Saturday, December 16, 2023

Original Fairy Tale, Part III

It was easy to figure out the rest of the way. All she had to do was follow the yarn after she unwound it and tossed it on the ground. It went through increasingly dark, dense paths and thick undergrowth. She had to hack her way through with the knife in some places. The thorny bushes scratched her arms and legs and tore at her gown, but she kept going.

She stopped at a small clearing for lunch. The apple was juicy, the bread chewy and moist. There was a nice view of the woods around her, too. It helped settle her nerves for what lie ahead. 

It was nearly dark before the yarn led her to a malevolent pile of stone and brick glowering between towering black evergreens. The fortress was even taller, dark and foreboding. Thorny vines wrapped around the massive tower, blocking most of it from her sight. The yarn rolled right over the drawbridge that crossed a murky river and through the entrance. 

“Hello?” The halls were pitch-black and deserted. Her voice echoed on the rocky edifice. “Is anyone there? Stephen? I know you can’t talk, but please bang on the wall or something!”

As she followed the yarn into a wider hall, she sudden heard a massive growl. “Hello?” She gulped. “I hope that was my stomach!”

A long, lean lion padded out from one of the open doors. Growling, it sniffed at her, baring its sharp fangs as it tried to decide if this human was worth attacking. The long whiskers twitched as the great paws with their velvety black pads circled her, ready to pounce.

She slowly reached into the basket. “Here,” she whispered gently as she pulled out the sausage. “You look like Harron never feeds you. Do you want something to eat?” The poor thing was so frighteningly thin for such a large cat, you could see its ribcage through the soft gold fur. “You’re all skin and bones!  That’s no way to treat an animal.”

It nosed the sausage for a good long while before it slowly gave it a lick. She held her breath as it sniffed around it, then nudged it with its nose, before it finally slurped it into its mouth. Cora tip-toed away while it chewed. 

The entrance to the largest tower was blocked by a heavy door made of strong cherry wood and iron. It was a very old door, with rusty hinges that screeched when she opened them. “Owww!” she yelped. “That noise is awful! Harron needs to hire a housekeeper to take better care of this fortress.” 

She poured a little oil on the hinges until they moved silently. “There. That’s better.” As she opened it all the way and walked through, she could have sworn she heard a faint “Thank you!” coming from the door’s direction. 

The stone tower was ancient, musty, and dark. Its crumbling steps forbid all but the bravest - or the most foolhardy - from climbing them. Cara was frightened, but she was also determined. There was a man at the top of those stairs who didn’t deserve to be trapped in a monster’s body for the rest of his life. 

The further she went, the harder it was to make her way through the vines that choked the passageway. They became knottier and thornier as they tore at her skirts, tried to wrap around her arms and legs, and tangled around each other to impede her progress. She managed to free her hands from them long enough to get to the knife in her basket. The harder she cut at the vines, the more they retreated. They hadn’t expected her to fight back.

As she got closer to the top, she heard a deep canine growl that reverberated on the thick stone. She thought it was her stomach…until she made it to the last two steps. The door at the top was guarded by a massive dog with gleaming fangs that dripped with saliva and paws the size of her head. 

“Nice dog,” she squeaked. “Good dog!” Even as she reached out to pet him, he snapped wildly at her. She ducked away, glad that she still had a hand. “Here.” She held out the loaves of bread. “It’s not meat, but it’s all I have. Your cat friend downstairs ate the sausage.” 

The dog’s large brown eyes flitted between her hand and the loaf of bread. It took a deep sniff, then another. It seemed like centuries before he slurped up the first loaf. “You liked that?” She tossed him the other. “Here. The cheese and apple were enough for me anyway.” She ducked past the heavy old door and into the tower while he focused on the second one.

The tower room was filled with nothing but dolls. Big and little, richly dressed in silks and satins and undressed, beautifully made of fine porcelain or crudely carved from wood or stitched from cotton. She’d never seen so many dolls in one place. They lined the curved walls of the tower, covered every single possible crevice. 

“Hello, my bride.” Harron stepped out of the shadows. Given he was dressed from head to foot in start black, she could barely tell it was him. “Welcome to my playroom. What do you think of my little doll collection?”

Her growls nearly drowned out the ones from the dog and lion. “Where’s Stephen? What have you done with him? He’s in here,” she swept her arm around the doll room, “isn’t he?”

Harron smirked. “I made him more useful. He’s among the dolls, a doll himself. The way he should be. Now I can manipulate him however I choose, and he’ll never again defy me.”

Her fingers went around her knife. “You are a cold-hearted ass. He’s a man,  not a toy for your amusement. Let him go.”

“Only if you play a little game with me.” His long, bony fingers ran over one of the pretty porcelain dolls. “If you can figure out which doll he is and free him, I’ll release both of you. Choose wrong, and you’ll become a doll, too.”

Cora glared at him. “I don’t have much of a choice, do I?”

“Not really,” Harron tittered.

She searched every nook and cranny of that overstuffed room, carefully checked every doll, toy, and stuffed animal. None of those glassy faces even remotely resembled the Stephen she saw in her dream. Those porcelain faces held none of Stephen’s gentle strength or mournful kindness.

The princess was about to give up when a bit of wood and cloth wedged between two bookshelves caught her eye. Tugging at it finally revealed a lumpy cloth doll stuffed with sawdust. It had carved wooden mittens and boots for arms and legs and a stiff thatch of hair made from unraveled twine. The shift and trousers were made from scratchy burlap and his face was little more than four crudely painted black lines. 

Her fingers ran over the wooden mittens. “The way your hands are turned out…you look as if you’re reaching for someone. Like you need someone. Someone who can work with you, be a partner. Someone who doesn’t care what you look like on the outside.”

She kissed the doll on its black line lips. As she did, a soft tingling sensation ran along the length of her body. Golden flecks danced before her eyes, and she coughed as smoke drifted past her nose. The gold grew brighter and brighter, enough that she closed her eyes and threw up her arm to protect them.

“Cora,” a familiar baritone rumbled, “you can open your eyes. It’s me.”

When she did open them, she found herself looking into the eyes of the man from the portrait - and her dream. It was him. She was sure of it. His high tanned cheekbones were streaked with dust and crossed with angry red scars, and his thick black curls had been cropped close to his head and now stuck out in short, choppy strands, but it was still him. 

“Cora,” his long, dirty fingers gently traced across her cheek, “it’s me. It’s Stephen. You broke the curse.” He pulled her into a hug as tears left tracks in the dust on his cheeks. “You did it! I knew you were the one!”

“NO!” Harron roared as the vines crept in and wrapped around him. “Why did you choose him, out of all the dolls? All these beautiful dolls in silks and satins, and you picked that…that thing?”

“He’s not a thing!” Cora growled. “He’s a human, and he’s five times the man you are!”

Harron snorted. “That’s the voice of a little girl talking. I thought you were a woman. It would seem I was wrong.” Those little eyes became redder as the vines took over the room, growing up every shelf and cracking many of the dolls. “Power is what matters, you ignorant chit! He,” he waved his hand at Stephen, “never understood that, either. Power and how you use it. No one looks at you if you can’t hold power over them.”

Stephen was barely able to shake a finger at him without his knees buckling. “You’re a strong magician, Harron. Instead of hating people, you could use those powers of yours to help them. There are so many in the kingdom who could use your services, and not just the wealthy, either. You’re missing a great opportunity.”

