Free Read: The Little One by Rebecca Fraser

It has been a little over five years since IFWG first signed a publishing agreement with Rebecca Fraser – in that first instance it was her magnificent middle grade fantasy adventure, Curtis Creed and the Lore of the Ocean. Since then we have published her in short fiction form in anthologies, and more recently, published a collection of her fiction, Coralesque and Other Tales to Disturb and Distract, and will be publishing next year the first instalment of her middle grade fantasy series, Jonty’s Unicorn.

To celebrate this long and fruitful relationship, we have taken one of Fraser’s long stories from her collection, ‘The Little One’, and provide it in full below. This will be up for several months. This is a great story and was shortlisted for the Australasian Shadows, Aurealis, and Ditmar Awards.

NOTE: This is adult reading.

The Little One is copyright Rebecca Fraser. This story is for individual reading only.


The Little One by Rebecca Fraser

1.

There are three things Sable remembers most about the day her elder sister, Carmine, was raped. The first is the thump-scrape sound the giant oak table made as it inched across the cold stone floor of the castle kitchen with every thrust of Prince Edrik’s hips.

The second is the smell of the large pantry she’d been replacing dried goods in: flour and barley and millet measured into clay urns from the large hessian sacks left by farmers on the scullery doorstep. The savoury scent of freshly baked bread still warm from the early morning bakers, the fragrant harmony of lavender, elderflower, and seasonal fruits and berries, all overlaid by the heady mix of spices from the Arab world. 

The third thing Sable remembers is the way Carmine’s eyes locked on hers. Her sister’s rabbit-grey irises darkening with shock and pain; the imperceptible shake of her head communicating a single silent word as loud as if she’d screamed it: hide.

And despite wanting to lunge from the shadows like a jungle cat, biting and clawing at Prince Edrik as he grunted and heaved, Sable was rendered immobile, mind and body frozen with fear and outrage at the violation of her only family. And so hide she did, sinking, shrinking between the sacks of grain, and the overspilling bins of apples and potatoes and turnips. From the shadows of the pantry Sable watched, her eyes never leaving her sister’s, believing if she tore them away as she wanted to, would be to abandon Carmine completely. The darkness glimmering in Carmine’s eyes seemed to grow and roil in Sable’s stomach and she stuffed a fist in her mouth to stop it erupting in a roar of fury.

When it was over, Prince Edrik adjusted his hose, smoothed down his doublet, cleared his throat—a guttural noise that reminded Sable of the swine at feeding time—and strode from the kitchen without a backward glance. 

Sable burst from the pantry and ran to her sister. Carmine pushed herself up from the table. She lowered her bunched-up skirts with shaking hands. 

“Well then,” Carmine said in a too high voice. “Well then. We have work to do, little one. Butter’s not going to churn itself, is it?” 

Sable flung her arms around her sister’s waist and buried her face into the cotton folds of her smock to absorb her tears. “Carmine. Oh, Carmine,” she whispered. “We will make him pay. I’ll tell Jackon and Bertha and—”

“You’ll tell no one.” This time Carmine’s voice was the dull thunk of a sledgehammer.

“But—”

“No one, you hear me?” Carmine seized Sable’s wrists and held her at arm’s length. “You will tell no one. You think anyone will believe the word of a scullery rat over the prince?”

“But if we told Jackon, he could—”

Carmine barked a laugh forged from bitterness. “The kitchen chief carries no weight. He’s naught more than head rat as far as their majesties are concerned.” Her grip tightened on Sable’s wrists.

“You’re hurting me.”

“Let it go, little one. Make no trouble. We need our jobs. What good would we be to each other if we couldn’t put bread on the table?”

“It’s not right.” Sable shook her head, eyes burn-bright with tears that spilled down her cheeks with the movement. She slapped them away. “He can’t get away with it. I won’t let—” 

Bertha’s cheerful whistling heralded the arrival of Nightwood Castle’s head dairy worker. 

“Morning, doves. It’s colder than a witch’s tit out there. Lawks, if there weren’t a swirl o’ snow in the air as I was coming in. Get those fires stoked, then we’ve got to get paddling. We need at least twenty blocks o’ table butter, and we’ll want forty—nay, fifty—pressed into moulds. The swan shape will do nicely for the Queen’s pleasure, I think. There’s two hundred an’ counting on the guest list for Prince Edrik’s wedding feast.”

Sable and Carmine exchanged a look. 

“I know the big day’s not ’til the Spring, but I’ll not let it be said that Bertha left things to the last minute. Details, my doves. Details. That’s what makes a wedding feast memorable.” She fished around in her apron pocket, pulled out a kerchief and tied back her ginger-curl hair, then bustled across to the large washbasin and began scrubbing her strong hands and forearms with a cracked knob of soap. “Come on, you two. Churns! Milk!”

When Bertha got no response from the girls, she turned from the basin. “I’ll not be telling you twice. What’s gotten into you both this…” She trailed off, studying Sable and Carmine’s faces with a shrewd eye. 

“Are ye not well? One of you looks paler than the moon, and you—” Bertha jabbed a plump finger at Sable, “-—you look like you’re ’bout to burst into flames.”

“I’m fine, Bertha,” Sable said. “Carmine’s not, though. She’s been—”

“Up all night,” Carmine chimed in. She gave Sable a pleading look. “I’ve been up all night with a horrid stomach affliction. Can’t keep anything down. It’s made me feel quite wan.”

“That must be why you’re all a-quiver and alabaster, then.” Bertha put a palm on Carmine’s forehead. “Lawks, you’re all damp, too. Back to bed with you. You’re no use to me today. Shoo. Shoo.” She flapped her arms at Carmine.

“I’ll do Carmine’s share,” Sable said. “I’m not ill, just a little warm from working in the dry store.”

“Very good then, little one,” Bertha said. “While the Lord didn’t grant ye height, he did grant ye strength, so he did.” She crossed to the large oak table in the centre of the kitchen where Carmine had been defiled, and began laying out bowls and moulds. 

