You need to be beautiful to be a princess, they told her. You need a pure heart to win prince charming. The best adventures only happen to fair maidens. Each word was like a dagger latched into Lyria’s skin, making her bleed doubt, staining the silver blade of their viciousness red with her sorrow. Who was she if not beautiful? Who was she if she didn’t have a pure heart? Who was she if not a fair maiden? Lyria had been born a cripple. Her right leg was deformed; she needed a cane to walk. If she exercised too much, it stiffened and her entire body seized, ending with her gasping on the ground, her limbs spasming. She was a failure to her rich noble parents. Her sister was ashamed of her.You are nobody, they hissed. Shadows stole the light from Lyria’s eyes, and her veins soaked in the poison of their taunts. When Lyria was a child, her parents exiled her into the kitchen with the other servants. She wore her family’s cruelty like it was a weight, and it made her stumble when she walked and hunch her shoulders when she spoke. The years swept the resignation of her childhood away. There had been a time when she had dreams of starry skies and moonlit glades. She was filled with bitterness now. The silence in her mind was not consolation; it was condemnation.Every night, Lyria would curl into the fireplace, sleeping on cinders. Tendrils of smoke cradled her body as a mother would her child, weaving through Lyria’s hair like a crown, wreathing her wrists like bracelets. She was a daughter of the ash, and yet still a captive to the silence of her unshed retorts. Every day, she worked tirelessly at chores. Her right leg dragged behind her worthlessly. Her cane dented the ground. Her mother, father, and sister tortured her with words. She was a prisoner to her own skin. Weak girl, you might be thinking. But Lyria had been beaten into submission so many times she no longer understood how to rebel. Every day, she looked at her twisted leg and believed she deserved their hate. There is a difference between bending and breaking.They did not once pause to think they were birthing a demon inside of Lyria, allowing her hatred to fester. They shattered her mercy. She became unforgiving. Her kindness disintegrated; her compassion fractured. They had broken her like glass, and she was left with the jagged shards. Some people stay broken. Some people put themselves back together with the sharp edges showing. One night, after Lyria had been called the bane of her family’s name, she laid her head against the fireplace wall. Vines of smoke laced through her fingers. She was brimming with fire and poison. Something inside of her was pulsing, like a second heart. She didn’t realize that she had built a tower of her rage, a city of her pain, an empire of her hatred in her soul. It beckoned for her. Her silence threatened to become a scream.That night, Lyria learned how to write. She sliced open her thoughts, not her skin, and she scrawled with ink, not poison. Don’t worry, Mama. You may have put the venom in my veins, but I’m learning how to bleed it out through my fingertips. There was a light at the end of her tunnel. The next night, she wrote of the sun kissing the bloodstained horizon. She wrote of the ocean, the blue sea cradled by moonlight. She wrote of burning cities and oceans clear as glass. She wrote of constellations, a thousand droplets of light showering a midnight canvas. But mostly she wrote of her dreams.When Lyria was asleep, her right leg wasn’t deformed. She was not a servant to a family that had disowned her. Instead, she was . . . free. She was at the mercy of her unconsciousness, enthralled by the sorcery of her dreams, enchanted by the beauty of her imagination. When she slept, anything was possible. Her stories didn’t involve beautiful maidens with pure hearts. Who needed a prince charming when she could save herself? She didn’t need to be perfect. In her dreams, she was a fierce dragon-slayer, with fire in her eyes, passion in her heart, and chaos in her bones. Who cared if she was a cripple? Lyria dreamt of silver-winged horses and a sun that could be plucked out of the sky like a gold jewel. She dreamt of shopping for stars and standing on the tips of mountains to reach the distant planets, and then grabbing them out of the sky and stringing them onto a bracelet.So Lyria started to understand her family’s viciousness. She saw her sister’s disgust, her mother’s shame, her father’s disappointment. She couldn’t forgive them, but she could fathom their faults. Lyria had stood on a cliff over an ocean of pain, and she could have fallen in and drowned in her sorrow. Instead, she had learned to fly. So she gathered her dreams around her like armour as she left them that night. She might have understood them, but she still hated them. She escaped into the village, where she heard rumours of a blind crone who could heal anyone, but only at a heavy price. The townspeople warned Lyria that she was a liar. One night, as a whip of lightning shattered the inky sky into shards, she discovered a hut. Inside, there was an old woman on a rocking chair. Her eyes were moon-white. “Why have you come, daughter of ash?” she rasped. “I have come to heal my leg,” Lyria whispered. Her calf was bent the wrong way, and her knee was swollen with the colliding bones. “It comes at a great cost,” said the crone. “I will pay it,” said Lyria. She swore even the