The Yuletide Clockmaker

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Far up north, where Milk Glass is hand-blown by winter into the sea, an old man tinkers in his shop.

His name is Od, which is an oddly fitting name, for he was hewn from the oldest Bristlecone alive. A creation by Father Time as a gift for humanity. A present to last until humanity ceased to exist.

Although he was once spry and lean, the past few years had ground Od down, chiseling, whittling, honing him into what he is now. A relic of regal pedigree. A priceless antique with no more than five tufts of hair upon his crown, and a beard woven from silver moonlight on a cold, clear night.

The tides were turning. He felt Father’s eyes upon him and heard the bells begin to toll. His time was almost up. This December would be his last. Humanity had ebbed away on dark tides. Kindness and compassion sailed away on the motes that drank the summer sun. With every sour turn, his back stooped and hunched, and when he moved, his bones now creaked more than his worn-in stairs. He shrugged the sadness off and busied himself with more important matters, such as making miniature clocks in his shop on Town Square.

Od used his sleeve to polish his breath off the face of his last charm. Satisfied with the gleam, he took in his reflection. His ruby tunic was rusted; his hair was fading into a dusty mist. Becoming invisible was a weapon of illusion, he thought. One that looked harmless enough, but slowly erased the bits that once were you. It wouldn’t be long before he was gone, he guessed. More than likely before dawn.

The nosy mayor’s wife peeked in Od’s windows, and although Od saw her clearly, she did not see him at all.

“What a curious little shop. I heard he sells junk nobody needs.” She pressed her ear against the window and wrestled up her fur frock. “Do you hear that click? There it goes again.” Tick, tick, tick.

Od knew of the mayor’s wife. Her sharp tongue was legendary. In return, she’d receive no card in the mail this holiday season. No present from her husband. Her children had all left the town and were too busy to stop by. Too tired to call.

Od knew this year would be no different for her from the last. The poems he wrote on his windows during Valentine’s Day had never been read. The flowers she passed by every spring were trampled on instead of savored. He spun a sprig of mistletoe between his knotted knuckles and went back to work. Perhaps some souls needed to sop up every second to change.

“Yes. Yes. I thought I heard something,” the banker said upon closer inspection. “Odd. But it’s empty.” He twisted the ends of his mustache. “Sad, really. Broken looking fellow with Bronze Age bones.” Newfound interest bubbled out of his eyes. “Maybe he kicked the bucket, and his shop is up for sale.”

They both snickered and walked on. Neither opened the door. For if they had, they would’ve seen pin-sized jewels bottled on bookshelves like colored sand, and melted sticks of peppermint poured into tiny glass circles. Cranberry wood would be burning in the hearth. And one giant eye would’ve looked up from the other side of a magnifying lens, as Od stopped working tweezers thin as threads.

Od wobbled from the shop, making a bell jingle overhead. It had been a quiet day after a night of snowfall. Empty nests appeared to fasten cloaks of snow onto evergreens. Now the bluest hue of night was spreading. Vapor clung to breath and frost crept up windowpanes and cut them into patterned lace. He felt himself fading away, but he continued to wish the townsfolk well.

“Care for a candy cane?” he asked a young mother with children in tow. He stripped off the red stripes and turned them into ribbons for the littlest girl. “She reminds me of the pixies who ride snowflakes as they fall.”

The mother waved him away, confused by what she’d seen and what Od had said.

Od signaled to a young man with his eyes glued to the ground.

“Good evening, sir. There’s a fire on the hearth just inside. Perfect for stealing time to think about your future.”

The man pulled his sailor’s cap down over his ears as he walked past.

Od shuffled backward as more shoppers scurried by with packages piled high in their arms. He read their thoughts. Some were uneasy at his deformed back. Others frightened of the deep folds on his face. Perhaps they thought his years were contagious, or their time was too precious to spare a glance. Not even one. With his back up against his door, he watched them all closely. He listened to the words in their hearts. If given one more day, he would learn what made them tick, so he could gift them a story all their own.

