From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

“Goosegirl” from Fantasy

We’re proud to present “Goosegirl” by Margaret Ronald, a story from the pages of Fantasy, a companion anthology to our magazine. I hope you enjoy!


GOOSEGIRL
Margaret Ronald

I stumble into the city at the back of the princess’s entourage, clutching the Red Book to my chest. By the time someone notices me, I can almost speak again.

“You came with the Princess Alia, didn’t you?” says a tall man with an understeward’s chain. “They must have low standards up north if you’re the sort of thing she brings along.”

I shake my head; the world slides in and out of focus. “I didn’t come here for that. I’m not—help.”

He raises his eyebrows. “Oh, so you’re not with the help? You must be one of the nobility, then?” He tweaks my skirts, and a ragged hem tears. “So what did you come here for, if you’re not with the princess?”

The words sound wrong even as I think them, but I say them nonetheless. “To be married.”

He bursts out laughing. “Poor girl,” a woman at the back of the servants’ hall says. “She’s simple. Can’t tell between herself and the princess.”

“No,” I say, or try to say, but the words have come apart again, and it comes out in a rush of court poetry and gutter talk, unintelligible to noble and peasant alike.

The tall man laughs again and reaches for the Red Book. I skitter away, and a stink of pigs fills my nose. “Leave her be, Conrad,” a man says behind me. His voice is deep and should not be familiar.

Conrad makes a face—whether from being thwarted or the smell I cannot tell. “I’ll put her with the geese,” he says, turning away. “They’re about as dumb as she is. Just like you and your pigs.”

“Just so,” the swineherd says, and leans down to help me up. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, your majesty,” I say, and cover my mouth.

He blinks, then laughs a second too late and helps me to my feet. I stare after him. I have never seen this man before, never seen his curls streaked with gray nor the somber, dark eyes. But I remember him—remember a portrait, presented to me, of the family of my betrothed.

But I have no betrothed. I am a hag, a witchwoman, and now a goosegirl.

*

At supper that night, I hear how the king could not attend the ceremonies greeting his new daughter-in-law. “He is ill much of the time now,” says one of the understewards—not Conrad, Conrad is elsewhere. “So much so that the council meetings go on without him, with the prince in his place.”

“Good that the prince is marrying, then,” says another. “She’s older than he; she’ll teach him constancy.”

“That’d take a miracle,” another says, and laughs, though it is not nice laughter.

I peer down the table for the swineherd, but do not see him. I look at my plate, and my head swims; somewhere the food is swan’s wing and plums, but here it is bread and dripping, and when I reach for it I miss, knocking it onto my dress.

Someone sighs, and I cover my face. “I came here to be married,” I say to my palms, and cannot stop shaking.

*

There is work to do, and it cannot stop for one confused woman. Its rhythm aids me as the thumping beat of music aids a faltering dancer.

I ignore the marriage preparations, ignore the handsome prince and the beautiful princess and Conrad, and take the geese down to the river each day. There, I read the Red Book, learning it as I did before, once, maybe. It is not in a script I know—and that I could read other scripts surprises me, for am I not a goosegirl only? But nonetheless I can read it, and this tells me one other thing: only a witch could read these blotted brown words.

So I know what I must be.

The Red Book’s words are mutable—one, to deter, can mean:

to prevent sickness entering into a wound;
to keep midges from clustering around one’s face;
or to distract Conrad so he will stop tweaking my skirts.

Or there is to poison, which can mean:

to wilt the weeds in a field while leaving the barley
untouched;
to sour a cask of beer with a glance;
or to turn a person’s heart against a loved one.

I study the words, day by day at the river, and ignore the meaningless courtiers’ chatter of geese. The Red Book is powerful; I remember my crabbed and wizened mother the witch warning me of it on her deathbed. She pressed the stained linen pages into my hands and cautioned me to use it well, for I had a wild look, and she feared what I might do.

But this I also remember: my stately and sorrowful mother the queen pricking her finger and letting three drops fall upon a swan-white handkerchief. She pressed the blotted linen into my hands and cautioned me never to lose it, for I had a long journey to make, and she feared for my safety. And I cannot remember which mother is mine, nor which I love.

I press the heels of my hands to my eyes. Did I leave my mother’s home in a great procession, off to the castle of my betrothed, there to make a new life? Or did I leave my mother’s home in dead of night, following the lights of a far caravan, determined to use the Book to write myself a new life?

The procession itself is a snarl of images, inextricable. I remember a new maidservant, a foreign princess, a fallen handkerchief and a chalice spilling water, remember words spoken and heard. But which words?

There is another word in the Red Book: to cleave, which means to make one where there were two, or two where there was one. I do not understand this word.

