She peered out from under her wolf-hood. The room pulsed with the heartbeats of all who lay there. One beat quicker than the others, and she smelled the fear ruminating off of the girl the queen picked up on the road. She watched Penny sneak a look at a canvas map and then stuff it into her bag.
She wondered why Dri-fa told her to make sure the girl never left her sight and to protect her at all costs. She reminded Dri-fa that even though the queen seemed coarse and cold hearted she was really gentle and kind and would never harm the girl. Dri-fa left with the queen’s stepmother before Allerleirauh could ask any questions, but it was easy to fulfill her request.
She liked Penny. No one had offered to help her with dinner chores before. Maybe the queen would assign Penny to help her with cooking for the rest of the journey. It would be nice to have a friend to talk to on the trip back to the queen’s palace.
She settled back and tried to go to sleep, but the strange events of the day kept her awake. The cloak clung to her, almost suffocating her. She couldn’t take it off. She wouldn’t take it off. She lay still in hopes of drifting off to sleep, but her own mind raced. Old memories haunted her this night as they had every night of the past year.
She shifted the cloak around her, remembering the night her father had given it to her, the night she left Atmøs. She packed her bags in a hurry that evening, grabbing a loaf of bread and a few apples from the kitchen. Earlier that night, her father made the ascent into her tower and announced that he intended to marry her the next morning at sunrise. He threw the cloak of a thousand skins at her feet and said that she had no right to refuse him any longer. She, of course, pretended to be delighted. For she did send him on his fool’s errand, requesting that he make her a cloak from the skins of a thousand animals. She hoped he would die in the process or, in his madness that changed everyday, forget that he desired to make his daughter his bride.
He fell at her feet, grabbed her hands, and brought them to his lips. “In the morning you will be my bride, little Belle.” He called her by her mother’s name. He hadn’t called her by her own name, Allerleirauh, in over a year. She loosened her arm from his grip and petted the cloak as if it were a good dog.
“This is beautiful,” her voice caught as she draped the cape over her narrow shoulders and looked into her mother’s ancient mirror, the glass rippled and dimpled with age. She preened before it like an exotic beast. A wolf’s head adorned the hood, hues of white fur patched together made the sleeves, brown and black fur formed diagonal stripes down the front, and swatches of long hair in chunks of brown, blonde, and black flowed down the back.
“Is this,” she gasped in horror, “ is this… what is this?” She pointed to the long hair in the back. His smile faded.
“Aren’t you pleased my bride?” He ran his claws through the long hair.
“An extra touch for my beautiful Belle, a cloak of animal hide alone was not good enough.” He kissed her hand again. She turned away.
“Bounty from the executions. The most beautiful maidens on the Isle are worth nothing compared to you.” He smiled. “Their beauty is merely worthy of your adornment. Tomorrow you will wear this cloak and all our kingdom will know my adoration of my bride.” He kissed her cheek, oblivious to her grimace and left.
She slammed the door behind him with disgust realizing why her father insisted on performing the executions of the beautiful women in the courtyard beneath her tower. Did he think that would impress her? The room spun; she felt nauseated. Her governess led her to a chair.
“Princess Allerleirauh, you have to leave, you can’t marry him,” she whispered. Allerleirauh met her eyes; she could smell the fear in the room, the cloak seemed to heighten her senses. Did her governess know that she planned to leave that very night?
“I can undress myself tonight, Lady Katarina.” Allerleirauh clasped her governess’s hands in her own. “Please go.” She brought her governess’s fingertips to her lips and kissed them. “I will be fine.” The older woman nodded and left with tear filled eyes. Allerleirauh wanted her to be above suspicion and able to tell her father that she had no idea where the princess had gone.
As a child, she loved her father. He would visit her once a year, the day after her birthday, for on her birthday he grieved the loss of her mother who died birthing her into the world. He brought her presents from the more exotic Southern kingdoms. She sang to him, played the Djaro, and made him delicious dishes with the assistance of her governess. He left at the end of each birthday with promises to return next year. She remembered crying and begging him to stay, but he would always leave and say, “Not now pet, you have toys and Governess to keep you happy.”
On her fourteenth birthday he came to visit as usual, but this time a haunted look lingered in his eyes. He stared around the room lost and confused until he saw Allerleirauh standing by her governess.
