lighting the hoops on fire. Next he asked me to walk on a rope raised a hand span above the ground. The height was then raised to a wall’s length. Next in a disused land, it was raised as high as the mayor’s house and he asked me to walk on the rope. I fell, cried, but learnt to be up on my feet quickly, before the whip made it to his hand. I could have run away, but for a child such as me who had lived in the belly of the city, hidden for ten long years only to move to another hovel- I was scared. I preferred the known to the unknown. More so because with him I never went to sleep hungry. He

never once raised his hand on me outside of when he made me practice. I could live with that. I had not forgotten the hissing and jeering people. Two years passed, I didn’t know why he taught me what he did, but I obeyed. The power of a morsel of food, and safety of sleep was such. A month of heavy rains flooding the city. I sat watching it fall, mesmerised. The drops creating a music of their own as they pattered against the mud. The grimy windows showed running tracks of raindrops, until it was completely drenched and the outside appeared to be an illusion. He arrived soaking wet, having vanished the previous day. I was hungry, the first day he had not fed me. I took his travel bag from him, noting with sadness that it didn’t hold a piece of bread or a dried fish. He saw my disappointment and smirked. A bird’s tune filled the house. It had been long since I had heard a bird sing. I looked around wondering when I saw his fist curled such that it caged something but not harsh enough to harm whatever rested within it. ‘Show me then, don’t tease.’ I begged of him as he baited me with the bird. ‘Let me see if you have been practising.’ I pirouetted and twirled to his satisfaction; my eyes fixated on his closed fists. I could learn new tricks now within the span of a day. ‘Come closer.’ He urged me and I tiptoed to him, hands and eyes eager to hold and see. The bird was bright as the sun, its black beak pecking painlessly at my palms as I tried to pet it. ‘No, not just yet. Sing this back to me, with not a lost note, sing this back to me matching every tone.’ And he sang a sad long song, the only words of it were Mritya Shria and no more. But he sang in forty different ways and each song felt different from the other and with the same words meaning hundred different things. I sang it wrong the first time, and then the second and then a third. Hundred times I failed and he made me sing it again, my stomach rolling in hunger. And then I sang it two hundred times. All the while he sat petting the bird which was a thing of beauty, its head bobbing bravely watching me fail, its own song much beautiful than mine. I got it right the thousandth time and he grinned a yellow toothed grin. ‘Hold it in your hands, come on, don’t be shy.” He passed it to me and I took the bird with the delight of a young girl being given a wonderful

gift. He rummaged inside his worn satchel and brought out a brilliant gem on a barely-there silver chain which looked like thread. ‘Put it around your neck and sing with me, Mritya Shria.’ I did as he asked me, the chain slipping easily around my neck, as he took the bird from me. The bird sat still, its eyes looking at me with trust. I sang the words he asked me to, it filled my head and my mouth, then my heart and whatever was deep within me. It was not a joyful song which poured out of me, it was sad and filled with melancholy. It reminded me of the story of an ugly wood sprite spurned by her human lover whom she had cheated into believing she was beautiful. When she believed him to be truly in love with her, she revealed her true self hoping that he would stay; but such was not the case. I sang and cried, wondering about the cruel nature of humans and feeling the wood sprite’s pain as my own. ‘That’s enough now.’ He woke me gently and I felt a change within me. I looked at my hands, they looked healthy, not the shrivelled, moulting skin which shed in heaps. My fingers were no longer twisted and neither were my toes. I smiled and looked at him and then at the bird in his hand. My joy died a sudden death. The bird had shrivelled, its tiny chest trembling as it breathed, the colour of its feathers a dirty, foul amber yellow. I stepped back in horror, knowing somehow that I was the perpetrator of this, it was my hands and my magic which did to this bird. ‘What vileness is this?’ I shrieked, desperate to put distance between the corruption and myself, so that its taint I would not blame on my magic. He pointed at something which he had asked me never to uncover. It hung on the wall with the shabbiest of rags as its protector. I obeyed him religiously, as with all his other instructions. ‘Pull that rag off and look.’ He was petting the bird who looked close to its death now, its eyes fluttering heavy. I walked numb with pain and did as told, though my heart was barely in it. I didn’t want to learn any of his special words or his spells. The screech escaping me must have been heard in the market. On the wall hung an oval contraption, shiny and shimmery and new. It showed

a face; shrivelled and ashen dark, with skin peeling in layers and hair sprouting in strange tufts. Around its neck was a beautiful blue gem winking back. ‘Look at it, look at it until you can bear it and screech no more. That’s your face, as seen in a mirror, as others see you. Have you ever wondered why your ma never took you out? Have you wondered why I take you out with a scarf? Ugly, that’s what you are. I have the cure girl, and I offer it to you, do you want it or not? They will not be kind to you, they will stone you to death. You will be killed just because you are different and not like them.’ I looked at the bird, dead in his palms. A sob broke out of me, then another and before he could stop me, I ran out of the hovel. I heard him shout, ‘You will be back, mark my words, the world is cruel, remember.’ I ran blind in the rain, as the drops hit me relentlessly, stinging my face and eyes. It poured, making me shiver, my tears mingling with my tears. ‘Ma, ma…I called out in the rain, helpless, just wanting to be in my mother’s arms. I raced back to what I remembered of my home. I would wait there for pa, even if he beat me, I would plead with him to take me with him. I would promise to do all the chores and never trouble him as long he took me with him. The hut was flooded with water, a rancid smell emitted from within. My feet squelched in the wetness as I searched for a corner, I tried inhaling deeply to ferret out mother’s scent. Neither could I feel the warmth that was her nor was her scent around. Disappointed, stricken with grief I shuffled to the corner. A nest of rats sat in the driest corner and I joined them there. Drifting into a fitful sleep filled with dead birds, crying babies and cruel mirrors, I woke with a horror of being chewed on. There was a squeak, a searing pain in my toe as I shrugged my leg and a rat ripped the skin away from my toe. Horror filled, I retched with revulsion, bringing up nothing but bile. I crawled on my back, shivering all over, horribly trapped in a childhood of unending horror. To my small body, the rat was a formidable enemy. It appeared rabid and distraught, the rage of hunger evident in its eyes and its starved long body. Its children squeaked in the corner begging for food, it glanced

their way and fell on me bravely and I scrambled to thwart its gnawing teeth. It made good food of me, pulling a bite size chunk out of my palms which I used to guard my eyes and mouth. It was agonising, those few moments as I fought the nails and sharp teeth of that deranged rat, ‘Ma, ma…’I cried, wishing that she woke from her forever sleep, her arms warm around me. It was cold, so cold and I was in terrible pain and I was so weak. ‘Who’s there?’ It was a gruff, weathered voice, I had given up my fight with the rat and it sat eating my toe again, one painful morsel after another. I was living in a beautiful dream; my mother was making me the warmest of soups rich with rice and chicken. They were apples stewed and the bread was warm and wonderfully gold. She fed me with her own hands, her warm arms around me. A light was shone into my corner and I was back in the hovel, where water ran as filth and the rat tore chunks off my toe. It stood guarding the nest now, hackles raised, eyes feral. I wished I was with my mother again; she would have kept me safe. The face which peered into mine was flushed unnaturally, the smell of something fetid and ripe on his breath. The eyes which stared into my own were bloodshot and they squinted at what they saw, thick fingers reaching for me. I hardly had any strength left, my mind’s fatigue more a detriment to my escape than my starvation of two days. He dragged my scrawny self by the skin of my neck and dragged me into the sharp sunlight which followed a heavy downpour. The market place was fresh and full, especially after heavy rains. ‘Come and take a look at this will ye?’ He called out to another, who lumbered over smoking something strong and bitter in his pipe. ‘In all my days…oye, do you know what this is?’ Where it had been one, there gathered many- again, humans were so predictable. They poked and prodded at me, ‘Is it human, does it speak?’ Questions, filled with insults. I lay there indifferent, until a stone was pelted at me. It glanced off my forehead and then another. It was the mischief of a group of young boys, as is the way of boys. What angered me though were the adults who stood grinning as I leapt and pirouetted to escape the stones as he had thought me.

‘Is it human or a beast?’ Another yelled, which only spurred the boys more. They chased me together, by then my mind recovered from its fatigue, anger its strength. Anger, rage the kind I had never felt. It coursed through me and I ran, faster than them. I lost most of them as I weaved through the narrow alleys, my hands and feet sure of their self. One persisted. He was persistent, his cruelty more than a passing whim. ‘Wait till I lay my hands on you, you ugly wretch.’ He shrieked as he picked stones sharper than the last and pelted them at me. I fled, for long I tried to evade him, but he stuck to my trail, his face split with a cruel grin. I didn’t know why I did it, I didn’t pause long enough to think of it. The gem was not with me, but his chase was fuelled with by the good food he ate and the love of his family was evident in the richness of his clothes; and yet he chose to be base and malicious when he could have been kind and gentle. ‘MRITYA SHRIA, MRITYA SHRIA…’ I sang with all that was wronged within me, with the sorrow and grief of losing my mother, with the injustice of what was driving me to be evil when I didn’t want to be. I thought of the boy- his strong limbs which chased me and his wild cruel face which laughed at me and I sang the spell, until I felt it fill and flow out of me like a river rushing to the ocean. I felt it in my bones as it crashed into him. Stunned, the boy stopped as the charm ripped off him his youth and it returned it to me, I felt it in the strength of my limbs and the beauty of my hands. Slowing down, I dared to steal a glance. What I saw was not pretty and it stalled my pace. The boy had shrivelled to look akin to a beggared child in fine clothes, the skin hanging off his bones. He was unrecognisable and I felt pity for him and revulsion for myself coiled in my belly. Guilt stricken I carefully walked back to him, what was done had passed, maybe I could help him return to the market, to receive aid. ‘Begone, you ugly wretch.’ He spat, even in his current state. And that decided my fate, the words of a young boy, his wicked, wicked words. Maybe if he had been kind, only if he had been kind… I laughed a terrible laugh and snapped back, ‘You are the wretch now and so you will remain.’

I left him grovelling in the mud, as I stole to where he was. He chuckled when he saw me, ‘That was quick, plus by the clearing of your face, I gather you have made magic, powerful magic, without the gem.’ He was a swift garner of truth, as I hung my head with shame. ‘It was not strong enough.’ I said, coming into a strength of my own, ‘I could have taken more if I had the gem.’ ‘The gem, yes, there will be a price. Fetch the mirror then.’ I did as he asked, he told me to ask something of the mirror, and with building excitement I did, ‘Mirror, who is the fairest of them all?’ ■

Malca Chapter 6 ☐☐

In the beginning, when I was learning the trade of the craft, we didn’t choose the one whom the mirror showed first. I was a ragged ugly girl with no riches, and reaching the fairest would take time and trial. I asked the mirror again and again, until it told me of the mayor’s daughter who was a vain fool- cherishing the ones who were there to praise her insipid beauty. We schemed and plotted, I took to his learning quick and easy and then I was ready to begin. I met her on one of her jaunts with her silly companions. I fell at her feet begging for food. ‘Food for the poor, please, mercy.’ Then I pretended to see her face for the first time, from beneath the rag which covered my head. ‘Look at you, never have I seen such beauty. The colour of your lips, the curve of your eyes. How has the creator made someone as beautiful as you?’ She smiled a self-indulgent smile; I could see the pride rearing in her eyes as she gestured at me to come closer. ‘Who are you, why do you hide your face?’ Her fingers reached for my rag and I pulled back swiftly, ‘Your eyes should not fall on someone as ugly as me.’ To begin with I was never cruel, you see I always gave them a chancethe vain ones. If she had respected my words and fed me food as I had asked of her, she would have been on her way safe and sound. She was not one of those. Her father guards stood behind her and she ordered them to pin me down and rip the rag off my face. It was still ugly, my face: a human ugliness to it as compared to the beast like nature of it before. She shrieked and pretended to faint and I watched her, my smile widening and my eyes jaded with hate. The guards beat me up, for no other reason than that she had fainted from the sight of me. After she woke, I begged and pleaded, praising her beauty to the stars. I promised to be there to clean her chamber pots and wash and wipe her clean. That perked her interest, I knew it would. It was only the kings and the nobles household who could aspire for maids who would do such

work, not the daughter of a frugal mayor. I was ready to do it all and made her believe that she was bestowing a favour on me. She patronisingly accepted me as her maid, one who would not be seen, only heard- to be a sycophant. ‘Sing it to her when she is in the throes of her elated pride, she will never suspect it.’ He plotted with me and I waited. I waited for her to show an ounce of kindness, a glance of pity- she never did, cruel words though were easy to come. ‘Look at this pretty gem, it will suit you perfectly. I found it near the stream, but how could I keep it when it’s beauty only matches your own?’ She accepted it with a knowing hunger in her eyes and put it around her white throat. I watched and smiled, my crooked teeth spilling over my lips and she pointed at it and laughed. I laughed with her, not because I enjoyed the insult, no. In her vainness, she had forgotten how to be kind, she had forgotten that the poor of looks and of wealth deserve kindness from the likes of her. I knew I would enjoy taking her beauty from her. I did it under the veil of the night, as the gem put her in the deepest of sleep, I took it back to adorn my own neck and then I sang, ‘Mritya Shria.’ I murmured softly, until she looked ugly under the most forgiving beam of moonlight. I had learnt my lesson; death was a kindness I was not willing to give those who had lacked a kindness of their own. I had learnt to speak the spell soft enough to just steal what was coveted and leave the husk. I watched her breathe unaware, enjoying the image of her horror of looking in a mirror. Content, I slipped away a sprite, never to return. He was waiting for me, his worn bag was still with him, though we were better than what we had begun with. ‘Buy yourself something nice.’ I hinted as I slipped the last of the silver paid for my services. He shook his head laughing, ‘I wouldn’t flaunt a wealth that I have just gathered, for envy is quick to come.’ I nodded at the sagacity of his words and we vanished into the night. As my beauty grew so did our opportunities. On principle, we tested them all, and never did we charm an innocent of heart. None was

perfect, but if we found in a soul the smallest speck of kindness, we would leave never to trouble their threshold again. Not everyone was kind though, and we found our preys easily, made bereft of their cruel pride, sometimes we would linger to see the devastation of our acts out of pure spite. This was only for the ones who had been truly cruel. ‘It’ll be a Lord’s daughter this time. Are you willing?’ I nodded, a shiver running up my spine. My beauty was full now, it caught the eyes of people, of men who were lecherous. ‘Cover your face.’ He ordered me, I was in the throes of adolescence and I was pig headed as all of my age become. ‘Why?’ I asked, bristling under the weight of an order. He looked at me with raised brows and the calculated look of one who had seen the hubris of his pupils. ‘We stop then, you have enough beauty to last you a decade, I have enough silver to last us the same.’ I was not happy, it felt binding, his orders on me. I wanted to be out, take more and be more, how could he not see what I could? The glory and riches of what we could do? ‘There will be no more words on this.’ And with a fistful of anger and mouthful of words I followed him, wondering why he wanted to hold me back from the Lord’s daughter? Over the next year, he taught me spells, ones which could make flowers bloom and vines blossom. They were not easy, as I tumbled and painfully grew into them. It humbled me, where the spell which stole beauty filled me with a terrible pride, my ineptness in simple spells grounded me. I became a student again and my respect for him only grew. Chastised, I sat as he guided my hands and my thoughts through the vastness of magic, until I found a rhythm to my own sorcery. I realised how alike to music magic was, it was a symphony and each of us had to stumble until we found our perfect tune which would add seamlessly to the beauty of the sound. Until one mastered that -all practice of magic was just noise. The teaching of true magic reminded me of my innocent days, of days spent in my mother’s arms and I shuddered at what I had become. ‘Do we have to do this?’

‘What?’ ‘This, taking of youth, snuffing of dreams.’ His dark eyes glittered as he looked at me with a terrible smile, ‘I see that the pureness of the art has touched you. Let me indulge in this foolish whim of yours.’ I could see he was unhappy and in a thin-lipped rage, but he was patient with me. If he had instead raged and thundered and ordered me that I was a stupid oaf who had dung for brain, I would have rebelled against him and my story would have been very different. Instead he showed me the strength of patience, as he waited for me to try and fail and find my path. He should have screamed, but to him this was the way to the path, his path. He left me alone, no words of solace, no threats of retribution. Another in his place would have asked the price owed for the immenseness of what was taught; for the years he spent teaching me all that he knew. Not him, he vanished from my life without a trace. I woke up to a loneliness I had not experienced in a long, long time. it twisted my innards and brought them up, well, that was the emotion of it. He had left me money, enough to last a lifetime and then more. Swallowing tears again I realised he kept almost nothing for himself, he had walked out just as he was when he met me. I went around our cottage questing, for a shred of a memory, of a remnant of him. I found nothing, not his clothes, or his boots. I bent on all fours to find a single strand of his grey black hair. As much as I scoured the place, there was not a smallest or the faintest residue of his ever being with me, of ever being at all. I ran to find the mirror; he had taken that with him as well. I had hoped that I could ask the mirror about him, but he had taken that from me as well. It was then I broke, a twisting searing sob mangled from within me. I cried for days. After losing my mother, in his shadow I had forgotten the bitter taste of loneliness, his presence which I had so taken for granted was now a hollowness which no magic could fill. My days became a relentless, revolting jumble of crying, eating and sitting despondent. I could have left in search of him, but if he wanted me to go in search of him, he would have never left. He was an augurer, a magician in the truest sense of the word. He was what the breeze was made of on summer days, I could have never caught him.

