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

Ch 38: The Chimera’s Nest

Lizzie’s own heart thudded in her chest. Her arms felt weakly and trembly. She reached up and touched the needle neatly threaded through her shift. For just a moment, it struck her how bizarre this whole thing was: she was filthy, barefoot, dressed in only underclothes, and walking deeper into a stinking mountain behind a wolf she had only met once, attempting to steal the heart of her murderous husband. Whether it was nerves or fumes, she felt the urge to giggle. Then she nearly shrieked: the wolf had stopped walking and its tail had brushed her legs. She clapped a hand over her mouth and willed herself to take slow breaths.

When she had calmed herself, Gray Legs whispered, “It is very near.”

“Is it guarded? Can you tell?” Her voice was only heat escaping between her lips, but the wolf heard.

“Yes. Be ready. I smell a beast— and deception.” They crept forward.

Suddenly a jet of fire flared to life only paces before them. Both jumped back and there was the smell of singed fur. As quickly as the fire had appeared it had vanished, leaving a metallic smell behind. Lizzie shone the mirror, veiled between her splayed fingers, and found the crack-like vent in the tunnel floor. She leaned closer and then jumped back again as the flame shot up. She looked at the wolf. Gray Legs only looked back, and then leaped silently over the crevice and padded on.

Lizzie grimaced and jumped as well, but no fire came. Up ahead, though, were spurts of light that flickered and died. She was absurdly brought to mind of trails of fireflies in the hay field. Hescher and Jacobi resisted, but she would plead with them and make all kinds of promises, even going as far as to give up her Christmas orange months in advance, and they would relent and run out with her, chasing and catching the glowing creatures in their carefully cupped hands. Remember that gave her a surge of hope. We’re not so different anymore. I’m like a soldier, too, now. I might see them again. I might get to tell them about all this. They won’t believe it! Her heart swelled at the idea. That’s the first thing I’ll do once we’re all free. After I go home to Mother I’ll find them. I have the Seven League Boots! I’m not afraid of the road—

The wolf growled softly, deep in its throat, and Lizzie stopped her hop-skip navigation of the gas vents. Her skin prickled.

Up ahead, in the infrequent light of the fires, she could see that the tunnel broadened, as if a room was set on the right side of the path. There was something there— but what?

Dancing shadows on the wall showed horns protruding from a large lump, but she couldn’t make out anything else. Then there was a belch of fire right in front of the shape, and Lizzie choked. The beast had the body of a lion and a tangled, matted mane. It yawned and showed glinting, pointed teeth. But out of its back grew the head of a goat topped with long horns. There was a rattling hiss and the tail— no, a serpent— raised up and flickered its tongue in the air. It swiveled its diamond-shaped head at Lizzie just as the flame went out. There was a hiss in the darkness.

“It knows,” said the wolf. She heard the creature rise, and whimpered.

“What is it?”

“Chimera. Three in one.” The hissing grew louder.

“What do we do?”

“I will attack. You must go to the nest.”

“Nest?”

Under her hand Gray Legs’s fur bristled and stood up. A growl built, but Lizzie couldn’t tell if it began with the wolf or with the horrible creature that was stalking ever closer in the dark. The noise set her teeth on edge.

“But—“

“Now!” cried the wolf, and it leaped and was gone from her hand. There was a thud of bodies colliding, a scraping and a tumbling. She smelled blood immediately and that shocked her into motion.

She turned the mirror this way and that— and saw the nest. The chimera had been sitting on it. She edged and then dashed past the tangle of fur and claws, and tried to block the sounds of ripping and snarling from her ears.

There were three eggs in the nest. “But where is the heart?” she cried.

The chimera roared behind her and she felt its focus shift. Stupid! Stupid! What had she been thinking? Gray Legs was surely paying for her carelessness. She fumbled with the eggs, then snatched her hands back.

Two of them were hot, as if they had just come from boiling water. But the third… She leaned closer. It was so hard to think, to ask the right questions with the noise of the fight so near and the flashing red of the flames alternating with near-darkness.

The mirror, idiot girl!

She smiled in spite of herself. Memory, or magical sending, it was Baba Yaga’s voice in her head. She turned the mirror to the third egg and gasped.

There it was. Over-large and straining against its casing, was a human heart veined with black. And it was beating. She reached for it.

The wolf howled in pain, and Lizzie jumped. Hurry, hurry! “I know!”

