Part 1: Where to begin? My story is kind of complicated, sort of. I guess I'll have to begin at the beginning, which is always a good place to begin. The beginning begins a long time ago, when I was born.
My father was king of our lovely kingdom of Oricon, and my mother was his queen. They were very young when they fell in love, around fifteen. His name was Godric, and hers was Regina. She was known far and wide as the best queen in the world, at least that's how it seemed to me when I was little. To me she was the only queen, ever.
I was born in the middle of the Nine Day Celebration, which is held in Oricon every year. It celebrates the fact that we won the Nine Day War with Sardo, the nearest kingdom. The queen of Sardo was rumored to be the ugliest person in existence. I was born on the ninth day of the celebration, which was the most joyful day of the year in Oricon. The entire kingdom seemed to be throwing a celebration just for me. I had ebony hair, blood-red lips, and snow-white skin. My name was Eira. Eira of Oricon.
When I was only a few days old, I was betrothed to the prince in another neighboring kingdom, Cotumo. His name was Emil, Prince Emil to any commoners. His mother and father had to be the richest people in existence, and so Cotumo was the richest kingdom ever. But no one could surpass my mother as the best queen ever. No one.
Unless, of course, she wasn't queen anymore.
It was a cold, rainy night. I was about seven. I had been sitting on my window seat in my bedchamber, watching the drops pound the window, leaving different shaped streaks on the windowpane. I traced one with my forefinger, wishing I could follow the raindrop forever, until it evaporated into the air or sunk into the ground to water the grasses. Oricon only had grasses, no trees.
It had been lonely all week. Mother was sick. Mother, my best friend in the world, was sick. Well, she was my best friend aside from Devon, the royal hunter's apprentice. Devon was my only connection to the outside world. He went on hunting expeditions with the hunter, bringing back lovely meals for all of us. At the age of seven, I imagined that he shot all of the wild animals himself and was terribly brave. Not until I was at least twelve did I figure out that he carried the rifle for the hunter, who was a mean man and only wanted a packhorse, not an apprentice.
As I traced the raindrop and wondered where Devon was, my father came into my bedroom. This is the strangest occurrence of the whole story, most likely, even the part about the boar's heart…I still shudder to think about it. But anyway, Father never came into my bedchamber. And I mean never. Maybe he should have more often, and then I wouldn't have known as soon as the door creaked open. I knew what he was about to tell me.
"Eira," he said quietly, his voice shaking, "your mother is…"
"No, Daddy, don't say it."
"Daddy!" I pleaded.
He composed himself. "Regina is dead."
I stopped mid-word. Mother…Mother was…my only friend in the castle…was…dead? How could I believe this? The room started spinning as I stared at Father. He looked solemn, but then he started wobbling. Or maybe I started wobbling. Whatever happened, I was soon on the floor, throwing a seven-year-old's tantrum, beating my fists on the floor and slamming my feet on the rug. After a few minutes, I was worn out from the crying and curled into a little ball on my floor. Father left.
Oricon no longer had a queen.
I did not attend the funeral. Instead, I locked myself up in my room and refused to come out, ever. In the middle of the funeral, a light knock came on my door. It couldn't have been Daddy; his was a hard, heavy knock. It couldn't have been Bertha, my maid, because she knew exactly how to unlock the door and would have strolled right in. Curious, I pushed all my bed covers off me and hurried to the door. I turned the lock and peeked out.
"I came to say I'm sorry, Eira," he said. Anyone watching would think it absurd, that a boy of eight had come to comfort a girl of seven.
"Sorry for what?" I said, letting him in.
I nodded, unsure of what I was supposed to do. After all, what did he have to apologize for?
"I have to leave again tomorrow," he said, looking at me. Maybe he was waiting for my reaction. But this was nothing new. He left every other week, always returning with food.
"Where are you going this time? Is the hunter taking you to Sardo?" I asked.
He stared at his feet. I looked, too, but I didn't see anything too interesting about them. Finally he said, "The hunter's not going."
"What do you mean the hunter's not going?"
"I mean the hunter has let me go. He doesn't want an apprentice. They're sending me off tomorrow, to go find work in Cotumo. Maybe I'll meet your Prince Emil. I hear he's ten years old already."
I trembled. "So, you're leaving? For…forever?"
I blinked. Then I said, "Get out."
"What?" he asked in disbelief. I think maybe he was expecting a charming and welcoming reception to his words. But if he was going to leave me here, friendless, then he had another thing coming.
