Story: a construct of characters and plot created by an Author and consumed by a Reader
Definitions are immutable. Unchangeable.
War blistered the land. Fields burned; cottage doors creaked on scattered hinges. Uniforms spotted the cobbled streets like abandoned potato sacks. In the Palace, blood dripped down the marble staircase.
A set of red bootprints led from room to silent room. At the end of the trail: the Duke of Ormondy, and one last door.
The mouth of the door gagged open onto a square of light fallen from the window. Framed in the square: a cross-legged toddler. The princess.
The Duke shifted his grip on his bloodied sword. The girl stared back at him with curious eyes.
The Reader tenses. Oh no.
He's not. He's not going to kill her, is he?
"Of course I am," the Duke replied with a testy sigh. "I've just massacred the rest of her family; why wouldn't I?"
Oh, alright then.
The Duke paused. The princesses' wayward curls reminded him of his youngest son, Liam. The Duchess still kept his curls long, his chubby limbs swathed in gowns. The Duke's brow pinched away the thought.
The girl offered the Duke a coloured wooden block.
Shit! He's still going to do it isn't he?
Well, that's his job. She stands between him and the throne, after all. It's a livelihood thing.
But she's only a kid, she's not exactly a threat or anything
"Oh, my Lord!" a begging voice tumbled with its owner from the armoire. A maid sprawled at his feet, her wrinkled legs plucked from cotton skirts. "For pity's sake! Little Onella is no threat to you. She is but barely a child-"
The girl smiled shyly up at him. The maid's pleading poured onwards.
The Duke's lower lip hardened against the maid's river of beseechments. As he considered the girl, his fingers unstuck themselves one by one from the hilt of his sword and reapplied themselves. "It's true she is only a babe."
"Wise lord! A babe is no threat, not to man such as yourself! Just a cub, she is, just-"
"But the day she turns eighteen, she will be a threat to me and mine," the Duke continued. She must die, he thought, it is the way of the world and cannot be changed.
Well, actually it can be, you know-
Who's telling this story, me or you?
But the girl placed her palms on the polished wooden floor and pushed herself to her feet. Swaying slightly, she tucked her chubby fists beneath her chin and grinned. Liam does that, thought the Duke, just the other day…
Step by elephantine step, the toddler wavered closer to the Duke. He placed the tip of his sword on her breastbone to stop her advance.
"Master! Please!" The maid squirmed forwards. "Let her live. Let her have a childhood at least. Do not weigh down your soul with the death of a child!"
The girl studied the blade pricking her smock.
The sword's tip dropped. "Fine. Whilst she is a child: she will live."
The maid grovelled like a dog. "Oh, thank you, thank you, Sire. Truly you are-"
"And on her eighteenth birthday, " The Duke fingered the filigree cross chained round his neck, then dropped it, "she dies." He smiled at the maid. "It's perhaps wrong to kill a babe."
"Oh, but, Sire-"
"But for you, there is no such excuse." The sword incised the air. The river of words stopped from the maid's mouth, and a river of red ran from her throat.
Anyway, fifteen years passed, and then a little more, and little Onella grew tall. The Duke had furnished her with a Nurse and a cottage, and a tangled garden and a tall stone wall, and this made up her world. Beyond the wall, Onella had peeked at a hoar-breathed swamp, ragged dying trees, the moan of frogs and the stink of rotting mud.
She knew, because she had tried once when she was seven, that kissing the frogs did not result in princes. But she also knew that, as a princess, her destiny lay in the hands of a prince.
Nurse told her often enough of imprisoned princesses and daring princes. Onella practised her curtsies in bare, muddied feet, and applied herself to needlework on her fraying hems, knowing that one day a prince would come for her. The world outside was not safe for her alone, but on her eighteenth birthday, her prince would come and take her away.
This is making me nauseous.
You're kidding me?
Nup. She can't marry him. Onella, he's not coming to –
Hey! There's a reason readers aren't allowed to talk to characters, and you're it.
"Look, can we get on with this, please?" Onella asked, "I have a prince arriving any second."
Her birthday dawned. Nurse was already in tears as the princess woke.
"I shall miss you so, dearest," Nurse wept, pressing a tray of birthday treats into Onella's hands.
The princess uncurled from her bed and checked the skies, patting at her nurse. Blue – a clear day – perfect! "There, Nurse darling, don't cry; I shall send for you just as soon as I'm wed."
"Yes." A ghastly attempt at a smile trembled across Nurse's lips. "Yes, of course. I hope you've been happy with me?"
"Sweet Nurse," Onella stretched into the corners of her room, her fingers brushing the low, wooden ceiling, "you are the very best Nurse a girl could ever want."
Nurse gripped her knees. "Promise me you'll forgive me any one wrong I've done you?"
Onella spoke around a mouthful of cake and peach. "Never once have you done me wrong, dear nurse."
And with a snatch of tune and a skip in her step, she rose to prepare herself for her prince.
You're going to kill her, aren't you?
That was the general plan.
You're going to kill her, and the worst of it is, she thinks her prince charming is going to arrive and is happy about it.