The chimera roared. Lizzie shook and pressed herself against the wall. In the spasmodic light she could see the beast ripping with its claws, raking the wolf’s belly. The serpent’s head hissed and struck again and again. Gray Legs howled again and Lizzie snatched up the egg and clutched it to her chest. She darted out from the nook, then turned back. She tore out the bedding, flinging it wildly, waiting— and then flame spouted and caught it, and it blazed. The chimera looked up from its foe. In that moment, Gray Legs was able to twist free and leap onto the chimera’s back. It bit at the goat head and shook and shook. The chimera roared and the snake struck. Lizzie dashed forward and jabbed the serpent with the needle. It flailed wildly and she tumbled to the ground to avoid its fangs.

“Go!” cried the wolf.

“But—“

“Go— I will follow!”

She looked around. The way back was blocked by the writhing snake. She whimpered, turned, and ran deeper into the mountain and the darkness.

Her feet hurt and she stumbled often. She was not always able to leap out of the way in time and her right leg had a throbbing burn. Her run slowed to a walk, and then to a limp. She stopped and leaned often against the wall. The fires were few, now, and it was tiring to hold both the egg— heavier than it appeared— and the mirror, so she went forward in the dark. The only thing that comforted her was the continued sound of water.

Water. She was thirsty. She pushed aside feeble thoughts of what might happen if she drank from an Underworld river, and felt her way toward the sound. Her hot, tired feet stepped into blissful wetness and she sank to her knees.

She knelt and made to scoop water in her hands, but no sooner had she set down the egg than the ground rumbled. She snatched it up again, but the damage was done: the mirror showed rock crumbling away on the opposite side of the stream. She gagged on the stink of rotting meat and sweat, and then choked and scrambled backwards.

Out of the hole in the wall came an ogre.


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 38: The Chimera’s Nest

Ch 37: Guardian at the Gates of Hell

Lizzie threw her arm up over her face and coughed. The dust was a fine black grit, and it lingered in the air longer than was natural. But what was natural about this place? She stuck the needle carefully through her shift, checked the map in her hand, and, with the light of the mirror to guide her, stepped cautiously forward.

The opening was not much taller than she was, but inside it rose up out of sight. The air smelled of sulphur, and there was a faint gurgling. She pointed the mirror down and its moonlight-glow showed slick wet rock. She touched it: There must be a stream somewhere. She hitched her bag up higher on her shoulder and put one hand inside, fingers finding the comforting tuft of fur, bristly feather and slippery scale. This would be the time to ask for help, should she need it. She hoped she wouldn’t.

As if her thought had tripped a snare, something deeper in the darkness growled. It wasn’t exactly an animal growl, but neither was it a human grunt. It was heavy, like mud; it sucked at her, pulled at her though there was no wind behind her. Lizzie began to panic; fear spurted through her body in a flush of heat. She shone the mirror this way and that, desperate to see what was making the groaning sound, equally afraid of what she might find.

She didn’t recognize it as a thing at first. It was only a lump of earth, a large and looming piece of rock in front of her on the narrow path. But it moved. It shuffled forward, and she could see them: legs and arms and a head. Lizzie shrieked and nearly dropped the mirror. She scrambled backwards. There was no word for what she was seeing: a hulking, heaving lump of clay, faceless but for a symbol scratched on its forehead, but very much aware of her.

It lurched forward, steps so large it could have been wearing magic boots. Lizzie tumbled backward, scooted herself frantically away from the thing, not thinking of anything except that it was wrong, wrong, this thing that was alive but not alive. She had to get away, had to get out.

Her head connected hard with the solid wall and her ribs rattled. She flipped around, looked and scratched at the rock. Where was the opening? It was gone. It was gone, and she was alone, trapped here inside this black mountain, about to be obliterated by a monster. Impossible as it was, she wanted to live. She pressed and pushed, threw herself against the rock— and felt a sharp prick in her shoulder. How any part of herself could be calm enough to understand it was the needle, she didn’t know, but she understood. She pressed her shoulder to the wall and it crumbled and sent her sprawling.

Stop.

Lizzie stopped. Whose voice spoke to her? Her own? A sister’s? Baba Yaga? Or the rock itself?

Blood in, and blood out.

