Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Maiden Thief, Page 2

Melissa Marr

  * * *

  Those words haunt me when the leaves begin to turn and fall. Jakob has always been cautious to avoid Father’s eyes, and his visits tend to coincide with when I am not at the window. I still watch them surreptitiously sometimes, but I have avoided even being glimpsed by the man who will probably marry my sister.

  When Amina slips out to meet Jakob, I feign sleep as I do often. It’s been a full year since Karis was taken, but the nightmares of her abduction and presumed murder weigh heavy enough that sleep is often hard to find. A cry outside startles me, and I am out the door with only my nightdress on. My knee-length hair hangs mostly free of its confining braid, proof of my restless thrashing, and my feet are bare despite the autumn chill.

  “Meeny!” I call out as I run into the yard, clad in only my white nightgown.

  I stop suddenly, my eyes widen as I take in the unexpected scene before me. My sister, her bright hair glowing in the light of the nearly full moon, is caught up in Jakob’s arms. He has a hand splayed across her back, and her nightdress is pushed up to her hips. Her legs are bare, quite indecently so, and as I stare at her, I see that her body is pressed tightly to his. Her back is to me, and for that I’m grateful.

  My hand flies to my mouth as Karis’ always did when she was in shock. I bite down on my own skin to keep my sounds of surprise hidden.

  I start to turn to creep away, feeling foolish for mistaking her cry for pain, but before I can escape, I realize that Jakob sees me.

  I would apologize if the words could be kept from Amina.

  I would run if it could erase the embarrassment of this moment.

  Instead, I stand still, unable to move as Jakob meets my eyes . . . and smiles. Moments drag by as I study his smile, unsure of what to do. Then he closes his eyes, releasing me from his stare.

  I run.

  Later, when Amina stealthily returns to the house, I again pretend to sleep.

  The next morning, I wait for her to tell me her good news, prepared to feign surprise at her pending nuptials.

  The following day, I wait again.

  By the week’s end, I am forced to ask, “Where is Jakob?”

  Amina offers me a weak smile and says, “He had to travel for business. He’ll return next month.”

  And it is then that I understand that what I saw was a goodbye. I hug my sister. “It’s only a single month,” I tease. “Father was often gone that long.”

  She nods and holds me tighter. “Maybe if he returns, you could come with us. He says . . . he says he loves me, Verena.” She smiles then. “He says he’ll take me away to a castle where I’ll be his perfect wife. He told me that he’ll cherish me, and I’ll live like a queen as long as I’m faithful and good!”

  “You deserve it,” I tell her.

  I mean it.

  Yet, that night, when I sleep, it is not Karis I dream of. In my sleeping mind, I see Jakob smiling at me as he had held Amina. I wake, and I hate him for giving my sister the life that Karis and I will never have. I lie awake, and I hate myself for envying my sister.

  * * *

  Only three weeks later, Amina is gone without even a goodbye. I will never see that castle. She is gone, and I am left alone with Father.

  “What did you do?” he roars at me. His words are followed with a fist.

  I shake, staring up at him, afraid to stand. “Nothing.”

  “She’s gone. You did this. They are all dead because of you.”

  When I open my mouth to tell him that it was not the killer who took Amina, he puts his weight on his good leg, and then he hits me over and over with his cane.

  I decide then and there not to ease his pain by telling him Amina left by choice. Let him think that she was stolen. Let him suffer. I am bruised and bleeding, and the man who was my father is nowhere to be found in this shell before me.

  “Better dead than here with you,” I tell him as I crawl out of his reach.

  He stares at me, chest heaving with the exertion of beating me, and for a flicker of a moment, I see the man I once knew. Then he says, “Get up. The blood will stain the floor if you let it stand.”

  And I am left alone to clean my blood from my father’s floor.

  * * *

  The townsfolk look at me with equal parts fear and pity when I go to sell the vegetables over the next weeks. I want to tell them the truth, that the Maiden Thief has not yet taken this year’s girl, but they turn their backs or look away quickly the few times I open my mouth to speak.