“Belle?” he said, and ran to her, falling on his knees and sobbing before her. “Belle, it’s been so long, but you look the same as the day we met.” He kissed her hands. She remembered shrinking back in horror.
“Father, it is I, your daughter, Allerleirauh.” He threw his head back and laughed.
“Oh my darling.” He kissed her cheek. “I have no daughter.” The dull truth of those words hit her like a curse, and she recoiled at the kisses she had welcomed just a year ago.
“What would my bride have for a wedding gift?” He asked in earnest. Wedding gift? The lump of horror in her throat grew so large she could barely speak. By now she was accustomed to his beast appearance, but she recoiled at the shaggy fur, the spines sticking through his back, the eagle like talons growing from his hands. His features disgusted her.
“I want a cloak, a cloak made from the skins of a thousand beasts,” she spat and wrenched her hands away from him.
“Anything my darling.” He kissed her hands, unaware of her suppressed feelings of disgust. He rode away that afternoon joyful and promising to return in time for an autumnal wedding. Within eight months he brought back the furs and ordered the cloak made. She hoped he would die out there, facing wild beasts and trespassing into foreign kingdoms, but he did not, and now he expected her to marry him.
She remembered wearing the cloak and wrapping an old blanket over it before slipping out of the unguarded tower. Her father, in his delusion, didn’t think to guard the tower of his one true love, so set was his belief in her reciprocal feelings. She waited by the Southern Gate until the early morning when the shepherds let out their flocks to graze. She hobbled along, walking as a beggar to avoid questioning and slipped into the shadows of the boulder fields surrounding the city of Atmøs.
It wasn’t until she entered the Volksmarchen that the forest and the road appeared. She heard through the whispered stories of her governess that all roads in Volksmarchen led to the Queen’s City, so she followed the road in hopes of finding a refuge. Maybe in a large city she could find work, safety, and a home with more rooms than a one-room tower.
She remembered the moon that night, silver and huge as it cast a glow over the whole landscape. The trees lurched over her, throwing warped shadows on the world. She walked faster hoping to out run the fears plaguing her mind. A thick root snagged her feet, pulling her down to the earth, and she slammed her face against a rock.
Stunned, she lay there feeling the blood trickle down her forehead and drip onto the packed soil. It started to dry as the minutes passed. She imagined sinking into the earth, disappearing beneath the ground and out of reach of her father. A home underground with the sprites and the hares appealed to her. Her father would never find her there.
The rustlings of nocturnal animals caught her attention, and the energy of the plants overwhelmed her. The longer she wore the cloak the more she became like a beast herself. She threw off the suffocating hood and inhaled the cool night air. The brilliance of the plants nearly blinded her; each blade of grass reflected the moon’s sheen, and the colors of the flowers glowed even in the darkness.
The figure of a man emerged through the thick growth of the forest, but she did not feel afraid. He offered her a hand, and she reached for it, feeling the energy of a thousand forests flowing through his veins. She gasped as he pulled her to her feet and dropped his hand as the energy overwhelmed her. He towered over her. The hair on his legs grew thick like fur, and instead of feet, he stood on hooves.
“You’re not afraid of me?” His voice twinkled with laughter, and he smiled.
“No.” She smiled back. “I feel better now that you’re here. Who are you?” She tilted her head far back but could not see his full face.
“I am Pan, God of the wilderness and wild things, and you know me, Allerleirauh, Princess of the Hobs, for you are a wild thing.” He let go of her hand. “You are seeking safety.”
“Yes,” she mumbled. “My father…” He squeezed her shoulder.
“Your father is mad with grief. He may come out of it yet, but you need to hide somewhere safe. His patrols comb the Boulder Fields looking for you, and soon they will make it to the Queen Aschenputtel’s woods.” He extended a hand. “You will seek shelter in the palace of the queen. She is a friend of mine and always in need of good cooks.” He smiled down at her. She looked back in awe.
“How do you know that I like to cook?” she asked, and his eyes twinkled with mischievousness.
“The wild world keeps track of its own.” He smiled and she reached for his hand. The same energy coursed through her arm that had overwhelmed her before, but this time it pulsed with warmth and excitement. They stepped forward together, and with each step they covered miles, putting the fortress of her father far behind.
She smiled now, thinking of Pan. He had left her at the gates of the palace with a message for the queen. Guards found her the next morning, and they rushed her to the queen when she told them she had a message from Pan. The queen ran to the gates after she delivered the message, but Allerleirauh knew he was long gone.
