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The bargain was quickly made between my mother and the witch. A half load of rotting firewood for an apprentice. A second apprentice, the witch had said when my mother tried to get more. She had one apprentice already.

Then my mother had gone. The witch waved a hand and told me to acquaint myself with the woods around the hut. She went inside, she said, to study a potion. But her roaring snores suggested she was studying her dreams instead.

Still, I was glad to wander. This part of the woods was quiet, and I had had few chances in my life to be away from the noise of my raucous half-brothers.

It was a few yards past the stream that I saw a clearing had been made. There was a girl standing in it over a fire who had to be the witch’s other apprentice. Who else would dare to come so near the hut?

When I smelled burned feathers and blood, I assumed that she was cooking a meal. My mouth began to water and I stepped closer.

The girl was smaller than I, and I was surprised at how handsome she was when I saw her face. She did not look at all like wizened Zerba, whose back and hands were curled with pain, whose face was pocked and scarred. The reverse, in fact. Her black hair glistened in the sun, her eyes were dark and piercing. Her frame, as it turned towards me, was willowy and lithe.

"Good morning," she said.

"My name is Mira," I said. "I’m the new apprentice."

She nodded, and smiled a smile full of white, straight teeth. She gave me her name and turned her attention back to the bird on the spit. I realized then that the bird was still alive. Its tiny body struggled as its life dripped into the flames, sizzling and sputtering.

"What are you doing?" I asked, horrified. I had seen animals killed before, but never like this. Even my brothers, who loved the kill, did not torture.

"Taking the magic of its life," she said simply.

"A bird?" Hadn’t everyone heard stories of witches going mad from animal magic? My mother had told me of one witch who had taken a hawk’s life, then thrown herself off a cliff, as if she could fly.

Then again, my mother had sold me to Zerba. So why should I trust her word?

The other apprentice shrugged. "From whatever is at hand."

I moved closer, feeling nothing but the heat of the fire. "How do you do it?" I asked, fascinated despite myself.

"If you are near a creature as it dies," she said. "You can take its magic for your own. But if you want true power, you must take a vibrant life and all its pain."

I didn’t trust her. She was only an apprentice, after all. I looked back and saw the corner of the hut against the trees. How long until Zerba would appear to teach me real magic?

"Magic is born in life," said the apprentice. "But it must be taken by death." She sounded very sure. "So it is and so it will always be."

I watched as the bird stilled at last. I expected a muttered spell, an incantation. But the other apprentice simply let the bird drop into the fire. Then she took a breath. "There," she said, dusting off her hands.

She turned towards me slowly, as if to show off a new gown. But the change she had bought from this magic was, in fact, much subtler. It took me several moments to see it: the nose, long and bony before, had become slightly shorter. It was still too long for the rest of her face, but not as obviously as it had been before.

"Ugly as a witch. Might as well be one." Those were my mother’s last stinging words to me. Yet here was a witch who was anything but ugly.

The other apprentice glanced over my figure—too tall and broad-shouldered, my mother had told me often enough. "I could show you how to use magic to change whatever you wish," she offered.

It had been so long since I’d heard anything but criticisms and curses, the kindness seemed too much for me. I went wild with imagination. "Could I have black hair?" I asked, thinking that I had only to copy her to be beautiful.

"If you wish."

"And could you make me smaller, more graceful?"

She sighed, then came over and held my big, ungainly arms above my head, tracing the line of them in her mind. Moving to my back, she ran a finger along the outline of my shoulder blades. When I tried to hunch over, as my mother had encouraged me to hide my height, the other apprentice made a small sound of tongue to teeth and shook her head.

She came around front again and lifted my chin so that I was looking straight ahead. Finally, she inched my hips forward, so that they were directly beneath my spine. Doubtless I looked more like a castle than a princess, but somehow I felt royal where she had touched me. It was not because of any magic she had given me, that I was sure of.

I was just as certain that it was not something magic could take away.

"You have your own beauty," she said quietly. "I would not have you imitate anyone else’s."

I gaped at her.

"Who was it?" she asked. "Mother? Father? Sister? Brother? Who hurt you so?"

"I never had a sister," I said.

