America's Next Author - Social Writing Contest

America's Next Author - Social Writing Contest

Just a reminder....


America's Next Author

Another Writing Contest ENtry: http://www.ebookmall.com/author/s-e-cates
I doubt anyone will see this post, but check out the link above if you want to help me win.


The Wishing Tree



Everly's Walk: Part Eight

Now the townspeople whisper tales of curses to the tourists brave or strange enough to come by. They speak of Everly Carrigan, the best Carrigan by far, who fell for a Blythe-Cameron and then fell from her own walkway. It isn’t there anymore, that walkway, they say. It fell out in some storm, leaving poor old Alice trapped in that crumbling-away manor. Except that she had been a recluse anyway, probably knocked the bridge out herself.
They say that every Carrigan woman since Everly has met her death by falling from the Cliff. Araby never believed that, naturally. They warned her, the drunken captains and quiet scholarly types, that she should leave before her turn came. Not that they didn’t want a Carrigan about--most of them could hardly fathom how they’d function without Miss Araby and her lovely money--, but they’d rather have a removed last-Carrigan than a dead one. 
Araby laughed at them, the sound was white-feathered birds on the green sea breeze. Even if she did have wine red hair (far tamer than Everly’s) and a short temper, she’d never go jumping off a cliff. 
But then again, that was the summer before she met Augustus Crane.

The End

This thing had a life of its own when it came to posting it. I hope whoever bothered to read it enjoyed it. Leave a comment if you want.

Everly's Walk: Part Seven

Everly Carrigan met him again only once. And she was cold. Except when she wasn’t. There was fire as she screamed at him, made her throat raw with hurt and humiliation and rage. Caspian screamed back, of course, but by then both their hearts had accepted the breaking to come. She tried to fight him, but he stayed her hands. He tried to touch her, but she flinched away.
The parted ways as enemies up on the cliff tops where the wind clawed at Everly’s hair beneath the gray sky. Caspian walked one way. Everly walked another. She walked across the scrubby plains, a lone spot of scarlet in the gray and green. She walked to her lands and there she started to cry. Or maybe those were rainclouds on her face. It stormed often on the sea shore. 
She walked to where she saw her home in the distance. It was beautiful, finally complete. She pretended that she had not been harboring familial images in that setting as she walked on. The thought of that horrible Blythe-Cameron name inside a Carrigan house was rather ridiculous after all. She walked onto the narrow bridge to Carrigan’s Cliff, rain making the path slick. Thinking of the spiteful promise she had once made Caspian, she still tried not to stumble.
She walked on, but she never set another foot inside of Carrigan House. Everly Carrigan fell to her death from Everly’s Walkway that night in the rain. 
Except that’s not how the story goes: she leapt. 
Except no, actually, she sat down and slid off. 
But then, she never fell at all, simply ran away to a place where she would never have to hear the whisper-screamed longing in the voice of the green ocean. 
But who could know, as she was never heard from again? 
Except when the townspeople heard her ghost screaming and hollering up on Carrigan’s Cliff each night. No ghost can step foot on holy land, so if Everly was a ghost, that alone explained why she never tore down that horrid expansion that some distant relative--
Descendant? Some say that a boy showed up one year, bearing the Carrigan name and a peculiar penchant for merfolk paintings and stylish suits--
that her relative built on Carrigan Cliff.
And as for Caspian Blythe-Cameron--who would have loved the expansion as it housed an entire room dedicated to strange sculptures and art--, he never married that wretched French girl. He never finished his castle either; it wasn’t as fun without Everly around to dissapprove of it. In fact he stopped dropping his bread crumb trails, packed up his suits and went on holiday, finally disappearing a few months later on a hunt in some far dry land where there was no green sea. (It’s funny, but some say that the boy Carrigan who came years later spent many holidays in that land.)
All that can be said for the Carrigans and the Blythe-Camerons after that is that they left a lovely legacy (apart from a new, far more haunting name for Everly’s town), stories to be bought and sold as economy--since they’d built up their towns so poorly. Or perhaps it was the crumbling rock at war with the green sea that was poor in the first place.

Only one more part to go. Not that anyone is reading this anyway.


Everly's Walk: Part Six

Everly made inquiries as her carriage drove them bumpily over the so-called plains between Carrigan and Blythe. Elsbeth complained noisily, muttering unlady-like things in French which she was sure Everly did not understand (Everly did). But between the cursings, she managed to spill a secret or two. It seemed that Everly’s traveling companion simply loved to talk about herself and her dear Caspian. Everly was assured the Caspian was probably waiting at the port in Blythe to greet her. Probably distraught, he was. And oh, but she’d had to leave a dozen trunks behind for the journey, and wasn’t that dreadful? But hopefully her darling Caspian would replenish what she had lost. You’d think he would, you know, considering they were to be wed--
Cold. Everly resolved to be cold. It was all she thought on that long journey to see the man-she-loved-who-was-promised-to-another. If Elsbeth noticed Everly’s sudden silence--No, she hadn’t noticed or she would have taken advantage of what it implied.
Cold. When Elsbeth stepped from the carriage, Caspian’s expression changed from curious, even happy, to confusion, to shock, to--there it was--the flinch of fear. Everly removed herself from the carriage as well. Cold, she reminded herself. Pleasant. Polite. It was fire that had gotten her into this mess in the first place.
Caspian Blythe-Cameron tried valiantly to meet her gaze, but she went home without any explanation from him. It wasn’t as if he had a good one anyway. He did try though, a missive or two dashed off desperately after now-finished-house calls went unanswered. 
It wasn’t as if he didn’t try, with his fancy suits out in the rain that poured for three days and nights after Elsbeth came into town. That was probably the only reason he didn’t pack her off on a boat out of Blythe on the spot under Everly’s aching gaze. Then, after the rain, he’d simply forgotten about Elsbeth Deverauz entirely. He’d never liked her all that much anyway (though his mother had insisted), not in the way he’d hated (loved) Everly Carrigan.


