Dust rose in dense plumes over the road, shimmering in the brutal heat of a summer midday. For now the plains stretched on to eternity beneath a blue sky so clear and bright as to be painful. But in the far distance, mountains rose, shreds of clouds caught around their peaks.
A woman walked on the road, trudging in the weary way of someone who can see their destination and knows how very far they still have to go. Dust coated her ordinary, ill-fitting clothes. She toyed with a section of her long, dark gold hair, attempting to braid it but only catching it in tangled snags.
A punishment! Beana thought as she walked. It had been labeled as a mission, but this task could only be cruel. But the Prince doesn’t punish…
Privately, she had to think that if he did, this was an excellent way of doing it.
Stop sulking, she ordered herself. You make your bed, you lie in it. Wasn’t sulking what had gotten her in trouble in the first place? So what made her think it would work better the second time around?
She hated arguing with herself. She always won.
To relax her tired feet, Beana dropped down to all fours. In the breath of an instant, the tall, slim woman shifted seamlessly to a large, dark brown goat, with lighter tan patches across her spine. The transformation wasn’t one of flesh and bone; if anything, it seemed that the viewer had changed, not Beana.
She needed the extra legs as the hours trailed by and the mountains drew closer, until they obscured the entire horizon. Beana was a child of the flatlands; she’d only seen mountains once before, and she’d been glad enough to stay away from the border of worlds.
Her cloven hoofs clopped to an awkward halt. The ground had been rising for some time, but only now did it slope sharply upward. If she took another step, she would be on the mountain.
Be there for her, Beana. Be her mother and best friend. But above all, watch over her.
“I hear you, my Prince,” she muttered. “And I’m still faithful.”
She drew in a deep breath and stepped onto the mountain.
Hours passed as Beana struggled up the inhospitable path. Rocks slid beneath her feet, clattering back down the mountain; with two legs she surely would’ve turned an ankle by now. As it were, she fought her way past tiny, precarious houses and small farms. A pen of goats watched the newcomer with slit pupils.
Amidst the poor farms, perched high on a ledge, rose an incongruous villa. The path twined past it; Beana glanced curiously at it as she passed. A wooden fence rose around its sprawling garden. Ivy twirled around the rough-hewn boards.
A warm breeze whisked through the garden, trailing the long willow strands and carrying the sharp fragrance of starflowers. It reminded Beana too much of home; head down, she slunk past it, pushing and pulling her way up the mountain.
Her fellow knights didn’t bother with this, Beana thought grimly, hauling herself onto another rocky shelf. They lounged in cool forest glades while she sweated beneath the sun.
No sooner had she thought this than the temperature plummeted to an icy coolness. Beana’s breath frosted, and a woman stood where the goat had been.
The road flattened out ahead of her, dark spruce trees crowding in on either side. An eldritch light, barely larger than a firefly, flickered blue, then purple amidst the deep needles. It drifted across the path, then winked out, only to reappear a few feet away. The wind rose with a sigh, shivering the spruce trees. Full night had fallen.
Not a path, Beana realized. A Path.
Carefully, she stepped backward—and nothing. Her heel crunched on fallen evergreen needles.
No going back, she thought. Only forward. I will make it up this mountain.
The floating lights drifted away as she walked cautiously down the Path. All was quiet, save the River as it burbled and murmured, crossing her way. Here it was a deep brook, silver with moonlight. When Beana gazed into it, a goat stared solemnly back.
Fragile knight, an undulating voice said. Not strong enough. So fragile.
Was that the River, or her own thoughts? So strange the two should agree.
No sooner had Beana stepped over the River than her surroundings flickered again. Red sunset spilled across the mountain and pooled in the smallest, saddest farm Beana had ever seen. Not even a farm; just a house, crookedly propped up with its back to the mountain. Even with her vivid senses, Beana didn’t see or hear a soul.
A dark brown goat again, she clopped slowly across the yard, delicately picking her way around the piles of cut slate. The more she saw of the house, the more she disapproved. Each wall leaned unevenly. The ceiling sank wearily, as though it would touch the floor, and the bitter scent of smoke filled Beana’s throat; it didn’t have a chimney.
“Well,” she said with forced optimism. “It looks like I have my work cut out for me.”
Behind her, a child giggled.
Stay calm, Beana thought, even as she stood frozen. The Prince told you she was an unusual child. She craned her senses; nothing. Not a single sign that any living thing might be behind her.
You had to think living, didn’t you, you silly old goat? With a shudder, she pushed thoughts of dragons out of her head and turned. “Rose Red?”
