Their heads came up out of the cloud, lightly drizzled with unfallen rain. The miller’s daughter asked herself where they might be, and a surprisingly firm voice in her mind answered that of course they were in the sky, though the sky above what place she did not know. Around her she saw others, white-haired grandmothers smiling beatifically, middle-aged women analyzing their surroundings, and very few younger girls, perhaps as young as nine summers. A panic seized her as she considered the possibility of having died and come to the after-place. Yet the countenances of all those there did not match the shock of a quick death. And there were no boys or men—and as far as she knew they did have to die sometime. They must have come on the same train as her and Lorabeth, she decided.
A citadel, at once austere and welcoming, seemed to appear as if being shaded in by an artist’s charcoal stick. The miller’s daughter had always loved the way a piece of charred wood was given a second chance and was used to draw the world it had grown strong in. Everyone began to gravitate towards it, not really aware of where their feet were taking them. The doors beckoned to them and the miller’s daughter suspected a trick.
As they entered a cavernous hall, she thought that this castle was much like the Grand-Palace she had imagined in the capital city of her own kingdom. But as a girl whose life had been fraught with taunts, despair, broken, promise, false friends—all of this had made her distrustful. This was too good to be true. Time was in a muddle, and as for space? Distance had become irrelevant. Maybe she had simply slipped out of one dream and into another.
Nevertheless, her careful steps echoed on the marble floor. At the far end of the hall (which looked to be quite a long way, distorted space notwithstanding) she could barely make out a throne, gleaming in the soft light of the fog-land. It was ethereal and somehow ominous, a blatant dichotomy just like this world she lived in. Lorabeth seemed oblivious to any possible suspicion and the miller’s daughter debated with herself about whether Lorabeth was real. She would be quite saddened if she wasn’t; the distantly cheerful merchant girl had become her first new friend in too long.
The hall seemed endless and walking was slow going, and normally, the miller’s daughter thought, people would have picked up their pace by now. A tinge of rotten seemed to permeate the whole setup and the silence was nerve-wracking. She began to march forward with exaggerated urgency to instill, possibly, a sense of direction in her surrounding peers. The littlest saw her advance and saw a leader, a sister, a surrogate mother. They thronged around her and that motley crowd of girls headed determinedly for the silver chair. The older ones—and Lorabeth—still stared as they walked in a hushed procession, sometimes reaching out to stroke the wall with an otherworldly reverence. As they slowed more and more they seemed to become part of the wall.
They actually looked as if they were steadily becoming ghosts, and the miller’s daughter couldn’t part with Lorabeth. Wildly she took hold of Lorabeth’s arm and dragged her away. The force seemed to sever a link and she looked about as if awakening from a dream.
Rushing to the front of the little girls’ clump, the miller’s daughter saw the throne come jarringly close and they stopped. The enduring silence turned into awkward time-killing. The monster that seemed to reign here was laughing at them, she was sure of it. It was a raspy cackle, a nightmarish sound.
They waited for it to show itself. The fluid-time took over again and the youngest of the group fidgeted. The miller’s daughter felt impatient, a hidden fire now giving out smoke inside her. This cowardly thing was lurking, whatever it was, and it angered those girls.
“Come out, you!” the miller’s daughter cried. “You, whatever you are! We’re here!” The others nodded their assent vigorously. Some of the young women had reached the mass of girls. Horrifyingly, their skin was translucent. A thing film of light lined their bodies and ringed their heads. There was a definite feeling that something in them was leaving. The miller’s daughter brought them into the center of the huddled throng and led the girls in clamoring for the appearance of the unknown master of the house.
Spurred on by the smaller voices around her, the miller’s daughter shouted boldly. Lorabeth was becoming steadily more opaque and the pinkness was returning to her face. She gripped the miller’s daughter’s hand with instinctive warmness. Soon peer pressure had her shouting as well. The solemn hall was chaos as a growing crowd shouted at the empty chair and the half-women frantically tried to block out the noise. They seemed disturbed in their wonderful little world, trapped inside their own minds and the lure of the hall.
From behind the throne several drum-like booms sounded. A figure materialized on the throne, flickering in and out of existence. The miller’s daughter jumped back, suddenly, inexplicably afraid. The woman—for she was, unmistakably, a woman—commanded a powerful respect and some of the more transparent women began to grovel at her feet. She possessed some sort of ancient might, an all-seeing, all-knowing entity. The miller’s daughter shivered; her penetrating gaze made her feel like cornered prey.
Then the woman on the throne smiled, and it was here that the entire hall was struck by the knowledge that she could not be anything but a queen. It was like sunlight breaking through a fog, and indeed, the miller’s daughter saw, the fog outside was clearing.
“Welcome,” the queen said. Her voice was sonorous, mellifluous, and hearing it was like being in the forest again. “You are all hungry. Come, let us eat.” The miller’s daughter thought it perplexing that she said they were hungry as a fact rather than an assumption. She had felt neither hunger nor thirst on the train. In response, her stomach growled loudly, arguing that she was still human and therefore needed food. The older women had already rushed to the long stone table that had been set before them. She hesitated, but her stomach gave in. Soon she was seated beside Lorabeth and savoring the heavenly aroma that wafted out from a room to the left of the throne. Something clattered and glass could be heard breaking. The queen’s features grew stormy and she swept out of the room.