"Get out," I repeated. "Get out of my room. You are no longer my friend."
"Get out! GET OUT! GET OUT!" I screamed.
"But I could still write to you!"
He dashed out the door. I was in a towering rage, and even as a seven-year-old, I had some mighty power when I needed it. At the moment I felt like chucking my china model of an elephant at his head.
And he was gone, just like that. That night, I cried myself to sleep.
In the morning when I awoke, I found a slip of paper underneath my door. My tears had left streaks all over my face, and as I knelt down to get the paper, I passed my mirror. I looked a mess. Of course, I hadn't been out of my room for days. I picked up the paper.
It was a letter, and it was from Devon.
Deer Eira, it said, I had too leev this morning. I wanted too cum and tak to yu agin, but King Godrik sed I cudnt. I relly wanted too. I hop yu arnt to mad at me fur leeving yu, but I had no choic. Mabe sumda I can cum bak and see yu sumtim becuz im shur that things wil be boring heer withot yu. Pleez mabe rit me bak. Yur frend, Devon.
The spelling was atrocious, but I could still read it. How many times had Devon written me farewell letters on each of his journeys to hunt the wild geese or such animals? But this time it was permanent. I pictured Devon in my young mind, his wavy brown hair blowing in the wind as he rode toward Cotumo, and his little brown eyes sparkling with the usual laughter. I knew I would never, ever see my best friend Devon, or my best friend Mother, again.
When I was twelve, my father got remarried. To a witch.
Not a literal witch. At least, I knew she wasn't a real witch who could cast spells on you and make poison apples and the like. She was the queen of Sardo, the neighboring community that had been the enemy of Oricon since the Nine Day War. Her name was Queen Griselda. Do you remember when I said that the queen of Sardo was the ugliest person in existence? That was her.
With her, she brought her three maiden servants and her trunk of stuff, and a mirror. She promptly locked the mirror in the dungeon as soon as she could. No one wondered about it, apparently. No one except me. I often tried to creep into the dank, creepy dungeon, but she acquired a key and kept it locked, except when she was inside.
Her three maiden servants were named Isabelle, Yvette, and Gretchen. Gretchen was a tall, lanky girl, with mousy brown hair, and she never spoke around Queen Griselda. She was shy and meek, and jumped at the sound of footsteps. I was careful never to make any sudden movements around her, though she should have been the careful one around me; she was two years younger than I was. Yvette worshipped the ground Queen Griselda walked on. She followed her around constantly, her vibrant red hair sticking out in every direction, and her face pointing out at odd angles. She had no curves, only angles. She also loved to lord over me the fact that she was thirteen and I was twelve. Isabelle was the only tolerable one. In fact, she was the first friend I had since Devon had left five years ago. She had long black hair, as black as mine, but long enough to sit on. Ever since I could remember, I had very, very short hair, and I liked that we could be the same but different. She hated Queen Griselda, which I soon found out was a very light way of putting it. But I agreed with her.
The first thing Queen Griselda said when she stepped out into the sunshine every morning was, "It's too bright." And the second was, "YVETTE!" Then Yvette would come running, stumbling over the high heels she insisted on wearing (she said it made her look more regal) and asking if the queen needed anything. The queen often said to ask the cook if her breakfast was ready. If it was, she would wolf it down like she hadn't been fed for days. (I knew the truth; she had to eat every hour, on the hour, even during the night.) If it wasn't, we often had a new cook the next morning.
Isabelle quickly became my friend. We played in my room often. It was nice to finally have a friend my age after so many years. Whenever Griselda needed her to serve her, I would follow and watch. She (Griselda, not Isabelle) would glare at me as Isabelle polished her shoes or plucked gristly hairs out of her hairbrush. Griselda hated me, and I didn't know why.
In the first month of the marriage, Queen Griselda requested that she see my room alone. Even I had to leave. I hated her. After five minutes she emerged, saying everything seemed to be in order. I went in and immediately checked all the places I kept anything valuable. The only thing I couldn't find was Devon's letter. Though I had never written him back, I had kept it in a secret drawer, and I looked at it whenever I felt lonely. That had been a lot. Had Griselda stolen my letter?
Three years passed. Isabelle and I grew up together. We grew out of playing with dolls to considering what sort of man would make a decent husband. I wanted the kind of man who could always laugh with me and would never ignore me. Isabelle wanted someone to provide for her.
But after every thought-filled session, I would sigh and say heavily, "But I'm to marry Prince Emil in a year. I can't really decide on what kind of man I'd like, because I have to like the one they give me."
