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Fiction

Sun’s East, Moon’s West

I shot the sparrow because I was starving. Though truthfully, I was aiming at a pheasant; the silver snow and the silver birches played tricks with the light, and as if by magic, pheasant turned into sparrow.

When I saw what my arrow had done, I cried with empty eyes, too dry to make tears. The sparrow wouldn’t amount to a mouthful of grotty bones — and even a starving woman knows songbirds are sacred to at least one goddess.

My knees plowed into the snow beside the small creature. “How, how, how?” I fretted. “How did you become a sparrow, pheasant?” The bird did not answer, but when I reached to remove the arrow piercing its body, the accusatory glare of a beadish eye stopped me. A trickle of blood slid from its nares, and the bright eye closed.

“Do not be dead!” I cried. “I would give anything for you not to be dead.”

And while the breath-mist of this rash statement still hung in the air, a bear-god waddled out of the forest, lumbering and large.

The bear-god said: “The sparrow will not die, if you live as my wife for a year and a day.”

I licked my lips, tasting the clear, salty snot that comes of crying, and said, “I already have a husband.”

The bear-god regarded me with placid eyes. “And I already have a wife.”

I stared at him, the dying sparrow lying in a bloody lump between us, struggling to breathe.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, anything.”

“Remove your arrow,” said the bear-god. When I had done so, he lapped the sparrow into his mouth with his ribbony pink tongue, closing strangely mobile lips over his teeth. We stood silent in the forest, staring at each other. I watched him closely, making sure he did not chew or swallow; he did not.

Soon enough, a muffled cheeping emerged from the bear-god’s muzzle, and the corner of a beak protruded from his lips.

The sparrow lived.

I pressed my hands together in an attitude of supplication. “At the end of your year and a day,” I said, “if you had any armor lying around to spare, I would appreciate it if you loaned it to me.”

“If you wish.” The sparrow burst from the bear-god when he spoke, fluttering up in a rush of wings to circle our heads. But instead of flying off, the sparrow landed on my shoulder to pluck out my hair, strand by strand.

“Ow!” I waved the bird away, and he moved off to a tree branch, where its glare bit as sharp as its beak.

The bear-god rumbled, a noise which could be interpreted as a sign of humor or an imitation of thunder.

“Why are you laughing?” I asked crossly.

“Sparrows have a petty but exacting sense of vengeance,” he said. “I admire it. Come now. Away to my castle.”

“Is it far?”

“Terribly far,” he said gravely. “Perhaps you should ride on my back.”

I obliged him, and spent the uncomfortable journey staring at the silver-tipped fur between the bear-god’s ears.

• • • •

“Why did you shoot the sparrow?” the bear-god asked after a time.

“I was hungry. Am hungry.”

“Desperately hungry, I should think,” the bear-god said, and turned aside to dig in the snow until he uncovered a patch of wintergreen. “You’ll have to gather your own berries. There aren’t many . . .”

I gobbled the berries gratefully as we moved on. I was by no means sated, and when we reached the great under-mountain castle, the bear carried me straight to a banquet hall set with six and seventy dishes. I sat down eagerly and ate and ate and ate, then promptly threw up all that I’d eaten.

The bear-god summoned servants — swift and invisible servants — and they covered the evidence of my orgy of eating with a bit of cloth, and replaced the rich dishes on the table with plain barley broth and toast.

“I can’t imagine what you need a wife for with this many magical servants around,” I said, sipping at the broth.

“Well, Lissa, I need a wife for several reasons,” the bear-god said.

I nodded.

“To rub my ears in the morning,” he said, flexing one claw as though counting with it.

“I can do that.”

“To balance my accounts every week,” he said, extending a second claw.

“Uh . . .”

He added a third claw. “And to lie with me at night.”

I threw up again.

• • • •

After my third repast, the bear-god sent me upstairs for a bath, rather against my will, for I knew bathing overmuch caused moisture to build up in the head, leading inevitably to death. It was too early in our association to start an argument, however.

At dinner that night, I ate slowly and responsibly.

He said, “You seem very young to be married.”

“My husband is very old to be married, so I guess it fits.”

“I see.”

“My father was a miller,” I said, “and he put it about that I can spin straw into gold. Then he sold me to the highest bidder.”

