The night told of only an inky blackness. Not a creature could be heard, only a dense stiffness and an unrelenting icy wind.
Her mind whirled like a deep, dark
maelstrom and what was there to stop it? Surely not her frostbitten fingers. Surely not her shaking core. Surely not the screaming gales that gusted through her frayed cloak. Surely not the cold, barren trees that towered over her like menacing archways.
She envied the trees and their unfruitfulness. They remind her of a time, mere months before, when she was still a girl. Now, with the unborn child in her womb, she was a woman. And what must a woman do but care for her child?
And yet, what if the girl did not choose to be a woman?
What if the girl did not choose to have slander whispered of her through the streets. Tales of the girl who had turned herself into a woman, by her own decree, yes. Because no man could ever do that. It is the fault of the girl, nay, the woman. Because no honorable man would take that away.
It surprised her naïve and young mind to know that there were men who were, in fact, dishonorable.
Handsome men from far off lands who spoke of magic and wanderlust. Family men with wives and children; with good honest work and good pay. What could an honorable man like that want with such a meek, young girl?
Many things, apparently. Many distasteful, dishonorable things. They had left her, ruined.
And when there is nothing left to take, nothing left to cajole, one is left with a girl turned woman. But in truth, she was merely a child. A child bearing a child.
She thought of the recent past. The many closed doors and disdainful looks. The quiet remarks that did not easily slip past her ears. What was once a bright world soon reared an uglier, more spiteful head. One that saw the plight of an innocent girl and turned it's eyes away. Sometimes it would snarl and gnash it's teeth at her. Sometimes it would trill in pity. But, it would always turn away.
There is a sort of desperation that comes with being damned. A willingness to try and exhaust any and all options. No matter how incredible or unlikely.
They had warned even her, the damned trollop who wandered the streets, about the woman in the woods. The woman lived in a dark manor surrounded by a dark wall, rumored to be made of children's bones. Many a gossiping tongue let her know of the rumors associated with the woman.
But she could help. She would help, they told her, most definitely. For a fee, of course. The fee was never small and never expected, but the help was assured.
And there she stood. Winter reddened palms lying flat against the stone wall. The ivy that contorted along it was too lush and green for the winter, while everything around it seemed to be shriveled and dead. The wall itself looked of a crumbling grey stone and yet was sturdier than any structure.
The gate that blocked woods from manor was a deeply rusted metal, equally laden with ivy. So much so that she could barely see past the bars. And yet it silently gave way to her push. Not a creak or a cry from it's rust-gnawed hinges.
There was a silence. Deafening, for what felt like infinite moments.
The girl turned back to look at the forest behind her. Still snowy and white as she left it. Yet, beyond the wall was a garden. The snow was still falling upon it, but melting instantly. It was no warmer within the garden than out of it. Her breath still collected in front of her face in faint ghostly wisps. And yet, summer and spring crops grew bold and big in the rich dark earth. Not winter withered or stiff, but lush, full and ripe.
In moments she was on her knees, plucking fat and bright blackberries from their bush and eating insatiably. The fruit settled on her tongue like a blanket of sweetness and left her incredibly faint from flavor. She hadn’t tasted such tangy goodness in so long.
How long had it been? Months? Months since such a treat had found her lips.
Greedily, she moved on to the next thing. A woven basket she didn't notice before, full of even more kinds of berries and fruits. They disappeared down her throat as fast as she could pick them up. She wouldn't have stopped.
Maybe not until she gorged herself.
She wouldn't have stopped had she not looked up to face a set of deep eyes staring back at her.
A woman stood at the gate where she had entered prior. The woman's eyes watched the girl, in a mix of pity and rage, a common reaction to the sore sight that she was.
The basket dropped from the girl's hand as she scrambled upwards.
The woman's gaze fell to the girl's swollen belly and they softened at the sight.
"What are you doing here, girl?" The woman spoke calmly. Not a shout or a hiss.
The girl's eyes prickled with tears. It had been some time since someone spoke to her with even a shred of care and caution.
She cast her head down in shame.
"I am sorry, ma'am. I've been so 'ungry for so long." She resented the way she sounded. Like an illiterate, poor, bumpkin without an ounce of schooling. But, that is what she was.
"I didn't mean to eat without permission. You see, I'm with child and I've been sent off. I haven't a place to go."
The woman only stared for a moment before stepping closer, swinging the heavy gate closed behind her. A cold chill cascaded down the girls spine and not from the blistering winter air.
"No one has shown you compassion, my girl?" The woman asked.
The girl shook her head, too nervous to reply verbally anymore.
"No one has offered you a stead?"
The woman pondered the idea with an unreadable expression. "I suppose you had reason to do what you did. People cannot always control their needs or desires.”
The woman sighed and looked the girl up and down once more, tapping a long pale finger to her chin.
“If that's the case, I suppose I should take you on."
The girl's eyes widened and the woman continued.
"But, when the time comes, I expect to be repaid. Not with money, or mere morsels. Something good and weighty. Something substantial and to my need. Do you understand, girl?"
The woman, who called herself only Dame Gothel, led the girl inside, let her wash and change her clothes. Gave her bread, cheese, dried meats and porridge. She had her own room in the tallest tower of the manor and could have the house servants send for anything she pleased.
They kept this routine, the girl staying fed but daily wondering when or how she'd pay back the Dame Gothel. But, the thought slipped her mind and instead she set her focus on her child. The day was fast approaching and midwives were always at the ready.
The first wave of pain came during the night as the girl slept. There was blood, a bit too much of it. But in the early morning, agonizing hours later, she held her daughter in her arms for the first time. There had been so much resentment, so much hatred for the infant inside her. She hadn't even wanted to keep the child. But, there the little girl lay. Eyes shut tight and fingers clasped around her mothers own.
Something had changed. Something was different. There wasn't anything she wouldn't do to keep her daughter safe and happy.
Child as she herself was, there wasn't anything she wouldn't strive to give.
Dame Gothel visited after some time and the girl proudly showed the beautiful thing she had created.
Gothel marveled at the child.
"Look at that hair." She chuckled. "So thick and long for a newborn.” The Dame curled a finger around the child’s tight coils of dark brown hair, so dark it was almost black.
“What will you name her?"
"Basilla. After my grandmother."
There was quiet for a moment, the only sound coming from the baby’s Basilla's shaky babbles.
"A good name.” The Dame determined. “She'll make a fine sort of remittance."
"Remittance?" The girl asked, gently moving her child away from Gothel’s reach.
"I had asked for such, no? A payment. Your dues. You haven't forgotten them, have you? I've chosen what they shall be.”
"You can't speak of my child like some animal game or a debt. Please, I'll pay some other way."
"With what? Money? You have none. Look at you, girl. You are not fit to be a mother. Have you not been relying on my generosity for many these past fortnights? What did you think would come of this? Did you think you’d stay here?"
The girl cast her eyes away.
Dame Gothel laughed grimly.
"I told you the price would be hefty. And so it is. Hand over the child."
The girl held her daughter closer to her chest and hissed a weak but resounding word.
The Dame looked almost sad for a moment before making her own utterance.
The sound was quiet. Like a twig in the forest. The moment was fleeting, like a falling snowflake. But, something was wrong in the room.
And if anyone could sense the wrongness, it was Basilla. She could sense it in the way the hold around her grew limp. In the way the deep, rushed beating she had been listening to stopped. In the way her body moved from comfortable warmth, to unnatural cold.
But, she was just a child. A tiny infant girl.
What could she do? What could she do but cry?
And so she did.