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The Apple Princess
Author's note: Ever since I was a little girl, I've always loved my collection of Fairy Tales. This is a gift to all those little girls who love them as much as I do.
I steered my horse over the last ridge, and reined him to a stop, his chest heaving in exertion. We were so close. I could feel it. Hund whined and circled around us, sniffing furiously, his moist nose digging into the soil. I waited, trusting in his instincts to find me my princess. After a moment, he stiffened; paw pointing toward the darkest part of the forest in front of us. With a bark he bounded forward eagerly. I dug my heels into my mount and we followed.
We raced down the trails at a furious pace, avoiding low-hanging branches and brambles on either side. Ahead of me, the trail opened up, and I saw the clearing I had seen so many times in my dreams. I saw several short men clustered in a circle, and with a start, realized they were standing around a glass coffin. I slid to a stop and walked my horse forward, hand resting automatically on my sword hilt. The leader of the dwarves scuttled to my side, bowing and polishing his glasses on his beard, his eyes downcast, face grave.
“You came too late, my Prince,” he proclaimed sadly, and his shoulders slumped with grief. “Snow White is dead.”
I was born with the expectations of others to be the perfect prince. And, blessed with good looks, intelligence and charm from an early age, I was the Kingdom’s pride and joy. I was given everything I could ever want, from a solid gold cradle to my first pony and hunting dog. I was the crown prince of course; nothing was too good for me.
When I was old enough to leave the nursery, my father had me sent to the best tutors in the land. I was able to excel easily, and when my parents were entertaining royal guests, I was brought out like a trained dog to show what I had learned in my lessons, winning them over with my precociousness.
I never saw my parents when there where no royal ambassadors or kings or dukes to amuse. I was raised by an endless supply on nurses and maids who cooed and coddled me day and night. I played alone in the royal gardens surrounded by royal guards.
I was seven when I discovered I could slip out of my room and explore the moonlit corridors unfettered by tiresome attendants with their “your majesties” and “sires”. Alone in the darkened halls, I was simply “Charming,” a boy who liked making friends with the palace cats. I soon learned every nook and cranny, discovered hiding places behind many of the tapestries. I grew bolder, and trained myself to eavesdrop on those who thought no one was watching.
I saw servants stealing from the pantries, lords and ladies sneaking into different beds on a whim, my father the King snoozing away in the cellars with his favorite page.
The web of intricate secrets was vast, but so was my curiosity. The rest of the secrets traveled as gossip, on the tongues of servants or behind the hands of the court. Every single one of the court was a primped, painted doll, a parasite feeding off the misery of each other, betraying each other with a smile. As a member of the court it was a constant fight for favor, the nighttime supposed to be their release.
During one of my nighttime prowls I discovered a book of witchcraft hidden on a top shelf, something that had been looked over during the Inquisition. From that night onward I snuck back to the library to read it, looking over the pages. I couldn’t read the Latin writing just yet, but I hoped to find someone who could, who could teach me.
This all changed when the Princess Mela came to court. I was fourteen years old.
“Charming,” said my father, “allow me to introduce our royal guest the Princess Mela of Mercia. She and her court will be staying with us for a while. Please make her welcome.”
The first thing I saw was a pair of dark eyes staring at me from under a wave of coal black hair. My knees knocked and I reached my hand out to take her gloved one, pressing my lips to her fingers as I managed to say, “Pleased to meet you.”
“Charmed, I’m sure,” came the reply, and I caught a quick glimpse of a smile on her pale face. For once, I had no response. My stomach had turned into a host of butterflies, fluttering against my ribcage. I was still speechless as she swept out of the hall on the arms of her escorts, and I decided I needed to learn more about her.
That night as I prowled the darkened halls, avoiding the guards on patrol, I eavesdropped on some of the maids chatting away in the kitchens with the newcomers.
“Oh the princess seems to be a fine young thing,” said the cook, and I heard her crunching on a pilfered pastry. “So it’s true she’s to be married to King Hiram?”
“ Her father needs money more then he needs a daughter. Especially since the drought.” Said another. “Been planning it for years he has, was only waiting for King Hiram to come back from the war,” she finished sadly. The woman speaking appeared to be far more attached to her charge then mine ever were. Perhaps because he father could only afford one to take care of her.
“Pity the Prince isn’t of age, those two would make a nice couple.”
I pricked up my ears in interest.
“Never seen a young boy so besotted” another chuckled.
“You don’t know our prince.” Argued the cook. “Give him a few years, he’ll be as bad as his father.”
“Perhaps not, he seems like a quiet young thing.”
“He’s a snob that’s what he is,” retorted the cook. “He never liked my food as a child, was always sending it back.”
“Oh hush up cookie, no one likes your food.” There was a burst of giggles from the others and the sound of something being thrown. Most likely a rag.
