“My Queen? You have a visitor.” Hendley’s small brown curly head poked into the throne room. He opened the large gilded door, pushing his glasses up as he did. He pushed at the heavy door with some effort. He will get used to its heft, Queen Arden thought to herself. For such a young man, Hendley was a good assistant, all things considered. One of the better ones she’d known. He was very earnest, but quite lacking in confidence. That would be something that would grow with time, like the strength to push open a heavy obstruction. The Visitor entered. The cloak that covered their entire body was long and tattered, but its material was sleek and black. The Visitor was tall and slender, taller than any human she had ever seen, and their face was covered by the hood of their cloak, which gave Arden a sense of unease. Their black leather boots had no trace of snow or water. They made absolutely no sound when they walked across the polished floors and approached the Queen’s throne. Two long, thin arms emerged from their cloak and flourished in a bow. “Your Majesty.” An odd number of rings adorned their gloved fingers. It was a strange collection as well. Some rings were adorned with gems, some with what appeared to be different noble seals, some with flowers, and one with a yellowed human tooth. Arden regarded the last one with faint disgust. Arden turned to Hendley. “Leave us.” Hendley nodded and dashed out of the room. “You as well,” she spoke to the guards at the door. They nodded and followed Hendley out. Arden’s face was stern, unyielding. Professional, as she always should be. Her posture in her throne was commanding. “You came.” She tried to hide her relief. She had wondered if the encounter she had was even real, and had wondered still if the eccentric stranger would come. It had been the subject of her worry for a few days time. “Why, of course,” The Visitor’s voice was raspy, like the crunching of leaves on a forest floor. “It would be imprudent of me to not arrive at an arrangement proposed by the Queen. And I am always on time.” “All right,” Arden said. “Tell me your plan.” “Patience, patience,” the Visitor wagged a ringed finger at her. It was an insult to be so condescending to a royal, but something kept Arden from taking offense. “You want to have your child, do you not? Bring me my payment, and then we can discuss.” Arden sighed. It frustrated her to be in the palm of someone else’s hand. But they had not asked for much. Arden sat up from her throne and picked up the heavy mirror that sat on the ground behind it. It was large and ornate, of fine quality. It had a gilded frame, and it’s surface was perfectly polished. “Big enough to climb through,” the Visitor had told her. But it was also small enough for Arden to carry herself. She did not want anyone else involved in this affair, not even her husband. She approached the Visitor and presented it to them. As she stood in close quarters with them, she caught a glimpse of a bone-white face. It chilled her to her core. As they held the mirror up to their face, studying it carefully, Arden could make out a trace of a smile. They ran a hand along its smooth surface, almost like a caress. When they finally placed the glass under their arm, they turned back to Arden and asked, “Did you do the other thing I asked?” “Yes,” Arden informed them as she returned to her throne. “But it isn’t complete just yet.” “Perfect. Show it to me.” Arden went behind the throne again and draped the cloth over her shoulder. It was made from white silk, and was painstakingly embroidered with black and red thread. Arden had been careful to follow the pattern the Visitor had given her. The cloth was large enough to cover the mirror Arden had picked out. “Beautiful. Fine work, truly.” They ran their fingers along the places where Arden had not quite finished embroidering. They handed the cloth back to the queen. “Now. Here is what you must do.” Arden sat at rapt attention. “You will finish the pattern on the cover…” They pulled a long, thin silver needle out of their cloak. “With this exact needle. No others will suffice. Before you finish, however, you must prick your finger with this needle, and let two, no more than two drops of blood into the snow. Then, you will acquire a log of ebony and carve it into a talisman. Any likeness will do, as long as the carving is distinct and well made. You must carry this likeness with you everywhere until your child is born. Do all of these things before the snow clears, and you will have what you desire.” This all sounds very strange, Arden thought to herself. Like a peasant superstition. Some ritual a farmer would do to ensure their crops to grow or their family to prosper. But some corner of her mind felt that this ritual would work. Perhaps it was the air of confidence the Visitor carried, or the flutter of fear she had felt at the Visitor’s face. The ritual almost felt familiar, as if it was something that she had experienced as a child, now remembered only in dreaming. “How can I be certain of this?” She asked the Visitor. They laughed in response, and their laughter sounded like a chorus of voices rather than a single one. Perhaps it was just a trick of Arden’s imagination. She couldn’t be sure. “You can’t be. You only have my word. But you don’t have many other options, do you?” They continued to chuckle. Arden fought the urge to silence them. “You’ll be needing this.” With one sweeping motion, the Visitor tossed the needle in a high arc, landing directly into Arden’s lap where the partially finished cover lay. “Make sure to follow my exact instructions. Good luck to you, Your Majesty. Although if you do everything correctly, you won’t be needing it.” “Thank you,” Arden said. This Visitor was wearing down her patience. But if it worked… But if it worked. The Visitor exited the room, pulling the door open easily with one hand, as though it was nothing but cloth. It slammed shut behind them with a force that made Arden cringe. She lifted the needle from her skirt, studying it carefully. It seemed to be an ordinary needle. A little longer than what Arden was used to, but nothing too strange. A definite departure from the rest of this encounter. If the Visitor’s method was to be believed, Arden had work cut out for her. She should begin immediately. “Hendley!” Hendley hurried into the throne room as quickly as he could. The door still proved to be a struggle for him, however. The effort left him slightly out of breath. “Y-Yes, my Queen?” He pushed up his glasses, which had slipped down his face. “Ask a knight of my court to procure me a log of ebony. Please.” “E-Ebony?” Hendley paused, then quickly composed himself. “Y-Yes, my Queen! Right away!” “And fetch a carving knife. If you please?” Hensley paused. “Taking up wood carving, my queen? But—why do it yourself? I could—” “No, Hendley, it’s quite all right. I’ll do this myself. Thank you. You are dismissed.” Hendley nodded and hurried off to complete the tasks Arden had set out. The embroidery needed to be finished. Arden would return to her room and start on that now. She stood up again and carried the needle and cover to the front of the throne room. She remembered how little effort it took the Visitor to swing open the door. With a great effort, she managed to pull it open. It was hard gaining enough traction with the delicate slippers she was wearing, but she managed. A guard that was standing post on the other side stared at her. “I-I’m sorry, my Queen.” He stumbled over his words. “Next time, I’ll—” “No need. Thank you.” She smiled graciously at him. “I will be retreating to my room, if anyone needs me.” “Yes, your Majesty.” Arden walked slowly down the grand halls of her castle. Her footsteps, while not very loud in themselves, echoed down the hall as if running away from her. Through the windows, snow was falling at a tranquil pace. Arden remembered the way she watched snow as a child. She sat at the edge of the windowsill, staring mesmerized for hours at a time. To her, it had been the most beautiful thing she had ever witnessed, more than the palace splendor or the art that she was being taught at the time or anything in her wardrobe. Arden imagined her own child watching the snow with the same wonder. Arden pulled herself back to the present. I can’t count my caterpillars before they grow, she thought. She needed to finish this first. She thought about the Visitor. She wondered if they, and, by extension, their ritual could be trusted. But for the sake of this child, she had to try. If this was the way to ensure a child into Arden’s life, then so be it. She would do this ritual to the very best of her ability. Her child deserved no less.
. Artist Statement: Originally written for a winter story contest with my friends. I had a lot of fun writing this one! I’m thinking of making a sequel/continuation of it.