Three steps from the charred stump where she would have parted from Ratibor and five steps from a clear view of the town walls, Emma saw the girl collapse on the rutted road. If not for her armful of firewood, Emma would have caught Ratibor’s hand. “Come on!”
The girl lay untidily face-down in the mud. “Turn her over!” Emma told Ratibor, dumping her firewood by the road. She dropped to her knees. The girl was coated with mud from her hands to her mouth to her fair hair and her clothes were torn. “She’s breathing,” said Emma, relieved.
Ratibor hovered uneasily. Emma lifted the girl’s limp hand to check for a pulse, as her father had taught her, and almost dropped it again. Under the dirt, the underside of the girl’s wrist was transparent. The bones, the blood vessels, even the sluggish flow of blood could be seen.
Bubbles of transparency drifted under the girl’s skin. A patch the size of Emma’s hand floated across the girl’s cheek, revealing teeth and skull.
“What’s wrong with her?” said Ratibor, almost in a whisper.
Emma shook her head wordlessly. She had never heard of anything like it.
“You’ll have to carry her back,” she said. “I’ll say I met you on the way home.”
Emma’s father was out visiting a miner dying of consumption, but her mother took in the situation at a glance and was too busy getting the girl settled to notice Ratibor, who melted away at a look from Emma.
“You did the right thing,” said Maria Pawer, as the maid tripped out with a filthy bundle of clothes. “Well! What will your father say?” She wrung out a wash-cloth in a basin, while Emma’s little sister Brinhild peered up huge-eyed. “Would you sit with her until he gets back?”
The smell of the forest had come into the house with the girl, mud and mold and green spring leaves, hanging so thickly in the room where she lay that Emma almost sneezed. Occasionally the girl moved or murmured in her sleep, and once she threw out her arm unexpectedly, then lay still with her wet hair spreading like unspun flax across the pillows and her glassy fingernails curled against the yellow coverlet.
Emma leaned closer. The girl’s eyes were blue behind briefly transparent eyelids and her hand was patched with skin and revealed bone. Emma knew what bone looked like, though. What she saw in the girl’s hand looked more like stone.
Emma jumped up when she heard her father on the stairs. He came in yawning, flapping his cap as if the morning was hot, and sat down with a weary smile in Emma’s abandoned chair.
“Well, well, princess,” he said to her, “what abandoned chick did you find this time? In the forest, your mother said. You know it’s not safe to run around like this while the duke’s soldiers are billeted here. Still, no harm done, no harm… done…” His voice trailed off. “That’s very…”
The girl was awake, or her eyelids had washed out again; she began to sit up, twisting herself up in the covers and the shift Emma’s mother had found for her. Her eyes were mostly pupil, far from focused. The shadows rose up like a sudden ghost of bracken and climbing brambles, dimming the light around the bed.
Emma’s father set aside his cap. “Well now, young lady—”
The girl opened her bright mouth and uttered a sound like a crow. It tumbled out harshly in a flock of bubbles that faded rather than burst, all at once and with a wash of rainbow color. Emma jumped back in surprise. “She’s a White Lady!” she said. “What are we going to do?”
She had dragged Brinhild off in search of White Ladies washing their hair in forest pools too many times to count. She peeped over her father’s shoulder. “Do you think she broke her enchantment?”
The girl clutched her covers as her eyes rolled back into her head. Emma’s father moved fast enough to lay her gently down, while Emma set his overturned chair upright for him.
“This is a very odd chick you’ve found, princess,” he said. “I think she could do with something to eat. Why don’t you see what there is to be had?”
The conviction that her shutters were sprouting leaves kept Emma awake for too much of the night. She crept down early and would have slipped out if her father hadn’t been in the parlor with a messenger from the duke. Their voices rose and fell just too low to be really audible, but Emma hung over the stairs to eavesdrop anyway. The duke wanted her father to be the town magistrate again, she supposed. As if he didn’t have enough to do, her mother would say. But there were the soldiers and the miners were striking again and someone had to sort it all out. He had done it twice already. It made him harassed and grumpy and it got in the way of his work, the work he was actually interested in, not his medical practice, which he kept up only because there were too many people in Kemnitz who needed him, but someone did have to do it.
