Alba, princess, only child of a dead wife. What hope for her? Docile, dreaming, her own wants leading her away from her purpose. She knows. Desire and obedience cannot inhabit the same heart. Not without consequence. But still, she wants.
Alba is a soft girl, the early loss of her mother compensated with toys and luxuries. She is her father's souvenir, her dead mother's mirror, tall and narrow in a stark sketch of black hair and ivory pallor. But her father's new wife Irina is dusky, small and ripe, as if to blur the memory of the other. Her body promises sons. Alba cannot compete with that in her father's affections. His memory of her mother is already washing away.
But not Alba's. She looks in the mirror each morning and misses the woman she never knew.
Irina has no time for daughters not her own, especially those who could be her sister. Alba becomes almost forgotten in her father's house, still coddled, still a pet, but now overshadowed by the new wife's lure. As a daughter she can only be offered in alliance; she cannot be his heir.
Alba watches her father's new wife obliquely, and sees the script of her own fate as a royal daughter. She sees tension begin to pull at Irina's mouth as one month after another goes by in barren blood. Then Irina is at last pregnant, and Alba watches the way the ripe woman is treated in her father's house, coddled too like a favorite bitch until the day she miscarries, birthing a stillborn girl. The disappointment in the house makes the air almost too thick to breathe.
Alba is not a stupid child; her mother left her depth as well as surface, and Alba thinks long on Irina's circumstance. They are after all close in age. Alba tries to be warm toward her father's wife, to create a common ground out of sorrow. She is lonely, too.
"Sit with me, mother," she says, laying a pillow on the wide sill of the tower window that looks over the late summer gardens. But Irina rejects her in the face of other concerns.
In Irina's country in the wild north, the child that kills its mother in childbirth must die too, for it has shown itself greedy for life. Irina knows Alba's past, and knows that the girl's greed is what keeps her own womb empty. She knows Alba is unnatural, and she knows what magic will end her.
But such magic costs dear. It costs the days she longs to spend as her own. Those still are fewer days than what she will forfeit if she does not bear an heir. Irina weighs her possibilities, and decides. She casts her magic, listens to the old wisdom. She makes her plans.
"Forgive me for my sullenness. Walk with me in the forest," Irina asks, and the lonely girl agrees. Alba hopes this will be the thin seedling of amity between them, but her hope is ignorant and without roots. Irina has made the required sacrifices, that she should have Alba's heart to eat and the let wild beasts take the rest. Alba's days will be hers, an intimacy Alba could not imagine. Irina's possible children will be safe.
But when they reach the place Irina has chosen and consecrated, Irina pauses. Her predator's instincts rouse. Her fingers tap the butt of the knife sheathed up her sleeve, knowing it is already too late to draw it. There are eyes among the trees that watch their every step, every breath, eyes glinting like fractured mirrors where they catch the sun. Leaves tremble without a breeze to stir them. Shadows do not fit to the trees from which they spring. This is magic, too, far different from what Irina wields. Irina cannot see the watchers but she knows she will not leave the forest unmarked in flesh or memory if she keeps on. Alba, calm as milk, seems not to notice.
"What is there, girl?"
Alba looks sweetly at Irina, a smile on her lips. There is such comfort here, for her.
"I know you know. Tell me!" Irina demands.
Alba closes her eyes, then, scents the air. "I do not know them," she says, "Yet they are no strangers."
In the dim light the shadows gradually move and take form, arms and legs straighten to reveal manikin shapes with bright, black eyes in their dust-brown faces. Not animals, not men. They wear rags and leaves and skins, hold short knives and carry spears; they are prepared to hunt. Irina grabs Alba's wrist to hold her where she stands, although Alba makes no motion to run. Irina gestures with her free hand and whispers a single word to ward the manikins away. It has no effect. Sweat stands out on her face.
"Make them go," Irina hisses in Alba's ear. "Tell them you don't need them."
Thin rumors have long echoed that Alba's mother had been so protected, that the charm was in her blood. Even Irina had heard them. She had hoped they were exaggerations.
Alba stares at the creatures, wondering, unafraid. These creatures love her. She knows this, does not know how, but their love is a thing to which she is entitled. They will not let her come to harm. She knows.
"It is alright," Alba says to the dusky creatures. "We are friends."
The manikins seem to fade into the tangle of the forest, only their sharp eyes still visible. Irina pulls on Alba's arm to steer them back the way they had come. She can read the warning. Now is the wrong time. The wrong place. There will be another time, when she is better prepared.
Soon Irina is pregnant again. The house fills with tense anticipation rather than joy.
