In Sheep’s Clothing

Sorrel was born with a scowl on her face, which perfected with age like a ripe cheese. She was no great beauty, but her frown gave her cheek a fine angle, and her furrowed brow framed her sharp eyes, and her surly passion brought color to her face. If she had been a happier girl, no doubt she would have been a plainer one.

Most men, however, would rather marry the warmth of pretty plainness than a face arched for a challenge, and so it was that Sorrel’s mother and stepfather could find no young man in the village game for facing her cocked bow.

A little gold is like honey for sweetening any deal, and Sorrel’s father had set aside a modest dowry for her matrimonial bargaining. But upon becoming a widow, her mother had found that a worm can creep its way into the peach and nibble at the meat around the pit without notice, and Sorrel’s dowry was not what it once was.

"If none will take her for her hard looks and hard demeanor, we must make her purse more attractive," said Gregor to his wife. With that resolve, he packed his small wagon with the fleece of his trade, improved this year with the increase of land by marriage, and as much produce as could be spared from the well-tended garden to travel into a larger town with hope of bringing in better coin than he could amongst his neighbors.

He made his goodbyes to his wife before departing, but Sorrel was nowhere to be seen.

"Where is your daughter?" he asked. He would have expected the infatuated thing to have been eager to ply for an embrace before he set off.

"I expect she is hiding somewhere sulking. Better that way than having her here mooning after your tracks. She’ll be back for her next meal, you can be sure. Now, along with you before the day is spent."

With a click to his horse, the wagon rolled forward, and underneath a layer of hot, suffocating wool, Sorrel moved not an inch and made not a sound.

Gregor travelled all day and camped through the night, and after another half a day’s travel arrived at a town of means well enough he deemed to try the market. He went to the back of the wagon to check on his wares, and found nestled in a space between the pelts and other goods his stepdaughter, dirty with sweat and grease, smiling at him.

Sputtering with surprise and anger, he grabbed Sorrel by the wrist and pulled her from the wagon, but fell silent, letting his arms drop, before he could scold her, for now she was here, there was nothing for it. With a sigh he ordered her to be of use and find some bread and wine while he worked, and the girl happily rushed along, too eager to please him where she would be crabby with anyone else.

The good country vegetables and fruits and herbs sold easily, but were too few to make a sizable profit, and the fleece had no buyers here. The two travelled another day to the next town, and found it already had all the wool it needed, and the same in the town after that. Gregor was beginning to despair of ever getting rid of his fleece, and of his stepdaughter. She would gaze silently at him over the flames of the campfire each night, and once she sneaked over to lay beside him as he slept, and he since warned her sternly, threatening to leave her by the road if she came too near.

They had been long on the road, and Gregor was contemplating soon turning back. He had travelled beyond his scope of the land, and knew of no more decent towns this far-flung. They were plodding through a long rainstorm when the road led into a dreary little village, and they stopped at the inn to escape the downpour and have a taste of hot soup. A group of men at a nearby table peered at them from scraggled faces as they sat to the sad fare the place offered.

"What’s your business?" asked one, a burly, black-bearded man who seemed friendly enough.

"I’m looking to sell some good wool," Gregor responded, "but seems everywhere I go the sheep must be throwing the stuff into folks’ laps themselves!"

The men didn’t laugh along with him, nor did Sorrel, who stared at each man in turn, though none would meet her eyes.

A gaunt, red-haired man spoke up. “I know where you can sell your wool. Won’t have far to go, either. There’s an old road leading north out of here, and if you follow it, you’ll soon come to a village, where you’ll find there’s plenty of gold but not enough fleece. Can’t keep sheep in that place. Sheep don’t last. Something carts ‘em off or tears ‘em up. Not many pass through to trade out here, so they’ll want your stuff. Swimming in gold, too, up there. You can make a sweet penny, maybe try your luck at dice with me when you come back through.” He grinned, and winked with a whistle through a gap in his teeth. The other men kept their faces turned to their table, and said nothing more.

The sun was out again when Sorrel and Gregor climbed back onto the wagon, and though the track they started upon was rough and muddy, Gregor saw a path of promise, and smiled with anticipation.

Sorrel only scowled.

1

Tie the Knot

There once lived a man who married a woman with three grown daughters. Now, this man was not very young, nor very handsome, nor very rich, nor very kind, and neither was the woman, but they were not altogether bad as surely as they were not altogether good.

The eldest daughter was a shapely, jolly girl who loved to work hard and laugh hard. She married a fat, laughing man and had many fat, laughing children, and the sun-creased corners of their eyes were always merry.

The youngest daughter was a slender, dainty girl, with refined sensibilities and a refined temper. She married a wealthy, haughty man, and they had no children, just as they both preferred, and she kept her skin pale as cream in a richly decorated chamber darkened with thick curtains.

But the middle daughter did not marry. She had daggers for eyes, wielded by the quick turn of her brows, and she sought no suitor, and no suitor sought her.

The man had no wish to keep a spinster for the rest of his days, so soon after moving into his wife’s home, he asked the girl, “Will you not marry?”

And the daughter replied, “I do not wish to marry.” But this was a lie, for she had longed to marry the neighbor’s son since she could remember.

A month passed, and the man asked, “Stepdaughter, is there no one you love?”

And she replied, “I love only myself.” But this was a lie, for she had by now come to desperately love her mother’s new husband.

Three months passed, and the man, exasperated with the stubborn girl, asked, “Is there no one you would have?”

And the girl replied, “Stepfather, I would have only you.” And she spoke the truth, so far as she knew it, for she was too heart-weary to lie any longer.

The man was taken speechless, having never encouraged the girl’s affections, nor desired them in the slightest. In the passing days after her confession, the stepdaughter became unduly familiar, addressing him by his given name with too much warmth in the inflection, and quickly stealing his fingers in her own in moments when chance and proximity left them alone together.

"Gregor," she would whisper, "I am much younger and sweeter than my old mother. You should have me instead." And each time he would push her away, but she was persistent, gazing longer and stepping closer each day.

He spoke to his wife of her daughter, and they agreed she must be quite ill or quite wicked, and that the affliction must be put to an end at once. The mother went to her daughter and said, “There will be no more of this. Your sister Tansy is married and well-fed, as she wishes it. Your sister Rue is married and quite rich, as she wishes it. What is it you are wanting for, my Sorrel?”

And she replied, “I want to love a man right, and I know how to do it, and I will have your man before it’s all done, and love him right. That’s what I want.”

The mother had a huff at this, and the household was soon wound taut enough to pluck a tune upon, which its members did, with each other.

"We must be rid of her," the man and his wife would mutter under their breath in their bed at night, scheming for some way to free their house. "We must find someone, anyone who will marry her."

But Sorrel had keen senses, and could feel their plotting prickle along her spine as sharply as she could hear their low voices through the wall.

She went into the night, cold with the dregs of winter, and looked at the black of the sky, spiting the stars and their unwelcome light. “I won’t have it!” she hissed. “I will marry no one!” She turned to the moon, and its still indifference angered her further. “You hear me! No one will wed me! No one will take me!” And with that, she spat on the ground as if it were the moon’s own shadow she defiled, and ran back in to her bed, where a girl’s anguish is best treasured.

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