Porte Maillot

6  12

Maillot

There are very few wardrobes to be found in the Paris Métro.

This did not stop the wardrobe door from appearing in front of Elaine as she descended the stairs into the station, arms laden with bags from a day spent shopping in the boutiques of the Palais des Congrès.  Until recently, the only shopping she had been able to justify at the Palais had been window shopping, but her new job looked after several fashion accounts, and this, Elaine felt, gave her the right – even the duty! – to freshen up her wardrobe with a few more sophisticated accessories; a turquoise silk scarf patterned with peacock feathers, some elegant silver ear-rings shaped like tree branches, a tunic top patterned in red and gold, even a really good pair of boots. The boots had been the very last pair in her size, and on sale, too, and Elaine had rewarded herself for this find with a Mont Blanc ice cream from Angelina.  It had been a most satisfactory expedition, but Elaine’s feet were sore, and she was ready to head home and maybe ring her sister, the better to gloat over her well-gotten gains.

She was in no mood for wardrobes in the Métro.

“Couldn’t this wait until tomorrow?” she asked it, a little plaintively.

The door stood steadfastly before her.

Evidently, it could not.

Elaine sighed, and opened it.

There was a sensation as though she was pushing through a lot of coats, and then she was through, and out into the open.  There was snow falling all around her, softly and steadily, and Elaine’s bare feet were freezing.

The rest of her, she realised with some surprise, was far too hot.

She looked down at herself.  She was still wearing the blue jeans in which she had started the day, but the top half of her outfit was different.  She could see at least three layers of shirts at the cuff, in different colours.  The top one, though, was a thick blue flannelette, very warm, and inexcusably ugly.

Elaine tried to pull it off.  It wouldn’t budge.  Which was a shame, because if nothing else, she could have wrapped it around her feet, or at least put it on the ground to stand on.  She hopped from foot to foot, looking around her, and wondering how long frostbite would take to set in, and whether she could actually get frostbite in this sort of place.  Her feet were inclined to say yes.

As she had come to expect, Elaine’s bags were gone, and so was the door behind her.  She was going to be very cross if she didn’t get her new purchases back at the end of this, but for now, the priority was get somewhere warmer and to find something to put on her feet.  She was, she saw, on a road that led towards a town.

Walking towards the town seemed to be the thing to do, so she did it.

She had not got more than five paces down the road, wincing at the cold with every step, when a voice spoke to her out of the hedgerow.

“Excuse me, miss.  Can you spare anything for a poor, cold, old man?”

Elaine stopped, and turned her head.  What she had taken for a boulder at the side of the road was in fact an elderly man, dressed in grey rags.  This didn’t seem at all possible, but there he was.   The man looked even colder than her feet.  Reflexively, she pulled off the flannelette shirt and handed it to him.

This time, it went.  He took it gratefully, and put it on.  The shirt underneath was shimmering gold.  Elaine tugged at it, but it wouldn’t move.

“Thanks, miss.  You’ll be wanting something for your feet, I think.”

He held out a pair of fur slippers.  This encounter was getting stranger by the minute.  But Elaine’s feet were icy.  She slid her feet into the slippers with great relief, and felt instantly better.

“Thank you,” she told the man.

He smiled at her, and pointed down a fork in the path that went towards the woods.  “I’d go that way if you want to get home,” he advised.

Elaine raised her eyebrows, but the man simply smiled at her, so she nodded, and began walking down the path he had indicated.  Her feet grew warmer and her golden shirt longer at every step.

When she looked back, there was only a large boulder by the side of the road.

The woods were closer than she had expected, or perhaps the slippers were seven-league ones, because it was no more than ten minutes later that Elaine found herself deep in the forest, with no sign of the fields she had come from.  The golden shirt was now a floor-length ballgown, completely impractical for woodland walks. It kept catching on branches and the stickier sort of weed, and pretty soon there was grass and mud all over the hem.

She reached a clearing and sat down on another convenient boulder (definitely not an old beggar man, she checked) to try to find a way to tie up her skirts out of the way.  She wished, briefly, for her pocket knife – but if she cut the skirt of the dress off, it would probably just grow back again.

The material was too slippery to knot well, too.  Elaine sighed in frustration, then stopped as she heard a sound from further into the forest.

“Ouch, ouch ouch, oh drat, ouch ouch, damn and blast, oh, this bloody dress!”

There was a rustling sound, then rapid footsteps, and a woman burst into the clearing.