She was about to go out when Brinhild appeared at the top of the stairs. “Mamma says we have to sit up with the White Lady today,” she informed Emma, who opened her mouth indignantly. “Only she says she’s not a White Lady, just foreign. Her name’s Anne.”
“But I was going to get firewood—”
“She says you can’t and it’s not safe. Anyway, I don’t want to sit there by myself.”
Emma screwed up her mouth and stamped resentfully upstairs, kicking every loose floorboard on the way to the sickroom. The sky was bright and the air was warm; a stolen hour under the trees would have made up for everything. She’d have to sneak out and tell Ratibor not to bother hanging around.
It was three days before Anne left her room. The family had just sat down to dinner when a flash of white in the hall caught Emma’s eye. The girl stood there in her threadbare shift, barefoot and wavering, like a ghost glimpsed through cloudy glass. Emma jumped up and went towards her. “Are you hungry? Food?” She tapped her mouth. “I’m Emma. Emma.”
Anne’s gaze travelled slowly over Emma and the open door behind her. When Emma reached out, Anne jerked away and walked with great concentration, one careful step at a time, into the dining room, where the maid was already setting out an extra place.
She said nothing all through the meal. “She should be in bed,” Emma’s mother murmured to Emma’s father, who observed Anne with concern. “She hasn’t got any clothes on,” said Brinhild, slightly too loudly. “You wouldn’t let me come down dressed like that.”
The last dish was carried out. Emma’s mother touched Anne’s hand. “Bed?” she said, pointing to the ceiling. “Sleep?”
Anne got up, then stood there flicking her eyes around the gloomy walls. There was more color in her face now that she had eaten, although the hollows of her cheeks and wrists were still prominently drawn.
Along the sideboard, several new samples lay waiting for Emma’s father to take them up to his study. Anne touched one piece of stone delicately, then another, turning it thoughtfully. The third, which she selected from a pile of undistinguished bluish schist, glittered with what Emma recognized as pyrite.
Emma’s father rose. “That was a lucky choice,” he remarked, taking it from her. “But it does sparkle, of course. It’s ore.” He looked down on Anne benevolently and held up the stone before her face. “Silver ore.”
Anne’s mouth moved; she nodded, pressed her lips together and glanced upwards as if trying to work something out, then looked around and took a spoon from the table. “Sil-ver-ore,” she said to him, holding it up.
His expression changed. “Silver,” he said, looking at her with surprise and sudden interest. “Yes. That’s right.”
Anne scattered the rocks impatiently and presented a yellowish-green fragment. Her ignorance seemed to frustrate her; she gestured like someone trying to pull words from her own mouth, fixing Emma’s father with an intense stare. “Gold,” he said. “It’s gold ore.”
“Gold-ore,” said Anne, as if memorizing the words. “Gold.”
“Good,” he said. “Very good. I’m Georg.” He laid one hand on his breast. “Georg Pawer.”
The girl put her head to one side, then smiled suddenly with a confident intelligence that opened up her whole face.
“Hallo, Georg,” she said.
The one good thing about Anne waking up, as far as Emma was concerned, was not having to sit in that stifling room while the shadows crawled over the walls like ivy. “My father’s going to teach her to talk,” she told Ratibor, who retrieved another stick from under a bush. “It’s just because she knows something about stones. I don’t like her. She’s— odd.”
She didn’t like the dismissive way Anne looked at her, was what she really meant.
Ratibor shook several twigs from his shock of brown hair. “What does your mother say?”
“Oh, she thinks Anne’s a poor lost child in need of a mother’s love. It’s hopeless. They’re already talking about her keeping Brinhild company when I’m married. Whenever that is.”
“You’re not— they haven’t…”
“They’re just talking about it. But we’ll have to tell them soon.”
When she looked, he was chewing his bitten lip.