“Off you go.” Sable took Carmine’s hand in her hers and kissed it, fresh tears pricking her eyes. 

Carmine bent to hug her. “You must promise me you won’t tell anyone,” she whispered in Sable’s ear. “It would hurt me far more than the prince ever could if I were unable to care for you. If you love me, promise me.”

“I promise,” Sable hissed through clenched teeth. The darkness in her belly lurched and growled. 

“Not anyone. Especially not Lizbette.”

And so when sweet Lizbette entered the kitchen later that morning, a smear of blood on one freckled cheek, a half dozen freshly-plucked chickens bouncing upside down on her hip, and a sprig of wildflowers as a gift for Carmine, Sable kept her promise. 

“Oh, I do hope it’s nothing too serious, little one,” Lizbette said, her forehead creasing with a lover’s concern. “This winter has been particularly cruel.”

Cruel. A fitting word. It burned behind Sable’s eyes, alongside an image of Prince Edrick’s face. She smacked and slapped the butter into shape with heavy wooden paddles.

2.

As weeks went by, winter shrugged off its dark, heavy cloak to make way for the budburst of spring. The Kingdom rejoiced in the warmer days and shorter nights, bolstered by the excitement of the impending royal nuptials. People were agog with gossip—from behind the castle walls to the most insalubrious of inns, to the furthest hamlets. Speculation abounded about everything from what flowers might be used, to how many horses would draw the carriage, and whether Lady Alasun’s bloodlines—and hips—leant favourably to a healthy succession of heirs. Rumours circulated about which nobility would be on the guest list, and what dishes they could expect to grace the table at the wedding feast. And of course, in the kitchens of Nightwood Castle, the pressure was on.

~~~

“It’s barely dawn,” Carmine grumbled as Sable shook her awake. The ember glow from a dying fire in the grate cast long shadows across their tiny two-room cabin on the outskirts of the Terrenwild Woods.

“Sun’ll be up soon.” Sable stirred the coals in the grate with a poker. “If we’re late again, Jackon will be sure to dock our pay. That’s all we need with you so poorly of late.”

As if on cue, Carmine moaned and rolled from under Lizbette’s arm. She stumbled to the door, threw it open, and retched into the dying night. The thin light of early dawn probed the Terrenwild Woods, revealing the dark outline of trees. Their spindly branches moving in the breeze were the arms of capering skeletons against the morning pale.

“I’m fetching the Wise Woman,” Lizbette said. She was fully awake now. She led Carmine back into the house, sat her at the table, and rubbed her back in comforting, concerned circles. “You’ve been sick like this for weeks. She will have some herbs or such to help.”

“We can’t afford to pay the Wise Woman,” Carmine said. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “It’ll pass. It always seems to.”

“I think the Wise Woman is an excellent idea.” Sable poured a cup of water from a pitcher and placed it in front of Carmine. “We will find the money.”

“Work first.” Carmine drank down the water, splashed more on her face from the pitcher, and pulled on her work smock.

When the three girls left for work they were careful to leave separately. Carmine and Sable left first, walking down the long, winding path that led to Nightwood Castle. Lizbette waited a full fifteen minutes before ducking into the cover of the woods to emerge a half mile to the right of Nightwood and follow a different path to the Castle’s butchery. While their cabin was isolated—a legacy left by the woodchoppers who’d abandoned it amid talk of unholy creatures that roamed the woods—it was best to exercise caution where forbidden love was concerned.

3.

The kitchens seethed and swelled with an energy borne from excitement and pressure. Carefully laid preparations for the wedding feast were coming together on the back of weeks of collective toil from everyone in the kitchen brigade, from the lowliest scullery maid to the head carver. 

“Over here, little one.” And Sable would dash to the waferer’s bench to help fill the heavy waffle irons with batter and lower them into the fire.

“Where’s the little one?” The confectioner’s voice boomed above the throng. Sable helped fashion sugar into sculptures for table decorations, licking her fingers clean of the expensive white granules whenever the confectioner wasn’t looking. 

“Mind that flame, little one,” the baker warned as he removed a Stargazing Pie from the oven with a long flat oar. Pilchards’ heads poked through slits made in the pastry, steam coiling around their dead black eyes.

“Quickly, little dove.” That was Bertha. “Give your sister a hand with those pails. The buttermilk needs separating. Lawks a-mercy, six weeks out an’ we still need to think about custard, and possets, and cream for the soup, and…”

“Sable, help me with these rabbits,” Lizette’s soft voice instructing Sable how to make a slit above the knee on the back of each of the rabbits’ legs before working her middle fingers into the slits and pulling the skin towards the rabbit’s back.

Every so often, a hush would fall over the staff as Queen Eider strode into the kitchen, all sweeping robes and bejewelled hair, to inspect the preparations and make her final selections from the carefully curated dishes. Jackon fawned at her side, beads of sweat gathering on his brow as the queen moved from benchtop to benchtop, weighing an apricot in her hand, sampling the sweet curd of a tart, or trialling a sliver of pheasant pate. 

The kitchen staff lined up, eyes to the floor and breath held, as Queen Eider did her rounds. Occasionally, Prince Edrick would accompany his mother to the kitchen, his nose crinkled in distaste at the work-rough environment. He displayed only a passing interest in the food, and even less interest in the kitchen staff. Except for Carmine. His eyes would seek her out like a falcon on a pigeon, darting up and down the line until they found her. Carmine kept her head down, but at the other end of the line Sable saw the salacious lick of Prince Edrick’s lips as his eyes swarmed all over her sister. The dark thing in her belly shifted and rumbled.

4.

As it turned out, the Wise Woman was attending to a call from a neighbouring village, and it was some three weeks before she was able to visit the little cabin at the edge of the woods. But by then, there was no disputing what was making Carmine unwell of a morning. The sudden pop and curve of her belly announced the cause as surely as if the town crier had rung his bell and shouted, “Oyez!”