I crept away, but froze, as I heard the sound of heavy guard boots in the hallway. There was a hanging tapestry on the left wall and I dove behind it, just as the boots came around the corner. I flattened myself against the wall. The boots stopped, and I prayed no one had noticed the tapestry swaying ever so slightly, though there was no breeze.
“Do you see her?” One asked, and there was a rumble of no’s from the palace guards.
“Keep looking, she hasn’t been gone long.” Said another.
The boots moved on, echoes fading away into the distance and I breathed a sigh of relief. Someone sneezed.
I would have jumped and yelled loud enough to wake the whole castle when suddenly there was a firm hand clamped around my mouth. I twisted, trying to see who was there. But there was only empty darkness around me. I could feel the warm hand and fingers on my lips, but there was no shape suggesting a person next to me. I was somehow alone.
“Be quiet!” hissed a voice in my ear. “ You’ll alert the guards.” I stopped trying to scream and the hand relaxed slightly. “ I’m going to remove my hand now. Don’t scream and stay where you are for the count of ten. Promise?” I nodded and the hand was gone. Instantly I spun around, straining my eyes in the darkness, but there was no one there. I reached my hands out, feeling the stonewall next to me, but found nothing.
“Whoever you are, show yourself!” I whispered loudly. There was no response, only the tapestry rustling in some slight breeze. I explored the whole area a second time, but again all I found was solid rock wall. Someone had been there; I knew it. Perhaps the person the guards were looking for? Whoever they where; they knew how to make themselves invisible. Perhaps they could teach me. I promised myself I would find them.
I had a hard time dragging myself out of bed the next morning. During breakfast I yawned and almost knocked my goblet over with my elbow, much to the dismay of my parents, who were buttering the princess with compliments.
“ I have heard King Hiram’s kingdom is especially beautiful this time of year.” Said my father, putting his hand on hers for much too long. For a second I saw a look of disgust cross her pretty face. But then the moment passed and she smiled back at my father. He still hadn’t removed his hand and then I saw something else. A slight ring of crimson wreathed his goblet for a second before winking out. I rubbed my eyes. My father took his hand away and reached for his drink. Without warning it slipped through his fingers as if it had been made of soap. It splashed over his favorite doublet, staining the cloth with purple. Either my lack of sleep was affecting me, or Mela had enchanted the goblet to fall out of his hands.
A week passed, but though I kept careful watch, nothing else unusual happened. One night I was poring over my book again when I saw a white shape flitting outside in the garden.
Using utmost care I slipped out the window, landing softly in the dewy grass. The shape was kneeling beside one of the fountains and for a second I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me again.
“Princess Mela?” I asked, and the figure spun around, startled. It was indeed the princess, hair loose about her shoulders and wearing a white nightgown. A pair of breeches peeked out from under the lacy skirt, covered in grass stains. She looked like a frightened doe for a second. “My Prince Charming,” she said, clutching a small pot in her hand, and she curtsied deeply. “To what do I owe this honor?”
“Why are you not surrounded by your guards?” I blurted, and she came forward, indicating the pot in her hand.
“I prefer to be alone sometimes. Besides, I was merely watering my apple seedlings. They’re from my prize tree back home.”
She smiled at me, and my heart fluttered in response.
“We’ll keep this our secret won’t we?” she asked sweetly.
She was so close at that point, dark eyes looking at me from her pale face. I felt her small hand on my shoulder, and her lips gently brushed my cheek, and then she was gone, out the garden gate. I stood in the garden for a long time before I was able to go back to my room.
I had a hard time sleeping again that night. It was even more difficult to drag myself out of bed and go about my morning routine. I sat on my chamber pot for longer then necessary, headache pounding my temples and visions of the Princess Mela in her nightgown dancing before my eyelids.
My favorite manservant Henwas was standing outside as part of his routine and called through the door.
“Is everything alright Sire?” he asked anxiously. “You are in there for quite some time.”
“I am well, Henwas. Proceed with your other duties.”
“Yes Sire, forgive me Sire. It was not my place to ask.”
I exited the bathroom, and he held out a small bowl of water to wash my hands in. I rinsed my hands and he handed me a towel and a small sheet of parchment.
“Excuse me, my Prince. This was to be delivered to you.”
I took them from him and he went to the wardrobe to bring me my clothes. The parchment was of the best quality and I knew whom it was from before I even opened it. Heart beating, I read:
“Charming. Meet me again, same time, same place. M.”
That day was a wretched blur for me. It dragged on and on as I waited for nightfall. During the banquet my father was holding for our guests, I accidentally upset my drink on the duchess sitting next to me.
She let out a shriek as the wine splashed over her ample bosom, loud enough to shake the rafters. Several lords leapt to their feet to eagerly hand her their napkins and assist her. From his spot at the head of the table, my father glared at me over the hubbub. I excused myself and left the Dining Room, hoping to catch some sleep before meeting the princess. The maids were preparing my bed as I walked in, and looked up in alarm when I ordered them loudly out of the room. I flopped down on my bed, but sleep did not come to me.