“We could run away. I can find work at Alpsdorf. There are new mines opening up there every day.”
“Don’t be silly. I just have to find the right time.” He seemed unconvinced. Emma kicked her heels against her tree stump seat in exasperation. “I don’t want to run away,” she told him. “It doesn’t matter how much money you don’t have. My father gets a stipend from the duke for his writing and there’s all that money from his mine shares. I don’t see why I shouldn’t marry anyone I want. Even a miner.”
Ratibor put his arm round her and kissed her forehead, since she was clutching too much wood to kiss much more than that. “I don’t think they’ll see it that way,” he said simply. “But we can always run away. Might have to, if the mines here don’t open up soon. People are saying the Mountain Lord’s angry because we’re stealing his treasure.”
“Papa says it’s the wind. But he says it might be a mine demon too, or maybe the kobalos and guteli are playing tricks on people. I think he thought Anne might be one of the trulli at first, but she doesn’t seem very interested in serving us. I still think she’s a White Lady. Maybe someone cut down the trees around her pool.”
“Maybe she was just lost. She wasn’t well.”
“No,” said Emma darkly. “She wasn’t.”
There was rain in the air and the morning sky over the mountains was darkening. Emma was about to suggest going back to the town when Ratibor turned his head. “Isn’t that her?” he said. “Your White Lady?”
Emma craned her neck. “What’s she doing? It’s not safe out here!”
“Well, if she’s really a White Lady…”
“Come on,” said Emma, jumping down. “Let’s go after her.”
They tracked the girl’s meandering progress through the forest. Emma looked eagerly for still or running water, but Anne stepped over the one stream they did cross and walked on without giving it a second thought. “Maybe we should go back,” said Ratibor uneasily.
The trees thinned out ahead; they had found one of the miners’ roads that seamed the mountains and which would have been busy with men and carts if not for the strike. Anne stood between the stone jaws of the narrow valley at the end of the road, apparently contemplating the abandoned workings.
Emma pinched Ratibor’s hand. “Shhh!”
A rumble of distant thunder made both of them jump. Anne put her hands on her hips and said something unintelligible, as if to the air. She sounded irritated.
Lightning forked over the mountains, followed by a much nearer crack of thunder that rattled pebbles down the hillside. It sounded like some giant hitting the ground with a club. Clouds spiraled and blackened overhead.
Anne spoke again. This time, it sounded as if the giant was coming out of his cave, dragging his club behind him.
The girl set her palm against the cliff. In the rapidly dimming light, her hair stood out like hawthorn blossom against a dark hedgerow. Emma buried her hands in her armpits and glanced upwards. Any moment now, the rain would break. It was a long walk home from here.
The shadows rose up in the valley and Emma, seeing the giant shaking out his stormy beard, caught her breath. “What do you want?” a great voice thundered. “Do you think I want to talk to you?”
He sounded just like the old men who grumbled about boys getting underfoot in the street. Anne shrugged. “I don’t!” the shadow-giant said. “How dare you come into my mountains? How dare you? Did you think I wouldn’t know?”
Anne said something cool and clear. The shadows danced with rage. “My mountains!” he roared, spilling more pebbles down the stony slopes. “My mountains, my mountains, my mountains!”
The giant’s club struck as the rain came down, hammering the mountains so hard water streamed from the peaks. Emma covered her face; Ratibor grasped her arm. “Let’s go!” he shouted in her ear. “Come on!”
They tumbled down the miners’ road, stumbling and slipping in the mud. The wind lashed them and tore at their sopping clothes, at Emma’s unravelling braids; she clung to Ratibor, gasping. They were halfway down the mountain before the rain lessened enough to slow down and catch their breath.
Emma wrung out her hair, shivering. They trudged on down the road, looking for the town walls around every bend. “That thing back there—” said Ratibor, and Emma caught him back suddenly, seeing the soldiers sheltering under the trees ahead.
Someone whistled. Ratibor put a protective arm around Emma’s shoulders. “Morning, miss,” said one of the soldiers, a fresh-faced young man with the beginnings of a yellow beard. He grinned at Emma. “Seeing the sights, were you?”