His cousin let loose with an ear-shattering shriek, a parody of his usual silly giggles. “Opportunity, cousin? OPPORTUNITY? Opportunity for what? To be walked on? To be laughed at and ignored by those wealthy merchants? I offered my services to them before. Told them I could boost their profits and eliminate their competition. Do you know what they did?” 

The vines tightened and curled as Cora pushed Harron away. “They turned me down! Threw me out, just like you. Just like everyone. Well, look who’s making their own opportunity! I’m the only one I care about now.” He sighed. “Cora, I’m going to have to destroy you. What a pity. I was hoping you’d be my bride.”

She glared at him. “You don’t want a wife. You want a doll, something else you can play with and show off to those wealthy patrons you manipulate. I’m not a doll. Stephen isn’t, either. We are living, breathing people with feelings and lives of their own.”

The vines nearly shoved out the windows and through the roof as Cora leaped back. “If you won’t marry me,” Harron snapped, “you’re expendable.” His eyes blazed as he raised his hand. A vine moved on its own and flung itself across the room, straight at Cora’s head.

Cora screamed and threw up the knife. She hacked at one vine, then flung the other back at Harron’s face. His screech when the thorns ripped across his face nearly shattered her eardrums.

“My eyes!” He shrieked. His hands couldn’t hide the long rivulets of scarlet blood that dripped from where his eyes had once been. “What have you done? My eyes…my power…can’t focus my power…can’t see…” 

The vines wound around the room, engulfing the dolls on the shelves. Thorns sharp as swords cracked the wax and porcelain and wood faces. Silk and satin dresses and cloth bodies were shredded until little more than rags hung off the prickers. Cora didn’t hesitate a second. She grabbed Stephen and pushed him to the door. “Dog!” The sorcerer wailed to the creature at the door. “Stop them!”

“Why should I?” the dog barked. “That lady gave me fresh bread. You never even give me a bone to gnaw on. I’d much rather stay with someone who’s nicer.” With that, the dog turned around and followed Cora and Stephen down the stairs. 

Cora tried to move as fast as she could, but Stephen was too worn out to run. He’d been abused, starved, and beaten so badly, he could barely move. He stumbled and wobbled, but she did finally get him through the door as the thorns broke through the roof of the tower. 

That same door slammed tight when Harron managed to feel his way down the stairs, held fast by vines. “In all the years I’ve opened and closed for you,” the door squeaked, “you never once cleaned or repaired me, or anything in this building, but that lady had good oil for my hinges.”

The vines in the hall  gave way as they stumbled past the lion. Stephen looked uneasy, but Cora gave him a scratch on his soft mane. The lion licked her hand and nosed in her basket.

“Sorry, friend. There’s nothing left in there.” She dug in her pocket and came up with a bit of dried beef. “Here. The maid I borrowed this dress from must have intended this for a snack.” She gave some of it to the lion and some of it to the dog. They slurped it up happily as Stephen starred in surprise.

“How did you tame these animals?” Stephen scratched his head. “Normally, they tear apart anyone who gets near them.”

Cora smiled. “Kindness works wonders, doesn’t it?” She jumped as the vines broke through the roof and continued climbing, crushing the solid rock walls.  “Let’s get out of here, before vines get out of control and break up the entire building!”

They made it to the door before a shredded figure almost fell in front of them. You little bitch!” Harron’s once-beautiful face was now covered in red. Empty eye sockets bled scarlet; hideous scars from long thorns obscured his once-handsome face. “Look at what you’ve done to me!” 

Cora screamed and ducked away as the lion leaped between her and Harron. “Get out of my way, you hairy bag of bones!” He tried to look into its eyes, but the sightless orbs wouldn’t focus. His power didn’t come. “You will obey me! You are nothing but a stupid animal! I’m the greatest magician in the universe, and you will do what I say!”

The lion growled and pushed back on his haunches, ready to pounce, as the sound of crunching  wood and cracking porcelain reached their ears. Vines snaked rapidly out of every window and crevice, crushing everything in its path. They tore apart wood beams, smashed through stone, and engulfed the tower roof. 

She didn’t stop to breathe, or even think. The second the tower came down, she shoved Stephen out the door and over the drawbridge, with the dog hard on their heels. The trio followed the yarn down the dirt trail, leaving the remains of the tower and its owner far behind them.

“Harron!” Florrie ran out of her cottage the second she saw them. “My boy! I’ve missed my boy so much! I knew she was the one who would break the curse. You can go home now, my boy. They’re waiting for both of you.” 

Stephen leaned heavily into her arms. “Florrie, I can’t go back. They…my own men beat me, Florrie. Harron looked into their eyes, and they thought I was an impostor. They beat me, Florrie. Beat me with their lances until I couldn’t move. Harron ordered them to. Florrie, they didn’t know me. I was their king, and they didn’t know me!”

Cora frowned. “What curse? I don’t understand any of this.”

Florrie led Stephen to her bed in the cottage. She cradled him in her arms like a baby, then gently laid him under the covers. “Harron wanted the kingdom, pure and simple,” she explained as she pulled the covers up to his chin. “He made every citizen believe their ruler had always been a handsome, arrogant ass who chased wenches, stole their land, and raised their taxes.” 

“I’d argued the point with him for years,” he croaked. “Harron thought I was too soft-hearted and kind to my people. He came to me several times over the years, claiming he could toughen them up and make them obey me.” Stephan narrowed his eyes. “I’ve seen too much violence on the battlefield. I don’t want it in my kingdom.” 

“Harron took one of their lances and slashed my face with it. Especially this one right here.” His fingers, now long and lean, went to his scarred cheeks. “He said…he didn’t want anyone to recognize me and know the truth.” Those long fingers moved to his throat. “I told him I’d find a way out. My people would know me no matter what he did. He just laughed, and…he cursed me. Took my voice, so I couldn’t tell the truth, then sealed my mind in a monster’s body. If no one could see the human in the monster and kiss me before you and Harron married,I’d be trapped in that body forever.” 

“But why me?” Cora gently squeezed  his hand. “Why did you want me?” 

He gave her a wan but very sweet smile. “Cora, I loved you from the moment your parents sent word about you. I wanted so badly to greet you and your parents, but Harron locked me in the kitchen closet when you arrived. He said he didn’t want me scaring you. One of the maids let me out. That’s why I was so late bringing you that sunflower. Your parents mentioned that they were your favorite flower.”

She blushed scarlet to the roots of her velvet brown hair. “Thank you, Stephen. That was a lovely flower, and you were so thoughtful to bring it. Harron never once brought me a flower, or anything else.” 

“By day, I was in that hunchback body,” he rasped. “I couldn’t speak. My fingers were too stubby to grasp the quill, so I couldn’t write. I couldn’t fight anyone or correct them. The only time I could be myself was at night, in dreams.”

Florrie made a face. “Harron banished me, that little jerk. He didn’t want me giving anything away, either. The troops threw me out. I was able to use my magic to let Stephen appear as himself in your dreams. It was the only way he could get through to you.”

“The curse said I had to serve Harron, no matter what.” Stephen’s tired hazel eyes fluttered. “I could never disobey him or go against him in any way. I knew the curse was weakening when I was able to attack him.” He gently squeezed her hand. “You did that, I think. You were nice to me, even when I was hideous.”