Endless days filled with wondering of what had I done wrong? Deep sombre thoughts, until the food ran out. In anger, I tried conjuring foodbread and chicken stew, what he would feed me when I was at my lowest ebb. I used the complex spells he had teased me with until I could have spoken them in my dreams. After a few pitiful attempts, I wondered how foolish I was to have not realised he never taught me a spell for food. I felt the strength of my magic wane, sucked to the barest bones. Cursing my dim-wittedness, I set out to go to the market. The cottage sat far, far from the where the village was. Dragging my feet, I sought refuge in the words of the birds and the hum of the wind. ‘Are you lost?’ The voice was deep, and I turned to find one of the handsomest men I had ever seen. I seemed to have a similar effect on him, as he sucked his breath in and his eyes glittered. ‘My…’I wondered what I should call him, my father, guardian, teacher? ‘My father, he has vanished without a trace.’ My voice trembled, the finality of my words settling on me as dust. ‘Let me help you then.’ Jarvin, that was what his name was. He spoke endlessly of himself, and in that swirl of words I caught the ones which told me he was a Lord’s son. In the past year, this would have made me fascinatingly happy. The allure of wealth and his looks would have been what I sought. Now they looked the dregs of something detestable. I sat, still unable to fathom why he had abandoned me when Jarvin whispered in my ears, ‘And this is my humble abode.’ His hand stole gently to my thigh as he uttered more of those vain words. I let his hand rest where it was, I was robbed emotionally. Why had he left me? I must have thought through everything like a spinning top and yet there was not one thing I could point at and say, ‘This, this was what I did wrong.’ ‘Live with me, for as long as you like. There will be no want of yours which will be overlooked, there will be no wish left unfulfilled.’ Jarvin continued to make promises as he kissed my cheek. I was too numb and let him. He grinned and pulled me with him. I hardly fought him as he almost dragged me, such was the emptiness within. He ravaged me, and threw me into a dark chamber, to be called on as and when he pleased. I felt nothing, all I could see was an empty desert stretch in front of me. By now, my magic had thinned to a trickle. I could no longer hear the music in the spells. They were strange empty

words to me. So, I gave up on them, without him they were just convoluted words twisting my tongue. I was passed amongst Jarvin’s companions, shared as the wine in the chalice. I felt dead within. One such evening, as their debauchery raged, a man was brought in by the guards. He wore a leather bag slung across and his grey black hair covered much of his face. His eyes locked with mine. He was here, for me. Jarvin and the rest jeered at his clothes and his manner, his small frame deceivingly misleading. He was rummaging around in his bag. I sat up, feeling the music return back to me. ‘What is it old man?’ Jarvis asked in his inebriated state, his speech slurring. One amongst them threw wine on him and watched as it soaked through his beard and dun clothes. He continued to look in his bag, with unnerving silence. The men turned a bit sober, a slow fear cutting through the haze of the wine. ‘Who are you?’ Jarvin was standing, his eyes sharper. Though he stood there appearing harmless, there was something menacing about him. I was completely awake now, the music coursing through me in swirls and torrents. I needed a channel with which to work it. As if he had heard my thoughts, with a flick of his wrist he threw the blue gem. It flew amidst them and landed on my lap. Jarvin looked from him to me, his eyes filled with suspicion. ‘What is it, what did he give you wretch?’. I was smiling now, a languid smile, feeling the music rush inside me. ‘Salve somore.’ I said in a soft murmur at Jarvin, whose eyes bulged with horror as his limbs became heavy and dull and he stumbled through air. The others were under the same spell, even their screams came out in an unhurried fashion, which only instilled more fear in them. I stood, proud in my ravaged state, revenge utmost on my mind. These men who preyed on innocent young women deserved no mercy. I walked to each of them, and spat into each of their face. I began with Jarvin, placing the silver thread with the blue gem on my neck. ‘Mritya Shria’ I murmured over and over again as they fell forward onto their hands and stayed there like beasts. One after another, I sucked what was good and pure and beautiful out of them. I had not a single ounce of pity as I did this. In my mind they deserved my rage and my cruelty. With them I didn’t leave the empty beggared husks, I sucked

them dry until their hearts beat no more and all that remained of them were piles of ivory white bones. ‘Are you done then, taking youth, snuffing dreams?’ He asked me and I understood then why he abandoned me. Silently, I nodded and left the place, never to be seen again, though even now I am sure there are tales of me swirling around getting richer every year as they are recited in dank taverns around cosy fireplaces. From that day forth I never questioned him, I did as I was told, such was my faith in his words. He was everything to me. We wandered and we preyed, on the deserving we showed our wrath. Many years passed as such, as he taught me more and more of the mirror. How its nature changed as the hand which wielded its power changed. Years of bliss. I had no scruples as to my actions now, they felt fair. There rested no doubt in my mind that I was cleansing the world of its dregs, of those that were undeserving of the luck life had bestowed on them. It was on one such night we set forth to a land called Tulavia. I observed a particular reluctance in him, for it was I who wanted to visit this sea port. I had heard of the thundering waves and the blue of the sea, the feel of sand on naked feet as the foaming waves kissed and pulled one to the promises of its depth. He refused when I first asked of him to show me the sea. ‘Dangerous, the call of the wind and the sea and the depths. They put strange ideas in one’s head.’ I did not press him, but neither was I happy about it. My eyes held a far-off look, I was distracted and my magic came out all strange and muddled. My ears constantly sought what I imagined the sea and the wind sounded like. The pull was so strong that I felt torn between his silent orders to stay and my soul’s yearning to leave. He watched me, I could see the knot around his brows and the anger in his lips. I never put in words my want again, unwilling to lose him another time. He was my only solace, my anchor. I would become a tumble weed if I lost him as my beacon or so I thought. He made me winnow rice with chaff once, a whole day of winnowing. I did it, without magic and with my mind pulled to the ocean. ‘See the chaff flying aimlessly with wind?’ He broke into my thoughts, making me drop the winnow. ‘Yes, but it gets to see what the grain never will.’

His eyes searched my face, I held no insolence there. My words were mere reflection of the adventure I sought. ‘Tomorrow then, at the crack of dawn, be ready.’ I danced that evening away in joy, shivering with excitement at night as sleep evaded me and my eyes filled with dreams of blue water and cerise skies. ■

Malca Chapter 7 ☐☐

On our way to the ocean, we punished many whom he pointed at and I became a beauty unrivalled. I did it because he asked it of me- the punishing, though my heart was scarce in it. Some amongst them were truly deserving, others I was not sure of what their sins had been. And with the latter I felt that I couldn’t take from them their youth. But I was not of a strength to lose him again, so I kept my roiling thoughts to myself. He had acquiesced to my request and there was not much more I wanted, except to not lose another I loved ever again. I collected charms along the way, rosemary and sage, black soil from the Thervian farmer, water from Ilvis base. They all came with a magic of their own- the Thervian soil hummed with a deep sonorous depth, the Ilvis water gurgled and laughed; a musical magic which he didn’t understand. I was surprised when he couldn’t see the music within me, the one which I felt was pure than any other I had ever heard- it was a sound of glass tinkling and a rill tumbling over stones. ‘Forget that magic, it is trivial and of no import.’ He made it sound insignificant, for it was something he was not proficient in yet. I hid them -the charms, within my corset and skirt as my heart broke into that music again which filled me with day dreams. I had learnt my lesson. I couldn’t live without him; his absence had shown me, also I couldn’t live as a shadow of him, for I wanted something of my own. So, I hid my thoughts, my desires and my magic from him. It was after a month of travel that we reached Tulavia. The iron in the air hit me strong along with the salt of the ocean. He cringed his nose and puckered his lips, his throat swallowing spit; but it was a losing fight and he threw up in a rush. ‘This doesn’t agree with me. Seven days, seven days to sate your desire and calm your mind and then we leave to where the ocean is far away and land meets my eye as far as I can see.’I nodded, shaking, my feet twitching to explore. We took shelter in one of the hundred shabby lodgings which could be bought for a few copper bits for six nights. The man who rented them to us had fish like eyes which looked at us with suspicion, but he refrained

from asking questions. My face was still clad and he looked like an old man who would hardly create any trouble. The inside of the lodging was dark and it smelled of old sweat and fat of cooking. I gagged as we entered and he being sick retched. Wiping his mouth, he murmured a few words which made the inside shine new and bright. He was never one given to excesses. Even when I had wanted an object of luxury, his stern eyes would quell me- not today though. The pallet which lay stunted in the corner, became heavy with frills and looked soft enough to drown all my aches. He made another pallet for himself in another corner. He filled the chamber with luxuriant chairs and divans, all exceeding another in richness of fabric and comfort. His face which had turned wan and green, returned to a normal hue at the sight of this. With relief he sagged and sat on one of them, his breath which was coming in short pants settling into a more regular rhythm. ‘Forgive me, I ask too much of you.’ I tried to make it as honest as I could, but in truth I couldn’t be happier. As soon as he grunted he was fine, I grabbed my scarf and raced outside, his warning to be careful lost to me. There were people, hundreds, thousands, a plethora in colours and numbers. I was overwhelmed and giddy with delight. I didn’t want to search for the sinned, I didn’t want to punish any here. All I wanted was to live, in the beauty and joy of what was spilling around me. Noises, some loud and others soft, men screaming of fishes, sand and boat. Women dressed in colours and cuts I would have been shocked to see in any other land, but here they were beautiful. I had never seen so much beauty in one place. And then came the smell of ocean, bringing fore dreams I never knew I had. I felt transported to a world of such peace and content as my feet touched the white and the blue of the ocean and then the sand was sucked languorously from under my feet. I wanted nothing more, my soul was content. I returned, again and again and again. He would be resting when I left and he would be resting when I would reluctantly come back to the lodging. Serene water against magical skies, a cleansing of the purest form. I wore the simplest of clothes, grey linen with not a speck of adornment, it was dull and grey as the sky when I had killed Jarvin and his friends.

Shuddering I fought to push that thought away. I stared hard and long at the blue skies and the wisps of clouds, the rumbling azure ocean, but the harder I tried, the faces swirled in front of me. More of the ones whom I had thought of innocent, but had to do what I did for him. The ocean has its own magic, to wear down everything that is impure and leave behind the truth of the soul. That evening was hard on me, sand scoured at my thoughts and asked me to question my deeds. I refused to listen and was stepping away from the ocean’s edge, ‘Do you have the blue gem?’ A voice like the scraping of glass on stone. I flinched with horror and swiftly searched for the voice, ‘Down here.’ It called to me with its harsh, guttural tones and I looked at the stooped woman bent such that her face was where my belly was. My first thoughts were that how was she alive. Her face was twisted and her teeth had rotten in her mouth, black eroded worms grinning back at me. Her fingers were crushing a black powder in the palm of her left hand, where I noticed with horror, blood- old and new mingling with the powder. In what I assumed was a grin, she pushed the powder into the side of her mouth. Her tongue had gashes and was bleeding but the woman was grinning maniacally as she chomped on the powder. ‘What abomination is that?’ I asked, shockingly spellbound by the black sediment. ‘You will need it Malca, your soul, it can’t survive what he is doing to you.’ Her words made me recoil with fear as if she had hit me. She chewed a bit more, ‘Hash, it’s called hash. Where’s the blue gem? Is it on your person? Does he trust you with it? Can you show it to me?’ She was leaning close into me, her loathsome face looking up into my terrified one- for the blue gem rested on my now feverish skin. Forgetfulness was easy of one’s own truth and so I was repelled by her. ‘How, how do you know?’ ‘I was you, as you are to him. Ask him, ask why he teaches us the magic, why he doesn’t leech their youth on his own.’ Her words made me uncomfortable, the rush of the waves starting a torrent in my mind. ‘You lie, he cares, when no other has.’ She laughed maniacally, I wondered how much of it was the hash. ‘Yes, he cares, deeply for his own soul as he erodes yours.’ She chuckled again, rubbing the back of her neck with her gnarled hands.

I slowly inched away from her, her words creating a terror inside of me greater than her appearance had incited. ‘You lie, you lie.’ My words sounded heavy and thick on my tongue, as my feet receded from her, same as the ocean receding away from me. I ran, my scarf swiftly taken by the wind- which promised a heavy summer rain. Her words followed me as chains as I snaked through the alleys and banged on the doors of the lodgings. When he opened the door, he still appeared weak, but his eyes held their hard glitter, ‘Where’s you scarf?’ Anger limned his words, as his lean face hardened at my confused state - he closed the doors quickly. I touched my head, flustered realising with a start that half of Tulavia would have seen a strange beautiful woman running past them. A knock sounded on the door and we looked at each other surprised. He asked me to cover my head and face and stand in the corner, an illusion coated the room as it went back to its grim state and he pulled the doors back. The man who had rented us our lodgings was trying to peer in, ‘What is it?’ He asked the man gruffly, pushing him back with a strength which belied his small frame. The man was taken by surprise, his face rearranged quickly into a semblance of respect as his eyes now looked at him with interest. ‘It’s nothing, I wondered if there was another living here, other than you and your…daughter?’ ‘No just me and her.’ He nodded his head towards me as I stood unseen in the corner, not bothering to answer the hidden question- not ready to give titles to our relation. The man licked his lips and rubbed his beard, as I watched them tense. He stood his ground, looking square into the man’s eyes. The man could have pushed his way in and pulled the scarf off my head, seen my beauty and then who knew what kind of vileness resided in the heart of this city? ‘Fine then, I heard some rumours. They seem to be just that, rumours then.’ The man bowed to him and walked away, but he stood at the door a long, long time as if he knew that more were watching. The door banged loudly and he sat on the recamier- the chamber having swiftly shifted to its splendorous form. His face puckered- a sure sign of a raging fire inside of him.

‘We leave, tomorrow. Not today for they will be watching, but tomorrow.’ I nodded knowing better than to exchange words with him when he was this angry. We ate in silence; he was simmering in his anger and I in my disappointment and suspicions. I could still hear the waves crashing against the shores and the woman’s voice. ‘He lies, he lies. Crows and magpies watch as he lies.’ She dissolved into a mass of feathers and she flew away as a crow, her face sitting atop the bird’s neck, festering and oozing. I woke with a gasp, the colours fading out and the luxury of the lodgings coming into play. I felt cloistered within the chamber with him sleeping a few mere paces away. Questions, so many questions, how quickly they eroded a trust built over years, and yet their truth nagged me. I escaped the lodging under the dim mist of the ocean morning, the sun breaking through in a smear of blush. This time I was careful, I wore the drabbest of dress, my scarf was thick and heavy, letting only a slit for my eyes to see. My arms were covered beyond my wrists, the cloth covering my fingers too. Breathless I reached the shore, the soft breakers wonderfully cold against my naked feet. I didn’t know why I had come. Truly, don’t you, my mind asked. Accepting the truth, sometimes, is more difficult than knowing it. With a sigh, I scanned the shore for her. In the dim morning haze, I found her digging the sand for shells, breaking them against the rocks with a stone and greedily licking the pitiful flesh within. It was sad and frightening to see her desperation, her degradation left her less human, more beast. She grinned as she saw me, an expectant smile as if she knew I would come in search of her. ‘The questions didn’t let you sleep, did they?’ She continued to scour out the flesh using her dirty nail. The sight was revolting to me. ‘Why should I trust you?’ She threw the shell away, having sucked it clean. ‘Let me tell you my story then. I was an orphan, ugly and abandoned. He found me, he taught me his magic. He showed me how the gem could make me beautiful and rich. I did what he asked of me, then one day I rebelled. He left me and I found myself alone and lost. He came back just as I was on the end of my tether and I saw him as my saviour.

