Hauptseite The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic

The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic

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IN THE YEAR THAT SUMMER STAYED too long, the heat lay upon the prairie with the weight of a corpse. The tall grass withered to ash beneath the unforgiving sun, and animals fell dead in the parched fields. That year, only the flies were happy, and trouble came to the queen of the western valley.

We all know the story of how the queen became a queen, how despite her tattered clothes and lowly position, her beauty drew the notice of the young prince and she was brought to the palace, where she was dressed in gold and her hair was woven with jewels and all were made to kneel before a girl who had been nothing but a servant bare days before.

That was before the prince became a king, when he was still wild and reckless and hunted every afternoon on the red pony that he’d done the work of breaking himself. It pleased him to rile his father by choosing a peasant bride instead of marrying to forge a political alliance, and his mother was long dead, so he went without sage counsel. The people were amused by his antics and charmed by his lovely wife, and for a time the new couple was content. His wife gave birth to a round-cheeked princeling, who gurgled merrily in his crib and grew more beloved with every passing day.

But then, in the year of that terrible summer, the old king died. The reckless prince was crowned and when his queen grew heavy with their second child, the rains ceased. The river burned away to a dry vein of rock. The wells filled with dust. Each day, the pregnant queen walked the battlements at the top of the palace, her belly swollen, praying that her child would be wise and strong and handsome, but praying most of all for a kind wind to cool her skin and grant her some relief.

The night their second so; n was born, the full moon rose brown as an old scab in the sky. Coyotes surrounded the palace, howling and clawing at the walls, and tore the insides from a guard who had been sent to chase them away. Their frenzied baying hid the screams of the queen as she looked upon the creature that had slipped squalling from her womb. This little prince was shaped a bit like a boy but more like a wolf, his body covered in slick black fur from crown to clawed foot. His eyes were red as blood, and the nubs of two budding horns protruded from his head.

The king wasn’t eager to start a precedent of killing princes, but such a creature could not be raised in the palace. So he called upon his most learned ministers and his greatest engineers to build a vast maze beneath the royal compound. It ran for mile after mile, all the way to the market square, doubling back on itself again and again. It took years for the king to complete the labyrinth, and half the workmen tasked with its construction were lost within its walls and never heard from again. But when it was done, he took his monstrous son from the cage in the royal nursery and had him placed in the maze that he might trouble his mother and the kingdom no more.

In that same summer of the beast’s birth, another child came into the world. Kima was born into a far poorer family, one with barely enough land to feed themselves from its crops. But when this child took her first breath, it was not to cry but to sing, and when she did, the skies opened and the rains began to fall, putting an end to the long drought at last.

The world turned green that day, and it was said that wherever Kima went you could smell the sweet scent of new growing things. She was tall and lithe as a young linden tree, and she moved with a grace that was almost worrying—as if, being so light upon her feet, she might simply blow away. She had smooth skin that glowed brown like the mountains in that honeyed hour before the sun sets, and she wore her hair unbound, in a thick halo of black curls that framed her face like a flower blooming.

No one in the town could dispute that Kima’s parents had been blessed when she was born, for she was surely meant to marry a rich man—maybe even a prince—and bring them good fortune. But then, barely a year later, their second daughter came into the world, and the gods laughed. For as this new child aged, it became clear that she lacked all the gifts that Kima possessed in such abundance. Ayama was clumsy and apt to drop things. Her body was solid and flat-footed, short and round as a beer jug. While Kima’s voice was gentle and calming as rain, when Ayama spoke it was like the glare of noon, harsh enough to make you wince and turn away. Embarrassed by their second daughter, Ayama’s parents bid her speak less. They kept her at home, busy with chores, only letting her make the long walk to the river and back to wash clothes.

So as not to trouble Kima’s rest, their parents made a pallet for Ayama on the warm stones of the kitchen hearth. Her braids grew untidy and her skin soaked up ash. Soon, she looked less brown than gray as she crept timidly from shadow to shadow, afraid of causing offense, and in time, people forgot that there were two daughters in the house at all, and thought of Ayama only as a servant.

Kima often tried to talk to her sister, but she was being prepared to be a rich man’s bride, and no sooner would she find Ayama in the kitchen than she would be called away to school or to her dancing lessons. During the days Ayama worked in silence, and at night she crept to Kima’s bedside, held her sister’s hand, and listened to their grandmother tell stories, lulled by the creak of Ma Zil’s ancient voice. When the candles burned low, Ma Zil would poke Ayama with her cane and tell her to get back to the hearth before her parents woke to find her bothering her sister.

Things went on this way for a long while. Ayama toiled in the kitchen, Kima grew more beautiful, the queen raised her human son in the palace against the cliff and put wool in his ears late at night when the howls of his younger brother could be heard far below. The king waged a failing war to the east. People grumbled when he levied new taxes or took their sons to be soldiers. They complained about the weather. They hoped for rain.

Then on a clear and sunny morning, the town woke to the rumble of thunder. Not one cloud could be seen in the sky, but the sound shook the roof tiles and sent an old man tottering into a ditch, where he waited two hours before his sons fished him out. By then, everyone knew that no storm had caused the awful din. The beast had escaped the labyrinth, and it was his roar that had boomed off the valley walls and made the mountains shudder.

Now the people stopped fretting over their taxes and their crops and the war, and instead worried they might be snatched from their beds and eaten. They barred their doors and sharpened their knives. They kept their children inside and their lanterns burning all through the night.

But no one can live in fear forever, and as the days passed without incident, the people began to wonder if perhaps the beast had done them the courtesy of finding some other valley to terrorize. Then Bolan Bedi rode out to tend to his herds and found his cattle slain and the grass of the western fields soaked red with blood—and he was not the only one. Word of the slaughter spread, and Ayama’s father walked out to the far pastures for news. He returned with horrible tales of heads torn from newborn calves, and sheep slit open from neck to groin, their wool turned the color of rust. Only the beast could have managed such devastation in a single night.

The people of the western valley had never seen their king as much of a hero, what with his losing wars, his peasant wife, and his taste for comforts. But now they bristled with pride as he took command and vowed to protect the valley and deal with his monstrous son once and for all. The king assembled a vast hunting party to travel into the wild lands where his ministers suspected the beast had taken refuge, and ordered his own royal guard to serve as escort. Down the main road they marched, a hundred soldiers kicking up dust from their boots, and their captain led the way, his bronze gauntlets flashing. Ayama watched them pass from behind the kitchen window and marveled at their courage.

The next morning, when the townspeople went to the market square to do their trade, they beheld a terrible sight: a tower—the bones of one hundred men stacked like driftwood beside the well at the square’s center—and at its top, the bronze gauntlets of the king’s captain glinting in the sun.

The people wept and trembled. Someone must find a way to protect them and their herds. If no soldier could slay the beast, then the king must find a way to appease his younger son. The king ordered his cleverest minister to travel into the wild lands and forge a truce with the monster. The minister agreed, went to pack a bag, and then ran as fast as he could from the valley, never to be seen again. The king could find no one brave enough to travel to the wild lands and negotiate on his behalf. In desperation, he offered three chests of gold and thirty bolts of silk to anyone bold enough to serve as his emissary, and that night there was much talk in the houses of the valley.

“We should leave this place,” said Ayama’s father when the family gathered for the evening meal. “Did you see those bones? If the king cannot find a way to placate the monster, no doubt it will come and devour us all.”

Ayama’s mother agreed. “We will travel east and make a new home on the coast.”

But Ma Zil was sitting by the fire on her low stool, chewing a jurda leaf. The old grandmother had no wish to make a long journey. “Send Ayama,” she said, and spat into the fire.

There was a long pause as the flames hissed and crackled. Despite the heat of the cookstove where she stood toasting millet, Ayama shivered.

Almost as if she knew it was her part to protest, Ayama’s mother said, “No, no. Ayama is a difficult girl, but my daughter nonetheless. We will go to the sea.”

“Besides,” said her father. “Look at her dirty smock and messy braids. Who would believe Ayama could be a royal messenger? The beast will laugh her right out of the wild lands.”

Ayama didn’t know if monsters could laugh, but there was no time to think on it, because Ma Zil spat into the fire again.

“He is a beast,” said the old woman. “What does he know of fine clothes or pretty faces? Ayama will be the king’s royal messenger. We will be rich and Kima will be able to catch a better husband to provide for us all.”

“But what if the beast devours her?” asked kind Kima, with tears in her lovely eyes. Ayama was grateful to her sister, for though she wanted desperately to object to her grandmother’s plan, her parents had spent so long teaching her to hold her tongue that speech did not come easily.

Ma Zil waved away Kima’s words. “Then we sing for her a bone song and we will still be rich.”

Ayama’s parents said nothing, but they did not meet her eyes, their thoughts and their gazes already turned toward the king’s piles of gold.

That night, as Ayama lay restless on the hard stones of the hearth, unable to sleep for fear, Ma Zil came to her and laid a calloused hand upon her cheek.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I know you are frightened, but after you have earned the king’s reward, you will have servants of your own. You need never scrub a floor or scrape stew from an old cookpot again. You will wear blue summer silks and eat white nectarines, and sleep in a proper bed.”

Ayama’s brow still creased with worry, so her grandmother said, “Come now, Ayama. You know how the stories go. Interesting things only happen to pretty girls; you will be home by sunset.”

This thought comforted Ayama, and as Ma Zil sang a lullaby, she fell into dreams, snoring loudly—for in sleep, no one could quiet her voice.

Ayama’s father sent word to the king, and though there was much scoffing at the thought of such a girl making the endeavor, the only condition the king had set for his messenger was courage. So Ayama became the king’s emissary and was told to travel into the wild lands, find the beast, and hear his demands.

Ayama’s hair was oiled and rebraided. She was given one of Kima’s dresses, which was too tight everywhere and had to be hemmed so that it did not drag in the dust. Ma Zil tied a sky-blue apron at her granddaughter’s waist and sat a wide hat with a band of red poppies upon her head. Ayama tucked the little axe she used for chopping wood into the pocket of her apron, along with a dry hermit cake and a copper cup for drinking—if she was lucky enough to find water.

The townspeople moaned and dabbed at their eyes and told Ayama’s parents how brave they were; they marveled at how fine Kima looked despite her tearstained cheeks. Then they went back to their business, and away went Ayama to the wild lands.

Now it’s fair to say that Ayama’s spirits were a bit low. How could they not be when her family had sent her to die for the sake of a bit of gold and a good marriage for her sister? But she loved Kima, who slipped Ayama pieces of honeycomb when their parents weren’t looking and who taught her the latest dances she’d learned. Ayama wished that her sister should have all that she wanted in the world.

