The Maiden ThiefMelissa Marr
The Maiden Thief
Illustrated by: Rovina Cai
Edited by: Ellen Datlow
“The Maiden Thief” copyright © 2016 by Melissa Marr
Art copyright © 2016 by Rovina Cai
“The Maiden Thief” by Melissa Marr is a dark fantasy novelette about a teenager whose town is plagued by the annual disappearances of girls and young women. Her father blames her when one of her sisters is one of the taken.
I don’t remember a time before girls vanished. The first one I heard about was April Shaw. I didn’t know her, only her name. I had just turned ten when she disappeared. I was fourteen when the taken was someone I knew. That was the year Jenna Adams didn’t make it home. No one did anything. Autumn meant harvest, a chill in the air—and another missing girl.
The taken are as young as fifteen and as old as thirty. They are vine-thin, heart-curvy, dark of eye and pale of hair, light-eyed and dark-skinned. There is no true pattern to who will be taken.
Despite that, I look for one. I cannot help it. The girls are always taken near my birthday, so I feel a strange kinship with them. Every spring, as the fields are tilled, I watch for bones as if this, at least, will give me some insight into the secret of the Maiden Thief. I walk the long way home, meandering along the roads, peering into freshly turned soil as if I’ll be the one to find the dead girls.
But spring fades into summer yet again this year, and we still have no answers.
Months and weeks pass, and the air eventually turns cool. No one seeks the killer. No one searches for the taken. We simply wait, knowing that inevitably autumn will come—and another girl will vanish.
As my sixteenth birthday draws near, I wait and watch like most of my classmates. He’s out there, studying us, thinking about who’s next. We’re all secretly whispering, “Not me.” We can’t meet each other’s eyes as the leaves start to drift to the ground.
Not ten minutes after I walk into the kitchen door, Karis tells me, “Today, at the market, I heard that Ella—the girl with the pretty voice and the red shoes—was late on Sunday, and her dad was going round to everyone thinking she was this year’s girl.”
“She twisted her ankle and couldn’t get home. She’s fine.”
“That’s good.” I drop my books on the table and go to the sink to wash my hands. It’s what Bastian used to do after classes, and I follow his routine.
When he was alive, my brother was my closest playmate. Our sisters were both much older than us, and the two babies after them but before us hadn’t lived past their second years. Karis, who was ten years older, was the “little mother,” while Amina, who was only two years younger than Karis, was the “big sister.” Bastian, of course, was the future, the one who would increase fortune and ease for our family. I was only the poppet, the plaything they indulged. I read every book Bastian had, and many of Father’s, too. Then, they smiled and laughed. Now, there is no laughter in our home.
The only brightness that remains is from Karis’ determined cheer.
As if she hears my thoughts, my sister takes up the song she was singing when I walked into the house, something about meadows and fields of forever. Her voice is sweet, and the words are familiar. Before Mother’s death, Karis sang more than she spoke.
Both of my sisters would make wonderful wives and mothers, but the money for their dowry is long gone. Mine went first, a peril of being the youngest. Only our household skills and presumed virtues remain as enticements to potential spouses.
Karis sets me tasks, and we work in quiet companionship. We are not petty with each other, not short of temper or ill of manner, not since we lost Mother and Bastian. We work together, and we are stronger for it. Our sister Amina draws forth the food that we sell for our money. Karis minds our home, cooking and cleaning. Once a week, she goes into town to sell what we can and buy what we need. I go to and from the school, learning so that I can figure a way to a better future. Ours is a quiet life with no friends, no outings, and little contact with the people in town. Being with my sisters fills me with peace.
But that peace is soon broken. My father comes in with something clutched in his hand. I can’t see the words on the parchment, but I know well enough what’s there. I wrote the words myself, gathered the facts, and called for action.
“Verena!” Father stops and levels me with a glare that makes me want to reach out to Karis. “What have you done?”
“Shared my findings,” I say with barely a quaver in my voice. I know he disapproves. Girls are to be seen, to be delicate, to be graceful, to be many things my sisters excel at, things I will never be—things I might not have even been if we’d kept our fortunes.
I straighten my spine and stare at my father. “It’s true. Every word of it is true.”
“It’s shameful to say so.”
“It’s more shameful that no one is doing anything to catch the Maiden Thief,” I say, a tremor in my voice as I try to not look away from Father.
I remember being the “littlest gem,” the daughter who drew eyes and smiles. He’s dead, though, and I am expected to master my studies as my brother once had been. It is a lie we agree to live, to pretend I can replace my brother, but it doesn’t mean that Father has forgotten that I am a girl when I dare cross him.
“So, you went courting trouble we don’t need?” Father asks. It’s not a real question; he makes that quite clear as he thumps past the table and into the sitting room where he’ll stare out at Amina as she toils in the garden, the orchard, and the fields.
Amina is his favorite. He doesn’t say that aloud, but we know it just the same. We always have. Amina looks like Mother, much as Bastian did. Father used to laughingly speak of selling their golden hair should we ever need coins. When I was a small child, I clipped a lock of Bastian’s hair and tried to buy sweets with it. The grocer gave me candies, but he let me keep that lock of Bastian’s golden hair. It is all I have of my brother.