“He chose the man who might give the most dowry for you?” the bear asked.

“Oh, no. There was an auction. In the town square.”

The bear-god looked appalled, but didn’t comment. “Can you?” he asked.

“Can I what?”

“Spin straw into gold.”

“Not anymore,” I said.

“Ah.”

I looked down at my lap, at my hands as calloused from sword and shield as distaff and spindle. There never had been much gold from them — a few finger-length embroidery threads now and then.

“I have but one real requirement of you,” the bear-god said at length.

“And that is?”

“That you never bring a light — neither candle or torch or any sort of fire — into my den at night.”

“Er,” I said, wondering how many stubbed toes were likely to result from this eccentricity. “Of course, as you command.”

I must have had a strange look on my face, for the bear asked: “What are you thinking?”

“I’m wondering why a bear-god needs to coerce a miller’s daughter for — for scrumping.” I didn’t look up, in case there was a giant bear-mouth looming above me, about to bite my face off.

“I am no god,” he said, as mild as milk.

“You’re just a bear, then?”

“You are not to ask me questions about that.”

“Oh.” I brightened, as a thought occurred to me. “But you can talk, so you’re not just a regular bear, then.”

“No,” he said. “Not just a regular bear.”

• • • •

Time passed swiftly in the bear’s castle; winter turned to spring. I had time to practice my swordcraft, for there was an armory, and time to practice my riding, for there was a stable. As for my night duties, the bear was a gentler lover than my husband.

The bear took some interest in my daily activities, and often showed up to watch me exercise my borrowed swords against a variety of straw dummies.

“What are you training for?” he asked. His voice rumbled so deeply that it caused my ear bones to itch.

“For dragons,” I said.

“What does a miller’s daughter who can spin straw into gold care for dragons?” he asked.

“I kill them.”

“I see. And how do you go about it?”

I told him. I showed him the dragon claw and the dragon-scales I had carried in my pocket since my first and only battle. I explained about my grandfather the dragon-slayer and his philosophies of dragon combat. I explained also how my first and only dragon had eaten my husband’s donkey.

“After that, my husband wanted nothing more to do with me,” I said. “An unhappy marriage cannot bear the loss of a much-cherished donkey.” I stopped. The bear was looking at me strangely. “I’m boring you?”

“Not at all. I’m amused, I assure you. Go on.”

I went on, talking about the three days in the forest before he found me, all the while in the back of my mind trying to figure out how I amused him. When I wrapped up my story, he took me in his paws.

“Close your eyes, and keep them closed,” he growled to me, and scrumped with me right there, on the floor of the armory.

It seemed that day, as it always did during our matings, that his body was smaller than it appeared, and I felt more skin than fur beneath my fingers. I nearly cracked open an eye, but as if he sensed my curiosity, he growled, “Eyes closed!” and slobbered a beary kiss into my ear.

Later, as I pulled together the tattered remains of my shirt and watched him bear-waddle away, I wondered if I was just imagining him as more human when my eyes were closed.

I looked down my breasts poking through two of the four large rents in the fabric. “Alas, Lissa,” I told myself regretfully. “Human hands don’t do that to good linen. Not generally.”

• • • •

Amazingly, I did not take sick and die from the constant bathing. I also discovered that my hair was nearly blond. And I itched less. There were actually advantages to bathing, just as there were advantages to living with the bear.

We rubbed along together tolerably well. He tried not to mind the hours I spent with weapons or horses, and I tried not to mind my duties in his dark den. At least in the darkness I could almost pretend he was human. Above all, I kept my promise, and did not bring light into the den.

One day I arrived at the stables just in time for a thunderstorm. Stuck until the lightning stopped, I sat down to use my dragon claw as a drop spindle, and spun out a modest pile of gold.

The bear wandered in and watched, fascinated, as a thin rope of gold came forth from the bales of hay.

“I thought you couldn’t do that anymore,” the bear said.

“I guess I can,” I said, amazed by how much gold I was producing. I had a suspicion that I could spin gold best when happy. I didn’t explain this to him, though.

And he didn’t explain anything at all to me.