We often disagreed on the benefits of being a princess, as I was. Isabelle would say it was so lovely to live in a palace and not have to wait on anybody, and I would say that I didn't get to choose the man I wanted to marry, I had to deal with an evil stepmother with a secret mirror in the dungeon, and I had to look perfect, act perfect, and be perfect. I even had to stifle gags when something Father would call a Sardonian delicacy was placed in front of me and I had to eat it. Griselda had brought plenty of these so-called delicacies from Sardo.
I often asked Isabelle what Griselda's mirror was all about. She had no idea. She was afraid to take trips to the dungeon with me, so I delayed my voyage. But I vowed to myself that I would eventually see the inside of the dungeon. I wanted to know why the stupid mirror was so important to my stepmother.
One day, while Isabelle was overseeing the cooks make dinner, I slipped away from her side toward the dungeon. But before I got there, I ran into Yvette, the last person I would ever want to see besides Griselda herself.
"And where do you think you're going?" she asked, towering over me. It enraged me that she was sixteen.
"None of your business," I replied. "Where are you going?"
"To assist the queen, Princess Brat."
My blood boiled. I was fighting a losing battle if I thought I could talk to Yvette and not get angry. "You call me brat one more time," I warned, "and I'll tell my father to behead you."
She paled. She had a horrible fear of decapitation. I only knew because she kept her diary out in the open, where any "Princess Brat" could open it and read all her deepest, darkest secrets. I pretended to turn away, not interested in seeing where she was going, but as soon as she had her back turned, I followed. She went down at least twenty twisting corridors before she reached the dungeon. The door opened with a creak.
"Ah, Yvette, so nice of you to join me," said Griselda from beyond the door. Her voice was biting and sarcastic. I peered in. It was darker and mustier than I had imagined. On the largest wall was the mirror. Its edges were plated with gold, and a silver crown rested on top. But the scariest thing about it was that there was a giant face, gaunt, white, and silent, staring through eyeless sockets around the room.
"I'm sorry. Princess Brat stopped me on my way. Luckily, I shook her off," Yvette replied.
Who was she fooling? I had left. Or so she thought.
"No worrying about her, Yvette. The only thing that matters is that I am more beautiful than her. Every day I ask my mirror who is the most beautiful in all the land, and every day it answers that I am, of course."
No wonder she liked the mirror. It was a liar like her.
"So today shall be no different. I just love hearing it say that I am more beautiful than that pest Eira."
Did she think I was beautiful? I had heard it rumored from the gardeners that I was considered the epitome of beauty in lands stretched out beyond Oricon, but I never thought they were right. How could I be beautiful? Misery is not beautiful.
Griselda turned to the mirror, whose face perked up when he saw her. "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?" she asked.
The mirror paused. Everything went still. I could hear a pin drop, somewhere floors above. I heard Yvette's shallow breathing, and Griselda's impatient tapping of her foot. Finally, the mirror spoke.
"Alas, fair queen, you're lovely, 'tis true, but Eira is far more beautiful than you. In fact, though it has not been planned, Eira is the prettiest in all the land."
What? What did it just say? Had I heard it right? This was insane. Maybe I was hallucinating. That mirror had to have been a liar. It had not just called me prettier than Griselda.
On second thought, it could have, but it couldn't have called me the fairest in all the land.
"Your Highness! Your Highness!" Yvette screeched. For a second I thought she was comforting the queen or threatening the mirror, but then I saw her finger, pointed straight at me. I had been seen.
"YOU FILTHY, DIRTY LITTLE BRAT! I'LL KILL YOU!" Griselda screamed.
I screamed too. I did not wish to be killed. I tore away from the room, Griselda and Yvette at my heels. Oblivious to the fact that I was about ten times smaller and quicker than she was, Griselda pursued me all the way to the hunter's quarters. I do not know how I ended up there; I just know that it was a relief to see the hunter, crouched over a dead rabbit.
At this point in my tale, it must be said that the hunter who was now hunched over the rabbit was the same hunter that had turned Devon away at the age of eight. I had previously resented him for that, but now was no time to be choosy about my savior from the evilness of Griselda.
Maybe I should have found a place to hide from him. Because when Griselda stopped in the doorway, she looked from me to him to me again. A wicked smile curled her lip.
"Rondon," she said, addressing the hunter by his first name. It took a minute for me to realize whom she was speaking to. "Help me."