There was no moon in the garden that night. A cloud cover hung over the sky, obscuring the stars, leaving it pitch black. I brought a candle and hid it under my cloak carefully, giving myself enough light to see, but not enough to alert the guards of my presence.
The Princess was waiting for me by the fountain as promised. She had a wool cloak over her nightgown, and I glimpsed her breeches poking out from under her skirt. A tender shoot had its head peeping out of the pot in her hands, and she was watering it gently, sprinkling the dark soil with the drops, nurturing it like my nurses used to feed me.
She stood as I approached, and curtsied deeply, every inch her title despite her attire.
“You came,” she said warmly, and I bowed to her.
“As did you.” I wanted so desperately to impress her. “Perhaps you would like to accompany me to the library?
“I might. Has his highness something there in particular to show me?” Mela’s eyes twinkled with amusement. I held out my arm to her and she took it.
“I would prefer to keep it a surprise, Princess.” She laughed quietly, as I escorted her away, keeping an eye out for the palace guards. We made it to the library without mishap, and I led her to bookshelf.
“Up we go.” I said cheerfully. Mela looked at me as if I had gone mad. “I’ll get it by myself then.” I amended. I was up and down in a second, landing with the heavy book under one arm. I presented it to her carefully. She examined it, though without much interest.
“It’s a book of magic. I thought you would like it.”
“And pray, why is that my prince?” She asked, and looked at me with a certain level of coldness in her eyes. Coldness that I wasn’t sure I liked.
“ Because you know how to use magic. I was hoping you could teach me.”
“I? Practice magic? Do I look like I am the sort to consort with the devil?” She asked indignantly. I opened my mouth to explain, but Mela shoved the book back at me, almost toppling me over.
“Good night, your highness.” She said haughtily, marching for the exit. This was not how our meeting was supposed to go. I chased after her.
“Wait!” I said, and planted myself in front of her. “I know you were hiding behind the tapestry that night and you also enchanted my father’s goblet.” Her eyes narrowed dangerously.
“I did no such thing.”
“I can bring it before my father. You could be tried for witch craft, Princess Mela.”
The Princess gripped my arm in her other hand and a spark of crimson skipped between us, vanishing into my skin without a trace. “If you tell my secret to anyone, I swear to make your blood boil until you die.”
She yanked her hand away and marched off, her head held high. I ran after her, hoping I couldn’t be seen in my foolish dash.
“ No, wait please!” I pleaded. I got in front of her again, blocking her progress. “All my life I knew I was meant for better things then just filling my duty as crown prince. “ She tried to around me but I blocked her. “Teach me!” I begged, and she stopped. Her eyes studied me as if I had suddenly sprouted a second, less attractive head out of my chest.
“ I beg your pardon?”
“Teach me your magic,” I clarified. “ I want to learn how to do everything, I want to –“
“No.” She said firmly, walking around me and heading for the library door. Desperately I followed. Something in me wanted this more then I had desired anything in my whole life. And she was the only one who could teach me. I planted myself in front her for the third time, impulsively and rashly giving her the most valuable offering I had at my disposal.
“Princess Mela of Mercia, “ I said as formally as I could under the circumstances. “I, Prince Charming, Crown Prince of Bavaria, do swear to you by the powers that bind your secret to my lips, that should you consent to teach me your magic craft, upon the time I am coronated as King I will ally myself with you and your kingdom in peace and in war as long as I live.” I finished breathlessly, waiting. Mela looked back at me, considering, then tried to move around me again. I added hastily, “I also grant you as well, one request in which you can have anything you desire-as soon as I am coronated King.”
There was a moment of silence after my last speech and she studied me again.
“I will consider your proposition.” She said finally. “Await my word.” With that she swept by me, out of the library, and was gone.
I wasn’t able to sleep that night, nor the night after that, nor the night after that. I lay awake, hoping to hear a knock at the door, or find a message of some sort slipped through the window, but there was nothing.
Finally on the fourth night, I found myself drifting off into a dreamless sleep. I was awoken before dawn by a crow cawing outside my window, before I fell asleep again. I woke up much later to find a small piece of rolled parchment on my pillow. The message merely read: “I accept.”
It would be too dangerous to meet out in the open where there would be chances to get caught. Instead I showed her an unused room in the dungeons that the hangman used to stay in before executions. I began learning some of the herbs she bought with her: Henbane, mandrake, angelica root, and then those that did not come from this area, but were preserved and taken from her homeland. Damiana, mullein, mugwart, and bay leaves-among many more. Her mother had been a sorceress before her, and she had taught Mela everything in secret before she died. Mela taught me how each could be used, making potions from the henbane and mandrake, or burning the seeds of the bay leaves. She showed me how to scry, first using an obsidian bowl full of water, then a mirror her mother had given her. It was difficult in the beginning, to relax and try and see the image she had asked me to. There were very few mirrors in castle, and none of the size we could use, so I used my hunting dagger as a reflection until I could get the blacksmith to make a small one for me that could fit in my hand.
