Welcome

This is the first draft of “Lizzie + Bluebeard,” shared as it’s written.

I’m sharing as I go as an experiment– a way to be writing TO someone, and to have some daily accountability.

I’d appreciate know what you like, what works, what makes you curious, and your questions.

I’m not interested in suggestions or any editing help at this stage.

Thanks for reading! I hope this encourages you to write daily, too!

-Rose

p.s. You can read chapter summaries here, or start at Chapter 1 here.

p.p.s. Turns out, it’s a trilogy! Scary, exciting, marvelous! I’ve previously only felt a story fit in one book. But as I neared the end of Book One I discovered it was just the beginning.

All content copyright 2015, Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux

Welcome

Book 2, Ch 3: The Mule’s Advice

It left Lizzie in a foul mood, this memory, and she strode through the overgrown yard muttering to herself.

“It’s not real, of course it’s not real.”

But what if it is? What if you went there? What if you’ve been—

“I have not been different my whole life!” This came out in a shout and make Snicket straighten up from the grass she was munching. Even in her state of irritation, Lizzie thought the mule looked not frightened by her outburst but annoyed. That was nothing to the surprise Lizzie felt a moment later.

“Will you please stop whining?” The mule’s speech was clipped; her lips pulled back to show her yellow teeth. “You’re kicking and making a fuss.”

Lizzie gaped, but, having encountered talking beasts before, recovered rather quickly. “Who are you to lecture me on making a fuss? You wouldn’t work in the field half the time, made me look like an idiot to the neighbors—“

“You made yourself an idiot. You didn’t belong there anymore and you knew it, but you kept on pushing. Stubborn creature.”

Lizzie scoffed and stumbled over her tongue. “Stubborn? Me? You’re a mule! You should be praising me for it!”

Snicket bent and ripped another mouthful of grass and chewed through her words so that they came out rustley, so that she appeared to care very, very little about what she was saying, which made Lizzie’s shoulders raise a half inch. “I’m stubborn for what I want. What I truly want. I’m a mule and I know myself. You? You were just being stubborn for the impossible. See that bird?” She nodded up at the crow flying overhead. “If I was kicking and stomping over not being able to fly, that would be ridiculous. You have been ridiculous.” She clipped another tuft of grass and stared at Lizzie with insouciant calm.

“You—you—“ But there was nothing satisfactory to say. Lizzie’s shoulders slumped and she kicked at the grass. In the absence of noise the image of the land below the well swam back in view. She closed her eyes.

“I don’t want to be different. I don’t want to not fit in. I don’t want to be the only one. I know— it makes no difference, don’t lecture me.” She opened her eyes and looked at the mule, at the brown velvet face and long-lashed dark eyes. “What am I supposed to do? People live in villages. They work in fields or put themselves to some craft or ply some trade. And the girls I grew up with, they’re getting married. They’re going to have children and cook and clean and take care of people. They know exactly what they’re going to do.”

Snicket snorted. “And when has that ever been the same as happiness? If knowing what you’ll do from sunup to sundown was happiness we beasts of the field would be the most joyful creatures in the world.”

“But it’s hard, not knowing! I’ve only ever been here in this place with these rules and customs and habits.”

“That’s not what I heard.”

Lizzie’s back went straighter. “What? Are you gossiping about me, too?”

Snicket snorted and tossed her head. “As if there was anyone I could talk to! But I have ears, you know. Everyone knows you went somewhere— some castle. And they know that your husband is dead, though there seemed to be fierce debate over whether you killed him, or he was turned into a bear or a boar by a witch, or he was so ancient he died of old age.”

Lizzie gaped. “How dare they! How dare they?”

“Oh, hush. Isn’t it the habit and custom of peasants to gossip about anything different from their own boring little lives? And isn’t it true? Why didn’t you tell them?”

“You know very well I couldn’t have told them. Who would have believed me? It’d be like you talking to one of them. They’d think they were crazy, that it was some evil magic.” Snicket said nothing, and the silence spread so that Lizzie was aware of the insects humming and buzzing and ticking in the grass. She smoothed the skirt of her dress studiously beneath her forefinger and thumb.

“I didn’t tell them because I didn’t want to be sent away. I thought maybe I could just slip back in, that if I took care of my mother it would all… that I’d be unnoticeable.

“But I wasn’t. I wasn’t unnoticeable to myself, either. I’d have dreams about the castle, or drift off wondering how the others—the other wives— were doing. What they were doing. And then… it started to pile up, all the things I wasn’t saying and all the questions they weren’t asking. I tried to tell my mother one night, but she was feverish already and I could see that it upset her, that she couldn’t or wouldn’t understand it. A house with chicken legs! A man who hid his heart past the gates of hell!” Lizzie shook her head. The insects hummed their music. Snicket chewed slowly and shifted her weight, walked closer.

“I’m a mule.”

“Yes, I know that.” There was a weight on Lizzie’s shoulders, it dug into her collarbone and pressed a hot ache down her shoulder blades.

“I’m not a donkey. I’m not a horse. You might say I’m a failure at both. But I’m a damn fine mule. I’m better than either/or. I’m fast. I can work hard. I know my own mind. I won’t work myself to death for some foolish master.

“Do you know that I had kicked out and nearly flattened three other buyers at the market that week? I didn’t have to go with you, or with anyone.”

Lizzie looked up. “What is your point?”

“I chose to go with you. I let you take my lead rope— I let them put the lead and halter on me! Are you listening, girl? Stand up.”

Lizzie looked at her without moving, and it was a petulant and even scornful look that was like the sting of a horsefly. Snicket darted forward and Lizzie cried out. The mule lifted her up by the shoulder of her dress.

“Ow! Stop! Stop— you’ll tear it!” The dress tore. Lizzie swung wild but the mule pranced back with room to spare. Lizzie massaged her shoulder and cursed the beast. “You don’t boss me! You’re my mule. I’m the master—“

“‘I’m the master,’ really, you surprise me. After what you’ve been through?” The words stung and Lizzie rubbed at the red skin at her shoulder. “I’m no more yours than you are mine. I’m my own mule. And I’m not ashamed of who I am. Do I make a fuss that I can’t talk to people? That I have to play a dumb beast? No. Because it’s my choice. Why should I share everything? Why shouldn’t I have a secret or two to myself? I certainly won’t waste my time on those clods of earth, and I don’t seek out punishment.

“I chose to come with you.”

“Well, why? Why would you do that? I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I can’t have a normal life in the village. I can’t get married. I can’t tell the truth to anyone—“ she paced and waved her arms. Snicket just stood there, one ear cocked back, waiting.

“—And—and— It is so boring but I’m scared!

At this the mule actually brayed, but a moment later her whiskery muzzle was rubbing Lizzie’s cheek. Lizzie tried without much conviction to push her away. “Stop— I’m ridiculous…” But they stood like that for a time and then Lizzie threw one arm up over the mule’s neck and stroked her brown furry side.

“All right, tell me. Why did you come with me?” She spoke into the mule’s black mane. Snicket’s answer vibrated warmth into her neck, into her aching shoulders.

“I came with you because you were different. Because you weren’t half-asleep like all the rest. Because I could tell you’d seen things. Because I knew that sooner or later, you were bound to go somewhere, and I want to go somewhere too.”

Lizzie shrugged but didn’t stop petting the mule’s neck, making rivulets in the brown with her fingertips. “But I don’t know where I’m going. I’m not much of a guide.”

Snicket laughed, a burst of sound between a whinny and a bray, and pulled back to look at Lizzie. “I don’t need a guide. I just need a human. If I walk around by myself, what do you think will happen? Someone will manage to get a harness on me and that’ll be that until I kick down the barn door and escape. But runaway mules get beaten once they’re caught.” She shuddered as if to rid herself of a fly, but Lizzie felt how deep the current of feeling went. Snicket looked past her.

“It’s a convenience and a companion I’m seeking. I don’t care about not knowing what comes next. Can you understand that?”