While this new child grows in his wife's belly, the king negotiates a match for his Alba. It is past time for it. She is well old enough to be useful, to heal an old breach in a once profitable alliance. Alba is told the name of her future husband, and told to prepare for him. She must be pleasing, she must be ripe. She must be worth her husband's father's risk in taking her.
Alba says nothing to her father's command, although she thinks long on it. She sees how thin Irina has become despite her growing belly, how drawn and pale her face is. She watches Irina's fear. She pities her. She does not want this for herself.
Irina knows that Alba watches her. She knows she will not bear a living child until Alba is gone. But Irina cannot raise a weapon against her; the inherited protection about Alba is too strong. But Irina can turn to another way, as old as the old magic and as dark in its wiles. She can disguise the knife.
Irina uses her other skills to make an apple flawless, blushing red, and poisonous. It costs her much, but it will bring her much. Once Alba tastes it, once the poison stops her heart from beating and her blood lies still in her veins, the creatures will lose all sense of her. Her protections will fail, and Irina will have her heart to eat like some rare fruit, and swallow with it all of Alba's days.
"Let us go into the forest again," Irina says to Alba. "It is so hot in the gardens, and the trees make it cool."
"Yes," Alba says, her thoughts already on other concerns.
Irina fears the forest, but there is no spot secret enough in her husband's house for such a purpose as hers. She veils her thoughts, hoping Alba's creatures will not see past them to her intentions. Irina leads them down a different path than the last time, but the ending will come all the same.
When Irina tires they stop, and she draws from her pocket the beautiful fruit. She wipes a speck of lint away with shaking fingers and holds the apple out to the girl. "We have walked so far," she says. "You must be hungry."
The trees around them own their shadows. It is quiet here, and cool.
Alba knows what she is being given. She has thought long on it, turned the prospects in her mind like a jewel. She sees the pain and starving need in Irina's face, thinly masked with false friendship. Alba weighs the possibilities contained in Irina's plot. She can chose a quick death here in the cool green forest or a slow one in service to her husband-to-be.
Alba takes the red fruit, turns it in her hand. Irina watches her, avid. Alba meets her stare and lifts the apple to her opened mouth. She bites it, and her eyes grow wide as the morsel falls on the back of her tongue and shuts her throat. The juice of it trickles down, sweet, the taste of the apple following her into nothingness like a memory.
Irina waits, her own breath held as Alba's stops. Her fingers crook into claws around a sliver of blade. She hopes she has hidden her purpose from the creatures, hopes she will have enough time. The forest is still as a grave. Irina bends over fallen Alba, loosens her blouse, bares her white breast for her harvest. She clears her thoughts to let the memorized chant flow free, but the spell she whispers dies on her lips as Alba's protectors coalesce from the shadows. They come armed with knives and claws and teeth of their own. Irina knows her chance is gone and runs from them, unsated, hot hate in her mouth instead of a warm heart. One possible future is wasted.
The manikins do not care that Irina has escaped. They care only for their Alba. They lift her, a multitude of small hands to bear her slender body away. Under the trees, with them, she is safe even if she does not draw breath. They know she is not lost to them. Irina did not understand her potion's subtlety. The rare poison keeps Alba still, but not ended. Her eyes remain open, reflecting patterns of leaves and shards of sky. Her pale hand still curls around the apple.
The creatures carry her deep into the forest to their home, where they have made a shrine for her in anticipation of this moment. They have carved a coffin of quartz as clear as glass, polished and shaped like the curve of arms to hold her. Fine loam covers the bottom, and moss and thickly scattered leaves, a soft bed for a sleeping princess. They knew she would need such shelter. They lay her in it like a babe into a cradle, tuck the bitten apple in with her and close the case.
Time goes on, days, seasons, at last a year.
It is a year she does not live, a year her great grey eyes look into nothingness and watch it pass. She is become a traveler within her own glass coffin, always between time and more time. Her pale fingers bend around the red, red fruit, cradling it against her still heart. Her coffin's translucence is lost to dust and cobwebs, to a dappled pattern made of rain on the dust. Weeds crawl up around it. She is outside the limits of measure, now, and can extend her life indefinitely, tick by precious tick. She remains unpossessed, drowsing and almost aware.
In the year Alba dreams, Irina loses two more pregnancies. The second is a son born too early who drew breath for an hour before he died. She grows desperate, knowing how close her own fate hangs over her. Her king's mood changes from one of expectation to one of demand. He grows older, his own time slipping away, his opportunity for an heir with it. Even his daughter is lost. Sometimes he strikes Irina, careless in his disappointment, because she means so little to him.
To escape him for brief hours Irina walks alone in the forest. It is safe enough now that Alba is gone. She travels the paths she knows. She wonders if her life is worth another apple for the king.
