Mira Bellance ran through the trees of the forest. Her breath hitched in her throat, the pounding of her heart a violent drum, and blood pressed in her temple. The red dress she wore tore as branches reached out to grab her. Her bare feet ached as she slammed them against hard dirt, thick tree roots, sharp rocks. But she couldn’t stop. Behind her she heard horses. Her foot caught on an upturned root, and she gasped as she went down, sliding with the wet dirt and rolling down into a thorny bush. The horses were close, and she ducked low, climbing further into the brush, ignoring the pain of the barbed leaves. The men rode past, wearing her mother’s red crest across their chests, and she remained there, holding her breath, waiting for the sounds to fade.
Mira hadn’t expected to be dragged from her bed before dawn, or thrown at the feet of her mother, who was in one of her moods. Mirrors lined the ancient throne room, cased in gold frames, reflecting Mira’s face a thousand times. Her mother had paced, as she did when agitated. The long train of her gold dress rippled against the grey marble floor, and her high crown descended down with a sheer veil. Mira did not think she looked anything like her mother, whose sharp jawline and long neck made her look regal. The only thing they shared was their paper white skin, the long black hair, and their red lips.
The guards had held Mira there on her knees, awaiting their queen’s orders. Mira looked up at her, and the queen turned. She studied Mira’s face.
“You’re thirteen today,” her mother had said. Her expression was stone. Gold rings glittered on her fingers.
“Yes, mother,” Mira said.
Her mother glanced up at the mirrors, touching her cheek as she caught her reflection. “Did I tell you how you were born?”
“It was so easy.” Her voice was distant. “A prick of blood, a raven’s feather, a wish made over snow. And then I got a little girl.”
Mira waited. There were times her mother whispered memories to herself, and Mira could only listen and watch her mother’s dark eyes turn vacant. But her mother seemed constant, her face never aging, her castle never changing, like they were trapped in a world separate from the rest. Mira sometimes wondered if she could ever really leave.
“Thirteen years ago,” the queen continued. “You came to me. I had such great hopes for you, Mira.”
She had snapped her fingers, and the guards lifted Mira to her feet. Mira sucked in a breath, looking to the men who wore black armor, the crimson red crest broad on their chests. The antlers of a deer piercing a heart, painted in red. Most treated her like nothing at all, not cruel, but not kind. Their faces were obscured by face guards, but she could see their eyes looking at her.
Her mother had took her chin in her hands, bringing her brown eyes up to meet hers. Mira searched for any mercy on her mother’s face, and she knew it wasn’t there.
“You’re such a disappointment,” she said.
Mira had felt the guards’ grip tighten. Her mother turned away, stepping up the dais to her throne. On the back of the faded red throne was a mirror, elaborate gold trimmings that curled around it. It reflected her and Mira behind her, and the image warped at its edges. Her mother pressed a hand to the collar around her neck, and the image rippled. Mira strained to see. She glimpsed her mother, cloaked in a black veil, the throne room reflected as though it had aged a hundred years, the metals tarnished, the mirrors broken and clouded, everything darkened by time. She saw her mother fall, the dress stain crimson. Mira saw herself, older, holding something long and sharp.
Mira’s heart had sunk into the pit of her stomach. She pulled her arms away, but the guards held tight.
“I wouldn’t,” she had said, her voice barely a whisper. She spent so long in her room, locked away, only the mice and birds for company. “Mother, please.”
The queen turned and looked at her. Mira in the mirror had as well.
“She calls me mother,” she said, and the mirror rippled again. A deer in the woods, blood in the snow. “I shaped you. I gave you life. I raised you! I tried to give you all of this! Magic, power, I treated you as my own!”
“I wouldn’t,” Mira had insisted. Tears were hot on her face. She had twisted, but the guards held tight. “Why would it show that?”
“You couldn’t learn simple spells,” her mother had snapped. “You can’t even use a mirror! A queen without an heir, and now this!”
Her mother had taken a breath and calmed herself. “Take her to the woods. Bring me back her heart.”
Mira lay in the brush, breathing in and out. They had dragged her here, to the dark woods that surrounded their small kingdom, and she had escaped. Now the queen’s army would chase her until her heart was gutted from her body. Her face was wet with blood and tears, and her chest shuddered with the birth of the sob. No, she told herself. Not now. Not here. Mother wouldn’t abide weakness in her. When Mira used to bloody her fingers manipulating the broken mirrors, her mother would chide her for her tears.
There was the sound of dogs in the distance, and she let out a long breath. Pulling herself from the undergrowth, she staggered up. Hoofbeats sounded like thunder in the distance. A horn sounded somewhere, the high yell of the Hunt. She threw herself through the brush, trying to find where the trees were thickest. The dogs howled, and she imagined the large black hounds her mother kept, their mouths full of teeth, their eyes blood red. The Hunt would chase down sorcerers that came to challenge her mother, or the commonfolk that tried to rise up every few years. She had only seen them from the windows of the castle, huge and bounding after their prey.