Queen Aschenputtel asked her to be a companion to her ward, Persinette, but she assured the queen that her place was in the kitchens and that she required no special treatment, just a small home next to the kitchens where she could work her troubles away.
That was over a year ago. Now, more troubles plagued the queen’s kingdom, and she found herself being pulled from the kitchens and taken on expeditions with the queen and her guards to find resources and answers from whoever could give them. She missed the kitchens and her little home in the city.
The soft rustlings of her companions in the tree house brought her back to the night at hand. Sleep tugged a heavy curtain across her memories, and she sighed as she noticed that all the heartbeats had slowed to a restive pace, including her own.
He crumpled in a corner of the tree house, relieved for a chance to sit and rest. The long day tired him. He had worked so hard to stay invisible from the queen and her guards. Sleep would be easy. He pulled a blanket up to his chin and chided himself for his carelessness earlier. Half of his film plates were now broken. He would have to sneak into Atmøs to find replacements.
When they arrived at the tree house he had zoomed up to the top and snapped a few photos of the girl inside it. She looked as if she were waiting for a visitor and preparing the table for a guest to join her. The folk soldiers went up one by one until he and the jittery, long nosed man with a limp ponytail remained.
He thought he’d have some fun with the nervous, pasty man and set his camera and plates on a smooth stone. Delight filled him as the man chose this moment to relieve himself against a tree. Harrier giggled at the good timing of it all and snatched the man’s pants, pulling down with all his might. The man screamed as if wild beasts were mauling him and stumbled backwards, kicking the camera and crushing the plates.
Seeing his plates crushed on the ground, Harrier roared in anger and changed into a wild boar, his father’s natural essence, and his too when he grew enraged. The man cried in real fear and ran away from the tree and into the woods. Harrier’s rage subsided when he looked down at his hands and realized that he still held the man’s woven breeches. He didn’t think the man would come back anytime soon, and he let out a primal roar to ensure that he wouldn’t.
His camera lay dirty at his feet. It sat intact, but now he only had a few plates to spare. He would need to get some new plates quickly. The sprites were too far south, and he didn’t want to bump into his father while grabbing the extra plates the ambassador brought. He would have to sneak into Atmøs if he wanted to take more pictures. He rubbed his temples. UGH. It would be a risk, for Atmøs was a confusing city, built half underground and half above it. He would never find the camera inventor’s workshop. He inhaled as he settled into his makeshift bed, and a thin smile spread across his face. He liked risks.
Morning songbirds woke her from fitful sleep. They chirped and chased each other through the open walls of the tree house. The soldiers and the fur cloaked cook still slept around her. Blankets housing bodies rose and fell with each sleeping breath. She stretched out her legs. Not brave enough to escape, but feeling curious, she peeled back her blankets and slipped her feet onto the floor.
The cold wood slats shocked her feet into wakefulness. They tingled as she put her weight on them. She would like to find some shoes soon. After walking all day yesterday and well into the night on bare feet, her muscles ached, and her nerves tingled with each step. She tiptoed out the door to the edge of the porch and peeked towards the forest floor, looking for a sign of Gustav, but she saw only the tops of trees.
The suffocating clasp of the towering trees hid her from the view of any creature on the forest floor, or any birds in the air. Up here she could see how Persinette would get so bored. It seemed that the world below did not exist. The isolation sent a chill through her bones, but the birds’ songs soon warmed her. The breeze rustled the leaves and played with her hair, tickling her face. Penny smiled. She was not alone; the West Wind danced around her.
“Beautiful morning, isn’t it?” the soft, cool voice of the queen startled her out of her reverie. She spun around and frowned at the dazzling queen. Hot anger flashed to Penny’s face, and before she could stop herself, her temper burst through her lips.
“You kidnapped me!” She accused and stopped before she said more, afraid of what the queen would do.
The queen pursed her lips together, her mouth drawn in a tight smile. She squinted her eyes, seeming to make up her mind on what to do with Penelope before sweeping down on her and grabbing the front of her shirt.
“I would fling you off this tower to be rid of you and show your mother what it’s like to lose a child. But you saved my life in the bakery, and I am not so cruel as to forget that,” she spat out the last words before letting go. She rubbed her palm where she had gripped Penny’s shirt, and Penny saw the dark nail marks there where the queen dug into her own palm. The queen sighed and composed herself, patting down Penny’s rumpled collar. Penny flinched from her touch.
