The face in the mirror was not her own. It was harsher, her eyes were smaller and her skin was wrinkled. She saw what would become of her is she did nothing. Out at sea, she had dreamt for her to disappear, kneeling down on the church bench, she prayed for her to leave and vanish and late at night, in her dearest and most precious dreams, she had wished for her cousin to simply die.
Willa was the daughter of a gifted apothecary and only heir to her mother's kingdom. She came from a long generation of silver-haired daughters who ruled the foggy sea coast of the lower kingdom while her golden cousins ruled the wild cornfields that made up the upper kingdom. Like most in the lower kingdom, Willa loved the outdoor. She cherished the excitement of the storms and the kisses of the rain on her skin. She often sailed at night, on her long and lustrous barge, to observe as the wind meets the waves. Guarded between the elements, Willa felt at peace.
Willa was of a strange beauty. The few villagers who had seen her found her appearance hostile. The lines of her face were harsh but her voice was soft. Her smiles were rare but always genuine. She had energy to spare to which her many conquests could testify. They never lasted more than a fortnight and to that Willa has very little explanation.
Of her father, she had inherited her finesse and of her mother, her incredible thirst for life which she shared with her freckled cousin, Ines. Ines was the only one of her cousins, Willa could stand. Unlike her siblings, Ines was quiet but in her letters, Willa could hear the fire inside of her, just waiting to ignite. As tradition dictated, Willa and Ines only met once a year for the winter solstice, during which, both kingdoms met at equal distance from their houses to feast over dishes and pastries. The upper kingdom presented recent hunting trophies, followed by golden corn and dry fruits while the lower kingdom served bushels of white fish with freshly cut herbs and lemons. Both heirs were responsible for the sweet ending to the feast. Each would gift the other house with a batch of specially prepared small bakes, as a reminder of the annual reunification of both kingdoms. Rare were those who forgot about Willa's grandmother's offering. Willa heard the spices she used made even the bravest of princesses weep tears of joy.
Willa jumped out from yet another strange and icy bed into the soothing sea air. Her spirit like the waves of her body captivated many. Day and night, she welcomed their attention and consented heartily. Come morning, she was almost always hit with disillusion, striking a heavy blow to her spirit.
Willa passed the early risers, making their way to the bracing sea. If she wasn't feeling so defeated, she would join them. Arriving at the broken bridge of bloom, she refused to concede and plunged her porcelain feet into the wintry river. At the highest point of the forest, she stopped for an apple which she slit in half, keeping the rest for the second half of her journey. From there she could almost make out the shape of the sharpest tower of home.
At 17, Willa knew she had only a few months left of gallivanting before taking her seat. Despite the joy of her solitary expeditions, Willa often wondered if something or someone could ever equal the elements in her heart. Young Ines was a poor confidante in that domain. She wished for her lonely throne to be surrounded by trophies and treaties only. She would make a fierce ally, Willa thought.
Almost a year to this day, Ines and Willa had escaped the feast to wander the forest in search of Lena the pagan priestess. The cards were drawn and both their fate was revealed. Born under the sign of the sun, who rises almost as fast as he sets, Ines's bursting confidence was stiffened while Willa was left restless. Born under the sign of the moon Willa's fate was to be filled with lone journeys into much darker paths.
Cold and drained, she reached for the second half of her fruit when she heard a crack. She saw leaves flying against the wind as trees shuddered. Something was watching her. Too early for the lazy sloth and much too late for the turbulent bat, Willa held on to her blade and quietly charge for the nearest bush. A ginger face emerged with a delicate smile but it was too late. Willa had started and already made an imposing dent in the boy's polished armour. Lying on the ground, he looked like a beautiful defenceless deer with his long limbs and flushed complexion. There could easily have been an altercation as Willa wasn't the forgiving type but instead, she thought his embarrassment suited him well. Willa helped him back up and felt his soft lingering hands.