“Because you were good to me. Harron never was.” Cora frowned. “The Harron I saw never measured up to the one everyone in Pennlyn gushed about, no matter how good-looking or personable he was.” She rubbed his cheek. “Even when he hypnotized me, or tried to, I knew something wasn’t right.”

Florrie grinned and took their entwined hands. “It’s over now, my children. The curse is broken. Go home. Live your lives. Harron will never bother you again. Even he couldn’t survive the destruction of the tower and that angry lion.”

Even as Florrie spoke, Cora could hear people in the distance calling their names. “But what about you?” she asked as Harron’s eyes drooped. 

The older woman waved a hand dismissively. “Me? Oh honey, I’m fine here. Harron may have done me a service in banishing me. I like it here in the woods. It’s pretty and peaceful. Good place to retire.” 

“Oh. Here.” Cora handed her the knife, yarn, and basket. “Thank you for letting me borrow these! They were more helpful than you know.”

Florrie pushed them back in her arms. “Keep them. You may need them again in the woods someday. Anyway, how else are you two going to come out and visit me?”

Cora hugged her. “Thank you, Florrie! For everything.”

“You’re welcome, dearie.” She nodded at the woods as the sounds of voices calling their names grew stronger. “Soon as Stephan’s finished his nap, you two can go home. Your people are looking for you.” 

“Hello?” Charelton poked his head into the cottage. “Mistress?” His round eyes widened. “Your Highness! Cora! We found you! Half the kingdom is looking for you and Stephen. What happened? You just ran off two hours before the wedding! We had to call it off. There’s a lot of dignitaries who were extremely upset that they wasted all this time coming here for nothing!”

“Charleton?” Stephen struggled to sit up in bed. “Is that you?”

“Stephen!” Charelton rushed to him and gave him an enormous hug. “What happened to you? You just…vanished! Where have you been? You too, Lady Florrie.” 

Florrie put up a finger. “Shh, Charelton. I’m hiding.”

Stephen coughed. “Charleton, I’m glad to see you too…” He frowned as Charleton let him go. “Charleton, do you know me?”

He raised a perfectly sculpted eyebrow. “Of course, I do!” His fingers ran through what was left of Stephen’s ringlets. “Your Majesty, pardon me for asking, but…what did you do to your hair? It looks like someone took a hacksaw to it. We’ll have you see the castle barber right away.”

“Someone did.” Stephen leaned into his arms. “Charelton…you know me. Does everyone know me?” His voice dropped. “Do they know Harron? He took over the kingdom, Charelton!” 

“He did?” Charelton’s eyes widened under his thick spectacles. “I don’t remember that! All we knew is that you were gone. Something happened…a lot of people aren’t happy. We’ve had complaints from many of the peasants that they were cheated.”

Stephen grinned as his guards stormed into the garden. “I’ll fix it, Charlie.” He put an arm around Cora as she kept him from collapsing. “No, we’ll fix it. We owe this woman our lives.”

“Princess Cora, you’re here too!” Charelton hugged her even harder. “I’m so glad. We were all so worried when you ran away!”

“Oof!” She chuckled. “I’ll be fine when you let me go. Let’s say I had to find Stephen. He was carried off by an evil sorcerer.”

Charleton gasped. “You must tell me all about it when we get home, Your Majesty!” He turned to Florrie. “Lady Florrie, are you coming too? We’ve missed your wise counsel and your wonderful liquor cabinet.”

She shook her head. “I’m fine right here, Charlie. You get those two back to the castle. Stephen looks like he’s sleeping standing up.”

Stephen waved her off. “Florrie, I’m fine,” he said as his knees buckled. Two of his guards rushed over and helped him to their carriage. Cora held his hand as she followed with the basket, while Charelton brought up the rear, fussing all the way.

Harron’s first order when they returned to the castle was to call off the wedding. “For one thing,” he croaked from under the thick quilt on his bed, “I’m not up to it. I also don’t want to force you into anything. If you’re not ready, we can wait.”

“I’m not.” She leaned over and kissed his nose. “I would rather you courted me and we got to know each other better first.”

That’s just what Stephen did. Once he had recovered sufficiently to leave his bed, they explored every part of his kingdom. They oohed and ahhed over book shops and antique stores, bringing home bags of wonderful old books and tools for the garden. Cora joined Stephen in the garden, strolling hand in hand or helping him and Moriyata weed and fertilize the flowers. 

Stephen introduced Cora to many of the peasants. He lowered taxes, restored their land, and donated piles of food leftover from Harron’s parties to the poor and destitute. He gave her books and flowers, and she gave him notebooks and quills. They would sit in the garden, under a shady cherry tree with beautiful pink blooms, and talk about everything and nothing.

It was in the garden on a beautiful, warm day in late spring that Stephen finally got on his knee and asked Cora to be his bride. She happily agreed. She had come to love him deeply, seeing him as someone who was as quiet and shy as she herself was. 

As Florrie said, Harron never bothered them, or anyone, ever again. The day after they returned to the castle, Cora gave the King’s Guards the yarn and sent them to the fortress to see if anything remained of the wicked sorcerer. They found a hungry lion, but not much else besides a few bones and bits of fine silk and satin. The lion was brought to the castle and restored to health before being sent back to its home in Africa. 

The dog remained a loyal friend, rarely leaving Cora and Stephen’s sides. It was always said that he was the best watch dog in the castle. Nothing and no one got past him. He chased away any thief or villain who might try to attack his beloved humans.

Cora and Stephen did marry, in a small ceremony in the garden. Only Cora’s parents, Charelton, and Florrie were present along with the castle priest. They remained beloved by their people for the rest of their lives for their just, wise council and kindness towards even the smallest and poorest citizens of their kingdoms. Before she returned to the forest to enjoy her retirement, Florrie cast her own spells to keep dark magic away from the kingdom for good.

And they all lived happily ever after for the rest of their days. 

Original Fairy Tale, Part II

The dressmaker’s shop was in a tizzy when she arrived. Normally, she was fond of the women, who were patient with her fidgeting and related some of the best gossip in the kingdom. Today, they were too busy to talk, hustling her into the enormous white gown dripping with crystals, delicate lace, and tons of ruffles and pink bows. 

“Madame Fran,” she gasped as the older woman squeezed her into the tight boned bodice, “do you remember any ruler here before Stephen? I had a strange dream last night…”

She pulled tighter. “Hush, Your Highness. Don’t talk. Let me focus on this.” Cora could barely breathe when she pulled away from it. “Now, isn’t that beautiful? Our king says it’s the finest creation we’ve ever made.” 

It was very beautiful. All the lace and ruffles and brocade and satin also made it very heavy. She could barely move. “Don’t you think it’s a bit much? I’d much rather have something simpler, like what you’re wearing.” 

“This old thing?” Madame Fran twirled in her elegant red and white dress, with its simple lines and bit of ruffle on the skirt. “No, this isn’t suited for a queen. Our king says you should have only the best.”

“Yes,” she murmured, “I suppose so. Madame,” she added, “what do you know about King Stephen? How long has he ruled here?”

Madame looked up with pins in her mouth, scrunching her wrinkled face in though. “I…I don’t know, Your Majesty. There was someone else before him…a nice young man.” The older woman shook her head. “But he vanished. King Stephen took over a year ago. He’s quite a catch, isn’t he? He’s so very handsome, every woman in the castle swoons over the sight of him!”

