Wrap wrap, wrap. The tea cups, thick cream sticky in their bottoms, slipped into the wash sink. I walked to the door, rubbing my palms on my apron. Through the crack between the door and door-frame I saw a hunched old woman…she looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place her. Perhaps she had news from the northern nobles.
“Yes?” I asked through the door crack. It was a lovely gold and brown autumn day; dust clung to the folds of her cloak, leaves and bramble to her hems. Her hood was up.
“Ehhh, pretty child, good day, good day.”
“Good day to you,” I said cautiously.
“Eeehh, we shall see, shan’t we? Ehhh, I have good things to sell you, if you’d but have them. Handsome, sturdy things, trinkets and cloths of all shapes and sizes.”
“Oh?” I said.
“Eeeh, yes, pretty child. Would you like to look at them?”
I hesitated. We’d been avoiding strangers, but I was sure I’d seen this old one somewhere before … somewhere … I just couldn’t remember.
“I suppose. Please, do come in.”
She propelled herself to the table with the help of a walking stick, and began plucking things from deep pockets in her cloak. Soon the table was covered. Beautiful, thick paperweights, a small chest of dried mushrooms, links for chainmail, good thick muslin, and then, sitting so pale in the light of the kitchen window it almost looked like a mound of snowflakes, was a heap of the finest lace I’d seen in a long while.
“Ooh,” I breathed, closing my eyes for a brief moment.
“Ehh, pretty girl likes the lace, does she,” asked the old woman, her eyes following mine. Then she seemed to peer intently at me, looking first from my hair, to my cheeks, then my lips and my long white arms. “Yes, yes, I’m sure this would just suit you. Just what you deserve. Half price, my dear. Most in these parts have no use for such finery, but t’will be perfect for you,” she said. She picked up a section, splayed it against my bodice. “Eeeh, yes. And some silk stays, too, to match.”
I know I should not have, but I gave her the silver and we sewed the lace onto my once simple bodice together, her eyes darting over my nimble fingers. Then I put it back on and she began to thread the stays through the eyelets. Tighter and tighter she pulled, the boning of the bodice pushing against my ribs. I’d forgotten how tight these styles were meant to be worn. Tighter and tighter, and tighter, and tighter, and tighter…
And then she laughed, and I saw no more.
“Fool woman,” grumped Jaap, “tying her bodice that tight. Thought we’d cured her of all that courtly nonsense.”
I lay on the kitchen floor, the dwarves huddled around me expectantly. My fingers went to the bodice. It was quite loose now.
“What happened to pretty Fraulein?” asked Win, his eyes wide, frightened. There was no grin today. I tried not to groan but did, and sat up. Pinpricks of blood dotted my sheath, the bodice discarded at my sides.
“Tied my stays…” I groaned again, for I could not hide it, “too tightly.”
“Looks like the Queen’s work to me, gents,” said Meinrad, his voice grim.
“No, really. I just tied them too tight. It was as Jaap said. I should have known better.”
“Oh? And who brought you such fine things to wear, hmm fair Fraulein?”
“I — I don’t know her name. But I knew her; I’ve seen her somewhere, an old woman, peddling things,” I explained. The dwarves looked darkly at one another.
“Peddling antique lace and silken stays? Think carefully, Fraulein,” said Meinrad. “Did you see anything…anything unusual ?Anything that did not fit? Tell us.”
He seemed so insistent. I closed my eyes, relaxed into the dirt floor. The light through the door was dusty, so was her cloak. Bits of fallen leaves. Her face…so familiar. Behind her, in a distance through the trees, was her horse.
I opened my eyes but a moment, then closed them again. Horse? But where would an old woman like her get a horse like that, sleek and fine necked, her coat the color of ebony in the sun—
The horse. Winter. The Queen was abroad, and knew where I was, and she—she had magic.
It was going to be a very, very worrisome autumn.
With even stricter laws on hunting and provisioning, the people around us grew gaunt with poverty. The dwarves and I fared well, for they, small and agile, could sneak into the forbidden silver mines much easier than their taller counterparts. We shared when we could, but the pride of our friends was a fearsome thing to behold, and they took little charity. But autumn itself did not notice the worried whispers in the forest, and slowly, gently, the world turned to winter, during which three—only three—of my letters returned. So much for the nobles.
It was afternoon only and yet the twilight was thick in the air. Snow carpeted the forest floor, just barely, up to the cottage door. I always took an afternoon walk this time of year, to sneak a bit of fresh air before the dwarves returned, and night fell.
There. Ahead. A rustling of some sort. Are they home early? Surely not, I thought, and I slowed my steps. There, again. Too big to be a bird.
“Hello?” I kept my voice soft; the woods were eerie during twilight if you were unfamiliar with them, and I did not want to frighten anyone.
No response. Then, around a thicket of blackberry bramble, sat the crying woman. They were soft, breathy sobs, and she had her thin, lined face buried in a frosty wool scarf. She was the age my own mother would have been, had she lived. I came to her, on my knees, placing my warm hands in front of me to show I meant her no ill.
“Are you alright?”
“I—“ she shuddered with breath “I got lost. I got lost.” She turned her face to me, blinked wide, heavily lidded eyes that did not make sense of many things. “And I got lost, and I got cold, and cold made lost worse. I got lost,” she repeated.
“All will be well,” I told her, grasping her hands and mine and gently tugging her to her feet. I could hear her knees creak. “You’ll come with me and get warm, and then we’ll see you home again. Now that sounds nice, doesn’t it?” She nodded.
After some tea and her feet by the fire, she livened up considerably.
“Braid the hair,” she told me importantly, looking over her shoulder slyly from her stool at the hearth. I smiled at her.
“My hair is already braided.” And I pointed.
“Braid the hair. I braid the hair.” Her voice made it sing-song.
“Alright,” I consented. How shall we find her home, I wondered. Perhaps she worked for a lady for one of the manors to the north. I could write more letters, but…
“Braid the hair!”
“Yes, yes. Of course.” I sat on a stool in front of her. Her fingers were surprisingly deft as she began to uncoil my braid, fanning the strands down my back.
“Pretty,” she stated, smacking her lips behind me. “Black and white, black and white.” And the hair loosened and loosened.
That’s when I saw it, the flash of the carved horn comb in her hand.
“Wha—“ and the comb ripped, sharp and electric, down my scalp.
“Silly Princess,” Donar stroked my loose hair from my face as he lifted my head. His normally booming voice sounded a very great distance away. “You mustn’t let in the Queen. What shall we do with you, our sweet Fraulein?” A tankard was pressed to my lips. Brandy. My vision cleared slightly, and I realized Meinrad had been forcing the liquor down me, quite a bit, judging by the warmth in my throat and stomach.
“Better?” Meinrad asked.
“Y—yes,” I said. “Everything…everything hurts. Why do I hurt?”
“The Queen again,” growled Jaap. “This time with a poisoned comb.”
“I remember,” I said, letting Donar push me into a sitting position in front of the fire. “I knew the comb, I knew it to be hers...”
“I cannot believe how foolhardy you are,” Jaap blustered. Had he been crying? Win certainly had, he looked as if he’d cried until there were no tears left in all the world.
I felt weary.
“Sorry isn’t good enough,” Meinrad said softly, pressing the partially-filled tankard into my hands. “From now on, one of us is with you at all times. She’ll come again, make no mistake.”
That she would. Bad things, the wood folk have a habit of saying, always visit in threes.