One day she pushes further into the trees, following the merest sketch of a path. She can feel the age of the mossy trunks around her, the weight of time misting the air. She presses on through a grove of fir trees, sliding past their sagging branches into a dappled clearing. Irina stands for a moment in the sudden sunlight, letting it warm her skin. She has lost much of her color since she has become a wife.
It is a few moments before Irina notices the mottled glass coffin beneath its covering of branches. She walks to it cautiously and brushes away the powdery dust. Inside, blurred as if by water, she can make out the still form of Alba. The girl is unchanged, uncorrupted. Irina draws in a startled breath. The protections on Alba have preserved her even from poison.
Irina's mind is quick. She sees a chance she did not have before. She marks the path she took, and plots for her own survival.
"My lord," Irina says one day after she had thought long on what to tell him, "My lord, I have heard whispers of where Alba may be."
He takes her bait. He has missed Alba, his only child. But she is also still part of his strategy. The discovered child is of far more use than those yet unborn.
The king gathers his rowdy court and makes a party of the expedition. Irina, brittle in bright dress, leads the company into the forest by an indirect path, forcing them to rely on her direction. She will hold what power she can. At times she glances over her shoulder at the loud pageant of lords and servants and the prince to whom Alba is still promised. Irina thinks him vulgar, but she is not his bride. The party laughs and jokes and sings around her but Irina pays them little mind, leading them on, wary always of Alba's guardians. At last she stops, knowing the nobles are lost, and points to the end of their journey.
"There she is," she says, her voice low and resonant beneath the trees.
The forest is lush around Alba's coffin, but still the glint of crystal scatters through the branches. The prince alone dismounts, and with the king's permission tears away the weeds that have grown up around Alba where she rests. The prince rubs the surface of the casket clean with his yellow velvet sleeve and peers into Alba's wide open eyes. He cries out, and jumps back, shaming himself before the company.
The king laughs hard and comes up beside the young man, looking down at his lost daughter.
"Well, free her, man," he says, and beckons his party forward to help the prince lift the massive lid. Stone scrapes stone, and cool air spills over the sides of the casket. It smells sweetly of apple.
With nothing between them the prince gazes down on Alba, appraising her. Then he bends close and touches her lightly, stroking her dark hair and running fingers over her parted lips. He slips his hands beneath her cool body and lifts her free of her tomb. As he raises her the bit of apple falls from her between lips, burning the ground where it lands. Alba coughs in a spasm and draws breath again, and her open eyes once more see the world. The company falls back in superstitious caution. Irina watches the resurrection, fascinated and appalled. She has bought herself time.
As Alba comes awake she looks dazedly at the faces around her, until she looks up at her father's wife. Their eyes meet, their gazes hold. Alba sees clearly how tight Irina's face is drawn, the fear there, the pallor. Alba knows she has been bartered again.
Even as she allows the strange prince to lift her high, hold her up and carry her before him on his horse, Alba's heart balks. She does not want this, she will not bear this. But she is weak from her year away, and tolerates his touch and his smell as the company sings out the miracle of her return and chatters emptily of the coming wedding. Alba does not desire the prince who will release her from one stasis into another. How could she? He is a stranger, who loves not her but what she brings. She marries him at her father's will, to bind the kingdoms, to seal their fortunes. Alba leans her head back against this strange man and closes her eyes at last.
Time flies, now. Three months from her awakening is the length of her engagement, three hours long the wedding rite, and three days full of the feasting. The guests grow fat and drunk in celebration.
But Alba is bored by it all, her prince becoming a lout in fine clothing as he guzzles rich wine, and her father a bloated pig. Nothingness is more than what this court can offer. Alba glances at Irina where she sits like a statue beside her reveling king, grey as dust and wasting away, pregnant again. Maybe this time she will bear a live son.
Alba sits at table as she should and toys with her silver knife, crossing it with her spoon, slicing the grease still smeared on her plate. She is finished with looking at the rejoicing company. They do not matter to her. This is not what she wants. Her eyes, watching the glint of the blade, do not see whose hands place the bowl of fruit close before her. But she does see, nestled among grapes and figs and almonds, a single red apple with dew still on its skin. She glances quickly around to see who else has noticed, but they ignore her. She is not one of them. She is alone with the temptation in the sea of revelers.
She takes the apple from the bowl, the apple so smooth and perfect it can only be a thing of artifice. It fits her hand. It has been there before. Turning it she can see where she bit into it once, a year ago. The flesh is still perfectly white, uncorrupted. Her fingers burn against its rosy skin. Alba lifts it to her lips, smiles around it at her new husband when he leers at her, and once again sinks her small sharp teeth into its flesh.