Everly's Walk: Part Five

On the sea shore, where everything is gray and green and the living is hard, nothing lasts. The paint on the circus tent would fade to dusty pastels. The houses would grow water-logged or rust. And the relationship between Caspian Blythe-Cameron and Everly Carrigan was bashed in by a south wind known as Elsbeth Deveraux whose father’s surname had been Crane. She preferred the French though, she told everyone in her snide accent. 
Where had she come from? the people of Everly’s Walk (which was not then called Everly’s Walk but rather “Carrigan Beach”, a title that made no sense since there was very little beach and quite a lot of jagged rocks on the Carrigan coast line) wondered. They knew, of course, that she had come in on a tug boat, making it look dull and busted with her beauty and class. She wore a shimmering dress of many layers and folds with a bodice far too tight and a neck line too low. 
Everly hated her, obviously, but she greeted her with a smile. It was not the custom of the Everly Carrigan to greet every stray who came in from the green waters, but she happened to be down on the docks at the time giving one of the captains, a drunkard with an impressive black beard, an earful. 
That was how Elsbeth first saw the crazy woman with red hair, waving her (admittedly very pretty) hands about insanely, fire in her nearly-violet eyes. She hardly noticed the rather frightened looking man, all brawn and sea-hardened leather skin. She was the type of woman who only notices a threat.
And it was not so much a greeting that Elsbeth received as a snapping-at, but then Elsbeth was not really such a nice girl and she undoubtedly deserved it for some crime or another.
Anyway, Elsbeth inquired where she might find the Blythe-Cameron home. Wasn’t she surprised (and loudly displeased) to find that she’d come in at entirely the wrong port and she should have to go all the way down the coast to reach Blythe-by-the-Sea? After Elsbeth stopped shouting loudly in French and Everly stopped shouting just as loudly back, the tug boat captain was able to have his voice heard long enough to offer the pretty Elsbeth a lift down the coast.
For the first time that day, Everly’s brow clouded; she enjoyed a good fight far too much to have let that bother her. But she did not want this Elsbeth Deveraux (Crane) getting away and taking all her secrets about Caspian with her. So she offered to take her herself.


Everly's Walk: Part Four

Caspian Blythe-Cameron had a penchant for paintings of fat mermaids and mermen. There was a whole room in Blythe-Castle-on-the-Sea--Caspian had made a castle to one-up his neighbor’s manor, but it was proving a rather expensive and impractical endeavor, one Everly observed with endless satisfaction.--dedicated to his collection of such art.
It was in this room that Caspian Blythe-Cameron kissed Everly Carrigan. And she hated it. Except, well, she didn’t. Rather, she kissed him back. And this was very hard to explain to herself and to him and to the watery eyes of fat merpeople surrounding them.
Caspian had run out of things to hate about Everly when he got to her near-purple eyes and now was forced to admit that he loved her rather foolishly. Everly refused to admit the same until she was back on Carrigan soil.
With one boot toe on the walk to Carrigan House, she kissed him again. Fluttering her lashes in that way that makes words, she told him how idiotic her heart was. He agreed, naturally, that her heart was indeed idiotic.
They danced on the walk to Carrigan House, though there was no music, only moonlight. Little white birds with tails like swallows flew around them, eating at the bread trail that led from Caspian’s carriage to his jacket pocket. This was a habitual thing for him to do, his bread trail. It has been noted that he was a strangely quirky man.


Everly's Walk: Part Three

Everly Carrigan built Carrigan House from the ground. Each stone set was there because she’d pointed, drawn, demanded, or placed it herself. Back then, she was known around and about for her wild hair. It was perhaps the only red thing on the entire coast. Until Caspian Blythe-Cameron showed up down the shore and ordered his townspeople to paint their cottages in lively colors (that would later fade to blinding white beneath the sun that somehow only shone on Blythe’s part of the coast) and to whitewash the stones and streets. 
Everly Carrigan hated that smug Caspian Blythe-Cameron with all of her red, beating heart. She would never order her townspeople to do something so foolish as paint, not when she’d already hauled most of them out by their ears and wallets and forced them to live the seaside life. Apart from the tug boat captains and crew (some of whom preferred to live elsewhere, though certainly not in Blythe-by-the-Sea), Everly’s townspeople tended to be business types, accountants and money-making people that Everly didn’t really think she needed in the first place.
Later down the line, when the tug boat industry wobbled, many of those business types left, but a whole crowd of artists and writers and historians and scientists had been drawn out by Everly’s lovely library and legendary wit, intermingling silently with the crowd so that no one saw them come and no one expected them to go. 
(These people even brought with them the famous Carrigan Coastal Circus, a magnificent tent in brilliant colors that sat on the water. Beneath it one could find all manner of wares, entertainment, and even a rather rare and delicate carousel. This was in the prime days of Everly’s Walk, of course, after Everly had died but far before Alice and Araby were born.)
Everly herself, though she never missed a detail, was far too preoccupied with building her home and thwarting that dastardly Caspian Blythe-Cameron to care overmuch that some new people had snuck into their midst. Besides, these people tended to be the only ones of actual interest for Everly to talk to. Apart from Caspian. He was irritatingly quirky.
So irritatingly quirky, in fact, that Everly fell in love with him. Not before he fell in love with her though, she was quick to point out. 
It started out quietly enough, a not-quite-built-house call to judge with his twinkling eyes, an unfortunate run in at the home of some mutually-hired contractor types, perhaps a verbal sparring match over dinner on the edge of Carrigan Cliff--it would have been rude not to invite him to dinner after she’d yelled at him all day. 
Then there were the letters. Nothing more than insults wrapped in romanticisms, they told themselves. But it was true when Caspian said he loved her hair and her hands. Everly had wonderful hands, simply made for pointing and gesticulating.
And it was true when she said she didn’t hate his suits. That it had actually been a lie when she’d shouted that after him down her drive. She also said that she liked his sarcasm, his smirk, his wandering hands. But those were, of course, lies designed to outwit the enemy.
Everly spent a beautiful day with that enemy in the place where the circus tent would be built. He’d forced--literally forced, she would never go quietly--Everly to take a day from building and planning and business-ing. She’d never have admitted that it felt nice to have his steadying hands on her waste as she rode the carousel horse. (Caspian had brought one of his prized carousels from France where he kept them at his mother’s house. It was pink and gold and mint and horrible. Only that was wrong because it was beautiful.) Except she did admit it, in a whisper, with a look from beneath heavy lashes. She didn’t need steadying, naturally; she was an accomplished rider. Caspian knew this because he’d watched her gallop across the scrubby plains on the cliff tops. He’d hated the way the wind sought to unclothe her, flung her curls to the sky, of course. He’d been annoyed by the way she was so sure and confident, so gentle and kind to the beast.
So no, she didn’t need steadying. Except when she did, when she was tipsy on star champagne drunk at dinner in a town where no one knew that she and Caspian hated each other and so they’d probably thought them a couple, and she teetered down the way to her house. The walkway was a narrow, stone bridge that held Carrigan Cliff--which was really more a tower of rock--to the mainland, barely wide enough for a carriage to cross. 
When Caspian Blythe-Cameron told her that he’d hate to see her fall from that death trap, it was true. But only in as much as it was a slight to her poor planning of where to live. Nothing more. Because she annoyed him.
And she swore that she would fall, if only to bother him then. Because he was too quirky and sweet and smart for her to like.

Comment and critiques are welcome.


