By Malinda Lo
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In the wake of her father's death, Ash is left at the mercy of her cruel stepmother. Consumed with grief, her only joy comes by the light of the dying hearth fire, rereading the fairy tales her mother once told her. In her dreams, someday the fairies will steal her away. When she meets the dark and dangerous fairy Sidhean, she believes that her wish may be granted.
The day that Ash meets Kaisa, the King's Huntress, her heart begins to change. Instead of chasing fairies, Ash learns to hunt with Kaisa. Their friendship, as delicate as a new bloom, reawakens Ash's capacity for love — and her desire to live. But Sidhean has already claimed Ash for his own, and she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love.
Entrancing and empowering, Ash beautifully unfolds the connections between life and love, and solitude and death, where transformation can come from even the deepest grief.
Copyright © 2009 by Malinda Lo
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: Semptember 2009
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Aisling's mother died at midsummer. She had fallen sick so suddenly that some of the villagers wondered if the fairies had come and taken her, for she was still young and beautiful. She was buried three days later beneath the hawthorn tree behind the house, just as twilight was darkening the sky.
Maire Solanya, the village greenwitch, came that evening to perform the old rituals over the grave. She stood at the foot of the mound of black soil, a thin old woman with white hair bound in a braid that reached her hips, her face a finely drawn map of lines. Aisling and her father stood across from each other on either side of the grave, and at the head of it, resting on the simple headstone, was the burning candle. Aisling's father had lit it shortly after Elinor died, and it would burn all night, sheltered by the curving glass around it. The gravestone was a plain piece of slate carved with her name: Elinor. Grass and tree roots would grow up around it as the months and years passed, until it would seem as if it had always been there.
Maire Solanya said in her low, clear voice, "From life to life, from breath to breath, we remember Elinor." She held a round loaf of bread in her hands, and she tore off a small piece and ate it, chewing deliberately, before handing the loaf to Aisling's father. He pulled off his own piece, then passed it to his daughter. It was still warm, and it smelled like her mother's kitchen after baking. But it hadn't come from her mother's hands, and that realization made a hard lump rise in her throat. The bread was tasteless.
Maire Solanya took the loaf from her, its crust gaping open, and placed it on the gravestone next to the candle. Aisling couldn't shake the feeling that her mother had merely gone out on an errand and would come home at any moment and wonder what the three of them were doing. It didn't seem possible that she was buried there, at the foot of the hawthorn tree, in the ground. She had seen her mother's body after she died, of course, but her face had lost all of the vibrancy that made her recognizable. And it was easier to believe the village rumors than to sit with the ache inside herself.
She remembered those rumors now, while she stood with her father and Maire Solanya in a tense silence, waiting as the sun set over the Wood. Everyone had always said that Elinor had some magic in her, and everyone knew that fairies—if they existed—were drawn to that. So Aisling's father had ordered all the old rituals, even though he did not believe in them, just in case. She was not entirely sure what she herself believed, but she knew that her mother would want them to do these rituals for her, and that was enough.
When the sun slipped below the horizon, the greenwitch said, "Sleep in peace, Elinor," and scattered a gold powder over the grave to bind Elinor to the earth. On the freshly turned soil, the gold glittered like fairy dust.
Aisling's father stepped around the grave and put a hand on her shoulder. "Go back to the house, Ash." He had told her that he would keep vigil over the grave all night. Some said that the Fairy Hunt sought out souls on the night after burial, and only those who were guarded by their loved ones would be left to rest in peace.
She walked slowly up the hill toward the house. When she turned back at the kitchen door to look down toward the garden, Maire Solanya was making three circles around the grave before she left. Just beyond the hawthorn tree, the Wood was dark and silent. The single candle glimmered, and Ash could see the shape of her father as he knelt beside the grave.
The housekeeper, Anya, came out the kitchen door and caressed Ash's hair. "It will be all right," Anya said. "Come inside before night falls. Your mother's spirit will be safe with your father watching over her."
Ash woke in the middle of the night from a dream of horses—tall, thundering white horses with foaming mouths and slender, wraithlike riders. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and went to the window that looked out over the Wood. She searched for the light of the candle by the grave but saw only darkness. Then there was movement at the edge of the trees, and she shivered. Where was her father?