Before I could even begin to process these words, Rondon's hands, strong like steel from all those years of gripping a rifle, clamped onto me. I tried to struggle, but it was no use. It was like trying to escape from between two gigantic boulders. I could feel the blood loss in my arms and fingertips. I was as good as dead.
"Rondon," Griselda said evenly, eying me, "where did you put the letter?"
"Bottom drawer, Your Majesty," Rondon said gruffly, focusing all his efforts on making sure I didn't escape. He really didn't have anything to worry about.
Griselda took twenty of her short little strides to his dressing drawers. She knelt, her fat bottom causing an enormous bulge in her oh-so-royal dress. "Where is it…ah, yes, here we are," I heard her say. I was almost sure I knew what they were talking about, but I didn't want to believe it.
"Do you remember this, Eira my sweet?" she said, her voice dripping with honeyed sarcasm. Sure enough, it was my letter from Devon. It had been missing for three years now. Her face was so close to mine that I could smell the stench of evil. The letter was also close. I could read the last line. Pleez mabe rit me bak. Yur frend, Devon. I had never written him back. Why? What had happened to make me forget about it? How could I have deserted my friend? And now I would never have the chance to write. He had probably forgotten all about me by now. I was a figment of childhood memory. And I was dead.
Right before my nose, Griselda tore the letter from top to bottom in half. I gasped in horror. She was enjoying the torture she was giving me. She enjoyed pain. This woman was pure evil. She placed the halves on top of each other and tore again. Now it was in four pieces. If she had stopped there, I might have been able to repair it. But she kept on until all that was left of Devon's hastily written, misspelled last letter was a heap of tiny little paper bits.
I had had it. The wimpy Eira had surfaced a few minutes before with a quivering lip and knocking knees. Now the wimp had made way for the Eira-in-a-temper-tantrum. Rondon may have had a tight grip on my arms, but my legs were free. I sent a foot flying and gave Griselda a swift kick in the stomach. Then I kicked Rondon's shin. He howled in pain, dropping me. I started to run before I hit the ground.
I yelled as I ran. Mostly, since I was a princess, I hadn't run much, or yelled much for that matter. But my legs and my lungs served me well.
"HELP! HELP! SHE'S GOING TO KILL ME! HELP! HELP ME!"
Isabelle came skidding out of the kitchen. "Eira, what is it?" she asked frightfully. I had no time to stop so I grabbed her arm along with me and pulled. She fell into step next to me as I thundered down the stairs.
"What is the matter?" she asked again.
"It's Griselda…she's trying to kill me because I saw her mirror tell her that I was the prettiest in the land, and—"
"Her mirror told her? What?"
"Don't talk, just listen!" I ordered. Somewhere up above, I heard Rondon's rumbling footsteps. "So then she caught me and tore up my letter from Devon and Rondon's with her and they're going to kill me if they catch me so run!"
We took my secret shortcut, one I had had since I was eight. I was hoping to run into somebody at the other end: Father, another servant, Gretchen, anybody but who I ran into.
"Gotcha," said Rondon, his yellowed teeth glinting in the light of the flickering candles.
Once more, his arms closed around me. "That'll teach you, Princess Brat," said Griselda from behind him. Isabelle struggled in the hold of Yvette, who was stronger than she looked.
"Let her go. She hasn't done anything to you," I commanded.
Griselda merely laughed. "And I haven't done anything to her either," she said. Her eyes narrowed darkly. "Yet."
The next thing I knew, I was stuffed in a bag with air holes punched in the sides. Isabelle was crammed inside with me too.
"Take them out to the woods, kill them, and cut out their hearts," Griselda ordered Rondon. I shuddered. I felt Isabelle do the same next to me. "Then bring the hearts to me. I will eat them to make sure they are dead."
"With pleasure, Your Majesty," Rondon said. I could tell he bowed because I heard his spine creak.
"I'll tell dear Godric that you've gone out hunting. Tomorrow the princess will be discovered missing. Be back here before tomorrow night. No one will think to look for the wench. Now go."
We were lifted into the air. Repeatedly, my head slammed into Rondon's knee through the canvas bag. Isabelle shook uncontrollably beside me, and then she went still.
"Isabelle?" I asked quietly so Rondon wouldn't hear me.
"For getting you into this."
"Oh, this?" she tried to sound offhand, but she couldn't. "It's all right."
We were silent for a while, and then she said, "Eira?"
"I can get us out of here."
"Well…I've never told anyone but my parents before…but I'm a witch."