“Aye,” the Wise Woman confirmed. Her voice was the rush of water over river stones, low and musical. She bent over Carmine’s bed where she lay, and ran her brown hands across Carmine’s stomach and pelvis, gnarled fingers splayed. “She’s with child.”

Across the room, Lizbette sucked in a tight breath. Sable reached for her hand. Her fingers were ice.

Carmine remained silent, but her face turned the colour of old bone. She swallowed hard, once, twice. A single tear rolled down her cheek. 

The Wise Woman bent lower and rested an ear against Carm-ine’s belly. Her long, silver-streaked braid woven through with bay leaves and bergamot almost grazed the floor. It filled the small room with a savoury-citrus scent that Sable had at first thought pleasant, but now found cloying. 

“Twice blessed,” said the Wise Woman. 

Lizbette squeezed Sable’s hand so hard she felt her fingers must surely break. Then suddenly she released it, walked stiffly from the room, and out the cabin door.

“Lizbette! It’s not what you—” Carmine cried. But the slam of the cabin door cut off her words.

Sable rushed to the bedside. Carmine was crying openly now.

 “What are you saying?” Sable turned to the Wise Woman. “She’s carrying two babies? Twins?”

The Wise Woman straightened up and looked at Sable. “Aye. Twice blessed.” Her eyes, though clouded with cataracts and hooded with age, were bluer than a meadow of cornflowers. “Two bairns she will bear. One a boy, and one a girl.”

Sable stared at the Wise Woman’s lined mouth. She was sure she was saying more, but all Sable could hear was her heart pounding in her ears. Twice blessed. Twice blessed. Two bairns she will bear, clanged inside her head. 

A high-pitched wailing sound from the bed pulled Sable back into the now. She crawled into bed to lay alongside her sister, and wrapped her arms clumsily around her. She made shh-shh noises in Carmine’s ear as if she were the child, and together they wept, their tears mingling to soak the counterpane.

The Wise Woman watched in silence. “This news is not welcome, I understand?” She asked finally.

“No,” Carmine whispered. She ran her hands over the gentle swell of her stomach and blinked up at the wooden beams that criss-crossed the ceiling. “These poor babbahs were not planned. They are forged from violence. I was—”

“No need for words,” the Wise Woman held up a hand. A tangle of knotted leather bracelets bounced on her wrist. “Sometimes there’s safety to be found in secrets.” She fixed the girls with a knowing gaze.

Sable had uncoiled herself from Carmine. She sat up on the side of the bed, bare feet twisting against each other. “Do you have anything you can give her?” Sable asked of the Wise Woman. “Anything that can make her…not with child?”

“Speak not of such things, little one!” Carmine turned shocked eyes on Sable. Her hands moved again to her belly and cradled it protectively. 

The Wise Woman offered a sad smile. “Nay. That’s a dark magic I do not dabble in. I have herbs I can provide to make a tonic. One that will give strength to a mother, and help babies grow and flourish. But that is all. What you are asking for is best reserved for the likes of the Flay Sisters.” 

At the mention of the Flay Sisters the Wise Woman made a forking gesture with her fingers and spat between them. Sable and Carmine did the same. While no one had seen the Flay Sisters in the years since they’d been banished from the castle, word of their witchcraft occasionally filtered through from travellers who reported fearful symbols burned into trees, and shape-shifting apparitions that shrieked across their path deep in the Terrenwild Woods. 

“We will need no such thing. Not now. Not ever.” There was still a quaver in Carmine’s voice, but a new glimmer of resolve in her eye. “In spite of how these babies came to be—came to me—they are a gift.” She reached for Sable’s shoulder and squeezed it. “I will make this work, little one. I don’t know how…but I have to.”

And while a hundred wretched thoughts stampeded through Sable’s mind like wild horses—how they would feed two more mouths when they could barely support themselves, how they would survive when their income was reduced by a third, how they would explain the pregnancy—Carmine’s brave determination made her reach for her sister’s hand. 

“It is not the choice I would have you make…but if that is what you wish, then we will make it work”

When the Wise Woman left, she pressed a pouch of strong-smelling herbs into Sable’s hands. “A spoonful in freshly-boiled water every morning. Leave it to steep for at least twenty minutes. And make sure she drinks it all down.”

She placed a hand on Carmine’s belly. “I wish you health and happiness and courage.” 

Sable produced some coins from the little wooden box they kept on the mantlepiece. 

“How much do we owe you for the herbs…and for your time?”

The Wise Woman paused at the door. 

“Nothing.” She kissed both girls gently on the forehead, and stepped into the afternoon sun. Her ancient donkey was sucking toothlessly at a crop of yellow-hatted dandelions swaying above the grass. The Wise Woman pulled herself astride his broad back, and clucked her tongue. Sable and Carmine watched as they rolled and swayed down the hill towards Nightwood Castle.

“Remember my words,” the Wise Woman’s river-rush voice floated back on the perfumed breeze. “There’s safety to be found in secrets.”

~~~

Lizbette returned with the night. 

“Come, let me tell you what happened.” Carmine took her by the hand and led Lizbette, silent and thin-lipped, to the bedroom. When the door closed with a soft thump, Sable took herself outside. It felt wrong to be in such close proximity to such a private moment. She sat on the dew-damp ground, and pulled savagely at clumps of grass until she’d gouged a ring of dirt around her that looked as raw as she felt. 

The voices from inside the cabin rose and fell and raged and retreated like an ocean in a storm. Lizbette, usually so mild, was shrill with anger and shock and outrage. Carmine’s words were sorrow-filled, yet edged with the new single-minded acceptance Sable had seen earlier: the unbendable resolve of motherhood.

The last exchange Sable heard from the cabin before her chin fell against her chest in slumber was Carmine’s anguished, “Forgive me.”

