Hearts and Roses – Kathryn Yelinek

metaphorosis_2016-11Every morning at exactly 8:47, three things happened: a swallow fed three nestlings in the eaves outside the mistress’s bedchamber, a rabbit nibbled grass beside the white stone driveway, and a crow pecked at something that caught the morning sun on the perimeter wall. Leaving her feather duster on the dressing table, Rosa opened the window and leaned out to watch. The breeze smelled of honeysuckle and blew warm over her light green skin, rustling the scarlet petals that grew around her face.

Only within the perimeter wall did the morning progress like clockwork. Beyond the wall, the world changed daily. That morning, rain fell thick and gray, blotting out distant roofs and spires. Rosa wondered what rain tasted like. She had just wet her lips with her tongue when Heartwell strode into the room, his bow tie askew.

“I received another letter.” His voice rumbled even lower than usual, betraying his nerves.

“From the master?”

“I wonder what we did wrong this time.”

Rosa longed to touch him in reassurance, had wanted to ever since they woke, newly made, in this house. But in the month since then, he had never so much as let his fingers brush hers, and she couldn’t bring herself to make the first move. Perhaps he didn’t want her touch. While she was a gangly stem of a woman with stick limbs and leafy vines for hair, he was a solid muscle in the form of a man. The giant, pulsing heart that made up his body and head beat steadily beneath his black-and-white uniform. Its thump-thump, thump-thump filled the room, a commanding, comforting sound.

She dared not touch him, so instead she took the cream-colored letter from his hand.

“Is it bad?” he asked. In the month since their awakening, he’d started bringing her the letters that the master materialized beside him, so they might share whatever news they contained. It was, she thought, a small sign that he enjoyed her company.

As always, the master’s penmanship was fastidious. She read quickly and gasped.

“What’s he angry about now?”

She shook her head. Scarlet petals waved at the edge of her vision. “He’s bringing our new mistress. They should be here around eleven o’clock.”

“This morning?” Heartwell rocked back on his heels.

“Yes, in two hours.”

“Heaven help us now he’s coming back.” Heartwell straightened his livery. “I’d better see that the stables are in order.”

After he left, Rosa buried her trembling hands in her apron. The master had explained that the impending arrival of their new mistress was why he’d created them. Tending to his bride was to be their life’s work. Yet Rosa felt nothing but dread.

During his previous visit, he’d flown into a rage when she placed lilies in a vase in the front hall. He’d demanded she create a bouquet, yet never said what kind. Infuriated by the lilies, he’d ripped a handful of petals from around her face and turned them into a rose arrangement. Only within the last few days had her scars stopped aching.

What sort of a woman would wed such a man?

Rosa shuddered at the thought. Then she squared her shoulders. She had work to do.

A cream-colored letter tucked in the top dressing table drawer laid out the master’s directions for how to prepare for the mistress’s arrival. She reviewed the list carefully before beginning. First she set crisp linens on the bed, sprinkled with lavender water. Then she laid out a gaudy amethyst necklace on the dressing table. Finally, she smoothed the bedspread and centered a heart-shaped pillow on it.

As she did, two robins fighting on the manicured lawn caught her eye. How odd. At 9:32, the robins should be bathing in the fountain, water glinting off their dark backs.

Instead they boxed with claws extended, their wings buffeting the air. The rabbit, usually grazing near the holly bushes, stared. Its delicate pink ears pivoted as if alarmed by what it saw.

A chill slid down Rosa’s back. The last time something unexpected had happened on the estate was after the lily incident, when the master’s anger caused the fountain to erupt like a geyser and pockets of dandelions to pimple the yard.

She rushed across the room and down the servants’ stairs to the kitchen. Heartwell should be there, back from the stables by now. “Heartwell! The outside’s changing again.”

There was no answer. The kitchen stood empty, the hanging pots and pans gleaming in the light from the small, high windows. She frowned. She didn’t know why the house had a kitchen, since all food materialized like the master’s letters. Still, the room smelled of cinnamon and cloves, and she and Heartwell found it a cozy place to chat.