A woman bumped into Od. Her coat had holes, and her shoes the thinnest soles. “S-so sorry. I didn’t see you there,” she said. In part, because her glasses were thick and crusted with ice, but also because Od was fading fast.  “Everything is almost closed for the night. I waited until the last minute. I so hoped for one decoration, or two, to be on sale.”

“It is far better to surprise than to sell.” Od took his staff and knocked the glassy, pointed teeth from the windowsill high above. Icicles floated down to a basket held in his arm, hardening into sparkling ornaments. Next, he withdrew a metal contraption from his pocket and shaved strands of his beard into sterling strings. “With this Wizzler, everything you shred will have value.” He pressed his invention into her palm and tapped his staff against the ice. The layer of frost on her glasses dissipated.

She took the gift. In return, she left a smile upon Od’s lips. Family is what he always missed, so he searched for it in the faces of the people on the street. But as much as Od loved each town he moved to; he suffered the same fate as before. People were scared of seconds. Frightened of the inevitable. He had stories he wished to share by his hearth, but people were too busy to find the time.

Every hour, and every minute, Od aged a little more. With every passing soul who didn’t see him, he was a vanishing act right before their eyes. Drifting away into the nothingness from simply not being seen. He saw his ghostly reflection and knew the sands were almost spent. The Tickers were a waste of life. Od pulled the knob on his door when he felt a tug on his sleeve.

“You have a scar like me.” A little boy pointed to a jagged line across his upper lip. He was missing one of his front teeth and smiled like he was proud of that fact.

Od traced his own scar, remembering a moment he’d forgotten eons ago. “From a gnome in the Wild Woods who thought I was a bear.”

The boy laughed from deep inside his belly. “Gnomes aren’t real.”

“Because you haven’t seen one?” Od asked. “They certainly are. They play games that only they can win. And they blend into the forest. You see … that’s quite their trick.”

The boy pointed to Od’s scepter that doubled as his cane. “Is that a sword?”

Od spun the wood in his hand. Tempus was carved in fanciful writing along the side. “More of a reaper than a sword.”

The boy wrinkled his nose and grinned as his father jogged up and shot Od an uncertain look. “You can’t just run off, Jimmy.” He buttoned up the boy’s coat and pulled up the collar. “It’s far too cold.”

“I have a Ticker for you,” Od said, rocking back on his heels. “For you both, really. Just inside my shop.”

The man fidgeted. “A Ticker?”

“A present,” Od said.

“Oh, I’m sorry. We’re barely making it as it is,” the man said.

“Everything inside is on sale,” Od said. “One hundred percent off.”

“That’s a good deal, Dad,” Jimmy said.

His father chuckled and picked Jimmy up, noticing how the shopkeepers were all turning their lights out and locking the doors. His gaze lingered on a girl with a pale pink coat, and his eyes saddened. “For a minute, then. Since it’s so late.”

Something solid warmed within Od. A spark of hope. A splinter of possibility. The wrinkles on his face tightened, and the bend in his back straightened almost imperceptibly. “Minutes,” Od said with glee, “I have a knack for twisting those.”

The father eyed Od’s dark windows and scratched his head at what lay inside.

The heavy wooden doors opened, and a rainbow of colors danced across their faces. Strands of popcorn draped across wooden beams high above their heads. Glass ornaments of every color hung mid-air, turning slowly, like festive balls without strings. A giant tree spread out from the middle, dripping with tiny clocks. Jimmy crawled onto a velvet chair and grabbed a handful of cookies.

“Jimmy’s mother decorated like this,” the man said. “Before she passed on.”

Od nodded knowingly. “She’d be proud of how well you’ve done with your son.”

Jimmy’s father wondered if Od had known his wife, and he regretted that he’d never stopped by before. Had he noticed him living and working in this shop, he wondered? If not … why not? “I’ve never seen anything like this.” He picked up a tiny gold clock with green and red gemstones inside.