• • • •

For a few months, I blamed my lack of menses on the enchantments around us — invisible servants, talking bears, no monthly messes. But eventually my belly swelled in a way that my husband had never been able to inspire, and I knew. I ate staggering amounts of food. I used the privy often. I threw up in the mornings. And the bear never asked me about it.

I began to worry about bearing babies with furry faces.

“It’s clear to me,” I said at dinner one night, “That you are not a bear.”

He looked at me. I kept eating, popping triangles of bread and cheese into my mouth, one after another.

“We will not speak of it,” he said.

“Oh, yes, we will! I need to know if I’m going to give birth to cubs or babies in a few months.”

His muzzle crinkled, and more teeth than usual appeared, but I continued to cram my mouth with bread and cheese.

“What have you done?” he whispered.

My jaw dropped, and crumbs spilled from my mouth onto my lap. “What have you done, more like!”

“Oh, Lissa,” he said, coming toward me and bearing me to the floor, where he made ferocious love to me, I think out of joy.

But this time he did not tell me to shut my eyes, so I kept my eyes open.

I needed to know.

Beneath my hands and before my eyes, he changed. His body became definitively human, though very hairy and full of paunch, as befits a bear about to hibernate. His face was not at all handsome. It looked rather as if someone had taken a bear’s features and tried to squish them down to fit a human’s head. Distorted.

Distorted, but in a way, beloved.

I watched him wonderingly throughout the whole thing. Was this why he always took me in the dark, but for that one day in the library? He was a man in these moments.

Afterwards, he opened his eyes. We stared at each other until anguish took his face.

“Lissa, what have you done?” he whispered again. I had no chance to answer.

There came a thunderclap so loud I thought the earth had split in two. Around us, the cave-castle fell away, and a great flutter of whistling white burst between us. I felt him pulled from my arms, from between my legs, and when the white and the thunder died away, I was alone on a barren mountainside.

My shirt was in the usual tatters, and my skirt was rucked up around my waist. In my pocket were my trophies from my one and only dragon-battle: a dragon claw and nine dragon scales, which I had carried since as a talisman.

After a long, dazed moment, I pulled my skirt straight and stumbled down the mountainside to find a stream. I knelt on the bank to scoop water onto my face, but froze when I saw a woodsman standing on the opposite bank, staring at me or perhaps my breasts poking through my torn shirt. I pulled my arms through my sleeves and turned the shirt around, which magically restored the power of speech to the woodsman.

“Who are you?” the woodsman asked.

“I’m Lissa the Dragon-slayer,” I said, then added, “Late of the bear-god’s enchanted castle.”

“The cursed castle.”

“Cursed?” That certainly would explain a lot.

“A hideous monster guarded it,” he said. “There was a sleeping prince inside, from a distant land which lies east of the sun, west of the moon. You’re from the castle?” He looked at me suspiciously.

I lied glibly, “I was a prisoner.”

The woodsman took me to his small hut, where his wife did not welcome me graciously. But they gave me food and a spot by the hearth. I wished I were happy enough to spin them a little gold. Instead, I gave them a dragon scale, as pale as moonlight but twice as bright, and the woodsman put it in his lantern instead of a candle.

I asked them to tell me everything they knew about the cursed castle. They didn’t know much, but they knew of a witch who knew a falcon, who flew with the East Wind, who might have seen something relevant, once, long ago. Woodsman and wife practically shooed me out the door, and I was happy to go.

• • • •

The first time I rode to battle, my husband snorted and laughed at my hodge-podge armor. Beyond my cookpot helm, traditional headgear of impromptu warriors everywhere, my protection consisted mainly of flimsy bronze vambraces and a breastplate I dug out of a dusty trunk. Everything fit ill, too tight or too loose.

But I killed a dragon that day, with the half-lance that was once my baby brother’s toy. My husband snorted again when I returned, this time angry — somewhat for the loss of his donkey in that battle, but also because I was not the wife my father promised. I’d already failed to turn my husband’s hayloft into a treasure-house; I’d failed to bear his children as well. I could cook and sew, but would do so no longer. I was a dragon-slayer.

I left the next day, taking nothing that I did not own outright: the clothes I stood up in, the bow and arrow that belonged to my brother before he went off to war, the claw and scales I had won from the dragon. My husband guarded the larder during my leave-taking. I was driven by hunger to shoot the pheasant-sparrow a few days later.