The hidden girl giggled again, this time from behind a pile of slate. It was more sloppily cut than the others; a heap of rocks, really. But even as Beana watched, it twitched almost imperceptibly.
“Rosie?” she said quietly.
The heap unfolded itself into something of roughly human proportions. Scrawny limbs, a bony torso. An overlarge head perched on unhealthily thin shoulders. Most distinctly of all, every inch of the creature’s skin was mottled dark and light grey. Someone had cared enough to dress it in a tan smock.
A broad, shy smile split the craggy face, but Beana didn’t notice. She was busy with a new, unwelcome truth.
Her new charge was a goblin.
Almost three weeks later, Beana stepped through a doorway into the Haven Library. The quiet, forest-like room was less serene than usual. A woman with dark hair and skin and a pretty, exotic face stood before her desk, barely managing to hold on to a squirming bundle.
“Good morning, Beana,” Dame Imraldera said in a precise voice. “I assume you came for Rose Red.”
“No!” her writhing bundle screamed. “Bad goat lady!”
“Hello, Rosie,” Beana said, smoothing a smile off her face. Indeed, Rose had never been so Red. Imraldera had secured her in what Beana thought was Eanrin’s scarlet cloak.
Wordlessly, the Lady of the Haven passed the cloak and its contents to Beana. She took it awkwardly.
“We don’t get along very well,” she said wretchedly as Rose Red screamed, pushed with inhuman strength, and otherwise attempted to escape captivity. “I’m still irked that Eanrin got Una. I bet she has lots of governesses to keep her in line.”
Imraldera still didn’t say anything. She pressed her lips together in a way that made Beana think she was angry.
“She found the Path two weeks ago,” Beana said, feeling a need to explain herself. “Since then she adores exploring the Wood Between. I know it’s dangerous for a child, but I”—her voice climbed as Rose Red grabbed a fistful of her long hair and pulled—“I can’t keep her out of it. She made it as far as the Tiger’s demesne last week before I found her and dragged her back.”
“I am experienced in child care,” Imraldera said in a chilly voice, “and I can assure you that dragging is not the most effective method.”
Beana cringed. “Sometimes it’s the only way.” To change the subject, she said, “Did you know that I found her in the River yesterday? She had gone wading. A princess wading in the River. Can you believe it?”
Perhaps not the most tactful comment, she thought as Imraldera ushered her out.
Rose Red had settled down somewhat by the time they made it back to the mountain. Her eyes drooped; Beana, a goat, had to firmly press up against her bony shoulder to keep her from toppling. She couldn’t help a stab of relief as Rosie retreated to her tiny pallet and slept.
Beana knew she shouldn’t leave the house. But it had been weeks since she’d been away from the goblin…
A few minutes later, a goat walked leisurely down the mountain. She felt a thrill of forbidden happiness as she strolled past the villa. Rosie’s adopted father labored in the garden, trimming the starflowers and pruning the willows Beana had so admired. He didn’t look up as she passed.
Changing fluidly between forms, Beana walked as a woman down the mountain road. Upon reaching the goats, she stopped and leaned against the fence. The goats, recognizing one of their kind even in a different form, huddled around the fence, politely asking her for food. Sensible creatures, goats.
Kids born only that spring crowded around their elders. The smallest, a fine-boned, spotted tawny, bumped into Beana’s hand respectfully.
Wait a minute…
“He’s a fawn,” she said, loud in her surprise.
“That he is,” a gruff voice agreed. Beana started as the farmer sidled amid the goats, running a hand over their bony flanks. The delicate, golden-brown fawn rubbed its head against his knee; he patted it absently.
“What happened?” Beana said, taken aback. “How did you come by a fawn?”
“Not me.” The farmer gestured to his goats. “It happens sometimes. Someone mistakes a doe for a buck, and the fawn winds up an orphan.” He reached out and patted a spotted brown-and-white goat on her bony flank. “This one lost her kid in the spring. She adopted the fawn, treats him like he’s her own. They’re maternal creatures, goats. Accepting. She’ll never leave that fawn behind.”
Beana forced a laugh. “Are they really?” Clearing her throat, she continued, “I suppose there’s always one who doesn’t accept the fawn.”
“Sometimes.” The farmer ran his hand down the fawn’s back; it flinched, skittish, then relaxed under his touch. “But they always come around.”
Beana lingered a while longer, than thanked the farmer and set off again. She had barely made it to the villa when she spotted a small figure in a tawny smock, uncoiling ivy from the fence.