And in truth, she was not altogether sorry to be away from home. Someone else would have to haul the clothes down to the river for washing, scrub the floors, prepare the evening meal, feed the chickens, see to the mending, and scrape last night’s stew from the pot.

Well, she thought, for she had learned to keep silent even when alone. At least I do not have to work today, and I will see something new before I die. Though the sun beat down mercilessly on Ayama’s back, that thought alone made her walk with a happier step.

Her cheer did not last long. The wild lands were nothing but parched grasses and barren scrub. No insects buzzed. No shade broke the relentless glare. Sweat soaked the fabric of Ayama’s too-tight dress, and her feet felt like heated bricks in her shoes. She quivered when she saw the bleached bones of a horse’s carcass, but after another hour she started to look forward to glimpsing a clean white skull or the staves of a rib cage splayed like the beginnings of a basket. They were at least a break in the monotony and a sign that something had survived here, if only for a while.

Perhaps, she thought, I will just drop dead before I ever reach the beast and I have nothing to fear at all. But eventually, she saw a black line on the horizon, and as she drew closer, she realized she had reached a shadowy wood. The gray-bark trees were tall and so thick with thorn-covered brambles that Ayama could see nothing but darkness between them. She knew that this was where she would find the king’s son.

Ayama hesitated. She did not like to think of what might await her in the thorn wood. She could well be minutes from her last breath. At least you will take it in the shade, she considered. And really, is the wood much worse than a garden overgrown with pricklers? It is probably very dull inside and will do nothing more than bore me to tears. She gathered Ma Zil’s promise around her like armor, reminded herself that she was not destined for adventure, and found a gap in the iron vines to slip through, hissing as the thorns pricked her arms and slashed at her hands.

With shaking steps, Ayama passed through the thicket and into the wood. She found herself in darkness. Her heart thumped a jackrabbit beat and she wanted to turn and run, but she had spent much of her life in shadows and knew them well. She forced herself to stillness as the sweat cooled on her skin. In a few short minutes, she found that the wood was dark only compared to the brightness of the wild lands she’d left behind.

As her eyes adjusted, Ayama wondered if perhaps the heat had muddled her mind. The wood was lit by stars—though she knew very well it was the middle of the day. The high branches of the trees made black shapes against the vivid blue of the twilight sky, and everywhere Ayama looked, she saw white quince blossoms clustered in the brambles where there had been only thorns mere moments before. She heard the sweet call of night birds and the reedy music of crickets—and somewhere, though she told herself it was impossible, the burble of water. The light from the stars caught on every leaf and pebble, so that the world around her seemed to glow silver. She knew she must stay cautious, but she could not resist slipping off her shoes to feel the ground, cool and mossy beneath her aching feet.

She forced herself to leave the surety of the thicket at her back and walk. In time, she came to the banks of a stream, its surface so bright with starlight it was as if someone had peeled the rind from the moon like a piece of fruit and laid it in a gleaming ribbon upon the forest floor. Ayama followed its winding path deeper and deeper into the wood until at last she arrived at a quiet glade. Here the trees sparked with fireflies and the sky was the cloudy purple of a ripe plum. She had reached the heart of the wood.

The stream fed a wide pool bordered by ferns and smooth stones, and when Ayama saw the clear, sweet water, she could not help but hurry to kneel beside it. The poppies on her hat had long since wilted, and her throat was dry as an old husk. She took her little copper cup from her apron and plunged it into the water, but as she lifted it to drink, she heard a thunderous roar and felt the cup knocked from her hand. It sailed across the glade and Ayama nearly toppled into the pool.

“Stupid girl!” said a voice that rumbled like an avalanche off the mountain. “Do you wish to become a monster?”

Ayama cowered on the grass, her hands pressed to her mouth to stop the scream that wanted to slip free. She could sense more than see the massive shape of the monster prowling back and forth in the dark.

“Answer me,” he demanded.

Ayama shook her head and somehow found her voice, though it sounded brittle as chalk to her ears. “I was only thirsty,” she said.

She heard a sharp growl and felt the ground tremble as the beast stalked toward her. He reared up on his hind legs, looming over her, blocking out the stars. He had the body of a black wolf and yet the bearing of a man. Around the thick fur of his ruff he wore a lariat of gold and rubies, and the twisting horns that rose from his head were marked with ridges that glowed as if lit from within by secret fire. But most terrifying of all were his gleaming red eyes and the hungry thrust of his muzzle, crowded with sharp teeth.

Ayama’s thoughts filled with the gossip that had surrounded his birth. What beast had the queen lain with to create such a monster? What had the king done to earn such a curse? The beast towered over her like a bear about to strike.

A weapon! she thought, and pulled the axe from her apron.

But the beast only smiled—there was no other word for it, his lips pulling back to reveal black gums and the terrible points of his long teeth.

“Strike me,” he dared her. “Cleave me in two.”

Before Ayama could even think to comply, he snatched the axe from her hands with one thick-clawed paw and dragged the blade across his chest. It did not leave any mark. “No blade can pierce my hide. Do you think my father didn’t try?”

The monster lowered his huge head and sniffed deeply at Ayama’s neck, then snorted. “He sends a peasant, covered in ash and stinking of kitchen fires. You are not even fit to eat. Perhaps I will skin you and offer you to the other creatures of the thorn wood to goad them with offense.”

Ayama had grown very used to being insulted, so much so that she hardly noticed it anymore. But she was miserably tired, and miserably sore, and so frightened that the very bones in her body were quaking. Perhaps this was why she stood, opened her mouth, and in the piercing voice that had vexed her parents bitterly said, “So much for the terrifying beast. His weak teeth require soft-limbed ladies.”

Ayama wanted to grab the words back, but the beast merely laughed, and such a human sound coming from his monstrous body raised the hair on Ayama’s arms.

“You’re as thorny as the wood,” he said. “Tell me, why does the king command a stub of a serving girl to trouble me?”

“The king chose me to—”

In a breath, the beast’s mirth vanished. He threw back his head and howled, the sound shaking the leaves on the trees and sending white and pink petals fluttering from the branches. Ayama stumbled backward and covered her head with her arms, as if she could hide herself within them. But the beast leaned down so close she could smell the strange animal scent of his pelt and feel the warm gust of his breath when he spoke.

“There is but one rule in my wood,” he growled. “Speak truth.”

Ayama thought of trying to explain her family and the offer of the chests of gold and silk, but the truth was far simpler than all of that. “No one else would come.”

“Not the king’s brave soldiers?”

She shook her head.

“Not the perfect human prince?” he asked.


The beast’s laugh rang out again, and it was as if Ayama could hear the grinding of bones in its echoes.

But now that she had remembered her voice, Ayama found she was eager to use it again. She had not suffered miles of thirst and boredom and blistered feet to be laughed at. So she pushed her fear aside, summoned her courage, planted her flat feet, and said, blaring and clear as a trumpet, “I have been sent to ask you to stop slaughtering our herds.”

The beast left off his laughing. “Why should I?”

“Because we are hungry!”

“What do I care for your hunger?” he snarled, pacing the glade. “Did you care for my aching belly when I was a child left alone in the labyrinth? Did you use that loud voice to petition the king for mercy then, little messenger?”

Ayama twisted the strings of her apron. She had been but a child herself at the time, but it was true that she had never heard her parents or a single resident of the valley spare a sympathetic word for the beast.

“No,” said the monster, answering his own question. “You did not. Let the good king feed you from his royal herds if he worries so much for his people.”

It was possible the king should do just that, but it was not Ayama’s place to say so. “I have been sent to bargain with you.”

“The king has nothing I want.”

“Then perhaps you might show mercy freely.”

“My father never taught me mercy.”

“And can you not learn?”

The beast stopped his prowling and turned very slowly toward Ayama, who did her best not to tremble even as his bloody eyes fastened upon her. His smile was sly.

“I have a bargain for you, little messenger, not the king. Tell me a tale that can make me feel more than anger, and if you manage it, I may let you live.”

Ayama did not know what to make of such an offer. It might be a trick or simply an impossible task. The beast might be feeling generous or he might just be full after his last meal and in need of some idle entertainment. Then again, Ayama had spent much of her life neither speaking nor being spoken to. She supposed it was possible the beast might simply long for conversation.

She cleared her throat. “And you will cease troubling our herds?”

The beast snorted. “If you do not bore me. But you are already boring me.”

Ayama took a steadying breath. It was very hard to think with such a creature looming over her.

“Would you sit?” she said, gesturing to the ground.

The beast growled but obliged, settling himself by the water with a great thump that sent birds scattering from the dark trees.

Ayama sat down on the ground a good distance away and arranged her apron around her, tucking her shoes back onto her feet. She closed her eyes to shut out the sight of the beast curled beside the stream, already licking his chops.

“You’re stalling,” he said.

“I’m only trying to make sure I tell the story right.”

He laughed a low, ugly laugh. “Speak truth, little messenger.”

Ayama shivered, for she was not sure which of Ma Zil’s stories were true and which were false. Besides, the prospect of dying made it hard to think of anything at all. But just because no one bothered to listen to Ayama didn’t mean she had nothing to say. In fact, she had plenty. And if it was true that the beast was happy to be spoken to, then perhaps it was also true that Ayama was glad to be heard.


“Once there was a boy who ate and ate but could not get full. He consumed flocks of geese without stopping to rid them of their feathers. He drank whole lakes, consumed all the fish within them, and belched out the rocks. He filled his mouth with a dozen eggs in a single bite, then had one thousand head of cattle roasted on one thousand spits and ate them one after another, pausing only for a short nap. But still he woke with a hungry rumble in his gut. He devoured entire fields of corn and grain but was as famished when he reached the last row as he had been when he started the first.

“This hunger made him miserable, for it was always with him, a terrible hollow, and sometimes it seemed so big and wide that he could swear he felt the wind blow right through him. His family despaired, for they could not afford to feed him, and the boy was desperate for a cure, but no medik or zowa healer could help. His story was passed around as stories always are, and eventually a young girl in a faraway town heard it. Immediately she went to her father, who was a doctor of many arts and the wisest man she knew. He had traveled the whole of the world and gathered secrets everywhere he went. She knew he would be able to find a cure, so they packed their bags and set out for the boy’s village. When they saw fields of cornstalks eaten down to their roots and rivers emptied of their fish, they knew they must be drawing close.

“At last they reached the village and told the boy’s family they’d come to offer their help. The boy was not hopeful, but he let the doctor look into his eyes and ears and when the doctor asked to peer down his throat, the boy tipped his head back obligingly.

