Chapter One ONE
A HINT OF RED. AN alluring curve. The anticipation of sweetness.
The apple promises and Croi falls. Eyes wide open and hand grasping. The fruit seller has no idea that one of his apples has gone missing. He is far too busy hawking his wares to notice. Besides, it wouldn’t matter even if he did. He can’t see her nor the apple she’s currently holding. Folding herself under his cart, Croi settles in the shadows to enjoy the fruit as it should be enjoyed. With quick, crisp bites and spurts of juice dribbling down her chin.
The apple is gone too soon, and Croi emerges from under the cart, looking at the other apples, wondering if she should take another one. She decides against it, however, when she looks around the market. There are too many other things to taste here. She takes a step and then skips back, narrowly avoiding a dirty little human. There are many, too many, in the market. It is their forest after all.
Croi is not supposed to be here in this sticky, stinky collection of moving humans. The rich ones try to mask their stench with perfumes. They sacrifice flowers and the bees mourn. The poor ones cannot afford the floral sacrifices, so theirs, at least, is an honest stink.
Across from the fruit seller is an old woman with far too many toffee sticks. Out of the goodness of her heart, Croi eases her burden. The merchant beside the bakery that sells honey buns has colorful scarves on display. Croi takes a few and thanks him, but he can’t hear her, so he doesn’t respond. She doesn’t mind his rudeness.
The market is her favorite place in the human city. Set up by the big gates that lead out, it is always full of sounds, smells, and colors. The smells are not always pleasant, but the colors frequently dance in the sunshine. Humans set up shop in any space they can find. Sometimes they quarrel in loud, ugly voices. Croi learns the language they speak by studying the shapes their mouths make as they throw words at each other.
She has been frequenting the human city for thirteen of the (almost) seventeen years she has been alive. Not once have the humans seen her walking among them. The animals are much more sensitive to her presence. A cat meows from her perch on a wooden fence when Croi passes it. She responds to it with a hiss. Meows don’t make music for her.
The Hag told Croi this morning that she is no longer allowed to visit the human city. She stood up tall, pretending to be a mountain, and said in her grandest voice, “You cannot, Croi. A little brownie will be discovered much too quickly. It isn’t safe there.”
“But I’ve been there many times before! Down the river path, through the hole in the wall, and into the grounds of the castle. The humans never see me!” Croi was mutinous.
“You must stop now,” the Hag commanded. She looked at Croi with her stormy eyes, and Croi became a boat about to be capsized.
“Why?” Croi wailed.
“No questions,” the Hag said, and turned away.
She says not to ask questions, but every time Croi glimpses herself in the mirror, all she sees are questions. Her body makes no sense to her at all. Her fingers, arms, and shoulders are whys, her torso and legs are hows, and her head is a who. Her body is a billion questions she keeps asking the universe. So far, it hasn’t replied.
She follows a little human boy through myriad alleyways to a shabby house near the city wall, not far from the market. She peeks through the open door of the house and sees him clamber onto the lap of a human woman sitting on a chair. She is a mother. Humans have them. They hold, they kiss, and they love. Brownies don’t. Well, this brownie doesn’t. She has a Hag who is part stone, part memory, and part tree. The Hag doesn’t hold, doesn’t kiss, and she most certainly doesn’t love. The Hag teaches and expects Croi to learn. She commands and knows Croi will obey.
The sun climbs the sky and the day gets hotter. Croi leaves the human child to his business and returns to the market, where she continues collecting various tasties. But the market gets too crowded, so she abandons it and follows the main avenue deeper into the human city. As she moves away from the city gates, the houses get bigger and bigger until she reaches the castle, which is the biggest of them all. Croi has glimpsed the king and the queen here and there on her meanderings through the castle grounds, but only once has she seen them make their way through the city with white handkerchiefs pressed to their noses as if they don’t stink as well.
The city is surrounded by a gray wall that keeps humans within and the Wilde Forest, where Croi lives, without. Humans don’t venture into the forest; the Hag says they’re not allowed. The Hag doesn’t ever visit the human city. Perhaps it is beneath her dignity to go through the little hole in the wall. Well, Croi doesn’t think the Hag would fit even if she tried.