“These are my specialty.” Od touched the round knob at the top. “You twist it there. Turn it here. Then give it a couple of good spins.”

“It won’t spin forward,” the man said.

“In all things, you must go backward before you go forward. And afterward, whichever way you need most,” Od said.

The man did as Od instructed, and the face of the clock opened, revealing minuscule churning gears that quickly vanished, leaving a round, clear glass with gold rings that spun on the outside. He closed one eye and scrunched up the other.

“Take a good look before the years spin away from you,” Od said.

The man leaned in as instructed, and a childhood scene unfolded slowly, flipping quickly until his late wife’s face smiled up at him. He caught himself smiling back. Years turned by as the clock continued on. Past Jimmy’s birth. To the moment in Od’s shop, and then onward, onward, to another face. The girl in the darling pink coat.

“What is this?” Jimmy’s father asked with disbelief.

“Yule time,” Od said, “With life stops along the way. Glimpses of the past. If you’re lucky, some of the future. I only work with happiness. Sadness is regretfully conjured on your own.”

The man twisted the top again, and his heart swelled with sweet memories. “You work with wonder, my friend.” He hugged Od fiercely, peeling years off Od’s face.

Od’s spine cracked. He stood tall. His age was no longer written around his eyes or in spots on his hands.

Branches bounced as the wind brushed through the door. Both men turned to see the young woman in pink. Her concern washed away at the sight of Jimmy’s father. She glanced at Od and raised a note. “I received an invitation. It seems someone tied it to my door.”

“Invitations are always there, my dear.” But we often only notice when in need. Od rushed forward. “You came just in the knick. I made something for you. Go on. Pick it off the tree.”

“A present? For me?” She looked for a tag but found none. “Which one is mine?”

“Whichever you like. Why don’t you show her how it works,” Od said to Jimmy’s father.

Bells tinkled. The young man from earlier bounded in. “It’s been a long year. I’m back to battle in a couple of days.” He looked around the room for encouragement to go on. “I was waxing my boot and this card fell out of my jacket pocket.”

“One should never go to battle alone,” Od said. “Come in. Come in. No doubt there is something truly special for you.”

Jimmy’s father ushered the man in with excitement. “There are hundreds on the tree. Magic, I think, made from this time of year.”

“One for every soul in town.” Od leaned down and stoked the fire, not with an ache and pop, but with the agility of a man half his age. His heart felt full of laughter. The glint in his eye piercing and true. This would not be his last night. He would be blessed to craft another year. He glanced up at the door. More, he knew, would come that night to share their tales. Some would never. Most would not until at their very worst.

Od kneeled in front of the heart and recited tales of his youth, becoming younger and brighter as every ear turned his way. He told of the day he met the Crystal Queen. The battles he faced as he volunteered to fight amongst her ranks against the dragon intent on setting her aflame. Of the ogres on the island of Snolligogo who eat coconuts all day. And the fairies of Everlight whose hair glow in both day and night.

“Will you come for dinner?” Jimmy asked. “And tell us more stories?”

“Yes!” his father said. “I insist.”

“We could bring dinner here,” the young woman offered, blushing at the pleased reaction from the man and the boy. “Unless Od’s family is coming.”

“Now that would be lovely,” Od said. As he memorized the faces smiling back at him, he felt they had already come.

The Star-Catcher

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Once there was a kingdom of darkness, and another that was always light. Nobody knows who ruled the land of darkness, but a giant ogre king who only ate fallen stars ruled the realm of light. Like many weighed down by jewels and crowns, the king required others to catch his stars, but the only star-catcher that remained was a girl named Aurelia. All day long, Aurelia was forced to track white scars across the sky. She hiked up mountains and waded through roaring rivers in search of the king’s food, because keeping the king stuffed kept their realm safe and bright. On days when Aurelia returned with little more than a bucketful of stars, the king turned her around and sent her off with a grave warning. Without his belly to light the day and night, evil beasts would ravage their world. Aurelia had never seen an evil beast, but she was still afraid.