“Rosie!” she said in alarm, breaking into a jog, then a sprint. The goblin’s tiny, rocky face turned up in surprise when Beana skidded to a halt, her cloven hooves clattering on the stone.
“Sweetheart, you can’t wander off,” she said, catching her breath. Rosie’s forehead puckered in confusion. “The people around here won’t accept you, not like I—not like…”
Not like I have? she thought bitterly. This girl’s own mother thought she’d be better off away from her family. Her adopted father and I are the only things she has, and he’s gone all day. I’m all she has, and what have I done? I’ve flinched every time I’ve looked at her. I see the goblin so hard that I can’t see the girl.
Why did the Prince send me? Why did he send me if I’m not strong enough to take care of this girl?
“Let’s go home,” she said finally. Rosie obediently knotted a hand in Beana’s short hair and toddled next to her as they started up the mountain.
That night, after Rosie had gone to sleep and while the gardener still labored at the villa, Beana set stacked stones in a rough circle before the house. She filled the hollow with dry branches, and with a flick of her flint, fire curled around the dead wood.
The woman sat on a stack of slate, leaned her folded arms on her knees, and stared into the flames. A white blanket draped around her shoulders for warmth. The reflected sparks rose in her glassy brown eyes.
In the morning, she would go home. Not because she wanted to escape Rose Red, but because she simply didn’t know enough to care for her. She didn’t know anything about children. Clearly, she had proven that many times over in the past few weeks.
The small house was dark and silent as Beana crept through it. Embers glowed in the hearth; she’d have to extinguish them thoroughly before she left.
The woman cringed. “Go back to bed, Rosie,” she mumbled. The walls pressed in on her; in a panic she stumbled back out amid the stacked stones. The fire licked at the walls of its prison.
“Can’t leave,” Rose Red said stubbornly. Her rough mouth formed the words.
“I know I’m not supposed to leave, but sometimes people just aren’t able to… why am I even explaining this to you?” Beana threw up her hands and dropped down on a pile of slate by the fire. “It’s complicated, Rosie. I’m just not good enough for this.”
How long had she wanted to say that aloud? Not just about raising a child—about being a knight, about being a good person. About feeling comfortable in her own skin. About—
Something light settled on Beana’s head. She glanced up, then to the side.
Rosie sat next to her, all but hidden in the rocky crag. Beana opened her mouth, and a circlet of ivy tipped off her hair. Not just rough-woven leaves; a cunning diadem of twirled and braided ivy, spring-green sprigs wrapped in delicate wildflowers. Rosie, with the agile fingers of her kind, had woven it.
Thank you, sweetheart, she tried to say, but her throat closed and her eyes opened. She crumpled, tears sliding down her cheeks, running into the corners of her mouth and down her chin. She opened her mouth again, but only a breathy, wet exhale croaked out.
Rosie, oblivious to her nurse’s weeping, parted Beana’s hair, then wound small sections together into a braid. As Beana sat there, tears spilling from her eyes, Rosie calmly and gently braided her hair around the ivy circlet, tidily securing it to her head.
“Thank you, sweetheart,” Beana managed, pushing the words out. She ran her fingers over the braid; it spiraled around her head like a crown. “Thank you, Rose Red.”
“Stay?” Rosie asked.
Beana nodded jerkily. “I-I’ll stay.”
Rose Red nodded decisively, like she had never doubted it. With the solemn air of toddlers who had gotten what they wanted, she held up her hands for the fire to warm. They lowered slowly as she examined the seam where Beana had pushed two stone tiles together. A quick adjustment, and they fit together perfectly.
“Thank you for getting the ivy,” Beana said, fighting for control over her ragged breathing. “But I don’t think you should go down there anymore. The people who live there would be frightened if they saw you.”
And so I condemn her to a life alone? she thought as Rosie nodded reluctantly. Never able to leave the house lest someone sees her?
A rush of determination flooded Beana, more than she had felt in some time. She may not be able to leave the mountain, but she won’t live in fear.
Idly, her fingers toyed with the white sheet across her shoulders. A long dress… maybe some gloves… a veil… It would be difficult to hide a goblin’s identity, but Beana thought she could manage it.
“Come on, Rosie,” she said. A dark brown goat rose wearily from beside the fire. “We’d better get to bed. I don’t suppose you know where I can find some needles…”
She’d spent years wondering why she felt so alone, why the Prince had never helped her. But now, as she curled up next to Rose Red’s pallet, Beana rather thought he had.
They’re maternal creatures, goats. Accepting. She’ll never leave that fawn behind.