Moths cast shadows on the stone wall as they flew to their deaths. The candle flickered, luring them into the tower away from the warm summer night. The sound of their delicate wings being touched by the flame was too much for me to bear. Yet, I was bound by my ankle, destined to witness their fate.
A fate much like my own.
My crimes were simple, if not unjust. I was a tradeswoman, a silversmith who also delighted in the company of the inn keeper’s wife in my bed. They could turn a blind eye to my smithy – for in their eyes I was merely a woman playing at a man’s craft. But the latter was strictly forbidden within the kingdom.
Pain washed through my body like a hungry sea licking the shore. The source of the constant throbbing demanded my attention. I dared myself to look. At the base of my wrists sat two fleshy lumps, unrecognisable as hands.
Once, people had journeyed far and wide for an item of my jewelry. I was a master of my craft. My nimble fingers had moved over the precious metal, feeling the shape and the essence of its structure.
Then I would listen.
I could feel the tiny vibrations beneath my fingertips, as if the quivering wings of a moth were buried deep within a silver cocoon. Each piece spoke to me, whispering its desires, longing for my tools to help it emerge transformed. I would soften the silver inside the flames of the forge, then work with my hammer and anvil bending, shaping, tapping the metal, until every part of its being had been released. As a midwife eased a babe into the world, I assisted the birth of each creation, branding it with my own maker’s mark – a moth.
In the hands of the guards my hammers had bit down hard upon my flesh as I fought in vain to defend my smithy. When I could fight no more, I was carried away in the dead of night by the king’s guards, my livelihood filling the sky with black smoke.
And Ellyn – what had become of my love? Did she creep from my bed back to the safety of the inn, or had she too been reduced to ash and cinder? I sobbed into the empty chamber, grieving for all I had lost.
On the other side of the wooden door I could hear the footfalls of the guard. They appeared to momentarily falter. Clumsily, I tried to stand, pulling on my chain, straining to reach the solid barrier between us.
‘Please, guard, I have done nothing wrong,’ I spoke to the door. ‘Let me go, I beg you. I have coin: if you set me free you can have it all…’
‘Silence witch,’ he hissed, spitting hatred from his tongue.
I fell onto the stone floor as if he had struck me with a sword, my chest rising and falling with each cry as his footsteps hastened away.
A light kiss of her wings touched my face, silencing me.
The moth landed on my cheek, drinking the mixture of tears and blood that gathered there. Gradually my breathing became shallow and steadier as I focused on the tiny insect. She stood too close to my eye for me to see her clearly, but I could make out the distinctive red and black markings on her wings as they shifted.
She was a cinnabar moth.
Her barbed legs tickled as she walked systematically over the contours of my face. With each movement she comforted me, like a mother singing a lullaby to a restless babe.
‘Thank you, my friend. I shall call you Cinders,’ I whispered before drifting into unconsciousness.
I awoke as a guard released my chains.
‘Follow,’ he commanded.
I stumbled behind him, reluctantly placing one foot in front of the other, descending the winding staircase out into the moonlit night. At any other time I would have looked at the full moon in awe, tonight it was just another face bearing witness to an unjust crime.
The pyre stood before me. The chanting crowd set my stomach writhing in knots.
‘Please, guard. Tell me, what is my crime. To lie with a woman, untouched by a man? I am no witch. I am a silversmith – that is all.’
The guard turned to me, his face obscured by a mask.
A small silver raven was pinned to his tunic. As it shone in the moonlight, I could remember how it had whispered to me of justice, bending easily to my will before it took the corvid shape.
‘Leif Brocksby!’ I gasped, ‘You’re a fair man, I know that. Please, I beg you – set me free.’
‘It is not my wish that such a fine craftswoman should die here tonight,’ he spoke measuredly. ‘However, it is my duty as the king’s guard to see you to the pyre, my lady.’
He lifted me onto the pyre and bound my legs to a post, hesitating at my useless hands. Instead he placed the other end of the rope into my mouth.
‘It’s an easy knot, Lady Smith,’ he whispered close to my ear. ‘They will light the outer circle first. A moth could disappear in the smoke before the flames burnt her wings.’
His eyes glinted as he spoke the last. ‘I bid you farewell,’ he said with a small bow, then was gone.
Flaming torches were raised. I whimpered through the rope with clenched teeth as they set the wood alight. Through the circle of smoke that gathered round me, I could make out the faces of my friends and neighbours in the crowd. Children I had grown up with, now married with families of their own. I knew them all by name – yet here they were, waiting for me to burn. They both frightened and disgusted me in equal measures.
She was among them. I could feel her eyes on me although her face was obscured by a green hooded cloak. My heart faltered, tears cutting through the ash that had gathered on my cheeks. She lived.