The sun climbed into the morning sky, and indeed a Prince was on his way. King Byron, formerly the Duke of Ormondy, had sent his youngest son, Prince Liam, to complete the bargain he had made fifteen years ago.
Prince Liam knew he had been sent as punishment for being the weakest and least fierce of the King's three sons.
"She's only a girl," his brothers had leered at him, "Even you could kill a girl."
Prince Liam didn't doubt that he could, in theory, go through the moves. Though the smallest of the brothers, their constant scrapping leant him a wiry toughness that could drive a blade through any spare hunk of meat.
What galled him this morning, what shadowed his face from the gentle autumn sun, was that even when he'd done the distasteful deed, his life would never amount to anything more. Liam the Girl-Killer would be lauded in all the beer-houses behind snigger-hiding hands. His brothers would be in stitches on the Palace floor, laughing til they wept. He would be nothing more than a joke til the end of his days.
Prince Liam gripped his sword's hilt tighter and trudged on through the forest, punching stray branches out of his way.
I'm not speaking to you.
"Ooh, here he comes!" Onella peered over the hazy marshlands from her perch astride the garden wall.
"Get down from there!" Nurse gasped.
"And he's got a horse-" Onella took one last look before she slithered down the wall.
"Onella!" Nurse cried.
"And a sword!" She grinned, landing at its base in the death-gasp puff-cloud of trodden mushrooms. "It's a prince for sure!" Her heartstrings sewed themselves tight in a clutch of anticipation. She ran for the gate.
And so the gate opened before Liam had a chance to knock. He was caught off guard, his sword half-snagged in its scabbard, swamp-mud painting his legs to his knees, his horse likewise behind.
Onella shoved the heel of her foot into his chest . He stumbled back, falling into the shallows of the marsh. She landed ontop of him, a pitchfork to his throat.
What did you do?!
Onella and I had words while you were off cavorting with prince-face.
I don't believe this -
"Ahem," Onella said.
"My moment?" Onella smiled sweetly. Liam eye's darted between them all. He tugged a little at his sword hilt.
Sure. Whatever. Go ahead.
"My prince," Onella said, joy glowing from her words. "You have come for me."
"I…" the prince gave up tugging at his sword. He threaded his fingers through the tines of the fork and eased them away from his throat. He peered at the threadbare princess. "Are you…?"
"Princess Onella, heir to throne." Her eyes narrowed at him. "You are a prince, are you not?"
"Yes. Yes." Liam cleared his throat of its awkward scratching. "Prince Liam. And you're not the heir, by the way. You've been misinformed."
Ha. Take that.
The princess opened her mouth to protest and the prince twisted the pitchfork from her grip. He leapt to his feet.
His sword clattered to the dirt.
Heh heh. Take that.
Onella snapped it up and they circled each other.
"You're not behaving much like a prince." She sniffed.
Liam snorted softly. "You're not acting much like a princess." He hefted the pitchfork higher and poked at her ragged skirts. "You don't even look like a princess."
He WHAT?! Sick him, 'Nells!
Onella cried out in outrage, swiping the pitchfork away. "I made this skirt myself! Look, that's hardly the point." Her chin lifted. Her sword steadied, pointing at his heart. "I am the rightful heir to the throne. If you want to become King, you have to marry me."
Hullo…? Is anyone listening to me anymore?
Okay. Just checking.
"Marry you?" Liam expelled a cough of disbelief from his lungs. He knocked the sword away from its target. "Are you insane?"
"Do you want to be King or not?" The sword steadied once more. "Marry me, and our families and the country are united. Kill me, and you get nothing."
"Yes," Onella said, "If you read the Royalty Act of 1438, you'll find it's quite so."
Liam's bottom lip protruded as he studied her. "You've thought about this."
She nodded shortly. "I've had a bit of time on my hands."
Prince Liam noticed the brawny Nurse hovering in the gateway, a carving knife and a potato peeler in either hand. All saw a grudging realisation dawn on his face: he was outnumbered. Outweaponed and outclassed. Frustration twisted his lips.
"This doesn't have to end badly," Onella breathed, watching his every move, reading every thought that passed over his face. "And you can always try and kill me later if you change your mind."
"Don't you think you're being a wee bit naïve?"
Onella shrugged a wisp of hair out of her face. "Nurse has contacts with the Loyalist Army."
The prince gaped. "There's a Loyalist Army?"
Onella barked out a laugh. "Now who's the naïve one?"
A frog croaked. The sun rose infinitesimally higher.
Spitting a string of swear words, the prince dropped his pitchfork. Onella dropped her sword at once and rushed to embrace him.
"Ooh, I knew you'd see sense!" she squealed, kicking up her heels. Liam sank into a resentful but tolerant silence, and the Nurse sagged against the gatepost and wiped her brow with the back of her arm.
Onella planted a smack of a kiss on his cheek. She beamed at him. "You are my Prince after all."
And the day continued on, a perfect, fairy-tale blue. Well after all: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
And the Reader smiled.
AN: Written for the February Review Game's Writing Challenge Contest (link in my profile). The prompt being" "change something". Read the other entries and vote for your favourite between the 7th and 14th Feb : ) Thanks to my awesomely awesome beta Narq for beta-ing this!!