Once upon a time, there was a story.
It was one of many stories. Hundreds of ideas, musing and mysteries, but for now and tonight, the watching crowd paid attention to only one.
They watched the storyteller crouched on the steps of her caravan, a red-painted wooden vardo with carved shapes in the window shutters and faded gold leaf on the eaves that glimmered faintly in the firelight.
The vardo was tucked in an alleyway, with just the rear end jutting slightly out into the street. The black horse harnessed to the front was nearly invisible, and so quiet that no passers-by noticed it. With the rest disappearing into the darkness, it seemed as though the storyteller was looming out of thin air, half of this world, half out of it. She didn’t seem quite real.
On the other side of the fire, a huddle of listeners crouched or stood in a rough semicircle around the alleyway entrance, eyes lit up by the flames and transfixed on the gnarled hands of the woman huddled on the caravan steps.
She was an old woman, with white hair hidden under a black scarf wrapped around her head and neck to ward off the autumn chill. Her back was stooped, her body frail and swamped in layers of skirts, shawls and scarves.
But her eyes were bright blue and alert in her wizened face, her hands were steady and animated, and her voice was clear and strong. Her memory never faltered as she retold the tale, a story she’d told hundreds of times, along with other hundreds of stories she kept both in a library in the caravan, and close to her heart.
Her voice rose and fell with the words of the tale, her hands a flurry of exclamation, rings glinting in the flickering light. Her words wove a spell around the listeners, and for a moment, all that existed in the world was the storyteller’s voice, the fire, and the story.
“And he fell back against the damp wall of the cave,” she gloated, “clinging to his sword in fear as the beast rose above him! The knight was trapped; cornered in the stinking lair of the dragon, who was facing him down with eyes like coals, and there was no princess to be found!”
“It ate the princess!” a young child sitting cross-legged in front of the crowd cried out, and his sister beside him began to cry.
The storyteller laughed. “Not quite,” she said darkly. “Do you think the knight will be eaten?”
“No!” another child gasped. The storyteller smiled.
“A burst of courage came upon him,” she continued, “and he raised his sword up into the air. Face me and battle me, he cried, or show me the princess, so I may free her! Your choice is to defy me and die, or obey me and be spared.
“The dragon laughed. You think you’re the being spared, she asked? You’re a brave soul, but you understand nothing of the danger you’re in.”
“Kill it now!” the first child cried, and laughter rippled though the crowd of listeners.
“The knight did not kill the dragon while it spoke,” the storyteller said. “He did, however, ask the dragon; what makes you think I’m unaware of the danger? I’m trapped in a dragon’s cave, facing the dragon that has my princess captive! Of course I know the danger!
“But you do not, the dragon said. You understand nothing. For you see; there is no princess held captive here.”
“It did eat her!” the child wailed. The storyteller paused, smiling.
“The knight cried, impossible!” she continued. “For our princess went missing three days ago. We found dragon tracks gouged into the stone walls of her chambers. I tracked the dragon’s trail all the way here. You must have taken her!
“You’re wrong, the dragon explained. No dragon took the princess. You see; I am the princess.”
Gasps of surprise filtered among the listeners. The children sitting in front gaped open-mouthed.
“The princess had indeed never been stolen away,” the storyteller said. “You see, her parents had never truly borne a child of their own. Childless and desperate for an heir, they sought the help of a witch, who gave them an egg to keep. A child will emerge, the witch told them, and she will be yours until the day of her sixteenth birthday. Be sure not to keep her contained on this day; if you trap her, she will merely flee. If you keep her free, she will remain, and grow up a beautiful woman and fine queen.
“The king and queen joyously took the egg, and when it hatched, a beautiful little girl was found among the shards of the eggshell. She grew up kind, clever, and beloved by the people of her kingdom. Knights across the realm swore their lives to her, and peasants showered her with gifts wherever she visited. But her parents were fearful, afraid that she would indeed disappear on her sixteenth birthday as the witch had said. So on the eve of her birthday, they placed heavy bars on the doors of her chambers, and metal grates on her windows. She was trapped.
“And when she turned sixteen, her true nature emerged – she was no human, but a daughter of dragons. And when she transformed, she found herself trapped, and so she escaped, fleeing to the caves dragons so often prefer to castles.”
“But what about the kingdom?” a little girl asked. “She was meant to be queen.”