Everly's Walk: Part Two

Blythe-by-the-Sea was a prosperous ocean town, built on seafood and surf. Made of white houses that dotted the shores like shells, it was a pretty enough place, a fond destination for families on holiday. Even the gulls dared not soil the pristine streets of Blythe, and the sun always shone there, making the water a clear blue-green.
Everly’s Walk was a preposterous ocean town up the shore from Blythe. Built on tug boats and trade, everything in Everly’s Walk was green or gray. The ocean, the glass, the seasick faces of the town’s people (who were notably averse to sea travel), sometimes even the skies, were a pale, unattractive sort of mint. Nothing grew in Everly, and so the ground was always charcoal stone. The houses were old, bent by wind and warped by storm, and, of course, gray. But it was outside of unfortunate Everly, not Blythe, that the once grand Carrigan House lived.
The Carrigans were the sole owners of Everly’s tug boat industry, and the town grew up from their money (which was also green). Though they still made far more than any townsperson in Everly, the Carrigan’s business had faded by the time Araby was born to the dusty glamor of things outraced. No one ever left Everly, and people rarely came. And the people who did come to Everly’s Walk were often the not-quite-right types. That was because the townspeople of Everly’s Walk did not deal in fish or fineries, trinkets or trifles. In Everly’s Walk they traded one thing and one thing only: tales. Not the lovely sort. Well, lovely in their way, but rather melancholy, nasty, stomach-roiling, even upsetting in their own right. 
And there were many tales to tell, most especially the tale of Everly Carrigan.

Comments, anyone? I'd love some feedback.


Everly's Walk: Part One

Part 1

Carrigan House was a crumbling old manor, perched on the edged of a cliff. Or it used to be. Rather, the cliff was perched under it. And then it wasn’t. Chunks of gray stone slipped from their precarious positions and plummeted to the green sea below, and parts of Carrigan House, that once stately mansion, went with them. Over time, the green sea collected enough souvenirs from Carrigan Cliff that a little island began to grow below, bathed in sea foam. 
The right wing of Carrigan House fell into the sea directly, when the first of the cliff began to go. Alice Carrigan, even then an old lady, had always said that the right wing was for those with no spine. That was probably because the right wing was the new wing, built on top of an old graveyard. To Alice Carrigan, the destruction of a graveyard was no fault, it was the cowardice of living on something so safe as hallowed ground that got to her. And all those modern conveniences as well.
The smallest dining room, remaining guest rooms, and half the ballroom fell away with the rest of the straggling cliff pieces. Alice Carrigan, who was fond of cliff diving, went with that batch as well. She left a message making it clear that she would be back when she recovered her home from the sea’s greedy, green fingers and not a moment sooner. Her granddaughter, Araby Carrigan, thought that her grandmother could simply not bear to watch her library tumble into the ocean with the rest of her life, and so she made it watch her leave instead.
They dragged the corpse of Alice Carrigan from the deep, mint pools of shallow water near the rocks that marked the edge of Carrigan Cliff. Araby could see it all from where she stood in the half-destroyed ballroom, wind wrecking her scarlet hair and howling along the jagged marble edges of the fallen-away floor. She refused to look as they removed the body, but still she caught glimpses of the limp, white-clad form, dripping and dead and covered in stony sand. She’d never seen Alice Carrigan look so frail or so free.

The beginning of my new short story, still under editing.


Standing in the Window at Day Change

fall away ashes
on the ground, in the light
pieces of sun and bone and broken
on my face, the skin of my arms
delving between the shallow shadows
it hurts harder than the depths
of drowning in the dark under my breath
consistent in the window
the world smiles through
the silhouettes that mark my vision
and my visage and my broken
wind under the lashes of my eyes
I weep dry tears
my face a dusty field
of ashes

Up North I Was

up north there were a thousand
on a city of white
snow and snowing
in many different words
all crisp on the breaking ice
break even with the path and the odds
but here there are shadows of two
under the storm clouds reaching
dancing on the sea
and boats swim in the thorny waters
that kiss innocently the bows in the rain
running gray and white
foggy sun set still on two horizons
where up north there was a single
compass point
monochromatic symbols under a bridge
and licking the wakes
that walk deep in the water
with their stories of glories in the dangerous
white surf mountains
white is the color of fear on the water
but it is another hue of gray
on the alter
in the storm laughing
overhead the sky


My Latest Short Stories

http://figment.com/books/323305-The-Seven-Swans (Contest winner!!)

The Golden Maid

she gave up the years that passed her south
a useless void, a sucking mouth
eight twice and on the chin a kiss
so far a dazzling dizzy miss
pressed on a dance in twelve inch heels
stop twice the weighted man he feels
the next year out, her short a foot
a golden maid, footprints of soot
sing diddle the fat hen and golden egg
she lost her wits and thrice did beg
ashes and dust her skin flakes fell
another hill, a mountain swell
by the road she left them lie
a fire on the wind to die
sifting soft the half past still
she walked one pace and one pace killed
a memory gift for a broken king
her empty past was just the thing
a crown at sea, a storm-tossed man
she’d seen the world in just his hand
and though he loved, she loved not back
he had for shining things a knack
a lovely voice, a kissing mouth
she watched the sea as he sailed south
twice tripped each night coming bright
sun song is basking in the light 
cross the lines that make her face
sixteen years she’s won the race 
but peasants have no use for trifles
down the throat the gullet stifles
venom comes in pretty bottles
lovely braids as soon as throttle 
she spent her days coin for the fair
a laughing maiden with golden hair
too young to see between the stars
sixteen years and come too far
she gave up the tales that drew her north
an armored prince, a prancing horse
six and ten and tear tracked well
so far it’s rather hard to tell


The Jellowby Sound

sloughenly drip the jellowby sound
this is the ups and gargle growl pie plate
no sallow out mouthed drooling jaw
pinched bottle board breaking slobber
dog of a drunk on tilt toothed word vomit
yes, belch the ugly sober ego and
bruise brushed diaphragm
on bare beached faun eyes and gentle foes
these are the strings running up
toeing of far grown graces
the snarls slipping down
a chewed tie and snaggled bells
jumble traumatic beauty in the
momentary ire of bleach fanged snippy
nipping nil patty and tea bubbles
waves broken solid on muzzle fit doors
to form the yellow beast green
which downs the crier gullet and



Polaris laughed. Caught up in a filmy web, racing through the inky black, the sound burst from her for the first time in centuries. The chime of star laughter is a sound not often heard by human ears; stars are old creatures, their laughter taken ill by decades of monotonous mortal disease. But now Polaris was shaking, rolling over and over in the abyss of space, chuckling and screaming, a shooting flame through the sky.

The thing that held her was a Space Net 1130™, the favorite choice of space pirate poachers, spider threads of silver splayed wide across the night to capture unsuspecting star-things in its wake, a splash of milky dust trailing behind the space pirate’s ship as it went.