Every day Aurelia did as she was told. When she came upon a star, she wrapped it in a cloth sewn with special threads of ice so her hands were never burned. Afterward, she returned to the castle. Climbing ninety-nine stairs that stretched out like a giant cascading tongue from the jaws of the throne room. Once she reached the top, Aurelia hurled the stars into the king’s gaping mouth, and he greedily gulp them down until his plump belly grew bright. So bright, in fact, their kingdom could be seen from far, far away.

The shiniest stars fell near the edge of the land where the light and the dark split in two. The Great Divide, the king called it, and although Aurelia often watched it from afar, he forbade her to go near.

The king picked at his razor-sharp teeth and licked his lips clean. He leaned over his enormous stomach to pin her with his glare. “Monsters lurk on the edge of the Great Divide. They sniff you out, you see.” He flared his big nostrils. “And then they eat you up.” 

Aurelia recoiled. She imagined claws for fingers and sockets with no eyes.

One day, the king roared from hunger. “Find me more stars! Do not return until you collect a feast that lasts for seven days.”

The light around her flickered and silhouette monsters danced along the walls. Aurelia shivered at the thought of no light. She imagined all of the people being eaten. She had scoured the mountain for days and found not a single spark. “The Great Divide is the only place left,” she said. “The stars tumble down the mountain until they come to rest at the bottom.”

“Find stars elsewhere!” The king boomed so loud, the castle wall cracked. “You will freeze to death near the darkness. Creatures with sharp teeth and black eyes will pull you apart to suck on your bones.”

 The king rubbed his belly, and Aurelia wondered if the monsters rubbed their bellies the same way.

 “Go,” he told her. “Do not eat, and do not sleep until you have done as I command.”

Aurelia set out all alone. The light from her kingdom blinked on and off, casting shadows that made her jump. No matter where she looked, she could find no stars. She gently touched her blistered feet and pressed at her stomach to make the hunger pangs go away. She asked the baker for a Bouillon biscuit and the farmer with the glowing cow for a sip of Sunshine milk, but both turned her away, reminding her of the king’s order and her duty to them all.

She didn’t ask to be a star-catcher. She wanted to swim in the copper lake with others her age. String up ceremonial Gilver nuggets for the Festival of Illumination. But still, she saw expectation in the eyes of others. Their fright, should she fail. With a heavy heart, Aurelia ignored the king’s prophecy and headed toward the Divide. She’d never had the luxury of a choice. Now, if she wanted her kingdom to survive, she had no choice but to go.

She followed trails of stardust until she came upon thousands of tiny specks littering the ground. Wonder flickered around her feet. Constellations sparkled over the ground. She bent down to collect a handful of stars when a figure emerged from the black bushes. “Who’s th-there?” she stammered.

A creature stepped forward, disguised by shadows.

Aurelia stumbled backward. “Come into the light.”

“Your light will burn me.”

“My stars do not burn,” Aurelia said.

“Come into the darkness,” the creature said.

“You are a monster and will eat me.”

The creature laughed. At least Aurelia thought so, because she couldn’t see him. “I eat Midnight berries and roots,” he said. “Not girls with stars in their hands.”

“How can you live in such a cold, lonely land?” Aurelia asked.

“The birds sing to me. The animals keep me warm. How can you live in such a hot, fiery land?”

“In the light I am never afraid,” she said, questioning the truth in her words.

The creature grew quiet, so Aurelia quickly stacked the stars on her cloth and dragged them up the mountain.

The king crushed the stars in the palm of his hand. “You feed crumbs to a king?! Return for more.”

Secretly, she wanted to go back. She liked the pleasant scent of the grey forest and the songs she heard when she tilted her ear. Do the birds that sing to him make the music? How do the animals keep him warm?

