“Once, there was a fair princess. They say that when her feet touched the sand, vines grew. They say that she loved her kingdom with the love of a parent for their children. They say she would have died for us. She was never lonely. She had us. We had her.”
Once, there was a fair princess. People whispered about her, and sang songs in her honor and named their firstborn daughters and sons after her. She was the ruler– of what?
“I was never told, Mama, of what, of what?”
“Sssh, Lucy, you only need to know that she was the ruler. She was lovely and special and important and she was ours.”
Once, there was a fair princess. They say that when her feet touched the sand, vines grew. They say that she loved her kingdom with the love of a parent for their children. They say she would have died for us. She was never lonely. She had us. We had her.
“But she must have gotten lonely, right Papa?” Lucy inquired, muddy face beaming earnestly up at her father. “I’d get lonely, all alone like she was…” At this, her older brother interjected, face growing red.
“You must never say that, child!” Her older brother admonished, glaring at her, “No, she did not get lonely. She lived in a palace made of diamonds and glass and she was never, never wanting for anything else.” Lucy whimpered.
“Didn’t she have emeralds?” A mud-splattered girl had wandered over. She was a few moons older than Lucy and had recently gone to see the Princess. Jealousy burned in Lucy’s heart– she wanted to see the Princess too.
“No, she did not have emeralds– she would never wear anything so vulgar!” Lucy’s mother snapped, glaring at the girl. “She wore robes of the finest blue. Almost the color of the ocean. I can still see it today…” And she trailed off, lost in her memories of the fair Princess.
Once there was a fair princess, and she issued a decree: when each child turned twelve, they would go and have an audience with the fair Princess. After all, she wanted to know more about her people. And when a child had reached twelve moons, they were deemed suitable to go and see the fair Princess.
“Don’t worry,” her Papa told her, stroking her dusty hair with his calloused hand. “Soon, you will see the fair Princess; in one hour, she will change your life, Lucy. You will love her like we do.” Lucy looked around. All of the townsfolk were smiling, remembering their time with her.
Even though they wore nothing other than rags, even though children died every year of the Black Plague that brought families to their knees, the fair Princess could make everything alright with a simple smile. They never needed to worry, her parents told Lucy. They had the fair Princess.
“What if she leaves?” Lucy had asked once, when she was still a tyke and did not know any better. “What if the fair Princess leaves?” This had resulted in a stinging slap from some of the other tykes, and soon they had jumped on her, punching and kicking. If her mother had not happened to have come by and seen the scrum, or heard the cries of “Shame! Shame! Shame!” from the village elders, her youngest would have easily been killed. Later, she had learned that it was considered sacrilege to insult the Princess in any way. Lucy didn’t, and still didn’t, understand why, but the memory of being turned on by the other tykes was more than enough to keep her from doing it again. She shifted on the hard ground as an ugly scene of five moons ago came to her mind.
Five moons ago:
“Once there was a Princess! A fair one! And she was lonely!” A wild-eyed young woman stood in the middle of the square, shouting lies– or so Lucy had thought. Her father clamped his hands over her ears– her mother got up and started toward the young woman, looking worried. People crept from their cottages and stared, some calling for the Guard. “She was lonely because you bastards”– and here she used a very rude word, one that Lucy hadn’t heard before and didn’t care to hear again– “drained the flipping life from her! You let her die! You took and took and took and even when she had nothing to give!” The color drained from the faces of the townspeople. But then, before Lucy could consider what this stranger was screaming about, they heard the pounding of horse hooves. The Guard had arrived, splendid in gold and red. The woman had stopped yelling. Instead, she turned to face them and very quietly said: “I’m right. And you know it. And soon everyone will know it, and it will be your fault.”
Lucy’s parents grabbed her and hustled her away, just as a high-pitched scream echoed through the air. She turned toward the square, and the young woman was lying on her side, dark hair spread out across the ground and blood leaking from her body. Lucy screamed.
“Papa, what did they do to her? What did they do?” She was shaking, eyes tightly shut. She could still see that pool of blood in her mind’s eye, growing larger.
Her father’s hands were trembling as they walked past the Guard. “Nothing, Lucy, nothing, she’s just sleeping, she’s fine.”