“What do you mean?” she cried. But she knew— she had a hunch, and life seemed more and more to be made of hunches. If she left now, a prick of her finger would not let her back into the mountain. In a cold sweat, and against every fiber of her living, breathing body, she turned and looked up and the creature.

It towered over her. It was enormous, and unhurried, sensing, perhaps, that she had given up. Lizzie shook her head. Her voice was small. “No. Help.

Something fluttered in her bag. The mud creature reached down with a massive paw. Lizzie thrust her hand into the bag, grabbed the first thing her fingers touched: the feather. “Black Wings the Raven— Help!

The mitt reached for her. The face gaped open: a crude and stinking mouth. Lizzie closed her eyes, tensed every part of herself, ready to be devoured, to be smothered in an instant grave of clay and stench.

The air whistled and something dove past her carrying a breath of fresh air. Lizzie jerked back, banged her head against the side of the cave opening and opened her eyes.

Black Wings the Raven was perched on the creature’s shoulder, beak to the mud thing’s unformed ear. Its beak clacked and it cawed a series of notes, rough and trickling. And the brute went still.

The raven hopped down and landed by Lizzie. “I would take my token back.”

Lizzie gaped at it. “What was that? You just spoke to it and it died?”

The raven cocked its head at her. “A golem is not truly alive. It is clay and words. I am a keeper of secrets. I read the symbol. I said the spell to return it to dust.” It looked at her. “I took away its will. Surely you know about this?”

Lizzie shivered. Her stomach felt queasy. “Yes. I know it. But I didn’t know it was magic.”

“Everything is magic,” said the Raven, “Now you know.”

Lizzie nodded. She looked back at the golem, still as a statue. “Will it—?”

The raven fluttered its feathers. “No. Not without being woken, and you do not know the words to wake it. It cannot be done by accident.”

“Thank you.” Lizzie held out the feather and the raven took it in its beak. “Will I— see you again? I know you owe me nothing but…”

“I am a keeper of secrets,” was all the black bird said.

“So, perhaps,” said Lizzie.

“Perhaps. It ruffled its feathers and made to take flight.

“Wait— please. Can you tell me anything else? Anything about where I am or what to expect?”

The raven cocked its head and spoke around the feather in its beak. “You are at one of the Gates of Hell, as mortals call it.”

“What do you call it?”

“The Underworld. The golem was a guard. Basic, rudimentary.”

“I should expect something fiercer further in.”

The raven bobbed its head, and she felt its desire to leave.

“Thank you, again,” she said, and, before she could stop herself or listen to the worry that it was a ridiculous thing to do and a magical, talking raven was not a pet, she stroked its back once, head to tail.

It preened and opened its wings, regarded her for a second with its bright, jet eye, and was gone through the opening of the cave.

Lizzie leaned back against the rock with a sigh. She glanced at the frozen golem that had been stopped only inches away from her.

“I don’t want to find whatever is waiting in there alone.” She reached into her bag and found the tuft of gray fur. She brought it to her lips and whispered, “Gray Legs, I need you. Come walk with me.”

There was a clattering outside the cave, and then warm animal breath on her ear. Despite the raven having arrived so quickly, Lizzie jumped and nearly knocked her head on the golem’s outstretched arm.

“You have already defeated it,” said the wolf. It looked at her. “Then we go on, hunting as a pack.”

Gray Legs stepped through and Lizzie stood up. She eased past the golem and pointed the mirror at the ground once more. She took two steps, then turned and reached a hand behind her. The wall had reformed. She felt the wolf stop, waiting.

“What if I can’t get out?”

“What if you aren’t meant to?”

She shone the mirror at it. The wolf’s eyes reflected back like opals; she had worn earrings just that color once… “What? But I have to!”

“Why are we here?” asked Gray Legs.

“To find his heart. To defeat him.”

“And what does that have to do with you going back the way you came?”

Lizzie swallowed hard. “But I want to. I don’t want to be trapped here.”

“Ah. Well. We shall do our best,” said the wolf, and padded forward. Lizzie hurried to catch up. Talking animals were more elusive than they were comforting, but still she was glad of the wolf’s presence.

The darkness grew more pressing, the trickle of water was more notable, and the stink of sulphur stronger. They had walked for no more than five minutes when they came to a crossroads: two tunnels, both just as dark as the other.

“I have a map,” said Lizzie, reaching into her bag.

“There is no need,” answered the wolf, “I can smell it.” Gray Legs started down the left hand path.

“Smell what?”

