Chapter One (PART OF)
The Beastlands, Ten Years Later
The well was deep and the bucket heavy. Aeolia grimaced as she heaved. The rope chafed her palms and her muscles ached. Her heels dug into the soil. The smell of moss filled her nostrils, and the dripping water laughed like pixies in her ears. When the bucket finally reached the top, she wrapped her arms
around it. It was so wide her fingers did not meet. She pulled, tilting the wet wood, and spilled the water into the second bucket at her feet.
When her bucket was full, she straightened, knuckled her back and loosened her limbs. Splashing water had dampened her skirt, and she shivered. It was a cold morning, one for dozing by a fire or snuggling under down. For a moment Aeolia let her mind drift and remember mugs of hot milk, dog-eared picture books, clay tops, and a shabby rag doll. Those comforts were far away now, and her current companions were the broom and the duster, the shackles and the cane.
A sudden gust flurried dry leaves round her bare feet. Her hair blew over her eyes. She tucked the almond strands back into her kerchief and glanced at the sky. The clouds were as dark as the bruises on her back. It would soon rain. A skein of geese glided across the livid canopy, and Aeolia followed them with her eyes, fingering the tattoo on her hand. Perhaps this year I will fly away too, she thought. It was
her tenth year from home. She was sixteen.
She gazed over the surrounding land, trying to imagine how it would feel seeing it for the last time. Hills rolled into the distance, patched with copses of birch and maple with leaves turning orange and gold. Boulders jutted like teeth from valleys of bindweed and thyme. Woodsmoke plumed in the distance, but the town that held its hearths was hidden in the folds of the land. Aeolia sighed. The landscape had
become as familiar as her own round face. She wondered if she would ever see a different horizon.
She turned away and lifted her bucket with a wince. The weight tugged at her arms, and the iron handle dug into her palms. Fetters jingling, she began hobbling up the cobbled path. With every step the bucket tilted, and water splashed to feed the weeds pushing from under the cobblestones. The old oak’s branches creaked in the breeze. Dry leaves landed in Aeolia’s hair or hit the ground to scuttle along like
beetles. A raven fluttered off a swaying branch and perched on a cobwebbed plow. A lizard, startled by the bird, crossed the path and disappeared under a bramble.
The tall, brooding cottage sat at the end of the path like a neglected tombstone. Its unpainted walls were decaying, and its roof lacked half its tiles. The chimney looked ready to collapse. Beanstalks climbed the walls and ruptured the windows, like a great, green fist clutching the house. As the ogre aged and his sight dimmed he cared less about such matters, and railed about the broken shutters only if his
joints ached that day. Secretly, Aeolia suspected he liked his house rotting and old, for he himself was so.
The front steps were as tall as Aeolia’s knees. She sat down on the first, holding the bucket so it dangled between her legs. She pushed herself up step by step—the only way to climb in her shackles—and stood up on the porch. Spiders fled from her feet to disappear between the floor planks. Two crows fluttered off the old spinning wheel into the air. With a sigh of relief, Aeolia dropped her bucket beside
the front door. After wiping her sore hands on her apron, she stood on tiptoe, reached overhead, and grabbed the doorknob. The door creaked open, and Aeolia dragged her bucket inside.
The living room smelled of decay—a faint, constant odor Aeolia attributed to the rotting wood. Objects crowded every corner: animal heads hung on the walls, rare stones perched on the mantel, a bearskin lay on the floor. Dried roses, a tobacco box, and a pipe sat on a cherry table. Beside the table stood an old sofa, fleece pushing out of tatters in its green upholstery. Everything in the room was twice
too large for Aeolia. The tabletop reached her shoulder. The sofa towered over her head. She could have stood in the fireplace. She always felt dwarfed and insignificant beside this giant furniture, like a fluff of dust.
She could hear the ogre snoring upstairs, a sound like chains dragging over stone. Creaks accompanied the snores—the ogre’s daughter pacing her room. A shiver ran down Aeolia’s spine. The attic was a strange place. It always chilled her to think of it. She went upstairs only to change the linens and empty the chamber pots, and always worked quickly and rushed back down, glad to escape the soupy
air and sickly ogress.
The house had a basement, too. Aeolia had never been in it, and the ogres never spoke of it, but she had seen the trapdoor hidden beneath the sofa. When she had once asked where the trapdoor led, the ogre caned her so hard he broke her arm. She never asked again, but once, when the ogre and his daughter slept, she had crawled under the sofa and tried the trapdoor. It had been locked, and so Aeolia was left to guess what lay below.
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