How to femslash a fairy tale: take one feisty peasant girl, add a sorceress-princess disguised as a man, throw in a dragon and a few songs, and shake. (Not your head, hopefully, at my oddness.) Please, enjoy.
"You're all cowards!" I snarled, hurling the dishes I had just gathered into the washtub. "How can you stand to sit there and just talk? Everything that we have—"
"Quiet, Nightingale," my father snapped. "You are only a child, and a girl. This isn't your affair."
My mother nodded dutifully, wiping her eyes on her apron. "That poor princess. I can't blame her for what she did. It's good that she's finally happy."
"Mother, she left us," I pointed out, anger making my voice shake. "She had one thing to do for the good of the kingdom, and as soon as she had to face it she turned and ran, even after those like us die every day for this land. We are the only reason the king has any power. Without his peasants, he would be nothing!"
"That's treachery, girl," one of the other men in the inn warned darkly. "Heed your tongue."
"If only the eldest princess had not been banished," my mother mourned, bringing her apron up to cover her mouth, as though hiding the words would make them any less treasonous. "She was a kind girl, and so gentle."
Father growled under his breath. "I would rather have a dragon running amok in my fields than a sorceress on the throne. She had a magic that wasn't natural. Not natural at all, I tell you."
"It's not like it matters," I snapped. "She cared for the common folk, so the king drove her out. She was the only one of her family worth the air she breathed, the only one who understood what she owed us. I thought the younger princess did, but look now! She fled with her lover, to avoid doing what she was honor-bound to try!"
"No one wants to die," my mother argued, ignoring Father. "She just wished to be happy. Can't you accept that, Nightingale? The dragon will just have to be dealt with a different way. Even now, I'm sure the knights—"
I banged my tray down onto the dirty wooden bar. "The knights? They're just weaklings who hide behind their fancy armor. And even if they do manage to face the dragon, where do you think it will be? On our fields! We'll lose half of our crops, and have even less to give the king next time his tax collectors come to wring our bones for everything we have! I say let the dragon come! If we feed it, it will take less food than we give the king, and it will protect us from him!"
"Nightingale!" My father slammed his fist onto the scarred wood and glared at me. "That's enough," he warned thunderously. "Speak another word and I will whip you myself. You are on the verge of treason, daughter, and I will not hold with it. The king is good to us. We are allowed to live here, and hold land, and have our inn. We are prosperous, and we have the king to thank for it. Hold your tongue."
I whirled to glare around the room. "What? Do none of you even have the courage to face me? How can you call yourself men? If you agree with Father, stand up and say so! Tell me I am wrong! Tell me that our king is so kind and benevolent, and that I am nothing but a foolish child! Well?"
There was a slight stirring from the men at the tables, a shifting of eyes and a few furtive glances, but no one spoke.
"Cowards," I said again, and my voice was steady once more. I had hoped that someone would prove me wrong, that someone would say something, but no one had. Of course not. "You sit there and complain of the dragon that rampages through the countryside, but you would never dream of trying to stop it on your own. You hate that the king strips everything from you, but you would never dare rise up against him, even though you are the foundation of his power. And none of you, not one man among you, has the courage to defend yourselves to me, a harmless girl. You shame the very names you carry."
This time, the murmur was angry and dark, and several of the younger men eyed me furiously. My father put one hard hand on my shoulder and shoved me into a chair next to the banked fire. "Stop this foolery, Nightingale, and earn your keep. Or you can leave this village of 'cowards,' as you call us, and never return."
I glared at him, but picked up the harp on the floor and pulled off the leather case. I was a coward, too. This was the only place I had ever known, and I didn't want to leave it just like that. As much as I harried the men of the village, I was just as bad as they were.
Taking a deep breath, I touched the sings and coaxed forth the only thing that spoke to me, a weird, haunting tune that came easily to my fingers, and then sang softly,
"Dancing, spinning, ever turning,
Wanting, wishing, ever yearning
For a world of anarchy
Where we who fear can all be free.
Cry and laugh and weep and sing
For what this lovely chaos shall bring:
A world free of hate and fear—
And I shall dance to bring it near."
As the last note faded, the grumbling grew louder. I glared haughtily at my father, standing behind the bar, then shook my hair back from my face and dared him to do what he had threatened. His eyes narrowed, and he turned to the one stranger in the inn and bowed deeply.
"Please forgive my daughter," he said humbly to the younger, dark-robed man. "I have failed in raising her. Overlook her behavior, if you would be so kind."