Cora frowned. “He is handsome,” she began slowly. “But what else do you really know about him?”

Madame shrugged and tied off the last thread. “What else is there to know? He’s funny, good-looking, and charming! Isn’t that all that matters?”

“What about how he’s tripled taxes? Or treats anyone he sees as beneath him like dogs?” She yanked harder at the pearl buttons in the back than she meant to. “I saw him kicking a dog on the stairs that got in his way! And he barely gives them scraps to eat. And you should see how he treats the cats we have to keep away mice! Pushes them away and leaves them out in the cold.”

Madame’s eyes remained dreamy. “Huh? Oh, that. You know how young men are. They have tempers. I still think he’s the second-most handsome man in the kingdom. After…” Madame frowned. “After…” She shrugged and got the bottom buttons done. “Well, there was someone. But he’s gone now. Stephen is the true beauty of the kingdom, and every woman’s dream of a man.”

“Except mine,” Cora muttered as she got back  into her own dress. There was just something about him that rubbed her the wrong way. She should have been happy with him, but…

She had just returned to her rooms when a familiar misshapen face peered inside, knocking on her door. Stephen’s humpbacked manservant stumped shyly over to her, a book in his hand. The pockmarked face was now joined by a symphony of bruises that made him resemble a swollen potato. 

“Thank you,” Cora said gently, “this is my favorite book, but I’m more worried about you. You look like someone beat you badly. As far as I can tell, you’ve never harmed anyone. You work like a dog, obeying Stephen’s every command.” 

He nodded. The sad look in those hazel eyes…she knew that look. She’d seen it before. “You know,” she added slowly, “you’re not really such a bad fellow. I’ve grown very fond of you. Stephen and the others only seem to care about themselves or what the nobility think. You’re sweet to everyone. When I’m mistress of this castle, I’ll make sure everyone treats you better. You should fight them! You’re not big, but you’re strong. You don’t have to listen.”

His rubbery lips turned down, and he nodded. “No, you don’t! You’re a man, same as anyone.” She patted his shoulder. “You’re not really so bad-looking. You have a really nice smile, and your eyes are such a lovely hazel!” Her eyes locked with his. They were so familiar… 

“Cora, what are you doing?” She was about to give him a kiss on the cheek when Stephen barreled into her room. His chiseled features looked far less attractive when they were blotchy scarlet with fury. “You are only supposed to be kissing me, not this…this freak!” Those long bony fingers grabbed the hunchback by his messy black hair. “I think I’d better lock you in the servants’ quarters again. You’ll only get in the way at our wedding.”

“Stephen! Leave him alone!” She pushed between them and took the stubby little man by his shoulders. “You’re stronger than him! Your biceps are bigger than his head. You could probably beat the stuffing out of him if you wanted!”

“He can’t.” Stephen’s high-pitched giggles were more sinister than cute. “He can’t disobey me. Can you, you little freak?”

“He’s not a freak!” Cora turned furiously to face the man she was supposed to marry. “He’s more of a man than you’ll ever be! You’re nothing like the real Stephen. They told me he was kind and noble and just. You’re a spoiled bully!”

The man who claimed to be Stephen grabbed her by the chin. His deep brown eyes flooded with red. “You will love me. Of course, you will. I’m beautiful and powerful and talented. I’m everything a woman could ever want.”

She was ready for it this time. “You’re also rude, obnoxious, selfish, and abusive. You don’t love anyone but yourself.” Cora pulled back, glaring at him. “That’s how you break the spell. You admit the truth…and the truth is, you’re a terrible ruler and a worse person. Everyone in the castle may fawn over you, but they don’t know the real you, do they? They don’t see the man I see, or that he,” she nodded at the hunchback, “sees.”

“You…you little…” His finely sculpted cheeks flamed red as his eyes as he yanked her arm, squeezing it painfully. “You want the truth? I don’t love you. You’re a stuffy, boring little chit. I love that fertile land in your family’s kingdom. When I marry you, I’ll be able to expand my lands. You are a means to an end.” 

Cora struggled, kicking him hard. “You bastard, you’re hurting me!”

To her surprise, he suddenly released her arm. She fell back as the hunchback slammed head-first into his gut, sending them both sprawling. The upper arm strength built up from months of hauling garden tools and logs allowed him to hold Stephen to the floor.

“You…you…” He sputtered. “How did you…you’re supposed to obey me! It’s part of the curse!” A black light managed to lift the hunchback and throw him into the wall. 

Cora ran to the hunchback’s side. “You poor man,” she moaned as she gently rubbed his back. “Are you alright?” She wrapped her arms around him, leaning into his rough, bumpy shoulder. “Whomever you are, I’ll protect you. I won’t let him hurt you again.” 

The hunchback opened where his mouth was and tried to form words, but no sound emerged. “What is it? I can’t hear you!” He tried again, but while the lips moved, nothing came out. “What are you saying?” Her heart went out to him as despair filled his eyes. 

His fingers flew as he tried to mime his concerns about his master. “I know,” she admitted. “We really have to get out of here.” He reached for a quill and scroll that were on her desk, but his stubby sausage fingers spilled the ink and couldn’t grasp the quill. Several attempts at writing “I…am…” barely produced a few scratches. 

“You can try all you want.” Stephen suddenly towered over them. “You can’t write. You can’t speak. You can’t communicate. I made sure of that. You’re a slave to me.”

Cora pushed between them again. “Slavery is illegal in this kingdom and Pennlyn! Can’t you do anything besides abuse and use everyone around you?” 

His red eyes glowed like smoking fires. “That’s how you survive. You use people, before they use you. My cousin was always too soft to run a kingdom. Too kind and noble. If you’re kind to them, they’ll run all over you. People need an iron fist that will force them to bend to their command. Power is what’s important. No one is anything without power.”

Cora glared at him. “Where did you get all of that cynical nonsense? Honey catches more flies than vinegar. The kingdom needs someone who will make decisions based on what everyone needs, not just an elite few.”

He let loose with one of his titters…but it now sounded like the unhinged music of a madman. “Oh, it is, is it? You’re such an amusing woman. My cousin was amusing, too. I offered him everything,” he squealed, “did he tell you that? I told him we could rule together. We could bring this kingdom to its knees, his brilliant mind and my magic! I offered that fool unlimited power, and do you know what he said?” She stepped back as he grabbed her arm. “He said a leader listened to his people, not his ego, then tried to throw me out! Can you imagine that? He was weak and stupid, but I taught him a lesson.”

“I’m sure you did,” Cora muttered. She tried to yank her arm away from his grasping fingers. “Stop hurting me!”

His red-hot eyes smoldered like burning coals. “Stop fighting me. You’re just a woman. You exist to do what I want you to do. None of the other women here have any trouble doing what I say.”

The man who claimed to be Stephen turned his red-hot glare on the hunchback. “I can see my weak cousin is a bad influence on you. We’ll have to remove him.” Another black light shot from his hand, surrounding the hunchback. When it subsided, he was gone.

“Where is he?” She hissed. “What did you do to him?”

“He’s at the fortress in the center of the woods that I call my home.” He shook her like a rag doll. “You have no time to worry about him. We’re getting married.”

She finally yanked her arm away. “Are you crazier than you look right now? I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man on Earth!”

