I brush the soft white rose against my lips, slow enough to feel like her kiss. The touch brings moonlit memories of last night. Of Charlotte’s fingertips tingling my face. Of her arms curving my braid around the smooth, shimmering length of her bronze skin until we were tangled up in gold.
Birds sing as the sun stretches its arms across the sky. From high up here, the ground is hazy with morning mist. It fills the smallest of spaces between the pines and piled stones, and looks as if I could dive down and fall forever.
I do not know how long I have stood at the window, or what time in the late hours Charlotte climbed down from it. Or if Mother heard and will make me suffer. But my head is filled with light, my tongue tastes of magic, and I will pay any price for those gifts. Any price at all.
A knock calls from far away.
Before I face the door, the lock clicks shut. A shiver pulls my thoughts into the tiny room, filled with my bed, piled books, and nothing else but pale, early light.
Mother’s hand presses against the doorframe. The same hand that held mine during my first uneven steps, that guided my eyes across the page as I learned to read. The hand that never felt right, always too rigid and cold.
She turns to me with sharp green eyes, searching. “Did you sleep well, my darling?” Her tone sizzles with threat.
I press against the stone sill, bracing as a rock sticks into my hip.
“Gella, you look…radiant.” Blue light casts a sickly sheen upon her skin. Raven hair parts around the tapered tips of her ears that look nothing like mine. Or Charlotte’s.
Her skirt ruffles across the floor to me, making her appear to be floating. My thumb presses into one of the rose’s thorns. Hot pain spreads a smile across my face, bold and unfamiliar. A feeling I never knew before last night. Before Charlotte showed me that everything could be different, that a touch could be warm.
“Oh, my girl. You are bleeding.” Her eyes widen into jade flames at the spot of blood on an ivory petal.
She pulls my thumb to her lips and sucks the wound as if it is life.
The rose falls to my feet. My outstretched arm goes limp. Exhaustion pulls at my eyelids and I crave the comfort of my bed. A warm breeze brushes my neck. Pictures of Charlotte’s thick auburn hair and deep brown eyes reach into me with power and strength. I rip my hand from Mother’s, gripping it into a fist.
The word sounds strange. The fading, timid part of me wants to swallow it away before it reaches her pointed ears.
Something new glints in her eyes. A chilling smile twitches her lips as she traces my braid to the end, piled in the corner across the room. Her bare feet follow my hair until she gathers it in her arms, stroking it like silken treasure.
“Keeping you high up here, my dear…locked away from the world…was a terrible mistake.”
My fingers find a crevice in the stone sill and grip so hard they go numb.
“You need to feel the earth beneath your feet. To be grounded…”
She rushes at me with the force of a storm until the air between us is thin.
“And far away from that scullery maid.”
The words strike me like lightning, sending shocks down my limbs.
She throws my braid at my chest and pushes my shoulders past the window. I do not resist. For heaven must be filled with love and light…like Charlotte.
Mother’s ice-cold hands thrust me into open air.
Hair trails above in a fluttering line, and for a glimpse of a moment, I have wings.
Pain is the only thing holding me together.
My bones rattle with each stone that drags beneath me and scrapes into my skin. The only color around me is gold. Memories of Charlotte, smiling, nestled in my hair, melt into me and dull the pain. I cling to their warmth and wait for heaven.
Just as everything begins to darken, the world shifts upright. My braid cinches tighter around me, pressing my torn back into the jagged trunk of a tree. I cry out with the last of my strength, but my voice drowns within my hair.
Pale-blue fingers break and pull through the strands until I see Mother’s manic smile. Fear grips my throat as her hands tie a knot of braid at my waist. She steps back with outstretched arms. Dirt and leaves swirl thick through the air, piercing my eyes. I clench them as she screams, wild and crazed, “Grow, my dear! Grow and bloom! Cast your seeds to the earth!”
The tree pulls me in and holds me tight. My hair disappears with the pain. I am dried and cracked, able to breathe, but my chest does not rise. A breeze strokes the top of my head while my feet stretch and sink beneath the damp forest floor.
As dust settles to the ground, Mother looks up, to where my face must be. I no longer shrink at her stare. I am firm and impenetrable.
She sways with the emerald leaves that drip all around, her bare feet crushing the delicate purple flowers that spread and bloom in my shade.
“You will grow taller than your tower, and soar in the sky, and be mine. Mine forever.”
Tiny taps of birds’ feet dance upon my arms. The creek hums below, and I anticipate what I will feel beneath a starry sky.
I will see Charlotte in the moonlight and draw her to me with whispering leaves.
I will hold her in my low branches and brush them against her skin as she smiles.
Mother sings a drifting lullaby as she returns to the tower, and in a deep, dark, part of me, I thank her for this gift.
For I am more free than I have ever been.
Courtney Kae is a lighthearted writer of dark fantasy for young adults. When not lost in enchanted forests, she can be found huddled in a café corner, working on her first novel, and guzzling lattes by the barrel.