The stranger—rare, even so close to the capital—inclined his head, his auburn hair shimmering almost fire-red under the weak light of our torches. The lines of his face were elegant and fine, like porcelain, and more beautiful than handsome. "She seems quite spirited."
That made me glance up from my harp and look at him in surprise. Either that was the most polite non sequitur I had ever heard, or he actually meant it as something good.
My father seemed surprised as well, but he recovered quickly. "Pigheaded, you mean. She is a stain upon our inn's name. The only reason we have kept her for so long is her voice and her harp. She can sing like the nightingale she's named for when she wishes, though that seems seldom of late." He turned and glared at me.
I knew how my family felt about me, but it was always painful to hear. With a glare of my own, I turned back to my harp and began to pluck out the rhythm of a popular ballad. The scowls and grim looks cleared up quickly as the words rose through the smoky room, carrying a prayer hidden deep within.
"What do you see
Beyond those skies?
The wind blowing by
The clouds are capricious;
What awaits us
At the end of this world?"
After the last of the customers had left, and the last of my family had retreated to their beds, I slipped out into the quiet of the night and made for the small grove of birches that stood around an inlet of the lake. It was a secluded spot, since no one in the village entered the copse for fear of spirits, and I had a habit of going there whenever I was particularly unhappy. No one ever found me there, and I felt it was ridiculous to fear the ghost of the long-dead witch who had died generations ago.
And besides, I knew something they didn't.
As I approached the sandy edge, I stopped a few feet from the water and bowed. "Dragon, I brought you some leftover pork, if you would like it. It isn't much, but my father sold everything else."
The deep water in front of me began to ripple, and then a scaly head broke through the surface and sniffed the air. I knelt down in the wet sand and held out the gift I had brought. "Here you are. Please, I know you can understand me. Knights are going to be coming by here soon, looking for you. They want to kill you, so you have to be careful, all right?"
The dragon's great mouth opened and its tongue, longer than I was tall, emerged. It delicately flicked the meat out of my hands and swallowed it with a snap of jaws, then turned and vanished back below the surface.
And as it did, a cry of fury split the air.
Startled, I spun and rose to my feet, only to see a pair of younger men emerge from the trees around me. I recognized them, having seen them only a few hours earlier, casting dark looks at me in the inn.
"Hayden, Desmond," I said breathlessly, retreating from the water a step. Had they seen?
The hard light in their eyes assured me that they had. Hayden, the taller of the two, smiled grimly and stepped forward. There was a long knife in his hand, half-hidden among the folds of his trousers. My heartbeat stuttered slightly, then began pounding in my throat. They looked even angrier now than they had at the inn, and there was a pleased sort of fury hanging around them. I retreated another step.
"Come on, now," Hayden said, and though his voice was cheerful, it was as bright and hard as the knife in his hand. "Don't look at us like that, Nightingale. We're simply proving you wrong. See? We're dealing with a problem all on our own, like big boys. You still want to call us cowards?"
Before I could turn and flee, a hand closed around my arm in a bruising grip, and I gasped and tried to jerk away from Desmond. But he held me tight, and looked even angrier and nastier than Hayden. Desmond had always been the manipulator. He could maneuver Hayden into doing anything he wanted, and then reap the benefits. This time, it looked like my suffering was going to be his reward.
Desmond smiled at my futile attempts to pry my arm loose. "This is for everyone's benefit, Nightingale. What if one of the king's spies heard you talking? He would wipe out the entire village. Maybe you're right, and we are cowards, but at least we're live ones. And you? You're a traitor to every human, consorting with a dragon. We're doing the village a favor by getting rid of you."
My eyes widened as I realized with a shock that they meant to kill me, really kill me, and I spun to face Hayden again—just as the long knife stabbed into my chest.
Pain like I couldn't believe pounded through me, and I tried to draw a breath to curse them, but couldn't. Instead, blood filled my mouth and I choked on it, terrified but too weak to get away from them.
Desmond let go of my arm, allowing me to slip to the ground, and I fell. There was no strength left in my arms to catch myself, or even to pull out the knife. I just lay there, staring up at them in silent shock as pain washed over me. My entire chest had become a scarlet wash of agony, and I couldn't draw in any breath.
"Come on," Desmond said coldly, nudging my body away with the toe of one boot. "We're done here." Footsteps sounded, calm and even as he walked away. A moment later, heavier ones join in, and the two men quickly passed from hearing.
How long I lay there, I couldn't say. It felt like an eternity, where all I knew was the sharp, throbbing pain in my chest and the labored breaths that I managed to drag into my lungs. But breathing was getting progressively harder, and my world was getting darker—not from the deepening of night, either.