She ran down the stairs, through the kitchen, and out the back door. The wind was rising. She ran down the hillside in her bare feet, feeling the earth alive beneath her toes, her nightgown flying behind her in white linen wings. She ran past the garden's rows of carrots and cabbages and toward the dark, hulking line of the Wood. Beneath the hawthorn tree, the glass cover was tipped over on its side, the candle was snuffed out, and her father was gone. She knelt on the ground and reached for the candle, but she hadn't brought matches and could not light it.
The wind gusted over her, whipping her hair around her face. The dark pressed against her, and she wondered if her father had given up his vigil because of the weight of the night on his back. She heard the hoofbeats then, coming closer and closer. She thought she saw a faint glimmer of white in the dark Wood, a glow of otherworldly light, like stardust caught behind glass. She was frightened, but she would not leave her mother. She lay down on the grave, pressing her body into the warm earth and her cheek against the gravestone. The hooves came closer, and she heard the high, thin sound of a bugle. The wind rushed toward her, and the cries of the riders were clear upon the air: They called for her mother, for Elinor. The ground beneath Ash's body heaved, and she let out a scream of fright as she felt the world buckle beneath her, earth and stone and moss and root twisting up as if it were clawed by a mighty hand. There was a roaring sound in her ears as the horses surrounded her, and she squeezed her eyes shut, afraid of what she might see. She dug her fingers into the ground, clinging to the earth where her mother lay buried.
And then there was a sudden silence, and in that silence she could hear the breathing of horses, the heaving of their lungs, the musical jingle of bit and bridle, and the whisper of voices like silvery bells. She thought she heard someone say, "She is only a child. Let her go."
The wind roared again, so fierce that she thought she would be pulled from the ground and thrown aside like a rag doll, but when it died down the horses were gone, and the night was quiet. The air hummed as it did after a storm. When she opened her eyes, the ground all around her was marked with hoofprints.
Ash woke up suddenly in her own bed, her heart pounding. She sat up, gasping for breath as though she were being suffocated, and saw the early morning light coming through the curtains. She ran to the window and looked out; her father was coming slowly up the hill. When she heard him come into the house and close the kitchen door, she realized she had been gripping the windowsill with white fingers. She let go, feeling foolish. But just as she began to turn away, she saw something gleaming on the windowsill: In the spaces where the paint had cracked, gold dust glittered.
In that country, the great expanse of the Wood descends from the Northern Mountains in foothills of blue pine, sweeping south toward the more civilized oak and birch of the King's Forest. No one travels into the interior of the Wood, although it must once have been populated, because numerous roads and tracks lead into it. Those tracks have long been abandoned, and the Wood is thought to be the home of dangerous beasts and the most powerful of all the fairies. Some scholars speculate that once upon a time, the country was thick with magic; in addition to fairies there were powerful sorcerers and witches who did more than brew willow bark tea to calm a child's fever.
But as time passed, the magic faded, leaving behind only a faint memory of its power. Some said there was a great war that drove away the sorcerers and lasted for so many years that the very shape of the land changed: Mountains became valleys beneath the tread of thousands of soldiers, and rivers were rerouted to make way for grand new palaces. But all that is merely conjecture; no history books survived to tell the tale. Only the greenwitches remained, and their magic was limited to saying the old rites for birth and marriage and death. Sometimes they brewed love potions for girls who hadn't met their lovers by Midsummer's Eve, and sometimes the love potions even worked. Usually that was enough to remind the people that magic still lurked in half-forgotten places.
But even if magic was so rare it was more like myth than reality, the people of that country still loved their fairy tales. They told stories about brownies, who helpfully did the chores overnight in exchange for a bowl of cream. There were boggarts, mischievous creatures who slammed doors and shattered pottery or pawed through a household's winter stores in search of sweets. There were handsome love-talkers, who seduced girls with their charm and wit and then left them to pine away for a love that could never be. Children were warned to stay away from strange flickering lights at midnight, for if a person once set foot inside a fairy ring, he would never be able to leave.
Most of the people of that country lived on the borders of the Wood in pine-board houses built up close to the trees, where the old magic lingered. South of the Wood the land sloped down in fertile, rich farmland toward the sea. The farmers, who lived in quaint stone cottages surrounded by broad fields, grew yellow squash and long green beans and bushels of wheat. In the very southern tip of the country they grew oranges and lemons, which were shipped north to the Royal City during harvest season to be made into lemonade and orange punch. The farmers didn't believe in Wood fairies, but they listened for the tread of field dwellers and hobgoblins, who could bless a crop or eat it all. They set out bowls of honey wine to tempt the fairies away from milking cows, and left out baskets of fruit to distract them from their orchards.
