Beyond the Wide World's Edge
by Rana Eros
This was written as a Treat for Lady Sarai for Yuletide 2008. Eliza audienced it, and I managed to upload it two minutes before deadline. This is my favorite faery tale.
Esta's walked a long way from home, and she has worn down two pairs of iron shoes, the next now rubbing blisters on her feet as they adapt to each other. She's followed the path of his sightings, the great, lovely bear, the great, lovely man, returning to the place beyond the world from whence he came. The Garden of Earthly Delights, the Halls of the Mountain-King, the Palace of a God Queen, a Faerie King, and him their cursed son.
"Here," he had said, torn his own pelt raggedly down the middle, and threw half at her. She caught it, twisted her arm to throw it back, but he stayed her hand. "You wanted it. Half will have to do."
"I wanted to free you of it."
He looked at her out of wild, dark eyes. They'd had that argument before. "Put it on."
She had, its weight settling over her warmly. It wasn't enough to make her a bear, a tall long-boned woman with ragged fur draped on her shoulders, white beneath the fall of night-black, but it gave her the scents on the wind, and the sounds and tastes, and when she put out her left hand, it was claws that nearly caught at him.
He stepped back quickly, out of her range, then stepped back further when she made to follow. He was half-bear, she saw, transforming as she watched.
"I thought you gave me half," she said, and his face twisted as he dropped heavily to the ground, arching into the fur springing up all over him, shrugging into muscle and bone.
"I gave you all," he said, his voice a deep growl that shook the words into a new language. "All but one, and you took that."
"And what did you take?" she had whispered. The bear only growled at her, swinging around to lumber away into the northern woods. She followed, and her new pelt made it easier, but still not easy. He could move faster, move for longer, kill what he needed and eat it bloody as he kept going, slipping further and further away. She moved fast and long, pushed herself and the pelt to its limits, killed what she needed and ate it half-raw, pausing to look for his signs.
At first, she'd fold the pelt up and go into villages, asking if they'd seen him. Her skin itched and her left fist clenched, and everything looked and smelled and tasted dull. If anyone had seen anything, it was always a phantom on the edge of vision, a waking dream without direction. With something akin to relief, she determined she had to ask elsewhere, and donned the pelt, stepping into the woods.
The forest creatures had seen him, known him for not quite bear, but still predator, still something to avoid. The trees had felt him passing, chattering with their cousins through roots and wind to learn he'd turned east.
"You're not going to find him this way," says the green girl waiting for her at the forest's eastern border. "Now you'll hear he's gone west. He is walking out of this world, and your iron shoes can't carry you past that border."
"What of the pelt? Will it take me?"
"How do I find him then?"
The girl grins, and her teeth are green as the rest of her, sharp. "Come with me."
"What have you given me to trust?" Esta holds out her hand, the right one without claws. "Press your palm to mine and swear me and mine no harm."
The green girl reaches out, long-fingered, long-nailed. She darts forward suddenly, scratches a line of blood down Esta's palm, but then Esta catches at the edge of her finger with a bear claw, scrapes down, and they're hand-to-hand with blood and blood between.
"Swear," and the girl hisses, twisting in the two-handed hold. "I could just make you take me."
"You cannot," the girl spits. "That border is not mine to cross."
"Then whose?" Impatient, Esta tightens her grip, and the girl sucks in a breath. "I am truly not interested in hurting you, and I must find him. Where were you taking me?"
A wild wind blows up, jerking the green girl against Esta's hold, then out of it. She has a moment to find an eye, pale and insubstantial, turned toward her balefully, and then the wind has wrapped itself around the girl and is carrying her off. To the north.
She follows, expecting them to come back and drive her off at any moment. It would seem, though, that the wind has no interest in her beyond a threat to the green girl, and likely the green girl has rethought whatever aid or mischief she'd intended.
Esta loses sight of them when the trees thicken, and pushing through takes all her concentration. By the time she's managed it, it's nightfall, and she emerges from the wood at the base of a mountain. There's light flickering from a cave opening far up the side, and a sound like every black storm has been loosed inside. She thinks she sees a flash of green in that light, but she's not going to try climbing now. She finds a little place of protected earth in the lee of a stone, not quite large enough for her long body, and tries to sleep some before she attempts the climb in the morning.
In her dreams, the wind roars at her with a bear's face, and she roars back while flowers toss their green leaves and laugh.
She wakes to a sound like the mountain falling down, opens her eyes to see wind tearing out of the cave in every direction. One carries the green girl, vivid as poison against the pale winter sky.
When they're gone, she climbs.
She finds an old woman in the cave, fussing with a stewpot over a fire. The woman's hair is corkscrews of ashy white, her face seamed like a rock, her eyes vast as the night, wilder than ice floes.
"Mother of Storms," Esta names her, and the old woman smiles.
"I thought you might know me. Come in, then."
Esta stoops to enter the cave, such a small place to hold the woman who carried all the winds under her heart. "Does that mean you know me?"
"Don't ask foolish questions. Here." The Mother of Storms hands her a bowl full of strong stew. "You'll need your strength."
"I need to find my way out of the world."
"Yes." The Mother of Storms tears a hunk from a loaf of bread warming on the ring of stones around the fire, holds it out to Esta. "You may not be able to find your way back into it."
Esta holds the stew in her right hand, takes the bread carefully in her left claws. "I'm not sure the world would have me back."
"And if I told you that pelt was what I wanted in return for my help?"
The stew turns bitter in Esta's mouth, the bread dry as dust, but she swallows and says, "Even so."
"Good. I don't want your pelt, I have plenty of my own. I want your shoes."