Lizzie nodded. “We’re not so different. What will happen when strangers see me out alone, with a mule or not? I’m a woman, Snick— I’m as much at risk for being bridled and penned as you are.”

They considered this.

“I can’t be anything but a mule. But you… why do you have to be a woman?”

Lizzie laughed. “Why, what else would I— Oh.” She pulled back and looked at the mule. “But… you mean…?”

The mule, which was looking less and less ‘animal’ to Lizzie and more and more like a peer, a possible friend, fairly shrugged her shoulders. “Why not? I can’t remove my coat but you humans change clothes and suddenly you’re someone else. There’s no difference between a rich man and a poor man once they’re naked. But see a fellow withe a plumed velvet hat and a pair of shiny black boots— and if he’s wearing rings on his fingers, well! Everyone goes scraping and bowing. But why? It’s only the gold and the cloth. Tell me, haven’t you ever bluffed? Haven’t you ever had to pose as someone else?”

Lizzie’s mind flew to the tower, the blood-spattered, too-large clothes of her husband that granted her passage beyond the magical barrier around the estate. She nodded.

“Well, what’s the difference? And what’s the good of being a woman if you can’t do whatever you like?”

Inside Lizzie Borden a sort of whirlwind was rising, an invisible spiral stirring up her hopes as if they were light as autumn leaves. It pressed into her lungs, shimmied her breath so that it was light as a reed, excited, nervous, but free from doubt.

“All right. I’ll do it. I’ll change my clothes— I’ll be a man.”


READER RESPONSE: Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress!     -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux

Book 2, Ch 3: The Mule’s Advice

Book 2, Ch 2: The World Below the Well

Lizzie tumbled into the memory like falling down a well.

She almost had fallen down it, down into the dark. Looking for the witch’s silver that the older boy had told her was there. She was five, maybe six.

Lizzie walked across the overgrown yard to the ring of moss-covered bricks; she put her hands on the ledge.

It had been so much higher then, up to her chin. But she had refused the boost, had wanted to climb up herself, convinced that was how the magic would work, how she would be granted her wish.

And what was her wish? She hadn’t thought of that in a long, long time

She was going to wish for her father to be well again, jump up from his bed and pull the bandages off his head and chest and say it was all a game, all a joke.

Some part of Lizzie argued this was ridiculous, thinking of all this. She could feel where it was slipping to: the suspicion, the near-religious belief that everything would have turned out all right if only her father hadn’t died. The painful suspicion that it was somehow her fault that he had. She gripped the bricks hard and tried to push this younger Lizzie, this girl-self out of her mind. Her chest ached and strained under the pressure, as if she was the one who had been stepped on by a wild horse, not him. She leaned over, felt the cool air that came from below the ground; breathed in and opened her eyes.

There was the circle of rippling silver. But that wasn’t all. There was the voice; she knew it was the Witch, the one who lived in this cursed alcove. What was the  voice saying…?

“Ask…”

Lizzie opened her eyes. If she could have seen her face reflected in the water far below it would have been as pale and washed out as the moon. Her voice was a whisper. “I don’t want to remember this.”

Something like a sigh rose up from the darkness and Lizzie closed her eyes again. It didn’t matter that she was no longer a child. It didn’t matter what she had seen and done, the dangers she had faced at Bluebeard’s castle and in the Underworld. This memory made her a child, and she felt the fear of a small person.

But first she felt excitement. Nerves. Pressure.

She felt a door.

Lizzie tried to open her eyes but either magic or the temptation to witness the images rushing through her mind made that impossible: She had fallen down the well. But there had been no water. She had landed on a grassy hillock. Picked herself up and wandered away though she could hear the boy’s voice calling for her from somewhere high above.

The sky was a weird muted yellow, as if from a fire, but the air was clear. Yet it all weighed on her, pushed down on her shoulders so that she wondered if she really was underwater. She wondered if she was drowning.

But just as the thought came to her, before the fear could touch her, she saw an apple tree laden with red-gold fruit.

And the apples said, “Shake us down, shake us down, we are all of us ripe!”

So she ran to the tree and shook and shook so that it rained apples all around her, until the tree sighed and its branches lifted up once more, free of the weight.

One of the apples had fallen into her apron pocket, and she ate it as she walked on down the dusty, empty road.

Then she came upon an oven built of bricks. It stood by itself; there was no house or bakery in sight, but the most wonderful yeasty-rich aroma wafted over her, and the loaves in the oven began calling to her.

“Take us out, take us out, we are all of us baked!”

So she threw open the double doors and snatched the loaves out with the corners of her apron. A dozen wheat-gold loaves sat upon the bricks, but one small bun fell into her apron pocket, and she ate it as she continued walking.

She walked for so long she forgot she had ever done anything else, but she was neither hungry nor thirsty. And then there was a little house built of wattle and daub, neatly whitewashed with a clean-swept yard and a prodigious flower garden.

A fluffy white head popped up from the flowers, and the old, old woman said, “Come in child, and dine with me. It is time for dinner.” So she did.

The old woman set a bowl before her and said, “Here, pick the stones from these lentils and we shall have soup.” So Lizzie sat and picked.

“Now put them in the pot and give them a stir, and soon we’ll eat.”

Even a child of Lizzie’s age knew that dried lentils needed to soak overnight or else boil and boil all afternoon, but the whole thing was so strange, so yellow-lit like a dream, like another life, that she didn’t say these thoughts out loud. In fact, she hadn’t spoken since she had fallen down the well.

She tossed the lentils into the pot. No sooner had she stirred once with the old wooden spoon than they were done! She was amazed, but only ladled them into bowls and sat and ate with the old woman.

“If only we had bread,” said the old woman.

“There are twelve loaves cooling on the bricks by the oven up the road,” said Lizzie.

“Hmm,” said the old woman. She nodded her head— and there was a basket on the table to Lizzie’s right which she hadn’t noticed before. Of course, it was full of bread, and what bread! The crust was crisper, the inside softer and more chewy even than the little roll she had eaten earlier.

When they had finished, the old woman looked at her and said, “If only we had apples we could finish the meal with a treat.”

The words came easily out of the little girl’s mouth. “But there are dozens of apples under the tree up the road.”

“Hmm,” said the old woman again and nodded her head. Something red and white caught Lizzie’s eye— and there was a plate of sliced apples; the crispest, sweetest, best apples she had ever eaten, better even than the apple given her by the tree.

She cleared the dishes and washed them in the metal tub without the old woman asking her to. There was something about her that made Lizzie want to please her, to do the right thing. But it was different than at home or in the village— places that felt like a dream compared to the intense realness of this strange, generous land. She didn’t want to be good out of manners; she wanted to be Good, to be Helpful; she wanted to fit in at just the right moment. It was like with the tree— how could she have walked past it knowing that its branches would break under the weight of all those apples? It was easy to help. And how could she have kept going and let those delicious loaves of bread burn? They only singed her fingertips a tiny bit. It was like that with this old woman: if she asked, or if Lizzie could guess what she would ask, well, of course she would help. It made her happy to.

When the dishes were dried and put away, the old woman said, “Now for some music and entertainment— if you can believe whatever you see.”

Lizzie nodded, braids sliding like two gold-brown garden snakes across her back. If the old woman had taken her hand and told her to jump so as to fly she would have done it.

They stepped out the back door and sat down on a stump bench. Lizzie’s feet didn’t reach the ground; she tried not to swing them as she waited. She chanced a look at the old woman, but her hostess watched the trees at the edge of the yard without blinking, so Lizzie turned and watched, too.

And, oh! Out of the trees came such creatures! Had she ever dreamed anything so fantastical? She had no names for them except faeries.

Tiny women with wings.

A piglet with wings and a golden spiral horn.

Two boys a bit bigger than she was with hairy goats’ legs beneath them.

Enormous snakes with ladies’ faces.

Little heaps of lumbering mud.

And all manner of winged, multi-headed mixed-up animals, leafy people, shadow folk and wisps of colored, concentrated wind.