Most of the stars had screamed fearfully as the Net approached, shrill pitches cut short by the sudden notion that they might hide from the approaching fearful beast. It is not in a star’s nature to hide. After all, the thing that they do for so many years on end is to shine forth through obscurity. Polaris knew nothing more than being seen, and so she did not hide quite well enough, did not wink out quickly enough. She thought she saw Betelgeuse cut a lazy side step through the chaotic night which was awhirl with the movements of a hundred stars like fireflies down on earth in the summer. She thought she saw Sirius open up his sunny arms and greet the challenge with a reckless grin.

Time stretching on had rendered her old and tired. Every mortal year that passed drew colder her shell, her colors setting like the sun into chilly red and orange. Inside, her heart burned white hot, a painful reminder of youth since passed, of hope endlessly unrequited. So perhaps she had allowed the space pirate to catch her, or maybe her way had been so set as to allow her no change in luminosity. On either hand there lay a captured star.

“I’m flying,” Polaris murmured, her voice breathy like a child’s. Though her back was pressed hard against the unbreakable pearlescent web, and the strands cut into her tough skin leaving angry welts of blue, she saw only the endless heavens before her.

This is what falling feels like, she thought. Polaris had always wondered. With each of her fellows that fell, her curiosity grew. But she was steady and she was true and she had never wavered from her post in the night sky. She had yearned though. As ancient as she had grown, she yearned to know what freedom felt like. Being stalwart and strong is all well and good, but Polaris had never had the opportunity to fly free, to chase the heavens to their end. In her core, she was the child who reaches her hand threw bars. Though it horrified her to think it, Polaris wanted nothing more than to know the brilliant agony of burning out in an arch of wishing flame.

Glancing quickly at her silver cage, Polaris sighed. She was not truly free. Stretching as wide as she could go, she felt suddenly so small.

“Watch it,” she snapped, a wonderfully childish heat of anger filling her as Sirius slammed one long leg into her side. He’d been flailing wildly with the motion of flight, a sort of chaotic dance through the darkness.

“Sorry.” While his expression read sheepishness, his eyes held only mischief. There had been a time when Polaris had fancied herself in love with Sirius and his constant, barking laugh, but that time had passed with Polaris’ belief in childhood things, stored away in her private center to melt with the rest of her dreams. It is a little known fact that stars dream; they have little else to do up there in the silent sky.

Now she felt all of those dreams, so carefully bottled, rushing through her veins in a sudden current. Sirius watched her colors grow flushed, his barking laughter joining her chiming chuckles. All of the young stars drew away from the two of them, growing bluer and bluer in the sea of night.

“Are you scared, Pol?” Sirius was, for once, without laughter. Humor was never far from his black eyes, as deep as the night itself.

“No,” she answered, and it was true. Polaris was excited, enchanted with the sudden unexpected adventure. If Sirius was surprised, he didn’t show it. With a shrug, he found some younger stars to wheedle. Polaris watched him and knew that he was not any more frightened than she. They had had many years to get to know one another, and she doubted that his comment was anything more than a hopeful attempt to find an excuse to fling his warmth around her chilled shoulders.

But Polaris was not so cold anymore. For a few moments, she amused herself by imagining the human chaos at her disappearance. How much trouble these particular pirates will be in, she mused, a ghostly smile carving her face.

“It’s been a long time since I saw you smile, Pol.”

“It’s been a long time since you payed attention, Sirius.” He frowned, and the delicious warmth grew within Polaris. She felt like a youth again, playing mean, masking games with the boy stars.

“I was always paying attention, Polaris.” Sirius’ eyes were burning into hers. Polaris wondered, not for the first time, how he had maintained such a happy spirit for so long. Now, however, she found herself infected with the same spirit, the champagne-like bubbly place within her burning through her veins in a sudden current.

Throwing back her head, Polaris laughed. Sirius watched her with gleaming eyes. There had been a time when he had called her the most beautiful star in the sky. That was before she had learned not to believe it.

Polaris was drowning in rebirth, fire sweeping her all over and over again. The Net progressed through the sky, unaware of the joyous star it held within. None of the younger stars had ever seen anyone so bright, so beautiful. They wondered where she had come from, for the Polaris who had entered the Net was not the same as the one they now knew.

Sirius laughed with her. It had once been his dearest wish to shine white hot with tendrils of laughter alongside Polaris. The Net bumped through a meteor field, slamming the two manic beings together. Polaris’ breath left her in a woosh. She slammed against Sirius’ cold, hard heat. Their flames mixed, twinkling brightly in the mess of silver light, a golden heart in the chaos.

For a moment, they were still and silent. Polaris felt younger than she had felt when she was born, a collection of universal matter. She felt younger than she had when Sirius had first ignited her night, younger than when she had danced with Andromeda in the inky spring, or flirted with Scorpio from afar.

Her stellar core was glowing. In a thousand years, she had not felt this warm and alive. Perhaps somewhere along the ride, Polaris realized what would happen next. Perhaps it was when Sirius took her hand with the same whoop of laughter that had proceeded all his childhood adventures. Lying side by side on the shining Net, they stared at the free floating things in the heavens, dark matter and suspended celestial beings. Their smiles were near identical, though there had been a time when Polaris had been unable to fathom smiling as brightly as Sirius. In the last second, Polaris tried to wriggle free, but Sirius drew their joined fists tight over his sparking heart.

And then, in a blink, a wink of stardust, after thousands of years of waiting, Polaris went supernova, dragging Sirius with her by the hand into wonderfully agonizing freedom.


It hurts

People destroy themselves.
And it hurts.
People destroy their happiness.
And it hurts.
People destroy each other.
And it hurts.
And I watch them burn.
And it hurts.
And I burn with them.
And it hurts.

The Coffin Maker: Part 5

The End

The huntsman did not know how his son would transfigure the doe back into his lady, nor how the knight would wed a queen, but it was not his place to interfere further in the son’s story. With a musing smile, he allowed contentment to flood him. Juliet and he had raised brave children, though he had never thought himself to be much of a brave man. Juliet had certainly had a warrior’s spirit. An image of his wife dancing with a golden sword in the light of the sunset, her small son watching with wide eyes, entered his mind. His smile grew wider, a private kind of joy growing within him.

Alone, he traversed the forest to find the solitary cottage that stood unchanged for all that took place around it. He paused only briefly at the grave of his wife. He did not like to linger as he knew her spirit did not.This was one of the many things that he would have like to attribute to the wisdom of age, though he suspected it was the wisdom of his children that had caused his newfound acceptance.

The huntsman went back to his quiet days, wondering how long his existence would stretch on, though without the bitterness he had once known. Beard gone white with time’s passing, the chilled nights irritated his bones more greatly now than ever. He felt as if there should be creaking sounds made when he walked, observing it all with the good humor that Juliet had taught him long ago.