The wolf’s voice carried faintly over its shoulder. “The heart of the one you seek.”


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 37: Guardian at the Gates of Hell

Ch 36: Seven League Boots

She stumbled again and the world flashed past her. She flung her arms out to stop herself and froze, panting, not daring to move her feet.

“Seven League Boots! She could have warned me!” Lizzie pushed herself back onto her haunches, expecting every moment to be flung into the unknown once again.

Everything was dark. “Well of course it is! It’s the middle of the night!” But then she saw that it wasn’t— there was light, pale as a new moon, splaying between the fingers of her right hand: the mirror!

She opened her hand and held it out. It was a circle surrounded by curlicues of tarnished flowers; the once-long handle was snapped short and now only a rough extension at the base of the glass.

But it glowed. It cast its own light, and she wondered at how many true natures a thing could have, how many secrets she would never discover. She turned the mirror downward and peeked at her feet: sheepskin had turned to iron, at least in appearance. The boots felt soft and supple as leather, but looked gray and harsh and indestructible. They reached halfway up her shins and locked in place with seven folding buckles each. She wiggled her toes experimentally and stood up.

The silvery light stretched out before her. She was in a strange land. It was like nothing she had seen before, though that didn’t mean much: she had never been further than her little village until Bluebeard had carried her off.

The ground was flat and rocky. But it was made of rock, not dotted with them: moss and lichen hunched close to the harsh gray ground. Tiny bushes twisted themselves up with great effort but didn’t even reach to her knees. She turned carefully and looked around.

“Seems like ‘seven leagues’ is a figure of speech…”

It was hard not to move, to stand so still, to not wriggle so much as a toe. She clenched her fists— then gave a cry of surprise and opened her left hand. The needle had jabbed the soft pad of her hand, and now a blossom of red was soaking into the scrap of lace.

“My poor hand,” she mumbled, flexing her green-black fingers. Then her eyes widened. The blood wasn’t just being absorbed, it wasn’t an amorphous blot: it traced patterns and ran a course. It was going somewhere.

“The map!” she angled the mirror so she could see the reflection of the lace: the map was riddled with red paths, three of them, that stretched out from the near the center and wound, one way or another, toward the lower right corner.

Toward a mountain.

Lizzie looked closer. The mountain had a black spot, like an ink stain. Her heart gave a thrill: a cave!

In between Lizzie and the beating, fluttering bit of red that had to be Bluebeard’s heart lay a miniaturized expanse of hills, marsh, rivers, sea, and dense geometric clusters that Lizzie saw in a flash as villages and cities.

“So far?” she breathed— and then she laughed. “I have Baba Yaga’s Seven League Boots!” And she took step.

The world of gray rock slid by her. She couldn’t say in that inexorably long foot fall if the world was slow or if she was, but she saw everything in the mirror’s light as it roared past. Then it crashed to a stop and she was in a new place entirely: a copse at the edge of a field under barely-bluing sky. She lifted her foot and stepped again: an ice blue lake surrounded by white-capped mountains reflecting the first light of dawn. Step: cobbled streets and terra cotta rooftops just about to glow orange. Step: the shocking slosh of water and the smell of salt that made her dash forward three more steps lest she stop in the middle of an ocean and sink to the bottom.

She glanced at the map: two of the tracks of red had turned dull brown, and only one stretched all the way to the heart in the cave. She squinted ahead: red rocks and bristly bushes; she leaped.

There was a rhythm to it. At first she feared landing on something, on someone, but then the world became a distant thing. The map and the reach of her boots was more real with every jump, every twisting spin. She glanced at the map, hopped, stepped, checked her progress again. Once she veered off-course and slid deep into tan-gold sand and had to back track, had a heart-pounding moment of fear when the final line of blood began to go rusty red. But she found her footing, found her place on the map and sprinted on. She was a giant. She was a goddess. She was a witch, and the world was a tiny thing to her. She gripped the lace in her left hand and felt the mountain calling her, pulling at her feet, leading the boots.

And then she was there.

The mountain was a black wall, a pure stone set into the bare earth. Lizzie stopped and stared. The world spun around her, all those lands passing in a delayed flash across her eyelids. She felt woozy, light headed, but her feet were soldered in place, fused to the ground beneath them, and gradually her focus pulled back into the singular moment.