She crossed to the back door. Before she could open it, Heartwell barged inside. With one hand he carried a large bouquet. With the other, he rubbed the blood streaking the arteries and aorta on top of his head.

“The birds are acting up.” He dropped the flowers on the table while Rosa wetted a dish rag. “I hate to think what this means.”

“What happened?” She held the dish rag out to him.

Instead of taking it, he dropped into a chair and bent over, soliciting her help with a nod of his head.

Her breath caught in her throat. Cautiously she put one hand on his head. He was warm and surprisingly soft, like satin. She felt the blood circulating under his skin, and for a moment she froze, caught up in his coppery smell and the softness of his skin under her palm. Then she dabbed at his scratches.

He hissed. She paused, but he waved her on. He sat very straight and still under her care.

“Two swallows flew at me outside the stables,” he said. “You’d think I was egg poaching.”

“The master can’t be angry again. What could we have done?” Although, she never knew what would anger him. He’d once stabbed Heartwell with a fork because Heartwell blinked at him while serving dinner.

“I don’t know. I don’t know how he created this place or why it would respond to him, when he’s not here.”

“What if something’s gone wrong with the mistress?”

“Then we’ll face it together.” He rubbed his cleaned-off head and smiled shyly. “With all we’ve been through, we make a good team.”

She felt her face warm. Suddenly shy, she hurried to discard the rag. When she returned, he had brought a vase and was snipping the ends of the flower stems on the table, a task he knew she disliked. He moved over to make room beside him at the table.

“Maybe the mistress will know a way we can escape.” He handed her a rose.

Fear made her clutch the stem. Such dangerous words. “There isn’t one.” She focused on arranging the rose in the vase. “He swore he’d track us down and hurt us if we tried.”

“There must be a way. He can’t be all knowing.”

“Even if there were, would she tell us?”

He worked in silence, his bottom lip between his teeth, his body pulsing with anger at the wretchedness of their situation. She felt anger, too, that the master would cause him such anguish.

“I’m going to get you away from here,” he said suddenly. All at once, he dropped his shears and cupped her face in his hands. “Someday, somehow, we’ll find a way out.”

Now she held very still, amazed at his face so close to hers. It seemed impossible that finally he was touching her, speaking words that maybe meant more. “You—you fancy me?”

Color came to his cheeks. “Of course I do.” He grinned nervously. “Your fingers, they’re so slender. I can’t stop watching them. And the way your petals flutter in the breeze…”

She was sure he could hear her own heart, beating to echo his. She covered his hands with hers. “Heartwell—”

“No.” He pulled away. “Don’t say anything else, not until we’re free.”

“But—” His sudden withdrawal confused her. She took a step closer, not wanting this moment to end. “What would we do out there? We don’t know anything of the outside world.” Just thinking about leaving the house, however wretched, sent a shiver of fear down her spine.

“Anything must be better than here,” he said, though his voice rumbled low with nerves. He picked up the shears and severed a stem. It sounded like a bone snapping. “I could have killed him when he tore out your petals.”

“He’d have killed you first.” She gripped his wrist. “Promise me you won’t do anything rash.”

He sighed. “You’re right. Now isn’t the time, not with her coming. I promise.”

“Thank you.”

“But,” he said, “I won’t woo you here, in this prison.”

She stared at him, aghast. “Why not?”

“Because I’m going to get you out. Maybe you’ll prefer someone else then.”

“That’s a stupid thing to say.”

He smiled a sad little grin. “What sort of man would it make me, to pursue you in this hell?”

“The kind that I’d like to woo me?”

He just shook his head and handed her another rose. With that move, he seemed to open a rift between them.

Stung, she dropped the rose into the vase with the others. It was a lighter shade of red than the rest. Even in the vase, in the middle of a bouquet, it looked lonely.

Would it have been better if he hadn’t spoken? She didn’t know. All she knew was that she’d remember the feel of his hands on her face for as long as the master let her live.

She worked in silence until a quarter to eleven, when Heartwell swept away the severed stems, and she spoke to the air: “A tea service for two, please.”