“‘Aha!’ said the wise doctor, once he’d gotten a look at the boy’s gullet. ‘When your mother carried you in her womb, did she sleep with her window open?’ The boy’s mother said that she had, for it had been a very hot summer that year. ‘Well then,’ said the doctor, ‘it is simple. In her sleep, your mother swallowed a bit of night sky, and all of that empty is still inside you. Just eat a bit of the sun to fill the sky and you will feel empty no longer.’

“The doctor claimed that it was simple. The boy was not so sure. There was no tree or ladder high enough to reach the sun, and soon he fell even deeper into despair. But the doctor’s daughter was as smart as she was kind, and she knew that every night the sun sank low enough to touch the sea and turn the water gold. So she built them a little boat and they sailed west together. They traveled many miles, and the boy ate two whales along the way, and at last they reached the golden place where the sun met the sea. The girl took a white ash ladle from her pocket and scooped up a bit of the sun from the water. When the boy drank it down—”

The beast released a rumbling growl and Ayama jumped, for she’d been so caught up in the story and the pleasure of being listened to that she’d almost forgotten where she was.

“Let me guess,” snarled the beast. “The miserable boy swallowed a gulp of the sea and ever after that he was a contented, happy fellow who returned to his village, and married the doctor’s pretty daughter, and had many children to help him till the fields around his home.”

“What nonsense!” said Ayama, hoping the trembling of her voice did not betray her. “Of course that’s not how the story ends.”

It was not nonsense. The story ended just as the beast had said, at least every time Ayama had heard it told. Still, she could admit that it had always left her feeling a bit melancholy and dissatisfied, as if a false note had been played. But what ending might appease the beast? Because Ayama had been hushed so often, she had become a very good listener, and she remembered the one rule of the thorn wood. The story needed an ending that was true.

Ayama collected her thoughts, then gathered up the thread of the tale and let it unspool anew.

“It’s true that the boy drank sun from the white ash ladle,” she said. “And, yes, it’s true that he no longer required a herd of cattle for his breakfast or a lake to wash it down. He did indeed marry the doctor’s pretty daughter and worked each day to till his fields. But despite all this, the boy found he was still unhappy. You see, some people are born with a piece of night inside, and that hollow place can never be filled—not with all the good food or sunshine in the world. That emptiness cannot be banished, and so some days we wake with the feeling of the wind blowing through, and we must simply endure it as the boy did.”

Only when she finished did Ayama realize that, in fumbling for the truth, she’d spoken of her own sadness, but it was too late to call the words back.

The monster was quiet for a long time. Then he rose, his bushy black tail brushing the ground as he turned his back on Ayama and said, “I will leave your herds in peace. Go now and do not return.”

And because the wood demanded truth, she knew his vow was good.

Ayama could scarcely believe her luck. She leapt to her feet and hurried from the glade, but as she bent to pick up her axe and her copper cup, the beast said, “Wait.”

He was little more than a shape in the dark now, and she could make him out only by the red gleam of his eyes and the glow of the carved ridges on his horns.

“Take a sprig of quince blossoms with you and make sure not to drop it as you pass through the wild lands.”

Ayama did not stop to question his command, but plucked a slender branch and ran back along the stream. She did not slow until she had pushed her way through the cruel thorns of the thicket and felt the sun on her face once more.

Back across the wild lands Ayama walked, the blossoms tucked safely in her apron, and yet the hot sands did not seem to touch her feet and the sun did not burn her shoulders. She did not have to squint against the bright sky. When at last she reached her valley, she whooped with joy.

At the sight of her striding into the town, people unbolted their doors and threw open their shutters and ran down the street for—as Ayama could see from their faces—none of them had expected her to survive.

Immediately they peppered her with questions, but when she tried to answer, the townspeople pinched her arms and shouted that she was a liar.

“An enchanted wood in the wild lands?” scoffed one man. “What rubbish!”

“She never went to find the beast at all,” accused another. “She spent the afternoon napping in the shade of a screwbean tree.”

But Ayama remembered the quince and took the sprig from her apron pocket. The flowers were fresh and unwilted, their white petals still damp with dew and tinged with pink. The blossoms glowed like a constellation in her hand. When the townspeople looked upon them, they could taste the tart flavor of quince on their tongues; they could feel the soothing touch of shade falling over their skin. These were no ordinary flowers. Now the people listened as Ayama stood with the sprig clasped in her fist and told them of the beast’s promise, and when she had finished, they led her all the way to the palace, murmuring in wonder, forgetting that the girl they now looked upon with awe still had the marks of their pinching fingers on her arms.

The king gazed down from his throne with cold eyes when Ayama spoke of the beast’s vow, but he could not deny the magic of the quince that bloomed sweet and strange in Ayama’s hands, its petals only now beginning to turn red.

“Such a marvel!” said the king’s handsome human son, smiling brightly. “And what a brave girl to attempt such a task. Her pockets shall be weighted with jewels and all shall sing songs of her courage.”

Ayama returned his smile, for it was impossible not to bloom in the prince’s sunny regard. But what she really wanted was a glass of water.

The queen took the flowers from Ayama, eyes sparkling with what might have been tears. “You must do as you promised,” she told her husband.

So the king called for three chests of gold and thirty bolts of silk to be brought to Ayama’s family.

That night, Ayama’s parents rejoiced, and Kima kissed her sister’s cheeks, while Ma Zil looked on, wearing a smug expression as she chewed her jurda.

Ayama saw that no one had cleaned the grate, that the clothes had gone unwashed, and the pots had not even been stacked for washing but still sat upon the stove, crusted with food. She thought of the gentle quiet of the thorn wood and sighed as she lay down upon the hearth. When she woke the next morning, she was not at all sure she hadn’t dreamed the whole thing. It was only when she looked at her arms and saw the nicks and cuts the thorns had left upon her skin that she knew all she had seen in the wood beyond the wild lands was real.

The monster kept to his word and the herds were left untouched by anything but weather. The king returned to his failing war, the people worked their land and traded in the market, and soon remembered their old complaints as their taxes mounted and their sons and brothers were buried at the front. But then one terrible morning, Nemila Eed woke to find her jurda fields destroyed, all her crops uprooted and left to wither in the sun. The same was true of her neighbors’ properties to the north and south. There were strange tracks leading into the dust of the wild lands.

The people clamored for the king to set things right, and some even whispered that the queen should be put to death for birthing such a monster to torment them so. Again, the king called for a messenger, and this time he promised lands carved from his own best estate as reward.

“We are rich now,” said Ma Zil, sitting by the fire that night. “But just think how fine it would be to live in a grand house where Kima could receive suitors. Then she would be sure to make a good marriage. Ayama, wouldn’t you like to wear white furs in the winter and eat sweet persimmons and sleep in a proper bed?”

Ayama was not at all sure she would survive a second meeting with the beast, and she couldn’t very well enjoy persimmons and soft cushions if she’d been eaten. But her grandmother laid a rough palm upon her cheek and swore that no harm would befall her. And if Ayama was honest, some small part of her wanted to return to the wood. Her family was rich now and had many servants, but they’d gotten so used to ordering Ayama about that they’d forgotten how to treat her as a daughter. She still slept in the kitchen and scrubbed the pots and watched as the bolts of silk were cut for Kima’s gowns, and her mother’s hair was dressed by a dainty maid who wore a flowered pinafore. People tipped their hats to her in the street now, but they never stopped to talk or ask how Ayama was faring. The beast might shout and snarl, and he might well devour her, but he’d at least been interested enough to listen to her speak.

So when dawn came, Ayama took her little copper cup and the axe that she used to chop wood, and tucked them into her apron. She placed her wide hat upon her head and once more set out for the wild lands.

The journey through the dust and brush was just as long and wearying the second time. When at last Ayama reached the iron-colored trees of the thorn wood, her throat was dry as burnt bread and her feet ached from walking. She pushed eagerly through the thicket, and as soon as she felt the silver light of the stars upon her shoulders, she heaved a contented sigh.

Only then did she remember to be afraid. After all, the beast might be hungrier. Or angrier. He might have forgotten the mercy he’d found when he’d let Ayama pass safely from the wood before. But she was here now and there was nothing to be done about it. Ayama followed the silver stream, letting the soft leaves and damp soil cool her feet, and tried not to think of the beast eating her in one bite—or worse, two.

At last she came to the glade. This time, the beast did not lurk in the shadows, but was pacing as if he had been waiting.

“Well, then,” he said in his rumbling voice when he saw her. “They must not value you much if they expect you to escape a second time.”

Since the wood demanded truth, Ayama supposed he was right, but now she found it far easier to speak in return. “You must stop destroying our crops.”


“We will have no cotton or flax to spin when the winter comes.”

“What do I care for winter? No season touches this wood. Did anyone think of winter when I shivered in my father’s labyrinth? Let the king feed and clothe you from his stores.”

This time she could acknowledge it was not such a bad idea, and so she said, “Do not behave as a tyrant and then tell me to scold a tyrant to behave. Show mercy and mercy you may be shown.”

“My father never taught me mercy.”

“And can you not learn?”

It was hard to tell, but it seemed the beast might have smiled.

“You know the only bargain I will make, little messenger.” The beast settled beside the stream in a heap of black fur and golden claws. “Tell me a tale that can make me feel more than anger, and perhaps if it pleases me, I may let you live.”

This was the invitation Ayama had been waiting for, and she realized that in all the silent days and nights since she’d left the wood, she’d been storing up words to offer the king’s son. Ayama sat down by the banks of the stream and began to speak.


“Once there was a woman with a mournful bearing who came to a village, and there she met a man who longed for a wife, and so they were married. They had two fine children, a boy and a girl, but as these children grew older, they became difficult and disobedient. They were often sickly and this made them sulky and tired, and they were a great trial to their mother, Mama Tani. All the women in the village felt sorry for Mama Tani, whose bearing had become even sadder, but who bore her children’s complaining and sickness with great dignity.

“All that changed when an evil spirit came into Mama Tani’s house and began to make trouble for the whole family. The spirit smashed Mama Tani’s treasured pots of cream and the bottled tinctures she used to keep her skin smooth. It broke her husband’s plow so that he had to stay home and was always underfoot. But it was the children the spirit most liked to prey upon, as if lured by their bad behavior. When they tried to sleep, the spirit would rattle the windows and shake the bed so that they could find no rest. When they tried to eat, the spirit broke their bowls and spilled their supper on the floor.”

The beast growled, and Ayama saw that he’d drawn very close indeed. Though her heart hopped in a frightened rhythm, she sat as still as she could.

“Let me guess,” said the beast. “The children cried and prayed and said they would be good forevermore, and so the spirit departed and Mama Tani was the envy of all the women in the village, and this is a lesson to ungrateful children everywhere.”

That was certainly the way that Ayama had been taught the story, but she had thought a lot about how she would tell the tale when it belonged to her.