Aurelia met the monster at the Great Divide the next evening, and he was no more than a shape among shapes, dressed by the night.

“Where do you sleep?” she asked.

“In my home. We rest by the fire and tell stories from our day.”

“We?”

“My family,” he said.

Aurelia had never heard of a family. All the people in her kingdom were just subjects of the king. She pondered this as she left him, eager to return and ask more questions.

On the third night, they stepped closer to one another. He told her more about his family. Jokes they played on one another. Stories of horror they told as they huddled around. About the creatures of light, and how one touch burns hotter than the bluest flame.

Aurelia had never laughed so hard. So hard, that her heart hurt when she left, because she didn’t want to go.

Little by little, they inched forward. On the fifth night, she looked up and saw his face. His eyes were not black and his teeth were not sharp. His eyes were green, he told her. She’d never seen the color green and didn’t know what that meant, but saw that they matched the leaves on the trees. His lips were the color of the berries he held in his hand.

Aurelia gasped. Her face lit up the same way it did when she found a star. “You look like a boy.”

“I am.” He thought her light would hurt, but his eyes and his skin became accustomed to the intensity. “My name is Kieron.”

Kieron wasn’t burned, as he’d been told, and Aurelia wasn’t devoured, like she’d been told.

“Will you come here?” Kieron asked.

Aurelia’s cheeks warmed at the softness of his words. “Will you come here instead?”

As Kieron stepped forward, so did she. When his gentle hand touched hers, his night brightened and her day darkened. The world around them pulsed with colors neither had ever seen nor imagined could exist.

When Aurelia never returned, the king grew so thin that his crown no longer fit. After days of hunger, he jumped into the sky and became the sun, ever chasing after the stars.

From that day on, Aurelia was never without Kieron. They stayed together as the light began to blend, and his family became hers until they created their own. Together, with her hand always in his, they traveled to uncharted lands and lived long, happy lives. On their last day, they closed their eyes, and the night sky honored their love by lifting them up to shine forever more.

Sugarheart

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Once upon a time, there was a good witch who lived in the belly of an enchanted forest. Her only visitors were the animals that stumbled upon her cottage by accident. Although she mended their cuts and scrapes, and gave them potions when they were ill, her blue skin and silver eyes scared them all away.

After many years, the witch grew lonely. She moved closer to the village, startling the townsfolk and scaring the children. The townsfolk didn’t care if she was a good witch or a bad witch. She was a witch, and witches weren’t welcome. By nightfall, they had donned necklaces of garlic and chased her away with pitchforks and buckets of water. None of that worked for the type of witch that she was, but because she preferred children’s laughter to their screams, she grabbed her broomstick and her hat and marched her house back to the woods.

She would stay up late to wish upon shooting stars and rise early to wake the roosters. Sometimes during a full moon, she would ride her broomstick to the nearest village and peek in windows and float upside-down in the chimneys to watch the children play. She had always wanted a child, but she had no love to call her own, for her beauty had departed long ago. When she looked in the mirror, she saw skin that had faded to grey and eyes that only sparkled with tears.

One day, while she was making spider lollipops to give to the children as presents, she came across an ancient recipe tucked into her cookbook that gave her a brilliant idea. She could make a child. Although part of the page was missing and some of the ink was smeared, she was practiced at witchcraft and brilliant at culinary spells. She had most of the spell. She had some of the ingredients. Perhaps, if nobody wanted her, she should make a child who did. With a feathered quill and a bottle of unicorn tears, she concocted a shopping list for a child with a sugar heart.

Ingredients for my child

Sugar cane
Marmalade
Sugar beets
Malted wheat

Colored ribbons
Peach fuzz
Honeycomb without the buzz

Morning dew
Baby’s breath
Moonbeams
Sweetbread

The purr after a cats meow
Milk from a dreaming cow
Graveyard soil where flowers grow
Liquid sunshine, flakes of snow

The witch tapped her quill against her head. There were other items she needed, but excitement overcame her. She told herself that she’d come back to it. She wouldn’t forget. But as the sun spread across the sky, she did exactly that.

