Black Forest: Magicks Rise comes out on July 22nd. It begins like this.
Be warned, if you have not read Black Forest: Kingdoms Fall, much will be spoiled by this excerpt.
The World Left Behind
Once upon a time, a brother and sister were rushing through the forest. Thoroughly engaged in the children’s trade of play, they had lost track of the sun’s path over the treetops. It was only as the brother fell in surrender to his sister’s imitation bow and arrow that he noticed the bright blues of day fading to the purple hues of evening, and realized they must make haste for home.
Desperate to flee the night forest, and the dangers that live within, their anxious feet slapped the earth, and, joined at their fearfully perspiring hands, the brother and sister darted straight into the web of a hunter. Like the petals of a pimpernel, the net closed up around them, leaving them dangling two times their height from the forest floor. Though the children tried with all their might to break free, the netting, meant for much larger beasts than them, held fast.
Sun abandoning the sky, night fell fully upon them. Huddling close, the brother and sister listened to the cries of what they imagined to be very large and carnivorous beasts echo through the trees. When a thump came very nearby, they gave a synchronized jolt of panic, and, at the sound of soft footfalls just beneath them, the boy whirled his head, keen to protect his sister whatever he had to face. On her side of the net, the sister did the same, for she was secretly the braver of the two.
What both children discovered was no more than a raccoon, sat back on its haunches, looking up at them with mild dark eyes. In the time it took for the brother and sister to let out a joint breath of relief, the raccoon recognized the children’s need, for it had been trapped in the nets of hunters before. Clambering swiftly up the nearest tree, the raccoon leapt to the netting above their heads, digging determined teeth into the sturdy material. In no time at all, the net fell free, crashing to the forest floor, releasing the brother and sister from their captivity.
Standing on their own feet a moment later, dazed, but liberated, the brother and sister looked to the raccoon and saw the most beautiful creature they had ever laid eyes on. His soft fur shining like silk in the moonlight, his black eyes put on a clever masquerade as they regarded the children with utmost kindness. All their lives, the brother and sister had longed and begged for a pet, but their mother and father were unwaveringly against another mouth to feed on their already meager means. The children were certain, though, when their parents learned of the raccoon’s heroic feat, they would care for and love him as much as the brother and sister already did.
The raccoon’s night-eyes leading the way, the journey homeward was not nearly as treacherous, and the brother and sister followed behind, far less afraid of the howls and shadows that lived in the night.
They had not been going on long when the brother noticed the raccoon’s unusual walk. The raccoon would take two steps and limp, take two steps and limp. Pulling the creature to a stop, the brother dropped down to inspect him, finding one of the raccoon’s legs terribly mangled from a run-in with some forest foe. With a small frown toward his sister, he put the raccoon back on the ground, and again they walked behind.
It was a ways on in the wood, for the brother and sister had truly wandered far, that the raccoon led the children to a stream to drink away their thirst. Each time the raccoon put his lips to the water, to take in even the smallest of sips, he would choke and sputter, and the sister looked to her brother, certain a parasite must live in the raccoon’s throat or belly to make him drink so poorly.
Thirst satisfied, they started for home once more, and the children looked on the raccoon with more honest eyes. Each time moonlight would cut through thin branches, they would see something new. A balding patch. A missing chunk of paw. A mite carving a path through the raccoon’s fur, as it feasted upon the animal’s unclean flesh.
Sharing their findings in secretive whispers, by the time their cottage came into view, with its light and warmth glowing from the windows and their parents worrying inside, the brother and sister did not see the raccoon as beautiful. His fur did not appear at all soft or shiny in true moonlight, and he did not seem the least bit strong when he was not freeing them of their binds.
In fact, the creature had a distinct air of contamination about him, and was downright unlovable, so the brother and sister bid their rescuer goodbye at the forest’s edge, rushing across the yard to the cottage and its protection, leaving the raccoon out in the cold.
At the moment, Cinderella was feeling an incredible kinship with the raccoon protagonist.
The moral of the story, the only one of her mother’s she could fully remember, was No one is perfect, and expecting perfection will leave you isolated and without aid when you need it. For, at story’s end, when the brother and sister find themselves caught in the same net again, the raccoon, weakened with illness and infestation, can offer no assistance, and the children end up being served to the hunter’s family as any other captured game.
Had she grown up under her mother’s tender influence, perhaps Cinderella would have been able to embrace the story’s true moral. Growing up as she had, with her stepmother’s and stepsisters’ hatred and her father’s utter indifference, she had developed a far different take on the narrative. She now saw it as a cautionary tale, the moral being If you let anyone see who you truly are, with all your flaws and weaknesses, it will be impossible for them to love you.
Ten cycles of the moon had passed since last she slept on the fractured bricks by the hearth in her father’s home, and she left her life in Troyale as sparkling as a princess. When too many eyes were upon her, though, Cinderella could still feel the soot and grime like a fine sheen upon her skin. The more attention given her, the less worthy she felt to receive it, and the more everyone looked at her, she knew, the sooner they would discover all her imperfections and determine her unlovable.