She straightened her apron and said with all the authority her loud voice could muster, “What nonsense! Of course that’s not how the story ends.” Speak truth, she reminded herself. Then she wound the story tight and let it unspool anew.

“No, one day when their parents weren’t home, instead of crying when the spirit rattled and roared like an angry wind around the house, the children sat quietly and held each other’s hands. Then they sang a lullaby like the ones their mother had sung when they were younger, and sure enough, after a long while, the spirit quieted—and after a longer while, the spirit spoke. Except it was not one spirit, but two.”

“Two spirits?” the beast repeated, leaning forward on his haunches.

“Can you imagine? They were the spirits of Mama Tani’s firstborn children, a boy and a girl whom she had caused to sicken and die—all so she could hoard the sympathy of the women in her old village. She’d traveled far from that place and it had taken many years for the ghost children to find her, but once they had, they’d done all they could to keep Mama Tani’s new family safe. They’d shattered the jars where Mama Tani hid her poisons. They’d spilled the tainted porridge and kept her new children from sleep when they knew Mama Tani would sneak in to burn herbs to inflame their lungs. They’d even broken the plow, so that their father would have to remain home more often and not leave them alone with their mother. Well, Mama Tani’s living children told their father all this, and though he was skeptical, he agreed to send a messenger to the village the ghost children had named. By the time the messenger returned to tell them that everything the ghosts had said was true, Mama Tani was long gone. This goes to show you that sometimes the unseen is not to be feared and that those meant to love us most are not always the ones who do.”

Again, without meaning to, Ayama had spoken of her own sadness, and again, the beast was quiet for a long time.

“What happened to Mama Tani?” he asked at last.

Ayama had no idea. She hadn’t quite thought that far. “Who can say? Bad fates do not always follow those who deserve them.” Even in the dim light, she could see the beast frown. She cleared her throat and smoothed the brim of her hat. “But I believe she was eaten by coyotes.”

The beast nodded in satisfaction, and Ayama huffed a little sigh of relief.

“I will trouble your fields no longer,” said the beast. “Take a sprig of quince from the thorn wood and bear it with you through the wild lands. Go now and do not return.” There might have been something mournful in his voice, or perhaps it was just his growl.

Ayama plucked a slender branch of blossoms from the thicket and left the glade behind. When she looked back, she saw the beast still sitting on his haunches, his red eyes watching her, and for a moment, Ayama thought, Why not stay a bit longer? Why not rest awhile here? Why not tell another story?

Instead she made her way out of the wood and back across the hot plains. She tucked the sprig of quince flowers into her braids, and it was as if she carried the cool leaves and the shade of the wood with her.

This time when she reached the town, the people saw the white blossoms in her hair and did not pinch Ayama or shout at her. Instead they gave her sweet water and led her quietly to the palace, showing her new deference, for she was no longer just a kitchen girl, but the girl who had twice faced a monster and twice survived.

When she was taken before the king, Ayama told him of the beast’s vow and the prince said, “Extraordinary! We shall raise a statue in this girl’s honor and celebrate her birth there every year.”

Ayama thought that was a fine proclamation, but what she really wanted was to sit down and take off her shoes. She supposed if the prince had bothered asking, he would know that. But he was not as fond of questions as his brother.

The queen took the reddening blossoms of quince in her hands, and once more said to her husband, “You must honor your promise.”

So the king ordered that the best lands of his finest estate be granted to Ayama’s family and that all their belongings be moved there by his servants.

But when Ayama thought to make her curtsy and go, the king said, “Does the monster trust you, girl?”

By this time, Ayama had grown used to speaking her thoughts and rather loudly, so she said, “There is a great difference between not eating a person and trusting a person.” Besides, she thought it would be better for everyone if the beast were left to himself in the thorn wood.

But as had been the case for most of Ayama’s life, despite the strength of her voice, the king either did not listen or did not hear.

“You will take a knife into the thorn wood,” he commanded. “You will slay this beast so that we may all live in peace and safety. If you do this, then you will marry my son, the prince, and I will grant your family title so none but those who bear my own name shall be higher in the land.”

The prince looked somewhat startled but did not object.

“No blade can pierce your second son’s skin,” Ayama protested. “I have seen it for myself.”

As the queen wrung the silk of her skirt in her lap, the king called for a servant and an iron-colored box was brought forward.

The king lifted the lid and drew a strange knife from it. Its handle was bone but its blade was the same murky gray as the box—and the thorn wood. “This blade was crafted by a powerful zowa maker and wrought from the very thorns of the quince tree. Only it can kill him.”

The queen turned her face away.

Ayama hoped her family would speak and say she need not return to the thorn wood, for they had a fine home and Kima already had a rich dowry. But no one spoke, not even Ma Zil, who had promised that adventures only happened to pretty girls.

Ayama did not want to take the knife, but she did. It was light as a dry seedpod. It seemed wrong that death should feel like nothing in her hands.

“Return with the beast’s heart and all will pay you homage and you will want for nothing in this life,” said the king.

Ayama had no wish to be a princess. She had no wish to slay the beast. But for a girl who had spent her life ignored and unwanted, this was no small offer.

“I will agree to this,” she said finally. “But if I do not return, Kima must wed the prince, and my family must still receive their reward.”

She could see the king did not like the terms of this trade. Though he wanted the beast dead, he’d thought to make her risk her life cheaply. But in the end, what choice did he have? He agreed to Ayama’s demands and she tucked the knife into her apron.

All her family’s belongings were carried to their splendid new home. Her father cried out with happiness and her mother turned in circles in the garden, looking out at the fields that went on and on, as if she could scarcely believe that all of it was now hers. Only Kima clutched Ayama’s hand and said, “Sister, you do not have to go. We are rich now thanks to your bravery. We have land and servants. No prince is worth your life.”

Ayama supposed it depended on the prince.

Ma Zil said nothing.

That night, Ayama slept poorly. Her new bed felt too soft after the hard stones of the old hearth. She rose before dawn, when the rest of the house was still asleep, put on her sky-colored apron, and settled her hat upon her head. Into her pocket, she tucked her axe and her copper cup. Then Ayama touched her fingers once to the jagged blade of the knife, slipped it into her apron, and for the last time, she set out across the wild lands.

Perhaps because her dread was so great, the trek through the barren plains seemed to last no time at all. Too soon she was plunging through the iron-colored thicket and into the shade of the wood. Starlight fell upon her skin, so sweet and cool and welcoming she might have wept for it. She told herself that once the beast was dead, she could return to the wood, that she might bring Kima, or simply come here on her own whenever she grew weary. But she wasn’t sure that was true. Would the thorn wood still stand without the beast? Had it always been here or had it come into being just to shelter him? And what would she do in all the silence without someone to tell stories to?

The beast was waiting in the glade.

“Are you so eager to be eaten?” he asked.

Ayama was careful to choose only words that were true. “I thought you might like to hear another story more than you might like to eat another meal.”

So she and the beast settled by the stream, and in the silver light of the glade, Ayama began her final tale.


“Once there was a good and dutiful girl who stayed home and toiled while her two older sisters went out every night to drink and dance in the town.

“One day, when all the sisters were in the kitchen, a strange bird came and perched on the windowsill. It was large and dusty and ugly with a long, dangerously curved beak. The two older sisters shrieked, and one took up a broom to beat at the creature and chase it away. But when they had gone to attire themselves in beads and satin for the night’s revels, the bird returned. Instead of chasing it away, the youngest sister spoke kindly to it and offered it a dish of corn. Then she took a damp cloth to the bird’s feathers, crooning nonsense to it all the while. When the bird was finally clean, she could see it had plumage of iridescent gold and that its beak shone like topaz. It flapped its great wings and flew away, but returned every night that week once the older sisters were gone to their parties, and sang pretty songs while the youngest did her work.

“On the seventh day, the bird waited until the older sisters had left to prepare for their fun, then flew in through the kitchen window. All at once there was a great flapping of wings and a sound like trumpets. There in the kitchen, where the bird had been mere moments before, the girl now beheld a handsome prince dressed in robes of gold.

“‘Come away with me to my palace by the sea,’ said the prince, ‘and all will pay you homage and you will want for nothing in this life.’ And as you may know, when you have had very little and worked very hard, that is no small offer.

“So the girl put her hand in the prince’s and away they flew to his palace by the sea. But once they arrived, the girl found that the king and queen were not so happy with his choice of a peasant bride. So the queen set three challenges for the girl—”

The beast snarled and Ayama jumped, for she hadn’t realized that he’d lain down quite so close to her, his snout nearly touching her knee. His lips were pulled back in a sneer.

“What a foolish story you’ve brought me this time,” he complained. “She will accomplish the three tasks and wed the handsome prince. What joy for them both.”

“Nonsense!” said Ayama straightaway, for she’d thought on this story quite a long time as she’d walked through the wild lands, and how the ending she’d been told as a child had seemed far more enchanting before she’d actually met and spoken to royalty. “Of course that’s not how it ends. No. Do you remember the girl’s older sisters?”

The beast gave a grudging nod and settled his great head on his forepaws.

“It’s true they were selfish and silly in many ways,” said Ayama. “But they also loved their youngest sister dearly. As soon as they found her missing and a golden feather on the chair, they guessed what had happened, for they had seen plenty of the world. They saddled their horses and rode all day and all night to reach the palace by the sea, then pounded on the doors until the guards let them in.

“When the sisters entered the throne room, making a racket and demanding that their sister return home to them, the prince insisted that they were just jealous sorts who wanted to be princesses themselves, and that they were wicked girls who liked to drink and dance and be free with their favors. In fact, the sisters did like all those things, and it was precisely because they’d seen so much and done so much that they knew better than to trust handsome faces and fine titles. They pointed their fingers and raised their loud voices and demanded to know why, if the prince loved their sister so, he should let her be made to perform tasks to prove her worth. And when he did not answer, they stomped their slippered feet and demanded to know why, if the prince was worthy of their sister, he should bend so easily to his parents’ will. The prince had no answer but stood there stammering, still handsome, but perhaps a bit less so now that he had nothing to say.

“The sisters apologized for not doing their share of the chores and promised to take the girl to parties so she wouldn’t have to settle for the first boy who flew in through her window. The younger sister saw the wisdom in this bargain, and they all returned home together, where their days were full of work made easier in the sharing, and their nights were full of laughter and carousing.”

“And what lesson am I to learn from this story?” asked the beast when she was done.

“That there are better things than princes.”

Now Ayama stood and the beast knelt before her, his big shaggy head bowed, his horns glowing. “Do you have no more stories for me, little messenger?”

