There are whispers in the town every spring about the day she came. The day she ruined me. Her name still draws gasps from the women, frightens children into obedience, fills men with both desire and horror.
She is never mentioned in polite conversation. The ruined castle on the hill overlooking our village, a relic from before Selene’s Rebellion where I guard Malleine, is given wide berth. Only the priestesses of Selene dare speak her name, finding safety in the protection of the moon goddess. There are other names used by those with far less courage. Lady Blue. The Fae Queen. The Witch. Old Thorny. To me, she will always be Malleine.
Why should I fear the one who made me what I am?
It was the year I turned seventeen that she came to me. The snow was still hiding in the shadow of stones and the corners of walls. I was desperate to prove myself a better man than my father. My mother died of illness the winter before, and he drowned himself in drink to forget her. Instead of drinking, I ploughed our farm for the coming spring.
I took a great deal of naïve pride in my work. The furrows were easy with the frost over, and I was finished by early afternoon. I stopped the old ox and wiped the sweat from my face on my arm. It was while I was surveying all I ruled, a king of earth and grit, that I saw the wagon coming down the road running past my farm.
It was ridiculously gaudy, painted red, purple, and bright yellow. If its owner had his way, I’m sure he would have even painted his horses the same colors. Orban the merchant was from a country far to the east. He was our only means of contact with the outside world, bearing news and things we sent what little we had to trade for. Most often he brought all sorts of “wonders”. One year he made the mistake of selling Mayor Davet’s wife, Auda, a lotion that promised to restore her lost youth and fell flat on that promise. His wagon was nearly burned before he agreed to return her money.
Orban’s oddities and wonders were the last thing I had in mind. The man always brought the most beautiful jewelry, things that were not so expensive to put us in eternal debt, but enough that any man would think twice about bartering for them. It was this reason that most of the single young men, myself included, had never turned the eye of Colette. Beautiful, yes, but just as vain. She would give a dreamy sigh in the square and wish for a beautiful necklace to wear to the spring festival, in a volume sure to catch a deaf man’s attention.
I longed for her, yet now I can barely remember her face. Her beauty has long faded and passed from this world. But back then she was still beautiful, and seeing Orban’s wagon rattle down the dirt road with its wheels firmly rooted in the deep ruts brought back the hope of being able to trade for something to offer her at the festival. As I put away the ox, the yoke, and the plough I was already imagining her face lighting up and her unflinching acceptance of my gift. Then we would be married in Selene’s shrine, and our lives would be perfect.
Orban had already set up shop in the village square. Back then it was only a large dirt patch surrounded by wooden huts, the tavern, Selene’s shrine, and the empty lot that Orban used for business during the spring and summer months. This was where seven or so of my neighbors and their families stood, smaller children sitting on the shoulders of their fathers. I cared little for news from outside and buying seeds that day. My mind kept going back to Colette and the spring festival. I caught my father’s gaze once as he leaned against the wall of the tavern and nodded to him. His eyes held mine for only a moment before he looked away.
I stole closer to the wagon while Orban traded beaver furs for new tools, woven baskets for fish hooks, bear hides for a new anvil. Orban had already laid out some of his wonders on the wagon box: new ointments and medicines in strangely shaped jars and bottles, fine dolls with brocade dresses, trinkets and jewelry of all kinds. The rest didn’t matter, but the jewelry that year was impressive. Bracelets, rings, earrings, and pendants; made with everything from polished wood, bone and horn to carnelian, colored glass, jade, and jet. My gaze caught one pendant in particular, a piece of white wood in the shape of a leaf, surrounded by smaller beads made from polished river pebbles.
I looked up to make sure that no one else was eying my prize. Then I saw the urn. Not even a proper crematory urn; it was only six inches tall, made of red clay. Its maker had painted it with strange swirling designs in black glaze, creating spirals that threatened to trap me in the urn if I stared at them too long.
I had to have it.