“Now,” Queen Aschenputtel smiled her stiff smile. “Let us go inside; we can find some of Persinette’s old clothes and get you out of this ridiculous garb. Allerleirauh is making breakfast, and I would never spoil a good breakfast over bad blood.” She spun around and turned back into the tree house.
Penny’s heart pounded like a deep drum. The buttons on her blouse rose and fell with each pounding heartbeat; she stood for a moment catching her breath and then followed the queen with uncertainty. What had just happened there? Did the queen blame her mother for her losing a child?
The aroma of Allerleirauh’s breakfast filled the air within minutes. Yellow eggs steamed from a bowl on the table. Loaves of bread the size of watermelons rose on the little oven in the corner. Bowls full of the largest fruit Penny had ever seen sat in front of each plate.
Apples the size of her head, strawberries bigger than a man’s fist, grapes too big to eat without cutting, and honey drizzled yogurt sat by each plate, with jams and jellies of every color and flavor. A pitcher of lavender water sat next to the eggs, and a tiny vase with fresh flowers sat in the center of it all. Penny stood in awe.
“Allerleirauh creates magic in the kitchen,” the queen boasted. “I had the foresight to hire her in the kitchens when she showed up at the city gates looking like a sick beast any hunter would shoot just to put it out of its misery.” She laughed and patted the fur-clad girl on the shoulder. The queen surveyed the room.
She sighed. “Everyone is here except Persinette –that girl is more spoiled than a coddled pig. Go fetch her please, Allerleirauh.” Allerleirauh nodded, smiling from the compliments, and retreated into the interior of the tree house. Everyone stood around the table waiting for her to return; no one dared to sit down without the queen first doing so. The delicious smells teased Penny, and all she wanted was to bite the fresh soft bread now baking in the oven.
Footsteps clattered toward them, and Allerleirauh reappeared. Alone. Wide-eyed, she glanced around the room and settled on the queen’s steel gaze.
“She’s in the Death Sleep,” she whispered.
A collective gasp left everyone’s lips. The queen froze. A look of horror crept across her face. She swayed then grabbed the back of her chair to steady herself. Penny closed her eyes, bracing for the coming storm. The tense silence reached her inner thoughts. Persinette dead? She was awake and chatting with the queen just last night. A loud clash of shattering china and tumbling pans startled her out of her thoughts.
The queen commenced to sweep everything off the table. Fruit tumbled across the floor, fragments of eggs and yogurt dripped from the table, the pitcher of lavender water burst into shards when it hit the ground. The soldiers stood back, aghast. Penny trembled. She wanted to run and hide, afraid of what the volatile queen was capable of doing. When she finished destroying their breakfast, the queen collapsed in sobs on the floor.
“She did it, the Story Weaver did it again. I did everything I could to protect Persinette, and none of it mattered.” She seethed. Her blue eyes gleamed. She turned to Penny.
“You!” She stood up and approached her, towering over her with her menacing whip and long, tattered cape. Penny’s knees buckled, and she cowered behind the chair in front of her. The queen glared.
“This is all your fault, your mother’s, your father’s, yours. You have destroyed all that I love.” She raised her whip. Her hand trembled, and she let it fall again as she sank into a nearby chair. She turned to the soldiers. “Prepare the princess for the Crystal Caves.”
Two soldiers rushed into Persinette’s bedroom. Allerleirauh began cleaning up the mess from the overturned breakfast. Penny sat in shock and watched the queen as she stared out the door at the trees. The soldiers came back carrying Persinette between them on a wooden board.
The queen approached her, grabbing a large knife off the table. The queen raised the knife over Persinette. Penny shouted no, but looked down sheepishly when she realized that the queen grabbed Persinette’s long braid to saw through it.
“She won’t need this any longer,” the queen whispered. “She’s too heavy to carry with all this hair.” The grim soldiers carried Persinette past Penny. Her braid lay on the floor, limp and lusterless. Persinette looked at rest, her mouth relaxed and her hands down at her sides. A slight rise and fall of her chest surprised Penny. She rushed forward to examine her.