"But the others?" she asked.

I hung my head, thinking how many times I had been told it was my fault, that I had to be punished.

"No," said the apprentice, lifting my chin. "Do not do to yourself what they have always done to you. Here you are free to become whatever you will."

I said nothing. I liked her voice far better than mine.

"You only need magic," she said softly.

"Will you show me how?" I asked.

She gestured at the bird on the ground. "That is the beginning. But follow me and there will be no end to your power."

"What of Zerba?" I asked.

"Zerba takes her magic from graveyards and animals ready for slaughter. Such easy magic gives her cures for headaches, love spells, and wart removers." The apprentice said it with distaste, as though she were listing the tasks of a village gravedigger. "But I will teach you far more. Unless your vision is as limited as hers."

"No, no," I said. In fact, my vision had been exactly that limited. But it was beginning to swell.

"Then you will learn from me." With a pleased expression, she patted my shoulder. "We will work together, you and I, Mira."

"I—work with you?" I had no idea how I could contribute to the project, since she was the one with all the knowledge. "How?"

"Before you kill a fish to eat for dinner, bring it to me. I will make sure its life is not wasted. And if you ever have the need to kill something larger—I will help you. Old lovers, bullies, enemies from the past—you can profit doubly from their deaths. Provided you share the profit with me. Do you understand?"

"Yes," I said, not understanding at all. "Of course."

"Good." She came close to me, brushing her shoulder against my lower arm, taking my hand in hers. Her voice was so sweet it overwhelmed the smell of dead bird. "Then we will be sisters, you and I."

"Sisters?" I hardly dared say it, for fear I had mistaken her.

I had not.

"I will be the older, wiser sister," she said.

The beautiful sister, I thought.

"You will be the younger sister, eager to assist me, eager to learn and to grow."

It was all I could ask for. I would have skipped around the fire if my mother had not told me how gawky I looked when I did that. "Thank you," I said. "Oh, thank you."

I thought that day was the end of my heartache. It was but the beginning.

Years passed. Zerba died. Her hut became my sister’s. My sister’s shelter was mine. I had hardly changed from the gawky girl I had been. But my sister’s long, raven-black hair was now only one breathtaking feature among many. Her face was perfectly balanced, her skin flawless. Her neck would have made a swan swim away in shame. Her fingers tapered to long nails that clicked music when she moved them. There was nothing about her that had not been worked over with precise magic.

I asked her once who the beauty was for. It seemed a waste to share it only with the forest, and me.

She laughed at me and told me not to worry about waste. "I have plans for my beauty," she said. "Plans for my magic, and for you, too. Great plans."

"Oh?" I waited for her to share them with me.

It was a long wait. After Zerba was gone, fewer villagers came to ask us for our magic. They were afraid of my sister, and who could blame them? There were rumors about missing cattle, horses, and even a child or two. Those who dared her despite the rumors found her cruel and dismissive. She would not be bothered for such petty requests as a curse on a neighbor or a blessing for a sickly newborn. And I did not blame her. Her magic was more than any of us deserved.

Yet when I offered the villagers my magic, it always turned wrong. A potion to cure the pox seemed to spread the disease instead. Half the village died and only the most desperate returned to me. They had little left to pay me with, but I took it for my sister’s sake. She hardly ate, but whatever magic she worked for beauty, it would not keep her alive. I did not feel that I had much to offer her, but all that I had, I gave.

Year after year I gave, until one beautiful cloudless summer day, my sister returned at last from a two-day long trip. I hurried to her as soon as she called for me, ducking my head to enter her hut. I had brought her favorites, stewed rabbit and fried mushrooms from the forest.

She took no notice of the food, however. "Do you see this?" My sister held in her hand a mirror the size and shape of a face.

I came close enough to see the warmth in the polished color of the wood and the intricate carving around the glass. It was not a large mirror, however. "It is as beautiful as you are," I said, at last.

"Take hold of it. Feel its power." She thrust the mirror at me.

I saw no reason not to do as she asked. It was only after I touched the whorled wood against my skin, sensed the magic, bitter and smelling of old smoke, of death, that I began to feel a hint of fear.