Never again did I question him, as he used me to be the channel through which he kept alive- for years and years and years together. Have you asked him how old he is? Do you know anything of him?” Her words fell on me as drops of poison, blindingly painful, making me wish I couldn’t see the truth, the plain stark truth. ‘You are not the first and you will not be the last…’Her voice droned at me as she caught a moth and stuffed it into her mouth. Then she soiled herself. unmindful that I stood right in front of her. I stepped back in horror. ‘Yes, detest me now, but this is what you will be when the music which pours out of your soul with magic is so corrupted that he won’t have any use for you. I was his before you were, and where you are now there will be another. Before me there were many and after you there will be many.’ She wiped herself with the rags on her body and poured the black powder into her hands. It glinted – there was powdered glass in the hash. ‘Stop, you will die if you eat that, it has glass. You’ll cut yourself!’ I held her wrist despite my revulsion, a part of me truly pitying her and another terrified that this could be me, would be me. She laughed pushing my hand away, the powder carefully cocooned within her palms as she laughed a deep throaty laugh, ‘You think I don’t know? There is a difference you know, between knowing and doing. It’s not the same.’ She pushed her tongue out and I knew how she got those suppurations on it. She wiggled it at me, making me flinch with disgust. ‘I am not a fool, just depraved. His parting gift to me, he took the best of me. Do you think I can aspire to buy pure hash? Gold, the price of pure hash is gold. Hence, I take what I find. It makes me dream that I am as you are- beautiful, not a wretch in a sack.’ She grabbed my dress and in panic I pulled it with force, ripping it at the waist. ‘Run from him, and as you do grab the gem and bring it to me, will you dearie?’ She pulled me close to her such that her foul breath fell on my face. I pushed her, more in fear that this was who I would become. She laughed, her tongue flicking in and out and I saw the black hash mix with the blood from the cuts in her tongue. I walked away briskly, almost running trying not to look, not to feel ashamed of my actions, but I had committed actions much worse that this. My slight towards her

would not be my moral compass. But this was my destruction which she had foretold and hence the worry. The men appeared as wraiths in the morning light, clad in clothes which mimicked the brown mud walls around us. I had forgotten about them and his warning that we were not here to kill. I was still decked in clothes, not an inch of me showing and yet they came to drag me away. They reminded me of Jarvin, different faces same intent. I gave them a chance, I vanished in the wreaths of mist and took another path, they were there too-waiting. I realised these were not men who had seen my beauty and wanted me, no. These were men who had done this many a times, taking away innocent girls to entertain men who came here in search of paradise. I was swift with them, the blue gem was on me, but I didn’t need the youth of such filth. Stone- I made them, and then pulverised to sand running freely through my hands, gone without a trace. Smiling I reached the lodging and slipped inside. He was asleep, the ocean didn’t agree with him, too many years of living, the water eroded the veneer away. I found his bag in the corner, the mirror tucked within it safely. I removed the scarf and looked at the mirror, ‘Who has lived the longest of them all?’ His face glared back at me in the mirror, feral and unfamiliar and then settling into the lean face which I knew him as - with grey black hair and sunken eyes. ‘You shouldn’t have done that.’ His voice was a keen whisper, the edge of a knife. I turned around to find the same face in flesh, mirror clutched in my hand; except now what was within the mirror was without. ‘You should have let the trust be. Every time, foolish women, never happy with what they have.’ ‘Is it true then?’ Fingers flickering with light and air, I stood facing him. He was weak, his folly was to trust me enough to bring me here, to keep me satisfied. ‘You met her, didn’t you? Steva?’His face was stretching, the planes slipping off one another. It hurt that he even knew her name, knew she was here, rotting and dying.

‘She doesn’t even remember her name. Did you have the same plans for me? Leave me after you have taken all that is good, how long would my soul last you? Another twenty years before you found another willing one abandoned by all, yearning for love, rejected by the world for being ugly?’ ‘Do you hear yourself? You were nothing when I found you, they would have stoned you to death. Why? Just because you were not like them. I made you what you are now, beautiful. You are because I am, your whole existence is because I am.’ ‘You think giving me beauty, letting me be ravaged by those men to let me learn of your importance, that is a great existence?’ ‘I gave you power, I gave you magic.’ His skin was sagging now, old, very old as old as the ocean itself, stick and bone and skeletons. Only his eyes shone, brighter than the morning sun. I grinned, ‘You taught me too well then.’ We both threw our magic at each other in that instance, his much powerful than mine, the strength of it drawn from the depth of oceans and the vast skies. But he had forgotten, in my hand rested the mirror and as I threw my magic at him, I held the mirror up. He hissed and screamed as the strength of both magics, his- reflected, and mine spelled, crashed into him and he shattered into a million pieces. I opened the window and let the breeze take him away. Covering my head again, I walked away from Tulavia. I had empires to conquer, kings to wed. Over and over I would do this again, in lands distant and wide. None deserved my trust and I would have all of theirs. ■

Weiss Chapter 8 ☐☐

Malca’s regency of Liyan did not come to her without a fight. There was no lack of those who wanted to claim a piece of the throne and the power which came with it. She was ruthless, behind a face which was beautiful as a diamond - there was a will hard as a diamond too, for there rested a devious mind. Those who dared, vanished, without a trace. Grieving families were silently carted off to country retreats. Male heirs sent to become monks in distant monasteries. She was a snake and a fox, leaving no trails behind to be followed. She thought she had conquered them all. Liyan fell to anarchy within months, for there were only so many threads she could hold and spin and guide. Strangely, the anarchy would rise from those whom she was least concerned with. It was an anarchy were the rich looted the poor in sly ways. The tithe was raised and beasts were seized. A house which had been a home, with a rich hearthwhere warm soups and rich roasts were to be found; turned into dim lit hovels, where hunger filled eyes gazed at helpless mothers and distraught fathers, who unable to bear their children’s hunger starved for days on end and fed what was at hand to the children. Malca ignored them all. I had seen her hate filled eyes when the poor would visit father’s court. Where father had listened with concern, she had scorned them and pushed them away. ‘Don’t grovel at my feet, fight and make a life for yourself. The world is not kind to the weak.’ She warned and set the hounds at them. What had been a wail of sorrow turned into a buzz of anger, there was discontent as hunger ravaged the people and diseases beset them. The talk of the seven bandits began in silent whispers at the coming of rain and autumn. Silent they would arrive and leave with what was not theirs to take from the rich, and then it would find its way to the poor baker’s home- a nugget of gold in the dough of the bread; or the hay set aside for cattle in a farmer’s barn. The bandits became a symbol of hope, of a rebellion against the queen. Not all were glad though, the nobles paid from their pockets to a few of the folk, adders amidst innocents. They waited to trap the bandits and win the bounty the queen had put on their heads. Malca’s fury was

immense to behold and it weakened her magic; and the people began to remember, more and more. Questions were remembered and asked, over and over; and before she could stop them, all memories were reclaimed. They remembered the jewel and the crone and the old queen’s illness, her sudden demise and Malca’s mysterious appearance. Where had she come from, where was her family? There were too many questions unanswered and in the strength of the united power of their questions, her magic failed, miserably failed to make them forget again- to trap them under an illusion. For this was simpler magic which needed belief and trust. Something the people had lost in her. But she could use her magic yet- to coerce and connive, to threaten and kill, which she did and the people lived under the threat of her magic, dying every day without truly meeting death. The bandits became Malca’s bane, she bled gold, leeched knowledge and set traps but catch them she could not, and in this she forgot that my memory returned too as her lack of visits rid me of my madness, and I waited, looking for a means of escape. The chamber I was trapped in was devoid of any adornment. Stone walls met a domed roof made of old rich wood and stone. The veins ran thick and dull between them, not a single port of escape. The windows, large and luxuriant, made of glass and metal, opening out to the world. It was left open, none to guard it, no bars to hold me in. Why? Because she knew that I was trapped in one of the highest towers and my attempt to escape would result in the sureness of my death. The mad daughter of the bed ridden king jumped to her death. Such an easy thing to believe. I had no intentions of dying. What would I achieve from it- Death? That was something to be accepted willingly after all battles have been fought. A place of repose after a life of rewarding tasks. That was what death was to me, not something to surrender to in the throes of sorrow leaving unfinished tales and ill fought battles. I wondered oft times why did she not kill me as she had my mother, but then I heard the maids talk and the guards talk, sensationally and in whispers. There was only so much fear that any could take- for they all remembered now, how Malca had appeared, how the queen had died, mysterious, strange- coincidence? Malca had been lucky once, if she killed another again- my father or me, she knew the kingdom would be

lost; for what hope would be left to the rest. And I knew this was why she wanted me mad, to drive me to my own death. I plotted to tear the hem of my clothes and make a cloth rope to escape my prison. As I sat and calculated how much cloth I would need, it made me realise how foolish I was. The act of remaining undetected and to actually bind a rope that long would take me years and I didn’t have that many years to give. As I prowled around the chamber like a caged beast, one of Malca’s ladies arrived with a bowl of fruit- the blueberries. ‘Where is she today?’ I asked with authority, in the castle I was still the princess. She bowed her head, ‘She wants you to eat each and every berry, highness’ She thwarted my question by the bowing of her head and lowering her eyes, I realised how difficult it was to command one who owed no allegiance to me when her eyes were averted. ‘Fine, I will.’ She lifted her head at my answer, her eyes filled with surprise. ‘See.’ I popped a berry in my mouth and ate it. ‘I am hungry, I could do with more food after this.’ She stood with that surprise for long, it made her eyes beautiful as they opened wide. Surprise wins over people, and she confirmed it as she obeyed, ‘Yes your highness, let me go get you some.’ Maybe she had been warned that I would be difficult and refuse the fruits, that I would try to throw them away. I did just that, but after I had convinced her that I would eat them. Choosing the path of least resistance was sometimes easier than being a bull. This did not mean I was not under the effect of the poison in a dull manner. My vision was blurred and I saw objects in double for I had eaten some fruit to convince her of my innocence. My mind though was still within my control as I lay on my pallet, thinking and thinking, over and over as to how I could best her and save father. Fate and luck were with me, for that gibbous moon night as I lay still as stone, they- the seven, sneaked into my chamber through the window opening to the garden. The moonbeam warped their shadows and I saw them- tall, short, stout, lean, dark silhouettes who looked at me as they huddled, deciding if I was a threat. My pretence would have challenged a travelling troupe’s artist, such was my sleep act. Convinced they left, not a sound did their footfall make, not a breath did I hear from them.

Plumping my blanket to form my shape, I tiptoed to the window and looked at the iron hook with its stout rope and without another thought I slid down, grazing my palms and knees. I didn’t cry out; I was not one to cry from physical pain. Instead I searched for a means of escape and in the distance, I saw a horse unnaturally still, a cart latched to its back. I crept and hid in the belly of the cart, old sacks I drew quickly over my small frame, making myself as small as I could. It smelled of old and wet clothes in there, but I huddled breathing the stale air. And then I waited, the fumes adding to the poison in my blood. I felt faint, so I pinched myself over and over to keep awake. They came as silently as they had entered, I never heard a guard’s cry nor the bell clang. All that broke the silence was the clip clop of the horse’s hooves as we slowly left the castle’s winding paths. They piled what they stole atop me and from the chink in the sack I could see the feet of one- close to my face, its odour foul and revolting; but my heart sang, I was free, finally free of Malca. ■

Weiss Chapter 9 ☐☐

The thieves were a strange lot, they spoke not a word amongst them. I wondered if they were even on the cart, such was their dense silence. The horse clopped along, not in a rush, not as if they were in a hurry to get away from where they looted. I didn’t smell fear, just the stench of a few unwashed feet. I hoped they would stop by day break, if not for them then for the horse but it was not so and they carried forth. I wondered if the horse was born to be theirs, so long did it canter never resting for food or water. Maybe they hung a trough by its mouth? But my belly hurt from holding my piss in and before I could help it, I wet myself. The warm wetness oozed beneath me, soaking my clothes and then the sacks, but again I dare not move. Would they throw me over or kill me if they found me in their cart? Worse yet would they hold me ransom and ask the queen for more? Sombre thoughts, which made me ice, I stopped thinking of the piss beneath me or the feet in my face. I remembered what Malca had done to me, the evening madness, my mother’s death, my father’s sickness- I would have my revenge, but for now I needed to get away from her, I needed to stay alive. I prayed that the sack should soak up all of the wetness, and my prayers were answered for we stopped only at dusk. By now we had travelled a distance - beyond what I felt were two hills and the thieves started unloading what they had stolen. I felt it as the cart moved, the weight lifting off its wheels. Thankful, I waited, thinking that I had remained unseen as the cart stopped shifting and the sounds of the shifting wares ceased. Silence broken only by crickets and the birds- I counted my breaths and after a count of a couple dozen and then some more, I pushed my sack aside and sat up, only to find them waiting behind the cart, dressed as my father’s guards. A hand seized me roughly and dragged me from the cart, ‘She stinks of piss.’ He bellowed to his mates who stood with grim faces. His hand quickly reached to my hair, ‘No, Bold, No.’ Another sharp voice from a bluff man, he moved closer to me as he held Bold’s hand off me, and the sliver of moon lit his face up as it did mine. I saw that he was young, his face just sprouting beard, he saw me too, with his dark eyes and I heard

him gasp. The rest moved closer and peered into my face, as one amongst them let out a low whistle, ‘Could it truly be who I think it is?’ Asked the one who had whistled, ‘Puck, finally you are thinking right.’ Another voice from a tall man standing at the back. He was playfully shoved by the man called Puck, as Bold painfully twisted my arm, ‘Just what we needed, ransom her and we can stop this, tonight. No more looting and pillaging, let us finish this one last time. I felt her at my back, the witch queen, she will skin us and flay us alive if she catches us.’ His words were filled with venom, and he looked at me with loathing eyes. ‘No, no…’ I said thickly at first, throat dry and parched, ‘I’ll kill myself but you won’t send me back nor ransom me.’ Bold looked at me with contempt, the rest stood silent as the smallest of the lot stepped forth. He had lines around his eyes, that was the only clue that he was older than the rest, ‘Clean our house then, cook us food and the rest can be seen later.’ He walked towards a dense copse of trees, shouting without glancing back, ‘The loot is not going to haul itself, water the horse Pick, feed it hay Puck. Bold clean the cart, cover our tracks Purzel and Pack, and bring the woman in Huck.’ They all silently fell to work except Bold who held on to my arm a moment longer, his fingers digging into my flesh and then as Huck stood eye to eye to him, he ground his teeth and let me go reluctantly. I was expecting a tumble-down hovel in the midst of nowhere but what I saw was a pleasant surprise. It was an old windmill, broken wings unwilling to turn as a river rushed beneath it, drowning all other noise. They blindfolded me as I wondered how would we cross a drawbridge which was broken, but I sensed with my bare feet, them dragging me through wet floors, musty with the smell of water sitting on stone for long. My feet slapped across the stones. A loud grating and then nothing of the river’s noise. A latch fell heavily followed by the click of a lock and my blindfold of soiled cloth came off my eyes, and I looked in wonder at the rustic and cosy belly of the windmill with pallets in corners and ledges linked by rope ladders and trick stairs, they raced across the floor grabbing food off a larder set in stone, kept cool by the river.

‘Nas, where does she get to sleep?’ Asked Huck after removing my blindfold, his hand gripping me with gentle pressure. Nas looked around, his shrewd eyes reading the seven men and the girl-beautiful even in her current state. ‘Right at the top, where no prying eyes can drift by fault.’ Though he didn’t intend it, I somehow felt that his words were directed at Bold who grunted rudely and took his pallet at the bottom of the stairs, which appeared to spiral directly to the skies, ‘Let her prove her worth then. I am hungry and I would sure like some meat in my belly.’ Bold’s words though spoken to himself were loud enough to reach all. I don’t know what it is with men and food, they all looked at me with pleading eyes as Nas shrugged his shoulders at me, clearly, he would not get me out of this. Huck’s hand released my arm but I grabbed at his tunic quickly, ‘I am covered in piss, can I bathe?’ He flinched as if slapped, his skin turning the colour of beets my nursemaid would force down my throat. ‘Bathe?’ Chuckled Puck, for he heard me and then he winked at Pick, ‘Sure girlie, in the corner then, quickly, fresh water even your castle would have scarce seen, what with the poo and piss and slops- all into that water which you so eagerly gulp.’ It was all said in jest, I could tell somehow. I knew that even if this man threatened to kill me it would be in jest and so I laughed with him. He raised a brow at Pick who was shaking his head laughing and Puck chortled, ‘The girl can take a joke, I am tempted to see how a princess doesn’t have anything stuck up her ar….’ ‘Enough Puck.’ Nas chipped in quickly and Puck and Pick guffawed, going back to gathering and marking what the castle had yielded. I could see silver candlesticks, trays and shields, and the most beautiful mirror encrusted with gems. ‘You will bathe when we leave the house as we will do now, but from tomorrow at dawn, you don’t come down before we are done with ours and then we leave you at peace but for no more than half the hour.’ Again, there were grumblings and rantings about having to wake up at the crack of dawn but no one truly refused Nas and this decided, they walked out leaving me alone and I bathed in the luxury of the cleanest water I had seen, its pureness taking away all my fear and worry. Cold it ran over my skin, calming me. I stepped out naked flicking off water like a hound, realising with a sense of impending doom that I was left

with very little time and had no clothes to cover my nakedness. The ones I came in were stained with piss. I scrambled, grabbing the tunic and leggings I found drying, with a bit of tugging and tying I hoped I was presentable as they knocked loudly and barged in without waiting for a reply. Pick and Puck gave me the one over and started howling with laughter, bent on their knees, wheezing and eyes watering, ‘Seems like she loves being in your pants Huck!’ Having said that they burst into peals of laughter again and quickly the rest joined in and when laughter goes around one can hardly resist and I joined in. When we had wiped our tears and our bellies ached a bit less, Huck pointed at what appeared to a blackened corner with dark pots and pans, where a small fire looking like it was fighting death, sat humbly. ‘That’s the kitchen, there’s the meat and the rest you will find if you cast your eye around.’ He was vaguely waving at the corner, which made me suspicious that they rarely ventured to cook. Inside of me, there was a mad dance. I who had been served my meals in the luxury of my chamber, cooking? A mad laugh escaped me which made them look at me strangely. ‘Saw a rat.’ I squeaked, worried that they may peg me to be mad, and I had lived that life once, not again. The pots looked black and unwashed, so I thought washing them would be a good place to start. I took the pots to the stream and grabbed silt from the bed and started scouring them. I took my time, for I didn’t know what to do next, and gradually I could hear snorts and grunts, reminding me that seven hungry men were waiting for their bellies to be filled. ‘Right!’ I said to myself, having scrubbed as long as I could, for there was not a black shadow in the pans. I walked back to the corner with trepidation, my eyes desperately trying to find answers. I found the meat hung in a corner, a butcher’s knife hanging close to it. Thanking my stars, I took the knife and set to task, hacking at the meat for a good chunk of time. I could feel their eyes on the back of my neck as I sweated and the bath felt ages ago. Soft snickers and then laughter again, footsteps and then the same reassuring touch held my hand and hacked off a massive chunk of meat, ‘Ignore them.’ Huck said, his hands trying to find familiarity with the cut of the meat and finally accepting defeat, he chopped them into ragged bits. I pretended