Lizzie watched them all. Then, something like an enormous cricket hopped onto a toadstool that grew before Lizzie’s eyes, and began to play a chirping, trilling tune.

All those assembled turned and bowed to one another. Then they bowed to Lizzie and the old woman. Then, they danced.

Lizzie watched and watched. Her eyelids grew heavy. She was lifted up, carried, tucked into bed and then she was asleep under the heavy weight of a down comforter.

And then… and then…

Lizzie jerked herself up and gasped as if she hadn’t breathed through the recollection, and maybe she hadn’t. It isn’t often one discovers a hidden pocket of memory that has been silenced, blotted out for a decade. She gripped the well, then pushed back, broke her hold. She paced around it, unable to walk away, unwilling to get closer. She pressed her hands to her eyes and shook her head, but the memory was in her body, breathed in like underground gas. It made her nerves tingle, her limbs shake.

She was rising up, up through the water, through the shaft of the well. There was shouting, but she didn’t move. Someone hauled her out of the bucket, laid her roughly on the ground, pressed on her chest, rolled her over and thumped her back. Someone was shaking her…

“Oh my god— oh—“ Lizzie retched, heaved. Nothing came out, and then a thing string of greenish spit, acidic and painful on her throat.

Her lungs hurt. Her shoulders hurt. Her heartbeat was sluggish, erratic. She wanted the apples, wanted the bread. She wanted the cool touch of the old woman’s hand on her forehead, not these hands that shook her and shook her until she gasped and sat up.

She’s alive! Praise God!

Then the tone changed and they threw something from her pockets into the well and rushed her away.

They had forbidden all the children to ever go back. But that wasn’t what made Lizzie shake and shake, hunched over in the grass.

That night, before she knew better, she told her mother all about the land below the wishing well. Maybe someday Lizzie would see that it had been too much for her mother, almost losing her only daughter so soon after her husband’s terrible injury. Maybe if Lizzie had come back empty handed instead of with an apron-full of silver pieces she could have listened to her child, comforted her and indulged her. Maybe her mother wouldn’t have drawn back, maybe everything would have gone back to normal if her father had lived just a few days longer.

But as it was, little Lizzie told her tale, her mother refused to believe her, and her father died that night.

Lizzie beat the ground with her fist. She cried out, she wailed.

Up from the well, the voice called again.

Ask.


READER RESPONSE: Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress!     -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux

Book 2, Ch 2: The World Below the Well

Book 2, Ch 1: The Widow Witch

Lizzie heaved the trunk onto the makeshift sledge behind the mule. She could feel curious eyes on her— suspicious ones, too. The buzz of words was barely held back by the gates of their teeth. Still, she jumped when one of them spoke to her.

“Where are you going, Widow Borden?”

She spun round and bit back the words that longed to jump out like a smack. I am not ‘Widow Borden’— that was my mother, rest her pitiful soul. No, none of that was appropriate or helpful. It would neither stop the villagers from their whisperings or, more achingly, bring back her recently buried mother from the dead. But she hated it— hated being a widow, being a title. She had vented her spleen on one of the Catesly girls when she came to deliver cheese, and the ill-guarded truth that she had not actually been married in a Christian ceremony had spread quickly and done nothing to ease her transition back to her old life.

“Miss?” The child, a girl of six named Clara (for her clear, green-blue eyes, her sinless white brow) watched Lizzie. Lizzie rubbed her forehead, which seemed perpetually bunched into scowls or wrinkles. (She had heard the biddies comment on that, too— how unlikely it was that a face like that would win her a second husband.) Lizzie struggled to stay in the present.

“What, Clara?”

“I asked, where are you going?” She glanced backward, and Lizzie knew that innocent Clara Hayes had, not for the first time, been sent to gather information that the grown-ups were too polite to ask about directly.

“I’m leaving.”

“But, where will you go?” Clara lowered her voice in what would have been an endearing and conspiratorial whisper were it not for all the ears waiting for her report. “Will you go back to that place?

That place. The castle that was now a weed-riddled rubble. Lizzie hadn’t been back since her triumphant return to the village in May. Her mind drifted back.

She had walked, hitched rides when she could, asked directions when she’d needed to, though the lace map worked as well for finding the village as for finding one of the gates of hell. The villagers— people she had known her entire life— had stumbled out and stared at her. Her steps had slowed and finally, finally! someone had said the terrible news about her mother, the real Widow Borden.

After that, Lizzie had tended her mother, tried to nurse her off her deathbed. So she hadn’t heard the whispers, the doubts, the comments on her virtue or where she might have really been. These saved up and spilled over after the burial. Still, this was her home. She mended the curtains, planted a garden, coaxed eggs out of the chickens again. But when she purchased a mule to pull the plow and a little milk goat… well, gold always made gossip go faster. Where had the money come from? How had she come by it? Who was this dead husband no one knew anything of?

And now enough was enough, and she was moving.

“But where are you going?” Clara was waiting, a smile beginning to curve her lips.

Lizzie bent down and whispered in a hiss, “Little girl, you should keep asking questions, don’t let me tell you to stop. You should try keys and open doors and always satisfy your own curiosity. But right now… right now I do not wish to be bothered!”

Clara stared at her, unsure if the strange young-old woman with no husband was joking. No other grown-up had ever talked to her like Widow Borden did, and it made her bolder than the biddies had told her to be.

“Will you go… will you go with the other witches?”

“What?” Lizzie straightened up, back stiff as a board, thin face tight and pinched.

Clara tried a smile, but something wasn’t right. “They say—“

“They say I’m a witch?” She faced the crowd who’s brooms and carving knives and market-bound feet were still. “I would be lucky to be called a witch. You people don’t know anything! Have you ever met a witch? No! You’re too small-minded to dare to! Well, I have!” (Here the crowd gasped, and this only pushed Lizzie on). “You think it’s all about curses and evil eyes and bad luck. You have no idea! A witch. If I was, do you think I’d still be here?” She stared wild-eyed at them. Then she began to laugh. A small, still part of her was aware that this would not help their memory of her, that she was only making a bigger tangle and would have more work to undo it if she ever did try to come back. But a person who has recently learned to stop being Good and Well-Behaved cannot so gracefully navigate the murk and confusion of where society and self meet— not at first, and Lizzie was no exception.

She tugged on the rope that secured her trunk and vaulted onto the mule, causing gasps as she straddled it, a leg on either side. She turned him in a circle. “Fine— I’m a witch! I’m a witch, I’m a witch, I’m a witch! I’ll be in the woods— if anyone is brave enough to look for me.”

And Lizzie, the Widow Witch-Woman rode out of her home without a backwards glance.

She muttered to herself for so long that finally the mule stopped and laid back his ears. But it was a relief to experience a real reaction, an honest and unveiled response to her strangeness.

“I am strange. I am. She told me it would all be different, but I didn’t believe her.” She was Baba Yaga, Mother of All Witches and Lizzie’s unlikely aide in defeating her murderous husband, Bluebeard. Lizzie sat still on the mule’s back; she had been cowed out of buying a saddle— what would the neighbors say if she rode a mule?— and now she wished she had one. She slid off his back and grabbed the reins, and stood, stroking his fuzzy nose as long as he would allow it. He was persnickety; Snick, or Snicket, she called him (another strike of oddness against her). Eventually he lost interest and turned instead to the long grass by her feet, nudging her aside to get to the clover.

“I am strange,” she said again. “It’s better to say it. Maybe I am a witch. I am in comparison to them!” She tugged on the leather and Snicket obeyed, but with his ears back and without enthusiasm. “I’ve been to Hell! The Underworld— the Below! I faced a Golem, a Chimera!” She had whispered these words to herself in her straw sack bed many nights, a reverse rosary to remind herself that she had seen and done things. That she wasn’t just a peasant girl anymore. Except she was— she was both.