The roses she had planted outside the cottage had wilted in her absence and the absence of their daughter, but the house was still beautiful and he felt no desire to leave it. Travelers were scarcer now, but a few had come to coax him back to the city. With the same words he had given his daughter, he refused them all.

Autumn painted the woods in a raucous masterpiece that the artist hidden within the old man envied. Blowing like jewels through the sky, leaves left their sturdy homes on journeys far and wide, though all the while they were dying.

And as the nights lengthened, one in particular presented the huntsman with a surprising gift. A knock on the cottage door roused him from an oddly contented sleep where he had dreamed of Juliet as he had done every night since he was a youth with splinters in his hands.

With long, aching steps, the huntsman crossed the room to open the wooden door. Its hinges creaked just as surely as his joints, but he ignored the sound. In the darkness outside, he could barely make out seven weary-looking wanderers. He ignored them as well, leaving the door open as he turned to start a flame in the hearth.

When spark caught, he stood, turning on his heel to face the guests. They were all men with thick beards and all were at least a head shorter than he. Eyebrows rising, he surveyed the group.

“How may I be of service to you tonight?” he inquired, finding his mood strangely improved over the usual.

“You are the coffin maker,” the eldest spoke up. A quiver in his voice told the huntsman of freshly shed tears.

“I was...once. I am no longer.”

“And you could be again. We heard tale of design you once made.” This was spoken gruffly from some shadowed figure in the back.

“A--A coffin...of--of sorts,” a small figure shivered. The huntsman bowed him closer to the fire along with his companion who seemed afflicted with some early winter sickness.

“You have come far?” the huntsman inquired, dodging the statement as he observed the chilled group.

“Not too far,” the first man spoke again. “We are here to implore you to build us the coffin of legend.”

“I am sorry but I must refuse you. No--” He held up a large hand to ward off the quickly offered bag of gold. “I can’t take your money. You see, even if I wished it, my hands are no longer young enough to craft such a thing.”

“But, sir, it is for a good cause.” The huntsman sat, allowing his head to fall tiredly into his palms. A part of him was aching to accept the task, to allow himself to build the masterpiece that he had so long ago set aside.

“Tell me your story,” he said. Settling around him, the men began to speak.

They wove a tale of a lost princess, the fairest of them all, of treachery and poison.

“She is still beautiful in death, sir. I don’t know if you can understand this--”

“I know.” He closed his eyes on the pristine memory that floated now before them.

“Of course he knows, dolt,” the angry man spoke gruffly to the youngest man who had been telling that part of the tale. “Do you think he would draw such a creation if he had not known beauty such as we have?” The younger man shrugged and shut his mouth, staring dedicatedly into the fire. Another man spoke up then.

“Just tell us, please, if you truly made such a thing. We do not even know if the rumor is real.” The huntsman rose then, from his well-worn chair. Stepping carefully through the men sitting all around on the floor, he withdrew from a trunk (which he himself had carved with roses and vines and all the things Juliet had loved) a box. Feeling sickeningly like the sorceress who had caused so much destruction, he pulled from the box, not a dagger, but at scroll.

Two of the men dragged the kitchen table, which had taken part in so many stories, into the light of the flames. Tenderly, with careful fingers, the coffin maker smoothed the parchment flat for all to see. He heard their gasps as if from far away. The sight of his creation made him young again, in that moment, and fervor began to set his blood boiling.

“You have the drawing. You are the only one who could make such a thing, even now.”

“Even if I could, which I don’t think I can, I--” He did not want to explain his story, did not wish to talk to these strangers about his wife. But he knew that the girl these men cried for was the girl he had been sent to kill and he felt a strange mixture of guilt and rage when he thought of it.

“We know that the favor we ask is not a small one.”

“We w-would not ha-have come if--We are quite distraught, sir.”

“You owe us nothing, it is true. But, sir, how could such beauty be laid in the ground?”

He thought of the beautiful child, of the fear written on her innocent face. He thought of the sorceress who had finally destroyed her, and he realized that laying such beauty in the ground would be exactly what the woman wished. Finally, he thought of Juliet, of looking on her sleeping face and watching it come to life.

His shoulders lumped, his fingers working intricate patterns over the design. FInally, sage eyes rose to meet the nearest gazes.

“I will try,” he promised. And so it was done.

Though his hands were slower now, and his back far weaker, the coffin maker found that his body remembered the rhythm of the work. Perhaps the years had taken many things from him, but they had not been entirely cruel, and he remained an artist still.

It took much time. Winter frost began to cling to the trees and ground and the coffin maker’s eyelashes, but he finished the coffin before the first great snow. And then he brought it to the young woman.

He met them in the blossoming glade, though it was naked and empty in winter’s wake. They surveyed his work with awe, and he was not too modest to admit that he had missed the glow of such praise.

Then, from behind, the men bore forth the body. She lay limply in their arms, like water or mist. He helped them lie her in the bed, helped them close the many glass parts that formed petal-like shapes which encased her. He gazed through the glass and thought that, though she was not the fairest woman he had ever known, she deserved the gift he had given her.

“I have known many corpses in my lifetime,” the coffin maker said. “But I have only known one other as vivacious as she.” The men were crying, heads bowed and backs taught with grief. The coffin maker knew enough to see the purity in their despair; they loved her truly. “That woman woke, due to the love I bore her, for I can see no other cause. And perhaps your princess will be granted the same chance.” The eldest and youngest men smiled at him through dewey masks.

“You are kind, coffin maker, but we all know here that your relationship with death is far kinder than ours. We will not hope for such a gift.” Inclining his head, he granted them their solitude, for the last time exiting the glade where the trees bloomed with pink flowers.

For the last time, the coffin maker crossed the threshold of the ivy-covered cottage. For the last time, he sharpened his axe and stoked the fire. Quietly, he finished the last toy soldier, put the finishing flourishes on the crib he had built. And then, for the last time, he exited the cottage to kneel in front of Juliet’s grave.

The winter swept the forest which was no longer emerald. Somewhere in its midst, a princess slept with her own story’s end on pause, but in the clearing where the sturdy cottage stood, a legend was laid to rest. The coffin maker embraced death, his old friend, finally forgiving him his follies.

The children knew, of course, they felt it in their well-trained hearts, and they came to bury him in his crystalline coffin where he could sleep beside his Juliet underneath a blanket of snow. When the knight married, his wife revived the roses which had struggled through the snow, and they bloomed a blanket over the sleeping couple so that they would remain untouched by both love and war, forgotten finally by short memories, in the forest where stories were born.


The Coffin Maker: Part 4

One summer, the trees in the wood sprouted leaves a lovely shade of green, translucent, fragile things that filtered the life in gentle shades. The old man sat on deep green moss in the shade near his home, eyes closed and listening to the song of a nearby bird and his mate.