“Only one,” said Ayama, the jagged knife in her hand, “the story of a girl who was sent into the wood to slay a terrible monster.”

“And did she?”

“You have committed dreadful crimes, beast.”

“Have I?”

“Speak truth.”

“I killed the king’s soldiers for they wanted to kill me,” he admitted. “I tried to reason with them, but people do not always hear the words of a beast.”

Ayama knew what it was not to be heard, and she also knew the beast did not lie. He might sometimes be cruel, and he was most certainly dangerous, but he was truthful—just like the thorn wood. For when Ayama had awoken after her adventures, it was the wounds from the thicket that had proven all the sweet blossoms and starlight had been real.

“They have told me to return with your heart,” she said.

The beast gazed upon her with his blood-red eyes. “Then perhaps you should.”

Ayama thought of the king who had imprisoned a monster when he might have raised a son, a king who blamed that monster for his people’s suffering while doing nothing to ease it. She thought too of the first question the beast had asked her, when she’d knelt by the pool and he’d knocked the cup from her hand.

Do you wish to become a monster?

Ayama returned the knife to her pocket and withdrew her little copper cup.

“Beast,” she said, “I am thirsty.”

The beast let Ayama bind his forepaws with the iron brambles of the thorn wood, and across the wild lands they traveled, Ayama sheltered from the sun by the shadow of her towering companion.

When they entered the valley and came in good time to the town, many people ran from the streets, scattering to their houses and pulling the shutters closed. But others trailed after them, staring at Ayama in her wide hat and apron and at the beast bound in thorns.

Up the hill to the palace went Ayama and the beast, through the great gates, followed by the crowd. When the guards saw Ayama, they leapt to attention, for she walked with her head held high. She was still the same solid, graceless kitchen girl, but she was also the girl who had thrice survived a monster and who now herded him through the city as he snorted and glared at anyone who came near, his twisted horns gleaming with mysterious light.

The king did not wait for them in the throne room but came to the top of the palace steps in all his glittering finery and, with the queen and the beautiful young prince beside him, looked down at Ayama and the monster.

“Why do you bring this beast to my door?” the king demanded to know. “I told you to return with his heart.”

“And so I have,” said Ayama in her loud, clear voice that echoed like a horn of war over the listening crowd. “His heart is mine and mine is his.”

“You think to love a monster?” the king asked, and now there were murmurs and snickers all around her. “Even a wretch like you might hope for better.”

But Ayama was used to insults and paid the king’s words no mind.

“I will love an honest monster before I swear loyalty to a treacherous king.” She raised the thorn knife and pointed it at the king’s chest. “When your wars were failing and the valley was in disquiet, it was you who slaughtered our herds and mowed down our fields just so that we would fear a false villain, instead of seeing that a fool sat the throne.”

“You speak treason!” roared the king.

“I speak truth.”

“And can this ugly beast not speak for himself?”

The beast looked upon his father and said, “A man like you is owed no words. I trust Ayama to tell my story.”

“That creature murdered my soldiers and hunters,” blustered the king. “He built a tower of their bones!”

“He did,” said Ayama. “For you sent them to kill him when it was you who freed your son from the labyrinth in the first place. You set him loose so that you might play the hero, and we would forget our sons and brothers who die in your wars, and the taxes that gild your rooftop in gold.”

“Will you allow this girl to speak such lies?” the king shouted, and though his guards did not want to obey the king’s orders, they drew their daggers and fell upon Ayama.

But no matter how many blows the soldiers struck, Ayama stood unharmed.

Then she took the hat from her head, and all the people saw that she was a girl no longer. Her tongue was forked; her eyes glowed like opals, and her hair twined in serpents of flame that licked at the air around her in ribbons of orange and gold. She was a monster, and no blade could pierce her skin. With her thorn knife she slashed the brambles that bound the beast’s wrists.

The townspeople shouted and stamped their feet, and some turned away in terror. But Ayama stood solid and flat-footed on the ground, and her clarion voice rang out hard as a clap of thunder.

“Speak truth,” she commanded the king.

The king had no shame and would have opened his mouth to let the lies swarm out like locusts, but the queen spoke instead.

“Yes,” she cried. “He was the one who did these things, the one who locked my son beneath the earth with none to comfort him, the one who freed him just to make himself a hero to his people and make his son a monster once more.”

The people looked at the queen’s tearstained face, and they knew the words she spoke were true. They raised their voices once more, braying for the king’s head now, and even the handsome human prince gazed upon his father with disgust.

But Ayama knew mercy and taught them as well. She allowed no harm to come to the king. Instead she had him placed in the labyrinth, and to this day, if you pass through that particular town in that particular valley on a particularly quiet night, you can still hear him shouting his rage, his howls ringing off the stones as he stumbles through the prison he paid to build, swearing vengeance on the girl who trapped him there, and seeking the turn that will finally set him free.

Once the king was gone, it fell to the beast to forgive his mother for not protecting him at his birth or in the long years after. In time, because Ayama had given him something to feel besides anger, he did forgive her, and she lived out her days tending to the quince trees in her garden.

After a courtship of many stories, Ayama and the beast married beneath a blood moon, and pride of place was given to Ma Zil, who had sent Ayama again and again into the thorn wood. She had not been much to look at in her youth, and she knew well that only courage is required for an adventure. As for Kima, she married the beautiful human prince, and since neither had a taste for politics, they left the throne and all its hassles to Ayama and the beast. So it was that the valley to the west came to be ruled by a monstrous king and his monstrous queen, who were loved by their people and feared by their enemies.

Now in the valley, the people care less for pretty faces. Mothers pat their pregnant bellies and whisper prayers for the future. They pray for rain in the long summer. They pray that their children will be brave and clever and strong, that they will tell the true stories instead of the easy ones. They pray for sons with red eyes and daughters with horns.

THE FIRST TRAP THE FOX ESCAPED was his mother’s jaws.

When she had recovered from the trial of birthing her litter, the mother fox looked around at her kits and sighed. It would be hard to feed so many children, and truth be told, she was hungry after her ordeal. So she snatched up two of her smallest young and made a quick meal of them. But beneath those pups, she found a tiny, squirming runt of a fox with a patchy coat and yellow eyes.

“I should have eaten you first,” she said. “You are doomed to a miserable life.”

To her surprise, the runt answered. “Do not eat me, Mother. Better to be hungry now than to be sorry later.”

“Better to swallow you than to have to look upon you. What will everyone say when they see such a face?”

A lesser creature might have despaired at such cruelty, but the fox saw vanity in his mother’s carefully tended coat and snowy paws.

“I will tell you,” he replied. “When we walk in the wood, the animals will say, ‘Look at that ugly kit with his handsome mother!’ And even when you are old and gray, they will not talk of how you’ve aged, but of how such a beautiful mother gave birth to such an ugly, scrawny son.”

She thought on this and discovered she was not so hungry after all.

Because the fox’s mother believed the runt would die before the year was out, she didn’t bother to name him. But when her little son survived one winter and then the next, the animals needed something to call him. They dubbed him Koja—handsome—as a joke, and soon he gained a reputation.

When he was barely grown, a group of hounds cornered him in a blind of branches outside his den. Crouching in the damp earth, listening to their terrible snarls, a lesser creature might have panicked, chased himself in circles, and simply waited for the hounds’ master to come take his hide.

Instead Koja cried, “I am a magic fox!”

The biggest of the hounds barked his laughter. “We may sleep by the master’s fire and feed on his scraps, but we have not gone so soft as that. You think that we will let you live on foolish promises?”

“No,” said Koja in his meekest, most downtrodden voice. “You have bested me. That much is clear. But I am cursed to grant one wish before I die. You only need name it.”

“Wealth!” yapped one.

“Health!” barked another.

“Meat from the table!” said the third.

“I have only one wish to grant,” said the ugly little fox, “and you must make your choice quickly, or when your master arrives, I will be obliged to bestow the wish on him instead.”

The hounds took to arguing, growling and snapping at one another, and as they bared their fangs and leapt and wrestled, Koja slipped away.

That night, in the safety of the wood, Koja and the other animals drank and toasted the fox’s quick thinking. In the distance, they heard the hounds howling at their master’s door, cold and disgraced, bellies empty of supper.

Though Koja was clever, he was not always lucky. One day, as he raced back from Tupolev’s farm with a hen’s plump body in his mouth, he stepped into a trap.

When those metal teeth slammed shut, a lesser creature might have let his fear get the best of him. He might have yelped and whined, drawing the smug farmer to him, or he might have tried gnawing off his own leg.

Instead Koja lay there, panting, until he heard the black bear, Ivan Gostov, rumbling through the woods. Now, Gostov was a bloodthirsty animal, loud and rude, unwelcome at feasts. His fur was always matted and filthy, and he was just as likely to eat his hosts as the food they served. But a killer might be reasoned with—not so a metal trap.

Koja called out to him. “Brother, will you not free me?”

When Ivan Gostov saw Koja bleeding, he boomed his laughter. “Gladly!” he roared. “I will liberate you from that trap and tonight I’ll dine on free fox stew.”

The bear snapped the chain and threw Koja over his back. Dangling from the trap’s steel teeth by his wounded leg, a lesser creature might have closed his eyes and prayed for nothing more than a quick death. But if Koja had words, then he had hope.

He whispered to the fleas that milled about in the bear’s filthy pelt, “If you bite Ivan Gostov, I will let you come live in my coat for one year’s time. You may dine on me all you like, and I promise not to bathe or scratch or douse myself in kerosene. You will have a fine time of it, I tell you.”

The fleas whispered amongst themselves. Ivan Gostov was a foul-tasting bear, and he was constantly tromping through streams or rolling on his back to try to be rid of them.

“We will help you,” they chorused at last.

At Koja’s signal, they attacked poor Ivan Gostov, biting him in just the spot between his shoulders where his big claws couldn’t reach.

The bear scratched and flailed and bellowed his misery. He threw down the chain attached to Koja’s trap and wriggled and writhed on the ground.

“Now, little brothers!” shouted Koja. The fleas leapt onto the fox’s coat, and despite the pain in his leg, Koja ran all the way back to his den, trailing the bloody chain behind him.

It was an unpleasant year for the fox, but he kept his promise. Though the itching drove him mad, he did not scratch, and even bandaged his paws to better avoid temptation. Because he smelled so terrible, no one wanted to be near him, yet still he did not bathe. Whenever Koja got the urge to run to the river, he would look at the chain he kept coiled in the corner of his den. With Red Badger’s help, he’d pried himself free of the trap, but he’d kept the chain as a reminder that he owed his freedom to the fleas and his wits.

Only Lula the nightingale came to see him. Perched in the branches of the birch tree, she twittered her laughter. “Not so clever, are you, Koja? No one will have you to visit and you are covered in scabs. You are even uglier than before.”

