The river freezes after nightfall. I feel it in the deepening cold that slithers under the door and whispers down the chimney, in the spears of ice that cling to the eaves, in the scrape of the thick icy slurry coursing past the base of my prison. The river’s ceaseless murmur becomes a chorus of creaking, crushing, and snapping, the maudlin groan of ice against stone.
Then: footsteps on the bridge.
It is midwinter, the longest night of the year, the only night on which my sister visits me. Throughout the rest of the year she will send her stumbling abominations to bring me food and books and small amusements, but the creatures fear me, as they ought, and never come inside. My sister has no such fear. The bridge quakes as she approaches. Something has changed in her gait. There is a limp, now, that was not there last year. I hope it comes from an injury or illness that caused her terrible, terrible pain.
I rise from my bed, where I spent the day bundled against the cold in blankets of moss. I stoke the fire, set the kettle to boil, clear the chairs by the hearth of books. I sit and wait and do not rise when the key rattles in the lock. I watch the door.
My prison is a tower set upon a rock in the center of a mountain river. I inhabit a single round room with walls of stone, and the chains that bind me are living wood, growing from my ankles and feet into roots below, from my hands into the branches wending through walls, from my hair into the crown above. My chains were green and supple when they first erupted from my skin in a splatter of blood and an explosion of pain, but they have grown more rigid as my human appetites have grown weaker and my count of the years murkier.
Nell allows me freedom enough to pace the width of my chamber, every step accompanied by a creak of wood and rustle of leaves, but no more. I feel the rain when it falls on my crown of branches, the warmth of summer breezes as they tickle soft green leaves, the birds when they light upon my branches, the beetles when they gnaw at my roots, but I do not remember the last time I saw the sky.
The door opens, and a whirl of winter dashes into the room, chasing pellets of snow, rattling the leftover autumn leaves that cling to the walls and ceiling. I glimpse the night, only a glimpse, and never enough.
With the wind and the snow comes the Queen of Peace, Mother of Prosperity, Wisdom of Skies and Patience of Mountains, She Who Keeps Us From Fear, Savior of the Righteous Lands, The Warrior Who Hath Ended War. My sister Nell.
“Goodness,” she says, wrenching the door closed. “What a storm. Do you know the river is finally freezing?”
“Yes,” I say. She does not like it if I ignore her questions, even if she already knows the answer. “I know.”
I tried, once, to flee when my sister opened the door. There is a knotty, charred stump where the smallest finger on my right hand was burnt away. All these years later, it still scrapes charcoal over the pages of my books.
“It has frozen quite late this year. We were blessed with a long autumn.” Nell knocks slush from her boots and brushes snow from her cloak.
Nell has gotten old. It has been happening all along, evidenced in the yearly increments of her visits, but this night the change is profound. Her back is bent; she walks with a cane. Her hair beneath her hood is brittle and gray and thin. She drops her basket to the floor and rubs her hands together before the flames.
“What a storm,” she says again. Her voice, too, has aged. She coughs. She rasps. “Go on, Lottie. I have a chill in my bones. We have things to discuss.”
I slide to the floor, branches tugging at my scalp like fishhooks on lines, and I duck my head to hide my sudden alarm. We do not discuss, Nell and I. In the early years of my imprisonment, I raged at her during her midwinter visits, but I soon learned that my prison only grew stronger with every fight: roots deepening when I screamed curses on her name, leaves withering when she laughed at my weakness. I stopped fighting the year I realized I could not discern bone from wood when I sliced myself open and peered inside.
Lately, she has only bragged of her achievements as queen while I sulk and scowl. Some years we do not speak at all, and it is she who sulks and scowls. We have never, not once in these countless years, had things to discuss.
In the basket a teapot is nestled in a bed of hay. It is the finest bone-white porcelain, detailed with silver whorls and red flowers. The fanciful name for the vine is bloodheart, but peasant farmers call it bog weed. It is beloved of midwives and alchemists for its ability to prolong life—a trait my sister has refined and perfected over decades of experimentation. There is a sachet of dried petals in the teapot already, wrapped in cotton and knotted with string. The amount has been measured precisely: exactly enough to preserve my life through one more year, regardless of what injuries and insults are inflicted upon my body.