Esta blinks, looks down at the dull iron she's finally broken in. "I--"
"You won't need them for the rest of this journey. You know who my children are."
"And what will they want in exchange for taking me?"
The Mother of Storms throws back her head and laughs, the sound echoing as though the cave is larger than the mountain, rather than so small Esta can't even stand up straight. The laugh builds and builds, and Esta has to put down the stew and the bread to press her hands to her ears. Silence falls at that, but a little breeze skirls around Esta's dress, ruffles her fur.
"That is a much better question," says the Mother of Storms, "but as you have given me a new baby, you may offer them the shoes. They'll like the stories in the iron. They're coming back tonight. You should sleep until then."
The Mother of Storms shows Esta to a nest of furs in the back of the cave, and Esta wonders how many of them were traded for favors from the old woman. She's not sure she can sleep on other people's dreams, but the little breeze has followed, and blows gentle against her face, lulling her.
In her own dreams, the bear that is her husband sleeps beneath a tree in full fruit on a carpet of emerald grasses. Flowering vines hold him down, and briars grow to hem him in. The flowers laugh still, a sound high and sweet as the Mother of Storms' laugh was harsh and deep. This time, Esta knows that where the one sound meant birth, the other means death.
She wakes with her heart pounding, her breath caught in her throat, and she doesn't even realize it's the West Wind pushing at her until she's risen against it, shouting her husband's name. The West Wind draws back from her at that, then demands, "How do you know that name? No one in this world can speak that name."
"My husband gave it to me. Do you know where he is?"
"That cannot be so," the West Wind says, ignoring her question. "He has no bride."
"He has me."
"He has no bride!" the West Wind roars, and the little breeze dances before Esta's face to protect her, the Mother of Storms reaches out to pull her child back. But Esta grabs a bit of vine blowing in the West Wind, takes it in her right hand and twists it, as her father taught her to twine rope, as her mother taught her to weave. It startles the West Wind enough to turn it aside, and she stares into the eye that glared at her yesterday.
"He has me."
The Mother of Storms leaps forward, seizes on the vine. "Oh, what you have done, my child? Oh, what foolishness have you done?"
"Fell in love," Esta answers for it, not looking away. "Did you bring him here, so she would look at you?"
"He can come and go on his own, but she rode on my back to follow him to this world, and to stop you."
"What will happen to her if I find him?"
"She will die."
"Foolishness!" the Mother of Storms says again. "Did she tell you that?"
"She loves him."
"She cursed him." The West Wind looks at Esta once more, and she steps closer. "I love him. Will you take me to him?"
"He is her only child," the West Wind says, and as Esta blinks in surprise, the Mother of Storms snorts disdainfully.
"A mother who cannot let her child live his own life is no mother at all. What love is this, to bind him so? My children sometimes stay away for centuries."
"He is all she has," the West Wind says. The Mother of Storms turns away to her stew.
"She has herself. She could have you."
"I can offer you nothing to equal her," Esta says, drawing the West Wind's attention again. "Your mother said you might want my shoes."
The West Wind is silent a long time, then asks, "That pelt, did he give it to you?"
Esta raises her hand, runs it across the fur on the left side of her face. "Yes."
"Out of love?"
She remembers his face when he threw the pelt at her, remembers his words. "I don't know."
"And still you would follow him?"
"He owes me the answer to a question." And what did you take?
The West Wind turns. "Step into me. I will take you beyond this world's edge. Perhaps we will both get answers."
The little breeze ruffles Esta's fur once more, then moves to flutter over the stewpot, too young to leave its mother so soon. The Mother of Storms looks at Esta out of her endless eyes and says only, "Off with you, then."
"Thank you," Esta says, but the Mother of Storms shakes her head.
"Just you remember, you have yourself too. As does my child."
The West Wind remains silent.
It's not so long a journey as Esta expected, nor so hard. The West Wind feels gentle around her, but she can see how it races past the sun, streaks beyond the moon, darts between the stars. Then the sky lightens again, and the air grows warm and fragrant, and the West Wind sets her down in the most beautiful, most lush garden she has ever seen. Her husband waits there, looking naked without his pelt, for all his silken finery. On his arm is the green girl.
"So you found your way here," she says. Her face is shining, her voice light and sweet, the voice of the flowers in Esta's dreams. "I thought you might."
Esta meets her husband's eyes. "I have come for you."
He makes a movement toward her, makes a noise in his throat. His mother digs her nails into his arm and he stills, but his eyes flash, and Esta smiles. She can feel the way the lip curls back on the furred side of her face, and taste the flowered air through her long, sharp teeth.
"I have come," she says, "to give you back to yourself, and to take you if you offer."
"We shall see if you can," his mother says. Esta stares at her hand on his arm, remembers making it bleed, and nods.
"Yes, we shall."
When he shakes free of his mother's hold, Esta knows it's not the end. There is the night to go, the vines and flowers and his mother's poison. There is his pelt, and hers, and perhaps they are not so easy to shed as a broken curse anymore, not when she misses him in fur. There is the world, and the West Wind has abandoned her.
"Esta," her husband says, reaching out to her. She lets him pull her close, inhales the wild scent of him under the silk. Sighs out when he whispers, "Everything. I offer everything I took, everything you will. Esta."
"Then I will take us both," she says, keeps hold of him under his mother's eyes. From far, far away, she hears a deep, booming sound, and a little breeze springs up in the garden beyond the world's edge, sweeps the flowers closed, the green girl a step back.
The night is yet to come, but Esta knows she'll win it. Her question is answered, and the Mother of Storms is laughing.