Amina is all Father has of his three golden ones. And so, Father watches her every afternoon and much of the morning to be sure that she is not the one taken this year.
Karis and I exchange a look as he passes, but neither of us dare to speak. We see that his bad leg is dragging more than last month. It’s getting worse again. We see it, but no one is so foolish as to comment. Father doesn’t discuss the accident that took my mother and brother, and we’re not to do so either.
In the early weeks of his recovery, he blamed God. He blamed himself. He blamed us—three useless daughters. If Father could’ve bartered with God in those fever-filled days, we would all have been offered in exchange for the return of the two people he’d lost. Bastian was the cherished one, the son who would carry on the family name. His death was worse because Mother was taken too, so he had no wife to carry a replacement son . . . and soon after, we were far too poor for Father to woo a new wife. He couldn’t work, and our fortune had sunk to the bottom of some dark section of the sea.
“What did you do this time?” Karis asks softly.
“I wrote a tract on the Maiden Thief.”
My sister smothers her gasp by slapping her hand to her mouth. It’s such a girlish gesture that I wonder how we’re related. Even as she stirs a pot of what we privately called “stretch soup,” she manages to be feminine in the way of the girls I study in my classes. Most of them are excelling at the courses in Household Angels, Art Appreciation, and History for Delicate Minds. They don’t take the courses in the maths or sciences, and they certainly don’t take Literature Unbound. There, I mostly only see boys or the girls who wear trousers out in public. I wear dresses, as much to remind myself of the girl I once was as to remind the boys that I could be a bride one day.
p; Karis stirs the soup before coming over to embrace me. It’s the sort of all-encompassing hug that Mother used to offer, but Karis doesn’t smell of lavender, and her body is brittle and bony against mine. She may hide it with Mother’s remade gowns and layers of cloth, but she takes the smallest portion of the food. Karis has told me often enough that Father needs to eat for his health, Amina for her strength, and I for my mind.
“I’m not hungry,” I blurt out, as close to a thank-you as I can come without embarrassing us both. “Will you eat half of my soup so Father doesn’t notice?”
I’m certain she’ll see through my words, but instead, she squeezes me tighter still and whispers, “I think you’re brave, Verena.”
* * *
When Karis vanishes three days later on one of her rare trips into town, Father slaps me. “It should have been you. Your brazen words made that monster look our way.”
I stand staring at him. There are no words, no argument, no defense I can offer. My sister is dead—or will be soon—and it’s my fault.
I do not resume classes when the new week dawns. I pick out the most worn of my sister’s dresses and let out the seams so it fits my curvier body. Dress held tightly in hand, I go to the garden where Amina is watering the ground with her hidden tears and taking her anger out on the weeds that dared invade her territory.
“I need beets,” I announce.
She glances at the dress in my grasp. “That’s . . .”
“My new work dress,” I finish. “It should be red for the blood on my hands.”
My often-silent sister sighs before saying, “Oh, little gem!”
The childhood name stings, although I’m sure that’s not her intention. I shake my head. “I need beets,” I repeat.
My sister accepts my choice, not speaking to me of shame or guilt, not arguing that I am innocent. She simply pulls the plants.
I take up Karis’ tasks as my own. The soup I make is no better or worse than hers. The stitches I sew in Father’s remade clothes are no straighter or more crooked. The meals I take are of the portion that Karis would have ladled into her bowl.
Unlike my now-dead sister, I do not sing in the kitchen.
Father rarely speaks to me, and when he does, it’s only the most necessary of words. I am not sure I’ve heard my name on his lips since the day Karis vanished. He does not need to tell me that he blames me. It’s obvious in his every unspoken word.
* * *
The death of my sister has changed me, but half a year later, spring still comes, and with it, my old habits start to return. I cannot help but look for the bones of the dead in the freshly turned soil.
“Verena, she’s not here.” My remaining sibling catches my eye as I scan the garden. “Wherever she is, it’s not here.”
I’m outside with her, turning the soil by hand. It’s hard work, but like everything else, I aim to fill the hole left by the loss of Karis. It’s harder than I expected, both on my heart and on my body. I was at school in prior years when the bulk of the garden was broken. Still, I carry on as if I have strength and experience at the hours of back-breaking work. To do otherwise is to insult the dead.
“Maybe she’s alive,” I say, my gaze steady on the worn blade I force through the ground. “Maybe they all are.”
I want to understand the Maiden Thief. I want to prove my own theories wrong, and so for the first time, I find myself hoping that the reason no bodies are found is because the stolen girls are actually alive.
For several moments, Amina says nothing. I hear birds, the calls of spring insects, and the rustle of new leaves on the tree. My remaining sister’s voice is silent.
I risk a glance at the window, and I take small comfort in the fact that my father is not watching. At least he trusts that my sister is safe with me at her side. I have no illusion that I am strong enough to defend her, but he counts my presence as enough to walk away from his post at the window.
Either that or he cannot bear to watch me overlong. That, too, is a possibility. I no longer have the heart for such answers. I’ve tried to replace Bastian, learning so I could be of use to the family in business. I’ve taken my sister’s role in the kitchen. Nothing I do changes the fact that the most useless of his children is one of the only two remaining.
