“Give me a girl,” the king said to me the night he caught me, the wizard-woman of the wood, by trickery and might.
I said no, I mustn’t.
He said, “Oh, but you will.”
He pinned me down and stripped my feathers one by one, leaving only the bare bones of my knuckles where once wings had grown.
“Do it now,” he said as I struggled, and he thrust his will into me and I gave.
I gave him his desire as he took all of mine away. I made it so that his seed would sprout within the queen’s good womb and bring him forth a girl at harvest, just as he demanded.
He shared his thoughts as I lay dripping on the floor. “When my daughter is born to me, I’ll have no need of sons.”
I thought to myself in my blood-red haze that he must be mad, but I was broken and could do nothing then. Instead, when I made my way back into my warm green wood and waited.
I do not think the queen wanted to send her sons away, but it was the better choice. She loved her twelve boys, every one, and had never worried for them. Yet when the king allowed that they would die and had their coffins made, all because she would next bear a girl, the queen came to know that thing called fear.
She could not stand to lose her fine young men. She knew why the king wanted them gone. She knew as well as I did of his appetites. No young girl was safe in his domain. She knew that he would tolerate no interference, as sons who did not share his lusts might give. She bid them leave the castle, flee into the forest and there to watch for her flag. If I bear a son, she said, you may return.
The princes loved their mother, but not the thing inside her belly, for they knew it was that thing that drove them away. When they left they took their anger with them. I know, because I was watching from my home in the wood, as I always did. Once gone, the king thought no more of them. They were no more than a problem out of the way.
They found the cottage in which I dwelled and I let them have it. I watched them as they made themselves at home as best they could, those twelve, spoiled princes. They knew to fear the king as well, though for other reasons than we did. I saw them turn their heads away from the blood-red flag their mother finally raised, her signal that all was not well. I saw their hearts go bitter and I felt their anger bleed into my forest. During the darkest night, I planted twelve seeds in their sour soil and cast another spell.
It seemed to do no good. They swore among themselves that any girl to cross their paths must die, all because of a sister they’d never seen. Too much like their father, the oldest were, in some regards. It was the youngest who gave me hope, for while he agreed with the others, I saw him turn his head away and a tear fall from his eye.
I had to see her for myself, this new-made princess. I went by my ways into the castle and stole a glance at the infant’s face. I drew back in shock. On her forehead, as though burned there by a brother’s rage, was a golden star. As though sensing my stare, she turned her face away into her mother’s breast. The queen shushed the child and peered down the corridor, listening for her husband’s step. I flew back into my forest where I kept my counsel.
The brothers did what men will do and left the youngest at the hearth. No matter how brave or gallant, they always need a woman, or if no woman can be had, the weakest boy will do. They hunted; he cleaned the game. They held games; he prepared the weapons. They spoke among themselves of how they’d do the deed, should a female appear. The youngest did not share their joy in this. I began to think that only his spell caught.
Every now and then I crept back to that dreary castle, stark stone standing in a field all kept around by a great wall. The cattle bellowed, the horses danced and the king went out to war in the summer season. I watched their sister grow from year to year. I watched her limbs stretch, like the branches of my trees, reaching for the sun. I was there the day she found their shirts and took them to the queen.
I could not hear their words, but I could smell the fear. Its pungent scent encased me as the queen opened a rusted door and showed the girl the coffins kept within.
And then it happened. I should have seen her coming; it was one of my paths she took. As it was, I was wide awake and yet she slipped right underneath me and made it to the door before I realized she was there. She had those twelve shirts with her, all tucked into a sack. On her feet were embroidered shoes that offered no protection from the thorny floor of the forest in which we lived. She had come in search of her twelve brothers.
It was the youngest who opened the door and I shook with relief. Of all the brothers he alone did not share the killing rage, a rage that had not dimmed in all the ten years passed. His flower, grown from the seed I planted, always bloomed, while the others wilted early. He offered her entrance; she agreed. I listened at the eaves as he asked about her business. I stifled a cough when she replied.
“I’m looking for my brothers.”
Her voice was innocence and purity, it rang out like bells in the still light of the trees. I knew then that she’d so far been spared the king’s attention. Her breasts had not yet budded, but it would not be long. I was glad, for her, that she had gone away from him, her wicked father. I whispered a reminder to the flowers growing in the dirt beside the door.
I saw the others coming before he did and flapped and scuttled on my perch in warning. He turned and heard their voices, gruff and brusque and laughing, as they made their way toward home. He hid their sister from them; he told her she’d be safe. She believed him and did as he asked so that when eleven brothers met the door she was nowhere to be seen.
“I have news,” the youngest said to the unruly lot of men that cramped the kitchen. They begged for it, but he made them make a promise of the sort that brothers make, blood to blood. They must put down their anger before he’d tell the tale. They agreed reluctantly and listened as he spoke. I could not judge their reaction. They held their arms stiffly at their sides and frowned. At last he brought her out of hiding.
“This is our sister.”