Orban was occupied, presenting some kind of garment to my neighbors. A new undershirt for women, designed to make their waists look smaller. “Just tighten these laces here, in the back,” he said.
Without thinking I snatched the urn from its place on the wagon box and ran. It was the first thing I had ever stolen, and my heart was pounding at the idea of being caught. But I had to have it. Something was calling to me from inside that urn, begging for my help.
I didn’t stop until I was back on the farm. The furrows that I was so proud of that morning meant nothing. The hungry protests of the ox as I took a bucket from next to his stall meant nothing. My only concern was to fill that bucket with soil from the fields, to dampen it with water, to pry the urn open and plant the golden-hulled seed contained inside it. I did all of this with my hands shaking so badly that I almost dropped the seed. Then I sat on the stamped earth floor and set the bucket where the afternoon sun came in through the window.
The next four months are blurred, one day bleeding into the next. My memory shifts and wanes, coming into focus from time to time, foggy and incomplete. I remember moving the seed around the hut with the sun, watering it carefully. I slept when I was too tired to stay awake any longer. I drank and fed myself when the thirst and hunger became too much to bear.
My father came and went during this time. I think he cared for the ox and the chickens while I sat and watched the seed put up its first green shoot. He smelled less and less of ale. He yelled at me once or twice, pleaded more often. He finally planted the cabbage and turnips himself.
The spring festival came and went. Colette married Vardon’s eldest son, Harbin. He presented her with the same necklace I saw on the day I stole the urn. I didn’t care. Nothing mattered but the seed and the plant growing from it.
As it grew, so did its power. My father could sense the magic, I think. I came back from fetching water to find him about to stuff the plant bucket and all into the fire. I shrieked and threw my entire weight into him, throwing him to the floor and punching his face over and over again. When he stopped trying to fight me off I stood up and picked up my plant. A bit of dirt had fallen out, but its roots were strong. It wasn’t injured.
My father coughed. He spat out one of his teeth. The blood from his nose mingled with the spilled water on the floor. “Ashburne, that damned thing is going to be your death! Get rid of it now, you idiot. Before it devours you.”
He was right, of course. I’ve always known that I should have let him destroy Malleine while she was still sleeping within her seed. Instead, I tucked the plant close to my body. “I’m already devoured.”
I fled into the forest with the plant. There I shielded it from the chilly nights with my own body, fed it water from the stream by twisting out my wet shirt over it. As for myself, I caught what meat I could, dug for grubs and tubers when the rabbits and birds eluded me. The days grew warmer, and the plant grew taller. The leaves grew to the size of a three year old child. Roots splintered the wooden bucket and sank deep into the earth. A bud formed at the top of a thick stalk and quickly grew to the size of a haystack. It turned blue the day before it bloomed.
That warm morning in midsummer, I awoke to my head throbbing and my arms tingling. The flower was pulsing with magic. I stood and stepped closer, fighting the urge to laugh, cry, and rage all at the same time. I couldn’t look away, nor did I want to. Even though the magic hurt like nothing I had ever felt before, I stayed and watched.
The bud quivered and unfurled into a perfect blue rose. I held my breath when the innermost heart was revealed. There, sitting and smiling at me, was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. Her skin was the same pale blue of the rose that gave birth to her, her long silky hair the same dark green of its leaves. Her eyes were wolf’s eyes, bright gold, hungry, wild. She stood up, the thin fabric of her long white gown shimmering in the morning light. I decided that I loved her.
“My knight. I’m so glad to finally meet you.”
Her voice was like the tinkle of bells. It filled me with warmth from head to toe, making me shiver in delight. She was perfect. Absolutely perfect. I swallowed and tried to speak. I had almost forgotten how, living in the forest alone.
“Who are you?”
She laughed, and it made me want to scream and laugh with her at the same time. “My name is Malleine. And you are Ashburne. I heard your name so many times while I was dreaming.”
I offered her my hand. “You dreamed of me?”