Koja was untroubled. “I can bear ugliness,” he said. “I find the one thing I cannot live with is death.”

When the year was up, Koja picked his way carefully through the woods near Tupolev’s farm, making sure to avoid the teeth of any traps that might be lurking beneath the brush. He snuck through the hen yard, and when one of the servants opened the kitchen door to take out the slops, he slipped right into Tupolev’s house. He used his teeth to pull back the covers on the farmer’s bed and let the fleas slip in.

“Have a fine time of it, friends,” he said. “I hope you will forgive me if I do not ask you to visit again.”

The fleas called their good-byes and dove beneath the blankets, looking forward to a meal of the farmer and his wife.

On his way out, Koja snatched a bottle of kvas from the pantry and a chicken from the yard, and he left them at the entrance to Ivan Gostov’s cave. When the bear appeared, he sniffed at Koja’s offerings.

“Show yourself, fox,” he roared. “Do you seek to make a fool of me again?”

“You freed me, Ivan Gostov. If you like, you may have me as supper. I warn you, though, I am stringy and tough. Only my tongue holds savor. I make a bitter meal, but excellent company.”

The bear laughed so loudly that he shook the nightingale from her branch in the valley below. He and Koja shared the chicken and the kvas and spent the night exchanging stories. From then on, they were friends, and it was known that to cross the fox was to risk Ivan Gostov’s wrath.

Then winter came and the black bear went missing.

The animals had noticed their numbers thinning for some time. Deer were scarcer, and the small creatures too— rabbits and squirrels, grouse and voles. It was nothing to remark upon. Hard times came and went. But Ivan Gostov was no timid deer or skittering vole. When Koja realized it had been weeks since he had seen the bear or heard his bellow, he grew concerned.

“Lula,” he said, “fly into town and see what you can learn.”

The nightingale put her little beak in the air. “You will ask me, Koja, and do it nicely, or I will fly someplace warm and leave you to your worrying.”

Koja bowed and made his compliments to Lula’s shiny feathers, the purity of her song, the pleasing way she kept her nest, and on and on, until finally the nightingale stopped him with a shrill chirp.

“Next time, you may stop at ‘please.’ If you will only cease your talking, I will gladly go.”

Lula flapped her wings and disappeared into the blue sky, but when she returned an hour later, her tiny jet eyes were bright with fear. She hopped and fluttered, and it took her long minutes to settle on a branch.

“Death has arrived,” she said. “Lev Jurek has come to Polvost.”

The animals fell silent. Lev Jurek was no ordinary hunter. It was said he left no tracks and his rifle made no sound. He traveled from village to village throughout Ravka, and where he went, he bled the woods dry.

“He has just come from Balakirev.” The nightingale’s pretty voice trembled. “He left the town’s stores bloated with deer meat and overflowing with furs. The sparrows say he stripped the forest bare.”

“Did you see the man himself?” asked Red Badger.

Lula nodded. “He is the tallest man I’ve ever seen, broad in the shoulders, handsome as a prince.”

“And what of the girl?”

Jurek was said to travel with his half sister, Sofiya. The hides he did not sell, Jurek forced her to sew into a gruesome cloak that trailed behind her on the ground.

“I saw her,” said the nightingale, “and I saw the cloak too. Koja … its collar is made of seven white fox tails.”

Koja frowned. His sister lived near Balakirev. She’d had seven kits, all of them with white tails.

“I will investigate,” he decided, and the animals breathed a bit easier, for Koja was the cleverest of them all.

Koja waited for the sun to set, then snuck into Polvost with Lula at his shoulder. They kept to the shadows, slinking down alleys and making their way to the center of town.

Jurek and his sister had rented a grand house close to the taverns that lined the Barshai Prospekt. Koja went up on his hind legs and pressed his nose to the window glass.

The hunter sat with his friends at a table heaped with rich foods—wine-soaked cabbage and calf stuffed with quail eggs, greasy sausages and pickled sage. All the lamps burned bright with oil. The hunter had grown wealthy indeed.

Jurek was a big man, younger than expected, but just as handsome as Lula had said. He wore a fine linen shirt and a fur-lined vest with a gold watch tucked into his pocket. His inky blue eyes darted frequently to his sister, who sat reading by the fire. Koja could not make out her face, but Sofiya had a pretty enough profile, and her dainty, slippered feet rested on the skin of a large black bear.

Koja’s blood chilled at the sight of his fallen friend’s hide, spread so casually over the polished slats of the floor. Ivan Gostov’s fur shone clean and glossy as it never had in life, and for some reason, this struck Koja as a very sad thing. A lesser creature might have let his grief get the best of him. He might have taken to the hills and high places, thinking it wise to outrun death rather than try to outsmart it. But Koja sensed a question here, one his clever mind could not resist: For all his loud ways, Ivan Gostov had been the closest thing the forest had to a king, a deadly match for any man or beast. So how had Jurek bested him with no one the wiser?

For the next three nights, Koja watched the hunter, but he learned nothing.

Every evening, Jurek ate a big dinner. He went out to one of the taverns and did not return until the early hours.

He liked to drink and brag, and frequently spilled wine on his clothes. He slept late each morning, then rose and headed out to the tanning shed or into the forest. Jurek set traps, swam in the river, oiled his gun, but Koja never saw him catch or kill anything.

And yet, on the fourth day, Jurek emerged from the tanning shed with something massive in his muscled arms. He walked to the wooden frames, and there he stretched the hide of the great gray wolf. No one knew the gray wolf’s name, and no one had ever dared ask it. He lived on a steep rock ridge and kept to himself, and it was said he’d been cast out of his pack for some terrible crime. When he descended to the valley, it was only to hunt, and then he moved silent as smoke through the trees. Yet somehow, Jurek had taken his skin.

That night, the hunter brought musicians to his house. The townspeople came to marvel at the wolf’s hide, and Jurek bade his sister rise from her place by the fire so that he could lay the horrible patchwork cloak over her shoulders. The villagers pointed to one fur after another, and Jurek obliged them with the story of how he’d brought down Illarion the white bear of the north, then of his capture of the two golden lynxes who made up the sleeves. He even described catching the seven little kits who had given up their tails for the cloak’s grand collar. With every word Jurek spoke, his sister’s chin sank lower, until she was staring at the floor.

Koja watched the hunter go outside and cut the head from the wolf’s hide, and as the villagers danced and drank, Jurek’s sister sat and sewed, adding a hood to her horrible cloak. When one of the musicians banged his drum, her needle slipped. She winced and drew her finger to her lips.

What’s a bit more blood? thought Koja. The cloak might as well be soaked red with it.

“Sofiya is the answer,” Koja told the animals the next day. “Jurek must be using some magic or trickery, and his sister will know of it.”

“But why would she tell us his secrets?” asked Red Badger.

“She fears him. They barely speak, and she takes care to keep her distance.”

“And each night she bolts her bedroom door,” trilled the nightingale, “against her own brother. There’s trouble there.”

Sofiya was only permitted to leave the house every few days to visit the old widows’ home on the other side of the valley. She carried a basket or sometimes pulled a sled piled high with furs and food bound up in woolen blankets. Always she wore the horrible cloak, and as Koja watched her slogging along, he was reminded of a pilgrim going to do her penance.

For the first mile, Sofiya kept a steady pace and stayed to the path. But when she reached a small clearing, far from the outskirts of town and deep with the quiet of snow, she stopped. She slumped down on a fallen tree trunk, put her face in her hands, and wept.

The fox felt suddenly ashamed to be watching her, but he also knew this was an opportunity. He hopped silently onto the other end of the tree trunk and said, “Why do you cry, girl?”

Sofiya gasped. Her eyes were red, her pale skin blotchy, but despite this and her gruesome wolf hood, she was still lovely. She looked around, her even teeth worrying the flesh of her lip. “You should leave this place, fox,” she said. “You are not safe here.”

“I haven’t been safe since I slipped yowling from my mother’s body.”

She shook her head. “You don’t understand. My brother—”

“What would he want with me? I’m too scrawny to eat and too ugly to wear.”

Sofiya smiled slightly. “Your coat is a bit patchy, but you’re not so bad as all that.”

“No?” said the fox. “Shall I travel to Os Alta to have my portrait painted?”

“What does a fox know of the capital?”

“I visited once,” said Koja, for he sensed she might enjoy a story. “I was the queen’s personal guest. She tied a blue ribbon around my neck and I slept upon a velvet cushion every night.”

The girl laughed, her tears forgotten. “Did you, now?”

“I was quite the fashion. All the courtiers dyed their hair red and cut holes in their clothes, hoping to emulate my patchy coat.”

“I see,” said the girl. “So why leave the comforts of the Grand Palace and come to these cold woods?”

“I made enemies.”

“The queen’s poodle grew jealous?”

“The king was offended by my overlarge ears.”

“A dangerous thing,” she said. “With such big ears, who knows what gossip you might hear.”

This time Koja laughed, pleased that the girl showed some wit when she wasn’t locked up with a brute.

Sofiya’s smile faltered. She shot to her feet and picked up her basket, hurrying back down the path. But before she disappeared from view, she paused and said, “Thank you for making me laugh, fox. I hope I will not find you here again.”

Later that night, Lula fluffed her wings in frustration. “You learned nothing! All you did was flirt.”

“It was a beginning, little bird,” said Koja. “Best to move slowly.” Then he lunged at her, jaws snapping.

The nightingale shrieked and fluttered up into the high branches as Red Badger laughed.

“See?” said the fox. “We must take care with shy creatures.”

The next time Sofiya ventured out to the widows’ home, the fox followed her once more. Again she sat down in the clearing, and again she wept.

Koja hopped up on the fallen tree. “Tell me, Sofiya, why do you cry?”

“You’re still here, fox? Don’t you know my brother is near? He will catch you eventually.”

“What would your brother want with a yellow-eyed bag of bones and fleas?”

Sofiya gave a small smile. “Yellow is an ugly color,” she admitted. “With such big eyes, I think you see too much.”

“Will you not tell me what troubles you?”

She didn’t answer. Instead she reached into her basket and took out a wedge of cheese. “Are you hungry?”

The fox licked his chops. He’d waited all morning for the girl to leave her brother’s house and had missed his breakfast. But he knew better than to take food from the hand of a human, even if the hand was soft-skinned and finely made. When he did not move, the girl shrugged and took a bite of it herself.

“What of the hungry widows?” asked Koja.

“Let them starve,” she said with some fire, and shoved another piece of cheese into her mouth.

“Why do you stay with him?” asked Koja. “You’re pretty enough to catch a husband.”