The trees grew together thick in this part of the forest. She climbed between them. The treetops above blocked out the sky, and the sun could barely make it through the leaves. Her hands trailed against the grain of the bark, and her feet ached. The sounds of the Hunt came from all around her.
It hadn’t always been this way. When she was a child, her mother had walked with her in the gardens, where the red roses bloomed year round. She’d taken Mira’s hands and walked her through simple spells. Her mother had cared for her in her early years, and she had fond memories of her mother’s hand on her forehead as she battled fevers, and the rose scent of her perfume that filled the halls, and her firm voice reading her heavy words as she made magic. Mira had tried her hardest to be good at magic. She’d repeated every word, followed every gesture, tried to feel the power brim through her, but it wasn’t there. Her mother was pure raw power, and she was nothing. Worse than nothing. Even those with a base amount of magic ability could use mirrors, but when Mira touched them, their silver sheen remained only a reflection of her failure.
Why had the mirror shown that? The shadows of the trees seemed to be filled with the images from the mirror. Her mother, face obscured in the long black veil, the blood against the marble floor, the weapon she’d held in her hand, like a long sharp needle, her mother on the ground, herself staring back at her, her eyes sharp and steely, her expression stone, blood on her hands. Why had the mirror lied like that?
Her feet found solid ground again. Mira whirled around, trying to follow the sounds around her. The guards on horseback seemed a long ways away, but the hunting horn was close. A hound barked, and it sounded as though it would burst from the shadows. The woods around the castle were thick and impossible to traverse without following the paths. Her mother had kept her in the tower, and she’d only glimpsed maps in her mother’s library. She should head south, shouldn’t she? Out of the woods, towards the mountains, and past there she would be in the kingdoms. Past the mountains, her mother’s guard couldn’t find her.
She stumbled as she stopped. There was a hound in front of her. It bared its white teeth, like jagged stones, its dark eyes watching. It growled in a sound that shook her to her belly. Sickness rolled over her, and she held a hand on a tree, trying to keep upright. The beast moved forward, its black fur standing up. No one had ever escaped the Hunt. Its riders chased down anyone from kings who’d offended to peasants who’d tried an uprising.
A Huntsman moved from the shadows of the trees. They were not quite men, the Huntsmen, like the black dogs and the white steeds they rode. He was tall, not a giant, but larger than any man. His broad shoulders were cloaked in animal fur, the leather armor across his wide chest. His skin was mottled red in dark patches, and on the side of his face was a large scar in the shape of her mother’s crest. He looked at her with dark eyes, dragging behind him a sword as thick as any of the trees.
Mira backed away, but her knees gave out beneath her. She stared up at the Huntsman, who approached her slowly. He whistled, and the dog sat back on its hind legs, snapping its maw shut.
“Please,” she whispered, feeling tears against her face. “I don’t know why this is happening.”
She’d seen the Hunt from her tower, watched them ride like shadows through the great trees. She never knew how they came under her mother’s employ, but she knew they were not men. She’d branded them, and so they followed her word to law. Sometimes she’d seen them within the castle, great hulking figures, men and women and others of indeterminate gender, carrying greatswords and clubs, always dressed in animal skins and with a black hound or more beside them. They were not cruel, but they were heartless, and they struck without hesitation. If one had found her, more would soon be here, and she squeezed her eyes shut, awaiting his killing blow.
“Princess,” he said, and then he dropped to one knee.
Mira waited. Fear pounded in her chest, her whole body now vibrating with adrenaline. She’d never even heard one speak before.
“You–You’ve come to kill me,” she said.
He looked at her, and she saw beneath his eyes a great fire, a wildness, the barbarian beneath. “You must free us.”
Slowly she came to her feet. “From my mother.”
“The queen has enslaved the Hunt for too long. She thinks she has absolute control.”
She looked again at the scar, which bled black on his skin, the jagged thorns and antlers twisting in clumsy ways.
“We will need you,” he said.
Mira swayed there. “I can’t kill my mother. She raised me, she loves–”
She choked on the word. The Huntsman only watched.
“It has to be a trick,” she insisted. “Some sort of illusion. One of her enemies must sneak in under illusion, or controls me, or–I can’t–I couldn’t–I don’t–”
She wasn’t breathing, she realized. Mira gasped desperately for air, for something to hold onto, for a truth. The Huntsman lumbered forward and took her shoulder, raising her back straight and her head high. On his belt, he removed a small dagger made from bone and placed it in her hands.
“You will return,” he said with the certainty of a man who had seen it. “And you will be ready.”
He stepped back, whistled to his hound, and then they both disappeared into the forest. She remained, clutching the white bone of the dagger, feeling its scars and patterns.
Another hound howled nearby, but it no longer filled her with panic. Her eyes turned up to the sky, and in the break in the trees she saw black birds flying, and a sun sloping towards the horizon. She turned to the south, away from where the Huntsman had gone, and walked through the trees.