She took it. Her touch was soft and light. Just like flower petals brushing my skin. “Every day, my beloved. Thank you for rescuing me from that ugly little seed.”
“Did someone do that to you? Who? Tell me! I’ll make them pay!”
“Does it matter? It’s over now.” She stepped out of the rose and embraced me, pressing her body tight against my own. “You have saved a faerie queen from her fate, and now you receive your reward. You do know what the reward is, don’t you?”
I didn’t touch her in return. It was forbidden. But that was all right. So long as she was touching me and only me, I didn’t care. “A kiss?”
She laughed. “Only a kiss? Kisses are as fleeting as flowers, Ashburne. Don’t you yearn for something more permanent? A ‘happily ever after’, where we can live together for the rest of our days?”
“I do.” No, I certainly didn’t. Not with this creature so beautiful she was terrifying. But she owned me, body and soul, and I knew it. “I love you, Malleine. I love you more than anything.”
“More than any mortal living and yet to live?”
“Will you love me forever, Ashburne?”
She led me deep into the forest. She never spoke, but I knew what she wanted, what she needed. I built her bower where the midday sun could reach her, near a bubbling spring of fresh water. It was the only thing I ever built with my bare hands, and I’m still not sure how I did it. Perhaps Malleine guided my hands as I worked the sapling branches, vines, soft moss, and leaves and flowers with trembling fingers. It took me three days to build it. When it was finished she sank into the bower and beckoned to me. I gladly went into the bower, and into her.
The more she touched me, the more she had me touch her, the more her magic clouded my mind. I lost weight from eating nothing but nuts and forest plants; Malleine forbade me from meat. I was dying from magic and starvation when they found us.
My father decided that no faerie queen was going to hold his son captive. He rounded up the village men and some of Selene’s knights and priestesses. I don’t know how he convinced them that a plant had enchanted me, or how they knew of Malleine’s existence. In that, I think Orban had some part. All I know for certain is that I awakened in Malleine’s bower one chilly autumn morning to a crowd of men and women with swords, pitchforks, hand threshers, any weapon they had available. All made of cold iron.
Their arrogance infuriated me. I tried to rise to chase them off, but Malleine held me tight in her lap, her soft touches fallen away in favor of a strong, merciless grip. “How dare you?” I shouted. “Where’s your gifts? A bird’s feather, a flower–anything! Then Her Majesty might deign to grant you audience. And you call yourselves knights!”
One of the knight commanders was there, her silver armor almost glowing white. She exchanged a look with the priestess on her right, then drew her sword and stepped closer to the bower.
I struggled in Malleine’s arms, thrashing to free myself. “Run, Malleine! I’ll hold them off!”
Malleine laughed. The cold bite of it made me shiver. “I can defend myself just fine, dear Ashburne.”
“Let him go.” The commander brandished her iron sword at Malleine. “In the name of the goddess Selene.”
Malleine cringed. “Invoking the name of my enemy… Aren’t you a nasty one.”
“Bitch!” my father yelled from somewhere in the crowd. “Leave my son alone! Give him back!”
“Farmer Germaine, please.” The commander never looked away from Malleine. “Release the boy or I’ll cut the heart from your soulless chest.”
Malleine just smiled. “No, you won’t.”
One of the trees that supported Malleine’s bower bent down and swatted away the knight commander like a doll. Tree roots erupted from the earth, wrapping around the crowd, entangling them and holding them tight, wresting the weapons from their hands and throwing them into the brush. I was freed from Malleine’s grasp. I took her hand and we fled from the bower, from the forest. My legs burned as we ran. I gasped for breath. But I kept running, up the hill, to the castle.
As children we were all warned away from it, with threats of ghosts and demons and worse horrors lying in wait for bad little boys and girls. Malleine filled me with so much courage that I could have faced the legions of the abyss without a shiver. The castle was mostly intact, the exterior walls half overgrown with ivy but still standing strong. The pain in my body was growing fast as we ran across the drawbridge. My back screamed as I cranked the wheel to pull it up. My hands shook as I closed the main gate. I backed away from my handiwork and turned to smile at Malleine.