Autumntide in the forest was kinder to me than winter had been; fortunate, for now I did not even have my bow, and there were no more bear-gods to rescue me. I ate like a bear, mainly fish and berries, for the bear-children tumbled and twisted in my womb if I tried to feed them aught else.

Days passed on my quest to find this witch, however; fish grew scarce, and the walls of my stomach ground together like mill-stones without grain. A brace of partridge tempted me, and I set about making a snare. Before I had a chance to set my trap, however, a flock of sparrows dipped and dove at my head.

I shrieked and ran, flinging my skirt up over my head for protection. The sparrows pulled back, leaving my hair alone, but from that day forth, they followed me on my journey, to prevent all future attacks on all bird-kind.

• • • •

The witch, when I found her, bartered the name of the falcon who knew the East Wind for a scale that glittered like a blood ruby. The falcon was not so easily bought.

The distance to the falcon’s native plain was vast, but the sparrows followed me the whole way. They flew along during the day, pausing now and then to peck for seed or berries or bugs, or to dive in to steal strands of my hair. They roosted as close to my camps as possible, making sure to deposit a star-stippling of droppings on my skirts by morning.

On the falcon’s plain, I called the raptor’s name nine times, as the witch had said; a bird appeared in the distance. The sparrows twittered nervously at the falcon’s approach. I thought with grim satisfaction that maybe this would drive them away forever — and if a few perished in the effort, I would not weep for them.

The falcon dropped like a stone from the bright blue sky and tore a long strip of flesh from my left arm. I cried out and hit at the creature, but it had already landed so it could toss a goodly chunk of my arm down its gullet with obvious pleasure. I clutched my arm and I wished for a sword, or my brother’s half-lance, or even the stupid cookpot I had left behind with my husband.

I wound my arms, one bleeding and one intact, in my cloak, and held the excess fabric taut between, creating the crudest of nets while simultaneously bandaging my wound. Holding my weapon at the ready, I stalked toward the falcon, expecting the sparrows to come for me at any moment.

The falcon shrieked and took to the air, rising high above me — this time, perhaps, planning to descend and cut my throat and have done with it, I thought. But to my surprise, it aimed its next attack at the sparrows. The falcon dove and the sparrows froze, seemingly in fear. I expected to see the dive end in a sudden puff of feathers — but the little flock turned as one and mobbed the falcon.

There were not enough sparrows to truly mob the falcon, of course, and soon enough, the falcon had broken free and wheeled about for another attack. This time, the sparrows darted out of the way — and led the falcon to me once more. I was ready, though. I aimed the taut cloak to meet the falcon’s dive, swinging up just before it reached for my face. The falcon bounced hard against the fabric and rocketed backward — not in the least under its own power.

The host of sparrows called raucous insults in bird-speak to the falcon, and the falcon called worse insults back in human speech as it recovered itself in the air. We were “foul intruders” who “fed on their mother’s filth” and so forth. The falcon circled and attacked one of the sparrows on the flock’s edge; the sparrow was not fast enough to avoid the falcon.

Meanwhile, I unwound my cloak and tossed it back over my shoulders. The falcon retreated and circled again to choose another sparrow for its revenge.

Before it could dive again, I tossed into the air a dragon scale that shone like a salmon skin. The falcon seemed powerless to ignore it, changing its path in midair to follow it, which left the smaller birds time to fly up under my cloak. The falcon came back with the fish-bright scale in his claws, cursing loudly. “You’ll never call the East Wind!” he cried, flying straight up into the sky until he disappeared.

• • • •

From that day forward, the sparrows and I were friends of a sort. The leader of the host was indubitably the bird for whom I’d bartered a year of my life, for all the gratitude that had earned me. I called him Pheasant; he called me nothing in particular, for he was really just a sparrow who’d had a bath in a bear-god’s reviving spittle.

I and my sparrow army did find the East Wind, though we took a circuitous route. The finding of a wind is rather like walking a labyrinth with invisible walls: one doesn’t know that one has hit a dead-end until one’s nose is mashed against the stones. Nonetheless, some months later, while I was not yet grossly pregnant but was certainly waddlingly pregnant, we came to a tower named the Meeting of the Winds.