She stacked the ingredients on her table and waited until the first stroke of midnight. Then, one by one, she plopped them into the pot. At the last second, she tripled the ingredients and tossed in her wand for extra magic. Her cauldron belched out a puff of smoke that seeped through the mossy roof. All colors of soot dusted her cheeks and clothes. Leaning over the rim, she inhaled deeply and something warm and bright tickled her heart. The sweetest-smelling baby bobbed on the bubbles, cooing as she gazed into her mother’s eyes. The witch plucked her daughter out of the cauldron, and proudly named her Sugarheart.

The witch taught Sugarheart everything she knew. How her broomstick flew like the birds, and where to sit when riding a bear. She even took her to the village so Sugarheart could make friends, but the townsfolk ran for their weapons. To make it up to her daughter, the witch conjured a spell to let the children play together in their dreams.

Sugarheart was the happiest child—treasured beyond gold and silver, and spoiled more than an August egg. The witch loved her daughter deeply. Every birthday cake had hundreds of candles. Every night they played trick-or-treat. Years passed in a hummingbird’s blink. Rumors spread quickly about Sugarheart’s uncommon beauty, and it wasn’t long before a suitor knocked on their door.

Upon first glance, Sugarheart swooned, and the witch flinched. He was as tall as the horses that pulled the carts, more unexpected than a rainbow in a cloudless sky.

“My lady.” He bowed at the waist, tipping his crown. “Or should I say, ‘my queen’?” He winked at Sugarheart. “I am Prince Mountebank. And I have come to make you mine.”

Sugarheart’s cheeks turned from peaches to apples. “You’re so handsome. Are you certain you want me? I can never stay out long in the rain.”

The prince chuckled. “Such honesty. Such innocence. You are a confection of perfection. You are—,” he waved his hand around as if catching a thought, “my destiny.”

Sugarheart giggled. The witch frowned; he was more a wizard of words than a prince.

“May I steal but a moment with your scrumptious daughter?” the prince asked.

Sugarheart grabbed her mother’s hands. “May I, Mother? I’ve always wanted to meet a prince.”

The witch couldn’t resist. Her daughter’s happiness was all she’d ever wanted, so she measured the prince with her eyes. His cape was a fine blend of velvet. The buckles on his shoes were polished and gleaming. The emeralds in his crown were the size of plums. More importantly, his gaze never left Sugarheart’s face.

The witch agreed. “You may court her if you promise to keep her safe.”

The prince swept Sugarheart off her feet and placed her in the saddle on his white stallion. “We shall return, no doubt happier than before we met.”

Sugarheart looked at him and smiled. She’d never spent time alone with a boy, let alone a dashing prince. He was a dream. Her dream. He lifted her off the horse, and walked with her arm in arm. When the clouds turned black, he made an umbrella out of a branch, and tossed his cape over puddles so she’d always stay clean. Everything he said elicited a sigh. Every glance he shot her way made her grin wider and her dimples deeper.

Before the sun had set on the horizon, Prince Mountebank had done exactly as he said. Sugarheart was home, safe and happy. The witch was pleased.

The next afternoon, the prince rapped at Sugarheart’s door once again.

“You are late,” the witch said. “You said you would be here in the morn. The sun now tips to the west.”

The prince presented a bouquet of wild orchids. “I tricked a troll and sparred with a giant to harvest these flowers from the field. Nothing less would do for your daughter.”

He was brave, she thought, and handsome and wealthy. Everything she wanted for her daughter, and yet something made her hesitate. Like silence in the forest, or still air before a raging storm.

Sugarheart grabbed her mother’s hands and kissed her cheek. “Please, Mother. He likes that you are a witch and made me out of goodness. It may be hard to find another. Let alone a prince.”