“I’m a girl and I’m a woman. I’m a mother but I have no child. I’m young enough to be called a maid, yet I’m a widow. And nobody believes me!” That was it, the thing that aggravated her, that itched, that kept her from rest like a flea in the ticking. She yanked on the reigns and Snicket brayed at her and stubbornly sank his hooves into the dirt. She threw up her hands and stalked about.

“I don’t know who I’m supposed to be! I don’t know what I’m supposed to do! I got rid of him, I helped everybody— all the other wives, all the servants. But I couldn’t help Mother. And I can’t just hoe potatoes anymore. I certainly can’t go courting, have a husband and a family…”

She looked at the mule who had gone back to his grazing. If he was not sympathetic, at least he didn’t interrupt. “I’m a mule. I’m not one thing or the other. And what’s a mule good for?”

Snicket had apparently been listening, and either a coincidental horse fly or a slight of his pride made him bolt.

“Hey! Snicket! Come back! Hey— you have all my things!” Lizzie raced after him, winding up and down, through brambles, only trying to keep the mule in sight.

When at last he stopped and she held the reigns again, it took her more than a full minute to catch her breath. She gripped the pain in her side and felt the uncomfortable prickle of sweat on her ribs. “You— stupid— creature. If I were a witch I’d curse you…”

She looked up. This time, when she dropped the reigns the mule set to grazing, perfectly at home.

She stood in the overgrown yard of an abandoned cottage. She had only been here once since childhood, but she knew the place well. It was the Witch’s Cottage.


READER RESPONSE: Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress!     -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux

Book 2, Ch 1: The Widow Witch

Ch 45: The Magic Word

Lizzie ate her soup and mopped the bowl with some dusty bread that had been reclaimed from the wreckage. She pumped water from the kitchen spigot and washed the bowl out, then dried it on her apron. She dried it rather a long time; she could feel the others. They had come closer, left whatever they were doing, and now they waited for her to say something, to explain this, to tell them what would happen next. She closed her eyes.

Blackwings the Raven, Keeper of Secrets, I wish you were here to tell me what to say. What’s the word that will bring us all to life again?

She waited, then sighed and turned to face them, a tight smile on her face. Then she softened. The looks on their faces— they were scared, but they were whole. Pock marked and pitted, maybe, but every eye could see, every shoulder had an arm extending from its socket. Taisia was gone, yes, but they were here, alive, and well enough.

“You don’t need to be saved,” she said. Some of them blinked. “It feels strange to say it, strange to hear it, doesn’t it? But you don’t.” She spread her arms. “Look at us! Out of the tower! None of us feels our best, do we? But we don’t feel our worst.” Heads nodded. “Well done, all of you— all of us. You helped me every moment. You helped me to see, you gave me a family— you gave me hope. Thank you.

“I can’t tell you what to do next. But together, well, we should have some ideas, shouldn’t we, such a lot of brave and clever women? Maybe we’ll go back to our old homes. Maybe we’ll split up. Maybe we’ll stay together. Maybe, strange as it seems, some of us will stay right here. We could keep our names or pick new ones. Go to Baba Yaga’s hut for our old shoes, or walk on barefoot and see what happens. It’s all rather terrible and glorious, isn’t it? But we’ll help each other. We can do it, because we’re together.”

Some weeks later, when the first crops were making the fields green and the baby birds were fledged and testing their new wings, a traveling minstrel came upon a place his path had never crossed before, though he’d walked this way many times.

There was a ruined castle, a ring of thirty-six upright stones, and, growing from the rubble, a thick white patch of forget-me-nots.

END OF BOOK ONE


READER RESPONSE: Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress!     -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux

Ch 45: The Magic Word

Ch 44: Baba Yaga’s Prediction

They camped on the lawn in the shade of the stable which, though worn and weathered, was still standing. It was a mild morning, though none could guess what season it was. Eldest— Joanna— settled (or at least quieted) the argument as they lay wrapped in horse blankets from the stable.

“It’s spring. I don’t care if we never saw winter. Look how small the leaves are. It’s spring coming close to summer.”

“Planting time,” said Lizzie, quietly.

Apple— Magda— lay next to her and shifted closer. “What’s that?”

“Planting time. It’s when… when I left. A year ago.”

Magda was quiet, then said, “Or ten years ago. Who can say? This has been a strange place.”

Voices murmured. Conversations rose and fell, and before the birds had fully woken up, they were asleep.

Lizzie dreamed of her brothers, and of Baba Yaga. The witch kept pulling on her skirt and she kept trying to catch up to Jacobi and Hescher who were out in a field with their regiment.

“Listen to me,” said Baba Yaga, “I have things to tell you. It’s not wise to ignore a witch when she visits your dreams.”

“Go away. I don’t want to know whatever it is. I’m going home. Hescher! Jacobi,” she shouted, “wait for me!”

“You think I’m trying to stop you— I only have words—“

“As if I don’t know the power of words!” Lizzie looked at her, then turned back in irritation— her brothers were farther from her now and she struggled against Baba Yaga’s bony grip. “Hescher! Jacobi! It’s me, Lizzie!”

“Just hush a moment before every creature Below hears you and comes running.”

Lizzie felt a chill and looked at her. “What?”

The witch cocked her eyebrows. “Oh, you think you can just waltz into the Underworld and then waltz out again and no one will notice? I happen to have heard that there’s a certain blind ogre crashing into things and making quite a ruckus, not to mention a disarmed golem and a grieving chimera who thinks you’ve stolen one of her babies.”

“But— I had to!”

“Hmm. Well, that’s something you can be sure no one will agree upon. Someone always has to do something, don’t they? And there are consequences in Above, Below and in the Middle.”

Lizzie rubbed her temple which was beginning to ache. “I don’t understand you. You’re not making sense.” She turned back to the golden field, but it was empty. The soldiers were only a cluster of gray and red in the distance, ready to march over the horizon to serve their king. “No, wait—“ she turned back to the witch. “You’ve made me miss them!”

“You’re dreaming, child.”

“Then go away and let me sleep, old woman. You have no reason to be here.”

Baba Yaga pursed her lips. Lizzie felt Magda shift against her, sensed the warm cocoons of bodies sleeping heavily around her own restless figure.

“All right, get it out. Satisfy yourself and then please go away and let me sleep!”

“Here’s the thing, Lizzie Borden, you’ve started something.” She held up her hand and went on. “You’ve called on animal guides and walked Below. There’s talk that you’ll find a door and walk down that path again.” Lizzie sputtered but the witch continued. “Whether you do or don’t, things will be different for you. Go back to your old life, go find your dear brothers— you’ve earned that right. But I’m telling you as a favor that you’re marked. You’ve seen and done things that leave a sheen on a person. Oh, not that kind,” she said when Lizzie looked down at her bare arms. “I can see it, and there are others as can, too. You’ll be surprised at first who notices it; who visits you, who asks for advice.” Baba Yaga looked thoughtful. “It always begins without your realizing. And then…” She stirred herself and remembered the girl before her.

“I’m telling you this so you don’t waste your life thinking you’re different than you are. You may as well been born riding a goat, a wooden spoon in your hand.” Lizzie stared at her. “No? Well, that story worked when the old witch explained things to me. What I mean to say is that you’re marked—“

“Yes, you’ve said that, but what—“

“It means that from here on out you will see things and hear things that others won’t. Either they can’t or they’re too dull or scared to keep their eyes open. And as such you will live a life that is unlike most others.”

Lizzie squinted at her. “But like some? Like some who live in huts that run about on chicken legs? Is that what you’re trying to say? That I’m doomed to be a witch?”

Baba Yaga scoffed. “Doomed? Certainly not! Not gauranteed, either. I’m saying there is a key in your hand, girl, and there are doors that it opens. So don’t sit at home darning your husband’s stockings your whole life, eh?” She turned to go and Lizzie felt the heaviness of sleep pull on her shoulders.

“Oh, I nearly forgot,” added the witch unconvincingly, “tell the others if they want the shoes, well, they are free to come and fetch them.”

“You… won’t eat them?” asked Lizzie dozily, struggling to get the words to line up.