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She was beautiful, and her golden gown looked precisely like Elaine’s – right down to the sticks and mud and leaves that had become stuck to it.  She stopped short, and the two women stared at each other.

“What are you doing here?” the woman asked Elaine.

“Trying to get home,” Elaine answered, truthfully.

The woman grimaced.  “Me too.  That prince may be charming, but he doesn’t know how to take no for an answer.”

Elaine felt her eyes widen.  “Are you OK?”

The other woman looked startled.  “Well – yes, I suppose?  But I don’t want to marry him, and I do want to get back to my cottage before he figures out who I am.  And glass slippers may be pretty, but they are absolutely useless for running through the woods, and the woods are sharp.”

She indicated her feet, which were tiny, and bare, and covered in scratches and dirt, and even blood.

Elaine winced in sympathy.  And in anticipation, because she was fairly sure she knew how this story went.  She raised her own skirts a little.

“My slippers are made of fur.  Would you like to borrow them?  They aren’t designed for running, precisely, and they are going to be far too big for you, I think, but they have to be better than bare feet.”

The woman’s eyes widened.  “Thank you! That is very kind.”  She looked at Elaine, thoughtfully.  “I don’t suppose you could stay here for a few minutes and send the prince off in the wrong direction for me?  I’d be so grateful.”

Elaine shrugged.  She had no particular schedule, so long as she got home.  And – she tugged surreptitiously at the dress, which still wasn’t moving – she clearly was not finished with whatever this encounter wanted from her.  “Why not?”

The other woman smiled in relief.  “Thank you so very much.”  She leaned against a tree to put on the fur slippers.  Bizarrely, they fit her perfectly.  She looked up at Elaine again.  “I don’t have anything to give you in exchange, but I can tell you that if you eat one of the petals from that little purple flower next to your foot, you will be able to understand the language of the birds.”

And before Elaine could enquire further, she was gone, running through the forest far more quietly than before.

Elaine looked down at the flower.  Evidently, eating the foliage was part of this game, so she plucked a petal and put it in her mouth.

Above her, in the tree, a nightingale burst into song.  “I’m so pretty!  I’m so pretty!  Can you hear how pretty I am?  So pretty!  So pretty!”

A swallow in the distance called out “Quick quick quick quick someone coming quick quick quick!”

Elaine let out a breath.  She could not immediately see how this gift would be useful.

The swallow did have a point, however.  She could hear the sounds of people approaching through the woods.  The prince and his men, she imagined.  Elaine stood, waiting to find out what the dress demanded of her.

A man entered the clearing in front of her, stopped to stare at her for a moment, then broke into a wide smile and advanced, arms outstretched.  “My darling!  Here you are at last!  But why did you run from me?”

Elaine raised an eyebrow.  The other woman had been at least two inches shorter than her, with silver blonde hair.  Elaine was a brunette.  She held up a hand to ward him off.

He did stop, which was more than she had been expecting.  “Sir, I think you mistake me for another.  I do not know you.”

The man – the prince, she was rather certain – smiled at her, rather patronisingly.  “Perhaps not by name, but did we not dance through the night, wrapped in each other’s arms, gazing into one another’s eyes?”

Elaine rather doubted it, since her own eyes were green to the other woman’s brown ones.

“Sir, I think you must be thinking of another woman.  There was a lady who passed this way a little while ago, who had been to a ball, but I have never seen you in my life.”

The prince shook his head at her, then snapped his fingers.  A liveried servant stepped forward, carrying a glass slipper on a cushion.  It was, even at first glance, far too small for her feet.

“Perhaps this will jog your memory.”

Elaine had a moment of misgiving, as she recollected the way her fur slipper had shrunk to fit the other woman.  But there did not seem to be any way to avoid it.  She sighed, lifted her skirts a little, and allowed the prince to kneel and attempt to put the slipper on her foot.

It did not fit, of course.

The prince glared up at her, accusingly.  “You are not the woman I danced with!” he exclaimed.

“No, sir,” Elaine agreed.

“I don’t have time for this!  Where did she go?”

Mindful of her duty to misdirect, Elaine pointed back the way she had come.

Within moments, he was gone, and his entourage with him.  Elaine sighed, and pulled off the dress, which turned to a pile of autumn leaves as soon as it touched the ground.

The shirt beneath it was green and fibrous, and stung her fingers when they brushed against it.  She sucked them into her mouth reflexively, as she wondered which way to go next.  There was – thankfully – at least one more layer between this shirt and her skin, which meant, presumably, that there were at least two more encounters ahead of her before she could go home.

