On the morning I planned my departure, I pulled Eshrun aside. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a gold ring. Taking my golden knife, I cut it in two and gave him half. “I will return to you and we will be married. Keep this half of the ring as the token of my promise.”
He agreed. We did not embrace; it was understood this marriage was a contract. I walked away from him to the edge of the wood and turned to look back. Eshrun remained by the front door and cut a curt nod with his head to ensure me of his willingness to wait. I waved in return and wandered further into the wood, disappearing from view of the cabin.
I walked onward through the cedar trees for a day and a half. I passed by the bleached bones of that poor brown bear. By instinct I rubbed my palms along the matted fur of his flayed skin that begat my cape and I whispered an apology while moving onward. It used to be soft but had clumped with road dust and other muck along the way of seven years’ passing. Within the hour I reached my destination, the place where everything began; and I was one day early.
That night was long. I made a fire because I feared no man or beast, only the devil and he would not kill me. It would break the deal. I ate my simple supper of hard cheese and bread and laid down, wrapped in my bearskin. My eyes closed with my final prayers of petition on my lips, and I fell into a deep sleep.
Morning arrived with the sunlight streaming through the great green cedar boughs, peppering the forest floor with flecks of heavenly light. I sat up, licking my cracked lips and looking around.
Down upon the road was the golden carriage with the same pale horses and thin driver so silent and so still. I never heard them arrive. I glanced to my right and saw that man. His beauty had not changed but somehow he was not beautiful at all. His blue eyes were crystalline and filled with cold logic.
“Our deal has come to a conclusion, Athena. My congratulations are in order. You have succeeded where many have failed. I give you permission to gloat,” he said.
I closed my mouth. With my silence I pronounced judgment upon him.
His V-shaped smile shifted to a sneer, but then returned to a smile as congenial as any I had ever seen. Were I not wary, it would have disarmed me.
“Come,” he said and waved me over as he walked toward the carriage. He opened the door but I hesitated. “We must get you cleaned up so you can give me back my coat.”
I bit my lip and stepped into the carriage. The large living room inside was still dark and a fire still danced in the hearth. He led me through to a private chamber where an enormous tub drawn with hot water waited. He nodded toward a lovely young woman standing in the corner. “Lilly will see to your bath. Afterward I will see personally to your grooming.”
I looked at Lilly. She was young and lovely, reminding me of who I was seven years ago. I suspected that she was another victim of one of his bargains, living here in this gilded hell. One last time I looked at him as he filled the doorway with his powerful frame.
“Lilly will bathe you. You stink. You need scrubbing. I will afford you the privacy of a lady,” he said.
I knew he didn’t care about the pretense of a lady’s privacy, but I was thankful all the same when he closed the door. My nails were so long that I was unable to unlatch the bearskin cape or even unbutton the green jacket. Lilly stepped forward, offering her assistance to peel away my clothing, which she did with great care and kindness. I felt genuinely sorry for her. The poor girl had no idea to whom she now belonged.
I stepped into the tub and relaxed in the pool of water, watching steam waft from the surface and vaporize into nothing. My eyes caught Lilly hanging the green coat upon a hook; something jangled.
“Miss, I believe you have something left in the pocket of your coat,” Lilly said.
I shook my head. “It’s not my coat. Whatever is in that pocket can stay there,” I replied.
She understood and then approached the tub. With a cloth and soft brush, Lilly scrubbed me from top to bottom. She washed my filthy, gummy hair and combed it out straight once more.
Afterward when I stepped forward from the tub, I marveled at my skin. It had changed from that patina of dirt to a likeness of alabaster. She wrapped me in a soft robe and led me to another chamber where the man stood in his cloven-hoofed, self-imposed magnificence. He ushered me to a chair in front of a mirror. I sat down and he turned me away from my reflection. He applied a yogurt masque to my face and proceeded to trim my nails and cut my hair without a single word.
By the time he finished and turned my chair to face the mirror, I fell into disbelief. The reversal of my ugliness and the last seven years of hardship were fully removed and replaced with my youthful beauty once more. A simple look into my own eyes however revealed an utter loss of innocence. It would never return to me, nor would I wish it.
At last, I was once again outside the carriage wearing a dark green dress chosen by the man himself. The color of the fabric was an attempted jab at our deal, mimicking the green coat I surrendered. A beautiful white horse awaited me to mount and ride. The golden knife was sheathed in the saddle.
“One more thing I have for you, Athena,” he said and displayed a lovely white fur cape. “It is the same bearskin cape, but I’ve taken the liberty of…cleaning it.” His sharp smile whipped wide on his face as he wrapped it about my shoulders. I refused to speak to him.
“Can we not part as friends?” he asked.
If I could have achieved it, I would have set him ablaze with my gaze and watched him burn to the ground with satisfaction.
He chuckled. “Very well then. So long Athena,” he said and closed the carriage door. The entire entourage lurched forward, snapping into the same crackle of blue light as before. And it was gone.