*

For some time I cannot believe that no one else has guessed the swineherd’s secret: how he works only when the king is sick, how he contrives to be away should the prince come calling among the maidservants, how the lines of his profile are reflected on the coin of the realm. But when they speak of the king, they always call him old, and this is his greatest disguise: not a smock and artfully applied dirt, but his relative youth. He is no more than twelve years older than I; he fathered the prince young and was widowed young. (And I, no matter which memory I touch, know I was old to be married: past twenty at least.) Maybe they confuse the king with his father, who died only a year ago and whose endless senescence has endowed the crown with years; maybe the vitality of the prince steals any youth from his surroundings. Or maybe it is only that no one cares to look too closely at one who reeks of pigs.

He finds me practicing my witchery down by the river, shaping a stone and causing grass figures to dance, and though it is enough to have me cast out of the palace, he does not denounce me. Instead he is fascinated, and tells me of times he met witches on his wanderings, and laughs for sheer joy when I spin last year’s leaves into a whirlwind.

No one has ever admired me for what I can do. Only for what I was. I think of the heavy weight of brocade and shake my sleeves back to give my hands more freedom.

On the days that I take the geese down to the river, he joins me, and we sit together on the mud-slick banks. When the world shivers around me, he tells me stories till the fit passes, stories of going forth to seek his fortune, of ogres and conjurers and treasure hidden beneath wandering stones. I smile and do not tell him that a swineherd is unlikely to have had such adventures.

There is always a spot that he forgets to dirty, just past where his graying curls end. On the prince this spot is always covered by high collars and rich cloaks. His father the king tugs the neck of his shirt open and gazes at the sky and has not found the fortune he sought.

*

The north gate of the palace is the grandest, and it is through there that most of the traffic passes. Three days before the wedding, I drive my charges through it for the first time and hear a grinding moan, as though the wall itself were crying out.

A small shrine of the horse goddess Epona is cut into the gate to bless all who travel through, and it is this that has spoken. A horse’s head, carved in weathered stone, struggles to speak around its bit and bridle. Child, if your mother knew, it groans, her royal heart would break in two.

I stop dead, the geese milling about me like baffled children. To either side, the traffic continues unabated; no one else has heard the horse’s cry.

“Epona,” I say, but it does not speak again. And it does not need to—I remember now, why it might speak to me, for I was named for the horse-goddess. But was it a queen or a witch who named me so?

My heart is not so delicate as a queen’s, I think, because I am not royal. Or perhaps it is that I am already broken.

*

The king in a swineherd’s smock has escaped his court for the day, and thus I have company on the riverbank. I know enough not to call him majesty now, and he is good enough not to recall my one error. He carries water in his hat as we coax our charges back to the castle, and I laugh at him. He laughs too, and for a moment there is no chasm in my mind, or none that matters.

We reach the gate, but the prince and princess are there before us, returning from the hunt. The prince on his charger hurtles past, heedless and beautiful; briefly I catch a wistful look on the king’s face. The princess rides behind, regal as the queen she will one day be. She looks at me, then at the king. She is not easily fooled.

Unnerved, I edge closer to the gate, too close to Epona’s shrine. The stone horse moans its lament, and I cringe. The king does not quite hear, but it seems some of his tales are true, for he cocks his head as if straining after a whisper.

The princess shakes her reins, glances back at me, and rides through. I stare after her and cannot speak; the words tangle again, and worse now.

*

In the middle of the night I wake and hear another persons breathing. I speak a word: to see, and light pools in my hand. The unseen person gasps, and I sit up, brushing straw from my hair.

The princess sits on a stool by the door. She holds the hem of her dress an inch above the floor, and her eyes follow the light in my hands. “I know what you are trying to do,” she says. “It won’t work.”

“What am I trying to do?” I ask.

“I’ve ordered that the shrine be removed. You won’t have it as witness any more.” I say nothing, and her voice rises, warbling high and scared. “I am a princess now. I can have you executed. I will have you executed, if you tell a living soul.”

A sweet, damp breeze drifts in with a grumble of thunder, and I think of the riverbank, which will be impassable mud tomorrow. “What could I tell them?” I say. “I do not know what I was—witch, halfwit, princess?” The last makes her blanch. “Princess,” I repeat, tasting the word that used to be familiar. Was I ever so frightened as she is now?

“Princess no longer. Now you are a common goose-girl.”

In the whites of her eyes, too bright in this light, I see that I am not the only one with split memories. The spell she worked to switch us has shattered her as well, though she at least can talk. But she is only a princess now.
I remember being a princess, when being was required more than acting. The Red Book is under my pillow; I want to touch its pages, reassure myself that it is still there. I gesture with the light in my hand. “Why? Why change one for the other?”

I mean the knowledge, the witchery, the Red Book and all that goes with it. But she looks to the light’s glare on the walls, the trickle of water under the shutters, the dirty straw of my pallet. “Why?” she laughs. “Look at it! I’d give it all up again—I’d lie beneath a thousand men to escape this!”

I pause, thinking to tell her of the gossip in the servants’ hall. Conrad at least is honest; if a maid beds him, he will find her a station in the castle. The prince is known for sending his bedmates away, or worse. (Such things were not mentioned in the betrothal agreement, but they are discussed freely here.) But she is a princess, and she will wed him; perhaps it will be different.