With the teapot are two matching cups and paper-thin saucers. The set was our mother’s. Nell sent an assassin to our childhood home, long abandoned now, to kill our mother and steal what he could. But he was too slow and found our mother already dead. I had placed her head upon a pike in the center of the village and turned the market square into a quagmire of blood while spring storms split the skies. Nell’s assassin returned with a tea set and nothing more. She punished him—he screamed for days, they said, and cried for his own mother—but it was too late. She could never take that victory from me.
“It’s true I don’t sleep as much as I used to, on these cold nights,” Nell says, dropping into her chair. “I feel the cold in my bones. Even in the castle, with all the fires raging—have I told you of the fireplaces?”
“Yes. You have.”
She has, over the years, detailed every luxury, every treasure, every extravagance.
Nell keeps prattling on as though I have said nothing. “There is one in the hall that’s larger than our old cottage. But the wind finds a way in. Right here. This is where I feel it.”
She taps her left forearm with the knotty knuckles of her right hand. I broke that bone so many years ago, when she came to my caves expecting surrender. I loved those caves and the darkness they held; I loved the ancient creatures frozen in stone, woken when I desired by a whisper and a caress. I was sad to leave that murmuring dark place. It is a small pleasure to know the old break pains her still.
I wrap my skirt about my hand to lift the kettle, which has just begun to boil. I pour the tea and hand one cup to Nell.
“Careful. It’s quite hot,” I say.
Her snake-quick smirk mocks my old, old habits. Her indulgence is one sip, no more, but every year she wants me to know she could have it all. She wants me to know she could drink my life away and smile as she did so.
She accepts the cup, and our fingers touch. Hers old and gnarled and spotted; mine smooth and slender and clean but for the woody vines showing like bruises through the skin. I pour tea into my own cup and rise to sit in the other chair. When my knees creak, it is not due to age but the vines Nell has woven around my bones. When my back twinges, it is not the weight of years but the branches braided through my ribs.
Otherwise I remain as young as I was when Nell defeated me. If freed of my shackles, I could race, I could fight, I could climb a fortress wall, I could bed a young man and all of his brothers, I could spring to my feet and snap Nell’s neck with a single twist and stomp her face into the stone floor and break all the bones I had broken before, and many more I had missed the first time, and I could do it laughing.
The tea smells of fruit and spice, of summer memories and promises kept. I raise the cup to my lips. The bitter taste is always a disappointment to follow a scent so sweet.
“Ah,” says Nell. “Not just yet, Lottie. Don’t rush.”
Somewhere between my lips and the back of my throat, the flavor changes, transforming from delicate floral to a flighty breath of the freshest green, like a handful of grass on the first day of spring, like herbs from a garden after a gentle rain, like a crown of new leaves on the planting queen’s shining young head as she rides her pony through the village and waves to rivals and admirers—was it I who wore the crown in our sixteenth summer, or was it Nell? I can no longer remember. The freshness of the tea, the color that explodes across my tongue, it brings tears to my eyes.
Once, many years ago, I threw the pot at Nell’s head. Only once. That was when I learned she carried a spare sachet in her pockets. After she held me down to pour the scalding liquid into my throat, she cast on my prison a seeping black rot that clung to my skin and blood and bones for years afterward.
I never spilled the tea again.
Year after year, decade after decade, Nell takes a single sip, I drain my cup then hers, and the taste never changes. Our midwinter ritual never varies.
Until now. Nell is not drinking her tea.
“I am dying,” she says. At my surprised look, she laughs. “Don’t be like that, Lottie. You aren’t blind. You can see how old I am getting. My body is shriveling around me. My advisers are telling me not to worry about this or that, when they notice me at all. My maids ask if I need help pulling a blanket over my knees. My daughter is tapping her toe with impatience for her turn at the crown.”
“Daughter?” She has never mentioned a daughter before.
“Oh, yes.” A dismissive gesture. “She is smart but rather dull. Her husband is stupid and even more dull. She’ll be a good enough queen, I suppose. I took her from the belly of a peasant woman. Even with all the mess, it seemed wiser than trying to fill an unknown child with our blood. I resolved long ago not to try that foolishness again.”