• • • •

“I have never been to any land east of the sun and west of the moon,” said Ostro, South Wind.

“Nor I,” said Levante, the East Wind.

“Nor I,” said Ponente, West Wind.

“I have been there,” said Tramontana, the North Wind, and her voice made the sweat freeze on my skin. “Recently, in fact, but I cannot make the journey twice in one year without my fellow winds to aid me; I do not have enough breath on my own.”

“And,” said Ostro, “there is the matter of payment.”

“I can offer these.” I held out a selection of my remaining dragon scales.

“I want that one,” Levante said, and snatched from my hand a scale the exact yellow of daffodils, which create the first spring sunshine out of winter.

“This one?” said Ponente, stirring a scale as black as winter’s midnight. When I nodded, the wet West Wind blew hard, and the scale disappeared in a skirl of rain and dead leaves.

“Mine,” said Ostro, sucking away a dragon scale so brightly blue that the sky seemed pale and dim in comparison.

“I will need two, for I will have to go the farthest at the greatest cost,” the North Wind said. “And I will choose from your complete collection when we have arrived.”

Disappointed, I nodded. I had been saving the diamond scale specifically to exchange for money to use for bribes. I hoped it would not appeal to Tramontana.

We left in the pre-morning, while the bluing sky still held stars. I did not think that the sparrows would come; the winds were buffeting and harsh, by turns sere and saturate, chill and fevered. But Pheasant flew up under my cloak, and his kin followed.

We rode the winds for several miserable hours, alternately shivering and sweating, until the dampness decreased considerably. “I must drop away now,” Levante sighed in a voice like young frogs, and retreated from the combined force of the four great winds. The other three sighed and surged onward, propelling me and the sparrows over iced mountains and lush valleys.

The others dropped away in turn — first Ponente, with his voice as hoarse as a dying boar’s, then Ostro, who left us freezingly alone with the white and roaring North Wind. The sparrows huddled against me as much for warmth as safety now.

“What kind of land is this that exists east of the sun, west of the moon?” I asked from Tramontana’s broad, icy back.

“Sun’s East, Moon’s West, I call it,” she said. “Once a human stronghold, it is now ruled by a troll princess who is jealous of her human husband’s sophisticated good looks. She exiled him in anger when he would not lie with her; but trolls are genetically a very angry people, anyway.”

“I see.”

“She turned him into a bear to keep him faithful, and sent him away until he was willing to give her children. I brought him back just a few months ago, because he’d subverted her magic and had found a harlot to service him in his bear form.” I felt the North Wind’s austere eye on me, and half-expected it when she asked, “That was you, right?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m the harlot.” I didn’t ask any more questions.

Tramontana set me gently on my feet in the heart of a nowhere land and glanced over my three remaining dragon scales. She took the one that reflected everything in the color of the water of life, and one that shone like the war planet, dim and orange. She left me the diamond scale, and I was pleased. I watched as she blew herself away, white and icy, then closed my eyes and stood soaking up the warmth of this place’s golden sun.

I might have stood there for hours if Pheasant hadn’t said in my ear, “Sun’s East, Moon’s West!”

I opened my eyes. “I didn’t know you could talk!”

“It happened when I ate one of your dragon scales.” He belched a small gout of flame into my hair, singeing the ends a bit.

I searched my pockets to find no dragon scales whatsoever. “Blast. I needed that!”

Pheasant shrugged, for all that he had no shoulders.

There was a castle perched on a promontory overlooking the sea, and standing between a never-setting sun and a never-rising moon. I went to the gate and applied for a job as a dragon-slayer. Once the steward stopped laughing at me (for, not only were there no dragons in this country, and I had no armor or weapons, I was a woman, and a five-or-six-months-pregnant woman, to boot — a fact I might not have realized had he not pointed it out), he offered me a position as a chambermaid.

Desperate, I took it.

• • • •

And so it came to pass that I found my love once more while emptying out his chamber pot.

He still had the same squished-up bear face I remembered, and I wondered if he was still cursed, in whole or in part. I couldn’t imagine him with the sophisticated good looks that the North Wind had mentioned, so I was glad for the lingering remains of bearishness, for familiarity’s sake.