And then soft hoofbeats sounded, like those of a large horse. But they weren't the crashing, ponderous steps of the village steeds, all of which were draft horses used only for pulling the plows. Instead, these were the steps of a swift, heavy-boned warhorse, of the kind usually ridden by knights. They stopped a few feet from me, but I couldn't even find the strength to lift my head and see.
There was a long moment of silence, broken only by my labored breathing, and then boots hit the soft ground. Steps approached, and a dark figure knelt at my side. I flicked my eyes up to look at him and felt a dart of surprise, even through the pain. It was the stranger from the inn. But what was he doing out here, when I knew for a fact that he had paid for rooms back at home?
"Damn," he murmured, and his strangely sweet voice was soft and full of grief. "I didn't make it in time. I'm sorry. I overheard their plan and tried to follow them when they followed you, but I lost them in the trees."
If I'd had the air, I would have laughed. I was certain that others had overheard Desmond and Hayden, too, but out of everyone in the village, only the outsider had come to help me. It was most definitely ludicrous, and worth a final laugh, but I didn't have the breath.
Something flickered in the young man's eyes, and he bent over me with misery written in every line of his face. "I'm sorry. This is my fault."
But that wasn't right. I summoned every last bit of energy I had and raised one hand, high enough that my fingertips could just graze his cheek, then whispered painfully, "Don't be. I was…thoughtless when…I said those…things to them." Every few words, I had to pause to take a breath and fight down the knot of torture in my chest. Talking hurt. Thinking hurt. But it was worth it, just to give him my thanks. Here was someone who cared. I hadn't met someone like that before. My only regret was that I had to leave in the very moment I met him. But I smiled anyway, and whispered, "Thank you."
In the stranger's deep old-gold eyes, something changed at that moment. Some awareness, some recognition, passed across his well-formed features and disappeared before I could question it. What was left in its place with an amused acceptance, and just a little bit of joy. He smiled as he bent over me, and it was both wry and glad. "I thought fairytale princesses were supposed to be sweet and demure," he said, with laughter in his strangely musical voice that was only half-smothered. "But then again, if you were a princess, you'd be offered to a dragon tomorrow, so maybe it's better this way."
His words might have confused me, but his actions left me reeling. Before I could make any move, he leaned the rest of the way down and pressed his lips to my forehead. He drew back quickly, but the spot burned like fire. It wasn't painful, just hot and a bit odd. And then the stranger did something that astonished me further. He sat back and his golden eyes began to glow, as though the sun had suddenly risen behind them. Before I could even gasp, he passed a darkly glittering hand over my chest and whispered something in a language I didn't know.
And just like that, the pain was gone. The knife, too. I could breathe, and I drew in my first deep lungful of sweet air in ecstasy. The agony had been replaced by a fluttering feeling in my heart, one that I had never felt before, and I looked at the stranger in bewilderment. The only ones in our land who could perform such magics, who could learn the sorcerer's tongue, were the royal family. But the only other prince in the castle was younger than I. This man, though, looked as though he had just seen the beginning of his second decade.
Then my eyes widened, catching the curves and lines that had been hidden under the bulky cloak and the veil of my pain. Not a man at all, it seemed, but a woman.
The eldest princess, older than me by four years, would have been the right age, but she had been banished for some false charge of treason several years ago. This stranger couldn't…
The stranger smiled self-deprecatingly and swept an arm out in a half-bow, even kneeling. "Do you still think I'm the only one of my family worth the air I breathe, sweet little Nightingale?"
Carefully, I sat up, but the pain didn't return. I looked at ex-Crown Princess Kayden and just sighed, running one hand through my leaf-strewn hair. Covered in blood and dirt, I must have looked a sight. "I take it the dragon was your doing?" The princess had been rumored to associate with such creatures—one of the reasons she had been banished as a dark sorceress.
A small smile crossed her face. "So you know about the dragon. I wondered who was feeding her so well. But she's not mine. I just came to convince her to leave, but I never thought I'd find someone who agreed with my ideas here." She took my hand and raised it to her lips, as though I were some highborn lady and not a mud-splattered peasant girl. "I was greatly surprised to hear your words in the inn, sweet Nightingale."
"Not so sweet," I corrected dryly. "If you think otherwise, you obviously didn't hear me well earlier." With the memory still fresh in my mind, I glanced back towards the village, a bit wistfully. It was my home, after all.
"I can't go back, can I?"