to help, and Huck having realised the futile nature of my attempts stoked the fire, melted the lard, salted and seared the meat. When the meat was served on thin plates made a of an unknown metal, we fell upon it ravenous, and within the blink of an eye they stood empty. Pack and Purzel, the quietest in the lot burped and then they burped all round, I felt inclined to join and let out a small one of my own. ‘I like you.’ Puck said unceremoniously and Pick nodded, Huck stared at his plate and the rest were unbothered, but Bold, his face simpered, was still not done with me. ‘To bed then.’ Shouted Nas and I climbed the stairs, refusing to see down for the fear of fainting and when I passed the last of their resting places, I found a corner, warm and comfortable, completely lacking the luxury of my castle chamber; but truth be told I never had a better sleep before that night. I picked up the work slowly, Huck’s helping hand appearing before I could ask, which brought forth sopping exclamations of affection from Puck to Pick as they imitated a promiscuous pair in love, with hugs and sickening kisses. I watched Huck’s ears go red but he never stopped them nor did he shrink back from helping me and gently was the sorrow erased from my heart- the burden I hardly knew I was carrying until it was but a small thimble of hurt in the farthest corner of my heart. I fell into a gentle rhythm, filled with freedom, laughter and hopes of love. It was so easy to forget my bitterness as I felt abundant and happy, so easy was it to forget that my father lay trapped within a sickness and Malca was ravaging the kingdom. It was a month before they ventured again, a new place to be raided, I could see them plan and plot much, but their trust had still not extended to me in this regard. I was not one to press on my good luck so I carried forth with my chores, happy in my own bubble. They left at the crack of dawn, ‘You will be locked in.’ Nas stated in a tone which left no room for me to quibble, and I nodded like an obedient cur, thinking I could have a luxuriant bath and give the panes a wipe. The day sped quickly, I found the chores pleasant but the mealtimes tedious, a sudden sadness creeping over; for I realised with a start I had come to love this motley group of men, Bold included- for I thought of

them as the seven. Food became a task, and I ate but once a day just to quieten the pangs in my belly. On the second night I heard the lock click and the latch move. Terrified, I stood in the darkest corner of the chamber, myriad thoughts of the worse that could happen running through my head. For the first in a long time, Malca’s face floated into my vision and then my father’s. Guilt assaulted my insides, how easily I forgot that my father needed saving from her clutches, how quickly I let comfort take over duty. I had forgotten that I was the princess owing a duty to the king and my people. The door swung open and I let out a breath, as they walked in single file. I was so thankful to see their safe return I whooped with joy but the sound died on my lips as I watched with growing alarm a blood-soaked Bold helped by Huck walk in at the end. Before I could rush to offer assistance, Bold found me and his face clouded black as thunderstorms, ‘She has jinxed us, she is a spy sent by that witch mother of hers, never before has this occurred, it is her coming which has brought this on us. They knew we were coming, never before-’ Mouth hanging open I looked at the rest, hoping they would save me but they all looked sullen, their eyes shifting unable to meet my own except for Huck who looked at me, eyes unblinking, ‘Was it you?’ He neither threatened nor pleaded, but I felt that he was holding his heart out to me and I could rip it to pieces or take it for my own. I shook my head slowly, my throat too tight and my eyes blurring with sharp tears which I hated, so I brushed them away quickly and clearing my throat I said in as placid a tone as I could, ‘No, not me, never.’ He stared at me long and hard, and I could see the wheels turn in his head before he breathed again heavily, and I blinked, for I knew he trusted me then. ‘There, we have our answer, is that enough for all?’ It was a challenge; Huck was challenging those he had trusted for so long for me. Did I feel worthy of this? No. I didn’t want to be the source of rift in their life. I could feel the shift in power in the chamber as spines stiffened and hands clenched, ‘Go on then, you have seen it yourself.’ Bold urged the rest as they stood undecided and I watched them, wary and yet unable to believe that they would doubt me.

‘I think we should heed Huck’s words.’ It was Nas, rubbing his tired eyes. I saw their bodies slacken, gentle unwinding which I would have missed if I didn’t know that there was trouble brewing. They lumbered, no smiles or laughter, even from Pick and Puck, but I hoped this would be the end of it, for Nas’s words were orders set in stone for them and I had not seen any amongst them stand against what he said, but not that day; Bold pushed Huck away, spitting at his feet. ‘I came close to death; my arm was almost hacked away to a stump and you think we should heed a man’s word who can’t see beyond the burn in his loins.’ Huck’s knife settled on Bold’s throat quicker than the snap of a finger. ‘Don’t you dare cast aspersions on my loyalty Bold, take it back.’ And as they bickered amongst themselves it dawned on me slowly. I was the trouble, even if I was not the spy. I was what sowed distrust amongst them; the hate which came after that made me keel and throw up bile, it went unnoticed as more knives were drawn and I didn’t know who was on which side, but they stood with murder written on their faces. ‘I’ll leave, by the next full moon I will leave, bear with me till then.’ They heard me not above the hubris of men, for my voice sounded timid even to me and then from a well deep within I gathered the strength which burst upon them as the breaking of a dam as I shouted the same words again. I could see it stunned them, even Bold who stood nursing the gaping wound. I shocked them enough to make them lower their weapons, Nas stared at me long and hard, ‘You cannot leave, will not leave. It was my folly that I brought you to our hide out, but now you know where it is and until we find another you will stay and- we will trust her.’ The last words he spoke to the rest and they all grunted accepting what he had to say, though Bold hawked nastily and spat at my feet before stomping to his corner and sleeping with his back to us. Nas ordering me to stay was all well and fine for others, not for me. I had forgotten my duties and was reminded of it with a sharp rap on my knuckles. Huck tried to be kind to me, but from that day forth I thwarted his advances intentionally for I knew Bold was watching everything I did. I could see the hurt in Huck’s eyes, but I would rather him fall out of love with me than see him die in his sleep. Once I found the escape

from here it would all go back to how it had been between them, before my unlucky little feet graced their threshold.

Weiss Chapter 10 ☐☐

They resisted the urge to raid again. Malca had stretched her talons far and wide, what her magic had failed to attain she was buying with my father’s silver and there were many who were willing to sell the hideout of the seven bandits if they got a whiff of it. So, they stayed, stewing and grumbling, finding odd works around the place. Some whittled wood into animals, which hung as charms around the chamber and a few more made flutes and harps, which in their untrained hands made screeching horrendous noises. But I had eyes only for Bold, who hardly uttered a word as he nursed his arm, his blame filled eyes finding my own. I would stare at him unblinking, until he looked away; but I knew he was waiting to have his revenge and I knew it would be soon. It was a brilliant day outside. Bold whose pallet was right next to a grime filled window was curled up, his blanket pulled right over his head as the rest sweltered in the heat. I watched knowing something was not right. My hands busy shelling the peas, providing a welcome relief to my mind which felt like a disturbed ant’s nest. He moved and with him the blanket moved too. I saw him holding the mirror in his hand, the same jewel encrusted beauty they had brought from my father’s castle, a mirror my mother had never owned and it looked like something of Malca’s had found its way to us. I wondered what he saw within the dark folds of a blanket, when I was surprised by the vision of a pale face like that of a court jester’s float in and out of the glass. I rubbed my eyes but the face remained and I swore as I realised that this was no figment of my imagination. Bold swiftly turned and looked at me, as if he knew that I had seen what he held. The hatred that burnt in his face was plain to me, my only dilemma was should I speak of the mirror to the rest? I didn’t want to cause another fight, but the mirror and the face within it felt all wrong. The turmoil inside of me made me shell the peas with a vengeance. I looked at Huck, who lifted his eyes and smiled at me, the affection in them for me evident. Did I have the same intent for him? I was not sure, but he protected me when my own had abandoned. I did owe him the return of his goodness. But would this not mire you in their skirmishes? And what

proof would you have, the face could just easily vanish if you didn’t know how to call it forward. I nodded at the sane cold thoughts my mind came up with. Would Huck be foolish to offend them all for me? Would I make him do that? I felt sick, inaction would mean I would let the mirror be their downfall. I decided to wait and catch Bold unaware, in the act of practising whatever vile form of magic Malca had imbibed in the mirror. In the morning, when they were well rested, then I would speak. My mind overburdened with thoughts of duty and loyalty, I slept fitfully, impatiently waiting for the morning sun. My first task was to warm the milk brought by stealth by Purzel, avoiding the eyes of Malca’s henchmen. Some days we had to make do with just water with bread, milk was a luxury now. Dreaming of how I could drink milk with honey, I reached for a pot, round and heavy to pour the milk in. The asp struck quick, it had been waiting for me silent and coiled in the dark corner. It was by luck that my hands clutched right beneath its maws. It wriggled and danced, struggling as it’s venomous teeth tried to dip into the flesh of my palms, but I held steadfast and though my heart raced and legs quivered I called out with a steady voice, ‘Huck, please, please…’ He must have heard the fear in my voice because within a moment he was next to me, his eyes wide with fear as he realised what I held in my hand. ‘Stay still and calm.’ He murmured as if I had any other choice. He beckoned Puck who neared me with a curved sharp scythe, its edge thinner than a blade of grass. They counted to three and as quick as that the blade severed the head of the asp from its body and Huck wrapped the head-which was still twitching, within a leather wrap. ‘Careful now.’ Puck murmured as Huck held the dead asp in a sack with the top of his fingers and I stood with the blood of the snake oozing down my hand as its silk-like black body writhed in pain for a few moments and then stilled. I threw it away in horror, my legs giving away beneath me. ‘It’s ok Weiss, hush now, it’s dead.’ Puck consoled me as Huck inched closer, his hands reaching out to hug me and then I think he thought better of it and he walked away calling over his shoulder to bring the flint and the oil.

Blindfolding me, they took me outside. They burnt it in the open, a small fire to hide from the spies, when they returned, there was a lot of patting of backs and praising of my courage. Huck tried to hold my hands but I moved away and he watched me with the pain of a child cheated, but they didn’t see what I saw writ plain and clear, the disappointment on Bold’s face. I couldn’t hold it within me aymore, this was for their safety, not my own, six of them to be precise, for Bold was a lost cause. I waited till we were within the windmill and they splashed an old wine into grimy old glasses. Bold quickly refused to join them and curled within his blankets, an act which became a norm. I waited till they drank the first draught, happy faces content with a sense of achievement. Tiptoeing close to Bold, catching him unaware I ripped the blanket away and as expected there was the mirror with the pale jester’s face, an eerie grin adorning it. I grabbed the mirror and in the shock of the moment Bold let go and before I could warn them all the face within the mirror spoke, ‘Ah! It’s you again, I have missed looking at you from far, Malca making me watch you so many times. But I never tired of it, and I enjoyed telling her you were still the fairest of them. But it has been so long now since any has asked me that question again. Quickly then ask away, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’ I flung the mirror across the stone floor and it clattered. Bold lunged for it but Pick was quicker and he had his arms around Bold’s neck, choking him making him turn purple. I stood trembling, it was an excess of excitement for a single morning and my heart was close to giving up. But the mirror lay pristine, its glass uncracked as the face within it tried to look at us, a futile task as it faced the roof. We looked at each other terrified, unmoving, rooted to our spots lacking imagination as to what needed to be done. Nas was the quick thinker and snatching a cloth he covered that haunting face in the mirror, ‘Hey let me see around, I tire of the dark, and yes I will give you the answer, it’s Snow White, still Snow White, the fairest of all.’ It fell silent as we paced, fingers on our lips, Pick silencing Bolt with a ham like hand clamped on his mouth and Nas took the mirror. We moved out of the doors and into the tunnel, where the water ran dank and damp. I looked around my eyes adjusting to the dim light, in their

haste to leave they had forgotten to blindfold me. I saw the lock and it’s knack and the tunnel and where it led, the trick in the stairs which could send one unaware hurtling into a chasm and quick death. I imprinted it in my memory, as the rest carefully stepped out into the copse of trees and at a nod from Nas, Pick released his bind on Bold. ‘I beg, forgive, forgive. I’ve been living in fear of being caught. She’s terrible, she is. I have heard stories of the queen. Stories which can shrivel your innards.’ Bold begged and pleaded and swore that he was led astray. ‘Bold, if you came to us before Weiss ousted you, it would have meant you respect us as brothers. Now, it’s just cheap, this begging and pleading.’ Nas’s words were filled with sadness. A family, a trust held for years was shattered. I could see they found it hard to believe Bold, but Nas reminded him of their promises when they had begun. He was one amongst them so they took him back, letting him know that it would be a long time before they trusted him. They warned him they would watch him at all times and one of them would shadow him endlessly, for years if need be until they could trust him again and he nodded morosely, head hung tearfully between palms. We entered the belly of the windmill again and the mirror was taken to the farthest and darkest corner. At a glance from Nas, Puck pulled the cloth away and Huck who had shrouded his face except for his eyes put the mirror up, behind him stretched the darkest of walls giving not a clue as to where they were. ‘Let’s hear Malca and your story now, shall we?’ He asked of the mirror and it came in bits and pieces as we coaxed and bribed it, the bribe being that it would see me again and again. Huck was quick to snatch the mirror away repeatedly, not letting the mirror see my face for long, and I could sense his mounting worry, but the rest wanted answers same as me and I heard its words, the reaper’s laugh ringing in my ears. It showed us, Malca as a baby, as ugly as a child could be: hair thick on her face and limbs pale as the dead. Her drunken father who took pleasure in beating her mother, as Malca hid shivering behind rags and clothes, helpless eyes watching the hands fall. The same child waking to her mother’s body one day, cold and hard, dead, no longer answering to her cries. Her father abandoning her for he felt she looked like a toad.

Malca - a child ridiculed and stoned, until she hated her own face, hungry and rejected by the world. Her being found by a strange man who made her dance to his tunes, seeking to use her strong magic and rip her soul to live forever and ever and never to die. He offered her beauty and the child-pure and innocent, accepted him as her saviour. Her being ravaged by ruthless men, a cruel penalty for asking questions of him; his making her guilelessly believe that his truth was the only truth. It showed her yearning for the ocean and the truth of her state she discovered there. It showed the erosion of her trust, of her loss of faith in all that was human. She had carried the mirror with her always since then but never glancing into it, forgetting to be beautiful after his death. It showed her age swiftly, skin sagged under her eyes and paling like a dead fish- for she ruthlessly learnt more of the magic, forgetting of her beauty until she found the mirror again. It was tucked away, within her belongings, where none would find it despite searching. She had tucked it away, until the day she was steeped in magic. Malca had forgotten of beauty, as her magic gave her all she needed, but the mirror reminded her of all the hurt. As soon as she looked in the mirror, it asked her in its sing song voice, ‘So ask of me then, who is the fairest of them all.’ It lit a fire of vengeance in her, against those who born with the luck of wealth and comely looks. She went around cheating them, gathering their youth one way or another, just as he had taught her to; but now she did it for herself not for another. She was mad with the want for vengeance, for justice until she had enough magic in her to transform to the most beautiful witch on land. She spent her years, using her magic to be beautiful and glean what she needed of wealthy merchants and mighty rulers of distant lands, and for years the mirror answered truthfully saying there was none other as beautiful as her, and then I came along. At the beginning when I was a babe and a child, the mirror hesitated at Malca’s questions, but the answer still remained true, that she was the fairest of them all.Then I began stepping into my youth and the mirror changed its answers. Distressed she searched for me, high and low, far and near, until she heard of the princess being called Snow White, the one who attracted men and women like pilgrims. It brought the worms which had lain dormant in her brain to feed, she felt the insults again,

the ridicule which cut bone deep, so she made the journey to see for herself and all her fears had come true- of losing everything she had sacrificed so much for. The rest I knew, of how she used the jewel to kill my mother and how she began to poison me and used that to weaken my father. I felt sorry for her, for the child she had been, the horror she had lived through and the trust she had lost. A lump formed in my throat, I didn’t know what was right or wrong anymore. ‘Can she see us now?’ Huck’s tense words broke into my reverie at which the mirror’s face spilt into an eerie smile, ‘Oh! She wishes, though she still has a sliver of my twin, the rest of him shattered into dust. He dares to peek into my soul, the teeth on him!’ Its smile dimmed and then woke up again, ‘She tries peeking through when I am asleep, using my brother to work her magic and that’s how she got your man there to leave the asp as a gift for my fairest.’ It looked around, the smile still playing on its lips as if expecting praise. Huck was quick to draw the cloth on the mirror when it shouted again, “I have more, please, please don’t put me in the dark.” ‘What is it?’ Huck asked in a worried tone. ‘A prince searches for his princess, the one who haunts his dream. He has fallen in love with the woman he sees in his head built of the praise which has travelled across lands-as bards’ songs, and as painters muse. He dreams of Snow White’s beauty and what he dreams, he finds. He has come to Malca, who wants to make him her king.’- the mirror looked at me with kindness, ‘King Sala is on his deathbed my fairest. And Malca needs the people’s goodwill. She searches fiercely for Snow White now- to be rid of you and make the prince her own; with a doubling of men and expending magic more than before she searches far and wide having not me to be her eyes. She will come for you, fairest of all…’ Huck wrapped the mirror quickly as their worried looks rested on me. ■

