It was time for the draft again. Every ten years, like clockwork. First it would be the locusts, littering porches and infesting barns and stables. Later, the storms would come, flooding the cobblestone streets and snapping tree branches and chimney tops. And if the draft did not take place, if one of the Gallican people was not taken, the illness would start. Every ten years. Like clockwork.
There were no other options. No one in their right mind would volunteer to be taken. Even though the citizens of Gallia had no idea what outside force was driving the royalty to take someone from their home and send them God-knows-where, they knew that, once the draft had taken place, the plagues would stop. So to give one of their own every ten years would be alright - as long as whoever was drafted was not someone they knew personally. They probably would have died soon anyway, the people reasoned.
It was time for the draft again, and the old milkman was drafted. His family had been offered a good sum as repayment for him, as was the custom. He was willing to go peacefully, and his family seemed resigned to losing him, except for the milkman's youngest son. His son, acutely aware that his life was worth less to the family than his father's life, offered himself in his father's stead. Turning a deaf ear to the protests of his family, he went with the guards to the palace.
The king and his queen, who seemed much more frail up close, explained everything after the guards left: Gallia had been visited every ten years ever since before anyone alive could remember by a witch who demanded a sacrifice or she would wreak havoc on the kingdom. They were incredibly sorry for whatever he was going to go through, and each embraced him. The king's embrace was strong, almost brotherly. The queen's was gentle, almost motherly, as her feeble body shook with her arms around him. The witch would arrive in the garden at midnight, they said, and he would be given freedom to wander the castle until then.
The boy - for, though he was nearing manhood, he was still very much a boy - walked through the halls trying to ignore the clocks that seemed to tick on ever slower. Whatever was going to happen, he wanted it to get over with. If he was going to die, he wanted it to happen quickly. He paid no attention to where he was going. He went up and down various staircases aimlessly. It was not until he heard a small murmur in one of the rooms that he opened a door.
It was a chamber, smaller than he had imagined it would be. There was a small girl in the pink bed, sitting with her arms wrapped around her knees, tears streaming down her face. He took a step into the room, and she jumped, letting out a squeak.
"Whh-who are you?" said a little voice.
"A friend," the boy replied.
"Are you g-going to hurt me?" the girl whispered.
"Never ever," he assured her, sitting on the bed next to her. "What's wrong?"
The girl retreated a few inches from him. "I h-had a bad dream."
Ignoring his urge to move closer, he stayed put on the edge of the bed. "Want to talk about it?"
She shook her head violently.
"Sometimes it helps," he offered.
She was quiet for a while. "You're sure you're my friend?" He nodded, and she continued. "I dreamed this big dragon was trying to eat me."
"I bet that was really scary."
She inched a little closer to him. "It was. I don't want to get eaten."
"Me neither," he said, his heart heavy. He was quiet again. "I would have been scared of the dragon, too."
"Oh, I'm not scared of dragons," she said nonchalantly. "I'm only scared of the ones who do scary things, like eat princesses. Do you think there are nice dragons?"
"I think there must be," he replied, as she moved even closer and rested her head on his arm.
"Why are you up?" she asked, after a few moments, "Did you have a bad dream, too?"
He smiled, but his heart sank. "Sort of."
"Well," she said, tucking herself back under the sheets, "if you have another bad dream tomorrow night, you can come here and talk about it with me. My friend told me it helps." She was asleep before the boy had the chance to say anything else. He stood up slowly, so as not to shake the bed. He looked around before he left the room. She was potentially the last human contact he would ever have, so the boy decided to cement everything in his memory. Even in the dark, he could see the name written above the girl's armoire: Sabrina. He took a step back.
"Good night, Princess. Your Highness."
Ashamed and proud of himself, the boy walked slowly out of the girl's room. The silent grandfather clock read that he still had a half-hour until midnight - a half-hour until life as he knew it would change forever. His thoughts went to his family, and he hoped they would be well-paid. They needed the money, and perhaps they could hire a worker to take his place. He had never been the best with cows, so perhaps his absence would be better for the business. Hopefully, in whatever lay after death, he would be able to see his parents and brothers prosper.
He kept walking, trying to retrace the steps he had not paid attention to before. He had to find his way to the garden. I may as well wait for my fate, he thought. The castle was beginning to feel like a prison, and he wanted an escape. No, he realized, his own skin was the prison, and no matter where he went there was no way out.
After descending countless stairwells and opening countless doors, he was greeted by the cool breeze of a June night. The garden lay sprawled in front of him, a labyrinth of hedges just taller than he could reach. The king and queen had said the witch would meet him in the garden, but they had never specified where. He put his right hand on the hedge wall and took tentative steps into the garden. Keeping his hand on the wall, he followed what seemed like an endless path of twists and turns until he found a clearing.