"I told you I had plans for you, Mira." Her voice was soft and delicate, but I felt like the bird she had held that first day in her hand, squirming above the fire as it burned to death to give her power. But why? What had I ever done to deserve this?

"I have been waiting for the right mirror. A queen’s mirror."

What queen? I tried to open my mouth, but it seemed I had no lips to open, no tongue to form words, no throat to make sound, no lungs to give me breath. The only sound that came from me was that of breaking glass. And then the sound again, in reverse. The glass, once shattered, had reformed itself.

What had happened? I looked to my sister for help, but my neck was so stiff that my view of her was limited to a small circle—no more than that. I began to realize that I had changed, that I had become something that could not move.

"Do not worry, Mira. You will be with me still. You will help your older sister, as you always have. Only now your sister will be a queen."

A queen’s mirror, she had said. Her mirror, then? But how?

"I told you I had plans. And you will be part of them, do not doubt it for an instant, sister. I will need you at my side for every step. But first, take this," she said, and sent magic to me.

It was water to my thirst and I drank it in, then gasped. I made a croaking sound and realized my voice had returned. "What plans?" I asked. I still trusted her, you see.

"Who is a queen?" she asked. "The wife of a king, of course," she answered herself, before I could. "And who does a king marry?" She looked into me, admiring herself in my glass. "The fairest in the land, of course," she said. "And you, Mira, will make sure that I am always the fairest in the land."

Did it take so long? Yes, it did. For it was only at this moment that my trust for her began to die.

Perhaps she sensed it, for she turned her attention to placating me. As if it mattered. "Mira, do not be angry with me. I wanted to keep you by my side forever. We are sisters, you see."

I had never thought it terrible before, but it was then.

"And in a way, what I have given you is a great gift. The gift of eternal life. Now we will never be parted. You can never leave me. And I, of course, would never leave you." She put her hand to the wood that surrounded me and stroked it gently.

I shivered.

"And it is only fair that you must change, for I must change, too. And I need your help, Mira. Will you help me?"

I did not answer her.

"Mira." There was a strain in her voice. "My magic has bought me beauty bit by bit, but a queen’s mirror has special powers. With a witch inside of it, it can make marvelous changes, if only it has the magic. I will give you the magic. I have proved it already, have I not?" She put a hand to her heart.

If she had a heart and had not taken it out, still beating, to sacrifice to her magic.

"I do not ask much of you, Mira. Only this one thing, in return for all that I have given you. And perhaps someday, I will turn you back into yourself. If you do well, Mira. If you do well," she crooned.

But still I did not answer her.

I could see the anger in her before I felt it. Her hands shook with the magic, then it passed to me, warm at first, then gradually hotter and hotter. My wood began to smoke from it. The pain rose and I cannot describe what it was like in human terms. It might have been a stake in my eye. It might have been a dagger to my breast. It might have been the jaws of a great beast on my arm.

"Speak to me, Mira," said my sister. "Tell me you will do as I say. Tell me you will be happy."

The pain went on and on, and I struggled against it. But what was I against her? Not even a younger sister, anymore. Only a mirror.

"I am content," I said. No more than that.

But it was enough for my sister. She sighed, then removed her hands from me and set me aside. "I am glad. Now we can begin."

And she told me what to do. How to change the smell of her, so that no one would guess she had ever been a witch. How to change her eyes, her nose, her chin to a different perfection. And last of all, how to make her taller and rounder—almost as I had been, once upon a time.

"Yes," said my sister. "Yes. This will do. For now. You will learn more, Mira, and then I will be a queen. For now, I will practice being a duchess, and see what men I can lure to my trap."

She left me feeling drained and bitter. The magic she had given me she had taken back. She might give me more another day, but how long would I keep it? A day? An hour? I doubted very much she would ever leave me a chance to turn the magic back on myself. And I did not know even if it would work.

Could a mirror transform itself back into a human? Or would I stay forever in this prison, waiting for a mercy I was sure my sister had never had?

I wanted to weep for myself, but a mirror made of glass and wood cannot weep real tears. Not with all the magic in the world.

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Copyright Mette Ivie Harrison 2011 all rights reserved.
Last revised August 10, 2011.