“Gathering firewood!” Emma snapped, then remembered abandoning her bundle somewhere along the way. The other men were ranging themselves across the road. She shrank against Ratibor. “Can we go past? Please?”
They were grinning. “Your girlfriend?” the yellow-haired soldier said to Ratibor. “Pretty little thing, isn’t she?”
Ratibor’s arm tightened. “Let us past, please,” he said, almost steadily.
The man set his hand against Ratibor’s chest deliberately and gave him a shove that sent him flying. Emma opened her mouth in horror. Two of the other men had caught Ratibor’s arms and were holding him back. “Stop this!” she said. “Stop it at once!”
She felt a man’s hand on her hair. “Well, you’re a right little princess, aren’t you?” the soldier whispered in her ear. His breath brushed her neck. “Do you tell your boyfriend what to do too?”
She couldn’t move. She could feel the man behind her and she could see Ratibor’s freckled face alive with fear, but she couldn’t move or make a sound. She might have been under a spell. She felt faint.
There was a sound behind them. The man’s hand slackened; he had turned to look. The spell broke abruptly and Emma tore herself free, flying to Ratibor’s side with a sob.
No one was paying them any attention. She raised her head and saw Anne coming down the road, holding up her patched brown skirts to keep them out of the mud.
The girl seemed so pristine it was hard to believe she had been caught in the same storm as Emma and Ratibor. Her clothes were dry, her blossom-bright hair was barely damp and her gaze as she slowed, taking in the scene, was as clear and cold as her voice addressing the shadows had been. It was the first time Emma had seen Anne in daylight since that first morning. She looked as Emma had always thought a White Lady would look: beautiful, and unearthly.
The first soldier rolled his shoulders. “Well, hel-lo. Looks like it’s our lucky day.”
Anne looked from him to Emma, then around the other soldiers.
“Emma,” she said, her eyes on the men. “Home.”
Ratibor flung his arm round Emma. “We’re going!” he said and dragged Emma away.
At the door, Ratibor hammered the knocker and thrust Emma inside, ignoring her angry tears.
“But Anne—” she tried to say, and he shook his head.
“If she’s a White Lady, she can take care of herself,” he told her. He was still white under the freckles and mud; his eyes had never been darker. “Let her. I don’t care about her. I care about you.”
“But we left her there! How could we— she might be in—”
“I’ll go back and look,” Ratibor said. “But you stay here!”
“But then you might—”
“You should never have been there,” he said and shut the door on her.
She ran up to her room and flung herself on her bed. She thought she would cry, but nothing came out: she buried her face, shuddering, hit by wave after wave of sudden revulsion. She couldn’t think of anything else. Her whole body shook.
Someone tapped at the door. “Emma?” said Brinhild. “Did something happen?”
Emma sniffed and sat up. A trickle of water ran down her nose; she dashed it away. She was cold and wet and utterly miserable. “I got caught out in the rain,” she muttered. Brinhild was looking at her worriedly. “Is Anne— has she come back yet?”
“I didn’t know she went out. Where did she go?”
“I don’t know,” Emma said. “I just— I don’t know.”
She spent the rest of the day jumping at every sound. Ratibor informed her in a whispered exchange through a window that he had found neither the girl nor the soldiers. Emma watched the door anxiously, but at dinnertime when her father came down from his study Anne came down too.
Emma almost swallowed her tongue. She wanted to haul Anne off and demand answers to half a dozen questions, not least the all-important one of what Anne had told Emma’s parents, but Anne gave her such an indifferent look that Emma could only sit down with a bump.
“What did you do?” she hissed, stealing a moment when the dishes were being carried out and her father had been called away to speak to someone at the door. Anne looked blankly uncomprehending. “What happened?”
Anne flicked her fingers as if to dismiss a fly. Emma almost growled.
Whatever was being discussed at the door sounded important. Emma’s father came back in and exchanged a few words with Emma’s mother, then saw Emma and Brinhild looking at him and managed a strained smile. “Some of the duke’s soldiers have lost themselves in the forest,” he told them. “I have to organize search parties. It shouldn’t take long.”