“Will they have to call you Sir?” The amused and muffled question drew Cinderella’s attention from the new knots in the wood ceiling, put there by the harsh winter the forest had just endured. Weather, it seemed, was its own event, requiring no man with a quill to inflict.
Glancing down at Rapunzel’s piercing blue eyes radiating amusement, the hair that hung low on her back once more shimmering gold in the light of the moon that came through the window to contrast against midnight blue sheets, Cinderella realized her gloomy thoughts had no place in the current moment.
“Sir Cinderella,” Rapunzel announced mock earnestly, before laughter poured across Cinderella’s bare chest.
Cocking her head to the side, Cinderella wondered if Rapunzel would continue to grow more beautiful each time she looked at her, or if there was a limit as to how much of her breath Rapunzel could steal. For at times, when she gazed at Rapunzel in such state of undress, Cinderella did worry about the lack of air she could take in.
“What would you propose they call me?” Her hand slid through silken hair to Rapunzel’s shoulder. She had given as little thought as possible to the coming ceremony, and none at all to the title.
A kiss dropped to her wrist where it hovered next to Rapunzel’s chin, waves of new longing rushed through Cinderella as Rapunzel considered the question, before at last Rapunzel lifted her head with a look of purest mischief.
“Redeemer… Savior… Goddess.” The term purred from full, bruised lips, Rapunzel’s long eyelashes cloaked eyes that darkened from sky to near navy, and Cinderella considered the title may be of little consequence, because she may never make it to the honor.
“Just what kind of remarkable being do you take me for?” she tried to find her breath.
“The most.” The response instantaneous and sincere, Cinderella tried not to blanch beneath Rapunzel’s unflinching gaze. If the raccoon had possessed a voice to pose such a question, she wondered if the brother and sister would have answered the same way once. It was easy to be impressed by a feat, much harder to stay amazed with its doer.
Though, for her part, Cinderella still did not know what they all thought she had done.
When the courier arrived some weeks before, it had been an event in its own right.
Lounging in utter idleness before the fire with Rapunzel when Caratasa led him in, Cinderella glanced up as the courier fell instantly to one knee, head bowed, his hand steady as he held the letter out before him. Fearing a lingering proposal from somewhere in Grimm’s grand design, Cinderella looked to the courier and letter with trepidation, refusing to accept it.
“For the one who led us,” the courier stated, pausing just long enough that Cinderella thought to tell him he had come to the wrong place, before his next words quashed the hopeful notion. “Cinderella of Troyale.”
Standing with a soft smile at the courier’s back, Caratasa appeared frustratingly serene about the entire event as Cinderella and Rapunzel rose to meet the boy. For he could not have been more than twelve years.
Not knowing the customary response to being called upon by a royal courier, Cinderella thanked him as she slid the letter from his hand, and, had she started her life an arrogant individual, the look of gratitude in the boy’s eyes as he looked up would have humbled Cinderella for the years that remained in it.
“It is my honor, My Lady,” he declared, and Cinderella’s hands trembled on the scroll as they broke the wax seal.
It was one she had seen many times before when King Kardon sent news of Snow White, but never in circumstances so formal. The letter inside brief and to the point, it informed her of the joint decision of three kings – Snow White’s father King Kardon, Ruth’s husband King Balten and King Drest of Ceres, husband of Rhian, brother-in-law of Sawyer – to bestow upon Cinderella the honor of a knighthood, and requested a date of preference for the ceremony, as if she was so important she should not be expected to work around the schedules of three kings.
Even with Rapunzel quietly reciting the contents of the letter over her shoulder, knowing how she would struggle with many of the words, Cinderella was certain she misunderstood its message. She stared at the scroll in her hands for uncounted minutes until the courier hesitantly broke the silence to ask for a date he could take back with him. The simple question unleashing a torrent of words from her, they commenced with an appeal for the courier to get up off his knee and ended with Cinderella suggesting, in vain, that her contribution, and the fact that all turned out well, was reward in itself.
The courier had smiled then, even as he rose to his feet as requested. “That is one decision that is not yours to make, My Lady,” he declared. “Courageous actions, such as yours, they are not commonplace. They will not let it go without a fete.”
Staring into the boy’s pleased expression, Cinderella wished she could share in the sentiment. “Well, I suppose, should a fete be at hand,” her words weighted with worry instead, “I will be in attendance. I do not desire to disappoint them.” Nor did she desire to offend them. For, though she had built something of a relationship with all three, as a tributary of her relationships with those close to them, they were still kings, and, as she was reminded each time Rapunzel looked at her or she laid her head down in their soft bed in Caratasa’s home at night, she was nothing but an extraordinarily blessed peasant.
“If you were to decline the honor, they would not be the only ones disappointed, My Lady,” the courier said with a gentle smile. “What date can I tell them?”
Trying to think of a date somewhere between getting it over with as quickly as possible and putting it off indefinitely, Cinderella sent the boy back with her answer. At the time, it seemed distant enough. Two full turns of the moon later, that date was imminent.
Soon the eyes of every kingdom would be upon on her. Someone was bound to find a flaw.
