Lara took a deep breath. “It’s just like the stray dog that hangs around the butcher’s, only its legs bend the wrong way,” she told herself. The wolf leaped towards her and, almost too late, she jumped out of the way and plunged the kitchen knife deep in its throat. It shrieked and collapsed to the forest floor with convulsions so mighty they shook its tail end from its body. She stared at the rump dashing between the trees. The pelt—costume—fell away from the head to reveal a little man, small as a child, bleeding out on the dead leaves.
Filthy, bloody, embarrassed, she stepped into the glittering ballroom. Horrified guests shied away from her as she made her way to the center of the room where the fairy king danced with some lucky lady. “Your Majesty, a moment of your time, please!”
His eyes gleamed like full moons on a black lake. He stood far too closely to her, taking in everything about her to best pass judgment. “Because I find you so endearing, Lara, I will give you this. Go to the Giant in the East, carve out the Face that Sees a Thousand Paths from his crown, bring it to me, and I will cure your mother.”
She awoke in an armchair. The cat-headed witch was cooking breakfast in the fireplace, her paws skillfully handling the frying pan. “Good, you’re all rested up for what’s to come,” she said. Her mouth moved strangely as it formed human words, but the sounds rang out clearly. “I can see that you’re a hero, and I will help you in your quest, if you agree to bring me a certain potion.” Lara nodded. “Good. Listen carefully, for without these magic words, you’ll never succeed. Listen. The words are…”
Snap. She winced as the twig broke, but the tomcat didn’t wake up. On her shoulder, she could feel the mouse holding its breath. After a moment, she crept out of the castle’s shadow. “One quick twist oughtta do it,” the mouse whispered in her ear. “Once I’m sure it’s dead, I’ll show you the secret passage.” For a moment she hesitated, but she hadn’t been able to find any other way inside.
She stepped out from behind the tapestry and was immediately awed by the size of the court. But before she had time to take anything in, the Giant walked into the hall, shaking the earth with each footstep. In a loud, clear voice, Lara recited the magic words. The Giant’s muscles seized up and it crashed to the stone floor. Buried in its forehead was a silver mask with eyes that seemed to bore into her soul; the Giant stared helplessly at her as she approached, taking out her knife.
“I have no money,” she said, resting the silvery Face that Sees a Thousand Paths on the apothecary’s countertop, “but I will allow you three questions about the future. That seems like more than adequate payment.” She watched him toss the vial from one hand to the other as he considered the offer. His eyes glinted with greed and curiosity.
She stood at the crossroads, eyeing the cavalryman warily. She’d thought his raven-head was part of his plumed helmet at first, but now up close she could see his feathers puffing up and his eyes blinking at her. Finally, she extended her hand towards him and he gripped it firmly. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.” She tried not to wince as she felt his scaly fingers’ claws dig into her flesh.
A hand clamped over her mouth before she could scream. She wriggled as hard as she could, trying to break free of the strong, smelly arms holding her but it was no use. She watched in horror as one of the bandits dumped out the contents of her bag—she couldn’t afford to lose the silver face, not after everything. She kicked and screamed, desperately fighting until a sudden BANG from the Valraven’s pistol made her freeze. The ruffian fell to the ground. In his surprise, the thug holding her loosened his grip and she was able to escape.
Tenderly, she pressed a kiss onto the Valraven’s beak. “Thank you. For earlier, I mean,” she added with a blush. He stared at her, speechless, and the moment hung between them like a drop of dew on a spiderweb. Then, he cupped a hand to her cheek and let out a soft warble. For a moment, she felt a little bit lighter.
Lara knocked on the cottage door a second time. Once again, there was no answer. Hesitant, she opened it and saw a heap of bones, guts, and meat on the kitchen table. She jumped when she realized the witch was behind her, carrying dirty vegetables in her apron. “Hello again,” she hailed, trying to ignore the way her hair was standing on end. “I brought you the potion you asked for.”
“He can have what he wants, just give it to me!” the witch’s ears flattened against her head as she spat the words out. Lara closed her eyes and nodded her assent. She tried not to look at the Valraven as it devoured the child’s heart—it had already been butchered when she’d arrived; they were just making the best of a bad situation. Nauseated, she put the vial in the witch’s paw.
She looked at the fairy king—really looked at him, ignoring the way his dark eyes tried to enthrall her, and saw him clearly for the first time. The Face was right, he would not use its soothsaying powers for good. She could not give it to him, though her mother might die for it. Better her than hundreds of innocents for his war.
After a long and dangerous trek, she reached the top of the mountain. A light shined in the tower window. Heart racing, she tugged on the little rope outside the door and heard a bell ring inside; in her arms, she could see the Face smile contentedly. It was finally home.
It had been a year and a day since Lara had left the farm, but it seemed like the valley hadn’t changed at all. She stepped inside the plaster house, left her worn boots at the door, and made her way to the back room. “I’m home, Mama.”