“Indeed,” the storyteller said. “And when she disappeared, the whole kingdom mourned, fearing she was lost forever. As nobody knew of her true nature, it was presumed she’d been carried off by a dragon. Of all the knights who’d sworn their lives to her, only one dared to track the dragon who’d fled the castle, to retrieve the princess. But as you now know, he only found that the princess was the dragon.
“When she told him her story, the knight said, but what of your people? You cannot abandon us now. We love you.
“She snorted smoke, and asked, who could love a dragon? I fear my people will forsake me. I do not know how to become human and beautiful again. I cannot rule as a dragon.
“The knight told her, simply come back. Have faith in your people.
“So they left the cave, the dragon flying with the knight riding her back. They returned to the kingdom, where at first the people fled in fear and the palace guard brandished spears.
“The knight slid off the dragon’s back, and told his fellow knights, don’t be afraid! She is the princess. She has changed form now, but her heart is still true.
The people were afraid, but courage took hold in their hearts, and they approached the dragon, curious to see if she was truly their beloved princess.
“It is her, a group of children cried. Her eyes are the same. Princess, we would offer you flowers, but we fear you will burn them.
“The princess smiled, and accepted the children’s flowers. With their love, her heart grew full, and the fear she’d felt when she’d been trapped in her chambers left her. As it faded, her form changed, and once again she became the beautiful princess her people recognised.
“From that day forth, the princess continued to be fair and kind to her people, and when her mother the Queen died, she took up the throne and ruled as Queen in her own right, a just and righteous ruler who commanded her people’s love and awe. But, they said, never trap her or confine her, or her fear will rise and she will once again become a fearsome dragon, ready to claw her way out of her chains and regain her freedom.”
The storyteller reverently closed her hands together, fingers straight, palm to palm. “They say all women have a dragon in their hearts,” she said. “And woe betide the man, father or lover who dare attempt to confine her against her will. Trap a woman, and it will be a dragon you’ll find yourself fighting. But treat her with love and respect, and she will fly with you.”
She clapped her hands once, and the spell she’d woven broke. Listeners stood blinking in the firelight, brought back to the cobbled street and the chilly night.
As the crowd murmured and dissipated, coins clinked into the cloak laid beside the steps of the caravan. Children ran around the fire, giggling, and left flowers in the storyteller’s lap. No listener left the fire without leaving something.
Except for one.
A young girl, no older than eight, peered around the corner of the alleyway. She’d initially drawn close for the fire, and for the coins clinking in listeners’ purses. But her ears had become drawn to the storyteller’s rich voice, and before she’d known it, she’d forgotten the purses and the cold, transfixed by the tale of the knight and the dragon.
The storyteller’s bright eyes did not miss her. “Nothing for my trouble?” she asked, and harrumphed. “Ah, well. Tonight was a good night, still.”
The girl crept close. “Can you tell it again?”
The storyteller paused. “Tell what again?”
“The story. About the knight and the dragon princess.”
The girl was a scarecrow, with green eyes too big for her face and matted brown hair that glinted faintly red in the firelight. Her skin was a warm, dark tan colour, the sort you’re born with, which would have been pretty if not for the dirt caking it. She was swaddled in filthy clothes, layers of old cast-offs that had been collected and hoarded, to be worn until they fell to pieces. She was pathetic and starved, and should have been asking for food, not stories.
The storyteller blinked. “I don’t tell the same story twice in a row,” she said sternly. “You’ll have to wait for me to come back to town to hear that one again.”
“When will you be back?” the girl asked. “I can wait.”
The storyteller shrugged. “The travelling life is not predictable,” she said. “I’m not sure. Maybe a couple of weeks, maybe a few months. I don’t know. Girl, do you want some food?”
The girl blinked. “Um, yes,” she said. “Please.”
The storyteller stood up, groaning as her knees creaked. The girl waited outside curiously as she shuffled into the caravan, and emerged carrying a loaf of bread and a handful of end-of-season berries.
She handed both to the girl, who did not eat it immediately, instead clutching it to her chest with wide eyes.
The storyteller’s eyes narrowed. “Go ahead, eat,” she said. “I want to see you eat it, not sell it or pass it to the man who takes the money you steal.”
The little girl flushed, and obeyed, shoving the berries in her mouth first. Then she tore hunks off the bread, barely stopping to chew each mouthful.
