The Holly and the Ivy
AuntieVerse Fairy Tale, 2016
Let me tell you a story, Dearest.
Once, many years ago, there was a woman who lived in the forest. Whether beneath blistering sun or a blanket of soft snow, her cottage stood, year after countless year. The skin at the corner of her eyes and mouth crinkled delicately with each smile and the sterling in her hair shimmered like starlight, yet she remained otherwise untouched by time. The villages nearby grew and crumbled around her and her forest, soaring to the skies with steel domes and shining steeples and collapsed into smoldering wastelands, and it took mere centuries before the woman in the forest no longer saw any trace of civilization beyond the woodland's carpets and canopies. She passed her days in peace, singing and sewing and polishing the surface of a mirror that stretched along the northern wall of her home.
It was evening and the sun was slowly sinking into a crimson bed of clouds when the woman in the forest heard a scratching upon her stone floor.
“You are late,” she sang cheerfully to the fox who'd come to court her.
The fox sauntered lazily from one corner of the cottage to another, watching the woman as she strummed a lap harp from her chaise. “My humblest apologies, my lady.”
The woman craned her slender neck and fixed her eyes upon her suitor. “You are in low spirits. Speak to me, old friend.”
“I cannot say, my lady,” the fox told her, perhaps more quickly than could be expected to be convincing. “That is...perhaps I should not say.”
The woman heaved a patient sigh and set the harp among her quilts and furs. She stepped with one bare foot after another after another after another, until those dainty feet carried her to the surface of her brilliantly shining mirror. With a careful smile and slender fingers, she traced the surface in a spiral, seeking some answer to the fox's mysterious heart. He stood there in the mirror, a cautious man with curious eyes, and she spotted it more easily than he wished, clutched within his tightly clenched fist.
A glimmering raven's feather.
When she turned back to her fox, her eyes were sparkling and damp. The animal chose to pace the room in stubborn silence, avoiding her gaze.
The fox paced.
A shuddering breath and she asked again, “How long?”
“You need not fret. He will not find you.”
Her hair tumbled along her shoulders in a cascade of rose-gold as she swept through the room in a flourish of wool and leather, snatching a deep blue cloak and black rucksack before steeping into the forest. The mist that draped the forest floor teased her ankles with every determined step as she approached the murmuring elk that nibbled at weeds peeking along the stony path to her archway. She whispered her instructions and swung herself up, up, up and onto his back. The fox followed silently, well behind the footsteps of his mistress.
With every step, the sky became cold slate and white stars drifted between the branches to dot the landscape with snow. The woman in the forest watched warily, eyes never shifting from the pitted trail and the shadows that crept in the thorny underbrush. When the moon rose high above them and bleached the frosted meadow ahead like bone, the woman slowed the elk to a stop and turned her eyes to the drifting flakes and flecks that danced above her head.
The fox padded to her side and stretched his head to the sky as well.
They waited. They watched.
And there, inching across the surface of the sharp sliver of silver floating in the heavens, the flicker of feathers in earnest. The fox and his lady traced the thousands of ravens that soared and shot on the horizon, seething and squawking and swarming in a furious funnel in the distance. The lady could feel him there, a splinter of ice that wormed its way up her fingertips and into her blood. He waited there for her, beyond the forest that had been her home since she had planted the first trees.
The fox at her feet barked his displeasure and a shiver dragged its claws up his spine, but when his lady surged forward, kicking up mounds of snow in great churning flurries, he followed.
Of course he did.
Together they dodged the stripped remains of bent and broken trees and the glassy ponds where fish slumbered, frozen in time. Billowing breaths of steam streamed in their wake as the elk, stinking of sweat and strain, barreled through the brush, scattering woodland creatures beneath each stride. The cackling and cawing bounced from limb to naked limb, until only the click-clack-click-clack of beaks filled their ears. The woman in the forest kicked her heels into the elk's side, digging deeply, and each bound from ravine to riverside drew them closer, ever closer.
When they neared the wastes at the edge of the forest, the fox slowed, hesitant, and watched his mistress from the shadows as she leaped from her perch, boots a blur against the newly fallen powder. One hand in her rucksack settled on the smooth handle of a silver axe, and her braid of rose-gold whipped where the cold air snatched at it, the sound of tinkling bells chirping in each whistle of the wind. His lady was beautiful, in all moments but most especially this one, where the hot blood beneath her skin stained her cheeks pink as the dawn and the bloom of red stitched on the back of her wool cloak surged and swelled with each step from the shelter of her home to the barren marshes that awaited.
To the barren man that awaited.
The fox followed to the edge of the forest and hesitated, panting and pacing in the scraggy shade of the dead and dying foliage. He could smell the desolation beyond, could feel the slimy gloom creeping between his jaws and down his gullet, choking him in despair. The magic that fueled him shrank with each tentative track and soon progress was unbearable.
His lady must have sensed his; her footsteps slowed and her shoulders shifted until her eyes locked with his. She said nothing, but her small smile was blameless and she raised the axe in a salute. An ache shook the fox in that moment, piercing his chest almost as deeply as his terror, but his lady disappeared into the icy mist and the sound of bells with her.