There were nights when we were unable to meet, but we used our mirrors to talk to each other after everyone had fallen asleep. I also used it to spy on the castle. Now that it was nearing the end of the fall months, fires were being lit to warm the castle, and Mela taught me how to scry using fire as my peephole. I had caught glimpses into the secrets of others before, but now, as long as there was a fire, or a candle flame nearby, or a mirror, or a drop of water, I could be anywhere. In the reflection of a golden goblet, I saw my father’s most trusted steward slipping a few coins into his purse from the royal treasury. A puddle beside the stable showed the royal horse trainer beating his young apprentice. A maid cried herself to sleep after one of the guards defiled her by the light of a candle.
I also saw the Princess’ court would be moving on before the winter months blocked the roads with heavy snow. I began to panic, for once she was gone, there would be no more midnight magic lessons, no more adventures together. With so little time, I voiced an idea that night to Mela about a project I had been thinking about.
“I watch the mirror everyday,” I began, mentally running over my speech, “ I see countless acts of cruelty or transgression all around the palace.”
“ No person can be as morally strong as you, Charming.” The Princess said absently, stirring a new concoction, eyes on the recipe in the book before her. “Do not concentrate on the wrong doings of others, look at some of their virtues.”
“There are none!” I burst out, “This whole is castle is a stinking hell pit. I have watched them my whole life, no one does anything but lie, and steal and push others aside to get what they want. “
“And you, Charming,” She snapped at me, taking her eyes off the potion, “Are the worst of them all. While you complain about the evils of others, you do not seem to realize I am to be married to an old man I have never met before, in order to fulfill my duty to my father. Curses!” she said suddenly, as the potion in front of her suddenly sent up a burst of sparks and began to smoke. I ran to open the small window to clear out the smoke, but I did not give up the subject of our conversation. I wanted to create the perfect human, one without any inclinations of evil, something well out of my experience level by far, which was why I needed her help. She refused.
“ If I were to help you create an artificial human, we would need samples of your skin and hair as part of the process. You would be linked to this creature for the rest of your life.”
“ I understand.” I said.
“Do you? “ She locked eyes with me. “ You would be creating a living, breathing person. What happens if it gets out and everyone sees it? They could find out what we do, and we, my prince, would be burned at the stake for associating with witchcraft, and not even your father could save you.”
That idea had not occurred to me but I pressed on, determined.
“ We could have it live here, in this room.” I pointed out. “ Have it clean up and help prepare potions.”
She laughed, though it was not a cheerful one. “ Missing having your servants around, are you prince? Very well, I will help you. But you must promise that you will do what ever I say for the spell casting.”
“I promise.” I said eagerly, and she smiled at me, this time with more affection.
And that was how we created Dunce, and he was our first creation. Made from my flesh, it was strange to see him stumping around the room, for we shared the same color hair and build. Dunce was more of an adult child, and wasn’t much help with the potions, though he managed to learn to sweep up after us. So after several long discussions with the Princess, we created another, and another and another, until we had seven little homunculi shambling around our dungeon room. Smaller then normal humans, they had long beards, all each possessed different characteristics of perfection and imperfection. They were my children, and I loved them like a father.
Sharp had a special place in my heart though. He was the last of my creations, and had the most intelligence of all of his brothers put together. I made him the leader and taught him what to do when Mela and I were gone for the day. How to put out a fire if someone accidentally started one, even a silencing and invisibility spell so they could hide if someone checked the room. Morpheus was always dozing away on his blanket bed, but he would wake up if he was hungry, so I made him in charge of cooking for them all. Blithe was the princess’ favorite. He was always cheerful and obedient, and unlike me, he didn’t grumble and complain about chopping up herbs and roots for potions.
Princess Mela was experimenting more and more these days. She had taught me the basics and explained the rules of magic, now it was up to me to explore the books and learn what I was interested in and where my focus would lie.
I looked up from my books to see Vex, the second youngest homunculi was grumbling as he helped Morpheus cook a small cauldron of porridge for dinner. He’d burned his finger trying to taste some of the porridge while Morpheus was snoozing in his chair. Vex had come into creation cranky, but at least he was a valuable second-in-command. He kept his brothers in order, mostly because they were all slightly apprehensive of him and his various curses he seemed to be born with, and the constant scowl etched on his face.
