Another long one. It’s a fairy story, so I have an excuse.
Joris led Snowstorm through the pale light that preceded the dawn back to the cottage on the edge of the forest. The seven dancers were mortally weary; their shoes, the soles worn right through were left behind, and all they wanted was sleep. The youngest was already half-asleep in his arms before the old horse reached the door and stopped with a quiet snort. The six girls slid from his back, and without a word slipped inside and into their beds. Joris followed, laid the sleeping Septa in her little cot and closed the door.
When Snowstorm was settled back in the barn, Joris sat on the kitchen garden wall to watch the last of the stars go out. He wondered how long he would be called upon to ferry the seven sisters back and forth to every ball held by the young king in his castle by the river. He wondered how long he would be able to carry Una the eldest, his secret beloved, to the castle full of glittering nobles and the roving eye of the young king who had yet to find a wife. Not that the king would ever marry Una. But he was young and lusty and he kept in practice for the wife he had yet to find with a bevy of concubines.
Joris frowned and sighed. The woodcutter’s daughters and their passion for dancing would be the death of him. Not that it was their fault. A curse tossed on the golden head of each newborn baby was responsible. They would dance and dance every night the dance called them, until their shoes wore out and their dresses of gossamer and gold thread were in tatters. Every morning, a new pair of shoes and a new dress lay at the bottom of each bed and every night, the dancing would begin again.
Una had begged him to bring them safe home, and he had not been able to refuse. But now he wondered, thinking of how pale and tired she looked, how diaphanous was her skin, thin her limbs, whether she and her sisters were not dancing themselves into the otherworld. It was time to make an end, before they faded away from this world altogether, or before some noble captured each one and put her in a golden cage. Joris would break the spell in the only way he could think of.
Instead of going to his own bed above the barn, he let himself back into the house and hid underneath a pile of sacking in the corner by the door. As the last star winked out and the first ray of sun peeped over the horizon, a wisp of smoke crept beneath the door, swelled and took the form of a woman. Over her arm she carried a pile of delicate dresses and in her hand she held seven pairs of dancing shoes by their golden laces. Before she could leave them by the beds of the sleeping girls, Joris leapt out from his hiding place, his knife in his hand, grabbed the woman by the hair and pulled back her head. Her eyes were wide with surprise and he recognized Sarassine, the sister of the girls’ dead mother. Barren and childless, she had never looked on her nieces since their birth in her jealousy. Steeling himself for what he had to do, he raised the knife to her throat.
“Spare me,” she screamed.
The girls leapt from their beds.
“What are you doing?” Una asked in horror.
“Freeing you from your curse,” Joris replied, through gritted teeth.
“Not like this,” Una said and gently, took the knife from his hand.
Sarassine covered her face and wept. The woodcutter stumbled out of his alcove next to the hearth and his face blanched.
“Maissa,” he whispered.
Sarassine shook her head. “If only I were my sister. Even in her grave she is more fortunate than I am.”
“You look so like her,” the woodcutter murmured.
“If you would let me,” she began in a hesitant voice, “I would stay and take her place.”
The woodcutter took her hands and looked into her eyes and saw the misery that had pushed her to curse the children she wished had been hers. He smiled and said, “I would let you, with all my heart.”
Una whooped with joy and took Joris in her arms. “And I would stay with you, if you will have me.”
“With all my heart,” he replied and kissed her long and deep.
Secunda, Terza, Quadra, Quinta, Sixta and Septa clapped and pushed back the table to dance, but the dancing shoes and the gossamer flocks had blown away like golden mist. With great peals of laughter, they danced in their bare feet until the woodcutter called for his breakfast, the cows bellowed to be milked, and the pigs squealed to be let out, and they never went near the young king’s castle again.