It was late in the day, that was the first thing she noticed. Her travels, wherever they had taken her, had not given her an advantage; she had burned daylight even faster with the Seven League Boots. But she had made it. She was here.

Still, something was missing. She looked at the map again, and realized it with a horrible sinking in her stomach: there was no cave. The black of the mountain was solid. It jagged and cut in and out, but there was no gaping cavern, no beckoning doorway. Lizzie’s heart hammered. She reached down and flipped the clasps of her boots, a lonely clicking that did not echo and seemed far too loud. She stepped out of them and immediately they became an old woman’s slippers. She put them into her bag and walked forward barefoot.

She ran her hands on the rock, searched it from every angle in the vain hope of finding a hidden entryway. Nothing. Then she smacked her hand to her forehead. “Of course!”

She held up the mirror, angling it this way and that— and there it was: a door hewn in the rock. Lizzie rushed over to it and pushed. Nothing happened. She searched for a knob, a knocker, but there was none.

It seemed to her that the sky was fading, the sun sliding lower and lower every second. She smacked her hand against the rock. “Let me in!” Then she snatched her hand back. Her gangrenous fingers throbbed and Lizzie clutched them in pain. Tears squeezed from her eyes. “How do I get in?” she whispered.

A kindness.

She looked up, looked around. There was no one there. “I have nothing else to give. I have no food, no—“ She stopped. The needle quivered in her palm, trembled and jumped as if pulled by a magnet.

She thought of Bluebeard. Of the nights. The sex. The blood.

“I carried his child…”

Lizzie pricked her finger with the needle and pressed the ruby bead against the black rock. The mountain rumbled, a fissure cracked, and before she could draw a breath, the slab before her dissolved into dust.

The cave was open.


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 36: Seven League Boots

Ch 35: Lizzie Makes Her Choice

Lizzie wiped her palms across her eyes. Her left hand throbbed. “The map, the sword, a way to see the true nature of things, and the boots. But…” She looked at the walnut.

“Like I said, first things first. You want the slippers, but what good are they if, how did he put it? They ‘have no feet to put shoes on?’”

Lizzie retched and swallowed hard. “But I promised them—“

“And you shall come to that when you come to it.”

“But I need—“

“Yes, but what do they need?” snapped the witch. “You want your shoes. You want this all to be over so you can go home and have everything be like it was before. Let me save you the time: it won’t. Nothing will be like it was. Because you are not like you were.” She inspected the girl. “You’re barely the same person. Hardly anything’s left.” When this made Lizzie sob anew, she rolled her eyes. She crouched down, and when she spoke her voice, though still gravelly, was softer. “I’m not the hugging type. So, please, Lizzie Jane Borden, I implore you, for the sake of yourself and many, many others, get up.”

Lizzie didn’t know how she got to her feet, but she stood, eye to eye with the witch. Her voice was small and tight, wrung out of her body. “Of course I want all this to be over and to go back to normal. But so do they— that’s what the rest of them want. And we need the shoes. I can’t leave the shoes.” She stood straighter. “The wolf! I can call the wolf! It carried me here and it said it would help me again!” She felt so light she wouldn’t have been surprised if she had started to float up from the floor. But Baba Yaga’s voice and steady stare pierced the balloon of Lizzie’s rising hope.

“The shoes are not as powerful as you think. You’ve outgrown them, certainly, and many if not all of the others have, too.” She held up a gnarled hand and stopped Lizzie from interrupting. “I know. Someone told you you had to have them. But how did you get out without them? Was it impossible?”

“No. But it was hard. It hurt.”

Baba Yaga raised an eyebrow. “Was it the greatest pain you’d ever experienced? Were you ripped open, rent apart?” Lizzie looked away, down at the floor. “This is a time for the truth, Lizzie Borden. You came into this with your eyes closed to everything you didn’t want to see. Tell the truth now. Say it— say what you knew from the beginning.”

Lizzie closed her eyes. Her stomach ached and she swayed like a slim poplar in a great wind, but inside there was relief. It spiraled up through her core, pushed past the tight-clamped denial, squeezed past her ribs, bumped and nudged at her throat until she had to give in and take a breath, and it came out of her, a wheeze of bad air with it:

“I knew I shouldn’t go with him. I knew it was dangerous. I knew…”

“You knew it would be your death.” Baba Yaga nodded. “But the knowing was deep in the core, and you lived here:” she ran her finer over Lizzie’s bare arm. Lizzie shuddered with the electricity kindled in the touch. The witch wagged the same finger at her.