As they walked past the horsemen, a Guard reached out and grabbed Lucy’s arm. Not hard, but enough to make her flinch. She showed off her yellow teeth as she grinned at the terrified girl. “Don’t worry, little one; the Princess will wake her up.”
Lucy felt puzzled. Why had she thought of that now? It was only a memory. And the Princess had woken the woman up, The Guard had taken the sleeping stranger to the castle, and the Princess had healed her– no, had woken her up. The woman hadn’t been hurt. She hadn’t needed to be healed. Still, something pulled at the back of her mind. If that stranger was asleep, then why didn’t she wake up quicker? Didn’t she scream? With a shrug, she pushed those disturbing thoughts away.
“Lucy! Lucy, where are you?” her brother called, glancing around. “Come child, in one hour you will meet the fair Princess–we need to get you ready!” Lucy got up, covered in red dust, and slowly began to make her way towards her cottage, glancing back at the town square. It smelled of blood.
“Now, Lucy, what do we say when we meet the fair Princess?” Her mother quizzed her as her father pulled a brush through her hair. It was customary for villagers to look their best when meeting the fair Princess, and that included brushing, bathing, and smiling. Lucy currently wore the finest red frock that her family owned. However, it had rather inconvenient holes at the knees; she hoped the Princess wouldn’t notice.
Absentmindedly, she responded. “O fair Princess, I kneel before you in all of your glory. Tell me your tale. I will listen.”
“Very good!” her father praised, now rummaging with something in a small velvet bag. “This is for you, Lucy.” He pulled a golden chain from the bag, holding it up to catch the light. “My father gave it to me when I went to go greet the fair Princess, and his mother gave it to him, and so on and so forth.”
Lucy’s jaw fell open. “But why didn’t you give it to Elder Brother? He’s older than me…” Her voice trailed off as he placed the chain around her neck.
“Ah, well, trinkets like these are for ones who deserve it…” she waited for him to continue, but he did not, instead calling her mother and brother forth to look. “Come, you two! Doesn’t she look ready?”
“You look lovely,” Elder Brother said, but there was a hint of jealousy in his eyes, and he looked away quickly. “I especially like that chain.” She felt suddenly nervous, but did not know why.
“Are you ready?” her mother questioned, moving some of her daughter’s hair out of her face. “I’m happy for you. Meeting the fair Princess will… you will love her. And Eldest Son is right; that chain looks very fetching on you, child.”
“The carriage is here!” Elder Brother was standing by the window, staring out at the red and gold carriage. Two women jumped down and began walking toward the house. “This is it,” he breathed, turning to look at Lucy. “Ready?”
Lucy could not respond, so she simply nodded, eyes wide. “Thank… thank you,” she stuttered, looking around the room. “I…”
Three harsh knocks on the door cut her off. “We are here for the child,” someone called through the door. Suddenly, Lucy’s brother swept her up in a sudden, fierce hug.
“Put me down!” she protested, struggling.
“Don’t look at her face,” he hissed in her ear, so quietly that she barely heard him. And all of a sudden, Lucy’s family was all grins and nods and bows as the Guard walked in, questioning them about her.
“Is this really the girl? She looks small for her age,” one Guardswoman said, glancing over at Lucy.
“She has always been small, Your Grace,” Lucy’s father put in. “Her brother was small too, if you remember.”
The Guardswoman glared. “Oh yes. Do I ever remember. Hopefully this one will be a little more… compliant.”
“She will, Your Grace,” her mother said, lightly pushing Lucy towards the Guardswomen. Then, turning to Lucy, with a sudden urgency in her voice. “Do exactly as they tell you, and everything will be all right.”
“Hold out your hands, love,” a Guardswoman said, kneeling next to the girl. “This part will be a little… unpleasant, but I promise it won’t hurt for long.” Lucy trembled, but did so. She watched as they wrapped iron chains around both wrists, giving her no room to lift her hands and chafing terribly.
“Chains?” Elder Brother put in, a look of horror on his face. “She is only twelve moons…” His voice trailed off as all of the Guardswomen turned to look at him.
“Be silent,” the first one spat, towering over him. “Or it’ll be more than just your brat of a sister chained, and, trust me, you won’t be going to visit the fair Princess.” He shrank back against the moldering wall, and she turned to the others. “Get her in the carriage. Now. We’ve wasted too much time on these rats posing for people.”
