“Lydia,” Countess Eleanor whined, “why can’t you take better care of your hair?”
One, two, three. Her mother always brushed her hair in three succinct strokes before taking a breath. This meticulousness always unnerved Lydia: for one, because her mother never seemed to notice that she was doing it, and two, because she couldn’t stand to sit still for so long. On and on, one two three, pause, one two three. She stared straight ahead at her reflection in the ornate mirror, her soft brown eyes burning, willing her tangled raven hair to spontaneously combust.
“Lydia. I am serious,” Eleanor hissed, tugging roughly against a tight knot of hair. “I know that you do not use these brushes; there’s not even a strand of your hair left in here!”
“I brush it. I just clean off the brushes.”
“That’s a funny lie, girl. You best learn to take care of yourself, otherwise I will not allow you to go riding in the afternoons.”
“And what shall I do all day instead?”
“You can work on your embroidery skills, for one. Your governess gave you an assignment about a week ago, didn’t she?”
“I misplaced it.”
The countess groaned, her eyes rolling so far upwards that Lydia could scarcely see her pupils. Eleanor set the brush down on the mahogany vanity. She took her daughter’s hands, wringing them over and over again in her grasp, her eyes downcast.
“You are seventeen, and you aren’t even betrothed. You remember your cousin, Elisabeth? She has already received proposals from three men, one of whom is a captain in the Imperial Naval Forces! But when you go to visit with the matchmaker, or when I chaperone you at the balls, you remain disinterested.”
“I have told you before. I’m not meant to be a wife, nor am I meant to be a mother.”
Eleanor rolled her eyes. “All women are meant to be these things. It’s in our nature, you understand. Sure, you might be apprehensive to give up all the freedoms of girlhood, but women were put on this earth for a greater purpose.”
“To birth children.” Lydia stated this flatly, staring blankly ahead at her mother.
As of late, she had gotten better at controlling her rages. She avoided raising her voice, and managed to bury her resentful growls at the back of her throat. One would have to be listening closely to her to pick up on her anger, but no one here ever paid her that much attention.
“Lydia, if you’re that apprehensive about your future, perhaps you require counseling. Father Franklin would be delighted to sit down and talk to you about the importance of a mother and wife’s role. Why, he even counseled me before I married your father,” Eleanor laughed, waiting for her daughter to respond, but Lydia would not. She sighed, lowering her head once again and squeezing her daughter’s hands. “My darling… change will come even if you do not want it to. Are you going to expend all your energy fighting against it, or preparing for it?”
“I’m not fighting anything,” Lydia protested. “I simply want to be in control of my own destiny.”
“You are,” Eleanor assured her. “Your father and I aren’t heartless. We would allow you to marry the man of your choice, as long as he came from a respectable family.”
“How is that a freedom? How is that my choice? I’m still being pigeonholed into marriage, although I’ve told you that I don’t want to go through with it.”
“Lydia, my dear, you are so fortunate, and you don’t even know it.”
Frustrated, Eleanor drifted over to the door. Lydia obediently moved from her stool to the bed. Under the harsh auburn glow of the kerosene lamp, her mother’s facial features appeared harsher, more striking.
“If you keep testing my kindness, Lydia, I might have to reconsider my leniency with you. Do I make myself clear?”
Lydia nodded her head slowly, her demeanor unphased. “Yes.”
“In two nights, you’ll be attending the West Norfolian Ball. Plenty of eligible bachelors will be present. I expect you to make some conversation, rather than act like the wallflower you pretend to be.”
Her mother closed the door slowly. It made a chilling click as it shut. Lydia remained upright, staring at the door, listening as her mother’s footsteps receded down the hallway. When she was certain she was gone, she crawled out of bed and over to her vanity table. She lifted the brush and began plucking the strands and clumps from the bristles.
A few moments later, she heard a soft rat-tat-tat at the window. She smiled as she recognized this familiar rhythm. She glided over to the window, pulling back the velvet curtain to unveil the red-cloaked figure standing behind it. Her excited fingers fumbled as she undid the latch and opened the window. Two delicate moonlight-white hands reached out, and she grabbed them, pulling the figure inside and onto the plush window seat.
The figure pulled back her hood, revealing a wild mane of golden-auburn hair. She smiled brightly, her forehead wet with sweat. In the faint light, the dew on her cheeks made her freckles twinkle like stars. Lydia cupped her face in her hands and kissed her soft lips.
“I was worried that you hadn’t gotten my message, Evelyn. I left it in the crooked tree, but it was so late in the afternoon when I rode by.”
“I always get your messages,” Evelyn assured her with a smile. “You need not worry about that. Now my love, do you have it?”
Lydia placed the clump of hair in Evelyn’s open palm. Her fingers, sharp like talons, closed around it with a satisfying crunch. She smiled energetically at Lydia, her blue eyes igniting.
“This should be more than enough. I’ve brought what I’ve needed to complete the ritual. Sit on the ground, Lydia, and we can begin.”
Lydia sat on the ground, her legs crossed. She watched as Evelyn removed items from her leather knapsack: three black candles, followed by six white ones; a handful of twigs gathered from the base of the crooked tree, and finally, the remaining pile of hair clumps Lydia had squirreled away for the past six months.