  They will know when this year’s girl is taken.

  But days pass, and no girl vanishes. It worries me. Maybe the Maiden Thief has stopped. Maybe he visited another town this year. I wish Amina had told me where the castle was. I would feel better if I could speak to her.

  Weeks pass, and one day, I am picking apples when Jakob stops at the orchard.

  “Did she come too?” I look past him, expecting to see my sister, wondering why he still wears such ragged things when he’s already taken Amina to his castle. There is no need to feign poverty now.

  Jakob stares at me. “Who?”

  “My sister.”

  “Amina?” he asks.

  I try to recall if he would have met Karis, but she was dead by the time he started visiting Amina. Something about the way he watches me sets fear racing through my body. “She left with you, didn’t she?”

  “Why would you think that?” He folds his arms and studies me.

  “But Amina . . .”

  “I was looking for something, and I thought I’d finally found it. I was wrong again.” He gives me a sweet, sad smile. “I came back. I’ll have to try again.”

  “She’s not with you?”


  If not for his arms coming around me, I would have tumbled to the dirt. I am limp in his grasp, upright only because he holds me so. My sister is dead. I’ve envied her for escaping this wretched drudgery, this poverty, this life.

  But she did not escape.

  She was stolen.

  Like my eldest sister.

  Like the other girls before her.

  “She’s dead,” I tell Jakob in a voice made weak with the tears I cannot stop. “I thought she went with you, that you married her, but if she’s not with you . . . she’s dead. My sister is dead.”

  Jakob cradles my head and holds me to him.

  “It’s my fault,” I say between sobs. “Both Karis and Amina were taken. It’s my fault. I should never have asked the townspeople to catch the Maiden Thief.”

  “True.” He looks down at me and asks, “Will you atone?”

  For a thick moment, anger that he’d ask anything of me makes me want to strike him. I have lost two sisters. I have lost any chance of happiness. But then the weight of my own culpability squashes fear and anger. I caused this. I did not steal their lives, but I drew the madman’s eye to them. I owe penance.

  “I will,” I promise Jakob.

  I’ve stepped into my siblings’ duties so often that is has become like donning a nearly fitting coat. Perhaps this time it will be for the best. Jakob loved my sister, and she is gone from him. I can replace her.

  “You will love me as she should have,” Jakob murmurs.

  I’m not sure if it’s a question or an order, but I swear, “I will. I promise I will.”

  * * *

  Months pass, and Jakob visits me in secret as he once visited my sister. He wears nicer clothes, though. With me, he doesn’t hide his wealth.

  “You’ve known all along that I was not poor,” he says one evening. “Yet you said nothing.”

  I nod.

  And he rewards me with a kiss.

  In my life of silence and toil, he is my light. My father no longer speaks to or looks at me. My sisters are lost. My studies have ended. All I have in this world is Jakob. I cannot bear the thought of ever losing him—and he knows it.

  Since that day, I feel like he is often testing me, trying to see what I think, checking to see what I observe of him an
d the world around us. He makes me feel things I hate sometimes, prodding me until I share my ugliness with him. He rewards me with kisses or kind words when I do as he wants.

  “Be truthful, Verena. I want to know what you really think.”

  “I almost hated my sister for the way you spoke to her,” I admit.

  “Your sister had a kind heart,” he says. Then he brushes his lips over mine. “But she was not as brave as you or as smart as you.”

  There is little I crave more than affection these days, and Jakob gives it to me without asking much in return. He asks for confessions of my sins, my flaws, my weaknesses. He asks that I tell no lies and that I swear not to talk to any other man. It is a small fee for the joy he gives me; his praise and his small kisses are treasures I once coveted. Now they are mine. They will always be mine.

  “Amina said once that you’d been studying the Maiden Thief,” Jakob remarks.

  “And now my sisters are dead,” I murmur in shame. “It is my fault. I told you the night you came back.”

  Jakob tilts my head back, but he does not reward me this time. Instead, he tells me, “I’m sure it is. They suffered because of you.”

