Princess, my Lovely Princess…
She dare not answer. She dare not turn her head. The moon would soon be rising and it would be her time again to return to the land of words. The land of solace and somber living. A land where her only companion seemed to be the muted hag and the reflection in the pool of water she was condemned to.
Princess, don’t ignore me. I know you can hear me…
It was not the degradation in his tone or the way he spit his harsh words, though those certainly did work in his favor, but rather it was his taunting. No father should ever hold such protection over his daughter the way he did over her.
‘Princess of what? The pond to your crippled Kingdom?’ The thought was weary and it hardly gave her any comfort to find it humorous.
Her father, King Rothbart, did not need many to rule over. He was crazed and impersonal. He needed only the chain of his magic to hold his daughter down, to confine her within his Kingdom. She was the only subject he need command.
Emma, come now. The moon is rising…
Her eyes searched the sky. The moon peeked past the brush of clouds, light suddenly spilling over the water and eventually, the immaculate white swan that sat above it. Every transformation was different, but the feeling was always warm. It started in her wingtips, spreading quickly and taking over until those became hands and arms. Her feathers turned into long blonde tresses, a waterfall of gold that reached well past her waist. Sometimes the hag would adorn her head with petals and ribbons, but only on special occasions.
Today was not a special occasion.
Emma, once fully transformed, wade her way through the water to the gown hanging in the bare branches ashore. The hag waited, patient and silent as always. She never knew whether or not the tiny smile on her wrinkled face was genuine or put there by her father as punishment for being so hideous. The hag had always been there so she did not know what sort of unnamed deed she had done to be trapped here like the swan.
“Thank you.” Emma murmured as the old woman laced the pieces of the corset together. She was nimble fingered and gentle as ever.
“I suppose my Father wants me to join him for dinner tonight?” Emma looked down at the hag who had taken her hand. She simply squeezed her fingers and the Princess knew. “That’s what I thought.”
Together the odd pair of them made their way through the garden, guided by moonlight that seemed to know the path they were taking. It was very unlikely that they shared any conversation unless Emma was feeling particularly spirited. Like her heart, her mind was barred for her own safety. She should not wonder about what was outside of the crumbling castle ruins for it would pain her heart deeply.
Time passed in an unfamiliar way. The days were short and the nights were even longer. Her father, Lord Rothbart, was a man of many talents. He could sing a low baritone, cook a grander meal than any she could imagine, and perform spectacular tricks with his sorcery. It was only at night that he ever graced his daughter with his presence. During the day, however? She did not know what it was he chose to do with his time.
Emma cared little for that. She was confined to the pond.
“My lovely Princess, what a sight you are this evening!” Emma’s father, a tall man with a broad chest and shockingly dark red hair, threw his arms wide in mock enthusiasm. He did have a flare for dramatics. The sparkle in his eye, the warm tone of his voice, lured any slumbering excitement out like an unwilling child.
Emma could not help but smile, if just a little.
“Father,” she curtsied and dipped her head. For a man like her father, Emma did often wonder how she came to be so opposite in looks. Her hair was white blonde, sometimes golden in the summertime and silver in the winter. For a girl of 18, she was tall and slim. If anything, she might have inherited her father’s eyes but those too were different shades. She had blue and his were, well, bluer. So blue that he appeared possessed at times.
Emma figured that it was her mother she took after, despite never knowing or seeing her.
“So formal, my girl. Come and have a seat, I’ve prepared something new tonight while we dine!”
Ever the obedient daughter, Emma took her place at the end of the table and drew up her dark skirts to sit among the feast. He had prepared all of her favorites.
Tonight must be something special.
“What marks the occasion, Father?”
He did not answer right away. His attentions were focused on the hag as they discussed something in whispers. She did not move her mouth, simply nodded, and went on her way in a quickly executed scurry. Lord Rothbart rose to his full height and faced his daughter. The look in his eye took her aback.
He was absolutely crazed.
“It has come to my attention that you are in need of companionship.”
Emma’s hands clutched the edge of the table and her heart raced. What could he mean? Companionship? Was he going to let her go outside the walls of this forsaken Kingdom? She searched his face, every line and every twitch of his brow.
She attempted disinterest and lifted her goblet, “I have plenty of companionship. You and the hag are all I need.”
“How sweet.” He grunted, pleased by her manners and sincerity. It was enough to sate him for the moment and he took his place opposite of her. For a silent minute, Emma scratched enough food onto her plate to distract from full sentences during their conversation.
He spoke about many things, as was expected. Money, jewels, adventures outside of the Kingdom, people she had never met only heard of, and a few snippets of unimportance that Emma hardly realized the direction the conversation had gone.
“I set sail tomorrow.”
In all of her time in the crumbled Kingdom Emma knew that he left her, but she always felt his eyes watching. He was nearby, not far away. Travelling by sea was new and troublesome.