“Pretty enough?” said the girl. “Would I be better served by yellow eyes and too-large ears?”

“Then you would be plagued by suitors.”

Koja hoped she might laugh again, but instead Sofiya sighed, a mournful sound that the wind picked up and lofted into the gray slate sky. “We move from town to town,” she said. “In Balakirev I almost had a sweetheart. My brother was not pleased. I keep hoping he will find a bride or allow me to marry, but I do not think he will.”

Her eyes filled with tears once more.

“Come now,” said the fox. “Let there be no more crying. I have spent my life finding my way out of traps. Surely I can help you escape your brother.”

“Just because you escape one trap, doesn’t mean you will escape the next.”

So Koja told her how he’d outsmarted his mother, the hounds, and even Ivan Gostov.

“You are a clever fox,” she conceded when he was done.

“No,” Koja said. “I am the cleverest. And that will make all the difference. Now tell me of your brother.”

Sofiya glanced up at the sun. It was long past noon.

“Tomorrow,” she said. “When I return.”

She left the wedge of cheese on the fallen tree, and once she was gone, Koja sniffed it carefully. He looked right and left, then gobbled it down in one bite and did not spare a thought for the poor hungry widows.

Koja knew he had to be especially cautious now if he hoped to loosen Sofiya’s tongue. He knew what it was to be caught in a trap. Sofiya had lived that way a long while, and a lesser creature might choose to live in fear rather than grasp at freedom. So the next day he waited at the clearing for her to return from the widows’ home, but kept out of sight. Finally, she came trundling over the hill, dragging her sled behind her, the wool blankets bound with twine, the heavy runners sinking into the snow. When she reached the clearing, she hesitated. “Fox?” she said softly. “Koja?”

Only then, when she had called for him, did he appear.

Sofiya gave a tremulous smile. She sank down on the fallen tree and told the fox of her brother.

Jurek was a late riser, but regular in his prayers. He bathed in ice-cold water and ate six eggs for breakfast every morning. Some days he went to the tavern, others he cleaned hides. And sometimes he simply seemed to disappear.

“Think very carefully,” said Koja. “Does your brother have any treasured objects? An icon he always carries? A charm, even a piece of clothing he never travels without?”

Sofiya considered this. “He has a little pouch he wears on his watch fob. An old woman gave it to him years ago, after he saved her from drowning. We were just children, but even then, Jurek was bigger than all the other boys. When she fell into the Sokol, he dove in after and dragged her back up its banks.”

“Is it dear to him?”

“He never removes it, and he sleeps with it cradled in his palm.”

“She must have been a witch,” said Koja. “That charm is what allows him to enter the forest so silently, to leave no tracks and make no sound. You will get it from him.”

Sofiya’s face paled. “No,” she said. “No, I cannot. For all his snoring, my brother sleeps lightly, and if he were to discover me in his chamber—” She shuddered.

“Meet me here again in three days’ time,” said Koja, “and I will have an answer for you.”

Sofiya stood and dusted the snow from her horrible cloak. When she looked at the fox, her eyes were grave. “Do not ask too much of me,” she said softly.

Koja took a step closer to her. “I will free you from this trap,” he said. “Without his charm, your brother will have to make his living like an ordinary man. He will have to stay in one place, and you will find yourself a sweetheart.”

She wrapped the cables of her sled around her hand. “Maybe,” Sofiya said. “But first I must find my courage.”

It took a day and a half for Koja to reach the marshes where a patch of dropwort grew. He was careful digging the little plants up. The roots were deadly. The leaves would be enough to manage Jurek.

By the time he returned to his own woods, the animals were in an uproar. The boar, Tatya, had gone missing, along with her three piglets. The next afternoon their bodies were spitted and cooking on a cheery bonfire in the town square. Red Badger and his family were packing up to leave, and they weren’t the only ones.

“He leaves no tracks!” cried the badger. “His rifle makes no sound! He is not natural, fox, and your clever mind is no match for him.”

“Stay,” said Koja. “He is a man, not a monster, and once I have robbed him of his magic, we will be able to see him coming. The wood will be safe once more.”

Red Badger did not look happy. He promised to wait a little while longer, but he did not let his children stray from the burrow.

“Boil them down,” Koja told Sofiya when he met her in the clearing to give her the dropwort leaves. “Then add the water to his wine and he’ll sleep like the dead. You can take the charm from him unhindered; just leave something useless in its place.”

“You’re sure of this?”

“Do this small thing and you will be free.”

“But what will become of me?”

“I will bring you chickens from Tupolev’s farm and kindling to keep you warm. We will burn the horrible cloak together.”

“It hardly seems possible.”

Koja darted forward and nudged her trembling hand once with his muzzle, then slipped back into the wood. “Freedom is a burden, but you will learn to bear it. Meet me tomorrow and all will be well.”

Despite his brave words, Koja spent the night pacing his den. Jurek was a big man. What if the dropwort was not enough? What if he woke when Sofiya tried to take his precious charm? And what if they were successful? Once Jurek lost the witch’s protection, the forest would be safe and Sofiya would be free. Would she leave then? Go back to her sweetheart in Balakirev? Or might he persuade his friend to stay?

Koja got to the clearing early the next day. He padded over the cold ground. The wind had a blade’s edge and the branches were bare. If the hunter kept preying upon the animals, they would not survive the season. The woods of Polvost would be emptied.

Then Sofiya’s shape appeared in the distance. He was tempted to run to meet her, but he made himself wait. When he saw her pink cheeks and that she was grinning beneath the hood of her horrible cloak, his heart leapt.

“Well?” he asked as she entered the clearing, quiet on her feet as always. With her hem brushing the path behind her, it was almost as if she left no tracks.

“Come,” she said, eyes twinkling. “Sit down beside me.”

She spread a woolen blanket on the fallen tree and opened her basket. She unpacked another wedge of the delicious cheese, a loaf of black bread, a jar of mushrooms, and a gooseberry tart glazed in honey. Then she held out her closed fist. Koja bumped it with his nose. She uncurled her fingers.

In her palm lay a tiny cloth bundle, bound with blue twine and a piece of bone. It smelled of something rotten.

Koja released a breath. “I feared he might wake,” he said at last.

She shook her head. “He was still asleep when I left him this morning.”

They opened the charm and looked through it: a small gold button, dried herbs, and ashes. Whatever magic might have worked inside it was invisible to their eyes.

“Fox, do you really believe this is what gave him his power?”

Koja batted the remains of the charm away. “Well, it wasn’t his wits.”

Sofiya smiled and pulled a jug of wine from the basket. She poured some for herself and then filled a little tin dish for Koja to lap up. They ate the cheese and the bread and all of the gooseberry tart.

“Snow is coming,” Sofiya said as she gazed into the gray sky.

“Will you return to Balakirev?”

“There is nothing for me there,” Sofiya said.

“Then you will stay to see the snow.”

“Long enough for that.” Sofiya poured more wine into the dish. “Now, fox, tell me again how you outsmarted the hounds.”

So Koja told the tale of the foolish hounds and asked Sofiya what wishes she might make, and at some point, his eyes began to droop. The fox fell asleep with his head in the girl’s lap, happy for the first time since he’d gazed upon the world with his too-clever eyes.

He woke to Sofiya’s knife at his belly, to the nudge of the blade as it began to wiggle beneath his skin. When he tried to scramble away, he found his paws were bound.

“Why?” he gasped as Sofiya worked the knife in deeper.

“Because I am a hunter,” she said with a shrug.

Koja moaned. “I wanted to help you.”

“You always do,” murmured Sofiya. “Few can resist the sight of a pretty girl crying.”

A lesser creature might have begged for his life, given in to the relentless spill of his blood on the snow, but Koja struggled to think. It was hard. His clever mind was muddled with dropwort.

“Your brother—”

“My brother is a fool who can barely stand to be in the same room with me. But his greed is greater than his fear. So he stays, and drinks away his terror, and while you are all watching him and his gun, and talking of witches, I make my way through the woods.”

Could it be true? Had it been Jurek who kept his distance, who drowned his fear in bottles of wine, who stayed away from his sister as much as he could? Had it been Sofiya who had brought the gray wolf home and Jurek who had filled their house with people so he wouldn’t have to be alone with her? Like Koja, the villagers had credited Jurek with the kill. They’d praised him, demanded stories that weren’t rightfully his. Had he offered up the wolf’s head as some kind of balm to his sister’s pride?

Sofiya’s silent knife sank deeper. She had no need for clumsy bows or noisy rifles. Koja whimpered his pain.

“You are clever,” she said thoughtfully as she started to peel the pelt from his back. “Did you never notice the sled?”

Koja clawed at his thoughts, looking for sense. Sofiya had sometimes trailed a sled behind her to carry food to the widows’ home. He remembered now that it had also been heavy when she had returned. What horrors had she hidden beneath those woolen blankets?

Koja tested his bonds. He tried to rattle his drugged mind from its stupor.

“It is always the same trap,” she said gently. “You longed for conversation. The bear craved jokes. The gray wolf missed music. The boar just wanted someone to tell her troubles to. The trap is loneliness, and none of us escapes it. Not even me.”

“I am a magic fox … ,” he rasped.

“Your coat is sad and patchy. I will use it for a lining. I will keep it close to my heart.”

Koja reached for the words that had always served him, the wit that had been his tether and his guide. His clever tongue would not oblige. He moaned as his life bled into the snowbank to water the fallen tree. Then, hopeless and dying, Koja did what he had never done before. He cried out, and high in the branches of her birch tree, the nightingale heard.

Lula came flying, and when she saw what Sofiya had done, she set upon her, pecking at her eyes. Sofiya screamed and slashed at the little bird with her knife. But Lula’s beak was sharp. She did not relent. In the wood, even songbirds must be survivors.

It took two days for Sofiya to stumble from the woods, blind and near starving. In time, her brother found a more modest house and set himself up as a woodcutter—work to which he was well suited. His new bride was troubled by his sister’s mad ramblings of foxes and wolves. With little regret, Lev Jurek sent Sofiya to live at the widows’ home. They took her in, mindful of the charity she’d once shown them. But though she’d brought them food, she’d never offered warm words or company. She’d never bothered to make them her friends, and soon, their gratitude exhausted, the old women grumbled over the care Sofiya required and left her to huddle by the fire in her horrible cloak.

As for Koja, his fur never sat quite right again. He took more care in his dealings with humans, even the foolish farmer Tupolev. The other animals took greater care with Koja too. They teased him less, and when they visited the fox and Lula, they never said an unkind word about the way his coat bunched at his neck.

The fox and the nightingale made a quiet life together. A lesser creature might have held Koja’s mistakes against him, might have mocked him for his pride. But Lula was not only clever.