“Eat them? Who ever heard of a witch eating shoes!” And Baba Yaga faded into a pearly white world of sleep.

When Lizzie woke she was alone, but a dress was laid out beside her. It gave her a start, a terrible jolt, and for just a second she was back in the bedchamber. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to breathe steadily through the horse-scented blanket.

“She’s awake!”

Lizzie opened her eyes again: Magda and Joanna were hurrying over. Well, Magda was hurrying. Joanna strode and then waited while Magda explained.

“Jo’s been organizing things. At first we didn’t want to search through the rubble, but she insisted, and we found some of our things as well as food. It seems the rooms he didn’t go in weren’t so badly damaged. Bri and the others were able to dig into the pantry and made up some soup. And— well, we’ll show you, but first you must have a bath.”

“A bath? Is the bathroom still standing?” Lizzie peered around Magda’s round shoulder at the heap of stone over which a half dozen figures walked.

“Goodness, no! Come one, I’l show you!”

Three minutes later Lizzie was stripped and in the horse trough. There was the comforting smell of woodsmoke nearby, and one of the servants hurried over with a glowing stone gripped in a currier’s tool.

“Careful, Miss,” she said and dropped the rock into the instantly bubbling water.

Lizzie soaked and scrubbed, and Magda helped wash her hair. When at last she was clean and dry and dressed again, she remembered the dream visit from Baba Yaga.

Joanna nodded at the news. “That answers one question, then. I’ve been wondering what to tell them. Do they go home? What if they don’t want to— or can’t? For some of us, it’s been years.” She held out her arms. “I was the first, Lizzie. And if he took a new wife each year— or even each season… no one in my village will believe I’m alive, and if they see me, unaged—“

“They’ll think you’re a witch,” finished Lizzie.

“I expect so.”

Lizzie chewed her lip and shook her head. “I hadn’t thought that far. I’d only planned until sunset yesterday!” She laughed and then fell silent again. “I don’t know. I don’t know at all.”


READER RESPONSE: Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress!     -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux

Ch 44: Baba Yaga’s Prediction

Ch 43: Surgery and Destruction

Bluebeard roared in pain! He reared back and arched off the floor. Lizzie lifted her hands in shock and surprise, and felt the chain of lamp-light-blessing break all around her. But her sisters recovered and the comfort of their presence flowed back through her, even as the man on the floor spat and cursed and howled. He clawed at his chest, but he stayed clear of the cavity, the wound. He could not touch his own heart.

“It pains you,” said Lizzie.

“God and the Devil, yes, it hurts!” he raged. He thrashed some more.

“Be quiet. And be still.” And he was, though the pain was still visible.

Lizzie leaned forward and evened the ends of silver hair. She looked carefully, dipped the needle, and began to sew.

Bluebeard’s face went red. His chest heaved in broken breaths, but true to her command he remained silent. The needle rose and fell. She found the channels and the veins and matched them up with small and even stitches. When she had made it all the way around the heart and watched to see that it pumped evenly, steadily, she folded the muscles and the skin back over and closed the hole.

She tied off the thread and rocked back onto her heels. Then she nodded and pushed herself to standing.

“Lizzie?” It was Magda, round face full of concern. “Should we— let him speak?”

“You mean, maybe with his heart returned to his body he’ll… repent?”

“Doubtful,” spat Fabiana, but she did not argue further.

Lizzie looked at them. “All right. But it might not have made any difference for him. It was, most of all, for us. So we could be free.” She nodded at Bluebeard, so reduced before them. “You have no more power over us, and so we will … we will also release you. You may move and speak,” Bri pressed something into her hand— it was the handle of the heavy skillet, “but don’t test us any further.”

As soon as she had finished, Bluebeard leapt to his feet. He screamed and pulled at the stitches in his chest, but they held. Of course they held. “This is no kindness! This is punishment! Worse than death! Gaaah!” His words dissolved into animal cries and the circle stepped back, opened to give him room, but he seemed not to see them.

He struggled with an unseen opponent, swung his large hands, tore at his own hair, beat his breast. It raised to a crescendo, so loud, in fact, that Lizzie was on the verge of saying he must fall silent again. But then there came a rider, no, two.

Lizzie ran to farthest window, closest to the east. There, visible only because of the blazing white light behind him, was the Night Rider on his horse of velvet black. But he was pursued, almost passed, by the Rider of the Breaking Dawn! The second rider dazzled and shone; the land behind him was lit, a blue-white cloak drawn over everything, ending the dark nighttime sooner than was natural.

“Baba Yaga!”

The old witch crouched behind the Dawn, bony fingers tight on his pristine shoulders.

“Lizzie!” She turned. Four of the others struggled with Bluebeard. For a moment she thought he had attacked them, but then she saw that they tried to force him away from the window.

“Let me go! Let me go!” he growled, desperate as a child.

The light came closer. Lizzie heard a cry and looked out her window again— then toppled backward as Baba Yaga came flying through!

“There you are, my old friend!”

Bluebeard turned and saw her, whimpered and fought more frantically for escape, but the witch ignored him completely. She walked to the porcelain tub and laid her hands on it. In response, it lifted off the stone floor and hovered there. She spoke to Bluebeard without looking at him.

“I am done with you, freer than I had hoped to be, though it’s no credit to me. I would have stabbed your heart, not given it back to you.”

Bluebeard howled again and Lizzie rushed to help hold him. Baba Yaga stopped her. “Let him go. You can make the stitches, close the wound, but if the patient doesn’t want to live…” she held her hands out, empty. Lizzie looked at her, then nodded to the others. They released him. Bluebeard howled anew, stepped back and threw himself headlong out the tower window.

They heard his voice wail and change key. Such a long way down, or was Baba Yaga playing with time again?

Then there was the crunch and the silence, such complete silence. Lizzie’s eyes stung— and she was crying.

“Mistress?” said Bri.

And then they were all around her, all of them, even, though putting on a show of recalcitrance, Baba Yaga. Lizzie sobbed and sobbed, and some of the others cried, too.

“I thought— I thought—“

“You thought you could save him.” It was the witch. “Even though I had expressly told you the opposite a moment before?” She sighed dramatically but Lizzie didn’t care. Her heart ached in her chest, ached as if the feeling would never go away.

“That’s why it was you and not me, Lizzie Borden,” said Baba Yaga.

“Yes, nor me,” said Fabiana. “But this was better. I feel angry but— free.” She nodded. “Free of him. I have no sins to atone for except my own stupidity, and I have been punished enough for that already, I think.”

“I should say so,” said Baba Yaga. “It doesn’t work that way, actually, but yes, you should be done carrying around any guilt over this. It only gives wrinkles and ulcers, and you have your lives to live.”

There was a rumble under their feet.

Lizzie rubbed her eyes and looked up. “What was that?” The stones shook again. Every face was puzzled and alarmed.

“Ah,” said Baba Yaga, “that is the castle falling apart beneath us.”

There were shrieks and cries of disbelief, then a rush for the door. Lizzie turned back. Baba Yaga was climbing into her porcelain tub. “Will you take Taisia? Will you carry her out?”

Baba Yaga’s mouth twitched, but she nodded. When Lizzie staggered over with the limp body and heaved it into the tub, a look of surprise passed over the witch’s face.

“You knew her, didn’t you? She helped us so much.”

“I didn’t know her, but she knew me. Hm.” She said no more except, “Time to leave, girl, or you’ll be sharing a grave with him.” Then she leaned back and the porcelain tub copied her, rearing back and then rushing forward. It took Lizzie one long second to realize what was happening. She dashed for the stairs just as the witch flew through the wall.

After that everything crumbled faster. The steps fell away as soon as she leaped from them. Candles and mirrors and paintings crashed to the floor. She had to slide down the carved wooden banister to avoid a sudden sinkhole in the second-floor staircase. She sprinted across the parlor and flung open the doors. Something sharp and tinkling crashed behind her— the chandelier, certainly. She felt a pang of regret. All this, all this was hers. Her inheritance.

