She lives in a castle. The township is surrounded by woods, and old gods who cower underneath the name of the one that is left. There are rules now, under this new god.
She is Samine, and her blood runs hot. She knows there are places where daggers silence the hearts of sleeping children. There are places where the roads run unending, straight as the blade of a sword.
There are things she does not yet know.
What she does know is that it is the winter solstice. There is a table laden with honeyed sweets. There are her father’s friends, bringing her hair combs carved from amber, squeezing her thighs for longer than they did last year, much longer than the year before that. Back when her cheeks were fuller, her breasts and rump not as full as they are now.
She sinks her teeth into a sweet and sighs, giddy, and her mother says stop it, there are rules now. Be a lady. But Samine doesn’t know what a lady is. So she smiles through her mouthful of food and says I love you, Mama.
A lady must walk and sit with her back straight, must brush her hair until it’s shiny enough to catch the eye. She isn’t a lady, not yet. She stills climbs trees and turns her face to the sky in the rain. Her laughter is full and comes from her belly, and she doesn’t cover her mouth when it happens. She has bled for three years now, but she is unbroken ice. No-one has known the keen places of her that make her shiver as though in an exquisite chill wind.
And how could anyone know how to make her shudder the way she can make herself do so, at night, deep under her heavy woollen blankets, when the fires are left to go to embers? How could any man or woman make her feel the way the wool of her dress often feels against her stomach, her thighs, her breasts, those times when sensation is pulled taut?
The castle is what she knows, the township, and the woods surrounding them. There are things that creep in from beyond, ushered hereby teams of horses along roads through the forest. Shining, exotic creatures, birds that are louder and brighter than the brown whistlers in the forest shadows.
And once a woman with gold shoes and long dark hair knotted into rows, etched in blue tattoos. One of her tattoos was a deer with its back legs pointed to the sky, both on this plane and on the one above, the woman had said, where the gods live. It was in the town market, and when she’d offered Samine a bracelet of the brightest green stone she had ever seen, she’d stepped away from the woman and into the crowd. But not before turning back once, looking the woman in the eye, and mirroring her grin.
Tonight there are vegetables crisped in duck fat, whole chickens, and a pig with an apple in its mouth. There are her sisters sitting quietly, backs straight, as their mother had taught them.
When the guests are seated, Samine’s father stands. He stands in his coat of heavy furs and his twined metal torc. He lifts a cup of mead. He declares his daughter a beautiful young woman and announces that she has perfected her handicraft skills. Her long stitch is exceptional.
He doesn’t mention the late nights when Samine throws wooden chairs against the castle walls, raging, her ferocity an eagle swooping on a hare. Those nights she speaks in tongues about the other gods in hiding. There were monstrous cats once, she cries, cats with teeth as long as a hunter’s forearm. There were things that lumbered, with tusks and long noses that reached the ground, covered in fur so thick it would keep out the snow and the ice that used to cover the world.
And before that, scaled things, dragons with sails of skin down their backs, dragons with the beaks of birds and feathers too. And they’re still here, she whimpers. They’re outside, underground.
Then her mother would call for the apothecary, and the herbs he brought Samine would make her quiet and bring sleep.
Samine’s father raises his cup of mead higher. He declares his daughter marriageable. Samine hardly hears. She’s watching the pig wink behind its appled mouth.
Her father thanks their god for the food the servants have cooked for them, and the guests say amen.
With her hands she eats the turnips on her pewter plate, picks white flesh from a drumstick. There are eyes on her, the eyes of her father’s friends and, more keenly, the eyes of their sons. Blue eyes, green eyes, raven hair, red hair. She hears the whispers of their coiled tattoos under the rough woollen garments. She feels the muscles in their arms and chests tighten as they reach for their cups of mead, their tongues curling around the sour-sweet liquid.
One of the lords is watching Samine with dark eyes, and there’s something whispering in her ear to take notice. She shivers, grits her teeth. The point of her canine nicks her tongue. She tastes blood.
After the meal, the servants clear the plates away. They leave the cups on the table, fill them again. There is dancing, and there are musicians playing harps and bone flutes in the corner of the hall.
Ruddy-faced children flit between the feet of dancing men and women, and Samine sits in her stone chair, tapping on the wooden table a song only she can hear, and her mother clicks her tongue to stop.
