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The Fairest of Them All

by

Carolyn Turgeon

To my mother, father, and sister

PROLOGUE

I was the girl with the long long hair, trapped in the tower. You have no doubt heard of me. As a young woman I was very famous for those tresses, even though I lived in the middle of the woods and had never even been to court, not for a feast or a wedding or a matter of law.

My hair was like threads of gold flowing down my back and past the floor. If I didn’t tie it up, it would sweep across the stone and collect dust like a broom. I could lean out my tower window and it would fall out like an avalanche, gleaming like the sun hitting the water. It was as bright as sunflowers or daisies, softer than fur, stronger than an iron chain.

Every night I took horsetail and aloe from the garden, spoke words over them, and boiled them and mashed them into a thin pulp, which I then combed through my locks to make them strong and healthy and almost impossible to break. I would sing, and inhale the rich scent, to make the work go faster. To this day I love that feeling, of fingers running through my hair, the weight of it as it falls on my back.

Poets and troubadours sang of my beauty then.

It was sorcery, that hair. Sometimes now I wonder if things would have been different, had I been plain.

It is a hard thing, not being that girl any longer. Even as I sit here, I cannot help but turn toward the mirror and ask the question I have asked a thousand times before:

“Who is the fairest of them all?”

The mirror shifts. The glass moves back and forth, like water. And then my image disappears, until a voice, like a memory, or something from my bones and skin, gives me the same answer it always does now:

She is.

I turn back to the parchment in front of me and try to ignore the ache inside. The apple waits on the table next to me, gleaming with poison. All that’s left to do is write it down, everything that happened, so that there will still be some record in this world.

1

I was seventeen when I first saw him. I was drying herbs by the fireplace in the main house, as I sometimes did back then, enjoying the scent of the burning pinecones and wood, when I heard a knock at the front door. Loup, our cat, was curled up on the couch next to me, and our falcon, Brune, was perched on the mantel. Mathena was out back, tending the garden that grew behind the crumbling tower I lived in. The tower was a space of my own, and I loved sitting in the window, from which I could see the whole forest and even, on clear days, the king’s palace in the distance, while I brushed my hair and sang to the sparrows that gathered in the trees around me. But on those late summer afternoons, when the air was just starting to chill, I found myself in the main house, stealing time by the fire.

Without even thinking, I got up and opened the door, assuming it was another lovelorn client come to tell Mathena and me her woes and get a spell to fix them. Instead I found myself looking into the eyes of the most handsome man I’d ever seen, dressed in rich clothes that were unfamiliar to me: a velvet tunic, a neat cap, an intricate sword stuck through his belt. His mouth was full and curved into a smile. He had sparkling eyes, grayish blue, the kind I’d only ever seen in cats, and there was a mischievous joy about him that made me like him instantly. No one had ever looked at me like that, either, like he wanted to devour me, and in that instant my whole body changed into something new.

When I say he was the most handsome man I’d ever seen, I have to admit: at that time, I’d barely seen any men at all.

You see, I’d grown up hearing about the dangers of the male portion of our race. Mathena had disavowed men altogether, and was quite convincing in her reasoning. “Men will ruin you,” she’d say. “They’ll drive a woman mad more surely than the plague. Just look at what’s happened to Hannah Stout.” I’d shudder, thinking of our once-beautiful client, nearly bald now from having ripped out her own hair, hair that had been lush and shining before her new husband ran off with his stepdaughter. Mathena had cures for love, like yarrow root, which could halt infatuations when added to bathwater, or elderberry bark, which could numb a heartache when boiled down and pressed against that most fickle organ. You could tell sometimes when a woman was suffering from love, from the cord twisting around her neck, from which the bark performed its duty.

Most of my experience with men came from the stories Mathena and I heard every day, from the women who sought out our cures. Men themselves did not consult us for ailments of the heart, especially as it was considered women’s work to have a heart at all. Day in and day out, I heard tales of men seducing ladies, abandoning wives, abusing daughters. I’d sit and help Mathena dispense salves and teas and potions and think how strange it was that so many women succumbed to foolish notions, as if one man could make them feel full and complete, even when he was married to someone else. But I knew so little then. I had barely set eyes upon a man in all my seventeen years, other than the occasional troubadour or marksman—or group of hunters, sometimes accompanying the king—who dashed by, through the woods.

It was only the daughters for whom I felt real sympathy, back then. If it hadn’t been for Mathena, I would have ended up like one of the bruised, tear-stained girls who showed up at our door. Once upon a time, Mathena had lived in a cottage next door to my mother and father, in the center of the kingdom. She kept a wonderful garden with a brilliant patch of rapunzel that my mother, who was with child and could see the garden from her bedroom window, longed for so much that she refused to eat anything else. She began wasting away, Mathena told me, until one day my father climbed over the wall into Mathena’s garden to steal the rapunzel, trampling over all her carrots and cabbages in the process. He came back and back. Even after I was born, my mother cared only for the plant, which was never enough for her, and she’d take out all that need and frustration on me. When I was seven, Mathena rescued me from my parents and brought me to the forest and made a potion for me so that I’d forget everything that had happened before, all that I’d suffered at my real parents’ hands. For that, I thought I’d be forever loyal to her.

Then there he was, this beautiful richly dressed man at my door, so close I could count his eyelashes, and I understood for the first time what all those spells and salves and magic teas and baths and candles were for.

I dropped the hollyhock in my hands. Immediately I was conscious of my unwashed face and ragged clothes, the cloth wrapped around my hair, which Mathena let me unloose only in the tower, so as not to attract too much attention from birds as we worked . . . the fire crackling in the background, which made me smell like smoke. I felt like a savage next to this man’s clean velvet shirt and gleaming sword. I could feel my face grow red, and the heat seemed to come right from the center of my body.

“Good afternoon,” he said, refusing to turn away despite how visibly embarrassed I must have looked. He took off his cap and bowed, though he watched me the whole time, that same impish smile playing about his lips.

“Good afternoon,” I stammered. “May I . . . help you?”

Just then Brune flew from the mantel and to my shoulder, where she perched herself menacingly. The man looked from the bird to me and back again, and seemed more delighted than perturbed.

“Well, I feel a little awkward,” he said. “But I was on a hunt a fortnight ago and I heard a young lady

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