- Published: 30 November 2021
- ISBN: 9781760894733
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 352
- RRP: $19.99
The Midnight Girls
THE FIRST TIME THE WITCH asked Marynka to bring her a heart, she was twelve years old.
It was summer. The sun was bright, and whirlwinds were dancing through the kingdom’s sea of golden crops. The heat was fierce. Marynka was sweating even before she crash-landed in the wheat field because she hadn’t quite mastered the trick yet of changing form and traveling as the wind blows.
The sound of it startled awake a peasant boy who’d fallen asleep amid the grain. He leapt to his feet, face red from sun and shock and even a little fear. “What—” Sweat darkened the blond hair at his temples. He let out a strangled laugh. “Where did you come from? I thought you were a noon wraith. A sun demon, haunting the fields at midday, come to harvest my heart with your iron scythe and iron teeth.”
“Maybe I am,” Marynka said, struggling to yank a wheat stalk out of the wild tangle of her red-brown hair.
The boy shook his head, fear fading fast as he took her in. His piercing blue eyes lingered on the small scythe she held, her fraying skirt and dusty apron, and finally, the freckles that dotted a band across her nose. “You’re just a girl,” he said, but with interest now. “Who are you? I’ve never seen you before.”
“I’m visiting,” Marynka said. “My family’s from Lipówka. The big village with the church.” Her gaze drifted over the gilded ears of saffron wheat. “I wanted to see the prince. Is he here?”
Now the boy frowned. “Why would the prince be working in the fields?”
Marynka chewed her lip. “They’re his fields, aren’t they? Do you know where the castle is?”
The boy scratched his jaw, giving her another curious look. “You didn’t see it when you got here? It’s hard to miss. But I can walk you there. I’m headed back home for dinner now.”
Relief flooded through Marynka, and she quickly fell into step beside him, matching his long strides with two of her own.
“Maciek,” he introduced himself, grinning suddenly. “You know there was another girl who wanted to see the prince yesterday. Only it was near sundown then. The bells were ringing for evening prayers. It must be fate meeting both of you. Are you staying long? Do you want to come for dinner? My mother’s the best cook.”
Marynka shook her head, barely listening as he prattled on. She needed to focus. She couldn’t mess this up. This was the first time the witch had given her a task to complete by herself, and she wanted desperately to impress the old woman. Because if she couldn’t…
It was simple. Everyone knew if you served Red Jaga well, she would gift you with magic, and if you didn’t, if you failed at the tasks she set, well then, she would eat you.
The sun-bleached bones of the girls who had come before Marynka decorated the wooden house in the Midday Forest. There were bone wreaths and skeletal wind chimes, glowing skull lanterns. But that didn’t matter. Those other girls were nothing. They had been weak where Marynka was strong. And clever, she reminded herself. She would be the one who survived. Grandmother had saved her, chosen her. She wouldn’t let her down.
Hurrying past a little roadside shrine, a cross tied with flowers and pale-blue and white ribbon, Marynka decided she wouldn’t tell the witch about her crash landing in the wheat field.
She gripped her scythe, checked the branch she had tucked into her apron tie. Her heart beat faster. She hadn’t slept at all last night or eaten anything this morning. Her body hummed with a jittery mix of fear and excitement. Grandmother had shown her how to steal a prince’s life; how to blow poppy seed into his eyes and send him to sleep, how to strike his breast with a birch branch three times and open up his chest so she could dig out his heart with her fingers and claws.
Only Marynka had, so far, failed to grow any claws, which was why she had brought the scythe.
“There,” Maciek said, scrubbing the sweat from his face with his sleeve and pointing. “Just up ahead. You can see the castle towers through the trees.”
They passed a flock of bleating sheep, two cottages with painted window shutters. Somewhere in the distance, someone was shooting in the wood.
Behind her lips, Marynka felt her teeth start to sharpen. The tips of her fingers burned red-hot. She stared at her hands, willing her nails to lengthen.
So intently focused on this was she that she didn’t notice the commotion up ahead, the crowd gathering in the dirt road, until she nearly walked into someone’s back.
Maciek steadied her.
“What’s happening?” Marynka demanded.
Maciek shook his head, frowning. Marynka hopped on her tiptoes, but she was too short to see over anyone’s shoulders. Everyone was circled around an old man who was talking very fast and waving his hands. Several people had their own hands pressed to their mouths. A woman was weeping, ignoring a small girl tugging at her skirt.
A boy even shorter and skinnier than Marynka squeezed between the couple blocking her way, popping out in front of her like a cork from a bottle. Maciek immediately grabbed him by the shirt.
“It’s the prince!” the boy squeaked in explanation. “He’s dead.”
“Dead!” Marynka’s voice was so loud that more than a few heads turned. But she couldn’t help it. The prince was young and healthy. Grandmother hadn’t said anything about him being sick.
“What do you mean?” Maciek said.
The smaller boy wriggled out of his grip. He shook a heap of brown hair out of his eyes and favored them both with a grin of gruesome glee. “They’re saying a monster got him.”
Marynka’s grip on her scythe slackened.
“He went to visit a friend yesterday. They were meant to hunt bison, and then the prince would stay the night. But they got word up at the castle that he rode for home in the evening, only he didn’t make it back. They’ve been searching for the past hour. They just found him.”
The boy shuffled closer, dropping his voice to a whisper. “Janek said he thought it had to have been a bear at first to have torn the prince into so many pieces. The clearing was red all over with blood. But the wicked thing took his heart. Clawed it right out.” He grabbed at his own chest to demonstrate. “There was a gaping hole right here.”