In a country so fond of its fairy stories, where the people clung to the memory of magic with a deep and hungry nostalgia, it was no surprise that philosophers and their church faced a difficult task when they landed in Seatown four generations ago. Legends began to spring up about the philosophers—that they were the sorcerers of old who had lost their magic; that they came from the hot desert places of the Far South, where illusions and spells abounded; that they once were royal advisors who had betrayed their rulers. But the philosophers themselves disliked this penchant for telling tales and insisted upon their own, much plainer history.
They reported that they were indeed from the south, from the empire of Concordia to be exact, and they had come north to spread the wisdom of their emperor. They built churches out of plaster and wood and sat within them, reading books written in foreign tongues. They argued passionately with the village greenwitches, claiming that all those fairy tales were nothing but the stuff of nonsense—there were no greenies or goblins. Had anyone ever actually seen a brag or a dunter or a mermaid? Or were they only stories told to children at bedtime? The greenwitches grumbled in response, and some insisted that they had run into klippes at twilight, or seen sprites slipping among the shadows of the Wood at Midsummer.
Perhaps because philosophers tended to be men and greenwitches tended to be women, the argument took on an overly heated tone. Insults were hurled: The philosophers called the greenwitches superstitious old wives, and the greenwitches retorted that not one of them was married. The greenwitches derided the philosophers as joyless old men afraid of magic, and the philosophers, not surprisingly, protested that they found much joy in the real world. And then they brought out their largest tomes bound in gold, the leather covers stamped with the five-cornered star of the Concordian Empire, and threw open the heavy covers. They pointed to the unreadable text and said, "Look! There is the real world. All our learning, all our experiences, written down fact by fact. There are no myths here; only facts. Fairies are mere fictions. We deal in the truth."
The oldest, most powerful greenwitch at the time, a wise and wiry woman by the name of Maire Nicneva, laughed at those white-bearded men in their red-pointed caps and replied, "You shall not discover the truth by being blinded to faith."
From then on, for a period of at least two generations, philosophers had a hard time in that country. They continued to build their churches in village greens dotting the coast, but found it difficult to progress into the interior of the country. The closer they came to the Wood, the more angry the people became. They were called liars and unbelievers, and while they were never physically harmed, even children laughed at them—at their strange crimson costumes and heavy, dusty books locked in huge, iron-bound trunks. But one day the King met a philosopher who was less stubborn than the others, and they sat down together and talked about the smell of spring and the taste of the sweetest oranges, and they grew to like one another. The King even took the philosopher on a hunt, and as hunting is that people's favorite sport, all the country began to listen more seriously to the philosophers.
By that time the philosophers had also begun to change their approach to this people. Rather than insisting that there was no such thing as magic, they began to merely suggest that perhaps magic was not as prevalent as it once was. They asked, have you ever seen an elf? Or did you work hard on your own to build your house, to feed your children, to put clothes on your family's backs? And gradually the idea took root that magic was merely an old country superstition.
The people of Rook Hill, however, the small northern village where Aisling lived with her father, kept to the old ways. It was far enough from the Royal City to make the philosophy being preached by the King's many advisors seem stranger than the fairy tales most mothers told their children. Ash remembered playing in her mother's herb garden while listening to tales about brownies or picts or selkies. Sometimes the greenwitch Maire Solanya joined them, and she too told tales, though hers were darker. Once she told a story about a young woman who wandered for a month through the silver mines in the Northern Mountains, seeking her lost lover, only to find herself confronted by a family of knockers who demanded her first-born child in return for their help in finding him.
When Ash looked frightened, Maire Solanya said, "Fear will teach you where to be careful."
Her mother had been apprenticed to Maire Solanya when she was a girl, and sometimes she taught Ash the differences between various herbs that grew in her garden—feverfew for headache, meadowsweet for a burn—but when she married William, a merchant, she left her apprenticeship. Sometimes in the evenings after supper, they would argue about whether or not she should go back to that calling, and usually Ash remembered those conversations as friendly debates, but once her parents' voices took on harder tones. "The King's chief philosopher himself has said that greenwitches do nothing more than calm one's nerves—which is no small thing," William said. Ash had been sent up to bed, but she had come back downstairs to ask her mother a question, and when she heard her father's voice, she hesitated in the hall outside the parlor.