“The ceremony will be in an hour.” The sorcerer she was certain wasn’t Stephen glared at her. “One of the maids will be along with your dress in ten minutes. You will be in it.” Fortunately, he stomped off before he could see her stick her tongue out at his back.

There was no way she would marry that contemptible ass. The real Stephen was out there somewhere. When the maid came in with her dress and gushed about how beautiful her gown was, she convinced her to try it on, just to see how it looked. While the maid admired herself in the mirror, she changed into the maid’s clothes and sneaked out the door. 

To  her surprise, she was easily able to walk out of the castle. No one stopped her, or even looked at her twice. They were all too busy preparing for the wedding to notice a simple little maid. By the time they discovered the switch, she’d be half-way across the woods. 

Trouble was, Cora forgot how vast the woods were. Within an hour, she was hopelessly lost. She’d walked in the woods before, but only for short strolls. She’d never gone so far on her own. There were all kinds of scary noises that made her nearly jump out of her skin! 

She had started to give up hope of ever finding her way out when she came upon an older woman gathering mushrooms from the forest floor. “Mistress,” she asked, “I’m lost. I need directions to a fortress owned by a wicked sorcerer.”

“Oh, I know all about it, Princess Cora.” Graying curls and wrinkles spreading out from her eyes indicated that she was perhaps 50, but she had a large, shining grin and lively dark eyes that gave her a more youthful air. “I know why you’re here.” She groaned a bit as she rolled up to a full standing position. “Darn it. Every time I stand, I hear another crick. I make more noise than a full standing orchestra of crickets!”

Cora frowned. “You said you knew why I’m here, mistress.”

She waved a hand at Cora. “Florrie, dear. Call me Florrie. You seek our true king.” The merry eyes narrowed. “He’s in Harron’s keep in the darkest part of the woods. Harron isn’t going to let go of the throne that easily. His black magic is strong.” Cora could barely keep with her as she hurried down the overgrown path, mushrooms in hand. “If you’re going to rescue my poor Stephen, you’ll need protection.”

“Your poor Stephen?” Cora raised her eyebrow. “You know him?”

“Know him?” Florrie snorted. “I was his nurse when he was a child, then his advisor.” She sighed. “He was such a good boy, even as a child. Rarely gave me much trouble. When the other boys would be playing soldiers or cattlemen, he would be reading or tending to his flowers in the garden. He never would have gone to war if they hadn’t conscripted him. When he returned, he vowed he’d never allow violence in his kingdom again.” 

The older woman made a face. “Harron was a terror when he visited. Played the roughest of all the boys, tore flowers out of the ground, bullied animals and people alike. He was horrible to Stephen. He’d step on his flowers and rip pages out of his books. He couldn’t understand why Stephen didn’t want to join him out carousing with the other boys.” She smirked. “For all that, he never went to war. He spent those years practicing his spells.”

“How can I get in the castle?” Cora pulled her rough knitted shawl around her shoulders. “I haven’t any magic.” 

“I’ll help you.” Florrie pushed past a thicket of raspberries, stopping to pick a few. “I’m a witch myself. Not a bad witch, mind you. Never took to the black arts. They do more harm than good, and I like living the simple life.”

Cora was barely able to follow the quick older woman. They finally came upon a little cottage in a clearing. It was only one room, with a thatched roof, a bed, drawers, a table and chairs, and a little chimney and cauldron, but it was clean and well-kept. 

Florrie went straight to a spinning wheel in the back of the room. “Here.” She reached into a basket and came out with a ball of yarn. “Unraveled, this will show you the way to wherever you wish to go. If tied around a person, it will hold them fast until you leave.”

The older woman was almost a literal whirlwind as she went through her cupboard, dropping food in basket. Cora saw a thick sausage, oil to dip it in, an apple, some cheese, and two loaves of bread. “The cheese and apple are for you. The rest are for the animals and other objects who live in Harron’s keep. They’ll help you gain their confidence.”

She then handed Cora a long, sharp knife with a simple but elegant gold hilt. “This is a very special weapon. Only magicians can create steel this sharp and fine. It will cut through anything and reflect whatever magic is shot at it.” 

Her long, bony fingers brushed gently across Cora’s forehead. “You’re a sweet woman, but you’re smart, too. Smart enough to see through Harron’s illusions. Once you know what Harron really is and how he works his magic, it no longer has any power over you.” 

“How did he do it?” Cora complained. “Florrie, how did he manage to pull the wool over the eyes of the entire kingdom? Not one person remembers Stephen, but the ladies swoon over Harron, and the men invite him for another round of beer.”

Florrie tucked a knitted cloth into the basket. “They see what they want to see and what they’re told to see.”

Cora shook her head. “I could never reconcile the King with the man everyone talked about in Pennlyn. Harron treated his servant, his dogs, and everyone around him who didn’t try to win his favor badly. He was a follower, not a leader. Everyone abused the hunchback because he was ugly, but he never did anything unkind to me. I’d rather have a kind man who looks like a beast than a man who abuses anyone he sees as beneath him.”

“Then you’re wiser than most.” She gave her a slightly yellowed grin. “Now, you go rescue my Stephen, while it’s still light out. Please bring him home! He’s like a son to me. I’ve missed him these past months.”

She waved as she hurried down the path. “I will, Florrie! And thanks again!” 

Original Fairy Tale, Part I

Once upon a time, there was a princess named Cora who lived in Cape Holly, a small land by the sea. Her parents promised her to the king of Pennlyn, a much larger kingdom on the edge of a thick woodland. They were known as one of the wealthiest and most fertile kingdoms in all the world. Cora didn’t care about their wealth. She was more intrigued by their king. He was said to not only be handsome and kind, but a fine ruler. Cora herself, while no sweeping beauty, was pretty enough, with her dark waves and snappy brown eyes, but she was also an intelligent scholar who had studied at university.

“They call him King Stephen the Just,” her father told her on the way to Pennlyn. “He’s said to be fair. Always considers both sides of the story before he passes judgment. He’s not a big spender, doesn’t have many parties. They say he’s quiet and studious, Spends most of his time in his library.” He took his daughter’s hand. “Very much like you, dear. I think this will be a perfect match.”

“He’s also quite charming,” her mother gushed. “I heard he’s the tall, dark, and handsome type. Long dark curls and flashing sable eyes and a smile that melts your heart. And he was a great soldier in the late war who led his men to victory. Quite a catch, as I’ve heard peasants say.”

Stephen’s country was primarily dark woods and beautiful old towns with sturdy towers and fine timbered homes. She’d love to explore them someday, when she could get away from the court. She loved roaming through old towns, finding the best deals and libraries and stores with wonderful books filled with favorite stories. Maybe he’d join her, if he really loved books and exploring as much as she did.

The carriage pulled up at the sprawling castle on the hill just outside of town. It was the largest, grandest building Cora had ever seen. Outside was a whole row of servants in blue and gold livery. The man who joined them was the tallest, most handsome man Cora had ever seen. His glossy black hair was stick straight, and his brown eyes had a reddish tinge to them that twinkled far more mischievously than they should have for a sober scholar. His wide glowing white grin held more than a hint of a smirk.

“Cora!” He threw his arms around her, muffling her in the folds of his velvet and sable robe. “I’m so glad you’re here! Let me look at you!” He swung her around, raising one perfectly arched eyebrow. “Well, you’re a little on the plain side, but you do have a marvelous figure. Where did you get that old rag you’re wearing? It’s totally out of date.” 