Malca Chapter 11 ☐☐

I began to doubt myself, everything I did, I saw a shadow of doubt. My powers were playing up, erratic, it reminded me of when he left me and made me believe that I was nothing without him. I lashed out, punishing every folly and every fault. None could please, all were traitors, none around me to trust. My mirror was lost to me, that which was my constant companion, my own flatterer who would never deceive me of the truth. It had travelled with me and seen the best and worst of me, as a true companion it had stood by me without an ounce of judgement. In its absence, I felt my magic spiral dangerously, out of my reach. Its brother but a pale companion, whom I sought to use and failed miserably. I threw him away, in a moment of rage and he shattered weak where his brother had been strong. Those men, those seven bandits dared to steal from under my nose. The taking of silver or gold was not my concern, but they stole off me my mirror and then they had dare take Snow White from me. It should have calmed me that they had taken her away, that I would no longer be besieged by her beauty which far exceeded mine and had cost her nothing to acquire. And yet all these words which I spoke to myself couldn’t calm me. What of the dreams I had spun? The dreams I had finally dared to dream after years and years of being thwarted at every turn. Why was it that she deserved so much more than me? Did her beauty make her more deserving of all the good the world had to

offer? How did the world find the will to inflict pain and suffering on another who was born but a prisoner of their birth? No, I would not let her escape. My dreams were not to be scattered as ashes to wind. I wanted her here, my prisoner so I could mould myself in her form. If I was not born as her, I had enough power within me to become her. What was not mine by birth, I would take by force. I have learnt harsh lessons, the world respects power, wealth and beauty. I would make what is not mine my crowning glory. The people of Liyan will all love me then. With the king dying a slow death, I will rule them all. I will kill my likeness once I am Snow White, illusions, the world sees what it wants to see. I will find a prince to marry and I will live finally, truly as the most beautiful woman with all that I deserved. A loving husband, a child…could I dare for such a blessing? ‘Your highness.’ It was Talion, the one who sacrificed his daughter for the forwarding of my plans. I wanted to be waspishly annoyed with him, instead a sliver of pity escaped me. I pushed it away with annoyance, there would be no chink in my armour, I had trusted and paid enough. ‘There is no sign of them. We have searched high and low. Either they hide too well or they are helped by those who believe in them, their belief stronger than their fear.’ His eyes were hollow, I knew he yearned for nothing anymore. He was dying, a corrosion eating away in his chest. I could see him coughing blood in the coming months. A pang of guilt clawed at my heart which made me angry, I stifled it and looked at him with an anger I no longer felt. ‘Pay them more then, those who claim they’ll ferret them out. The ones who have the gift of ratting and snitching, let them sneak into houses, eavesdrop on gossip. Haunt the ones who help those bandits, create an atmosphere of fright such that they fear their own shadows. Hunger, root them out with hunger who is a strong motivator. How long will they evade, they will need food, grains and milk, bread and salt. They will come and when they come let us not be found lacking.’ He bowed his head and walked away; he was mine to command. He didn’t know I was what had killed his cherished daughter, it was I who drove her madness to impale herself. He thought he was sacrificing himself for the kingdom, the fool, I felt sorry for him.

A twisting pain seared my belly, my guilt was almost physical. In anger I flung the goblet I drank of, ‘Bring me the men who stole your princess, shameless wretches.’ My form was terrible to behold as I let loose vermin and beasts, they raced from my fingers to their throats. They screamed and ran and I knew that my days were numbered. They knew I had hateful magic within me, the word would spread and if I didn’t find the mirror to aide my magic soon- my strength would fail when they would arrive with their sticks and stones, fire and scythes. One I could face and then a ten, but a mob of hundred would come with a magic of its own-of lost hopes of fathers and shattered dreams of mothers, who had no fear to spare. I clutched the blue gem at my throat, rubbing it in that same fear…fear- it was long since I had felt her and sweat pooled and trickled down my back with her unwelcome presence. Unexpected are the tidings of change, when they come, they bring joy and sorrow in equal measure. In my dark days as I waited for word of either the bandits or Snow White, there came at the castle doors one who would change the course of my life. The king was in his chamber never to leave- wasting away. I visited him out of curiosity one day. In recent times, I rarely took the youth of others- the blue gem around my neck would assure that my beauty would last me thousands of years. I had gone beyond the churlish needs of needing to look beautiful. I needed more now. I walked in and stood watching the king, wondering how long it would take for worry to leech him of his life, I had to find Snow White before that. ‘You think you have won; such an empty existence is yours. One day you will lose that which you love above all.’ His voice was soft, so soft that I wondered if I imagined his curse, but the rictus like grin on his face was real, as real as was the mad glint in his eyes. He rarely spoke now and his words brought back fear, clawing and gnawing, laughing its way in. ‘I will never ever be as wretched as you.’ I screamed at him, but he carried on grinning and I knew he had lost all fear of death. Having lost so much that nothing more could be lost; he was waiting death with the courage of the warrior he had been. He had lived, for his own, he had lived and loved.

It reminded me of myself and I was terrified. I slipped away from his presence, unsettled. Ages since another had shown me the truth I feared the most, it took my breath, painfully. It made me remember I never truly lived. I had been an instrument of death, snatching from those I thought deserved my ire. Not this family though. I tried to suppress this thought, but it kept repeating itself and a familiar terror returned, of no power, magic or beauty being equivalent to being loved and wanted. I hid in my chambers for long days and torturous nights, sleep eluding me- Why such soul-searching questions now when I have gone without them for hundreds of years. Why this morality? Answers eluded me. I raced down the stairs one day, refusing to stew in the pits of morality. I had wanted all of this and I received it. With pride I sat the throne, and let the court resume around me- listening to folk who begged and pleaded, speaking of stolen beasts and fallow farms. I measured them with a shrewd eye, and I found lacking within them what I saw in me. A will to live and fight, a will to be victorious at all costs. ‘Stop snivelling at my feet. If any has wronged you have the courage to squeeze his throat and take what is rightfully yours. If you can’t or won’t, then there is none who can help you. I will help you once and then twice and then even I will tire of helping you and he who takes will know of it and he will come and take it all.’ Their sobs were stunned into silence at my cruel assessment of their state. Wet eyes dried with a snap of fingers- they walked spines rigid with the truth of what was said. I rolled my eyes wondering how all could miss this simple truth, and waited for the next to come. I rejoiced in peddling out hard truths, fight for them and they will want you to fight their whole lives, teach them to fight and they will never darken my doors again. I saw the guard who raced to the minister and the minister who raced to Talion, all from the corner of my eyes as I heard the grievance of another poor farmer, who was speaking of the death of his milch cows and the help he needed to survive the coming winter. Talion walked to me with the same dead look in his eyes, a look of wanting death and yet not being brave enough to die. ‘There’s someone at the castle doors who calls himself a prince. The guard says he comes riding a steed scarce seen in our land, a beast so fine that one can admire it for days on end. It is as black as obsidian but

with a star of white on its brow. He described this to let me know that the man astride on it exceeds even its beauty. He says he has no words for the handsome man and we should be receiving him with fanfare.’ A twitch of curiosity flared within me and I nodded for the man to be brought within. Who had travelled so far, was it to see my beauty? He came riding his horse into the midst of our court which was dimly lit with tapers and candles. The sun was shrouded and so the hall gleamed in an ethereal glow that only candle light could bring and in that he appeared luminescent. I, who have seen much in this world have never seen beauty of his kind. His ravenous locks curled at the nape of his neck, thickly they fell across his brow, stopping short of shrouding his green eyes. His nose was fine and his mouth curled into a wonderful smile, his cheeks were high and smooth. His carriage was that of a true prince born into wealth and luxury and as he dismounted, I heard a collective sigh escape those who were assembled in the court. He walked with complete belief of his own enamouring beauty, he looked around acknowledging and smiling at each and every one as though he knew them from ages. The rest could hardly not be swayed by his charm. He climbed the steps to the throne in assurance of his own charm. He picked my hand off my lap and planted a soft kiss, one which sent a trembling yearning down my throat. ‘My lady.’ His voice was deep and strong, and it sent thrills down my spine. I warned myself to not be a fool, beauty, was that not which I hated and loved in equal measure? He had everything I hated-bestowed on him, the lineage of a noble birth, beauty and wealth, comfort and luxury born into and not earned. And yet, my eyes drank his beauty which was more than just the comeliness of his looks. There was a depth of strength which reminded me of the oceans, a vastness of character akin to the sky. In him I could find home. I hissed at this thought, troubled and anxious, knotting my brows to warn him; but he carried on smiling in his charming way, not perturbed by my stern face. His black steed stood still as a picture in the centre of my court, its coat gleaming black, its eyes bright as opals.

‘I have travelled far,’ His words shamefully reminded me that I was being a pitiful host and I asked him to be seated. By now the rest had gathered their breaths and yet there was an air of expectation, as though he would summon gold dust from thin air and sprinkle it on us. ‘And…’ He began before any of us could question him. ‘Why are you here?’ I flung the question at him, eager to hear the answer I wanted. He pushed his hair back from his face, an avid wish on his lips and I leaned in to hear him praise me. ‘Where is Snow White?’ It was a slap on my face, and I swallowed the bitterness of it. Even after she had vanished, her memories haunted me and threatened to take my happiness away, a curse even in absence. ‘We don’t know.’ I replied, thankful that it was candle light he saw me in, for I felt my face itch and when it did, I knew the magic was wearing off. He looked around with an innocent anger on his face, as if he couldn’t fathom why we were all not out looking for her, the fairest girl of all. ‘Forgive me, I am prince Veln of Rathal. I…this will sound strange to you all, did so to my father too.’ He spoke in an aside, more to himself, as if in rumination. ‘Snow White; months I have tried to ignore the face which has been haunting me now, the beauty of it. It wraps me in its splendour. I have tried over and over to forget, ignore and decimate these thoughts, all in vain. I need to see her, talk to her, assure my mind that in truth she is not what my mind has elevated her to, the ideal dream I have ever dreamt.’ Even as he spoke, I saw the far away gleam in his eyes, a reaching for the unattainable and it cleaved my insides. I sat in front of him, I, whose beauty was sung of in a thousand kingdoms, I who had laboured to be beautiful, I who had given my sweat, blood and soul to be beautiful. And yet this man, beautiful intoxicating man came in search of her whom I had tried to erase the very existence of. I felt my skin split at the hairline, and the skin roll down as dense dark hair sprouted there. None noticed, for they were too fixated on him. I clenched my fist to stem the urge my fingers felt to touch them. He was droning on about her beauty, as my own mind roared and roiled, ‘Yes prince Veln, but some dreams are just dreams, and reality-’ I stressed on the word, my lips smiling in a dangerously alluring manner, ‘-always lays bare dreams. Don’t you think?’ I was shamelessly asking

him to acknowledge my beauty. He looked at me his eyes trying to undo the knot of my words, his face appearing cherubic which made my heart leap again. Shaking that soppy, sickeningly sweet feeling I looked at him wondering how long before he pounced on me in one of the darkened couloirs, and then how I would relish sucking all that is good and delightful and innocent in him. Innocent, why did I think of him as innocent? ‘Forgive me your highness, I cannot fathom what you mean. I come because these dreams are relentless and I need to be rid of them, either by taking her as my bride or by being rid of the notion that she is perfect in every sense.’ He spoke it earnestly, without guile, his eyes intent on my own. I felt myself drown in them, their green the colour of moss and wet days filled with wonderful promises. I shrank in horror from the sweet descriptions my heart was showering on him. Again, his innocence was unsettling, it was in sharp contrast to all the cunning I had accumulated over ages, it was peeling away all that was crude and malicious. He was stripping me bare to the core where my once pure heart had rested trustingly, where it knew no transgression. ‘Where is she, highness?’ His question stirred the anger again like a hornet’s nest. With effort I reined the anger in. ‘Prince Veln, she abandoned us the day the bandits raided our castle. I don’t know if they took her with them or if she left of her own accord.’ He seemed surprise by my accusations, ‘Why would she leave?’ ‘She… she began to exhibit an envy, a jealousy so strong that she was close to madness. We kept her in her chambers for fear of her going berserk. And then on the night the bandits came, she vanished. There was no sign of struggle.’ ‘What did she envy?’ I looked around at the court, my eyes striking terror in the hearts of all as I tried to be coy and whisper, ‘Me.’ His eyes widened as he looked at me with new interest, my magic felt a gust of freshness, the hairline became its youthful self, I made the candles flare a bit brightly and I heard him suck his breath as the veil of his dreams lifted off his eyes and he saw me, my beauty, my wonder. ‘I never noticed your highness’s beauty; it is truly breath-taking. But-’ My face fell at his last word, as his green eyes fell as if he was guilty of trespassing on what was not his, ‘-don’t you think your step daughter

deserves a chance? My dreams have never let me down and I have conquered much on the prophecies my dreams have brought me. I ask of you, your highness, to let me seek her and help ascertain if she truly is a corrupted soul.’ His words were acid on my heart, his persistence thrilling and stubborn. The court watched us silently, as they had become in my presence for months now. I glanced at Talion, who sat with his head bent, thumbs twiddling with each other. My decision was made. ‘So be it prince, tomorrow we ride then to the farthest corners to seek my daughter and see if you can bring her back from the brink of selfdestruction. Where you go, I shall come.’ I wish I had heard the sigh of the court or seen the dangerous spark in Talion’s eyes as he raised his head, but all I had were eyes for this beautiful prince who was unlike any other comely man I had ever met. Sooner or later he will slip and I will have my chance, I assured myself, finding a reason to delay the taking of his youth. He sat looking at me surprised, unable to refuse what was offered and then he bowed, accepting the finality of my words. ■

Weiss Chapter 12 ☐☐

Huck was worried, for me. It showed in his actions, in his eyes. He would glance at me every time someone mentioned the mirror. He looked like a sad animal and my heart went out to him for his anguish was almost palpable. Nas saw it too, for he would take Huck away and they would sit through the solitude of nights, whispering in corners.The rest didn’t complain, such was their trust in Nas and Huck. The worry turned to a smile, a smile of reassurance, one which spoke a promise of, ‘Worry not, I will be there for you.’ If I waited longer, I knew that he would win me over with his love which never expected anything in return. That was the best kind of love if one wanted to live happily ever after and the worse kind if one wanted to chase revenge and retribution. I was the second kind and I was gradually wanting the first kind of love. I had to leave and quickly before they became pawns in the games between me and Malca. The evening of the seventh day after the mirror’s confession I stepped out under the pretext of finding thyme and wild basil- for the wild hog they had hunted in the morning. A feast after days of eating stale bread and pithy greens, one which soured moods considerably along with the mirror’s presence. When I ventured out promising to return with herbs none suspected me. Huck blindfolded me and took me out. He followed me, not too close neither too far, his eyes cautiously looking around. I kept gathering, lulling him into a false sense of peace. I found the valerian after much searching, right next to a patch of thyme. Swiftly I swivelled around and faced Huck, my eyes accusing him of being too close, knowing he would cower and I lathered the guilt on him. ‘I need to go behind the bushes.’ He looked at me in an uncomprehending manner and then as understanding dawned, his face turned red. He nodded and turned away. I plucked as much Valerian as I could and then to assure him that I was truly doing what I promised I performed the act. We walked back together, him pointing the little bear and the great bear, where I only saw stars. ‘Do you know the story of the little and the great bear?’ Huck asked me softly. I shook my head vigorously- stories reminded me of

wonderful times and seeing my keenness he began without my asking. His voice was deep and strong, the perfect timbre for storytelling, it reminded me of father on a few, very few wonderful days that he had been just father and not the king, as he would recite to me tales old, the ones closest to his heart. I lost my father as I became an object of display, the king a distant emotion I could hardly fathom. ‘Some say they are the seven sages-’ Huck began, staring at the sky, least knowing of my pain, ‘- and with the greatest of the sage rests the star which can be seen on some nights, and they say it is his wife. These sages rewarded a young prince’s devotion by making him the brightest star in the small bear. In another it is said that a God came to earth and fell in love with a woman; but this God was already married to a Goddess. As he ventured in a forest with the human, he saw his wife approach and in fear he changed the human to a bear, hoping to return and turn her back into a human. The bear wandered the forest and with its human sharpness, it steered clear of the hunters who prowled in the forest. But as fate would have it, there came her son as a hunter and chased his mother, his spear splitting his mother’s heart. As she died the bear turned into a human, a woman cheated by her lover, a mother unknowingly killed by her son and the son grieved the killing of his mother such that the God who saw them in guilt changed them into stars, one the mother and the other the son, both as bears in the sky. In another the stars of the younger bear are said to be seven sisters who looked after a tree bearing golden apples. And yet in another there is a tale of a dragon guarding the tree of life.’ I was mesmerised, so many stories, so many tales written by different eyes seeing the same stars in the sky. ‘We see what our eyes wish to, don’t we?’ I asked him, in awe, my eyes glued to the sky, and in a sudden rush Malca’s thoughts stirred my mind. So many facets to the same person, how she must have suffered as a child? Turning I found Huck staring at me, his eyes filled with such devotion that I knew if he asked me to stay with him forever, I would have, choosing to forget my father, the kingdom and the fate of thousands. But he didn’t, he was too chaste for that, in his eyes I could see that he thought of me a princess and him a commoner, one whom he could worship but not claim. He turned and walked, lips trembling, I felt

