He followed with care behind the girl and the horseman when the pelting of rocks sent him spinning towards the earth. Confused, he rolled into a tight ball and somersaulted under a thick bush. He lifted his camera with delicacy and smiled in relief to see it unharmed. Peering around the branches, he could not tell where the rocks had come from. Someone must have thrown them. Rocks didn’t just fall from the sky. Soft footsteps a fox’s leap away caused him to duck behind the bush’s wide leaves and press himself into the shadows. A heavier footstep fell in line with the first one, and he knew now that there were two of them.
“Are you sure you saw him fall here?” An anxious female voice hissed.
“Yes, of course,” a raspy voice grumbled. “I watched him all the way down. Little bugger can’t creep around for too long. He’s here.” The footfalls grew closer. He knew those voices; he knew those footsteps. How dare they hunt him down and pelt him with rocks! His own siblings! The outrage. He sprang out from behind his bush and startled the two sprites coming near him.
“Buttercup Blackthorn and Grouse Pearlwort, I must say, I am surprised to see you this far from home. You two must be lost.” He cracked his long fingers, anxious for them to move along. He enjoyed the surprise and uncertainty that crossed the other sprites’ faces. Buttercup blushed from her neck to her forehead, and Grouse rolled his eyes in disdain. They were, by far, his most boring siblings.
“Sprites never get lost, except with one exception.” Grouse peered down his long nose at him with accusation. Harrier’s neck grew hot with indignation. He wanted to pop Grouse in his chubby cheeks for bringing up his one fault.
“That was one time, and I had too much to drink, and the parade was just too long.” He stopped, noticing that the other two were smirking at him.
“Who gets lost in a parade? It’s a straight line.” Buttercup taunted. Grouse snorted. Harrier was not amused.
“Well, if you two are just going to mock me, I will be on my way. I have important business to attend to.” Grouse and Buttercup cast each other serious looks.
“You know we would leave you about your revelry,” Buttercup said. “But we have a duty to Father to find you. He was not happy that you left.” She glared, and Harrier rolled his eyes.
Exasperation filled him. Could he just get on with being a hard-hitting news reporter and not have to deal with these two knuckleheads? Ugh, why couldn’t anything be simple? But the beginnings of an idea nibbled away at the corners of his brain; they were, after all, his two most serious siblings. Could he use their serious nature to his benefit?
“And what is that device you’re carrying?” Grouse reached towards the camera.
“Umm… nothing.” Harrier backed away. “Absolutely nothing…” He tried covering the camera with his shirt, hoping his feigned concealment would catch their interest.
“Oh but it’s something new, and look, it has glass in it.” Buttercup floated next to him. “Wouldn’t you show it to your favorite sister?” She glided around him with a sweet smile.
“No.” He ducked away. “Not even to my sixty-second-eth sister.” Harrier backed away and into Grouse’s thick, barrel-chest. “And not even for one of my eldest brothers who showed me how to change into a turnip. Sorry dear brother.” His words held just enough pleasantries and not enough details to keep their curiosity, and he could see the hungry looks in both of their eyes. Something foreign to their world of nature, and they didn’t have one of their own. Oh, he could see their faces turning greener with jealousy.
“What is it?” What is it?” Buttercup bobbed up and down. Grouse still held a stern look and butted up between the two, pointing a long, tapered finger at Harrier’s chest.
“Is this the device you stole from father? A servant heard you talking about a newspaper as you left. Is that what this is?” Grouse waved wildly at the camera, “a…a…a…newspaper?” The accusing words faded into the air. Harrier chuckled as he knew that not even Grouse knew what he was saying. It’s hard to keep up the appearance of significance when one has no idea of the situation. He snorted. Harrier drifted back to the ground and sighed, faking disappointment at having to tell them everything.
He showed them how the camera operated, dispelling the mystique of the buttons, glass, and levers. He told them about the Weaver’s daughter and his goal of a sprite newspaper that would bring their people to the forefront of importance on the Isle. They sat deep in their thoughts for a few moments until Buttercup whispered, “So the legend is true? There is one who can reunite the Realm of Men and the Isle of Scealta?” Harrier nodded. Buttercup and Grouse looked at each other with knitted brows before turning to him.