She was wise.

THERE WAS A TIME WHEN THE woods near Duva ate girls.

It’s been many years since any child was taken. But still, on nights like these, when the wind comes cold from Tsibeya, mothers hold their daughters tight and warn them not to stray too far from home. “Be back before dark,” they whisper. “The trees are hungry tonight.”

In those black days, on the edge of these very woods, there lived a girl named Nadya and her brother, Havel, the children of Maxim Grushov, a carpenter and woodcutter. Maxim was a good man, well-liked in the village. He made roofs that did not leak or bend, sturdy chairs, toys when they were called for, and his clever hands could fashion edges so smooth and fasten joints so neatly you might never find the seam. He traveled all over the countryside seeking work, to towns as far as Ryevost. He went by foot and by hay cart when the weather was kind, and in the winter, he hitched his two black horses to a sledge, kissed his children, and set out in the snow. Always he returned home to them, carrying bags of grain or a new bolt of wool, his pockets stuffed with candy for Nadya and her brother.

But when the famine came, people had no coin and nothing to trade for a prettily carved table or a wooden duck. They used their furniture for kindling and prayed they would make it through to spring. Maxim was forced to sell his horses, and then the sledge they’d once pulled over the snow-blanketed roads.

As Maxim’s luck faded, so did his wife. Soon she was more ghost than woman, drifting silently from room to room. Nadya tried to get her mother to eat what little food they had, giving up portions of turnip and potato, bundling her mother’s frail body in shawls and seating her on the porch in the hope that the fresh air might return some appetite to her. The only thing she seemed to crave were little cakes made by the widow Karina Stoyanova, scented with orange blossom and thick with icing. Where Karina got the sugar, no one knew—though the old women had their theories, most of which involved a rich and lonely tradesman from the river cities. The thaw came, then the summer, another failed harvest. Eventually, even Karina’s supplies dwindled, and when the little cakes were gone, Nadya’s mother would touch neither food nor drink, not even the smallest sip of tea.

Nadya’s mother died on the first real day of winter, when the last bit of autumn fled from the air, and any hope of a mild year went with it. But the poor woman’s death passed largely unremarked upon, because two days before she finally breathed her last ghostly sigh, another girl went missing.

Her name was Lara Deniken, a shy girl with a nervous laugh, the type to stand at the edges of village dances watching the fun. All they found of her was a single leather shoe, its heel thick with crusted blood. She was the second girl lost in as many months, after Shura Yeshevsky went out to hang the wash on the line and never came back in, leaving nothing but a pile of clothespins and sodden sheets lying in the mud.

Real fear came upon the town. In the past, girls had vanished every few years. True, there were rumors of girls being taken from other villages from time to time, but those children hardly seemed real. Now, as the famine deepened and the people of Duva went without, it was as if whatever waited in the woods had grown greedier and more desperate, too.

Lara. Shura. All those who had gone before: Betya. Ludmilla. Raiza. Nikolena. Other names now forgotten. In those days, they were whispered like an incantation. Parents sent up prayers to their Saints, girls walked in pairs, people watched their neighbors with wary eyes. On the edge of the woods, the townspeople built crooked altars—careful stacks of painted icons, burnt-down prayer candles, little piles of flowers and beads.

Men grumbled about bears and wolves. They organized hunting parties, talked about burning sections of the forest. Poor bumbling Uri Pankin was nearly stoned to death when he was found in possession of one of the missing girls’ dolls, and only his mother’s weeping and her insistence that she had found the sorry thing on the Vestopol Road saved him.

Some wondered if the girls might have just walked into the wood, lured by their hunger. There were smells that wafted off the trees when the wind blew a certain way, impossible scents of lamb dumplings or sour-cherry babka. Nadya had almost given in to them herself, sitting on the porch beside her mother, trying to get her to take another spoonful of broth. She would smell roasting pumpkin, walnuts, brown sugar, and find her feet carrying her down the stairs toward the waiting shadows, where the trees shuffled and sighed as if ready to part for her.

Stupid Nadya, you think. Stupid girls. I would never be so foolish. But you’ve never known real hunger. The crops have been good these last years and people forget what the lean times are like. They forget the way mothers smothered infants in their cribs to stop their hungry howls, or how the trapper Leonid Gemka was found gnawing on the muscle of his slain brother’s calf when their hut was iced in for two long months.

Sitting on the porch of Baba Olya’s house, the old women peered into the forest and muttered, “Khitka.” The word raised the hairs on Nadya’s arms, but she was no longer a child, so she laughed with her brother at such silly talk. The khitkii were spiteful forest spirits, bloodthirsty and vengeful. But in stories, they were known to hunger after newborns, not full-grown girls near old enough to marry.

“Who can say what shapes an appetite?” Baba Olya said with a dismissive wave of her gnarled hand. “Maybe this one is jealous. Or angry.”

“Maybe it just likes the taste of our girls,” said Anton Kozar, limping by on his one good leg and waggling his tongue obscenely. The old women squawked like geese and Baba Olya hurled a rock at him. War veteran or no, the man was disgusting.

When Nadya’s father heard the old women muttering that Duva was cursed and demanding that the priest say blessings in the town square, he simply shook his head.

“It’s just an animal,” he insisted. “A wolf mad with hunger.”

Maxim knew every path and corner of the forest, so he and his friends took up their rifles and headed back into the woods, full of grim determination. But again they found nothing, and the old women grumbled louder. What animal left no tracks, no trail, no trace of a body?

Suspicion crept through the town. That lecherous Anton Kozar had returned from the northern front much changed, had he not? Peli Yerokin had always been a violent boy. And Bela Pankin was a most peculiar woman, living out on that farm with her strange son, Uri. A khitka could take any form. Perhaps she had not “found” that missing girl’s doll at all.

Standing at the lip of her mother’s grave, Nadya noted Anton’s seeping stump and lewd grin, wiry Peli Yerokin with his tangled hair and balled fists, Bela Pankin’s worried frown, and the sympathetic smile of the widow Karina Stoyanova, the way her lovely black eyes stayed on Nadya’s father as the coffin he’d carved with such care was lowered into the hard ground.

The khitka might take any form, but the shape it favored most was that of a beautiful woman.

Soon Karina seemed to be everywhere, bringing Nadya’s father food and gifts of kvas, whispering in his ear that someone was needed to take care of him and his children. Havel would be gone for the draft soon, off to train in Poliznaya and begin his military service, but Nadya would still need minding.

“After all,” said Karina in her warm honey voice, “you do not want her to disgrace you.”

Later that same night, Nadya went to her father as he sat drinking kvas by the fire. Maxim was whittling. When he had nothing to do, he sometimes made dolls for Nadya, though she’d long since outgrown them. His sharp knife moved in restless sweeps, leaving curls of soft wood on the floor. He’d been too long at home. The summer and fall that he might have spent seeking out work had been lost to his wife’s illness, and the winter snows would soon close the roads. As his family went hungry, his wooden dolls gathered on the mantel, like a silent, useless choir. He cursed when he cut into his thumb, and only then did he notice Nadya standing nervously by his chair.

“Papa,” Nadya said, “please do not marry Karina.”

She hoped that he would deny that he had been contemplating such a thing. Instead, he sucked his wounded thumb and said, “Why not? Don’t you like Karina?”

“No,” said Nadya honestly. “And she doesn’t like me.”

Maxim laughed and ran his rough knuckles over her cheek. “Sweet Nadya, who could not love you?”


“Karina is a good woman,” Maxim said. His knuckles brushed her cheek again. “It would be better if …” Abruptly, he dropped his hand and turned his face back to the fire. His eyes were distant, and when he spoke, his voice was cold and strange, as if rising from the bottom of a well. “Karina is a good woman,” he repeated. His fingers gripped the arms of his chair. “Now leave me be.”

She has him already, thought Nadya. He is under her spell.

The night before Havel left for the south, a dance was held in the barn by the Pankin farm. In better years, it might have been a raucous night, the tables piled high with plates of nuts and apples, pots of honey, and jars of peppery kvas. The men still drank and the fiddle played, but even pine boughs and the high shine of Baba Olya’s treasured samovar could not hide the fact that now the tables were empty. And though people stomped and clapped their hands, they could not chase away the gloom that seemed to hang over the room.

Genetchka Lukin was chosen Dros Koroleva, Queen of the Thaw, and made to dance with all who asked her, in the hope that it would bring about a short winter, but only Havel looked truly happy. He was off to the army, to carry a gun and eat hot meals from the king’s pocket. He might die or come back wounded as so many had before him, but on this night, his face glowed with the relief of leaving Duva behind.

Nadya danced once with her brother, once with Victor Yeronoff, then took a seat with the widows and wives and children. Her eyes fell on Karina, standing close to her father. Her limbs were white birch branches; her eyes were ice over black water. Maxim looked unsteady on his feet.

Khitka. The word drifted down to Nadya from the barn’s shadowed eaves as she watched Karina weave her arm through Maxim’s like the pale stalk of a climbing vine. Nadya pushed her foolish thoughts away and turned to watch Genetchka Lukin dance, her long golden hair braided with bright red ribbons. Nadya was ashamed to feel a pang of envy. Silly, she told herself, watching Genetchka struggle through a dance with Anton Kozar. He simply stood and swayed, one arm keeping balance on his crutch, the other clutching tightly to poor Genetchka’s waist. Silly, but she felt it just the same.

“Go with Havel,” said a voice at her shoulder.

Nadya nearly jumped. She hadn’t noticed Karina standing beside her. She looked up at the slender woman, her dark hair lying in coils around her white neck.

Nadya turned her gaze back to the dance. “I can’t and you know it. I’m not old enough.” It would be two more years before she was called to the draft.

“So lie.”

“This is my home,” Nadya whispered furiously, embarrassed by the tears that rose behind her eyes. “You can’t just send me away.” My father won’t let you, she added silently. But somehow, she did not have the courage to speak the words aloud.

Karina leaned in close to Nadya. When she smiled, her lips split wet and red around what seemed like far too many teeth.

“Havel could at least work and hunt,” she whispered. “You’re just another mouth.” She reached out and tugged one of Nadya’s curls, hard. Nadya knew that if her father happened to look over he would just see a beautiful woman, grinning and talking to his daughter, perhaps encouraging her to dance.

“I will warn you just this once,” hissed Karina Stoyanova. “Go.”

The next day Genetchka Lukin’s mother discovered that her daughter’s bed had not been slept in. The Queen of the Thaw had never made it home from the dance. At the edge of the wood, a red ribbon fluttered from the branches of a narrow birch, a few golden hairs trailing from the knot, as if it had been torn from her head.

Nadya stood silent as Genetchka’s mother fell to her kn