a tear pool and drop on my cheek. I would always appear to be blessed and to have everything another could covet for and yet I was living a wretched life. Silently, I followed him, my resolve hard, as I clutched the valerian roots deep in the basket lost within the thyme and sage and basil. The more I thought of abandoning them, the more of the valerian did I grind, in anger at the world at large. They were deep snores at the end of the meal and I toyed with my meat for long, looking at them blurry eyed. I kissed my hand and placed it gently on Huck’s curled locks and to the rest I mimed a silent good bye. I escaped seven days after the mirror’s confession, the guilt of abandoning my father eating at me like a worm inside a rotten fruit. I didn’t know how I would avenge my mother, or how I would wrestle the kingdom from her; but I knew I had to leave. I felt the answers would come, I felt the skies assure me that there would be a way, now that I was no more under the sway of the poison. Maybe I could send a letter to Talion and let him know of the treachery of the queen, or I could walk to each and every part of the kingdom and denounce her, asking my father’s subjects to join me and fight her, rid the kingdom of her. I wandered through bramble and brush dreaming, until I knew I had lost the seven. Tired and with hunger ripe I sat in a clearing; the leaves lush around me. With me I brought the mirror, its face covered with old leather. In anger and disappointment, I unwrapped the leather, and the mirror’s face peeked from within the glass. ‘You look tired fairest. How about a drink of water?’ I watched it with interest, the curling of its red lips, the stark white paleness of its face and the black around its white priggish eyes. ‘What are you?’ I wondered aloud and it smiled smugly, its eyes crinkling into slits. ‘She never asked me this you know, Malca, always the same question. I wonder how much has she lost in life to be so bitter. Of course, he didn’t help much did he?’ ‘He, the one who taught her? Who was he?’ ‘Well, he was he. He never gave a name and none of us ever asked him for it. He knew she was special, her trust, her innocence was so

unique to him that he feared her. I doubt it was for this same reason that he let her kill him, overcome by guilt.’ ‘Was she a trusting child?’ I wanted to think of her with more compassion, as one human would think of another. I didn’t want to become her in my quest to save the land. ‘She trusted him like no other before her. Even after those men … Many who came before her on learning that this was how he taught hard lessons tried to kill him, but he crushed them with the smallest effort. But not her, she willingly accepted all that he asked of her, but he broke her trust and that she couldn’t fathom. Sad was their parting; I had truly come to adore them. I don’t mind though fairest. I am with you and I can gaze at you forever now.’ My brows knotted at the smile and quickly I covered the mirror. Its words made me think of my own decisions, to abandon the seven, abandoning Huck. Was I right? When he had dared to face the wrath of the rest vouching for me? And what of his affection? What of your affection for him? My mind asked and I pushed it away, having no answer for it. I heard a brook in the distance, a soft gurgling and I followed a path to it, my lips parched and my limbs weak and heavy. The water tasted sweet and it refreshed my mind, and it pushed my hunger away from my mind. I travelled further, opening the mirror at every chance I had for want of a voice to talk to. I was no brave warrior; I was nothing beyond a pretty face who had nothing in me except my birth to make me worthy of ruling a land. Would I rule the land better than Malca was? Had my father not built his own empire by razing to ground the dreams and families of so many others? So many questions and no answers, I asked them to the mirror who just smiled and told me that I am strange, I should be pretty and leave such worrying to those less blessed than me. Strangely I met not a single spy of Malca and I wondered if the mirror had something to do with it. And then it happened one day, a man, his eyes strangely crossed looked right at me as I stepped out of a copse. I flinched as I saw him, his grubby hands pushing aside the shrubs which blocked his path and in another he held a scythe, sharp and curved, its blade cutting, slicing the shrub with ease. I knew, right then and there that he had come in search of me – he was, undoubtably, one of Malca’s spy’s; for who else

would venture so far forgoing food and water, where there was strangely a paucity of game or fruit, why would he venture so far. I stood frozen as a statue residing in my father’s castle’s courtyard. His eyes missed me, he stood as if not finding a further path or as if the path was uninteresting to him. He picked his nose and then used a twig to clean his teeth, all the while I stood and watched him, still unable to move out of fear. It was like the man couldn’t see me, he was blind to my presence-or was he unseeing me? It felt as though I was escaping a nightmare as I fought my fingers and then my arms and then my lips, one by one, in a slow painful manner and I gasped as if I was drowning and was pulled out of the ocean. Still the man couldn’t see me and it was with a slow realisation that I saw what looked a film stretch between me and him, a haze which when I touched it blurred his image as the reflection in water and it dragged his eyes to where I had touched it, a dip and a ripple. He rubbed his eyes and then looked at the place more intently as I stepped back into the copse carefully, my eyes- wild and terrified, watching him as a cornered animal; but he seemed to lose his interest and he wandered on and as he put his back to me. Clutched in his palm I saw a figurine in my likeness and all my worries were confirmed then. ‘Are you helping me?’ I asked the mirror after sitting in grave silence of double the length of time it would take the man to be miles away from me. My calves ached and my joints refused to obey as I stretched. ‘Is it forbidden that I help?’ The mirror asked in a worried tone and I pulled it out of its leather and looked at its smiling face. ‘Why though? You have always helped her and the likes of her.’ ‘Goes to show, doesn’t it? The power of being.’ It took several moments for the mirror’s words to sink in as I ruminated on them, ‘But then it means you will become as powerless as me, you will be as weak as I am. You will be worthless.’ I blurted it out, without a thought. It sighed and then smiled again, ‘Are you worthless then fairest, don’t you have anything within you. Did your father consider himself worthless as he rose from amidst rabble and make this kingdom?’ Its words made me squirm with guilt. I knew nothing and I abandoned those who had thwarted Malca repeatedly, and set off believing that I could face the most powerful witch there was.

‘He had strength…’ and then I strangely realised he had nothing more with him than the conviction of his thoughts, the belief in his own strength. He didn’t have Malca’s magic or the mirror’s illusion and yet he was one of the greatest that ever was. ‘Well you do have love, a desire to help, a want to serve and a belief that you will do good by your people. Is that not enough for you? Is it not enough that you believe you can help the innocents despite all that you lack?’ The mirror barged into my thoughts, making me uncomfortable and hot at the same time. ‘But everyone has that with them, the ability to trust, to love, to have compassion and kindness.’ I was surprised that the mirror thought of this as special and it laughed at me, a deep throaty laugh. ‘You would be surprised fairest; you would be surprised at how many lack what is splendid and yearn for that which is undesirable. Never think of what you have as less, your desire is truly powerful. It is desire which made the world, it is desire which made Malca what she is, she never doubted herself. She never doubted she could be the most powerful, and she became what she was. She had her journey and believed and became what she was. If you truly believe and do what you believe needs to be done to set your people free, as long as you believe, it will come. And I will become as you’ ‘Huh, granny’s tale, you mock me.’ But the mirror didn’t laugh again, nor did it speak of how I could defeat Malca, it became a mirrorwithout a voice or a face and fell silent, leaving me to wrestle with my own thoughts. And so, slowly but surely as I forded streams and walked through valleys, believing I was on my way to the kingdom; I believed that I have it within me to rid the land of her and a small part of me also wanted to find within me the will to forgive her and let her free. I believed and it would be done. ■

Malca Chapter 13 ☐☐ We travelled with the smallest of retinue, him and me and a band of soldiers I took on the might of money, none who were loyal to the king did I want with me. These hired hands would be easy to lose and kill too, for none would remember them nor would there be difficult questions asked. To Talion I handed the reigns of the kingdom, assured that he had no intention to usurp- who would he leave it to, whom did he have to pass it on? In that assurance I left him guarding the land. Also, untrusting as I was- I bewitched the ravens who sat on the towers and the rats who scurried through the castle, they would be my eyes and ears, nose and tongue for when I returned; for my magic would travel swiftly to smite those who dared to challenge me in my absence. My magic was strongest in the castle, carrying my imprint in its stone and brick. ‘Are you sure your highness that you want to come?’ I could see the discomfit in Veln’s eyes, a restless movement in his face and his limbs as if he detested my coming and he would be better left to his own devices. Stranger and stranger, every man I had met, until he truly knew me, whatever be his age- had attempted to throw himself at me, in cloistered corners, in blackened couloirs. Not this one, he seemed distant, my beauty a distraction to him, an unwelcome distraction. A warmth in my chest pooled, something long forgotten, something I had last felt for him, he whom I had destroyed for having broken my trust. I shook myself as a hound and hardened my mind, this man would be no different, no, no different. I abandoned the dreams of a princess in a happily ever after and truly accepted that I would be nothing more than the evil witch. ‘Yes, Prince Veln, I would like to be nowhere else as you search and find my daughter.’ I stressed on the word daughter, a lame attempt to impress on him that I truly loved her, still did. He nodded looking unconvinced and it irked me, this man who had come from a far-off land saying he was a prince, what proof did he give, except the steed which looked its part. I held his hand, and in that moment, I saw his birth and his upbringing and everything there was for me to know.

He pushed me away forcefully. I knew he must have felt the squeezing of his chest and the dimming of light in his eyes as I raked through his memories. ‘What, what was that?’ He asked me in anger and with fear, I pretended to be coy and innocent, my eyes looking around appearing as shocked as he was. ‘I don’t know Prince, what was it I felt when I touched you.’ He narrowed his eyes and after a passing shadow of doubt he looked around, seeking another whose mischief it could have been. All around us, the groomsmen, the soldiers, the nobles stood, each busy in the tasks set to them. The horses were skittish, they always felt my spells as did the hounds. I sang a song to them softly under my breath and they calmed, and so did he, his eyes greener than the forests which I loved. ‘Better be on our way then highness, we will have to halt once the night is on us.’ Though, I knew from the twist of his lips, he would have ridden faster and quicker without me in a litter being lugged by men. Grinning with the expectation of surprising him, I swiftly seated myself on a brown mare, a beast to match his own. I knew I sat my horse as good as a man- with some- even better. I could see the annoyance in his eyes turn to wonder and outright admiration and I laughed as I set the horse to a trot squeezing my legs. He rose to the challenge and swung himself into his black beast’s saddle and we set off before the rest realised, we were on our way. Our small posse thundered through the land as people watched us with wide eyed wonder. As we made our way to the paths winding through the forests, I felt young, truly young after many, many years. I rode the horse with guileless abandon, letting my golden hair uncoil and flow with the wind. I saw him take in this wildness of me, I hoped this would entice him to like me and forget about Snow White, but he looked away, determined on the task ahead and my happiness fell a notch. In that same anger I sought the ravens around me, asking them to be my eyes from above me. They could search what I would miss, the only fall was the farther away they travelled the murkier the visions would be. I cast them to the wind and asked them to seek Snow White, and they flew away making shrill alarm calls. Prince Veln looked up in surprise at the murder flying above him and then he glanced my way,

his eyes narrowed. He didn’t ask me anything though, instead he spurred the horse and galloped away, his eyes scanning the hushed forest for any sign of Snow White. Dusk fell swiftly, and the trees sighed as if settling down after having completed their tasks. The sky spilled golden and pink and I reined my horse, shouting out to him. ‘We rest now, Prince Veln.’ My shout made them all halt and he cantered back around to me, his horse not having broken a sweat. ‘A bit further.’ He said his eyes forever searching and it smote my heart, his innocence did. ‘No Prince Veln, we rest. The horses need it and so do the men and you as well. A tired mind is like a flogged horse, it’ll un-see what is right in front of it.’ He agreed, though I could sense the reluctance in him. The camp was set and we sat eating pheasant, his voracious hunger making me laugh. We drank wine from dust rimmed goblets and one of the guards broke into a strange song She came as the wind on a sullen night Her hair the colour of silver light She robbed the light from all our lamps And fled with them to the wilder lands Little wisps in the distance now Chased forever and never caught She came as the wind on a sullen night Her hair the colour of silver light. The tone was haunting, reminding one of lost love and unfulfilled wishes and we sat lost in the dancing flames of fire, each seeing our deepest desire in the blazing light. Slowly one by one they retired, one to guard and the rest to rest by turns. I sat nursing my glass as did Veln, whose lips were twisted in sadness. ‘How did you find the conviction to follow what could have been just a dream?’ I asked suddenly, a curiosity raging in my heart. This was a courage I didn’t know or possess, to take a chance, to chase a fleeting wisp of a thought. Would I ever have such courage? I wondered.

‘Well- they haunt me. Have you not heard the call of your soul, one which is persistent and knocking despite you trying to push it down and throttle it; thinking of it as nothing more than a whim of your mind?’ I shook my head, looking at him with new found wonder, imagining what it must feel, that urge he was describing. ‘Some calls die, a few quickly and a few more gradually, as long as you can bury them. And then they are some which persist, despite you ignoring them, berating them, trying to destroy them -until you are left with no other recourse but to pursue them. It may or may not come to fruition; I have realised that- but each journey has taught me immensely and I would not have it any other way.’ The flames danced in his green eyes as I felt that same ache in my heart build over again. This time it was strong, as if a hand was clutching and squeezing my heart and the astonishing part was, I wanted more of it. A warmth tingled in my belly and my limbs, making them light- a magic I had never met before. Softly I asked of him, surprising myself which was quite unlike me, ‘So you don’t covet the kingdom or the title?’ He laughed at this, the most beautiful sound to fill my ears. ‘I have enough of mine your highness, and if I truly want something and it is right, I will take it by the strength of my arms and the wit of my mind. Not by cheap tricks.’ I knew this to be true, having seen it with my own eyes. My resolve was shattered, try as I might I couldn’t find the vileness I had come to expect from men in him, true he was a touch vain about his looks, but other than that I could hardly find fault. And again, despite you having everything you will never have a man like him beside you. Your true king pines for his wife and here you are chasing one who loves another. A part of my mind, the one which stole all the warmth off me despite the roaring fire, croaked and snivelled. In anger I shattered the glass I held in my hand. ‘Your highness!’ Veln uttered sharply rushing to my aid and I watched him, as he picked glass out of my fingers and dressed the wound, and with a pang I realised what I found so wonderful about him. It was his kindness, not his comely appearance, or his strength. I had met many such men and none had pleased me. But this man, he was kind and

caring, and it wrenched my heart. I never knew kindness, even him, his kindness had never been true kindness to me. Prince Veln lead me to the small yurt erected for my comfort, he wished to sleep under the stars like the rest, for the sky was clear and beautiful. As he left me, the snivelling voice was back and it spoke of how I could never aspire for such love. And that stirred the coals of displeasure- of being cheated of what was rightfully mine. Calling to the winds, I beseeched the ravens, their eyes becoming my own as I searched in an explosive rage filled desire to find Snow White. She lay huddled in a small fox hole to the west of where we were. In her hand she held something clad in leather and she moaned in her sleep as she shivered with cold. I knew what I had to do, and I lay awake still as a stone, looking for daylight. I was waiting, in my drabbest of gown, as they woke from their deepest of sleeps. I made myself appear sick and tired, my face drawn and grey. ‘Highness, looks like the wild does not agree with you, you should have stayed behind in the castle. I should have not let you come with me.’ Veln appeared to be genuinely worried for my wellbeing and I felt that warmth again. ‘No Prince Veln, a little rest and I will truly be fine. You can go forth, leave a guard with me, they are my trusted men and I will catch up in no time.’ I replied in a glum voice, just enough to worry him, but not so much that he decides to stop. After much discussion, he agreed though I could see he was not thoroughly convinced. I saw him take the guard aside and instruct him and I knew he was reassuring himself that he was leaving me safe. ‘I am well trained Prince Veln, worry not your heart so much. And it is but a day’s ride away from the castle, I can return if I wish to. So, don’t you wait.’ And with much cajoling and reassuring, he set off, leaving me and the lonely guard. I waited for the sun to brighten, putting enough distance between me and him. With a flick of my wrist the guard slipped into sleep and I raced through the forest, my raven’s eyes showing me where Snow White was. A smile broke out on my lips, I wouldn’t have to hold back now, no. I could take her beauty and

become her, none would be the wiser. I could truly become Snow White and Veln would love me just as he loved her. I would become Snow White and he would be my prince. ■

Weiss Chapter 14 ☐☐

A hare darted close to me, its innocent eyes looking into mine as I sat clutching at my belly. Hunger raked the insides of me and it made my head spin. This part of the forest had not been kind, search as I might, even berries were hard to be seen- the roots I had dug made my gums bleed and ripped my nails. Weak and dejected, I sat under an oak whose hissing leaves felt like my mother’s last words, soft and reassuring. Tears pooled and rolled down my cheeks. ‘Mother, I am lost, help me.’ I whispered. The mirror no longer spoke neither did it show itself which worried me that it was hiding in fear of something. I was alone and helpless, and that’s when the hare darted close to me, a clump of blue berries in its mouth. I tried reaching out but it dropped the fruit and leapt away. My hunger had reached a frenzy and I stuffed my mouth with the berries, eating them with greed- my heart began to thunder, then my vision blurred, as my need for water made me claw my throat. Fool, fool I was and I knew it before she came, her iron stench of magic preceding her. ‘I would have found you if it had taken me a hundred years.’Malca whispered into my ears and then laughing, she sang a magic at me. It was old, the sound of it and its words, older than the trees around me and the earth under my feet. I watched her through my blurred eyes as she changed from being the beauty she was to the crone who had come to the court. She sang and the song in my mind was beautiful, it reminded me of a valley in spring, filled with a tapestry of flowers. I smiled as she sang, a blissful calm sneaking into my legs and then my belly until it climbed right into my eyes and I saw a perfect world, with mother-loving and kind, father- filled with joy and me nestled between them, our hands linked as the golden sun beat down upon us, the wonderful scents and beautiful butterflies weaving a charm. ‘This is not right; this is not right!’ Malca was screeching. The burning returned as did the thundering of my heart. I wanted to scream and cry, but my eyes burnt with hot unshed tears and I croaked as my throat dried. The leaves rustled as if trying to cool me, but the poison was strong and I choked and flailed around.

