If I stare long enough, she thinks, I will turn his bones to lead.
Above her, on the terrace, the man laughs, glittering and charismatic. Mag’s hands tighten on her shears. If I wrap my hand around his dainty neck, she thinks, and draw the blade across his throat, a garden will grow from the wound. Dainty bloodroot, bone-white hemlock, thick coleus leaves, scarlet ivy curling itself around his esophagus. She imagines long stems with cruel thorns creeping from his mouth, crimson clover blooming from tiny pinpricks in his eyes.
She takes a breath.
Around her, the hedges cautiously unfurl their leaves. Tension drains out of the garden as the crickets warily pick up their bows. Mag brushes aside the foxgloves leaning into her, because she isn’t in the mood to be comforted, and glances up at the terrace again. The guests haven’t noticed, too deep in their cups or their games to pay any mind to the garden, but he is staring straight at her.
Mag drops a curtsy, drops her head, but makes sure to leave enough time to smile up at him. It’s her favorite smile, one crafted from the jagged bones of old monsters, reminders of something ancient, something she outlived. May icicles grow from your teeth, may your clever tongue become a glacier, and may you choke on it.
His eyes follow her as long as they can, but he is only human, for all that he has the fae-blood.
Birth is violent. Hers is no different, shattered bark clinging to fragile wings, one of them irreparably torn before she even gets the chance to use it.
Her acorn had become her tree, holding her snug within its rings as the city grew from mud around it, and now it’s gone. Strange spires of porcelain and salt loom above, so tall they crowd the sky. She stands on quivering legs, covered in sap, in her own amber blood, and stumbles.
Arms wrap around her, warm but strange. “You’re alive!” he says, face joyous. She doesn’t know what victory is yet, but she sees it on his lips. “We have to go, quick!”
She tries to speak, but feels nothing in her throat except the rustle of leaves. It’s too soon. She wants to tell him this as he leads her through the burning city, every step threatening to shake her apart. He glances back, shining and golden even under the soot.
My soul? she wonders, remembering the stories that had been whispered to her tree, the names carved into her bark, the songs that sank into her roots. Is he mine?
“You’re safe,” the child Tristan tells her, when they creep exhausted into a hayloft. “You’re free.”
Her legs feel like shattered cathedral glass, and her torn wing lingers in her birdcage heart like a plague. “Safe from what?” she croaks, at last.
“The faery raiders!” Tristan’s smile is like morning sunlight. “You were trapped in that tree, and I knew they would burn you—so I cut it down and saved you!”
The servants call him Master Tristan, his Menagerie sneers and calls him Lord, and Mag, who is neither, calls him by a different name every time. He treats her like a beloved family pet, a friend, a wife—all thin layers of paper to cover the rotted meat beneath.
“Rib-sucker,” she murmurs into his ear as she trims his hair with carefully spelled scissors, using the burn of iron to fuel her imaginings. “How pretty you would look if you allowed me to do my best.” I could carve your ears with delicate rosettes, Mag thinks. I would anoint them with rubies and gold, with a delicate chain strung beneath your chin, with your teeth for jewels and your tongue as a pendant.
“Good morning, O Bringer of Offal,” she says demurely, pouring milk from a pitcher and wishing it were milk of the poppy.
“Allow me to draw you a bath, my beloved Prince of Half-Hobs.”
She does not stay. It doesn’t take long to figure out that she is a faery and that Tristan’s father is a general in the war against her kind. The night she leaves, she slips into Tristan’s room and carefully shakes him awake.
“Come with me,” she whispers.
“Where are you going?” he mumbles, eyes heavy with sleep.
“Away.” She glances at the door, hears footsteps. Soft, deliberate. “Tristan!”
Her boy hears the panic in her voice and sits up. “What? What’s wrong?” he whispers, then he hears the footsteps too. Desperate, Mag shows him her hands, the neat little claws that have started to grow. Tiny wildflowers bubble out of her skin.
Tristan’s eyes go wide, then dart to the door. “I can’t,” he whispers, climbing out of bed and opening the window. “Go, you have to go!”
Without hesitation, Mag flings herself out, the ancient wood window frame pulling itself to pieces to support her descent. She lands in a whirl of splinters and runs.
Every morning, she feeds the pigs whatever scrap of faery is left from his nightly experiments. This morning, she sees, the poor creature was a lesser stone fae, her fine features twisted and flayed. Mag studies her only for a moment before tipping the corpse into the pen.
Feed you to your own pigs, she thinks. Piece by piece, from the little toe up, and you won’t sleep till they’ve devoured every piece of you.
