After several delays due to travel and illness, I’m back this week with a new short story. (I did have another one I was hoping to post a couple of weeks ago, but try as I might, I wasn’t able to get it to a place where I was comfortable sharing it. And that’s okay–I figured out why it was giving me trouble, and it taught me some valuable lessons! Which is sort of the point of this blog…)
This week’s story is based off a story idea I’ve explored in a few different ways over the years: What if mirrors could be doorways to somewhere else? I tried to focus on writing something closer to a true flash fiction length, and it really made me think carefully about what could be cut without losing the imagery and meaning of the story. This one still came in a little high in the end, but it was a valuable exercise I plan to try again!
Alanna cried out at the sight of her reflection in the floor-length mirror. The sound sliced through the air in the massive stone tower like a scythe through her family’s grain fields.
“My lady, if you would just let us finish your hair—” Alanna’s maid, Lucy, started to say in a hesitant voice. But Lucy cut herself off to avoid the crystal vase Alanna hurled at her head. The vase smashed into pieces against the wall with an ear-shattering crash that sent all the servants in the room scattering. The room was bigger than Alanna’s house, with a huge four-poster bed tucked easily into one corner, and several diamond-studded sofas and cherrywood armoires lining the remaining walls. All in all, there were plenty of places to hide.
“I won’t!” Hot tears burned the backs of Alanna’s eyes, threatening to spill over and smear the makeup they’d spent hours applying to her face. “I’m not prepared to die!”
For a moment Lucy looked sympathetic, but then her expression tightened, masking any emotions she might be feeling. “You knew the stakes when you agreed, miss.”
“I only agreed because I didn’t want my family to starve. But this doesn’t even make sense. Every year the royal family sacrifices a girl to the beast in exchange for good luck.” Alanna spread her hands wide, taking in the entire room. “Look at this place! I always knew the royal family was rich. Of course they are, they rule the entire kingdom. But this is beyond what I could have ever imagined. Jeweled floors and curtains? Golden goblets at every meal?” Alanna’s face flushed with anger. “You have so much in this one tower alone. You could feed every family in the land for years and still have some left over. No one here needs luck from some beast.”
The moment flashed again through Alanna’s mind. She and her family had been ordered to crowd into the capital with the rest of the lower class, anxiously waiting to see who would be chosen this year. When the guards had pointed to her, her parents had cursed them, and very nearly the king himself. But her thoughts had gone to the cold straw beds, the aching pangs of hunger she knew awaited her parents and siblings this winter.
For as long as Alanna could remember, the harvest had never been enough. And she was tired, so tired, of never having enough. She was exhausted and frustrated and angry from watching her little brother and sisters cry, of seeing how the lines around her parents’ eyes and mouth stretched and deepened with worry.
Before she could talk herself out of it, the words had clawed their way up out of her throat and soared away on the morning breeze. I’ll do it.
Lucy drew herself up to her full height, which was a good six inches shorter than Alanna given the ridiculous jeweled heels they’d forced on her. “This land has been blessed by good fortune thanks to the honorable sacrifices made by young women like yourself, and the royal family is the heart of it all. You should be overjoyed to serve the land you care about.”
Alanna glared at her. “I will not be overjoyed to die. Not when it’s for people who already have every possible comfort they could need.”
Lucy took a step closer, but one of the other servants grabbed her arm. “Let’s give her a moment to collect herself,” she said in a loud whisper Alanna could easily hear. “It often begins like this. But everything always works out in the end.”
Alanna closed her eyes and rested her forehead against the cool glass of the mirror while the servants slipped out of the room behind her. When the door finally clicked shut, she heaved a sigh and sank into a nearby chair. It was plush and comfortable, and sitting in it made her want to heave it through the tower’s polished windows just so she could watch it crash onto the ground below.
In that fraction of a second when the guards chose her, it had seemed like the only option. It was the best chance her family had at surviving the winter. How could she walk away?