"Those philosophers only sit in their churches and issue judgments based on inaccurate texts from Concordia," her mother said. "They know nothing about what a greenwitch does."
William sighed. "They are not distant scholars, Elinor; they have studied your herbal practices in detail."
"It is about more than herbal practices," she countered. "You know that."
"Are you saying that all those tales you tell Ash have any basis in reality?" he said in disbelief. "They are only bedtime stories—it is superstition, nothing more."
Elinor's voice took on an edge that Ash had never heard before. "Those tales serve a purpose, William, and how dare you dismiss our traditions as superstition? There is a reason they have survived."
"It will do you and our daughter no good to align yourselves with the past," William said, sounding frustrated. "The King does not follow those ways anymore, and you must understand that keeping to those traditions will only harm my standing in court."
Her mother said curtly, "I won't abandon the truth, William, and I won't lie about it, either."
There was a sharp silence after that, and Ash retreated back upstairs, her question forgotten. It was unsettling to hear them argue; she had never before realized the depth of their disagreement. But the next morning there was no trace of the argument in her parents' faces. In the months that followed, Ash listened a bit anxiously whenever her parents' conversation began to turn in that direction, but she never heard them bring it up again. When her mother fell sick so suddenly, her father called Maire Solanya to attend her, and Ash knew it was because he loved Elinor more than his beliefs.
Two weeks after her mother's funeral, Ash's father left for the Royal City. At breakfast that morning, she asked him, "When will you come back?"
"Possibly not until autumn," he said. Before her mother died, her father would leave them for months at a time to do business in the south. When he returned he would bring back gifts: slippery, shiny silks, or thick woolen tweeds, or toy dolls made of pale, cold porcelain.
"Did Mother ever go with you?" she asked, and he seemed surprised by her question.
"She did travel with me to Seatown once," he answered, "but she did not like it. She said she missed the Wood." He suddenly looked deeply sad, and he rubbed his hand over his face as if he were brushing away the memories. "She did like visiting the booksellers' bazaar, though. She'd spend hours there while I worked."
Ash asked, "Will you bring me a new book, Father?"
He seemed taken aback, but then he said gruffly, "I suppose you are your mother's daughter." He reached out and ruffled her hair, and he let his hand linger, warm and firm, on her forehead.
After breakfast, Ash sat on the front steps and watched her father and his driver loading trunks onto the carriage. It was a week's journey from Rook Hill to the Royal City, barring any mishaps. When they were ready to depart, he came over to Ash. She stood up, and he put a hand on her shoulder and said, "Be a good girl and listen to Anya. I'll send news when I can."
"Yes, Father," she replied, and looked down at the ground, staring at the toes of his polished black boots.
He lifted her chin in his hand and said, "Don't spend too much time daydreaming. You're a big girl now." He touched her cheek and then turned to go to the carriage. She watched as it pulled away, and she stood on the steps long after it had gone out of sight around the bend.
After her father left for the City, she went down to the grave every day, usually at twilight. The letters carved into the headstone spelling out her mother's name were sharp and fresh, and the rectangle of earth that marked the length of the grave was still distinct, but even within a few weeks of the burial, wildflowers and grasses had begun to grow. Sitting with her back against the tree, she remembered a tale her mother had once told her about a fairy who lived in the mountains north of Rook Hill. This fairy was a shape-shifter, and a cruel one at that. If a family had just lost someone, this fairy would visit them, knocking on their door after sunset. When they opened the door, they would see their departed loved one standing there, as real as could be. It would be tempting to invite her in, for in the depths of grief, sometimes one cannot tell the difference between illusion and reality. But those who gave in had to pay a price, for to invite death inside would mean striking a bargain with it.
"What price did they have to pay?" Ash asked her mother.
"Generally," her mother responded, "the fairies ask for the same thing: a family's first-born child, to take back with them to Taninli and mold into their own creature."
"What sort of creature?" Ash asked curiously.
Her mother had been kneading dough that morning, and she paused in her work to look out the kitchen window at the Wood. "You know, I've never seen such a creature," her mother said thoughtfully. "It must be a strange one." And then to dispel the dark mood, her mother laughed and said, "It's nothing to worry about, my dear. Simply don't answer the door after sunset."
And she reached over and caressed her daughter's cheek, leaving a light dusting of flour on her face.