Willa was in no rush to leave the forest, from which she could now clearly see the castle's iron gate and the empty spire of its highest tower. The day may have started on a bitter note but the boy's proposal resonated differently. His thick armour had kept his hands warm but had, in no way, diminish his agility. He was versatile in his approach and of an inquisitive demeanour. Willa found herself responding patiently and let herself relish every touch and every brush until the gloriously unlikely finale.
The mirror had foreseen her crumbling glow and her spiteful air. She looked as miserable as those poor boys she had abandoned on all those dreadfully cold mornings. She would not join them again. With tonight's winter festivities approaching, Willa made herself ready. She beat the butter and added some honey, added a cupful of creamy milk, some brown sugar and a pinch of sea salt. She flattened each little drop of dow vigorously and sprinkled them with all the spices she could find.
In her last letter, Ines had shared a piece of very unexpected news to which Willa had responded, seeking a secret encounter with her friend. For her, Willa had baked her own very special batch. One she would, surely, never look back on. The sweets and Ines' letter were now slowly burning, as the heat of the fire made Willa's face glow, almost as bright as that day in the forest.
The air was clouded with the smoke and stench from the burnt meat and decaying fish. With the ingenuity reserved only to the most determined, Willa ignored traditions and dragged Ines away from the feast. The young girl was exhilarated and eager to repeat her devastating news. Willa forced the little velvety pouch filled with the special treats into Ines' hands before making her promise not to share them with anyone. It was Willa's own wedding present to her long and loving cousin. Willa smiled as she watched Ines walk off into the night, rosy, merry and hand in hand with her ginger prince.
The news of Ines' illness came like a quiet summer drizzle. It was the following letter that made Willa cringe. The poison was too weak. The many doctors that had tended to her only expected an atrociously long and agonizing death. Willa felt trapped. In her dusty room, time had stood still as Willa, patiently waited for her life to start. Now all this patience seemed fruitless. She stormed out and cut across the forbidden lands. Forcing her way in, Willa found Ines lying on her bed, her face was wet and her body drained. In her frail little voice, Ines insisted on proving to Willa she had kept her promise. She showed her the little belladonna infused velvet pouch, hidden preciously under her silky pillow, for her delight only. All the freckles from her face had turned white. The air smelled like rotten eggs and Willa felt sick.
Willa washed the sweat from Ines's forehead, filled her room with sunshine and cleansed her sheets with rose water. All-day long and all night long, Willa remained near Ines. She refused any assistance and any blessing. After 9 years of service, Willa decided it was time for Ines to sleep through the night. She took the silky pillow and lay it on Ines' ivory face. She pressed delicately and repeatedly until she could hear no more painful breath.
Willa left through the ghostly corridor and made her way back to the sea air. She jumped from the shore to an old and familiar barge. Where the wind meets the waves, she threw herself with feeble efforts into the sea. She voluntarily swayed with the current, feeling her body slowly disappearing into the deliciously cold water.
Even the sea found her taste bitter and washed her crippled body off the shore of some foreign and stony beach. She looked for lodging but only an abandoned wooden shed agreed. She collected payment through various pitiful bakes. Butter, milk, eggs, sugar and salt, she begged for in the village, spices and herbs, she scouted for, at night. Daily, she repeated the only recipe she remembered. These were no special bakes. No other ingredient were added but a pinch of corn to thicken the paste.
There was no glow or spitefulness in her face. The harsh lines had long disappeared and neither her hands nor her hair could hide the passing of time. She let flour and dust linger on her face and rarely changed her rags. Some villagers feared and avoided her but most tolerated her sad appearance.
One day, an old widow passed her shed on her way to new and greener pastures. Peeping through the window, she saw a dusty weeping lady. The widow took Willa on a ride on her silvery horse. They sailed together to the eastern countries. They passed turquoise lands and yellow mountains. On a cloudless day, they visited a very old castle. The towers were gone but the foundation remained firmly in the ground. Willa passed through the narrow corridors and arrived at what was left of its only piercing tower. From there she could see a vast amount of colourful lands. She gazed into the glistening lake. If one day, there was to be a daughter, she would tell her that mirrors, like cards, are games reserved only, for the truly wicked.