Every morning, she cleans the dungeons of the faery-hunter. First the ceiling, then the walls, then the implements. She lingers over every blade, caressing it wistfully. She polishes one, then sets it in the light, admiring its glittering malice. Like butter, Mag thinks, then cocks her head as the distant chime of a bell rings out. There are no bells on the estate, not even to call the servants. Even on his own land, the Lord Wormfood didn’t want to scare away his prey.
This, then, is something new. Mag sets the knives aside and follows the sound, which calls so sweetly. It tugs her feet up the countless steps to a tower she’s never been to, not even when he’d commanded her to clean the castle with a rag made of her own skin. She’d assumed it to be yet another of his endless torture chambers, but now, nearing the top, she suspects otherwise. A breeze touches her face, brushing dirt away with gentle fingers, and Mag finds herself in front of a door. At the top is perched a tiny copper bell, so worn with age that it has no business ringing so clearly. She looks closer, pressing herself against the door until it drives splinters into her bare palms and arms, climbs up until the tip of her nose brushes cool metal. The clapper had once been welded to the side, and Mag pushes her little finger inside to feel the small knot of metal.
What broke this? she wonders, then draws back from the door and pulls it open.
Earth unrolls before her, a distant carpet of forest and moss, tempting her to step out and feel the river on her toes. Instead, Mag looks down. Half of the tower is suddenly missing, like a corpse cut apart with all the gut and bone on display. She looks up.
The missing half looms above her, turned perfectly upside-down. Between the halves, the only connection is the iron weather vane, which has been tied together by stronger hands than any man’s. Mag ties back her sleeves, then climbs out, skittering insect-like over the shingles. An easy leap takes her from one side to the other, and she pulls herself into the rafters above, nails leaving deep gouges in ancient wood.
Mag looks back, discovers the estate has vanished into an angry sea, and grins.
The heart of a faery is a simple thing, in the end, and every now and then she sneaks close to see a glimpse of him. He’s a glittering jewel in high society, handsome and golden. He’s the lantern to her moth.
Mag has no wings anymore. They were stunted by her premature birth, and when one rotted off, she pulled the other herself. She passes easily for human, for a woman of noble if mysterious birth, and it’s simplicity itself to present herself at Tristan’s masquerade. She wears a brass mask and a rose gown, dances with him all night, and leaves. The next night, she wears a gown of thorns and shadows, her mask the silver of the moon. The third, she arrives in a white gown that floats like clouds, her mask a golden sun.
He leans in close that night and whispers, “I missed you, Mag.”
Mag takes a long breath of the sea air as if she means to drink it. She isn’t sea-aligned, is too much connected with the light-dapple of the woods, the sick-sweet taste of sap, but even this is better than the soulless grey of the faery-hunter’s castle. The wind whips her hair into her face, bringing her back to herself. She climbs.
Gravity has always been irrelevant to her, and she isn’t about to pay attention to it now, no matter how stone twists under her fingers. The half-tower does its best to throw her, yearning to dash her against the unforgiving waves, but it was designed to ward off humans. Mag is not and will never be one. She smiles, appreciating the effort.
“What are you doing?”
The voice cuts her to the quick, and she freezes in place as a pale hand snakes around the edge of the wall to grasp hers. A face follows, flush with youth, brow furrowed with pretty concern. It takes her too long to understand what she’s seeing, and by then, he’s pulling her into the half-tower.
“I won’t hurt you,” the Boy-Tristan says. His smile is brilliant and open and hopelessly naïve. His hands are gentle on hers. It’s as if she’s looking at a piece of her husband that he’d skipped, somehow, going straight from youth to adulthood and leaving this strange in-between thing behind. For a moment, Mag is terrified that he’s hers, stolen from her and erased.
Heart pounding, she looks closely, finds the seams where this boy was ripped from himself. Not a son, then, but a fragment. Mag smiles.
She knows an opportunity when she sees one.
“Dance with me.”
All throughout the party, his long, pale fingers, coated with a modest dusting of crushed gems, toy with her hair. From the corner of her eye, she watches as he loops delicate gold locks around his thumb and forefinger, his fingernail daringly catching on her jaw beneath the sunburst mask.
“Drink with me.” Breathy against her skin, drops of wine sliding down her neck.
“Tell me your name.” Begs, so softly, under the cover of night and passion. So earnest, so sweet.
In the morning, he treats her to butterfly-soft kisses, roaming hands. He teases her awake, rousing her from pleasurable dreams to the sight of a silver chain.
“Marry me,” he offers. She laughs in his face, because that has never been an option on the table, and fails to see the odd light in his eye.
“Magren,” he says, and her laughter dies. A worm of fear burrows into her heart. “I name you wife.”
“That won’t work,” she replies, scornful, and tries to pull away. He presses her back into the pillows, so sweet and gentle as he lays the chain across her throat.
“I name you, Magrenia,” he says, his eyelashes brushing against her chin in a promise. A thousand futures roil in her chest. “You are mine.”