It had been her foolishness and mine, a shared failure. Nell had chosen a thrall to sire her heirs, I had stolen her thrall simply to prove I could, then a dashing highwayman had stolen the thrall from both of us and swept him away to the mountains, which was rather fitting, I supposed. The last I’d heard, before my imprisonment, the two men reigned as bandit kings somewhere in the north. They were certainly dead by now. I could not remember their names, only the sound of their laughter as they rode away.
“Which means,” Nell goes on, “you have a decision to make.”
I sneer to hide the sudden racing of my heart. “Me? How novel. I’m quite sure I don’t remember how. You’ll have to remind me.” It has been a long time since I have made a decision. Nell chooses my food, my drink, my clothing, my books.
“Don’t be tiresome, Lottie,” Nell says. “My daughter doesn’t know about you. She knows the history, to be sure. She knows I have saved the people from the ruin your reign would have wrought. I have made quite sure all the girls under my rule are educated. There are festivals and the like—the people quite enjoy festivals these days, always a reason to celebrate.”
“Do they burn me in effigy?” I ask. “Host quartering contests for the stronger draft horses? Stage mock battles in which you bore me to death by talking of yourself until the commoners are too drunk to care?”
“All of that and more,” Nell says. A tight smile creases her cheeks, accentuating the long-faded scar on the left. That was a gift of our mother, not one of mine, which is the only reason Nell wears it still. “Everybody believes you to be dead, if they remember you at all.”
“In which battle did I perish? No, let me guess.” I tilt my head in a charade of thoughtfulness. “That business at the sea tower. You would choose the most dramatic setting for your final victory. To cast yourself as a titanic sea goddess of some earlier age. That’s where I died, isn’t it?”
Nell does not answer, but the pinch of her lips is answer enough. An old woman’s frown, but in that frown I see shadows of my own face as it might have been, had I aged naturally. In our youth we were mirrors of one another. Our mother claimed we were born as one child that she tore apart in a moment of rage, splitting the infant down the middle and throwing the halves into a banked fire, only to find in the morning that two identical creatures had crawled from the ashes to wriggle and squall on the floor.
From that moment onward, she said, she knew she had committed a terrible crime against the world, to try to squeeze two screeching red-faced creatures into a space meant for one. Our mother was a liar, but her lies were often woven from threads of truth. Nell and I had been close enough in appearance that our own friends and lovers could be easily fooled.
It would have been so much better if she had been ugly or stupid. If I had been ugly or stupid. If one of us had never been born. If our mother had never captured our father. If the mountains had never risen from the plains, the rivers never carved the valley, the trees never grown, the rains never fallen, the sun never ravished the moon in the star-filled firmament to spawn their lowly, earthly child.
Nell says, “I’ll be dead by spring. My daughter will be queen.”
I look down at the teacup. The green-grass taste lingers on my tongue. I have swallowed not quite half a cup. A quarter of the year, give or take, when droplets are days and mouthfuls are moons.
“She does not know you are here, but she is not stupid,” Nell continues. “She will read the ledgers. She will inspect her holdings. She will find you. She is not overly fond of uncertainty.”
One of my earliest memories is of a shocking pain—the pain of a hand fisted in my hair, tearing a chunk from my scalp, and Nell’s laughter rolling all around me, bright as sunflowers and momentous as thunder, the world a blur of tears and bafflement, and the pain, the pain, the surprise and the pain. Had I been able, I would have severed her hand in that moment, if only to make the pain stop. I would have torn her own braids from her head and shoved them into her mouth until she choked. I could not wrest myself free. She probably does not remember; for her it meant nothing. There are no festival days for our ancient history of small humiliations and childish tortures.
“I have always wondered,” I say, “why you do not drink deeply of this tea yourself. Why you limit yourself to delicate little sips when you could gulp it down.”
A scoff. “Is that what you waste your hours contemplating?”
“You could rule forever, if you wanted. You could be the young and beautiful queen for eternity. You need not turn anything over to your dull daughter. I only wonder why.”