“This old rag,” Cora said sharply as she straightened the simple blue gown, “is my best dress. You don’t look like King Stephen, and you certainly don’t sound like him. Are you his brother?” 

He laughed heartily, but Cora saw a sneer under it. “I don’t? I’m the new, improved Stefan. I don’t sit in some dusty corner, hiding among my paperwork anymore. I get out and enjoy life.” He grasped her father’s hand in such a hearty handshake, her father nearly bounced off the ground. “Don’t worry, Your Majesty, I’ll take good care of your daughter. And is this your beautiful wife?” Her mother beamed as he gave her a big peck on the cheek. “Just gorgeous.” 

Cora knew something was wrong. She felt uncomfortable all through dinner. Stephan flirted outrageously with her mother, but his attempts to talk with her father came up short. He seemed to know little about the day-to-day lives of the citizens of his kingdom, and cared less for their feelings. He mainly chattered about the massive wedding he had planned for them and all the balls he intended to throw. 

“I dislike balls.” Cora made a face. “I’d rather enjoy a quiet night at home in the library than wasting my time and my country’s finances on parties.”

Stephen let loose with a condescending little titter. “Don’t be such a wallflower. There will be time for reading tomorrow, or the next day. As for running a country,” he chuckled as her father tried to cut in, “time enough for that, too. After all, they’re just peasants. I’m their king. They have to do what I say, or else.”

Cora frowned as she joined her father in the hall after dinner. “Papa, I don’t like this. I’m sure this isn’t Stephen. I don’t know who it is, but it isn’t him.”

He nodded. “Your mother thinks he’s a dream, but I say something is wrong. This man doesn’t know the first thing about running a kingdom. People don’t obey you just because you wear a crown. You have to earn their trust and respect.” He put his hand on her shoulder. “I want you to stay here. Find out who this man really is, and what happened to Stephen.” 

She made a face. “Papa, I’m not a spy! Why don’t we just ask him where the real Stephen is?”

Her father shook his head. “He’s too crafty for that. He’ll just toss out another bit of flattery. No, I think there’s more going on here than it looks on the surface.”

“I’ll try, Papa,” she said hesitantly. “I don’t like being with that man for longer than I have to, but I’ll try.”

That was when she saw two soft hazel eyes, surrounded by coarse, spiky black hair that stuck out in all directions peek around the corner. “Hey,” Cora said coaxingly. “You can come out. I won’t harm you.” 

His misshapen face was jumbled like someone had pulled out his nose and waddled his cheeks until they resembled a lumpy sour potato no one would want to eat. Those beautiful eyes were set at one side of his head and peered out through thick, almost girlish lashes. He was strong like an ox, with long, hairy arms and loping legs, but the vast hump on his back bent him over like a wizened old man.

“Hello there,” she murmured. “I didn’t see you with the others when I arrived.”

Stubby fingers big as three of hers around shyly produced a sunflower from the folds of his tattered burlap tunic. “Oh, thank you!” She gently took the bright sunny bloom. “I prefer sunflowers to roses or carnations. They’re so bright and cheery, and when the petals are gone, you can roast the seeds.” 

Unfortunately, Stephen bounded around the corner at that point. “There you are, Cora! There are members of the court who would love to meet you…” He glared at the hunchback. “What are you doing here? How did you get out? I locked you in the kitchen closet for a reason. Why are you looking at my fiance?”

“Oh, I don’t mind.” She smiled at the misshapen man. “What’s your name, sir?”

Stephen burst into his silly giggles. “He doesn’t talk. He can’t even write his name. He’s a mute half-wit I took in out of charity. We just call him Ugly.”

“I don’t think he’s ugly.” Cora gave him a sweet smile. “I think he’s very…unique.” 

He swung her around. “Ugly is ugly. You’d much rather look at something beautiful, like me. Come on. We’ll send your parents home, and show you off to the court.”

“Now?” She snapped first, before her father could open his mouth. “My parents just got here!”

He rolled his eyes. “They’re nice people, but we’re consenting adults. We don’t need chaperones.” 

“I was hoping, well, that I’d have more time with them…”

He rolled his eyes. “Don’t be a baby.” He turned to her father. “We’ll discuss her dowry after she leaves. It’ll be substantial, of course.”

“Of course…” the King began warily. He didn’t get the chance to finish before Stephen dragged Cora off down the hall to the ballroom.

The garden was a quiet spot at this time of the day. Most people were inside, avoiding the heat of the day. She wandered down the winding paths as she tried to gather her thoughts. No matter how much she told herself otherwise, she couldn’t bring herself to love Stephen. He didn’t seem like a man who led a country to victory. She suspected he probably couldn’t lead a hound to a fox.

The only people outside with her were the many gardeners who weeded, pruned the bushes, and planted and watered new flowers. They waved to her as they went about their work, but they otherwise left her alone. She knew she was supposed to love Stephen. He was handsome and charming, but also shallow and self-centered. He wanted her to be some little doll he could trot out at state functions, then put back into her trunk when she wasn’t wanted. 

Her own eyes popped open as she heard stumping footsteps. The hunchback servant limped around each sunflower and hollyhock, gently checking each petal and leaf for aphids and other damaging bugs. He lovingly spread a bag of rich dirt around them, then tugged off dead or yellowing leaves. His stumpy fingers struggled with a fat yellowing leaf on one towering pink hollyhock with red edges. She could see the frustration in his hazel eyes as it refused to budge.

“Here.” She smiled and knelt next to him. “Let me help you out there.” She put her fingers over his, grasping the leaf gently. It took a second, but they did manage to pull it off. “You know,” she added as she dusted off her hands on her skirt, “you’re a good gardener. The only time Stephen is ever out here is when there’s an outdoor party and he’s bragging about the philox to visiting nobles. You treat these flowers like your own children.”

His smile was nearly radiant, or as much as it could be on that grotesque face. “You really love these plants, don’t you? I’ve seen you out here before.” He nodded quickly. “I’m not a gardener, but I do think the garden is very pretty. I’d like to spend more time out here.” Her face fell. “If Stephen will let me out of his sight after we wed. He either ignores the flowers, or steps on them5. I heard Stephen the Just loved his garden, but this Stephen can’t tell a tiger lily from a lily of the valley.”

As she spoke, ants trooped across the plot of flowers. Instead of crushing them or harming them, the hunchback took the leaf they’d pulled from the garden and led them away from the flowers and over to a plot of grass on the other side of the path. “That was very kind of you. Those ants weren’t hurting anyone. They just wanted lunch.” 

“You!” Moriyata, the head gardener, came around the corner, shaking a rake. “You’re supposed to be tending to the flowers! Your Highness, I’m sorry if he frightened you…”

“Not at all.” She helped him to his feet. “You have an excellent worker here. He should be commended. The sunflower he brought me when I arrived was perfect. He has a good eye.” She leaned over and whispered at the hunchback. “Don’t let Moriyata bully you! You’re good at your job, and you’re a nice fellow.” She patted his rounded shoulder and went on her way…not noticing the hunchback’s sad hazel eyes following her the whole time.

The next few weeks were among the most boring of Cora’s entire life. Despite everything she’d heard about Stephen, they seemed to have nothing in common. All he did was go out hunting or carousing with his friends during the day, then throw lavish parties for them at night. He spent money like it was water on fine clothes, expensive carriages, and his many hangers-on. 