“They’re not alive,” Amina says finally, her words coming so long after mine that I can almost forget the context. I want to forget it. I want to forget so much.
“They could be,” I insist. In that moment, I feel like the girl I once was, back when weaving flowers into crowns and reading tales of fantastical creatures was all that I had to do.
“It isn’t your fault,” Amina tells me. It is far from the first or even the sixteenth time she’s said those words. She and Karis said them when Bastian and Mother died in the accident coming back from picking up my new dress. She and Karis said them when I saw how badly mangled our father’s leg was from that same accident. We all said them when Father risked the rest of our savings on an order of goods that sank into the ocean. Now Amina says the words to me again and again since Karis vanished.
“What if it’s all my fault?” I look at my sister and ask for answers to a question that has plagued me for years. “They die with my birthdays. Mother and Bastian died fetching my dress. Karis was stolen after my theories on the killer.”
“The sun rose on those days,” Amina begins. She leans on her garden hoe for a moment. “There was a fox in the garden the morning Karis disappeared, possibly the day that the accident happened too. I sneezed those days. What ripples we see are not always causes.” She shakes her head. “We can look for patterns, and we might even find them. There were a lot of acorns this year, and the snow was heavy. Are they related? A fawn died of hunger after I chased it from the garden, and our sister died. Were they related?”
I let out a sound of frustration. “That’s not the same. I wrote the words on the killer, and Karis was taken.”
Amina sighs. “No one knows why he takes the girls he does. Did the other families do something to cause their daughters to be chosen? Is it their fault?” She stares at me in such a way that I can’t help thinking of Mother. Those are her eyes, her peering-into-my-soul stare. “No one knows, Verena. Do not presume to understand a madman.”
Mutely, I nod. I believe her. For the first time since Karis was taken, I believe that I may not carry the full burden of her death. I do not return to school, but sometimes, I sit in the darkened house with a candle at night, and I read.
When Amina starts sharing the chores, I do not send her off to her bed with a stern word, and when she slips into the sitting room and asks to read the book I have just finished, I hand it to her. Together, we are not as whole as we had been with Karis, or with Bastian and Mother, but we are healing. Like the other families who have lost their daughters, we are moving on—guiltily grateful that come autumn, we will not be among the families worrying that one of us is next. The Maiden Thief has never taken two daughters from the same family. That, at least, gives me a horrible comfort.
* * *
By the time autumn finally comes, I realize that Father no longer watches Amina in the garden. He even smiles once. It is not much, but at least we know that we will be spared. No one speaks it aloud, but Karis’ loss has spared us from the pall that hangs over every other family with a daughter in Charlestown.
Amina has even been talking to a man. He is closer to Father’s age than to mine, but Father cannot reprimand her because he doesn’t know. Jakob is a secret.
Not long after she tells me of him, I hide and study the man who has drawn smiles from my sister. He is older but still handsome, dark of eye and hair, light of skin and spirit. He travels for his work, passing through small towns like ours. He does not speak of his work, telling Amina only that it is not a woman’s place to worry over such things. It may be unwomanly of me, but I wonder all the same. Jakob dresses in rags, but it doesn’t take me many afternoons of secret observation to realize that these ragged clot
hes are a ploy to make her feel comfortable. His nails are short and clean, and he has the scent of herbs about him. I think he might be a doctor; I am certain he is a man of learning. His words when he speaks reveal more education than the simple clothes he wears. If we weren’t fallen so low, he would be exactly the sort of man Father would’ve selected as a groom for his daughters.
Jakob is not meant to be mine. No groom is. All that can be mine is the penance for causing the Maiden Thief to steal my sister. Amina deserves happiness. She has lost too many siblings, and she’s paid for others’ mistakes with too many years of work.
“He’s so kind,” Amina says one evening after Jakob has left. Her voice is filled with a softness I’ve not heard for years.
“Do you think he’s going to offer for you?”
She looks down at her ragged nails. Every night lately, she scrubs to get as much dirt from her hands as she can. It isn’t enough to remove the years of ground-in earth. “I couldn’t leave home. I’ve told him as much. I don’t even go into town. How would I leave?”
“With only Father and I, we don’t need much,” I point out. “I could grow enough to earn what we need to pay the bills and add meat to our meals sometimes.”
Amina meets my eyes. “Maybe.”
A new part of me is burning with jealousy, not of Jakob but of what he can give her. If Amina leaves, if she finds freedom, I will never be able to do so. In truth, I may not have that option, anyhow. Father needs someone to mind the house, to cook his meals, to suffer for the loss of almost everyone he’s loved. He has become colder and crueler every year. Gone is the man who would heft me onto his shoulders when I was a small girl. Gone is the man who brought me a rose when he returned from his business trips. The man left in his place has a stone where his heart once resided.
I want my sister to find happiness, to have cause to laugh and smile, to not spend her years toiling for Father and me. I shove my envy down so far that it hurts to breathe, and I assure my sister, “He’d be a fool not to want to marry you, and you’d be a fool not to take his offer when it comes.”