Two Guardswomen grabbed Lucy by the arms and forcefully lifted her. She didn’t struggle. They sat her down, not removing the chains, and tied another one across her lap. She peeked out the window and saw that half of the town had come out, and that they all wore the same expressions– not ones of pride or joy, but absolute, destroyed horror. Hot tears slipped down her cheeks, and she did not know why. Looking down at the chains that bound her hands, she noted that there were red stains on them, and that her wrists were bleeding as well. A Guardswoman glanced back at her.
“Don’t worry, dear. You’re lucky you’re wearing a red frock– no blood will show.” Lucy bent her head.
“Thank you, your Grace. You and the fair Princess always know what is best for me.”
The Guardswoman chuckled softly, leaning back against the plush, red leather seat. “Good girl.”
Once, there was a fair Princess. And each year, she summoned children to her castle to meet her. And each year, those children returned, talking about the fair Princess– how good and kind and lovely she was. But one day, a boy did not. He disrespected the throne. He was punished. Hopefully, his sister will be better. We have waited a long time for a girl like her.
Lucy did not know how long it had been since she had been shoved into the carriage. The sky was darkening, and she was so thirsty. She sat uncomfortably on the seats, whole body bouncing each time the carriage bumped. Over a pothole, she assumed. The carriage stopped, and she was suddenly thrown forward, painfully, the chain around her waist pulling her back.
“Get up.” She did, knees and wrists bleeding. A Guardswoman leaned over to unbuckle the chain from around her waist, and half nudged, half pushed her out of the carriage. She stood, looking around herself. About twenty Guardswomen ringed her, all with the same expressions of disdain. And… arrows. They had arrows. A memory pierced Lucy’s mind– of the young woman lying on her back, eyes empty and blank. They killed her. They killed her! They lied, they lied! She gagged.
“Are we sure this is the girl? She’s awfully…”
“This is the girl. I’ll have no arguments about it. We’ve waited a long time for a street rat like her.” Lucy curled her lip at the now all-too-familiar insult, but said nothing. The Guardswoman who had threatened her brother walked up, inspecting Lucy. “Move, you little urchin. The fair Princess don’t have all day and neither do I.”
Lucy stumbled forward, biting her lip. I will not cry. I will not let them get the satisfaction of seeing me cry. She lifted her chin, looking at all of them. “Where am I to go exactly? Will the fair Princess come to get me, may her name be praised evermore?”
“No, you hedge-born idiot,” the Guardswoman jeered, raising one arm to point at the drawbridge that loomed behind them. “You are to go there. You are to talk to the fair Princess. You are not to run away. Do as we tell you.”
The drawbridge was dark and ominous– dark water moved slowly under it, as small silver fish flopped belly-up, eyes blank. The Guardswomen shuffled behind her, occasionally kicking her shins to try to make her walk at a faster rate. As they entered the castle, shadows loomed and rats scurried across the floor, picking at the overturned plates of food. The floor was sticky– with what? She didn’t know.
“Walk down that hallway and knock on the door.” The Guardswoman pointed down a long dark hallway, the gold braid on her uniform gleaming amid the disrepair. What do you get out of this? Lucy wondered, staring up at her strangely blank face. What do you want from me? I don’t have anything to give! Leaning towards her, the Guardswoman unhooked the chains on her wrists.
“Move. Are you deaf?” She did, starting to walk toward the tunnel. As she turned back, the Guardswomen were gone, swallowed up by the darkness. She fought the urge to run. I will not die here today. I swear on every god I know that I will not die here today. As she turned on her heel, the chain around her neck became warm and began to glow faintly. She didn’t notice.
Once, there was a fair Princess. And she was loved by everyone– by her people, who taught their children how to look up to her and adore her, and who taught their children’s children. But the fair Princess was lonely. She did not want to be loved anymore. Children loved her, and she could talk to them, and feel less lonely for a time. But then… one night she left. Her people could do without her, she thought. She would go somewhere where she could be… herself. And not the fair Princess.
Oh, how wrong she was. The same night, the same night that she ran, they caught her. She protested. She would not, she could not stay, she had nothing left to give. So– they killed her, saying that if in life she could not stay, then in death she would.
They bound her spirit to them. And she searched for the girl or boy who would free her at long last, who would let her go from her decaying body. They had always brought her girls and boys, but the girls and boys all loved her, and could not or would not help her. There had been a boy. Once. But he had been taken by the Guardswomen before he could free her. And as her body mouldered, her kingdom fell into disrepair. The girl is my last hope. I need her.
