War, Revolution and Witches
Author's Note: Somewhat inspired by the premise of the Don Bluth 100% historically INaccurate feature length animation about Princess Anastasia Romanov. If it were only possible to change history as you fancy... why not just change it to be about what you want?
Karl had once been Prince of the great Silbermond dynasty of the realm of Ostinia. He remembered their two hundredth anniversary celebration that took place when he was just six. The Great Dance Hall was sumptuously decorated. Glittering crystal sculptures stood in a procession around the walls and a great, evergreen tree had been placed in each corner. Ornaments like multicoloured gems adorned their branches, twinkling in the light of the crystal chandeliers above.
Karl's older sisters all had dance partners and appeared to be enjoying themselves immensely, but he was too young to dance and anyway, he was not strong enough. He was content to sit with his grandmother, the Queen Mother and watch. He nestled beside her on her spacious throne.
She stroked his hair and beamed. "A glorious celebration tonight, dearest… although…" He thought he saw a troubled look cross her eyes.
His father, the King, spoke darkly of troubles in their realm, and the constant threat of uprising.
"Are you worried about an uprising, Grandmama? Or the Great War? Papa says the war is bad."
"Oh no, my dearest boy, don't let that trouble you. Here, look." She handed him a little snow-globe made of the finest crystal and inside the tiniest model of Rosewood Castle, her ancestral home in the Kingdom of Rosewood, to the west.
Karl admired this for a few moments, shaking the globe so that snow appeared to swirl around his grandmother's castle.
Then he asked the question again. "Is it the rebels or the war that make father worry?"
"They may have dark mages on their side this time, precious," said his grandmother quickly. But she was reluctant to say more.
If only that had been the end of the subject. Karl could not bring himself to write all the details of that night in midwinter when the rebels stormed the palace and how he heard the shots that killed his parents and sisters after they were all dragged outside into the freezing midwinter snow by rough hands.
A man with a heavy black moustache and a scar down his face loomed over him, sneering.
"This little runt is the Silbermond heir! Otherwise they only produced useless girls. I should get the pleasure of killing him, or my name is not Joe Steel. Get ready to meet the rest of the Royals, boy!" His hateful voice sounded as though he had a mouthful of dry bread and was spitting it out as words. He aimed a kick and Karl with his heavy boot, causing the little boy to double over and then he raised his rifle.
At that moment there came a chilling scream and a dark shadow hurled down towards them.
Steel leapt about a foot in the air and his shot missed by a considerable way…
And then Karl found himself cannoned over by the hurtling shadow and grabbed by frigid arms, then lifted into the air!
There were further gunshots fired into the air, but they all missed. Higher and higher he soared, towards the dazzling silver globe of the moon. He wondered dizzily if he were already dead. Whatever it was had him clutched in a grip that was inhumanly strong…
He must have fainted dead away, because when he came to, he was lying on something soft, and was wrapped with very heavy blankets, so tight that he could not move. It was almost dark and he could not see the moon or stars, but he thought he was still outside, because the air was very cold on his face.
He heard the rustling of a cloak over stone and then a face loomed out of the darkness. He gave a little cry. He had heard of witches, or night-hags as they were sometimes called and this must be the face of one – long, bony, angular and a sickeningly lurid yellowish green. The witch shoved her face very close to his so that she was breathing heavily on him, almost down his nostrils. She stank (how else to describe it?) – a sweet musty odour. Her eyes stared unblinking into his and he couldn't look away. It was as though her gaze held him in a vice. His heart thudded in his breast. There were different rumours surrounding the mysterious night-hags, but none of them were good.
"P-Please…" he stammered, his voice weak.
She lifted a hand with claw-like nails, lurid green like her face, so that it appeared to glow in the near darkness. She brushed her hand lightly against his cheek. Her touch was icy cold, colder than if she had been outside all night.
She continued to stare down at him and he was too afraid to move or speak.
Then her greyish lips moved and her piercing voice rang through the darkness:
"You poor thing. Try to rest now."
He felt her freezing hands on his temples and blackness overwhelmed him.
When he awoke, it was daylight. He was still wrapped up in a bundle, and the witch had her arms around him and was rocking him gently.
They were in a cave and he was swaddled in animal skins. The witch gazed down at him with those piercing, blue eyes, a fond expression playing on her lips. The sunlight shone off her long green nose and glinted off her fiery red hair that spilled down her shoulders and tickled his forehead.