A moment later, a silver tray appeared on the table. On it sat a silver teapot and two teacups with saucers, sugar and cream bowls, and sandwiches and biscuits. The aroma of mint and cucumber wafted up.

“We’ll get through this,” Heartwell said as he lifted the tea tray. Rosa merely nodded and followed him up the stairs to the parlor, carrying the vase of flowers. She set it on a pedestal table in the entry hall.

“The mistress will help us,” Heartwell said, but his entire body beat at an anxious tempo, and when Rosa tried to take his hand, he closed his fist. Side-by-side, yet separate, they waited for the carriage to come.

#

It came at 11:12. Horse hooves and carriage wheels crunched over the gravel drive. Heartwell opened the carved front door. Through it, Rosa saw sunlight, the broad expanse of the lawn, and a wet black carriage with a gold embossed fist on its side. The carriage door opened, and she heard voices—a man and a woman’s sharp, raised tones. The master emerged first, jumping down from the carriage and pulling their new mistress by the wrist behind him. He barreled up the front steps, tugging her along, and Rosa dropped into a courtesy, her eyes downcast.

“Welcome, m’lord, m’lady,” Heartwell said.

“Let me go!” the mistress cried, and Rosa, startled, looked up.

“Hush, my dear,” the master cooed to the mistress. He was as thin and pale and prissy as before. His hair was parted precisely down the middle; creases ran sharply up the fronts of his slacks. Even the wrinkles on either side of his mouth and the gray in his manicured beard were perfectly symmetrical. “Just a few more steps.”

The mistress strained away from him, her left wrist imprisoned by his grip. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen, a thin slip of a woman, with brown curls that fell to the waist of her polka-dotted dress. This, Rosa thought in dismay, was Heartwell’s longed-for rescuer?

“Here!” In the center of the entry hall, the master released her. Immediately she darted for the door. With a snap of his fingers, it slapped shut. The mistress skidded to a halt and spun around, a look of panicked horror on her face.

“Well,” he asked, spreading his arms to encompass the house, “isn’t this better than what your beau could provide?”

She eyed the black-and-white tiled floor, the dark wood of the staircase, and the glittering chandelier. She glanced at Rosa by the parlor with an imploring look, but Rosa dared not respond. In the center of the hall, the master watched the mistress, his head cocked, breath held as he waited for her answer.

The mistress marched to the pedestal table by the base of the staircase, grabbed the vase with Heartwell’s flowers, and hurled it at the master.

Rosa gasped, but the master easily sidestepped. The vase smashed on the floor, spraying flowers and water and china pieces over the tiles. The stink of newly broken stems filled her nose. The master blinked at the broken vase then at the mistress. The hint of a shadow passed over his face. A wave of his right hand caused the vase pieces to float up from the floor until the vase with its flowers stood undamaged on the table. “I thought you said you adored flowers?”

The mistress hurled it again. It shattered anew to the master’s left.

Rosa caught Heartwell’s shocked look. She must appear just as bewildered. She knew little of human society beyond the perimeter wall, but surely this was not normal. Could this be why the birds had attacked? Because the master’s orderly world had encountered an obstacle?

This time the master did not repair the vase. For a moment he stared, stricken, at the mistress. Then his face smoothed over. He pursed his lips. “It won’t work, my dear. I won’t exhaust my power fixing doodads so you can escape.”

“You’re a monster and a cad.”

“I’m your friend. Soon I’ll be your husband.”

“Geoffrey will come for me. The whole town will. You’ve gone too far this time.”

He shook his head, grave. “Nothing goes in or out of my gate without permission. And behold this lovely house I made for you.”

Again, the mistress glanced at Rosa. Now Rosa chanced a smile. The mistress might not be a powerful magician to counter the master, but surely she was on their side. And that meant escape might not be so impossible.

“You’re sentient?” the mistress asked tentatively, looking from Rosa to Heartwell and back again.

Rosa nodded. Heartwell said, “Yes, m’lady.”