And perhaps, Elaine thought, it didn’t matter which direction she walked in.  Not even Nathair, with his love of doors and riddles, was perverse enough to set up adventures – or traps – that she might never find.  The odds were good that whichever way she walked, she would find her next appointment.

She left the clearing, and walked briskly through the woods in the opposite direction to the way she had come, this being more satisfying to her own sense of logic.  The woods were warmer now, and she did not miss her shoes, which was something of a relief.

Sure enough, within a few steps, she heard a wild hissing and squawking a bit further down the path.  The squawking resolved itself into words. “Get it off me! Ouch!  Get it off me!”

Was that a bird in distress?  A large bird, from the sound of the flapping.  Elaine ran towards the noise, and stopped short at what she saw.

The forest ended abruptly at the edge of a lake.  On the shore, a woman was busily knitting something green, grimacing with every stitch.  Her hands were red and sore.

In front of her stood seven swans.  Six of them were wearing shirts that bore a distinct resemblance to Elaine’s.  Most of them looked uncomfortable but resigned, but two of the smaller swans were stalking up and down, shrugging their wings and shivering their feathers in an effort to shake off the irritating garments. Elaine could see that one of them already had a raw patch over one wing, poor thing.

“Why are you making those swans wear shirts?” she asked the woman, accusingly.

nettle

The woman looked up and shook her head apologetically.  She did not stop knitting.

Elaine frowned.  She was not a bird-lover, especially, but if those shirts were made of nettles as hers was, that was just cruel.  Was she supposed to get the swans free of the shirts then?  Elaine eyed the snake-like necks and long beaks dubiously.  She wouldn’t even know where to start.

She addressed the woman again.  “Don’t you think you should let those poor swans out of the shirts?  Nettles sting, you know, and those two small ones are looking pretty distressed.”

The woman cast her a sarcastic look, and showed Elaine her hands.  Up close, they were even redder and more swollen than they had appeared from a distance.  Elaine clenched her own hands in sympathy.

The largest of the swans spoke.

“She is our sister, and she is trying to bring us back to our proper forms before the prince finds her and burns her as a witch.  If you are not here to help us, at least leave us in peace, so that we may meet our fate, and hope that it is a happy one.”

Elaine’s eyes widened as she took that in.  She wondered if this was the same prince who was pursuing Cinderella.  If so… no, she couldn’t see herself as a decoy knitter.  Not of nettles.

She turned her hand to see how her own shirt was made, and the cuff brushed her wrist.  She grimaced at the sting, then looked down at herself more carefully.  The shirt really did look very like the ones the swans were weaering.

“Would my shirt do?”

The swans and the woman all turned to look at her.  It was a little unnerving.  The spokes-swan nodded.  “If you offer it freely, and put it on my brother yourself, it should.  And we would be grateful if you tried.  My sister is knitting as fast as she can, but my youngest brother’s shirt still lacks a sleeve – at this rate, he is likely to end up with a wing for one arm.”

Elaine was already shrugging out of the now loose shirt.  The swans’ sister dropped her knitting and came to help.

The next few minutes were not pleasant.  The jacket was hard to grasp – Elaine found that her fingers reflexively curled away from nettle stings, and for some reason, she was the only one who could grasp the shirt at all – it slid away from the other woman’s touch.  After several attempts landed the shirt back on Elaine rather than on the swan, the swan’s sister changed tactics, gesturing for Elaine to try fitting the shirt to the swan alone, while she held and calmed the disgruntled bird, who was complaining bitterly at both the indignity and the nettles.

The other swans were becoming increasingly restless, too, batting at the women with their wings, and Elaine found herself at uneasily close quarters with a large beak more than once.

By the time the shirt had been wrestled onto the swan, Elaine was feeling bruised and rather breathless, and her hands burned as if they had been submerged in boiling water.  She stumbled towards the lake, plunging her hands into its chilly waters.

Behind her, she heard a whooshing sound, and she turned her head to watch as the swans rose, and stretched, wings and necks shrinking as their legs lengthened and their bodies changed, until suddenly there were seven young men on the lake shore, clad in nothing but green shirts.

The shirts did not cover much.  Elaine looked hastily back at the lake.

The girl who was their sister flung herself at the young men with a glad cry, and burst into tears.  They hugged her and patted her on the back with the awkwardness of young men who really did not know what to do with a crying woman, and also had half forgotten how arms and hands worked.