Then foreign sounds entered the forest, an approaching rider silenced the animals. Nature held its breath in waiting. The old man hardly knew what sort of person could seek him now, for he had hardly anything left to offer.

Slowly, a chestnut horse appeared in the clearing, blinking brightly in the sunlight. It shook its head importantly, but its rider was the only thing the old man saw. It was his daughter, grown into a young woman who looked like a portrait of her mother. Slipping from the saddle, she smiled at him. A rose flower tucked heavy curls behind her right ear, and a fine gown scraped the blades of grass below.

“Hello, father,” she said, blinking back the moisture that had begun to gather in her eyes.

“Hello, daughter.” Then she was racing forward, and he was forcing himself from the forest floor, and she was in his arms, smelling of roses. He laughed for the first time in years; his daughter had come home.

“I saw you,” she said as they sat with tea inside the cottage that had not changed almost at all since she had left it. “Don’t ask me how, but I knew--I saw you in such pain, and I couldn’t leave you any longer.” Wide eyes begged for understanding. The father covered her small hand with his own.

“I’ve missed you. But tell me of your adventures.” It was as if he had unleashed a flood. The daughter was all too willing to tell of her grand story but, from it all, he remembered only the end, the part where she fell in love. The emotion shining in her eyes was almost too much for him to bear. He felt a pride and joy in the region of his chest that had been absent for far too long.

The father had not even realized that such a thing could be repaired. In that moment, he stopped imagining Juliet’s empty, still face, and began to picture the way her mouth and eyes would have looked at the news of their daughter’s happiness.

“If only your brother could find such happiness,” he told her as she ascended to her saddle once more the next evening. The daughter was in quite a hurry, as she had left someone rather important waiting for her. The father she left behind was far different than the one she had greeted, and her heart felt lighter for it.

“You could come with me,” she begged, not for the first time. Sadly, the father shook his head, stirring dust motes in the rays of sunshine seeping through the canopy of the forest.

“I won’t leave her.” It was the answer he had already given her many times. The daughter nodded, for she finally understood why. The father stood tall for the first time in many years; never again would he allow himself to bow so low to the pressure of life. He watched his only daughter return to her love and he was glad.

Though the father’s hands were old and tired, he often forced himself to cut wood to use in the fire, though it would never again be so roaring and well-stocked as it had once been, and he often woke to find it had burned itself out. The wood cutter sometimes whittled little things in the wood with the thought that he might one day send them to his grandchildren; soldiers and unicorns, boats and castles, things that they might play with and remember him.

Now one day, his other child returned to him, though in a manner far less stately than his sister. The son returned to the ivy-covered cottage in the woods in a whirlwind of hooves and cloak and chain mail and sword. His golden hair was in a beautiful disarray like a sun burst. The father had the thought, as he looked at the young knight, that he could not fathom how he had raised a child to go to war. Like thunder, the son leapt from his mount.

“Father,” he cried, and it was then the wood cutter knew that his son had not come home for a simple visit.

“You need my help, Sir Son.”

“Always,” the son answered with a boy-like smirk.

“What makes you think I can help you?” The wood cutter’s skin was suddenly riddled with bumps, the ghostly memory of another such encounter assaulting him with chills.

“Father, she is my love, and I know no other who would understand.” Breath catching in his throat, the father surveyed the son’s desperate face, the wrinkles that had begun to form already in his brow. The son was the same age the coffin maker had been when he first laid eyes on Juliet.

“Of course.”

As they sat at the same table where father and daughter had discussed grand adventures, the wood cutter watched the son become a knight before his eyes. The knight had much success and much despair to share with his father, but he cut quickly to the tale.

“She had been transfigured, father.”

“A sorceress then, son?” The knight nodded in sadness and angry impotence, his hands forming fists on the table top.

“Into a doe.” Muscles tensed in the wood cutter’s back as he remembered the crime he had committed against a similar creature, once upon a time. “We must find her.” The knight’s voice held a note of despair.

Silently, the father swore that death would not win this battle. He let the silent promise ring to the sky as he promised his child that he would help him find his doe.

The Father

Shortly after, the huntsman left the cottage with the knight at his side. The sky did its best to cloak them in darkness, but the huntsman remembered the ways of the woods. Though his eyes were old now, his mind was not. Blood pumping with challenge, the huntsman tracked his son’s love.

Time was essential, every moment increasing the chance that the doe would be lost forever. The knight’s palms sweat and his empty chest rang hollowly with phantom beats, faster and faster with every moment.

The forest seemed cold and dark as the hunted, but the huntsman was legendary and the son had faith as only children can have in their parents. Eventually, they came upon a lake that was clear and pearly beneath the moonlight. Both men felt a peace steal over them as they observed it.

And as they stood at the water’s edge, a creature emerged from the sheltering trees. On fragile legs, a velvety doe tiptoed toward the water and lowered her graceful head to drink from its depths. The knight’s heart flew back to his chest and he gasped at the impact, his eyes full of the sight.

To the huntsman, the deer looked just like any other, but he was not surprised that the knight recognized her as his love. The knight raced along the lake’s edge and the doe did not scamper as deer generally do.

The father saw, in the smooth liquid surface, the reflection of a tall and pretty woman with dazzling brown eyes and mahogany braid. She smiled at the knight as he approached with a sad sort love. Reaching out a shaking palm, the knight lay his hand on the doe’s tender snout. In the water, the knight embraced his queen.


The Coffin Maker: Part 3

The Wood Cutter

Their life was glorious, golden and fragile like sunshine. Those days went by faster and faster, spinning top-like on the wind. The huntsman, in his previous life, had spent much time with death, but still he began to find his new occupation too cruel and, now that his skill had grown great enough to attract attention, when two children had been born to Juliet and him, he decided to take up work as a wood cutter instead.

The children of the wood cutter and his wife looked exactly like their mother. They were a boy and a girl of only a few years’ difference. The wood cutter and his wife doted on them, and always Juliet could be found leaping about in the yard with their son, teaching him to brandish the wooden sword that the wood cutter had made for him, or else kneeling in the garden with their small daughter, their pale arms caked with dirt. The wood cutter had, for his children, become an inventor. He built for them a castle, high in the trees. For his son, he built a wooden puppet, but the son traded it to a wandering carnival caravan. The boy cried with guilt when he saw his father’s face that day. The wood cutter was far to happy to have found the wandering child to care much for the toy, but children find much grief in the smallest things.

Often, the wood cutter would take the children with him into the forest as he worked to give their mother a few moments rest. Juliet’s beauty had softened with age. Where she had been stunning, her beauty now was the kind to grow slowly in one’s eyes, until one could do no less than stand enraptured by it. Her jovial nature had only ripened with wisdom. Their life was glorious, golden and fragile like sunshine. Those days went by far faster than any of them noticed.