I could see Malca take a terrible form, the singing now a harsh medley, the magic sounding all wrong. She knew whatever she was trying was failing and in the rage of the same, she tried to command its presence; but I who was in the throes of the poison could feel it go further and further away from her, unwilling to do her bidding. She uttered a long piercing cry filled with vexation and it spilt a tree in front of me to the root. I saw the cords in her neck tighten and her eyes bulge as she stood in disbelief at the failing of her own magic. Malca’s eyes fell on the leather-bound mirror, and with a snarl and a roar of rage she plucked it out of the earth with her long-gnarled fingers. ‘You hide here then, you wretched cheat.’ She accused the mirror and I could see the face creep morosely into view, the smile which always adorned its face replaced by a frown. ‘I have raged and ranted, worried for a worthless piece of glass like you wondering how they could have stolen you. Fool I was to not understand that you wanted to be stolen.’ She shook the mirror rattling the face within, as it became sadder, its eyes drooping. ‘Answer me.’ She thundered and with her voice, a gush of toads appeared from within the fallen leaves- they were big as the hounds in the castle and they croaked and croaked until the ground hook beneath me. ‘Stop it, stop it.’ I screamed as the sight of them horrified me, their bulbous eyes staring right at me as they inched closer with their humongous revolting bodies. ‘I am tired Malca, I am tired after all these years. I tire of what I have become and wanted to see what innocence is.’ The mirror answered, its words cutting through the croaks and they fell silent as did the trees around us, as if eager to hear more. Malca stood stunned, as though the mirror had jolted her, her hands squeezing, she almost crushed the stem of the mirror. The mirror smiled as though it was expecting the destruction, it wanted to be broken and its words were mere tools to end its existence. With a rush, Malca laughed, ‘You think I don’t see through your ruse? You will be with me forever and forever as I take their beauty and you will show them to me, the vain, the cruel and the spoilt. Now tell me, why does the magic not work?’

The face within the mirror smiled sadly at her, ‘Remember Malca, remember him. I helped you destroy him, because he had stepped over doing what was right to what he thought was right, just as you are now. You will never take Snow White’s beauty from her.’ This enraged her further and the toads inched closer to me, their warty crusted skins causing me to retch as I scrambled for purchase with my hands in my feverish state. ‘Stop it Malca, she is not what you seek. Remember, when you began to learn the song, you believed. You believed for this spell to work, you would use it on the ones who were cruel and unkind, wrapped in the blindness of their beauty. You watched them and only then when their base nature showed itself did you take their beauty from them.’ Even in my fevered state, my eyes feeling that they were filled with sand, I saw the change in Malca’s face. It became younger, a look of guilt and self-loathing filling her eyes as she stared at the mirror with fear. The mirror had shown her her true self and I was sure she didn’t like what she saw there. She flung the mirror at me as though it was a poisonous viper, her body trembling with the force of the truth. The mirror struck the bark of the oak and fell dully close to my hand, its face serene and calm. ‘Liar, liar, liar, liar.’ She screamed over and over and over again, the toads as agitated as her, their sticky thick tongues darting in and out. The trees made her voice resound, but it came back sounding, ‘Real, real, real, real.’ Maybe it was my frenzied state which made it sound such for me, but her face looked wan and her lips were drawn back on her teeth in pain. ‘Crush the glass with a stone, crush me.’ The mirror whispered; its calmness eerily unsettling. I was trembling as a leaf, the pain ravaging the insides of my head, and in this pain, I shook my head slowly, unwilling to hurt one who had become my strangely comforting companion. Malca stood stunned, farther away, her jaws moving in a manner which spoke of great agitation within. ‘Shatter me before she rouses out of it, I am tired Weiss, grant me this one wish.’ It was a plea, its eyes rimmed with dark looked tired, as if it had seen enough and lived enough.

Screaming with grief, I banged its face to a knotted root as it smiled content. I drove the mirror again and again, for the glass was strong and imbued with old magic. I closed my burning eyes and thought of setting the face free of its prison and drove the mirror at the stone like knotted root again. The sound of shattering glass broke Malca’s stance. ‘How dare you, how dare you break that which was dear to me. He was a friend, a true friend.’ She waded through the pool of toads, her curved nails digging into my cheeks, the stench of her fetid breath falling on my flushed face. I heard thundering horses, galloping, nearing us with every breath and I prayed for deliverance, hand curled around the mirror asking for the face’s forgiveness. She looked at me, a spider cheated of its morsel, face twisting, ‘Oh, you don’t get to hope or wish. I didn’t, why should you then. None of my prayers were answered, why should yours be then?’ ‘Why are you so cruel? I didn’t wish to be born like this.’ I parried her, wishing her all the ill in the word. And this time, she truly became the witch and a smile of content crept over her face, ‘Neither did I Snow White, neither did I. Yet the day I stood in your father’s court having come to see your beauty, your mother screeched and your father sought to kill me. Was it right then, because they were the right kind of different? And I was the wrong kind?’ I fell silent, reeling in shock. I had no words left to fight my cause. ‘I would have spared you if they had been kind, but they were not and neither you- oh! Yes, you who thought of me a fly on the wall. And now if you think me cruel, so be it.’ She trilled akin to the toads and they all came forth, squirting- thick, soured cream like humor into her hands. She took enough until one of her palms over flowed with it, and then she slammed the other palm into the leaves strewn on the ground. The toads vanished just as they had appeared, leaving a carpet of green and brown. ‘If I can’t have it, let none take it. What passes me will pass everyone by. What I was deprived off, let it be a blessing to none. I tried the poison, but it only flushes your cheeks and your eyes are alluring and dark’ So saying she slapped the crème on the left side of my face.

It burned, it felt like hot metal was dripping on my face. I was burning on the inside and on the outside, my hands thrashed at her face, her neck- one hand clutching the mirror, the other grabbing at her, wondering what I had done to deserve such a fate. She stood grinning malevolently, my nails hardly making a scratch. All the while the horses neared, I felt the skin burn off my face. Delirious I lurched blind; hands rolled into fists around precious tokens. ‘Rest now child, let him see you and let me watch, if his love truly holds despite the ugliness of your face.’ My limbs became lead and then heavy I fell on to the ground. The leaves cosseted me as I felt close to death. My heart slowed and my eyes stilled, my ragged breathing dropped to almost nothing as my mind calmed and everything slowed around me to a crawl. I couldn’t move a single muscle, even my eyes could just see the sun peeking through the leaves, dappled light falling on me. I heard men alight, heavy footfalls with neighing horses filling the muted silence of before. ‘I wish you didn’t have to see this prince Veln.’ I heard Malca say in her polished tones, the one reserved for court and nobles. The face which bent over mine and blocked the soothing rays of the sun-It was the most wonderful face I had seen, every hair sat in place and the nose and the brow was such that I had never seen on a man. I should have found it fascinating but all it did was bring back images of Huck- his eyes which silently adored me, his lips with their half hidden smile, the eyes which stole glances at me when he thought I was not watching and his belief that he would protect me no matter what. My throat filled up and I couldn’t swallow to move that painful lump, as this man touched me- his fingers to my neck to feel for a sign of life. He lifted my hands and let it drop, it fell limp and lifeless. There were tears in this noble’s eyes- for he was too well dressed to be a commoner, as he traced the side of my face which was untouched and then gingerly, he touched the other side, not flinching from the hideousness of it. ‘She is dead. Lost to us.’ Malca moaned, as though she was grieving my death. I fought the palsy which had struck me down, but this magic of hers was strong, not bound by any other tenet other than the belief to make me appear dead as a fresh corpse in the grave.

His tears fell on my cheeks as he looked away, ‘She is perfect.’ He mumbled, and then stopped, his voice choking with emotion. I couldn’t see what happened next, though they were great sobbing noises. After a time, they lulled and he spoke in a thick tone, ‘We should take her to the castle and bury her with royal honours.’ ‘No,’ even to my stunned self, Malca’s voice sounded harsh. ‘Why not?’ A tendril of suspicion, yes, desperately I wished that the prince- my mind couldn’t remember his name, would doubt her and take me back, to my father, to Talion. Someone would see that it was her magic holding me and I was not truly dead. ‘No,’ Malca sounded softer, malleable, ‘I, I never truly wanted to show you this Veln, for women are killed and burnt for this, but for you and Snow White I make this exception.” I heard a voice of protest, but she hushed him, ‘Let me show you before you refuse.’ And before I could think with my poison and spell slowed mind- a glass case encased me, shining like crystal and diamond, its facets reflecting the sunlight. The glass ran over the half of my face which was ruined and left me seeing the sky again with just one eye. ‘You see now, how beautiful and calm she looks, a true princess, a Goddess reincarnated.’ I knew the bitterness which was hidden within those words. ‘I want her to have a shrine of her own, right here, where she rests. She was considered a Goddess once; she will be again. They will see her as she was, only the side of the face that is pure and pristine.’ The prince looked down at me and a feeling of wonder transcended him, with awe he looked at my face. ‘Will she not rot? How do you know such magic?’ He asked in reverent tones and Malca answered in the same tone, ‘My magic is pure prince, and if you still don’t trust me you can burn me where I stand. She will remain as she is, pure and unharmed.’ From the pregnant silence which followed, I gathered that he believed her words, questioning her no more. They spent half a day, more for him than for her, as he watched me, prayed and read long verses from our sacred tomes. ‘I think it is time we let her father know prince.’ I heard the impatience in Malca’s tone, his adoration for me must have been grating

on her nerves. I wanted to scream, to let that man know I am alive, I was buried alive. The air would run thin slowly and I would die a slow, painful death. For the glass had closed some more, there was but a chink through which air entered the glass tomb and it sat right above my nose. They left- their horses clopping, but I heard a remnant of Malca’s voice through a raven, ‘He’ll be mine, all that was yours will be mine. I am truly blessed.’ I dreamt wild dreams, horrible and cruel. I wanted to rip her apart, such was my hatred towards her. Why? Why me? I wondered and cursed the world and everything around me. I felt that being good of heart was the worst lie in life. There was no good in people, it was all a mirage. I raged and raged, until I had nothing left to give to the rage. I was empty within; my anger had dissipated more out of an aversion for stewing in rage. Then a strange boredom took over, a languid passing of time. I returned to what I was previously, and with a start I realised, I still clutched two tokens within each of my palm. In my left was the mirror, and I remembered something it had told me of power and strength, of magic and love. ‘Mirror.’ I called out in my mind, believing that even within the shattered glass, rested the face. Moments ticked by, I felt like it was a wasted hope, a wistful wish, but then I had already believed that the mirror was alive- so what if its house was ruined, was I not living despite my state? A knowing chuckle answered my thought, ‘So you caught the secret then. Believe Weiss, believe and it will come.’ And I believed that all was not lost. They found me- the seven bandits, after days of searching, seven days after Malca disfigured me. I should have died, but I hadn’t. I watched them, unable to cry tears of joy. Huck and the rest began hacking at the glass coffin which broke to bizarrely beautiful pieces. He grabbed me and embraced all of me- my disfigured face and my trembling hands as I wished to hide my ugliness, but he would have none of it. ‘You are poisoned.’ He said in shock seeing my fevered state and the hue of my skin, and the wide pupils staring back at him. Digging through his pouch he drew out some beans. Chewing them as quickly as he could, he pressed his lips to mine and forced the chewed beans down

my throat. ‘Belladona on you and Calabar on me,’ he said, after he fed me another poison to tame my own. He suffered the same as me, under the effects of a different poison, mine forced down my throat by Malca; his-an undesirable effect of an effort to save me. He had ingested but a little of the Calabar as he had helped me; but that little did make him sick. He came to me a day later, as the rest camped around me and passed his hand on my brow. My fever had settled and I blinked the crust from my eyes, the spell having broken as the hold of the poison weakened on me. ‘Forgive me Weiss, I-‘ I didn’t let him continue as I planted a kiss on his cheek and replied, ‘First love’s kiss, that’s what I’ll remember it as. I am sure it’ll be thought of as a romantic gesture in the years to come.’ I accepted him as he accepted me, our smiles radiant and filled with promises. They cheered on us, the seven did, Puck doing a mad little dance and Pick hugging Huck until he was squeezed out of breath and turned purple in his clasp.I didn’t feel the want to hide my face or be ashamed of what I was. Joyously I watched them, a simple joy of simple truths, of finding home away from home. With a start I remembered my hands and lifted them. I looked at the left one, believing that I’ll see what I knew would be there and through the shattered glass I saw the face, grinning back at me. ‘Weiss, thank you. Thank you for setting me free.’ The face was the same, except through the mirror it appeared admirably disjointed and in wonderful spirits. I smiled in answer. ‘I know what you hold in the other palm…’ It said softly, as if afraid to bring it up, I could hear its fear of losing me. I lifted my right palm, and opened it in full view of all and within it rested the most beautiful gem, blue as the ocean on a silver thread- the one which had driven my mother mad and which had rested on Malca’s bosom until she had come close enough and let me touch her. ‘Will it kill her, if I destroy it will it kill her?’ I asked the mirror, who looked at me with concern wondering if I was to exact vengeance. ‘No, it’ll only take away all the beauty accumulated over years. Or it can give you the same if you accept its beckoning.’ This was told with trepidation, its lips a thin straight black line as it waited for me usurp that power and make it my own, use it to become my old self. It waited for my fall from grace, to become a depraved being feeding on others

soul to regain my beauty again. The seven watched me too and then their eyes riveted on the gem, their faces slowly changing as each coveted the stone for his own, such was its power. I felt it call to me, to take it and wear it, make it my own. It promised me beauty more than I ever imagined, wealth and power, vaster than the ocean. I placed it on a rock and took a stone to it. From the edges of my eyesas the gem shattered into a thousand pieces, I saw the ferociously altered faces looking at me- What do you think you are doing? Another heartbeat, and if the stone had slipped and survived my assault, they would have killed me with their scythes and axes, under the working of the gem. The gem shattered and so did its bind on them and the seven stood, arms raised to kill me. Eyes widening with terror, they looked at each other and then shame faced they dropped their weapons, the noise muffled as the weapons fell to the leaf laden ground. ‘You know of your strength today Weiss. A strength to make the choice. Take me with you, I am yours for life.’ The mirror said in jubilation and I laughed, a clear laugh of triumph- over my own scandalous thoughts and rapacious desires. I had overcome that which drove others to kill, what more power could I ask for? All magic faded in comparison. I walked to Hutch and held his hand, squeezing them in a reassuring manner, this was not his fight, the facing of the gem. He had long won his fight without even knowing it, when he accepted me as I am, not a flicker of disgust in his face. ‘Home we go now, to father and to what is left of Malca.’ And we trudged the path to the kingdom, a motley posse - me, the seven and the mirror with the face. ■

Malca Chapter 15 ☐☐

His magnificent horse was the one to fall to my magic, a sudden illness seizing it, an illness of my making. My plan to be Snow White had failed miserably and I was desperate now, though miserable too for having to play this deceit. I had come to love his beast, an intelligence peeking through its eyes. But I felt I was left no recourse, we were two days away from the castle and I knew once we returned, he would mourn for Snow White suitably as the court would prepare for a royal funeral. Then would come the expedition to see her here and within all this, my need to be the one he would fall in love with would be lost in the swirl of all this dance. And as I would watch from a distance of modesty, for even I had to follow a few, he would pay his respects to the king and leave; shattering all my dreams. The beast knew as the spell I breathed hit it square in its chest and travelled to its limbs. It neighed and reared, raising it hooves in challenge to me- rejecting my wordless begging for its forgiveness. The hooves never reached me as the beast collapsed, unseating Veln. ‘Koal, what’s wrong, Koal. What’s wrong boy, what’s wrong? What is it?’ Veln was next to the beast, rubbing its face. The pain in his voice made me squirm, but I assured myself that this was no true sickness, a flick of my wrist and it would vanish. The beast stared at me, its eyes following my horse’s trot. I dismounted and kneeled next to him careful not to be within the beast’s reach, it was flecking at the mouth now, struggling to snip at me. ‘Ah!’ I exclaimed, gripping its limbs which had stopped moving, closing my eyes as if in intense meditation, trying to find the malady which was nothing more than my creation. ‘A thorn, a poison which will need a few days of recuperation.’ I spoke with my eyes closed; brows drawn as though I was seeing through a third eye. Veln sobbed, hugging the long sinuous neck of the beast moaning, ‘No, you cannot die, you can’t.’ ‘Of course, it won’t kill the beast.’ I hastened to assure him, not wanting him to be in a despondent state.