Unexpectedly, the pot boiled over, hissing as it landed in the fire. Some porridge also scalded Vex’s hand. He swore loudly, his cursing awakening Morpheus with a start, who tried to pull the pot off the fire but only managing to burn his hands as well in the process. I was laughing so hard during the confusion, Mela had to retrieve the pot herself, wrapping her skirt around her hand to protect it first. She then had Blithe bring over some salves to put on their blistered hands.
“You boys are worse then children,” she scolded, and they shuffled their feet and looked at the ground in embarrassment. Mela turned around to reprimand me.
“And you Charming, for shame! I had to do the work while you stood and laughed like a mad man. Where are your manners?” Chastened, I bowed meekly.
“My apologies Mela.”
“Much better.” She snapped, returning to her work with vigor.
She never told me what she was working on, and for the most part every time I asked, I only got vague mutterings about it being a secret or to go back to my own experiments. Our homunculi began to know to hide in a corner when one of us raised a voice. And with good reason too. A week before, Mela, in a fit of anger, threw a pot, Dunce’s shoe, and a partially dissected frog at me. The amphibian had sailed over my head and landed on Runt, one of the sickliest brothers. Runt was always catching one cold or another, so he spent most of his time wrapped in blankets, sneezing into a handful of handkerchiefs. After having frog guts land on his balding head however, Runt wore a pot as a helmet for protection.
Dawn was approaching when I finally crawled into bed. The hot coals in my bed warmer had long since cooled, and I shivered under my heavy blankets. There was a tap at the entrance to my balcony and I crawled back out of bed, yawning, wrapping a fur blanket around my shoulders as I opened the door to the outside. A chilly breeze brushed my face, but I couldn’t see what had made the noise. A smile crept onto my face. Without turning around I asked, “ Isn’t it a bit late for a visit, Mela?”
“Close the door Charming! The wind is freezing!”
I closed the door and turned around. Mela sat on the edge of the bed, her clock wrapped around her.
“How did you get up here?” I asked, and Mela held out her clock. A few scraggly feathers were clinging there.
“I flew.” She said simply. I assumed it was one of the new spells she was working on.
“Why are you here Mela?” I asked, sitting beside her; and she smiled excitedly up at me. I felt as if we had never quarreled at all.
“I’ve found a way to get out of the marriage and still obey my father’s wishes!”
“How?” I asked, and she leaned so close I could feel her warm breath on my face.
“We’re going to create a copy of me to send in my place.”
The statement would have staggered me if I had been standing.
“Have you lost your reason?” I asked in incredulously, “Everyone will suspect it and we will be burned at the stake like you said!”
“No, we won’t” Mela said confidently, grasping my hand in hers. “I’ve been studying our homunculi for weeks now, reviewing the spells. The key is to not just use skin and hair samples from the sire but also blood. Have you ever wondered how Sharp was so much more intelligent? You cut your finger when you were preparing the herbs. The single drop made him better then the others.”
“Mela, even if we were able to create a more intelligent homunculus, it still wouldn’t be your exact copy.”
She leaned closer to me then, so close her dark eyes seemed to fill my field of vision. Her lips were barely a hair away from mine, her nose brushing mine lightly. Part of me knew this was her ploy to get me to agree, the rest of me couldn’t care in the slightest. If Mela had wanted me to leap off the ends of the earth, at that moment, I would have done so.
“Please say you will help me Charming.” She whispered, “think of the things we can attain if I stay…. Here…. Forever….” I felt my head nodding in agreement, and she smiled back, her lips gently brushing mine for a second.
“You are the most beautiful thing in the world.” I whispered, as she stood up and went to the door.
“Thank you, my prince.”
The door shut behind her, leaving only a cool breeze and her lingering scent as a memory in its wake.
Upon entering the dungeon that night I was surprised by the saccharine sickly smell emanating from the room. Mela was busy mixing a bowl by the fire, a cloth tied around her nose and mouth, no doubt help to breathe less of the odor. I followed her lead and tied my handkerchief to my face as well. Glancing in the bowl I saw a mix of mashed mandrake and earth, most likely from the garden. Placing the bowl on the table she gestured for me to hand her a small earthenware bowl of gooey white fluid that seemed to be the reason for the smell.
“What is this?” I asked through my mask.
“ Copulus Interuptus.” She answered, a slight color rising in her cheeks. Mela grabbed a second cup that seemed to be partially full of blood. I glanced at her wrist and saw a small bandage tied at her wrist. It was her blood.
“I need you to take another sample of blood.” She told me, and held out the small dagger she kept by her side. I took the dagger, preparing to make a slight cut on my wrist. She stopped me.
“No, from ME. I need you to take some hearts blood. I was afraid to do it myself.”