  My heart seems to die. I want absolution, not this. The love that I’ve been kindling for him flickers.

  “You have much yet to atone for,” Jakob whispers. “You know that, don’t you?”

  “I do.” I try to look down, but he won’t let me. I think about my family, broken, dead, and lost because of me. I think of Jakob, who lost my sister because of me. There is no way I can set things right in this world.

  “You should be grateful I forgive you,” Jakob says then.

  “I am.”

  He kisses me finally, but all I taste is bitterness. I will work harder to atone. I will show him that I have choked down ashes and brine.

  * * *

  By the summer, I am ready to ask Jakob if he will have me. It is not a woman’s role to ask, but I’ve decided that I am ready to prove that I can love him, to prove that I can give him the happiness I’ve ruined.

  “I can never replace Amina, but”—my voice breaks as I try to find the courage to make my offer—“I could try to make you happy.”

  My embarrassment makes it hard to meet his eyes, but I do. I want him to understand that I know what I’m offering. I will be eighteen this autumn, old enough to be a wife.

  “I’m yours if you want me,” I manage to say.

  “Did you think about what you saw that night, Verena?” His voice is rough, and I startle thinking that he’s angry. “You watched us.”

  “I thought she was in danger,” I try to explain. “I heard her cry out. I didn’t know she was . . . with you when I came outside.”

  “I’ve thought about it,” he continues as if I hadn’t spoken. “You watching me.”

  “Oh.” I remember the smile that had seemed so cold in the moonlight.

  “Are you pure?” he asks.

  “I am,” I assure him.

  He holds tight to me, his hands clutching both of my arms, and says, “Never lie to me, Verena.”

  “I’m not. I swear it, Jakob. I am pure. I’ve never even been kissed by anyone else.”

  He says nothing, but that night, when I slip out of doors to meet him, he takes me into the darkest part of the orchard. I hold his hand, following him silently. We stop in a small clearing between trees. When I was small, I played here with my brother. Father had chopped down several sick trees, leaving behind tiny stumps that barely showed after all these years. Now I come here with my . . . Jakob.

  Cautiously, I ask, “What are we?”

  “You are my wife, Verena.”

  “After we see the minister,” I start to correct him.

  “No. You are my wife now.” He releases my hand and stares at me. “Will you be good and faithful?”

  “I will.”

  “And I will keep you with me always. I will never ask you to work as your father has done.”

  Then he kisses me. It is not the soft kisses he has brushed over my lips before. I can’t breathe for fear, and when he pulls away, I am shaking.

  There is something about him that is strange and hard. I have done no new wrong, but I am afraid. The glimpses I’ve had of the darkness in Jakob are nothing compared to what I see now.

  He grips my hips bruise-hard. “You must be faithful, Wife. You must be truthful.”

  “I am!”

  “You told me you were pure.” He unfastens his trousers.

  As I understand what he is about, fear makes me bold, and I try to pull away. “Jakob, wait!”

  “We are married,” he tells me. “Our vows were said.”

  I’ve never heard of such a wedding. There was no minister, no guests, no family, but I’m not sure such a thing is still an option for me. The townspeople do not look my way. My family, save Father, is dead.

  “You said you would try to replace her,” Jakob reminds me. “You are my wife now.”

  I lift my worn cotton nightdress, baring my body to him. Jakob watches my face as he presses his body into mine. I bite my lip to keep my screams silent, but my eyes fill with tears.

  Jakob smiles as he did the night I saw him with my sister. I realize now that it is a cruel smile. I let my cries of pain free, and his smile grows wider.

  After he is done with my body and refastens his trousers, he tells me, “You are a good girl, Verena. You did not lie to me.”

  And then he touches my body gently, kissing and licking my tears away. His mouth moves to my throat and my chest, even though the flesh is still covered with my nightgown.

  “There are no tears there,” I tell him, afraid that more pain will follow.