“You’re safe now. They can’t hurt you.”
Malleine smiled back. “Such a loyal knight. Not even Selene’s women are a match for you, Ashburne.”
I was still hurting. The magic was pounding in my head. I sank to my knees before her, trying to catch my breath. “I’ll kill anyone that tries to hurt you. I swear it.”
“I know you will.” Malleine folded her arms across her chest as she looked around. “A castle. How fitting for a queen. I hear the garden calling to me. It will look so beautiful in spring, don’t you think?”
I rested my hands on the stone floor before me. A weight was growing in my shoulders, my flesh rippling. My bones crackled and shifted. I might have cried out from the pain. I don’t remember. I watched my fingers lengthen, turn dark blue, nails falling away. Skin and muscle pulled away from white bone turned black and grew sharp.
“Oh, Ashburne. I know it hurts. Winter is coming, and I need someone to stay here and guard me while I sleep. You’re a very brave boy, but you’re only human. I need something more lethal.”
The magic pitched me onto my stomach. My spine crackled and grated. My skin prickled as shiny blue-black quills erupted all over my body, interspersed with thick black fur. I tried to follow Malleine as she walked away; when I called out to her my voice wasn’t human. I fell to the floor, tripping over my own changing limbs. I used my new claws to drag myself in the direction of the sweet smell of blue roses. Malleine’s smell.
I found her in the courtyard garden. Malleine had put down her roots and turned herself into a thorny mass of blue roses. The blooms were faded with the cooler air in the castle. The leaves were already falling. She was asleep, just as she was when we first met. Just as all roses sleep during the winter.
The pain left me. Magic still buzzed along my new body, but that wasn’t as bad as the transformation itself. I stood on all four legs, plodding to the pool of water tucked into a corner of the garden. Through the pond scum and dead water lilies, I stared back at the dark creature I had become, and still become every winter, with eyes as gold as Malleine’s.
Over the years I’ve had little time to myself in our castle. In summer I’m the same fawning, magic-addled fool I was that first year. In winter there’s the library, with its moldy ancient books on the traits and workings of dark faeries. Creatures like Malleine.
It takes a long time to write as I am now, with a claw dipped in ink on parchment stolen from the bustling town that has sprung out of my humble village with the discovery of a new silver mine. It’s taken me three months to write this tale. Looking back on these pages I shudder at how much power Malleine has over my mind. It’s only in this time, in the dead of winter, that I am truly free from her. The state of my body is the least of my concerns. If I am able to hate her for even a second out of every year, then that is a small relief. It means that underneath the magic I am still myself.
There’s a small hope after this long century of eternal youth in summer and cold winter nights as a demon. Two days ago, I was stealing more parchment to complete my story. There was a startled gasp to my right when I left the cellar owned by Orban’s descendants. A young knight of Selene, still wearing the leather armor of an errant. We looked at each other, beast and beauty, faerie-glamored man and free woman. She looked at me with curiosity rather than fear. After a moment I broke our locked gaze and ran. She didn’t follow or sound an alarm.
Next year, when Malleine’s power weakens and I have my mind again, I will seek out that knight. Even if she still doesn’t wear the silver armor, I will lead her to the castle. I will take my story from its hiding place and show it to her. I will ask her for help. To bring fire from the town and destroy Malleine as she lies sleeping.
Malleine. How I love her.
How I wish she would burn.
Miranda Lloyd is a fantasy and horror writer whose first story was penned at the age of five. She spent two years in Alaska before finding it too cold for her tastes, and moved back to her native Arizona. She is also a watercolor painter and digital illustrator.
Stella Rothe is 26 and currently studying English and philosophy in Rochester, Michigan. Her photography and writing has most recently been published in Ceremony, Pink Panther Magazine, Nain Rouge, and BAC Street Journal.