The next breath Alba draws rattles in her throat, drawing the morsel of apple down to lodge behind her tongue, to bind her again to the space between moments, to take her out of the world. As she falls she hears Irina cry out. She cannot tell the words, only the tone of despair. Then she is gone.
Hands lift her, soft as wings. A shadow, she is moving, but only across distance. Time is done with her. She does not know it. Her protectors carry her gently back to the sheltering forest, to the glass coffin they kept for her should she need its refuge again. They understand the workings of her world. They lay her in it, make sure the apple is still in her hands, brush her tangled black hair smooth again. They touch her, patting her softly, affectionately, with long fingers before they close the lid once more upon her. She slips from memory into myth.
Years pass before her open eyes. She dreams, awake, a slow fever of motion and change, light and darkness, frost and hot sunlight. She has no memory of it. She herself is changeless. She becomes a legend, Alba, the lost girl, the lost tomb with a treasure within it, rubies and onyx, ivory and pearl. She would laugh to hear the young men whisper about her over their mugs, plotting to prove their manhood by finding her and releasing her. She is something to be acted upon, a blank canvas, clear water.
But one young man goes further than bragging. He searches beyond the rumors and bravado for the fragments of truth that straggle through old church records and royal missives. Royal himself, another prince, he has the means and the time to follow each possibility into the forest, a quest that he hopes will win him a legend of his own.
He does not truly expect to find her, not Alba. He expects barren bones. He expects some hollow reflection of the gilded tales. But with effort and a long portion of his youth he finds the place where she lays, and at last stands in the strangeness of it. The forest clearing is hushed, and lonely, lost rather than abandoned. Vines twine thickly around the glass tomb, the grave so long untended that the form inside is unseeable, her existence an act of faith. Like another prince before him he pulls the heavy growth away, rubs at the filthy coffin to peer inside. There is a figure in there, shadowed and indistinct, still softly female.
This prince runs his fingers along the edge of the casket, feeling for the junction between body and lid. He finds it. He digs a pry-bar into the narrow slot, and wedges the heavy lid up. When the seal is breached a sweet breath escapes, a fragrance of earth and dry grasses and ripe fruit. Straining, he pushes the lid aside, rocking the coffin, rocking the still figure within. The incorrupt apple once more rolls out of Alba's hands. The bite of it once more rolls off her tongue. Her throat again opens. She gasps, and closes her eyes for the first time in ages, letting her memory refill. She has felt all this before. It is no surprise to her.
But he steps back, overwhelmed, overawed. Alba rises without his help, pale within a cloak of loose black hair, and looks at him in slow, chill judgment. His fine clothes and signet betray his rank. He is a man like her father was, like her long-ago husband. Rooted to the earth, consumed with status and rule. She does not want him. She raises one white hand and waves him away.
The prince flees from her, convinced she is vampire, demon, monster. He sought only to rob a grave and prove his own wit, not to resurrect a living myth. She is unnatural, to still live. Her magic is not what was bargained for.
Alba is glad for the rustling silence that fills in the prince's wake. She sits alone on the edge of the glass coffin as the day unspools, adjusting to the sensation of passing hours. It does not matter to her that she is alone, unanchored. She breathes, deeply, evenly, reclaiming her life. She must decide what it will be, now.
The falling sun gilds her, and finally she is able to slip back into the steam of time. She stands, solitary, surveying the quiet forest. She knew this place once. It was safe, here.
It is hard to walk, hard to begin to live again. The apple still lies in the coffin, in the cool hollow where her body had been. Alba moves a little stiffly, steps gingerly away from it, uncertain of this new course. It has been so very long.
Among the tall trunks she remembers more than sees the path she must take. She follows the bare memory of a trail to a low, ruined house. She has never been inside it, but she knows what she knows. Her mother left her this, if nothing else.
The door is gone, and much of the roof. The house has been uninhabited for many of the years she lay untouched in her coffin. Inside the crumbled house still are seven small husks, dry scraps of leather and bone, the relics of her protectors. They were faithful to her to the ends of their lives, but they could not live forever. Not like she might. The thought is too much for her. She turns away from them, unable to alter their fate.
Light streams into the house from many broken places, a lattice in the air. On the sagging mantle a bright thing catches her eye. She lifts it into the light. It is a small statue of a slim young woman, all in white marble save the ruby heart cupped in her carved hands and the smoke quartz glint of her eyes.
Her eyes are open. They knew she would come back.
x x x
Sort of like the girl from our last story . . . all these folks seem to come back. I liked this one becuase of the author's masterful uise of the present tense throughout. I use that trope when I write my Gavin McQue stories and, believe me, it ain't easy. Erica's done a fine job, here, and--like her protagonist--I hope she "comes back" . . . because this story's a winner. Let me know what you think on our BBS -GM