Home > Among the Beasts & Briars(16)

Among the Beasts & Briars(16)
Author: Ashley Poston

“You don’t think that sort of magic is silent, do you?” I folded my arms behind my head and reclined back onto the bear, who just grunted. She made a rather comfortable chair. “You put it on, so I think you understand the temptation.”

She hesitated as she stared down at the crown. “I wouldn’t have ever taken it off if you hadn’t knocked it off me.”

I looked up into the night. I guessed this was as good a time to tell her as any. “You were screaming. You were screaming because it hurt.”

Her eyes widened. “I . . . don’t remember that.”

“Well, I can’t forget it.” Sighing, I massaged the bridge of my nose. There was a needling sort of pain behind my eyes, but I wasn’t sure if it was from a lack of sleep or the stress of this situation. I closed my eyes and rolled away from her. “Go to sleep, Daisy. Maybe you’ll unpack some of those bags under your eyes.”

“You’re the worst, Fox.”

I felt the same.

She curled up on her mat of grass, and soon her breath evened out as she fell into a deep, soft sleep. I sat up and rubbed my face. Someone had to keep watch tonight, and it was going to be me.

The bear flicked her ears toward me. She wore the crown?

“For a moment,” I muttered, remembering the way her honey braid began to ignite at the ends, the smell of burned hair flooding my nostrils. Her eyes had rolled up behind her eyelids, roots crawling up her legs, a scream tearing from her mouth, bloodcurdling and horrible. I remembered it so viscerally, it made me shiver, though I told myself it was from the cold. “I took it off her before anything could happen.”

How did you know what it would do?

I pulled my long orange hair over my right shoulder, began to meticulously pick out the knots, and frowned. “I don’t know. I just know not everyone can wear it.”

How? How do you know?

I opened my mouth to tell her, but I realized I had no idea how I knew. “Aren’t all animals from the wood? Don’t we all know, in our bones, how the crown works?”

I only know it calls to us.

I picked another knot out of my hair. “Why does it matter? She’s not going to put the crown on again.”

The bear gave me a look, her eyes dark and unreadable. And if she does? Will you be here again to take it off, or will you slip off and hide, like you did today?

“I can’t protect anyone, bear,” I told her. “I just make things worse. I mean, look at me now. I saved her from the crown, and she turned me human.”

You don’t know if you don’t try.

“And if I don’t try, I won’t fail.”

In reply, the bear only snorted, laid her head on her paws, and dozed off. I got the sense that she wasn’t any normal bear—I mean, just look at her—but I didn’t know what she had to do with this quest, or Daisy, or the crown. Or why she was helping us.

Or why, even though I didn’t know any of these things, I still trusted her. Being near the bear made the rest of the forest lose its sharp edges, as if the trees knew a secret, and with that secret they behaved. I felt safer near her.

I stayed up for the first half of the night, listening to the fire crackle and the wind bend the trees. Daisy mumbled in her sleep and rolled over, the dim orange light of the campfire catching in her soft hair. Small white flowers began to bloom through her braids, and I couldn’t remember if they had been there before. She turned her face into her arm, tensing in her nightmare, mumbling words I almost caught. The crown sat tied to the sash on her waist, knotted so many times it would’ve been impossible to take off.

I watched her for a while, until I could barely keep my eyes open, and then I woke up the bear and told her that it was her turn to watch the wood.

I’d had enough of creepy old gods and mumbling stubborn girls for one night.


A Memory of Teeth


MY MOTHER CAME home three days after she died.

On the first day, we had mourned the prince’s death. The kingdom hung black cloth over their doors, they prayed to the old gods, and they wept for a boy who we lost in the wood. The king was never quite the same after that. Sometimes, I imagined he wished he had pulled his son out of the wood with the power of the crown, and not me. Sometimes, I could understand why.

On the second day, the chapel at the edge of town held a small service for Seren. I didn’t go. I know I should have, but I was too afraid. I was the one who came out of the wood alive, after all. Even though the villagers were never anything but kind to me after that, I knew they felt that it should have been someone else who had survived that day. Why had the royal gardener’s daughter been spared, and not the heir to the crown of Aloriya? Or at least a bold young squire?

On the third day, we burned a casket for my mother and spread the ashes across the doorstep of our home, as was Aloriyan tradition. Traveled on, but never gone. That morning, the king had told Papa that he could have the day off to mourn, but Papa had insisted on opening the shop. I thought, back then, it was because he knew my mother wouldn’t have wanted him to lose any potential customers, but the truth was a lot simpler: If he worked, he didn’t have time to cry.

