One for Sorrow

It was paltry magic, but he thought it diverting enough for such a crew as Cully’s … but offering no true magic, he drew no magic back from them … Cully smiled impatiently, and Jack Jingly dozed, but it startled the magician to see the disappointment in Molly Grue’s restless eyes.

When she was twelve, a magpie lit on her windowsill in the bruise-gray hours of the morning. Its wings were beetle-black and its eyes brighter, for the moment, than the rising sun. From her bed Molly watched it in perfect stillness, afraid to move lest it fly away.

The bird tilted its head one way, then another. Molly waited, holding her breath, for it to speak.

It did not speak. Instead it croaked at her and leapt from the window to vanish into the trees. In the morning, when she pulled on her mother’s skirt and told her about it, Molly learned that magpies only talk in stories—and that, besides, one alone meant nothing but ill.

At seventeen her knees and hands knew her family’s kitchen floors better than she knew herself, but she was still young and still new and still happy. She learned to weave and to draw, and how to braid her hair in that way that turned the heads of all the village boys.

When the trend was for a young lady to go into the woods at sit with a golden bridle she did that, too. She did it for a solid week, dawn to dusk, but no glimmering animal with a flashing horn ever came to her. At best she glimpsed a young buck, but it darted away into the woods when it noticed her.

When the sun set on her for the seventh time, Molly trudged back to town with dirty feet and twig-snarled hair. She did not cry.

The next day, when Loretta Porter flounced into the town square with three silver-white strands that gleamed like water in her fist, Molly was the first one to point out how they looked an awful lot like the fine thread the seamstress a town over was famous for.

On her twenty-second birthday the dashing stranger with his jolly band blew through the village like a dozen dust-devils. Out of all the girls it was Molly he extended his hand to from astride his dappled horse, even with her bony shoulders and hair that never seemed to quite forget the tangle it had become in that last night in the woods. She took it, of course she did, and after the self-styled Captain Cully swung her up into the saddle he kicked his heels and the horse bolted. Molly shrieked and Cully laughed, running the thing in a blistering circle around the town before easing it to a halt back where they had started. Her heart was pounding when he slid her back down to the ground, but it began to thunder when he grinned at her and tipped his hat.

Love, said her great-aunt May—who everyone said used to be a witch, and knew about these things—love was its own kind of magic. In truth that is what at last goaded Molly to slip on her shoes in the dead of night and meet Cully under the same tree she had waited for something much less real under all those years ago. This time it would be right. This time she would find it.

That was what she told herself for the next ten years, morning and evening, even as her skin weathered and her color faded. She kept it up even when Cully doubled in belt sizes, and when he stopped looking at her like he would some mythical creature and more like she was a particularly invasive moth.

On the night she awoke to something staring her down from the bushes, she was not sure how old she was, or if she had ever been young at all. An icy wind striding through their camp had woken her, and it brought with it some ancient howling sound. She had snapped awake—sleep was hard enough anymore—to see rustling in the trees five yards away. At once Molly thought manticore or chimera or werewolf, and shivered. For the first time in years she felt her heart begin to race—out of fear, yes, but it was the kind of fear that comes with adventure, the kind meant to keep you fighting.

When the leaves shook a final time and nothing but a fat black magpie winged out of them, the fear slunk away as if embarrassed, unneeded after all. It was curious, Molly thought as she watched it fly away. It had been a bird, not a basilisk, but she felt like she had finally turned to stone.

Time dragged its slow, dull claws over her. As the years marched on Molly’s eyes became marble and her tongue turned to pumice. There was almost nothing of her left the night Cully and Jack Jingly and all stormed in with the taffy-stretched nimrod that called himself a magician. All of her that remained, and even she didn’t know it was still there, was her heart.

To every evil spell there is a countercurse, even those cast without magic. Molly’s came in the form of the magnificent ghosts of outlaws who never lived, drawing her crying and hollering out of the woods with the rest of Cully’s crew, shedding her statue-skin with every hoarse shout.

By morning, when she stepped out of the bushes to see not only the magician but magic—real, breathing Magic—her veins pumped with blood instead of mercury, and her eyes were bright once more.