He went out. Emma stared at Anne, who was examining a pebble. “Are you all right, Emma?” her mother asked. “You don’t look well.”
Emma got up abruptly and found her mouth trembling.
“I’m tired,” she managed. “I’m going to bed!”
The missing men had not been found by the morning, when Emma discovered her father talking to the duke’s captain over the breakfast table. She hesitated on the threshold, hearing the captain mention the Mountain Lord. The miners’ talk had spread to the soldiers, by the sound of it. She retreated to the sitting room, where her mother was sorting through her flax store. “Oh good, there you are,” she said. “I thought you and I and your sister could do some spinning today. Won’t that be nice?”
The morning wore on and the flax went down. Emma’s jitters worsened until she could hardly keep her spindle turning without snapping her thread. “Of course, when we find a husband for Emma—” her mother said, and the linen thread flashed through Emma’s fingers before she could stop it. Her spindle struck the floor and rolled away.
She didn’t pick it up. “Mamma,” she said, looking up at her. “I have to tell you something.”
“What’s that, dear?”
Emma bit her trembling lip.
“It’s about finding someone to marry,” she blurted out. “I already did, Mamma. He’s called Ratibor. I l-love him.”
“Oh, Emma,” said her mother. “Oh no, don’t cry, darling. Oh look, come here.”
Crying made Emma feel better. Eventually she dried her eyes while her mother rubbed her shoulders and said comforting things.
“I am glad you told me, Emma,” she said. “It was the right thing to do. Now, I don’t think we should say anything to your father yet. That goes for you too, Brinhild. But I want to hear all about this Ratibor and then I’ll think about what’s to be done. All right?”
She patted Emma encouragingly. Emma nodded and blew her nose. “There’s something else,” she said, taking a breath. “It’s about—”
“Anne!” said Brinhild. “Hello.”
They had all been so occupied no one had heard Anne come in. Anne glanced around, then said, “Georg?” to Emma’s mother. When Emma’s mother shook her head, Anne hesitated, then beckoned imperatively. “See,” she said.
She had bundled up the skirt of her overgown like an apron pocket. It seemed to contain stones and dirt, but Emma’s mother, seeing what Anne held out, looked up sharply. “Where did you find it?” she asked.
The nugget gleamed gold in the palm of Anne’s hand. “Up,” she said, with a sloping gesture that conveyed succinctly she had found it on the mountainside.
Her skirts must be full of natural metal and ore. “For Georg?” Emma’s mother said.
Anne nodded. “For you,” she said.
The last of the search parties filed back through the gates as they found Georg Pawer by the town wall. He was talking to the captain, but he came away when he saw how excited Emma’s mother was. “Look at this!” she said.
Her excitement was catching. Emma hugged herself and watched Anne, who was watching Emma’s father with a sort of expectant satisfaction. The girl knew exactly what she was doing, she thought.
She tagged after them. It was no surprise when Anne took them up the miners’ track where Emma and Ratibor had met the soldiers the previous day, although she turned off well before the valley and led them to a bare slope just above the treeline. Emma’s father looked around appreciatively. “It seems very promising,” he said to Emma’s mother.
Emma had seen him survey potential sites before. She hesitated, backing away. “I’ll just be a minute,” she said.
It wasn’t safe, of course. She felt sick as she hurried back down the track. But all the soldiers had been confined to their billets, and anyway Emma suspected they felt the same way about the forest as the miners felt about the mines just now. And she knew exactly where Anne was.
She recognized the bend of the track, then a particular tree. There was nothing to suggest a struggle had taken place. If anything, the lushness of the grass and glossy brambles proclaimed that no one had disturbed the forest here for decades.
But the men had sheltered under these trees. Emma moved forwards as if in a dream. Those leaves had been paler. Those brambles were impassable. She thought even the trees loomed higher than they had done.