Horrified, I pushed up against the encasing wall of the bag. Witches were evil. Everyone knew that. Now I was stuck in a bag with one. It would be worse than having my heart cut out.
"No, no, I'm a good witch. You have to trust me."
A good witch?
"Please listen," Isabelle said. "My mother was a witch too. She taught me how to use magic. And if we use magic, we can get out of this bag."
"But we can't go back to the castle. Griselda will eat us for breakfast," I reminded her.
"Then we won't. We'll go somewhere else. Anywhere but here."
I nodded. "Do you have a plan?"
"Just play along."
Presently the bag dropped onto the ground. I fell on top of Isabelle. The hole opened, and light and fresh air came flooding in. The air holes had been barely enough. "Out," Rondon ordered me. I stepped out. He was a hunter; I was a princess. Who did he think he was, ordering me about?
"You too," he commanded Isabelle. Slowly but surely, she climbed out of the sack. I could tell her bones ached just as mine did.
Rondon unsheathed his knife, a long, twelve-inch, deadly blade, and held it out toward me. "You first," he said. "Then the wench."
I closed my eyes, praying Isabelle hadn't frozen or fainted or anything. But nothing happened. I didn't feel any magic, but I didn't feel a knife go through me either. I opened my eyes. I was flying!
"Eira!" Isabelle yelled loudly. "You can fly!"
"Wha—how—" Rondon stood there, his mouth hanging open.
"I can fly!" I yelled back.
Isabelle leapt into the air, floating on a breeze. Rondon's eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. We flew higher and higher until we reached the top of the nearest tree, and then we peered down from the leaves.
"They're—they're gone—Her Highness will have me beheaded—I need a heart…I need two hearts." Rondon went off searching in the bushes for an animal, probably. But that didn't matter to me. I was safe. We were safe.
"We did it!" I said.
"Shh," Isabelle hushed, putting a finger to her mouth. She cupped a hand behind her ear. I listened, too.
"Here you are, sweet," came Rondon's sickening voice. Then I heard a boar cry aloud. I winced. "And another." Another cry. This time I shook so badly I nearly fell out of the tree. Isabelle caught me by the sleeve just in time.
We floated from tree to tree until we perched almost directly above Rondon's head. "I'll just bag these up and no one will know the difference," he said maniacally to no one. Then he laughed, high-pitched and shrill.
"He's lost it," Isabelle muttered to me.
Rondon threw the boars' hearts in the bag, tied it up again, swung it over his shoulder, and started off, whistling. I suddenly smiled and then I started to giggle.
"What's so funny?" Isabelle hissed.
"It's…it's just that…I'm imagining Griselda eating two boars' hearts," I laughed.
"Well, be quiet, or he'll hear you," she said, but a smile had crept over her face, too.
A few minutes later, when Rondon was assuredly out of earshot, we began to laugh hysterically. I nearly fell out of the tree again. Now that we had escaped, things seemed five times funnier than usual.
When we calmed down, I sobered. "Isabelle," I said quietly, "what are we going to do?"
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"Well, we obviously can't go back, can we? Griselda will get us again. And we're all alone out here in the forest…there could be wild animals!"
"Like boars," Isabelle agreed.
"So what do we do?"
"I guess we move on. Try to find someplace else. Maybe with luck we can reach a neighboring kingdom and hire ourselves out for work."
I shuddered again. Maybe she was used to waiting on someone hand and foot, but I wasn't. I was a princess. I had never really done anything for myself and by myself. At least, not without throwing a tantrum. But what other choice did we have?
"I guess so," I finally said, shrugging my shoulders. Already my dress was mussed. "Which direction?"
"It depends on where we want to go."
"I don't care. Far away from here. And not Sardo."
"Then I guess our best bet would be Cotumo," she said. "It's in that direction." She pointed to our right. All I could see were trees. "You want to fly?"
"If you want to."
She waved her hand, and up we went. We soared above and around the trees, flitting through their branches like hummingbirds, laughing and sometimes whistling a tune that reminded us of home. Once Isabelle broke out into a song that I knew well, from my earlier days. I found that it made me think not only of home, but also of the old days when Devon hadn't left Oricon.
"The wind in the trees
and the birds and the bees
and the flowers in the glen all around.
They laugh and the play
and they sing tunes all day
without ever making a sound.
The whoosh of the air
and the wind in your hair
make it wonderful to be here
and there's no place I'd be
by myself, only me,
that I wouldn't rather have you and me here."
She hummed the tune for a few more minutes, and then was silent.