rain outside hushed. “You are destined to be a healer and a dreamer,” said the crone. “The lost souls who need you will find you, and you will mend them with your stories. There is one story for everybody. Not just any story will heal them. It has to be made for them. Should they seek you, it will scrape in your bones and sing in your blood.” “And my leg?” said Lyria. “There is one story for you,” continued the crone. “But you must find it. It is a tale of nightmares and moonlight. If you can tell it, you will be healed.” “And if I don’t?” said Lyria. The crone didn’t answer the question. “You must have adventures before you can tell your stories, for the best ones come not from words, but from the heart,” she said. The promise was sealed with blood. Dreamers must always have poison in their veins. It is the fuel for their adventures. Lyria set off to find her story. She climbed mountains, trudged through deserts, swam through oceans, journeyed through tunnels. But she didn’t find her story. Soon she settled deep into a forest, in a hut next to the shore of a lake as reflective as a mirror. Lyria was a girl with constellations threaded in her eyes and a thousand beautiful stories knitted in her soul. She wrote so much that swirls of ink seemed to be tattooed on her fingertips. Those who saw her called her a witch. Those who knew her called her a disgrace. Deep beneath it all, though, they pitied her as they watched her drag her right leg behind her. But Lyria was stubborn, and their pity turned to irritation. They scoffed at her tales of adventures and told her that she wasn’t beautiful enough to be saved by a prince charming. She didn’t listen. Dreamers never do. Those with souls as bright as light always have the darkest shadows in their minds. There must always be a balance.One day, as night crowned the sky in ink, a woman stumbled upon the hut. She was a lost soul. The woman’s mother had killed herself, and her betrothed had left her because of the unwanted scandal. The crone had said Lyria would tell a story that would heal whoever needed it.So she did. “Once, there was a girl stolen away by a witch as a baby. The witch knew this was the third child to parents that had abused all the others. The witch herself couldn’t conceive; she had longed for a child of her own. So she hid the baby girl away in a tower concealed by vines, paranoid that someone would take her away. It happened that this witch convinced herself into believing she was her mother. She even named her Keres. “The baby girl grew up, no longer a baby, now an adolescent with uncut hair that grew long and tangled. The witch brushed her daughter’s hair and sang to her. “But the adolescent girl soon became an adult. The witch had wanted a little girl, but she was growing up. Mothers always dread the inevitable: when their children don’t need them. “One day, a prince climbed up her tower. He found Keres beautiful. He was handsome, and he was used to the attention of girls. He charmed her into loving him. It was a game to him. “But one day the witch climbed the tower to discover her daughter with a boy. She saw how little the prince genuinely cared for Keres. In anger, the witch shoved him out of the window, and he fell into the thorns below, blinding himself. “Later that night, Keres decided she couldn’t live without her prince charming, and she leapt out of the tower to find him. The witch wailed for her daughter. Keres fell into the thorns and ran away. “When Keres found the blind prince wandering around later, she called out his name. But he was afraid of her now, and he thought the witch was with her. He killed himself to escape her, and the girl sobbed, her tears falling onto his closed eyes.”And so the woman went home healed.A few weeks later, a man with cancer found Lyria’s hut, and she told him his story as well.”Once there was a pair of twins: a little boy named Hans and a little girl named Grace, who were slowly starving. Their parents withheld them their food when they misbehaved and hit them when they complained. So they plotted to run away, and knew their parents would put on a show to look for them. They made a trail of breadcrumbs leading in the wrong direction, and then they ran the other way. Soon they came upon a candy house in the woods. There was a woman inside, and she gave them a place to stay. The twins had been right that their parents pretended to look for them, and they followed the breadcrumbs into the wrong direction as they’d hoped.”But there were also hounds searching for the children, and they found the candy house. As it happened, Grace was being taught to bake, and as she was leaning to put a pie in the oven, her parents burst in with the villagers behind. They thought the woman was trying to cook up the little girl. The villagers roared, enraged, and Hans and Grace protested, but their parents called the woman a kidnapper and a witch. They shoved her in the oven and baked her into the pie, and they ate her. Hans and Grace refused to take a bite, but they were starving. “In the end, they died because of their stubbornness. They didn’t eat the pie. Their loyalty ran a little too deep.”When Lyria finished the story, the man’s cancer was healed. The villagers came to see her as a miracle-teller. Around the world, people sought her out, and she mended them. Magic unraveled from her voice, unspooling into broken souls like smoke from embers, rain