She stood before me, opening her bodice enough for me to see her white flesh underneath. It was hard to breathe as I carefully cut into her pale skin, and a drop of blood welled up like a brilliant ruby. I caught the drop in a glass vial and held it out to her; Mela took the vial and added it to the bowl. The mixture began to froth on its own. Dropping in some of her hairs she quickly took a brush and dabbed the bubbling potion on a clay doll lying ready on the table. This was the humanoid shape we needed the homunculus to become, once the spell took form the doll would grow, hopefully to normal size. Mela grabbed my hand, and began speaking the enchantment to bind the creature to her specifications. We had done this ritual many times before; there was no need to worry about anything happening. Except something did happen. In the middle of the spell Mela let out a piercing scream. She collapsed onto the floor, writhing in pain. The spell couldn’t be stopped now; I had to finish it myself. Grasping Mela’s hand in mine, I continued the speech, Latin words feeling heavy on my tongue. On the table, there was a bang of noise, and the sound of a gale in my ears. My other creations huddled in the corner howling in fear. The room shook as if being held in a giant’s hand.
And then, it was gone. The shaking stopped and the noise cleared. Mela lay unconscious on the floor. I let go of her hand and looked at the table. The sight there took my breath away. A child of about seven lay sleeping peacefully on the table. With skin white as snow, hair as black as ebony, lips as red as blood.
I motioned to Sharp and Vex to carry Mela over to their blanket beds, and began to examine the female homunculus carefully. Mela had been right; the added blood seemed to have made a big improvement. Compared to our former creations, who were all somewhat disproportionate, this one looked very human. If I hadn’t known better, this girl could have passed for Mela’s younger sister. Perhaps if we found an aging potion, there would be a chance we could fool the couriers with this double.
Crossing over to our stack of spell books, I began rifling through them.
“Get off me, you filthy creatures!”
I glanced toward the table, but to my surprise, the girl was still sleeping. Mela struggled up from the blanket beds, striking out at homunculi as they milled around in confusion and fear. Mela pointed an indignant finger at me, her face twisted in fury.
“You! How dare you let me be touched by these monsters!”
She slapped Blithe, who cringed and whimpered, taking refuge in a corner away from his beloved mistress. Something was wrong. She was acting like a completely different person, and I had no idea why. Mela stopped suddenly, wincing and clutching her chest.
“That…thing has my heart.” She declared venomously. Unsheathing her weapon she moved toward the table, dagger in hand.
I moved to block her path and she lashed out at me with the dagger. I ducked and grabbed her wrist, forcing it out of her hand. She kicked and scratched me, raving like a mad woman. In the middle of the commotion the girl woke up, sitting up on the table. She saw Mela lunging at her, teeth bared like a wild animal, and screamed.
Mela twisted in my grip, ramming a sharp elbow in my stomach. I remained a tight grip on her, though I was slightly out of breath.
“She doesn’t have your heart,” I wheezed as she tried to claw out my eyes. “It’s where it should be, in your-” I paused, my hand on her bodice. I could feel no heartbeat. Her free hand came up and slapped my face, cutting me with her signet ring. I felt a warm trickle of blood roll down my check. I caught her as she tried to lunge around me, and forced her onto her knees.
“How dare you treat me like this!” She screeched. “You-” I ignored the rest of it, concentrating on holding her with one hand, searching for a heartbeat with the other. Again, there was nothing.
I remembered how once I had examined Sharp. He had no heartbeat either, being a creation of clay and spells. But this did not seem possible. Had the spell gone so wrong as to transfer a living organ from one vessel into another?
“ Let me go!” Mela shrieked. “I will kill it, I will rip my heart out of that creature’s chest with my hands if I have to!”
I needed time to figure out a solution, but Mela wasn’t giving me the opportunity to do so. Hoping she would forgive me later, I spoke a spell to put her to sleep. Instantly Mela became limp in my arms. Carefully, I laid her down on the floor, and stood up, catching my breath. I turned and my eyes locked with the girl. She was trembling, holding her bare legs up to her chest. She was as naked as a newborn, her long hair like a shining cloak down her back.
“Please don’t let her kill me,” were her first words. I handed her one of my spare shirts to clothe herself. I felt more love and pride toward her then I had felt for any of my other creations. There was no way I would let Mela kill her. But did Mela’s heart make her human? Reassuring her I would not harm her, I gently put my hand to her chest, and felt the anxious thump of her heartbeat.
Dunce shuffled over from his hiding place, sniffing curiously at the girl’s hand. Delighted, she held it out to him, giggling as his beard tickled her fingers. The other six followed suit cautiously, until they were ringed around her, staring at the new arrival curiously, with a hint of awe.
To the girl’s credit, she didn’t seem frightened or repulsed by them, but perhaps that was part of the innocence of just being created. She simply didn’t know any better. An idea began to blossom.
I pulled out my scrying mirror and began to scour the countryside. Finally, I found a place. Over the Seven Mountain Range, I found an abandoned hunter’s cottage hidden away where hopefully Mela couldn’t find them.