She isn’t dead. Penny opened her mouth to alert the queen, but a hard tug on her shoulder stopped her mid-breath. The dead eyes of the wolf’s hood stared back at her before the girl underneath looked up: her green eyes flashing in the light.
“I can see you’re concerned,” she whispered. “You’re right. She’s not dead. She’s in the Death Sleep. It’s a disease that’s afflicted the kingdom for some time, including,” she lowered her voice, “the queen’s own husband and infant son.” Allerleirauh leaned in closer. “There’s no cure for it, but people who have it are taken to the Crystal Caves where they will be protected from death. They lay there, forever in a sleep.” Penny looked at her wide-eyed.
“Poor Persinette,” she whispered. “But why does the queen blame me and my parents?”
Allerleirauh opened her mouth to say more, but the queen approached them, and she scuttled away. The queen grabbed Penny’s elbow and steered her towards the balcony. Penny’s limbs stiffened. To go anywhere with the queen meant she lost her freedom. Anger filled her. She detested the queen, but fear stopped her from wrenching free. They walked towards the edge. The queen threw her to the floor, inches from the railing.
“I decided that you must stay here.” The queen gazed past her, and into the forest. “I cannot protect you from myself. I won’t take you to my kingdom, and closer to your mother.” She stiffened. “I would never allow the two of you to be reunited.” She began to shake with suppressed rage. The relief that filled Penny when she realized that the queen wouldn’t force her to go with her dissipated when she realized the queen intended to leave her in the tree house.
“You can’t leave me here.” Her heart fluttered. “I have to find my mother.” The queen’s stony gaze silenced her.
“She does not want to be found. She abandoned her stories, abandoned all of us.” She glared at Penny. “She abandoned you. Why would you ever want to find her? We are left with the stories she condemned us to, and now we have to make sense of this ugly world she left for us.”
Tears pricked the corners of Penny’s eyes. The queen’s words stung, and her throat went dry. She tried swallowing, but fearing that any movement would cause her to cry, she sat still. She did not want to cry in front of the queen. She didn’t believe the queen but couldn’t muster the courage to question her.
The queen straightened, smoothed out her dress, and seemed intent on keeping up the appearance of control. “If you need supplies, send me a messenger.” She pointed to the wall behind them. Cages holding nests and baskets for mice and birds lined the wall. The woodland creatures gnawed at their breakfasts; some of the mice finished their meals and curled up in the corners of their open baskets for naps. Birds flitted in and out of their nests, their wings stirring the air around them.
“Write a note on a scrap of paper and attach it to either a bird or a mouse.” She showed Penny tiny scraps of paper and a graphite pencil. “Send the mice down the chute.” The queen pointed out a hole in the tree trunk. “And release the birds into the air. They know their way to me. We are all very old friends.” She nuzzled a bird that landed in the palm of her hand, and stroked the chest of a mouse that stood on its hind legs and stared at Penny in curiosity.
Two guards walked past them, loading supplies into the basket and lowering it to the ground where the other guards waited. The fur cloaked cook and the guards loaded the stretcher with Persinette onto the basket. With a sad nod to Penny, the cook lowered herself down. The queen offered Penny a wan smile.
“A supply cart will be here in one week; until then you will have plenty of food and fresh water to sustain yourself.” The remaining guard pulled the basket back on the ledge, and the queen climbed in with her.
“And Penny.” She looked back with scorn. “Do not try to leave the tree. Remember what happened to poor Gustav.” She smiled.
The guard jumped in and lowered them down, passing hand over hand until they descended from Penny’s view. Fear rose up around her. Alone. In the cruel, violent woods, how could she escape? She peeked over the railing. The queen drifted closer to the ground. The rope made of hair pulled tight with their weight.
She resented the queen for leaving her. Running over to the table, she planned a way to take control of her story and grabbed the knife the queen had used to cut Persinette’s hair. She ran back to the ledge and began sawing at the rope. The sight of her hand chopping at the hair startled her, and she pulled away. She lowered the knife by her side. She could not kill the queen; she was not a murderer.
The sounds of the queen and her entourage heading away from the tree house died away, and the grumblings of a very alive, very treacherous forest echoed around her. Scratches and rustlings came from the animals in their cages along the wall. Above her, wild birds screeched and tittered. Below her, the wind rustled through heavy branches, and the occasional call of a wild animal filled her ears. The West Wind tickled her face, and she smiled slightly, not alone.