“And you were made? From a rose and a heart?”

Yes, Rosa meant to say, but the master spoke first.

“Of course they were.” He placed a hand over his own heart. “Roses and hearts—they symbolize love. My love for you. They’ll tend to your every want and need.”

“But—” The mistress wrapped her arms around her waist. Even at a distance, Rosa could see her shaking. “Did it hurt them? What if they didn’t want to become people?”

The master’s lips thinned. “If they don’t please you…”

“I didn’t say that,” she said quickly.

“It’s obvious they don’t.” He looked at Rosa then at Heartwell with his cold, cold eyes. “I can fix that.” His right hand twitched. Whether to blast them or change them into something else, Rosa didn’t know.

She did know that she would not stand for it. Not again. Not in front of the mistress. Certainly not in front of Heartwell.

She lifted her skirts to flee, just as Heartwell shouted, “No!” and the mistress threw herself in front of Rosa.

The blast exploded to Rosa’s right, where she would have been had she run. Tile pieces flew past, and smoke wafted acrid up from a dark spot on the floor. Her knees felt like they’d turned to sap.

The mistress, trembling, stood in front of her. The master glared at both of them, his gaze cold.

“Don’t try to run,” he said, and Rosa wasn’t sure which one of them he spoke to.

Across the entry hall, Heartwell pulled on the front door, but it refused to open. A commendable effort, except that the master could destroy them before they crossed the hall.

She noticed a rivulet of blood running down the mistress’s wrist. An idea blossomed.

“M’lady,” she whispered and dared to touch the mistress’s elbow. “You’re bleeding.”

“I am?” The mistress lifted her arm, never quite looking away from the master. “Oh, the tiles must have cut me.”

The master paled. “You’re hurt? The house hurt you?”

“Come on.” Rosa tugged her arm. “I know where we can patch you up.”

By the door, Heartwell nodded. He understood she meant to go to the kitchen, with its secondary door. As she backed towards the parlor, the mistress in tow, Heartwell joined them. “I’ll get the bandages,” he said.

The master watched them go, his face still pale. “You make sure she’s well cared for. Arianna, I’ll make sure this never—”

The mistress slammed the parlor door on the master’s words. At once, Heartwell turned the lock and Rosa shoved a chair under the doorknob.

“That’ll slow him a little,” the mistress said.

The master banged on the door. “Arianna?”

Only a little, Rosa worried as she raced towards the kitchen. When she looked back, the door bowed in as if a giant hand pressed on it. The master screamed, “You think you’re clever?”

The mistress shuddered. Rosa took her hand and held tight. Even three against one felt like poor odds.

The kitchen stood empty, a welcoming expanse smelling of cinnamon and cloves. Rosa pulled the door shut and helped the mistress shove the table across it as a barrier while Heartwell strode to the back door.

He was still tugging on it when Rosa turned around.

“It won’t open.” He smacked it with his palm.

“Oh gods,” the mistress said. She tied a napkin around her scratched wrist. “Phineas must know we’re down here.”

Phineas? Rosa thought, before she realized the mistress meant the master.

“Most likely, m’lady,” Heartwell said. He waved Rosa over to help drag a hutch in front of the back door.

The mistress said: “Please call me Arianna.”

“Most likely, Arianna.”

She flashed him a grin. She stacked chairs atop the table. Between them and the hutch, the kitchen felt oppressive, foreboding, not at all a good place for a chat.

“Is there another way?” Arianna asked.

“The windows.” Heartwell pointed.

They looked so small, up by the ceiling. Rosa shook her head. “You won’t fit.”

“I’ll fit. I have to.” He dragged a chair to the counters underneath the closest window.

Rosa steadied the chair while he climbed up. “Where will we go once we’re out?” The thought of leaving still chilled her to the core.

“You’ll stay with me and my family,” Arianna said.

“Would they let us?”

Arianna paused in stacking chairs. “Why wouldn’t they?”

“The ma— Phineas. He said if we left he’d find us and hurt us.”

“The town will protect you. He’s made his last mistake.”