Gathering my creations around me, I knelt before Sharp. Taking his hand, I made a few marks on his palm with a piece of charcoal. The spells flared slightly for a second, and then sank into his skin like water into the ground. It was a simple location spell; it would guide him and the others to the hunter’s cabin safely. The road would be clear this time of year, but just in case I covered them each in an illusion cloak. To anyone who passed them by, they would be a party of simple merchants, traveling on the road. I looked Sharp in the eye and gave him my instructions. He was to keep his brothers and the girl in the cabin, where they would be safe. I would watch and keep an eye out for them with my mirror but she would be able to track my magic if I tried anything else; so it was his job was to keep them all from Mela’s wrath.
The girl stood in the middle of the commotion, looking around in bewilderment. I knelt before her, in order to see more eye to eye.
“Stay with your brothers, you’ll be safe.” I told her.
“Will the mean lady be able to find me?”
“Not if you stay with them and be careful.” I promised. “Listen to the brothers, they will protect you. And make sure Morpheus doesn’t burn the food.” I added. She nodded solemnly.
Casting an invisibility spell, I lead them out of the sleeping castle to the main gate. Watching them go, I felt a pang of remorse tear at my heart.
“I will come back for you one day,” I swore. Then I left, returning to the dungeon room. I needed only one look around to tell me the princess was gone. The sleeping spell had worn off.
It was daylight as I exited the dungeons. Sneaking back into the castle, I heard the news. Soon after the earthquake, the Princess and her court had departed. Apparently the Princess had been very afraid of the ground shaking, and urged them all to leave without a moments notice.
A week passed, and a messenger brought us the news that Princess Mela was now Queen, married to King Hiram. A month passed, and then a year. King Hiram had died and Queen Mela was in charge of the Kingdom, wielding her power with a strong arm.
I myself had just turned fifteen and my father had started to groom me as the future king, sending me on ambassador trips throughout the kingdom in order that I might meet the people. At every house I visited, crops were suddenly twice as abundant and the livestock just as prosperous. No one could explain it, but everyone rejoiced at harvest time.
More years passed. It was a year before my twenty-first birthday and coronation. I was supposed to be studying, but I managed to sneak down to the dungeons to check my scrying mirror. The homunculi, or dwarves, as they called themselves now, had named their charge Snow White. At thirteen, she was just as beautiful as Mela had been, and I found myself sneaking down to watch her in the mirror more and more. At night, I dreamed of her in the clearing, waiting for me to come back for her.
One day, as I snuck down to look in the mirror, I was surprised that Snow White was nowhere in sight. I called up images of the garden, where she had been helping grow food for winter, her bedroom, where she mended the dwarf’s clothes, the kitchen, where she spent hours cooking. I found nothing.
The image before me rippled, and suddenly Mela’s face filled the glass. I was surprised by how little she resembled the Mela from my memories. This Queen was older, her face was lined, and she wore luxurious, heavy raiment, a delicate crown encrusted with jewels circling her brow. Her eyes, were no longer a soft gentle brown, but a cold black.
“Hello Charming. And how is your little princess today?”
“What have you done with her?” I demanded.
“I? Not a thing. Yet.” She smiled a nasty smile, taunting me. “I thought I would just pop down there and see how my darling little Snow White was doing. Maybe…I don’t know, get my heart back? Or I could just kill her outright. I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
“If you lay one finger on her-“
“So TOUCHY, my dear Charming! Is that any way to speak to a Lady? Well, as I was saying, before I was RUDELY interrupted, I’m going to go down to visit, but it’ll probably take me three days or so to get there. If you can get there first…I’ll spare her life and never go near her again. Do we have a deal?”
I slammed the scrying mirror down on the table. I could parley with her all day long, but I needed to get to the clearing.
I grabbed a bag filled with basic ingredients for potions and exited the dungeons, leaving my mirror on the table as she continued to laugh. Once I reached the surface, I called for a sack of supplies, a strong horse, and my favorite hunting dog. And then we were gone, down the road in a whirlwind of dust, while everyone stared after us in bafflement. Two days down the road, I ran into a hunched old woman selling apples, who directed me to the forest in the distance.
I slid off my horse, staring at Sharp, who hunched himself over, making himself smaller. Striding through the dwarfs I looked into the coffin. Snow White lay there, eyes closed as if asleep, though what the Queen had done to her I had no idea.
“We found this by her side.” Said Vex. He held out an apple to me, a single bite in its crimson flesh. My mind went back to the apple seller I had seen on the road and cursed myself for letting Mela slip through my fingers so easily. She had gotten here first, and I had to save Snow White in order to win this battle.
Placing my fingers on Snow White’s neck, I felt the slight fluttering of a pulse beating. She was still alive, but barely.
Sharp shuffled his feet in guilt.
“We only left her for a couple minutes, My Prince.” He blew his nose in a handkerchief and could not continue.