Evelyn assembled the candles in crooked circle on the wooden floor. She murmured words in an ancient tongue, and slid her fingertips across the wicks of the candles, lighting them instantaneously. Then she crawled over to where Lydia sat, took a handful of twigs, and passed them to her along with a tangled clump of hair.
“You’ll want to twist the strands over and under, like this,” Evelyn explained to her, gesturing. “Make sure that the hair completely covers the branch, otherwise the spell will not work.”
Side by side, as the moon waxed high in the sky, Evelyn and Lydia worked on wrapping the hair around the twigs, till they resembled disembodied, furry appendages. Evelyn took the twigs and lined them up so that they formed a headless body on the surface of the floor.
“But this isn’t going to…” Lydia trailed off, shaking her head. “Evelyn, this won’t work. We’re missing something.”
“I miss nothing, pet,” Evelyn reached into her bag once again then paused, cautious. She glanced over at Lydia, her eyes as wide as dinner saucers. “I need you to promise me that you will not scream.”
“What do you mean? What’s in your bag?”
“Lydia. Promise me. Promise me on your life.”
“I promise. I trust you,” Lydia murmured, breathless. How could she not trust her, the one who was going to save her from a life of servitude and solitude?
Then Evelyn withdrew it. It took Lydia a moment to figure out what it was: the odd size and shape had her confused for a woodland creature, but then she realized it was in fact, human. A human infant skull, picked clean by ravens and no doubt hours of burning in the fires beneath Evelyn’s cauldron. Lydia could see the charred edges; traces of soot lined in the sockets like broken salt-circles. Shock hit her full force, and she had to bite her tongue to refrain from screaming. She was certain that she had drawn blood, and could taste the iron liquid in the back of her throat.
“Where did you find it?”
“I was given it, actually,” Evelyn explained. “A penniless woman lost her baby to the plague. After the bad harvest this year, she didn’t have the money to give it a proper burial.”
“So she donated it?”
“For our cause, which is a very good one.” Evelyn reached across and squeezed Lydia’s knee. She took her hand and kissed the palm. “You must trust me, love. We didn’t come this far to back out now.”
Lydia nodded and watched as Evelyn affixed the skull to the twig body. Evelyn once again reached into her bag and withdrew a small knife, one with a crooked tip. Although the handle was rusted, the blade was perfectly crisp and preserved. She took Lydia’s hand, and carefully carved a line from her thumb to the edge of her palm. Lydia winced, biting her lip as her blood dripped down onto the figure, and her spine tingled as Evelyn began to chant.
At first the twigs crackled in response, as if they were being crushed beneath a heavy boot. Then they twisted, the hair on them bristling, curling upwards at the sound of Evelyn’s voice. To Lydia’s shock, the appendages expanded, beginning to grow. Slowly, a human melted into focus, the hair bleaching as it flattened itself against the bark; the skin and sinews pulling themselves together at the appendages. Dread pooled in the pit of Lydia’s stomach as she stared at the figure.
Evelyn kissed Lydia’s cut, licking away a few droplets of blood. “Now we wait.”
She took Lydia’s hand and they slowly walked away from the figure as it expanded and developed. The clavicle formed, the scalp sprouted hair, and the figure’s bosom grew. Within just a few minutes, Lydia was looking at another version of herself. Shocked, she remained breathless until the candle lights expired.
“She doesn’t… She’s not alive, is she?”
“No,” Evelyn said, shaking her head. She squeezed Lydia’s hand. “But she looks like she could have been alive, once.”
Evelyn scooped up the figure in her arms and laid her on the bed. She took the knife and carved out tiny sections of her twin’s face, leaving holes akin to pock marks or open sores.
Lydia gagged. “Do you need to do that?”
Evelyn ignored her. She removed a vial from her bag and sprinkled its contents over the body, causing it to blister and expel yellow pus. She turned to Lydia, her eyes appraising her. Lydia glanced down, confused.
“We’re going to need that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your nightgown. Your mother put you to bed in that nightgown. Your twin has to be wearing it.”
Bashful, Lydia pulled the fabric over her head and passed it to Evelyn, who slowly pulled the garment over the figure’s head. She rolled it onto her side, and pulled the blankets up to her chin. With a satisfied smile, Evelyn drifted back over to Lydia. She wrapped her cloak around her, concealing her body once more.
“Do you really think that this is going to work? Won’t they find out that it’s not me?”
“Not unless they were to perform an autopsy. With the evidence that I’ve left, they’re not going to think twice. They’ll believe it to be the plague, and they’ll throw you in the pit along with the rest.”
Lydia bit her lip. “I feel sorry for my mother.”
“I would feel worse for your future,” Evelyn protested, taking her hand. “It’s too late for either one of us to turn back now.”
Lydia nodded, but her eyes were fixated on the room around her, taking it in for the last time. Her gaze returned to Evelyn’s, and she nodded, now sure of herself. She took her hand and squeezed it twice.
“Into the night we go.” Evelyn smiled.
The two climbed through the window, and scurried into the dark recesses of the courtyard. Swiftly and silently, they made their way to where the prickly thicket met the edge of the property, and descended underneath the coverage of the forest foliage.
Chloe Spencer is currently an MFA candidate studying film and television at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Previously, she worked for video game news sites such as Kotaku and GameLuster. She is also the developer of the award winning free-to-play RPG Grunge. To learn more about her work, visit her website at chloespenceronline.com. You can also follow her on twitter @cspotrun_chloe.