He was staring disconsolately out the window at the still moon and the quiet sea.

I knelt to clean the ashes from the grate.

“Do you want a fire today?” I asked.

“Why do you not call me prince, you insolent girl?”

“Because, as far as I know, you’re just a bear.” I bent to scrape the ashes into a bucket.

“Lissa!” He strode over to me, his boots ringing on the flagstones. I was glad to see he was dressed for action, but the thought of my bear wearing boots was disorienting. He crouched beside me and took my hands into his. “How did you get here?”

“The North Wind brought me.”

“Sure did,” Pheasant said.

He shot the bird on my shoulder a suspicious look. Pheasant preened. “Why are you here?” my bear asked.

To save you, I didn’t say. It seemed silly now. If he had to ask, he didn’t want saving.

“I never found out your name,” I blurted.

He smiled. “My name is Roland,” he said, leaning in to kiss me.

I knew how that ended: a tattered shirt, and me half-blind from squinching my eyes closed. I leaned away, overbalanced, and toppled into the ash can.

“Lissa!” he said, and knelt down to embrace me.

“No, no,” I said, keeping him at arm’s length. “That’s how we got into this mess.” Over Roland’s shoulder, I saw the door open and a giant green woman enter. Unfortunately, Roland was not aware of her arrival, and he continued to murmur endearments and entreaties to let him help me out of the ash can.

“Lissa the Harlot, here?” the green woman roared. Roland straightened in a hurry, leaving me to slump back into the ash can. “Roland, did you learn nothing during your exile?”

Sweat broke out on Roland’s forehead. “I learned to love Lissa,” he said bravely. He stood no taller than her shoulder.

She turned her angry eyes on me, but she spoke to him. “Troll Law still rules this land. If she wants you, she’ll have to defeat me in a contest.”

“Perhaps spinning,” Roland said, too archly. I shot him a warning glare.

“Or perhaps we should have a laundry contest,” the green woman said, her voice mocking. “We could drip some tallow onto a shirt, and see who can clean it best.”

“No,” I said, still struggling to free myself from the ashcan. It would have been a hard job, even if I weren’t nearly five months pregnant. “No contests. I already have a husband,” I said. I did not look at Roland. “And I will not steal someone else’s.”

“Lissa, you can’t leave me to her!”

The green woman ignored Roland. “You don’t love him?” she asked, plucking me from the ash can and setting me on my feet.

“I love him,” I said, “but I will do this properly, by your laws.”

She grunted, then bent down to poke my belly. “Then it will be a contest,” she said, “A better one. No housewifely pursuits. And higher stakes.”

“No,” Roland said, understanding her point before I did.

She didn’t listen to him. “All I ever wanted was what he wouldn’t give me,” she said, caressing the swell of my belly.

I refrained from slapping her hand away, and considered. If she defeated me, she would have to let me live until the child — or cubs — was born. Hope was not lost as long as I drew breath.

She said, “A contest of arms. A duel. If you win, you can have Roland. If I win, I get what he put in your womb.”

I considered her eager expression. “That’s not really a fair trade, is it? I love Roland, but on the balance, I had no intention of risking my children for something as fleeting as love. So, no. If I win, I get your kingdom, from moon to sun.”

Her grin was slow-growing and snaggle-toothed. “It’s a deal,” she said, her eyes bulging and calculating and hard.

• • • •

The troll princess hustled me from the room and gave me a bed in the stables. A heavy cloudbank rolled in to cover the sun; everyone seemed to agree that it was now night and acted accordingly. I curled around my growing stomach with a flock of sparrows nesting along my hip, and fell asleep in a haystack.

Roland shook me awake. The moonlight poured into the stable courtyard, silvering his hair.

“What are you doing?” he whispered.

“Sleeping.”

“Sleeping,” echoed Pheasant. He shifted uncomfortably, and a feather fell from his body — he had been molting all day.

“No. What are you doing? Tomorrow. Against Verdonna. And the child! Lissa, the child.”

“The cubs, you mean,” I said.

“Not cubs. I am a man.”

“Were you a man every time?”

He hesitated. “Yes. Every time.”