Princess Kayden shook her head somberly. "I'm afraid not, but not for the reason you think. I had to mark you to save your life." Very gently, she reached out and traced the spot on my forehead where she had kissed me. It was still warm, and flared with more heat at her touch. "Now you can't be more than ten miles from me, or the wound will return. I'm sorry. It was the only thing I could manage without more preparation, and you were fading quickly."
I smiled and curled my fingers around her hand, still holding mine in a loose grip. "Don't apologize. You saved my life. How could I ever be less than grateful for that?" Gently, I squeezed her hand. "Never apologize for such a thing."
She smiled in return. "So practical. Well, little Nightingale? Would you care to accompany me? My work here is done, and I must travel, to find some way to reclaim my throne. Will you help me?"
Would Kayden make a good queen? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Would she make a better queen than her father did a king? Without a doubt. And so I couldn't say no. I gripped her hand and let her pull me to my feet, then nodded. "I suppose. Since I have nothing better to do at the moment."
Kayden laughed at that, and leaned forward. She kissed me, and I let her. It was sweet, and gentle, but it held everything that I had never had. With a laugh of my own, I pulled out of her grip to spin on the soft grass by the lake's shores, and the stars above me glowed so fiercely that I wanted to weep at their heartrending intensity. But now was no time for tears, and so I threw back my head and sang. I sang for joy, for life, for love, and it rose like an arrow through the midnight silence, to pierce the heart of whoever was listening.
"Do not weep on sleepless nights;
Do not let the cold rain touch you;
For years to come.
Take me with you into that distant future.
Take me with you into that new sky, shining with light,
Until our time flows away in silence.
Do not weep on sleepless nights;
Do not let the cold rain touch you;
Four years later:
We came down the stairs of the small inn just before sunrise. My Bonded—disguised, for ease of travel amongst the ignorant, as my husband—picked me up carefully to help me over the drunken farmer at the foot of the steps and then set me down with graceful care on the main floor, her hands lingering for a moment around my waist as though she didn't want to let go. I brushed her off with an admonishing hiss and turned to face the innkeeper's wife as she came over. As had happened before, she started slightly when she saw my face, and I automatically put up a hand to my forehead. My sorcery-mark was still covered, though, so that none could see it.
Kayden stepped in front of me slightly, half-hiding me from view under the pretext of helping me into my cloak. "Is something wrong, mistress?"
She waved her hands, flustered at the sudden attention. "Oh! Oh, no! Not at all! Your wife just reminds me of someone, that's all. I'm sorry. I don't mean to be rude."
She shook her head genially. "Don't worry, you aren't being rude. But thank you for the rooms last night. Everywhere else was full, and I thought we were going to have to sleep in the road." Pulling my hood up carefully, she turned her attention to me. "Love, you should warm yourself before the fire while I settle the bill. It looks like a storm is coming."
The innkeeper grunted agreement, heading over at the mention of money. "That it is, and a rare noble you are indeed, if you can tell so, milord."
Kayden brushed that off. "I'm no lord yet." Or a lord at all, though neither of us corrected the assumption. "But maybe someday. We're actually on our way to see the king about that right now, to ask if he will return my birthright." There was something dark and hard in her eyes as she said it, though I didn't think either one of them noticed. You had to really know Kayden to see the part of her that wasn't nice.
"Good luck to you, then," the innkeeper said gruffly. "Just be careful on your way out of town, especially with your lady-wife. There's a creature there that got our daughter once. Boys swear to have seen it drag her into the lake, despite their blades and all that they could do." As he mentioned the "boys," he jerked his head towards a pair of men in the corner.
Settling myself on a chair before the fire, I could have sworn I saw them flinch slightly.
"A daughter?" Kayden asked politely, handing over a few coins. "I'm very sorry for your loss." Though they didn't see it, the hard light was back in her eyes, and her motions were a bit abrupt—her version of a rude gesture.
"Eh." The innkeeper waved that away, not noticing the rough motion. "'Twas years ago. Didn't realize 'till she'd gone just what it would be like without her. Drew in a lot of customers, too. She could sing like a nightingale, when she felt like it." His small smile held an old pain, and his wife's face bore marks of the same. But then he shook it off and addressed Kayden again, instead of some time-distant phantom. "You and your lady been traveling long?"
Kayden gave him a wry smile that was charming, because she wanted it to be. "Ah, please, that's a sore subject. I actually interrupted our honeymoon to drag my wife across a dozen borders and back here, since I heard the king was ill."
"Last chance, eh?" the innkeeper asked, but his wife clapped her hands excitedly and spoke over him.
"Oh my, your honeymoon? How long have you been married?"