She loathed every minute of it. He tittered when she tried to talk about serious topics and made fun of her for preferring to sit in the library and read instead of go hunting with him and his giggly girlfriends. He had no patience to search for antiques with her in town, spending most of his time with his tailor getting another suit made, or to browse in bookstores or music shops.

Cora felt more at home in the kitchens and libraries than she ever did in the ballroom or court room. The servants tried to hustle her out, claiming it was no fit place for a lady, but she stayed on. “Where I come from,” she told Mrs. Wickers, the cook, one afternoon while rolling out the pastry for an apple pie, “men and women of all classes learn to cook. We’re small and lack resources. There’s only so many people to do the cooking for you.” 

That was when she heard the door slam. “Took you long enough, didn’t it, you disgusting thing?” Mrs. Primrose, the housekeeper, scolded the misshapen hunchback who carried the wood over his broad shoulders.”Could you have been any slower? Just drop the wood by the ovens and be off with you. You have to get those pots scrubbed by two, so I can start the soup.”

“That was unnecessary, Mrs. Primrose.” Cora knelt by the bent over creature. “He’s a living, breathing human, like you and me. I’ve seen him carry loads twice as heavy and move even faster.”

Mrs. Primrose snorted. “He’s a lazy good-for-nothing simpleton. You shouldn’t encourage him, Your Highness. It’ll make him even less likely to work.”

“Or more likely.” He grabbed a pot, only to grab at his back, wincing. “Oh, you poor man. Here.” She sat with him. “Let me help you. My mother always said work was good for your character, no matter who you were.” 

“Your Highness!” Mrs. Primrose’s little jaw dropped open. “You’re a princess! A princess never gets her hands dirty.” She took Cora by her arm and tugged her back to her feet.

She frowned, dusting herself off. “They do if someone needs help.”

Mrs. Primrose glared at him. “He doesn’t need help. He’s a servant.” The little man quivered under the tall, sharp woman’s rigid gaze. “His Majesty found him on the street. Took him in as a charity case.”

Cora made a face. “That doesn’t give anyone the right to treat him badly.” He gave her the most beautiful smile. It spread across his lumpy face like a beacon amid the pits and craters of his cheeks. 

“Your Highness!” Charleton, Stephen’s fussy valet, ducked into the kitchen just as she was going to give him a peck on his cheek. “My master wishes to see you right away. Something about a visitation with the Prime Minister of Almond Blossom Province and his wife.”

She sighed. “Darn it. I forgot about that. Denilee,” she handed the maid her apron, “please wash these with the others tonight.” 

She most of all hated those visitations. Cora had never known what to say to foreign dignitaries, even when she was with her father. She always let him do most of the talking. Stephen had no trouble doing most of the talking with the Prime Minister. He didn’t let her get a word in edgewise. All they’d do was gaze in his eyes, and they were all a twitter over his handsome looks and fine clothes and charming manners.

She preferred helping the peasants with their problems. She always tried to be fair with them and give the best deal for both sides. She wasn’t perfect, but more often than not, people left happy. Stephen didn’t seem to care. He yawned and ignored them when the farmers and merchants spoke, then sided with whomever had the most money or influence.

“Cora,” he said condescendingly after he awarded a plot of farmland to a rich merchant, instead of the peasant who originally owned it, “that peasant means nothing to me, other than someone who pays tax money. That merchant not only pays higher taxes, he could donate funds to our treasury.”

She glared at him. “That wasn’t fair. That land belonged to the peasant, and you know it. You didn’t even give him any recompense. He needs that land to plant crops and earn money for your ridiculous taxes.”

He looked intensely into her eyes, the dark orbs gaining a bloody red tinge. “You don’t care about some peasant, and you don’t see any trouble. You’ll do what I say.”

“No…yes…” Her mind suddenly went blank. “I need…I need air.” She hurried off before he could stop her.

The best place to think was wandering the halls of the castle. They were numerous and long, seeming to go on forever. She never knew what she’d find. The castle had dozens of little rooms and towers and alcoves that held every little treasure and fancy anyone could imagine. Lavish artwork lined the walls, most of them depicting Stephen’s ancestors.

While most of the paintings were of regal, serious men Stephen had boasted about, there was one portrait, almost hidden on a barely-used hallway, that she didn’t recognize. The man in the portrait looked a little like Stephen, with his heavy sable curls that flowed past his shoulders and gentle little smile, but his hazel eyes held far more kindness than mischief. He was a little bit older, too, with more lines in his face and silver on his temple that gave him the look of someone who was far more mature and had seen more of life than Stephen ever had. 

He sat on a stone bench in the garden, a book open on his lap. He wore no crown, no fine jewels or rich silks and velvets. His suit was plain, but well-tailored. Instead of a sword, he held a quill pen over the book. Those eyes…you could get lost in those eyes. They were much kinder than Stephen’s, she thought. Those eyes would never try to manipulate or force someone to do what they didn’t want to do. 

Even as her fingers brushed the oil paint, Stephen rounded the corner. “Cora!” He snapped angrily. “Where the hell have you been? You’re supposed to be having dinner with me in the dining hall!”

“Huh? Oh, hello Stephen.” She blinked, wondering how long she’d been standing here. “Stephen, who is this man? Is he a relative of yours? He looks like a slightly older version of you. His suit is a relatively new style, so this must be a recent portrait. Does he live here? How come I’ve never seen him?”

Stephen grabbed her hard by her arm, his eyes swirling into a blazing blood red. “You will forget about him!” His fingers pressed so hard into her soft flesh, she was sure he left bruises. “He’s a cousin who tried to steal what was rightfully mine! Just a soft-hearted fool. He means nothing to you.” He yanked her head to his scarlet eyes, his deep gruff voice a nearl-animal growl. “He. Means. Nothing. To. You! He is nothing! You will forget you ever saw him. You’ll forget everything. You are MINE! Everything is MINE!”

“I…” Cora tried to push him away, but those red eyes…she’d never seen anything so frightening, and yet so powerful. They drew her in before she could even blink. “I…no…” She pulled away. “I need…I need to leave…”

She nearly ran into the hunchback on the way down the hall. In fact, she just about fell over the little man. “Oof! I’m so sorry.” The bale of wood he carried slid to the floor, sending splinters everywhere. “Let me help you with that…” 

“What are you doing here?” Stephen flew at them, his cape billowing behind him like bat’s wings. “I’ve told you to stay downstairs! And look what you’ve done now. Running into MY fiancee! Making a mess! I ought to have you horsewhipped!”

Cora grabbed his hand. “You’ll do no such thing. I ran into him. It was a mistake. No harm done. The floor can be swept, and the wood is fine. There’s no reason to treat him like that!” 

He shoved the hunchback down the hall, nearly making him fall over again. “Get out of my sight! Go to the kitchen and stay there. I don’t want you scaring people in the halls.”

“Right now,” Cora snapped, “I’m more scared of you than I am of him! Why are you so hard on the poor man?”

Stephen rolled his eyes. ‘He’s just a servant, Cora. We have more important things to discuss, like our wedding.” He pulled her hard into his arms, kissing down them and around her neck. “I’ve already invited all the important people…organized the wedding dinner…we’ll be married in the throne room, where all the most important people can see us…you’ll wear a dress made by the finest seamstress here in the castle…”

“Wait.” She managed to push him away. “Do we really need all that pomp? Can’t we just have a small ceremony, with you and me and my parents and a few close friends?”