The frozen wastes yawned ahead to the north and the woman of the forest swallowed each mile beneath the crunch of leather boots. These lands were so unlike the lush wilderness that she had called home. Every flicker of her eyes along the rocky crags and rugged cliffs confirmed this, empty as they were from the signs and sounds so familiar to her. The wind carried no scent of life, no cycle of death and deliverance. Only her steps shook the still air of the snowy desert. Only the constant cloud of steam that trailed past her whipping braid and fluttering cloak shattered the silence of the the dead land.
That is...except the ravens.
They waited in the moors and mountains, watched in the steppes and straits. The crowing and croaking that led her here had ceased and only their blazing beads of eyes beckoned her from the suffocating blackness. She slowed when their numbers had increased to hundreds at a time, chin up and eyes forward.
He waited there for the woman of the forest, among the rustling masses of his servants, in the shadow of a crumbling ring of standing stones.
The heat that rose from her limbs in waves dwindled and dissipated, replaced with a fist of ice in the pit of her stomach. Her fingers tightened around the axe's haft, slick with quickly forming frost. Still, her gaze did not waver, and she held his eyes with hers, in spite of the icy pins of fear that pricked her spine.
The man in the raven cloak opened his arms wordlessly, motioning with a crook of his fingers for her to fold into his embrace, to nestle into the glistening fur and feathers. The woman of the forest hesitate, and she traced his face, this beautiful man who loved her once. Had time been so cruel, that she cold not find even the spark of affection that the steel in his eyes must have held for her?
She could see the irritation tug at the furrows in his brow, turn the his lips up, up, up and into a smile that did not reach the corners of his joyless eyes. Shaking her head, she followed the tinny tinkle of the bells in her hair and stepped backward for the first time.
He barked laughter, a kicked dog in the face of her rejection.
“Your manners are lacking.” He gestured again, to the abandoned ring of stones that stood between the two of them. “Is this truly a fit welcome for your brother?”
The woman of the forest fixed her shoulders back and tilted her chin imperiously, hefting the silver axe from one curled fist to another. The ravens rustled restlessly, twisting and tilting their heads in a furious fervor. The man in the raven cloak brought his hands down finally and disgust and disdain that slithered from pale, chiseled jaw to oily, ebon locks sent a shudder through his sister, one that she dearly hoped he had not seen.
The ravens frenzied, tearing at one another in their madness, ripping limb and plucking eyes with beak and talon. In the fury the siblings waited, watched, unflinching, and the cacophony of pain and insanity drowned the wardrum of her pulse, even as she raised her axe and began her charge. The man in the raven cloak met her, stride for stride, blow for blow, in the slick blood and ice and hysteria of his delirious worshippers.
The silver axe cut cleanly once, long ago when the world was young and the woman of the forest had resolved to orphan herself. No more and no matter now; her brother caught the blade in the palm of his hand in one smooth movement, pulling it and her from the hurricane of feathers and flesh that threatened to consume them. His sister cursed prettily then, and choked out an enchantment that put sparks to skin and he cast the weapon and the woman from himself. She laughed, a weak sound punctuated by the bells she'd brought, when she saw him cradling his scorched hand.
The flight to his side had weakened her, but no greater than his own descent had him, and each slice of that axe against his arms seared the sleeves of his tunic and singed the hems of his raven cloak. The frenzied ravens that surrounded them had their revenge, however, and tore at her rose-gold braid and summer green eyes until she was forced to contend with them, blood flowing freely from her scalp and scowl. The man in the raven cloak took this moment for his own, and his talons sank deeply into her sides when he rose into the air, clutching the prone form of his sister between the steel claws. In this new body, this god's frame, he could consume the woman he had come to kill.
In this form, he could cure her.
The vision of paradise that surged through him when he touched her, flashes and flares of a celestial garden, flowing wines and whimsy, and beauty that would blind any broken mortal. It warmed him, softened the edges of the iron in his breast and his wings faltered, dipping them low to the ground.
He did not feel the impact of the earth beneath them, even after his blood-drenched sister pulled herself from his grasp and gave a last, lingering look to the gashes in his shaking chest. His eyes fluttered and flickered and fell upon her, his beautiful sister.
“I have no brother,” she told him, leaving the axe with its rightful owner.
A gurgle of protest rose in his throat...and died there upon the dirty snow with the man in the raven cloak.
Some days later the fox found the woman in the forest, the red blood spilled and spattered upon her tattered cloak catching the sickly light of a sallow moon. He laid himself there with her, in the shade of a standing stone, and when she awoke with the kiss of the sun, he remained, stiff and still.
The woman kissed the head of her dearest friend and tied her tinkling bells to his neck with a ragged lock of her rose-gold hair. She took him to her home in the heart of the forest and buried him there, beyond the greedy grip of death, beneath the sheen of the summer sun, and retreated to her cottage and the silver dust of the shattered mirror, safe and silent and suffocating in solitude. The forest shrank, day by day, until only the grave of his fox and his mysterious mistress remained, sheltered in the shadow of a rosebush.
And for all that I know, my Dearest, they sleep there still.