And yet her life was hers. Being here, surrounded by the endless wealth the royal family kept for themselves, had only made it more clear to her. The sacrifice of an innocent woman to the beast each year was a needless and cruel way to keep the people of the kingdom compliant, and nothing more.
She would not throw her life away for nothing. Her family would have already received the funds. The soldiers might take it back if they found her gone, but at least they’d all still be alive.
Alanna refused to let her anger distract her any longer. She rose to her feet and kicked off her heels. She tried every door and window in the room, but they were all latched. The windows were even welded shut.
She knocked on the walls, tried to dig her nails into the grout around stones and wriggle them free, but nothing worked. With a fresh pang of fear, she realized she’d never heard of a woman escaping before the sacrifice before, and surely that kind of news would have spread across the entire kingdom.
Alanna sank back into the chair. Maybe she could reason with them. She remembered the wisp of sympathy she’d seen in Lucy’s eyes. Maybe, if she could get through to the maid—
A chuckle sounded from the other side of the wall. In an instant Alanna was on her feet again, eyes blazing. “Are you watching me? You sick piece of scum!” she called, whirling around the room.
The chuckle came again, cutting off abruptly as though it had been smothered by a hand.
That was all it took. Alanna gave way and let her rage consume her. She wound her arm back and, using the years of muscle she’d built up harvesting grain, hurled a sharp punch at her own reflection. She expected a sickening crack in the mirror and maybe her hand as well, half-hoping the broken shards would slice her carefully made-up face in one small act of revenge.
But that didn’t happen. Her hand sank into the mirror like she’d jabbed at a pool of water. Her own momentum carried her forward, and she braced herself against the edge of the mirror with her other hand to keep from tumbling in completely.
Alanna froze, breathing hard, her nose inches from the surface of the mirror. Her reflection rippled like the surface of the lake at the edge of her village, distorting her features. Her other arm had vanished into what felt like cool water. Carefully, she took a step back and pulled her arm from the mirror, holding her hand up to the light. Her fingers were dry.
“Sorcery?” she whispered to herself. But, did it matter? Someone was helping her. Or maybe, in her rage, she’d somehow helped herself.
Alanna couldn’t fathom the idea that she might be a sorceress, but that was a worry for another time. Voices shouted from beyond the door, and she heard the iron key they’d used to lock her in scrabbling against the door. She hiked up her skirts from around her bare feet and, just as the door began to open, threw herself at the mirror.
She’d closed her eyes to brace for impact, and a white light flared behind her eyelids. When she opened her eyes, the castle was gone. She floated alone in an endless gray expanse, her skirts rising to her knees before she forced them down again. The air acted like water, but strangely, it still wasn’t wet. She opened her mouth to gasp in shock, but all the air rushed out of her lungs. She had just begun to panic when her feet landed on solid ground, and she was suddenly able to cough and gasp for air.
She was standing in a darkened tunnel lit by torches placed every few feet. The air was cold but clear, tinged only with the faint scent of woodsmoke. The dirt was cool and dry between her toes.
Voices sounded from behind her. She turned with her heart pounding wildly against her ribs, unsure of what she was about to see. Terrified faces floated in the near-darkness, shouting and pleading. She recognized Lucy’s voice among them. She was seeing and hearing what was happening beyond the mirror, but it was as though the mirror itself had vanished.
She took a step backwards, and the voices grew louder, but no one pursued her. They were trapped back there in the castle, the same way she’d been trapped.
Alanna turned back to the tunnel. It ran on farther than she could see, winding and disappearing down into the darkness. She took a moment to rip her fancy skirts down to a manageable length, winding the extra fabric around her arms and shoulders to protect them against the chill.
Then she ran, her long, unkempt hair streaming behind her like a banner. She ran until her feet cracked and bled, and her heels and hips felt like they’d never stop aching. But she didn’t stop. With tears that were half-pain and half-relief, she pressed on until the tunnel curved upward and she was forced to climb. Finally her eager hands grasped air instead of rock, and she stumbled out, gasping and blinking. As if to greet her, a sparrow soared overhead, and she turned her face to follow it.
Into the sunlight.