Elaine kept her gaze averted from the scene behind her, and instead looked down to see what she was wearing.  Her new shirt was red, with a hood and a caped back.  She had a feeling she knew exactly who she would be meeting next.

The reunion showed no signs of ending, and her hands were now stinging a little less, though she knew it would be an hour or more before they were truly comfortable again, so she got to her feet and began to walk along the lake shore, to where the path led back into the woods.

“Wait!”

An unfamiliar voice spoke behind her.  It was the woman, who had run after her, knitting needles in hand.  She smiled at Elaine. “I can’t thank you enough for restoring my brothers to me,” she said.

Elaine smiled back.  Given how her own hands felt now, she had to respect the other woman’s fortitude in knitting so many shirts from nettles.  “You are very welcome,” she said.

The woman thrust the knitting needles at her.

“Take these, if you would.  I never want to see another knitted garment again, and you never know – they might come in handy.”

Elaine took the needles, gingerly.  They were unexpectedly sharp.  “I don’t actually know how to knit,” she confessed.  “And, um, won’t your brothers need clothes?”

The girl laughed.  “Oh, my husband the prince can find them clothes,” she said.  “It’s the least he can do, after accusing me of witchcraft.  Now that I have my voice back, and my brothers, I can defend myself against all of those charges.  We will be fine.”

And she ran back towards the lake.

Elaine shrugged, and stepped onto the forest path.  Her hands stopped stinging the moment she reached the treeline.  She looked back, but the lake was gone, and there was nothing but woods all around.

A little way ahead of her, she saw a cottage.  With a sigh, Elaine opened the door to Grandma’s house and went in.

The cottage was small, and dark, and composed of a single room, containing a cooking hearth, a large table, and two comfortable chairs.  A few shelves and cupboards made up the rest of the furniture, and there was a round, crocheted rug on the floor. One corner of the cottage was screened by a curtain, and was presumably the sleeping area.

“Is anyone home?” she called out.

A gruff voice came from behind the curtain.  “Is that you, my dear?  Come in, and see your old grandmama.”

Elaine wasn’t sure if it was, strictly speaking, her, but it did sound as though Little Red Riding Hood hadn’t arrived yet.  And if the gruff voice was indeed grandmama, perhaps she could help the woman escape before the wolf got there.

wolfShe ducked past the curtain and stopped, hands clasped behind her back.

If this was grandmama, then she was in dire need of facial wax.  The wolf had, Elaine saw, done quite a good job of putting on the old lady’s nightgown, and had even hidden his ears under the cap, but even with glasses over his eyes and the blanket pulled up past his chin, he was unmistakeably hairy.  And not human.

Now what?

“Come closer, dearie,” crooned the wolf.  “Come and give grandmama a kiss.”

Elaine played for time.  “Why, grandmama… what big eyes you have!” she said, her own eyes darting around the room, looking for any sign of the old lady.  Perhaps she had gone into hiding too?

“All the better to see you with, my dear,” remarked the wolf, predictably.

Elaine moved a little closer.  Was that blood on the sheets?  “What big ears you have, dear grandmama,” she said, conversationally.

“All the better to hear you with, my dear,” replied the wolf, looking at her expectantly.

Did Little Red Riding Hood really fall for this?  Perhaps short-sightedness ran in the family…

The wolf yawned, and as his mouth opened wide, Elaine could have sworn she saw a hand waving frantically from the back of his throat.  Charming.  But at least she knew where grandma was now.  And apparently she was alive, not that this made any sense at all.  Whether Elaine could survive similar treatment was another question.

Elaine thought quickly.  If she was Red Riding Hood in this story, then there must be a woodcutter around somewhere.  If she was the woodcutter however…

“Why grandma,” she said at last.  “What big teeth you have!”

The wolf threw off the blankets and lunged for her.  “All the better to eat you wi–aargh!”

And his voice choked off as he impaled himself on the very sharp knitting needles that Elaine had pulled out from behind her back and thrust in front of her as he pounced.

There was a lot of blood.  But that, Elaine thought, rather light-headedly, was where a red shirt came in handy.

“Well, that took you long enough.”

Elaine jumped and shrieked at the sound of the small voice behind her.

It was Little Red Riding Hood of course.

She was holding a large knife.

Elaine put a hand on her chest.  “You scared the living daylights out of me.  I thought the wolf must have eaten you.”