I held my breath. A moment, two and then they cried with joy. My tiny spell had worked, it seemed. It was my spell, to plant twelve seeds of love into their garden, to water the flowers and watch their spirits grow. I could not sit by and do nothing; I could not let their father win as he had done with me. As long as the flowers grew, the old king had no power over them. Twelve, one for each heart of his unwanted sons. As the brothers greeted her with hugs and gladness, every flower I had planted burst into bloom.
And then she picked them, every one, and gave them to her brothers.
All the years of watering those flowers, of casting and waiting and watching — the anger I spelled out of them entered into me. Without a thought I worked a magic worse than any I’d done, and twelve great ravens flapped away into the coming night.
She wept when she saw me, withered and hunched, a shell of a woman, standing before her with my cursing eye.
“Is there no way to unspell them?” Her innocence was shattered; her voice was dark and deep.
I closed my eyes and thought of the dark king, whose greed for flesh had brought us to this pass.
“You must not speak for seven years.” I thought her silence would protect her from her father.
“I will do it,” she said, and then she closed her mouth. She sat herself upon the cold ground at the foot of my favorite tree and closed her arms around herself in silence.
She sat like that for hours as I watched from the shadows, wondering how long the girl would last. She rose and fed her fire. She ate the remains of a dinner prepared for twelve men. She slept a huddled sleep, alone. A year passed, maybe two, and no sound came from that rose-red mouth. Of her brothers there was no sign.
I was watching still when another king rode through our forest. He stopped, he saw the star on her forehead and fell into its golden points. He took her home. I followed. Always following kings, I was, while she said not a word. He married her with pomp and circumstance, making her a queen. Her gown was ivory silk shot through with red, her hair was adorned with flowering vines. He seemed a good man, but only time would tell. Her silence held his nobles hostage and his mother turned an evil eye towards her.
It was she who convinced her son that the girl was of bad blood. What sort of woman does not speak? At first he paid no heed, but after years of hearing his mother’s voice where his own wife had none, he fell at last to his mother’s will. I wondered that he had none of his own, but I knew all about the will of kings and where it could and could not be levied.
What his mother said was true. A sorceress had spelled his wife, once upon a time. But to blame the princess for my deed was wrong. That is the way of sorcery. Those who cast and those casted upon are often seen as the same. The queen convinced her son to put the girl to death.
The princess-made-queen complied. She did not glance at the skies; she made no effort to communicate a thing and my heart withered. I said she must not speak. She could have blinked her eyes, but no. She made no move. They built a pyre and I counted the days. Her brothers would have killed her and now she would die for them.
I flapped my way around the king’s head, my anger in the air. It brushed his damp cheeks, it swarmed into his curling hair, but he did not move. He stood there like a dumb thing, a statue made of hardened mud. He watched them bring his blindfolded wife into the courtyard, he watched them tie her to the post. He watched them light the fires and though I cried out in his ear, he made no sound, as though her muteness had passed into him.
The flames lapped at her hem and there was nothing I could do. I had not meant for it to end this way. I took their anger from them, yes, but it blossomed in my heart instead. Oh, that I had foreseen this consequence.
I flew as high as I could and then I saw them. I’d thought that when she plucked those flowers she’d pulled my spell as well, that fragile bit of love I’d planted in twelve hearts. But now I saw it; my spell had not faded with their petals as I feared it would. Instead it grew within their hearts for all those seven years and now they’d come in answer to their sister’s silence. Into that void they flew as the flames approached her legs until they landed on the solid earth again. Seven years had passed, the spell was done.
Here was sorcery indeed. They shed their feathers like cloaks and stood before her, aged not a day and all their anger gone. Naked, they tore those burning logs away and kicked the embers aside with their bare feet. They unwrapped the cords that bound their sister and lifted her down. I circled overhead, my vision clouded, and dove into the king who stood and stared as though his crown had sprouted wings and flown away. The star on her forehead shone with the light of the sun. It illuminated the faces of those who had come to watch her burn so that they had to turn away. She looked up at him on his terrace, in his furs and silks and high, brown boots and opened her mouth and spoke.
“These are my princely brothers,” she said in a voice husky with disuse, “who love me as you do not.”
The light of her star struck my eyes and I fell. I hit the ground and became myself again, my feathers drifting into theirs. She saw me, a broken woman, out of her young eyes. And yet it seemed she saw me as I was, young, tender, ripe for a king’s own taking and she wrapped her arms around my broken wings. Her eyes were kind and her brothers crowded around us like twelve flowers standing round two roughened stones. I plucked one, last plume from my skin and cast down my anger with it.
The king, her husband, let loose a cry and I turned in time to see him fall, or jump, or fly, down into the dying fire as his mother ran to his side. In him I saw all kings flare up and the sky eat their sparks. The flames muted their shouting as we made our silent way out of his castle and found the pathway home.
I planted thirteen flowers in the spring, one for each of them. The only magic there was that of dew and sun and earth. The love of her twelve brothers, as bright as any star, was spell enough.