The storyteller watched her carefully, firelight glinting in her eyes. “What life do you lead, child?” she asked.
“The man is not bad,” she says. “He gives us somewhere to stay for winter. We get food, and sleep on the floor in front of the fire. Better than the orphanage.”
“You ran away from an orphanage?”
“They whipped us. The man does not whip us. I get my hands caned if I am caught stealing, but I stopped getting caned years ago. My fingers are quick.”
She waggled them at the storyteller, as if to show them off.
“What do you think will happen to you when you grow older?” the storyteller asks. “When your breasts start to grow, and people start noticing you? What will your man do then?”
The girl was silent. “I don’t know,” she said. “A girl older than me – when she became a woman. He kicked her out. She was very pretty, and could no longer steal without being noticed. I suppose he’ll do the same to me.”
“And what will you do?”
The girl shrugs, silent. Her priority is stealing enough each day to earn her keep and be allowed to stay in the man’s house. She doesn’t think further than that.
The man is older than the woman, with a wispy long beard and beady pale eyes. He used to be wealthy once, he says. He was a philanthropist, and opened his home to the needy. But the money drained, and he began to ask the orphans in his home to help him. If they couldn’t give him something at the end of each day, though, they would sleep on the streets.
The girl is an excellent thief, and she knows it. She is quick, and silent, and her hands are feather-light. A year ago, the man gifted her with a small knife in return for her work. The knife fits neatly in the palm of her hand, small enough to be hidden there, and cuts purse ties without so much as a whisper of the blade. It’s the first gift she’s ever been given. She treasures it.
She finishes the bread. “Thank you,” she said. “Are you sure you can’t tell me that story again?”
The storyteller snorts. “No,” she says. “I’m afraid you must content yourself with just food. I leave in the morning, but I’ll be back in town again. Wait for word.”
The girl nods, looking crestfallen. “I’ll wait. Thank you for the food.” She turns to leave; it is late, and the man will be locking his doors for the night soon.
“You’re welcome, girl,” the storyteller says. “What’s your name?”
The girl stops, turns. “Lyra,” she says. “The man gave it to me; the orphanage just gave me a number.”
The man named her when she first crept in, having heard of his philanthropy. She offered him a handful of stolen coins, and he let her stay the night. That night, he brought her to a huge bookcase.
She had never been able to read, but the man chose a book at random, and flipped through the pages.
“Lyra,” he’d said. “The girl in this book is called Lyra. That suits you better than a number, don’t you think?”
He was kind, but gruff, and the girl had been scared. She nodded in agreement.
The man smiled, and from then on he and the other thieves had called her Lyra. It took her a time to grow used to having a name, but along with the knife, she clung to it tightly.
The storyteller nodded. “Lyra,” she said. “A pretty name for a filthy girl. He did well to give it to you.”
She rose, turning to climb back into the caravan. “My name is Maggie,” she said. “So you know what name to listen out for, when I come back.”
Maggie climbed into the caravan; by now, the fire was merely embers.
Lyra stood beside it for a few more moments, until the nagging sense to return to the man’s house was stronger than the pull of the fire’s lingering warmth.
She returned to the house, where the man crossly rebuked her for coming home so late. To her relief, he let her inside and did not cane her; after all, she had handfuls of coins for his trouble.
He gave her watery oats and a small piece of dried meat, and when she’d finished, she crept into the
drawing room where the other thieves slept.
The drawing room was a large space – not so large as the great hall, but large enough to fit twenty or so small children, all lying on the floor.
It had once been a grand, regal room, but today the paintings were faded or torn, the furniture was shabby and moth-eaten. The man couldn’t afford servants to clean the house, and so it had dulled with time. Nobody had lit the chandelier in a long time, and cobwebs gathered in the corners. Any valuable trinkets and decorations had been put away, out of reach of the children.
But for the thieves, it was a warm place to sleep, which was more than what many of their fellows in the streets were left with.
The smaller space allowed for the room to warm up faster, so even though Lyra had arrived too late to secure a spot by the fire, she still relished the sleepy heat that sank into her bones when she entered the room.
She lay down near a couple of smaller girls, and did not fall asleep for a long time. And when she did, knights and dragons and princesses danced around her dreams, transforming and undulating into each other.
In the months after the storyteller visited, Lyra went on with life. She thieved each day, and returned to the man’s house each night. Her hands remained nimble, and she did not have to sleep on the streets.
Another older girl was disallowed from the house; she’d grown too pretty. A boy was evicted, his growth spurt making him disused to his limbs and unable to steal quietly.
Lyra tried not to think of them, or the fact that she was growing taller every day. Her hands would stay small and nimble for while yet, she reminded herself.
The storyteller did not return.
While lurking inside a tavern, hoping to pickpocket some of the many drunken patrons, Lyra heard Maggie’s name.
“Maggie? The storyteller?” the bartender snorted. “She probably won’t ever be back, so I wouldn’t go on hoping. She’s stuck in some village a couple days east of here.”
“So why can’t she visit?” a bearded man swaying on his stool grunted. “My young’uns haven’t shut up since she last left. They demand stories, but I’ll be damned if I know any. Like I could tell ‘em the same way she does, anyway.”
“Rumour has it she can’t tell stories any more,” the bartender said. “She’s fallen terribly ill. Even lost her voice. It’ll be a miracle if she survives, and a greater one if she can tell stories again.”
For the second time in her life, Lyra forgot about coins.
She hung around long enough to catch the name of the village, then stole a couple of purses from drunk patrons. She did not return to the man’s house.
She found a farmer who came from the village Maggie was in; he was visiting for the vegetable market, and on his way home. She gave him a purseful of coins to let her ride in his wagon, and kept the second purse so she could buy food along the trip.
She stayed in the barn with the farmer’s horse at each tavern he stopped in each night along the journey, sleeping in the hay, and rode silently in the wagon by day.
When they reached the town, she visited every pub and tavern to ask after Maggie. One pub owner directed her to a field, where she found a caravan that had been shrouded in darkness the first time she’d seen it. She recognised the wooden steps.
She knocked on the painted door, and listened to the coughing and shuffling footsteps behind it. The door swung open, and Maggie stared out, her face paler and more grim than when Lyra had last seen it. Dark circles hung under her eyes, which were still bright with life.
Maggie’s eyes widened, and she silently motioned for Lyra to come in. Lyra felt an eerie shiver; Maggie really had lost the melodious, rich voice that had held her captive months before.
At first, Maggie tried to write with a pen. Lyra shook her head. “I can’t read,” she said.
Maggie sighed, rolling her eyes, and tried moving her hands. Now, this Lyra understood. One of the other children in the orphanage had been deaf, and spoke with his hands. She felt relieved that she hadn’t forgotten the sign language he’d used.
I suppose you’re here for that story, Maggie said.
“Partly,” Lyra admitted. “But I also wanted to see you. I felt scared when I heard you were ill. I thought you would die.”
Maggie laughed silently, and coughed. I’m flattered that you were concerned for me, but it’ll take more than a disease of the throat and lung to kill this old bat, she said. It may kill me yet, but not today. I’ll see how long I can fight it off.
“But you can’t tell stories,” Lyra said. “Not the way you used to. Only a few people in the town knew sign language.”
Maggie’s face darkened, and Lyra understood the reason for the dark circles. It wasn’t the illness; it was the fear of becoming redundant, of no longer being useful.
Lyra understood that.
“Teach me the stories,” she said. “Perhaps I can tell them for you.”
Maggie snorted. Storytelling isn’t just repeating a tale, she said. It’s an art in itself. A performance. You don’t just tell a story, you weave a spell. That takes time to learn.
“Then I can learn,” Lyra said. “Just teach me. I’ll stay with you, speak for you, do whatever you can’t do anymore. I can even steal for you. And you can teach me to tell stories.”
Maggie snorted. Alright. But not the stealing. I don’t want you to steal another thing for as long as you’re with me. I won’t keep a thief under my roof.
From then on Lyra lived in the caravan with Maggie. She slept in the space under the bunk at the end of the caravan, falling asleep to Maggie’s snores each night. Unlike the man, Maggie gave her blankets and a pillow.
Maggie also made her have her first bath since leaving the orphanage. She dragged Lyra to the nearby stream and all but drowned her, shoving her into the icy winter water and holding her down when Lyra scrabbled to escape.
She brandished soap and a wash cloth, and scrubbed Lyra’s skin until the dirt fell away from her dark tan skin, tinged pink with cold and scrubbing. She washed the grime out of Lyra’s hair and brushed the tangles out, until it began to fall in waist-length auburn curls.
Red hair! Maggie paused to sign, laughing silently. And there your hair was so filthy I thought you were brunette. And look at your skin! So there is a pretty girl under that dirt to go with your pretty name.
She applied a stinking, stinging ointment to Lyra’s scalp, and the girl cried out that Maggie was trying to kill her. First by drowning, then freezing, then poison! But when Maggie combed her hair again, the comb came away with black dots – Lyra had never known a time where her hair and clothes weren’t lice-infested, even in the orphanage where they shaved the children’s heads to control it.
That night, Lyra went to bed clean and free of itching and bites. The next time she needed a bath, Maggie pulled out a wooden tub and filled it with water heated from the fire. Maggie showed her how to wash herself and comb her hair, and from then on Lyra decided she preferred to be clean.
From then, Lyra became Maggie’s helper, performing chores and errands. She chopped firewood for the wood-stove, and bought food for Maggie to cook, using coins that Maggie pressed into her palm.
Eventually, Maggie trusted her enough to show her the box where she kept the coins she earned each night telling stories, and Lyra was allowed to take money as she needed for food, herbs, lamp-oil, candles, and other necessities.
She fed the black Friesian horse each day, brushing her inky coat and braiding her curly tail and mane.
“How did you get hold of such a pretty horse?” Lyra asked one day.
Maggie smiled. I told stories for a king once, she said. He was impressed by my tale about a Black Beauty who carried lords and peasants alike to their true paths. So he took me to his stables and gave me a Black Beauty of my own. I call her Coco, though.
“Coco’s a terrible name,” Lyra snorted. Maggie shrugged. Well, it’s what she answers to now, so tough luck.
While Lyra worked and helped upkeep the caravan, Maggie began telling her stories. It was a silent storytelling, this, where her inflections and exclamations were communicated with her hands and face. To Lyra, it was no less captivating than her verbal storytelling, but alas – sign language was not commonly used.
Maggie told her all of her stories, and then told them again. She pored over the books crammed into shelving along one wall of the caravan, and read them out to Lyra. She had hundreds of stories in those books, but Lyra could not read – so Maggie read them to her, over and over.
After a time, Lyra found she could repeat the words to herself. She entertained herself with them while chopping wood, or brushing Coco. She told Maggie, and Maggie’s eyes lit up.
Tell me, then, she said. If you know the stories so well, let me see you tell them.
Lyra tried, and while she remembered it word for word, Maggie rolled her eyes and shook her head.
You’re as bland as a history lecturer, she complained, her hand movements sharp and angry. You could put me to sleep like that. Use your voice! Use your arms, your face! You’re telling a story, not reading a statistics report.
Lyra had no idea what history lecturers or statistics reports were like, but she could tell Maggie wasn’t happy. So she followed Maggie’s direction, raising her voice during the grander moments, pausing for the twists and climaxes, softening her voice for the sad parts. She learned to perform the story, not just tell it.
Maggie made her tell all the stories, and coached her through the telling of each one. She was always silent, but in time a glint began to appear in her eyes when Lyra told stories. Lyra didn’t know what it meant, until the day Maggie told her, I think we can start travelling again. This time, you can tell the stories.
They left the village that afternoon.
The first village they arrived in was larger than the last, but still no town. Children ran along the sides of the caravan, crying, “Maggie! Maggie’s back!”
Sitting in the front of the wagon holding Coco’s reigns, Maggie smiled.
But it was not Maggie who opened the back door and sat on the steps of the caravan that night. The crowd gathered around the fire stared at Lyra, who fought to keep her hands from shaking.
“Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess, a fair and noble girl who was beloved by her people,” she began.
A few people left. The rest who stayed did so with grim faces and judging eyes.
As the story progressed, though, their eyes began to light up with wonder. Children’s mouth fell open, chins resting on hands. People leaned closer.
By the end of the story, coins were clinking into the cloak laid at the side of the steps.
Inevitably a woman asked her, “What happened to Maggie?” and Lyra had to explain about the storyteller’s illness, why she could no longer tell stories.
The woman was quiet for a moment. “Well, I’m sorry to hear she can’t tell stories anymore,” she said. “But she picked a bloody good student. My daughters are looking forward to tomorrow night.”
Maggie counted the coins, and she beamed when she tallied them up. More than I ever usually got in a night, she said. Maybe it’s your ravishing good looks. You did well tonight, girl.
The same thing happened over the next few nights, and again in the next town they visited. Lyra’s confidence grew, and Maggie began to emerge and join the crowd to watch her cast her spell over the listeners, a faint smile on her face.
They travelled to towns, cities, even new countries. Lyra had barely known any world existed outside her miserable town, so the new names and languages and cultures were mind-boggling to absorb.
She began to learn new languages. Maggie coached her in this too, so that Lyra could tell stories in cities’ native dialects, and reach out to more than just the listeners who understood their native tongue.
And yet, while Maggie could teach her to storytell, to perform, to speak new languages, she couldn’t teach Lyra to read. She tried. She made Lyra write down letters, and pulled out books of stories ingrained in her psyche.
See, you know this one, Maggie tried, brandishing a poetry book at her. You can recite this poem backwards if you want. So why can’t you read it?
It was not for lack of trying; Lyra pored over letters for hours inside the caravan in between towns, using the time on the road to study. But putting them together didn’t make sense to her. The letters swam on the page, switching with each other, b’s turning to d’s and p’s to q’s. The words evaded her at every turn, and the more her frustration grew, the more the letters danced and teased her.
Maggie eventually gave up. Some people simply can’t get the hang of it, she said. It’s not for lack of intelligence, so don’t worry about that. Some people’s minds just can’t make them click. It’s not your fault, girl.
Lyra gave up too. She could read enough to make sense of town names written on signs, but that was as far as she could get. The hundreds of books on the shelves would have to remain a mystery to her.
In one city, they came across a home of young, deaf children. A disease had swept through the city, killing the children’s parents, and permanently scarring the children who survived. None of them could hear, but all of them used the same sign language Maggie used.
Maggie’s eyes lit up at the chance. She captured the children in tales spoken with her hands, and they sat delighted, waving their hands in applause when Maggie finished.
Maggie and Lyra took turns in that city; Lyra performing for the adults and unaffected children, and Maggie for the deaf orphans.
“Why don’t we both perform?” Lyra suggested on their last day in the city. “I could speak, and you could sign as I speak. We can entertain them all at the same time.”
The listeners loved it so much, Maggie and Lyra could barely carry the laden cloak back into the caravan at the end of the night. From then on, every night, in every town, village and city, Maggie sat beside Lyra, her hands performing for any listeners in the crowd who may need it. Without fail, there was always at least one person in the crowd who emerged at the end of the story to thank Maggie using their hands.
They travelled until the cough in Maggie’s lungs grew too frequent for her to sign alongside Lyra’s storytelling. She never truly recovered from the disease that took her voice – she put on a good show of health, but the coughing proved otherwise, and over time she grew thinner and paler. The day a particularly rough coughing fit left Maggie weak and clutching a bloody handkerchief, Lyra made the decision to stop in the town they were in. Maggie was too sick to keep travelling.
Lyra tried to ask what disease was ailing Maggie, but Maggie shook her head. It’s not well understood, she said. A wasting disease – but not a contagious one. When I lost my voice, I saw a doctor who looked down my throat and said there was a lump pressing on my voice box. It’s growing bigger, and I’m sure there are other lumps, other parts of my body falling into disuse, though I don’t know where. I didn’t know how long I’d last. I’m just glad I lasted this long.
“Is there nothing I can do?” Lyra asked. “No treatment? No medicine?”
None, Maggie said. This isn’t a disease that can be fixed with herbs or cold baths.
Maggie eventually became bedridden, too weak to walk. She lay in bed and coughed every time Lyra tried to feed her soup. Lyra tried to make her comfortable, laying cool water-soaked cloths on her forehead when the fever began, covering her in blankets when the chills started.
Tell me stories, Maggie said. Lyra told all the stories she could remember, and signed them when her voice grew hoarse.
Lyra barely fit under the bunk any more, and couldn’t have slept under it anyway for the coughing that shook it through the night. She began to sleep outside, curled up to Coco’s warm flank, where Maggie couldn’t see her cry. Lyra had never had someone she’d been scared to lose, before.
One morning, Lyra woke up to silence. No muffled coughs racked through the caravan walls. She pressed her face into Coco’s flank and sobbed.
She found the farmer who owned the field they were staying in, and asked permission to dig a grave. The farmer’s child daughters stared out behind the door with huge eyes. The farmer had frequently brought the girls to the caravan on the nights before Maggie had grown too ill for them to tell stories.
The farmer helped her dig the grave, and carried Maggie’s body out of the caravan after Lyra had dressed her, perfumed her, and wrapped her in the cloak that had collected so many coins from listeners entranced by her tales.
The dirt was dug in over the body, and the farmer hammered together a small wooden grave marker. The daughters crept out of the house with flowers and laid them over the dirt.
That night, Lyra crept into the bunk that had been Maggie’s and curled up in the blankets that smelled of death and of her. She cried until the sun rose.
The next day, she tried to read the books again. She cried again in frustration.
She left the caravan to feed Coco, and collect wood. While brushing Coco’s coat, she heard a voice.
“I’m going to miss that old hag, no matter how hard she drove me some days.”
Lyra blinked, and looked around, but nobody was there. Coco harrumphed.
Lyra stared at the horse. “Was that you, Coco?” she asked, and immediately felt stupid. Horses didn’t talk.
Coco’s brown eyes darted back to her. “Who else?” she said. “Do you see anybody around here? Of course it’s me.”
Lyra’s mouth fell open. “But you’re a horse,” she said. “Horses don’t talk. Only in some of the stories.”
Coco snorted. “Maggie never told you what king was so moved by her story that he gave me to her,” she said. “You’ve performed for kings before. Did they ever give you a horse?”
Lyra blinked. She had performed for kings – some of the capital cities were the seats of thrones, and after a few days a royal messenger would knock on the caravan door with an official invitation to the palace.
They showered Maggie and Lyra with coins, gifts and valuables. But never a horse.
“My king was the king of the fairies,” Coco said. “And you know how fairies feel about stories.”
Lyra paled. Coco was a fae horse.
Fairies did not mingle with humans often, and Lyra couldn’t imagine how Maggie had been invited to the fairy kingdom to storytell. She didn’t know how Maggie left either, no less with a gift horse. Fairies loved to hoard.
They also loved stories.
Fairies were unparalleled artists, musicians, architects. Their craftsmanship was beyond any human ability, and were masters in all creative arts except one.
Fairies could write incredible histories and biographies, but they could not write fictions. They were unable to tell lies, and while fairies were masters of twisting the truth nonetheless, they could not make up stories in the way humans could.
Which made storytellers like Maggie very valuable to them. And while she couldn’t understand how or why they let her go – plenty of storytellers were kidnapped and trapped in the fairy realm to entertain them for the rest of their lives – she could understand now how a king might be moved enough to gift a storyteller with a fine horse.
One that spoke, no less.
“Alright,” Lyra said quietly. “So you’re a fairy horse. Why are you only speaking to me now?”
Coco harrumphed. “Maggie’s gone now, and I need someone to talk to,” was all she said.
The discovery of Coco’s speech – and the delight of still having a companion to talk with – cheered Lyra up enough that she could prepare to leave the town and continue travelling. She still had to tell stories, after all.
But leaving the field with Maggie’s grave left an ache in Lyra’s chest, and she sorely missed the woman’s company on the road. She’d have forced herself to spend all her time studying letters again, if it meant having Maggie back.
Time passed, and Lyra travelled from town, to city, to country. She told stories to kings, lords, peasants and beggars. Some of them had stories for her, too. Maggie had never allowed it, saying it was poor to share the spotlight. But Lyra began to invite listeners to share their own stories. Even if they mumbled, or droned, or fidgeted while telling. And some of the stories captivated the rest of the crowd regardless, and it was those ones that made Lyra approach the teller and ask if she could borrow the story, and retell it along her way.
Lyra couldn’t read, but she could still collect stories, and her inner library grew richer and more expansive with each town she visited. Everyone had their own story they wished to share, and Lyra loved sharing them along her way.
In this way she became known for not only telling stories, but also asking others to share their own and collecting their stories. She was known as the storyteller with all the world’s stories.
And as she came to discover, that was a dangerous title to be famous with.
Because wherever there is someone with a lot of possessions, there will be someone who will wish to steal all those possessions.
Once upon a time, the storyteller with all the world’s stories had all her stories stolen.