Little Red Riding Hood looked at her as though she was crazy.  “As if.  There’s nothing wrong with my eyesight.  Or my hearing.  I heard that wolf as soon as I came in the door, talking about tasty little girls and crunchy, stringy old women.  I decided I didn’t want to be anyone’s lunch, so I hid in the pantry.”

And the little girl walked straight past her and plunged her knife into the wolf’s chest, opening the animal from sternum to pelvis with a single long stroke.

Elaine was out of cottage and in the yard before she consciously thought of moving, and bent over to be violently sick beside the compost heap.  She pulled off the red shirt, and wiped her mouth and hands, then knelt in the garden for a few minutes, shuddering.  She had never killed anything before, she thought.  And she had preferred it that way.

She closed her eyes, but her brain provided her with a lovely, full-colour replay of the wolf collapsing on her knitting needles, so she opened them again, and jumped when she saw an elderly woman standing in front of her.

“Red Riding Hood’s Grandmama, I presume?” she managed.  Her voice still sounded a long way away.

The old woman smiled.  “You can call me Granny Zelda if you like,” she said.  “Thank you for what you did.  My granddaughter is a brave girl, but I don’t think she would have been able to escape the wolf had he tried to attack her.”

“I didn’t precisely escape him,” Elaine pointed out.

Granny Zelda patted her shoulder.  “I know, dear.  I’m so sorry you had to do that.  But all’s well that ends well.  We are all alive and healthy, and that wolf won’t bother anyone again, and that’s all down to you.”

Elaine was only moderately comforted by this.

She stood, less shakily than she had expected.  “I suppose I’m glad I was able to help.  But that was horrible.”

A little voice piped up next to her.  “I brought you something!”

Elaine hesitated before looking down.

Her hesitation was warranted.  The girl was holding up a red cloth bag that contained something heavy and roundish.  The bag was dripping.  And probably hadn’t been red to start off with, Elaine realised.

Elaine recoiled, her stomach clenching again, “Ah, no thank you.  That’s very nice of you, but I think you should keep it.”

The little girl frowned.  “You have to take it.  You made the kill, and the heart is the best bit!”

Elaine shook her head.  “Oh no.  I couldn’t possibly.  Really.  You have it – you’ll enjoy it far more than I will.”

The older woman put a hand on her shoulder.  “She’s right, you know.  I know it’s gruesome, but you are going to need it where you are going next.”

She looked down at Elaine’s feet, and frowned.  “You’ll need shoes, too.  It’s cold near the castle.”

She took her own shoes off and offered them to Elaine.  They were brown and sturdy, and fit surprisingly well.

“Thank you,” Elaine said.  She looked at the awful, dripping bag.  “Must I?”

“You had the fortitude to kill the wolf before he could kill you.  You certainly have the strength to take his heart and use it to rescue another.  Now go, before you are late!”

And the elderly woman shoved her gently back onto the path.

Elaine walked along the path, which seemed to be leading out of the woods.  Her shirt was white, now, and she held the gory bag out at arm’s length, so as not to drip on it.

At the edge of the forest, a man and a woman were arguing.

The man was in his forties or fifties, and dressed for the hunt, in forest greens with a thick cloak and boots.

The woman – a girl, really – was in her late teens, and strikingly beautiful, with hair as black as a raven’s wing, and skin as pale as the snow that fell around them.  Her lips were as red as blood.

She clasped the man’s arm, desperately.

“Please don’t kill me,” she said.

The man tried to shake her off, but she held on, and he sighed.  “I have no wish to kill you, Princess, but the Queen will eat my liver in front of me if I let you live.  You know she does not make idle threats.”

Elaine paused at the edge of the woods.  The had not noticed her yet, and she wasn’t sure what they would do when they did.

The girl clung to the man all the harder.  “Then lie to her.  Tell her you have killed me.  Turn and go and leave me here.  I will go into the forest, and live out my life there, and never bother you or her again, I swear it.  Or come with me – you know that even if you spare me now, she will ask you to do something equally unspeakable before long.”

The man sighed.  “I cannot come with you, Princess.  My niece has nobody but me to care for her, and I can’t leave her alone at the castle.  And I can’t let you go, either.  The Queen has said she will not rest until she has your heart on a plate for her dinner, and I am to bring it to her.”

The Queen, Elaine reflected, had quite the penchant for offal.

The girl recoiled, then fell to her knees in the snow.

“Please, I beg of you, do not do this.”