“The town would let us stay?”

Again, Arianna looked puzzled. “Of course. Did you think you wouldn’t be welcome?”

Rosa’s petals ruffled as she glanced at Heartwell. His body pumped a rapid thump-thump. “We’re, you know, different.”

Arianna’s face softened. “You’re certainly unique. But you’re lovely in your own ways. I’ll see you find a place.”

It wasn’t a complete surety of acceptance, but it was better than Rosa had expected.

Heartwell seemed ready to take the risk. “Let’s go then.” He peered out the window. “It’s sleeting.”

“Here? At the house?” Only now did Rosa notice the rattle against the glass.

“But it’s August,” Arianna said. She touched Rosa’s arm. “Will you freeze?”

Rosa startled. “I don’t know. I’ve never been in the cold before.”

“Put this on.” Heartwell handed down his black jacket. “And stand back.”

His jacket smelled like he did, coppery and sweet. She stepped away, shrugged into it, and shrieked.

Phineas stood inside the kitchen door. He smirked. “Arianna, come back. Whatever these two have told you, don’t believe them. Come back, my love, so I can treasure you.”

“Don’t believe him,” Arianna whispered. “It’s just a projection. He’s not really there.”

“He looks real.” Rosa inched away from him.

“Of course I’m real.” His smile didn’t reach his eyes.

Overhead, Heartwell yelped. Rosa spun. Heartfelt had pulled one of the pans from the wall and swung it at the window pane. Only, the pan dissolved in his hands, turning to mist and leaving the window unharmed.

“See what I can do?” Phineas said. “Come out, all three of you, and I’ll be lenient.”

“Liar,” Arianna said. She threw a salt shaker, which passed through him.

Rosa had a moment to feel better. Then Heartwell yelped again. He scrambled off of the counter as it crumpled to the floor like a piece of paper. At the same time, the table against the kitchen door collapsed, sending chairs crashing to the floor.

Rosa pressed a hand to her throat. She felt like she couldn’t catch her breath. Phineas might not be physically in the room, but his magic was, and now she knew how easily he could dismantle the chairs, too.

“Why doesn’t he just make the door and chairs disappear?” she asked.

Arianna’s face was grim. “He’s toying with us.”

Rosa’s throat closed up. Then an idea surfaced. It might not work, still she whispered, “A tea service for two, please.”

A laden silver tray appeared on the ground before her. The smell of mint and cucumbers wafted up.

She bit back a grin and crossed her fingers. “A chest of drawers, please.”

A massive, five-drawer chest with claw feet appeared behind the tea tray. Heartwell skidded to a halt in front of it, a bench to put across the door in his arms.

His face lit up. “You’re a genius.”

Arianna whooped. “Let’s see how long he can sustain this before his power runs out. A corner cupboard, please.”

One popped into existence by the collapsed counters, complete with decorative plates.

“A king bed,” Heartwell said. “A sofa, a loveseat.”

“A secretary’s desk,” Rosa added. “A bookcase, a dining room table.”

“Another chest of drawers, please,” Arianna said.

Furniture crowded the kitchen. Phineas scowled impossibly from the middle of the sofa. “Your games won’t work.” But his image went out. They stood alone in an oddly furnished kitchen.

“Is his magic exhausted?” Rosa asked. She stood sandwiched between the loveseat and bookcase. The quiet felt ominous.

“I think he’s modifying the spell so we can’t create anything else.” Arianna hugged a pillow from the loveseat. “But he must be weakened.”

“Look out,” Heartwell said. Glass shattered behind them. Rosa turned, shielding her face. Heartwell balanced on top of the corner cupboard. He wielded another pan from the wall, which he ran around the window frame, knocking out the remaining glass.

He held out one hand. “While we can. You first, Arianna.”

She lifted her skirts and climbed up. “Modifying the spell won’t distract him for long.”

“So we’ll be quick.” He made a step with his hands to boost her up to the window, his movements steady and sure. Rosa watched with equal parts fear and pride.