A thing like a bleached stick lay mostly buried beneath brambles. She bent down: it was a bone, possibly from a human arm. But whoever it had belonged to must be long dead. Her eyes followed it into the tangled undergrowth. She saw, or thought she saw, twisted up in a net of thorns, the curled bones of someone’s hand. Deeper, perhaps, a skull.
Everywhere the bees were humming and the air was full of flowers. “What are you looking for, Emma?” said Anne’s cool voice.
Emma leapt backwards, catching herself badly. “You can talk!”
The girl looked down on Emma with her forget-me-not eyes.
“Come with me,” she said. “Or I’ll tell your parents what happened here. You don’t want that, do you?”
Anne marched Emma up the muddy track towards the valley. Emma pulled against her, confused and bewildered and thoroughly indignant. Anne’s hair seemed whiter, her skin more wilted, like parchment or petals. “What happened? What did you do?”
“I killed them and covered their bones with the forest. You don’t want to cross me.”
“What are you?”
“A trespasser,” Anne said. “A stonewitch. An arrogant mortal girl who thought she could live on magic like a spirit.” Her nails cut Emma’s wrist. It was impossible to break free, although her voice, like the edges of her eyes and her silvering hair, was beginning to crack, as if she gained years with every minute. “I hadn’t eaten for weeks. I hadn’t slept for longer. I was lost and dreaming and soaked in stone. You don’t know how close your town came to being destroyed.”
“Then why are you doing this? We helped you!”
The valley stretched out before her. It was studded with the constructions and tracks and jettisoned machinery of the miners, who had been chased away by malign spirits. “That’s why,” said Anne and pushed Emma down the nearest shaft.
It should have been cramped and black and breathless inside. Emma yelped, stumbled to her knees, and looked up into space and lamplight. The low ceilings and splintered beams of the mine had been replaced by pillars and polished walls, glinting with quartz and crystalline strata. Acres and shining acres of flower-strewn floor stretched out as far as she could see.
She got to her unsteady feet. The furthest reaches of the cavern vanished into shadow and the entrance had disappeared. There was no way out.
Anne stood stonily behind her. Either the girl had shrunk or she was starting to stoop; certainly her jowls sagged. In this light she looked older than Emma’s mother. Her eyes were fixed on a point somewhere in the distance.
Emma sucked the scratches where the brambles had caught her fingers. “What is this place?”
Anne said nothing. Emma got the impression she was waiting for something.
A slight breeze stirred the flowers on the cavern floor. Emma looked instinctively for a door or a staircase to daylight, but only stone revealed itself. Then part of the shadows broke away and Emma recognized the giant who had roared at Anne before the storm.
He stamped over the flowers. He was incomprehensibly huge, then a giant, then at last all but human-sized: a little wizened man with a red beard and a twisted stick he thumped crossly against the stone. “You!” he said, aiming it at Emma. “I want a word with you!”
“Don’t think I haven’t seen you running around the woods with that boy! Don’t think I didn’t see you take in that thieving little stonewitch! Don’t ever think I don’t see what goes on in my mountains! What have you got to say for yourself? Eh?”
Emma rubbed her ears. “Excuse me,” she said tremulously. “Are you the Mountain Lord?”
She knew the stories as well as anyone. The miners had been sharing them with anyone who would listen for months. But she had grown up hearing about the spirit who haunted the mountains above Kemnitz, playing tricks on travelers and giving away to the poor the ore that he begrudged to poor honest miners.
The little red-bearded man brought down his stick with a crack. “Yes!”
“Where am I? Really?”
“Under my mountains!” the spirit snapped. “My mountains, which you people have been plundering without so much as a by-your-leave! As if that wasn’t bad enough!” He danced in a furious circle, spittle whitening his long beard. “And then you take in that presumptuous little girl! That stone-thief! That uppity mortal! How dare you?”
“I didn’t know!” Emma said. “She was ill!”
She turned impulsively, expecting Anne to agree, and saw Anne’s hollow eyes fill up with shadows. Streaks of silver hair uncoiled over Anne’s stooped old-woman’s shoulders. Emma backed away. “Weren’t you?” she said.