“Oh, my darling. From you, there is nothing to forgive. The prince…I curse him to the darkest depths of hell.”

When Sable woke hours later covered with gooseflesh and bathed in moonshine, she crept back into the cabin. Before crawling into her own little cot by the fireplace, she peeked into the bedroom. Carmine and Lizbette were asleep, their limbs entwined around each other like a Celtic knot.

5.

With two days until the wedding, Queen Eider had finalised the menu for the banquet. The kitchen worked tirelessly to butcher, bake, boil, and burnish her exotic selections. The queen had spared no expense—the feast would not only befit the union of her only son and his new bride, it would act as a demonstration of Nightwood’s wealth and prosperity. Queen Eider recognised the importance of the coupling of Prince Edrick and Lady Alasun of Briarbrae—united, the two families would wield formidable power—and she was determined to impress.

~~~

“’Ow do you s’pose I go about this, then?” the butcher rem-arked. He walked slowly round the brine-sleek mammal that lay on the floor before him, inspecting it from every angle. “Bloody great sea cow, that’s what it is.”

“Porpoise,” said the carver. 

“No idea what the bloody purpose of it is.” The butcher pulled at his grizzled beard. “Little one, fetch me knife belt.”

“Porpoise,” corrected the carver. “It’s going to form the outermost layer of the great deception. The showstopper.” The carver lowered his voice and widened his eyes for dramatic effect.

Sable scrambled to lift the butcher’s heavy knife belt from a hook on the wall, and handed it to him.

“Seen it all now, I ’ave,” the butcher said. “So, let me get this right. The pigeon gets stuffed into the swan, the swan goes inside the peacock, the peacock gets rammed into the ruddy great seal…and the whole lot goes inside this poypurse.

“Porpoise,” said the carver. “And yes, when this dish gets wheeled out, it’s going to be the talk of the kingdom for years to come!”

Sable spent the rest of the day at the butcher’s block, as he sliced and slitted, bled and gutted. The floor turned slick with blood. Sable’s arms ached from the effort of sweeping offcuts and entrails into a corner sluice. Lizbette scooped the steaming loops of innards into wooden pails, and as the butcher worked his knives, both girls slipped in the slurry and stench until their clothes, skin, and hair were putrid with it. 

“I’m glad Carmine’s spared this,” Lizbette whispered, as she reached to disentangle a peacock’s iridescent turquoise-green chest feather from Sable’s matted hair. 

Sable had volunteered in place of Carmine when Jackon was allocating his staff to their stations for the day. Carmine—her rounded tummy barely visible in the newly let-out smock Lizbette had altered—had given Sable a look of gratitude and relief, and busied herself alongside the bakers, kneading dough for pie casings. 

The construction of the centrepiece took all day. As the sun made its lazy arc across the sky, the butcher stuffed and squeezed each gutted creature one inside the other, until finally, arming a shower of sweat from his brow, he stood back and grunted, “Stich ’er up.”

Sable and Lizbette used a giant, hooked needle threaded with cord to stitch up the porpoise’s gaping underbelly.

“’S’up to the cooks as to how they roast that,” said the butcher, as the three of them hauled the creature on to a trolley-barrow. “Bloody purpuss.” He took off his sticky apron, rehung his knife belt on the hook on the wall, and scrubbed his arms and face in the big wooden trough beneath it. Then he pulled on a woollen cap and made for the back stairs. “Off for an ale, me. Thirsty work, that sea cow.” 

The rest of the kitchen staff had left for the evening by the time Sable and Lizbette had scrubbed down the floors and walls of the butchery. 

“Go find Carmine,” Sable said to Lizbette. “I’ll wheel the barrow down to the cool room. Then we can go home and wash this muck off.” Lizbette opened her mouth to argue, but Sable cut her off. “I can manage by myself,” she suppressed a grunt as she raised the wooden handles of the trolley off the ground. “You look as tired as a worn-out boot.”

“You don’t look much better,” Lizbette observed. But Sable was already trundling the trolley with its unusual cargo down the long, sloping corridor that led to the castle’s cold cellars.

~~~

Sable was grateful for the dark chill of the cool room. By the time she’d rolled the trolley into position alongside the joints of meat, barrels of mead, and tray-loads of sweetmeats carefully stacked on the flagstone floor in anticipation of next week’s banquet, beads of sweat mingling with the blood in her hair dripped from her forehead to sting her eyes.

Sable turned to leave, then hesitated. Her eyes darted around the shadowy stone walls of the cellar. Seeing no one, she plucked one the dainty sweetmeats from the nearest tray and crammed it into her mouth. A pop of flaky pastry was followed by an ooze of sweet cherry jam. Exquisite

She selected another three pastries from the tray and hid them in the pocket of her apron. Then she carefully rearranged the tray, pushing the remaining pastries here and there until any gaps made by the removal of her illicit three were unnoticeable. She smiled in anticipation of Carmine and Lizbette’s squeals of delight later that evening when, after their meal of last week’s bread and cheese, she intended to produce the purloined pasties with a flourish.

But as Sable made her way back up the winding stone tunnel that led from the castle’s cellars to the kitchens, it was a very different kind of squealing she could hear. 

Nay, not squealing. Screaming. Loud enough to turn the blood in her veins to ice.

6.

“Get your filthy hands off her, you vile plague-sore! She’s already carrying the spawn of your black loins. What more can you take from her?” That was Lizbette. Her rage-filled scream was followed by the unmistakable skin-on-skin ricochet of a slap.

“Lizbette, no!” That was Carmine, shrill and sobbing. “Don’t.”

A wave of dread crashed over Sable. She bolted through the tunnel, lightheaded with fear. Ahead, the screaming had been replaced with a danger-charged silence, which was somehow worse. 

She reached the heavy ironwood door that led to the kitchens. Instinct told her to remain hidden. With her heart in her mouth, she crouched down behind the door and put an eye to the large keyhole. What she saw made her cold with terror.