"Papa?" he croaked, "Mama?"
"I'm so sorry, little Prince," said the witch, and her bottom lip quivered.
It all came flooding back to him, the terrible memories of midwinter night.
He began to breathe hard and fast in panic. "Don't leave me!" he blurted out.
She caressed his cheek with a cold hand. "I won't. If only you were my baby…"
Her accent was strangely thick, as though her tongue were heavy. He couldn't quite place it. She stayed with him all day and murmured soft words of comfort and in dribs and drabs, she told him about herself. Her name was Leevana and she lived here apparently, in the network of caves high in the Snowcap Peaks in the north of the kingdom with her 'sisters' – two other witches. They had a rule to stay out of the kingdom, so that no one would 'mess with them.' At one point she made him eat a thick kind of broth with a faintly salty taste and a yellow moss that tasted something like cabbage. Then she held a clay beaker of icy water to his lips and ordered him to drink.
"You full, darling?"
"Yes, t-thank you, Leevana" he said warily.
She dragged a stone cauldron into the center of the cave and knelt beside it. Soon a crackling fire surrounded the cauldron and gave off waves of heat.
Leevana reared up and gripped the animal skins she had wrapped around him and tore them off. "I think it's hot enough."
She picked him up – she was a very big woman, even bigger than his father had been. She lifted him as easily as if he had been a baby and carried him towards the cauldron. He was paralysed with fear. He had heard this rumour about witches alright…
She lowered him into the cauldron and he kicked out against its stone sides, splashing her… but the water was only tepid.
"You're making a splash," said Leevana with a grin and began rubbing him with a piece of white sponge. It wasn't exactly like the hot baths he was used too, but he was so relieved that she wasn't going to hurt him that he could put up with it. Anna, his oldest sister, had enjoyed bathing him on occasion, as well as generally treating him like one of her dolls. Leevana was actually much gentler with a sponge, more like his nursemaid.
Later, when she had dressed him in stitched together garments and then wrapped him in a ragged, white fur and heavy, silver scarf, she insisted on taking him on a walk through the bare stone tunnel at the back of the cave. It was almost dark in the tunnel. The only light came from glimmering stones in the ceiling. Leevana was wearing dark clothes, so it looked like her head and hands were floating through the darkness.
"It's small here, compared to what you're used to, hey? Not much space."
"I don't think the space matters," he said cautiously. "Mama always made my sisters share a room. They didn't have as much space as Princesses in the old days."
"Oh?" she grinned down at him.
A blast of cold air assailed them and the stone passage opened out into a wide cavern with rocky walls and ceiling. Something, perhaps a freak property of the rocks, suffused everything in a pale light. Leevana's face looked ever weirder in this light. The cavern was dominated by a vast pool, the surface as smooth as glass.
"You're not to wander in here without me, Karl. OK?"
She knelt so they were eye to eye and looked at him steadily. "Actually, if you wander off anywhere, you might fall and hurt yourself, so you can only go where I tell you."
The days with Leevana passed pleasantly and he was able to put the horrors he had survived at the back of his mind and keep them there, lest they should overwhelm him. Could his family possibly have survived? Was there even the slimmest, wildest hope of it? Or had that horrible Steel man been right?
It was fortunate that Leevana distracted his mind so much. She told him bedtime stories the entire time. She certainly knew a lot that he hadn't heard before. One was about strange creatures from the moon visiting witches on Earth and another was about a fisherman who was turned into a fish and learned how to steal bait from fishing hooks. As scary as she might seem, he was very nervous of being separated from her now. At sunset she would take him in her arms and make a weird humming sound without words, that caused him to become drowsy and fall into a deep dreamless street.
One morning he awoke to bright sunshine streaming in through the cave. He was on his bed of animal skins. He sat up and saw Leevana lying asleep in a larger bed of furs beside him. Her long, green face on the pillow was framed by her loose red hair. He leaned over her and listened to her gentle breathing, his cheek almost touching the tip of her very prominent nose.
Should he wait until she woke up? "Leevana…?"
Her eyelids fluttered and she gazed blearily upwards. Then her gaze focused on him and she smiled.
"Morning, darling." She put her arms round him and kissed him and as always, he was struck by how cold her face was.