Tracing the line of freckles down Rapunzel’s right shoulder, Cinderella marveled at how things could change. In the confines of her tower, Rapunzel never saw sun enough to develop marks on her skin, and, as they came in greater and greater supply, each individual spot was of more infinite interest to Cinderella.
“I do not know the title for a female knight,” Cinderella responded to Rapunzel’s question thoughtfully. “You did not find such a word in those many stories you have read?” When Rapunzel shook her head, Cinderella wondered if there had ever been need for such a title. “Lady, perhaps?” She considered the most natural equivalent to the male title of ‘Sir.’ “Madam?”
“Madam?” The way Rapunzel’s nose turned in response, Cinderella wondered if her words had an actual odor to them. “Certainly not! It sounds so old, like a mother or a midwife or a queen.”
Smile faltering before she made it through the word, Rapunzel swallowed an audible obstruction in her throat and looked to the window, her gaze locking on the ghastly darkness beyond. For, though Grimm had gone, his world remained, with all its ghouls and demons.
Watching worry shadow Rapunzel’s features, Cinderella pushed to her elbows, the simple proximity to the softest of skin and cascade of blonde tresses offering a measure of comfort to her own anxieties. “Are you all right?” she questioned softly.
“I am not the one you need worry about,” Rapunzel responded, melancholy strangling each word. “Do you think Snow White is truly ready for this?”
“I do not know,” Cinderella answered honestly.
Snow White’s stepmother, Queen Ino, former queen of Aulis, would not only be overlooked at the coming ceremony, she was not even to be mentioned. If honors for the overthrow of Grimm were to be properly bestowed, no one was more deserving. After learning of the queen’s part in Snow White’s disappearance, though, of how she had ordered Snow White slain, even with the knowledge it was part of a grander plan not of the queen’s own making, King Kardon could find no love left for his former wife.
As understandable as his anger was, the king neglected to see how his own feelings negated those of his daughter. For the king thought there was no cause to mourn someone who had proven herself so vile and cruel, but Snow White, like all those who had witnessed the change in Queen Ino firsthand, did mourn.
“She would want to see you knighted,” Rapunzel declared, and, with an uneasy nod, Cinderella accepted the truth in the statement.
“But there is still a question as to if it is too soon,” she returned. “Snow White’s emotional state is… precarious, at best.” With good reason, she thought to herself. The sorceress’ spell that Snow White alone saw strike the queen, the agonized howl of the queen’s death, the feel of the woman dying in her arms, those were things not easily gotten over.
Hand rising to her chest, it gave Cinderella a gentle push that returned her to the pillow, and she watched a feather float into the air as Rapunzel settled her head against one shoulder.
With no answers to any of the questions between them, silence settled over the room as Rapunzel’s breath blew its hypnotic rhythm against Cinderella’s throat and Rapunzel’s body pressed warm against her, a marked contrast to the agitation Cinderella felt within. This instant – the tranquil, genuine moment – was everything for which they had fought. It was why Grimm had to be met head on, why he could not be allowed to go on dictating their futures, using them at his will.
Like the moment the uprising began, when Cinderella threw her shoe at Prince Friedrich, the seemingly innocuous moment carried awesome significance. True happiness – pure, unpolluted truth – did not exist under Grimm’s dominion. It would be a long time before anyone would take such a moment for granted.
“How are you feeling?” Rapunzel’s question was scarcely more than a breath against Cinderella’s skin.
“Do you prefer the innocent or the lascivious answer?” Cinderella returned, a small smile tugging her lips as Rapunzel shifted against her.
“I mean about the ceremony,” Rapunzel specified, lifting her head, and, realizing Rapunzel knew her fears beyond her sharing of them, Cinderella tried not to hide from the knowing gaze that looked down upon her as she opened her eyes. “And I prefer the truth.”
“It is not a comfortable sensation,” Cinderella admitted, and Rapunzel’s eyes locking intently upon hers, they seemed to search for Cinderella’s very soul inside and locate it with ease.
“You are courageous, clever, and exceedingly beautiful,” Rapunzel quietly stated. “I will never understand why drawing attention to all of that makes you so uncomfortable.”
Laughing helplessly at the assessment, Cinderella glanced to the night, wishing the moon would dim and provide her more cover. “Character flaw,” she uttered, and could feel Rapunzel’s heavy sigh upon her cheek.
“You do not have all the flaws you see,” Rapunzel whispered, seeking Cinderella’s gaze once more. “They love you,” she uttered. “As you love them. No one is going to abandon you, Cin.”
She never should have told Rapunzel that story, Cinderella realized. Rapunzel needed no help seeing beyond her moods and fears and defenses.
It was not that she did not want to believe what Rapunzel was saying, or that, when surrounded by her friends, Cinderella did not feel it. All the years spent in the company of people who hated her, though, it was difficult, at times, to accept that she could have a family free of enemies.
“And I love you,” Rapunzel’s eyes softened upon her, and thoughts of all other allies dissipated from Cinderella’s mind.
“I love you too,” Cinderella felt the words through her entire being, before Rapunzel’s lips covered her own with gentle insistence, chasing the last plaguing worry to another day.