Without a word, Arianna slid through the window. Heartwell leaned down to give Rosa his hand. “Your turn.”

She climbed on top of the cupboard. His accelerated thump-thump, thump-thump sounded so much louder this close to him.

He pressed her shoulder. “You saved us just now.”

She shook her head. “We’re not free yet.”

“But now we have a chance. Thank you.”

She wanted to stay longer by his side, but they didn’t have time. He cupped his hands, she put her foot into his grip, and he boosted her up. She grabbed the window frame, balancing against it at her waist. The window seemed smaller and Arianna a longer way down than she’d expected. Cold air chilled her face and hands. She swallowed, wondering if she could really jump.

Behind her, there was a thud and a grunt. Alarmed, she glanced back. Heartwell lay on the kitchen floor, the cupboard disappeared.

“Heartwell!” Was he dead? “Are you all right?”

He stirred, and she sagged against the window frame in relief. Beside him, the chest of drawers disappeared. Before Rosa could shout, all the furniture vanished in a single puff, and the door flew open.

Phineas strode in.

“Go!” Heartwell pushed himself up.

Hating herself for it, Rosa shimmied out the window.

She hit the ground hard enough to knock the air from her lungs. The cold wormed under her jacket and down her socks. Sleet drummed against her face and hands. It smelled sour and tasted bitter and reminded her of Phineas. That gave her strength to sit up, even as she gasped for breath.

“Heartwell,” she wheezed.

Arianna pulled her to her feet. Her beautiful brown curls lay plastered to her face. “We have to go.”

Rosa shook her head. “Won’t leave him.”

“We can’t do anything for him except get help.”

“But—” Darkness showed behind the kitchen window. What was Heartwell facing? He could never have fit through that window, and he must have sent her and Arianna away knowing this. She couldn’t abandon him.

“Help him by getting yourself out. We’ll come back for him. I promise.” Arianna pulled her away from the house.

With one look back, Rosa followed her across the slick lawn. Sleet dripped off her nose and chin. She hunched her shoulders, feeling chilled and sluggish, desperate for Heartwell to be beside her. They should be watching robins pull worms from the grass. Instead the lawn was empty, and the sharp patter of sleet dulled all other sounds. Even with Arianna in front, she felt alone under the gray sky.

If Phineas changed Heartwell back to a heart, would he remember who he was?

The solid wood gate stretched dark across the white stone drive. Beyond it, the rain had stopped, and tendrils of afternoon sun shone down. From the street beyond, a clamor rose up, as if a mass of people assembled there.

Rosa shied away, but Arianna broke into a grin. “The town’s come for us!” She tugged at the gate’s handle. “It’s locked.” Her disgust made the words into curses. “Can you go under?”

The gap was so narrow. “I don’t think so.”

Arianna pounded on the gate. “Help! Can you hear me?”

“Arianna?” A voice shouted from the other side. “Is that you?”

“Geoffrey?” She pressed her hands to the gate.

“Yes! Are you all right?” The noise of the crowd lessened, as if all quieted to listen.

“Yes, but there are other people trapped in here. We have to get them out.”

“Half the town is here, including the witches. We can’t get the gate open. He’s magicked it up, down, and sideways. Can you find the key?”

Arianna searched all around the gate. “It’s not here.” She spun around to Rosa. “Where would he hide it?”

“I don’t know! He always magicks the gate open. The key’s only a failsafe—” She stopped. Her brain whirled, and she turned, surveying the length of the wall.

Arianna looked from the wall to her. “What?”

“Every morning, I see a crow pecking at something.” She squinted, imagining how the wall looked from the mistress’s bedchamber. “There!”

She raced across the grass to a crack high in the wall. On tiptoes, she reached over her head.

A black ball of feathers struck her hand.

She snatched it back as a crow dove at her again. Panicked, she ducked, her hands over her head. Beak and claws and wings scraped her scalp.

“Leave her alone!” Arianna swatted at the bird as it swooped again. It reeled up, screeching.

As quickly as she could, Rosa reached up, only to have the crow sink its beak into her skin. Pain shot through her hand, but she grabbed something metal out of the crack.