It was also the day my mother returned. And the day I found out the wood gave me a curse all my own.

I was sitting at the counter. The door was open, letting the rays of the afternoon sun fill the shop. The golden light danced with motes of the ash we spread across the doorstep. The entire shop smelled like burned wood. Papa was in the garden out back, picking a bouquet of lilies to place on the doorstep, though I remember my mother loving daisies best.

That was when I saw it—a familiar shadow in the doorway.

“Mama!” I hopped off the stool and raced around the counter. Papa heard me from the garden and came in as quickly as he could. But it wasn’t quick enough.

The sunlight backlit my mother, so I couldn’t see her face until I came up to her and hugged her around the middle. She smelled of freshly upturned earth and an irony scent I couldn’t quite place. Not at first, anyway. Not until Papa called my name, and I drew away from her enough to see the blood on her shirt, the holes torn into her gardening trousers. Just enough to see the maggots worming through the gash in her side. I took a step back.

“Cerys,” she breathed, and her voice was all wrong. She looked down at me from beneath matted honey-red hair. Her eyes were dark and sunken. She reached toward me. “Cerys.”

“CERYS!” Papa shouted, pulling me back behind him. I stumbled, trying to catch myself, but ended up knocking a vase of flowers off the table. It shattered on the ground, and I cut my arm, but I didn’t notice. Papa held a pitchfork at the ready, one he had brought in from the garden out back.

My mother, who was not my mother, stared at him for a moment. Her mouth was too wide, set with too many teeth; antlers curved from her forehead like devilish horns. She jerked a hand toward him, reaching, pleading.

“Arthur,” she gasped. “Arthur.”

Then—and I remember as clear as day, she said—

“Kill me.”

I looked away. I don’t remember what happened next, or I chose to forget. What I do remember, however, was watching a line of blood travel down my arm and drip onto the floorboards. And from it sprouted a single daisy.

I hadn’t dreamed about that day in such a long time, I had almost forgotten how beautiful it had been until then. I had almost forgotten the smell of the ash on the doorway. I had almost forgotten that the wood had come knocking at all. But I found myself standing there now, in the late-afternoon light, the shop empty and silent. In my dreams, in the wood, I had returned.

From one of the shadows a blurred figure appeared. He was tall and thin, and he put his hands in his pockets as he came toward me. His image grew sharper, dark leathers and long black hair. But he looked different from when I saw him at the castle just as the curse arrived, and then at the abandoned cottage. He looked as alive as he had years ago, with olive skin and a catty smile.

“Isn’t it quaint,” Seren said, “what we thought we could destroy?”

I stared at him, perplexed. “You’re dead.”

“And yet I remain.”

He took a step toward me, and as he did, he morphed into a familiar face—incisors as sharp as a fox’s, eyes burning like stoked coals. A river of orange hair flowed down to his shoulders. The scar on his lip deepened into a scowl. He ran a claw down my cheek, pressed his lips against my ear, and whispered, “You will never leave this wood, Cerys Levina.”


The Poisoned Tongue


I NUDGED DAISY in the side with my boot. She was having a nightmare. She jerked up instantly, gasping for breath. Then she looked up at me and screamed. I winced as she scrambled out of her pile of dry grass and onto a rock by the river, her chest rising and falling rapidly. Her eyes were bloodshot, her cheeks glistening with tracks of tears. I held up my hands to show that I didn’t mean any harm. At least that’s what most humans did to me when they wanted me to calm down.

“It’s okay,” I soothed, moving a dandelion stem into the corner of my mouth. The yellow flower bobbed at the end. “You were having a bad dream.”

She finally seemed to come to her senses and moved back off the rock onto her makeshift bedding. The crown clanked against the rock as she did, and she wiped her tears away with the back of her hand. “It’s nothing.”

“It didn’t seem like—”

“It’s nothing,” she insisted.

The sky between the trees was gray with dawn, and the campfire was little more than smoldering embers. I’d woken up some time ago to take the last watch, because Daisy seemed to need the sleep, and so I’d taken a brisk wash in the river. The water wasn’t as cold as I remembered, and without fur it didn’t hang on me. It was the first time I had a chance to really inspect this body, long limbed and strange. I managed to get most of the knots out of my hair, and I scrubbed the dirt from my skin. I’d spent a little too long in the water than I’d readily admit to anyone. I didn’t like it. It was just . . . more convenient for washing as a human.

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