The summer passed slowly. Her father sent news every few weeks, punctuating the warm stillness with reports from the south: There had been a storm on the road, and it had delayed them. When they arrived in the Royal City, a new King's Huntress had just been appointed, and there was a grand parade. In Seatown, her father had attended a ball at a grand estate on the cliffs. Ash and Anya read his letters together, and afterward, Ash folded them between the pages of her mother's favorite book, a collection of fairy tales that had been read so often the cover had come loose.
One market day, Ash went with Anya into the village. While Anya finished her errands, Ash wandered among the peddler's stalls in the village green. Coming to a cart piled high with herbs, she buried her nose among them and inhaled. When she looked up, the greenwitch was standing beside the cart, watching her.
"Where is Anya?" Maire Solanya asked.
"She is at the candlemaker's," Ash said.
"And your father? Has he sent news of when he will return?"
"No," Ash answered. "Why?"
But the greenwitch did not answer her question. Instead, she bent down to Ash's eye level and looked at her closely. The woman had strangely pale blue eyes and sharply arched gray eyebrows. "Do you miss your mother?" she asked.
Ash stepped back, startled. "Of course I miss her," she said.
"You must let her go," Maire Solanya said softly. Ash felt tears prick at the corners of her eyes. "Your mother was a great woman," the greenwitch continued. "She is happy where she is now. You must not wish her back."
Ash blinked, and the tears spilled over; she felt as if the greenwitch were tugging them out of her one by one.
Maire Solanya's features softened with compassion, and she reached out and brushed away the teardrops. Her fingertips were cool and dry. "It will be all right," she said gently. "We will never forget her."
By the time Anya came to collect her, she had stopped crying and was sitting on the stone bench at the edge of the green, and Maire Solanya had gone. They walked home silently, and though Anya asked her if she was upset, Ash only shook her head. At home a letter had been left for them, wedged into the edge of the front door, and Anya handed it to Ash as they went inside. While Anya put away the items she had purchased at the market, Ash unsealed the letter, spreading it out on the kitchen table. She read it twice, because the first time she read it she could not believe it.
"What news?" Anya finally asked, coming to join her at the table.
"Father is coming back," Ash said.
"Well, that's wonderful," Anya said with a smile. "Sooner than expected!"
"He is bringing someone with him," Ash said. Something in her voice caused Anya to take the letter from her, puzzled, and read it herself. "I am to have a stepmother, and two stepsisters," Ash said. She was stunned. "They will be here in two weeks."
After the letter arrived, the days passed in a blur. Anya was busy preparing the house as William had instructed. Later, Ash could never remember if she had helped to clean her mother's things out of her parents' bedchamber, or if Anya had simply swept them all into a trunk and out of sight. But she did remember that on the morning of her father's scheduled return, she visited what had been her mother's room and stood on the thick gold-and-brown rug in a pool of sunlight coming through the leaded glass windows. The wardrobe was empty now, and the door was partway open, as if inviting Ash to look inside and make sure that all traces of her mother were gone.
"A rich and darkly moving tale I couldn't put down."—Meg Cabot, bestselling author of The Princess Diaries series
"Cinderella, gorgeously reimagined, captivating and winsome. After you've fallen into the storytelling world of Malinda Lo, the truth of love will transcend the romantic ideal of fairy tales."
—Julie Anne Peters, author of Keeping You a Secret and National Book Award Finalist Luna
" This lyrically retold Cinderella tale is not just a beautifully updated fable, but an ode to the transformative power of love."—Cassandra Clare, bestselling author of The Mortal Instruments series
"A Cinderella story with fresh blood and real yearning."
—Rainbow Rowell, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Carry On
"I will forever hold this gorgeous novel close to my heart."
—Nina LaCour, author of the Michael L. Printz Award winner We Are Okay
"Lyrical and beautifully balanced...this Cinderella is flesh and blood in a whole new, breathtaking way."
—Kristin Cashore, New York Times bestselling author of the Graceling Realm series and Jane, Unlimited
"A modern classic and a must-read for those seeking...the victory of transformation over the darkest grief."
—Roshani Chokshi, New York Times bestselling author of The Star-Touched Queen and The Gilded Wolves
"Lo is one of the greatest voices in YA fiction."
—Kiersten White, New York Times bestselling author of the And I Darken trilogy
"With its beauty and bravery...Ash opened a world to girls like me."
—Anna-Marie McLemore, author of the Stonewall Honor Book When the Moon Was Ours and Blanca & Roja
- On Sale
- Sep 1, 2009
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers