Some stories begin with tales of magic, or of glass slippers, or of two people drawn inexorably together by fate. This story begins with none of those things, and, in fact, relies rather heavily on a lot of good things happening accidentally all at once. Most of all, the story has its deepest roots in a letter that was sent to the Royal Academy of Science in London, England, over one-hundred fifty years ago. The letter contained a very strange inquiry and was passed around to most of the resident scientists for a good laugh. Until, at last, one scientist took pity on the country boy who had sent it and tried to explain as politely as possible that his query was nonsense.
In his letter, the boy introduced himself as Steve Rogers, and what tugged on the scientist’s heartstrings was the boy’s revelation that he was chronically ill and therefore had to be homeschooled. His illnesses were the reason his parents had moved them to a whole new continent and taken residence in the countryside, hopeful that living someplace peaceful might help him heal from his veritable cornucopia of maladies. After moving to the town called Wall – so named, he claimed, for the wall that ran alongside it – his health did improve, and some in the town whispered that the wall itself was to credit. Others whispered that he must have gone over the wall himself, seeking out a cure, and the boy asked the scientists of the Royal Academy if such a thing were possible – a world parallel to our own that contained all kinds of miracles.
The scientist, like any good man of reading without clear evidence to the contrary, told young Steve that this was surely poppycock, and that country-dwelling folk had too much time on their hands. But Steve did not believe him and saved the letter, with the expectation that one day he’d prove this scientist wrong.
A few years and nighttime explorations later, eighteen-year-old Steve found himself at the opening in the wall, which had been guarded by the same old man for far longer than the memories of any of the younger townsfolk.
“I’m charged with guarding the portal to another world,” groused the old man, leaning forward on his walking stick and staring piercingly into Steve’s eyes, “and you’re asking me to just let you through?”
“Yeah.” Steve shrugged his slim shoulders and made a pointed gesture behind his obstructer. “‘Cause, I dunno if you’ve noticed, but it’s an empty field.” Unimpressed, the old man settled his feet more firmly in place. “C’mon,” Steve tried again, “do you see another world out there? No. You see a field. Do you see anything nonhuman? No. And y’know why? Because it’s a field!”
The old man made a tired, dismissive noise. “Hundreds of years, this wall’s been here, under twenty-four-hour guard –”
“Yeah, I know, but –”
“And this is the third time this week that you’ve tried to sweet-talk your way through!”
“I just –”
“One more word and I’ll report you to the village council!”
Steve opened his mouth but stopped, mouth twisting in defeat as he scratched one hand through his neatly-trimmed blond hair. “Right. I guess – I’d be better off just heading home.”
“G’night, Mr. Selvig.”
As Steve turned away, the old man lowered himself back onto his stool, waving vaguely after the youngster. “Goodnight, Steve. Give my best to your mother –”
Before the old man could turn his head, Steve had taken a running leap at the gap in the wall and began sprinting through the definitely, completely normal field as fast as he could go. With a brief shout, and almost tumbling off his stool, the old man waved his walking stick ineffectually after the escapee. Since he could not abandon his guard, however, he was forced to let the young rapscallion get away.
Once he was out of sight of the wall itself, Steve slowed down, needing a moment to rest and make sure that his asthma wouldn’t flare up. It – like most of his other afflictions – had been vastly improved since leaving Brooklyn’s crowded streets, but sometimes it could be tricky. He ambled through the grove of trees into which a foot-made path led, taking note of the area’s familiar flora and shaking his head at the foolishness of the old man. The path eventually led him to the tall gate of a city, whose walls were guarded by strange stone creatures the likes of which he’d never seen before. Upon entering the city itself, Steve swallowed, and thought that perhaps the old man had been telling the truth about the otherworldly nature of this land after all.
A night market was in full swing within the city’s center, all kinds of strange merchants and patrons bustling about. In one stall, a flame hovered just above the counter without a source or protection; this, a man purchased with a few shining coins, and then snatched up with his bare hand. In another, a carnivorous plant munched greedily on the back half of a pure, white rat, blood dripping down its petal lips. Perched a top a barrel, a large glass jar filled with eyeballs caught Steve’s gaze, and when he approached they all turned to him in unison, studying him as one. He jumped backwards in alarm, stumbling into a doddering old woman, who then dropped an apparently very hot drink onto a tall, well-dressed man.
“Dumb bitch!” The man growled this right into her face, swiping bitterly at his stained clothes, and Steve felt a large clench of anger in his stomach.
“Hey, you better apologize to her! That wasn’t her fault,” Steve called out, striding up to the dandy with as much swagger as his rather thin frame could manage.
“Are you talking to me?” The man stared around, pretending like he couldn’t see his challenger, and then snickered as he returned his top hat to his head.
“Yeah, buddy,” Steve snarled, rolling up his sleeves, “you bet I’m talking to you.”
“Enough!” The woman whose stall in front of which they were arguing appeared as if from nowhere, arms crossed and dark eyes flashing. “I won’t have time-wasters chasing off my customers.”
Giving his opponent one last, dismissive huff, the other man disappeared, and Steve turned back to the woman. “I’m real sorry if I caused you any trouble, ma’am.”
She was a couple inches taller than he, with smooth, dark skin and carefully controlled curls, and the smile she gave him in return was thin. When a small bushel of flowers appeared out of thin air in her hand, he realized with a start that she was a witch. “Will you be purchasing any of my wares?”
The stall itself was ramshackle, counter made up of discarded boards and rusted nails, bushels of flowers hiding the rotting wood. Clearly the flower witch was a nomad, because behind the counter was a bright yellow caravan, and in front of the caravan stood the most beautiful woman Steve had ever seen. Her dress was a deep, royal blue, and it shone enchantingly against her pale skin.
“Yeah,” he choked out, and the witch’s smile became far less sinister and more accommodating.
“Girl,” she called behind her, and the woman behind the stall strode dutifully forward. “Take care of this customer. I have... business to which I must attend.” With a small pop, the flowers in her hand disappeared in a small burst of fire, and she turned to sashay down the crowded market street.
The servant woman, wavy brown hair glinting in the lantern light, leaned forward against one of the stall’s posts with a coy smile dancing around her red-painted lips. “I saw you stand up to Humphrey. That was very brave of you. Not many people would.”
Steve frowned briefly, before dropping his mouth open. “Oh, you mean –” He aped jauntily putting the top hat on his head, and she nodded, laughing. “Yeah, well, I don’t like bullies.”
“An admirable quality,” she replied, eyes flicking approvingly down the length of his body. “My name’s Peggy.”
“I’m Steve.” Holding his hand out automatically, he cringed a little at the formality, but she just grinned again and gave his hand a good, firm shake.
“So, my mistress said you wished to buy something. See anything you like?”
“Definitely,” he breathed, flushing pink as he realized that the only thing in his head at that moment was most certainly not for sale. So he swallowed, studying the rows and rows of flowers and trailing his fingers through the petals. “Um, how much’re those blue ones?”
Coming around the edge of the stall, Peggy studied the flowers at which he pointed. “Oh, you don’t want the bluebells. Too ordinary.” Pushing aside a collection of bright daisies, she picked out a small flower whose white petals drooped alongside its own stem, as if its beauty was too much to hold upright. “Buy this one instead.”
Bemused, Steve plucked it gently from her hand; they grew throughout the wood thickets by his village, and so her insinuation that it was not ordinary was somewhat odd. “A snowdrop.”
“It’ll bring you luck,” she said, deep brown eyes shining as she leaned against the stall.
“Alright,” he chuckled, hunting in his pockets for money. “What’s it cost?”
He swallowed, eyes darting down to her lips. “Ah. Alright.”
Peggy grinned and grabbed his hand. “Come on,” she said, tugging him after her around the side of the stall towards the miniscule caravan. As they walked, though, Steve tripped over a thin silver chain, and when he leant over to pick it up he was confused to see that one end was tied to the woman’s ankle.
Pausing, she saw him holding the chain and gave him a sad smile. “I’m a princess,” she intoned half-teasingly, “tricked into being a witch’s slave.” She flounced onto the steps of the caravan, the joke not quite reaching her eyes. “Will you liberate me?”
Steve couldn’t tell if she was serious or not, but giving her a minute grin, he picked up the chain and pretended to inspect it. Flipping out the pocketknife he always carried, he bent the chain over and sliced easily through the soft silver. Even though that seemed too simple, Steve held up the piece of chain that he’d removed to show Peggy. Sure enough, however, seconds later the two remaining pieces of chain snaked together again, not even leaving a mark to show for the damage he’d so briefly inflicted upon it.
“It’s an enchanted chain.” Peggy leaned forward on her knees, watching as he pocketed both his knife and the snippet of chain. “I’ll only be free when she dies.”
A terrible sense of anger and hopelessness overcame him; bullies he could deal with, but magic was something else entirely. “I’m sorry.”
Darkness passed across her face, as if her future itself was trapped within the chain, but the impression disappeared just as quickly. A smile returned to her lips, and she held her hand out to him. “Now, you still owe me a kiss.”
For her part, Peggy wasn’t quite sure what drew her so strongly to Steve; she wasn’t normally one for picking up country boys at market. But his sweet bravery had drawn her inexorably to him, and as they lay together very late that night, his hands eager and lips willing, she couldn’t begin to regret her decision. Sending him on his way afterwards was harder, the hurt in his blue eyes palpable as she shooed him out of the caravan before her mistress could return and curse him, too. He promised that one day he’d find her, she swore that he’d never be able to, and their parting caused both of them great misery. Steve clung to the silver chain as he clambered back over the wall that night, promising himself that one day he’d make enough money that he could take the chain to the Royal Academy of Sciences and prove to them that he was right – and somehow use it to find her.
Nine months after departing the magical kingdom of Shieldhold, Steve received an unexpected souvenir of the best night of his life. The old man from the wall had sent someone to Steve’s home with a message in a basket – and that message lay atop a sleeping baby. The little girl blinked her golden-brown eyes open and gurgled, reaching up eagerly to grab Steve’s finger when he held it out to her. He inhaled, watching her toothless baby-grin, and felt a sharp pang that he wouldn’t get to raise this child alongside her mother, the woman with whom he’d spent one amazing night all those months ago.
In fact, there were two messages in the basket – the first of which explained to Steve that Peggy’s mistress had forbade her to keep the baby. The second one was cylindrical, covered in rough, brown paper, and addressed only To Jemma.
“Jemma,” Steve murmured, already thinking about whether or not he could pick up a second job to support them when he graduated in two weeks. “I’m gonna take real good care of you, little girl. My best girl.” The baby burbled happily in her basket, and Steve couldn’t stop the wide smile that spread across his face if he tried.
Life was hard for the little Rogers family sometimes, as Steve’s health was never as reliable as he’d like and money was often tighter than not, but thrive they did nonetheless. Twenty years passed, and the baby Jemma grew up knowing nothing of her unconventional heritage – but never mind how the infant became a girl. This is the story of how Jemma left home, got lost, became a hero, and managed to find everything she didn’t know she’d always wanted.
In the years after Jemma’s arrival in the town of Wall, a sister school to the prestigious Royal Academy for Sciences opened its doors nearby, with the goal of attracting all the most intelligent young minds in England. All the most intelligent male minds, that is. Jemma, being well aware of her superior intellect when compared to most of the town’s inhabitants, did not find this at all acceptable. Neither did her father, for that matter, but Steve took a rather longer view of the Royal Academy for Sciences as an institution than she.
Late one night, Jemma tossed pebbles at an Academy dormitory window, hoping that she would wake up her friend and not his roommate. Unfortunately for her, however, the Academy’s deputy headmistress rounded the building’s corner at just that moment, and Jemma leaped back in surprise. “Ms. Weaver!”
“Jemma,” the older woman said with a low exhale, crossing her arms. “The groundskeeper said we had another intruder – you should be grateful I came looking instead of the dogs.”
“I – I was – you seem to have a, um, rat problem...?” She winced, berating herself for not preparing a cover story in advance.
Ms. Weaver raised a carefully sculpted eyebrow. “You know I’ve been very fond of you, especially when you assist the town’s council –”
“Yes,” Jemma said, grabbing onto the topic change with alacrity, “you see, I’ve been wondering if you received my newest application to the Academy, which I gave to the town council last week to have delivered –”
“Jemma.” Glancing around, Ms. Weaver took a few steps closer. “Even if the Academy didn’t only accept boys, you know you can’t afford it.”
“But my funding proposal is –”
“The answer’s always going to be no,” Ms. Weaver cut her off bluntly. “The headmaster will never allow it.” She let out a sympathetic sigh; truth be told, she saw a lot of herself in the younger girl, and if she hadn’t been raised near one of the first ever scientific institutions to admit girls, Ms. Weaver would likely be in an even worse position than Jemma. “You’re very bright. If you could move to London, where certain, progressive programs are beginning to admit one or two girls a year....”
Jemma’s face fell, and she spoke her next words quietly, almost to herself. “I can’t leave Wall. My father needs me.”
“I’m very sorry, Jemma.” Ms. Weaver gave her a sympathetic half-smile before returning to the entryway.
Pursing her lips, Jemma turned on her heel and strode back the way she came, to go clambering through the bushes back to her house. The time would come that she’d prove her worth to be far above that of half the students here combined; of this, Jemma had no doubt.
The next night at the same time, Jemma traipsed up the hill alongside the outer borders of the Academy, the wall itself visible just beyond the low apex. Waving a scribbled note in front of her as she approached the picnic blanket, she shook her head and grinned at the friend who awaited her arrival. This friend was named Trip – Antoine Triplett, to be accurate, but since he’d stumbled clumsily over her feet twice the first day that they met, she only ever called him by his nickname. A smart young man, dark-skinned and tall, he had been the only one at the Academy’s open house last year to give her the time of day, despite her very clearly being the wrong gender to be accepted to the school. Amused by her determination to be accepted, he’d agreed not long after to give her short versions of his own lessons – and, most importantly, he illicitly lent her books from which she could study on her own.
“You couldn’t have had someone send over this note last night?” She dropped her heavy knapsack on the blanket first, sitting primly next to it and reaching right for the bottle of wine he’d clearly nicked from the school’s cellars.
Trip cringed, handing over a thick-stemmed, wooden goblet. “I’m sorry! The new astronomy teacher’s really into nighttime sessions, and I totally forgot about it until Billy grabbed me.”
Spying the first of the new books, Jemma abandoned the wine to pick up and skim the back cover. “Our night skies,” she read, making a small hum of interest. “Oh, that could be quite interesting.”
“Billy said he couldn’t find you when he delivered that,” Trip added, studying the way she carefully avoided meeting his gaze. “Had to leave it with Mr. Dunstan.”
“Oh, well, he gave it to me, so it wasn’t a problem. Is that camembert?”
She sighed, face crumbling in the candlelight. “I got fired again.”
“C’mon girl,” he groaned, “what happened this time?”
Taking a sip of the wine Trip had poured, Jemma muttered into her glass. “I may have been experimenting with new ways to preserve the pork during my break.”
“At least it was the pork and not the beef this time,” he deadpanned, handing her over a large hunk of fresh bread.
“It may have been both.”
The bread was still barely warm in her hands, and she ripped off a small piece to nibble on, watching the way crumbs sprinkled over the dark cover of her book like a constellation. “It’s not my fault they don’t appreciate that a few sacrifices need to be made in order for scientific advancement.”
“Yeah, they’re probably more worried about their stock being destroyed,” he replied wryly, and she twisted her mouth, knowing he was right. “What’re you gonna do now?”
“I’ll just find another job.” Reaching for the cheese and his class notebook, she shrugged. “I’m not meant to work in a shop anyway, you know. There are bigger things waiting for me out there.” Ignoring Trip’s fond laughter, Jemma flipped through the notebook to find his most recent lessons. Jemma’s father had been telling her that she was meant for more than this her entire life, and even if she had to scrape and claw her way to her future, she’d find it one day.
Coincidentally – or, perhaps not so much, as most things involving the wall were often connected in some way or form – only a few leagues and one magical barrier away, the King of all Shieldhold lay on his deathbed. And as Jemma thought about her future, not so very far away the King’s final act would change the course of it forever.
King Nicholas Fury had married many times and outlasted every one of his wives, but, much to his great regret, he would not outlast most of his children. Most, that is, because of his eight children four were already dead at the hands of their surviving siblings, and one was long since missing.
Gazing out at his three remaining sons – John, Grant, and Jasper – the King sighed. “Now that you’re all here, we must discuss the matter of succession. Of my eight children, there are three of you today still standing – quite a break with tradition.”
John, the eldest of the three, barrel-chested and more smug than a hog in its mud pile, smirked at his father’s clear annoyance. “We know, Father. You had twelve brothers, and you killed them all for the throne before the King even felt poorly.”
“You’re strong and courageous,” Grant added by rote, eyeing the open, floor-to-ceiling window just to the right of the King’s bed.
“And cunning,” the King finished, smiling at Grant. “Most importantly, cunning. John –”
“Look through the window,” the King said, “and tell me what you see.”
Throwing a shit-eating grin back at his two younger brothers, John strode to the edge of the window. “I see the kingdom, Father. The whole of Shieldhold.”
“And?” While John’s back was turned, the King raised an eyebrow at his youngest son, Grant. Jasper, meanwhile, was overly occupied with staring somewhere at the ceiling, a rather bored expression on his bespectacled face.
“My kingdom?” John turned back to his father with an overly hopeful look, and the King shrugged (as best he could on his bed).
“Maybe,” the King answered. “Look up.”
As John craned his head to better see the night sky, Grant took a few, quick steps forward and shoved his eldest brother out the window, from which he fell to a rather grisly death many, many stories down. The King’s laughter at his oldest son’s demise finally roused Jasper to pay attention to the proceedings, and Grant turned back with a grim smile to receive his father’s commendation.
Unbeknownst to the surviving Shieldhold royalty, John reappeared in the King’s bedroom only a few short seconds after his death in the form of a ghost. After taking stock of his body, half of which was somewhat squashed from his landing, he looked up and started at the sight of his four siblings. “Brock, Sunil, Pietro – Victoria! You’re alive...?” The four other ghosts shook their heads, and John sighed.
“We’re stuck like this ‘til the new king is crowned,” Pietro chirped from his perch on the top of the King’s four-post bed.
“I was that close,” John sighed, running his ghostly fingers through what was left of his hair.
Sitting in a nearby winged armchair, Victoria made an annoyed tsk and raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow at him over the tips of her incredibly fashionable boots. “Well, at least you haven’t lost your looks.”
“Oh, please,” John snapped. “You’re not seriously annoyed about that whole murder thing, are you? I mean, that was ten years ago –”
“Yeah, great deal of good it did you, didn’t it, killing me? Because, now, of course, you’re king of all Shieldhold! – Oh,” Victoria finished drily, “sorry, you’re not.”
As the ghosts continued to squabble unheard by the living, the King returned to the matter at hand. “As you know,” he began, “Shieldhold tradition dictates that the sole surviving heir of the king would inherit the throne.” A small coughing fit halted his speech, and when he was finished he seemed more distant than he had moments before. “Where is your sister?”
Glancing at Jasper for confirmation, Grant cleared his throat. “Sorry, Father. No one has seen Margaret for years now.”
“Pity,” the King muttered, scratching briefly at the corner of his jeweled eyepatch. “Well, with the two of you still living, we shall resolve the situation of succession in a non-traditional manner.”
Pulling a large gold necklace away from the collection at his neck, the King dangled a stunning ruby before his two sons, who watched his every move with rapt attention. A thin strand of golden magic appeared around the ruby, causing its color to drain until the stone itself appeared as clear as glass. “Only he of royal blood can restore the ruby,” the King finished, voice beginning to fade, “and the one that does so shall be the new king of Shieldhold.”
With that, the gem and necklace flew out of the King’s grasp and into the sky, far out of the brothers’ reach. When they turned back to their father, he had drawn his last breath, meaning that time truly was beginning to close in upon them. Grant and Jasper gave each other one, cautious look, and then both bolted down the stairs of the castle’s tallest tower, jostling for first position the entire way and each one hell-bent on finding that gem before the other.
The gem, for its part, was of a rather discerning mind, and when it went soaring up into the heavens it managed to loop its chain around one particular star, dragging the both of them rather spectacularly back to earth.
Meanwhile, in the field by the wall on the English side, Jemma had accidentally faded out of her conversation with Trip as the book on astronomy drew her attention again. “You know,” she said thoughtfully, interrupting him for the third time, “I used to talk to the stars.”
Amused by the choice of tangent, Trip gave his head a small, bemused shake. “Yeah?”
“I never....” She cut her eyes to him, and then up to the sky. “I’ve never found it particularly easy to make friends. I’m not one of the popular crowd, you know, and so sometimes I’d come out to these fields – or, well, the ones over that way, closer to home – and I’d talk to the stars. Papa used to tease me that one day they’d answer back,” she laughed, her mood growing quickly more somber at the thought of her father. He was getting by, but she worried constantly that one day his illnesses would consume him. “I have to fix him,” she whispered.
“I’m sure you will – you’re a great daughter,” Trip said with an encouraging smile. “And a good person to have in your corner. Did you – ah...” he trailed off, studying her face. “Did you hear anything I just said?”
“Something about making a trip to Ipswich,” she replied absently, flipping through a few of the astronomy book’s pages. “Meeting a jeweler....” Jemma paused and glanced up at her friend, who raised his eyebrows. “You’re thinking of proposing to someone?”
Dropping his head and giving a low chuckle, Trip scooted forward before trying again. “Jemma, I go to an all boys school, and you’re the only person I have time to meet outside of school hours.”
“Oh.” She blinked a couple times, her heartbeat speeding up in what should have been excitement but simply wasn’t. “Well, that would make an enormous amount of sense, Trip, you’re far too intelligent for any of the other girls in Wall. And very good looking.”
Trip, who was just as smart as she gave him credit for, still couldn’t tell if she was simply being Jemma, or if there was something else brewing underneath her rather measured response. “Is – that you saying yes? Or just complimenting my life choices?”
She gave him a genuine grin at that, and reached for another piece of cheese, trying to ignore the sliver of guilt that she was just delaying giving him a real answer. “You have to actually propose before I can say yes.”
A wide smile broke across his face, and he stared wordlessly back at her for a few moments before shaking his head clear. “Yeah, alright. Okay. I’ll be back in a week, and –”
“Mr. Triplett, what a disappointment.” The deep voice sounded from behind Jemma and they both jumped, turning to see a rather regal-looking man with silver hair striding across the grass with the help of a cane.
“Headmaster Gonzalez,” Trip said, scrambling to his feet.
Following him up, Jemma realized that she was about to meet the man who had been steadfastly ignoring her applications for over a year. “Headmaster,” she said, drawing his attention to her, “my name is Jemma Rogers, and I don’t know if –”
“I know who you are,” he interrupted, giving her a critical glance. “I suppose it makes sense that you’re luring our students out here after curfew, too –”
“It was my idea, sir –”
“I wasn’t luring anyone!” Jemma couldn’t help her indignation, and reached for the first book she could find. “I’ve been teaching myself so that maybe when I’m admitted to the Academy I’ll be prepared –”
“Miss Rogers.” Leaning on his cane, Headmaster Gonzalez grabbed the book she’d unintentionally waved a little too close to his face. “Your tenacity is admirable, but I’m afraid that there’s never going to be a place for you here –”
“But I’m smarter than half the students already in attendance –”
“And unfortunately, you’re also a woman.” Even the silent stars above them flinched at his coldness then, and Gonzalez sighed. “You also have a sick father to support and a very limited income. You think that I don’t pay attention to your applications? I know all about your situation, and there’s simply no way –”
“But I need to go to this school!” Her voice was much louder than she’d intended, but it had the desired effect of quieting the headmaster. “I’m intelligent, and dedicated, and I would do anything in the world to be educated here!”
He laughed drily, dropping his head back to look up at the sky with an exasperated sigh. At that moment, the star pulled away from home by the Shieldhold royal gem soared overhead, zipping alongside the wall to go crashing down again in the magical kingdom. Glancing down at the book he’d taken from Jemma, Gonzalez waved it in the direction of the shooting star.
“Anything, huh? Alright – go fetch me that fallen star, and then I will reconsider your application. The deadline for next term is in one week.” He shook his head, tossing the book at her feet. “I want all of this cleaned up in ten minutes, Mr. Triplett, and you’ll come to my office tomorrow morning for disciplinary measures.”
“I’ll get you that star.” Jemma stood as tall as she possibly could and glared at the headmaster, who turned back to her with an incredulous look upon his mustached face. “I know you don’t think I can, but I will – and, Trip, I’ll even come back with it before you return from Ipswich.” Taking one more step towards Gonzalez, she inhaled, long, thick skirt swishing around her ankles. “You don’t believe I can do anything because I’m just a girl from a poor family, but I’ll prove you wrong. I’ll bring you back that star, and then you’ll see that I belong at this school.” With that, Jemma turned on her heel and ran out of the field, heading straight for the gap in the wall.
At the same time many leagues away, a rather decrepit old witch was awoken from her slumber by the last light of the shooting star, and her dark, gnarled heart beat faster at the realization of what had just happened.
“Dottie,” she called, “Barry! A new star has fallen!” As her siblings stumbled ungracefully out of bed, Jiaying hobbled to the window and watched the star’s last flare disappear over the horizon.
For the three dark witches, the arrival of a star on earth meant only three things: Youth, beauty, and survival. In fact, they had one more miniscule piece of star left in their pantry. Although all three of them maintained their magic for as long as they lived, none of them currently had the strength to use it. Living, you see, takes quite a large amount of energy, and they had exhausted their morsels of the last star with frivolities, including the creation of the once-exquisite and now-rotting mansion that they still inhabited.
Now that they were all awake and atwitter with excitement, the three squabbled over who would receive the last piece of the old star and chase after the new one, but Jiaying managed to win the privilege. (By opening her eyes when they picked straws, that is.)
Picking up the remaining piece of the star’s heart, glowing brightly even then, Jiaying smiled widely and then swallowed it down in one gulp. The magic began to take effect instantaneously, all of her cells rearranging themselves, and she laughed, feeling her skin tighten and hair return to its youthful, lustrous black. Patting down her torso and freshly-slim hips, she reveled in the new body of her younger self. It had been so very long since she had been beautiful, and killing the star would keep her this way forever. At least, until this one’s heart ran out, too.
Back by the wall in England, Jemma paused at the tree line and studied the man guarding the gap. Rumor had it that he’d been guarding the wall for longer than even the village council could remember, but obviously that had to be false. Taking a deep breath, she put on her most charming smile and strode up to the old man, who saw her approach and immediately started shaking his head.
“Not again, Rogers –”
Jemma gave him a bemused look and slowed to a halt. “How do you know my last name? I’ve never met you before.”
The old man squinted, and then put on a pair of rusty spectacles. “Oh. You do look a bit like your father. Small, skinny - longer hair, though.” Putting his glasses away, he shook his head and stood, leaning heavily on his cane. “I suppose you intend to cross the wall as well, since you’re here just the same. You can just forget it – go home.”
Opening her mouth to protest, she paused again. “Cross the wall ‘as well’ as who?”
Apparently, guarding the same three-meter patch of ground for multiple generations had its downsides, and memory gaps was one of them. The old man grumbled and resettled his cane against the ground. “No one. Nobody crosses the wall – you know that! Everybody knows that.”
“Right.” Still studying the old man, Jemma sighed, and then glanced meaningfully over his shoulder. “Yes, I know. I understand. I suppose I should just go home.”
“Okay. Goodnight, then.”
“Goodnight. Give my best to your father.”
Jemma took a few steps away from the gap, waiting until the old man had lowered himself back on his stool before turning and running back at the wall as fast as she could go. But the old man had learned a thing or two since Steve had tried the same trick twenty years ago, and he held his cane out at the exact height of Jemma’s shins, knocking her over onto the grass before she could get anywhere near the hidden kingdom.
He took his time standing up and leaning over Jemma, who was lying rather dazedly in the field and trying to figure out how she’d just been beaten by a man who had to be at least a century old.
“Off you go.”
The walk back to the village was somewhat painful, but Jemma managed, fuming at a low level about her quest being halted so quickly. When she stormed into the house, she sped right to her father, who was sitting in a chair by the fireplace and reading the day’s paper.
“Papa, why does the guard at the wall know you?”
Steve blinked, setting his glasses down on the side table and scratching a hand through his blond hair, now tinged with wisps of grey along the side. “Why were you talking to the guard?”
“Don’t change the subject.”
After studying the determined look on his daughter’s face, he sighed and stood. “I guess now’s as good a time to tell you as any.”
“Tell me what?”
“Where you came from.” And so Steve led Jemma into their attic, explaining as they went about the night that he managed to sneak into the magical kingdom on the other side of the wall.
In a wooden box, whose lid was decorated with a small, hand-hewn flower, lay the three most important mementos that Steve had kept from that night: The small piece of magical chain, for which he had never found a use. The bent white flower, whose luster hadn’t dimmed despite the many years, lack of water, and absence of sunlight. And, finally, the cylindrical object wrapped with a letter and addressed only To Jemma.
When she picked up the last item, Jemma gave her father a wide-eyed look. “I have a mother. I mean, she could still be alive.”
He smiled at his daughter, hands crossed loosely over his rather knobby knees. “Oh, I hope so. I’d like to think so, anyway.”
Inside the note addressed to her, Jemma found a long, black candle, which she pocketed – along with the other items – before reading the words out loud.
“My darling Jemma –
Please know that I only ever wanted the best for you. Had my mistress allowed it, I would have kept you in a heartbeat. My dearest wish is that we will meet someday. The fastest way to travel is by candlelight – to use it, think of me and only me. I will think of you every day, for always.
– Your Mother”
The writing was smudged, and hard to read at times, for although Peggy had neat handwriting usually, composing this letter was one of the hardest things she’d ever had to do. Holding onto Jemma’s tiny fist as she’d tried to write with her other hand, the night Peggy sent her daughter to live with Steve she’d spent a long time by the light of a beeswax candle trying to parse out just the right words. She had no idea how to send away this gift she’d only just been given, this small creature who had brought light into a dark life of captivity and endless drudgery. The letter became crumpled even further as she’d bent over her daughter’s basket, brushing the miniature nose with her own as tears dripped off her lashes, whispering “goodbye, my darling” over and over again and hoping that it wouldn’t be for the last time.
Although Jemma knew none of this, she traced each of the letter’s creases and wondered how they came to be, noticing what seemed to be a dried water droplet and thinking that, maybe, her mother had been just as sad to leave her daughter as Jemma had been to grow up without her. After a moment, she scooted over and wrapped her arms around her father’s always too-thin waist.
“Thank you, Papa."
Rubbing his daughter’s back as he’d done to calm her down ever since she was little, Steve closed his eyes and exhaled. “Love you, kiddo.” When she leaned back and wiped her eyes, he watched her fold up the note and slide it into her pocket. “You’re not going after her?”
Jemma glanced down at the wooden box that sat before them on the floor. “Not... not yet. I have to find another job – and figure out how to make something that looks like a fallen star.”
“Nothing.” Nudging his shoulder with hers, she smiled. “Besides, I can’t leave. Who’d take care of you? You’re absolutely hopeless on your own.”
Despite his daughter’s teasing tone, Steve didn’t take her statement as a joke. “Jemma,” he started, face more serious than she could remember. “You shouldn’t put your life on hold because you’d feel guilty about leaving me –”
“Papa!” Her voice was sharp and indignant, and she released her affectionate hold on him. But he ignored her upset and continued, having suspected for some time that this was a conversation they should have.
“You’re meant for more than this, you know,” he said gesturing out the attic’s grimy window to the small, twinkling town below. “And I love that you’ve been trying to learn enough on your own to help me, really.” He held up a finger to halt her excuses; he’d known about her secret nighttime trips to the Academy for some time. “But I don’t think you’re gonna find what you need if you’re stuck here.” Reaching out for her hands, he tugged until she met his gaze. “Look, I know you lost your job –”
“I’m omniscient. And your uncle told me when he stopped by after dinner. The point is, you’ve got nothing holding you here now, and I don’t count. I’ll always be here when you get back.” Steve reached smoothly into her pocket and pulled out the candle, then poked around in a nearby box until he found a dusty box of matches. “Go find your mother, see where that adventure takes you. And if it brings you back here, well....” He paused, giving her a crooked smile. “I’ll be happy to give you a discount on the rent for your room.”
Jemma choked out a laugh, trying not to think about the question she was afraid to ask: What if you get worse? What if you’re not here when I get back? Her brain automatically filtered in the memory of one sunny afternoon when she was nine, when her father had passed out without warning and spent three weeks bedridden in their house. They’d had to rely on charity from their neighbors for a month while he looked for new work, having lost his previous employment during his illness. What Jemma remembered most vividly from that time was sitting by his bedside and vowing that, one day, she was going to learn enough to fix him.
“I can see you worrying about me, y’know.” Her father’s voice was teasing, and she tried to give him a smile. “I’ll be fine, Jemma. But only if you do as I say.” Although he kept his gaze on her face, hers dropped to the black candle that he held between them.
A million excuses ran through her head, mostly consisting of her responsibilities at home or to him, but then she thought of the promise she’d made to Trip and the headmaster only an hour before. Perhaps her mother would know how to find a fallen star – which would lead her right back here, to her father and to the friend who had just promised to propose.
Giving her father a determined nod, Jemma leaned over to kiss him on the cheek and then grabbed both the candle and the matchbox before she could think twice about it. Within seconds, she’d lit the candle and disappeared from the attic with a bright flash, knocking Steve briefly backwards into the wall. When he recovered, all that was left of his daughter was a dark scorch mark on the wood and a few bits of paper that floated slowly back to the floor.