The man shook his head sadly, then reached for his dagger.  There were tears on his cheeks, but his face was determined.  Elaine stepped out of the woods.

“Wait!”

Both speakers turned to her.  She swallowed, then held out the bag that Red Riding Hood had given her.

“I have a wolf’s heart in this bag.  I don’t know if it is larger or smaller than a human heart, but it is a heart.  The Queen will not know the difference, don’t you think?”

The man let out a long breath and took the bag from her.  “Not from me, miss.”

He bowed to her, then turned to the princess.  “Princess, I am more glad of this than I can say.  Go, now, and be safe.  I will not tell the Queen where you are.”

The princess held out her hand.  “Wait, Master Hunter.  Before you leave me to fend for myself in the woods, at least grant me the means to live there.  Give me your bow and arrow, that I may defend myself from danger, and hunt for my food.”

The hunter hesitated, then unslung his bow and quiver from his back, and bowed again before her.  “Of course, Princess.  It is the least I can do.”  He paused.  “I am sorry for this.  Live well, in the forest, and I hope we will meet again in better circumstances.”

And he turned and began trudging back to the castle, the still-dripping bag containing the wolf’s heart dangling from one hand.

Elaine breathed out in relief at this unexpectedly non-bloodthirsty end to the tale – then cried out in shock as the man fell to the ground, an arrow in the centre of his back.  She spun around, and saw the princess returning the bow to her shoulder.

“You killed him!” she said, half disbelieving.

The Princess nodded.  “Yes.”  She strode over to the corpse, and pulled the arrow from his back, wiping it clean in the snow, and then returning it to her quiver.  She removed his cloak and threw it on over her own, less practical garment, then turned him over and began going through his pockets.

“But… why?  You didn’t have to do that!”

The princess tucked a dagger into her belt.  “For someone who carries a wolf’s heart as an accessory, you are surprisingly squeamish.”

There was no good answer to this.  Elaine held her peace, wondering if she could safely slip away into the forest.

The princess shrugged as she removed a coin pouch from the dead man, and contemplated his boots.  “He was going to kill me, though I had never harmed him.  He only changed his mind because you gave him an easy alternative – and perhaps because he had a witness.  I couldn’t trust him not to change his mind again once he was back at the palace.”

Elaine wasn’t sure that she agreed, but nodding seemed like the safest tactic right now.  The princess looked at her, appraisingly, sitting back on her heels.  “You really are upset by this, aren’t you? Relax.  I really don’t go around murdering people as a rule.  This is very nearly my first corpse.  But my stepmother is very good at getting the truth out of people.  And if she had learned I was still alive… well, let’s just say that what I did to him was merciful by comparison with what she would have done.”  She smiled reassuringly at Elaine, wiping her hands on her gown as she got to her feet.  “You are safe with me, I promise.  I owe you one.  But if you’d like me to owe you two, do you think I could have that shirt you are wearing to cover up our friend here, so that his body isn’t visible from a distance?  Think of it as a shroud, if it makes you feel better.”

Numbly, Elaine took the white shirt off, and handed it to the princess, who draped it over the body of the hunter.

“There, that should do it.” She turned to look at Elaine.  “Well, now.  That’s a very nice suit of chainmail you have there.  I don’t suppose you’d like to do me another favour?”

Elaine felt a chill that was not from the snow.  “Ah… I don’t think I can.  I seem to be under some sort of clothing-related curse.  I can’t take any layer off until I’ve fulfilled the conditions of the spell.”  She tugged at the chainmail to demonstrate.  It didn’t budge.

The princess looked at her, with calculation in her eyes.  Elaine had the uneasy suspicion that she was wondering whether Elaine’s death would break the spell and grant her a nice suit of chainmail.  “A spell?  What are the conditions?”

Elaine sighed.  “I don’t know.  But it does seem to be related to the garments, not to me.  I couldn’t remove the white shirt until you needed a shroud.”

“I need chainmail, too.  Or I will do, if my stepmother finds out where I am.”

Elaine tugged at the mail again, mostly for show.  To no avail.  “I don’t think it works that way.”

The princess sighed.  “Too bad.  Well then. I suppose all I can do is thank you for your help.  He really would have killed me if you hadn’t been there, you know.”  She reached into the pocket of her cloak, and pulled out a mirror.

“Here.  Take this – it’s my stepmother’s mirror.  I can’t get it to work, but it’s supposed to be magical.  It might help you with your spell.”

Elaine took the mirror.  At least it was less gory than her last gift.  “Thank you.”