The witch’s heart softened once again, and Sugarheart and the prince went on their way.

Sugarheart let the prince feed her berries as they picnicked in a field of lilies. “You aren’t eating,” she said. “Aren’t you hungry?”

“It is not berries that I love. It is you. I find you delicious in every way.” The prince pointed to her smallest finger on her left hand. “May I have a nibble? Just a bit?”

She’d never thought about how she tasted. Having looked at his lips, she’d wanted a kiss. Was it the same? She decided it must be. “Will it hurt?”

“Not much,” he said, biting down to her last knuckle.

When Sugarheart got home that evening, she grabbed a pair of gardening gloves from a drawer and went straight to her room. She even skipped goulash and toad trifle, which was her very favorite meal. She was too afraid to tell her mother, confused about what the bite had meant.

The next day, the prince came once again, and they rode his stallion to see a dwarf who made her the most beautiful jeweled necklace.

“This pales in comparison to your sparkle. But you may have it if you like. Anything you desire. If only I may have one more taste in return,” the prince said.

Sugarheart thought the gems shimmered like moonlight on the lake. If he thought she had more sparkle, like he said, he must truly love her. She held out her arm. But this time, his bite hurt more.

As before, Sugarheart ran straight to her room while her mother paced in the kitchen and peeked through the cracks in the door. Perhaps Sugarheart’s secretive behavior was normal, the witch thought. A mother’s burden that she must now bear. But when Sugarheart and the prince never returned the next night, terror gripped the witch as she thought of her daughter in danger. She sent the falcons to comb the forest, and flew so fast and so far that she fried the tip of her broomstick. On her last swing around, she spotted the prince bounding on his horse. Alone.

“Here you are. Where is my Sugarheart?” the witch shrieked.

The prince wiped his mouth with his cravat. “You made her too sweet.”

The witch’s eyes hardened and her jaw clenched. “And what of her heart? Is it broken? Is it gone?” If only she had her daughter’s heart, she could bring Sugarheart back.

“I had no use for that.” He spurred his horse forward. “I tossed it away back in the village.”

The witch’s lips trembled. Her two fingers snapped. “You must pay for what you did.”

The prince smirked.

“And so you must feel what she felt.” She waited until his smirk had disappeared, and then turned the prince into a carrot and slowly fed him to his horse.

Near a fountain in the square, a young man held a glass gem up to a lantern. The witch circled above his head, overjoyed at the sight of her daughter’s heart. She swooped down, ready for war. “That is mine.”

The witch’s face was like his mother’s when his little brother had passed away at birth, the boy thought. “It would be hard to let something this beautiful go,” he said.

She held out her hand and motioned for him to surrender.

“Although I am sad to say goodbye,” he said, “I think this should be shared.” Gently, he placed the jewel into the witch’s palm and blinked. She was gone.

Back at the witch’s house, the cauldron boiled. This time, she changed the recipe and collected the ingredients she’d forgotten before. She weighed them precisely, on a scale with perfect balance, adding knights’ armor, the edge of a blade, a lion’s roar, and a drop of jade. Then she rummaged through her cupboard for fragrant herbs and secret spices that she didn’t write down, but kept solely for herself.

Finally, she halved the recipe, but after a long thought, she added it right back in. What boiled up looked to be the same Sugarheart as before. Only this time, she was seasoned with more zest. She learned to wield a bow and arrow like the townsfolk, to banter with the boys in the village. When the day came for Sugarheart to leave home, she found her prince, though he was not dressed in velvet, nor was his mouth stuffed with fancy words. He was the same boy who had once held her heart in his hand, grown now, yet just as humble and kind.

“I’ve built you a cottage just through the grove,” the young man said. “And made goulash and toad trifle for supper.”

Sugarheart jumped into his arms and kissed his cheek. “Is it as good as Mother’s?”

“We’ll know soon,” he said. “I’ve invited her to dinner.”