The city has a rapid pulse. Everyone here is in a frenzy to breathe, to live, to couple, and to gobble. A maelstrom of emotions eddy in the air: hunger, greed, and lust are more common than others. What would it be like to live here forever, trapped within the metal and the stone, captive to decay?
Croi stands against a fence and watches human children shrieking with laughter as they play a game of chance by the road. Would the people here accept her? Would she want them to?
After a minute or so, she starts walking and doesn’t stop until she reaches the castle. As usual, the entrance is crowded. Guards stand in front of the horde of people seeking audience with the king. There’s no point in waiting; people won’t make way for Croi no matter how long she waits. So she shoves her way through the crowd, stepping on feet and pinching any flesh available. Humans react quite quickly to pain.
Once she has crossed the sea of people, Croi starts running. She runs until there is no breath in her. She runs until she can breathe again. Slipping into the inner grounds of the castle, she walks unseen through hallways and outer corridors until she reaches her destination: a forgotten courtyard in an older part of the castle. The place usually sees very few visitors, so the air is still and dank here. A sad fountain spews up rusty water in the middle of the courtyard while a few straggly trees wearily lift their branches in obeisance to a distant sky.
Croi is not concerned with the dilapidated state of the courtyard. Her attention is on the stone maid half hidden behind the trees on the right. The stone maid is frozen midmotion; both hands have lifted her voluminous skirts to aid her running. One foot is arched on the ground while the other is lifted in a step. She is looking back, her features petrified in an expression of anguish.
Croi was six when she crawled through the hole in the city wall and into the castle grounds for the first time. As soon as she got to her feet and regained her bearings, she found herself pulled forward entirely against her will. She walked without knowing where she was going until she ended up in this courtyard, in front of the stone maid. At first she was confused, not knowing why she was called to this place. Then she looked into the stone maid’s eyes and met a horrific truth there; someone, alive and aware, looked at her through the stone maid’s blank eyes. Croi immediately returned to the Wilde Forest, found the Hag, and demanded she help the stone maid. The Hag refused, saying that some magick was beyond her. Croi, teary and apologetic, returned to the human city, clutched the stone maid’s hand, and cried.
It was at that moment that Croi first felt warmth in her hands. Though the stone maiden can’t speak using words, she makes herself clear by warming Croi’s hands. The stone maid became Croi’s only friend, a confidante, and someone to love—Croi, who is lacking in people, human or kin, adopted her. She tells the stone maid all her secrets, all her complaints, and all the dreams she is brewing for the future. Of course, she hasn’t stopped trying to break the curse on the stone maid, but she has even less magick than the Hag. Croi hasn’t given up, however. Someone out there will know how to free the stone maid.
Today, like other days, she presents her stony friend with the bounty she harvested from the market and is just about to launch into a protracted complaint about the Hag’s tyranny when a side door opens and two human maids emerge into the courtyard. They are carrying pails of water, scrubbing brushes, and soap.
“Oh my, I completely forgot this place existed,” one of them, red-haired and blue-eyed, says. “How did the King of the West come upon it?”
“Matilda from the right-wing drawing room says she saw him take a walk after luncheon. Presumably, he came upon the old king’s courtyard then,” the blond one replies.
“Right. I heard that the Old King forbade people from using this place. But he’s gone now, and the queen has her own rules,” her companion says in a lowered voice.
“Can she simply give away the stone maid, though?”
“Who’s going to tell her she can’t? Anyway, the King of the West took a fancy to the stone maid, and the queen is only too willing to please him. We are in no position to be asking questions. You know that already. Let’s clean the stone lass up and get her ready. I hear she’s being moved tomorrow.”
Hearing that, Croi turns in alarm and loses grip of a pack of toffee she was holding. It falls away from her, becoming visible in the process, and falls to the ground with a crisp sound. The maids startle. They look at the packet of toffee that has suddenly appeared, pale, and flee the place immediately after. Croi doesn’t care about their hysterics. She’s much more concerned about this unexpected danger to her friend.
She paces in front of the fountain, trying to think of a way to save the stone maid. She can do almost no magick; in fact, the only thing magickal about her is her invisibility to humans—Croi comes to a standstill and turns to the stone maid in excitement. She clutches the statue’s cold hand. “What if I make you invisible to humans, like me? If the human queen can’t see you, she can’t give you away, right?”