Prince Edrick was holding one hand to his freshly-slapped cheek. A ripple of shock crossed his face, but was quickly replaced by something darker. 

Carmine stood on the other side of the oak table—a barrier between her and the prince. One shoulder of her smock was torn, revealing the purple bloom of a fresh bruise encircling her exposed upper arm. Her hands were clenched fists raised to her mouth in horror.

In front of Prince Edrick, Lizbette snarled and spat through bared teeth. With her blood-soaked hair and clothing, and face contorted with anger, she resembled a wild animal rather than the astutely-composed girl who had shared their home and hearts these last two years. Sable felt a powerful surge of love for Lizbette’s fierce devotion. 

And then a glint of iron flashed from behind Lizbette’s back. She wielded one of the butcher’s knives and pointed it at the prince, its long, curved blade shaking in her trembling hand. 

On the other side of the table, Carmine moaned. On the other side of the keyhole, Sable sucked in a harsh breath. Then, everything seemed to happen at once.

A cruel smile twisted Prince Edrick’s mouth as his eyes flicked to something over Lizbette’s shoulder, just outside Sable’s field of vision. Sable adjusted her position, flattened her cheek against the wood, and pressed her eye slantwise against the keyhole. 

From behind Lizbette, Sable saw Queen Eider step from the shadows. Her arms were raised aloft, the soft mink of her robes falling back to reveal pale, slender arms. In her hands she held a heavy-lipped mortar made of polished stone. Sable recognised it as the one Jackon sometimes used to grind roots and spices. 

Lizbette was so focused on her attack on the prince that when Carmine screamed, “Watch out!” it was too late. With a strength that belied her haughty beauty, Queen Eider brought the mortar down hard and fast, striking the back of Lizbette’s head with a dull thunk.

Lizbette crumpled like an autumn leaf. She pitched forward onto the stone floor, the knife clattering from her grip. Her body jerked and spasmed like a fish in a shallow puddle, blood and grey matter leaking from the caved-in shape of her skull. Her legs scissored once, twice, and then she was still.

Carmine’s grief-stricken howl filled the kitchen. 

“You boil-brained fool,” Queen Eider hissed at her son. “What have you done now?” She side-stepped Lizbette’s body, her nose wrinkling in disgust at the pool of blood leeching ever closer to her satin slippers. “What have you made me do?” The queen put the mortar down on the table. It was spattered with gore. A long strand of Lizbette’s strawberry-gold hair was embedded in the muck.

As the queen questioned Prince Edrick, Carmine’s eyes darted from side to side like a caged animal seeking freedom. Slowly, very slowly, she began to edge her way along the table. 

Sable held her breath as Carmine inched towards the door the farmers used to deliver their produce. Her mind raced. What could she do? The knife Lizbette had dropped lay only a few feet from the door she was hiding behind. She could burst from the door, snatch it up, and then…and then, what?

“The kitchen girl carries your child?” Queen Eider’s tone was low and dangerous. “When will you learn to keep your prick to yourself? If you’re not messing around with the ladies-in-waiting, it’s the stable girls, or the chambermaids…anything in a skirt. And now—” the queen spread her hands, “—just look at this.”

Prince Edrick looked from his mother to the floor, a sullen expression on his face. 

“There will be no false heirs, do you hear me, Edrick?” Queen Eider threw a poisonous look at Carmine, who had almost reached the end of the table. “I will not let anything stand in the way of this wedding. Now do what must be done, you milk-livered wastrel!” The queen roared these last words in a command of spittle. 

Prince Edrick seized up the butcher’s knife. Carmine bolted for the delivery door, but the prince was quicker. 

On the other side of the keyhole, Sable’s mouth opened in a silent scream as Prince Edrick buried the knife deep into her sister’s abdomen. With a grunting jerk, he pulled the knife upwards, gutting Carmine as efficiently as the butcher had opened the porpoise. 

Carmine collapsed against the prince, her slack face falling over his shoulder. And although Sable knew Carmine couldn’t see her, she kept her eyes locked on her sister’s just as she had all those weeks ago. She watched until the light from Carmine’s eyes dimmed and dulled, and there was nothing left but darkness.

It was only then that Sable let darkness claim her, too. She sagged against the door and allowed herself to be pulled into the deep well of grief’s oblivion.

7.

It was darkness, too, that Sable awoke to. Night had fallen proper, and the tunnel was cold and lightless. Sable shivered as she raised her eye back to the keyhole. Her bones were filled with a deeper chill—the aching emptiness of loss. And somewhere inside, deeper still, the dark thing that had churned in her gut from the gloom of the pantry now boiled like lava in a volcano.

The kitchen was shadowed silence. Sable watched and listened while she counted to five hundred, but it seemed, except for the scurry-scamper of mice, the kitchens were empty. She pushed the heavy tunnel door open, holding her breath as it made a creaking sound that seemed thunderclap-loud in the stillness. 

She tiptoed across the floor. Her foot skidded in the blood where Lizbette’s body had lain. She made her way to the other side of the table where Carmine had been slaughtered. Her sister’s body wasn’t there, either. Carmine and Lizbette were both gone. Only the lingering stench of congealing blood remained. Sable raked her face with her fingernails at the thought of their bodies—oh gods, oh gods, the babies—disposed of like common waste. Were Carmine and Lizbette lying in shallow, unmarked graves? Had stones been tied around their waists before their bodies were dumped into the ink-black waters of the moat? Had they been dismembered and fed to the swine? 

Sable became aware of a high-pitched keening sound. It sounded like the whistle of the heavy iron kettle that hung from a tripod over the fire. She swung around, startled, only to realise the noise was coming from her. 

Choking on her rage and sorrow, Sable slipped from the delivery door out into the night.

8.

The old yellow donkey rolled his eyes at the blood-soaked apparition stumbling through his moonlit paddock. His ears laid back at the whump-whump-whump as Sable pounded at his mistress’s door.