Maciek crossed himself.
Marynka wasn’t breathing. When Maciek nudged her, she jumped and jerked away.
The smaller boy snickered, clearly thinking he’d frightened her with his tale. “You should take your pretty friend home, Maciek. She looks like she’s about to faint. And who knows? The monster might still be lurking about.”
“Here.” Maciek shepherded Marynka away from the crowd.
Marynka let him only because her thoughts were too busy chasing themselves round and round her head. She barely felt her feet moving. What was she supposed to do now? Whose heart would she bring Grandmother? Was there another prince nearby? Lechija had lots of families of princely blood.
But she’d been told to come here, to return with the heart of the prince who owned the peasants and fields in the north.
Panic set Marynka’s skin alight. Would she be tossed away like the other girls who had been no use to the witch? Would she be eaten? Would Grandmother find herself a new servant? Take back the magic she’d gifted Marynka and…
Wood met her back. Maciek sat her down on a bench set against the side of a cottage in the shade. He crouched in front of her. “Sit here. It’s all right. You don’t have to be afraid. They’ll bring the priest and soldiers to hunt the monster. Try to take a deep breath. Do you want water? I’ll go fetch some water.”
Marynka’s hand lashed out, grabbing his shirtfront, stopping him as he started to straighten up.
It shouldn’t have been possible, but Maciek’s sunburned face flushed an even deeper red. The tips of his ears were practically glowing. “I know it’s frightening,” he said softly. “But you shouldn’t listen to Staś. He probably made that whole story up.”
Marynka could feel his heart pounding through his scrawny chest. A feverish thump, thump, thump. She curled her fingers in the fabric of his shirt.
“I promise. It will all be all right.”
“Yes,” Marynka agreed in a voice equally as soft, reaching into a pocket and bringing out a handful of poppy seed.
Marynka blew the seed into his eyes, and when he slumped unconscious to the ground, she rolled him over quickly and raised her birch branch, beating upon his chest three times.
The magic worked just like it was supposed to, just like she’d been shown. Skin and muscle peeled away, and his rib cage opened with a gruesome crack to reveal a heart richly beating and red.
Grandmother would never know the difference. And now she wouldn’t be in trouble and she wouldn’t be eaten and she could stay in the forest forever and learn more magic. She only felt a little bad. Her thoughts were already racing ahead.
Marynka pictured the old witch in her embroidered red kerchief waiting, holding out her hands ready to kiss her cheeks and stroke her hair. She could hear her saying, I knew I was right to have chosen you.
Congratulating herself on her cleverness, hands sticky red and cradling her prize, Marynka left the village and the unfortunate Maciek behind. She rode the wind again and didn’t fall into any fields this time. The journey took hours, but the sun was still shining when she arrived.
It was always shining, here in Red Jaga’s forest, where the hour was always midday. On a whim, Marynka picked a handful
of crimson poppies, gathering them into a bouquet as an extra gift.
The witch was sadly unimpressed by the offering. She took one look at the flowers and threw them at the stove. One look at Maciek’s heart and cuffed Marynka across the cheek.
Blood burst in her mouth. Her vision filled with sparks. Red Jaga’s arms were no thicker than broom handles, but she was stronger than she looked, and the blow sent Marynka sprawling to the floor.
She knocked against a wooden chest—the one that always shivered as if something inside of it was trying to climb out. The house was a clutter of strange objects and trinkets, locked chests bulging with holy relics and gold-threaded robes left behind by long-dead princes.
“Only a fool would mistake the heart of a peasant for the heart of a prince. Do you think I am a fool? Do you think I cannot tell the difference? Do you think you can lie to me?” Red Jaga’s caught Marynka’s chin in one hand and jerked her head up to face her. “Oh Marynka, Marynka.” The witch’s voice softened as she stroked a hand through Marynka’s hair.
Heat flared through her at the touch, and she leaned into the rare gesture of affection.
“Do you want me to keep you? If you can’t do as I say, you’re useless to me. No better than the last girl.”
Marynka’s gaze skittered over the house’s bone-adorned walls.
“It’s not my fault,” she protested, biting back fear and the tears she knew would only further irritate the old woman. She’d learned early not to let Grandmother see her cry. “The prince was dead. They said his chest was empty, but I knew you’d still need a heart.” A witch was only as strong as the number of hearts she’d devoured. “So I—”
“Empty?” Red Jaga’s hand stilled against Marynka’s temple. Her gold eyes were sharp among the hollows and wrinkles of her sun-browned face. “Did you see who took it?”
“Took his heart,” Red Jaga said, impatient. “Did you see another girl? A girl your age? At the castle? In the shadows?”
Marynka shook her head, a panicked tightness building in her chest. “Another girl took his heart for you?”
Red Jaga did not answer at once. She wore a strange expression. “Not for me.” The witch released Marynka and moved away, gnarled hands trailing over a sun-bleached skull. “For my eldest sister. She’s taken a new servant too. A girl a year or two older than you. She calls her Midnight.”
‘Tie them up,’ Baron Lassigny ordered. ‘They’re under arrest.’
‘The full moon rose over us,’ Layla sang, while she carefully joined two pieces of metal together in the broiling, cramped welding bay.
Mary Lawson was the first to die. Leaving Euston station shortly before 6.45 a.m, she made straight for her favourite breakfast stall.