10 readings

1

It was his boots that came into view first. Large, brown, well-worn leather ones. The little girl in the corner held her breath as they walked past. She didn’t want to be found. More shoes followed, most of them spattered with mud, but one pair wasn’t. Soft, red slippers, those ones. She knew whose they were. At least, she had known him. Now he was different, changed. Ever since that new court herbalist gave him the nasty tea to drink. That was when everything changed.
It hadn’t been so bad at first. He’d just been a little nosier, slightly more controlling. She’d thought it was him getting used to being king after their father’s accident. Then he’d started banishing people, good people, and that was when she knew this was no longer her brother. Her brother was kind and good, patient toward all. He’d always been there for her, through everything. Suddenly he wasn’t anymore.
His bright blue eyes had clouded over in anger when she’d asked him about his actions. In a fit of rage, he’d cried, “Question me again and I’ll have you thrown in the dungeon!” She’d run off, so frightened by the face she didn’t recognize. Then she’d determined that no matter what it took, she had to save him. For the good of the kingdom. . . and to get her brother back. Shortly thereafter, he sent for her. She knew it couldn’t end well, this sudden interest after her rebelliousness. So she’d hidden.
After much reconnaissance, the girl had discovered the only safe way into the herbalist’s chambers was through the window. There was a tall oak tree that nearly reached it, and her door was guarded around the clock.
That night, soft footsteps pattered across the courtyard. A hand found the lowest branch of the great oak, and was soon replaced by a foot as a slight, shadowy form worked its way up the tree. Her progress was accompanied by a small amount of quiet cursing. When at last the figure reached the tallest branch, she crawled along it until her hand met open air and the branch bowed beneath her weight. There was a slight lip on the window, barely enough for two sets of toes. She stood carefully, swaying in the wind, precariously perched before an open gap easily twenty meters off the ground. With a sudden cry, she launched herself toward the window, hitting it with a ‘bang!’ and grasping for something to steady herself. She could feel her body leaning backward, away from the ledge and its safety, and try as she might, she couldn’t seem to right herself. The ground peered hungrily up at her, dizzyingly far away. If she fell from here, nothing could save her.
A sudden gust of wind pushed her back onto her toes. She wasn’t sure what kind spirit had delivered it, but vowed to give homage to all the gods just as soon as this ordeal was over. She reached down, edging cautiously to one side of the lip, and tried the window. It was locked. Tears threatened to fall from her eyes. No, she wasn’t going to cry! She wouldn’t give in. She was so close, so close to discovering what was wrong with her brother. She only needed to get past one last obstacle. Her breath caught in her throat as someone drew the curtains back on the far side of the window. She pressed herself to the glass, taking what comfort she could in its icy embrace. The far side of the window flew open and a furious cry echoed forth from the chamber within. A loud noise came next, a chair being tipped over. The princess flinched and then froze again. Her heartbeat echoed loudly in her ears, drumming faster and faster. She just had to stay still and then everything would be okay. Footsteps came closer and closer to her, nearing the window. Probably time for another scream into the night air. The enchantress wouldn’t miss the intruder a second time. There was nowhere for the princess to go! She was trapped, doomed to be discovered.
A knock sounded on the door. “My lady, the king sends for you!” The footsteps stopped.
“Fine, fine, tell him I’ll be there shortly.”
“Yes, my Lady.” The door opened, slamming shut soon after. Presumably, the messenger had already left. The princess eased her way into the room, stretching out her cramped feet. A strange symbol was woven onto the large rug on the floor, like a star encircled by a wavy line. The same symbol was burned into the table, alongside several ominous, dark stains. The princess shuddered fearfully. She cast a longing look back toward the window before setting her shoulders and continuing forward. Now was not the time to back out.
A stack of books almost as tall as the girl herself sat in one corner, sprawling out over several bookcases and much of the floor. Her eyes roved the heaps of books, then with a sudden resolve, she set to work. She scanned the titles, flipping through any books that looked like they might hold a control spell. As it would have been done recently, she figured the book should be on top of the pile, or maybe toward the table.
Finally, inside a fat blue book with swirling lavender lettering and a lavish leather cover, she discovered the answer. Her small fingers flipped to the end of it, searching for some way to undo the potent magic. The final section was in a bold font. “If this spell you wish to break, your loved one you must not forsake.”
“Useless,” muttered the princess angrily. It made no sense. She spent a minute contemplating the words before realizing that no amount of staring at the paper would make its meaning any more clear.
Just when she started to lose hope, it clicked. She knew what she had to do. Odds were it wouldn’t work. Most likely she’d end up thrown in the dungeon with everyone else who displeased the herbalist, but now was no time to be second-guessing her half-formed plan. With no other way out of the herbalist’s chamber, this was her one shot.
The guard on duty started with surprise when the door to his back opened, revealing the missing princess, green eyes dangerously narrowed and black curls bouncing as she walked confidently to him. “I seek an audience with the king.” Her voice was steady, measured and regal, and he could scarcely see a sign of her young age.
“Y-yes, right away,” he said. She nodded and marched down the hallway, leaving him to follow.
As they neared the throne room, sounds of arguing could be heard.
“It’s permanent, so give in!” A high, and in the princess’s mind, somewhat snooty, voice cried out.
“Never,” growled a very familiar one. “Stop trying to take control! You’re making a mess of my kingdom.”
“And I shall keep doing so until such time as you fully succumb to my spell!”
“Guards, take this woman-” his voice broke off suddenly.
“Kindly release my brother from your evil spell, witch!” The princess called loudly, pushing both heavy doors open at once. The guard trailing after her gave her a confused look.
“Oh, dear, it seems we have company,” cooed the enchantress.
“Let him go,” growled the princess. Her dress was torn and dirtied, yet she carried herself with the air one one much older and more experienced.
“There’s no way to break it. He’s trapped now!”
“No. I refuse!” She raced forward, dodging the enchantress’s grasp, clinging desperately to her brother. “I love you. Please don’t let her do this!”
“You there, guard!” called the king, pointing at him. “Arrest this girl! She is-” He clapped a hand over his mouth. His other arm encircled his sister, eyes brimming with tears. His head shook slowly, fearfully.
“I know you can do it!” He looked down at the young girl before him, so much braver than he could ever be. His heart was about to break. She had more faith in him than he did in himself! If she could believe, he could too.
“Arrest that woman,” he cried, pointing at the witch. Her mouth moved wordlessly, gnarled finger pointing at the king. “It’s no use!” he called to her. “Your magic has been broken by someone stronger. Give up. It’s over.”
The witch hung her head, but neither sibling noticed. Tears of relief streamed down the king’s cheeks as his sister held him. “Thank you,” he whispered.

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