The princess smiled.  “No, thank you.  And if you do figure out how to get the chainmail off, come and find me.  I’ll give you a good price for it, when I’m Queen.”

And she strode off into the forest.

Elise watched her go, then looked down at herself.  The chainmail covered her from throat to knee, and from shoulder to elbow, but she rather thought that the only layer underneath it was the T shirt she had been wearing when she went shopping that morning.

This was both promising, and a little unnerving.  Her last encounter apparently required armour – but she had no weapon, and even if she had, she wasn’t sure that she would be able to use it.  She had seen more than enough blood already that day.

On that thought, she walked over to where the hunter lay, shrouded in white.  If he was still alive…

But he was not there, and when Elaine looked around her, neither was the forest.

There was only a garden, and a gate, and a man guarding it.

The man wore plate armour, and wielded a sword in his left hand, and when he lifted his visor, she saw that it was Nathair.

Of course it was.

He smiled at her, and her heart flipped a little, despite everything.  She hated the fact that he was so attractive.  She would have preferred it if his exterior had matched his intentions.

“Hello, Elaine,” he said.

“Nathair,” she acknowledged, without smiling.

“Have you enjoyed my woods today?” he asked, for all the world as if he were the host at a party.

“Not especially,” she said, truthfully.

He grinned.  “Well, you are nearly out of them.  Just one more little challenge for you, and you can go through the gate and go home.”

Elaine looked at him.

He smiled.  “All you have to do is get through the gate.”  He drew his sword. “Assuming you survive, that is.”

Elaine stepped back a pace.

“I’m not armed,” she pointed out.

“I know.”  He took a step towards her.

“And even if I were, I don’t know how to fight.”

“Too bad.”  Nathair stepped close enough that the point of his sword was against her chin.  Elaine froze, her heart beating too fast.

“Of course, there is an alternative,” he commented, watching her.

Even now, she didn’t dare ask a question.  She simply looked at him, and he laughed, and sheathed the sword.

“You could stay here, as my consort,” he suggested.  His left hand came up to cup her cheek, caressing her.  She shivered, fighting revulsion and desire.  “All you have to do is kiss me, and you will be mine.”

Elaine could hardly breathe.  She swallowed, shook her head.  Terrifying as the thought of fighting was, she feared being trapped as Nathair’s consort more.

Nathair stroked her cheek one last time, then let his hand fall.  “So be it,” he said.

He stepped back three paces, and dropped seven small, white objects on the ground.  They looked like teeth, but Elaine had little time to speculate.  Where the objects had fallen, seven men sprang up, armed and armoured and glaring at her.

The_book_of_wonder_voyages_-_page_50_inset

Nathair gestured casually at Elaine.  “Kill her,” he said.

And he turned away, walking deeper into the garden, without even waiting to see what happened.

The seven men stepped forward as one.  Elaine held up a hand “Wait!” she cried.

They did not wait.  Elaine fell back another step.  “You don’t have to do this.”

They advanced again, and Elaine stumbled backwards, swinging the magic mirror up with both hands to block the first blow.

The shock of the blow sent a shout of pain down her arms, but the mirror held.  She caught the second blow, too.

And the third.

The fourth blow knocked the mirror out of her hands, sending it flying over her head. Elaine screamed, running backward and groping behind her, trying desperately to grab it back, but afraid to take her eyes off the threatening soldiers.

There was a hum behind her and the soldiers paused.  Elaine glanced quickly behind her, then used their moment of distraction to dash towards where the mirror had fallen.  The mirror seemed to have taken anchor where it fell, improbably upright, and was growing larger by the moment.

In the mirror, her own reflection looked back at her, pale and terrified.  Behind her own reflection, the soldiers looked more like shadows than men – but behind the soldiers, the gate glowed with a light of its own, even in the mirror.

A soldier lunged for her again and she turned just in time, diving out of the way.  She managed to dodge the blow, but stumbled and lost her balance, colliding with the mirror.

Only there was no collision.  As Elaine fell against the mirror the surface gave, and she fell through it.  A soldier made to follow, and she turned and ran, further into the mirror.  She dodged past the shadowy soldiers that reached for her with tarry, sticky arms – far slower than the soldiers in the world outside the mirror – and dived through the reflected gate, tripping on the threshold and falling…

And she was back in the Metro.  Her hands and knees stung where they had landed on concrete, and she had fallen with enough force that her jeans were torn over the left knee, and she was bleeding from the abrasion.  Her bags were scattered across the platform, and several people had turned to look at her.  Slowly, painfully she got to her feet.  A hand was at her elbow, helping her up.