“We want in,” they said together. They could not conceal the excitement in their voices. “We want a camera and a newspaper, and to see the mythical daughter of the Story Weaver.” They leaned in together, waiting for his next word. Harrier bubbled over with excitement, but he tried to remain calm. He leaned back and tried to look like their father, pompously pondering his next decision. He stroked his chin.
“This is for serious reporters only. You have to stick with it to the end of the story. You can’t dabble in it for a few days before getting bored. We have to break the sprite code of being fickle, silly, and good for nothing but trickery.” The other two nodded, apparently understanding the solemnity of the situation. He sighed.
“Fine, I guess you can help out. It is a big story,” he conceded. They huddled together and formed a plan.
The queen and her party arrived at her palace between the cliffs, exhausted from their journey. Sore from the night of sleeping in the tree house, and dirty from the long days of riding beforehand, she limped up the narrow staircase to her bedchamber. What happened to Allerleirauh? They noticed hours after they left the tree house that she was no longer with the party. No one could remember if she left with them or stayed behind in the tree house with the Weaver’s daughter.
She sent a small group of soldiers to search for the fur-clad cook, but after a few hours, they returned with no word. Her temples throbbed with fatigue. She reached her bedchamber and smiled at her refuge of peace and solitude. The balcony at the end of her bedroom allowed her a view of the cliffs, the forest, and the Dragon’s Head. Larger than a boulder, the Dragon’s Head hung over the entrance of the main gate and, at night, burned as a beacon for her subjects caught between the cliffs after the sun went down.
In times of siege, which never happened, but which she always prepared for, the jaw could be lowered to shower any attackers with scorching embers. Her treaty with the Hob King to the North was precarious, and she knew that the slightest infraction could cause a war.
Her weak, disheartened kingdom would not stand a chance against the hobs. She rested her head on the cool, stone wall of her tower. She had not always lived between two cliffs, set off from her people in a remote, snaking valley. As she stepped onto her balcony, the harsh afternoon light shone a sharp beam onto a potted fruit tree she had brought from her childhood home. It stood dried and withered. Sighing, she grabbed a pitcher of water off a table and poured water over her dying plant.
She thought of the home she grew up in, content and happy. She remembered the wide, open rooms where her parents received guests, the orchards grown from the seeds of the giants: seeds that produced peaches, apples, and pomegranates the size of her head.
She was eating a peach the day after her sixth birthday when her father told her that her mother had died that morning from a riding accident. He cried, and he held her. She pushed him away, preferring to cry alone in the orchard. She walked and wept along a row of bushes and planted her peach pit there in the mud made by her tears.
A year later, her father married that awful witch, her stepmother, who brought along her twin daughters. Those two wretched stepsisters tormented Aschenputtel without end. Four years older than she, they physically tortured her when the adults weren’t looking and teased and humiliated her even when adults were around. She found herself booted from her own room and reduced to sleeping in the kitchen fire ash for warmth.
She never forgave her father for that. He didn’t intervene when his new wife and stepdaughters treated her worse than a slave: she, his first daughter, and the daughter of his true love. Instead, he huddled away in his study or went on weeklong hunting trips, sleeping in the hunting lodges in the woods.
Water dribbled over the side of the potted tree and splattered her boots. She punched the wall on which she rested her hand moments before. Velvet blood dripped from the dry cracks on her knuckles. She sucked on the blood before it rolled down to her sleeve. Why had he never cared for her? Why did he let them treat her like a slave? They had paid servants; they had parties, and friends. Not one person questioned the treatment of little Aschenputtel, the daughter of his first wife.
If it had not been for her friendship with Pan and his visits with her by the peach tree, she would have run away to anywhere. Not only to get away from the hate and grueling work thrown her way, but to get away from her father’s betrayal. Pan’s advice, company, and humor sustained her through those soul crushing days. He provided her with the gown and dancing slippers she wore to the king’s ball. He conjured the field mice and pumpkin into a splendid horse drawn carriage. He told her to kick off her shoe and leave it as a token for the king.