The Wise Woman opened the door. 

“Little one?” 

Sable said, “How do I find the Flay Sisters?” Her voice—like her eyes—was void of emotion.

“Little one, what has happened?” The Wise Woman pulled Sable into her thatch-roofed hut, glancing around before she pulled the door shut.

“Sit here, child,” the Wise Woman said, leading Sable across the earthen floor to a bracken-stuffed chair by the fireplace. Sable remained standing, arms hanging limp at her side. She stared straight ahead and repeated her question.

“Why do you need to know about the Flay Sisters?” The Wise Woman made the forking sign and spat between her fingers. “Do not speak of them. Do not seek them. Tell me what has happened, and perhaps I can help.” She took a small stone bottle from the mantlepiece, and pulled out the cork stopper. The smell of camomile and lavender filled the room. She poured a little of the liquid into a wooden mug. “Here. Drink. You are in shock.” 

When Sable didn’t reach for the mug, the Wise Woman tried to gently guide it to her lips. Sable smacked it away. The mug hit the floor with a soft thud. The spilled liquid soaked into the earth.

“They live in the woods,” Sable said. “Which direction?”

The Wise Woman said nothing. She reached out and plucked a hair from Sable’s head. She then closed her eyes and ran the long brown strand repeatedly through her fingers, singing over it-—an intricate melody that rose and fell as the Wise Woman pulled what she needed from the images in Sable’s head.

When she addressed Sable again, tears glittered in her blue eyes. “I warned to keep the bairns a secret. For protection. Oh, wicked deeds. Such loss, such loss.” She shook her head. Her long silver braid swung like a pendulum.

“The Flay Sisters. Tell me how to find them.” 

And because the Wise Woman knew it was fruitless to dissuade Sable from her quest—the strand of hair had confirmed that—she spat between her forked fingers again and said sadly, “Follow the cairns, little one. Just follow the cairns.”

Sable nodded at the Wise Woman—a jerk of her head—then strode from the hut’s warm comfort back into the chill of night.

The Wise Woman stroked the donkey’s ears and pulled her fur-lined cloak tighter around her shoulders. Together they watched Sable walk steadily uphill towards the forbidding silhouette of the Terrenwild Woods. When she reached the edge of the woodland, where towering pines and oaks grew close together like silent sentinels, Sable didn’t hesitate. 

She stepped into the Terrenwild Woods and was swallowed whole.

9.

Sable tried to ignore the recalled snatches of conversation run-ning through her head as she made her way along the old woodchopper’s trail that twisted its way through the trees like a mud-brown eel. Hushed whispers from wide-eyed dairymaids—stories of those who’d wandered too deep into the woods, never to be seen again—until they were silenced by a steely look from Bertha. Slurred boasts from tavern-soused men, their ale-fuelled bravado inspiring tales of what they’d do to the witches in the wood if only they could find them. And the haunted eyes of those who’d claimed to have come across the Flay Sisters’ lair, the terrible things they’d witnessed. The sinister symbols carved into tree trunks, the skinned bodies of—

A branch snapped somewhere off to the left.

Sable peered into the darkness, blinking at the shadows. The wind soughed through the trees. Overhead, the clouds parted. A dirty wash of moonlight penetrated the canopy, illuminating the woods with an ethereal glow. And there again, another snap.

“Show yourself,” she yelled into the trees. 

There was a rustling noise, and a deer’s head jerked upwards, nostrils flared, a clump of moss in its velvet mouth. It crashed off through the undergrowth.

Sable continued deeper into the woods. She walked until the trail became narrower and narrower, overhanging branches scratching at her arms and face, until it eventually petered out altogether. The yawning expanse of the Terrenwild Woods stretched out in every direction, and Sable—with nothing to guide her—continued on, pushing thorn-tipped boughs from her face, and scraping her shins against gnarled trunks. Her boots were noiseless on the carpet of pine needles. Every now and then she broke the silence, barking, “Flay Sisters! Show yourselves! I seek your counsel.”

Time became slippery. Just when it seemed she would roam the woods forever, the toe of her boot struck something hard and sent it tumbling to the ground. Stones. An assortment of them. Some large and flat, others pebble-sized, smaller and rounder. 

She looked about. Piles of stones arranged in stacks grew from the forest floor in varying sizes. Some rose only as high as her knee; others were towering arrangements that soared above her head. 

Follow the cairns, little one

At first it seemed the piles of stones were haphazard in their arrangement, but when Sable looked closer she could see the cairns formed a zig-zagging path of sorts. She followed the crude trail deep into the heart of the woods. The trees grew in closer, leaves making a shuh-shuh-shuh in the breeze, like whispering conspirators.

Up ahead in the distant gloom, something grey and ragged whirled from tree to tree with unnerving speed, then disappeared behind a thicket of gorse.

The body of a hare was strung upside down from the low branch of an ancient yew. Its skin had been removed. It bumped wetly against the trunk, all exposed sinew and bone. A rune-like symbol had been gouged deep into the yew’s bark—vertical strokes cross-hatching three horizontal lines. 

Sable didn’t recognise the symbol, but the sight of it flooded her head with images of sinuous tentacles writhing and coiling from a monstrous multi-eyed face. When she looked at the symbol again, it had rearranged itself into a decagram. This time her head filled with the sounds of battle—the pounding of hooves, the clash of sword against armour, the ffft of arrows being released from their bows, the death screams of men. She shook her head to clear it, and walked on.

The cairns began to take on unnatural shapes, as if the stones were held in place by external forces. Some were inverted, their large base stones balancing atop marble-sized pebbles. Others formed impossible spirals or arches, and when Sable pushed her way between two thick trunks, she had to duck to avoid a cairn sprouting horizontally from the corrugated bark. A rune had been carved above it, bleeding thick amber sap that had long since congealed. Higher in the tree, another flayed carcass dripped and squelched. It was a newly-skinned deer…a fuzz of freshly-cropped moss still in its mouth. 