"Four years," Kayden said, at the exact moment I responded, "Five months."
We glared at each other across the room.
"I married you the night we met," Kayden said, an oft-repeated argument. "It counts."
I raised a cool brow in return. "A kiss on the lakeshore doesn't count as a proposal, much less an acceptance of one," I responded tartly. "The first person who proposed to me was Captain Mistral in Ravensholm, not you. You're lucky I didn't say yes to him. He's really very pretty."
Kayden scowled. It was still a sore point. "That's not a fair comparison! The first time I saw him, I thought he was a girl! He's even prettier than—" Apparently becoming aware of how dangerously she was treading, she shut her mouth with a snap.
I smiled sweetly and repeated, "Five months."
The innkeeper's wife chuckled. "Oh, my! You really are newlyweds. And how did you meet?"
For a moment, Kayden was at a loss for words. I saw that and took a breath, then sang softly, drawing every eye,
"The people sleep at twilight,
But one maid lies awake,
Dreaming of the fall of kings
And dragons in the lake.
As the dreamer's dying,
The banished prince rides by;
A thousand stars are shining
Within that midnight sky.
He saves her from the touch of death
And kneels down at her side,
Then puts her on his night-black steed
And away they ride.
His throne is lost, but not for long,
And soon they shall return;
Prince and dreamer, lord and wife,
And above, the sky shall burn."
Dead silence fell around me as the last note trembled in the air, and I stood carefully, again drawing my hood up over my purple-blue-black hair, like a nightingale's tail-feathers—hair the same color as that of the innkeeper's wife. I smiled at my Bonded and held out a hand. "Shall we go, my love? If we leave now, we can make it to the castle before nightfall."
"Ah. Yes." She accepted my hand and led me out the door of the inn, where a chill wind had picked up. The door closed behind us on the shocked stares of every person present.
In the road, a bay mare whickered and pranced, tossing her head. Her rider, the aforementioned Captain Mistral, held the reins of Kayden's black stallion. He passed them to the once-Crown Princess, nodding politely to me. Kayden saw and scowled, but accepted the reins and mounted, then offered me a hand. "Lady Wife?"
I glared at the hand. "You know, I am capable of riding by myself."
Kayden smiled and nudged her horse over a few steps, then leaned down and grabbed me around the waist, hoisting me up in front of her to sit sidesaddle. "Of course you are, my little Nightingale. But that would leave you prey to all the men and women who are entranced by your beauty and can't help but fall in love, as I couldn't help it. And then I would have to kill them, since I am a base, jealous woman, and no one would want that."
"Might I remind you, Lady Husband," I retorted acidly, because that title never failed to tweak her tail, "that when we met I was covered in blood, leaves, and mud, and hardly the picture of beauty that you seem to recall?"
As though reminded of just why we had met, and why everything that had happened had occurred, Kayden cast a look back at the tightly-shuttered inn. "Do you think it was all right to tell them that?"
"Tell them what?" I asked lightly, putting my hands on the reins and turning the stallion away from the door. I didn't look back. "All I did was sing a song. And besides, they always were cowards. They won't tell anyone."
Kayden's arms came around my waist, taking the reins from me, and we started down the road. "But don't you think that was a little dramatic, Nightingale? 'And above, the sky shall burn'…It sounds like something out of an epic tale."
I lifted my chin. "What more did you want from me on the spur of the moment? And besides." I nodded towards the eastern sky, which glowed as though a fire had been lit within it. "It's true, isn't it?"
And silhouetted against the blazing sky, a host of spears came into view. Behind them, like a dark river, stretched an army the likes of which our land had never seen before, all gathered during the night from a dozen different countries, all of whom had agreed to lend their support to Kayden for her return. Captain Mistral took his place at their head, behind Kayden, and saluted.
"Your Highness, all are gathered and ready for the march to the capital. Shall we sound the call to march?"
Kayden nodded, looking into the distance. "Yes. And remember, we keep to the roads and out of the fields. It's still the season for winter crops, and I don't want anyone starving because of a few missteps."
I smiled to myself at that, even as the bugles sounded up and down the columns. And as the soldiers began to march, Kayden leading them all, I sang into the wind, and it carried my voice across the fields and down the line of brave, somber men, sweeping over the land like a call for revolution.
"Do not weep on sleepless nights;
Do not let the cold rain touch you;
Far away into the distance,
Because I will go anywhere for this wild love.
Take me with you into that new sky, shining with light,
Until our time flows away in silence.
Do not weep on sleepless nights;
Do not let the cold rain touch you;
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