“You seem smart enough, though, and stubborn enough. Save yourself some time and don’t regret a moment of it. And certainly don’t blame the flesh.” She gripped Lizzie’s wrist so her palm faced out, and held her own hand close to it. A moment later a blue heat began to build between their palms; it shocked and sparked, a current that snapped through invisible tracks in Lizzie’s body. “This is never to blame. It’s simply no good to only live here, an ant, thinking the whole world is a crumb of dirt.” She pushed her fingers against Lizzie’s breastbone and— Lizzie gave a gurgling gasp— through her breastbone; she caressed some inner workings of Lizzie’s chest and the girl swooned. But part of her mind registered that though it was horrifying, it didn’t hurt. But oh, it was strange!

“If you want to come out of this more than you were before, if you want your scars to be not a burden but a blessing, you will have to go deeper.”

Lizzie’s mind, which if she had ever thought to describe it before would have seemed to her most like a vast and echoey room, was now a press of blood and flesh: the pump of her heart through her veins; the skipping, zinging currents underneath her skin that sent messages of cold, hot, danger, good; and something else, something like a story: an inheritance.

Baba Yaga withdrew her fingers and Lizzie came back to the outer world with a lurch. She saw with a start that her outstretched and steadying hand rested on the witch’s bony chest: two fingers, like a master hunter’s arrow or a healer’s blessing, right at her heart.

She stared at the witch. Her body felt hot— not the consuming, subsuming flood she had felt in her marriage bed, but not so unlike it either. It was a new kind of desire, one that had nothing to do with the singular person before her and everything to do with …

“I don’t know what to call this,” Lizzie breathed. The atmosphere in the little cottage was dense, rich, swirling; every particle of sound, every puff of breath, even every swirling thought curled and uncurled, eddied and moved around them and in and out of them. “I’ve never—“ she stopped; the silt of the air settled and cleared, and she looked at the witch.

“I have felt this before.”

Baba Yaga nodded. “Of course you have. But now you remember.”

Lizzie nodded, too. She looked at her two fingers, still connected to the witch, and lifted them away with a small sigh. It was like being just newly awake, or being aware she was dreaming— that was the closest she could come to putting it into words, and she kept the words to herself so as not to break the spell. But the yaga knew all the same.

“This is why you must leave the shoes and take my Seven League Boots instead. Going back to the old way of living will only set you back— all of you. You are at a crossroads, and though I don’t care especially for you— “ she said it without venom— “I care for the Balance. You think you and your sisters have already given much. Why should that mean you should not give more? What was the fight for if not to make it all better, truer, right?

“Take the boots, girl, and deal with the matter of old soles later, when the world isn’t about to end.”

Lizzie’s eyebrows raised. “Is it ending?”

Baba Yaga shrugged. “The Mother of All Witches is entitled to a dramatic flair now and then. Ah— here comes the Bringer of Midnight. You have half the darkness and all of the light to finish your task. Make your choice and begin.”

Hoofbeats shuddered the ground, rumbled up through Lizzie’s bones, sending that same buzz through her joints. The house moved and shifted on its chicken feet, but Lizzie weathered it like a sailor on a ship, like a trick horse rider standing on the saddle. All the thoughts and fears sloshed around inside her, too; all the worries and opinions about who was right, what she should take, but she held her balance, anticipated the undertow of despair. She looked at Baba Yaga.

“I will take your advice: the lace, the mirror, the needle… and the boots.”

The witch arched an eyebrow. “You’ve decided to trust me?”

Lizzie shook her head and smiled. “I’ve decided to trust myself. You just happen to be right.”

“Well, that’s a small comfort,” said the witch, but Lizzie felt certain she was pleased. Baba Yaga had no use for a stranger’s adoration— and, Lizzie felt surprised to think it— neither did she. But she respected the witch, and a decision had to be made… and, though it churned up that nervous slough around the island of her steady heart, this was the choice she made for herself and for all of them.

The rider on the black horse leapt over the hut. The air hung silent but for the whistling of speed. Lizzie picked up the objects that would, she hoped, seal a fortunate fate, and stepped into the old leather slippers.

The rider landed. The ground exploded. Lizzie stumbled and took a step forward, and Baba Yaga’s hut was gone.


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 35: Lizzie Makes Her Choice