It was beautiful and enormous. Fragrant buds bloomed even though it was nighttime. He had never seen flowers that bloomed at night. He bent down and cupped a hand around the biggest flower he could find. His mother would have loved to see it, he decided. It was purple and smelled sweet and spicy at the same time. He stood back up and looked around. The boy spotted a thorny bush next to a sapling tree, which he approached and knelt next to. There were little greenish spheres the size of a thumbprint that dotted the bush. Roses, he thought.
Suddenly, a young woman's voice cut through the silence. "They're beautiful when they're in bloom," the voice said, and one of the thumbprints grew closer to his face and bloomed right in front of his eyes, its scent stronger than any rose he had ever smelled. He turned, standing up as quickly as he could.
There she stood, in the center of the garden. The source of the voice, a pale woman who looked no older than twenty, peered at him with dark eyes that masked anything inside them. Her dress, slimmer than the dresses he was accustomed to seeing nobility wear, was as dark as her hair. The handle of a dagger stood out from a sheath that was belted around the woman's waist. "It's so sad when they fade, isn't it?"
The boy, his heart pounding faster by the moment, finally found the courage to speak. "Who are you?"
Her lips formed what seemed to be a cruel grin. "I go by Freya," she said, "but you've probably never heard me by that name." She walked - no, floated across the ground - to the rose bush and flicked her hand at the blossom. The stem underneath it snapped free from the bush and drifted towards her, stopping and hovering a few inches from her hand.
"You're the witch," he realized, though he had not intended to say it aloud. And, as though he had no control over his tongue, he spoke again: "I thought you'd be older."
Freya smirked. "Appearances can be deceiving." She floated in a circle around him, moving slowly, the rose still suspended in front of her. "And you," she added, "I've never had anyone young like you are."
He took a deep breath. All he could smell was the rose, its scent almost intoxicating. It seemed like eternity before anyone spoke. "What are you going to do to me?" the boy asked.
The witch paused in her drifting. "To be completely honest, I'm not sure." She turned the rose without touching it. "I don't know if the normal ritual would be appropriate in this case. I could, but..." her voice trailed off and her hand moved to caress the dagger's handle. "I would like to make a proposition."
A proposition? The boy's heart fluttered. If he accepted, maybe she would let him live. "What kind of proposition?"
Freya cleared her throat. "I've been interested, as of late, in a union - a mate, so to speak. And you could be just the right person."
The boy felt his heart drop again. "You… you want me to marry you?"
"In essence, yes."
Marry her, he heard something say. A voice in his head, perhaps. Marry her, it said, and your troubles will cease. He found it difficult to open his mouth to speak, but he did. "If I… go with you," he began hesitantly, "you won't kill me?"
A peal of laughter erupted from Freya as she smiled. "If you come with me, not only will I not kill you, but you'll never die."
Say yes, the voice - which now seemed to be coming from the rose - whispered. He felt his mouth form the word, ready to speak it. He forced it to change from yes to "How?"
"The same way I do." Freya moved closer. "You and I will come here every ten years and drain the life force from a mortal and capture their soul, and we will stay young forever."
The boy felt the color drain from his face. If he did not join her, he would be murdered; if he did, he would be the murderer.
"What do you say, boy?" the witch asked. He took another deep breath, his lips preparing to say yes. The rose called to him still, ordering him to accept. The scent overwhelmed him, filling his nostrils with its power.
It was getting harder to speak, but he managed. "I would rather die than give up my humanity."
The air turned cold. Freya, whatever she was, was not pleased. Her eyes were ice as they bored into him. Her voice raised in pitch and flew at him like the dagger at her waist could. "You have no idea what losing your humanity feels like, boy. You refuse? Fine. I should kill you right now."
He trembled uncontrollably. His mouth was dry. The scent urged him to change his mind, but he kept his mouth shut.
"But I don't want to see you throw your life away like this. I'll give you time to make a decision - ten years of time. I will change you now and curse you. You don't want to give up your humanity? Too bad. You will slowly become less and less of a human, and more and more of a monster. When those ten years pass, I will return and ask you this very same question. If you accept, then I will change you back. If still you deny me, then I will tear out the last vestiges of a soul inside you and you will belong entirely to me."
The boy's knees gave out and he fell to them. He could not move, no matter what he tried.
"I suppose if someone else should find you and admit love for you, then I could also turn you back. But nobody will. People are vain, boy, I know that and so do you. Nobody will ever love you enough to save you, nobody except me."
Breathing was labored now. The poisonous scent was filling his lungs. The rose flew to a few inches in front of his face. "Do we have a deal?" she asked. He nodded weakly. His right hand, acting of its own volition, grasped the rose from the air. The thorns tore across his palm as the edges of each petal turned black. He dropped the rose and his hand held itself up. Freya held his bleeding hand to her skin, which seemed to drink up the scarlet drops. He fell backwards, his back against the grass.
The last thing he saw was Freya's dagger enter his chest, and the last thing he felt was fire, and then the world fell away.