The taste of silver and salt curdle her tongue, choking her even as the chain melts into her skin, fuses until it leaves no trace but the faintest of bumps. “Never,” she swears.
“My father,” the boy tells her, “is a great wizard. I share his name, but I’m too weak to live in his castle. He has many enemies.”
Tristan’s greatest enemies are taxes.
Mag takes a moment to admire the web of lies he’s fed his fragmentary self. The not-boy doesn’t know what he is, has no memory of her at all. A mistake. “I work for him,” she admits. “I came here by accident—took a wrong turn. I should go.”
“No!” he cries, then flushes. “I- please stay. I could use the company.”
The adult Tristan doesn’t notice anything is awry. They sit up together one night by the fire, pretending they’re a normal couple. Mag climbs into his lap and kisses him, knees pressing into the soft padding of the armchair, and her pleasure that night comes entirely from knowing that he’s going to get his comeuppance.
Once upon a time, a woman was cursed by a wicked king to spend her days dancing in iron. Once upon a time, a woman fell in love for a year and a day, and woke at the end to find herself married to a thorny bush. Once upon a time, there was a hunter who took the hearts of pretty girls. Once upon a time, there were cruel hands and wicked blades and a silver chain. Once upon a time, there was a ball.
She visits the half-tower often, taking care to always appear both more ragged and more beautiful than the visit before. She tells him stories as she spins thread of nightshade and crocus. She never tells him of her predicament, only lowers her eyes sadly whenever he asks. A year passes, and he is near mad from not knowing. Mag, who has woven her poison thread into cloth, has begun to make a beautiful coat, is therefore somewhat surprised when he approaches her one morning as she sews and asks, “Does my father keep you prisoner?”
Mag stops, lets herself flinch in a way she hasn’t for a while, and the Boy-Tristan comes to her side, devoted and concerned. “How—?” she asks, pulling a tremble into her voice.
Daringly, he brushes his fingertips over the raised line on her neck. A shiver, a soft intake of breath. “The story of the chain,” he admits. “And when he visited last week, I saw the ring on his finger. He’s laid a spell on you, hasn’t he? You can’t tell anyone, so you tell stories.”
Sweet, clever boy.
Tears well in Mag’s eyes, and she looks away as if ashamed. “Yes,” she whispers, and when he pulls her to him, she goes. He doesn’t notice the hair she takes when they kiss.
“You can’t beat him alone,” she says. “He’s a powerful sorcerer.”
“Isolde,” he murmurs, like a prayer, “what should I do?” His eyes are warm and trusting, and Mag slips out of his arms. She gives him a shy smile, then goes to her chair. The coat is folded neatly beneath it, and as she turns, she lets it unfold in her hands, a vibrant waterfall of shimmering, inky indigos and violets. It’s impossibly soft, impossibly warm, and there’s delicate crimson embroidery along hems and button holes.
“Wear this,” Mag tells him. “It will protect you.”
The shining boy in his midnight coat descends the tower, crosses the iron weather vane, and steps into the castle. It’s quiet in a way that his half-tower had never been, eerie without the thunder of angry waves.
Mag climbs down behind him, whispers in his ear, “Meet me in the stables, after, and we’ll be rid of this place.”
He kisses her fiercely, then goes to meet his fate. Mag doesn’t wait for him to turn the corner before she disappears up a servants’ stair, picking her way up to the master bedroom. It’s empty, as it always is this time of day, and she sits daintily in front of the magic mirror and waits. The room pulses, thrumming oddly as the poison coat begins its work.
Humming, Mag examines her reflection, lifts her hands to her throat. The buried chain stands out starkly, the ridges looking like bone-bulges beneath her skin. Her fingers go to the back of her neck, where the clasp lies. The thoughtful boy had pulled it free of skin, using some of his innate magic, his own fae-blood.
With a deft twist of her fingers, Mag unlocks it. Her skin is still coated in poison, which helps, and she’s always been full of bad intentions.
“I’ll drown you,” she informs her reflection, which shimmers with every heartbeat to show, slowly, the face of the human she hates most. “Hang you from the top of your half-tower with chains and tie stones to your feet so that you’re so close to the surface you could almost breathe.”
The mirror shudders.
The joke, of course, is that he’d never had to collar her. Once upon a time, she would have followed him to the ends of the Earth.
“My name is Magrenia,” she’d gasped in the night. An intimate thing, a faery’s name. “I give it freely, and my heart.”
Her heart is the punchline. It’s old and withered, an empty husk inside the ribs of an emptier one, overgrown with thorns and choke-vine.
An ancient song rises in Mag’s bones, and the rush of power almost throws her from the chair. She digs the nails of one hand into the upholstery, ignoring the sudden vertigo, and fumbles for the clasp with her other. She finds it, fingers closing on the smaller piece, but there’s no time. She has to time this perfectly.