A rasp of sly laughter cut through the darkness. 

Sable felt gooseflesh rise on her arms. She was close now. So close. She felt no fear of what might happen to her. She had nothing left to lose. Her only fear was that the Flay Sisters might not help her.

A long, low whistle. A shrieking cackle in response. Unseen beings capered and catcalled through the woods, keeping pace with Sable as she continued on towards a clearing up ahead. The stench of sulphur and rotting foliage and spoiled meat. The ground underfoot became boggier, until an ooze of thick mud crept over the top of Sable’s boots. Tangles of vines strangled the trees that ringed the swamp-like clearing, several supporting the suspended, flayed bodies of long-dead people. Sable couldn’t tell if they’d once been men or women, or both. Runes were carved all over the trees, a jumble of symbols and letters covering every trunk, overlapping and intersecting until it was impossible to make out individual characters. The dark thing in Sable’s belly rumbled like distant thunder. 

She waited.

10.

The Flay Sisters materialised from the shadows and surged into the clearing. They circled Sable like alley cats, hissing and spitting, five amber eyes—one of the sisters’ eyes was naught but an empty socket stitched crudely shut—gleaming hungrily.

“A little girl,” hissed the one-eyed sister, her lips peeling back in a hideous smile. 

“I saw her first,” rasped the crone in the middle. She raised long, cadaverous arms in triumph. Dank, putrid cloth hung in long, tattered strips from her wasted frame. 

“A little lost one,” the third sister shrieked. She hopped from one mud-streaked leg to the other in a grotesque jig. A necklace of teeth bounced around her neck.

Sable said, “I may be little, but I am not lost. You are the Flay Sisters, are you not?”

“That is what the fools of Nightwood call us,” said the one-eyed crone. Her remaining eye wandered off to fix pointedly on one of the hanging corpses, before returning to Sable. She hawked a glut of brown phlegm, spat the wad on the ground. “It will do for now.”

At this, the other two sisters screeched and cackled.

“I seek your help,” Sable said. 

“Our help?” said the ragged one. “That would depend on what you’ll give to receive it.” 

“What will you give, little one?” her sister demanded. 

Sable wavered. What did she have to give? Nothing. Sweat broke out on her palms. She smoothed them on her apron. As her hands ran over the pocket, she felt something soft and lumpy. The pastries

“I…I only have these.” Sable produced the three pastries from her apron, and held them out to the Flay Sisters. The baked goods looked pathetic in her open palm, squashed and misshapen.

The Flay Sisters scrabbled for the pastries, knocking them to the ground in their haste. They fought for them in the mire, cramming them into their mouths with fistfuls of mud. 

“Silly child,” One-eye said, cherry jam on her chin like a smear of blood. “That is merely what you have. Now what are you willing to give.”

“I have nothing else to give,” Sable said. “If I did, I would gladly give it.”

“Let us see about that,” the tooth-necklaced sister said. “Tell your story.” She stepped close to Sable and reached a crook-fingered hand towards her face. Sable willed herself not to step away from the hag’s touch and fetid stench. She held her breath and waited, thinking the sister was going to pluck a hair from her head, and read her thoughts as the Wise Woman had.

Instead, the sister pushed her knot-knuckled fingers into Sable’s mouth and gripped one of her teeth like a vice. Sable gagged with shock and pain as the sister twisted and wrenched at her tooth until it came free in a burst of blood. Sable fell to her knees in agony as the Flay Sisters gathered round the tooth, rubbing it between their palms and passing it from one to the other.

“It is vengeance you seek,” said One-eye, finally. It was not a question.

“Yes.”

“Then you shall give us what it costs!” the ragged one nodded. Tufts of wiry black hair sprouted from her otherwise bald head. 

“What is it you want?” Sable asked.

The Flay Sisters told her. 