“That’s a relief,” I said, disbelieving him. I closed my eyes.

“Are you sleeping?” he asked after a while.

“Yes,” said Pheasant.

“Yes,” I said. “For tomorrow there are feats of strength, and I will need to be strong.”

“You can’t! Just leave. Go home! Then the babies —”

“Go home!” I sat up. “How? The North Wind comes here but once a year. And where? I don’t have a home. The only home I had —”

I broke off, and pounded the straw a bit with my fist. A clink followed, and four or five dull coins rolled away from my fist. I stared. Roland picked one up, examined it in the moonlight, bit it.

“Lead!” he said.

I grunted, and lay back down, on my side, facing away from him.

“Lissa,” he said, touching my hair. “She cursed me.”

“Did she.”

“She made me live as a bear in the wilderness. You were the first woman I’d seen for years.”

“Which is why you rolled me over and —”

“No.”

“No?”

“I mean, yes, but — I came to love you.”

“So — why? Why couldn’t I look at you? Why couldn’t you tell me you were a man?”

“Part of the curse. No woman could look upon my human form, or I had to return — to her.”

I thought about this. I thought of all the reasons why this might be so, and the only conclusions I could come to dealt closely with the perfidy of men. “Go away, Roland,” I said wearily, “Go away before she finds you here.”

He left.

“Go away,” Pheasant mumbled, tucking a head under his wing and shedding feathers onto my face.

• • • •

When the clouds moved away from the sun, I faced the troll princess Verdonna over crossed swords in the straw-strewn courtyard. It was a ridiculous pairing; she had every obvious advantage, in reach and strength, and probably most of the hidden advantages as well. My sword was the smallest in the armory and yet it would soon be too heavy for me. My only hope lay in the fact that Verdonna would be unwilling to jeopardize my health.

She saluted me, and I her.

Our swords met in a ringing clash as we aimed for each other’s fists. My blade skated off hers, and I danced away. I had not practiced with an opponent since my brother joined the army, and my only live foe had been one rather young dragon. I had no real plan except to evade Verdonna until I saw a chance.

So, I evaded. I hopped and watched. She thrust left, I hopped right, and watched the way her wrists turned. She feigned left and thrust right — I hopped left and saw how her feet shuffled. She sliced at my shoulder, waited too long to see if she’d made the hit, and still I watched.

We circled the courtyard again and again in a dancing game of thrust and retreat. I never dared get close enough to let her sword meet mine again. One good blow and she would drive me to my knees.

The sun never moved, so it was hard to measure the passage of time. Our feet beat up a bright dust from the straw, a cloud of gold in the slanting sunlight. A small crowd watched from the corners of the courtyard, Roland among them, the rest trolls and ugly human-troll half-breeds. Roland truly was the best-looking of them all.

Sweat dripped down my face. Sweat dripped from the end of Verdonna’s hooked nose. The straw dust flew up and clung to our sweat, turning us both bright gold.

Verdonna stumbled over something, but neither of us dared to look down. She side-stepped the obstacle, and lunged at me again. I was slow in hopping away, thrown off by her stumble. She sliced my shoulder, inscribing a line of cold fire down my arm. I gritted my teeth against a scream.

I jumped back immediately, avoiding her following blow with little grace, but pleased to understand that she was slow when she thought she made a strike — definitely slow. I left my other shoulder undefended, as though I were protecting my wound, and the target proved too tempting. As she went for the obvious shoulder, I slid my blade in between her fists, intending to pierce her heart.

Instead, her blade caught mine and spun it away from me, out of my hands. Her face split in a yellow grin of triumph. I leaped backwards before she could put her sword to my throat, wondering where my sword had landed. I jumped backwards once, twice, then once more; she followed more slowly, holding her sword out menacingly to compel my surrender. And surrender it would be, if I could not rearm myself immediately.

I turned my back and ran, searching the ground for the glint of my steel. Verdonna stomped after me. Nothing caught my eye — her heavy step was right behind me — she was closing — I could hear her breath —

And her breath took off in a shriek of pain. At the same moment, I spotted a sword on the ground — not my sword, but a sword nonetheless. I bent to scoop it up, timing my movement to turn and face her again in guard position.