The wave ebbs, then returns. The coat is doing its job, killing the wearer with every step, and it’s only a matter of time before he finds his boy-self collapsed on the stair. She imagines his distress, the lurch of horror he’ll feel. Another wave of power washes over her, and Mag takes a breath.
She pulls the chain from her skin, every link scraping her raw. Thick blood, dark and poisonous, dribbles from the back of her neck, and for a moment she thinks she’s free.
The large end of the clasp catches. It bulges darkly under the skin, a tumor at the base of her throat like a beetle. She stares at it in the mirror, feels its weight every time she swallows, shivers at the feeling of her own blood oozing down the back of her shirt.
Mag bares her teeth at the man in her reflection.
Viciously, she yanks the chain towards the mirror instead of away, ripping a bright line across her neck until the only part that’s left inside is that clasp. The chain dangles limply.
“Fine,” she says, and touches the mirror.
The gallant, golden-haired warrior faces the man he thinks of as his father. He’s weak, trembling, but believes the coat his beloved made will protect him. He thinks that it’s his father’s sorcery that hurts him.
The tall, cold man stares down at the boy and sees his own death. “Who gave you that coat?”
“Isolde,” the boy says proudly. “My true love. It’s to protect me from you.”
“Ha.” The man turns away. “Incredible. Could I ever truly have been so foolish? Ma-”
The syllable has barely escaped his lips when she appears. She climbs out through his reflection in the window, digging her nails into the color of his soft cold skin, and drops lightly to the floor. The silver chain dangles before her, dripping night-sky gore, and she smiles her predator’s smile.
“Tristan,” she says, pleasant but cold. She straightens. Manchineel-bark and nettle papers her limbs, lines her eyes in thorns, her mouth the red of yew berries. Her long yellow hair coils to mimic the fall of oleander and tansy blossoms, and her eyes have taken on the red-laced brown of a fresh nutmeg seed still in its aril.
Her teeth are the forgotten bones of every faery he’s ever murdered.
“Magrenia,” he says mildly.
Almost immediately, the magic begins to drain. Her skin tries to reabsorb the chain, and Mag closes her fist around it. “Tristan!” It’s the gasp of a damsel in distress, and she pushes through the gentle human face she’d always shown the boy, as if she’s struggling.
“Isolde!” he cries, hoarse, the poison working through his skin like little dark needles of death. He rallies, charges, and drives his little knife into the man’s stomach. He lets out a keen of pain as the knife-tip emerges from his own.
The drain on her power stops. With a triumphant shout, Mag rips the chain from her throat, the little heart-shaped end of the clasp ripping a hole in her skin. She takes her first free breath in ten years. Her eyes begin to smoke, and she turns to Tristan. The two of them have collapsed on top of each other, a mess of blood and confusion. The Boy-Tristan stares up at her, still so full of hope and love. Mag leans in. Retrieves the knife.
“Well, well,” she says mildly. “So we’ve come full circle at last. But I think you’re missing something, dearest.”
She bends to the Monster-Tristan and puts her arms around his neck like a lover. “You utter fool,” she breathes into his ear as she fastens the heart-clasp.
When she stands, the Boy-Tristan’s eyes have glazed over. Whatever magic kept the two apart has collapsed, leaving only a dying man and a husk. Tristan, whole for the first time since his youth, gags. He coughs up a small, slimy thing, then another. The more fall from his mouth, the more the husk crumbles, until there’s nothing left but iron beads scattered on the floor.
Mag nudges them aside, carves a space for herself, then crouches and takes his face in her hand. “Come on, love,” she croons. “One more.” She strokes his throat, following the path of iron. He doesn’t want to give it up, but it’s too late, and soon enough she forces fingers into his mouth and pries the pendant from between his teeth. The jagged iron arrowhead burns her palm, but she ignores it. The thing is a relic of the past, something she hasn’t seen in a long time. With a chuckle, she discards it, letting it fall to the floor like the meaningless hunk of metal it is.
“Isn’t that better?” she asks, gently touching his cheek. “You’re looking much more yourself.”
“Why?” Tristan asks, raw with pain.
“Because you captured me, faery-hunter,” she says. “Fair is fair.” With her bone smile, she kisses him softly. “I have a thousand fates waiting for you.” Another kiss. “But first, I name you.”
“Wait, please- I only wanted to lov-”
“I name you Heartweed,” Mag murmurs into his mouth. “I strip your human name, your life, and bind it to my whim.”
He weeps, and his tears taste like morning dew.
|Sidney Maris Hargrave is a quiet writer with a loud brain living in the desert. In their spare time, they draw a lot and drink egregious amounts of tea. They are gray aro/ace and nonbinary.|