Empty except for the flames of hatred that consumed her from within, Sable looked up from the mud. “I accept,” she said.

~~~

Sable returned back through the Terrenwild Woods. Instead of three pastries, she now carried three long yellow teeth in her apron pocket. The Flay Sister’s had each ripped a tooth from their mouths and handed them to Sable, long runners of saliva clinging to the bloodied roots.

11.

The thin grey light of early morning was just starting to give outline to Nightwood Castle when Sable crept through the kitchen’s delivery door. Farming folk from surrounding hamlets had already begun their day’s work, hefting and heaving sacks of flour and grain from their horse carts and depositing them with a whump-thud on the stone doorstep.

Soon the kitchen team would arrive, but Sable planned to be gone before then. The absence of the three scullery girls—kitchen rats—would cause concern—annoyance—no doubt, but Sable knew nothing would come of it. Especially when she crossed the kitchen to the cold cellar tunnel, and saw the bloodspill of her kith and kin had now been mopped away as if they’d never existed. 

Sable pushed open the door she’d crouched behind—Was it really only yesterday evening?—and scampered down the tunnel. The porpoise lay shiny-grey on its trolley. Sable crouched down and worked her fingers between the stitches she and Lizbette had made to seal the butcher’s incision. She took the Flay Sisters’ teeth from her apron, and inserted them into the porpoise’s belly. When she’d pushed each tooth into the soft cavity as deep as she could, she re-smoothed the stitches into a neat row, then ran back through the tunnel, and out of the kitchens.

12.

The banquet hall was resplendent in scarlet and gold. Comm-emorative banners hung from every wall, rich tapestries interweaving the family emblems of the Nightwoods and the Briarbraes: raven and fox. The atmosphere inside buzzed with celebration. Wedding guests toasted each other across long tables, goblets coming together above platters of roasted venison and pigeon and pork, whole baked trout, and gelatinous terrines. 

Servers, outfitted in their finest brocade, kept an attentive watch on the needs of the wedding guests. They scurried to refresh empty pitchers of ale, ladle rich meat stews from steaming wooden bowls, and replenish butter and bread as fast as it was consumed. In the far corner a quartet of musicians played their lutes, flutes and lyres, producing an energetic medley of tunes that had people stomping their feet. The air was filled with contrasting smells: the aroma of roast meat mingled with the delicate scent of eau-de-parfum; the oiled leather scent of polished boots competed with the smell of ripe cheese. 

Sable watched it all from her vantage point high in the rafters. She’d climbed up into the roof after leaving the kitchen, hoisting herself precariously from beam to beam, until she’d reached a place above one of the great hanging candle chandeliers where the rafters intersected to create a perfect hiding place. Hour after hour she’d crouched, still and silent, limbs cramping. 

At the far end of the hall, the wedding table stood elevated on a wooden stage. It, too, was dressed in Nightwood colours, accented by polished gold candlesticks and cutlery, and a floral centrepiece comprised of the finest blooms from the royal gardens—perfumed wild roses, blush-coloured lilies, and daisies and larkspur in a riot of colours—all interwoven with sweet briar to honour Prince Edrick’s new bride.

Lady Alasun sat between her husband and mother-in-law, wide-eyed and stiff-backed. She wore a tight smile and a form-fitting gown of palest blue silk finished with embroidered elbow-length sleeves. A garland of baby’s breath encircled her auburn curls. 

She can’t be that much older than me, Sable thought, as Lady Alasun pressed a forkful of food into her mouth, then washed it down with a tiny sip from her goblet. Beside her, Prince Edrick drank deeply from his own chalice, and snapped his fingers at a passing server to refill it. Queen Eider, purple robes trimmed with ermine, her crown gleaming on her head like a corona, watched the celebrations with a mixture of pride and satisfaction. 

When the first course of the banquet had been cleared away, a hush fell over the crowd as Jackon, aglow with pride and importance, and accompanied by the head carver, wheeled in the grand finale. The trolley had been prettied with a starched white cloth, the porpoise transferred to a giant pewter platter. It lay in state, long bottle nose bowing over one end of the platter, curved muscular tail drooping from the other. 

“Your majesties,” Jackon bowed low toward the wedding table. “We present, for your pleasure, the great deception!”

Prince Edrick and Queen Eider leaned forward with interest. Lady Alasun, following their lead, leaned forward too. Guests craned their necks and rose from their seats to better view the marvellous creation. Cries of “extraordinary” and “huzzah” and such, echoed around the hall.

The carver produced his best walnut-handled knives with a theatrical flourish, and clashed them together, running the long slender blades against each other as if to further sharpen them.

The guests roared their approval at this display. 

The carver stepped toward the trolley. He lifted a knife and positioned the blade against the porpoise’s back, gauging how much pressure to apply in order to cut cleanly through the creature and best display the exotic layers within.

High in the rafters, Sable held her breath.

The carver pressed down with his knife.

He hadn’t even gotten halfway through his cut when the Flay Sisters burst from inside the porpoise. But, oh, they were quite transformed. Three harpy-like creatures unfolded beetle-black wings and soared through the air. Their faces were that of the sisters, yet their bodies were giant birds of prey, all clawed talons, rapacious amber eyes, and membranous wings. 

They flew along tabletops, flipping tureens of soup and jugs of ales, and upsetting candelabras. Guests screamed and scattered in their wake. The Flay Sisters shrieked as they flew—a high-pitched banshee caw that sent people’s hands flying to their ears. Up and around the hall the sisters wheeled. They passed so close to Sable she could feel the beat of their wings. Dust and cobwebs swirled from the rafters. Guests stampeded for the exits or crawled under tables. 

“Guards!” Queen Eider roared over the cacophony. She jumped from her seat. “Guards! To your—”

Whatever she was going to say next never came. One of the sisters descended from above, wings folded back against her body in a vertical dive, before levelling out to swoop towards the wedding table. Her taloned claws fastened around Queen Eider’s head, piercing her skull. With a twist and a wrench, the queen’s head was separated from her body. Clutching her dripping trophy, the harpy flew back across the banquet hall. She dropped the queen’s head in a large bowl of stewed rabbit, then flew upwards to perch on the rafter next to Sable.

The last of the guests, who had seized up whatever might serve as a weapon to stand with the queen’s guard, fled. So too did the queen’s guard. 

Prince Edrick stood frozen to the spot, his face a mask of shock. Lady Alasun, her face and gown turned russet with blood spray, shoved him roughly aside to make a dive under the table where the floor-length tablecloth hid her from view.

A beat of wings, and the other two Flay Sisters fell upon the prince. A quick dart from a hooked beak, and one of the prince’s eyes was gouged out and swallowed. Dart-peck again, and he was blinded. The prince opened his mouth to howl in terror and pain, and the sisters ripped out his tongue. They clawed and scratched, and ripped and rended. Prince Edrick’s struggles and shrieks began to weaken, until finally he fell silent. 

The two harpies unfurled their gargoylesque wings and flew up to the rafters to join their sister. The Flay Sisters nodded once at Sable before dropping from the beam, and gliding from the empty banquet hall. 

13.

Sable watched with a small smile as Lady Alasun emerged cautiously from beneath the tablecloth, gathered up her dress, and ran like wildfire from the hall. Run. Run. Far away from here.

She waited until the last of the distant, receding footfalls died away before climbing back down from the rafters. She walked through the banquet hall, stepping around overturned chairs and smashed plates. As she passed the wedding table, she stopped briefly to survey the Flay Sisters’ justice. Details, my doves. Details. That’s what makes a wedding feast memorable. Bertha had been right. Sable’s smile grew into something bitter-wide. 

She walked from the hall, crossed the flagstone courtyard, and stepped out of Nightwood Castle’s walls forever. She followed the narrow trail that led up to the little cabin she’d once called home, and continued on. 

The Little One walked into the Terrenwild Woods to join her new sisters. She didn’t look back.

~~~

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