But then she saw the others on the far side of the lawn, and her heart swelled. No, this was her inheritance, this sisterhood, this belonging, this strength. She went and stood by them. Their numbers grew as the Gray People hurried out from the back of the building and joined Bri, who did her best to explain what was happening.

They stood together, free at last, and watched the castle fall.


READER RESPONSE: Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress!     -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux

Ch 43: Surgery and Destruction

Ch 42: Forgiveness and Revenge

She fell to the floor with a gurgled cry, red blooming down her white chest. The others surged forward and fell back instantly, but Lizzie cried out.

“You beast! You gave me your word!” She sank to her knees, everything forgotten but the girl who gasped and then went still in front of her.

“You are not worthy of my word,” spat Bluebeard. “You are no more than cattle. A man may say anything to like to his beasts— they have no hold on him. I said what I wished for you to hear and you, being a soft and foolish woman, believed it. That fault is yours, not mine.” He shook his head. Though his goatee was tangled, his face unshaven and he was dressed only in underclothes, he looked powerful. He was powerful. Outnumbered by such a ratio and yet still he had the upper hand. Lizzie gripped Taisia’s still hand in hers and wept, heart pressed to her chest.

“Ah, what’s this? You’ve brought me something. For that I might let you live,” here he chuckled, “though you won’t see that as a reward, will you. Hand it over.”

Lizzie looked up at him. He thrust out his hand, so completely confident that she had only one choice, that it shocked her back to life.

“No.” She stood, legs trembling. A sudden remembrance of her mother calling her much younger self stubborn made her smile, nearly laugh!

Bluebeard narrowed his eyes. “No? That is not a word for a wife,” he hissed the word between his straight, strong teeth.

Lizzie reached for the pin, and as her hatred swelled, so did the metal. It wobbled, shifted; it was a dagger, and then a needle again. Bluebeard saw it, and the shock showed.

“You’ve been to the witch, a thousand curses on her. But I have already proven myself better than her; anything she’s given you is weak by extension. Hand me the heart.”

Again, Lizzie felt rage fill her, felt the dagger in her hand, knew how easily it would pierce the unprotected organ. But she also felt the heart beat against her skin. It pressed and pressed, a small, blind animal that was afraid and sought shelter, comfort and— a word that made her feel sick. Forgiveness.

Bluebeard watched her and seemed to know, or guess, at what she thought.

“Hand me the heart or be done with it. I don’t need it. It does not hold the power you think it does.” When she still didn’t move he lunged sideways and grabbed—

“Apple! No!”

“Apple, is it? There’ll be no tombstone for you.” He gave her a squeeze. “Plump and tender as the day I carried you off.” He nibbled her neck. Apple— Magda— flinched but held still. She didn’t take her eyes off Lizzie, and her voice sounded in Lizzie’s head. A kindness before I die.

The words struck Lizzie like a bell. Her heart shook. The dagger slid down to a needle once more. She stepped forward.

“Here. I brought it back for you.”

Bluebeard looked at her and pushed Magda aside. “That was your intention?”

“Not always, but yes. It’s yours. It shouldn’t be… down there.”

Bluebeard’s eyebrows raised. “You saw it? You went Below? You have more grit than I had realized. Perhaps I will keep you…” Then his eyes narrowed. “But where is the shell?”

Lizzie shrugged. She was buzzing and it took all her attention to speak. “I don’t know. I didn’t see. My eyes were closed.”

Bluebeard did not put out his hand. His eyes were slits now, nearly the only things visible save for his pale chest in the growing darkness. The other women were silent, their breathing hushed. Everyone was waiting. It was quiet enough to hear the exposed heart beat, thick and sluggish.

Bluebeard crossed and uncrossed his arms. “What have you done to it. A chimera’s shell is impervious to every metal, every spell. Did she give you an incantation, that witch?” As he grew angry he looked larger, more terrible, but Lizzie didn’t flinch. She looked instead at the heart in her hand.

“No. It was a spell to soften my heart. Not revenge, but… forgiveness.”

“You fool! No!” Fabiana leaped out from the shadows. The others held her, but she cursed Lizzie. “It is justice! For all of us! How dare you? You can’t take it from us! I will do it myself!”

“Be quiet!” Bluebeard’s voice was like a gong and it rattled her into silence. Her turned back to Lizzie. His voice hissed like wet coal. “I don’t want your forgiveness. I want what is mine.”

“We all do,” she said, stepping forward. “I will give you back your heart.” She dipped down smoothly, unexpectedly. They all watched her; none stopped her. She plucked a shining silver hair from Taisia’s head. It quivered a moment, then threaded itself through the needle in Lizzie’s left hand. She took a third step and closed the gap between them, and still Bluebeard had not moved. She ran the needle down his chest so that a thin line of blood beaded, then she waited.

When nothing happened, Bluebeard began to laugh. It was a loud, raucous laugh, a cruel one; a laugh so certain of itself that even Lizzie felt a lightning bolt of doubt course through her body. Silverscales had said…

Then the laugh stopped. It cut off with a gurgling moan, and the large man stumbled backwards, fell, scrambled. The women shuffled nearer to look, and they gasped as one.

Bluebeard’s chest was splitting open, bloody and wet— and empty.

“Someone fetch a lamp, please,” said Lizzie. When it appeared by her side she was not surprised to see that Bri, the little gray girl, was the one who brought it.

“Do you need anything else, Mistress?”

“No, Bri, only a steady hand— for light and the needle. And perhaps, your blessings,” she glanced up at the circle of women illuminated by the single flame. Fabiana’s face stood out, angry and hurt. Lizzie felt her question.

“It isn’t out of love for him. It’s out of love for us. Can you understand? There are different kinds of freedom, different degrees of justice. Maybe you can’t imagine it— but a wise friend explained it to me, and I still feel it in my bones, in my body. And see— there’s some power here.” She gestured at the man who trembled before her, a man large enough to send her flying with a single strike who only stared with too-large eyes at the heart in her hand.

“Please, even if you can’t understand— believe me. I do what I think is best, for all of us.” She looked down. “Even him.” She was quiet a long time. “I don’t want to be a killer, too.”

There was a moment of stillness, then someone put a hand on her shoulder. It felt like a spark, like another lamp lit. And then another joined the chain of blessing, and another. Even Fabiana, eyes red-rimmed and distrustful and hurt, put her hand on the shoulder beside her.

Lizzie’s hands steadied. She took a slow breath, and they breathed with her. Then carefully, very carefully, she turned the heart in her hands and laid it in Bluebeard’s chest.


READER RESPONSE: Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress!     -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux

Ch 42: Forgiveness and Revenge

Ch 41: Race Against the Sun

She left the dark mountain behind— she glanced over her shoulder once to see and nearly lost her footing. After that she only looked forward, and at the map. The wriggling lines on the scrap of lace wrote and re-wrote themselves in an attempt to keep up with the ground she covered. A black stain, a tower-shaped ink spot at the far edge disappeared and re-formed, edged sideways and jumped places in the pattern, and Lizzie did her best to adjust, to keep herself on course.

She leapt swamps, hurtled through a red-streaked village where shopkeepers were closing their shutters; she ducked low to avoid branches in dense forests, but everywhere she ran she raced against the sun. It was at her left constantly. With every step she took it sank further, as if she were forcing it down with the weight of her boots. It was one-third gone. It was half gone. Lizzie ran harder. Had it truly been so far? Shouldn’t she be to Baba Yaga’s woods by now? Shouldn’t she be nearly there?

Her breath caught in her chest and her side seized with an ache that forced her to a limping walk and then to a stop. She gripped the offending muscles and begged them to cooperate. A bat darted overhead and a night bird called.

“Stop it!” she cried. “Stop! It’s too early for you!”

She took a step, and then another. Her knees ached, and, now that she had slowed her pace considerably, she felt where she had knocked elbows, shoulders, hips in her too-fast journey, not to mention the ogre’s burn on her arm that was blistering and which did not fare well with this rough treatment.

