She makes her home in a one room cottage hollowed out of an enormous tree, and becomes know to the other women of the woods: the she-wolves, the nymphs, the trolls. There are ladies who show up at dawn, made of mist like spools of spider web, who stretch themselves across the forest, languid arms hugging spindly tree trunks, long fingers entwining in their leaves.
She visits the water nymphs, the membranes between their fingers translucent and fragile, the prettiest green, and they tell her the secrets of the water. How the cold stream of melted ice water is safe to drink, but how when it's pooling on dead leaves, no one may dare step on their brownish decaying depths. They tell her of the pretty men they drowned, a lost smith apprentice, a lonely poet, dragged to the depths and there devoured by their sisters.
She learns from the troll women how to choose the tenderest green shoots, the meatiest mushrooms growing out of dead things, and which nests have the yellowest yolked eggs.
She learns too, to brew potions out of bitter greens, out of wine-red berries dangling from prickly brambles, heavy and poisonous, which left a gleaming tempting juice on her fingers staining them with their fatal blood.
A myriad of birds in willow cages fill her cottage to trembling with such plaintive songs they pierce the heart. The prettiest things she's ever owned, presents from the women of the forest for successful births.
But she is not alone in her bird-filled solitude. He visits. He never comes close, because the woods are her own labyrinth. Unlike his, in hers there are no illusions, only the impenetrable secrets of old, hiding from the sight of those who do not know how to truly see. He doesn't know it is only easy to lose yourself if your purpose is to be found.
So he walks the woods' floors carpeted in thick grass like walking in a dream, and follows the smell of green growing things and the fumes of deadly poisons. He sees the footsteps of hunters which abruptly disappear, while foxes and crows try to guide him out of allegiance to their king. Blackbirds with yellow bills guide him as he flies through the forest, on owl wings, and leaves his courting gifts by her rose covered cottage: a deep copper astrolabe, smelling of blood. Green silk. A golden compass of which she has no need. Sparkling gems by her door, rubies sparkling redly between the tall green grass. Green velvet. A brass sextant. A crystal ball that will take her to his maze if she so wishes.
And she does so wish.
She was, however, not quite ready to go. There were things to be done first.
From a deer she felled she made beautiful slippers, from his blood she made delightful potions, and from his meat she feasted.
The green velvet she turned into a dress, sewn with the finest gold thread she could trade for with the troll women, and from the green silk she made sleeves for that very dress.
His gifts she melted and shattered so she wrought the most delicate of crowns to place upon her brow.
And this gown she wore like a ruling queen, velvet like the skies above, when she picked the crystal ball and was transported to the centre of the labyrinth.
Fairies flew low, peeking into the gobblins' windows. Spiderlike creature of hell and nightmares. Hard to believe she once defended them. Hard to believe how blind the eyes of youth were.
A few goblins meandered here and there, horrifyingly mutated things. Babies warped by magic and the rotten side of power. But she wasn't fooled. Her greatest enemies standing between her and her prey were his courtiers. Those laughing masks who had teased her at the ball so long ago. High powdered hair, and chalky skin, wouldn't even do as potion ingredients.
Even so she would make use of what was left of them, once she was queen.
He was waiting for her in the throne room. Unchanged but not. She knew he would be different. She no longer feared him, she no longer wanted him as a girl wants: fiercely and desperately, with little hope. She coveted him. He was so pretty. The prettiest thing she'd ever seen.
"I knew you'd come back to me," he said, eyes glittering, a vulpine smile at odds with his avian features.
She'd brought him her sweetest songed bird in a willow cage she'd wrought herself. She told him it was a baker's son and she laughed so sweetly he couldn't help but laugh too.
He had a feast waiting, warned by his spies in the woods, foxes, and crows who with swift feet and chattering caws alerted him to her arrival.
His courtiers were there, unmasked, unnamed, for who amongst the fae would give out their name?
Women in flowing dresses of silk and silver, their corsets tight, their hair intricately amassed atop their heads. Rouged cheeks on powdered faces, belladonna liquid eyes. Men in ruffled shirts and soft doe breeches, gleaming silk coats with golden braid. Their eyes predatory and cruel. But not as cruel as hers. Not as cruel as her.
She took care not to eat. No wine goblet for her, no herb encrusted bread crumb covered mushrooms, no fragrant fowls in butter sauce, no ruby red pomegranate seeds.
And she danced all night in his arms, like she had so long ago, a doll following fixed steps, is what she was then, but now the trapped one was he.
You couldn't deny the love in his eyes. The way he looked at her, his endless smile of a victory long awaited and now finally in his reach, in his arms.
When the darkest night fell, she insisted on accompanying him to his bedchamber. His kisses drugging, his lips wine stained, their clumsiness in undressing was loud in the dark, her potion bottles empty, a dagger in her hand. This clattered to the floor, slippery with blood spilled earlier that night. If he noticed or cared or guessed didn't interest her. You don't really love the things you covet. You don't really care for them.
As she rode him and he whispered her name, "Sarah, Sarah, Sarah…", she was his queen.
When he awoke the next morning most of his courtiers were dead or dying. Syrupy residue at the bottom of their wine goblets, thin steel wire cobwebs clinging to slit necks, wide eyes with constricted pupils in cold death.
He seemed not to mind.
Her rooms, adjacent to his, are as green as the woods, green as her eyes, he says, and she smiles absently, slightly resenting how freely he moves about, how just about anyone else can hear him sing.