Katrine grew up with the stories; she knew them as well as her own name. First there was true love’s kiss, then the fair maiden became the radiant bride, and she lived happily ever after.
But the stories all stopped there, and Katrine hadn’t realised just how much ever after there would be.
She loved her cottage, and her garden, and she deeply loved her husband. But he went hunting in the forest, where there were dryads, and fishing in the sea, where there were selkies. And then he sold the meat and skins in the village market, where there were many more fair maidens.
Aron laughed at her fears, and kissed her forehead. ‘My foolish love,’ he said, and while his tone was as sweet as ever, the words themselves scratched her like claws. What man truly loved a fool? Her heart would not be at rest, for all his kisses.
‘Promise you will never leave me,’ she said. ‘Swear it.’
‘I swear to you that we will not be parted,’ he said, and gave her his oath with his words and his touch.
But among the village gossips Katrine had learned new stories, not for children, and they taught her that words were as easily forgotten as spoken, and a man’s body was loyal only to its own desires. Her fears twisted in her stomach and were not soothed, for all his caresses.
When Aron next left for the hunt she tried reading the bones, but the only answer they gave her was that all things must die.
‘My love will not,’ she said, and scattered them to the winds in anger.
She went to the old woman on the hill, the one the villagers called witch, the one they said consorted with ghosts. The one they shunned, until their animals got sick or their harvests failed.
‘Greetings, Old Mother,’ Katrine said, and placed her gifts of tobacco and honey wine on the small wooden table by the door.
The witch put down her pipe and leaned back in her chair. ‘I will give you what you need,’ she said, ‘but not what you want.’
‘I have no time for riddles, Mother,’ Katrine said, thinking of Aron and the smooth, supple limbs of nymphs. He had been gone for three nights. ‘Will you help me?’
‘I will brew you a tea,’ the witch said. ‘It will calm you, and bring you clarity.’
Katrine gripped her skirts, the material bunching in her fist. ‘I do not come for tea, or clarity. I see perfectly well.’
She saw moonlit arms around Aron’s sun-burnished chest, leaves in his hair, birds startled into the air by his cries. She saw these things, burning behind her eyelids, every night he was away from her.
‘I come for my husband,’ she said. ‘I come for magic that will keep him at my side. I know such spells exist.’
‘They do,’ the witch said. ‘But I will not perform them.’
Katrine straightened. ‘You would refuse me?’
The witch rocked back and forth. ‘I would. I must. It is not my place—or yours, child—to steal the will of others. That is old magic, and tricksy. To attempt it would be an evil thing indeed.’
‘Then what is the point of it? Why would the gods create such powers if we are not to use them?’ Katrine picked up the bottle she had left on the table.
‘Child, you do not understand. You—’
‘No. I will hear no lectures, Mother.’ Her hand twitched and the wine bottle slipped through her fingers. It shattered on the stone floor.
The old witch thought Katrine did not understood, but she was wrong. Aron was Katrine’s man. She knew what he needed, knew what would make him happy.
The witch was shaking her head, but Katrine also knew that if you honoured their spirits and ate their hearts, the dead would give up their secrets.
She bent down and picked up the broken bottle. The witch had no daughters to inherit her powers, so when her time was done the magic would simply fade with her into the soil, gone forever.
Waste was a crime, was it not? To allow such a thing to occur would be to spurn the gift of the gods. Surely that was an evil worse than all others.
Katrine closed her hand around the sparkling shard of glass and made sure that the magic would not be lost.
She returned home with a belly full of meat and a mind full of power. Aron was waiting at the cottage door, but he trembled when he saw her, and his smile disappeared like sun behind stormcloud.
His eyes widened. ‘What have you done, Katrine?’
‘The old woman is gone from the forest,’ she said. ‘I am the witch now.’
She held out her arms, but he shrank from her.
‘Come,’ she chided, ‘it is only blood. It will wash away.’
‘From your skin, yes,’ he said. ‘But from your heart? From your soul?’ He shook his head. ‘What have you done?’ he whispered again.
She watched him turn from her, his muscles tensing as if to run.
She raised her hand. ‘No,’ she said. ‘You will not leave me. You will never leave me.’ The words thrummed in her mouth, and she spat blood upon the ground.
Aron stilled, as prey before the hunter.
Katrine held out her arms again, and this time he came into her embrace. But he shivered at her touch, and his lips tasted of fruit left to rot in the sun.
Afterwards, he gazed at her with a kind of wonder. But it was not as he once had. ‘You are ugly,’ he said. ‘How could I never have seen this before?’
She looked to the mirror above their bed and it reassured her that his words were not true, but it did not ease their sting.
Katrine sat up and pulled the covers around herself. He watched her, fear and disgust taking turns to twist his features. She closed her eyes and let her head drop to her knees. ‘Do not look at me so,’ she said. ‘I cannot bear it. Go away now, leave me alone.’
Aron laughed, loud and bitter. ‘That I cannot do,’ he said. ‘You have seen to it.’
Katrine wept, and he did not comfort her.
The year aged, and grew colder. Ice formed around the cottage as it had around their hearts. Aron did not hunt, or fish, or go to market.
‘Leave me,’ she said, but her words were no longer rich with stolen magic and however hard she tried, the spell would not break.
‘I did not want this,’ she raged at the moon, but if it heard her it offered no answer.
She still made honey wine, and the pantry shelves gradually filled with bottles. The birds sang no longer, but the sound of glass smashing on stone had a musical charm of its own.
She called Aron to her side and he came swiftly, as he always did. She cupped his cheek and said that she loved him, and told herself she did not notice how he flinched.
The shard flashed in her hand as it had once before, and the frozen soil of her garden was nurtured with warm blood. ‘You loved me too, once,’ she said as he fell. ‘But Death parts all lovers, come the end.’
Katrine went back inside her cottage and cried for all she had lost. With her head bowed and her eyes clouded, she did not see the shape rise from the ground and pause at the window.
‘Not all,’ it said.
This story originally appeared in Daily Science Fiction.