‘Ellyn,’ I sobbed, as if calling her name would restore all that was lost. Then she tipped her head and I watched as the woman I loved turned her back on me. She moved swiftly through the crowd until the night swallowed her up.
I let the rope fall from my mouth and my chin to my chest. Without her presence, even my death was of little consequence.
The outer circle of fire rippled with heat. Fresh flames danced beneath my feet, choking me with their suffocating veil. But there was no escape. The fire would show no mercy. I knew it would eventually claim my final breath. If I surrendered to it now, I could at least hope the flames would offer me a swift death.
As I gasped for air, the cinnabar moth appeared through the smoke, landing softly on my nightdress.
‘Fly away little Cinders, this is my fate, not yours.’ I choked the words. But she did not move away.
‘So be it, my friend – then we will face the flames together.’
My bare feet blistered on the wooden platform as the flames licked the sky like a dragon’s tongue, spitting and crackling as it devoured the wood around me. I could smell my hair as it singed in the intense heat.
The cinnabar moth crawled onto my shoulder then traveled down my nightdress to the rope that lay by my feet. Around her other moths appeared, first one – then two. Before long I had lost count. They covered my legs moving and turning over the knot, consuming the fibers until the rope unraveled around my ankles.
Within the flames, moths were emerging, rising from the embers, each of them shaking the ashes from their delicate wings before joining the others in swarms. I recognised some of them: Gypsy, Lunar, Atlas, Tiger and Hawk, they all flew upwards, like a cloud of smoke twisting into the night. Thick dark clouds formed, made up of small beating wings in hues of orange, black, blue, gold and green – all circling above my head, then they moved out into the crowd.
‘Witchcraft!’ a man shouted out. I could hear the fear in his wavering voice.
The moths moved together, thick as smoke, smothering the slanderous traitor in their wake. The cries of the onlookers rang in the night as they pushed past each other in a panic, desperate to escape the mass of tiny shimmering insects that descended upon them.
Moths flew at their eyes with ghostly wings, entering their mouths, suffocating them as they screamed. Around me, silence grew amongst the crowd as the last man fell to the floor his mouth set open and twisted.
A moth crawled over his tongue and joined the converging swarm.
I stood inside a dying fire. The cinnabar moth crawled down my arm to my broken hands. The swarm of moths gathered in formation, swirling and circling, forming a vortex around my body. I was inside a cocoon of flashing colours – moths of every shape and size flew past my eyes. They moved closer, tighter and tighter, eventually hugging my frame.
They were feeding on my clothes and the tufts of hair that remained on my scalp.
The throbbing in my hands was subsiding as they moved across them. I could feel their barbed legs walking over my skin, mouths tasting my blood, wings brushing my blisters and bruises and soothing the burns. Their winged bodies became my outer skin as they moved in a strange dance over me.
They were reshaping me.
Working my flesh and bone as I had worked a sheet of silver – bending my body to their will.
Then, in one swift movement, they took to the skies and were gone.
My nakedness shimmered like emerald fish scales, laced with intricate markings of black and silver that ran like veins under my new skin. I observed my hands, turning them over in front of my eyes, feeling the sensation as they swept over my scalp resting at the nape of my neck.
I looked past the smouldering fire to the lifeless bodies that lay on the ground before me.
She was standing amid the fallen bodies in her cloak of green. My heart leapt to see the face of my love, so that I did not feel the heat of the embers as I stepped through the ashes, nor did I feel the soft touch of grass.
As I stood before her in my pearlescent hues, Ellyn lowered her hood – her hair, once auburn was now as white as snow. She unfastened the ivy-leaf button on her cloak, allowing the heavy material to drop to the floor. Underneath, her body, more lusty than my own, shimmered iridescent silver. On her shoulder blades two slender wings neatly gathered, following the contours of her body to the base of her spine.
The cinnabar moth landed on her arm and Ellyn looked lovingly towards the insect.
She turned to face me. ‘The moths – they found me in the ashes of the smithy. They fixed me. I sent them to the tower for you, my love.’
I reached out my hand to touch her delicate skin, smoothing away the tear that roamed down her cheek.
She shivered at my touch and spread her ghostly wings before me like an angel. They were as delicate as gossamer silk, translucent and fine. I gazed upon their magnificence and fell to my knees before her.
‘My queen,’ I breathed, kissing her hand.
‘Come,’ she said, pulling me to my feet.
Behind us, the warmth of a summer’s day was promised by the golden glow rising steadily in the east.
In a flash of red and black the cinnabar moth fluttered away.
Hand in hand, we hastened after her – towards the dappled shade of the forest canopy.
To a land beyond.