  He laughs, and then he kisses the place where he just hurt me. After several moments, I almost forget the pain as other feelings consume me. Again I am shivering, but this time for reasons I didn’t know possible.

  Afterwards, he straightens my clothes and walks me to the edge of the orchard. I know that he will watch until I am in my door, but he will not come near the house. He never has.

  Before I walk away, he tells me, “If you are good, there will be joy like that.” Then he squeezes my hand tightly and adds, “But if you are not, there will be worse pain than our first moment. We choose our lot in this world. Do you understand me, Wife?”

  “Yes, Jakob.”

  “I will come for you.”

  “Yes, Jakob.”

  * * *

  It is only a week later that Jakob leads me into the castle. We are far from any other house, far enough that should I scream, no one would hear me. I want to run, but there is nothing for me outside these thick walls.

  He cups my face in his hands like I am a child. “You will be faithful and good, won’t you?”

  “Of course.”

  He kisses me in a way that makes quite clear that he does not think me a child. At first, I was ashamed of the things I let him do to my body, but over the past week, he has twice demonstrated that he does not like it when I refuse to accept his wishes. It is not what a Good Wife does.

  “I like to please you,” he reminds me. “But you must be good.”

  “Yes, Jakob.”

  “Would you like to see your bedroom?”

  “Yes, Jakob.”

  There are clothes of my size, but there are also other dresses hanging in the closet, ones that would not fit me. I ask, “Whose are these?”

  “Those are my wife’s clothes.”

  I retract my hand, not wanting to touch either the larger or smaller dresses. I want to find an explanation that does not frighten me, but nothing comes to me. I look at my feet, unsure of what to do.

  He walks over to stand beside me, and almost idly, he strokes my hair. “You are my wife.”

  “I am.”

  “Then those are yours now,” he explains.

  I nod, and he orders me to bathe and unbind my hair. “Like the night you saw me with Amina.”


  After several
weeks, I can no longer stand the silence and boredom. Jakob is often gentle, but he is not always kind.

  He insists that I dress only in long white dresses, and he slips soft white shoes on my feet every time I leave the bedroom. Within the bedroom, I am not given any clothing, but in the rest of the house, I must wear this peculiar uniform that makes me unsure if I am wearing mourning or bridal clothes.

  I ask to go out, to do something to keep the castle up, or even to plant a small garden. Jakob refuses every request. I am given books to study, guides on what a wife should do.

  After the first full month, Jakob tells me, “I need to go away for a week.”

  I’m thrilled. I’ve not traveled since Bastian’s death. The only place I’ve gone is from my Father’s house to school or the town, and then last month, from my Father’s house to Jakob’s castle. “When do we leave?”

  Jakob shakes his head and smiles at me. “Not you, Wife. You are mine. No one else can look upon you.”

  “Ever?” I ask weakly.

  For the first time since our vows, I see the whole of the darkness in the man I married. He strikes me and hurts me as he did that night. Afterward, I am bleeding in our bed, and Jakob is brushing my hair back.

  “They would try to destroy what we have,” he says. “They would look at you and think impure thoughts. They would ruin you.”

  “I’m sorry,” I say because it is what he expects.

  “I spent years looking for you, watching, waiting. You don’t know how hard it was.” He sits up and stares at me. “Can I trust you?”

  I nod and gingerly push myself to sit beside him.

  “It was you I wanted all along,” he tells me. “I stopped at the orchard that first day because I’d seen you in town.” He gently kisses my forehead. “You were always meant to be mine. I need you to be worthy of my love.”

  I swallow hard and tell him, “I don’t want anyone else to look at me. I just asked to go because I will miss you.”

  Jakob is himself again at my words. He slides to the floor and puts uncomfortable white shoes on my feet. Before he slips each shoe on, he kisses my foot. Then he stands, and I hold out my hand to him as he’s taught me to do.

  Once I’m standing, he washes away the blood he’s drawn from my body. There’s nothing to do for the bruises or swelling, but the blood is soon gone. I submit to his ministrations; not even a whimper crosses my lips.