“Snow White was making a special dinner, see. She always has a special celebration around this time because it’s when she was first made.” Vex continued. “She sent us all out for different things she needed for the dinner, she was so excited about it, we forgot to leave someone behind to watch her.” Vex’s grumpy face softened for a moment, a slight smile twitching in the corner of his mouth. “We could never refuse our little sister anything.” The other dwarves set up a trumpet of nose blowing, those who didn’t have hankies using articles of clothing or their beards as substitute. I tried to concentrate, and leaned over the coffin, searching for a clue to Snow White’s sleep. I picked up the apple and examined it from every angle. It seemed like a normal apple, I could not find any coating of poison on it. I smelled it. There was the smell of apple, but something else, that made me feel slightly dizzy. I coughed, to get the smell out, and suddenly realized what it was.
“Bring me some Chollas mushrooms. You’ll find them in the forest by the larger trees. Make sure to bring the roots.” The dwarfs scattered at once, running toward the forest as fast as they could. I doubted most would know what that fungus actually looked like, but I trusted Vex and Sharp at least to know. My predictions proved correct. They all came hurrying back, some proudly carrying colorful leaves and flowers, which I had them place around the coffin. Sharp and Vex handed me two Chollas mushrooms each, the short roots very much intact.
Going into the cabin, I laid them on the wood table with a mortar and pestle from my bag. Carefully cutting off the roots, I began to gently mash them, until I had a fine paste at the bottom of the bowl. Mela had soaked the apple skin in a potion made from the spores of the mushroom. It was a painless poison, that attacked the nervous system as the victim fell into a deeper sleep. My only chance was to give Snow White the roots as an antidote before it was too late. If Mela had given her the poison almost a day ago, I had barely a few hours left to save Snow White. Carefully heating the paste, I turned it into a fine powder. Rummaging in my bag, I found a wooden tube and shallow bowl. Running back outside I instructed Sharp to hold Snow White’s mouth open long enough for me to get the tube in her mouth. Carefully pouring the powder from the bowl into the tube, I carefully blew it as hard as I could down her throat.
The effect was instantaneous. Snow White sat up fast, coughing from the powder in her lungs. Then she slumped down again, exhausted from the effort. Pushing aside the dwarves crowding around the coffin in excitement, I leaned down to tenderly kiss Snow White on the lips. Her eyes fluttered open and she smiled up at me.
“You came.” She whispered.
There was much surprise when I came back to court, announcing Snow White to be my bride. The Queen would stop at nothing to hurt us now, but at least I could protect Snow White while she lived with me in the palace. We were married a month later.
My coronation was coming up, and Snow White had delivered to us a beautiful baby girl.
She was the most beautiful little baby in the whole world, I was always getting in the way of the nurses and asking to hold her one more time. On the day of the coronation, I had her on my lap as I read over my final speech, when there was a knock at the door. It was a servant, announcing loudly that a guest wished to see me in the sitting room. I was about to dismiss the request when the servant placed something on the table; a gift from my mysterious visitor. It was a fresh red apple. I walked into the sitting room.
“Mela,” I said. “To what do I owe the visit?”
“I’m here to collect on a promise you made my prince.”
My mind flashed back to the night in the library, so many years ago.
“You can’t have Snow White,”
“Who said anything about Snow White? I want your daughter.”
She smiled at me, a wolf eyeing its prey. My heart raced in panic and I put my hand on the scabbard of my sword.
“I’d rather die then left you take her,”
“So you have decided to go back on our deal?”
There was en explosion of pain in my body, and I was left gasping, clutching at a table for support as spots danced in front of my eyes. My knees almost buckled and suddenly Mela was in front of me, holding me up effortlessly by the front of my royal robes.
“Feel that my Prince?” She hissed, “That’s just a sample. If you don’t give me what I want, I will make the blood of every third child here boil; and there is nothing you can do to stop me. And then, I will link you directly to the tragedy so your father will have no choice but to burn you at the stake. Think of the suffering you will indirectly cause. The lives of a third of the children in this Kingdom, gone. Unless… you honor your oath and give me your child. You have nothing to fear my prince. I swear, I will love her as if she was my own child. You have my word. Choose, Charming. Your child versus the Kingdom.”
With sinking heart I called the guards to bring me the nursemaids who were looking after my baby. I handed her over, tears running down my cheeks. The bundle stirred slightly and a tiny pudgy hand waved in the air before disappearing in the blankets again.
“There.” The Queen smiled. “Now perhaps you will feel a fraction of the pain I felt the day you let someone take my heart.” She started to walk out of the hall, carrying my precious bundle, then turned back.
“Incidentally, what name did you give your daughter?”
I looked back at her, but my main focus was my last glimpse of my baby girl in her arms.
“Rupunzel.” I said. “We named our daughter Rupunzel.”