Read The Fairest of Them All Online

Authors: Carolyn Turgeon

The Fairest of Them All (6 page)

And then they were upon us, we were right in their path and there was no way to move. I bunched myself into a ball, tears streaming down my face, waiting to be run down.

The sound, the smell of horse and man passed over me. The horses ran right through me as if I were not even there. I twisted my neck and watched their shadows disappearing into the woods on the other side of us.

For a moment,
I wasn’t sure what had just happened. If it weren’t for the taste of dirt in my mouth, the overturned earth all around us, I might have thought I’d imagined it.

I looked over at Mathena, who was steadily watching me.

“What . . . ?” I began, not sure what to say.

“You’re safe,” she said.

“Those were bandits, weren’t they?” I’d heard stories about them for as long as I could remember—how they
lived in a house by the river, outside the kingdom’s rule, preying on those who entered the forest.

She nodded. “Yes, but they cannot hurt us. Not here.”

I looked at her, amazed, this woman who’d read the stars for a queen.

It was the first time I had seen one of Mathena’s protection spells at work.

T
hat night I slept in the tower and was plagued by strange dreams, in
which my son was alive and whole, come to see me. His blue eyes stared up at me, his fists unfolded and became massive. Antlers rose from his skull, twisting like branches into the air, puncturing the clouds.

I woke up with my palms under my belly, cradling him, on my side on the stone floor, clutching my stomach. I was so ravenous I couldn’t make it to the house and the cupboards
there. I wrapped
myself in furs and flew down the winding stairs and out into the winter frost and I dropped onto the ground, shoving leaves and dirt into my mouth. My child wailed inside me. I could hear him, blending in with the wind that whipped my hair into a storm around and above me. I wished I had two mouths, three mouths, to take it all in, to eat the earth, the leaves and grass, the acorns that tasted
as marvelous as cream.

After, I hauled myself back up the stairs, shaking from the cold, crawling on my hands and knees up the stone.

I dropped the fur from my shoulders and looked in the mirror, and what I saw seared itself into my memory: I was reflected in the mad light of the roaring fire, half in shadows and smeared in dirt. My slight, rounded belly. My hair like a wild robe hanging to
the floor and swirling on the stone, scattered through with leaves and bark and frost. My breasts, too, were becoming rounder, and my nipples were black with dirt. Earth pushing through my body, tangling around my stomach, entering my womb.

Outside the wind howled. The moon cast its eye on everything. The fire crackled, devouring the wood. Inside me, he was screaming, and the world turned feral.

The mirror seemed to ripple, like water, as I peered into it.

This is who I am,
I thought.

The woman in the glass. Wild and broken.

I thought of the stories Mathena had told me of my real mother, who craved rapunzel and wasted away without it, because she could not stand to eat anything else. She could not grow it in her own garden, apparently, which was as barren as
Mathena’s was lush and
full. I imagined my mother standing at the window, growing thin from hunger, longing, that inexpressible need for something just beyond her reach to fill the dark space inside, even after she’d birthed me. And me, wailing beside her until she was forced to make me stop.

Something blasted up inside me, a memory or not-memory, a banshee cry, a feeling that there was a dark force nearby wanting
to harm me and that I would fight and die to protect myself, my child, from it. And then it seemed that this darkness was inside of me. Passed down from my mother to me.

W
inter came quickly and buried us in snow, and we sewed, mended, embroidered, ate the food and burned the wood we had gathered during the vibrant summer months and the bountiful fall. Mathena made me teas
to keep me strong and healthy. The occasional woman came and went, the more desperate ones willing to march through drifts that came up to their thighs to see us—sometimes they complained of love, sometimes of hunger and bare pantries, not enough food to last through the winter. I knew these women’s desperation now, and became a better practitioner for it.

Occasionally, we heard word from court,
usually half rumors and gossip that came to us third- or fourth-hand. I was always eager to hear of it. Of him, his wife, the palace.

One day a young woman came to our door, an already small girl thinning from disease. I was stirring a stew over the stove. Mathena was spreading salve on the girl’s back when the girl told us the news.

“The new princess is pregnant,” she said. “People say it’s
a good sign, that things will be better for us now.”

I dropped the spoon I was holding. “The wife of Prince Josef is with child?”

“What wonderful news,” Mathena said quickly. “That we will have an heir.”

“Yes,” the girl said, her feverish face shining with hope. “They say the princess has already taken to her bed. She doesn’t want to take any chances.”

“It is a good sign indeed,” Mathena said,
placing her hand on the girl’s shoulder. When the girl bent over in pain a moment later, Mathena looked over at me worriedly. Worried more for me than the girl, I realized.

I stood there in stunned silence. I don’t know why I was so surprised by the news, but I was. Teresa was his wife, her main purpose was to bear him heirs. Yet somehow it had felt like what had happened in that tower was special,
mine alone. Maybe she could have him, but only I could have his child.