After the king chose her, and on their wedding day, she saw the lengthy figure of Pan standing on the hillside across from the temple. He waved, and she nodded, knowing that she was the only one who saw the lanky man with the beard, dancing eyes, and pipe. She was the only one who heard his song that day and received his blessing.
As a young bride, she continued to see him on the walks she took alone in the lush castle gardens. He knew before she did that she would bear a beautiful son the same day the Weaver’s daughter was born. The king and she proclaimed a national holiday the day of their son’s birth. The year following was the best year of her life. She forgot the evil treatment of her stepmother and stepsisters, and the betrayal of her father. Free to do as she pleased for the first time since her mother died, she filled her days loving her son, practicing archery, walking in the gardens, and working with her husband to eradicate the mistreatment of children in the kingdom. The people called her the Children’s Princess, a title she loved.
Twelve long years passed since that wonderful year. She remembered her son trying to walk, grasping her fingers, and taking tiny steps to his father who stood smiling across from them. She remembered his dimpled hands reaching for her hair, and his long lashes closed in beautiful slumber.
Her jaw tightened, and she pushed the tears back. Now he lay in the Crystal Caves, wasting away in the Death Sleep. He lay there, thin and weak but not a day older than the day the Weaver had abandoned their fates. She touched the corner of her eyes, feeling the slight wrinkles that formed there. Her handsome husband would be surprised to find himself married to an older woman if he ever woke up.
She sank into a large chair and watched the afternoon sunlight creep across the sky. The light reminded her of the last time she saw Pan. The evening before she ordered the execution of her stepsisters, she walked the gardens of the palace contemplating her decision. She considered extending mercy to them, but they had crossed her too many times. They had gone too far when they went to her enemies among the nobles and accused her of using witchcraft to seduce the king.
Tired of their scheming, she ordered their execution on the basis of kidnapping and thievery before the nobles could intervene. Yes, they stole from the palace anytime they came near it, and yes they perpetuated child slavery by luring orphans off the street to work in their mother’s bakery. She knew they ran a black market out of the bakery and killing them was the best way to be rid of them.
Sparing their mother was the best revenge. Aschenputtel knew no worse torture than the memory of a child taken away too soon. She wanted that punishment for the Story Weaver too: unrelenting sorrow.
The last place she saw Pan was in the palace’s ancient garden, growing wild with neglect. She fired most of the palace gardeners when the costs of treating those stricken with the Death Sleep became too expensive to keep palace staff.
“Is this what you plan to do then?” Pan said as she slashed into a tall row of hedges under the pretense of pruning them, but all she wanted was something to cut, destroy, obliterate.
She spun around in surprise. He waved his hand over the destroyed bushes, healing what she had smashed. “So you plan to execute them?” He asked.
“My oldest friend.” She smiled, ignoring the healed bushes. “What does it matter to you that two more evils leave the Isle?” His sad eyes twinkled, not with laughter this time, but with grief.
“The earth cannot soak up anymore blood.” He rested a hand on her shoulder. “The Death Sleep, the violence of the Hob King, too much blood has spilled. The Isle swells with it.”
She shrugged him off. “You liken their deaths to the deaths of innocents, to the deaths of thousands of my people. There is no comparison. The deaths of two criminals should be a welcome sacrifice of justice to the Isle.” She met his gaze with defiance but looked away, embarrassed, when his gaze showed only love.
“No sacrifice is needed. It’s not for the condemned I plead, but for their condemner. When will you stop this legacy of anger?” His voice faded away, and when she looked up to where he stood, he was gone.
The memory of their last encounter burned fresh in her mind. She chose not to extend mercy that day, and their blood poured into the earth. It pooled around the birch stump where the executioner took their lives. The queen walked by the stump every day for three days willing the earth to soak up their blood, but it never did. On the third day she ordered the remaining servants to wipe it up with dry cloths. The evening sunlight filled her room as her memory filled with horrors, and she wept.