My name is Mani, and they're sending me to kill the Queen of Fairy.
Mother is very worried. But also proud. Out of all of us left in the village, I'm the prettiest, the fastest, and the best at remembering the way through the Wandering Wood. I'm the best at dodging the briars the fairies send to dog our paths and curse our feet with poison, and I know how to stay out of circles of mushrooms after a hard rain and the full moon. I know which wells to not drink from, and which wide, smooth trails to avoid.
We are very sick, the Father at the church says. We are very sick, and the crops won't grow in the dirt, and every day we are fewer. Hollow-eyed children, changeling children, stare from every knee. My aunt. My sister. My own mother with baby Brie staring from her dirty, scar-covered arms. The cows that give sour milk with their ribs pressed against the skin low mournfully, victims of the fairy plague.
I am the best and the most tempting, and my first courses were yesterday. Mother has given me her iron hairpin, and I'm to go find the circles of mushrooms that have sprouted after our last hard rain.
Mother kisses me, crying, my hair all woven with white blossoms to attract the greedy, cursed fairies, and tells me to not forget who I am.
In a circle of moss, dewed by the rain, I lay my head against a furred log, close my eyes, and wait for the moon to rise.
When I awake, the moon hangs low and rainbow-painted in the brilliant, star-filled sky, and the twisting, briar-filled woods are silver-forged. Roses twine through the trees that have become straight pillars.
I am the fastest and and the trickiest, and I know which path to take through the woods. With a circle of mistletoe flowers, in the gown my rags have become, with my skin luminous and honey-scented, I run fleet-footed through the thickest bushes, and climb the trellises of golden-gleaming wood. As I go, my feet become fawn's hooves, my eyes become luminous. In my hand, my mother's hairpin burns, newly forged like a sword of legends.
Legends, like fairies, are filled with lies. I will not be distracted, for I am Mani, and I am the last hope my village has.
The Queen of Fairies is tall and crimson-haired and fair, and when I enter her bower, she smiles and opens her arms, trusting. I fling myself into them. I fling my hand against her breast, and even as she kisses my hair, welcoming me home, the hairpin is sinking deep into her ivory-clad breast. Her blood is indigo: her blood is silver, and it stains me, sinking into my skin.
I shall never forget her scream, or the bewildered look in her eyes as she crumbled away into dust, as Fairyland crumbled away into nothing.
It is dawn when I come running back through the woods, and my bare feet are a girl's feet and my skin is sticky with blood. The pin is clutched in my hand. When I come running, running, down the twisting paths empty of briars, the woods are rotting about me.
When I come running, running up to my mother's door, they catch me. They take me in a net, and bring me to the square where the stake and the pyre are waiting.
My mother does not open her door, and she does not come to watch me burn.
I was Mani, and I killed the Queen of Fairy, and the forest, and the village. I run the twisting paths through the ruins each night on fawn hooves. I run in a gown of silks, in a sickly, honey-scented breeze. My eyes are luminous, and there is a sword in my ivory-white hand.
Each night, I climb the trellises to the Queen's window and sink my hands wrist-deep into indigo and silver blood, and each night I burn, until I cannot remember what it was to be young, and beautiful, and full of flesh.