Mathena focused back on the girl. “Breathe this in,” she said, holding a packet of lemon balm and lavender to the girl’s face, “until it passes.”

The girl breathed in. She sat back up, clearly exhausted.

With shaking hands, I wrapped various treatments for the girl to take with her—salves and teas, special incense and potion—as
Mathena helped the girl back into her dress. My shock shifted to anger, sorrow. Teresa’s child would be born in the palace, become a prince or princess, have everything in the world laid out for it, while my own son would have nothing at all.

Mathena wove protection spells for the girl as she left, to protect her from bandits if not from the disease.

“Do you really believe what you said?” I
asked, after the girl disappeared from sight. “That it is a good sign?” My voice was hurt, accusing.

“No,” she said, giving me a surprised look. “Of course not.”

I nodded, blinking back tears.

“Rapunzel,” Mathena said, sitting next to me. “You must forget him. For now.”

The way she was watching me scared me. I could feel myself weaken, feel her magic at work. She was trying to make me tired
and relaxed enough that I might not care what she did, or might find it easier to listen to her than to my own heart. I blinked, to stop it.

“I
have
forgotten,” I lied.

She sighed, not even bothering to acknowledge my statement. “It is the duty of his wife, to bear him children.” She hesitated, put her hand on my arm soothingly. “Not yours. It’s still not too late to be rid of it.”

“Of what?”

She gestured to my belly. “It’s more difficult now, but possible.”

“No,” I said, gaping at her. How could she suggest such a thing?

“You are destined for great things, Rapunzel,” she said. “You’ve become a powerful practitioner, and your beauty is a gift. A great gift that gives you strength and increases your magic. You’ll have many more gifts in this world. A child will only hinder you.”

“Mathena! You’re speaking about my son.”

“In the world, he’ll be a bastard. The queen’s child will have
everything your own son will be denied. Don’t you want those things?”

She continued to watch me in that same intent way.

Her words confused me. “Yes, but . . . what can I do? I cannot have those things. It’s too late.”

“Be patient,” she said. “Haven’t I taught you that the world can change
in an instant?”

O
ver the rest of that winter, darkness seemed to envelop us, so thick it was like a physical thing.
The rush of women who came to us slowed down to a faint trickle of the truly desperate. The daylight, when it came, was ghostly, pale. All that mattered was keeping the fire lit, keeping food in our stomachs, making sure the child inside me survived. We spent most of our days with dried herbs spread around us, making potions and poultices for every kind of ailment, ripping pieces of cloth to wrap
around particularly potent mixtures.

My hunger did not abate. I wanted to eat everything, to lock myself in the cellar and devour every herb, every vegetable, every dried piece of meat. No matter how much we carried up and roasted in the hearth, it never seemed to be enough to fill me. Mathena even began locking the cellar at night, so that I would not run down in my half sleep and gorge myself.

The days passed slowly. To distract me, Mathena told me stories of the old goddesses—Artemis turning Daphne slowly into a tree, limb by limb, Aphrodite rising from foam and sea, Hera ruling over all of them at the side of her brother Zeus, who was also her husband—and of the days when the queen consulted
her on everything from what to eat for breakfast to which of her husband’s advisors would
betray him. I loved her stories. Sometimes I would get so lost in them that I’d look down at the cloth and stalks and seeds in my hands and forget what they were, why I was holding them.

At times, when I was restless and burning, I would take to the woods in the pure light of the afternoon with a fur wrap, often just with a bow and arrow, to hunt.

Which was how I found myself outside one afternoon,
stalking through the forest with Brune flying above me and my bow at my side, several arrows sticking out of the quiver on my back. I scanned the trees, the ground, but I was distracted, consumed as always by thoughts of what would happen, once I had brought his child into the world.

What I would do then.

And so I didn’t hear the swishing of branches, the light step of hooves, the way I might
have normally, and did not sense the stag until it was right there in front of me.

It stood in my path. I stopped, astonished. It stared back at me, and was unlike any deer I’d ever seen. It looked as bewildered as I did, and for a moment we both stood there in the snow, frozen. Antlers twisted from its skull like tree branches, a crown. Its eyes were big and black and round, soft. Beautiful.

I was mesmerized.

And then everything came into focus. I remembered why I was there, and could not believe my good fortune. Hunting was difficult in the winter, even when I was not with child, and at best I would return home with several squirrels or rabbits.

I lifted my bow and aimed.

“Stay,” I whispered.

My heart pounded. I kept my fingers perfectly still.

I released my hand and let the
arrow loose. It flew through the air, and those moments seemed to stretch out and become hours, days, until the arrow landed, right in the animal’s throat. I could feel the arrow entering. I heard the wet, hard sound of it breaking the skin, entering blood and bone.

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