She sat on the side of the bed and wrapped one arm around his shoulders. "Alright, little man, we're going to a meeting with my sisters today. Ulva is strict, but you'll do fine."
After they had breakfasted on a thick porridge that tasted of mushrooms and very thin strips of smoked fish, she took him through a different tunnel to a larger cavern hanging with rocky stalactites and lit up by myriad glowstones. There were two other witches like herself already there. One reminded him of Leevana in her looks, although she had silver hair. She greeted him politely and introduced herself as Ulva. The other witch was much shorter than her sisters and had much softer features and short, black hair. Her name was Aila. Ulva suggested that Aila show Karl the fungus grove while she and Leevana talked.
"Make sure he doesn't take off his scarf, I don't want him catching cold," Leevana called as Aila led him away.
Aila had an even heavier accent than Leevana, which made her sort of hard to understand. She showed him the different types of fungi that grew in the groves without natural light. "This purple one, no one can eat that, OK? It's for emitting knock-out gas. But the green ones are what Leevana uses to make her flying potion. She's very proud of them, so make her happy and talk to her about them. A lot will seem strange to you here. We're not quite of this world. Sort of like Gut Hounds."
"What're Gut Hounds, Aila?"
She grinned. "Hounds from the underworld - so called because they would tear a man's gut, going for the intestines."
Suddenly there came the awful sound of Leevana screaming and yelling from the other cavern and Karl jumped.
"What's happening?" he cried.
"Someone's getting screamed at?" said Aila.
After a short time, Aila led him back into the main cavern. It would have been obvious that Leevana had been yelling at Ulva even if he hadn't heard her. She was glaring at her sister and she was breathing hard, her breast rising and falling. How she could glare! Karl would not have wanted her blue eyes fixed on him with that expression. Fortunately, her expression softened to one of tenderness when she saw him, and she sat him beside her on a rocky chair.
Aila set bowls of yellow moss and slimy purple cubes in front of the four of them. Leevana's bad mood persisted throughout dinner – she kept setting down her beaker with unnecessary force and whenever she she said anything, her voice was curt.
"Excellent choice for dinner, Aila." Then she spoke loudly and tersely. "But I suppose Ulva wanted to be consulted about that too."
"Not in front of the boy," said Ulva wearily.
"I'm taking care of him, so I'll decide what he hears," retorted Leevana, but at the same time she gave Karl's hand a reassuring squeeze.
After they had eaten, Ulva told them what she and Aila had found out. The PLATs or "People's Liberation Army Troopers" had seized power in Ostinia. Karl felt sick and cold and dizzy as she reported that the rest of the royals, except for his grandmother who had escaped by steam train, had been executed. He had been expecting this, but dreading to hear it. Now he just sat numbly as Ulva went on about the PLATs "delving deep into the blackest arts."
"The night they took the palace, their mages conjured a wall of death to surround the kingdom in order to stop the invaders and end the war quickly. It had been a pointless war and had caused the instability that paved their way to power. They weren't about to make the same mistakes as the royals… Sorry boy…"
Leevana had her arm around him and gave his shoulders a squeeze of sympathy.
Ulva continued: "We saw it, that night you left on your flight, Lee. Fire in the sky like the northern lights, but intense and all around and then a wall of darkness, like the void called into this world, filled with evil voices. There will be no escape from Ostinia, not even for us. The little Prince has no one. No throne… no family…"
Leevana's strident voice cut across her. "Excuse me. He's got me. I – I can be his mother, his sister… his friend. I would never leave him…"
"Please don't leave," blurted Karl, feeling his heart thud in panic.
She scooped him up in both arms and hugged him tightly to her. He held on in desperation, feeling his head spinning.
"You've made your wishes very clear, Lee," said Ulva.
At the opposite end of the table, Aila leaned forward smirking. "I think you're doing the right thing, Lee. You've been feeling lonely, yes? So much so, that you said you wished you weren't a hag? If you feel taking care of a child will fix your problems, go for it! Children need a lot more love than they give back. Being a mother won't leave you with the energy to angst."
"Pssh, my little Karl loves me already, look," said Lee as Karl squeezed her tight.
"Then we must keep the little prince safe and secret at all costs, lest the PLATs should come looking here," said Ulva stiffly. "And I'm not going to question your decision anymore, Lee, so please don't start yelling again."
So it was decided. At six years old, the orphaned prince would live in a mountain cave with his adoptive mother, a night-hag.