“Of course not.” He tittered loudly. “You’re so funny. You’re going to be the queen, and my wife. We’ll have the biggest ball of the year, and afterwards…”

Cora didn’t want to hear it. “Can we talk about this later? I need to…get a note out to my mother and ask her to help me choose linen and china patterns.” Actually, she had no intention of asking her mother any such thing. She only wanted to escape his smothering grasp and attempt to pinch her rear. 

She spent the rest of the afternoon asking everyone about the man in the artwork. No one in the castle recognized his description. Even Charleton and Mrs. Primrose drew a blank, and they’d been there for years. When she tried to find it again, she discovered that the artwork had been removed from the wall. No one saw it, or knew what happened to it.

Who the man was and where the artwork went plagued her well into the evening. She was still thinking about him, even as she laid down in her plush bed. Why did no one recognize him? Why was his artwork hanging with those of the other nobles? Where was he now? It kept running through her mind, even as she dropped off to sleep…

The garden was beautiful in the moonlight. It gave the well-manicured flower beds and rustling trees a ghostly air and made everything pure silver. Even the white gown she wore had a silvery glow under that round moon, and the fountain’s tinkle was like sweet silver bells. 

She found what she was looking for on the same stone bench in the portrait. He was there. She’d know him anywhere. He looked just as he did in the portrait, even with the book in his lap. He wasn’t smiling now, though. In fact, he seemed terribly sad as she settled down next to him. 

“Who…who are you?” She whispered. “Stephen won’t tell me anything about you. He said you were an usurper, but I can’t believe that…”

His slender hands, surprisingly rough and tanned for a king’s, went over hers. “Cora, the man you know as Stephen is a liar and an impostor. He stole everything I had and bound me and my kingdom with a terrible curse. He’s trying to put you under the same curse now. He wants you to forget me, like my people did.”

“I knew something wasn’t right about that man!” She frowned. “Wait. If you’re Stephen, who’s running the kingdom?”

He sighed in frustration. “He’s my younger cousin, Harron, a sorcerer who practices the dark arts. He manipulated my guards so they believed I was the impostor, then ordered them to take me prisoner and lock me away in my own dungeons. That’s how powerful he is. His magic turned an entire kingdom against their ruler.”

She rubbed his long, tanned fingers. “How can I help you? I’m an ordinary woman. I have no magic.” 

“Look beyond what you see on the surface. Things aren’t what they seem. And above all else, do not look into Harron’s eyes! That’s how he works his powers. He has the ability to hypnotize any being and force them to do his bidding.” 

Her mind whirled with dozens of questions, so many that they all spilled out at once. “How could all this be true? Are you still in the dungeon? Did they move you? I’ve only seen your portrait since I arrived, and Stephen…Harron threw a fit when he saw me looking at it.”

“You see me every day, Cora. I’m so close, but I can’t…when I’m near you, I can’t speak to you. I can’t even write my name. My hands…” His sorrowful eyes glanced down at the supple digits, watching as they flexed. “The curse…”

“Your hands are beautiful.” She leaned on his strong shoulder. “There’s something about you. Your eyes…your smile…I know I’ve seen them before, and not just in the painting.”

Cora, I’m so near by, but I can’t…tell you.” His gentle hazel eyes turned back to hers. “I can’t tell you how much I…I…”


They were about to kiss when a bolt of black light sizzled between them. Cora was thrown off the bench, landing hard on the dirt path. She moaned and rubbed her elbows, managing to sit up just in time to see a figure emerge from the bushes. “What in the…sir? Who are you?”

“That’s none of your concern, woman.” It was the Stephen she knew. He looked just like him, only he wore ebony robes with sable trim. Black light shot from his hand, forcing Stephen to his hands and knees before him. “This weakling was going to give the game away. He knows you’re supposed to find out on your own.”

“You,” Stephen hissed, “weren’t supposed to use your magic on her!”

His double glared at him. “She was being obstinate, poking her nose where it wasn’t wanted. I had to make the game more challenging.” His black light roughly twisted Stephen’s arms behind his back, making him scream in shock and pain. 

“Stop! Please!” Cora stumbled over to Harron and grabbed his arm. “Don’t hurt him! He’s done nothing wrong. He only wanted to see me.” 

The look of pure hatred he gave her with those swirling scarlet eyes sent her scrambling back into a tree. It twisted his handsome face, with its sharp chin and straight ebony hair, into an evil mask.  “He almost violated part of the curse. For that, he must be punished.” 

Harron’s beefy hands wrapped hard in Stephen’s glossy curls. “You belong to me, cousin!” Stephen screamed as he whipped his head back. “I’ll show you where that soft, stupid heart of yours gets you! You’re not fit to rule a kingdom, and you’re certainly not fit for this wench’s company!” 

Cora kept yanking at his arm and kicking at him. “Leave him alone!” She screamed along with Stephen when another wave of darkness sent him to the ground. “Stop! Stop hurting him!” She tried to grab his arm, but he shoved her away. 

“Forget him, woman. Forget you ever saw him.” He yanked her in front of his eyes as the scarlet-black light swirled. “Forget him…forget everything…”

“No! Oh no…” Everything swirled around her as she threw up her arm to protect from the red light. 

“Cora!” The real Stephen’s voice grew stiffer and more scratchy as the black light surrounded him. “Don’t…forget…things…aren’t…what they seem! Look…closer!” 

“I…oh…” She looked up at him, just as another wave of black magic blasted over her…

“Oh god, no!” She woke up screaming in her own room, her legs tangled in the sheets. It was only a dream, but it felt so real. Too real. She’d been having that dream, or one like it, for weeks. Someone was trying to tell her something. She changed into her gown before Denilee could help her dress and dashed out of her room.

In fact, she almost literally ran into the man she wanted to see in the hallway. “Cora!” Stephen…or was it Harron?...jumped away. “Whoa, sweetheart! What got into you? Are you being chased by some monster?”

“No, but…” She took a breath, then continued. “Stephen…I've had these dreams…”

He gave her his obnoxious little grin. “About me, I hope.” 

“Well,” she started again, “you were in it…”

“Tell me about it on the way to the dressmakers.” He took her arm. “We need to stop putting this off, Cora. We’re going to get married tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow!” She yanked her arm away. “But we aren’t ready yet! The dress isn’t finished, and we haven’t bought all the bridesmaids gifts, and…”

He yanked her chin up to his eyes. “We’re getting married tomorrow, my bride.” They swirled that same blood red she saw in her nightmare. “We’re going to be very happy. You will be my wife, my pretty little toy, and you will do everything I say. You will forget anyone and anything else. Dreams are just dreams. You can’t believe anything you see in them.”

“I…” She blinked, trying to remember what had frightened her so badly the night before. “I…”

He ran a finger down her cheek. “You’ll be a little doll to share my throne and produce heirs. You’re rather plain, but we could do something, dress you up in linens and lace…” 

She managed to duck away when he tried to nibble down her neck. “I think I’ll go to the dressmaker and see how my bridal gown is going.” Her mind was whirling when she left. There was something in her dream she wanted to remember…something about appearances being deceiving…but it eluded her.