The dark-eyed lord strides over to Samine, introduces himself as Bjarni, takes her hand and holds it. His hands are cold. There is a rune on the brooch at his throat.
You’re anxious, he says, and she says, no. She pulls her hand away.
You’re restless? he tries.
Perhaps, Samine says. The way a caged animal is.
Do you sing as sweetly as a caged bird? the young lord says, and winks.
I … I snarl, Samine says.
Bjarni’s eyebrows go up. Yes, he says. I hope you bite hard, too.
Samine laughs at this, bares her teeth. Are you sure? she says. She holds her hand out to the young man.
Bjarni pulls her from her stone chair. He watches her the way a cat watches a fieldmouse. Except she is no mouse.
She holds Bjarni’s hand with her two hands, swings him in an arc that nearly collides him with other dancers. She laughs. Bjarni’s dark eyes grin. She feels the air rush through his teeth as he laughs, pants, steadies himself. He links arms with her and they fall into the line of dancers.
You are a pixie in a forest of trolls, Bjarni says.
And you are a dragon wearing the flesh of a man, Samine says, and Bjarni stops grinning. He unhooks his arm from hers and holds up his hand. She puts her palm to his and they circle each other in time with the music.
How? How do you know that? Bjarni says.
Samine says, I don’t know. Your palms are scaly.
But they’re not, Bjarni replies, the hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth.
Samine snorts. She says, I can hear your dragon’s tail coiling under your skin.
Clever pixie, Bjarni says, smiling with sharp teeth.
Will you … take me away to your den? Samine says as they move across the hall.
Other lords try to dance with her, remark on how bright her eyes are. Bjarni twirls her away from them; she laughs in their faces.
Bjarni says, Pixies sing better in glades in the forest, not in cages where birds are kept.
Samine isn’t smiling anymore. She sees her sisters scampering around the feet of dancers, sees her father laughing heartily with the older lords. Her mother is somewhere in the castle.
Samine and Bjarni are face to face when Samine says, There’s a deer that is both of this world and the world of the gods. It eats the mushrooms in the darkest part of the forest. Its antlers are like the branches of the tree the world sits on.
Bjarni raises an eyebrow.
I want to hunt that deer, Samine says.
And Bjarni grins. He brushes her bottom lip with his thumb. Through her rough-hewn dress she feels the heat of dragon flesh underneath his skin, and on her lips the scales. The wings of moths are flitting across her chest.
Then her tongue begins to tingle, then it feels numb. Her eyes go wide. She knows what’s happening, what eagle is spreading its wings.
In the other world, she whispers, the sunlight is shining off the emerald seas. There are hearts beating, she says, but not the hearts of people.
Bjarni tilts his head back, watching her.
The shaking begins, the seizing muscles. Samine grasps Bjarni’s forearms.
People can’t fly to the red world, not yet, Samine says, her voice becoming louder. The guests are shuffling aside. The musicians continue to play.
But, she says, her voice rising, but we will soar there on silver wings, on wings of fire.
The musicians stop playing.
Bjarni turns her around and puts his arms around her, holding her from behind as she writhes. There is a rumbling drone in the back of her head.
She wakes in her room, in her four-posted bed of furs. Her head throbs. A taste of iron in her mouth.
The tremors don’t come often. But when they do she doesn’t remember the things she’s said. Not all of it, anyway.
She lives in a castle, and the township is surrounded by woods. She is Samine and there are things she does not yet know.
What she does know is that somewhere there is a den of dragons in human skin who wait for her. She will be a bird that sings free. She will hunt the deer with antlers as tall as the tree that holds the world.
Out in the great hall, the celebrations are dying down. Somewhere in the castle her mother is pacing.
There are rules now.
The dragons are waiting.
Image: deek ay
Chloe Brien is the current in-house editor at Melbourne Books. She has been a committee member at Voiceworks magazine, and a judge for the John Marsden Prize and the Write Across Victoria Competition. She has won first prize in the Bayside Writing Competition, the Monash University Prize for Poetry and many local library competitions. Chloe’s fiction, nonfiction and poetry have been published in Metro, Screen Education, Verge, Voiceworks and elsewhere.