She hurried her pace, a shuffle that could barely be called a run, but still, every step was seven leagues. On one deserted road she caught the astonished look of a child, and then was alone again. The sun slipped lower and lower. She was still so far from the castle! The tiny map gave her no comfort, even when it turned her westward and the lines ceased their squiggling. She had only to go directly toward the sunset and she would find her way.

But now there was only one-third of the orange disc in the sky. And then one-fourth. Lizzie urged herself on, but everything felt heavy— and then she understood, or imagined, it was the same thing now— it was his heart that weighed her down like stone, like lead. She was fighting to bring together the wrong ends of two magnets. Whereas her heart clung desperately to its place in her chest, the over-large mass in her hand was repelled, repulsed by the body to which she was bringing it. It pushed against her, an unseen wind. She could not hear Bluebeard’s voice, but she could imagine his triumph, his sick delight that even this long-neglected part of himself was stronger than his little wife.

“I am not your wife!” she shouted through clenched teeth. She held out the heart in her hand. “Help me! Any creature, angel or demon— no, not demon, I’ve had enough of those! Anyone who can, who will! Help me bring Bluebeard’s body and heart back together. Help me make the broken whole!” She waited. Nothing happened. No— the heart grew lighter, or she wished so much for it to be so that she believed it. But it was enough. And this hope gave her more hope; it multiplied. She began to run, a limping, jagged, inelegant run, but one that filled her up with each step.

“The birds help me! Their representative the raven show that! And the fish— and the wolves! The bees! The trees!” she laughed out loud, “The little goats! And every farm girl who wishes for love— and she’ll have it, real love, silly, easy love and then something good and grown-up and lasting.” She pumped her arms and the heart sweated blood in her hand, spattering the landscape behind them.

She glanced ahead at the horizon. “Dear sun! Won’t you help, too? A kindness! A small thing for you to wait just a bit, to hover, just a little time— won’t you help me, please?”

She leaped a stile and suddenly there was a rider beside her— the Red Rider of sunset. She leaped a second fence and saw it was a gate adorned with flaming skulls. The rider on his red horse kept pace with her. “Greetings, brother! Are you here to help me?”

The rider said nothing but he reigned in his horse and let her run ahead. She wanted to look back— oh! she wanted to look back! But there was only time for running.

Now she no longer bothered to look at the map. She could feel the way. She felt it through the soles of the boots. She felt it in her heart. And the heart in her hand felt it, too, and trembled more and more.

The sun hovered, it hung on an iron nail, snagged in its descent. She thought she could hear hoofbeats behind her, gaining on her. She thought she could hear Bluebeard’s growl in her head, thought she could see the world split three dozen ways, but the running took all her concentration and the rest grappled at her mind but did not find purchase.

And then, there it was. She felt the shock of the barrier, but the seven league boots carried her through into the yard. She tumbled, rolled over on her shoulder and kicked the boots off. Two worn-thin, muddy and blood-spattered slippers flew into the air and disappeared in the shadows. Lizzie struggled to her feet and pushed herself forward. Around the wall, up the steps and through the front door.

The heart wouldn’t go. She panicked. Then she clutched it to her breast and dove through the doorway. Upstairs there was a cry. There was more than one cry. If she had had breath for cursing or praying, she might have readily done either. But she only had strength left to climb the stairs, higher and higher, until the plush carpeting gave way to cold flagstones. Her thighs burned, her lungs ached. So exhausted was she that she did not hesitate but pushed hard against the unlatched door. The rough wood swung open and away from her and Lizzie stumbled into the forbidden tower as the last band of red died on the walls and the Red Rider vanished below.

“Well, well. The prodigal returns, and just in time. I would have hated for you to miss this,” said Bluebeard as he slid his dagger across Taisia’s throat.


READER RESPONSE: Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress!     -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux

Ch 41: Race Against the Sun

Ch 40: True Freedom

Lizzie felt sure she would burst.

The fish dragged fast and faster one way, and the current that flowed strong and deep to the Underworld, and which was not known to give up souls, pulled hard the other. And in between was fear and pain in her wrist and the dagger gripped tightly and the fish’s fin tighter still. But there was not enough air, no nearly enough.

They twisted and dove. Lizzie’s shoulders scraped against rock in the narrow places. There was one terrible moment when she thought she would not fit, that she would lose her grip and be trapped between the living and the dead, no body to be found, no hope for her sisters. And then her fear was worse than that. She needed air, needed to draw a clean, dry breath! Her stomach heaved, sucked at her lungs, overrode the signal to keep her mouth and nose shut to the hungry water.

She gasped, kicked and writhed as water flooded her lungs and choked her. She saw spots of light bursting in the darkness. Her head spun. And then one circle of light began to devour the rest. Lizzie swooned.

Then with a rush of water she shot out of the darkness. It was the last thing she knew before her body went limp. She didn’t feel Silverscales turn, released from her hand, and push her up through the deep, cold lake. She didn’t feel the water break, the air touch her face or the ground support her body.

But she felt it when a smooth, round stone hit her forehead with a colossal whack!

The pain pulled her back and sent her stumbling to her feet, then falling to her knees to retch at the side of the lake. She heaved until her stomach ached and her throat was raw. Then she shook and shook with the cold. But she raised her bleary eyes and scanned the water: there!

“Thank you, Silverscales. Thank you for saving me from that place.” She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. The fish swam close.

“There is still time.”

Lizzie only blinked. “Time for what?”

“Time to go back. Before the sun sets.” It nodded westward. The sun was low and red, nearly touching the horizon.

Salt tears flowed down Lizzie’s cheeks now and mingled, hot, with the cold water. “I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to die. He’ll— I don’t want to know what he’ll do to me.” She shook her head. “And what he’ll do to them. He won’t keep his word, and even his promise was terrible. I can’t, I can’t.”

The fish regarded her with glassy eyes. “But you are not powerless.”

“I am! I am powerless! I tried and I failed. There’s no way to save them, no—“

The fish swam away from her. It splashed near the shore a few paces away. “You are not powerless, and you are not finished yet.”

Lizzie was hot now, with fever, with anger. “You’re just a stupid fish! A stupid, talking fish!” She reached down and hurled a stone. It shot into the water, but Silverscales didn’t move. She threw another stone, but still the fish swam calmly.

“What’s wrong with you? I’ll kill you! Get away from me— get away!”

She picked up the third stone, bigger and heavier than the others. Smoother. It pulsed in her hand. She turned and looked at it. Staggered sideways and nearly fell into the lake, clutched at the stone that wasn’t a stone. She looked at the fish.

“How…?”

“You needed my help. It was my duty. And my honor.”

Lizzie hung her head. Her cheeks blazed and the feverish sensation made the ground sway, made the horizon wobble. “I’m sorry. I’m so ashamed— forgive me?”

Silverscales flicked its tail. “I hold no debts, but I thank you. Now hurry, please. There is still time. Others need your help. That is your duty.”

“Yes. And honor.” Lizzie’s voice was quiet. Her sisters’ faces flashed before her, and they were so beautiful, so alive. And they would live! She looked all around— and to her amazement, there was the dagger, sloshing in the foam at the edge of the water, dragging gently forward and back. She ran to it. She flew to it! She had never been so happy— it was almost done! Almost! She laid the egg on the beach, gripped the dagger with both hands and raised them high—

“Stop!” The fish’s voice was hoarse, reedy, urgent. Lizzie looked at its glowing face.

“You told me—“

“This is not the way to freedom.”

Lizzie gestured helplessly at the egg and at the sky: the bottom sliver of sun had been swallowed by the land. “If not this, then what? What am I to do? I have a dagger and I have his heart. Once he is killed the bonds will break and we’ll be free, all of us!”

“The prison stones will crumble,” said the fish, “the visible bonds will break, yes. But the unseen walls, the invisible locks and keys… they will remain. You will not truly be free.”

“But he’ll be dead. He won’t be able to do anything to us anymore.”