So the day of her death was hung with shadow. The sky sat a blank gray without promise and the trees shivered nakedly in the wind. The wood cutter took his small children with him into the woods, the girl cradled in his right arm, an axe in the left hand, the boy riding high on his shoulders. He felt a giant among men.

Laughing at some childish statement, the three of them turned to wave to Juliet who stood bathed in cool, fading light, a smile perpetually frozen on her face. Everything else was hues of gray; pale roof, charcoal trees, ashy sky, deep gray smoke from the still burning fire coming out of the shadowy chimney. But Juliet, she was bathed in every scrap of light, seeming to capture it and turn it about like a prism.

As they entered the woods, the wood cutter left his heart with her, as he had done every day of every year passed.

A scream split the silence of the sleeping woods, and the wood cutter knew fear for the first time in his life.

“Stay here,” he told is children, giving them the lunch Juliet had packed for them. “I’ll be back as quick as I can.” He could not risk bringing them into danger.

“Father,” they cried. “What’s happened?”

“I’m sure it’s nothing. Everything’s okay. Just stay here. I’ll be back in no time.”

He ran--of course he did---but he still did not reach the house in time. His beautiful Juliet lay dead on the floor of their home. Her heart lay on a silver platter beside her. Gathering her close, the wood cutter gave in to his grief. Such was his pain in its purity, so silent and deep, that death, his old companion, felt for the first time, guilt. And some deep magic drew forth from the earth a mass of amethyst and topaz, obsidian and diamond which were given up as an offering of peace.

The wood cutter ran again, to the spot where he had left his children. But some part of him knew already they were gone. The sorceress was sworn to take from him all he loved, and so he could not expect any small mercy.

His grief that had before been boundless now folded in on itself, consuming all that he was inside. With his grief, the coffin maker made a resting place for his wife, mincing raw his hands on the jagged crystals gifted to him, for with her mangled heart, Juliet would no longer like a glass coffin. And he made a coffin for himself as well, as he doubted how long a man could continue on without his heart.

He buried her in her gemstone bed, satisfied that the earth itself had pledged to protect her. As night breached the horizon, the crystalline grave glowed with light that seemed dim in comparison to the beauty it housed. His eyes would never be able to comprehend the final sight of his love, and so he tore them from the sight.

The wood cutter set out to find his children. Juliet’s life with him may have been a stolen gift, but his children were subject to no such rule. He would have them back.

Now the children had inherited every bit of their father’s brilliance, and they had left him a trail from their lunch. He followed it with a savage intensity. Never had he been a man given to overt emotions, but in a short space of time he had become their slave. He was grief. He was pain. He was fear and anger and desperation. He was guilt.

When he found them, they cried, all three of them together, for the children knew instinctively the hard truth he had to tell them. They told him they had killed a sorceress, and he hoped they would take a sort of poetic justice from that, though theirs was not the same witch who had taken Juliet from them.

Again time passed in the forest, the children grew older and so did he. He was hardly half a man, but he could not bear to leave his children again, and death was no longer a friend of his, so he struggled on with a gaping wound in his chest.

He even added a new story to his legend when he saved a young maiden from a hungry wolf, though all that stuck in his mind was the crimson of her cape, stark red against the snowy wood. The tale hardly savored when he returned to a cottage where Juliet did not wait for him to share with. He ate dinner with his children who, though thoroughly impressed, could not stomach the gorier details. The wood cutter thought that death had given him an easy win anyway, but still he could not forgive his old companion.

With time, his children left him, both having an abnormal desire for adventure. His daughter went off to some enchanted palace in a distant and isolated land, and he rejoiced that she was free from sullying wars. His son hunted a knightly title with enough determination to earn it and spent his days slave to the love of a queen who he would never have.

Eventually, the wood cutter was hardly able to cut wood any longer, so frail had time wrought him, and so the fire in the hearth was mere embers more often than not. The nights were long and empty, and rarely did he have any cause to remember one day more than another.

His hands became stiff and painful, fingers aching with cold that seemed to seep from everywhere and cling to his very bone. There were many days in those emerald woods where he despaired of ever finding any semblance of peace.

In some moments, he even cursed his young and beautiful wife for leaving behind such an emptiness in his chest, for giving him a glimpse at joy and then taking it so suddenly. But immediately after those moments, he would be given over to ugly sobs of torment and guilt and his shudders would rock him to sleep.


The Coffin Maker: Part 2

The Huntsman

They were married in a glade where the trees bloomed a sleepy pink and dropped their blossoms to make a soft carpet of the forest floor. There was no one to bear witness but the trees and the birds and the sky.

And they lay on the soft carpet of petals together, hands clutched tightly.

“What if all of these petals were wishes and the trees were wishing trees?” Juliet said sleepily. The huntsman wrinkled his nose on a laugh, the way he’d picked up from Juliet.

“And what if for every promise we made and kept to one another, here in this place, a wish came true?” he played along.

“Then I would promise to love you always.”

“And I would promise to build you a strong house.”

“I would swear that our home would always be warm.”

“That I will dance with you every night that it snows.”

“That I will teach you to ride a horse.”

“That I will love you always.”

“That I will grow strong roses for our sturdy home.”

And on they went, laughing until their sides ached. It was a tender moment, unlike anything the huntsman had ever known. And he wished that it could be this way always, though such wishes are hard to find granted.

The huntsman loved Juliet with his whole heart and further then, and she loved him just as fully in return. It wasn’t strange in their country for two wandering souls to find each other so fully, but it was a little more scarce in the capitol.

The retired into the warm emerald arms of the forest where they built a house with the riches of his former fame, and he promised that the next coffins he built would be their own, when they were old and gray and tired, ready to trade this life for deep contented sleep.

Juliet was full of laughter and she made everything into a jest, so it was hard for him to draw a serious answer from her. He never fully uncovered her tale, and she was quite convinced that everything before they had come together could be easily forgotten. Perhaps she was right, but either way many years passed in contented solitude.

With a wisdom seemingly endless, she planted roses and taught him to ride horses and all manner of things that he couldn’t fathom how she had learned. They danced slow circles on the fresh fallen snow of winter and retired into their warm home where he had begun to build her a table that would last far longer than they.

Every so often, a seemingly lost soul would come knocking on the door of their small cabin. Juliet would graciously welcome them inside to sit beside the warmth of their ever-burning fire. She seemed to dazzle in those days, glittering with happiness. The traveler would imminently be given over to desire of her, or if the traveler was a woman, they would wander from the house’s warmth to the shed behind the cottage where they were sure to find the huntsman. Just as surely, he would be immersed in work, for nothing else could drag him from his Juliet’s side.

The traveler would find him sharpening some instrument. He had, under Juliet’s tender spirit, become a good natured and jovial man. She had smoothed away his rough edges, an artistry of her own, and left only the best behind. No female traveler could help but want him. And none could miss their love for each other.