“Madame?  Are you alright?  That was quite a fall.”

The man holding her elbow had dark brown eyes and a short beard, and looked nothing like Nathair.  Elaine liked him for it.  “Yes, I’m fine, thank you.”

He smiled at her, and squeezed her arm before releasing it.  “Let me help you with your things,” he offered.

“Thank you,” she said again, stupidly.  She shut her eyes for a moment, and saw again the wolf, and the princess, and the hunter.  She opened them again quickly.  “I think I need a drink,” she murmured.

“I could help with that, too,” her new friend murmured back, and she laughed, blushing a little.

“Perhaps another time?” she suggested.

He smiled again.  “I might hold you to that.” He handed her shopping bags back to her.  “Will you be alright to get where you are going?  You look pretty shaken up.”

She nodded.  “Yes.  I’m just headed home.  And I think I’ll have a quiet night.  But thank you.”

He looked at her thoughtfully, then pulled a card out of his pocket and handed it to her.  “Just in case your night is too quiet.  Give me a call, if you like.  It would be nice to meet you sometime when you haven’t just done a flying dive into the metro. We could have that drink you were talking about.”

And he smiled at her one last time, then headed for the exit.

He really had a very nice smile.

But Elaine was sore and tired, and when she closed her eyes she could still see the wolf, and the knitting needles, and the arrow, and blood dripping onto the snow.  She shuddered in memory. There had been a certain charm in her first two adventures – a certain delight in finding her way through the puzzle and rescuing herself.  But today had crossed a line.  She had killed, and nearly been killed herself.

No more adventures, she told herself.  The next door, she would avoid, even if she had to walk the length of Paris to do so.

The RER train pulled into the station with a rattle of carriage wheels, and she boarded, dropping the card into her purse as she found a seat.  She might look at it later, or she might not.

She pulled out her phone.  She hadn’t spoken to her sister this week, and Nadine, she knew, would be suitably impressed by those glorious new boots.

station

Fairy tales, shopping centres and shirts.

Porte Maillot was first built in 1900 as the terminus of Line 1, but was demolished, moved and re-built in 1936.  It can be found on the border of the 16th and 17th arondissements of Paris, near the north-east corner of the Bois de Boulogne.  It’s also conveniently close to the Palais des Congrès, which is a theatre, conference venue and shopping centre containing quite a few designer labels.  I also just discovered that it was the home of the Eurovision Song Contest in 1978, and you can all feel very grateful I didn’t know that when I began writing this tale, because it would have been very different if I had! Porte is named for another of the doors in the old city wall, and the word ‘Maillot’ is thought to be derived from maille or croquet.

This has nothing in particular to do with shirts or with fairy tales, of course, but the word ‘maillot’ also means shirt, or possibly singlet, and chain mail is a cotte de mailles.  See, it all makes sense now, doesn’t it?

A note on the stories I reference (which I think will mostly be familiar to anyone reading these).  Cinderella was originally a French tale, and her glass slipper was a mis-translation; vair, which is an old word for ‘fur’, was misinterpreted as verre or ‘glass’.  Red Riding Hood is also a French fairy tale, but there were no knitting needles in it that I know of.  The other two stories, The Six Swans and Snow White were both collected by the German Brothers Grimm.  Snow White’s mother actually asks the hunter to bring back her lungs and liver, not her heart, and he brings back a boar’s lungs and liver instead – both of which the Queen eats.

This is the third story featuring Elaine. Her story started in The Garden Door and continued in The Hair Loom. There are many, many other gates and doors in the Paris Métro, so you may be certain you will be seeing her again.

I’ve used pictures from several sources.  The girl knitting with the swans is a combination of two Arthur Rackham illustrations, and the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood is also by Rackham.  To the best of my knowledge, these images are in the public domain.  The illustration of the warriors rising out of the ground is from The Book of Wonder Voyages by Joseph Jacobs, illustrated by John D. Batten.  It is available online here, and my understanding is that this is also in the public domain. The beautiful silhouette of Cinderella running is by Art Crazed on Flickr, and is available on Creative Commons under an Attribution-NonCommercial license.

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Les Sablons
fleur1left Porte Maillot
fleur1right Argentine
Pereire–Levallois fleurCleft Neuilly–Porte Maillot
fleurCright Avenue Foch