“Got it!”

Arianna took another swing at the crow as Rosa opened her hand to reveal a small bronze key.

“Go try it.” Arianna pushed her towards the gate. “I’ll distract the bird.”

Rosa scrambled towards the gate. The key had to work. Arianna’s beau and the townspeople would take care of Phineas, and she would rescue Heartwell. It didn’t matter how cold she was or that her hand stung. The gate lay just ahead, and the key would fit.

Phineas stepped out of thin air, with Heartwell beside him.

Rosa froze, fear squeezing her throat. The gate was perhaps twenty feet away.

“Give me the key.” Phineas held out his hand.

“You’re not real.” Rosa inched forward. The sleet didn’t touch him. “You’re an illusion.”

“Not this time.” He flicked his fingers, and sleet pelted his palm. Rosa backed up. Another flick of his fingers, and his palm was dry. “I don’t like getting wet.”

Beside him, Heartwell shivered. Bruises dotted his face, and sleet dripped from the loops of his arteries and the tip of his nose. He mouthed something, but she couldn’t tell what. Anger churned in her belly at those bruises.

“This is very simple,” Phineas said. “Give me the key and come back to the house, or I cut him right here.” He grabbed the top of Heartwell’s head.

His aorta. He’d bleed out before Rosa could stop him. She felt cold all over.

A touch on her arm said Arianna leaned in close, offering support without words, although she didn’t know how Arianna could help.

Don’t do it, Heartwell mouthed. He winced as Phineas yanked his head down by pulling on his ear.

“On the count of three,” Phineas said. “One.” A knife appeared in his hand. “Two.” He held it to Heartwell’s head. Rosa felt her stomach clench. “Three—”

With a cry, Heartwell shoved Phineas. Phineas stumbled, falling to one knee.

In that moment, Rosa did the only thing she could think of.  She threw the key over the wall.

It flew up and caught a glint of sunlight. “Stop!” Phineas cried and pointed, no doubt summoning a spell. Too late. The key fell over the other side. For one long, agonizing moment, nothing happened. Rosa feared she’d doomed them all.

Then the gate boomed open, and a stream of people poured in.

“No,” Phineas said. He scrambled to his feet and no doubt would have disappeared, but at a shout from three women at the head of the villagers, he froze in place. Immediately the sleet stopped, and a ray of sunshine pierced the clouds. A robin sang from its perch on the fountain. Phineas stood frozen, mouth agape.

Heartwell rushed over to Rosa. “Are you all right?”

“Yes. I think?” She felt trembly. It seemed impossible that the ordeal was over. “Are you?”

He smiled, a bit lopsided with the bruises. “Nothing time won’t heal, thanks to you.”

Rosa felt her heart swell. Beside them, Arianna was in the arms of a sandy-haired young man. Beyond that, the witches muttered charms that wrapped Phineas in thick rope. The rest of the villagers swarmed the grounds, whispering about what grisly fate awaited him.

The sandy-haired young man turned to Heartwell and Rosa, his arm firmly around Arianna’s waist. “Arianna tells me how brave you two were. Please, come to my house. We’ll get you patched up, and you can stay until you decide what you want to do next.”

“Please do,” Arianna said, beaming.

“What do you think?” Heartwell asked Rosa. He touched her elbow.

Rosa studied the sandy-haired man’s face. He seemed earnest enough. A few of the villagers threw her and Heartwell sidelong glances—as she had feared—but this man and Arianna seemed nice.

“I don’t know what I want to do next,” Rosa confessed.

“Neither do I.” Heartwell grinned. “Maybe I’ll become a doctor.”

Through the gate Rosa could see small, tidy houses. Their window boxes held pink and purple blossoms. The breeze smelled of cut grass and baked bread. A rabbit loped across a lawn. That, at least, didn’t seem too scary.

“Maybe I’ll be a veterinarian,” she said.

“You’d be a good one.” He tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. “Let’s go find out.”

Together they walked into the world beyond the gate.

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