“What for?” She choked, failing at disinterest and becoming hysteric. This was unreal. Unexpected. It was...exciting.
He blinked, “Emma, control yourself. Have I taught you nothing?”
“I’m sorry.” She mumbled. Thankfully he did not comment on her sheepishness.
“As I was saying, I have business overseas and I will be taking the hag with me. I have made arrangements to suit your needs. I found him sniffing around the gates just outside the forest. He’s perfect.” That surely would have cost anyone their freedom. The King of this castle would murder anyone who tried to pass his chained gates.
Emma froze. She felt her fingertips become like ice, unresponsive and cold to the touch. It spread upwards and into her chest. No one came to the forest. No one came to the gates. Her father’s magic must be fading.
“You can’t mean...Father, you didn’t.”
He waited just long enough to see Emma’s pale face grow paler. With a great laugh that was neither contagious or humorous, he rose from his place at the table and threw his crazed eyes upwards.
“Bring Him in!” Lord Rothbart cried, his voice high and loud.
The sound of a door busted open and from the right the hag remerged. Emma gasped. Behind her, bound in rope, was a young man. His mouth had been gagged with a red kerchief and his blue eyes, so bright and afraid, were wide as he struggled.
“What did you do to him?!” She screamed, nearly knocking over her chair to reach the boy. The closer she came the easier it was to see that he was not normal. At least, not anymore. Though his blue eyes were fairly human, it was the texture of his skin that was not.
“I’ve brought you a little wooden boy.”
Hardly little, but definitely a boy. Emma took the rope from the Hag, who backed away almost immediately, and removed the kerchief from his mouth. He heaved a great deep breath which she took as his ‘thank you’.
“You can’t do this! Someone will be missing him.” Emma tried to undo his knots but her hands were shaking and numb. King Rothbart watched, no help to offer or sanity to lend to such an insane situation.
“Then he shouldn’t have been sniffing around the gates in the first place.”
Emma winced. She had never seen the entrance herself but she imagined it was grand and inviting. She couldn’t blame the young man for being curious.
“So you cast a spell and imprisoned him?! Father, you can’t do that!” Emma knew at once that she had spoken out of turn. The second the words left her, she could not will them back no matter how much she wanted to.
“Should I kill him instead then?” Calm and cool, King Rothbart took two steps and kneeled before his Swan daughter and wooden prisoner. Emma held her breath.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t….thank you. Thank you, father.” Her resolve melted. The wooden boy would be stuck with her for as long as his punishment lasted. That could mean a week, a decade, or a lifetime.
The King snarled, “A little graciousness, my dear. It goes a long way.”
Emma bowed her head, watching through her lashes as the King lifted himself to his full height.
“I’ll take my meal in my chambers. Have the hag send it down,” his voice was as normal as it was and he sounded less disgusted than before. “And Emma?”
“I won’t be gone for long. When I return, I will have him hanged so don’t get too attached.”
“Of course, father. Sleep well.” And without another word, the King was gone in a few short steps. Emma pressed a hand to her chest, to suppress the sob deep down and to hide the ache she felt. This poor boy. This poor, poor boy.
The hag poked at Emma, appearing beside her with a sharpened knife and a wrinkled hand to hold.
“Thank you, truly.” She accepted the knife and began to saw at his binds, careful to avoid the delicate wooden finish. The boy did not speak, not until he was fully recovered from the shock of being captured, bound, and threatened. Emma was patient enough though. While her father was cruel, she was quietly grateful for a companion that could speak.
Not to mention, he was from the outside.
“My Papa will be so worried.” He sounded sickly.
“What’s your name?”
His blue eyes met hers and he frowned, “August.”
“August, I’m Emma. I’m afraid my friend here doesn’t have a name she’s mentioned, so I think it would be okay for you to call her ‘Lady’.” The Hag nodded in silent approval.
The wooden boy observed the two, skeptical of what he was seeing and disapproving strongly. Perhaps he was still sore about the hag dragging him into the dining room like a pig on a spit.
“I thought this place was a myth. My Papa told me it was dangerous out this way, but I guess I thought I could handle it,” he took a deep breath and knocked himself on the head. “This is what I get, I guess, for being too curious. Too overconfident.”
Emma waited. She liked the sound of his voice. He wasn’t like her father or the hag, that much was clear. August was someone she could talk to, confide in, and perhaps trust her secrets with. For however long her father was away she would use her time wisely. A friend was a friend, after all. Even if that friend had a limited number of days.
Emma smiled, “Why don’t you eat some and then we’ll talk.”
He closed his eyes, thinking deeply as he shook his wooden head. She thought he might turn her down and try to make a run for it, but he didn’t look like a fool. Instead he simply lifted his head and sighed, “Okay, Emma.”