Anne withered before her. First the hair, then the sagging skin began to fall away, revealing bones as white as old wood. Anne’s jaw fell open: an oak leaf corrugated with brown spots slipped out and fluttered to the floor.
The spirit swung his staff in a level half-circle that connected with Anne’s midriff. Emma cried out: the girl, or ancient crone as she now appeared, crumpled slowly, then came apart in a sudden explosion of twigs and brown wilted hawthorn blossom. Petals filled the air.
Emma looked around desperately. “How dare you?” said the spirit, his voice deepening as his red beard lengthened. He shouldered through the falling petals. “How dare you steal my treasure and ruin my mountains? How dare you take her in? How dare—”
He was twice as tall as he had been. Emma ducked under his staff and hurtled into the dark.
She had no idea where she was going. She skidded on crushed buttercups, put out her hands and felt something snap in her wrist as she fell. The spirit roared and slammed his staff against the ground. Something collided with Emma’s ribs, then a soldier’s boot almost trampled her fingers. She struggled upright, finding herself trapped and jostled by a nightmarish crowd sprung up apparently from nowhere. Everywhere she recognized faces: her father, Brinhild, Ratibor, her mother, the Duke’s captain, the yellow-haired man from the miners’ road, all calling out and feeling for Emma with flower-fresh hands.
Already she saw their soft skin wilting. She pushed blindly between them, her name echoing from lip to lip. She felt stone under her hands, against her face. Somewhere the spirit howled.
A thunderous crash shook the cavern. Emma was hurled back onto a heap of sticks and flowers, her ears ringing. Silence settled like dust.
Another crash came, then another. A hairline crack appeared, zigzagging across the cavern wall. With the final blow, daylight appeared.
Emma scrabbled towards it. Two hands thrust down through the widening crack, then arms and straying hair. Above, Emma glimpsed Anne’s face.
Anne gripped Emma’s dress. “Up,” she said crisply, hauling Emma up by her collar. She flung Emma out through the mineshaft entrance into the valley and brushed her strong young hands together. “Home!”
Emma’s parents were in a panic on the road below the valley. They fell on Emma with relief and worry that she reciprocated wholeheartedly: they were afraid she had been taken by whatever took the soldiers, they said.
“Actually—” Emma said, and felt Anne’s gaze boring into the back of her head. “I think I was,” she said and burst into tears.
She was going to have to come up with something believable on the way back. “You killed all those men!” she had said and Anne, not the flower-Anne, but the real Anne who did not speak their language, had looked at her blankly. “Why are you here? What do you want from us?”
“Home,” Anne repeated. “Stay.”
It hadn’t been clear whether she meant it as an answer or an instruction. She had sounded like someone losing patience, which set Emma’s teeth on edge in turn. “What are you, Anne? What in the world are you?”
Anne must have thought Emma was talking about the mountain spirit. She glanced around in apparent exasperation, then said, “I stay, he stays,” with a gesture that said he would stay buried. The distant howling of the spirit shut off abruptly, as if Anne had closed a door on it.
Emma’s breath hissed in. If the soldiers kept to their billets, the woods would be safe again. If the spirit had been shut away, the mines could open up again. Ratibor could go back to work. Emma’s father could sink a new shaft where Anne had found her lapful of gold. Maybe Ratibor could work it for him.
And the stonewitch Emma had found on the road would stay in Kemnitz. Emma looked at Anne distrustfully. There was nothing flowerlike about her. Even the impatient blue of Anne’s eyes was closer to enamel than forget-me-nots.
But Anne had saved Emma. Twice. All she wanted was a home.
Emma nodded. “Stay!”
|Julia August likes history and fantasy, often together. Her short fiction has appeared in F&SF, Fantasy Magazine, The Dark, Unlikely Story’s The Journal of Unlikely Academia, the anthology Places We Fear To Tread and elsewhere. She is @JAugust7 on Twitter, j-august on Tumblr and j_august7 on Instagram. Find out more at juliaaugust.com.|