Now often, these lost travelers were not lost at all. The huntsman had a way of becoming the best at everything he did, and along with tales of Juliet’s beauty and kindness, rumors of his talents spread. So it happened that often the lost travelers come to their small, ivy-covered cottage in the woods were really rather determined, travelers on rather specific quests.

Many knew him from his days in the capitol and came to beg for a coffin to be made. There were many sad and tragic stories, but always he refused them.

“I am not a coffin maker any longer,” he would say, gently steering them toward the door, Juliet watching with a frown. As the traveler reached the threshold, he would lean close and murmur the name of the next greatest coffin maker he had ever known, a tall and handsome woman whose father was a blacksmith in the capitol of another land, and then the questing traveler would be gone.

Juliet would sigh, long locks tracking shadows over her porcelain features.

“I wish they could forget.” Smiling, the huntsman would draw her closer. She fit perfectly in his muscular arms now that they were both adults grown, childhood days left firmly behind. And he thought that his love for her that day in his coffin shop had been but a raindrop in the storm that now raged in his heart.

“People do not know how to forget those as strange as me,” he would answer, smoothing one large hand over her long curls, her head tucked beneath his chin.

“I love to hear your heart beat,” she would murmur, running her soft fingers over his sternum, almost absently.

“People cannot forget men who can walk alongside death.They do not see things as I do.”

“As we do. You forget that I too have slept beside death.” Placing a kiss atop her head, he would clutch her hand in his, forming a fist between their chests. The warmth of her body would melt the cold seeping into his fingers from his thoughts.

“I love to feel your heart beat,” he would murmur.

And in those long hours after the past came knocking, the would stand together beside the burning fire, determined to ignore the stain of darkness that death seemed determined to leave on their lives.

One such day it was raining, hard sheets like ice that slit the throat of the sky. Juliet sat reading by the fire that beat furiously against the gray sky. The huntsman sat beside her, sneaking peeks at her book simply because it annoyed her and, when she caught him, she would wrinkle her nose with a smile and turn her book away.

They sat this way, quite content, even as thunder made their home shudder. Their roof, however, did not leak. The huntsman had built it well. Absently, Juliet’s hand stroked her rounded stomach, and the huntsman hummed a lilting lullaby to the sleeping baby within.

A hush came over the storm, the hissing of steam in the fireplace was audible in the sudden silence. And the door to the cottage was flung open. Gaining his feet in an instant, the huntsman cut an imposing figure against the flames.

“Hello.” The voice was deep for a woman’s, velvety and far too sweet, like poison.

“What do you want?” Seeming to have forgotten all pretense of manners, the huntsman’s words were a growl. Juliet rose slowly to stand beside him, but he pulled her slightly behind him out of fear. He was not ready to build her coffin yet.

“You are the huntsman,” the woman purred, shutting the door behind her and dropping the hood of her cape. She was beautiful, but he had known she would be. Hair black but streaked with white and lips of blood red, she stalked forward with the grin of power.

“One of many.”

“The greatest.” Her brow rose with a knowing twist, her lips forming daggers with their words. The huntsman offered only an elegant shrug.

“He is.” Juliet spoke softly. The woman hardly afforded her a glance. It was then that the huntsman knew the woman’s weakness. She was threatened by beauty.

“I suppose I am then, if my wife says it is so. What have you come here to ask of me?” The woman pulled from within her cloak a long box, and from within the box, she pulled a dagger. Every fiber of the huntsman’s body was warning him to banish this woman from his home, to prevent her from saying anything further. There was no doubt that she was royalty (he had made coffins for enough of them to know), just as there was no doubt she was a sorceress (though these were admittedly far more rare). Neither of these suspicions gave him great confidence in her motives.

“There is a maiden,” the woman began, hatred adding a harsh madness to her voice, “with hair of raven and lips red as the rose. It has been suggested that she will become the fairest in the land, though I’m sure yourself would disagree.” She cast a dismissive glance at Juliet who drew herself up in a fair show of bravery. “This maiden is a princess with skin white as snow. I’m sure you know who I speak of, for you are an intelligent and well-traveled man.” The huntsman and his wife knew exactly who the woman spoke of, though they were loathe to admit it.

“I would like you to...dispose of her.” As the fervor in her voice had risen, she had begun to pace forward, losing touch with her control. The huntsman held up his hands to ward her off, and it seemed to remind her of herself. Smoothing her gown and robes and hair, she settled back on her heels.

“Carve out her heart and bring it to me.” To their credit, neither Juliet nor the huntsman choked. Their expressions remained entirely neutral, though their own hearts beat far faster with every passing moment.The fire behind them burned brightly, casting their silhouettes in grotesque mockery on the walls.

“Why me?”

“You used to be death’s concierge, and now you are his weapon.”

“Why would I ever be expected to accept such a request?”

“I will pay you handsomely.” A flash of pearly teeth in the dark. “But of course you wouldn’t be interested in that. Hmmm...” She paced a small circle.

Rapidly, like a snake, the woman’s hand was flung forward and, beside the huntsman, Juliet fell to the ground.

“No!” The cry was torn from his throat, guttural and terrifying. He dropped to the ground beside her, gathering her limp form into his arms.

“Did you think she came to you by chance? Perhaps she did. But the life she lives is borrowed...or maybe your love is so great that it has been gifted to you. Either way, I assure you I can take it. I can take from you everything you will ever love.” As he felt the stillness of her pulse, tears cut opalescent lines down his cheeks and clung to the stubble on his jaw. His eyes were full of her quiet face, exactly the same as when he’d first met her, though now his heart held the anguish of love grown and lost, a plant reaped at its ripest.

“If I do this thing, she will live?” Breath entered his Juliet’s body even as he voiced the question.

He had no choice but to make the deal, his hand closing around the daggers hilt with finite cruelty. The woman had cut from him his strength, and it was all too simple to shrug back on the cloak that he had long ago borrowed from death.

Far away, he made the journey, to a field fair flushed with blossoms. He was not shocked to find the land beyond the forest again engaged in war, but the horrors he had witness along the roadside seemed to fall away when he entered the field. The scent of spring tickled his nose as he stalked forward, a shadow in utopia. The huntsman took pause at his first sight of the princess, for she was but a child. Though visions of Juliet’s trusting gaze filled his mind, he knew she had not wished him to do this thing, no matter the cost. She cared far more for the price to his soul, and all the while, the child shrank from him with frightened eyes like a deer.

The tale of the huntsman’s inability to take the fair maiden’s heart has become legend, and even he knew the doe’s heart he had sent instead would not prove a worthy ploy. But years passed by quickly in the woods, and Juliet lived alongside him in the bright sunshine without any sign of the woman’s fatal retribution.