‘A few poultices to draw the poison and a rest of a few days, he will be galloping to the castle then.’ Veln clutched my hands, his eyes drawn with pain, my heart twisted but I had to be firm to win this so I sealed my lips. ‘Will you help me?’ It was not just his tongue which spoke, his eyes, his face, his entire being pleaded me and it smote my heart. Though this was what I was waiting for, it didn’t give me any joy to put him through this. But it has to be done, or do you want to be a desolate soul, unwanted, unloved your whole life? I was scared that he had seen me be a witch too quickly, my powers too strong for him to accept without a semblance of doubt. In my haste to silence Snow White, I feared that I had revealed too much of what was truly me to him. The ones who lack always see the ones who have with suspicion. A woman’s power, one which a man cannot have is always met with misgivings. It has to be either belittled like the magic of childbirth or it has to be shunned. And I knew, if I didn’t remedy that slow suspicion which was beginning to rise from tinder of shocked awe, he would loathe me. I wasn’t that much a fool; to let my love for him ruin my plans by wilting under his pain and setting all right too quickly. I would take my time to heal the poor beast. Now, he sought my help and to him my sorcery would be a blessing, not something to fear or shrink from. I pretended to think, all the while containing the bubbling stream of happiness in my heart. Valiantly, I unveiled more of my plans. ‘Let’s send the guards to bring the king and his court here then, let them carry a message from me.’ Veln was smothered in grief and he didn’t care if I banished the guards to the deadlands, his one concern was Koal, his eyes riveted on the beasts, trying to breathe the beasts pain in. I set orders to the guards, making them erect the yurts and leave us enough food. ‘Make haste.’ I ordered in a loud tone, more for Veln than me. They set off with promises of returning as swiftly as they can, their faces

happy with the silver I had slipped into their pockets, weighing their tunics down. Little did they know I had set charms to the hooves of their horses such that they would lose their way and they would not reach the castle until I desired it to be so. Finally, after days of scheming and plotting, I was left alone with Veln, a dream I had dreamt for long. I swallowed hard- a new fear besieged me, I felt vulnerable, subject to another’s whims. Blushing and demure, I sat next to him, my palms placed on his. His eyes darted towards me in surprise, they were rimmed red with pain. I took a breath and with the other hand I touched the beast, soothing its pain. He continued to glare at me in what was abject abhorrence-What are you doing? And then he saw the beast falling into a deep, deep slumber. Its breath eased and its flanks no longer quivered and he sighed in relief. His hand which had been stroking the beast’s mane slowly fell on mine, and squeezed it with gratitude. I was transported, memories, long lost- mother’s gentle hands on my cheeks, his caring hands which brought me food and guarded me from those who sought to harm; they flooded me and I felt a sense of belonging and completeness that none of my long years of wandering had given me. Veln resisted at first, to my small advances of comfort and affection, continuing in that rigid manner of his, upholding the decorum of his station. It didn’t anger me, his reluctance, it only stoked my love for him and I waited, patiently, not using a single ounce of magic on him. Instead my words and deeds became of the age when I was the most innocent of thought. At nights I lay awake thinking how strong this true magic of love was, it needed no spell nor charm. One just gave and the giving was what made one happy. I pretended, to heal the horse, when all I was doing was taking my magic away inch by inch. This sin I was guilty of, but I had no other recourse. And as I did that, I worked a different kind of magic on him, one which I had forgotten for long. I began to show that side of me which had been hidden, safe and untouchable since he had maligned it. I became vulnerable, I shed my cunning, and most importantly I wanted to trust again.

I waited, though all I wanted was for him to reciprocate my love. I believed that he would overlook everything and he would come to love me, he would forget my being married to the king, he would forget Snow White. I believed in it so strongly that I was left with no doubt. I was following my own wisp of a dream. ‘He made me take my first beauty from a bird. He taught me a song and asked me to take from it what I wanted and with childlike avarice, without thinking of the after I had asked and was given what I wanted. The bird died. I cried for days after and he had let me cry, offering no words of comfort. On the day my tears had dried despite the grief I carried within me he had whispered, “Be careful what you wish for.”’ It was the sixth day after I had interred Snow White, I don’t know why amidst my happiness this thought came to me. It disturbed my belief that I was truly deserving of Veln’s love. I questioned my actions and then flinched in horror from them. Soaked with sweat, I woke up from my sleep. It was still dark around me, early glimmer of dawn on an arriving winter’s morning. Desperate to calm my mind, I sat up, intending to soak the sun’s rays. Something ran on my skin, and then another. Needles stabbing me everywhere, formication- ants creeping under my skin. Screaming with terror, I scratched at myself, ripping off my skin like a hollow sack, that which I had collected over ages discarded as the moulting of a snake. ‘Your highness, Malca, it’s me, it’s me, there’s nothing to fear, just a nightmare.’ It was Veln, holding me, hugging me, protecting my shaking self as I fell into his arms petrified. I shook as a leaf in a torrent of rain, and try as I might, the sobs wouldn’t cease. He held me through the morning, his hands stroking my hair as he sang softly of wonderful distant lands. I calmed by the coming of noon, hunger and fatigue pushing terror to a corner, though the image of me moulting as a snake threatened to seize me. I sat morose next to the brilliant blazing fire Veln built, resolutely planning to avoid the yurt and the pallet. The beast watched me as if it knew of my secret, it knew the lies beneath my skin. I looked away, unable to face the truth in its eyes only to find Veln next to me. Smiling, he embraced my cold body, a gentle

reassuring embrace which promised of faith and hope and love. I began to sob again as a child, the fear of losing him, losing all that I had wished for coursing through my veins. ‘Hush dear, hush. None can harm you; you are mine.’ I inhaled sharply hearing this and fell silent, scared that my words would mar the beauty of his words. ‘When we return, I will ask the king for your hand. If he truly is a man of honour, he will see that he is wasting your life, a queen young as his daughter wilting away in that castle. He will give you to me, I promise you that.’ Again, I held my silence, burying my nightmares deep within, I hugged him hard and long, and he relaxed into my hold, understanding what my answer was. We saddled our horses the next day, his joy at seeing his beast healed a feeling I can scarce describe. I was gloomy though; a thousand doubts of what ifs haunted my mind. All my life I had been cheated of what I truly sought, what if this was just another play by fate. Veln smiled at me brightly, and I returned the smile, though my brows were drawn and my heart filled with misery. The happening of it was, for it did happen- simple. One moment I was on my chestnut mare, trotting next to the man I had come to love with no guile, true love, the kind I had heard and scoffed at. And then the next moment, I saw his face turn the colour of puce, the smile simper and fade to be replaced by a horror in his eyes and a face like that of a screaming banshee. I knew my dream had come to pass, for at the instant his face changed, I felt a hook claw at my heart. In disbelief, I felt for the blue gem around my neck. It had sat smugly on my bosom- the last I had gambled with it was to become the queen, never since had it left my person since then. My hands grubbed around my neck, all the while the hook was tearing my insides. I dismounted unladylike and fell on all fours, eyes seeking a hint of blue, a glint of the sky, a hiss of the ocean. Empty, empty of thought, of power. The hook pulled, stronger now. But my flesh was vaporous and so the hook slipped and let go of my heart, and with a final effort it snagged underneath my skin.

‘No, no, this cannot be.’ I clutched my hair and then the grass, bringing it up in tufts. Veln seemed frozen, frigid in the expression of his face which had turned hideous with terror. He didn’t dismount, he just watched, his jaw working as he tried to find words. Everything was shattering, the gem too, somewhere in the distance, that gem which had spun a tale for centuries was shattering too. As a beast, I arched, as the hook pulled my skin like a sack, just as I had seen in the dreams. As it came away from myself, I saw it – a bag of worms, they wriggled within that husk of mine. With a final rip, the sack came off as I felt the gem destroyed irretrievably, lost ever to human hands. Like a flood of molten lava, I released the scream of anger, disappointment, of being cheated by fate again, and the sack with the queen’s face wriggled in front me, lies, so many lies – it hissed at me before collapsing to the ground and then it desiccated into large grubby worms, which burrowed into the ground never to be seen again. ‘What abomination are you?’ Veln’s voice was part terror, part revulsion and pure loathing. His hand was stealing to the pommel of his sword, I knew unsheathed the sword would be sharp, one which would do its task, despite the show of its scabbard. ‘Please, have mercy, listen.’ I stretched a hand to him, and in horror saw the warts which had sprouted there, the hair which grew thick and dense, the fingers which were hooked and bent.He was seeing me as my true self, and I knew his love wouldn’t last. I pretended to invoke anger again, to say it was injustice, but somehow, I knew deep, deep within me that my lies were what had repulsed him. I promised him what I was not and believed that I had found true love in the bubble of a lie. My hand slipped and fell next to me, the mirror had spoken the truth and that’s why it had hurt then, its words. I waited for the sword to fall, to end this worthless life of mine, I had no magic in me, I had no power, I was nothing, what was left to live for. I heard his sword slide from the sheath, and I hung my head, and in that moment, I did something I had not in a long, long time. I asked forgiveness, to all those who I had harmed. ‘I should kill you, rid the world of a witch like you. I see it now, clear as day. You killed Snow White and you planned to kill the king and take me as your spouse. So slowly did you ensnare me, that I truly believed I

loved you, there was this powerful moment I truly believed I loved you.’ I looked at his face, which had regained a semblance of calm as if he knew what he would do, and I knew too, for I begged, ‘No, please, kill me. I have lived enough, wrought enough evil on this world. I never knew when I went from being the wronged to the one inflicting it. Kill me.’ He sheathed his sword, it seemed surreal, this unravelling, for around me the trees still swayed beautifully, the birds sang in soothing tones and amidst it all, I was falling to ruins. ‘No, you will live, by some quirk you seem to have lost your magic, you will live and suffer.’ He rode away without a backward glance and I stayed, alone, even my chestnut mare galloped terrified of me. I was left with my hunched back and my shrivelled gums, helpless as a babe. I looked at the sky wondering if I should take my own life. I even walked and walked until I reached the edge of the ocean. On a cliff I stood, where the wind pushed me and the blue of the ocean like the gem called to me- but it came to me strongly-this was not me. As much as I hated what I had done, what I had become, there was still life to be lived and I would live. That was the truth deep inside of me, my real truth. I hobbled, my flesh loose and hanging, the vigour of youth which I had enjoyed for long, long years given to the sagging nature of age. My bones creaked and my skin itched. I should have cried, but even my eyes had lost the ability to spring tears. Ragged and alone, I walked and with clarity I saw everything which had passed. A sudden acceptance and understanding came. If it had come to me early in life, I would have called it an epiphany, but I knew this was just wisdom of age which had eluded me for so long. I left that land, I walked and walked and walked. I believed that food would be given when sought and I found the fruit and the water I needed. I walked, imagining myself truly bound in love, despite my looks, despite my age. I believed it without an ounce of doubt, that I would receive what I sought with no lies. I had looked from the wrong side of the mirror, I had nursed the wrong memories, stoking and giving them fire. And the ones I should have remembered I had forgotten them all, and in my blind rage I had chosen to see the half-truths and behaved

as if I was always the one cheated and harmed, I was always the one to whom the world owed. I avoided the towns and the villages, I found solace in walking alone, as I heard the birds and the trees. I walked, further and further knowing I will find what I sought. There was no slyness in my seeking now, there was no malice. I would show the truth of me and seek that which I truly wanted. It came to me that Snow White must have survived, must have shattered the gem, for I remembered her trying to rake her nails on me, as she begged and pleaded. The old me would have plotted vengeance, sitting in dark corners seeking to find another source of magic, but not this time. There had been something niggling at me for long and when it came, it flooded me with peace. She had chosen to destroy it, rather than use it, she knew, she knew what it did, she knew that she could have used it and yet she chose to destroy it. I smiled at the sun and the stream, feeling light as a wisp and I walked. ‘Oye, oye.’ Stirring from a deep slumber, my limbs heavy and unwilling to yield, I sat up trying to rid my old eyes of their sleep. He was as me, his clothes were old, ragged and patched and yet they were clean.His face was old and gnarled, like an old, old tree and his hands were wizened and bent; but his smile. I had rare seen such a smile. It was a smile which made me smile in return, it was hard to refuse or not to, such was the spell of his smile. And when he saw me smile, something twinkled in his eyes and I was reminded of mother and him, of all that was good in him. ‘You look hungry, there’s plenty to eat if you choose to come.’ A deer and then a rabbit, a bear and a wildcat gathered around him, nuzzling their snouts on his hairy legs, nipping at his hands playfully. I could smell magic on him, not the tainted corrosion of iron that was on him, this was the waft of spring rain and wet earth. I should have been wary of magic, but this one felt right. It made me smile, something I had long forgotten. It made me smile in the way one does as they think of warm hearths, food bubbling away in a pot, candles glowing in corners of a humble cottage.

He was ancient, ancient than I was. I smelled it on him as I followed him through to a cottage which stood in the middle of nowhere. It was just as I imagined- it had a door and square windows, and within it hung flutes to be played and pipes to be smoked. Onions and garlics hung braided from the beams, and the animals followed us within, seating themselves around the fire as he stirred the pot and started reciting the tale of four aged beasts who decided to become musicians. I slurped on the stew he poured into a bowl carved intricately by a loving hand. I cupped it as its warmth seeped through me as did the warmth of his words, and I felt the lifting of a burden which I had carried for so long within my heart and on my shoulders. Leaning back, I heard his tales, and as I did, I saw them play in front of my eyes, as real as the warmth in my hand. ■

Weiss My belly is heavy, I stroke the life within as I watch with wonder my father and Huck, heads bent over plans to serve the folk. Malca has not been heard of since I returned and all have woken from the spell they were under. The rest of the seven are still with us, my father’s loyal guards they are and in the private confines of the castle, my brothers. The mirror sits beside me, its uncovered face split into pieces, all held safe within its baroque edge- and within it the delightful face. The face has not stopped smiling since I shattered the glass and it makes me smile when I look at it, every time. A sudden urge seizes me and I ask of the mirror one last time, ‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’ ‘Not you anymore Snow White, not you!’ Smiling, I look at my scars with love.

Epilogue Malca You may want to ask if I found that which I sought, if my magic returned. Yes, I did, it was better and brighter than what I wished for, a magic I scarce knew I needed. To this day I live with the old man in the cottage deep within the forests, two pipes hang from its roof and smoke swirling in tendrils from its stack. If you are itching for a tale, I have plenty to tell- for I have come to know my true magic lies in telling of tales and spinning of stories. There will always be a place for you and the warmth of well-made stew, you just have to come.

Weiss At the beginning of this tale, I promised you some of the stories told are true and this is the truth - we did live happily ever after; fighting our battles with courage and facing the demons together. For no story can be the perfect truth, and no lie can be all wretched. For are not most tales lies and yet we find our truths within them? ■

Acknowledgements We all dream of magic and everything fantastical, and as writers, I feel, we come closest to experiencing it. This book began as a short retelling of a fairytale and then spilled out to be a charming story wanting to be written and read. I’m immensely thankful to all the people I have met since I embarked on this journey of writing this book. To begin with Amanda Brazee for being the spark who ignited me. Bella Pearson- thank you for long listing me in your YA open submissions, despite not being short listed, it made me believe in the strength of this story. I consider myself lucky to have found my wonderful illustrator Domenique Serfontein, whose illustrations give the book an ethereal dream like feeling. On a personal note, I am grateful to my parents for instilling the love of reading in me, to my siblings and friends- thank you for supplying me with an endless trove of books. And lastly to my husband, who doesn’t have a clue regarding fantasy but has been instrumental-right from finding me that comfortable chair, to ensuring that I have the perfect cup of tea to stimulate my grey cells, thank you for all your support on this long and yet wonderfully exhilarating journey.

About the author

KM Goldstar lives in London, UK, dreaming of blue skies, winter and wilderness. She enjoys hiking, cooking and eating sumptuous food. Her writing is inspired by everything unusual and not the norm. When she’s not doing any of this, she works as doctor far away from her quirky imaginary world. Mirror on the World is her debut novel. For more information visit www.kmgoldstar.com

About the illustrator

Domenique Serfontein is a freelance illustrator based in the beautiful Wicklow Mountains, Ireland. Here you can find her hiking amongst the cliffs or painting in her little seaside house with her two dogs by her side. She is deeply inspired by nature, the feeling of nostalgia, earth-like colours and the magic of fictional stories. Her world is rooted in ethereal, atmospheric and whimsical scenes that encourage viewers to explore these worlds and fuel their imaginations. Mirror on the Wall will forever hold a special place in her heart, where the beauty and bravery of these characters now intertwine with her own adventures.