Lucy leaned forward and knocked on the door. It was a large, slime-covered door, but no one answered. With a huff, she leaned forward and opened it. Her first thought was that the drapes needed to be opened; the room was much, much too dark. She took a step into the room, noting that jewels littered the floor. A massive gold throne was in the middle with something or someone on it.
“O fair Princess?” she called, taking a step closer to the throne. “I have come. Tell me your tale.” The room was oppressively silent. What should I do? As lightly as a rabbit, she bounded to the throne and leaned over the fair Princess. She bit back a horrified scream, reeling away. Because the Princess was a skeleton. She was dressed in a tattered, blue gown that had what looked like bloodstains on it. Golden chains bound her hands and knees, and a circlet hung off her head. Her body had been entirely stripped of flesh. Lucy had never wanted to run more than she did in that moment.
“Help me,” a voice rasped as Lucy turned for the door. “Please. Help me.” Although the fair Princess’s mouth did not move, Lucy knew that it was her voice, which was strangely comforting. Almost like her father’s, when he prepared to tell her a story. So Lucy did not run. Instead she walked toward the throne and placed her hand on the fair Princess’s forehead, almost as if to check for a fever.
“…You asked my brother to help you, didn’t you?” she whispered, strangely not feeling frightened.
“Yes. And he would have. But the Guard took him away, and I have been trapped here for two agonizing years until you came.” Lucy nodded. That was just like Eldest Brother; always trying to help.
“I… I don’t know what I can do,” she murmured, not taking her eyes off the fair Princess. “I don’t know if I can help you.”
The fair Princess seemed to raise a skeletal hand to point at Lucy’s neck, where the golden chain had suddenly gotten much, much warmer. “Yes. You do, lass. Like father, like daughter, I see.” Lucy blinked.
“You want this? It’s just a useless trinket…” The chain was now burning her neck and she tugged at it fruitlessly, pain mingling with surprise.
“Would it be burning like that if it was useless? Nothing is useless, lass.” The fair Princess straightened suddenly, eyes on the door.
“Girl!” The voices of the Guardwomen could suddenly be heard, along with the clomping of their heavy boots. “Girl!”
“Make haste, Lucy!” the fair Princess spat, watching Lucy struggle with the chain. Lucy tugged at it harder, and it slipped off her neck, glowing gently in her hand.
The door burst open. Several very angry-looking Guardswomen stood in the door, gaping first at Lucy, who clutched the chain tighter, and then at the fair Princess, who had pushed herself up into a sitting position. “Put the chain down,” one spat, taking a step toward her. “Put it down. Now.” In one quick movement, Lucy swung the chain around the fair Princess’s neck. The biggest of them started toward her. And from that moment on, Lucy remembered
Lucy got up. Her dress was soaked in blood and she hoped it wasn’t hers. She turned to look at the throne from where she’d been bodily thrown across the room. There was no-one on it, only the golden chains trailing off of it.
“O fair Princess?” she whispered, limping across the room as agony stabbed through her leg. “Reveal yourself?” No answer. A hand touched her shoulder, and she flinched, whipping around. The fair Princess was standing next to her, no longer a skeleton. She was every bit as lovely as she had been before.
“Lucy.” Lucy blinked at her, noticing for the first time that the Princess appeared to be melting away, into the sunbeam that she stood in. She smiled at Lucy kindly, draping something around her neck. “Thank you.”
“Where– the Guardswomen?” Lucy’s hand went to her chain again.
“Gone. Go home, lass. I never got to.”
Lucy dipped her head. “Where will you go?”
The fair Princess’s shoulders shook for a moment before she grinned at Lucy, responding. “Wherever I please.”
Once, there was a fair Princess. And she was lonely. But her kingdom could not bear to let her go, so they bound her to an iron throne. And she waited for over one hundred moons. One moon, the right girl came; and this girl was steadfast and true, and this girl freed her. And the fair Princess was no longer lonely. Eventually, the right girl led us into prosperity, and she told us the story of the fair Princess, and that she was lonely. And so we will tell the story of Lucy, our flawed girl and queen to our children. And they will tell it to their children’s children. This is the way it has always been and the way it will always be.