“Lottie,” Nell says, in the voice of a kindly grandmother, one who wears wisdom as a shawl, “you are an abomination.”
When my prison was new and the vines snaking through my body were supple and green, I was able to blossom flowers from my fingertips after Nell’s visits. My rage was as potent as springtime; my resentment as powerful as the sun. I cherished those small red flowers, each the color of fresh blood.
After I threw the teapot and Nell sent the rot, the flowers blossomed no more.
“Because you have made me one,” I say quietly.
“I have done what you deserved. My only regret is that I did not peel your skin from your body and make a harp from every sinew years ago, when it would have brought me pleasure.” Nell sets her cup down and stands with a grunt. “Finish your tea, or spill it. I no longer care.”
For the second time this night, my heart thrums with sudden fear. She always stays and natters until I finish the pot. Always. She never retreats while there is tea left to drink.
But tonight is different. She is limping toward the door before I even raise the cup again.
“This is how you leave me?” I rise, branches creaking and leaves quaking, blood and sap warming in my veins. “You have nothing else to say?”
She opens the door and lets the wind inside. I cannot follow her so far; the tug of my woody chains is agony, from my scalp to the bare soles of my feet.
Nell hesitates but does not turn. “You are my daughter’s concern now.”
Those are the last words my sister speaks to me. She takes her leave on a gust of wind, and the thump of her footsteps on the bridge fades.
“Coward,” I mutter, then I raise my voice to shout: “Coward! Will you leave me here to weep, as your wretched girl-queen comes with a mob and torches and axes?”
I have begged Nell for such an end many times, but it was always her face I imagined in the torchlight, not the stolen daughter of a murdered peasant woman. I have no quarrel with the girl, and any she has with me is twisted by her mother’s lies. Nell is queen still, but in this she has already abdicated. I do not know the face of my new warden. In my mind she is sullen, her hair dull, but the axe she carries is glinting and sharp.
I am railing at the wind and darkness, and I feel a fool. I return to sit by the fire, on the stone hearth where the flames taunt the wood in my limbs. The tea I have swallowed, not quite half a cup, is just enough to carry me through the end of winter.
I do not know what I will feel when Nell dies, on a down bed in her queenly chamber, surrounded by dutiful servants and convincing tears, or if I will feel anything at all. For so long, our shared animus has made truth from our mother’s tale of a child rent in two. It seems outrageous that she could die and I would not know.
But it is, perhaps, appealing as well. For the first time in our lives, I need not worry what Nell will do. She might have fallen from the bridge as soon as she shut the door, and I do not have to care.
The thought startles a laugh out of me. I pick up Nell’s teacup, still full, and tip it toward the fire. A few drops fall and sizzle. My hand is shaking.
I think I might enjoy the end when it comes. When the last of the bog weed is scourged from my blood, a lifetime of ravages both unnatural and ordinary will overtake me. There will be pain, yes, but I have known pain before. My heart will shudder and slow its pulse. My blood will grow sluggish in my veins. Not quite half a cup. My body will begin to fail as winter topples into spring, as the river breaks from its deep freeze. The first birdsong will accompany my strangled gasps for breath. I will cough and quake, and with every feeble shuddering breath the walls of my prison will weaken and crack. Scoured by floods below and battered by storms above, I will have neither the strength nor the will to withstand the oncoming spring. The wind will carry the scents of soil and grass and growing things.
When I finally die, my prison will fall with me. It will pull me apart, branches and roots tearing my bones from my body. And if I cry out as we collapse together, my prison and I, it will not be a cry of pain or fear but the joyful shout of a child at play, one who does not know where her life will lead or how many years ahead will be wasted in anger.
My last breath as the ceiling breaks open wide will be a gasp of awe. The rafters will crack, the chimney will tumble, and above me there will be a sky of the most perfect blue. Before the river swallows me I will feel, for a moment, the warmth of the sun.
I fling Nell’s teacup into the fireplace, followed by mine. The crash of our mother’s porcelain on stone is so satisfying I laugh aloud as I throw the teapot. The steam that rises from the sizzling fire is rancid, then sweet.