“Those are not exactly the same things. He will be gone in body. But he will live on in memory.” The fish’s green marble eyes never looked from hers. “If you finish him like this, you make of yourself a prison. That is worse punishment than you have known.”

Lizzie sank to her knees. “Then what? What? Tell me what to do.”

“You will listen?”

“Yes! But tell me quickly! The sun is sinking— please!”

“Come closer.”

Lizzie crawled to the water’s edge and put her ear to the fish’s mouth. Its words whispered against her skin, tickled her ear, spiraled into her mind. She sat back, slack jawed, and stared. The flat land was cast in long shadows. The black mountain rose up in a wall of shining red. The lake was silver-blue, rippled with black. She closed her eyes and swallowed. She was spent. She was done. It was too much.

Except it wasn’t. She knew that. It was almost too much. But even the tiny space between almost and truly is enough for a miracle to slip through, enough, maybe, for strong magic. Her heart cracked open; she heard it. Then she felt the dagger shift in her hand, grow slim and sleek. When she opened her eyes, the fish was gone and the water was still. In her hand lay the silver needle. On the sand beat Bluebeard’s naked heart.

She grimaced but picked it up from the broken shell. It was hot. Again she thought of the sheep she had been midwife to. There was not so much difference between this slab of red and the placenta. She swallowed hard and stood up. It was not far to the entrance of cave. She found a battered pair of leather slippers in the shadows of a rock and slipped her tired feet into them.

Lizzie threaded the needle into her slip once more and leaped— seven leagues and seven leagues, racing against the fast-approaching night.


READER RESPONSE: Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress!     -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux

Ch 40: True Freedom

Ch 39: The Ogre

The violent heaving of Lizzie’s stomach stopped her from fainting in terror. Of all the things she had seen, and this included the mangled remains of her predecessors, this was the most terrible. Or maybe it wasn’t, but a demon is always frightening— a demon after a chimera and a golem and a visit to Baba Yaga’s, well, that would be nearly too much for anyone, wouldn’t it?

It was a broad as two men. Its hair might well have been fur and extended down its back in a hump of black and coppery orange. And its eye… There was only one, overlarge and yellow, set in the middle of its forehead. She stared at it, stricken with the power of its ugliness, it’s wrongness.

The demon— ogre, whatever it was, she had no word for it; she only knew it should not exist outside of scary stories told around a fire in the dead of winter— leered at her. She choked when she saw that it had not one but two sets of teeth, jagged as broken glass and pointing inward; a reminder that hope for escape was not only ridiculous but insulting. And so the creature took its time, though it clearly could have leaped the stream with little effort. It lurched forward on its over-long arms, pushing off the ground with its knuckles and then rearing up on its hind legs to show its full height.

His full height, Lizzie realized, repulsed, when the mirror light showed his oversized and greenish nakedness. But she was even more revolted when it became clear that the ogre was showing off for her. He grinned at her and shook his hips and grunted and— she couldn’t look away— grew larger.

Lizzie!

The smallest voice, a lifeline as thin as spider’s silk, but there, real. She grabbed hold of it and pushed herself to her feet, egg clutched close, ready to run. Her mind raced. If I go on it will follow me and I don’t know what I’ll find. If I go back— she didn’t let herself think what might have happened to Gray Legs— If I go back I know what I’ll face. I could lure it over the fire. Or maybe the chimera—

The ogre charged at her! She screamed and dropped the mirror. It clattered against stone but did not cease to give light. But her relief was short-lived: she found she could not move her feet, and screamed again, but he stopped at the water’s edge. His arms were so long (and what yellow, blackened fingernails!) she felt sure he could reach across and grab her if he wanted to. Her stomach lurched with a familiar cold sense of the inevitable. He’s just like Bluebeard. Just like— She looked down at the egg, and she was filled with rage, filled with hatred. All this way, through so many trials and challenges— she would not be defeated by a stinking demon! It ogled her and rolled its eyes. Lizzie spat and it leaped back! That was a surprise. Still, she couldn’t move her feet. She tugged hard; it wasn’t just fear, the ogre was working some magic on her. Fine! She spat again, and again the creature reeled back from her. But she couldn’t stand here and spit forever, she could see that. And surely the ogre, with his long legs and arms, could not be outrun. Deep within her, she trembled. But it was only a small part, only the last little scrap of hope that she would, contrary to Baba Yaga’s prophecy, emerge from this unchanged, untouched and everything would go back to normal. She let herself weep with that strand of her soul for just a moment, and then she grabbed the egg and squeezed.

“Nooooo!” a voice roared. Lizzie nearly dropped the egg in surprise. The ogre was shocked into stillness, and she recovered first. She pressed with all her strength against the egg; it was the size of a large squash or a very small pumpkin, and its shell was proving to be as hard as a horn bowl. Though it did not crack, she felt it flex under the pressure, and again a voice howled in pain.

“Stop!” said the ogre. His voice was garbled, no doubt by those horrible teeth and, she shuddered at the flickering sight of it, that too-long and swollen tongue. “That— is— not— yours.” The words were forced and seemed to trouble him; he was not accustomed to human speech.

“It’s not yours, either! Kill me or not, I will destroy him!” She squeezed again, and again the rock around her shook from the intensity of the cry coming, she realized now, from within the egg in her hands. She stared at it. “It’s him! It’s you! Do you hear me? I will kill you!” She shook the egg, shook it and shook it, and felt the tremors of rage and pain that radiated from within.

“No—“ the ogre reached quickly, so quickly!, across the stream and grabbed her arm just above her wrist. Lizzie shrieked! His touch burned! She smell of meat grew strong— he was cooking her skin! She twisted and turned, clutched the egg in her free hand, but she could not get away.

And now, worst of all, the voice from the egg was laughing. Bluebeard was laughing at her, calling her weak, calling her— she shook her head violently so that the sound of her own blood in her ears would block it out. This could not be the way she died, the last thing she heard.

And then—

Lizzie stopped struggling. She looked the ogre in the face, and he looked back, surprised by the change. Then she spat full in his face and tossed the egg into what she hoped was the stream, ripped the needle from her slip, and cried, “Silverscales!”

The ogre shook his head and growled. He was angry. He yanked her closer, but this was what she had hoped for and she plunged the needle deep into his pustuled eye. It changed in her hand and became a dagger! She stabbed, and stabbed again. The ogre reared back and she nearly lost the dagger, slippery as it was from the blood or slime that oozed as if from a stuck blister. He let go of her wrist and clapped both hairy hands to his face, stumbled backwards and roared! The noise was so loud it was painful, but she forgot it soon enough: the ogre clawed at the rock wall behind him and tore out a chunk the size of a small boulder and hurled it at her! She dove to the ground, and realized she could move again! Her feet were free! She scrambled to find the egg, searching the banks and then plunging into the water— it was much deeper than she had expected for its narrow width— and she sank in up to her ribs.

The ogre roared again, and again there was the sound of claws clattering on the wall. The water exploded to her left and she dove sideways with a gasp that left her choking on the brackish water. She spat and spat again. The ogre stopped raking the wall— she could feel his understanding: she had drunk the water and now—

He charged blindly at her. Instinctively, she spat. It did nothing. She dove and heard the whoosh of claws far too close. She resurfaced and gasped for breath; the water was more pressing than any lake or pond in which she had ever swum as a child. Then something slipped against her leg and she let out a whoop of surprise and fear. The ogre grinned. He swung his arm out across the water. Again the slippery thing slid across her leg. Then there was a flash of silver, just visible in the darkness.

“Silverscales! Oh, Silverscales, help me!”

A fin brushed against her hand and she grabbed on. The fish pulled fast, pulled her upstream and away, away from the demon creature.

“The mirror!” But it was too late. Its small glow of moonlight radiated on the bank. She tugged on the fin, but the fish only swam faster and pulled down, down.

Lizzie sucked in a last, deep breath and disappeared below the froth into the river.


READER RESPONSE: Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress!     -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux

Ch 39: The Ogre