Croi rubs her sticky fingers on her equally sticky chin.
“The only problem is, I don’t know how.” She holds the stone maid’s hand tightly. “Do you? Can you try to tell me?”
For a moment, nothing happens. Then the hand that Croi is clutching heats; some sort of current passes through the maid’s stone hand and into Croi. She stares at the stone maid, bewildered for a second, before a sharp pain in her chest has her gasping. It feels as though there is a hot rock in her chest, trying to burn its way out. The pain is so intense that she squats on the floor and rocks back and forth.
The discomfort fades after a long while, leaving Croi flushed and weak on the cobbled ground. She gets up jerkily and scowls at the stone maiden. “What did you do to me?” She shudders. “I’ve never hurt that much before.”
Of course, no reply is forthcoming. Croi rubs her chest, torn between wanting to leave immediately and feeling like she has to stay.
“All right. How…?”
She gapes at the stone maiden. There’s a spell glowing hot in her mind. A spell that tells her how to make the stone maid invisible.
“If you could do that, why haven’t you told me how to turn you back into flesh and blood?” Croi asks the stone maid. “Oh well, I suppose it’s not that easy. Perhaps you don’t know how to break the curse on yourself either. Anyway, I forgive you for the pain. Let me try this. I don’t promise anything however.” She stands in front of the stone maid, places a hand on the maid’s stone dress that is covered by a thin layer of green moss, clears her throat, and pronounces the strange chant that appeared in her head. It is in a language she has never heard before. Nothing happens. She tries it again. Nothing happens. She tries it one last time, and this time, her chest throbs sharply once before her fingertips heat. Croi looks up into the stone maid’s eyes. She pushes a few potted plants in front of the stone maid, scatters some gravel around the area. “I think it’s done.”
Only, there’s no way to check. No sooner does Croi have this thought than the side door opens once again and the two maids who were scared off reappear. This time they are accompanied by two burly footmen.
“Look, there’s the toffee that appeared suddenly! I wasn’t lying,” the redhead says, pointing.
“The statue’s missing!” the other maid suddenly shrieks. “It’s no longer there!”
Croi tunes out the flurry among the servants and grins gleefully at the stone maid. “I succeeded!” She chortles, forgetting the pain. “Wait till I tell the Hag I did magick!” She pauses. “No, maybe that wouldn’t be the best idea. After all, she told me I am not allowed to come here anymore.” More humans enter the courtyard as she speaks, looking for the missing statue.
Croi leaves the courtyard after promising the stone maid to come see her again the next day. Feeling good about her success with the spell, she runs through the immense castle grounds. She passes pavilions full of people and runs through a maze, leaving holes in the hedges. Finally, she comes to the rose gardens at the back of the castle. There, she finds more people. Courtiers are arranged around a princeling like the feathers in a peacock’s tail. Croi is distracted and still running; perhaps that’s why she runs straight into the princeling. He careens and would have fallen, too, had it not been for a quick-thinking attendant who rushes to steady him. The princeling looks around, as do his attendants, for the missile that almost knocked him over, made him stumble, and, for a lightning second, stole his dignity. They’re looking for Croi.
She stands frozen, like the stone maid she needs to save, staring at the princeling they call Prince Charming, with his blue doublet and the shiny buttons that don’t show her reflection and the white pants that mold his parts in ways that cause the maids to stare and giggle. The air crackles like it does before a storm, and that’s when it happens.
Invisibility is supposed to be Croi’s magick, and her magick is not supposed to fail. But fail it does. People look in Croi’s direction and they see her.
They see her.
A short, plump creature with long, straight brown hair, wearing a baggy dress that looks like the bark of a tree (only because it is) and scarves the color of dusk wrapped around her neck. They see a brownie with eyes the brown of a chocolate pudding. A brownie with a round face, a button nose, large pointed ears, sharp teeth, and brown skin. They see someone who is very obviously not human like them.
Nobody moves, nobody speaks, and for a second nobody even breathes. Then hysteria conquers the masses. Someone screams and someone else swoons. Croi stands, fixed in place, too surprised to move. The princeling is calling for guards. Croi can hear them running around the corner; she knows they have their shiny sharp swords at the ready.
She takes a breath of the suddenly suffocating air and squeezes her eyes shut.