from storms.Lyria told stories of broken crowns and withered roses, bruised feathers and buried palaces. Sometimes the gods make people with wildfires instead of souls.Lyria was one of them.But despite it all, she didn’t find the story that could heal her leg. One day, Lyria chanced upon a gate. She was lost, and she needed to rest her leg. She found a palace of breathtaking beauty, with silver vines and cracked fountains. It was the embodiment of a fairytale. But as soon as she walked in, a voice roared: “Who are you?” “My name is Lyria, daughter of ash,” she said. A beast stalked down the staircase. His fur was black as night. His talons were red with blood. He waited for her to run away, but Lyria stood fierce despite her disability.Lyria was not beautiful. She didn’t need to be. Beauty is a face, not a personality. But she was striking. She was made of liquid lightning, saturated sunsets, molten magic. The beast saw her. Nobody else ever had. She was chaos and stars. So the great, monstrous beast invited Lyria into his palace to dine. He didn’t treat her like she was delicate because she was crippled. She was not a crumpled flower. So Lyria decided to stay. She grew to love this beast. He never pitied her for her twisted leg, like everybody else had. There was no revulsion, or worse, sympathy, in the way he treated her. Lyria needed empathy, and he gave her that.He told her about a curse his mother had placed on him. She had been disgraced by her beast of a son, but no mother could ever directly wish their child dead. So instead she made him suffer, and she abandoned him to an empty palace. The beast told Lyria that his life depended on a wilting rose in a glass case. As soon as the last petal fell, he would die. In time, there were more lost souls who sought Lyria out. Those who truly needed her always found her. In every fairytale, she gave a bit of her spirit into them.Years spilled like sand in an hourglass. Lyria gave birth to a child named Oreana and raised her daughter to be fierce and kind. She ignored her Oreana’s beauty, though she knew it would attract princes and knights. But on one spring night, the world trembled. Trees lashed out. Darkness smothered the stars. There came a new light. Fire. The forest outside had been set aflame. Lyria didn’t have time to grab her cane. The beast told her that he could go no farther than that of the palace boundaries because of the old curse his mother had cast. “I must go save my forest,” Lyria cried. She hugged Oreana, summoned her courage, and fled the palace. The wall of flames rose in front of her. Ash shimmered like stardust. Through the roaring flames, she saw the silhouette of a girl lying on the ground and screamed. You might be thinking that Lyria ran into the fire heedless of getting burned. After all, in fairy tales, the fair maidens are never injured. But Lyria was not a fair maiden, and there was no prince charming to rescue her from the danger.That morning, ash fell from the sky like snow. Now, you might be waiting for what you’re sure will be the ending. Lyria saves the forest and finds the story that heals her leg. It turns out the beast was a handsome prince, and they live happily ever after with their beautiful daughter. But fairy tales don’t always have happy endings, and sometimes they’re not given to those who deserve them. Lyria died. She was mortal, after all. Maybe you want to hear how it was swift and painless, but I can’t tell you that without lying. Flames shriveled her skin, withered her veins, crimped her veins.But you must want to know about Lyria’s story. It story wasn’t about sleeping princesses or jealous mirrors. I suppose I could lie to you. I could tell you it was about a woman who died for a hundred years, but was awoken by a desperate lover. I could tell you that it was about a lonely wolf who tried to befriend a girl in a red cloak.I could also tell you the girl on the ground Lyria saw had actually been herself reflected in the lake she had once lived next to. I could tell you that when the beast heard of Lyria’s death, he ripped the last petal off of the rose himself. Their daughter wept in an empty palace. But the truth is that the old crone had lied. Lyria was never meant to be healed. There was no story waiting to mend her. All she had to do was embrace herself. If she hadn’t thought of her leg as a restriction?if she hadn’t believed she needed to be fixed, everything would be different. Fate is a labyrinth. Her leg was a symbol of twisted reality. Sometimes villains aren’t the only ones punished Sometimes heroes aren’t the only ones that win. But the road to a happy ending is always paved in blood. It doesn’t matter whose. But there must always be a balance.Someone, somewhere got the happily ever after that Lyria didn’t. Is that the happy ending you were looking for? Once upon a time, a knight in shining armour rode up to a palace with silver vines and cracked fountains, and found a beautiful girl inside. He asked her to journey with him on his horse and offered to rescue her from her troubles. “No, thank you,” she said, as her mother had taught her. Oreana didn’t need a crown to be a queen. She would live her happily ever after battling pirates, capturing demons, tearing down mountains, sailing the stormy seas, and wielding a dagger she would name Fairy Tale. Oreana mounted her own stallion and rode off into the sunset to save herself.