When I straightened, I saw that the troll princess’s long nose was on fire. Astonished, I stared. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of gold and fire — a small, diamond-colored sparrow was buzzing frantically around and around Verdonna, spouting fire at the troll princess. Her hands slapped uselessly at the air around her head, at her nose, at her hair.

She was unguarded.

I took my moment, leaping forward to push my sword into her heart. This time, her sword did not block me.

I let go of my sword, leaving it stuck in her chest and quivering with her breath, and leapt backward. Verdonna stood still for the longest moment, and I thought, “She is truly a monster! Pierced through the heart and she will not fall!” But the quivering of the blade stopped, and her breathing stopped. She had simply frozen in place.

I stepped closer to her, and saw that her skin was golden from more than the fine dust our feet had beat into the air. She had turned to gold completely, as had the sword in her chest. Or had that been golden since before I picked it up?

On the ground between us, a small thing of gold glimmered.

Curious, I reached out for the gold thing and picked it up: it was a crown. I turned it over in my hands, and when I looked around, saw the courtyard littered with other objects of gold: a knife, a coif, a pair of gauntlets. There was no more straw in the courtyard at all, but gold-dust lay everywhere.

Roland came to me. I showed him the crown, astonished, and he took it to look it. “Thank you,” he said. “You’ve freed us from dominion of the troll lords.”

“Yes, I suppose I have,” I said.

He took my hand. “And we will reign here together — man and wife, as we lived together under the mountain.”

“We lived together as bear and wife, perhaps . . .” I hesitated. “But no. I am still married. If you wish to woo me . . . my heart would like nothing more. But you must perform a task for me. You must go on a quest for my divorce if you wish to marry me.”

Roland’s bearish face crinkled unhappily. “A quest?”

“I’ll soon be in no shape to undertake it myself,” I said, patting my belly.

Roland looked like he wanted to argue, but the people of Sun’s East were coming forward to talk to him, to learn their fate as a nation. Roland stepped forward to reassure them. In the meantime I cast about me, looking for Pheasant.

He sat on Verdonna’s golden head, but transferred to my shoulder obligingly enough.

“Pheasant, are you a dragon now?” I asked. There were no other sparrows to be found in the vicinity. I wondered if he had eaten them or something. But he just chewed at my hair, scenting it with ash. Feeling uneasy with my dragon-slaying ambitions, I turned to look at Roland surrounded by men and trolls.

Roland caught my glance and held his hand out to me, and in it, the crown beaten from straw.

“Your hair is on fire,” Roland said mildly when I came to him. He patted the fire out gently, and pulled me close for a kiss.

“More of a smolder than a fire,” I said at length.

“Yes.” He hesitated, regarding me. “Why this quest, now? You didn’t seem to care under the mountain.”

I also hesitated. How to say that I did not know if he was worthy of my own quest for him, without this? “Child or cubs, legitimacy is nothing to sneeze at,” I answered lightly, telling as much truth as I dared risk. “I want nothing owing between me and my husband. By law, the cubs would be his.”

“You aren’t carrying cubs,” Roland said, exasperated.

“Can you swear this?” I asked.

He bit his lip. I shrugged, and cast about me for another bit of gold on the ground, and found a spur. I picked it up and handed it to Roland. “Give this to my husband,” I said.

Roland turned the thing over and over in his hands. “Whatever for?”

“Tell him to use it to buy another donkey.”

He laughed. “Aye, Lissa.” He kissed me again, and the slanting light of the never-setting sun turned the world bright gold around us. We kissed until Pheasant set my hair alight again, and then we feasted until the North Wind came to take Roland on his quest. And thus went the first day and week of our rule in Sun’s East, Moon’s West, which continued happily enough for any storyteller to generalize about.

Merrie Haskell

Merrie HaskellMerrie Haskell grew up half in North Carolina, half in Michigan, and works in a library with over 7.5 million bound volumes. Her first three books are The Princess Curse, Handbook for Dragon Slayers, and The Castle Behind Thorns. She won the 2014 Schneider Family Book Award (Middle School) and the DetCon1 Middle Grade Speculative Fiction award.  Her short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Nature, and Strange Horizons. Merrie lives in Saline, Michigan.