She mistakes my hesitation. “You can’t have him,” she says. “He doesn’t want you.”

“I don’t want him.” What I want is a clear head and uncluttered memories. But there is only one road to that, only one ending to the story we have woven: the impostor’s cruel death, the princess’ return, the wedding. How high is the price for a mind made whole?

The princess rises, gathering her skirts. “I will have you killed,” she says. “Remember that, princess.”

I start at the word. She turns scarlet, covers her mouth, and flees. Her footsteps fade into the patter of rain outside, and I am left with my light and my split mind.

*

The rain is heavy and cold, and even though I run the short distance to the swineherd’s hut, my dress is sodden and clinging to me by the time I reach it. I close the door behind me, and my eyes slowly take in the emptiness of the hut. He is not here—of course, he is in the castle, trying to be a king.

And even if he were here, I decide, I would not tell him. This is my story, not his, and any other reason I came here is now not worth considering. I cannot remember if I have lain with a man—the princess certainly not, the witch certainly—but what I seek tonight is more than the comfort of skin on skin. Still, the rain comes down hard, and I pluck at my dress, unwilling to go back out.

Though the swineherd must perforce stay away from this hut most nights, the hearth is swept clean, and before it he has set up a little shrine of lares, household gods. Epona is there, and Moccus of swineherds and kings both, and the Lugoves. I sit before them, dripping onto the hard earth, and I tell them all. Though Epona could not help me (if returning my name to me was not help), I can still ask, still confide in the old gods.

My hair is drying when I have finished my tale, though my face is wet. But the hearth remains cold, and my prayers are flat, and the rain does not abate.

*

I have erred. I do not realize how badly I have erred until a footman shows me to a room too opulent for my tattered skirts. He leaves, and a figure rises from the chair by the window. “Princess,” he calls me.

Perhaps in my confusion I did not see him in the shadows of the hut; perhaps it was empty, and he came later to listen at the chimney; perhaps, even, Moccus the patron of kings and swineherds decided to send my prayers to the man who follows both his paths. This last, I think, is most likely; the lares, when they answer prayers, do so smiling.

The crown’s gleam does little to offset the lines it forces in his brow; the velvet robes drain his hair of color and reduce iron-gray to silver-gray. He greets me, royalty to royalty, and laments my state, and promises to return me to my former position. And yet his face says other things, things a swineherd would say without hesitation but a king may not.

I nod but do not answer him. I have not spoken since arriving; instead I watch the fall of light over his shoulders and think of things broken. The Red Book, tucked into my bodice, presses heavy over my heart, and my skin smells of mud and last night’s rain.

“I cannot let my son marry an impostor,” he says.

How high is the price for a mind made whole?

I cannot pay with another’s life. I have only myself for coin.

“If you were to do this,” I say at last, “if you were to expose her crime and elevate me to her place, then I would be the impostor.”

He tilts his head to the side, the same way he did when the stone horses spoke.

“I am no princess. I was, and am not.” My feet grow heavier, as if sinking through the floor, and one by one the memories of my mother the queen fade, till they are like pictures traced in dust. And surely it is dust that makes my eyes water now, to mourn the loss of a woman I never knew. Still I speak, swallowing back salt tears. “I am a witchwoman, and I will not give that up for any cause.”

The Red Book burns against my chest and is gone. I cry out and put my hand to where it was, then feel it again—its words my blood now, its pages my flesh. It writes itself in me, as the story is unwritten and unraveling.

The king steps forward to catch me, afraid perhaps that a princess might faint. I let him take me by the shoulders. “You too have a choice,” I say, and look up at him. “If you trust me, you have a choice.”

*

The prince’s wedding day is a week past, but already the servants are replacing the banners with swathes of black cloth. The king, too weak to leave his bed, blesses the prince and princess and charges them with the care of the kingdom.

I stand outside the gates, the air thick with my magic, and speak one word: to cleave. The king’s eyes close at last, and the prince rises from his bedside, impatient to begin ruling. The princess lingers a moment, staring down at the body as if she might see some trace of magic on it. But she is a princess, now a queen, who has what she always wanted and cannot read the marks of witchery.

Beside me, the swineherd shudders and lets out a long breath. He rises, feeling how his body moves, how it differs from what was. I speak the second word: to cleave, and I take his hand. We walk out of the city, our fortune before us.

* * *

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Trade paperback / $6.95 / 160 pp. / ISBN 978-0-8095-5699-1

Margaret Ronald’s fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, Fantasy Magazine, and Ideomancer. Originally from rural Indiana, she now lives outside Boston. She is an alumna of the Viable Paradise workshop and a member of BRAWL.

““Goosegirl” originated with the fairy tale of the same name. I started thinking about some of the stranger elements in the story—the handkerchief spotted with blood, the stove as confessor—and about how one could choose to be part of a different story.”

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